January 29, 2010 / 2 Comments

The Ten Percenters

No, this isn’t something like the Dirty Dozen, the Rogues Gallery, or the Crazy Eights. I’m not being that subtle for once.

So, I’ve tossed around an idea once or thrice here called “common knowledge.” It’s the sort of stuff you can put in your writing without worrying that people won’t know what you’re talking about. Nazis are bad. Puppies are good. Republicans are conservative. Democrats are progressive. Grass is green. The sky is blue. Getting into Harvard, the Major Leagues, or the Navy SEALS is an accomplishment. These are all safe bets in the world of common knowledge.

The place I see fledgling writers stumble a lot is when they decide since they know something, everyone must know it. They’ll even insist people should know it. And then they’ll use this “common knowledge” in their writing. Which is why a writer can make a joke about Kit Fisto putting his testicles all over Natalie Portman and then can’t figure out why no one laughs hysterically.

For the record, that’s a double-whammy nerd joke, but it depends on you knowing who Kit Fisto was in the Star Wars prequels and knowing what he looked like and remembering a joke from the 1985 film Better Off Dead. If you did have all that at your fingertips while you were reading that last paragraph, you probably got a good chuckle. If not, you’re still wrinkling your brow and trying to figure out what I’m getting at.

Which is what I wanted to get at.

On The Simpsons they have a special kind of joke they call “the ten percenters.” As the name implies, a ten percenter is a gag or a joke they know only ten percent of their audience is going to get. It’s a sly reference to politics or Fox News or Planet of the Apes that will slip by a lot of folks and make them wonder why one or two people keep repeating that line later at work.

(By the way, if any of you can explain the reference behind “I’m the first non-Brazilian person to travel in time!!” I’d love to hear it. Seen that one every Halloween for coming on fifteen years, still don’t get that joke…)

Now, here’s the key point. While they may do three or four of these ten percenters in each episode, The Simpsons does lots and lots of jokes for 99% of their audience. Everybody gets why it’s funny when Homer’s new boss turns out to be a supervillian planning to wipe out France with his doomsday device, and the irony that this is a job Homer’s finally good at. We also understand the joke when Krusty blames his bad behavior on his crippling Percoset addiction, then gets reminded Percoset is one of his show’s sponsors. And it’s hard not to laugh when Homer cheerfully implicates himself as a suspect when the old lady down the street is murdered. The ten percenters are great, but they can’t be the majority of the program. This is when the writers acknowledge that some of the things they find funny might be a bit obscure to some audience members. It also shows they’re aware of what the majority of their audience will find funny.

Want a literary example of a ten-percenter? I’m betting a decent number of you here have read Stephen King’s Under The Dome by now, yes? How many of you caught the reference to Lee Child’s kick-ass military character Jack Reacher? I skimmed right past it, myself, with only a dim thought of Who is this guy he’s talking about? flitting through my mind. It wasn’t a huge, key element of the chapter, though, so it didn’t really disrupt my reading. My girlfriend had to point it out while she was reading it.

Y’see, Timmy, the biggest mistake I can make as a writer is to assume that because I know this, everyone does. Writers are creative folks who read voraciously. We watch the news, we do research. We even watch for details in our own lives. This is especially dangerous for writers coming out of specialized fields where they’ve got a lot of specialized terms and knowledge. If you’re a lawyer, every other lawyer in the office might get your witty reference, but that doesn’t mean your mechanic will. Likewise, the mechanic’s clever transmission joke might make the junior ad executive scratch her head.

Speaking for myself, I could probably name over three hundred Marvel or DC comic characters on sight, or describe what they look like. I’ve got a fairly large background in archaeology and astronomy. From my years in the film industry I can rattle off tons of movie jargon that would leave most of you scratching your heads. I’ve got a higher-than-average knowledge about firearms, and have fired more types than many military weapons experts (the film industry again). I also play a popular miniatures game with tons of backstory, which means I can spew out pages of silly facts about fictional alien life-forms like Tyranids, Kroot, or Necrons.

Yet, I’d never assume everyone else knows this stuff. I sure as hell wouldn’t assume you’d understand some of the jokes that have built up between my friends over the years. They make us laugh, but you’d probably stand there with a blank look on your face.

It’s also worth noting that the reverse of this is true. If I assume my audience isn’t going to know anything I’m talking about, I’m just going to annoy them. If I waste pages explaining that Nazis are bad, people need to breathe oxygen, or that the man who just got his leg torn off might die from blood loss… well, I’m not going to be holding anyone’s interest for long

A writer needs to have a firm grasp of what their intended audience knows. It doesn’t matter if I think everyone should know the genestealer reproductive cycle– most people don’t. If I do this, I’d be confusing my audience at best, talking down to them at worst. And that’s when they put the manuscript down in that big pile on the left.

So now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

Next time, we all need to be punctual. More or less.

Until then, go write.

February 8, 2009

Go With the Flow

Wow, this is overdue, isn’t it? I blame my editor, who for some reason I can’t fathom refuses to process my invoices until I’ve turned in my assignments. And I also blame my landlord, who is so insistent about getting rent every month.

No, that’s not fair. My landlord’s a pretty cool guy.

So, anyway, have you ever read a book you just can’t put down? One where you start reading just after lunch and suddenly realize it’s two in the morning? I actually sat down to read the script for the new Witch Mountain movie last week and found myself completely engrossed. Almost missed a meeting because I was so into it.

