Okay, so once I’ve got good characters, that whole disbelief thing is taken care of, right?
Well… not exactly.
Until then… go write.
Has anyone else noticed that it’s only considered “telling” with the pop psychology folks if you write horror? If you write scary stuff, it must be because something awful happened to you as a child. Absolutely no one wonders if young Ray Bradbury met Martians, if Tom Clancy was a spy kid, or if ten year old Dan Brown got chased by a secret society. Write about zombies or serial killers, though, and the immediate assumption is that on your eight birthday you witnessed Uncle Bob killing his wife with a chainsaw while wearing a Santa Clown suit.
In past rants here, I’ve talked about how important believability can be and also offered a few tips about crafting believable characters. A lot of this, though, can all get thrown under one blanket term. We call it empathy.
The idea of empathy has been around for a while in one form or another, and it’s something that gets a lot of study from psychologists and sociologists. There are tons of more specific definitions, but simply put, it’s that unconscious connection we have with the people around us. If you’ve ever realized this is not the crowd to tell that joke in, that’s empathy. It’s how you know when your friend needs a hug, a stiff drink, or maybe just to be left alone. It’s also how you can sense he’s not interested, she’s waiting to pounce, and that other guy… well, we should all just keep clear of that other guy.
For writers, empathy is probably the most important skill you can have. It’s going to be very hard to be successful without it. It’s what lets us craft characters that act like real people instead of puppets, because it’s how we know when something seems natural and/ or unnatural for a real person to do. Empathy is also what lets us predict how the audience is going to react. Are they going to be excited? Screaming? Howling with laughter?
Let’s say I wanted to make you cringe a bit while you read this post. I could try typing bunnies a few dozen times, but except for one or two of you who were emotionally scarred in your youth, it’s not going to produce the desired result. Even when the imagery catches you off-guard, it’s still FLUFFY BUNNIES!!!! unlikely this mental image will make you wince or shudder for a moment. Trying to make you cringe that way just shows a lack of connection to my audience and how they’re going to react.
On the other hand, if I was to mention one of those women with the long, curving, dragon-lady fingernails and watching her pluck out someone’s eyeball like an olive from a jar… that might affect you. And if I told you she took a potato peeler to that eye while it was still attached by that long string of nerves, and sliced off thin slivers of eyeball one after another for almost half an hour before it finally burst… Heck, that gets to me, and I’m the guy who made it up.
Not only that, but I also knew the bit about the bunnies would make you chuckle. Or at least smile a bit.
Back when I was at UMass, I was stealing a friend’s computer in the afternoons to type out page after page of my college novel, which went under the working title of The Trinity. The villain was a bit of a headcase who thought God loved bloodshed and fear, so his master plan was to use shaped demolition charges to tip over the Empire State Building during business hours. Thousands die in the tower. Thousands die under it when it falls. And probably a few more die in the ensuing panic and chaos that would spread throughout the tri-state area. Keep in mind, I was writing this in the early ‘90s.
Well, said friend—we’ll call him Alpha– read my notes and listened to my idea and said “That’s silly.”
“What? What part?”
“His plan. People wouldn’t act like that.”
“Of course they would.”
“No they wouldn’t,” said Alpha with a dismissive grin.
“You think if the Empire State Building fell over and thousands of people died in Manhattan in the space of an hour, it wouldn’t cause massive panic and terror?”
“Oh, for a little bit. Maybe an hour or two. But then everyone would calm down.”
Needless to say, I was briefly tempted to hunt down Alpha’s phone number one September ten years later. Just to say “Told you!”
Another story, this one from the flipside…
One of the very first films I prop mastered was a little train wreck called Special Delivery. The basic idea was kind of clever, but the first time writer/ director/ producer/ actor simply had no empathy—for his characters, his audience, or his cast and crew (a friend got fired off the show and I was actually jealous of her). One of the gags the writer/ director would not let go of involved the stepmother’s yappy little dog. He had a “hilarious” scene scripted at the end of the film when the two pre-pubescent sons would hook the dog’s leash up to the garage door opener. This way when stepmom came home and opened the garage the little yappy dog would get hanged right in front of her.
Now several of us tried to explain this was not a funny gag at all, and many alternatives were proposed. But the director shrugged everyone off. He was convinced this would be the funniest thing ever, seeing the little animal kicking and flailing as it was strangled. “It’s so annoying,” he’d say with a grin. “How could people not find that funny?”
In my own experience, I think empathy tends to fail us most often as writers when the plot takes priority. If we know by the end of this scene or chapter Yakko and Wakko must get out of this room or need to discuss everything they know about Dot, sometimes we focus on that goal rather than on the characters. Getting from A to B becomes more important than how we get from A to B. And suddenly, the characters aren’t acting naturally anymore. They’ve stiffened up and the audience can’t relate to them. I see this happen a lot in screenplays and short stories, two forms that force writers to be as fast and economical as possible.
The other empathy problem I see is writers who just don’t know anything about the world. Not in that Googling hard facts way, but in the sense that the writer seems to be writing wholly from conjecture rather than experience. Now, the overwhelming majority of us have no idea what it’s like to gaze upon an Elder God, travel in hyperspace, or dismember a body (except for you, reader #9), so it’s understandable that these things need to be products of our imagination.
