October 1, 2020 / 1 Comment

Allow Me to Explain…

 There’s a storytelling idea, sort of a method, I suppose, that I’d been batting around for a while as a possible topic. Something I see crop up enough that it was worth mentioning in that “something else to keep in mind…” way. I decided to add it to my list of topics here and then, in a weird synchronicity, said problem showed up in a TV miniseries I finally got around to watching and a book I was reading (some formats may be changed to protect… you know).

The miniseries I mentioned involved an aggressive computer virus. And it explained how the virus worked. In detail. It used a few specifics and a few generalities, but it spent three whole scenes explaining this virus, the logic behind how it worked and how it selected targets.

The problem was… even as I was watching this, I could see a bunch of holes in the explanation. Holes that were only pulled wider as the story went on. And my computer skills more or less peaked in the very early 00’s. But I still knew enough to know the virus wouldn’t work the way it was described. Couldn’t. If it chose targets this way, why didn’t it go after that or that? If it propagated like that, how had it reached here and here?

For a brief time I was wondering if this was some sort of foreshadowing that there was more to the virus than was being let on. Maybe some sort of AI or a living virus that had been transcribed but then… mutated or something? But no, in the end it was just a computer virus that didn’t make any sense.

Which was doubly annoying because the virus didn’t really need to be explained in this story. The plot was much more about the repercussions of this thing being loose on the web and how it was affecting lives, society, and so on. The explanation slowed things down.

And, yeah, sure—part of this is on me. Any genre story is going to involve a degree of suspension of disbelief. Nobody wants to be the guy picking apart the energy requirements of a lightsaber or arguing how the Hulk can’t be that strong because his muscle/bone density would mean he’d sink into the earth. And as for Mjolnir, look…

Okay, yeah… there are some people out there who love being that guy.

(looking at you, Neil…)

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t’ve picked it apart if the writer hadn’t put so much down in front of me. I wouldn’t’ve had anything to pick apart. I can’t complain about your wardrobe if you never show me your wardrobe. But this writer decided they needed a whole scene (three scenes, really) explaining the computer virus in detail. And the details didn’t match up.

So what does this mean for me if my story needs explanation? I mean, speculative fiction is filled with different forms of technobabble. It’s got FTL drives and magic systems and AI computer viruses and alien life cycles and bringing dinosaurs back with cloning and mutant superheroes and… I mean, I’ve got to explain it all somehow, right?

Maybe? Consider Jurassic Park. How much does Crichton (or Spielberg and Koepp) actually tell us about the process of recreating dinosaurs? No, seriously—what do they tell us? If you look back, it’s actually a pretty bare-bones explanation of what’s a fairly complicated process (especially twenty-five years ago!). In fact, it encourages us to fill in a lot of the blanks ourselves and make it seem more complete.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind as I’m writing out that long explanation…

First, be clear if the story really needs this explanation. Is this what the story’s actually about, or is this a minor element I can handwave away or just skip over? Back to the Future gets away with a ridiculously simple explanation of time travel because it’s not really about the time travel. It’s about actions and consequences, and becoming a better person. Time travel’s just the mechanism that lets it happen. It’s just short of being a MacGuffin. We don’t need that explanation the same way we don’t need to read about someone hitting every step on the staircase, how many keystrokes it took to log into their cloud account, or a list of every item of clothing they put on when they got dressed (in order). The reader will fill it in.

Second, if I decide I really need to explain this at length, it’s got to be solid. I’ve waived the right to say “just trust me, it works” and now I need to make this as rigorous and believable as possible. I need to do my research, double-check my logic, triple-check my numbers, and let it marinate overnight in plain-old common sense. Trust me when I say if I get a fact wrong or use garbage science or make a math mistake… people will let me know. I don’t even have to ask them. Not only that, but…

Third, I need to keep in mind the more something gets explained, the easier it is to punch holes in that explanation. Like in the example I first mentioned. As the characters went into more and more detail about the computer virus, the flaws in that explanation became more and more apparent. How often have we seen the person digging themselves deeper and deeper because they won’t stop talking? It’s soooooo tempting when we’ve done all that sweet, cool research, but I need to figure out how much explanation my story really needs and stop there. I’ve mentioned screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin here onceor thrice, and his idea that we experience stories in our gut, but we analyze them in our head. I never, ever want my explanation to drive people into their heads.

