June 7, 2014 / 5 Comments

Direct Pressure

            So very late.  So very, very sorry.  Thanks for your patience.
            By the way, just hold that there and press.  If you don’t, it’s going to keep oozing.
            Hey, speaking of medicine…
            A friend of mine is a med student and she’s joked with me a couple times about the television show House.  Believe it or not, House was a very unrealistic view of medicine.  But it was unrealistic on a level most folks don’t consider.  On the show, tests that would take days were often run in hours.  Treatments showed results in minutes instead of days.  Even his revival rate was amazing.  Said friend told me the odds of actually reviving someone who crashes in the real world—well, they’re not good.  CPR saves lives, but nowhere near as many as you’d like to think.  But on House they pulled it off at least every other episode.
            There’s a concept you may have heard of (or some variation of) that we’ll call compressed storytelling.  Very simply put, it’s the idea that we can skim over a lot of time and events without it affecting our story.  As the name implies, certain events are compressed so I can spend more time with others. 
            Most short-form stories—movies, episodic television, and short stories—are usually compressed to some degree or another.  Alfred Hitchcock—director, storyteller, partner of the Three Investigators—once said that drama is real life with all the boring parts cut out.  That’s also a good way to sum up compressed storytelling.
            Compressing the story often builds tension and knocks the stakes up a bit.  Silly as it may sound, compressing the story builds pressure.  If my villain plants a bomb in the city that’s going to go off in two months, that’s not a lot of pressure on the hero.  If it’s going to explode in twenty minutes… that’s a bit more urgent.  Likewise, if my hero (or heroine) has eight semesters to tell Phoebe his true feelings for her, he’s got a while to think about it.  If she leaves in two weeks for a year abroad with Steve Carlsburg (man, that guy’s such a jerk)… well, our protagonist needs to get his or her act together now..           
           Now, the flipside of this is decompressed storytelling.  It’s the idea that I should take my time and include everything.  And I mean everything.  Every single detail and nuance and fact, whether they’re relevant to the story I’m telling or not.  If we’re going to believe Hitchcock (and the man did know a few things about storytelling), this is when we add all the boring parts back in.  Supposedly also in the name of drama.
            Y’see, Timmy, decompressing the story takes the pressure off my characters.  If they have time to sit in a diner talking about the movie they saw last week or their intense feelings about Miracle Whip, there really can’t be anything else urgent going on in their life.  Yeah, good characters might have an occasional conversational segue, but it’s the difference between randomly commenting that I don’t like ketchup and telling the half hour storyabout the scarring childhood event that made sure I never touched the stuff again.
           Here’s an even better example.  I could tell you that I woke up this morning and sat down to write this week’s post (a few days late)… 
            Or I could tell you that I woke up, rolled over, folded my pillow in half, and went back to sleep for ten minutes.  Then my girlfriend got up and I looked at the clock and realized I really needed to get up because I have a deadline coming up, but first I tried to remember some bits of a dream I had.  Then I wandered into the bathroom, did my morning business, so to speak (we’ll skip over details there for the sake of politeness), washed my hands, dried them on the tan towel that doesn’t match the rest of the bathroom because I could only get one in the correct color, and then spent a minute playing with my hair.   I’m thinking about trying a new style, something like the brushed-forward cut Jonny Lee Miller has on Elementary.  We’ve got similar hairlines, so I think it could work for me. 
            Anyway, then it was off to the kitchen for my morning yogurt drink and a bit of grumbling at the fridge when I realized I drank the last of the Diet Pepsi last night.  Which is clearly the fridge’s fault and not mine.  I checked Facebook and Tumblr and even Google+, even though I’m honestly thinking of dumping G+ and going back to MySpace, just so I feel like I’m getting a better use of my time.  It just doesn’t get the response that either Facebook or Tumblr does.  My friend Bo put it in a good way, that Google+ just never hit that critical mass where a site really takes off.
