August 19, 2011 / 1 Comment

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…

My apologies for not posting anything last week and being late this week. To be honest, I was so wrapped up in the new draft of this book I forgot what day it was. Soon the fall season will start back up and I’ll be able to tell where we are in the week by episodes of Fringe and Castle.

Anyway, there was a suggestion for a topic and it got me thinking about something funny…

A joke is a great diagram for a story, because all good stories have a setup and a punchline. Not in the sense of evoking laughter, but in the sense of that one beat near the end that strikes a chord and gives you a little rush. In jokes and stories, you have a setup and a payoff. For example…

A nun, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says “What is this, a joke?”

It’s very short, but it does the job. It’s just setup, payoff, done. That first sentence is the setup. To be exact, it’s a type of setup we’ve all heard a dozen or more times, which is what makes the second sentence (the payoff) funny. Adding in other elements would just slow the story—the joke—and probably detract from the punchline.

Now, let’s take this a step further. Has someone ever told you a longer joke, maybe one that took a minute or three to tell? If they knew how to tell it, odds are you chuckled a couple times during the setup, yes?

In this case it’s not just the A-B of that first joke. We’ve got A-B-C-D and then the payoff of E at the end (E is for end, after all). There’s enough space to work with for B and C to be a bit funny themselves and get that extra chuckle before the punchline.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind, though. B and C are still serving the greater payoff of E—the greater good, if you will. They aren’t filler or random asides. Even though they get a laugh of their own, they’re necessary steps on the way to the punchline.

This is a lot like your standard short story. Most of them really just have one big payoff and that’s it. Think of some of the collected stories in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot or most of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales by Arthur Conan Doyle. The characters set out to accomplish goal A and by the end of the story they’ve done it. Or, in a few rare cases— “Evidence” and “A Scandal in Bohemia” come to mind—they admit they haven’t.

Even though they’re two hours long, most feature-length scripts tend to have more in common with short stories than books. In fact, if you talk to lots of screenwriters, they’ll tell you it’s always easier to adapt a short story than a novel. Most of us have read a short story and thought it would be fun to see more of him or learn about her backstory and maybe get a better sense of what happened there. That’s the stuff which is great to expand on in a screenplay. If you look at most films, you’ll see that they’re still a pretty straight line from A to E (or maybe up to J with the expansion). You may have heard some guru-types calling this the through-line. It’s how you make way through a story (or a joke) without any odd segues.

Look at the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. There’s one main story—catch the Black Pearl, stop Barbossa—which is made up of two side-by-side stories (arguably three). Despite this, though, each one of these elements has a very simple and clean A-B-C-D story. Will just wants to rescue Elizabeth, and all of his scenes reflect that. Jack just wants to reclaim the Black Pearl and sail free, and all his scenes reflect that.

Also, as I mentioned above, adding in unnecessary clutter would just slow the story—either the individual element or the film as a whole—so there isn’t any. Will never has a segue where he rescues puppies from a burning building or decides he needs to learn karate to rescue Elizabeth. Jack seems very scattered at first, but as the movie goes on it becomes clear how sharp and how focused he really is. Every scene in the film, no matter which thread it’s part of, is leading us to the same big payoff.

Let’s go another order of magnitude bigger and consider novels. The average novel’s going to be six or eight times the word count of most screenplays. It’s where the writer’s got time and space to go all out. We’ve now got A through Z. Maybe it’s even looping around to something like A through AF or something. The writer has a little more space to wander down those paths or maybe take the scenic route to their destination.

Good analogy, that one. Remember that when you take the scenic route, as a writer, you still need to get where you’re going. When you go down a random road for no reason it doesn’t matter how pretty the foliage is at this time of year. If there was no purpose to it you weren’t on the scenic route—you were lost. It’s cool that you enjoyed being lost and you got some nice pictures, but not everyone’s going to feel that way. A lot of folks are just going to see four hours of driving time they lost.

So even in a book, with all that extra space for plot and characters, you need to be aiming for that big punchline. Each of those smaller elements that got a chuckle are expected to get a full laugh on their own now, but they’re also still expected to serve the greater good. Remember, you don’t want to drop 4-5-6 in the middle of H-I-J-K-L.

