June 3, 2020 / 1 Comment

Getting the Message

This post ended up being a bit more timely than I expected.

I wanted to talk a bit about having a message in my work. I’ve touched on this recently when I was talking about theme during the A2Q. I think there’s a bit of a difference between having a message and a theme, and I felt it was worth going over that.

However, with recent events in mind, I want to be clear right up front I’m talking about having a message while writing fiction. Messages exist in the world. A lot of them are good, and a lot of them need to be shouted from the rooftops. Right now, here in the United States, we’re suffering from a lot of chaos because some folks thought ignoring some messages for years would make them go away… and those folks are the ones who really needed to hear them.

But while we’re talking about fiction….

As I’ve mentioned before, theme is the underlying threads that tie plot and story together. It’s connective tissue that helps my book become more unified and complete. As such, it tends to be a subtle thing.

Messages, on the other hand, tend to be thick and clumsy. They can’t be missed or misinterpreted. They’re heavy, beat- you-over-the-head things.  Most of them have never even heard of subtlety, let alone been in the same room with it.

A kinda common thing is people who decide to write a book or screenplay about a message. Not with a message, mind you, but about a message. There’s an important difference there. When I’m more interested in the message than the story, things fall out of balance pretty quick.

Here’s a simple test.  If my story or script has a message in it, at what point did the message come into it?  Did it grow naturally from the idea for a certain character or scene?  Or did this story start with the message, and then get fleshed out with minor things like characters, plot, and dialogue? Is this about telling a story… or pushing an agenda?

Let me give you a few examples.

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a couple books and movies about the evil threat that is Dungeons & Dragons. We’ve all seen so many tales of the horrors of alcoholism and drug addiction. I remember some college writing class stories about innocents being “absorbed” by the industrial military complex only to discover they now had oil for blood (get it? Get it?) Hell, back when I read for screenplay contests, I was once presented with a script about the ghosts of aborted children-who-might-have-been haunting a clinic worker until she leads a crusade against the mustache-twirling, thoroughly evil doctors who ran the clinic.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with my story having a message. Most of the best stories do, on one level or another. Problems arise, however, if I approach things from the wrong end, like some of the folks I just mentioned did.

When a writer starts with the message, everything else tends to get slaved to that singular idea. Characters tend to have awkward or unbelievable motivations because the story isn’t about what these folks would naturally, organically do. All their decisions, actions, and reactions are bent to reinforce the message. So they often come across as puppets that all enforce the idea.

In one of the examples above, no matter what your personal views on religion or gaming are, does anyone seriously think Satan is trying to get to kids through D&D? How is that possibly going to sound believable? All the crap going on in the world right now, and the devil’s big plan to recruit souls is rolling dice? Or reading books about a kid wizard who’s an adequate student at best and really should’ve ended up with Luna Lovegood, as was clearly the original plan.

But that’s besides the point.

Also, when the message dominates my writing, dialogue suffers. Characters spout out a lot of emphatic monologues, and they sound… forced. Insincere. They’re all just serving as a mouthpiece for my views and ideas—strictly for or against with no middle ground. This makes their words become stiff and on the nose. My characters can’t be there just to parrot my viewpoints on different matters. They need to have agency or they’re going to come across as fake.

In some ways, we’ve all encountered this under the name of marketing. And while there are some really fantastic, sincere marketers out there, there are a lot of folks who are just… selling something. And they’re not doing it well.

We’ve all dealt with that, right? That godawful social media account that wants you to be safe at home but more importantly be safe at home eating Fauxritos, now available in sixteen flavors and four textures. Or that person who inserts themselves into every conversation or thread to tell you this is a heartbreaking and important moment in history, and it’s a lot like a moment in their book, which is available right now on Amazon for a sale price of just $3.99…

Y’see, Timmy, my story can have a message, but it can’t be about the message. That’s just a sales pitch. The message needs to serve the story, not the other way around. The story needs to be something my audience can believe in, with characters they can also believe in. We can all feel the insincerity radiating from those message-based books and movies, and it makes our skin crawl. Even if it’s a message we agree with.

