December 13, 2012 / 7 Comments

I Win. I Always Win.

             Minor pop-culture reference for those of you who are good with movie quotes.  And if you are, you’ll see the conflict with today’s little rant…

            Also, a shameless plug.  My book 14 was chosen as best sci-fi novel of the year by, and the publisher’s got the Kindle version on sale right now for just $2.99.  Please check it out and then come back to tell me I’m a talentless hack.
            Speaking of which…
            This is going to be one of those divisive posts, but I think it fits the nature of what I try to do here.  This is one of those perhaps painfully obvious tips a writer needs to follow if they want any measure of success.  And when I say “success” I refer to the age-old definitions of selling your stuff and making money.
            If you want that kind of success, your hero has to win.
           I’m using heroin the gender-blind sense.  If it makes you feel better, feel free to substitute in heroine or protagonist.  I’m not against any of these terms or the characters they attach to, I just think hero is short, quick, and to the point.
            And the hero wins.
            Pretty much always.
            A couple spoilerscoming up, too.  Nature of the beast for this kind of rant, sorry.  You may want to stop here if you’re way behind in your required reading or viewing.
           There’s a belief in some circles that having the hero of the story fail and diesomehow improves the story.  This usually ties back to the twin ideas of art and realism which… well, which I mock here on a regular basis.  It’s the belief that inserting something random and depressing into my story is more “honest” because life is often random and depressing. 
            And as we all know, art imitates life.  Therefore, if I’m imitating life, I must be making art, right?  That’s just simple math.
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this ending sucks.  It sucks because we all inherently know the hero is supposed to win.  The hero is supposed to win because we identify with the hero.  If the hero loses, it means welost.  We’re losers. 
            Believe it or not, this sort of statement doesn’t go over well with most people.
            Now, before people start scribbling the angry comments (although I’m sure at least one person already has), let me finish.  I’m not saying that every book has to end with happy smiles and people rolling around on piles of money in their new castle.  My hero does not need to defeat the lizard men ninjas, save the world, and end up with nymphomaniac/ heiress Reiko Aylesworth in a flying car.
            Keep in mind, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to enjoy winning.  I just said they need to win.  They may be crippled or scarred—physically, emotionally, or both.  If the hero ends up wounded or broken after all they’ve done, really that just makes us identify with them a little more, doesn’t it?  I know if I had to fight a dozen terrorists in the Nakatomi Building in my bare feet, I’d get the crap kicked out of me.
            But I’d still win, of course…

            Heck, it may only be a moral or spiritual victory.  Atticus Finch loses his court case in To Kill A Mockingbird.  At the end of Rocky, our title hero’s battered, bruised, and can barely stand.  And Rocky loses the fight.  The refs rule for Apollo Creed.

            And yet, we all understand that he’s won in the way that really matters.  He’s proven he’s not a loser.  He’s shown that he can go the distance.
            The hero doesn’t even need to survive the story.  There are plenty of characters in books and film who didn’t live to enjoy their victories.  Let me give a few quick examples… 
            If you’ve seen The Professional, you know the end is a fiery bloodbath.  Only one person walks away, and it definitely isn’t Leon.  Stephen King has killed off his heroes in The Dead Zone, The Stand, IT, Desperation, and more.  Reese dies at the end of Terminator, and when Arnold plays a good Terminator in the next two movies he always gets destroyed.  J.K. Rowling has a lot of bodies at her feet by the end of the Harry Potter series, enough so that she almost seems as kill-happy as Joss Whedon, and he’s just legendary for killing his heroes in brutal ways—in comics, television, and film.
            And yet, in all of these examples, the hero wins.  No question about it.  Anyone who’s read or seen any of these stories will tell you the good guys won and the bad guys lost.
            So if I’m going to kill off my hero or if my plot resolves with a massive failure… maybe it’s worth rethinking that.
            Especially if I want to win.
            Next time, I’d like to discuss a common writing problem and the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
            Until then, go write.
March 30, 2012 / 3 Comments

Hunger Games

            Sorry I’m running a bit late.  I’m weak from starvation.

