November 19, 2020 / 1 Comment

Shouldn’t Throw Stones

There’s an aphorism about writing I heard a while back—“get your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.” It’s one of those fun, quick statements with a lot of truth behind it. A complex idea boiled down to something simple.

There’s another one, part of Pixar’s rules of storytelling. “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”  Because we’ve all seen that, right? The character who randomly finds the exact thing they need just when they need it.

Put these two together and my character’s picked the worst tree to climb up. Because it turns out that’s the rock-throwing tree! Since our town was founded, people have always thrown rocks up at that thing. The local little league uses that specific tree for pitching practice. Young couples throw rocks at that tree to see if they’ll live happily ever after. And they say if you throw rocks at it under a new moon, you can speak to a lost love one final time.

Okay, maybe going a bit overboard there. It’s kind of silly to believe this one tree has so many legends and habits and traditions of rock-throwing associated with it, right? Especially because some of them, you’ve got to wonder… why? How the heck did this become a thing? Why would all these people one day choose to throw rocks at this tree?

Which is what I wanted to talk about.

We’ve talked about the need for conflict before. If there’s no conflict—or an utterly minor, negligible conflict—I can’t have much of a plot. And without a plot, my characters are just kinda standing around without any. So this idea of throwing stones—of putting lots of obstacles between my character and their goal—is a solid one. We want our characters to have something to do, and we don’t want it to be easy for them to do it.


Kind of like with the rock-throwing tree, we need to feel like there’s a reason behind this. If our character was stuck up in a tree and people just happened to randomly decide “hey, let’s throw rocks at that!”… we’d probably call foul. It’s just not terribly believable.

Okay, it might be believable once. Our minds will give a little leeway (especially in fiction) for a single bizarre coincidence. To quote the esteemed philosopher Elim Garak, however… I believe in coincidence. Coincidences happen every day. But I don’t trust  coincidences.

If I’m going to have a lot of rocks thrown at my character, I need some solid, in-story reason why they’re being thrown. Because after my characters lose their keys or forget the password or drop the flash drive or run into a third mugger… well, it starts to look less like coincidence and more like weak writing.

Because even coincidences have a reason behind them. Why this person showed up early. Why that battery isn’t charged. Why Dot forgot to bring the incredibly important goober that this entire mission hinges on.

Even when it’s less coincidence and more an active thing—if it’s the same mugger chasing my protagonist across the city and popping up again and again—I have to ask why. Why is Phoebe so obsessed with mugging Yakko? Why does she keep doing this? Or how does she keep ending up just where he is again and again and again. or why does Yakko keep ending up in places where he’s going to get mugged when it just happened to him the other day.

Get your character up that tree and throw stones at them. Throw boulders at them. And handfuls of loose gravel. But know, within the story, why they’re all getting thrown. Is there a real reason for it?

Or is the only person the reader sees throwing stones… me?

In other news, in case you missed it, the A2Q now has a table of contents, so you can find all of it quick and easy. Also, with everything going on in the world I made my usual Black Friday offer a little early this year, so if you’re someone who could use it, please get in touch with me.

Next time here on the ranty blog…

Holy crap, it’s Thanksgiving. How is this year moving so slow and so fast at the same time? The barriers have been shattered! All time is existing at once!

Seriously, though, unless someone’s got a specific, pressing question I’ll probably take the day off and maybe throw some Cyber-Monday gift ideas at you. And next time I’ll talk about binding agreements…

Until then, go write.

And throw some stones.

            Old reference from the Incredible Hulk comics.  Paraphrased, but very relevant.  Points if you know who said it.
           So, a few weeks back I talked about suspension of disbelief.  It’s how we guide our readers through the parts of our stories that, well, don’t hold up to rigorous examination.  They’re inherently wrong, illogical, or maybe just very out of character for that person on the page–or maybe for anyone.  This sort of thing breaks the flow of my story.  If I break the flow often enough, my reader’s just going to put the book down and move onto something more entertaining like the latest episode of Galavant.  Or laundry.

            Now, that being said, sometimes I just need a coincidence or an irrational act.  It’s the curse of being a writer.  Every now and then someone needs some amazing good luck or really horrible bad luck.  They find the key.  They forget the password.  They manage to make the nigh-impossible shot on their first try.  Their cell phone battery dies.

