Old reference from the Incredible Hulk comics.  Paraphrased, but very relevant.  Points if you know who said it.
           So, a few weeks back I talked about suspension of disbelief.  It’s how we guide our readers through the parts of our stories that, well, don’t hold up to rigorous examination.  They’re inherently wrong, illogical, or maybe just very out of character for that person on the page–or maybe for anyone.  This sort of thing breaks the flow of my story.  If I break the flow often enough, my reader’s just going to put the book down and move onto something more entertaining like the latest episode of Galavant.  Or laundry.

            Now, that being said, sometimes I just need a coincidence or an irrational act.  It’s the curse of being a writer.  Every now and then someone needs some amazing good luck or really horrible bad luck.  They find the key.  They forget the password.  They manage to make the nigh-impossible shot on their first try.  Their cell phone battery dies.

            Here’s a quick tip that can help make that moment work.
            There’s a device I’ve mentioned before called “hanging a lantern on it.”  It’s when I take that odd coincidence and—rather than try to hide it or brush it aside—I draw attention to it.  I put a spotlight on it.  Not as the writer, mind you, but within the story itself.  When I hang a lantern on something, an odd or unlikey event happens and my characters address the oddness or unlikelihood of it
            In my Ex-Heroes series, for example, the subject of origins comes up in the second book, Ex-Patriots.  One of the characters, Cesar Mendoza, has the ability to possess machinery, and explains that he got the power when he was younger.  According to him, he was struck by lightning while working on a car’s alternator.
            Ridiculous, right?
            Thing is, St. George immediatelypoints out how ridiculous this is. He even gives examples and explains just how impossible it is for a lightning strike to give someone superpowers.  Cesar’s response is just to shrug and point out “Yeah, but it did.”  And then he asks how St. George got his powers, and our hero awkwardly admits he got his powers by getting caught in an explosion when a radioactive meteor hit a chemical storeroom at the lab where he was cleaning up.
            So, why does this little trick work?
            Well, y’see, Timmy, when my reader sees something ridiculous happen in the story and my characters acknowledge that thing is ridiculous, it makes them more believable and relatable.  It’s just the way we’re wired as people.  We can’t forgive a million-to-one coincidence that everyone takes in stride, but we kind of buy it if everbody comments on the odds we just beat.  When the reader and the character have the same reaction, it pulls the reader in a little bit rather than pushing them away.
            Now, does hanging a lantern make a story’s lucky coincidence totally acceptable?  Well, not always.  But it’ll push back the suspension of disbelief a few notches.  So if I’m asking the audience to accept something small-to-midsize (that five people on a subway car all have the same birthday), and I make a point of commenting on the oddness of it, the readers will probably accept it without too much trouble.  If it’s a huge coincidence that really strains belief (“None of the codebreakers thought to see if the password was his birthday?!?”)… well, there’s only so much any plot device can do.
            Also, keep in mind I can’t include dozens of belief-straining elements and hang a lantern on each one.  In fiction, just like in real life, people start to get weirded out by too many coincidences.  When it happens once it’s good (or bad) luck.  Twice is just crazy.  Three times… okay, now I’m looking around.  Four times and someone’s interfering with my life, somehow. 
            Looking at it from the authorial side of it, it’s something you can only do once or thrice before people start to catch on to what you’re really doing.  A good magician rarely repeats a trick, because once the audience sees what you’re doing, the trick’s ruined. 
            And now I can never use it again.
            So if my readers are going to think something is a bit unlikely… maybe my characters should, too.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about photobombers.
            Until then, go write.
November 13, 2015

Beware… The Mosquito!

