This week’s blog title is from a future Asylum movie for SyFy.  It’s not in development or anything, as far as I know, but I’m pretty sure just by writing that online I’ve caused it to happen.  It’s the internet butterfly effect.
            And speaking of that geeky reference to a geeky reference…
            What that title really comes from is a note from a friend of mine, the editor at a sci-fi/ science site called Giant Freakin Robot (check it out—it’s fun and educational).  He was explaining what kind of movies and television shows the site covered.  To paraphrase, if the zombies have biochemical or viral origins, GFR will cover them, but not if they’re raised by voodoo spells or curses.
            Over the past few years, a lot of genres have really blended together.  In books and movies, it’s not uncommon to see strong action, drama, or even comedy threads mixing in with sci-fi, fantasy, or horror.  Nowadays it’s just as common for protagonists to fight the undead as it is to run from them, and in doing so writers and readers have created dozens of subgenres.
            Personally, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of this.  I think any story that stays too much in one vein tends to get dry pretty quick.  There’s almost always some humor in every situation, even incredibly dark ones.  It’s not uncommon for men and women to have inappropriate thoughts at really inopportune times (or to act on them).  Hey, I grew up on Doctor Who, so in my mind it makes perfect sense for religion-obsessed barbarian tribes to be descended from intergalactic survey teams or for aliens to be controlling the Loch Ness Monster.
            Now, sad but true, there aren’t a lot of firm rules on mixing these things.  Every story is different, so the way mystory blends horror and comedy is going to be different from the way yourstory blends them.  Ten of us can use the same basic plot, but we’re each going to end up with our own unique story.  My characters won’t react the same way as yours, hers will make different decisions than his.
             As such it’s hard for anyone to say which amount is right or wrong without having all the context.  To use one of my frequent cooking analogies, it’s kind of like if I asked “is this too much sugar?”  It’s an impossible question to answer without knowing what I’m cooking, what are the recipe standards, what are my preferences, and what are the preferences of the people who are going to be eating it.  My own skill level in the kitchen matters, too, on whether I should be trying a fried Alaska, death by chocolate, or maybe just a bowl of Captain Crunch.
            However… all that being said…
            I think when these mixed genre stories go bad, a lot of folks tend to look at the small issues and ignore the big ones.  Something isn’t bad because it mixed androids and artificial intelligence with Arthurian legends, or because it introduced a lot of comedy into the Cthulhu mythos.  Those are just the easiest targets, so they get the criticism first. 
            What I’ve come to realize is that most bad genre stuff tends to be bad for the same three reasons.  Granted, there’s always going to be someone who tries to write a sexy mutant cockroach story (or something worse), and there will always be people who just load up on basic mistakes like spelling or flat characters or incoherent plotting. In my experience, though, most genre stuff goes wrong in three basic ways—whether my story is one pure genre or several overlapping ones.
            The firstand often biggest mistake is when authors try to make their stories too fantastic.  If I have an idea, it gets included in the story.  No matter what it is, I’ll cram it in there.  If you’ve ever watched old slasher movies, you know most of them just devolved into creative ways to kill people, and sometimes there are excess characters for no other reason but to allow for more inventive deaths.  Most of us have probably read a sci fi novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-so-distant future.  I read a book recently that had to do with… well, everything.  No, seriously.  Government conspiracies, bio-engineering, super-soldiers, angels and demons, secret identities, zombies, aliens from Neptune, extraterrestrial dragons, thrill-killers, child abuse, sadism, torture porn, regular porn, and lost civilizations in the Amazon.  All of these things were major threads and elements in one average-length novel.  Heck, I’m tempted to say it was even on the shorter side.

            The problem with writing a story like this (book or screenplay) is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements.  The people are different.  The setting is different.  Motivations are different.  I may have created the most amazing post-apocalyptic matriarchal feudal society run by a supercomputer (and its secret android army) that’s ever been seen, but my readers need to be able to understand those characters and that society and relate to it right now while it’s on the page in front of them.

