June 15, 2012 / 4 Comments

Patting the Dog

            Oh, get your minds out of the gutter.

            This week’s topic comes from a comedy sketch done many years ago by British comedian Benny Hill.  He’s best known in America for having lots of scantily clad women dancing around him, while the rest of the world also remembers his ability to rattle off some clever wordplay or jokes.  If I do this right, though, “patting the dog” will become a regular writing phrase and we’ll all get to give him credit for that, too.
            Many years back, Hill did a sketch where he played a foreign film director being interviewed by the press.  When asked about his new film (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), he explains in broken English that it’s a “deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness.”  When the interviewer prods him a bit, Hill goes into further detail.
            “It’s about a man who tries to leave the mob and sees his friends slaughtered by criminals with machetes.  So he tracks down the villains and kills them all.  Then he finds their boss and kills him in front of the man’s family.  Then he kills the man’s wife, and then his children.  Then he desecrates their bodies and, as he leaves, he sets fire to their home.”
            “I thought it was a deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness?”
            “It is,” insists Hill.  “As he walks out the door, he pats the dog on the head.”
            That got a big laugh from the studio audience.  And from me, even though I was only eleven and really watching the show for the scantily clad women.  It was clever enough to stick with me, even past those distractions.
            See, the studio audience and I both recognized the absurdity of what Hill’s character was suggesting—that one miniscule, token act could balance out, or even override, the atrocities he’d just described.  Patting the dog is a nice thing to do, yes, but in all honesty it’s kind of low on the scale.  Heck, for most of us it’s more of an automatic response than a deliberate act of kindness.  We see a dog and we pat him or her on the head.  That’s all there is to it.  We probably think more about tying our shoes in the morning.
            So the idea that patting the dog would make us completely change our views on this character or this story is… well, laughable.  It’s too little, too late.  It’s the weakest kind of spin job.
            And yet, how often have we seen this sort of thing in books or movies?  We’ll have a completely unlikable person who does nothing we can sympathize with or relate to.  Violent drug dealers, sadistic assassins, abusive spouses, jerk bosses, there’s dozens of characters that could fit this category.  And all too often, the writer will give them some tiny, banal moment that’s supposed to make us suddenly change how we feel about them.  They pat a dog.  They thank the guy who sells them their morning coffee.  They get drunk and confess their awful childhood.  They go to church and say their prayers.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m patting the dog, it means I’ve got a character who’s doing some small, token thing that’s supposed to counterbalance a lot of really awful things. And that just doesn’t work.  I can’t spend page after page making the audience feel one way about a character, then expect their views to completely shift because of one minor action.
            Now, at the risk of possible Armageddon, let’s mix dogs and cats
            I’ve mentioned the “save the cat” moment once or thrice.  This is Blake Snyder’s term for when a character does something small and quick early on in the story that gets us on their side.  His example of this is “saving the cat” (which some writers take way, way too literally) but it can be any number of things.  It’s just a simple action that assures us this person is a decent human being.  In my new book 14, the main character’s saving the cat moment is when he decides not to drown a cockroach.
            Here’s a well-known save the cat moment from the movie Robocop.  Remember when we see the still-human Murphy practicing his quick-draw and spinning his pistol into his holster?  He explains that he’s learning the trick for his son, who sees all the great cops on television do it and therefore assumes his dad should also be able to do it (because his dad must be a great cop).  And, Murphy tells his new partner with a grin, it is just kind of cool.  It’s a quick little moment, barely thirty seconds long and only about fifteen minutes into the film, but it establishes Murphy’s a good dad and an overall decent guy.
            Now, the big catch with a save the cat moment is that we’ve never been againstthis character.  Saving the cat has never been about changing our view of a person, it’s about emphasizing our view of them.  It’s just a shortcut to help the reader like them quicker so the writer can move on to more important things.  Like, say, the plot.
            A lot of folks try to have half-assed save the cat moments in their stories, but really they’re just patting the dog.  A couple easy ways to figure out which column my random act of kindness falls in…
–If everything I’ve done up till this point has been to make the character unlikable, then this moment is patting the dog.
–If it comes more than halfway through the story, odds are I’m patting the dog.
–If I’m trying to change the reader’s perception of my character with this moment, I’m just patting the dog.
            This isn’t to say I can’t reverse how my readers see one of my characters, but it’s not going to be a quick fix thing that I can do with one line.  It’s going to take lots of moments and a lot of work.  It’s a long process that can’t be rushed.  Even if I’m doing it with a clever twist, the reader needs to look back and see that the seeds of this change stretch all through my story.
            Because there’s another word for when someone does a sudden reversal like that.  It’s called a betrayal.  And no one likes to be betrayed.  Even if it’s just by characters in something they’re reading.
            Next time, I’d like to run some numbers by you real quick.
            Until then, go write.  And remember to thank Benny Hill.
July 23, 2009 / 4 Comments

Don’t Get Me Wrong

Several months back a friend of mine was celebrating her birthday in the usual way (with too much alcohol and far too much karaoke) and I got to catch up with a couple of friends I haven’t seen in ages. Contrary to everything Castle has taught us, most working writers don’t have tons of free time, and as such I’m lucky if I get out socially once every two months or so.

