June 25, 2009 / 8 Comments

Looks Like This is The End…

Pop culture reference. Again.

Novelist/ screenwriter (and so many more titles it makes me green with envy) Clive Barker once commented that a great monster can save the ending of almost any movie. Granted, he was saying this to explain an odd affection for Howard the Duck, but it’s still a solid point. An ending can make or break a story. A so-so film with a phenomenal ending will usually get favorable reviews. A strong manuscript that spirals downward at the end will, more often than not, be tossed in the large pile on the left.

Now, bad endings don’t always have the same root problem. Sometimes a weak ending happens when people have a really cool idea for a story, but don’t know what to do with it past that initial idea. Perhaps the writer had a phenomenal way to start a film or novel, but wasn’t sure how to wrap it up. What is certain is that there are some endings that almost always don’t work, no matter what.

Note that I said almost always. As I go through this list, you’ll probably be able to name some books or films that use one of these endings very successfully. I’ll even name a few of them myself as we go along. For one reason or another, though, these endings are exceptionally difficult to pull off.

So, keeping that in mind, let’s go over seven of the standard bad endings

Everybody Dies and the Antagonist Wins—Hard to believe that after centuries of storytelling this is still considered an unsatisfying ending, I know. One of the biggest problems with wrapping things up this way is it gives the reader a sense that the story was pointless. They’ve just invested a few hours (or perhaps days) of their time into this tale only to see it come to an unpleasant ending. This can be even more frustrating if any of the characters made foolish decisions somewhere along the way. After all, it’s bad enough when you have to watch the fifth person in a row walk through the archway marked Painful Death, but when that’s the point the writer chooses to end the story on…?

Your protagonist doesn’t need to come through unscarred, mind you. Heck, you can even get away with killing your lead (The Dead Zone comes to mind). But they still need to win.

The Left Fielder—Called such because it’s the ending that comes out of nowhere. The office slacker finally gets his act together, saves his friends, gets the girl—and then gets hit by a bus as he steps off the curb. The crack whore decides to go straight and get out so she can raise her little girl, but then the preschooler gets into the bottles under the sink and drinks five gallons of bleach. In my experience, the vast majority of writers who use this kind of ending are trying to achieve art. It’s an attempt to show how random and meaningless life can be by having a random and meaningless ending.

Besides suffering from all the same frustration issues as the previous 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 exasperating an audience, it’s an ending they’re probably going to see coming for the simple reason it wouldn’t be what they’d expect.

There is nothing wrong, shameful, or pedestrian with putting the right ending on a story. Notice that nobody got hit by a train at the end of Slumdog Millionaire yet it was still well-received.

Nothing Changes—Pretty straightforward. If the first ten pages and the last ten pages show the characters in the same place, doing the same things, with the same people, and they’re not any wiser for the experience… well, that’s not much of an experience, is it? For them or for the audience. Even if people don’t have some huge emotional growth or breakthrough, there has to be something notably different or this was just more wasted time.

One type of story that does this a lot is the “slice of life” tale. Just two or three average days in the life of two or three average people. Now, yes, most of our lives don’t change radically in any given moment. Most of what I’m doing today is what I did yesterday and what I’ll probably do tomorrow. So, yes, it would be a truthful ending if a slice of life story about me ended with me back here at my desk where I am most every day.

The question you need to ask yourself is, why would anyone want to read about that? I know I sure wouldn’t. I go through a slice of life every day where nothing changes. I want to be entertained!

…And They Write a Book/ Screenplay About the Experience—I’ve mentioned before that this is, hands down, the worst ending you can have for a screenplay. It isn’t much better in a book. This is almost always a tacked on ending to assure the audience the protagonist didn’t just survive this story—they benefited from it. A lot. Yeah, you would think kicking drugs, reconnecting with the family, and getting the girl/boy would be plenty of reward for most folks, but noooooooo…

In my experience, writers tend to fall back on this ending for one of three reasons (sometimes more than one of them). One is a desire to add that patina of reality to the story, thus making it more valid somehow. Two is that it falls into that silly “write what you know” tip we’ve all heard for years and years. Third is that it’s sort of a wish-fulfillment validation. If Yakko writes a story about surviving the zombie attack and it becomes a bestselling novel/ Oscar-winning film… well, logically, when I write a story about Yakko writing a story about surviving a zombie attack my work will also be worthy of such success and validation.