            Okay, first, please forgive me for some shameless pandering…
            Somehow, my book The Fold was nominated for best sci-fi book of 2015 over at Goodreads.  I don’t know how. I don’t even go to Goodreads. 
            Regardless, it was nominated and made it to the semi-final round, which ends on Saturday.  So if you happen to be reading this and didn’t read anything better this year (like, say, Armada or The Water Knife—both also in the running), I’d appreciate it if you could hop over to Goodreads and cast a vote for The Fold.
            Sorry about all that.  Kind of annoying, wasn’t it?
            Anyway, this week I want to talk about annoying things. To be exact I want to talk about mosquitoes.  I’ve seen a lot of them lately.
            A mosquito is the frustrating, you-want-to-slap-them character who shows up in books or movies.  That man or woman who simply cannot take a hint or get a clue, no matter how hard the other characters hit them with one.  Usually the mosquito won’t shut up.  Ever.  No matter what.  Plus, it’s a safe bet if someone tells them not to do something, that will be the very next thing they do.
            They’re just… well, they’re annoying as hell.
            Worse yet, the mosquitoes never acknowledge the problems they’re causing.  They leave shattered plans, damaged treasures, and unachieved goals in their wake—almost never their own—and often don’t grasp why it’s such a big deal.  Was that important?  Don’t get so worked up.
            And… wow, when the mosquito is the main character?
            By the way, this is just my name for this type of character.  Don’t expect to find the term “mosquito” in use anywhere else until I put out my how-to book on writing—Storytelling-the Ed Wood Method! Also, I may come up with a better term before the end of this post.
            Now, this is just my thinking, but I feel there are two big reasons mosquitoes get annoying so fast in stories.  One is that… well, they aren’t good characters.  I don’t mean this in the sense of poorly written or imagined, just that they aren’t the kind of characters people like to read about or follow.  I’ve mentioned a few times here that good characters have to be likeable, relatable, and believable.  As we just said, mosquitoes aren’t likeable—they’re annoying.  That’s why they’re mosquitoes.  They’re also not relatable, because nobody thinks they’re this kind of person, which means no one will identify with them. Think about it—the most talkative, clueless person you know doesn’t think they’re talkative or clueless.  So right off the bat, a mosquito is failing two of the three basic criteria for a good character.
            The other reason mosquitoes are annoying in a story is because they violate the rule of three.  It’s a term I’ve brought up here once or thrice in the past.  It usually applies to screenwriting, but you can find it in books, too.  At its core, the rule of three tells us that if something keeps getting mentioned, it’s important to the plot or story.  If it wasn’t important, it wouldn’t be mentioned three times. 
            Simple, yes?  I’ve mentioned something similar with names.  If I make a point of telling you the waiter’s name, he must be important to the story somehow.  A bare bones version of this would be the popular adage of Chekov’s Rifle, which says if we see a phaser rifle on the bridge in Act One, it should be set to overload and kill someone in act three.  If something is in my story, there’s a reason for it being there.
            I see a lot of mosquitoes buzz around and around… but they don’t actually do anything.  Their buzzing doesn’t distract the bad guy at a key moment.  Their failure to follow instructions doesn’t save the day. Their refusal to admit fault doesn’t give a vital clue. What little they do contribute could easily be done by someone else.  Anyone else.
            They’re just annoying. 
            Y’see, Timmy, when a character has such a defining trait that doesn’t pay off somehow, we end up wondering why said character’s even here.  Why did I put someone in my story that nobody likes or relates to?  That serves no purpose?
            That being said… what are some good reasons to have a mosquito in my story?
            Contrast—Sometimes I start off writing a character as a mosquito so they can go through a transformation.  That’s a basic character arc, to start one way, change somehow, and end up as someone a bit different. In Hot Fuzz, Constable Danny Butterman is a mosquito.  He’s the screw-up, chattering cop that type-A police officer Nicholas Angel is partnered with.  Through the course of the film, though, Danny learns to take his responsibilities as a police officer more seriously, and by the end of the story he’s grown up a bit and become a different kind of cop.  In this case, the character starts annoying so they have room to grow.
            We’re All Thinking It—Every now and then, somebody needs to lay the cards on the table. Maybe say some things other characters don’t want to hear. And my mosquito can do this, since they’re usually talking non-stop anyway.  Vince Vaughn has played this character a few times, like in Made when he points out to his friend Bobby (Jon Faverau) that everybody knows Bobby’s would-be girlfriend is sleeping with their boss.  In Love & Other Drugs, Jamie’s little brother Josh pretty much gives a monologue about how eye-opening it was to have sex with someone he didn’t care about, and how up until now he’d really envied his big brother but now he kind of pities him.
            In the same way, if I’ve already got a mosquito, they can beat the audience to asking questions and pointing things out.  This can calm some nitpicky readers and help carry the suspension of disbelief.  On The Flash, Cisco’s tendency to babble makes it more acceptable that he’s constantly coming up with super-villain codenames for the metahumans he and his friends fight.   As with many things, though, this is something I want to be cautious with.  This should be a tool, not part of my core structure.
            Breaking Points—Sometimes the mosquito uses their annoyance to their own benefit.  “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Ruthless People, and The Ref all use the idea of kidnappers stuck dealing with a mosquito.  In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Gint’s nonstop babbling make it hard for the police to catch small holes in his story.
            It’s worth pointing out, though, that in all of these examples, the mosquito is the antagonist of the story.  Not necessarily the villain, but definitely the antagonist.  They start off with them as the victim, but our sympathies slowly shift to the other characters—they’re the ones we’re identifying with and relating to.
            Fast friends—Okay, I was tempted not to mention this one, but… what the hell.  I’m trusting you to use this responsibly.
            Sometimes we need to introduce a character just to kill them off.  The problem is that it’s really hard to have any sympathy for a character we’ve only known for seven or eight pages.  In this case, a mosquito can work because… well, if they’re talking non-stop they have to talk about something, right?  Family, goals, television shows, dirty jokes—there’s any number of things this character can spew out.  The reader can have a reason to like them and before the character gets annoying BANG they’re dead, just like that.
            The thing is… I can only do this rarely.  Once a book is almost too much.  More like once every two or three books.  The moment I start to overuse this, it becomes a cheap gag—the sort of thing done in bad horror movies and SyFy films from the Asylum.
            Keep in mind, there are other ways to make a mosquito acceptable, too.  The important thing is that I have a reason for giving my character such an abrasive trait.  If I don’t… it’s going to be really challenging for me to keep my readers interested.
            And writing is challenging enough as it is without making it harder for no reason.
            Next time, let’s take this storytelling thing on the road.
            Until then, go write.
April 15, 2010 / 2 Comments

