June 16, 2016

Single Purpose Ideas

            Whoa!  Two weeks in a row.  Haven’t managed that in a while…
            One of my favorite television shows is winding up, and while I absolutely love it overall, I’ve been looking back on it with a bit more of a critical eye.  Specifically one season where it felt like the show went off the rails.
            No, it’s not important which show.
            The thing is, it struck me that at one point the basic idea of the show changed, but the show itself didn’t.  It kept telling the same kind of stories—stories that didn’t fit this new idea.  And that’s where it fumbled.  A similar show I was watching had the same problem—its stories didn’t fit its basic premise.
            This isn’t an uncommon problem.  I’ve seen it in books, too.  Heck, as my editor just pointed out, I got my feet a bit wet in it with one of my recent drafts (which kind of sparked this).
            So, let’s talk about ideas.
            I’ve talked in the past about limited and unlimited concepts. I think about 99.99% of all stories fall into one of these categories.  Which one I’m using should have an effect on how I structure my story.
            A limitedconcept is one that comes with a clear, specific goal. Yakko wants to get home. Dot wants to get the girl.  Wakko wants to save the farm.  Phoebe wants to stop the bad guy.  My character has an objective, the story is about them achieving it.  A to B.
            At its heart, this is probably the simplest kind of story, and one of the most common.  A self-contained book is a limited concept.  So are most movies.  There may be more steps involved than just A to B, but really it boils down to discover goal, accomplish goal.
            The flipside of this is an unlimited concept. This is where my characters have less of a goal and more of a general mission, if that makes sense. Wakko is trying to raise his kids as a single dad in the big city.  Yakko solves complex medical cases.  Dot and her team of specialists protect the country—and sometimes the world—from supernatural and alien threats.
            An unlimited concept is a bit more complex because it’s a much broader idea.  Most ongoing television shows (the thought-out ones, anyway) are unlimited concepts.  So are most book series.  The reason for this is because an unlimited concept, by its nature, can go on and on for a long time without feeling stretched out.  They don’t have a clear end point.
            Now, we’ve all seen what happens when these things get swapped. A writer may have a very solid limited concept that they decide—or are told—to do as an unlimited one.  It doesn’t matter if you have a very solid three-season story about people trying to get off this weird island, the network says it needs to run for four seasons.  Sorry, we meant five.  Okay, make it six.
            This is when things start to fall apart.  The story starts to feel padded because we all recognize that it’s… well, padded.  Forward movement has stopped, because forward movement would mean hitting the end of the story.
            Everybody loves to talk about prequels, but every prequel inherently has to be a limited concept.  A is where we begin, B is the story we already know. There’s only so much that happens between them.  Every prequel automatically starts with a limited amount of time to tell a story in.  As a writer, I can’t keep putting off B.  Eventually we have to get there, because if we don’t, it’s going to become clear I’m putting off B for no reason except to put off B.  This is a big problem a lot of prequels have.
            Let me give you an example.
            In case you forgot, Smallville was the story of high school student Clark Kent growing up in the titular town, developing the powers and learning the lessons that will eventually make him the greatest hero ever.  The producers joked early on that when Clark learned to fly, the series would be over. After all, at that point he’d be Superman.  We began with Clark already strong, fast, and invulnerable.  Heat vision and X-ray vision showed up before season two was halfway done, then super-hearing (all usually just in time to counter a specific problem).  And then…