And I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely not the message I want my writing to send.

Next time…

Seriously, I have no idea right now if there’ll be a next time. The country’s in a rapid downward spiral. At this rate, I could see everything that spreads subversive messages shut down this time next week. And I went and made message a keyword for this.

It should hopefully go without saying—it shouldn’t need saying… Black Lives Matter.

Please be safe. Wear your masks. Take care of yourselves out there.

Go write.

March 19, 2020 / 2 Comments

A2Q Part Six—Theme

Hey, everybody. Hope you’re all safe and, y’know, not bored out of your mind. Social distancing can be a pain, but it’s better for everyone in the long run.

Time for the A2Q again. Thanks for following along so far. At this point, we’ve talked about plot, story, characters, and setting. I want to go over one last thing before we dive in.

And that thing is theme.

Yeah, you just felt a chill, didn’t you? I think we all have a kinda instinctive revulsion to theme because of high school classes where it was sort of parroted out to us and not really explained. Or explained very poorly.

I’ll also be honest—I almost didn’t include theme in this little series or workshop or whatever we’re calling this. Theme is tough. It can be hard to grasp. It’s also one of those things that sometimes happens even if we’re not thinking about it. Likewise, some folks think about it too much and end up driving their story into the ground.

So… how to explain theme?

Okay, look at it this way. You know how I’ve talked about plot versus story? It’s a topic that’s come up here once or thrice before, and I’ve discussed both of them in earlier parts of the A2Q. Plot is outside your characters, story is inside.

Simply put, in the Venn diagram of plot vs story, theme is where they overlap. It’s the common bond between external and internal that ties things together in my manuscript. If you asked me what my story’s really about, my theme would be the answer that covers the most bases.

F’r example… some of you may have heard of Solomon Kane, an old Robert Howard character who’s been in books, comics, poems, and even a pretty solid live action movie—which is what I’ll talk about here. Kane’s a bloodthirsty pirate who finds out he’s actually damned to hell, repents, and ends up becoming a devout Puritan with a vow of pacifism. Problem is… he keeps finding himself in situations where the good guys really need somebody nightmarishly violent and ruthless on their side. So he has to go back to his old ways to try to stop assorted bandits, warlords, evil sorcerers, and even full-on demons.

So we can say the theme of Solomon Kane (the movie) is “fighting evil,” or maybe a better way to say it would be “fighting against the darkness.” Kane is constantly battling evil in the world, in all its many forms. But he’s also battling the evil within himself, trying to redeem himself and not fall back into old habits and attitudes.

Of course, it’s easy to identify themes in things that already exist. Trying to make them from scratch, to weave them into this story I’ve been planning… that’s a lot tougher. I mean, this is serious writing stuff now.

But it really isn’t. Honestly, I think one of the reasons we all kinda fear theme is because it’s been made into this sort of literary boogeyman—this thing that looms over the story , and also over the author. What themes is the writer trying to explore? Does this book have a simplistic, common theme? Should we discuss the novel’s theme? At length?

Deep breath. It’s not that bad. Really. In fact, it’s a lot easier than your sixth grade English teacher made it seem.

(yeah , that’s right Mrs. Goodell—I’m calling you out)

Here’s a couple things I think we should keep in mind while we’re talking about theme.

First, at this early stage, it’s okay to only have a general idea what my theme—or themes—are going to be in this book. It shouldn’t be too hard to come up with one or two. Just look at a lot of the elements we’ve been gathering up so far and see what the connections are between them.

In fact, doing this as an exercise can be kind of a test. Or maybe an early warning system. I might have a bunch of really cool elements, but if I can’t find any connections between any of them… well, that means I’ve got a bunch of unconnected elements. Which is, y’know, sort of the opposite of a book. So I might want to reconsider some things.

Second, I should be aware my manuscript might have multiple themes. Not a problem. I mentioned before that there may be multiple stories within my book, so it only stands to reason they’d all intersect the plot in slightly different places on that Venn diagram.

