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.

February 11, 2016 / 1 Comment

Ignorance Is Bliss

            I just realized that Valentine’s Day is this weekend. If I’d remembered earlier, I wouldn’t‘ve spent the time on this post, I would’ve done my traditional love and/or sex themed post.  And while surprise sex usually goes over well with everyone, I’m afraid I don’t have the time for it right now. Maybe next year.
            It sounds pretty grim when I say it like that.
            Anyway, I wanted to go over something one more time.  Because a couple of you still seem to be baffled by this for some reason…
            Take the Blu-ray case off the shelf.  Use your thumb on the right-hand edge to open the case.  Locate the Blu-ray disc inside the case.  Note that if this is a multi-disc set, you’ll need to select the specific disc you want to watch.  They’re usually numbered.  The number will correspond to a guide of some sort, usually located on the opposing panel of the cover or on the back of the case.  Look for the specific material you want to watch, then find the disc with the same number.  Remove the disc from its bracket.  Hold it by the edges (you don’t need to do this, but it’s easier in the long run).  Set the case back down.  Press power on your television controls.  Press power on your Blu-ray player, and then open.  A small tray will extend out from the player.  Set the disc on the tray with the picture/logo side up and the shiny side down.  Let go of the disc.  Press play and the tray should retract.  Go sit on the couch.  Pick up the remote control for the Blu-ray player.  If you are given the option to skip over all of the previews, do this.  Watch the movie or television episode you have selected. Do not talk during the movie or television episode.  If you have seen the movie or television episode before, do not spoil plot points or character moments for other viewers..
            Now, let’s stop and consider the previous paragraph.
            How many of you started skimming halfway through that?
            It’s okay.  It was kind of mind-numbing for me to write, so I can’t imagine reading it was any better.  As it happens, though, pretty much every reason why exposition tends to suck is in that fascinating explanation of how to watch a Blu-ray. 
            Allow me to explain. 
            First, that paragraph is something we know.  I know it, you know it.  I know you know it. You know that I know you know it.  
            Exposition is boring and pointless if we know the information being presented to us.   It’s just wasting time while we wait for something to happen.  Plus, none of us enjoys sitting through a lecture on something we already know, right?  The more detailed (read—unnecessary) it is, the less interested we are.  So we just zone out and start skimming.
            Damon Knight pointed out that a fact we don’t know is information, but a fact we do know is just noise.  No one wants to read a story full of noise.  As writers, we need to know what our audience knows and work our story around that.  I don’t want to waste time telling people how to open a Blu-ray case.  It’s just a given.  All those words are better spent on something useful.
            The Second  thing to consider is that a lengthy explanation about how a Blu-ray player works serves no purpose here.  None.  This is a blog about writing tips, so a paragraph about electronics is a waste of space.  Nobody came here looking for that information, and the people who are looking for it won’t be looking here.  You’ll notice that those instructions don’t tell you the best way to kill a Deathclaw in Fallout 4—even though Fallout is a really cool game which (like Blu-rays) can be played on a PS4.  The instructions also don’t mention that I don’t even own a Blu-ray player. Or a PS4.  Mildly interesting facts, sure, but even less relevant than the bit about killing a Deathclaw.
            These two points are, on a guess, about 83% of the reason most exposition sucks.  Find any book or story  with exposition that gnaws at you, and I’ll bet it falls into one of those two categories.
            So, how do we get around that?
            I’ve mentioned something called the ignorant stranger  a few times.  It’s my own term, one which I came up with while writing a review of Shogun years ago.  It’s a simple way to use as much exposition as I want in a short story, screenplay, or novel.    
            Just have a source of information explain something to someone who doesn’t know these facts.
             Easy, right?  Just remember these three things…
            First, my ignorant stranger has to be on the same level as my readers.  I don’t want to confuse ignorant with stupid.  It’s only this particular situation that has put him or her at a disadvantage.  The reader or audience is learning alongside my character, so we don’t want to wait while the stranger’s educated on how Amazon works, where Antarctica is on a map, and why people eat food.  Again, my ignorant stranger can’t actually be stupid
            Second, the person explaining things, the source of knowledge, has to be smarterthan the stranger on this topic, and thus, smarter than my audience.  If what’s being explained is something my readers can figure out on their own then the Source is wasting everyone’s time (and my page count) by explaining it.  Remember, I want information, not noise.  Yeah, maybe this particular Source doesn’t know much about baseball, Star Wars, or the eternal mystery that is love, but on the topic they’re explaining this character needs to be an authority.  It needs to be clear the Source’s knowledge dwarfs the ignorant stranger’s on this topic.
            Finally (or third, if you like), there needs to be a pressing need for the Source to explain this.  There may be lots of things our stranger (and the reader) is ignorant about, so why are they talking about this fact right now?
            Shogun gets away with tons of exposition because Blackthorne—an English sailor trapped in feudal Japan—is a perfect ignorant stranger.  He’s a smart man, a man we can relate to, but he’s in a  country where he doesn’t know the language, the customs, the culture, anything.  So even as his situation forces him to interact with people, they’re forced to explain pretty much everything to him.
            So there it is.  If anyone tries to tell you only bad writers use exposition in a story, tell them it’s only the bad writers who don’t know how to use exposition.  Then explain the ignorant stranger to them.  And then look smug while you pop in a Blu-ray and watch Star Wars
            Next time, I’d like to tell you about my perfect woman.
            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.
July 1, 2011 / 3 Comments

One Time Only

If at first you don’t succeed… destroy all evidence you ever made the attempt.

