Have you noticed the somewhat blatant examples of product placement on television shows lately?  Our heroes are on a stakeout, driving to a crime scene, or fleeing for their lives… and they suddenly stop talk about how cool their car is.  Heroesjumped that shark early on with their constant references to the Nissan Rogue, but as of late it seems like almost every show is doing it.  There was a truly awful example on Housea few weeks back.

            For the record, I give CHUCK a pass on blatant product placement because the show completely embraces the idea of blatant product placement and, as such, blends it in a lot better than the others.  It pretty much made Subway cool by pointing out how ridiculously un-cool Subway is.
            One thing we’ve all seen is when a story veers off into unrelated, irrelevant material for a little while.  It’s as if the writer lost track of where their story was going and it just meandered away.  We’ve all heard people say “I let the characters guide me,” but if the characters are guiding the story off the page and into a different book, it’s probably time for the writer to pause for a moment and reassess things.
Violet, moments before her gruesome end.
            For example, remember in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book, not the movie) there’s the whole recurring bit about how the bad kids keep messing things up and putting their various parts where they’re not supposed to be.  Eventually little Violet Beauregarde chews some gum she shouldn’t and swells up into a giant blueberry.  The other guests are horrified, Wonka sighs in regret, and the Oompa-Loompas roll poor Violet away to a soundproofed room where the other guests can’t hear her screams or terror and agony as the little people gut the swollen girl and harvest her organs for the international black market ring that the candy factory is just a front for.
            You don’t remember that bit?
            It is a bit off from the rest of Dahl’s book, isn’t it?  Tonally speaking.  Probably why he didn’t include a scene like that.  If you do remember that scene… well, you should probably talk to someone.  Preferably someone who can prescribe medication
            The problem I’m talking about is telling a story that isn’t your story.  Sometimes, in the middle of a perfectly good tale, writers will steer off into… well, something else entirely.  Another few examples…
            If I’m doing a touching character piece, I shouldn’t have a ninja attack.
            A post-apocalyptic thriller probably should not have a song and dance number in the middle of it.
            If I’m writing a romantic comedy, no one should get kidnapped and harvested for their organs (a common theme to veer off into, apparently).
            In a pulse-pounding action story, no one should pause for a ten minute monologue about how horrible it was watching their mom get worn away by cancer.
            If you’ve been reading the ranty blog for a while, you probably remember a while back when I talked about the rules of love.  The fourth rule relates directly to this idea.  Sometimes a romantic element just doesn’t fit in a story.  Maybe the people are too different.  Perhaps there’s too many other things going on.  Maybe the current situation just doesn’t allow for those kind of thoughts.
            A lot of time when we see stuff like this, it’s a poor attempt to copy something else.  The writer’s seen an element work in another existing story and tried to transplant it into this story, regardless of whether or not it works.
            Speaking of black market organs, that’s a great analogy—transplants.  If any of your family or friends has ever needed blood, bone marrow, or maybe a kidney, you know it’s a big deal (and hopefully you’re all tagged as donors).  Even with blood, which is pretty easy these days, there’s a half-dozen or so tests that need to be run.  If it’s an actual organ transplant there’s a ton of factors that need to match up for it to be successful, and these factors need to be determined by a professional.  Even between close relatives there can be huge differences.  I can’t just toss kidneys from one person to another and assume they’re going to work, because if even one of those factors doesn’t match up, I’ll have two dead people on my hands.
            The same is true of stories, too.  Something that’s creepy in your book might not be creepy in my book.  Just because this joke worked when she said it doesn’t mean it’ll work when he says it.  This story may have ended with the young couple together, but it doesn’t mean mine can do it.  If I just pull elements from one story and stick them in another, there’s a better chance I’ll kill the story than save it.  I need to do cross-checking and make sure all the factors line up before I do a transplant.
            What are the important factors?  Well, a big one is whether or not the patient actually needs a transplant or not.  Is there a reason to bring in this odd element?  Does it contribute to my story in one way or another?
            Past that, it depends on what’s being transplanted, and also from what into what.  Each one’s going to be different.  A joke or a clever description might not need much alteration, but pulling over a major subplot or character could take lots of work to both the element and the story it’s going into.  That’s part of the job of being a writer—knowing what works, what doesn’t, and what I need to do to bridge the gap.
            More to the point, it’s my job to tell the story I’m telling.  I shouldn’t be trying to tell my sci-fi story with a bit of Stephanie Meyer tween romance twisted in.  I shouldn’t be writing my dramatic screenplay but with that fun scene from Captain America wedged into it.  And it’s a bit silly to stick a cute dog in my horror short story just because all the Tintin books have one. 
            Know your story and write your story.  Don’t worry about that other story.
            Next time, I’d like to babble on about a great lesson you can learn from the parents in Calvin & Hobbes.
            Until then, go write.
May 7, 2009 / 7 Comments

A Few Times Around the Block

This week, I wanted to discuss something I’m sure nobody wants to hear about. No, not about the test results or that it looks like Chuck is being cancelled by those idiots at NBC. What I wanted to talk about is an affliction more deadly than Ebola and swine flu combined.