Here’s another tip. Have you ever heard the term “episodic” used to describe something. Yes, television, of course, but there’s a reason for that. When something is episodic, the setups and payoffs come one after another. A is the setup for B, C is the setup for D, E is the setup for F, and so on. Think of older videogames where you’d move from one level to the next. New problem, solved, next problem. You rarely got a sense of the big story because nothing carried over. That’s what episodic writing does–it presents challenges that are immediately dealt with, so the story feels more like individual episodes than a coherent whole. To use our joke analogy, it’s the difference between a two hour stand-up routine and a two hour comedy movie.

If your story involves multiple setups and payoffs, take a second look at where they fall. Make sure they’re spread out, and make sure they’re all leading somewhere. Hopefully the same somewhere.

Finally, here’s a little exercise for you. Yep, there’s homework. I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve had to listen to someone who didn’t know how to tell a joke. So ask yourself—what did they do wrong? Was it their pacing? Did they give away the punchline to soon? ‘Cause the real trick to telling a good joke is being able to tell a good story. If you don’t know why they did it wrong… are you sure you aren’t?

Next week, why you should never carry just a screwdriver.

Unless you’re the Doctor, of course…

Until then, go write.

Hopefully you know the answer to that one. It’s kind of relevant.

Structure is how a story is put together. It’s the underlying shape and order that everything else hangs on. I know that sounds obvious, but every now and then you need to point out the obvious stuff. If you don’t have structure, all you have is a pile. Even something as amazing as the Guggenheim follows a lot of the basics of building construction.

Which is a great example. Much like the physical architecture of buildings, there are certain rules a writer needs to follow with the structure of their story. A very skilled person can bend or tweak these rules to accomplish a clever effect, but ignoring the rules often means the story (or building) will just collapse. At the least, it’ll end up so ugly and misshapen nobody will want anything to do with it.

As I have in the past, I may use a few terms here in slightly different ways than they get used in other places. I’m mostly doing it to keep things as clear as possible, so try to think of the ideas and concepts I’m tossing about more than the label I slap on them for this little rant.

There are two types of story structure I want to blather on about. One is linear structure. The other is narrative structure. They’re two separate things. If the writer is doing things correctly, they tie together in the same smooth, effortless way character and dialogue tie together.

First up is linear structure. This is how the characters in a story perceive events. Unless you’re writing a story from the point of view of Doctor Manhattan, your characters are going to experience the story in a linear fashion. Morning will be followed by afternoon, then evening. Thursday comes before Friday, which is the start of the weekend. People begin life young and then grow old. Another good way to think of linear structure is continuity. A before B. Cause before effect.

The other half is narrative structure. This is how your audience experiences the story, and it can come in a number of forms–many of which we’ll deal with next week. I just wanted you to have both terms in your forebrain right now.

So, a term some of you may have heard before is three-act structure. It gets tossed around in screenwriting a lot, but it shows up in most forms of storytelling and showmanship. Despite attempts to define it as something much more rigid and page-dependent, three act structure really just means that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning happens first, then the middle, then the end.

Again… every now and then you have to point out the obvious stuff.

Now, it’s key to note they may not always come in that order, but they do always need to be there. We’re going to get into that in a little bit (again, probably next week). For now, the key thing to remember is that even if these events are presented to the reader out of order, the characters are still experiencing them in order.

One easy way you can check a non-linear story is to cut it up and put the bits in chronological order, like a timetable. This is the order the characters and the world are experiencing the story (as opposed to the reader). Does effect still follow cause? Are the actions and dialogue still motivated? If everything’s right, there should be a clear chain of continuity. If it starts to get fuzzy or questionable, that’s not a good sign.

Now, I’m sure the question some of you are asking is “why?” Since so many tales involve flashbacks and frames and non-linear storytelling, why does a linear structure matter? It should only matter in straightforward stories like 24, right?

Wrong again, Timmy.

As I mentioned above, linear structure is how the characters experience the story. And as I’ve said many, many times, characters are key. If they’re not grounded in a linear structure, they end up tripping over themselves. They know things they shouldn’t know yet or bear the scars of events that haven’t happened. Once it starts with characters, these flaws and oddities ripple out into the plot and there’s a notable lack of continuity. Suddenly effect is coming before cause, and B comes before A, with D between them.

