December 3, 2020

Our Binding Contract

Enough holiday stuff for now. Let’s get back to what you’re all really here for—the thing you specifically came here for. Half-assed writing commentary! That’s the deal, right? You keep showing up, I prattle on for far too long and maybe make one or two useful points.

Which is, ho ho ho, what I wanted to talk about.

The act of telling a story is sort of an unspoken agreement between two people. Kristi Charish has called it “the invisible handshake.” As audience members, we expect certain things from our story. As storytellers, we expect certain things from our audience. When we sit down together, even if we’re separated by a few months and a printed page, we’re both assuming the other half of this experience is going to follow certain conventions.

So let’s talk about this contract between writer and reader. Or storytellers and audience, if you’d like to keep it a little broader. I think this agreement is kind of universal in that regard.

As the writer, what am I promising you?

This Is Readable
I think we can all agree books come with different levels of reading difficulty. They get aimed at different age groups or demographics. So it’s not impossible to believe we could stumble across a book that seems too simple or too difficult for us.

But this should never be my goal as a writer. Nobody should struggle to get through a book, fighting through convoluted, never-ending sentences filled with obscure words that describe dozens of irrelevant characters. And if I’m writing specifically to exclude people (“Only the people who really understand art will enjoy this…”) I’m doing this wrong. If you pick up one of my books, I want you to feel welcome, and to actually enjoy the act of reading it.

This Makes Sense
It doesn’t matter if my book’s set on a cruise ship, in a Victorian mansion, or on a space station—it has to have an internal logic. Characters need to make decisions and take actions that fit within their world and their personal experience.

A simple test I always try to give myself is “would this book be enjoyable to read again?” If twists aren’t earned, if betrayals aren’t set up, if explanations don’t line up with what I’ve said before this… my story probably doesn’t make sense. And you deserve better than that as a reader.

This Finishes Arcs
Nobody likes getting to the end of a book and finding out ha ha maybe everything will get answered in the next book. If we’re going to get immersed in a story, one thing we’re inherently expecting is some kind of resolution at the end. That sense of closure is a natural part of storytelling. We expect the heroes to have a final showdown with the villains, for this year’s Hunger Games to end, or for them to perform the last exorcism. And when they don’t and everything’s left unresolved… it just doesn’t sit right.

And sure, there might be dangling threads or even an overall arc that needs to continue. But when we get to the end of this story we expect, well, an ending. Some aspect of this story has to be done and wrapped up in a satisfying way (to the reader if not the characters)

This Was Worth It
This is a twofold thing. One ties back to an idea I’ve mentioned before—we want our hero to win, even if it’s a pyrrhic victory. We need to see them have some level of success, because if not we’ve just read a book where the hero, the person we’re supposed to relate to and empathize with… loses.  Or doesn’t do anything. Or just has a textbook ending we’ve seen dozens of times before. After three hundred or so pages, these things can really make a book feel like it wasn’t worth reading.

Two is that, well, we want to feel like it was worth it financially. Nobody likes shelling out ten or fifteen bucks for a book that just wasn’t their thing, but shelling out that much for a book that’s incoherent, filled with typos, and half-copied from an old Doctor Whoplot? And then has a bad ending? I mean, even a buck can feel like too much for something like that. If I’m trying to get you to give me money for this story, this story should be worth money.

In my opinion, that’s all the big promises we’re expecting on the writer side of things. Yeah, there might be more expectations depending on the genre, the author, the intended audience, but I think this is probably a good contractual boilerplate. From this direction.

Coming from the other side of the negotiating table, what should I expect from my storytelling audience? If someone’s willing to engage with the story, there should be a few basic things they’re promising me, the storyteller. Things like…

The Benefit of the Doubt
If I’m going to pick up a book, I should at least begin with the basic assumption the writer knows what they’re doing. They meant to use this word or that term, and yeah, there’s a reason these people have a collection of HD-DVDs and not Blu-rays. If something isn’t clear on page two, I should be assuming there’s a reason things aren’t clear on page two, not that the writer has somehow screwed up telling their story.

This doesn’t mean there can’t be problems in those first few pages or minutes. But if I see something I don’t understand I shouldn’t be immediately labeling it as a mistake or a problem and using that to guide my ongoing interpretation of things. There’s a term for that—it’s called hatewatching.