            Did I mention I was on a diet?  I can’t complain too much, because I’ve lost seven pounds in two weeks, and it’s actually starting to show in the waist.  Still…  I wouldn’t complain if one of you slipped me some Doritos.
            I’ve used food and cooking before as a metaphor for writing, and I think it’s one that works well.  What counts as good food is largely a matter of individual taste, although most of us can agree on a few key things that make food bad.   There’s also some good parallels between being a chef and being a writer.  Almost all of us can cook, but we recognize that being able to microwave hot dogs doesn’t make me a chef, just like being able to send a text message doesn’t make me a writer.  There’s also books and classes for both, but the only way to improve is to just get in there and do it—again and again and again. 
            Also dieting, like writing, is going to work different ways for different people.  I need to make a set diet and follow the rules strictly, but you might be one of those god-awful people who can eat anything you like.  Sticking to it is agony for me, but maybe you barely notice you’ve changed what you eat.
            This doesn’t mean I can alter my diet to match yours, though.  My girlfriend’s also dieting, so we’re shooting for the same basic goal, but we’re not following exactly the same path to get there.  This is the Golden Rule I mention here now and then, my one bit of guru-istic advice.  What works for me might not work for you, and it definitely won’t work for that other guy.  We all need to find what methods and habits work best for us when it comes to getting to that basic goal
            So, since starting this diet—I mentioned I was on a diet, yes?  And that I would probably be willing to harm two or three of you for some garlic bread?—it’s struck me that there’s another way food and writing are similar, and that’s in how we portion things out.
            All of us develop habits in our writing, and they tend to stick with us until we make a serious attempt to change them.  And just like eating, most of our initial habits are bad ones.  We go for the fun stuff without realizing how bad it is in large quantities.  ActionGoreOne-linersSexMelodrama.
            The next step, though, is when people now take their writing (or eating) to the other extreme.  I think all of us know someone who’s borderline insane about what they eat.  They have to know every ingredient in something, the precise number of calories, the recommended daily allowance of saturated fats, the grams of protein.  Heck, some of them don’t just want to know what’s in their food, they want to know each ingredient’s pedigree.  Was the low-fat cheese made from the milk of grass-fed cows?  Was the grain in this bread mechanically threshed or hand-sifted?  And it is organic grain grown in non-chemically fertilized soils?
            Once I started getting a lot more serious about writing, I tried doing all the outlines and character sketches and charts and index cards.  I made sure every character had an extensive backstory (all of which ended up on the page), every object had an elaborate description (all of which ended up on the page), and every location had an array of smells and sounds and sights that could only come from experience and practiced observation (and they all ended up on the page).  Because I was a serious writer now.  And serious writers take writing seriously.
            Just like this diet—I mentioned I was on a diet, yes?  And that I would gleefully kill half of you for a chocolate chip cookie?—when I started writing I needed to learn what habits were good and which were bad.  What were the things I was doing all the time that were hurting more than helping?  I had to figure out what things are good, which were good in moderation, and which were just plain bad.
            I mentioned a while back that I worked with a personal trainer for a few years.  In his heyday, Jerzy was an Olympic-class weightlifter and went on to  set a world record and even win several awards for bodybuilding.  One of the keys to his success was a ruthless diet that let him get his fat levels down to minimal levels.  To be honest, dangerous levels.  Just before a tournament, Jerzy would often get his body fat below two percent.  He looked phenomenal, but it actually left him very weak because his body had no reserves whatsoever.  It had access to what was in his system right at that moment and not a scrap more.
            So the moment the tournament was over, he’d go out and get the biggest, greasiest cheeseburger he could and eat the whole thing.  Sometimes two of them.  That’s not what you’d normally consider former Olympian-weightlifter food, but Jerzy knew that once he’d reached that heights of success it was imperative that he replenished those fat levels as quickly as possible.  His health depended on it.
            Y’see, Timmy, sometimes the stuff we think of as bad isn’t just good, sometimes we needit.  Because the big secret to eating well—and writing well—isn’t extremes, it’s moderation.  Drama needs to be moderated with comedy.  Comedy needs a bit of seriousness.  Horror needs calm.  Chaos needs structure.  The great stories, the ones we really remember forever, are never all one thing. 
            Harper Lee’sTo Kill A Mockingbird is considered one of the greatest pieces of writing in American literature, an unparalleled drama.  Yet the book has a lot of humor in it as we see events interpreted through the eyes of young Scout, a girl who’s a few years from even touching puberty.  Christopher Moore’s Lambis a comedy about Jesus’ older brother, Biff, which gets very grim and serious at points.  Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life are both coming of age stories with a strong horror element.  For every skin-crawling moment in Stephen King’s IT, there’s a moment of complete twelve year old goofiness.
            Did I mention one of the standard things on this diet is a cheat day?  A lot of the best diets have them, because it’s easier to stomach all the food restrictions if you get a break from them every now and then.  One day a week I’m supposed to indulge.  I get to have Doritos and garlic bread and chocolate chip cookies.  And my body will forgive me for it because I’ve established this isn’t the norm. 
            So nobody has to die for me to get a cookie.
            Not this week, anyway.
            Next week I might be a bit short on time, but I had a capital idea I wanted to share with you.
            Until then, go write.

