January 18, 2018 / 5 Comments

Down to Basics

            It’s come up once or thrice that I’m a lover of bad movies.  Partly for the laughing aspect, partly because I think you can learn as much from bad storytelling as you can from good.  Partly because I need to justify my drinking, and some of these movies make it reeeeeally easy.
            A while back I tossed out a list of really basic things a lot of these movies messed up.  Film school 101-level stuff that people were getting wrong.  Even though some of them went to film school.  And I wondered if it might be possible to do something with stories in general.
            Kristi Charish (of the fantastic Kincaid Strange series—book two coming soon) recently mentioned this idea (for a different topic) in a much better way—the invisible handshake.  It’s sort of an unofficial, unspoken contract between the author and the reader. If you’re picking up my book, there are certain automatic assumptions you’re making about what I’ll be providing you with, and I should be meeting these assumptions.  Basic things about plot and structure and character that are just… well, basic.
            At the end of last year I read a book that fumbled that handshake.   Fumbled it bad.  It was like that awkward moment with someone at the end of the night where you’re not sure how to say goodbye, so the two of you make a bunch of half-moves toward different things.  Do we hug?  Shake hands?  Peck on the cheek?  Write an awful book? 
            We’ve all been there, right?
            I ranted a bit about said book on Twitter, but even then I was thinking I should revisit a lot of those issues here.  And while said book was very rant-worthy, I’ve been .trying to keep things a bit more on the positive side here.
            So, a few general things I need to keep in mind when I’m writing.  I’ve mentioned most of them before, but I thought a general, all–at-once
            First, I need to be clear who my main character is.  If I spend the first four chapters of my book with Yakko… everyone’s going to assume Yakko’s the main character.  This book’s clearly about him, right?  So when he vanishes for the next seven chapters… well, people are going to keep wondering when we’re getting back to him.  Because he’s the main character.
            Now, a lot of books have a big cast of characters.  An ensemble, as some might say.  That’s cool.  But if my book’s going to be spending time between a bunch of characters, I need to establish that as soon as possible.  If the first three or four chapters are all the same character, it’s only natural my readers will assume that’s going to be the norm in this book.
            Secondis that I need to keep my point of view consistent.  This kinda goes with the first point—being clear who my main character is.  Even with a third person POV, we’re usually looking over a specific person’s shoulder, so to speak. Which means that character can’t walk away and leave us behind.  Likewise, we can’t start over Wakko’s shoulder and then driiiiiiiiiiiiiift over so we’re suddenly looking over Dot’s.
            Again, it’s cool to switch POV and there’s nothing wrong with it, but I need to make it clear to my readers that I’m doing it. If they start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, it’s going to knock them out of the story and break the flow.  That’s never a good thing.
            Thirdthing I need to do is be clear who my actual characters are.  Who’s part of the story and who’s just… well, window dressing.  If my two protagonists go out to dinner, there’s going to be other people in the restaurant.  But I shouldn’t describe them all. Or name them all
            Names and descriptions are how I tell my reader a character’s going to be important and worth remembering.  Three paragraphs of character details means “Pay attention to this one.”  So if I’m telling the reader to keep track of people for no reason, I’m wasting their time and my word count.

            I want to note a specific way people do this, too.  I’m calling it “describe and die” (trademark 2018).  This is when the author introduces a character, spends five or six pages describing them, their history, their goals, their loves, their life—and then kills them.  We’ve all seen this, yes?  Here’s Yakkoshiro, a twenty-nine year-old salaryman who spends all his free income on Gundam models and always wears long sleeves to the office because he won’t stop wearing his fathers watch, even though nobody wears watches anymore and looking behind the times like that could hurt his chances at a promotion so… long sleeves, never rolled up, even when the air conditioner dies (which happens a lot). And tonight he has a date with the beautiful woman from the Gundam store, who he’s exchanged nervous banter with for months now and, oh, he’s dead.  A kaiju stepped on him.  Now, back to our heroes…