The Time to Tell Their Story
Related to the above, if I pick up a murder mystery, I shouldn’t be complaining that we still don’t know who the murderer is in chapter three. Those two cute folks may not have kissed by page forty-two. There’s a good chance the aliens’ true motives could still be unclear a third of the way in. 

Stories take time to unfold. We need build-up. We need to establish things. Some narrative devices just won’t work at certain parts of a story. If I’m reading a book, I need to be willing to accept that not everything’s going to be given to me in the first hundred pages—and that’s okay.

Judging It for What It Is, Not What I Want It to Be
It’s not uncommon to pick up a book not being 100% sure of what it is. What I thought was a sci-fi story might be more of a horror novel. This romance might involve a lot of historical drama. This superhero book might really be more of a superpowers thing. And sometimes this shift of genres and/or perspectives might be really annoying for us as readers.

But that doesn’t make the story wrong. Maybe it was poorly marketed or maybe I just don’t like horror novels. Maybe I wanted Dot to find true love or Yakko to go on a revenge-fuelled killing spree, and neither of these things happened in the book. But these things aren’t inherently flaws in the story. The writer told story A, it isn’t wrong because I wanted story B.

That’s what I think we should be expecting from the other half of the contract. And again, we could probably add other things depending on the book, the genre, the author. That’s why contracts get adjusted. This is, as I mentioned before, the basic starting form that you get for free on the internet.

And I’m sure some of you think this has just been some silly, meta-writing thing that you skimmed over. But y’see, Timmy, when this doesn’t happen—when one side or the other breaks the contract—we get frustrated. As audience members, we hate it when we need to struggle through a story, not getting the relevant details or getting buried in irrelevant ones. As authors, we grind our teeth when someone gives negative criticism because “I didn’t know this was a horror novel” or “I quit reading after three chapters” or “Amazon delivered this with a folded cover.”

Okay, that last one has nothing to do with our storytelling contract, but we all still grind our teeth when we get a one star review for that kind of nonsense.

So remember the contract. Make sure you’re holding up your end of it. Because nobody wants to be known as the person who breaks it. That’s just not a good look from either side.

Next time… well, I want to talk about what you’re not getting for the holidays.

Until then, go write.

February 27, 2020

A2Q Part Four—Story

Hello, again. Welcome back to this special series within the ranty blog, my ongoing attempt to show how we can go from a few basic raw ideas all the way to a finished book manuscript. Ready to dive back in?

This time I wanted to talk about my character’s story. Yeah, this is why I’ve been reluctant to describe the *cough* ongoing narrative of the manuscript as a story. For what we’re doing here, that word’s going to mean something specific.

If you’ve been following the ranty blog for any time at all, you’ve probably heard me make this distinction once or thrice. Plot is what happens outside my characters, story is what happens inside my characters. My plot is a progression of external changes, but the story is a progression of internal changes. You may have heard people (maybe me) toss around phrases like “character arc,” and that’s closely related to the story.

Plot takes us from normal events to amazing ones and then gives us some kind of resolution, right? Well story is going to take my character from the person they start out as at the beginning of my manuscript through some kind of growth and development to a new normal. The person they’ve grown into, the more educated, wiser person they’ve become.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean some massive, epic change. I don’t need Republicans to become Democrats, villains to become heroes, saints to become arch-heretics. I think if people change too much, especially over a short period of time, it’s tough to make it believable.

But if my characters don’t grow and change at least a little bit during the story, I think things tend to feel a bit flat. Our heroine realizing Wakko isn’t really the one for her is growth. Dot finally standing up to her abusive boss is change. Yakko realizing maybe it’s not all about the money is an arc.

I’ll also toss out that when I’m getting hung up on stuff in a book, I’d guess maybe four out of five times I realize it’s because I’m neglecting the story. My characters sort of flattened out because I haven’t figured out how they’re growing. or I haven’t done anything in the story to make them grow. I rewrote the end of one book because I realized the first ending completely neglected the main character’s story.

Let’s start breaking this down…

I think there are four parts to a person’s story. They’re not super-solid, and they kinda flow and overlap a bit. That’s only natural. We’re talking about who people are on the inside, and most people (the interesting ones, anyway) tend to be a big mess of overlaps and contradictions. Plus, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but right now is the first time I’ve tried to put it all down. So, yes, this post you’re reading has been rewritten and tweaked a hundred times or so.

In my opinion, the first part of a character’s story is who they are when the story begins, which we could think of as their history or backstory. Second is why they decide to take action, a lot of which is their motivation. Third is how they’re made to change, which leads into the fourth and final bit—who are they in the end.