A quick note for genre fans. Time travel stories get called on continuity a lot. Not in the altering history sense, just in the who-knows-what-when sense. Just remember that time travel isn’t going to affect a character’s personal linear timeline. My day four can be your day one. In the handy diagram here (developed with a $25,000,000 grant from NASA), you can see that our time traveler (in blue) has a coherent, linear story–even though it seems at odds with the story of the mundane non-time traveler (in black) who also has a linear story (no one said time travel was easy). One of the best things I can suggest for this is the third season of Doctor Who. It deals with this idea in the first episode and in two different arcs that span the entire season. Plus it’s really fun and Freema Agyeman is gorgeous, so win-win all around.

My novel, Ex-Heroes, has almost a dozen major flashbacks in it to a period before the beginning of the novel. But if you were to rip all of those chapters out and rearrange them in chronological order (go ahead, buy an extra copy just to tear it up), you’d see that the story still makes sense. The heroes appear. The zombies appear. Society collapses. The heroes try to salvage what they can and rebuild society (which is where the book begins). A new threat appears. The story itself is linear, even though it’s presented in a non-linear way.

On the flipside, I once worked on the straight-to-DVD sequel to a very popular murder mystery/ Hitchcock-style thriller (which was, in all fairness, mostly popular because Denise Richards and Neve Campbell get topless and make out in a pool). When you took many of the “hidden scenes” at the end of the sequel and put them in order, the story actually made less sense than it did without them. This film, needless to say, had horrible linear structure. The writers were just throwing down “cool” moments with no regard to where and how they actually fit into the story.

One more general note for you. When you look at the linear structure of a story, it should be very straightforward. A-B-C-D-E- and so on. If you’re looking over this and suddenly hit 4-5-6 somewhere… well, there’s a reason that looks odd there. It’s falling outside the scope of the plot. An example I’ve used before is the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Doctor Jones gives a speech about Masada to the two government agents. Don’t remember that scene? Yeah, well, that’s because it has nothing to do with the story so they didn’t put it in the movie. Linear structure is a great place to see if there are extra things hanging on a story that don’t need to be there.

So that’s linear structure in a somewhat large nutshell. Next time I’ll babble on about narrative structure and, if I’m doing it right, this will all start to make sense.

Until then, go write.

July 22, 2010 / 3 Comments

Flow Charts

Do you want to be a writer? YES / NO

Continue to the next paragraph.

One thing I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before is flow. It’s one of those elements of writing that we’re all instinctively aware of but it rarely gets a consistent name put to it. I first heard it referred to as flow years back by a writing coach named Drusilla Campbell. It was such a perfect term I’ve used it myself ever since.

Flow is how well the reader can move through your writing. It’s the way every line of dialogue rolls off the tongue, how each paragraph and chapter draws the reader into the next one. Like the flow of a river or the flow of traffic on a freeway. When the flow of writing is going well, you love it.

We can also define what makes for bad flow. When the river or the freeway aren’t going so well you get rapids, bottlenecks, gridlock, and so on. More to the point, you get frustrated and angry. A story that makes you stumble a lot doesn’t flow well at all. Clumsy, wooden dialogue and poor characterization don’t work either. Whenever a reader pauses to scratch their head or roll their eyes over the latest “twist,” that’s another speedbump in the proverbial road. If you’ve ever tried a book and just couldn’t get into it, odds are the flow sucked. You’ll read, trip over a page or two, and put it back down.

Y’see, Timmy, it’s not a bad thing to shock the reader once or twice with a bit of unexpected action, a clever reveal, or something else that jars them out of complacency.. It’s important, though, to remember that those shocks are the exception, not the rule. If a story is nothing but flashbacks or “gotcha” moments one after another, it degenerates into nonsense and frustration.

Readers keep reading material with good flow because it’s easier to keep reading than to put it down. Stephen King writes books with great flow. So do Lee Child and Clive Cussler. They’re all famous for it, in fact. Shane Black’s screenplays are notoriously fun to read. It’s also a big part of the reason all these people keep selling their work for high sums of money.

Now, for the record, flow is another one of those things I believe you can’t easily work on and develop in your writing. It’s one of those X-factors, where you can manipulate each of the variables but still not affect the final outcome. You just have to keep writing and keep writing and eventually one day it will all come together.

