Okay, I hate that I have to refer to this but…
September 12, 2017
Okay, I hate that I have to refer to this but…
September 7, 2017 / 1 Comment
Most chosen one tales involve the idea of another world or society existing alongside our main one, often in complete secrecy. Wizarding worlds, cabals of rebel freedom fighters, supernatural beings, and secret conspiracies are all fairly common Our chosen one often serves as a bridge between these two worlds, both for other characters and for my readers. And they’re usually the chosen one because they’re either going to save that world or, alternately, bring it down and save ours.
So he did. The chosen one just left and went back to his old life. Started pulling the nine-to-five again as if nothing had happened. Never looked back once until the others came looking for him again.
Y’see, Timmy, one of the key things here is that my character needs to care about this struggle past how it involves them. They need to care about the crisis and the people involved in it. Really, their role as the chosen one needs to be secondary.
And that’s that. Four ways my chosen one might not be the best choice for a character.
August 4, 2011 / 4 Comments
A pop culture reference that’s so spot-on it’s not even funny.
Okay, it’s a little funny…
(General Disarray, go get the minions before they get lost…)
One of the big worries with creativity is wondering if you really are being creative. Is that clever new idea of yours something you came up with all on your own, or is it something you unwittingly borrowed from someone else? Maybe you skimmed over the back copy of a paperback in your local neighborhood bookstore or read a few spoiler-filled reviews on Amazon and your brain just filed it away. Worse yet, what if your clever story gets out there and then you discover five other people already had similar ideas. Now you just look like some hack plagiarist.
I’ve been involved in a bunch of discussions about stuff like this in the past few weeks. Has anyone crossed X with Y before? Have you ever seen this element used in that genre? What about that plot but in this setting?
The answer to all of these, alas, is yes.
Some guru-types like to drawl on about how there are only seven stories (or nine, or thirteen, depending on who’s selling what this week). While I think this is an oversimplification, it does point out an obvious truth. Most stories have things in common with other stories. That’s just the way of it. The same type of characters show up. The same situations arise. The same relationships form.
Here’s a random observation for you. When was the last time you met someone who didn’t remind you of someone else? Think about it for a minute. When we were little everything was new and fresh but as we got older we started to see patterns and similarities. A guy I met at a birthday party last weekend reminded me of a guy who lived across the hall from me in college. When I first met her, I thought my girlfriend looked a lot like one of my next-door neighbors. A production assistant I used to work with looks kind of like a sound mixer I know in San Diego. Another one reminded me of my cousin Chrissie crossed with a bit of Angelina Jolie (a very good mix, I have to say).
But those are all first impressions. As I delve deeper, I start to see the uniqueness of each person. The better I got to know them, the more Leo, Colleen, Russ, and Sarah became individuals and those superficial similarities dropped away.
Still, those initial generalities can be a bit bothersome. If there’s something else out there that’s similar to your work, should you worry about it?
Submitted for your approval is The Dueling Machine. It’s a 1969 sci-fi novel by multiple-Hugo-award winner Ben Bova. In the far, far future, a brilliant scientist has created a machine to help reduce hostility. It’s “a combination of electroencephalograph and autocomputer” which lets two or more people connect their minds through the machine and interact in an imaginary dream world that they create inside the machine. The story comes about when someone is killed during one of these “simulated” duels—is it possible that dying in the imaginary world could make someone die in the real world?
Hopefully this premise sounds a bit familiar to you. It should because it’s a big chunk of the plot to The Matrix movies. And The 13th Floor. Also the Lawnmower Man films. Plus there’s a few books like Cybernetic Samurai and Snow Crash and Giant’s Star. And that television show VR5 that was on for a while. And about a hundred Star Trek episodes where people get trapped on the now-deadly holodeck, because the holodeck safety systems are apparently made of cobwebs and wet tissue paper. Heck, you’ve all probably got a dozen more at your fingertips, don’t you?
For the record, there are also dozens of books and movies and television shows featuring vampires in space (one’s actually called The Space Vampires—it was the basis for the movie LifeForce). And zombies in the old west. And new takes on time travel, space travel, politics, Jekyll and Hyde, all that stuff.
Now, this doesn’t mean that most stories copy other stories. We all draw from a lot of the same sources, so our thoughts are going to follow a lot of the same paths. But even on those paths we’re all going to march to the beat of our own drummer, so to speak. We’re also going to dress differently, bring different things with us, ask different people to come along, and we’re all probably heading down that given path for different reasons.
Y’see, Timmy, we put our own stamp on everything we do. If I did a modern version of Dracula and you did a modern version of Dracula, neither of us would end up writing Salem’s Lot, which was Stephen King’s modern version of Dracula. You might stick with Europe, but I’m probably going to set mine in southern California. We’d have our own ideas and notions and way of looking at it, just like Mr. King did.