            Here’s a quick tip that can help make that moment work.
            There’s a device I’ve mentioned before called “hanging a lantern on it.”  It’s when I take that odd coincidence and—rather than try to hide it or brush it aside—I draw attention to it.  I put a spotlight on it.  Not as the writer, mind you, but within the story itself.  When I hang a lantern on something, an odd or unlikey event happens and my characters address the oddness or unlikelihood of it
            In my Ex-Heroes series, for example, the subject of origins comes up in the second book, Ex-Patriots.  One of the characters, Cesar Mendoza, has the ability to possess machinery, and explains that he got the power when he was younger.  According to him, he was struck by lightning while working on a car’s alternator.
            Ridiculous, right?
            Thing is, St. George immediatelypoints out how ridiculous this is. He even gives examples and explains just how impossible it is for a lightning strike to give someone superpowers.  Cesar’s response is just to shrug and point out “Yeah, but it did.”  And then he asks how St. George got his powers, and our hero awkwardly admits he got his powers by getting caught in an explosion when a radioactive meteor hit a chemical storeroom at the lab where he was cleaning up.
            So, why does this little trick work?
            Well, y’see, Timmy, when my reader sees something ridiculous happen in the story and my characters acknowledge that thing is ridiculous, it makes them more believable and relatable.  It’s just the way we’re wired as people.  We can’t forgive a million-to-one coincidence that everyone takes in stride, but we kind of buy it if everbody comments on the odds we just beat.  When the reader and the character have the same reaction, it pulls the reader in a little bit rather than pushing them away.
            Now, does hanging a lantern make a story’s lucky coincidence totally acceptable?  Well, not always.  But it’ll push back the suspension of disbelief a few notches.  So if I’m asking the audience to accept something small-to-midsize (that five people on a subway car all have the same birthday), and I make a point of commenting on the oddness of it, the readers will probably accept it without too much trouble.  If it’s a huge coincidence that really strains belief (“None of the codebreakers thought to see if the password was his birthday?!?”)… well, there’s only so much any plot device can do.
            Also, keep in mind I can’t include dozens of belief-straining elements and hang a lantern on each one.  In fiction, just like in real life, people start to get weirded out by too many coincidences.  When it happens once it’s good (or bad) luck.  Twice is just crazy.  Three times… okay, now I’m looking around.  Four times and someone’s interfering with my life, somehow. 
            Looking at it from the authorial side of it, it’s something you can only do once or thrice before people start to catch on to what you’re really doing.  A good magician rarely repeats a trick, because once the audience sees what you’re doing, the trick’s ruined. 
            And now I can never use it again.
            So if my readers are going to think something is a bit unlikely… maybe my characters should, too.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about photobombers.
            Until then, go write.
February 3, 2011 / 2 Comments

Who is Keyser Sose?

Why am I using that famous question as the title?

No reason.

So, a while back, someone I was working with asked if I’d be willing to look over a script he’d been working on with a friend. I said sure, because I hadn’t yet learned to be wary of such situations. And then spent a few days figuring out what I could politely say about said script

Almost two-thirds of the script was other movies. Quotes from other movies. Visual references to other movies. Deliberate parallel scenes from other movies. Discussions about other movies. And what was left–the original material– wasn’t much.

Let me tell you another little story.

I was reading a script for one contest where the main character was named Sam Spade. He worked in a diner where their specialty chicken sandwich was called the Black Bird. One of his regulars was named Archer. There’s a waitress named Brigid, and the cook was named Wilmer. Then one day a guy named Cairo wanders in. He works for a fellow named Gutman.

These are the names of pretty much every character in The Maltese Falcon, by the way. If you didn’t know that, hang your head in shame and go rearrange your Netflix queue. How are you going to write anything new if you don’t know the classics?

Anyway, I’m getting away from the point.

What was the point, you ask?

Well, that’s a good question. What was the point of all these names and moments and interactions? If someone’s characters are going to do nothing but talk about movies and they’ve written their script to shamelessly copy movies, what do you think it’s about?

That’s right. It’s about a lost dog.

And that other one. With all those Maltese Falcon references, there’s got to be a lost treasure or a mystery or something going on, right?

Nope. It was a slice-of-life story about this person’s dreams and that person’s aspirations and desperate sex in the storeroom and driving home at night with the music loud. That’s it.

Soooooo… what’s up with all those references?

Personally, I blame Kevin Smith.

Ever since those guys in Clerks had a long debate about the contractors who built the Death Star, dropping references into stories and dialogue has become a standard. Oh, people did it before him but he started doing it in movies and made it very widespread. Smith still does it. Stephen King does it. I do it.

(…like how I lump myself in with the big guys? Not egotistical at all…)

The catch, of course, is that these writers have a reason for doing this. When Dante and Randall get in an argument about the Star Wars trilogy, we’re learning more about them than we are about the movies. When Milla Jovovich’s confused character in Resident Evil goes down into an unbelievable underground world, is it that shocking to discover she’s named Alice?

And let’s not forget that sometimes the reference is just there to drive home similarities or contrasts. In my own books, the Mighty Dragon’s real name is George Bailey. Remember the poor sap in Office Space who’s named Michael Bolton but loathes that musician’s songs?

Y’see, Timmy, once you start throwing out lots of familiar names and sequences, people are going to start looking for patterns. That’s what a good audience does. And there needs to be one. Each of these odd names or references is going to knock a reader out of the story for a moment or two, and if you don’t have any sort of payoff for that disruption… well, it’s not going to go over well.