            Don’t do that.
            Fourthis that I need to have an actual plot before I start focusing on subplots.  What’s the big, overall story of my book?  If it’s about Wakko trying to save the family car wash, I should probably get that out to my readers before I start the romance subplot or the backstabbing partner subplot or the Uncle Gus has cancer and wants to travel around the world before he dies subplot.  After all, they picked up my book because the back cover said it was about saving the family car wash or escaping that Egyptian tomb.  I should be working toward that first—meeting those expectations.
            If I’m spending more time on a subplot than the actual plot, maybe I need to revisit what my story’s actually about.
            Fifth, closely related to four, is that my subplots should relate to the main story somehow.  They should loop around, tie back in to the main plot, or at least have similar themes so we see the parallels.  If I can pull out a subplot out of my story and it doesn’t change the main story in the slightest… I probably need to reconsider it.
            And if it’s an unrelated subplot to an unrelated subplot… okay, seriously, I’m wasting pages at that point.  Not to mention this all starts getting, well, distracting.  I don’t want to kill whatever tension I’m building in my main plot by putting it on hold for eight or nine pages while I deal with… well, something completely unrelated.  It’s like switching channels in the middle of a television show. Nobody’s saying what’s on the other channel is bad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the show we’re trying to watch.
            Okay, this is an odd one.
            Remember how much fun it is when you meet someone you’re interested in and there’s all these fascinating little mysteries about them?  We want to learn all their tics and hidden secrets.  Where are they from?  What’d they study in school?  What movies do they like?  How’d they develop a taste for that?  Why do they have that accent?  Where’d they get that scar?  Just how big is that tattoo?
            But… we don’t want to learn those secrets from a book report.  We want to hang out with these people, talk over drinks, go on road trips, maybe stay up all night on the phone or on the couch.  It’s how we get to know real people… and it’s how we want to learn about characters, too. Pages and pages of backstory often makes characters less interesting because it leaves me with nothing to reveal about them.  It kills that sense of mystery, because there’s nothing left to learn about them.
            There’s nothing wrong with me having all that backstory, but I don’t need to use it all in book.
            And I definitely don’t need to reveal it all in the first two or three chapters.
            Seventhand last is flashbacks.  Flashbacks are a fantastic narrative device, but they get used wrong a lot.  And when they’re wrong… they’re brutal. A clumsy flashback can kill a story really fast.
            A flashback needs to be advancing the plot.  Or increasing tension. Or giving my readers new information.  In a great story, it’s doing more than one of these things. Maybe even all of them.
            But a flashback that doesn’t do any of these things… that’s not a good flashback.  That’s wrong.  And it’ll bring things to a grinding halt and break the flow.
            Seven basic things to keep in mind while I’m writing my story.
            Now, as always, none of these are hard-fast, absolute rules.  If I hire a pastry chef for my bakery, there’s always a possibility this particular one doesn’t use a whisk.  There can always be an exception.  But I should be striving to be the exception, not just assuming everyone will be okay with me not following all the standards. My readers are going in with certain expectations, and I need to be doing honestly amazing things to go against them.  
            Because if that same pastry chef also doesn’t use a spatula…  Or butter… Or flour…
            Again—the invisible handshake (trademark K. Charish, 2018). 
            It’s a legally binding contract in forty-two states and four Canadian provinces.
            Next time, I’d like to tell you about something that happened off-camera on a TV show I worked on years ago.
            Until then, go write   
            If any of you happen to follow me on Twitter, you know I have a habit of watching bad B-movies on the weekend–usually while I’m geeking a bit.  While I do, I tweet out random observations about the story, dialogue, plot points, and so on. More often than not… they’re not positive ones.
            There’s usually a lot of drinking going on, too.

             A few weekends back I was watching this movie that went for the standard “group of assorted soldiers thrown into an unnatural situation” scenario.  The same one that’s been kind of become the standard since Aliens did it with the Colonial Marines.  Often copied, never duplicated, as they say.