Worth noting right now that if I have multiple heroes in my manuscript, they’re all going to have their own story. Maybe even some of my supporting characters, too. And my antagonist. I want my characters to be real, interesting people, which means they need to grow and learn things. So when I’m writing a book, I’m going to be going through these beats more than once, with different characters each time.

Let’s talk details.

The first part of the story is… the starting point. Who is my character when my story begins? Are they mean? Submissive? Stingy? Self-absorbed? What about them stands out and what makes them blend in?

Another way to think of it is why are they this character when the story begins. What’s happened in their past to make them the person they are on page one? Because unless I’m starting very, very early in their lives, they had an existence before page one. They had incidents and events and relationships.

To be clear—and I’ve said this a few times before—this doesn’ t mean I need to spell all these details out. If they’re relevant, they’re going to come out naturally as I tell my story. I don’t have to do a massive infodump and get every little fact of my character’s existence on the page. But, as the writer, I need to know them and be sure my characters are consistent throughout the story, always reflecting the experiences that made them the people they are… and not the bit of backstory I just thought to bring up a hundred pages in.

Let’s use Phoebe, for an example. She’s our lead character, right? Well, when we first meet her, she’s maybe going to be a little on the uptight side. Because of her parents’ death a few years ago, she’s been shouldering a lot of responsibility. There’s her sister, Luna, who’s she responsible for. There’s also carrying on the family tradition of werewolf hunting, which maybe also wasn’t what she grew up wanting to be, but… it’s tradition. Imagine getting both of these things thrust on you when you thought you were going to be heading off to college. And it’s an inherently dangerous job, so doing it is constantly reminding her that if she gets hurt, Luna’s going to lose everything.

Phoebe probably focuses a little too much on money because of all this. She doesn’t exactly earn piles of money for hunting werewolves, and she’s supporting her sister, so it’s going to be something she focuses on a lot. Heck, maybe she’s even got a second job? Make a note of that somewhere—in a world where everyone knows werewolves are real, maybe she still has to run a cash register twenty-seven days out of every month.

And would it be that shocking if… well, maybe she’s carrying some anger and resentment, too. Yeah, she loves Luna. She loved her parents. But, if they hadn’t gotten themselves killed, if they hadn’t stuck her with Luna, if they hadn’t made her part of this whole family dynasty going back 400 years… jeeeez, where would she be now.

So that’s where Phoebe’s starting from.

The second part of story is why my characters decide to take action. What about who they are right now motivates them to take part in the plot when the opportunity arises? Why aren’t they one of the thousands of people who aren’t taking part in the narrative?

This one’s going to be important because this’ll probably be the first significant decision we see our character make. And we’re going to expect a lot of the decisions that follow (this is just a simplified version of the story after all) will all line up and make sense with the character as we know them. So I need a solid, believable motivation behind this bit of in-character reasoning. The last thing I want is a plot zombie (very cool term, copyright 2018 A. Lee Martinez) who’s only acting in service of the plot, not out of any actual developed character traits.

I’ll also toss out that there are very basic motivations it’s tempting to fall back on. We all want to survive, so running away from a lunging werewolf makes absolute, perfect sense. Boom—we’re in the story, right? The catch here is that we don’t want characters who are going to do what anyone would do. We want them to make an active decision, not a reactive one. This doesn’t mean I can’t begin with my hero running for their life, but I’m going to want a little more to it than that.

For example, on one level this part is a little easier for Phoebe. She’s a werewolf hunter and there’s a new breed of werewolf out there. It’s a different element in her job, but it’s still pretty clearly her job. There’s a werewolf, she goes to hunt it, boom—we’re in the story.

But we want her to be making active decisions, so how can we tweak this a bit? Well, when she tried to dispatch this werewolf, a silver crossbow bolt to the heart did nothing. What if nobody believed her? Her shot probably just missed, right? That’s what everyone’s going to think. Hell, that’s what that bastard Luc is going to tell everyone. So this is a matter of pride for her to prove the super-werewolf is real

Maybe there’s even a little more to it than that. Maybe someone at the lodge believes her, or is at least willing to humor her for now. And maybe they’ll pay an extra $2500 dollars for the bounty if she brings in a lycanthrope body that shows a definitive mutation. Well, now Phoebe’s got serious motivation to get that werewolf… and to get it before Luc. I mean, $2500 is two months rent and utilities covered. Like, full utilities. Leaving some lights on and taking lots of hot showers. Really long, hot showers.