            Well, Smallvilledid really well in the ratings.  So it kept getting renewed.  The network and the producers didn’t want the show to end, so they had to keep coming up with reasons for Clark to not become Superman.  Because Superman was point B.  Once we’re there, the show’s over.  So Clark developed every Kryptonian power there was and then spent eight more years not learning to fly and notbeing Superman.  Heck, the last four seasons pretty much took place entirely in Metropolis.  And while a good chunk of it was still interesting… a lot of it just felt like stretching things out.
            The other issue with a limited concept is when the characters just start to ignore their goal.  Like when the whole point of my story is to save the farm, but I’ve just spent six chapters on Wakko going to an art gallery opening and buying something by a hot new—wait a minute!  He’s trying to save the farm but he’s dropping money on outsider art?  What the hell?
            Once I’ve set a goal for my character—and it should be a big one—this needs to be their focus.  They can head in another direction for a little bit, but their attention really needs to stay on that end point of B.  Veering too far off course and getting distracted will just have my readers rolling their eyes.  I can’t say Dot only has until tomorrow to stop Armageddon and then have her take an afternoon at the spa and dinner out with the cute guy from marketing because, hey, life is short, right?
            That fantastic show I mentioned up top—the one that’s ending—it had this problem.  It started as an unlimited concept, a very procedural-type show.  But halfway through season three, the show shifted (very beautifully and organically) into a limited concept.  Thing is… it kept doing procedural, one off stories all through season four.  There’s a bomb ticking away somewhere, ready to take out half the city, but our heroes keep stopping in their search to hand out speeding tickets and chase down drug dealers.  It became teeth-grindingly frustrating as the protagonists continued to get bogged down in minor side stories while that huge B goal loomed over them.
            Another problem I see a lot with limited concept stories is when people try to go pastB. Because in an A to B story… B is the end. We’re done.  Anything after this is just… well, excess.  Trying to force the story on past B to C just becomes awkward.  Once the crew of the Federation starship Voyager makes it home to the Alpha Quadrant, the show’s over.  Sure, we could’ve had another season of everyone being debriefed, getting accustomed to life back on Earth, maybe getting assigned to new ships or new missions… but that’s not what Voyager was about.
            A great example of this you may have heard of is the Moonlighting Curse, named after the old show with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd.  The idea is, basically, once my two main characters sleep together, my show is doomed.  And I think there is some truth to this… in certain cases.
            Y’see, Timmy, a lot of television and book series will have a plot built around an unlimited concept (two zany, mismatched partners solve crimes).  The story, however, is a limited concept about these two characters—will they fall in love, or at least fall into bed?  And when that happens, when they’ve hit point B, their story is over.  It doesn’t matter if the plot is unlimited—there’s nowhere else for the characters to go except past B, and that’s fumbly, unexplored, and usually uninteresting territory (when compared to that original A to B).
          Whenever I get an idea, I try to take a good look at it.  Is it limited or unlimited?  What am I thinking of doing with it?  Does my idea match up with the story I’m hoping to tell?
            Because if it doesn’t… something’s going to need to change.
            Next time, I’d like to alter the mood a bit and talk about rejection.
            Until then… go write.
October 4, 2012 / 3 Comments

