June 25, 2020 / 1 Comment

A Quick Follow-Up Question

I’ve been talking about genre writing for a few weeks now, I know, but I actually had one last thing that’s been tickling my brain.

I’m sure I’m not the only one binging shows right now. Things I’ve wanted to see again or watch for the first time. My partner and I are kinda doing a Voyager rewatch, but we’re also stretching out this last season of She-Ra. And I just finished Parasyte, an anime I’ve meant to watch since I first read some of the manga… jeeez, twenty years ago? I tried rewatching The Prisoner but gave up on it and settled for some old G1 Transformers cartoons.

There’s also another show we’ve been watching, and I’ll politely not name this one. It’s another older show (a few years now), and it’s got a strong mystery element. Well, it tries to have one, anyway.

(to be polite, some of the following plot points may be altered from of the actual show we’re watching… or are they?)

The main subplot is that our hero’s trying to learn why his father left decades ago, and has tracked down the small farming town where Dad ended up living. And dying—with a lot of things left unanswered. Things like why did Dad abandon his family? Why come to this small town? What’s with all the old books in the study? Or the ring of corn around the house? And the strange old guy who takes care of the corn who has the same name as our hero? And is this mysterious woman, Lacey, his half-sister or… something else?

Pretty much ever other week, said hero finds out some tantalizing new clue about his long-lost father and then does… nothing.

Again and again, the show has moments where we learn that Bud, the town mechanic, played chess with Dad every week… and they talked a lot. Helen, the retired nurse who hangs out in the park? It turns out she was there for Lacey’s birth… and it wasn’t exactly a normal birth. And Sheriff Mawkin? well, she was only a deputy when Dad moved to this town, but he took her aside then and told her that some day his son might come looking for him.

And our hero would be amazed and thrilled and confused about what he’d just learned… until the end of the scene. At which point, he’d completely forget about these little tidbits and act like nothing had happened. Until they came up again two or three episodes later.

We end up getting annoyed with things like this because in theory our characters are supposed to mirror our readers (or audiences, if you will). If the point is to make my readers think “Wait, what the hell does that mean…?” then this is something my characters should be thinking—and maybe even voicing—too. And they should be acting on that reaction. I can’t have a character say “this changes everything!” and then go on acting as if nothing has changed. They can’t find out Bud has the answer to the question that’s haunted them for years and then not get around to asking Bud about it. It’s frustrating because we know we wouldn’t leave it like this. We’d want more. We’d demand more!

One of the easiest things we can do at any point in our writing is to just ask ourselves “What would I be doing right now?” How would we react? What would we say? What would we be important to us right now in this situation? And if we’d demand more in this situation, well, maybe I should really think about why my characters aren’t.
I think this is also one of the reasons using mysterious characters flops so often. Because Mister X offers some vague statement or response and the main characters just… accept it. They don’t have follow-ups. They don’t demand more. They don’t take what they’ve learned and run with it. They just shrug their shoulders and say “Huh.”
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying we need to answer every question the moment it’s asked. They can get teased out and end up being false answers, misunderstandings, or red herrings. That’s part of a good mystery. A necessary part, some might argue.  So it’s okay not to answer questions right away.
But y’see, Timmy, it’s not okay to never ask those the questions. If my characters don’t care enough to ask, they can’t really care about the answers. Which means my readers probably shouldn’t care.

Which means all this mystery stuff is just a waste of time because nobody cares about it.

Next time…

Okay, I’m juggling a couple things right now. I know I haven’t updated the FAQ in a while. I’m also trying to set up theWriters Coffeehouse as an online thing. And, hahahahaaa yeah I’m trying to finish a book right now.
I guess what I’m asking is, what would you like to see in the next few weeks? Any particular topics you’d like me to blather on about? Something you want to hear a fresh take on, or a problem that’s been gnawing at you? Let me know down below.

And if nobody says anything… I may take a week off and try to get a bit caught up on things.

But for now… go write.

March 16, 2020 / 4 Comments

Again and Again and Again and Again and

So, hey… things are a little crazy and intense in this world of ours right now. Hopefully you’re somewhere safe and hunkering down a bit. Also hopefully you’re not someone going “Ha ha ha look at me” as you wander around potentially endangering other people.

Be a hero. Don’t willfully endanger anyone else right now. Okay?

Anyway… bonus post. Figured everybody could use a little extra stuff to read while they’re stuck at home.

I’d like to share a random writing-type thought that’s bounced back and forth through my head a few times recently. I think it’s something a lot of you may automatically get, but this might help solidify it a bit in your own heads. And for some of you, this may be an all new concept.