Look at Solomon Kane again. It has the theme of fighting against darkness, but there’s a good argument to be made that it also involves the theme of redemption. It’s an active plot element as Kane tries to make up for his past, and it’s also a story element as he realizes that A) he needs to redeem himself to save his soul and 2) his redemption may need to take a more aggressive form then normal. And that plot-story overlap is a theme, so… hey, there it is.

Third is kinda the flipside of that first one.  Again, just my opinion, but… don’t worry about theme too much right now. Definitely have it in mind. Don’t willfully ignore it. But also don’t stress over it. Just write your first draft. Worry about balancing the plot and story you want to write. When I put a lot of advance work into my theme, I run the risk of structuring things to the theme. The plot and story stop being neck and neck out front and the theme becomes the priority. Which is when my theme starts turning into more of a message. And messages can get awkward and heavy-handed really fast.

Again, just my personal opinion, your mileage may vary.

Once that first draft’s done, guess what? The manuscript exists now. And it’s easy to identify themes in things that already exist, remember? I can look back over my first draft and I’ll probably see a theme or three poking out.

Now, again, I don’t like to do too much beforehand, but… let’s look at our werewolf book.

I can probably guess survival is going to be a major theme in the book, or perhaps “what are we willing to do to survive.” After all our main character, Phoebe, hunts werewolves for a living. And her little sister Luna is a werewolf, a fact she’s trying to hide from Phoebe and their lodge on the off chance they, y’know, kill her. And there’s also survival in the larger sense, that both of them have been doing a lot of things to try to hold their lives together, as individuals and as a little family. And we’re probably going to find out that the lodge is thinking about what they’ll do to survive, too—in the sense of both humanity’s ongoing struggle against werewolves but also the lodge itself as an institution.

Phoebe and Luna are also both going to be dealing with the idea of family a lot. It’s a motivation for them and a regular thing they’re dealing with—something they’re acting on that’s also acting on them. There’s also this family legacy hanging over them, and the fact they the two of them are the broken remains of a family since their parents’ death.

Which leads me to one last possible theme. The idea of moving on with your life, of getting past things. Both of my main characters want their lives to progress—Luna wants to head off to college and Phoebe wants to get her own life back on track. As I’ve mentioned before, Phoebe’s struggling with a lot of repressed resentment, too. And they’re also going to need to get past a lot of the baggage and preconception their parents left them with if they’re going to deal with Luna’s ahem condition and how it affects both of them.

Again, though… I’m not going to worry about this too much up front. I’m just making the observations now for the A2Q. I’m probably going to worry more about plot and story on my first draft, and later I may come back, look at these early thoughts, and see how they may shape later drafts.

And if you want to think more about these things now, that’s cool, too. As I’ve often said, we all have our own way of working, and what works for me may not work for you. The important thing, for now, is just to be aware of it and have it in that pile of ingredients in your mind before we start cooking.

Speaking of which… it’s probably time we start arranging all these ingredients and get ready to start cooking. So that’s what we’ll do next time. Yeah, next time—let’s just go straight to the next part of the A2Q (unless somebody has serious objections and wants to see something else first)

Until then… go write.

August 8, 2019 / 1 Comment

And They All Lived Happily Ever After

Finally got this finished.
Endings are funny things, yeah? In a weird sort of way, we don’t get them much in real life anymore. We demand sequels to everything. Moving away doesn’t mean what it used to, not with Facetime or Twitter or any other messaging devices. Heck even death has been softened a bit, with social media accounts getting memorialized and lingering long after we’re gone.

And sometimes, people just throw on an ending because they can’t think of anything else.

The ending can make or break my story.  It’s the rich, perfectly sweet dessert after a feast of savory words.  I can have the absolute best filet mignon in the world paired with an exquisite wine, but if we end the meal with a pie made from rotten apples… well, that’s the part we’re all going to remember.  A so-so story with a really fun ending usually gets favorable reviews.  A strong manuscript that spirals downward at the end, more often than not, doesn’t go anywhere except into that big pile on the left.