The First Thing That Comes to Mind

            I just wanted to do something quick this week, but hopefully you’ll all be impressed by the clever way I make this particular point.

            Grab a piece of paper and write these things down real quick.  Don’t think, don’t second-guess yourself, just scribble down the first things that come to mind, okay?  I want you to write down a television show about an island, a number from one to four, a Disney princess, and a vegetable.
            We’ll get back to that in a bit.
            Every now and then you’ll hear some guru talk about Jung or the zeitgeist or collective subconscious.  They’re pretty terms, but I’d guess four out of five times the people slinging them don’t really know what they mean.
            I think it’s much simpler than that.  Nowadays we’re all watching the same shows and movies and listening to the same music.  A lot of us are reading the same highly-recommended books.  Through the wonders of the internet, we can spend an hour each morning getting news updates from around the country and around the world.  Plus, all of us can discover the same Korean rap star within a week of each other.
            I’d guess at least ninety percent of you reading this had a basic Western education.  Most of us probably went to college for a few years, too.  We’ve compared banks and apartment-shopped and made budgets for either work or the home.  Maybe both. 
            We all share a lot of the same experiences, and we draw on those experiences to make the same decisions.  Because of this, we tend to be drawn to the same things—especially when you start dividing folks into fans of different genres and styles. 
            This is why you should never, ever go with the first idea you think of.  Because the odds are very good that at least a thousand other people just thought of it, too.  And half of those people are going to attempt something with that idea.
            I’ve talked about screenplay contests and some of the recurring concepts that made me and other readers cringe.  One of those was the Current Events script.  It’s a screenplay based off a recent, high-profile story that got a fair amount of news coverage.  They’re almost always rushed and, more to the point, there’s usually at least half-a-dozen of them about the same event.  And that’s just what one individual reader sees, so odds are there are a few hundred  of these scripts floating around each contest, all based off the same event. 
            A few months back I started toying with the idea of a new book, one that could possibly be the start of a new series.  Almost immediately, I came up with something that I thought was fairly clever and very open-ended.  I mentioned it to a friend over Labor Day weekend, though, and she said it sounded familiar.  She whipped out her Kindle, browsed Amazon for a minute, and came up with a name and title for me.
            Well, I got home and started checking it out.  It turns out the other author and I had both come up with the exact same premise.  Our main characters had the same background, the same life-changing event with the same results (and requiring the same medical breakthrough), and the same changes in their life because of it.  Different plots, but the story of our main character was almost identical.  The other author had just come up with it eighteen months earlier than me.
            We all get exposed to the same input and process it in similar ways.  That’s why the first thing that comes to mind is usually the thing that everyone else thought of, too.  Even if I think I’m a clever and exceedingly smart writer, I’m going to make the same first choices as everyone else.
            Don’t believe me?  Remember those things I asked you about up above?  I’m willing to bet that most of you wrote down LOST, three, Cinderella, and carrots. 
            What did I get?  Three out of four right?  I bet I got four out of four for some of you.
            When it comes to plot, try to avoid going with the first thing that comes to mind.  If you’re feeling gutsy, avoid the second and third, too.  That’s what makes a good writer—going beyond the obvious.
            Next time, unless I get another really cool request, I’m thinking I might talk a little bit about characters.
            Until then, go write.
September 21, 2012

One Step Ahead

            First off, if you want it, there’s kind of a bonus post this week.  Go check out Ebon Shores, a great little horror site from down under, where I was asked to prattle on for their “Wednesday Writer” column.  Actually, page through some of the past ones, too.  There’s a lot of really good stuff there.

            Speaking of horror…
            By nature of my chosen career, I tend to read and see a lot of horror stuff.  Specifically, post-apocalyptic stuff, usually with some form of zombie in it.  And there’s a certain recurring flaw that always gnaws at me. 
            It’s when characters do or say things that experience says they shouldn’t.  The kind of things that common sense tells you they should’ve figured out not to do or say ages ago.  How often do you see zombie hunters in t-shirts, even when they know one scratch could mean death?  Or that one guy who sets his gun down and walks a few yards away from it?  Or, knowing there could be zombies in the area, they reach into the dark room and start feeling around for a light switch with their one, ungloved hand…
            Or sometimes it’s what characters don’t do.  They’ll find a door and talk about how it might be locked, how it could be dead bolted, or how there may have been a cave in that’s blocking it from the other side.  The one thing none of them will do is actually attempt to open the door.  And if they did and it didn’t open, it’d never occur to them to try that key they found on the floor down the hallway.  Even though they know there’s a zombie apocalypse going on, they’ll forget to barricade windows.
            Simply put, it’s when the readers can see one step ahead and the characters can’t.  It’s when the audience can foresee the consequences of an action (or inaction), but the people in the story don’t.  And if the reader stops to think about that sort of thing, then I’m doing something wrong as a writer.  It means my characters’ choices or actions are breaking the flow of the story.
            There’s a very, very bad sequel to a very, very good classic World War Two movie.  Early in the film, our heroes arrive in Germany in a stolen plane.  The plan is to pose as German soldiers and officers, sneak away, and then begin their mission behind enemy lines.  It’s only after the four hour flight, as the plane is taxiing to a stop at the end of the landing strip, that the mission commander realize the one flaw in their plan.  One of the team members is a black man!  How will they pass him off as a Nazi?
            The resolution was kind of clever in that quick-fix sort of way, but it didn’t change the fact that the whole situation was stupid as hell.  The one question everyone asks at this point is “Why the hell did no one think of this before?”
           Y’see, like most readers and movie watchers, I have a tendency to think about what I’d do in a given situation.  I’d punch that guy.  I’d lean in and kiss the girl.  I’d make sure my shotgun was loaded beforeI stepped out into the zombie-filled hallway.  And nothing frustrates me more as a reader than when I see an immediate, obvious flaw in a character’s motivations or actions.