We were batting around random stories about the film industry and one of my friends made a comment about last year’s WGA Strike (you may have heard about it). Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was Laura belting out Cake’s “Short Skirt/ Long Jacket” up on stage, or maybe it was just a poorly-emphasized word. Needless to say, I heard an insult and I snapped back a sharp defense of the writers and the strike.

My friend threw up his hands. “Dude,” said he, “you totally took that the wrong way. That is not what I meant.” Yes, he actually said dude.

I looked back over his chosen words, realized the good-natured joke he’d tried to make, and shamefacedly bought the next round as an apology for verbally leaping at him.

The lesson here is twofold. One, always make sure you can afford to buy a round if you go out with friends. Two, if it’s that easy to misinterpret someone’s words in person, face to face, imagine how easy it is to do on the page.

Getting misunderstood is sort of the core flaw of all bad writing. I thought this character looked smart, you think he looks like an idiot. I consider this bit action-packed, you consider it to be chaotic. I felt like the message was clear, you found it to be a muddled mess. Part of this is an empathy issue, but often it’s just a matter of clumsy writing.

Here are a few easy things to check on in your own work to make sure the reader is thinking the same thing you are. Or at least, what you want them to be thinking…

Spelling – I know, I know. I never give up on the spelling Probably because it’s the most common problem I see. I’m not talking about random typos, but words people have just plain spelled wrong or used incorrectly. Know the difference between plane and plain, their and there, corporeal and corpulent. You don’t want your mad scientist to unleash a deadly plaque upon the world, one that will cause mass history.

Alas, there is only one way to beat this. Shut off your spell-checker, pick up a dictionary, and learn how to spell all these words you’re using. Sorry.

Grammar – The British comedian Benny Hill (best known in the US as that late-night guy with the awe-inspiring Hill’s Angels) had a recurring skit about actors who muddled their lines because of an unpunctuated script. Usually they’d end up delivering such zingers as “What’s that up in the road–a head?” or the beautiful woman who asks her partner “What is this thing called, love?” One of my personal favorites as of late was a dedication that read “This book is for my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Commas, capitalization, verb-noun agreement– none of these were made up because editors had nothing better to do one afternoon. They make sure a reader knows precisely what the writer means. Which is why the writer needs to know precisely how to use them. Remember, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you. It needs to make sense to an absolute stranger looking at it for the first time.

Common knowledge – One frustrating thing most of us have probably encountered (I know I have) is when a term comes up in a story that the characters all understand but we, the readers, don’t. It could be a joke, a reference, or maybe even a key plot element. Point is, if the reader doesn’t know what the writer’s referring to, it’s just a stumbling block that will knock them out of the story.

If you’re using a term for a certain effect, make sure it’s a term most people know so it can achieve that effect. If I’m told “she’s as mean as a Catachan puffball,” does that mean she’s vicious or is it sarcasm? How many times can my characters refer mysteriously to “Omega” before the reader decides to fold laundry or make lunch? Before you answer, consider this– we’re barely twenty minutes into The Matrix when Morpheus begins to explain the mystery of what the Matrix is.

Sarcasm – We all know sarcasm. As mentioned above, it’s when someone says one thing but means another– sometimes the exact opposite. This can go wrong in real life, so on the page it can be a killer. It can be especially rough in screenplays, which are often so stripped-down that the reader has to make up a lot of the context on their own. If sarcasm is read wrong on the page, it can send the reader down a false path, and once they realize they’re on a false path… well, there’s that large pile on the left.

Be careful using sarcasm too soon in a story. Make sure the reader knows the characters before you risk confusing them.

Language barrier – I mentioned this a while back as a common script problem, but it happens in prose as well. Even when two countries have a shared language, there are colloquial terms that vary. Boot, bonnet, pasties, Macintosh, rubber– all these words mean one thing in the UK and something very different in the US.

Know who your readers are and make sure you’ve adjusted your vocabulary appropriately. Through the wonders of social networks and message boards, most of us know at least one person in another country. If you know someone who’s part of your target audience, ask them to take a look at your writing.

Double meanings – This one’s kind of close to the language barrier. There are a lot of words and phrases that can mean one thing in one context, but something entirely different in another. Which means when there’s not much context, they became dangerously vague. When my boss tells me she’s got an opening that needs to be filled, is she hitting on me or asking if I know anyone who’s not working? What if I see a couple birds twittering in a tree? Are they making noises or social networking? Is that antique ring something wicked (uber cool) or something wicked (pure evil)?

This ties back to vocabulary (which ties back to spelling). A writer has to know what a word means, and also what it could mean. If not, there will be more confusion. And that path leads to pain, suffering, and laundry.

So, there are six quick tips that might help achieve a bit more clarity in your writing. Or at least make sure it’s muddled in all the right places.

Next time I’d like to talk about going from A to B. Or from B to A. You can go both ways, really. We don’t judge here.

Until then, you need to go write. Clearly.