Well… sort of. Not really. It just feels that way a lot of the time.

I have to be honest. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Oh, I believe someone can have trouble finding the right words and phrasing and it can trip them up for a minute. Or that they found too many good sentences and have written themselves into a corner. That happens. It’s happened to me several times.

But, really… that someone could get so stuck that they can’t write anything? Nothing at all? Any writer who comes to an honest-to-God dead halt when they hit a problem is a bit more of a poser than they’d probably like to admit.

Sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov never suffered from writer’s block. Neither has prolific author Piers Anthony. Stephen King got hit by a high-speed van, hovered near death for a few days, and a few weeks after he could move had his wife set up a desk and his laptop computer for him. The screenwriting team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have three movies coming out this summer, right after their new series Fringe. Almost all of them were written in one six month period.

Y’see, Timmy, one of the biggest things that stops folks from writing, in my opinion, is just fear. Plain old fear. To be honest, I think it’s the only reason someone can’t pick up a pen or set their hands to the keyboard and put out something.

Now, a lot of folks like to toss around terms like inspiration, craft, and my all-time favorite, ART, as reasons they can’t write. And in all fairness, there does need to be an idea that’s compelling you. There is more to writing than banging your fingers on the keyboard to form phonetically-spelled words. And even I’ll admit to there being a chance that your writing could be labeled art by the high-fallutin’ folks at the New Yorker. But none of these should have any bearing on your ability to write.

As a writer, you are your own boss (unless you’re working on a television series in a writer’s room). Can you imagine walking into your day job and telling your supervisor “Actually, Dot, I’m not sure I’m ready to work today. It’s just… it’s not there for me, y’know?” It wouldn’t fly at the Buy More, so why should it at your desk?

Now, this is going to be one of those tips that sounds incredibly stupid, but that’s because it’s so simple and straightforward most people don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The easiest way to never get writer’s block?

Don’t stop writing.

Told you it’d sound stupid. But it’s true. You can’t have writer’s block if you’ve always got words pouring out of you. It isn’t something that happens when you’re writing, it’s something that happens when you’ve stopped writing.

So, with that in mind, here’s a few ways you can keep the words flowing and never stop writing.

Why so serious? One thing I know can make people freeze is the sheer thought that they are writing. This is that big fear I was just talking about. They are partaking in the same art as Shakespeare and Dickens, Steinbeck and Hemingway, Hitchcock and Serling.. How could someone not approach this with the gravity it truly deserves? How could they risk putting down a single word that isn’t gold-gilt and ready to head off to the publisher so it can change the lives of millions?

Easy. Just remember most of them aren’t. We all get a first draft, and often a second and third, too. Way back at the dawn of the ranty blog, I talked about finding a place or a format you can write in that takes all the pressure off you. For some folks it’s writing in longhand. Some use a different word processing program—or a different computer altogether. Just remember, the majority of the words you write will never see print, so don’t stress that they’re not flawless.

Move on. This is another suggestion you’ve probably heard before. Have more than one project going at a time. It also helps if they’re all a bit different, in terms of genre, format, and so on. If you get stuck on script A, you can switch over to short story B or tell-all book C. At any given time I’m juggling screenwriter interviews and articles for the magazine, the ranty blog here, and whatever fiction projects of my own I’m working on.

Prime the pump. If you need to start writing, just start. Write anything. Type out a list of your pets. Favorite books. Favorite Christmas presents. People you’ve slept with. People you wish you’d slept with. Just get the words flowing, and then start tossing in some verbs and adjectives. Go with stream of consciousness or random fragments or quotes you’ve been meaning to jot down for other projects.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, you’ll probably find you’re writing coherent, consecutive sentences. Even if they don’t have anything to do with your current project—or any of your side projects—they’ve still gotten that part of your brain up and running for the real work of the day.

Reload! Sometimes the reason you’re not moving forward is because you’re out of gas. Read a book or watch a movie. Not one of your favorites, but something new. Get some fresh words and ideas and images into your head. Once they start swirling around in there, they might find that starting point you were looking for—or maybe even an all-new one.

Quit while you’re ahead. No, it’s not as harsh as it sounds. Simply put, if you feel like you’ve five or six pages of writing to get out today, only do four. If you know where the rest of this page is going, stop after the first paragraph.