            That’s not to say every character should react like me (or you, or that guy).  If the writer’s got any sense of empathy, though, I should at least be able to see why characters make the choices they do.  I might’ve punched that guy, but Jack Reacher might be biding his time or just trying to keep a low profile and not to stir up too much trouble.  Many of us might’ve leaned in to kiss Elizabeth Swann, but we all understand why Will Turner feels bound by duty, honor, and social mores to let that opportune moment slip by. 

            Y’see, Timmy, one of the best things I can do as a storyteller is think one step ahead.  For the most part, the audience shouldn’t be able to think of something I didn’t already think of.  Oh, there’s always going to be that five or six percent who shriek about “totally obvious” things, but forget them.  I don’t need to cover everything, I just need to answer the immediate questions.
            “Hanging a lantern on it” is a great example of being one step ahead.  I know this odd coincidence is going to bother the reader, so I’ll have one of my characters point out how odd and coincidental it is
            LOSTdid this a lot to help take the edge off some of the oddities of the island and the plot devices they needed to further the story.  Hurley questions why there’s a brand new washer and dryer set in the otherwise very retro underground station called The Swan.  Kate and Sun wonder what kind of person travels with a pregnancy test.  Ben questions the odds of a spinal surgeon literally dropping out of the sky just a few weeks after he learns he’s got a tumor on his spine.
            Looking ahead can also be a good gauge for exposition and figuring out how much is too much.  In a couple of my books and novellas I have scenes of scientific jargon and techno-speak.  But I don’t need to explain things out in full and exacting detail.  I just need to be one step ahead and address enough points that my story doesn’t get hung up on my lack of explanation. 
            In Ex-Patriots I explain that the military’s been “training” zombies to follow simple orders.  But I don’t leave it at that.  In the same chapter I introduce the idea of the Nest—a NEural STimulator—which sends electricity to parts of a zombie’s brain in order to reactivate it.  I don’t need to explain what parts of the brain, how much voltage or amperage, or how they first tested it.
            A famous example of this is in Back to the Future, when Doctor Emmet Brown tells us he’s made a time machine out of a DeLorean.  Even as we’re processing this, though, part of us wondering… well, how?  How does someone turn a sports car into a time machine?  It’s kind of goofy and ludicrous all at the same time.  And then Doc shows us the flux capacitor and tells Marty (and the audience), “this is what makes time travel possible.”  And it’s glowy and it buzzes and, well… yeah, okay, that makes sense. A DeLorean on its own couldn’t travel through time, but a DeLorean with a flux capacitor channeling 1.21 gigawatts of electricity…
             Doc’s addressed our question before we even got to ask it out loud. So the story never pauses and we get carried along into the next bit.  And the DeLorean goes down in history (no pun intended) as probably one of the top three fictional time machines.
            Sometimes all staying ahead takes is being aware of where the characters are in the story.  If I’m confusing the first time I’m showing something to the reader with the first time the characters have seen it, that’s going to lead to problems.  There are mistakes and screw ups that we’ll accept from amateurs in any field, but not from people who’ve supposedly been doing this for a while (whatever this is).  If my plot point depends on a Master Sergeant in the Army not knowing how to load a pistol or the head chef at a restaurant not being able to tell salt from sugar… well, there better be a damned good reason for it.
            Stay one step ahead of the reader.  Know where they’re going to go, be there waiting for them, and guide them back to the path you want them on.  Not the path where they growl in frustration and shout “Why the heck did they…?”  And then toss your manuscript in that big pile on the left
            Next time, by request, I wanted to talk about how you can use plot and story to develop an idea.
            Until then, go write.
April 26, 2012 / 3 Comments

The Nine Alcatraz Events

            Pop culture reference.  Sort of.  More of a portmanteau, really.