Now, some folks are content to say “well, that sucked” and leave it at that.  But as storytellers we need to know why something doesn’t work.  Bad endings don’t always have the same root problem.  Sometimes the writer had a phenomenal way to start a character arc, but wasn’t sure how to wrap it up.   Or maybe they have a really cool idea for a story, but don’t know where to go with it past that initial idea.  Sometimes an ending just doesn’t work with the rest of the story.

And some endings almost never work, no matter what the rest of the story is. Endings like…

Nothing Changes
Let’s start with the basics.  My characters are supposed to have an arc.  Arcs end at different points than they began at.  If my last ten pages show the characters in the same place as the first ten, doing the same things, with the same people, and they’re not any wiser for what they just went through…  well, that wasn’t much of an experience, was it?  For them and probably not for my readers.  I’m not saying my characters need to have some gigantic emotional breakthrough or spiritual growth, but somethinghas to be notably different or this was all just wasted time. 

One type of story that does this a lot is the “slice of life” tale.  You know the one, just two or three average days in the life of two or three average people.  It’s hard to say this kind of thing is wrong in a general sense. Most of our lives don’t change radically on any given day.  I’ve spent most of today here at my desk writing, just like I did yesterday and probably like I’ll be doing tomorrow.  So it’d be a realistic ending if a story about me ended with me back here working at my desk. 

The question I need to ask myself is… why would anyone want to read about that? I know I sure wouldn’t. I already go through a slice of life every day where nothing changes.

The Heroes Don’t Do Anything

Every now and then, often enough that it’s worth adding to this list, I come across a weird story where the hero or heroes don’t save the day. Not that they lose they just… they aren’t the ones who bring the victory. Somebody else saves the day, hits the target, makes the big sacrifice, or what have you. Imagine we’ve been watching Harry Potter for seven books and then Seamus Finnegan leaps in to fling that curse back at Voldemort and kill him dead. Which, y’know, yay Seamus and wooo! Voldemort’s dead, but at the same time… why’ve we been following Harry for the last two thousand or so pages?

When I get to the end of my story, what’s my character actually doing? I mean, sure, pointing and shouting and worrying are all things you can do, but are they actually doing anything that’s directly affecting this outcome? Or is someone else doing it?  And if it’s someone else… have we been following the wrong person?

Everybody Dies and the Antagonist Wins
One of the biggest problems with ending things up this way is it gives my reader a sense the story was pointless.  They’ve just invested a few hours (or perhaps days) into this tale only to see it come to an unpleasant ending.  This can be especially frustrating if the reader comes to realize the character never even had a chance at succeeding.  It’s even more frustrating if my characters made a bunch of stupid decisions somewhere along the way. I mean, it’s bad enough when we have to watch the fifth person in a row decide to go check out the old Murderama Amusement Park where all those kids got killed last summer, but when that’s the point I decide to end the story on…? 
My protagonist doesn’t need to come through unscarred, mind you.  Heck, I can even get away with killing my lead.  But they need to succeed on some level.
The Left Fielder
This is the ending that comes out of nowhere. The quarterback finally gets his act together, aces his exams, convinces the cute girl from drama club that he really loves her, gets voted prom king but turns it down… and then gets hit by a bus on the last day of school. Our heroine stops international terrorists working with alien invaders, but in the end her girlfriend accidentally drinks the tainted Soylent and is devoured by necrotic nanites anyway. Or, as I experienced many years back, a friggin’ hilarious ninety minute sketch comedy show ends with a bleak monologue about racial inequality and prejudice.
No, seriously.  I worked on a stage play back in the ‘90s that actually did this. The director and producer rewrote the end to give it “meaning” and couldn’t figure out why nobody liked it.

In my experience, the vast majority of writers who use this kind of ending are trying to achieve art. It’s me attempting to show how this story flawlessly mimics a random and sometimes meaningless real world by having a random and meaningless ending.  It doesn’t relate to anything that happened because… it’s real.  And tragic.  And artistic.