There’s a medical term for this. It usually involves lots of therapy and certain prescription medications.

The Y’see Timmy—If you’ve never seen it, go watch Speechless (written by Robert King), where Michael Keaton does a better job explaining this idea to Geena Davis than I’m ever going to manage with you folks. Plus it’s just a fun movie.

This ending gets its name from the old Lassie television show. Little Timmy would encounter some problems, work his way out of them, and at the end Mom would sit him down and explain what happened and why. “Y’see, Timmy, sometimes people get hurt inside and it never heals…” Timmy and the audience learn a little something about life and we all go home as better, happy people.

Alas, in inexperienced hands the Y’see Timmy quickly becomes “beating your audience over the head with a blunt line of dialogue or three.” If you’ve ever made your way through Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, you probably remember the 98 page monologue at the end which recaps every one of the subtle lessons that were shown in the first 800 pages of the book. You also probably ended up skimming the monologue, just like everyone else did.

If the moral of the story is clear, do you need to explain it to your audience again? If it isn’t that clear, then the problem isn’t your ending, is it? Go watch Gattaca, which actually manages an amazing double-Y’see Timmy.

It Was All a Dream—All too often the amazing tale of adventure ends with one of the heroes waking up on the couch or in a hospital bed. No, none of the story the audience has just invested their time and attention in really happened, not even in the world of the story. We all just put ourselves into a story about a person who was putting themselves into a story.

Now, there was a time when this ending was daring, new, and caught people off guard. For the record, that time was 1890 when Ambrose Bierce sold his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Since then it’s been used once or thrice in literature and about a billion times since the creation of the sitcom. Was there anyone who went to see Click who didn’t immediately say “it’s all going to be a dream!!” the moment Adam Sandler stretched out on that Bed Bath & Beyond display? Think about it—it’s such a common ending most folks could spot the moment the dream began.

I could recommend one or two great dream sequence films, but that would kind of ruin the point, wouldn’t it…?

The Wedding—There are a few reasons weddings can make folks yawn at the end of a story. Right off the bat, it’s such a ridiculously common ending. Much like the artsy Left Fielder, so many writers have taken to ending their romances or rom-coms with a wedding it’s become the default, which means it’s far too common to use in any other genre. Also, a wedding tends to clarify timelines in a story, which is not always a good thing. It can either emphasize that these folks are getting married less than a month after meeting each other, or it can point out that the narrative just skipped seven or eight months between pages, which emphasizes that this is just a tacked on ending.

Really, the only thing worse then just ending on a wedding is when your real ending is something completely outlandish and ridiculous on its own–say, for example, having your hero return a crystal skull to a Mesoamerican flying saucer–and then you tack on the wedding as a complete afterthought so you can hint at a spin-off.

But maybe that’s just my opinion…

So, there they are, seven endings that were tired and worn out long before Isaac Asimov ever heard the word “robot” or Edgar Rice Burroughs thought apes in Africa might be able to raise a human child. Like many of the tips I toss out, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do one of these. It is very, very difficult, though, and you may want to think twice before tackling one of them.

Next week, we’ll try to settle that age-old problem that’s kept scholars, philosophers, and savants awake at night for many years of their lives. Who would win in a fight—Jean Grey from X-Men or Tia from Escape to Witch Mountain?

Before that, though, you have more writing to do. So get to it.

June 11, 2009 / 2 Comments

Dodging Bullets

Check it out. Fifty posts and people are still paying attention to me for some reason. Or at least they’re keeping their laughter to themselves…

As I’ve mentioned a few times, there is no trick to writing. No one expects to sit down at the piano and play a concerto, or to jog out on the field and do a five-minute mile. In the same way, writing—not basic middle school literacy, mind you, but the ability to write— is a skill which needs to be learned like any other.

