November 9, 2017 / 6 Comments

The Bully Balance

            Hey, everyone.  Hope you’re all doing well after the brutal temporal shift out of Daylight Saving time.  It can be pretty rough.
            Speaking of being rough… I wanted to babble on for a couple moments about some rough types we’ve all probably run into at one point or another. And maybe even written about.
            Lots of people—including fictional people—have dealt with bullies.  They are, unfortunately, a constant across all ages, cultures, genders, sexualities, and industries.  There’s a wonderful line in Paranorman–“If you were bigger and more stupid, you’d probably be a bully too.”
            Bullies are kind of common in fiction for two reasons.  The first, the easy one, is because it’s a type of person we can all relate to.  We’ve all had to deal with  that jerk at school, at work, online, or somewhere in our lives.  And every now and then, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not, maybe we’ve even been that person.  It’s an archetype we all know.
            The second reason is that bullies make a great low level antagonist for my protagonist to deal with.  They can drive a subplot or even just be a warm-up for the main plot.  While investigating drug smugglers or human traffickers, it’s not unusual for Jack Reacher to run into an obnoxiously stubborn town sheriff who likes to throw his weight around.  Countless villains have their lieutenants or top henchmen.  Steve Rogers had an actual bully that followed him from civilian life to boot camp… where said bully got punched out by Agent Carter.
            And that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about.  We all kind of giggle and maybe even cheer a bit when Peggy decks Hodge.  It’s a nice moment, because Hodge is an ass and flat out misogynist. 
            But what if it had gone a little differently…?
            What if Peggy decked him, and then kicked him a few more times in the ribs while he was on the ground?  Then maybe stomped on his hand to break some fingers.  Hell, maybe she stomps on his head.  Kicks him in the teeth.  Breaks his nose or maybe the orbit around his eye.
            This just became a very different scene, didn’t it?  Hodge isn’t getting his just deserts, he’s suddenly become the victim in this scenario. He punched Steve in an alley, made some crass and sexist remarks… and so Carter mauls him, possibly leaving him crippled?  Heck, does she even know he punched Steve at this point? She just put this guy in the hospital for being obnoxious to her.
            What if she’d shot him? One round to the head, right between the eyes. He smirks and then he’s dead, his brains sprayed out behind him. Or maybe she goes big—grabs a riflefrom a nearby soldier and shreds Hodge’s chest with a dozen bullets. That’s an ugly way to go, isn’t it?  Broken ribs, punctured organs, equal chance of bleeding out or drowning as your lungs fill up with your own blood…
            We can all agree this is kind of an extreme response. Hodge is an asshat, absolutely, but he doesn’t deserve this level of punishment.  Hell, if anything, we feel a twinge or two of sympathy for him.
            I’ve talked about this effect a few times before.  Something extreme happening to a character can help shape how we feel about them.  If it’s extreme enough, it might even override how we felt about them before.
            For example (flipping things again), what if Hodge was an utterly reprehensible person?  Physically and emotionally abusive to men, women, children, and animals.  Now what’s supposed to be horrible can suddenly becomes great because it’s happening to such a completely sadistic person.
            Seriously, think about it?  How often have you watched a scene of nightmarish violence in a movie and cheered—out loud or internally—because of who it’s happening to?  This isn’t horror, it’s justice.  This person deserves what’s happening to them, and we’re glad we get to read about it (or watch it).
            I’ve talked about this before, too, in regards to killing people, because this is a really common mistake I see in low-end B-movies.  As audience members (or readers), we don’t care when unlikable people die.  In fact, if someone’s aggressivelyunlikable (sexist, misogynist, racist, alcoholic, hypocritical, deliberately ignorant)…  we may even be kinda happy when they get killed off.  No amount of patting the dog will change our view on this.  And suddenly this death means something very different.  It’s not building tension in the story—it’s releasing it.
            There’s a careful balance that needs to be struck in these situations.  My bully needs to have enough unsavory traits and moments to make them a good antagonist. But if they have too many, it’ll affect how that bad scene gets received by my readers.  Likewise, if the bully isn’t that bad and catches the bad end of some truly horrific things, it’s going to make my readers empathize with them,
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be aware of what I’m trying to accomplish with moments like this.  It can’t just be violence and/or death—there needs to be a greater purpose to it in my story.  When Carter lashes out at Hodge, do I want the audience to be rooting for Hodge or for Carter?  When Freddy Kruger murders another child, am I going for scares or for laughs?  When Jason Bourne tortures someone for information, should I be cringing or cheering?
            Because what I’m trying to achieve is going to depend on more than just that one moment.
            There’s a bully in my new book, Paradox Bound. His name’s Zeke.  He starts off as a childhood bully, ends up being an adult bully—a bad cop who abuses his position.  Alas, it happens sometimes.  We’ve all seen it, or at least heard of it.  Zeke does a lot of bad things and… well… no spoilers in case you haven’t read it, but bad things end up happening to him.
            This was a really tricky balance to achieve, though.  Y’see, in an earlier draft, we actually see Zeke violently beat a woman.  And my editor’s assistant pointed out this made it really hard for us to have any sympathy for Zeke.  And because of this, when the bad things happened to him, what I’d hoped would be a very creepy, cringe-worthy moment actually became… well, more of a “serves him right” moment.
            But Zeke needed to be a serious bully in order for other aspects of the story to work.  More than just an annoyance, we needed to believe Zeke could potentially be—on some level—an actual threat.  So there was a lot of back and forth as I tried (with some help from my editor and his assistant) to find a point where Zeke would be unlikable and dangerous… while still not coming across as so unlikable that we’d automatically cheer when something awful happened to him.
            And we found that balance.
            Find your own balance point. Make sure that when that character gets punched or tortured or killed, I’m feeling exactly what you want me to feel.
            And not… something else
            Next time…
            Y’know, nobody’s left a comment here in a while. What should I talk about next time?  Somebody offer a suggestion, just so I know I’m not ranting into the void.
            Until then… go write.
July 17, 2009 / 4 Comments