            This is closely related to the second problem—when the writer tries to explain everything.  Bad enough that I felt the need to include the secret android army, but now I’m also going to write about how they were first developed by the Mysteridroid Corporation three hundred years ago, how they see the world, and even how they recharge in various situations.  I think most people reading this have read a story or two that suddenly deviated into exposition like that.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an awful habit in his Mars books of having his characters stop and explain various aspects of Barsoomian technology (one midnight walk with the Princess famously spun into a discussion of how radium bullets are manufactured and used).  A few recent horror films have gone to great lengths to explain why their antagonist turned out the way he or she did, even though that mystery was part of the character’s strength.
            What this often leads to is stories that feel very exotic and detailed, but very little ever actually happens in them.  Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and no matter what my chosen format is, there’s only going to be so many pages.  Suddenly a third of my book is just… details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again.  This can also lead to a bit of resentment from the reader as I’m spoon-feeding them all this information.
            As it turns out, problem number three is the flipside of two.  It’s when the writer doesn’t explain anything.  I’ve gone through whole chapters of a book trying to figure out which character was KristoMystery Science Theater 3000 once had a running gag about a mystical object (or maybe it was a person…) called “the Sampo.”  We’ve all seen stories where people ride “twyrfels” and we’re left wondering what the hell a twyrfel is (an animal? a vehicle? some kind of transporter beam?).
            There’s also the folks who hide motives and actions to create a sense of mystery.    Characters will appear, make a mysterious statement or three, and then vanish from the story.  Creepy messages will be found on walls, sidewalks, or computer screens and we never learn how they got there.  Disturbing objects are found in the cellar, but never discussed again.  Ever.
            There are two general causes behind this, in my experience.  In the first case it’s when I’ve sunk so far into my fictional world and spent so much time there that I forget the reader isn’t quite so familiar with it.  I can tell you the whole history of the twyrfel as transportation, so I forget that you don’t even know what one looks like.  In the second case, they’re trying to duplicate the tone of books like House of Leaves or shows in the vein of LOST or Person of Interest, but they don’t really understand how those stories achieved that tone.  This is especially frustrating when there’s clearly no real mystery, just a bunch of withheld information.
            So, there’s three big, common mistakes in genre fiction.  Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—we could probably give an example of each failing for each genre.  We could even make a chart.
            Or we could go over a few simple ways to avoid these issues…
            For that firstproblem up above, my story needs to have something my audience can immediately relate to in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character.  Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider.  Simply put, a person with a universal need or desire. 
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice that believable characters make for believable stories, and that’s especially true here in the genres.  Seriously, pick a popular genre story and I’ll bet the main character has a very humble, relatable origin.  Dan Torrance is a nursing home orderly before he’s forced to confront the True Knot.  Katniss Everdeen is just trying to put food on the table when she’s forced to fight for her life in an arena.  John Anderson (a.k.a. Neo) was a cubicle drone who was dragged into a war between humanity and sentient machines.  Dana, Marty, Jules, and their friends were regular college students before they decided to spend their vacation at that old cabin in the woods.  Hell, even in Pacific Rim, one of the most over-the-top movies of the year, our hero Raleigh is working a construction job when we catch up to him in the present, still shaking off the death of his brother.

            If a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe what’s happening to my characters.  It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basic building blocks of it.  Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he finds a lost civilization under the bowling alley or when he finds out the crab people have been running his life since he was born.

            I think there’s two ways to deal with the second problem, too much information.  One is a concept I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If things are going to be explained, I should have an actual, in-story reason for that explanation.  Yakko may know all about the secret android army, but Dot doesn’t.  This gives him a valid reason to talk about the Mysteridroid Corporation for a page and a half.  I just need to be sure this really is an ignorant stranger situation and I’m not falling back on the dreaded “as you know…” crutch.