Like most skills, some folks have the knack for writing, some don’t. There are a lucky few who have natural talent and those who have to struggle to produce every line. I can do a few laps in the pool, but no matter how much mom pushed me at a young age I was never, ever going to pose a risk to Michael Phelps. Likewise, I love music and can sound out a few things on a piano, but I just never put the effort into learning an instrument (although I’ve been toying with the idea of taking up the violin)

Y’see, Timmy, there are those folks willing to put in the time and effort to become better at something… and those who aren’t. If anything I’ve said here impresses anyone, keep in mind there’s about thirty years of literary roadkill stretched out in the road behind me. Cliché-filled fanfic, some God-awful sci-fi and fantasy tinged with high school angst and college melodrama, plus at least three versions of that long-lost American classic Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.

So, with all that being said, I’d like to take a few paragraphs and talk to you about the Warren Commission report.

In 1963, a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the newly sworn-in President Johnson ordered Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the killings. Warren assembled a group of congressmen and specialists (including future president Gerald Ford) to assemble all the evidence and quash the numerous “conspiracy theories” that were growing.

When the Commission finally delivered their report, it was like throwing gasoline on a fire. One of the most amazing (and still controversial) declarations it made was that a single shot caused all of the non-fatal wounds to President Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally. Critics swiftly pointed out this one bullet would need to change directions numerous times during its flight. Even more amazing, the bullet was miraculously found on the floor in Connally’s emergency room, having supposedly fallen out of his thigh, undeformed and completely clean of all blood and human tissue.

The popular term which developed from this, which you’ve probably heard before, was the magic bullet. A small, simple thing which could defy every bit of common sense yet still somehow produce all-but-impossible, borderline miraculous results.

Many people think to be a successful writer, it’s just a matter of finding a magic bullet. I mean, it can’t actually be that difficult, right? Surely there’s just an idea so clever nothing else will matter and Hollywood will buy it. There must be a certain type of novel that’s selling better than anything else, so then it’s just about doing a tween urban fantasy story over a dark techno-thriller. Some folks believe finding the right tone—perhaps a somber introspective or something in an off-the-cuff conversational—guarantees people will fight for their manuscript.

Alas, there is no such thing.

So, here are a few beliefs you should be actively avoiding…

The special word—Ready to hear an amazing true fact? You can get a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting just for including the word “mellonballer” in your script. Seriously. It’s an unwritten rule Don and Gee Nicholl set down as a condition of the fellowship because of a high rated episode of All in the Family which revolved around a mellonballer joke. Many people who’ve gotten the fellowship don’t even realize this is how they got it. Honest. I’ve spoken to the fellowship’s director, Greg Beal, twice in person and interviewed him once on the phone. Contact him yourself if you don’t believe me, but expect him to be a bit coy about it. Do you really think I could make up something like this?

Oh come on!!! Of course I made it up. How gullible are you?

The people who read for the Nicholl—just like the readers of any competition, production company, or publication—aren’t looking for some magic word. There is no clever bit of vocabulary that’s going to give you an in, although I can probably guarantee if you use any words incorrectly it will keep you out. The only “right” word you need to worry about is the one that’s right for your story. Don’t worry about anything else.

And please don’t bother Greg Beal by checking on the mellonballer thing. The man’s got enough to do this time of year without fielding any more nonsense emails than he already gets.

The special genre—With the desire to make a sale, it’s not unusual seeing people leaping to follow the “hot” markets. Right now sparkly teenage vampires are hot, yet it seems like only yesterday everyone wanted nubile teenage vampire slayers. When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code took off, publishers started looking at every other quasi-religious manuscript on their desk.

The problem here is timing. Even if you lunge at that new hot genre, there’s simply no way to get a comedy/ sci-fi/ historical manuscript done, polished, and in front of someone before the trend has passed. None. And if you think you can, you’re probably doing something wrong. So catching this bullet in the shoulder just guarantees a manuscript will either be weak or hit the appropriate desk about eight months after the trend has been declared dead.

Don’t try to follow a market trend. Try to set one. Write the horror/ romance/ faith-based/ mystery story you want to tell and make sure it’s the absolute best one anyone’s ever read. That’s what will catch someone’s attention and make hundreds of others rush to hop on your bandwagon.