So now Phoebe’s got a good reason to get into my plot.

Our third part is change. What’s going to happen in the plot that’ll make my character rethink things? I’ve brought up this idea before, that I think plot tends to be active while story overall is reactive. My characters can act on the outside stuff, but a lot of internal stuff is much harder to control.

Look at it this way. Nobody wakes up one morning and spontaneously decides to change their view on gun control or open relationships or Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four movie. Outside forces affect and influence them. They experience things, and these things help them—often force them—to change their opinion.

In the same way, the things my character experiences within the plot are going to change them internally. That change will be part of their story, which then means they’re going to be making different decisions and reacting in new ways as the plot continues. It’s kind of a feedback loop. Make sense?

Let’s look at Phoebe again. Last time I mentioned that her sister’s going to be a legal adult soon, and that’s probably causing some friction in the household. Phoebe’s been responsible for Luna for years now, and that’s coming to an end. Is it a relief? Does she feel guilty that she’s relieved? Has she done a good job raising her sister?

We also talked about the other big issue. Luna is the super-werewolf. Why? How? Phoebe’s whole job—that whole big family tradition—is killing werewolves. So is she protecting the family name by killing Luna or by not killing Luna. And this really drives home that all these werewolves have been somebody’s kid sister or big brother or loving parent. Yeah, some of them were actual, secret monsters, reveling in what they’d become, but how many of them were just victims? Her victims?

And this will also introduce some conflict at the lodge. We can guess how most of the elders think her “purely hypothetical” problem should be resolved. Or how Luc would deal with it.Also, maybe something else at the lodge. Maybe we should be looking at the work/family overlap of exactly what happened to her parents. This could be another place to wedge in some conflict and break some trusts. Let’s make another note to poke at this some more. I think this could be something really world-changing for Phoebe.

Also-also, do I want her to change on a more personal level? I’d mentioned possible love interests last time, but as I’ve been thinking about it… no, no I don’t think so. She was already thinking relationships were going to overcomplicate things before all this happened, so during it? No, I don’t think so. I’m not against planting some seeds for much later (hey, this might start a series), but I think in the interpersonal department, Phoebe’s just going to keep doing things (and random bar patrons) the way she’s always been. For now, anyway.

Our final part is the end of our character’s story. Who have they become? Who did this series of events turn them into? How did it help them grow? In some cases this might be really clear. In others, it might be more subtle. But I’m a big believer that in most good books we need to see some change and growth in our characters.

The reason for this, I think, is that it’s tough for us to believe as people (and readers) that someone can go through a major, life-altering event and not, well, have their life altered. After I’m recruited by that nymphomaniac heiress to fight cyborg ninjas from the future for two weeks, it’s tough to believe I’m just going to go back to my life as an insurance risk analyst. Even if I want to, I’ve seen and experienced things that’ve changed me and probably made it impossible to fall back into that same old rut. I no longer think or react like that person I used to be.

Now, I don’t have a ton to say about this part for a couple of reasons. Really, it’s all the same reason, but I want to come at it from two different angles. Hopefully that’ll make it easier to see.

One is when we talk about these changes, we’re talking about a butterfly effect sort of thing. Tiny differences then can make big differences down the line. I may have a general idea how I want my character to end up, but I probably won’t know exactly how they end up until I’m writing this. That end change is going to depend on all the different experiences and talks that come before it, and I may realize that writing out this key bit of dialogue with a few different words and a slightly different tone leads to a somewhat different take at the end. It’s easy to plan out the end of a plot, not quite so easy with story. That’s what I’ve found anyway.

The flipside of this is that if I absolutely 100% know what I want that end change to be (“…and so Wakko became a proud defender of the second amendment for the rest of his days…”) there’s a good chance I’m writing a story with a message. By which I mean the message is probably more important to me than the story itself. There’s nothing wrong with this, in general, but I don’t want to end up twisting my story to make it all fit the story ending I want. That almost always makes things feel artificial, forced, and unearned.

Looking at Phoebe again, I know I want to end with her looking at her sister in a new light, possibly a full role-reversal for them (yeah, her sister’s going to survive). I also know I want to end with her estranged from the lodge and feeling very different about her job as a werewolf hunter, but being okay with that. So I know she’s coming out of this in a better place mentally even if some of her initial worries haven’t been dealt with.