            Maybe twenty minutes in, one of the civilians asked a grunt why they were all so dedicated to the sergeant.  And said grunt told him this two or three minute story about how, five years ago, they’d been stationed on Theta Sigma, things went belly-up one night on patrol, and Sarge was the only one who kept it together.  He got them out of that hell-zone on the death planet, and he even carried Bronsky for the last three miles.
            Then, maybe thirty five-forty minutes in, one of the civilian scientists asked the lieutenant why he was such a hard ass.  And he told her about how four years ago he’d been walking the perimeter, checking on his men, and he found some civilians in a restricted area. But he cut them some slack… and then the Lictors attacked. If he’d been hard then, if he’d sent them away as soon as he found them, those three people’d be alive today.
            And then someone sat with the Sarge for a while as he recovered from a wound (he’d been impaled right through the chest, and that put him off his feet for, y’know, almost six hours).  She asked how he could stay so positive, making jokes while the whole mission was turning to crap around them.  And he told her about how, seven years ago, he’d been on this bug hunt on Ceti Alpha Five…
            Look, you get the idea, right?  Do I really need to finish that story?
            Yeah, most movies don’t do it that many times, sure.  Still… that element’s kind of become a standard in a lot of military stories, too, hasn’t it?   The soldier/Marine/Amazon/Mooncop who gives us a flashback in dialogue to explain a strange bond, a weird character tic, or maybe even that scar she’s got that runs from her temple down past her jaw. 
            Here’s the funny thing, though. This never happens in Aliens.  Not once. Not even for a few seconds.
            Y’see, Timmy, in Aliens the story only goes forward. We don’t need to go backwards to learn interesting stuff about these characters.  We’re learning about them through how they react to things now, not how they reacted to them six years ago in Kazakhstan.
            If the only way I can make my characters interesting is by flashing back six or seven years… maybe I don’t have interesting characters.  Not now, anyway.  It’s possible they were interesting back then, but if they’re interesting now… why’s all their character development in the past?
            At the very least, I don’t have an interesting story.  If I did, wouldn’t there be  cool stuff happening now?  Stuff my characters could be reacting to and giving the reader a better sense of who they are, even as it drives the plot and story forward?
            If it’s only that recollection or flashback that’s making them cool… maybe that’s the story I should be telling.
            Anyway, just wanted to toss that out real quick.
            Thursday, our regularly scheduled post.
            Until then, go write.
August 21, 2015 / 4 Comments

Earlier In Our Story…

            Lots of requests from last week, thanks to you who’ve answered so far.  However. I’m still gathering my thoughts on how to answer some of them.  Plus, I’d already finished most of this, sooooo…
            I wanted to take this week to go back to something I’ve talked about before.  Flashbacks. I’ve encountered a few books recently that lean heavily on this device and… well, most of them weren’t good.  One of them was good to a point, but after that point it quickly tipped into frustrating, and from there to just plain bad.
            Well, let me bring up a more important question for us all to ponder while I babble on.  Why does my story use flashbacks?  What purpose do they serve within the story?
            Let me give an example.
            I read a novel recently about a Black Widow-esque assassin who’d gone through a nightmarish bout of training and indoctrination before being set loose on the world and her assorted targets.   Its chapters alternated between present day and the past.  The “now” of the story was her carrying out a series of missions while the “then” was how she was recruited and trained.
            The two plot lines didn’t make linear sense.  Y’see, for the first two-thirds of the book, our assassin (let’s call her Phoebe) was hunting down one target, finishing her assignment, and moving onto the next one.  It was kind of a Bond movie setup.  But she was paranoid-nervous the whole time. Was someone watching her?  Hunting her while she hunted down her targets?  She’d built up a lot of enemies over the years. Was one of them lining up on the base of her skull right now?