Fourth, closely related to the last one, is that this sort of explanation is almost always going to be exposition. Yes, even if I try to work it into a conversation or presentation or something like that. As we’ve talked about here a bunch of times, exposition gets boring really fast because so much of it is either things we already know or things we don’t need to know. For our purposes here, there’s a chance the reader doesn’t even want to know. So if I decide I need this explanation in my story, I need to make sure it’s going to be clever and engaging for the reader.

And that’s me explaining how to explain things.

Next time, I’d like to talk about if you should be reading next week’s post.

Until then, go write.

September 21, 2012

One Step Ahead

            First off, if you want it, there’s kind of a bonus post this week.  Go check out Ebon Shores, a great little horror site from down under, where I was asked to prattle on for their “Wednesday Writer” column.  Actually, page through some of the past ones, too.  There’s a lot of really good stuff there.

            Speaking of horror…
            By nature of my chosen career, I tend to read and see a lot of horror stuff.  Specifically, post-apocalyptic stuff, usually with some form of zombie in it.  And there’s a certain recurring flaw that always gnaws at me. 
            It’s when characters do or say things that experience says they shouldn’t.  The kind of things that common sense tells you they should’ve figured out not to do or say ages ago.  How often do you see zombie hunters in t-shirts, even when they know one scratch could mean death?  Or that one guy who sets his gun down and walks a few yards away from it?  Or, knowing there could be zombies in the area, they reach into the dark room and start feeling around for a light switch with their one, ungloved hand…
            Or sometimes it’s what characters don’t do.  They’ll find a door and talk about how it might be locked, how it could be dead bolted, or how there may have been a cave in that’s blocking it from the other side.  The one thing none of them will do is actually attempt to open the door.  And if they did and it didn’t open, it’d never occur to them to try that key they found on the floor down the hallway.  Even though they know there’s a zombie apocalypse going on, they’ll forget to barricade windows.
            Simply put, it’s when the readers can see one step ahead and the characters can’t.  It’s when the audience can foresee the consequences of an action (or inaction), but the people in the story don’t.  And if the reader stops to think about that sort of thing, then I’m doing something wrong as a writer.  It means my characters’ choices or actions are breaking the flow of the story.
            There’s a very, very bad sequel to a very, very good classic World War Two movie.  Early in the film, our heroes arrive in Germany in a stolen plane.  The plan is to pose as German soldiers and officers, sneak away, and then begin their mission behind enemy lines.  It’s only after the four hour flight, as the plane is taxiing to a stop at the end of the landing strip, that the mission commander realize the one flaw in their plan.  One of the team members is a black man!  How will they pass him off as a Nazi?
            The resolution was kind of clever in that quick-fix sort of way, but it didn’t change the fact that the whole situation was stupid as hell.  The one question everyone asks at this point is “Why the hell did no one think of this before?”
           Y’see, like most readers and movie watchers, I have a tendency to think about what I’d do in a given situation.  I’d punch that guy.  I’d lean in and kiss the girl.  I’d make sure my shotgun was loaded beforeI stepped out into the zombie-filled hallway.  And nothing frustrates me more as a reader than when I see an immediate, obvious flaw in a character’s motivations or actions.

            That’s not to say every character should react like me (or you, or that guy).  If the writer’s got any sense of empathy, though, I should at least be able to see why characters make the choices they do.  I might’ve punched that guy, but Jack Reacher might be biding his time or just trying to keep a low profile and not to stir up too much trouble.  Many of us might’ve leaned in to kiss Elizabeth Swann, but we all understand why Will Turner feels bound by duty, honor, and social mores to let that opportune moment slip by. 