           The other way is, well, for me to just get rid of all that excess information.  Cut it.  I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story.  This can be tough, because genre stuff tends to involve a lot of new spins on pretty mundane things.  Special pistols, close combat weapons, energy sources, transportation, zombie origins… all that stuff I mentioned up above.

            But is it necessary to the story, or is it just there to help push things deeper into my chosen genre?  It’s cool that my hero has an energy sidearm that uses ultrasonic beams focused through a blue quartz crystal to set up a harmonic vibration in the target’s cells which causes extreme pain and eventual molecular disruption, all powered by a cold-fusion microbattery… but in the long run is this any different than just saying he has a blaster?  Or a pistol?  I may have the most inventive take on teleportation ever, but if there’s no point to teleportation technology in my story except to show off this idea… why bother?  If the plot flows along fine without it, why take up space on the page with it?
            The thirdproblem, not explaining anything, is a little tougher.  On one level, it’s just a matter of skill and practice.  I need to be a good enough writer to know how my plot’s shaping up and to empathize with my audience. 
            A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once—my main character should mirror my audience.  If my main character’s angry about something, the reader should be angry about it.  If my protagonist is puzzled, it means the audience should be puzzled. And if my hero is annoyed because he still doesn’t know what’s going on… well, that’s probably a sign I should have a reveal or two in the immediate future.
            The other way to deal with that third problem is to be sure my story actually has a real mystery, not just the sense of one.  Tying in to what I just mentioned, nothing will aggravate my readers more than to stumble through a story alongside my hero and then discover I’m not revealing a single thread of my mystery.  Or, worse yet, they might realize there isn’t a mystery at all—I was just stringing them along with some nonsense clues.  I need to know what the secret is going to be and work backwards, making sure my characters are smart enough to uncover it or honestly motivated to hide it, depending on which side of the mystery they’re on.
            Are these three the only problems that might crop up in my genre writing?  Not by a long shot.  But these are the ones I see cropping up again and again, so they’re worth looking at and considering.  And fixing.
            Next time, the last post before Christmas, I’d like to share a little holiday conversation I had with the writer-director of Iron Man 3, back when he was just the guy who did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,
            Until then, go write.
March 25, 2011

All Good Things…

I just finished reading a trilogy co-written by a legendary sci-fi author. I’m betting it was more like “casually glanced at by,” but I guess we’ll never know. The series started out amazing, but got weaker and weaker as it went on. The final chapter randomly introduced a character who’d been mentioned once or twice and never seen. To be honest, it introduced the future/ adult version of this character. It also introduced a new setting, a new terminology, and an entire war that kind of came out of nowhere.

Cymbal crash.
Confused? Yeah, so was I. That was the end of the last book. The final line was “Cymbal crash.” I think it might be a reference to Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but I’m not 100% sure on that. Needless to say, it didn’t leave me with a good feeling about the series.
Likewise, a few weeks back I saw a low-budget film loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories. It had some real structure problems and the tone was all over the place. But it had a solid ending and the final scene knocked it out of the park, so I’ve recommended it to a few people.
An ending can make or break a story. They are the dessert after a feast of words. You can have the best filet mignon in the world with an exquisite wine, but if the cheesecake is slimy and bitter… well, you’re going to be walking out with a bad taste in your mouth. 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, while some folks are content to say “well, that sucked” and leave it at that, a storyteller has to know why something doesn’t work. Bad endings don’t all 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 it can happen when people 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. Some endings almost never work, no matter what the rest of the story is.
Note that I said almost never. As I go over this list of failed endings, you’ll probably be able to name some books or films that use them very successfully. These endings are exceptionally difficult to pull off, though, and should be approached with extreme caution…