            Meanwhile, in the parallel past plotline (say that four times fast…), we saw how she was recruited out of the foster system after a series of schoolyard fights.  Her brutal apprenticeship.  Her first kill.  Her early missions.
            And then, the last third of the book rolled around…
            In the final “then” sections, Phoebe met Nadia, one of her peers (and, it’s vaguely hinted, maybe even a long-ago love interest or at least regular friend-with-benefits).  And it turns out Nadia is a traitor, a double agent who Phoebe exposes and they end up in a huge battle that rages through a shopping mall (again, really cool).  In the end Nadia gets away, but swears to return and kill Phoebe for exposing her. And from this page on, in the “now” sections, Phoebe wonders if it’s Nadia out there waiting to kill her.  Maybe Nadia has a rifle aimed at her head.  Nadia, the only one she ever let get away, could be right around that corner.
            See the problem here?
            As the “then” storyline progressed, it became clear that the “now” timeline was cheating and tweaking things to create dramatic moments that wouldn’t exist if the two lines were being honest.  The author forgot that all of “then” happens before every minute of “now”—the order they were telling the story in didn’t matter.  The author tried to set this up as paranoia in the “now” sections, except it turns out Phoebe was completely justified in feeling this way.  She knew all along someone was actually hunting her.  Hell, for the first two-thirds of the book she knew the name of the person hunting her, a person it’s strongly implied she’d been intimate with, and she never thought of Nadia once—even though most of the story is from her point of view. She just had vague thoughts about “a possible threat” or “maybe another operative” until this convenient point in the story.
            This is the type of thing people are talking about when they say flashbacks don’t work.  Well, okay, those people are kind of stupid.  Flashbacks do work and you should use them… if they make sense within the story’s structure.
            From a linear point of view, does my story still make sense with this flashback?  Or flashbacks, as the case may be.  What happens if I rearrange everything so all the chapters are in linear order?
            If a lot of my character motivations or behaviors become murky, it means I’ve got a problem.  I don’t have a good thread for my character, and their reactions are based off my narrative, not their linear experiences.
            If large parts of my story now drag, that’s a sign I’ve got a structure problem.  The flashbacks were the only thing creating tension.  It means my story is really either in the past or the present.  I’m just killing time and eating up word count in the other setting.
            If I put everything in order and my story works better—it reads smoother, its easier to follow, and the plot moves faster—then that takes me back to those early questions.  Why does my story use flashbacks?  What purpose do they serve?
            Don’t laugh at that last one.  I’ve seen people who turned their stories into a mess of non-linear flashbacks that served no purpose whatsoever, and they ruined an interesting story by doing it.  It happens more often than you’d think.
            Like any element in my story, I can’t be throwing in flashbacks for no reason. Just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’s going to work in my story—especially if I don’t understand whyit worked.
            Do cool stuff in your stories.  But have a reason for doing it.  A real, honest reason that doesn’t cheat or frustrate your readers
            Next time…
            Well, I actually got a fair number of requests and questions last time, so here’s what I was thinking.  I’m going to pluck out the one or two that would work as full posts and we’ll probably see them in the next three or four weeks.  But next time I’m going to do a whole post of quick topics that I can address in four or five paragraphs (and maybe a link or three).  So if you have something writing-related you’d like me to address, mention it down in the comments and it’ll end up on one list or the other.
            And until then… go write.
December 18, 2014