There’s a term some gurus like to toss around called flow. I first heard it used by a woman named Drusilla Campbell, writing coach and self-proclaimed Simpsons addict. Put at its simplest, flow is the readability of your writing. It’s the way every line, paragraph, and chapter rolls into the next and carries you along for the ride. It means your writing is smooth, slick, and slides better than Bruce Springsteen at halftime. Readers can’t help but keep reading because it’s actually easier to keep reading than to put the book down. A friend of mine calls them “beach books”—the ones that are great to occupy your mind when you’re sitting on your towel between dips, because you also don’t care if they get a bit wet or sandy.

Another way to define flow is in the negative light. A story that makes you stumble a lot doesn’t flow well at all. Clumsy, wooden dialogue and poor characterization doesn’t work either. Whenever a reader pauses to scratch their head or roll their eyes, that’s another bump in the road. If you’ve ever tried a book and just couldn’t get into it, odds are the flow sucked. You’d read, trip over a page or two, and put it back down.

A story…

Many years back I arranged a weekend away with the woman I was dating. It was off-season, so we got a little cabin up in Big Bear, California, for a decent price. Balcony with a view, fireplace, king size bed, and jacuzzi right there in the main room. What more could a couple of healthy kids in their mid-twenties ask for, right? We spent the day wandering through town, hitting a few used book stores, and I ended up finding a copy of The Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

It’s not a great book, by any means. The story is a bit clumsy, the characters are stereotypes, and there are a few plot holes you could fit a small car into. However, it does have fantastic flow. You couldn’t ask for a quicker read. There’s nothing here but action and story, and the pace builds beautifully as the narrative cuts back and forth between different groups of survivors trying to avoid the monster. I started reading it at a little cafe and picked it up again back at the cabin. As the evening progressed, my girlfriend put her own book down and announced she was going to fill up the big bathtub and maybe open that complimentary bottle of wine that came with the room. I told her I wanted to read a little more, but I’d probably be in soon.

Yes, that’s right. I had a very pretty, very naked Italian girl not-so-subtly asking me to join her in the jacuzzi with a bottle of wine and my response was “Hang on– just let me finish this chapter…”

That is writing you can’t put down.

Clive Cussler, author of Raise the Titanic and Sahara among other novels, once talked about his “potato chip chapters” in an interview. He makes a point of always writing short chapters with compelling endings so people feel the need to read “just one more.” His books may never win the Nobel or a Pulitzer, but he’s also published about thirty more of them than all of us here put together and people are always asking for more.

Now, for the record, I don’t believe flow is something you can easily work on and develop in your writing. It’s one of those X-factors, where you can manipulate each of the variables but still not affect the final outcome. For example, in Goju-ryu, one of the original three forms of karate developed in Okinawa, there’s a kata called senchin (no, trust me, this is another one of those brilliant metaphors). The instructors would teach all the moves to the white belt novices with the vague hope that by the time they became black belts, they’d have a vague understanding of how all the moves go together and could start to work on the form itself. The Okinawan masters understood that working on parts doesn’t help you master the whole. One day, it just all clicks.

So, a few things you can do to help the flow of a story. The different parts of the form, if you will.

Be interesting. Easiest way in the world to keep readers from getting bored—don’t be boring. If you’re telling a story, get to the story. If it’s a murder mystery, give me a body. If it’s sci fi, show me something amazing. If it’s a love story, show me passion on some level.

Be honest. People don’t give long speeches about love, honor, or duty in real life (unless you just got inaugurated). Most of us stopped with the silly, mushy, giggly, fluttering eyelids in ninth grade. And it takes a lot for someone to stay angry for days, let alone years. Fake emotion comes from fake people. Fake people are boring.

Watch your word choice. If you’re picking obscure, awkward, or overly-long words just to show off your vocabulary and create flowery descriptions, there’s a good chance you’re disrupting the flow of your writing. It’s really cool that you can picture what a glabrous Caucasian male with atramentous works of muted ink inlaid in his flesh looks like, but it’s much faster, smoother, and just as visual to tell us he’s a bald man with black tattoos.

Watch your dialogue. You can get away with one character who talks like a robot. Maybe another who keeps slipping into a foreign language. Possibly one more who uses all those obscure, overly-long words I was just talking about. Too much stylized, unnatural, or just plain bad dialogue brings things to a grinding halt, though. People should talk like people, cats should talk like cats, and heavily armored mutants from Skaros should talk like… well, you get the point.

Have characters act in character. Drusilla once commented that when the nun viciously kills a gardener, that’s also when most people remember that laundry they have to fold. Doctors who constantly break medical protocol, sharpshooters who can’t hit when they’re aiming at the main character, and geniuses who miss obvious clues. They’re the people who get books and screenplays tossed in the big left-hand pile.

Take it seriously. Everyone makes a joke now and then to break the tension, but things need to carry the correct amount of gravity in your writing. Rape, death, and unrequited love should not be things you casually bring up and then toss aside. If you’re kicking puppies, slaughtering camp counselors, or unleashing deadly plagues, these acts should be getting a very specific emotional response. When the reader thinks you’re not taking the events in your book seriously, well… why should they?

Again, tweaking these things does not guarantee that your writing will now have beautiful, compelling flow. But if you keep at it and continue to work on them, one day it’ll all just click.

Hey, it took over three years before my sensei would call what I was doing senchin.

Next week I wanted to talk a bit about love for the holiday weekend, but I’m not sure I’ll have a rant formulated by then. I may just have to be critical about things.

Until then, go write.