Sound of Music reference for the WIN!!!!  
            Okay, maybe not
            So I’ve been thinking about what would make a good first topic for the start of the year.  Which made me think of a topic that comes up a lot at the Coffeehouse or at different con discussions.  And that topic is “how should I start my book?”
            Now, right up front, here’s the catch.
            I can’t tell you.
            I mean, it’s not like it’s a secret and I want to make you beg or pay for it.  I can’t tell you because I don’t know.  Nobody knows how your book needs to begin except you.  It’s because every writer is different and every story is different.  We each have our own styles and preferences, and each story has its own needs and narratives.

            Heck, even if we’re telling the same story it’s going to be different.  If I told you to write a modern take on Frankenstein (the monster, not the scientist) you’d be telling a different story than me and we’d both be telling a different story than her and a much different story than him.  I mean… seriously, what the heck is that guy doing?  That’s a seriously weird take on Frankenstein.

            But the point is, even though we’d all be telling more or less the same story, we’d also be telling very different stories.  I might decide to start with the lightning storm, the night the monster awakens, but your version might start with Victor in medical school and shemight decide to begin with the event that inspires Victor to create the monster.  All of these are completely valid ways to begin a narrative about Frankenstein.
            And this is why nobody else can tell me how to begin my story.  There are so many elements to consider, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to know but me.  You and I could talk for an hour about your story, and I might get a vague sense of where it should start.  But that vague estimate is still based off a very limited amount of information, and it only applies to that one specific story.
            So… yeah.  I can’t tell you where to start.  Sorry.
            (you didn’t think I’d leave you hanging like that, did you?)
            I can offer you a few general ideas of what you should and shouldn’t use as starting points.  Not things specific to a story, but things specific to storytelling.  As a wise man once said, the code’s more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.
            I’ve talked about a lot of these things before, so be prepared for links.
            So, when I consider how to start my story…
            DO start with action.  I’ve talked about this one before, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  “Starting with action” often gets misunderstood as “my manuscript needs to begin with a ninja stopping a hostage situation on a high-speed train with his explosive throwing stars.”  This is, of course, a really weird way to begin a romantic fantasy novel, but people try to do it anyway.
            All starting with action means is that I need something to happen.  Being fired from my job (or written up, or promoted) is action.  Getting beaten up (or asked out) by the quarterback in high school is something happening.  Buying groceries is something happening.
            And, yes, so is having a ninja stop a hostage situation with explosive throwing stars.

            DON’T start with someone writing their novel or screenplay.  Seriously, don’t.  Yes, technically, it’s someone doing something, but it’s a minimal, inactive something that involves one character sitting alone at a desk.  Plus, it’s an opening every editor, agent, and producer has seen at least a thousand times.  Seriously.  One thousand times, minimum.  I don’t want to begin with something everyone’s already bored of seeing.

            DO start with something relevant.  Relevant to this story.  Relevant by at least a third of the way into the story.  An opening scene that makes no sense until the end of my book is an opening scene that makes no sense (and we’re going to forget).  Which means we don’t need it.
            My opening pages should hook the reader right into my story.  They should pay off soon, and that payoff should draw them in even further.  The goal is always to draw them in, not to push them away or hold them at arm’s length.  If I’m trying to distance the reader in the first chapter… that’s not going to work out well.
            DON’T start by killing everyone.  Nine times out of ten, if every character from chapter one is dead by the end of chapter two, it means chapter three is where my story really starts.  No matter how cool chapter one and two were.
            A lot of folks stumble into this trap.  They “start with action” (see above) by having a bunch of nameless, unimportant people get killed by some threat, and then they introduce their actual charactersand get on with the story.  Which tells right me there that those opening bits are just more wasted pages.

            DO be aware that the story started long before page one.  There were events in my protagonist’s (and antagonist’s) life that made them the person they are now.  They already have relationships and jobs and histories. We all instinctively understand and acknowledge this (Clive Barker wrote a beautiful introduction about this idea in his book Weaveworld).
            Right from the start, I need to keep in mind that my characters are in this world.  They’ve been there for a while.  It doesn’t surprise them or catch them off guard.  Neither does the existence of their siblings, lovers, employers, or their own body parts.  If my opening is my protagonist expositing about her apartment, her girlfriend, her own body, or the dual nature of this amazing futuristic world she lives in, my readers are going to be rolling their eyes.
            And that’s a few things to keep in mind when deciding how to start my story.  Again, these are just guidelines, but… y’know, guidelines exist for a reason.  I should think long and hard before ignoring them and declaring that my story’s the exception they don’t apply to. 
            Because odds are… it’s not.
            Oh, in other news for SoCal folks, this Sunday is both the Writers Coffeehouse (at Dark Delicacies in Burbank) and the dystopian book club We’re All Gonna Die (at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles).  Please stop by and hang out.  Although for the book club, you may want to pick up the book first…
            Next time, I’d like to talk about something really powerful.
            Until then, go write.
January 23, 2014 / 5 Comments

Noxious Phrasing

            As you probably noticed, there was no ranty blog last week.  All the publicity stuff for Ex-Purgatory ate up a ton of my time.  And this week is fallout from that plus a bunch of dental issues I won’t bore (or horrify) you with.
            Thankfully, Thom offered to dive in and make some helpful tips for editors, and for writers who might be suffering from poor editor-ship.