For example, in Goju-ryu, one of the original three forms of karate developed on Okinawa, there’s a kata called senchin (no, trust me, this is another one of those brilliant metaphors). The moves for senchin are often taught to the white belt novices. The instructors know that by the time the novices become black belts, they’ll have an understanding of how all the moves go together and can start to work on the form itself. The Okinawan masters understand that working on parts doesn’t always help you master the whole. One day, it just all comes together.

I’ve mentioned most of these before (often in greater detail), but here are a few easy tips that can help the flow of a story. I’m not saying doing these guarantees great flow, but if you’re going out of your way not to do them… well…

Keep it interesting– Easiest way in the world to keep readers from getting bored is not to be boring. A story that drags on and on before getting to the point doesn’t have good flow. If you’re telling a story, get to the story. If it’s a murder mystery, give me a body. If it’s sci fi, show me something amazing. If it’s a love story, show me passion on some level.

Keep it honest– Nothing will kill a story’s flow faster than something that reads as inherently false. People don’t give long speeches about love, honor, or duty in real life. Most of us stopped with the silly, mushy, giggly, fluttering eyelids in ninth grade. And it takes a lot for someone to stay angry for days, let alone years. Fake emotions and actions comes from fake people. Fake people are boring. See above for tips on boring your reader.

Keep it simple— If a writer tries to cram fifteen supporting characters, eight subplots, and the setup for four sequels into a 110 page screenplay, there’s not going to be a lot of room for a coherent story. If said writer decides to alternate each chapter, scene, or spoken line of dialogue between one of ten different time frames it’s going to keep knocking the reader out of the story as they try to keep track of what’s happening where and when to who. Don’t forget the basic goal of writing is to make the reader go on to the next page, not to baffle and confuse them.

Keep it smooth — If you’re picking obscure, awkward, or overly-long words just to show off your vocabulary, there’s a good chance you’re disrupting the flow of your own writing. It’s very impressive that you can picture what a titian-haired female with atramentous works of muted ink inlaid in her flesh looks like, but it’s much smoother, easier, and just as visual to tell us she’s a tattoed redhead.

Keep it relevant–One thing that pretty much always causes a stumble is when the writer adds in something completely irrelevant. Not when this character makes an odd movie reference or a cat walks by for no reason. No, the stumbling point is when the writer spends a paragraph or a page or more on something that has no bearing on the story whatsoever. When there’s an exacting description of the bus driver, a monologue about the morality of Israel vs. Palestine, or a flashback to fourth grade art class, odds are the flow has just been dammed up for no reason.

Watch your dialogue– You can get away with one character who talks like a robot and uses all those obscure, overly-long words I was just talking about. Possibly another who keeps slipping into a foreign language. Too much unnatural, stylized, or just plain bad dialogue brings the story (and the reader) to a screeching halt, though. Mechanics talk like mechanics. Investment bankers talk like investment bankers. Heavily armored mutants from Skaros talk like heavily… well, you get the point.

Have characters act in character.— On the same panel where she talked about flow, Drusilla Campbell commented that when the nun viciously kills a gardener is also when most people remember they have laundry they should be folding. Master snipers who can’t hit what they’re aiming at. Genius investigators who miss obvious clues. High school students who talk and act like 35-year-old investment bankers. If you’re not very, very careful, these are the characters who get books and screenplays tossed in the big left-hand pile.

Take it seriously– So, everyone makes a joke now and then to break the tension. But you should never be winking at the audience. Even if you’re doing camp or comedy, you need to be approaching your material as a sincere and honest effort on your own part. If you’re not, the reader will know and they won’t take you seriously. Not being taken seriously gets your manuscript put down in the left hand pile. After all, if the reader thinks the events in your writing don’t mean all that much to you, why should they care about them?

Eight tips for all of us to follow. Especially you. Yeah, you.

Next week’s little rant comes with an important message, so please be here.

Until then, go write.

September 25, 2009 / 2 Comments

Secrets of the Order

I have been prodded to remind folks the Amazon link off there on the side has grown again. So… go hit the link.

What about that title? Sounds impressive, eh? Alas, the order we’re talking about is a bit more mundane. It’s not much of a secret, either, now that I think of it.