No, no, don’t do that…

A few years back I was working on a film set where we were staging a bank robbery. The director… well, let’s be polite and say he wasn’t quite as knowledgeable as he thought he was.

We ended up doing a big dolly track move that encompassed the whole scene. Then we did a series of tighter moves. Then we did a wide master of the scene and got all the coverage. Then we did a reverse master of the scene and started doing coverage on that. Then came all the reaction shots for everyone in the bank. And by this time, the crew was starting to grumble, because every one of us knew what was going wrong.

As it turned out, my department had an intern, and he was still watching all this with complete newbie glee. As the day (and the bank robbery) wore on and on, he asked me what everyone was getting so grumpy about. After all, weren’t these all cool shots? I agreed they were, but pointed out that at least half of them were a waste of time. When he asked why, I came up with this way to explain it.

“When all this gets cut together,” I told him, pointing at one of our extras “you can only use one shot of them robbing that bank teller. You can break it up a bit, but not much because it’s happening so fast. At the end of the day, you can only rob teller number five once, so filming nine different versions of her getting robbed is a waste of time. If this guy knew what he was doing, he’d just get the shots he was going to use and that’d be it.”

The intern took those words to heart, and two or three more times during that project he’d give me a nod on days when scenes were just dragging and say “You can only rob teller number five once.”

The point of the story being, I know at least one person has gotten something useful out of my rambling.

No, wait, sorry, the point is that when you’re telling a story you can’t do the same thing again and again and expect it to have the same weight.

There’s an idea in literary theory (sorry, I do have to go there now and then) which says you can only experience a story for the first time once. After that first time, your brain can’t help but restructure your view of the story to see it with more experienced eyes. If you’ve ever read a mystery novel for a second time, or maybe rewatched films like The Sixth Sense, Dead Again, or The Prestige, you know it’s a very different experience when you go through these stories a second time. Or a third time. But you can never, ever get that first time again. Even something like The Empire Strikes Back changes between the first and second exposure to the material.

This is why we all hate spoilers, because the innocence, so to speak, of that first experience is being taken away from us and we can never get it back. To be honest, this is also one of the problems I have with the “film school” approach to movies. A lot of these folks get taught to study and dissect films rather than to watch them, so the first time with the story is lost on these people. They never see the movie the way it was intended to be seen—they just jump straight to the second viewing. Which seems counterproductive when you want to learn how to do something. It’s like going to cooking school and never bothering to taste anything.

Anyway… I digress. But not by much.

There’s another aspect to doing the same thing more than once, and this is the idea of noise. A few times before I’ve brought up Damon Knight and his wonderful observation about facts. A fact we don’t know is information, but a fact we already know is noise. This is true even if we just learned the fact ten or fifteen pages earlier.

An example…

I read a book a while back where one piece of information was “revealed” four times. Essentially, character A discovered a mysterious South American temple that shouldn’t exist. Then A was killed and B found his notes, so B discovered the temple. B quickly related the story to C and then C explained the whole thing to D, so now D learned about the temple. And D… well D was pretty high-ranking, so he went to the President and told the whole Cabinet about the temple. And every single time people would have incredulous reactions and then the reader got the explanation of what the temple represented and who built and how we know it’s ten thousand years old and what we think it is.

Every. Single. Time.

Y’see, Timmy, that information is powerful the first time we hear it. Like so many things that get repeated, though, it loses power every time. In this case, it’s not just losing power, it’s taking a rapid plunge from information to noise.

Plus, it’s taken a huge emotional hit. Finding out that the pyramid strongly implied, if not proved, a pre-human civilization was amazing… the first time. The second time it was something we already knew, even if it was new to this particular character. The third time it was annoying. By the fourth time, personally, I was skimming.

Here’s an easier example, and one we’ve all probably dealt with at some point or another. Have you ever had someone tell a joke (or what they thought was a joke) and then they repeated the punchline when no one laughed? Maybe they repeated it two or three times. Perhaps they went after people one on one (“Hey, Timmy, did you hear when Mike said he wasn’t putting in enough hours and I said ‘That’s what she said’..”). In these situations, as the joke was repeated again and again, we all just got more and more annoyed, didn’t we?

Now, anytime a writer has a fair-sized cast of characters and an even slightly challenging plot, they’re going to have to deal with this issue. You can’t have everybody walking around together experiencing every single thing at the same time. Which means there are going to be points when A and B know something C and D don’t. The trick is coming up with ways to share that information without having the story come to a grinding halt while characters discuss things the reader already knows.

I bring this up not just because of the head-banging nature of that book I referenced above, or because of scarring memories of the bank robbery. Y’see, this is something I’m dealing with right now. In my current project I’m juggling a large cast who are investigating a mystery separately, but keep coming together to compare notes. I know my mystery, but the roadblock is getting past awkward infodump scenes without neglecting this character or that one. I mean, Debbie’s reaction to what they found in the sub-basement is just as valid as Pash’s, isn’t it? She just had the bad luck of having to work that day so she couldn’t go exploring and had to get that information second hand.

You get one chance for your big reveal and that’s it. One. You can’t keep revealing it again and again and expect that reveal to have the same emotional weight. It’s also not going to draw the audience in, because it’s gone from being a surprise to being… well, just another fact.

And if you’re not careful, repetitive facts can get dry and boring really quick.

Next week, I’d like to tell you about the time I sat around for hours watching the most inefficient bank robbery ever.

No, actually, next time I’d like to describe something you’ve probably never seen before.

Until then, go write.