Story in four parts. Make sense? Any questions?

Want another example? Okay, let’s take a quick look at Phoebe’s sister, Luna, who’s going to be one of our other major characters. Luna’s basic four part story would probably be something like this…

Luna starts as a pretty typical teen. Big dreams, good-sized rebellious streak, and a wild mix of interacting hormones. Had a serious boyfriend or two. Maybe a girlfriend, too. She and Phoebe have a love-hate relationship that’s been more or less forced on them by the situation they’ve been forced into. They both want the fun, loving relationship they used to have, but also know why they can’t right now. Also, I think I’m going to say right up front that Luna is the werewolf at this point but doesn’t know it. She just knows there’s some weird changes going on in her body that she’s writing off as end-of-puberty hormones and/or end-of-this-phase-of-you-life stress.

Her big actions, closely related, are admitting to herself she’s a werewolf (with all it implies), hiding it for a while (because she’s a teenager who knows what her sister does for a living), and then confessing it to Phoebe (with all it might mean). She’s not in the family business yet, but she knows enough that eventually she can’t deny what these weird mornings mean. There’s only so many times you can wake up naked in the garden with dirty feet—you’re either a werewolf or you have a serious drinking problem (maybe both). When she hears her sister talking about the hunt, how dangerous the beast is, Luna’s going to realize how much of a risk she poses, to herself and to Phoebe, if she’s allowed to run free.

How will these decisions change her? Well, at first she’ll become much more secretive and nervous, which can get interpreted a bunch of different ways. Once she confesses to Phoebe, there might be even more fear, but this will eventually become relief, and she’ll be a lot more open with her sister than she’s been in ages. About a bunch of things. She’s also going to feel better about herself once their discussions confirm she’s not a doomed-to-be-evil monster. She’s going to have a purpose.

Who does this make her in the end? She’s going to be more mature, a little more responsible (in some areas, anyway). And she’s going to have a very, very different view of all these lodge folks she’s known for most of her life. “You know who your real friends are when X happens and most people…”

So that’s my completely untested, four step guide to story, our character’s internal journey. If you want a little more, it’s a topic I’ve talked about a few times here (as I mentioned up at the top). Please feel free to hit the assorted links and hopefully I haven’t contradicted myself too much anywhere.

Also, there’s a good chance you’re already doing a lot of this without thinking about it.

Next time on the ranty blog, I’d like to talk a bit about length.

Next time for the A2Q, which will be in two weeks, I want to talk about my book’s setting.

Until then… go write.

August 8, 2019 / 1 Comment

And They All Lived Happily Ever After

Finally got this finished.
Endings are funny things, yeah? In a weird sort of way, we don’t get them much in real life anymore. We demand sequels to everything. Moving away doesn’t mean what it used to, not with Facetime or Twitter or any other messaging devices. Heck even death has been softened a bit, with social media accounts getting memorialized and lingering long after we’re gone.

And sometimes, people just throw on an ending because they can’t think of anything else.

The ending can make or break my story.  It’s the rich, perfectly sweet dessert after a feast of savory words.  I can have the absolute best filet mignon in the world paired with an exquisite wine, but if we end the meal with a pie made from rotten apples… well, that’s the part we’re all going to remember.  A so-so story with a really fun ending usually gets favorable reviews.  A strong manuscript that spirals downward at the end, more often than not, doesn’t go anywhere except into that big pile on the left.

Now, some folks are content to say “well, that sucked” and leave it at that.  But as storytellers we need to know why something doesn’t work.  Bad endings don’t always have the same root problem.  Sometimes the writer had a phenomenal way to start a character arc, but wasn’t sure how to wrap it up.   Or maybe they have a really cool idea for a story, but don’t know where to go with it past that initial idea.  Sometimes an ending just doesn’t work with the rest of the story.

And some endings almost never work, no matter what the rest of the story is. Endings like…

Nothing Changes
Let’s start with the basics.  My characters are supposed to have an arc.  Arcs end at different points than they began at.  If my last ten pages show the characters in the same place as the first ten, doing the same things, with the same people, and they’re not any wiser for what they just went through…  well, that wasn’t much of an experience, was it?  For them and probably not for my readers.  I’m not saying my characters need to have some gigantic emotional breakthrough or spiritual growth, but somethinghas to be notably different or this was all just wasted time. 