The Challenge Round

Sorry for the slight delay. Stupid work with their stupid assignments that let me pay my stupid rent…


Speaking of things getting in the way, a common writing term is the obstacle. It’s what stands between your characters and whatever it is they want. While opinions vary on the topic, in my opinion an obstacle is slightly different from a conflict because obstacles tend to be exterior, while it’s very possible for conflicts to be interior. I prefer to use the term challenge, personally. I’ve found that thinking about “obstacles” tends to guide the mind solely onto physical impediments, like parts of an obstacle course. While this isn’t technically wrong, it does tend to result in a lot of the same things.

There are tons of different things people can want, for a number of different reasons. They can want that foreign prisoner back in America. You can want to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. To get that alien implant out of their skull. Or to tell Phoebe O’Brien from sixth-period English you think she’s the most beautiful person you’ve ever known. These are all solid goals.

Likewise, there are even more things that can be between these characters and their goals.

A few tips on challenges…

A challenge must exist

Yeah, this sounds like a basic one, I know, but it’s surprising how often I see stuff where characters just stroll through a story with minimal effort. Looking for a clue to that mystery? There’s one over there. Need a boyfriend or girlfriend? Not any more. Villain waaayyyyy outclasses you? Good thing they told you about their Achilles heel and then left it open and exposed. This sort of thing shows up in fiction and scripts far, far more than you’d like to believe.

There needs to be some sort of challenge between your characters and their goals. If there isn’t, they would’ve accomplished these goals already. If I want a soda, I go and get one from the fridge– that’s it. Hardly the stuff great stories are made from, because there’s no challenge. If I want to drink my soda from a Faberge egg while Phoebe massages my feet… that’ll require a bit more effort on my part.

A challenge needs a reason to be confronted

If your characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it. A real reason. Nobody sneaks or fights their way onto an enemy base just for the heck of it. They’re not here because there wasn’t anything else to do on Thursday night, but because millions of lives depend on the information this prisoner has and the enemy is torturing it out of him. You don’t tell Phoebe she’s beautiful for the heck of it, you tell her because you’ve wanted to for months and never worked up the nerve and now your parents are moving and you’ve only got two weeks of school left to let her know how you feel.