            Then my girlfriend and I debated when we should go to the grocery store, because I needed Diet Pepsi and we also needed cat litter. But we were hoping the new Star Trek: Attack Wing ships will come out today because we love the game and we want that Borg tactical cube.  If we were going out later for that, it’d be much more time-efficient to do all our shopping at once.  But we didn’t know if the ships were definitely coming out today or not, which would also affect dinner plans because if we went over to Game Empire we’d probably grab a slice of pizza at Mamas and Papas and call that dinner.
            Then there was a minor panic attack after an email with my editor.  Turns out I had that deadline wrong and I was really freaking out before he calmed me down and assured me I could work for another two ort three weeks and it wouldn’t change a thing on his end.  So I took a few deep breaths, made a joke about how this just feeds into my drinking problem, poured myself a drink, and then sat down to write today’s ranty blog.
            Which, as a reminder after all that, is about how I don’t need to include every single detail and nuance and fact.
            And, man, I did not have time for all that.  I’m on a deadline…
            In my experience, some writers fall back on decompressed storytelling when they don’t actually have much story to tell.  I can’t make my novel lean and tight because if I did it’d only be three chapters long.  So I fill it up with segues and character moments and drawn out descriptions. 
            The common excuse for this is that I’m being “literary.”  I’m raising the bar and writing at a higher level than the rest of you.  All you people who keep skimming over those character moments and beautiful details and exquisite language in favor of things like “plot” and “action”… you’re the ones responsible for the dumbing down of America.
            I think a lot of this mindset is a function of something I’ve mentioned before—the very special episode syndrome.  If you’re not familiar with it, the very special episode is when a series does something a bit out of character.  Sitcoms do a serious story about abuse or racism.  Dramas do an all-musical episode.  Superhero comics spend an issue dwelling on the nature of mental health and suicide.  These decompressed stories tend to get a lot of notice and praise because they’re daring to push the envelope a bit and do something that radically contrasts their usual material.  I’m sure anyone reading this can come up with dozens of examples of such things.
            Something to take note of, though, is part of the reason the very special episode works is because of that contrast.  When we see a story where Spider-Man deals with one of his regular foes going kind of crazy and eventually killing himself, it has a lot more punch than if we read about a similar story in a psychiatric textbook.  Its rareness makes it special.  It’d be interesting to see what James Bond or Freddy Krueger do when they’ve got an absolutely free day, but it’s also going to wear pretty thin by the end of the first act.
            This is the big mistake I think people make with VSE (my new abbreviation), and it’s something else I’ve talked about before.  It’s when I look at the rare exception and assume that’s the rule.  It’s when I think the one aberration is what we should all be following.  If one story about Spider-Man dealing with mental health does well, we should do five!  Or ten!  Hell, why would we do anything except mental health issues? 
            This is why the last four seasons of Scrubswere all about people dying from cancer and drug overdoses, by the way…
            Now, as I often say, there is a place for both of these things.  I am a very big proponent of the idea that if you want to succeed in this business (the business of selling stories for money), then less is more.  But to automatically declare either method “wrong” is… well, just wrong. 
            If everything I’m writing is all one or all the other, though… maybe I should stop for a moment and reconsider.  Do I actually have a story and plot?  Are my characters dynamic and trying to resolve a conflict?  Or am I using decompressed storytelling to hide the lack of these things behind a lot of flowery language and drawn out, irrelevant dialogue?
            Are my characters fleshed out?  Is my setting well established?  Or am I skimming past plot points as fast as I can so nobody will notice I don’t have these things?
            Maybe it’s time to adjust the pressure a bit.
            Speaking of which, next time, there’s an idea I’d like to impress upon you…
            Until then, go write.
May 13, 2011 / 2 Comments