Now, there’s a downside to this apprehension, too, and it’s kind of similar to the people who won’t write anything because they’re too busy learning how to write. Sometimes we—yes we—get so caught up in worrying if something is original that we grind to a halt trying to prove it isn’t. This desperate need to avoid being a copycat brings things to a dead halt.
True story —I was working on a book a few years back (right before I was inspired to start Ex-Heroes, in fact) called Mouth. As I was typing away, I suddenly came up with the coolest way to explain teleportation ever. I mean, this was Stephen Hawking-level brilliant. It was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, sheer elegance in its simplicity. I typed up a quick scene where Character A explained it this way to Character B, read through it, and realized it was even cleverer than that.
Too clever, in fact, for a guy like me to come up with it. It was too clean. Too perfect.
In a panic, I wracked my brain trying to figure out where I’d heard it before. Because I must’ve seen this somewhere. Online? In a comic book? All I was reading at the time was Amazing Spider-Man and that was all packed full of “Civil War” nonsense. Maybe a television show? What had we gotten from Netflix in the past few months?
I asked my girlfriend to read it. I figured she might recall whatever this source was, because I kept drawing a blank. She went through the chapter, got to the questionable explanation, and loved it. When I asked her where she’d seen it before, she couldn’t remember ever seeing it. After I pressed her for a bit and she re-read it again, she admitted it was vaguely like the explanation of “tessering” in Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, but only in that it took what was plainly a very complex idea and boiled it down to an extremely simple explanation.
In other words, it was all mine. But I wasted a week worrying over whether or not I’d copied it.
Do a quick look at your chosen field. Make sure no one’s done something exactly like your idea. Then just write. Your own style and vocabulary and characters will give it a flavor all its own.
Like the Buddha says, don’t sweat the small stuff.
Next time, if I don’t get any suggestions, I may have to fall back on spelling.
Until then, like I just said, go write.
January 27, 2011 / 3 Comments
Hey! It’s contest season again, isn’t it?
Technically it’s always contest season, yeah, but it’s the start of the year and a couple of the big ones are opening their doors for new submissions. So, as I often do at this time of year, I was going to offer a few insights into things that make all those contest readers want to put a gun in their mouth.
Well, that’s probably a bit extreme. There are some really awful scripts out there, but you can rest assured none of them are going to drive a reader to suicide. Murder, maybe, but not suicide.
Now, as I’ve said many times before, none of these mistakes are sure-fire ways to lose. But they’re all things that make readers roll their eyes and reach for the Captain Morgans, which means it just got that much harder to impress those readers. So keep that in mind before you fill out an entry form and maybe give your masterpiece one more good look. I mean, really look at it
Spelling — Yeah, I’m harping on this again. There’ll probably be a whole post coming up sometime in the near future.
Because it matters, that’s why.
Over the course of a few years I wrote two different contest columns for Creative Screenwriting, interviewed dozens of contest directors, and asked each of them about tips for aspiring entrants. Across the board, the first thing most of them said was spelling and grammar.
Now, a random typo doesn’t mean you blew it. We all make mistakes, and readers know that, too. If they go through and find a their on page 42 when it should be there, they’re going to cluck their tongues but keep reading. If there’s a typo on every page, though… Heck, there were a few screenplays I looked at where I wasn’t even thirty pages in and I’d lost track of how many there were.
Whenever you hand off a manuscript you’re trying to convince the reader that you’re a real writer. Someone who can do more with words than just sign their name, scribble a shopping list, or send a txt mssg (ROFL LOL STFU). The absolute, bare-bones basic tools of writing – any writing– are vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. Which means you need to master them, not your spellchecker. If you establish early on that you can’t handle the basics, why would a reader look any farther?
Apostrophe S — You could argue this goes under spelling, but speaking as someone who’s read a thousand or so scripts by aspiring screenwriters, I can say it’s in a class by itself. Messing up an apostrophe S stands out like a flare to anyone who knows how to use it. As I said above, we all make mistakes now and then, but it’s painfully obvious when a writer’s just throwing down random apostrophes and getting a few right by sheer chance.
Knowing the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a contraction is past basic—it’s a fundamental part of the English language. Stop writing, go get a grammar book–even a fun one like Eats Shoots & Leaves (look at the carousel down below)–and actually read it. Promise yourself that as of this moment there will be no more guessing or wild stabs in the dark.