A big trick here is to make sure this reason is really there. It may be obvious in your head why the characters are going to undertake this challenge, but is it that clear on paper? This also holds for less physical things like Phoebe-confrontation, where the audience needs to understand why talking to her is such a big deal for this character.

A challenge has to be daunting

That base has over a hundred armed guards, attack dogs, barbed wire, starlight-scope cameras, and a minefield along the north perimeter. And if you think that sounds rough, Phoebe always has two or three friends with her, which means you’ll have to figure out a way to get her away from them, but they’re still going to know what you’re talking to her about. Characters should never want to deal with a challenge, because let’s be honest– we’d all love it if more things were just handed to us. That enemy agent. The alien brain implant. Phoebe’s heart (emotionally speaking).

Much as a challenge needs to exist, it needs to be something that gives the character (and the audience) pause, or else it isn’t really a challenge. Even John Carter, greatest swordsman on two worlds, would occasionally look at the odds he was facing and say “Oh…crap.”

Well, he was always a bit more eloquent than that, but you get the point.

A challenge cannot be impossible

If you’ve ever watched a boxing match, or any sporting event, you’ve probably noticed they’re evenly matched. NFL teams don’t take on pee-wee football teams. Rarely do you see someone like Vin Diesel beating on a person with a Woody Allen-esque physique. Well, not outside of high school, anyway…

The most boring stories tend to be the ones where the protagonists have no chance whatsoever of meeting the challenge. If you’ve ever watched a horror movie where the killer is merciless, unstoppable, and inescapable… well, that gets pretty dull after the second or third kill, doesn’t it? One of the reasons Jason Voorhees was always terrifying is that he never ran, he just sort of… marched (well, in the original films, anyway). You always had this sense that someone should be able to get away from Jason. Maybe if they could go a little faster…

The other risk to be wary here is if the challenge is completely impossible and your protagonist pulls it off anyway, it can look unbelievable and knock your audience out of the story.

A challenge needs a reason to exist

A combination of the first two points. If you’ve ever seen Galaxy Quest, you probably remember the mashing hallway which–as Sigourney Weaver loudly points out– serves no purpose whatsoever. We can probably all think of a book or movie where, for no reason at all, an obstacle just popped out of nowhere. Or perhaps it was there all along, but you couldn’t figure out why if your life depended on it. That’s false drama, and it just weakens writing.

Challenges have a purpose. They’re characters in their own right, or maybe obstacles other characters have (for one reason or another) set in your protagonist’s way. One of Phoebe’s friends can’t be a queen bitch just because the writer needs a bitchy character to thwart our love struck hero. Why would Phoebe hang around with someone like that? Think about why they’re doing this, and if you don’t have a real reason, stop for a couple minutes and re-think this particular challenge.

A challenge should be unexpected

This one’s not ironclad, but I’d still lean heavily towards it. If your characters are prepared, well-equipped, well-rested, and waiting for conflict, it’s not quite the same as when its sprung on them and they have to make do. It’s really cool to see the guys deal with sneaking onto the base, but it’s even cooler when they get there and what the #&$%!! Are those motion sensors? Why didn’t we know about those? Okay, everyone stay calm, here’s what we’re going to do…

A small bonus of the unexpected challenge is that it often gives your characters a chance to look clever. When they beat the unexpected challenge (even by the skin of their teeth) it makes them all the more likeable.

A challenge needs a resolution

If we see the set up, we have to see it resolved somehow. As Chekhov once said, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it fire in act three. The squad needs to make it onto that base or die trying or at least they have to decide they can’t make it and that prisoner isn’t worth it. Once we, as writers, present a challenge to the audience it can’t be forgotten or ignored. We can’t spend the first quarter of our story pining for Phoebe and then never, ever address those feelings again.

Next week might be a bit tight again, as I’m heading into deadlines. But if all goes well, I’ll be here on time on Thursday. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather be working on this than some of the assignment I have.

Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk about next week. Not getting me wrong.

Until then, get some writing of your own done.

May 15, 2009 / 2 Comments

Geek Stuff

Okay, time for a personal confession.