The special aesthetic—More than a few folks think the secret is to create “art.” Stories which will be recognized immediately as classics and counted as such for the ages. That deep, over-educated, overwritten sort of art that makes college literary students swoon in the middle of intellectual discussions.

This one’s a double edged sword, though, because a lot of the folks going for this bullet end up taking it in the chest (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). Often, attempts to create art lead to forced scenes, painful dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Plus, that same art then becomes a blanket excuse to let the writer brush off any comment or criticism their work may get. After all, only the sophisticated and intelligent people are going to understand art. If they don’t understand, it just proves they’re not intelligent and thus not qualified to judge it, right?

As I’ve said many times before– don’t try to create art. Try to tell the best story you can the best way it can be told. Let other people worry about if it’s high art or if it’s going to be the next summer popcorn movie/ bestselling beach book

The special message—Close behind the above bullet (someone’s shooting on full-auto) is the belief a story has to have a deep, powerful meaning. Every element of it should be loaded with subtext. Each line should make the audience rethink their lives. I made a joke a while back about using Jason Voorhees to represent Hamas, and also talked about having very fitting names for characters.

While it’s great to have subtext, though, a writer shouldn’t be fighting to force it in. Likewise, if you’ve come up with a clever metaphor which applies to the catchphrase/ scandal/ fashion of the moment, much like the special genre above, odds are that ship will have sailed long before anyone ever sees your work.

If you feel your work must have a greater meaning, ask yourself a few questions. Do you think it does, or are you trying to live up to someone else’s expectations? Will it still be relevant six months from now, or six years from now? Most importantly, does this greater meaning serve your writing? Or is your writing bending to this greater meaning?

The special people—One of the most common magic bullets you’ll see these days is networking. The belief your writing is irrelevant compared to knowing the right people who have the right jobs. Some would-be-writers spend more time hunting folks down on the internet than they do working on their writing.

Alas, networking is dead. To be blunt, it was stillborn. Any cocktail party, message board, or newsletter which promises you tons of networking opportunities will not offer you a single useful one. It’s one of those things that can only happen by accident, and trying to do it defeats it immediately.

The people you really need to make connections with are the ones who will help you perfect your writing. They’re always out there and you’ll always need them. One person’s honest opinion about your writing is worth more in the long run than twenty forced, tenuous “contacts” made by deliberate networking.

So, there you have it. A handful of things you shouldn’t be spending time looking for. I mean, really, who spends their time trying to get hit by bullets?

Next time (assuming you survive that shootout) let’s take a look at where we are. Or more importantly, where your characters are.

Until then, go write.

Go! There are bullets everywhere!! Go!!!

May 24, 2009 / 3 Comments

Putting Babies on Spikes

Again, if you don’t get the title reference—expand your horizons.

So, a phrase you may have heard echoing about now and then is “killing your babies.” It’s just as gruesome as it sounds. Honest. I just heard it from a friend of mine a few weeks ago as he gutted the opening of a script he’s been working on for almost a year. One fellow brought it up when I interviewed him last week about his new film.

Many folk have heard the phrase, but how many understand it?

In every piece of writing, there’s at least one thing the author is extremely proud of. A clever line of dialogue, a character nuance, a dramatic moment or reveal that just could not be any better. We’ve all had them. A place where the language and the creativity and the skill all hit that perfect point where it’s hard to believe we created something this good. I usually fret over them for hours, convinced I must’ve read it somewhere else before and unintentionally copied it. After all, there’s no way I could’ve written something that good…

Perhaps it’s not even necessarily high art, just something the writer’s very fond of. Maybe it’s a clever reference you know a handful of friends will get. A loving tribute to someone special. A sly wink at some other book or movie. Heck, it could even just be something silly and pointless the writer got obsessive about. As a not-so-wise man once said, “the alien love-child stays in no matter what!”

The problem is, while these bits often are very well-done within their own limits, they don’t always work in the larger scope of things. As a writer, your loyalty has to be to the big picture. Not to individual scenes, but to the story as a whole. We’ve all heard awful cases where firefighters have to cut off someone’s leg to save them from a burning wreck. History tells of us brave generals who lost battles so they could win the war.