Besides suffering from all the same issues as the “everybody dies” ending, the left fielder just isn’t that special anymore.  It’s become one of the most common conclusions in indie films and “literature.”  So besides making my audience roll their eyes so hard they sprain something, they’re probably going to see this “unexpected” ending coming for the simple reason that it’s just, well, expected at this point.
There’s nothing wrong or pedestrian about putting an upbeat ending on a story.  As I’ve mentioned before, nobody got hit by a train at the end of Slumdog Millionaire and it’s somehow still a good film.
The Y’see Timmy
This one’s a little odd.  I use this phrase here a lot, and it’s kinda an homage to the movie I found it in–Speechless (written by Robert King). This ending gets its name from the old Lassie TV show.  Little Timmy encounters some problems, works his way out of them with Lassie’s help, and at the end Mom sits him down and explains what happened and why.  “Y’see, Timmy, sometimes people get hurt or scared and it just festers down inside of them…”  Timmy and the audience learn a little something about life and we all go home as better people.

The problem is, in clumsy hands the Y’see Timmy quickly becomes “brutally beating the audience with my message.”  That’s why it’s on this list.  A great example is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where the 98 page monologue (no, seriously) at the end of the book recaps every single one of the subtle lessons that were shown in the first 800 pages, but all dialed up to eleven-point-six.  And if you know what I’m talking about,  I’m betting you probably ended up skimming and/or blotting out most of that monologue.  Just like everyone else did.  Except Paul Ryan.

…And They Write a Book About It
I think I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that this is pretty much the worst ending you can have for a screenplay.  It isn’t much better in a book. This almost always feels like it’s tacked on ending to assure the reader that our hero didn’t just survive this story—they benefitedfrom it.  Immensely.  Yeah, you’d think clearing my name of murder charges, getting the girl, and killing Thanos would be enough for most folks to consider it a good week, but noooooooo… apparently I need acclaim and wealth and celebrity, too.
I think writers tend to fall back on this ending for one of three reasons (sometimes more than one of them). One is that it falls into that “write what you know” tip we’ve all heard for years and years. I know writing, so I’ll write about writing.  Twois that, because of one, this feels like a natural thing to happen, so it adds an element of reality to my characters and story.  And three

Okay, I think three’s a sort of wish-fulfillment-validation thing, to be honest.  Work with me here. My character writes a book about how she used to be a international assassin and it becomes a New York Times bestseller, right? So, logically, my book about someone writing a book about how she used to be an international assassin should alsobecome a New York Times bestseller.  Right?

It Was All a Dream

Probably the worst offender of all of these.  All too often the amazing tale of adventure ends with one of my heroes waking up on the couch or in a hospital bed.  None of the story my audience has just invested their time and attention in actually happened. Not even within the world of the story. We all just put ourselves into a story about a person who was putting themselves into a story. The end.

As I mentioned up above with Everyone Dies, this just tells the reader they made an investment for no reason.  How often have you read or seen a movie like this and immediately been able to pick out the moment things veer off into a dream?  My partner and I often watch shows or movies and find ourselves quickly declaring “Dream sequence!”

To Be Continued…
No, I lied. This is the worst offender. Hands down.

We all want to write great, sprawling epics.  Okay, maybe not all of us, but I’m sure a lot of folks here do. We want to write that massive series that spreads across at least six books and gets us an HBO deal. Starz at the least. But it just doesn’t happen this way.

There’s an ugly lie that races through writing groups and threads—the idea that publishers only want to buy series. First, that’s just not true. I know dozens and dozens of writers who’ve sold one-off books (myself included). Second… editors and publishers very rarely want a series. What they want is a book with series potential. A book that—if the preorders are good and word of mouth is great—I can easily write a sequel to. And another sequel. And maybe a fourth.  Or even a fifth.

More to the point, as a beginning writer I need to convince agents and editors that I know what I’m doing. That I’m able to bring things to a satisfying close.  So if my conclusion is “maybe I’ll end this in the next book”… well, that’s not going to score me points with anyone. Especially readers if that second book isn’t already a guaranteed thing.