I am a geek. Long time nerd. I was one of those sci-fi/ fantasy/ comic-book weirdoes long before most of you reading this were born. An outcast all through grade school and high school with only a few equally geeky friends.

I saw Star Wars in the movie theater when it was just Star Wars. None of this tacked-on- “Well, I always planned a trilogy of trilogies”- A New Hope nonsense. I remember when the Doctor turned into a tall guy with curly hair and a scarf, back at a time when you knew Daleks were supposed to be scary but couldn’t quite figure out why. I devoured the tales of Hawk the Slayer, Rom the Spaceknight, and John Carter, the Warlord of Mars. I remember the X-Men when they weren’t cool and Wolverine dressed in bright yellow spandex. Heck, when I learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons it was just two magazine-sized paperbacks with red and blue covers. It was a proud, thrilling moment for me when I first found out I was going to work on a Beastmaster movie (the shame came later).

Alas, sci-fi and fantasy get a bum rap from most folks, and those two genre tags are often seen as a kiss of death by agents, publishers, and studios. Heck, producer Ron Moore went out of his way to keep people from calling Battlestar Galactica sci-fi, despite that glaring network label. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was almost never shelved in the sci-fi/ fantasy section. Same with his Eaters of the Dead and all those Harry Potter books.

What years of digesting this stuff have shown me, though, is a lot of bad genre stuff tends to be bad for all the same reasons. Oh, there are some films and books that have found bold and daring ways to be awful no one could’ve possibly thought of (for examples of this, I recommend the novel Einstein’s Bridge and/or the film Women of the Prehistoric Planet), and there are a lot of the same basic problems you’ll see in any story or script, but overall the lethal genre flaws tend to fall into three categories.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in a lot of genre stuff is writers who are trying to make it too amazing. They cram in everything they can think of, every idea they have. It’s a bit like when that one overeager kid got to be the Dungeon Master for the first time and created that dungeon with fifteen platinum dragons and twenty giant purple worms and thirty minotaurs armed with +5 flaming swords and every door had a poison needle trap and… and… and…

I read one sci-fi screenplay a while back that dealt with a character awoken from cryogenic suspension thousands of years in the future, superhuman bio-technology that let people live at an accelerated rate, the different physics reactions this accelerated rate caused, gladiatorial games, social clans, an arms race, interplanetary civil wars, and an ethical debate over cloning. These weren’t just touched on, mind you, but all were essential, key elements in a 100-odd page script.

The problem with writing screenplays or stories like this is your audience has nothing left to latch onto as they’re overwhelmed with everything that’s different. The location is different. The rules are different. The people are different. Motivations are different. The writer may have created the most unique 37th Century world ever, but the audience needs to be able to understand to it now.

This leads us right into problem two—when the writer tries to explain all of it. I think most people reading this have seen a story or script that suddenly deviates into exposition. Characters will suddenly spout out a page or three on what the fabled Amulet of Sativa can do once it’s soaked in the blood of an innocent or how space travel works. Worse yet, sometimes this explanation will just pour out between the dialogue as the writer talks directly to his or her audience.

What this leads to is stories that are phenomenally detailed and exotic, but nothing ever actually happens in them. Five pages explaining why the Cawdor hive-gang has hated the Escher hive-gang for the past twenty years is really just five pages of characters sitting around twiddling their thumbs.

And this leads us to big problem number three—when the writer doesn’t explain any of it. Strangers make ominous proclamations. Disturbing photos arrive in the mail. Eerie carvings of strange, vaguely-familiar symbols are found on the wall. And people don’t address or flat-out ignore all these odd things.

A lot of the time, in my experience, this is a desperate attempt to create an aura of mystery and amazement around the characters or events when there really isn’t anything mysterious or amazing there. The writer just watched a lot of episodes of LOST or Fringe or maybe just the Matrix one too many times.

So, how can you beat these problems? How can you prove to editors, agents, and readers that your genre work is true literature and not at all like the feeble attempts of these other fanboy hacks who’ve been encouraged by their geek friends?

(Apologies to all my geek friends—I wasn’t talking about you.)