You would not believe what I had to go through to get this post up.


A simple element of storytelling is the obstacle. It’s what stands between the characters and whatever they want. An army of Nazis stand between Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark. The possibility of getting caught stands between Ferris Bueller and his perfect day off. The armored construct named the Destroyer stands between Thor and saving the world, but so does the inability to wield his mystic war-hammer, Mjolnir, because of his own doubts of his worthiness.

While opinions vary a bit more on this one, I think an obstacle is slightly different from a conflict. It’s just terminology, but exterior problems tend to be called obstacles, while interior ones are almost always labeled as conflicts. In the example I gave above Thor has to defend his friends from the Destroyer (obstacle), and he can’t wield Mjolnir because of his self-doubt (conflict). Make sense?

Now, while in strict literary terms obstacle is correct, I prefer to use the term challenge. I’ve found that thinking about “obstacles” tends to guide the mind solely onto physical impediments, like parts of an obstacle course. While this isn’t technically wrong, it does tend to result in a lot of the same things. This is when you get challenges that have that sort of “level boss” feel to them. Character A defeats obstacle B, then moves on to obstacle C, and finishes up with D.

Anyway, I did it a while back, but I thought it might be useful to scribble out some tips about challenges. And just so we can have cool, current pictures, I’m going to relate a lot of it to Thor. Some of them you might not have considered before, and a few of them… well, one or two it’s kind of sad that I feel it’s necessary to bring them up.

For example…

You have to have one.

Yeah, this sounds basic, I know, but it’s surprising how often I see stories where people either sit around doing nothing or just stroll through events with no effort. I ranted on about this sort of thing just a few weeks ago. Anything the characters need just appears. Anyone they need is willing to help with or without any motivation to do so. Any lucky break that has to happen does at the precise opportune moment. I know it sounds silly to most of you, but it’s honestly stunning how often this happens in amateur books and screenplays. Heck, it’s bothersome how often it happens in professional writing.

There needs to be something between your characters and their goals. If there isn’t, they would’ve accomplished these goals already. If I want a Diet Pepsi, I go get one from the fridge– that’s it. Hardly material for a bestseller, no matter how much you dress it up. On the other hand, if I want to drink from the Fountain of Youth, odds are there are some immortal pirates and conquistadors in the way, maybe a few alligators, quicksand, and the random swamp monster. That’s a story.

Your characters need a reason to confront it.

If your characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it. A real reason. Indy isn’t chasing those Nazis halfway across two continents for an empty crate—he’s doing it for an artifact which represents the sum total of his entire life’s work. Thor isn’t squaring off against the Destroyer because he can’t think of any other way to spend the afternoon—the lives of his friends and innocent civilians are at risk.