What you’re doing is giving yourself an easy starting place tomorrow. There are few things more intimidating than sitting down with no idea what to write, so this way you’ve got that last page or so from last night to start with. Like the tip above, once you’re going it’s a lot easier to keep going.

And that’s that. Five ways to keep writing.

Do they all work for me? Nope. To be honest, one of these methods I’ve had spotty luck with and another has never worked for me at all, but I know folks who get by fine with it. That’s the whole point of the ranty blog’s golden rule. Please feel free to toss out any of your own, as well. I know I’m always happy to have a few spares on hand.

On which note, we should all get back to writing. Next week I want to go back to my roots and talk about some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff. We’re long overdue for some hardcore geekery here.

But until then, go write.

We’re all familiar with that title reference, yes? Even if you never played as a kid (or a semi-drunken college student), you’ve probably seen or heard about it. Clue is the classic mystery game, where you have to determine the murder weapon, the scene of the crime, and (of course) the killer.

A game of Clue isn’t much of a mystery, however. It’s more of a puzzle you just need to solve though the process of elimination. We never find out why the good professor felt the need to cave in Mr. Boddy’s skull. Was it an act of revenge, long-overdue justice, or just a heated argument that boiled over into violence? Similarly, Plum never offers any sort of defense or alibi. He just ends up being the only person who can’t account for his location at the time of the murder, so we cart him off to life behind bars.

Motives and alibis are what really separate a mystery from a puzzle. They’re the human element that makes things either a little more complicated or a lot more difficult, depending on your point of view.

The motive is why someone does what they do– the personal reasons behind the action. Why does the Monster (sometimes called Adam) kill Victor Frankenstein’s bride-to-be? Why does Lando betray Han? Why does Romeo kill Tybalt?

If you really think about it, though, most characterization comes down to motives. Knowing why someone’s doing something—anything, not just criminal acts– tells you a bit about them. We learn a lot about the good Doctor Jones simply because of his desire to go looking for the Ark of the Covenant, but also because he mocks the ideas behind the fabled treasure. You can ask these sort of questions about most great characters. Why is it so important to Atticus Finch that Tom Robinson receive a fair trial? Why is young Edmond Dantes so determined to escape from prison? Why does Dot keep hitting Yakko with that hammer when he’s not looking?

You can even look at motives in a negative light to help define characters. Not why characters do something, but why didn’t they do something else? Sometimes people make difficult, troublesome decisions that are going to cause problems, and that can tell your audience something about them as well. Why won’t Nick Andros abandon Tom Cullen (M-O-O-N spells Tom) so he can travel faster to Denver? Why doesn’t Louis turn Rick over to the Nazis for shooting Major Strasse? Why won’t Prince Hal acknowledge his friendship with Falstaff?

Motives don’t need to be big, elaborate things, mind you. “Bob doesn’t want to get beaten up,” is a perfectly acceptable motive. So is “Beatrice wants to sleep with Larry” or “Pinky is hungry.” Not everyone has to be hiding a dark secret, keeping themselves out of the electric chair, or protecting the Holy Grail.

The real failure comes when characters do things not for their motives but for the writer’s. If you ever look at a character action and the reasoning behind it is “because X needs to do Y,” that’s false motivation. The writer is looking forward in the story rather than back at character development. And character development is where all your motivation is going to come from.

Now, in mystery stories, the alibi often walks right alongside the motive. Simply put, the alibi is the reason you couldn’t’ve done the crime, even if you had a reason to. It’s contradictory evidence. We know Miss Scarlet was in the greenhouse and Colonel Mustard can’t lift anything over his head since the war, so they’re off the hook for Boddy’s murder. We may find out later Scarlet was in the bedroom with Mrs. White and Mustard’s medical records were faked, but that just makes the mystery a little juicer.

In fact, alibis make most stories a little more tasty, because keeping something hidden makes other characters (and the audience) think twice. It’s when you want to deceive your audience and keep a little something from them to improve the story. Most romances wouldn’t be as interesting if at least one of the two parties involved wasn’t completely denying an attraction. Stu Redman must die in that ravine, because none of his friends ever see him again. And there’s no way those robots can do anything wrong, because the Three Laws will keep them on the straight-and-narrow path every time, right?

Note that in many of these examples, the writer isn’t even lying to the audience. If the reader chooses to interpret things a certain way (a wrong way), that’s hardly our fault is it? Well, okay, it is, but we’re doing it for a good reason. The key thing is, none of these alibis are cheats. There’s a good reason none of Stu’s friends ever see him again. The robots really are following the Three Laws (as best as their little positronic brains can, anyway). And, come on, who’s really going to admit they’re attracted to a guy like Chuck, right?