For that first problem, have a touchstone. Make sure your story has a main character your audience can immediately relate to. A protagonist who hates their job. Somebody lusting after someone they can’t have. Someone who feels like an outsider. Simply put, a person who has 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. Luke Skywalker was a small-town boy who didn’t want to go into the family business. John Carter was a Civil War veteran from Virginia trying to find a purpose after the war. Ellen Ripley was the second in command of a mining ship who just wanted to get home to her daughter. Once the reader can believe in your characters, they can believe in what’s happening to your characters. This is a large part of Stephen King’s success, that 95% of his stories involve absolutely ordinary people living absolutely ordinary lives. By the time clowns crawl out of the sewers or a wall of mist rolls across the lake, the reader’s already invested in those folks. We believe in the characters, so we have to believe in what’s happening to the characters.

There are two things you can do for the second problem. One is to trim out anything that doesn’t need to be there. You may have the coolest take on vampires ever, but if you’re only including the vampires because you’ve got this cool take, yank them out and have your characters get attacked by bandits. It’s really cool that you’ve created the entire history and art of the nidhar, an ancient short-range weapon consisting of an array of blades that are held one between each finger before releasing them… but couldn’t your character get by with just a throwing knife?

Here’s a helpful example. Isaac Asimov once wrote a clever short story called “Nightfall,” later expanded to a novel of the same name. In the preface, he explains that he uses miles, hours, and years not because his planet is related to Earth, but because he saw no point in overcomplicating the story. If it works for the master…

The other thing you can do is fall back on the ignorant stranger method I’ve mentioned a few times. It’s nifty that taxicabs and busses are all electric and run by robots at this point in the future—but doesn’t Yakko already know that? I mean, he’s from the future, right? Shouldn’t Lord Murrain already know why he sent his henchman, Wakko, off to search the arctic wastes for a year (to search for the legendary Ice Sword)? Why does Wakko need to explain where he’s been? If this material isn’t vital to your story, trim out that paragraph or three of exposition and just trust that your readers are smart enough to understand future taxis are cool and Wakko found that which he sought.

To solve that third issue, make sure you know what you’re keeping secret, and that it really is a secret. Nothing will frustrate your audience more than to struggle and stumble through a whole story and then realize the writer has no intention of revealing the big mystery, or that there really isn’t one. Figure out what the story’s secret is and work backwards, making sure characters are motivated to hide it and/ or smart enough to uncover it.

Here’s a fun little tip I once heard from that nice lady over at A Buck A Page. Your main character should mirror your audience. So if your main character is constantly saying “I don’t understand,” or “What does that mean?” it probably means your audience is, too. Or, worse yet, they already hate your main character for being a $#&%ing idiot and threw your work across the room fifteen pages back. This also gives you a great guideline, though, of when stuff should be revealed. If you’re well into the third act of your tale and the main character still doesn’t have a clue what’s going on… well, I’m sure a few of the readers will keep reading to the end. Three or four of them, at least…

And that’s all I’ve got for you, unless anyone wants to debate Shogun Warriors vs. Micronauts. Hopefully this’ll help get some more good genre stuff out there for eager audiences.

Next time, just for fun, let’s kill a few babies.

Until then, get back to writing.

March 6, 2009 / 1 Comment

Third is the Prestige

If you haven’t seen the film I titled this week’s rant after, go see it now. Phenomenal movie by Christopher Nolan, the guy who did The Dark Knight, based off the book by Christopher Priest. Hop over to Netflix and rearrange the queue. If nothing else, go over to Jurassic Punk and download the trailer. The film is fantastic, but the trailer actually gives us everything I want to talk about this week.

A common term that gets thrown around in Hollywood is three-act structure. To be honest, it gets used a lot by people who don’t know much about storytelling, and they often try to pin this structure down to a rigid, unyielding formula (which tends to result in rigid, unyielding films). We have this structure in prose fiction, too, where we call it establishing the norm, introducing conflict, followed by resolution. Even in a magic trick, there’s the pledge, the turn, and the prestige (as explained by Michael Caine in the above-mentioned trailer).

At its simplest, any sort of storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To be more exact, every story needs these three stages. Not just in terms of page count, but in the way it develops. If your story’s done right, any audience member can tell you almost exactly when and where these parts begin and end.