Sounds Good

I refuse to take the blame for being late. Blogger was down. Not my fault.

And now back to our regularly scheduled rants and hair pulling…

As has been said many times before, by other people than just me, the key to great characters is dialogue. The way they communicate often tells us just as much about someone as the actual information they’re communicating. If you can’t pull off good dialogue, your career as a writer is going to be an uphill battle the whole way.

The most common way people mess up dialogue is by having, well, god-awful dialogue. Sounds silly, but there it is. Some dialogue just sucks. It’s wooden, on the nose, devoid of any emotion. All you have to do is read it out loud and you can tell it rings false. Making a cheeseburger with rotten meat and moldy cheese is bad—no further explanation is needed. If you can’t figure that on your own, there’s not much anyone can do for you.

The second most common way, believe it or not, is the complete flipside. It’s when people write dialogue that’s too real. Which sounds bizarre, I know, but let me explain…

If you listen to people a lot—people in the real world, not on television—you’ll see that they rarely use complete sentences. Oh, there are a few remarkable statesmen in the world (not all of them politicians) who can speak on any topic and make it sound like they’ve rehearsed their answers a hundred times. For the most part, though, people speak in bits and fragments. We split infinitives, backform verbs, and don’t always match those verbs to the correct number. We pause in mid-thought and try to pick up the threads a moment later. We beat around the bush and sometimes we stall so we can get the rest of our thoughts in order.

You can see this yourself by listening to a recorded conversation. Try it. Ask a friend or two if you can tape a conversation and then talk about anything. The game, politics, a movie you saw, that new pizza place down the street, the new girl at the checkout counter, whatever. They might be a bit stilted at first while they think about being recorded, but eventually you’ll both settle into normal speech patterns.

Now try to transcribe that recording—the whole thing. Write down every pause or false start in the conversation. You’ll probably be surprised how many times you stop in the middle of a sentence and then start over. Or how many times your friend makes a funny noise to fill space while he or she tries to assemble words in the right order.

Get more than two people and you’ll become aware how many random comments people make. And how much space those comments start to eat up, especially when they need to be attributed to someone.

Realistic sounding dialogue is not the same thing as real dialogue. As the saying goes, art imitates life. If art and life are the same thing, though, then you’ve just got life, not art (‘cause we’re not getting rid of life).

I’ve seen a few amateur screenplays that get this wrong in a key way. You know when you walk into a room and half a dozen people say “Hi” and there’s a little burst of small talk from all corners before things settle down again? Some people write that into scripts. So you get six or seven people saying “Hello” and the new arrival responds to all their greetings. Three or four of them ask one like questions like “What’s up?” or “How’ve you been?” or “How’s Wakko?” and the new arrival answers each with two or three words.

Yes, this is very, very realistic. It also means the writer has just taken two and a half pages (when formatted correctly) for what will possibly be thirty seconds of screen time. Unless it’s completely, 100% integral to the plot and half your story will just collapse without it, this kind of thing stands out like a flare for readers as “rookie mistake.” It’s also something that can be written off with “Wakko enters the party, greets a few people, and makes his way over to Phoebe.”

Now, there’s a second part to dialogue that’s too real. If you’ve ever worked in any sort of special field, you’ve probably noticed there’s a certain jargon that develops. Each grocery store, department store, or restaurant has their own behind-the-scenes, shorthand terms for things. If you’ve ever worked in a very intensive field that swallows up a lot of your life—say medicine, the military, or even the film industry—that jargon almost becomes another language. There’s a ton of specialized terms and phrases and abbreviations that get used by people in these fields.

Now, again, here’s the catch. People outside of these fields don’t talk like this and don’t know what these terms mean. Some writers, in the attempt to make their dialogue as realistic as possible, actually make it completely impenetrable. It’s so authentic no one can understand it except other professionals from that field.

The trick for writers is to make this dialogue sound authentic while still being accessible. Think of it like this—you’d never write a character talking with a non stop accent or thick dialect because it becomes difficult to read. You’d pick out a few key phrases and terms and just use those. Things like dropping in “all y’all” instead of “all of you” or saying “pop” instead of “soda.” These give a character a certain flavor without forcing the reader to sound out everything they say.

A great example of this would be television shows like House or NCIS or (dare I say it) JAG. These are shows about people in exceptionally specialized fields, each of which has its own terminology and jargon. In real life, if a handful of lawyers were discussing a case or four doctors were sitting around discussing possible diagnoses of a patient, odds are most of us wouldn’t understand a single sentence (and none of the doctors would look like Olivia Wilde). So the writers of these shows only pepper the dialogue with such terms and flesh out most of it with straightforward, easily-understandable terms. Think about it—when they’re in the middle of a diagnosis, most of their dialogue is explaining their ideas so they’d make sense to a layman.