Nothing Changes—Let’s start with the basics. If the first fifteen pages and the last fifteen pages of a manuscript show characters in the same place, doing the same things, with the same people, and they’re not any wiser for the experience… Well, that wasn’t much of an experience, was it? For them and probably not for the readers. I’m not saying characters need to have some big emotional breakthrough or spiritual growth. There has to be something notably different, though, 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. 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 would be a truthful ending if a slice of life story about me had me back here at my desk.
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 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 is almost always a tacked on ending to assure the reader that the protagonist didn’t just survive this story—they benefited from it. Immensely. Yeah, you would think kicking drugs, reconnecting with the family, and getting the girl/boy would be enough for most folks to consider it a good week, but noooooooo… according to some writers they need acclaim and wealth and celebrity, too.
In my experience, 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 silly “write what you know” tip we’ve all heard for years and years. Two is a desire to add that patina of reality to the story, thus making it more valid… somehow. Three is that it’s sort of a wish-fulfillment validation. My character writes a book about how she used to be a crack whore and it becomes an acclaimed bestseller. So, logically, my story about a character writing a story about how she used to be a crack whore should also become an acclaimed bestseller.
That there’s crazy-person logic is what that is…

Everybody Dies and the Antagonist Wins—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 especially frustrating if the reader comes to realize the character never had a chance at accomplishing their goals. It’s even more frustrating if the characters made some 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…?
I know. It’s hard to believe that after centuries of storytelling this is still considered an unsatisfying ending.
Your protagonist doesn’t need to come through unscarred, mind you. Heck, you can even get away with killing your lead. But they need to win on some level.

The Left Fielder—Called such because it’s the ending that comes out of nowhere. The business-obsessed dad gives up his career to care for his senile mother, but then she falls in the pool and drowns. The wallflower finally gets her act together, aces her exams, gets the quarterback, is voted prom queen, and then gets hit by a bus on the last day of school. Or, as I once experienced, a ninety minute sketch comedy show which climaxes with a bleak monologue about racial inequality and prejudice.
No, seriously. I worked on a play like that once. The director rewrote the end and honestly couldn’t figure out why no one liked it.
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 perfectly this story 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 too real. And tragic. And artistic.
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 or pedestrian about putting the right ending on a story. As I’ve mentioned before, nobody got hit by a train at the end of Slumdog Millionaire and it was still a good film.

The Y’see Timmy—I use this phrase here a lot, and it’s a bit of an homage to the film that I got the term from. 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.” 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?
If you’ve never seen it, go watch Speechless (written by Robert King) and you’ll see Michael Keaton do a fantastic job explaining this idea to Geena Davis. It’s how I found the term. Plus it’s just a fun movie.

The Wedding—There are a few reasons weddings can make folks yawn at the end of a story. First, it’s ridiculously common. Much like the artsy Left Fielder, so many writers end 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. A wedding also draws attention to the timeline 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 means it’s just tacked-on to give the ending a bit more uumphh (as they say).

It Was All a Dream—Probably the worst offender here. 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 fresh and bold and caught people off guard. That time was 1890 when Ambrose Bierce first sold his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
In the 121 years since then, this ending’s been used once or thrice in literature and about a billion times since the creation of the sitcom. Heck, there are old Shadow radio plays that use this device. As I mentioned above with Everyone Dies, this just tells the reader they made an investment for no reason. 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—this is such a common ending it’s easy to spot the moment the dream begins.
So, there they are, a few endings that were overused years before Edgar Rice Burroughs or Ray Bradbury decided there might be something really cool up on Mars. 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 time may be a bit late because I’ve got a deadline I need to hit. But when we do get together next, we’re going to go for a little drive.
Until then, go write.
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.

More pop culture references for the old folks.

Yeah, I’m running late. Very sorry. I hit the home stretch on the first draft of Ex-Patriots and I had to give my attention to that.

Check it out, though. The blog counter passed 10,000 hits. And it did it on a week I didn’t post anything.

Anyway, I haven’t prattled on about characters in a while, so I figure I’m due…

I may have mentioned once or twice before that characters are key to a successful story. Non-stop action with flat stereotypes can be diverting in a film for a little while, but in a book (and in a good movie) characters are your bedrock. If the reader doesn’t have someone they like, someone they can relate to, a story can be dead in the water by page five.