On the other hand, a story that doesn’t have these three parts has a sort of… meandering quality to it. Characters fall into inaction, or they leap into full-tilt action that doesn’t seem to have any purpose to it. They run or drive aimlessly, or sometimes we get to see them repeat the same actions two or thee times.

This generally comes from writers only having one or two parts of a story. Maybe they had a great opening and a cool middle, but didn’t know how to end it. Or they came up with a cool opening and a clever end, but never figured out how those points connect. I’ve even seen a few folks write a very cool opening… and nothing else. There was a great set up and then the story sort of spiraled off into… nowhere.

Here’s a great little way to look at this rule of thumb. Jim Shooter, who was Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics back in the day, had a wonderful example of the perfect story– the old nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffett.” It’s got all the parts of a great literary classic. Now, drag your minds out of the gutter and follow along…

Little Miss Muffett sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey.

This is our beginning. We’ve introduced character, location, and action. This is also called establishing the norm. Were nothing else to happen in our story, Miss Muffett would probably just sit there all day eating spoonful after spoonful. Maybe once the sun went down she’d go home and watch the fight on pay-per-view or something, but odds are this probably would’ve been a day like any other for her.

Along came a spider, which sat down beside her.

This is the middle of our story—the second act if you will. Now we’ve got an adversary, and a set of actions which produce conflict between the adversary and our protagonist (most tuffets are only built for one, after all). Something has happened which is not part of Muffy the curd-and-whey-slayer’s normal day, and it’s going to make things change.

And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The end of the tale. The conflict has come to an end and the story has a resolution, even if it’s just Muffy lifting the hem of her dress and sprinting away. It’s not the longest third act on record, but there it is.

If you don’t want to admit you know nursery tales, look at The Matrix. The beginning is Neo in his normal life as he goes to clubs and tries to avoid agents. The middle is him waking up in “the real world,” learning new skills, and going to meet the Oracle. The end is him taking on the figurehead role they’re prepared him for (even though he’s not sure he’s ready for it) and going to rescue Morpheus. These aren’t beats I’ve selected at random or for timing reasons—they’re moments in the film when the audience immediately knows we’ve moved to a next major section of the story and in Neo’s growth as a character.

Now, there are a few little caveats to this, of course. Despite what many gurus say, three act structure is not some ironclad, unchanging rule. Many stories start in the middle and take a bit before they go back and explain the beginning. “Coming in at the action,” some folks like to call it (we talked about this a few months back in regards to horror stories). A Princess of Mars, the classic sci-fi novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, actually begins at the very end of the tale, in the denouement, with the author inheriting a strange manuscript from his recently deceased uncle, John Carter.

All of this is fine, and there’s a great literary precedent for it. Some of my favorite stories work this way, in fact. What aspiring writers need to remember, though, that all these stories still have a beginning, middle, and end, even if they’ve been juggled around a bit in their tellings. The events have a definitive starting point. The characters have a baseline the audience sees them at. There’s a progression brought about by conflict and changes resulting from the conflict. And it all leads to a definitive conclusion.

(As a minor aside, this is why ending any story with “to be continued” immediately causes you to lose fifteen or twenty credibility points. It just means the writer hasn’t bothered with an actual ending.)

That leads us to the one question some of you have probably been wondering about since I started this little rant. Why do we need all this? What’s so important about these three parts?

They’re important because a beginning, middle, and end gives us character growth, and as I’ve said more than two or three times, good writing is about good characters. We need to see who they start off as, what changes them, and how the change affects them in the long run. Miss Muffet starts the day with her usual breakfast, but ends it fleeing in terror, probably never to return to her favorite tuffet again. Perhaps she’ll have some emotional scars and never be able to eat curds and whey again without being reminded of this terrible event. Whatever happens, we know it’s a real response that grew out of her experiences. Which makes her a memorable character.

After all, Miss Muffet’s story has been around for about four hundred years. We should all be so lucky.

So, next week, we’re going to play detective. No, it’s not like playing doctor, you perverts. We’re just going to talk a lot about motives and alibis, and how you always need them in your writing.

Speaking of which… get back to that writing, why don’t you?