            Anyway, please bear with me.  This one’s a bit long, but I think it’s worth it.  And there are extra pictures.
            Some of you may remember a little show called LOST that aired a few years ago (yeah, we’re just a couple weeks away from years–plural).  I’ve mentioned it here a couple times because it completely redefined the one hour drama for television, and it also offered many brilliant lessons about executing mysteries and twists in a story.  It inspired thousands of writers, in film and in prose.
            It’s only natural that networks would want to duplicate the success of LOST.  Television is a business—it’s their job to be as successful as possible.  If X works, it’s only natural to try more X.
            Of course, it’s not quite that easy when we’re talking about storytelling.  Sometimes a story works, sometimes it doesn’t. The smallest tweak in structure, tone, or character can flip something from phenomenal to average or even trite.
            After watching another one of these would-be successors to the throne tread water for a few weeks, I though it might be time to address what a lot of these storytellers are doing wrong.  Not that any of them will ever see this or listen to me if they did.  But there’s something here that all of us should keep in mind, no matter which format our tale of eerie puzzles and mysterious strangers happen to be written in.
            So here are three shows that were all an attempt to cash in on the mystery/genre success of LOST
            The Ninefollowed the lives of the survivors of an extended bank hostage crisis.  When the police stormed the building after fifty-two hours, these eight hostages and one captor were the only ones still alive.  And despite having a huge impact on their lives, plus the lives of their family and friends, all of them are remarkably close-mouthed about what happened during those almost-three days.  Husbands, wives, and others are left wondering why these nine people are so changed, and why the only people they seem to be able to relate to anymore are each other.
            The Event was about three parallel plotlines.  One was the story of a resourceful young man whose fiancé is kidnapped while they’re on a cruise and his ongoing attempts to find her.  One covered a newly-elected President who’s learned the US government has been holding extraterrestrials in an Alaskan prison for the past fifty years and has decided to open negotiations and release them.  The last thread is about the aliens themselves and the long-term secret plan they’ve been trying to carry out, even while imprisoned.

            Last but not least, we’ve got Alcatraz, which just finished airing a few weeks ago.  And I feel pretty confident when I say it finished airing, but I still might be proved wrong there.  It focused on San Francisco police detective Rebecca Madsen who gets pulled onto a special government task force.  It seems all the stories about America’s greatest prison being shut down fifty years ago aren’t exactly true.  All the prisoners weren’t transferred, they vanished.  And now they’re reappearing, one by one… and some of them seem to have missions.