Now, there are three common ways people try to make their characters come to life and become real on the page. I say “try” because all three are based off a simple misunderstanding of why certain aspects of characters work. Let’s go over what they are, the problems with each one, and how you can work around it.

The first method is to describe these characters in amazing detail. The writer introduces us to Phoebe and tells us her hair color, eye color, height, and weight. Then come descriptions of her hairstyle, body type, the shape of her face, and possible tattoos (visible or not). There’s a list of her measurements and shoe size. In the next sentence we get the name of her lipstick, the name of her perfume, the designer for her jewelry, the designer for her shoes, and the style of her manicure. Phoebe gets described to us in such exacting detail there’s no way we can picture her any way except how the writer envisioned her.

The second way is for the writer to give pages of background on the character. We’ll get lengthy flashbacks to Phoebe’s first day of school, her first kiss, her first sophomore English class at Prestigious University. Sometimes she’ll start talking to friends, family, or complete strangers and tell them about the last time she baked cookies with her mom, the awkwardness of losing her virginity in the back of a pick-up truck, or the day she realized she wanted to be an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Sometimes these historical revelations won’t even be a flashback or dialogue, they’ll just be straight prose from the writer.

The barista gave Phoebe her double-whipped half-mocha latte with whipped cream, just the way she liked it, just the way she had it every day. He was a handsome man, and part of her wanted to ask him out. He wore plaid flannel shirts a lot, though. It was a silly thing, she knew, but plaid flannel always made her mind go back to her grandfather’s heart attack. He’d always worn plaid, too, and he’d been wearing it the day she and mom were visiting and he grabbed at his chest and made that awful noise. Young Phoebe had been so determined not to look at his pain-stricken face she’d just stared at the plaid shirt. So for now the barista would just have to stay behind the counter.

The third way, thankfully, is the least common, but it happens enough I feel the need to mention it. Real people have irrational quirks, sometimes do nonsensical things, and often go against their own best interests. Sometimes we even up and die in awful, unexpected ways (statistics say most people do at least once in their life). It’s the way we’re all wired. We’ve all seen people do things like this. We’ve all done things like this.

The logic here is if the writer has the characters act illogically, they’re acting more real. If Phoebe is a bundle of odd behaviors, then she has to be believable. It’s almost a challenge to the reader. Since real people do this, how can anyone say Phoebe isn’t real if she’s doing it? Heck, if Phoebe randomly gets hit by a car in the last few pages, that’s so much like life it almost counts as art, doesn’t it…?

Now, here’s why these three methods usually don’t work. I won’t say they never work, but if you’re the gambling type you should consider the odds here.

The problem with using tons of details to describe your character is it breaks the flow of your story. Events come to a screeching halt while the writer has this infodump. If you look back up there, I bet you started skimming just while reading that list of potential descriptions, didn’t you? If a list of general examples can’t hold your attention, what’s going to happen when it’s a list of specifics two or three times long?

The other catch to this is that a lot of the time readers form their own mental images of what a character looks like. For example, if you look over the past few paragraphs you’ll see I haven’t actually described Phoebe at all, but you’ve probably got some mental image of her when I use the name, don’t you? If you know what this character looks like with no description, then two pages of description is just pointless excess.

In a similar vein, a writer can add in a hundred pages of biographical facts and anecdotes and it’s still not going to make a character seem real. More likely, the story’s going to suffer from the same expositional infodump I mentioned above, and it’s going to come to a crashing halt again. The problem is relevance. While there’s no question these past events shaped Phoebe’s life and the person she is today, the reader’s going to wonder what do they have to do with this story. No matter how good a particular element is, if it doesn’t relate to the story the writer’s telling it’s just bulk filler.

The other problem here is no matter how much raw data you pour out on the page, there’s always more which isn’t out there. There are shaping events we forgot or didn’t want to mention. There are people we probably never realized how influential they were to our lives.