I’ve mentioned the idea of repetition in writing here a few times, coming at it from a few different angles. It’s one of those elements that can be very powerful if used the right way… and completely brutal if I use it the wrong way. Or overuse it. It’s like one of those vitamins or minerals that we absolutely need to live, but just a little too much and now it’s a deadly poison.

Anyway, it recently struck me why repetition can turn on us like that and—oddly enough—it ties back to another idea I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. And that’s a concept Damon Knight talked about in one of his short story books. The idea of information vs. noise.

To sum up quickly, it goes like this. When we come across a fact we don’t know, it’s information. When we come across a fact we already know, it’s noise. We pay attention to information, but we tune out noise because… well, it’s noise. It’s just a distraction, keeping us away from the stuff we’re actually here for.

Now, Knight was talking about this mostly in the sense of exposition, and this makes perfect sense. We don’t want to read two pages about why Nazis were bad because, well, we all know that already (okay, most of us know that…). But we’re up for two pages about how true artificial intelligence came into existence, because this is something we don’t know and (hopefully) find interesting and relevant within the context of the story.

Getting hit with the same facts we already know is… well, boring. Sometimes flat-out aggravating. It feels like the author is padding and wasting time rather than giving us what we want.

But here’s the thing. This is true of pretty much all repetition. As I’m putting words down on the page, repeating anything the reader knows (or can figure out) is going to quickly become noise.

Think of names in dialogue. We roll our eyes when characters constantly use names while talking to each other. Or if the author constantly uses dialogue descriptors with names rather than pronouns (or just assuming we can follow who’s talking). After hearing Wakko said… a dozen times on one page, we start grinding our teeth. We can’t help it. It’s noise to our ears.

The same thing holds for descriptions. Yes, I know Phoebe is over six feet tall. You’ve mentioned it seven times in the past ten pages. Or that the blood is bright red. Or that Phoebe is six feet tall. Or that Yakko is a cyborg. Or that one of my over-six-foot characters is Phoebe. See what I mean? I’m clearly doing it as a humorous way to make a point, but it’s kinda getting on your nerves, isn’t it?

And I’ve talked before about doing this with reveals. The first time I reveal something to my readers is an amazing, jaw-dropping thing. Because it’s facts they don’t know. It’s information. But the second time I show it off it’s… well, it’s not as interesting. And the third time, if there’s no point to this, it’s kinda boring. By the fourth time okay seriously can we just get on with this? What? A fifth time? Seriously?

Repetition can turn anything I have to say into noise fast. So I want to be very careful if I’m going to repeat any information for a third or fourth time. And like I just joked, if I hit a fifth time…

Wow, I should probably rethink some things.

Next time we’re going to jump back to the A2Q and talk about theme. Yeah, I know. You just had this gut, high school reaction to that word. I’m going to try to help you get past that.

Until then, go write.

October 30, 2015

Gentlemen… BEHOLD!

            Okay, it’s just going to be a quick post this week. I found out kind of last minute that I’m hosting the Writer’s Coffeehouse in San Diego on Sunday (noon at Mysterious Galaxy—stop by), so I’ve got to scribble up some notes for that.  Also, I’ve got a big Halloween party the night before, so please don’t be surprised if I show up dressed like Rick from Rick and Morty
            Speaking of which, I think this is the first time I haven’t done a horror post on the week of Halloween.
            But let me get back to this week’s point, which is…
            One of the greatest parts of storytelling, in my opinion, is the reveal.  It’s when we find out who the murderer is, or that Phoebe isn’t really dead, or maybe how Wakko ended up with the Elder Blade, or maybe that it isn’t really the Elder Blade, or maybe that Phoebe is actually Wakko’s long-lost sister Dot and she’s had the Elder Blade all along.  Or maybe it’s something a little more mundane, but still a bit of a shock.  It might just be finding out someone died last week, or that someone actually came over to break up with you and not to make wild monkey-love, or even getting those test results back… not with the result we wanted.  On one level or another, pretty much every story is going to have a reveal of some kind.
            This is how I get information across to the reader—I reveal it.  My characters answer the phone, open a book, get a text message, pull back a curtain, step around a corner, tear open an envelope, or turn slowly to see who’s sitting in that chair by the fireplace.  Lots of reveals are minor, some are subtle, and a few carry a ton of dramatic weight because they’ve just changed how my readers are viewing the story.
            Now, there’s an important thing to remember here, and it ties back to something I’ve mentioned once or thrice in the past.  Facts we don’t know are information. Facts we do know (or could’ve very easily deduced) are noise.  Another way to think of noise is that it’s literary static–clutter on the page. 
            Since a reveal deals with information, it can’t be about facts we already know or could’ve figured out on our own.  Even if my characters don’t know it, it’s still noise to the reader.  So if I structure a paragraph or scene or chapter around a reveal that, well, isn’t really a reveal… it’s going to fall flat.
            Let’s look at an example (one I’m making up off the top of my head).
            Our first shot will be Yakko being sworn in as President of the United States.  Maybe ten or twenty pages later we’ll see him chatting at length with the White House press secretary. After that, he’ll be stepping off of Air Force One, waving to the crowds.      
            And then, finally, we’ll have him on the phone.  A black phone, one that’s still connected to a hard line.  And as Yakko tells someone on the other end “Make it happen,” our point of view pulls back to reveal he’s calling from inside… THE OVAL OFFICE!!!
            Big shocker, right?
           Okay, it’s not.  Really, it’s not a surprise at all.  All of us know where the President spends his workdays.  And, well, since I’d made it really clear Yakko was the President, none of us are surprised to see him in the Oval Office.  So my big reveal at the end of that example is supposed to carry dramatic weight, but instead it stumbles because it isn’t carrying anything except noise.
            Y’see, Timmy, a reveal should give my readers information if expect it to have some dramatic impact.  It isn’t dramatic if we already know it.  Or if we easily could’ve figured it out.  And if my writing’s all done around the idea that it is a  dramatic reveal… that’s how my manuscript ends up in the pile on the left.
            So go forth and reveal yourself in–In your writing!!!  Jeez, it’s Halloween, yeah, but there’s little kids out there…
            Next time… well, I’ll do something.
            Until then, go write.
May 8, 2014