Y’see, Timmy, what it comes down to is… writers need to make sacrifices sometimes. And the gods of storytelling are ancient, dark gods. So when they call for a sacrifice, they don’t want to see a small tithe or minor inconvenience. They want something big.

They want something you love.

A story…

Submitted for your approval is San Diego Police Officer Andrew Barroll. He was one of the supporting characters in my oft-exampled first attempt at a novel The Suffering Map (now on sale absolutely nowhere). He first appears in a flashback one character has as a uniform officer she met almost a year ago. Halfway through the book he reappears, now a detective assigned to investigate the series of horrifically mutilated corpses that are being discovered around San Diego because of… well, let’s just say it’s part of the story and leave it at that. For the second half of the book, five different plot threads are getting wound tighter and tighter, and Barroll and his partner get closer to discovering who’s committing the brutal murders. He was the good cop. The solid, dedicated, everyman character. The kind of character where you knew he’d just have to get a bigger part to play in a later book.

Alas, the first draft of The Suffering Map was just over 150,000 words. Somewhat huge for a first novel from an unknown, completely uncredited writer. The second draft was even longer. It wasn’t until the third draft that I began to snip those words I thought might be excessive, and it wasn’t until the 4th draft that those cuts were noticeable.

In the fifth draft, a little over 90% of Barroll’s thread of the story vanished.

I remember feeling a dreadful churning in my stomach as I was highlighting and deleting entire chapters out of my first completed novel. A great end-of-the-chapter button vanished. Two carefully thought-out characters ceased to exist altogether. If you worked it out time-wise, probably about eight weeks of writing was deleted over the course of half an hour. Freddy Krueger aspires to be the slasher I was that afternoon. It took a few days of work to patch up the loose ends after the slaughter.

That’s what “killing your babies” means. It means doing things you hate to do. It’s when you’re willing to take huge swaths of your writing, hours and hours of work, and send them to the bin for a tighter, stronger story. You do what needs to be done, even if it means trashing your absolute, favorite part.

Alas, some folks just can’t bring themselves to make these big sacrifices. They can’t bear the thought of omitting the character they based off their high school sweetheart, refuse to admit the story doesn’t need that brilliant monologue on capitalism, and can’t figure out why the beautiful seven page description of a forest brings their story toa crashing halt. Which is a shame, because it’s the only way someone’s writing can get stronger. If you can’t look at your work objectively and see the difference between what needs to be in there and what you want to be in there, you don’t have any chance at improving.

In the end, detective Barroll appeared in one chapter of The Suffering Map. A morgue scene as the body is examined and a gruesome clue is revealed, more for the readers than for the investigators. That’s it.

And, while it pains me to this day, the story is much stronger for it.

Next time, I’d like to talk a little bit about basic concepts.

Until then… get back to writing.

May 7, 2009 / 7 Comments

A Few Times Around the Block

This week, I wanted to discuss something I’m sure nobody wants to hear about. No, not about the test results or that it looks like Chuck is being cancelled by those idiots at NBC. What I wanted to talk about is an affliction more deadly than Ebola and swine flu combined.

Well… sort of. Not really. It just feels that way a lot of the time.

I have to be honest. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Oh, I believe someone can have trouble finding the right words and phrasing and it can trip them up for a minute. Or that they found too many good sentences and have written themselves into a corner. That happens. It’s happened to me several times.

But, really… that someone could get so stuck that they can’t write anything? Nothing at all? Any writer who comes to an honest-to-God dead halt when they hit a problem is a bit more of a poser than they’d probably like to admit.

Sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov never suffered from writer’s block. Neither has prolific author Piers Anthony. Stephen King got hit by a high-speed van, hovered near death for a few days, and a few weeks after he could move had his wife set up a desk and his laptop computer for him. The screenwriting team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have three movies coming out this summer, right after their new series Fringe. Almost all of them were written in one six month period.