Consider Angelina Jolie or Barack Obama. Here are two people who’ve had their entire lives put under a microscope and studied by the whole world. And the whole world’s continuing to study them today. Thing is, though, there’s still tons of stuff we don’t know about both of them. Common sense tells you that. I’m not talking about that birth certificate nonsense or any of that. I mean simple things. No matter how much you know about someone–about anyone–there’s always more you don’t know.

(Yes, I needed a picture of something to break up the wall of text, so we’ve got Tomb Raider. There it is.)

The problem with the third method, randomness, is that fiction is held to a higher standard than real life. Nonsensical, illogical, unbelievable things happen in real life all the time, but life isn’t scripted. When I pick up a book, I know John or Jane Doe is the writer behind it. There is no randomness, because every word on the page was deliberately chosen. And that means any apparent randomness has to be serving the purposes of the story. Because if it’s not, well… why is it there?

So, with all that being said, is there any way to make these three methods work?

If not, this hasn’t been terribly informative, has it? Hardly worth the two-week wait. I should probably come up with something…

Okay, the big trick to all of these, as I mentioned above, is relevance. Like adjectives or adverbs, if character elements aren’t serving a purpose they shouldn’t be there. Strip away all the noise and clutter and just give the reader what they need.

For example…

Let me tell you an ugly secret. Phoebe lives in a fleabag apartment infested with rats and roaches, always buys her bread from the day-old rack, and eats peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day of the week. She always has immaculate hair and designer clothes, though, especially on the weekends. I’ve just told you something about her, haven’t I? More than just the words on the page, too. You’ve got a sense of who Phoebe is and where her priorities are. Maybe even a mental image of her. All in just a hair over three lines.

See, I don’t need a lot of details, just the right details. Did I need to tell you about Phoebe’s anklet or her lipstick or how tall she is for that little character sketch to work? I just need to pick the right details to create the image and imply the person I wanted you to see.

Here’s another example for you. When I was just a ten year old kid I used to walk a mile-long paper route in the snow seven days a week, usually four or five months out of the year. No, seriously, I did. I grew up in Maine– of course it snowed a good chunk of the time.

What does this have to do with what I’m getting at?


However, once a week I would also walk almost three miles down into York Beach to Garfield’s Newsstand. Wednesday was the day new comics came in, so from about age eight on I would trudge down there– rain, sleet or snow– and work through the wire racks looking for new issues of Spider-Man, ROM, Star Wars, Hulk, and more. If it was really cold and I needed more time to warm up, I’d go through the tiny section of genre paperbacks in the back of the store. That’s how I first came to know John Carter of Mars and the old Han Solo novels. And it wasn’t too long before I was copying all of these tales on one level or another.

Y’see, Timmy, the backstory of me delivering newspapers is crap. I’m also not going to waste time retelling the story of my dog Flip and my dislike of ketchup. None of them have anything to do with anything here.

The second story, though, shows some of those first seeds of me becoming a writer. It’s relevant to me as the person behind the ranty blog, so it’s especially worth mentioning in this little rant. If you’re going to add in stories about a character’s past, they should somehow relate to what’s going on in the “now” of your story. Or your blog post.

The randomness issue is the easiest one to deal with. It’s okay for seemingly random things to happen in a story–key word seemingly. At the end of the day, the writer is in charge and the events in this story are happening for a reason which benefits this story. I can tell you, from a narrative point of view, why Duke Perkins dies at the beginning of Under the Dome, why the unnamed comedian’s wife dies in The Killing Joke, and why Ben Kenobi dies in Star Wars. All of these are seemingly random events… but they’re not random, are they? Each one drives the plot and character development in a certain way and in a specific direction. That’s the kind of “randomness” which should be in a story– the kind that serves the writer’s purpose.

So make your characters. But really make them real.

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving. Wow, this year has flown by. I think I may put a name to something I’m thankful for.

Until then, go write.