            And maybe next week I’ll be back on the ball and we can talk about Robocop or something…


            I’m still not Peter Clines, and even though it is something of a crippling disability, I will strive to fulfill your sense of… of… I don’t know, whatever it is you’re looking for when you stop by this here blog. My name, if you’re the type what needs one, is Thom Brannan. (O hai, Thom.) I’ve appeared in this blog a couple of times, filling space when Pete was super-busy with his writerly duties. If you’re reading this, this is one of those times.

            Usually, Pete tries to talk about the craft of writing, and the many, many pitfalls he’s seen as both a casual reader and as a judge for some hifalutin’ screenwriting business. One of the things he’s asked for is a continuance of this tradition, but this blog will be a little different. If you’re reading this, Pete wasn’t only busy, but has allowed it.
            I’m talking to the readers today. Not your everyday, run of the mill readers, but participants in writer’s circles and beta readers instead. If you take time out of your busy, busy schedule to read for content and to provide meaningful critiques, I’m talking to you. If you’re receiving these critiques, I might be talking to you, too.
            During the course of these readings and critting, there are some phrases which make the rounds I wish to all that everybody, everywhere holds holy I could remove. They’re next to useless, and sometimes, downright insulting. If you use these phrases, but not in the way I’m about to mention, relax. Down, Simba. I’m not talking to you.
            You may have to forgive me if I become… animated during the writing of this blog. These things tend to get my hackles up.
Show, Don’t Tell

            If this is the limit of your advice for any bit of a critique, you’re doing it wrong. Please, readers, if you feel the urge to spout this piece of… advice, attach an example of what you mean. Or at the very least, be specific about what it is you wish to see and not be told.

            For instance, if the writer has written “John felt nervous,” and your reply is SDT, throw your writer friend (or circle-mate) a bone and give some examples. Don’t you think if the author in question had thought of a way to show it, he or she would have?
            It’s so bad that in my capacity as editor, I find myself cringing when I come to an instance where I want the author to show something. Somehow I power through, but always, always leave an example.
This Would Work If You Were Author X
            Yes. This one kind of sets my blood aflame. That was in an early critique I’d gotten; I disremember the reason. It might have been opening with a dream sequence. But the least helpful thing I read that day was, “This would work if you were Harlan Ellison, but you’re not.” You know what, you silly bitch? Before Harlan Ellison was Harlan Ellison, he wasn’t. The same holds true for Stephen King, for Clive Barker, for Cormac McCarthy, for goddamn anybody else. We all start small.
            I guarantee you, the guy up the street who has a woodworking shop wasn’t… uh, insert famous carpenter who isn’t Jesus here… the first time he picked up a hammer and saw. He was clumsy with his tools, and maybe if you look close, you’ll see he’s missing part of one of his fingers where he learned a bloody lesson. But now he has his own place, doing what he loves for a living, and fashioning memories for other people using those same tools he was clumsy with on day one.
That’s Cliché/ Been Done Before
            You don’t say. Man has only been telling stories for thousands of years. I would never have thought the same thing might pop up in more than one story.
            Clichés exist for a reason. They work. The work involves taking a pile of clichés and using them in a way that turns them on their heads, if need be, or exactly as they were intended. What? Yes. Sometimes it is a dark and goddamn stormy night. Don’t tell me that doesn’t happen, I’ve lived in Seattle. There most definitely is a calm before the storm. People don’t realize they’re holding their breath until whatever they’re holding it for is over. This really happens. And while some of these things are over-represented in fiction, that’s no reason to shun them.
            The same holds for monsters. As I’ve said before, not every instance of a monster needs to be a stunning new breakthrough in horror technology. Dracula hasn’t lost a scary step in 116 years; the vampire was done right the first time. (Yes, I know Dracula wasn’t the first. If you have to keep telling people this, maybe it’s because he was the first done really well.) The same holds for zombies and werewolves and man-made creatures of doooooom.
            For my money, the last worthwhile advance in horror technology came with “The Call of Cthulhu” and the idea of an uncaring, inhuman universe where we’re not the apex predator.
            But I digress. Things have been done before. If that’s your beef, maybe suggest ways the author could keep his or her cliché but use it in a better way.
When Will This Pay Off?
            Not everything mentioned in a novel will be essential to the plot, or to the overall story, or to character development. While it’s true that a lot of the bestest books and movies tie everything together in a neat little bow, some of them do not.
            Look at The Blues Brothers. Everybody loves that movie. Don’t they? Well. I do, and that’s enough for me. Where was I?
            Right. Take The Blue Brothers, if you will. That movie is just full of so much win, and there are parts in the beginning that link to parts at the end, and little bits in-between that talk to you when you see them reappear. “They broke my watch,” I laugh and laugh every time I hear that.
            But there are unrelated things. “Did you get my Cheeze-Wiz, boy?” What the hell is that? Is it important? Does it shed some light on Elwood’s character that, yes, he did in fact bring the Cheez-Whiz? No. No, it doesn’t. “Orange whip?  Orange whip?  Three orange whips?”  Does it matter what he ordered? No, it only mattered that the VP of the company asked to be included, and John Candy is a funny, funny man.  “Fix the cigarette lighter.”  Did that ever come back to haunt them? Hells, no, it didn’t. “Breaks my heart to see a boy that young goin’ bad.” Did that kid come back and help out? Or hurt the cause? Or was he even in the sequel? It’s in this paragraph for a reason.
In Conclusion
            No, that’s not one of the phrases, that’s just me, trying to figure out how to bring this to a clean-ish close. There are plenty more noxious phrases, but Pete doesn’t like these to be too long. Hey, if there’s reason, and he says yes, I’ll do another one. But for now, let me leave you with this.
            Beat readers and critiquers, you fulfill a vital part of the writing process. All the acknowledgements you read include people just like you, and authors rely on you to be straight with them, and to do what you can to help. From my own experience, the few works I do have out in the world would have been poorer indeed without the input of my beta team and the Permuted Pit and Pendulum critique groups.
            So, yes, you’re needed. Try not to be dicks about it.
February 25, 2011 / 3 Comments