Y’see, Timmy, one of the biggest things that stops folks from writing, in my opinion, is just fear. Plain old fear. To be honest, I think it’s the only reason someone can’t pick up a pen or set their hands to the keyboard and put out something.

Now, a lot of folks like to toss around terms like inspiration, craft, and my all-time favorite, ART, as reasons they can’t write. And in all fairness, there does need to be an idea that’s compelling you. There is more to writing than banging your fingers on the keyboard to form phonetically-spelled words. And even I’ll admit to there being a chance that your writing could be labeled art by the high-fallutin’ folks at the New Yorker. But none of these should have any bearing on your ability to write.

As a writer, you are your own boss (unless you’re working on a television series in a writer’s room). Can you imagine walking into your day job and telling your supervisor “Actually, Dot, I’m not sure I’m ready to work today. It’s just… it’s not there for me, y’know?” It wouldn’t fly at the Buy More, so why should it at your desk?

Now, this is going to be one of those tips that sounds incredibly stupid, but that’s because it’s so simple and straightforward most people don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The easiest way to never get writer’s block?

Don’t stop writing.

Told you it’d sound stupid. But it’s true. You can’t have writer’s block if you’ve always got words pouring out of you. It isn’t something that happens when you’re writing, it’s something that happens when you’ve stopped writing.

So, with that in mind, here’s a few ways you can keep the words flowing and never stop writing.

Why so serious? One thing I know can make people freeze is the sheer thought that they are writing. This is that big fear I was just talking about. They are partaking in the same art as Shakespeare and Dickens, Steinbeck and Hemingway, Hitchcock and Serling.. How could someone not approach this with the gravity it truly deserves? How could they risk putting down a single word that isn’t gold-gilt and ready to head off to the publisher so it can change the lives of millions?

Easy. Just remember most of them aren’t. We all get a first draft, and often a second and third, too. Way back at the dawn of the ranty blog, I talked about finding a place or a format you can write in that takes all the pressure off you. For some folks it’s writing in longhand. Some use a different word processing program—or a different computer altogether. Just remember, the majority of the words you write will never see print, so don’t stress that they’re not flawless.

Move on. This is another suggestion you’ve probably heard before. Have more than one project going at a time. It also helps if they’re all a bit different, in terms of genre, format, and so on. If you get stuck on script A, you can switch over to short story B or tell-all book C. At any given time I’m juggling screenwriter interviews and articles for the magazine, the ranty blog here, and whatever fiction projects of my own I’m working on.

Prime the pump. If you need to start writing, just start. Write anything. Type out a list of your pets. Favorite books. Favorite Christmas presents. People you’ve slept with. People you wish you’d slept with. Just get the words flowing, and then start tossing in some verbs and adjectives. Go with stream of consciousness or random fragments or quotes you’ve been meaning to jot down for other projects.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, you’ll probably find you’re writing coherent, consecutive sentences. Even if they don’t have anything to do with your current project—or any of your side projects—they’ve still gotten that part of your brain up and running for the real work of the day.

Reload! Sometimes the reason you’re not moving forward is because you’re out of gas. Read a book or watch a movie. Not one of your favorites, but something new. Get some fresh words and ideas and images into your head. Once they start swirling around in there, they might find that starting point you were looking for—or maybe even an all-new one.

Quit while you’re ahead. No, it’s not as harsh as it sounds. Simply put, if you feel like you’ve five or six pages of writing to get out today, only do four. If you know where the rest of this page is going, stop after the first paragraph.

What you’re doing is giving yourself an easy starting place tomorrow. There are few things more intimidating than sitting down with no idea what to write, so this way you’ve got that last page or so from last night to start with. Like the tip above, once you’re going it’s a lot easier to keep going.

And that’s that. Five ways to keep writing.

Do they all work for me? Nope. To be honest, one of these methods I’ve had spotty luck with and another has never worked for me at all, but I know folks who get by fine with it. That’s the whole point of the ranty blog’s golden rule. Please feel free to toss out any of your own, as well. I know I’m always happy to have a few spares on hand.

On which note, we should all get back to writing. Next week I want to go back to my roots and talk about some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff. We’re long overdue for some hardcore geekery here.

But until then, go write.