So, even if crime doesn’t pay, you can still get something useful out of it. If your characters always have honest motives, they’ll be real. If they always have compelling alibis, they’ll be interesting.

Next week, since it’s been brought it up once or thrice, we’re going to talk about the rules. To be more specific, we’re going to talk about being the exception to the rule, because that’s what most folks are more interested in.

Until then, get yourself motivated and go write.

February 15, 2009

Love Scenes Are in the Air

Well, as the weekend approached I had great plans to get a piece done on writing romances. Then I was reminded that screenwriting contest season is coming up, and I had a few critical ideas…

Ahhhh, I’m a romantic at heart. Let’s go with that.

When was the last time you read something that was going along great and suddenly, out of nowhere, two characters started kissing and professing their love for each other? Or maybe a movie where the characters suddenly make dinner plans or randomly fall into bed? It makes people roll their eyes while reading books and it makes movie audiences laugh. Nothing sinks a story faster than a pasted-on love interest.

We all love a good romance. Yeah, even the guys. Because we all love the idea that there’s someone out there who’s an absolute, 100% perfect match for us. Even more so, we love the idea that we could meet this person while disarming warheads set by mad computers, fighting zombie pirates cursed by Aztec gold, or fleeing ninjas. Because, hey… think of the stories you could tell your friends. And that’s what we all want, right? To have a better story to tell.

So, what are some of the ways you can avoid that horrible relationship trap?

Okay, first and most important thing to remember. People get together because they want to get together, not because other people think they should be together. And “other people” includes the writer. If you’ve based your whole story around the computer geek and the cheerleader hooking up at a frat party, then you need a real reason for them to get together. And no, the reason can’t be “because they need to battle the dark overlord as a couple in chapter eleven.” Nor should it be “we want the actress topless in act three.”

This leads nicely into my second point. They’re almost one and the same. You can’t have real emotions without real people. And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways. I’m not saying rational ways, because love is one of the most irrational things most of us will ever encounter in our lives. If your characters are real, they’re going to have needs, desires, plans, and tastes. And it’ll stand out if they’re making choices that go against all those traits. Is that backstabbing, career-minded office bitch really going to see something she likes in the guy who cleans her pool? Will a blue-blood, British noble really find himself fascinated with a toothless hillbilly girl? What the heck are a professional mercenary and a Peace Corps worker going to talk about?

Yeah, opposites attract. They even have a lot of fun together. But if we’re talking about real emotions, the opposites will tend to have a lot in common. The mean-girl cheerleader isn’t going to make a move for the scrawny honor student kid. Unless she needs a book report done.

Or maybe, unless she’s a closet sci-fi/ action fan who desperately wants to talk to someone about last night’s episode of Chuck. Could be that she’s a lot smarter than she lets on, but is scared of not being popular. Or perhaps she was the ugly duckling until her second year of puberty and used to be friends with a lot of the AV club kids.

Even then, how far and how fast they take things should be consistent. Some folks live for the moment. Others like to wait and plan. People can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward. Some relationships are established with a wild half-hour in a hotel room, others when two people hold hands for the first time. If your characters are real, their reactions should be, too.

My third tip would be this– hard as it may be to believe, there are just times when romance isn’t appropriate. As the man likes to say, there’s a time and a place for everything. Someone could be starving, terrified, or in a blind fury fighting for their life. At moments like these, it’s not terribly realistic they’d be noticing what pretty eyes their new partner has. If you’re writing an action/ sci-fi/ horror story, is there really time for an extensive relationship? It might be better to plant the subtle seeds of one and let your audience fill in the rest, much like James Cameron did between Ripley and Hicks in Aliens.

A quick story…

Late least year a friend of mine let me read the fantasy novel he’d been working on. There was a lot of good stuff, but one part lost me just a few chapters in. The main character, in the midst of looking for his abducted son, starts getting starry-eyed and bashful around a pretty elf he’s just met.

“Wait a minute,” I told my friend. “Jayme’s son has been kidnapped, missing less than a day, and he’s taking a time out to flirt wildly with some elf he’s just met?”

This bothered me far more than the fact Jayme had grown a set of functioning butterfly wings since arriving in the fae realm. It was, as I told my friend, the point I would toss the manuscript on the big pile to my left.

The last point, as silly and motherly as it sounds, is not to confuse sex with love. There are lots of times where it might be completely acceptable for two characters to have sex. It’s fun. It’s a stress-reliever. It lets you not think about other things. Heck, it can even keep you warm.

Sex doesn’t always translate to a relationship, though, in stories any more than in the real world. If two characters fall into bed (or onto a couch, or against a wall, or into the back seat of a car), make sure you’re clear what it means for both of them. Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced.

So go and spread the love among your characters.

Where it’s appropriate, of course.

Next week, some criticism for you.