Logic holes — A friend of mine called me once, laughing in hysterics. He was reading for a contest and was halfway through a sci-fi script where human colonists were struggling with the affects of a war that had taken place 200 years earlier. The enemy had released a bio-weapon that wiped out pre-pubescents, so every generation of colonists had lost all their children for the past two centuries.
Give it a second. You’ll start laughing, too.
You’ve probably heard of “movie logic,” a term which also applies to television and even prose. It’s when the writer bends the laws of common sense to solve an issue or a problem. As long as you don’t look at it too close, movie logic can usually get skimmed over and carry you to the next scene or paragraph.
The flipside of this is a complete lack of logic, which makes readers call their friends to share the joke. A lack of logic knocks the reader out of the story, which means it breaks the flow of the story. And that gets scripts put in the big pile on the left.
Fortune Cookie Talk — Also sometimes called Confucius-speak by another friend of mine. This is when a screenwriter tries to cut down their page count by cutting all the articles, “small” words, and transitional bits from their script. I think there’s also a misguided belief that this gives their writing more “punch.”
Trust me, there are only two things this leads to. One is annoyance as the story slowly edges into unreadable. Two is laughter. Not the good kind of laughter. The “all the kids die every generation for 200 years” kind of laughter.
The Squashed Script — Sometimes the writer refuses to make any more cuts (for conscious reasons or sheer denial) and ends up with a 170-or-so page script. So they change the font size or the margins or the line spacing and crush the script down into an acceptable number of pages. After all, going from 12 to 9 point Courier can shrink a 170 page script down to 130 pages. That’s a fine length for a script, right?
This is annoying on a bunch of levels. First and foremost, if any writer is manipulating their script like this, it means they know their script is unacceptably long and they’re making no real effort to fix the problem. Second, it shows that the writer is assuming the readers won’t realize what’s going on (and why), which is kind of arrogant if you think about it.
Believe me, readers love arrogant writers who assume they’re idiots. It makes the job soooo much easier.
(not in a good way, in case the sarcasm wasn’t showing…)
Reality is What You Make It — More often than not, either the title or final page of this screenplay assures the reader that this tale is, in fact, based on the true accounts of me/ my best friend/ my brother/ my parents/ my grandparents/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These are tales of cancer, disease, genocide, military struggles, marital struggles, crises of faith, and various other conflicts of this world we live in. Alas, sometimes they’re also about struggling writers searching for someone to recognize their genius. Often, the fact this is all true is stressed to give a certain validity and gravitas to the screenplay.
Thing is, it doesn’t matter if the story is true or not. Nobody cares. They just care if it’s a good story and it’s well-told. And in that respect, a tale of an orphaned cancer survivor in Rwanda needs to stand up against the story of a black-ops secret agent who teams up with prehistoric lizard men from Atlantis to save the world from a zombie apocalypse. Whether or not its true is irrelevant. In the end, you’re telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t. Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.
Frankenanite — A large percentage of genre scripts involve nanites which somehow go rogue and endanger mankind. Don’t know what a nanite is? No problem–a couple of these writers don’t either. If you’re writing a genre screenplay about nanites (or something indistinguishable from nanites like genetically-altered bacteria or something) think carefully. If I had to pick the ten most overused plot devices, these little guys would be in the top three.
Epic — Avoid the word epic. The only time the word epic should appear in your script is if someone in the script is telling a very overblown story. It’s a word for critics, publicists, and producers. Screenwriters can use it in interviews, but not in their writing.
Orbs — No orbs. You would not believe how much this word is overused. People throw it in everywhere because they think it’s better than pedestrian words like round or sphere. Much like mellonballer is guaranteed to get you a Nicholl Fellowship, using the word orb to describe eyes, mystical stones, the sun, or pretty much anything else will make the reader shake their head and pour themselves a second drink. Then they will pour a third drink onto your script and set fire to it.
To Be Continued — You get one script to impress someone with. One. Nobody wins anything with the first of an epic trilogy (see above). That one manuscript has to stand on its own. Ending a screenplay – especially a contest entry screenplay- with “to be continued” hammers home the fact that this is an incomplete tale. It tells the reader you had no idea how to end this story in 120 pages.
Remember, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Highlander were not written as trilogies. Despite everything you may have heard, neither was Star Wars. Every one of these films was conceived of, written, and shot as a lone entity. They had to stand alone and succeed alone. If they had to do it that way, don’t think for a minute that your story won’t have to.
And there you have it. Ten ways you can make a reader sigh and shake their head in disdain. Which really means this is ten ways you can avoid getting the head shake, and that means your manuscript is that much closer to dodging the big pile on the left and ending up in the right pile.
Next time… well, I’m not sure what I’m going to rant about next time. But there will be a point to it, I assure you.
Until then, go write.