Well, too late now. You’re already reading. Let’s move on.

Structure, unbelievable as it may sound, is how your story is put together. It’s the underlying shape and order that everything else hangs on. If you don’t have structure, all you have is a pile. Even something as amazing as the Guggenheim still follows a lot of the basics of building construction.

Much like the physical architecture of buildings, there are certain rules a writer needs to follow with the structure of their story. And, much like with architecture, ignoring these rules often means the story will collapse. Or end up so unsightly nobody will want anything to do with it.

There are two types of story structure I want to rant about. One is linear structure. The other is dramatic structure. They’re two separate things that should tie together if you’re doing things correctly, in the same way that dialogue and character should tie together. Hopefully we’ll have time and space here for both.

So, first up, here’s a pop quiz. What does this mean?

Mqnw berctx yzuai sopdl fkgjh.

No clue? What if I put it like this…?

Ghijkl abcdef mnopqrs wxyz tuv.

A little easier for some of you to see the pattern? Yes and no? Okay, try this…?

Abcdefg hijklmnop qrstuv wxyz.

Ahhhh, well now it’s obvious, isn’t it?

I mentioned a while back that three act structure always needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, they don’t always need to come in that order. A Princess of Mars begins with the frame story of Edgar Rice Burroughs inheriting a manuscript from his recently-deceased uncle, John Carter. The film The Prestige has a wonderful, interwoven, double-frame structure of a prisoner awaiting execution and reading the journal of his supposed victim, a man who had stolen the prisoner’s journal and is relating what he discovers as he studies it. My upcoming novel, Ex-Heroes, has almost a dozen major flashbacks in it to a period before the beginning of the novel. And, of course, everyone remembers Pulp Fiction for its wonderful non-linear story.

One easy way you can check a story to make sure all these tricks work is to cut it up and put the bits in chronological order, like a timetable. This is the order the characters and the world are experiencing the story (as opposed to the reader). Does effect still follow cause? Are the actions and dialogue still motivated? If it starts to get fuzzy or questionable, that’s not a good sign.

The other problem here is some people have taken that non-linear inch and run a few kilometers with it (mixed metaphor intentional). Since I can go a little bit non-linear, I can push the envelope and go a little more, and a little more, and a little… Well, the first example shows the problem with this. There comes a point when the narrative has been broken up with so many flashbacks, recollections, and frames-within-frames that you’ve just got gibberish.

Oh, sure, if you spent twenty minutes or so studying that first example you would’ve eventually figured out it was all the letters of the alphabet. I don’t doubt that at all. The same could be said about any number of non-linear books or screenplays. Given enough time, a spreadsheet program, and a bottle of rum, most of us can make sense of just about any story.

Thing is, Timmy, I doubt many of you read this collection of rants with the hope that someday you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You read it because you want to understand something now, not for me to show off by giving you an incomprehensible puzzle of verbs and nouns and clauses to work out over the next week or so.

Of course, all audiences feel this way. So while it’s okay to mix a story up a bit, at the end of the day your reader has to be able to follow the story. Flashbacks and frames are great, but, like so many things, need to be used responsibly and with moderation. Bruce Joel Rubin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Ghost, recently made the keen observation that stories, especially film stories, are experienced through the gut, not through the mind. The moment your audience has to go into their head to understand the story–you’ve lost them. It shatters the flow and brings them out of experiencing the story and into, on some level, analyzing it. So the last thing you want is so many non-linear elements that the reader has to stop for each one and figure out how it relates to the last twenty or thirty.

This is also a good time to mention this little oft-occurring problem…


The thing that immediately sticks out is the element that has no business being there. In the midst of our flowing, structured story (the alphabet) the 456 is something that ties to nothing before or after it and has no bearing on anything else in the story. It is, to use a previous example, the speech about Masada in that early scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Depending on the story, the 456 may be a clue for stories yet to come, a really cool dance/ action/ comedy sequence, or something none of here can even imagine, but if it isn’t really part of the story then… it shouldn’t be in the story.

Hmmmmm… this isn’t huge, but I think if I continue with dramatic structure this is going to get kind of sprawling. So let’s call this good for now while it’s still readable.

Next week, I’ll continue my mindless rant about structure with a discussion of drama and kayaking.

Until then, go write.