So, there’s some endings that I may want to think twice about before falling back on them.  Again, I’d never say it’s impossible to do one of these and make it work.  But I am saying…I’d think twice before tackling one of them.

Next time… well, heck. we’ve been talking about the end. Whaddya say we just kill a few people?

Until then… go write.

June 7, 2014 / 5 Comments

Direct Pressure

            So very late.  So very, very sorry.  Thanks for your patience.
            By the way, just hold that there and press.  If you don’t, it’s going to keep oozing.
            Hey, speaking of medicine…
            A friend of mine is a med student and she’s joked with me a couple times about the television show House.  Believe it or not, House was a very unrealistic view of medicine.  But it was unrealistic on a level most folks don’t consider.  On the show, tests that would take days were often run in hours.  Treatments showed results in minutes instead of days.  Even his revival rate was amazing.  Said friend told me the odds of actually reviving someone who crashes in the real world—well, they’re not good.  CPR saves lives, but nowhere near as many as you’d like to think.  But on House they pulled it off at least every other episode.
            There’s a concept you may have heard of (or some variation of) that we’ll call compressed storytelling.  Very simply put, it’s the idea that we can skim over a lot of time and events without it affecting our story.  As the name implies, certain events are compressed so I can spend more time with others. 
            Most short-form stories—movies, episodic television, and short stories—are usually compressed to some degree or another.  Alfred Hitchcock—director, storyteller, partner of the Three Investigators—once said that drama is real life with all the boring parts cut out.  That’s also a good way to sum up compressed storytelling.
            Compressing the story often builds tension and knocks the stakes up a bit.  Silly as it may sound, compressing the story builds pressure.  If my villain plants a bomb in the city that’s going to go off in two months, that’s not a lot of pressure on the hero.  If it’s going to explode in twenty minutes… that’s a bit more urgent.  Likewise, if my hero (or heroine) has eight semesters to tell Phoebe his true feelings for her, he’s got a while to think about it.  If she leaves in two weeks for a year abroad with Steve Carlsburg (man, that guy’s such a jerk)… well, our protagonist needs to get his or her act together now..           
           Now, the flipside of this is decompressed storytelling.  It’s the idea that I should take my time and include everything.  And I mean everything.  Every single detail and nuance and fact, whether they’re relevant to the story I’m telling or not.  If we’re going to believe Hitchcock (and the man did know a few things about storytelling), this is when we add all the boring parts back in.  Supposedly also in the name of drama.
            Y’see, Timmy, decompressing the story takes the pressure off my characters.  If they have time to sit in a diner talking about the movie they saw last week or their intense feelings about Miracle Whip, there really can’t be anything else urgent going on in their life.  Yeah, good characters might have an occasional conversational segue, but it’s the difference between randomly commenting that I don’t like ketchup and telling the half hour storyabout the scarring childhood event that made sure I never touched the stuff again.
           Here’s an even better example.  I could tell you that I woke up this morning and sat down to write this week’s post (a few days late)… 
            Or I could tell you that I woke up, rolled over, folded my pillow in half, and went back to sleep for ten minutes.  Then my girlfriend got up and I looked at the clock and realized I really needed to get up because I have a deadline coming up, but first I tried to remember some bits of a dream I had.  Then I wandered into the bathroom, did my morning business, so to speak (we’ll skip over details there for the sake of politeness), washed my hands, dried them on the tan towel that doesn’t match the rest of the bathroom because I could only get one in the correct color, and then spent a minute playing with my hair.   I’m thinking about trying a new style, something like the brushed-forward cut Jonny Lee Miller has on Elementary.  We’ve got similar hairlines, so I think it could work for me. 
            Anyway, then it was off to the kitchen for my morning yogurt drink and a bit of grumbling at the fridge when I realized I drank the last of the Diet Pepsi last night.  Which is clearly the fridge’s fault and not mine.  I checked Facebook and Tumblr and even Google+, even though I’m honestly thinking of dumping G+ and going back to MySpace, just so I feel like I’m getting a better use of my time.  It just doesn’t get the response that either Facebook or Tumblr does.  My friend Bo put it in a good way, that Google+ just never hit that critical mass where a site really takes off.