How To Get Away With It

Not really pop culture, but it seemed relevant considering the day. My other option was “This Serves No Purpose!!!” from Galaxy Quest. That’s pop culture and it’s a perfect example of what I wanted to prattle on about.

Alas, taxes are a certainty…

Speaking of taxing something, a while back I mentioned the problem of false drama. It’s when random stuff happens between your characters for no reason. Dot suddenly hates Wakko. Out of nowhere, Yakko is smitten with Phoebe. For motives we can’t understand, Wakko has decided to start arguing with the ninjas. Likewise, I’ve rambled on about motivated action and motivations in general. Stuff don’t “just happen” in a story because there’s a guiding force behind it all–the writer. Even acts of God in a story need to have a purpose.

Things also can’t happen just to fuel the story. That’s the difference between a character’s motivation and the writer’s. Anything in a story that isn’t natural or organic breaks the flow, and one of the worst things a writer can do is give the reader time to sit and think about how ridiculous something in a story is. It taxes their patience and strains suspension of disbelief.

With that being said, sometimes we just need a coincidence or an irrational act. It’s the curse of being a writer. Wakko needs to argue with those ninjas.

Now, I recently got to talk to some of the writers from LOST and an interesting term came up. Every now and then, by nature of their show, the story requires them to put in an odd coincidence or have a character make a very unusual choice. One way they solve this, according to Eddy Kitsis, is by “hanging a lantern on it.”

As the name implies, hanging a lantern on something means drawing attention to it. Not as the writer, but within the story. It’s when something odd or unlikey happens and the characters themselves comment on the oddness or unlikelihood of this.

On LOST, when Sun needs a pregnancy test, she and Kate find one in Sawyer’s stash of scavenged medication and toiletries. And while they’re waiting for the result, they both wonder what kind of person would bring a pregnancy test on an airplane. Really, isn’t that just a bit ridiculous?

In my book, Ex-Heroes, we’re told early on that the Mighty Dragon’s real name is George Bailey. Yes, George Bailey just like in It’s A Wonderful Life. He tells us this himself in a first-person chapter. And then he immediately points out how cruel his parents were and also that he owns the movie and has watched it several times.

So, why does this little trick work?

When the characters themselves immediately acknowledge a choice or action is unusual or ridiculous, it takes the edge off that element for the audience. We can’t forgive the million-to-one coincidence that everyone takes in stride, but we can if the people involve recognize those odds and comment on the unlikeliness of it.

What we wouldn’t forgive is the bizarre coincidence of someone flying with a one-use, specific item like a pregnancy test and everyone ignoring that coincidence. Good characters mirror their audience to some degree, so if the reader thinks this is a bit ridiculous, the characters probably should, too.

Look at Casablanca. It’s got a classic lantern moment. When the film begins, Rick has tried to vanish. He’s gone to another city, in another country, on another continent to escape his previous life, and a few years later the woman who tore out his heart comes walking through the door of his new place. Think about it–the odds of this are astronomical. But we never even consider the odds because Rick himself broods over them in a drunken stupor. “Of all the gin joints in all the world… why did she have to walk into mine?” We accept it because he’s sitting here acknowledging his miserable luck.

Now, does hanging a lantern make a story’s lucky coincidence totally acceptable? Well, not always. What it will do, though, is push back the suspension of disbelief a few notches. By acknowledging this convenient bit of plot or character within the story, the writer’s showing that their characters aren’t stupid, which taxes the reader’s patience. It’s also acknowledging that the reader isn’t stupid, because they just get angry when a writer does that.

So if the coincidence is a small one (say, two guys with the same name also have girlfriends with the same name) and you make a point of commenting on the oddness of it, we as the readers will probably accept it without question. If it’s one of those “you’ve got to be &*%#!ng kidding me!!” type of coincidences… well, you might be able to get it down to a raised eyebrow and a slight eye roll.

It’s also worth keeping in mind, this doesn’t mean you can include dozens and dozens of bizarre coincidences in your screenplay or manuscript and get away with pointing out each one. Like most magic tricks, it’s something you can only do once or thrice before people start to catch on to what you’re really doing. And once they see what you’re doing the illusion’s shattered on a bunch of levels.

Next time around, I’d like to prattle on about that old chestnut, writing what you know, and why fighter pilots don’t always make good writers.

Until then, go write.