However, most of us have been shouted at by a superior of some kind. We’ve gotten a first kiss from someone special. We’ve had heated arguments. We’ve been scared, driven cars, waited in line, made love, had a good meal, and gotten frustrated with paperwork. Often more than once. These are the things that can’t just be imagined or looked up on the internet (remember Steve Carrell talking about the “big bag of sand” in 40 Year Old Virgin?). Your audience will sense that something is off. They won’t feel the connection because the writer didn’t feel it. More so, the writer didn’t even realize they didn’t feel it, which is also apparent in these situations. And that’s a failure of empathy.
Now, to a point, you can develop and improve empathy. You can even have fun doing it. Talk to people. Friends and family members and strangers. Not online or on the phone, but real people in front of you. Go out to bars and parks and restaurants. Talk about work, relationships, sporting events, kids, tell some jokes—anything and everything. Listen to them. Watch how they react, how they move, what they do with their eyes. And then try to put yourself in their shoes. Why does this person think this or do that? It’s just what you should be doing with characters and your audience, so try to do it with people right in front of you. Try watching groups of people, too. Friends at parties. People in line at the supermarket. Crowds at big events. How do they react? How many go against the crowd? How many follow blindly?
Simply put, go connect with people. Because the better you can connect in the real world, the better you can connect through your writing.
Next week, I’ll have a little challenge for all of you reading this.
Until then, go out and have a drink.
And then go write.
A pretty loaded question, I know. And I’m sure I don’t want to hear all the answers you’ve got for me.
It’s an important question, though, whether you’re writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought your new Harlequin Romance aren’t expecting a long lesson about the way colors mix to form new colors. If you’re billing yourself as the next Tom Clancy, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if you’re hired to pen the new Yu-Gi-Oh movie, you probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time explaining why kids shouldn’t lick stove burners.
Nobody likes to be called stupid, after all. Not even children. Not even stupid people. We all hate being looked down on, being condescended to, or having things spoon-fed to us.
This is why so many people fell in love with the television show LOST, yet so many of these same folks despise the “enhanced” version ABC showed for a while. These episodes now had “pop-ups” added in which explained every single thing occurring on screen. Everything. Every name. Every reference. Every way every point tied back to other things. Now, it’s fun trying to figure out all the various, intertwining mysteries and stories on a show like LOST, but the moment there’s someone walking the viewers through every single one of them—even the ones that just got explained to you a few minutes ago—well then the show’s just become insulting.
Y’see, Timmy, when you spell out everything for your audience, what you’re really saying is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.” Your characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there. You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.
So, having established that nobody likes to be thought of as an idiot, it stands to reason everybody likes to feel smart. One of the easiest ways to make your readers feel smart is to let them figure things out on their own. Triple Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder once said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves, they’ll love you forever, and that advice holds true for writers of all forms (except maybe journalists, who should probably put a little more effort into spelling things out).
I’m going to fall back on a favorite example, Scott Frank’s amazing screenplay for Dead Again, also one of the best films Kenneth Branaugh ever directed. If you’ve seen it, you doubtlessly remember the scene when detective Mike Church finally gets to interview the old reporter. And as the octogenarian prattles on, he lets drop one word which twists everything we thought we knew about the story.
The real genius of this moment, though, are the two beats between when he says this word and Church realizes what he’s just been told. There’s just a breath of him brushing off the news as insignificant before it sinks in and his eyes open wide. And why are those two beat so important, you ask?
Because that’s when we figure it out.
The audience barely gets a second, but it’s enough. We get to realize the import of that fateful word just a hair ahead of Church. We figure it out on our own, and we figure it out before him. And even then, Church still doesn’t say what he’s just realized—he just runs out of the room.
A few easy ways to let your audience feel smart, so they will love you…
Know what your audience knows. I’ve talked a few times about common knowledge. It’s stuff you can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Nazis are bad. Jesus was good. Dinosaurs are extinct. The sixteenth president was Abraham Lincoln. The Red Sox are a baseball team. For all of you reading this, you’ll notice I rattled off the words Harlequin Romance, Tom Clancy, and Yu-Gi-Oh without bothering to explain any of them—I know for the folks reading the ranty blog these terms are all recognizable. Knowing what your specific audience knows is the most important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets you judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.
Be smarter than your audience. The ever-quotable Esmund Harmsworth once pointed out mystery editors will toss aside a manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the protagonist does. If you think about it, though, this is true of any sort of mystery, puzzle, or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If the writer has dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who would have the patience to read it? It grates on the nerves, and it makes us impatient as we wait for character to figure out what was plainly obvious twenty minutes ago.
Don’t state the obvious. The late Michael Crichton once explained a writing rule he got from his father. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really is obvious, you don’t need to use it. If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.” Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Looking at that first tip up above, should you be wasting words to tell your audience Nazis were bad, the sky is blue, or Harvard is a prestigious school? Within your own writing, when Bob finds Cindy clutching a bloody knife with a look of glee on her face, do we need to be told she’s unhinged and dangerous?
Take one step back. When something does need to be explained, we all feel the need to go the distance with it. You don’t always have to, though. Look at some of those explanatory scenes and pull it back to 85-90%. If you take your audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own.
Give them the benefit of the doubt. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then make a leap of faith your audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from you. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. When your audience pulls those slim threads together all on their own, they’re going to love you for it.
So, now that we’ve (hopefully) established I’m not quite as stupid as you all thought I was, perhaps you’d like to stop by next week for a few thoughts on writer’s block.
Provided, of course, that I can just figure out how to get them all down.
Until then, go write.