            A simple, straightforward title for this week.
            I was talking with my dentist a few weeks back about new television shows (he’s very chill that way) and we brought up… well, I’ll be polite and not mention it by name.  He was interested to see where this show went.  I’d already predicted a bunch of issues it would need to overcome which it instead chose to embrace fully.
            Allow me to explain.
            I’m going to create a series from scratch here (although I’m sure some of you will figure out what I’m referring to pretty quick).  Let’s say I’m doing a show called Young Revolutionaries.  It’s going to be an early-twenties George Washington at university (probably Penn State—that was around then, right?) with early-twenties John Adams and early-twenties Thomas Jefferson and mid-twenties Ben Franklin.  There’s also mid-twenties Martha Dandridge who George has an undeclared love for, her sexy designer friend Betsy, and that creepy mid-twenties kid, Benedict, who just lurks around classrooms a lot eavesdropping on people.
photo: Kat Bardot
            Here’s a few quick episode ideas.  What if George gets in trouble during ROTC (that was around then, right?) for chopping down that cherry tree and is told he’ll never be an officer?  Maybe he even resigns from the Army.  Or maybe Thomas injures his hand in a duel over the honor of foreign exchange student Sally Hemings (that’s more or less correct, right?) and now he may never write anything again.  And Ben can have a small breakdown from exam stress and decide he’s giving up on his science/history/philosophy degree and going to be a baker.  Or what if Martha decides she’s in love with Benedict and decides to marry him.  And when John finds out and tries to stop them from eloping, Benedict shoots him. We could end season one with young John Adams bleeding out in his log cabin.
            (Also, I apologize in advance—by putting this out onto the internet there’s a good chance this show just went into development at Fox or the CW.  Hopefully I’ll at least gets a “created by” credit when it premieres next fall).
            So… what do you think of Young Revolutionaries so far?  Sound like a bunch of solid episodes, yes?  Lots of dramatic potential?
            Even if you’re reading this from somewhere in Europe, you’ve probably already spotted a few holes in my story plans.
            It’s tough to build drama when we already know a lot of details about where the story’s going.  I can’t get anxious about whether or not George and Martha get together when I already knowthey get together.  There’s a bit of mild interest how it’s going to happen, sure, but the truth is, because I’m replaying history, this isn’t the first time this has happened.  And things lose our interest when they get repeated.  That’s just the way of the world.  The movie I’m glued to the first time I see it eventually becomes the movie I’ve got on in the background while I’m working on little toy soldiers or something.
            Likewise, it’s hard to build up drama by using incidents that I know are nullified by later events.  George Washington doesn’t just become an officer, he becomes a full general, and me trying to imply this isn’t going to happen is kind of silly.  We know Jefferson’s going to write a ton of stuff.  John Adams isn’t going to die, either.  Heck, he won’t even have any lasting scars or side-effects from that gunshot.  The bullet could’ve just bounced off him for all the effect it actually had on things.
            And bulletproof characters are boring. 
            So let’s think about Young Revolutionaries again.  George Washington won’t catch a bullet.  Ben Franklin definitely won’t.  Neither will Martha.  Or Thomas.  Or Betsy.  Even Sally’s pretty safe.
            What can I really do with this series?  Not much.  It’s pretty much just narrative thumb-twiddling as my plot drags along to the points we all know it’s going to hit. That it has to hit, really, because we all know the story.
           Y’see, Timmy, if my characters can’t be put at risk, it’s tough to give them any sort of interesting challenge.  I can’t have many cool twists to their story if I already know how the story goes and how it ultimately ends.  And it’s tough for my readers to relate to a character who’s going against…well, established character.   There’s just not much for me to do.  It’s very similar to an issue I’ve mentioned a few times before—the characters who are prepared for any and everything.
            This is one of the big reasons I’m against prequels.  Not as some hard-fast rule, but I think it’s extremely rare that they’re worth the effort (either reading them or writing them).  It just tends to be a melodramatic re-hashing of events that ultimately lead… well, right were we knew they were leading all along.
            Now, I’d mentioned this “bulletproof” idea to a friend and he made the point that, well, isn’t this true of almost any series character?  Marvel isn’t going to kill off Iron Man any time soon, and DC probably doesn’t have a Batman obituary waiting in a drawer. Odds are pretty good Jack Reacher’s not taking a bullet in the head anytime soon.  I feel safe saying Kate Beckett won’t be losing an arm in this season’s Castle finale. 
            We all understand these characters have an aura of safety around them, so to speak.  So does this mean allseries characters are bulletproof? Are all these stories destined to be rote melodrama?
            Well, no.  Let’s look at something like, say, The Sixth Gun (one of my personal favorites right now).  Odds are writer Cullen Bunn isn’t going to kill off Drake Sinclair or Becky Montcrief anytime soon.  But it doesn’t mean he won’t and can’t.  None of us know what’s happening in issue fifty.  Or sixty.  Or one hundred.  Even if we can be relatively safe in assuming they’re relatively safe… well, there’s still a chance Bunn could pull a Joss Whedon or J.K. Rowling on us and suddenly kill one of his main characters.  We can feel pretty safe… but we don’t really know for sure.
            And there is a world of possibility in that little gap of certainty
            But if Bunn decides to flash back to what Sinclair was doing five years ago… well, we all know he didn’t die in a gunfight after a poker game.  So hinting that he might is kind of a waste of time.  Same thing if he says he’s moving to Asia and never coming back.  It’s just more thumb-twiddling until we get back to the real story.
            Again, I’m not saying this kind of prequel storytelling can’t work.  But it is very, very difficult to do it well.  A lot tougher than many Hollywood executives seem to think.  And it’s choosing to do an inherently limited idea when I could be doing one where anything could happen.  One that’s moving forward, not treading water.
            Next time…
            Well it had to happen.  Next Thursday is Christmas.  And the Thursday after that is New Year’s.  Some folks believe this only happens every 2342 years, and other folks have looked at a calendar before. 
            Whichever camp you happen to fall in (I don’t judge…much), I probably won’t be posting on either day.  But I’ll probably drop my usual year-end summary here sometime before January.
            Until then, go write.