Information vs. Noise

            Many thanks for your patience.  Sorry I missed last week, but—as suspected—travel stuff kind of overwhelmed me.  Texas Frightmare was pretty amazing.  If you’re a fan of horror, or any subgenre of horror, I highly recommend it.
            Enough of that, though.  Let’s make some noise.
            Actually, let’s not.
            Writer and writing coach Damon Knight made an interesting observation about how we receive facts as we read.  When we come across a fact that we don’t know, it’s information (I have four different statues of the Egyptian god Anubis on my desk).  Information is new, and we tend to pay attention to it. 
            A fact that we already know, on the other hand, is noise (the sky is blue, candy is sweet, the KKK is bad).  Noise is annoying.  It’s repetitive and distracting.  We try to block it out and focus on other things, because we know listening to noise is a waste of our time.
            Let me give you an example…
            I saw the pilot for a television show a few months back.  Well, most of the pilot.  I shut it off halfway through.  Normally I wouldn’t call out shows or movies for mistakes, but since this one’s already been cancelled, I don’t think it matters.  The entire first act of Once Upon A Time In Wonderland goes back and forth between young Alice adventuring in Wonderland with her Djinn boyfriend and adult Alice in an insane asylum, where she’d been for years because she insisted her childhood stories were all real. 
            As we kept going back and forth, the style of storytelling (and, granted, the whole premise of the show) made it very clear that Alice actually experienced these things.  So the ongoing inquisition at the asylum became doubly pointless.  I knew they thought she made it up and I also knew it really happened. 
            And information we know is just noise. 
            What’s interesting, though, is that as this back and forth continued, a shift happened.  The Wonderland sequences became noise, too.  Even though they were giving new information, it was still couched in the frame of “this really happened.”  And I already knew it really happened, because that was established early on.  So I began to glaze over the entire first act of the show and wondered when the actual story—something new—was going to begin…
            I just finished a book where everyone in a small village is being affected by mood-altering technology that are making them dull and listless.  The most vibrant people are tired and apathetic, and even pale from lack of sunlight.  As our young heroine returns home, she keeps observing how everyone is tired and apathetic and pale.  The girl at the local Quik-E-Mart is tired and apathetic and pale.  The clerk at the grocery store is  tired and apathetic and pale.  The deputy who she confronts about it is tired and apathetic and pale.  And she comments to her as-yet-unaffected friend about how tired and apathetic and pale everyone seems to be, and they wonder what’s going on.
            And I’m sure you were skimming a bit at the end there, because there’s only so many times you can see “tired and apathetic and pale” before you start glossing over it. It’s what I ended up doing.  I have to admit, I skimmed large swaths of the book because it kept showing me the same things over and over again.
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be aware of noise not only in my story, but in the way I tell my story.  It’s unavoidable that I’ll need to repeat something every now and then.  But this should be the rare exception, not the standard pattern of my storytelling. 
            My story should always be moving forward.  My characters should be growing and learning and developing.  This is all progressive motion, and it’s what every story needs to survive. 
            Because if my story doesn’t have forward movement, it’s just me sitting there making noise.
            Next time, I’d like to speak in code for a bit.
            Until then, go write.