One type of story that does this a lot is the “slice of life” tale.  You know the one, just two or three average days in the life of two or three average people.  It’s hard to say this kind of thing is wrong in a general sense. Most of our lives don’t change radically on any given day.  I’ve spent most of today here at my desk writing, just like I did yesterday and probably like I’ll be doing tomorrow.  So it’d be a realistic ending if a story about me ended with me back here working at my desk. 

The question I need to ask myself is… why would anyone want to read about that? I know I sure wouldn’t. I already go through a slice of life every day where nothing changes.

The Heroes Don’t Do Anything

Every now and then, often enough that it’s worth adding to this list, I come across a weird story where the hero or heroes don’t save the day. Not that they lose they just… they aren’t the ones who bring the victory. Somebody else saves the day, hits the target, makes the big sacrifice, or what have you. Imagine we’ve been watching Harry Potter for seven books and then Seamus Finnegan leaps in to fling that curse back at Voldemort and kill him dead. Which, y’know, yay Seamus and wooo! Voldemort’s dead, but at the same time… why’ve we been following Harry for the last two thousand or so pages?

When I get to the end of my story, what’s my character actually doing? I mean, sure, pointing and shouting and worrying are all things you can do, but are they actually doing anything that’s directly affecting this outcome? Or is someone else doing it?  And if it’s someone else… have we been following the wrong person?

Everybody Dies and the Antagonist Wins
One of the biggest problems with ending things up this way is it gives my reader a sense the story was pointless.  They’ve just invested a few hours (or perhaps days) into this tale only to see it come to an unpleasant ending.  This can be especially frustrating if the reader comes to realize the character never even had a chance at succeeding.  It’s even more frustrating if my characters made a bunch of stupid decisions somewhere along the way. I mean, it’s bad enough when we have to watch the fifth person in a row decide to go check out the old Murderama Amusement Park where all those kids got killed last summer, but when that’s the point I decide to end the story on…? 
My protagonist doesn’t need to come through unscarred, mind you.  Heck, I can even get away with killing my lead.  But they need to succeed on some level.
The Left Fielder
This is the ending that comes out of nowhere. The quarterback finally gets his act together, aces his exams, convinces the cute girl from drama club that he really loves her, gets voted prom king but turns it down… and then gets hit by a bus on the last day of school. Our heroine stops international terrorists working with alien invaders, but in the end her girlfriend accidentally drinks the tainted Soylent and is devoured by necrotic nanites anyway. Or, as I experienced many years back, a friggin’ hilarious ninety minute sketch comedy show ends with a bleak monologue about racial inequality and prejudice.
No, seriously.  I worked on a stage play back in the ‘90s that actually did this. The director and producer rewrote the end to give it “meaning” and couldn’t figure out why nobody liked it.

In my experience, the vast majority of writers who use this kind of ending are trying to achieve art. It’s me attempting to show how this story flawlessly mimics a random and sometimes meaningless real world by having a random and meaningless ending.  It doesn’t relate to anything that happened because… it’s real.  And tragic.  And artistic.

Besides suffering from all the same issues as the “everybody dies” ending, the left fielder just isn’t that special anymore.  It’s become one of the most common conclusions in indie films and “literature.”  So besides making my audience roll their eyes so hard they sprain something, they’re probably going to see this “unexpected” ending coming for the simple reason that it’s just, well, expected at this point.
There’s nothing wrong or pedestrian about putting an upbeat ending on a story.  As I’ve mentioned before, nobody got hit by a train at the end of Slumdog Millionaire and it’s somehow still a good film.
The Y’see Timmy
This one’s a little odd.  I use this phrase here a lot, and it’s kinda an homage to the movie I found it in–Speechless (written by Robert King). This ending gets its name from the old Lassie TV show.  Little Timmy encounters some problems, works his way out of them with Lassie’s help, and at the end Mom sits him down and explains what happened and why.  “Y’see, Timmy, sometimes people get hurt or scared and it just festers down inside of them…”  Timmy and the audience learn a little something about life and we all go home as better people.

The problem is, in clumsy hands the Y’see Timmy quickly becomes “brutally beating the audience with my message.”  That’s why it’s on this list.  A great example is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where the 98 page monologue (no, seriously) at the end of the book recaps every single one of the subtle lessons that were shown in the first 800 pages, but all dialed up to eleven-point-six.  And if you know what I’m talking about,  I’m betting you probably ended up skimming and/or blotting out most of that monologue.  Just like everyone else did.  Except Paul Ryan.