“Tansey syndrome explains the aversion to light and pale skin. But if you write off the pale skin as a side effect of light sensitivity, not an actual symptom, chloroblastosis of the heart is a better match. It explains the aversion to light, elongated teeth, and the craving for blood… So start treatment for chloroblastosis.”

We don’t need to know what Tansey syndrome or chloroblastosis is because it’s getting explained to us. It’s not how doctors would actually talk, yes, but it still sounds good to the layman and it’s understandable to the layman. And it’s got enough facts right that hopefully doctors won’t be too annoyed or amused. Ignoring the fact that I just made up two medical conditions.

When I was writing Ex-Patriots I knew there was going to be a strong military presence in the book. While I don’t have any experience in that world myself, I was extremely fortunate to have a web of people I could call on. My best friend was in the Air Force. My dad was in the Navy. My step-sister was a Master Sergeant in the Army. I also know a couple other authors with a wide range of military experience.

But I also knew I was writing for a much broader audience than just the military. So I needed to have soldiers speak more like civilians at some points. If I didn’t, I’d run the risk of either alienating the readers or having to explain large swaths of dialogue. Neither prospect was all that exciting.

So don’t write what you know. Write like you know what you’re talking about.

Next time, writer challenge!

Until then, go write.

January 6, 2011

The Crutch

Yeah, the last post was late but this one’s on time. So you get two in one week. Enjoy.

So I was talking with a friend of mine on Facebook a while back. For the record, I don’t recommend it. Facebook really has to stop creating new profiles every three months and try fixing a few actual problems, like their stupid chat system.
But I digress…
Anyway, he wanted to know how I manage to sit down every day and pound out a few thousand words. How do I exercise the self control to plant myself in front of my desk and write? Which is a fair question.
Which I will answer with a story…
About ten years ago I was working on an alien invasion film for the Sci-Fi Channel (back when they had executives who knew how to spell) and messed up my knee. I was running up a staircase with a case of props for the alien autopsy scene and twisted too fast on a stairwell landing. My knee actually made a bubble-wrap noise. End result– two and a half months of walking with a cane and popping pills (Gregory House eat your heart out) before I got in to have my meniscus rebuilt. On my 30th birthday. Seriously. And then three months of rehab after that.
I finally get back to full mobility and guess what happens less than five months later? The other knee gets damaged on a straight-to-DVD movie. This time it was three months of waiting for workman’s comp to schedule surgery. At least the cane was broken in by this point.
So, after almost a year and a half of sitting around doing nothing I had put on some weight. And when I say “some” I mean it in the same sense people say “the Bush administration could’ve handled things better.” To be blunt, I’d packed on almost fifty extra pounds.
Fortunately, an actor friend of mine knew I was trying to lose weight and shared a few tips. He also had a great personal trainer and shared his name and number with me. Jerzy–a former Olympic weightlifter– showed me a few exercises, but for most of those first two hours we just talked. And one thing became very clear.
There would be no hand-holding, no prodding. I would get the instruction book, the rules, and then I’d be left on my own for a month. This was all my responsibility. If I was going to lose this weight, the only person that was going to make it happen was me. Jerzy gave me his home phone number, his cell, and his email. “But,” he said with a shrug, “if you really need me to tell you ‘don’t eat the chocolate cake,’ you can’t be that serious about losing the weight.”
See where I’m going with this?
Y’see, Timmy, there is no trick to sitting down and writing. You just do it. If you’re serious about this, you shouldn’t need to find some clever way to get yourself in the chair every day. You should want to be there. The real problem should be getting you out of the chair.
I lost sixty pounds in fourteen months with Jerzy. And in about two weeks I’ll be starting my fourth novel. The publisher liked the idea so much he wrote up a contract and paid an advance just off my pitch.
If that’s what you want, do I really need to tell you to sit in the chair and write?
Next time, let’s talk about gods, super-aliens, and other omnipotent forms of existence.
Until then… go write.