            Y’see, Timmy, one of the best things I can do as a storyteller is think one step ahead.  For the most part, the audience shouldn’t be able to think of something I didn’t already think of.  Oh, there’s always going to be that five or six percent who shriek about “totally obvious” things, but forget them.  I don’t need to cover everything, I just need to answer the immediate questions.
            “Hanging a lantern on it” is a great example of being one step ahead.  I know this odd coincidence is going to bother the reader, so I’ll have one of my characters point out how odd and coincidental it is
            LOSTdid this a lot to help take the edge off some of the oddities of the island and the plot devices they needed to further the story.  Hurley questions why there’s a brand new washer and dryer set in the otherwise very retro underground station called The Swan.  Kate and Sun wonder what kind of person travels with a pregnancy test.  Ben questions the odds of a spinal surgeon literally dropping out of the sky just a few weeks after he learns he’s got a tumor on his spine.
            Looking ahead can also be a good gauge for exposition and figuring out how much is too much.  In a couple of my books and novellas I have scenes of scientific jargon and techno-speak.  But I don’t need to explain things out in full and exacting detail.  I just need to be one step ahead and address enough points that my story doesn’t get hung up on my lack of explanation. 
            In Ex-Patriots I explain that the military’s been “training” zombies to follow simple orders.  But I don’t leave it at that.  In the same chapter I introduce the idea of the Nest—a NEural STimulator—which sends electricity to parts of a zombie’s brain in order to reactivate it.  I don’t need to explain what parts of the brain, how much voltage or amperage, or how they first tested it.
            A famous example of this is in Back to the Future, when Doctor Emmet Brown tells us he’s made a time machine out of a DeLorean.  Even as we’re processing this, though, part of us wondering… well, how?  How does someone turn a sports car into a time machine?  It’s kind of goofy and ludicrous all at the same time.  And then Doc shows us the flux capacitor and tells Marty (and the audience), “this is what makes time travel possible.”  And it’s glowy and it buzzes and, well… yeah, okay, that makes sense. A DeLorean on its own couldn’t travel through time, but a DeLorean with a flux capacitor channeling 1.21 gigawatts of electricity…
             Doc’s addressed our question before we even got to ask it out loud. So the story never pauses and we get carried along into the next bit.  And the DeLorean goes down in history (no pun intended) as probably one of the top three fictional time machines.
            Sometimes all staying ahead takes is being aware of where the characters are in the story.  If I’m confusing the first time I’m showing something to the reader with the first time the characters have seen it, that’s going to lead to problems.  There are mistakes and screw ups that we’ll accept from amateurs in any field, but not from people who’ve supposedly been doing this for a while (whatever this is).  If my plot point depends on a Master Sergeant in the Army not knowing how to load a pistol or the head chef at a restaurant not being able to tell salt from sugar… well, there better be a damned good reason for it.
            Stay one step ahead of the reader.  Know where they’re going to go, be there waiting for them, and guide them back to the path you want them on.  Not the path where they growl in frustration and shout “Why the heck did they…?”  And then toss your manuscript in that big pile on the left
            Next time, by request, I wanted to talk about how you can use plot and story to develop an idea.
            Until then, go write.
October 1, 2008 / 2 Comments

The Suspension Bridge

Most of us have heard the term willing suspension of disbelief. It’s when a story or plot has something implausible, maybe even impossible in it, but we accept it for the sake of the narrative. Long lost twins. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The lucky coincidence. Hidden messages behind the Mona Lisa. The walking dead. Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. All things that are inherently unrealistic, but we let them slide because they’re part of the story.

Children have an incredible ability to suspend disbelief, because they don’t know what not to believe in. To them, Cinderella and Aladdin are real. So are Optimus Prime, Sponge Bob, Barney, Barbie, Spider-Man, and Dora the Explorer. When I was little, I was absolutely convinced the stop-motion dinosaurs of Land of the Lost were real (look at them! They’re not cartoons! They’re on film! With people!!) and had many sleepless nights worried Grumpy the Tyrannosaurus would be looming outside my bedroom window the same way he was always outside that cave.

On the other hand, my dad, a former liaison with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, lost interest in Back to the Future less than a minute in. As the gears and gadgets made breakfast for Doc Brown and his dog, the television news report said plutonium had vanished from a local nuclear reactor. He looked at me and said “Do you know what it would take for someone to sneak in and get any amount of plutonium off-site from a reactor?”

Willing suspension of disbelief is like a huge block. Throughout the course of reading a story or watching a film, the audience is going to chip at that block. You, the writer, are going to give them the tools and motivation to do it. The trick is knowing what to give them and how much to encourage them.

Every story starts with that block at 100%. Picture a huge solid cube of ice, stone, or whatever visual appeals to you. Every audience goes in completely willing to believe this is a true story, a story they will believe and accept without hesitation. No matter what the topic or genre is, no one picks up a book or walks into a theater without being open and ready to commit to it.