…And They Write a Book About It
I think I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that this is pretty much the worst ending you can have for a screenplay.  It isn’t much better in a book. This almost always feels like it’s tacked on ending to assure the reader that our hero didn’t just survive this story—they benefitedfrom it.  Immensely.  Yeah, you’d think clearing my name of murder charges, getting the girl, and killing Thanos would be enough for most folks to consider it a good week, but noooooooo… apparently I need acclaim and wealth and celebrity, too.
I think writers tend to fall back on this ending for one of three reasons (sometimes more than one of them). One is that it falls into that “write what you know” tip we’ve all heard for years and years. I know writing, so I’ll write about writing.  Twois that, because of one, this feels like a natural thing to happen, so it adds an element of reality to my characters and story.  And three

Okay, I think three’s a sort of wish-fulfillment-validation thing, to be honest.  Work with me here. My character writes a book about how she used to be a international assassin and it becomes a New York Times bestseller, right? So, logically, my book about someone writing a book about how she used to be an international assassin should alsobecome a New York Times bestseller.  Right?

It Was All a Dream

Probably the worst offender of all of these.  All too often the amazing tale of adventure ends with one of my heroes waking up on the couch or in a hospital bed.  None of the story my audience has just invested their time and attention in actually happened. Not even within the world of the story. We all just put ourselves into a story about a person who was putting themselves into a story. The end.

As I mentioned up above with Everyone Dies, this just tells the reader they made an investment for no reason.  How often have you read or seen a movie like this and immediately been able to pick out the moment things veer off into a dream?  My partner and I often watch shows or movies and find ourselves quickly declaring “Dream sequence!”

To Be Continued…
No, I lied. This is the worst offender. Hands down.

We all want to write great, sprawling epics.  Okay, maybe not all of us, but I’m sure a lot of folks here do. We want to write that massive series that spreads across at least six books and gets us an HBO deal. Starz at the least. But it just doesn’t happen this way.

There’s an ugly lie that races through writing groups and threads—the idea that publishers only want to buy series. First, that’s just not true. I know dozens and dozens of writers who’ve sold one-off books (myself included). Second… editors and publishers very rarely want a series. What they want is a book with series potential. A book that—if the preorders are good and word of mouth is great—I can easily write a sequel to. And another sequel. And maybe a fourth.  Or even a fifth.

More to the point, as a beginning writer I need to convince agents and editors that I know what I’m doing. That I’m able to bring things to a satisfying close.  So if my conclusion is “maybe I’ll end this in the next book”… well, that’s not going to score me points with anyone. Especially readers if that second book isn’t already a guaranteed thing.

So, there’s some endings that I may want to think twice about before falling back on them.  Again, I’d never say it’s impossible to do one of these and make it work.  But I am saying…I’d think twice before tackling one of them.

Next time… well, heck. we’ve been talking about the end. Whaddya say we just kill a few people?

Until then… go write.

August 7, 2018 / 2 Comments


            Holy crap.  So very sorry it’s taken me forever to post.  I just moved and it was kind of a hell move.  Not that anything truly awful happened, just… well, when you’ve been in one place for almost twelve years, it’s not going to be easy getting out of it.  And it wasn’t.  Nor has it been easy getting things set up at the new place.  For example, I just got internet three days ago.
            I wanted to bounce something off you fast, just so we can hit the ground running, so to speak.  This came to me a while back during one of my Saturday geekery tweetstorms.  See—I’m totally worth following on Twitter.
            Plus A. Lee Martinez brought it up the other day.  So I guess he’s totally worth following, too.
            I’ve talked about backstory here once or thrice.  It’s all those fun things that happened to our hero or heroine before my tale of wonder begins.  Their time just off the coast of Madagascar.  That earlier romance with a supporting character.  The mysterious past they avoid talking too much about.
            Here’s the thing I need to remember.  Backstory isn’t character development.  Backstory just gets my character to where they are now.  It gets us to where the story begins.
            Y’see, Timmy, character development should be moving things forward.  It’s progressive, because by its very nature it means my character is progressing in their development.  No forward movement=no progression=no character development.
            My character can have the coolest backstory ever… but readers want to know why they’re interesting now.  What they’re doing now.  How their lives and views are changing now.  I need to be sure I’m not confusing fleshing out all the stuff behind us for all the character growth ahead of us.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about exercise a bit.
            Until then, go write.
            And sorry again for the delay.