Make sure this reason is really there. It might be obvious in your head why the characters are going to undertake a challenge, but is it that clear on paper? This is especially true for more internal things like Thor dealing with his pride issues, where the audience needs to understand why not being able to lift Mjolnir is such a big deal.

You need a reason for it to exist.

A combination of the first two points. Nothing’s worse than a challenge that only exists to be a challenge. It has no reason for existing in the world of the story, no past, no future, no motivation. It’s only there to serve as an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. You might remember in Galaxy Quest when Sigourney Weaver loudly points out that the mashing hallway serves no purpose whatsoever. We can probably all think of a book or movie where, for no reason at all, an obstacle just popped out of nowhere. That kind of stuff just weakens any story.

Challenges have a purpose. They’re characters in their own right, or maybe obstacles other characters have set in your protagonist’s way. There’s a reason the Destroyer exists (it protects Odin’s vault), and there’s a reason it’s going after Thor (Loki ordered it to kill him). It didn’t just fall out of the sky and start smashing stuff for no reason. Think about why a given challenge is in your story, and if there isn’t a real reason, stop for a couple minutes and re-think it.

I’ll add one other note here. It’s generally better if the audience (reader or viewer) has at least some idea why said challenge exists. They don’t need to know immediately, but you also shouldn’t save it for the last five pages and say “Oh, the ninjas that have been hunting us for the past week? They were sent by my business rival in Hokkaido…”

It has to be daunting.

It’s bad enough the Destroyer was built to be the ultimate killing machine, but Thor has to face it with no powers whatsoever. No strength, no armor, no thunder, nothing. Atticus Finch stakes his career, his personal morals, and possibly his life on his defense of Tom Robinson. Jonathan Harker, Dr. Van Helsing, and their companions are the only who ones who know a supernatural monster has arrived in England—one that could kill tens of thousands if not stopped.

Characters should never want to deal with a challenge, because let’s be honest– we’d all love it if more things were just handed to us. Again, Diet Pepsi vs the Fountain of Youth. A challenge needs to be something that gives the character (and the audience) pause, or else it isn’t really a challenge. Even John Carter, gentleman of Virginia, Warlord of Mars, and greatest swordsman of two worlds, would occasionally look at the odds he was facing and say “Oh…crap.”

Well, Burroughs was always a bit more eloquent than that, but you get the point.

It can’t be impossible.

There’s nothing worse than being on the wrong side of a sure thing. Nobody reading this wants to get in a fist fight with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson because we all know it’d be no contest. None of us want to be given the responsibility of stopping a runaway asteroid or even just a runaway bus, because I’m willing to bet for all of us here (myself included) those would be things we just couldn’t deal with.

If you’ve ever watched a boxing match, or any sporting event, you’ve probably noticed they’re evenly matched. NFL teams don’t face off against pee-wee football teams. The Yankees and the Red Sox don’t do practice games against little league. The most boring stories tend to be the ones where the protagonists have no chance whatsoever of meeting the challenge. If you’ve ever watched a horror movie where the killer is merciless, unstoppable, and inescapable… well, that gets pretty dull after the second or third kill, doesn’t it? One of the reasons Jason Voorhees was always scary in the Friday the 13th films (well, the originals, anyway) is that he never ran. He just sort of… marched? It always seemed like somebody had a chance of getting away from Jason if they could just go a little faster… and not trip on a root or a broken heel or something.

The other risk to be careful of here is if the challenge is completely impossible and your protagonist pulls it off anyway, it can look unbelievable and knock your audience out of the story.

Another thing to be wary of is the challenge that seems impossible to the character, but has a painfully obvious solution to the reader. This makes the characters unlikeable, by nature of stupidity, and that’s not going to win anybody points.

It should be unexpected.

This isn’t an absolute rule, but it’s something I still lean heavily toward. It’s the next logical step once you admit there has to be a challenge.