Previously on SPLICED

If you don’t get this week’s title, don’t worry. No one does. One of those lost gems of animation.

Anyway, last week was all about linear structure, so this week I wanted to explain narrative structure. Linear structure is all about the characters, but narrative structure is about the audience, be they readers or listeners or movie-goers.

By the way…

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Try to remember that. It’s going to be important.

I mentioned last week that a story always needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, they don’t always need to come in that order. Ex-Heroes and the upcoming Ex-Patriots each have almost a dozen major flashbacks to a period before the beginning of each respective novel. A Princess of Mars begins with the frame story of Edgar Rice Burroughs inheriting a manuscript from his recently-deceased uncle, John Carter, and the film Inception starts with the frame of a battered and ragged Cobb washing up on the shore of an old man’s private island. Clive Barker’s Sacrament dives into an extended flashback that dominates the middle of the book, as does the classic film Casablanca. Everyone remembers Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction for its wonderful non-linear story and he also loaded the Kill Bill movies with flashbacks. Heck, the film Memento actually runs its story backwards.

By the way, don’t get confused by my talk of linear structure and non-linear stories. You can still get french fries even though you’re not in France, and you still need linear structure even though you’re telling a non-linear story.

Now, there are some important things to remember with narrative structure.

First off, if narrative structure and linear structure aren’t going to match up in a story, there should be a real reason why the story’s being told that way. Is there no way this information could come out except in a flashback? Is there a purpose to cutting back and forth between past, present, and future? Is this structure advancing the story or bogging it down with unnecessary segues?

There was a passable Denzel Washington movie a while back called Fallen. In all fairness, it was a great movie that got dragged down because the lead actor kept doing a Denzel Washington impression through the whole thing. I’m about to spoil the ending, so if you haven’t seen it and have any interest… skip down a paragraph or two.

Fallen begins with Denzel in his death throes. He’s thrashing around in the snow and clawing the air. His voice over tells us (paraphrasing a bit)…

“Lemme tell you about the time I almost died. Actually let me start a little before that…”

At which point the film leaps back in time about a week to Detective Denzel attending the execution of a serial killer. A serial killer who, it turns out, is actually possessed by a demon. And by the end of the film, said demon has possessed Denzel. The frame sets up the audience for a twist— it hasn’t been the detective narrating, and it wasn’t him dying. It’s the demon, trapped by the detective’s final act. Without the frame, there’s no twist.

In my book, Ex-Heroes, every third or fourth chapter is a flashback. This serves two purposes. One, since it’s already a shift in the narrative, it also let me shift the viewpoint to first person. It also lets me tell another aspect of the story. While the main plot of Ex-Heroes is about living in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, it’s also important to know how this all came about. So shifting into the past let me develop a few key characters and it let me see some important events through their eyes.

A bit more on that next week.

The narrative also has to be readable. That sounds kind of common-sense, I know, but one problem that crops up a lot is writers taking that non-linear inch and running a few miles with it. Since I can go a bit non-linear, I can push the envelope and go a little more, and then a little more, and then…

Remember that sentence up above I told you to remember? Do you know what it means? Well, it’s not a sentence, it’s just the alphabet out of order. But it kind of looks like a sentence, and I’m willing to bet a few of you spent a moment trying to decode it (is it backwards writing? Serbian? Roman numerals?) without much luck.

Y’see, Timmy, there comes a point when a writer has broken up the narrative with so many flashbacks, recollections, and frames-within-frames that they’ve just got gibberish. Oh, sure, if you spent twenty minutes or so studying that first example you would’ve all eventually figured out it was 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.

But no one wants to read a story like that. I don’t think any of you read this ongoing series 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 to work out over the next week or so. So while it’s okay to mix a story up a bit, at the end of the day your audience 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.

I got to interview Bruce Joel Rubin, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, a while back. During our talk, he 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 a 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.

And really, this is what I’m going to talk about next week. Linear and narrative structure need to work together, not fight each other.

So, until then, go write something.

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.