However, each time you hand them something they can’t accept, for whatever reason, they take a chip off that block. Maybe it’s a small little sliver. Maybe it’s a gigantic slab like one of those ice shelves that keep breaking off in the Arctic Circle (but don’t worry, kids—global warming’s just a myth).

The big trick here, of course, is knowing when to stop chipping, because eventually that block will shatter and collapse in on itself. That’s the point people start laughing, shaking their heads, and posting angry rants online. You want to put in your wild coincidences, werewolves, and wacky supporting characters, but you don’t want to undermine your own work. You need to be aware of what’s going to push your story over the edge. And be aware—that edge comes before the block hits zero.

Quick pause for story time…

On a publisher’s message board I frequent, a gentleman recently posted a large rant of his own about a straight-to-DVD zombie film and the many, many problems it had. Problems like misrolled sleeves on Marines and soldiers. Military vehicles with license plates. The size of a missile silo set. Now, faithful readers (all three of you), d’you remember what the genre of this film was?

Yes, it was a zombie film. In a film about the walking dead rising up to eat the flesh of the living, this gent found someone’s cuffs so unbelievable and distracting that it ruined the film for him.

Don’t worry about pleasing this guy. Or my dad.

Well, okay. Dad loves stuff from William-Sonoma.

So, anyway, let’s get back on track and play a simple game…

Put that big block of belief up in front of you. I’m just going to rattle off some stuff at random and assign values to it based off my own experience. Consider your story and subtract as you need to.

Keep in mind, some chips are contained within larger ones. If you got a chunk knocked off for flying saucers, odds are no one’s going to take another chunk off if you introduce extraterrestrials. Once you’ve taken a sliver away for a woman who’s been pining for her high school boyfriend for twenty years, it’s not too hard to believe she can instantly remember the maiden name of the girl he took to the senior prom. And once they’ve accepted time-travel, most audience members will accept a paradox or two.


Every single wooden, forced, or “on the nose” line of dialogue is going to cost you 1% off the block, so be careful because they’ll add up fast. Characters who are supposed to be smart but do inherently stupid things—that’s a good 3%. Every stereotypical burnt-out cop, stripper with the heart of gold, clueless boss, snotty cheerleader, dumb jock, or introspective pot smoker—take 5% of the block for every one of those overused characters. Take off another 10% if they’re one of your main characters. Any unarmed, unprotected person who walks into the dark building they just heard screams come from is going to cost you 5%. Anyone pausing in mid-action to deliver more than three lines worth of dialogue—oh, that’s a good 7% off the big block.

Each woman who randomly gets undressed, changes clothes for no reason, or frets about her hair while in a burning building surrounded by vampires—that’s 10% off the block. Every man who grunts, drinks, or randomly demeans people is another 10%. Anyone who can spontaneously fight like a 20-year devotee of the martial arts will cost you 5%. If any character says “I don’t understand” or some variation thereof twice or more in a chapter or scene, that’s 10%. Also you’ll lose 5% every time a characters does something that goes directly against their established type—cops who get drunk and do drugs with underage girls, college professors who get baffled by simple problems, incredibly wise and intelligent aliens who can’t figure out a doorknob.

Anything that shows a complete failure of research or understanding of the real world adds up fast. A Protestant minister who takes confession is 5% off the block. So do rabbis eating ham sandwiches. Diesel fuel tanks that explode in a fire are 1%. Revolvers that fire seven or eight bullets will be 3 or 4% per extra shot, and people who die from being shot in the shoulder cost you a good 5% off. Every time a random stranger walks off and leaves their keys in the ignition with the engine running—that’s a solid 10%.

If your main character falls five stories without suffering any harm, that’s minus 5%. Another 7% off if computers randomly develop sentience. Call it 10% if, with no foreshadowing, aliens suddenly attack. Knock it up to 20% if, with no foreshadowing, flying space monkeys attack.

Now, ready for the hard one…?

Every misspelled or misused word is going to cost you 1%. As readers hit mistake after mistake, their faith in the writer’s ability drops. After three dozen typos, they just aren’t going to believe the writer can pull off revealing Bobby is a retired NSA agent or that Debbie was raised by wolves. It’s not fair, no, but that’s the way it is.

So, with all that in mind… how’s you do?

More importantly, how did your block do?

Even more importantly—it’s time to get back to writing.