Every heist movie involves an enormous challenge—usually getting past near-foolproof security to break into a vault or museum. There are many chapters or scenes of preparation. Then, almost without exception, in the middle of pulling the actual job, something always goes wrong. There’s a variable that wasn’t accounted for, something the heroes and the audience are not expecting. A new set of guards, new security equipment, or maybe just a drunken woman at the bar who distracts people and throws off the timetable. There have even been a few clever stories where it’s not the heist that has the unexpected twist but the payoff. And this is where the story gets exciting. If my heroes are so trained and ready for anything that the job goes off without a single hitch, there really wasn’t a challenge, was there?

A small bonus of the unexpected challenge is that it often gives your characters a chance to look better. When they beat the unexpected challenge through sheer skill or cleverness, it makes them all the more likable.

You need to resolve it.

Once the writer has set up a challenge, the readers need to see it resolved somehow. We can’t set the Destroyer loose on the world and then just forget about it. To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t dangle the threat of a mob in front of us for the whole book and then have nothing happen. I can’t have the hero pining over their lost love for the first third of my story and then never, ever address those feelings again. Believe me, your readers will remember these things. Once we, as writers, present a challenge to the audience it can’t be forgotten or ignored. As Chekhov said, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it fire in act three.

So, if you’re up to it, make sure the challenges in your writing really are challenging, for the characters and for your audience.

Next week I’m going to accept a challenge myself, and talk about something I don’t like.

Until then, go write.

April 22, 2011

Beware the Bellboy

You’ll have to excuse me for running a bit late. My old laptop came to an unexpected end on Monday night and I lost the first draft of this post. Believe me, it was far more witty and insightful than what you’re about to read.