            Then my girlfriend and I debated when we should go to the grocery store, because I needed Diet Pepsi and we also needed cat litter. But we were hoping the new Star Trek: Attack Wing ships will come out today because we love the game and we want that Borg tactical cube.  If we were going out later for that, it’d be much more time-efficient to do all our shopping at once.  But we didn’t know if the ships were definitely coming out today or not, which would also affect dinner plans because if we went over to Game Empire we’d probably grab a slice of pizza at Mamas and Papas and call that dinner.
            Then there was a minor panic attack after an email with my editor.  Turns out I had that deadline wrong and I was really freaking out before he calmed me down and assured me I could work for another two ort three weeks and it wouldn’t change a thing on his end.  So I took a few deep breaths, made a joke about how this just feeds into my drinking problem, poured myself a drink, and then sat down to write today’s ranty blog.
            Which, as a reminder after all that, is about how I don’t need to include every single detail and nuance and fact.
            And, man, I did not have time for all that.  I’m on a deadline…
            In my experience, some writers fall back on decompressed storytelling when they don’t actually have much story to tell.  I can’t make my novel lean and tight because if I did it’d only be three chapters long.  So I fill it up with segues and character moments and drawn out descriptions. 
            The common excuse for this is that I’m being “literary.”  I’m raising the bar and writing at a higher level than the rest of you.  All you people who keep skimming over those character moments and beautiful details and exquisite language in favor of things like “plot” and “action”… you’re the ones responsible for the dumbing down of America.
            I think a lot of this mindset is a function of something I’ve mentioned before—the very special episode syndrome.  If you’re not familiar with it, the very special episode is when a series does something a bit out of character.  Sitcoms do a serious story about abuse or racism.  Dramas do an all-musical episode.  Superhero comics spend an issue dwelling on the nature of mental health and suicide.  These decompressed stories tend to get a lot of notice and praise because they’re daring to push the envelope a bit and do something that radically contrasts their usual material.  I’m sure anyone reading this can come up with dozens of examples of such things.
            Something to take note of, though, is part of the reason the very special episode works is because of that contrast.  When we see a story where Spider-Man deals with one of his regular foes going kind of crazy and eventually killing himself, it has a lot more punch than if we read about a similar story in a psychiatric textbook.  Its rareness makes it special.  It’d be interesting to see what James Bond or Freddy Krueger do when they’ve got an absolutely free day, but it’s also going to wear pretty thin by the end of the first act.
            This is the big mistake I think people make with VSE (my new abbreviation), and it’s something else I’ve talked about before.  It’s when I look at the rare exception and assume that’s the rule.  It’s when I think the one aberration is what we should all be following.  If one story about Spider-Man dealing with mental health does well, we should do five!  Or ten!  Hell, why would we do anything except mental health issues? 
            This is why the last four seasons of Scrubswere all about people dying from cancer and drug overdoses, by the way…
            Now, as I often say, there is a place for both of these things.  I am a very big proponent of the idea that if you want to succeed in this business (the business of selling stories for money), then less is more.  But to automatically declare either method “wrong” is… well, just wrong. 
            If everything I’m writing is all one or all the other, though… maybe I should stop for a moment and reconsider.  Do I actually have a story and plot?  Are my characters dynamic and trying to resolve a conflict?  Or am I using decompressed storytelling to hide the lack of these things behind a lot of flowery language and drawn out, irrelevant dialogue?
            Are my characters fleshed out?  Is my setting well established?  Or am I skimming past plot points as fast as I can so nobody will notice I don’t have these things?
            Maybe it’s time to adjust the pressure a bit.
            Speaking of which, next time, there’s an idea I’d like to impress upon you…
            Until then, go write.