            Seems like a decent array of shows, yes?  Now, here’s the really interesting thing.  All three of these shows failed for exactly the same reason.  They all had the same flaw.  Perhaps even more interesting is that the one that was the most blatant example of it, The Nine, was the first to air.  The others followed and still repeated the same mistake.  And to be honest, I see this mistake crop up in prose manuscripts a lot of the time, too.
            Allow me to explain
            The core idea of The Nine—the unconnected people who share the same mysterious experience—is interesting, but here’s the catch.  The narrative wasn’t about all their friends and family trying to figure out what happened to these folks during their two-plus-day captivity.  It was about the nine survivors.  They were the characters the show focused on as they approached the world with new attitudes and unknown motivations… yet still refused to talk about all those hours inside the bank.
            The Event also had a very interesting idea, but you probably spotted the same issue just in the synopsis.  Much of the ongoing plot circles around this secret alien mission, and the aliens are a third of the show’s cast.  Of course, if the aliens discuss their plans the mystery goes away, so they always speak in vague generalities rather than, y’know, talking about anything.  
            And then there’s Alcatraz.  Our big mystery is these time-shifting prisoners.  How and why are they doing it?  Since the show’s split between present and past, though, we see what our heroine doesn’t.  It’s evident early on in the run that the Warden’s behind it all, or contributing heavily at the least.  Not only that, it’s clear Rebecca’s new boss, Hauser, knows a lot more about it than he’s letting on.  Part of the show’s “mystery” is that he isn’t telling her things she needs to know in order to do her job.
            Everyone see the common link here?
            Consider this—is it a mystery what day my brother’s birthday falls on?  Sure, almost no one reading this knows the answer.  Some of you might even be surprised to hear that I have a brother.  But does that make this a mystery
            The problem with having a story that hinges on something like this is that there really isn’t a mystery.  A real mystery depends on the characters and the audience looking for an answer.  But when a story’s falling back on withheld information, the characters and the audience know right where the answer is.  They’re just being told to sit and wait for it to be revealed.  And since the characters are supposed to mirror the audience, this means everyone’s just getting frustrated.
            This is the real problem all these shows had.  They each had a couple other problems past that—every first season show does—but this was the crucial mistake they couldn’t get past.  All three of them are just cases of characters who are deliberately withholding information from either the character or the audience.
            Yeah, that’s right.  The audience (or the readers, depending on your situation).  My lovely lady made the observation once that any time the narrative of The Event shifted to the aliens, they always spoke like they thought the room they were in was bugged.  In a way, she was right.  There was someone listening to those conversations that wasn’t supposed to be—us.  The aliens can’t talk freely because we’d hear the answers to all the “mysteries” on the show, so instead their leaders had conversations like this…

            “We’re going to have to do it.”
            “You mean…?”
            “Yes.  Just as we discussed.”
            “But what about–“
            “I’ve considered it.  I think the potential risk to our people is acceptable.”
            “All the risks?”
            “Even back at the beginning, we knew something like this might happen.  We can’t back out now because we don’t like the options that have been forced on us.”

            I know this sounds a bit silly, but… well, I’m not the one who was writing it.  You could see the same thing on The Nine, when the former hostages would either have conversations just like that with each other, or repeatedly tell their friends and loved ones they wouldn’t understand because “you weren’t there.”   And it happened on Alcatraz, too.  The Warden would constantly dodge questions or try to bury answers under pseudo-philosophic homilies.
            Let me give you an example of doing this sort of thing correctly.  One you’d heard of long before LOST.
            I’m sure most of you are familiar with Psycho, the Robert Bloch novel that was adapted into the famous Hitchcock film.  Even if you haven’t seen it (or the pointless shot-for-shot remake) you probably know the general plot, yes? 
            So… who’s the main character of Psycho?
            If you said Norman Bates, you’re wrong.  He doesn’t even show up until half an hour into the story.  The truth is, Psycho is almost an anthology of three different stories connected by the theft of a large sum of money and the motel where the supposed thief vanished.  Our main characters are—in their respective tales–the thief, the police detective, and the thief’s sister.
            Y’see, Timmy, this is why Norman’s secret is so powerful.  We’re never seeing it with him, we’re always seeing it through the other characters—the one’s the story’s actually focused on.  If Norman had been one of the main characters, the story would be required to focus a certain amount of attention on him—while at the same time trying not to let us see or learn anything about him.  Instead he’s relegated to a supporting role in the story, even though he’s the character we’re most interested in.
            The Nine, The Event, and Alcatraz (and more than a few other stories I’ve read) all tried to put the mystery front and center while also trying to keep it a secret.  They wanted us to be interested and invested in characters who didn’t want us to know anything about them. 
            And that just won’t work.
            Next time, I want to talk about my collection of zombies.  Sort of.
            Until then, go write.