That being said…
As the story goes, there once was a young carpenter here in Hollywood who wanted to be an actor. He had trouble getting parts. The problem, according to his agent, was that the young actor sank too deep into his roles and never got noticed. He’d gotten a small supporting role as a bellboy and just vanished into the background. The agent pointed out that one of Tony Curtis’s first roles was playing a grocery store clerk, but he dominated the scene. “You looked at that guy and you knew he was supposed to be the star,” said the agent.
“I thought the point was you were supposed to think he was a grocery clerk,” said the frustrated actor.
And that young bellboy grew up to be Harrison Ford.
Who, let’s all be glad, also had enough sense to stop making Indiana Jones movies after Last Crusade.
(la la la la la la la la not listening la la la la la la la)
This fun observation by Mr. Ford hammers home a problem I’ve seen with a few narratives. It’s not uncommon for fledgling writers to center the narrative around a character and then tell a story that’s far beyond the scope of said character. nailing down the perspective a story is being told from is tough, and picking the wrong one can leave the story painted into one corner after another. This comes up most often in two forms—a first person person story and an epistolary story.
To recap…
In a first person story the reader gets everything through the eyes and thoughts of one of the characters. On the plus side, we get to know and see everything this character knows and sees. On the down side, we only get to know and see what this character knows and sees. First person is a very limited viewpoint. We don’t get the suspense of us knowing something’s happening that the character doesn’t know about. This also means we can’t be privy to extra detail, nor can we have any doubt if something did or didn’t register with the main character. To Kill A Mockingbird is a phenomenal first person novel, as are Moby Dick, A Princess of Mars, and Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”
(Yeah, there’s no the in the original title. Seriously. Check it out.)
An epistolary novel is told through “existing” documents. As the name implies, it was originally letters, but it can also include journals, police reports, newspaper articles, and even blogs or tweets or social network updates. By its nature, a lot of epistolary writing comes across as first person, but there’s a notable difference. This form is very episodic. There are gaps in it where the “writer(s)” didn’t have time or inclination to put things down on paper. Dracula is an epistolary novel, as is Fred Saberhagen’s The Frankenstein Papers, and Mr. King did a rather horrific epistolary short story some of you may remember called “Survivor Type.”
Now the catch for both of these forms is that once a writer chooses to use them, they’ve just put themselves into what can be a very limiting viewpoint. If Wakko’s my main character, I can’t see, hear, or understand anything if he doesn’t. His limitations are mine. If he doesn’t know what happened out on Highway 10 that night, I don’t get to know.
More to the point, it’s going to make Wakko crumble as a character if he’s constantly stepping out of his boundaries. When he does know what happened out on Highway 10, as a reader I end up puzzling over how and when he found that out. If he suddenly reveals on page 120 that he studied Goju-ryu karate in Okinawa for twenty years, I’m going to wonder why this never came up before. Since I’m inside his consciousness, inconsistencies stand out like flares and each one means I’m going to believe in him less and less.
I recently read a book where the narrator goes to great lengths to tell us she has no writing ability. Oh, like anyone who graduated high school she knows the bare mechanics of how to write, but she’s not at that level that she’d consider herself a writer. Why, not counting work memos, this is probably the longest document she’s ever committed to paper (or computer memory). So hopefully we, the readers, will go easy on her as she tries to record the events of the past few days.
Said narrator then launches into a flourish of vivid metaphors, purple prose, elaborate sentence structure, and parallel constructions. This went on for the entire book. The vocabulary was the kind of stuff you might hear tossed around by Harvard alumns trying to outdo each other at literary conferences.
She did not come across as someone who never expressed themselves through writing.
Definitely didn’t sound like a grocery clerk.
Just as a quick note—some writers have managed to pull off stories where a first person character who should be ignorant of certain facts manages to convey enough information for the audience to understand what’s really going on. Perhaps he or she has some knowledge that goes against the character we’ve seen so far. We’ve all seen stuff like this. The illiterate guy who manages to describe a stop sign, the Neanderthal girl who explains a pistol, or the bellboy who it turns out has a degree in chemical engineering so he can help thwart a terrorist attack. You can get away with this once or twice, but it’s a device that wears thin fast so you shouldn’t be depending on it for an entire book.
Now, there’s a somewhat-related problem that tends to crop up in epistolary work. Some writers litter the journals and letters there creating with typos and misused words. The idea here is this makes the documents (and thus, the characters behind them) seem more real because they contain the kind of errors that real people make, especially folks who aren’t usually writing for an audience. And, let’s face it, it also spares those writers from learning how to spell or bothering to do any sort of editing.
The catch here is that any typo is going to knock a reader out of the story. It’s going to be an even bigger hit if the reader stops to figure out if this was a deliberate mistake or just… well, a mistake. Like up above when I used there when it should’ve been they’re. All of you stumbled on it, and a few of you probably stumbled even more as you paused to figure it out if, being the sneaky bastard I am, I was doing it for a deliberate effect. And I was. And you still stumbled and paused.
A great example of doing this correctly is the book Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It’s the epistolary story of a man named Charlie who’s mentally challenged. If you felt cruel, you could call him severely retarded. The book, in theory, is a journal his doctors have asked him to start writing. It’s painful to read. Charlie can barely spell, has only the barest understanding of grammar, and no real idea how to express himself.
His doctors are giving him a series of treatments and surgeries, though, and as the book progresses the journal entries become clearer and more elaborate. At one point they actually get close to going the other way—Charlie has become so smart he’s taken over the enhanced intelligence project and is using his journal for research notes and brainstorming. Now the journal’s almost unreadable because it’s so advanced! The language he uses becomes one of the elements Keyes uses to show the reader how much Charlie is changing.
So one of the big tricks with these two formats is to create a character who’s believable and relatable, but still has the abilities, intelligence, and experience to deal with whatever challenges the plot may throw at them. A cheerleader may be great for figuring out who ruined homecoming, but not as much for an assassination plot. A Nobel-prize winning physicist isn’t going to be much help at harvest time. The trans-warp drive on a starship is probably going to be out of the range of the guys who work at Jiffy Lube.
Choose your character wisely.
Next time, I was going to blather on about the world we live in. Or, at least, the one we thought we were living in.
Until then, go write.