Not only that, if you don’t acknowledge the oddness of everyone who enters this diner having the same name as a Maltese Falcon character, your readers are just going to get annoyed. If you acknowledge it but don’t have a real, in-story reason why all of them have these names, that’s going to be seriously annoying.

No, sorry, it’s not acceptable just because your three best friends said it was really cool and it wasn’t disruptive.

If you’re going to do something clever in your story, awesome. As long as there’s a real reason for doing it.

Speaking of doing it… next week’s going to be pretty close to Valentine’s Day. I thought I’d ramble on about the rules of love. Yep, there are rules. If only I’d known them in high school. Or college.

Until then, go write.

April 15, 2010 / 2 Comments

How To Get Away With It

Not really pop culture, but it seemed relevant considering the day. My other option was “This Serves No Purpose!!!” from Galaxy Quest. That’s pop culture and it’s a perfect example of what I wanted to prattle on about.

Alas, taxes are a certainty…

Speaking of taxing something, a while back I mentioned the problem of false drama. It’s when random stuff happens between your characters for no reason. Dot suddenly hates Wakko. Out of nowhere, Yakko is smitten with Phoebe. For motives we can’t understand, Wakko has decided to start arguing with the ninjas. Likewise, I’ve rambled on about motivated action and motivations in general. Stuff don’t “just happen” in a story because there’s a guiding force behind it all–the writer. Even acts of God in a story need to have a purpose.

Things also can’t happen just to fuel the story. That’s the difference between a character’s motivation and the writer’s. Anything in a story that isn’t natural or organic breaks the flow, and one of the worst things a writer can do is give the reader time to sit and think about how ridiculous something in a story is. It taxes their patience and strains suspension of disbelief.

With that being said, sometimes we just need a coincidence or an irrational act. It’s the curse of being a writer. Wakko needs to argue with those ninjas.

Now, I recently got to talk to some of the writers from LOST and an interesting term came up. Every now and then, by nature of their show, the story requires them to put in an odd coincidence or have a character make a very unusual choice. One way they solve this, according to Eddy Kitsis, is by “hanging a lantern on it.”

As the name implies, hanging a lantern on something means drawing attention to it. Not as the writer, but within the story. It’s when something odd or unlikey happens and the characters themselves comment on the oddness or unlikelihood of this.

On LOST, when Sun needs a pregnancy test, she and Kate find one in Sawyer’s stash of scavenged medication and toiletries. And while they’re waiting for the result, they both wonder what kind of person would bring a pregnancy test on an airplane. Really, isn’t that just a bit ridiculous?

In my book, Ex-Heroes, we’re told early on that the Mighty Dragon’s real name is George Bailey. Yes, George Bailey just like in It’s A Wonderful Life. He tells us this himself in a first-person chapter. And then he immediately points out how cruel his parents were and also that he owns the movie and has watched it several times.

So, why does this little trick work?

When the characters themselves immediately acknowledge a choice or action is unusual or ridiculous, it takes the edge off that element for the audience. We can’t forgive the million-to-one coincidence that everyone takes in stride, but we can if the people involve recognize those odds and comment on the unlikeliness of it.

What we wouldn’t forgive is the bizarre coincidence of someone flying with a one-use, specific item like a pregnancy test and everyone ignoring that coincidence. Good characters mirror their audience to some degree, so if the reader thinks this is a bit ridiculous, the characters probably should, too.

Look at Casablanca. It’s got a classic lantern moment. When the film begins, Rick has tried to vanish. He’s gone to another city, in another country, on another continent to escape his previous life, and a few years later the woman who tore out his heart comes walking through the door of his new place. Think about it–the odds of this are astronomical. But we never even consider the odds because Rick himself broods over them in a drunken stupor. “Of all the gin joints in all the world… why did she have to walk into mine?” We accept it because he’s sitting here acknowledging his miserable luck.

Now, does hanging a lantern make a story’s lucky coincidence totally acceptable? Well, not always. What it will do, though, is push back the suspension of disbelief a few notches. By acknowledging this convenient bit of plot or character within the story, the writer’s showing that their characters aren’t stupid, which taxes the reader’s patience. It’s also acknowledging that the reader isn’t stupid, because they just get angry when a writer does that.

So if the coincidence is a small one (say, two guys with the same name also have girlfriends with the same name) and you make a point of commenting on the oddness of it, we as the readers will probably accept it without question. If it’s one of those “you’ve got to be &*%#!ng kidding me!!” type of coincidences… well, you might be able to get it down to a raised eyebrow and a slight eye roll.

It’s also worth keeping in mind, this doesn’t mean you can include dozens and dozens of bizarre coincidences in your screenplay or manuscript and get away with pointing out each one. Like most magic tricks, it’s something you can only do once or thrice before people start to catch on to what you’re really doing. And once they see what you’re doing the illusion’s shattered on a bunch of levels.

Next time around, I’d like to prattle on about that old chestnut, writing what you know, and why fighter pilots don’t always make good writers.

Until then, go write.