January 23, 2020 / 1 Comment

A Lull in the Action

I know the A2Q thing just got started, but I wanted to pause for a few moments to talk about action.
I’m a big believer that action—especially dynamic action–shouldn’t take much longer to read than it would take to happen. Swordfights, shootouts, fistfights, even sex scenes—all of these are events where we kind of expect people to get caught up in the moment and not focus too much on minutiae. When I’m telling these events as part of a story, it creates an odd situation where I want to advance the action, but I also need to explain what’s going on. It’s especially tough in first person narratives, but really it can happen anywhere.
An example I’ve used before is when a ninja leaps out of the shadows to attack me. On the one hand, I want to mention the mask and the gloves and the sash belt and those special shoes that ninjas wear. Plus maybe they’ve got weapons in their hands or tucked in their belt or strapped to their back. Maybe even cursed weapons with extra barbs or weird auras. And wait… is that long red hair? Is this ninja a woman? Holy crap, the robes are kinda loose but, yeah, I think she is.

Of course, during all this time… what’s the ninja doing? They leaped out of the shadows and… froze in the air? Are they waiting to punch or kick or maybe skewer me with their short sword or something like that?

Heck, did you even remember the ninja was in the process of attacking me while you read through all that description?

Which is the problem in these situations. Once I’m in an action moment, I’ve got to be careful about bringing it to a pause for descriptions of other characters, weapons, fighting techniques, heck sometimes even overly-describing the action itself. I can blow the rhythm and wreck the flow, knocking my readers out of the story right when I want them desperately turning pages.

And it’s not just descriptions that can do this. Another thing I’ve seen is people trying to do funny, snarky dialogue in the middle of action sequences. Sure, this can work to an extent, but when every other character is making one or two quips during every gunfight or car chase or building collapse, these events begin to stretch out. It doesn’t take long for them to start dragging.

Another common one is the sudden need to share information, either between characters or sometimes the narration relaying these facts directly to us, the audience. I think a lot of the time when this happens it’s the writer feeling the sudden need to remind the readers of something important. The potential double whammy here is this can be breaking the flow of my action and it may just be a bunch of noise that we already know and don’t need to be reminded of at this crucial moment.

The worst of all of these has to be the introspective moment. That point when the arrows are flying and plasma bolts are crashing around us and my character pauses to dwell on how fragile the connections are between all of us, and the series of decisions that unknowingly brought him to this moment. And this place. Of all the possible places he could’ve been right now. One different choice and maybe he’d be on a date with that cute barista, instead of here, pondering the threads of destiny…

Anyway, where were we. Right! Raw plasma exploding everywhere and whoa when did Wakko get fried? How’d I miss that?

Other popular introspective topics that can disrupt action may involve lost loves, found loves, children, aging parents, the ephemeral nature of beauty,  and a single raindrop, frozen in that moment of impact that so perfectly symbolizes the inevitability of death…

The real killer for all of this? Lots of stuff counts as action. There’ve been a few times I’ve mentioned that often-misunderstood chestnut, start with action. It doesn’t mean my book needs to begin with a ninja leaping from the shadows, it just means I need to start with something happening. With my characters doing something. Anything. And all those things that count as action are things I want to be careful about disrupting and slowing down.

Now, yeah, of course, there’s always going to be exceptions. There are lots of reasons why my character might have an unusual, unrelated thought in a moment of peak action, or why they might get distracted by that single raindrop. But I need to remember that exceptions are rare.

So don’t break the flow of your story by letting your action get bogged down.

And speaking of action and doing things… have I mentioned that my new book, Terminus, comes out next week? Like, one week from today. It’s an Audible exclusive, and if you wanted to preorder it now that’d help further convince the people who pay me that my books are a good investment. Which mean more books down the line. Which means we all win.

Next time here on the ranty blog, we continue with the next part of the A2Q, where I’m going to try to explain plots and how to put one together.

Until then, go write.

             Pop culture reference.  Long overdue.
            This is overdue, too.  Many thanks for your patience while I was away last week.  ConDor was lots of fun, got to speak with some great people, and even ended up with a few ideas for future ranty blog posts.
            Speaking of which…
            I blabbered on a while back about the bad habit of sticking absolutely everything into a story—the kitchen sink approach to storytelling, if you will.  If I’m writing a historical story, it’s crammed full of historical events and people.  If it’s a sci-fi story, I make sure every single person, place, and thing has a sci-fi, high-tech twist.  When I do this, it can get distracting really fast as my reader is buried in facts and details that really have nothing to do with my actual story.
            Sometimes, writers do this with their characters.  They give them lots of elements and defining points.  Lots of them.  Again, the kitchen sink approach.
            For example, I could make Yakko a guy from the backwoods of Maine and constantly reference his sheltered New England upbringing.   And he’s also a Piggers fan (go Piggers!) who’ll cheer/ defend/ quote/ relate things to the Piggers at every chance he gets.  Oh, and he’s also a ninja who studied for twenty years in Japan before returning to America.
            Now, in and of themselves, none of these are bad character elements.  Being the fish out of water isn’t far from being the ignorant stranger.  Ninjas are cool.  Lots of folks love the Piggers.
            But if Yakko’s ninja skills are never going to be necessary to further the plot—or even just to deal with an action set piece—maybe they’re not such a great character element after all.  If his devout love of the Piggers is irrelevant to the story, maybe I shouldn’t spend forty or fifty pages on it.  And if I could switch his background from rural Maine to suburban Texas with no repercussions, maybe it’s not that much of a character trait.  Again, none of these are inherently bad elements, but I really should spend time on an aspect of Yakko’s personality or backstory that has an affect on the story. 
            And if he doesn’t have an aspect that affects the story… well, why is he there?  Sure, he cracks some funny jokes and other characters bounce some dialogue off him.  Maybe he even throws a key punch during a fight. 
            But in the long run, does Yakko do anything that another character couldn’t do?  What makes him unique?  Why is he here and not Wakko or Dot?
            I see a lot of this, I hate to say, in genre material.  Fantasy.  Urban fantasy.  Sci-fi.  Writers add in lots and lots of stuff to show how their world is different from other fictional ones.  And they do the same thing with their characters.  No one is just human.  They’re all sorcerers, telepaths, half-zombies, androids, paladins, and time traveling prophets.  But four out of five times this is just a label that’s been slapped on them as an attempt at characterization.  None of these traits are relevant in any way.
            For example…
            I read a story recently where one of the characters, a very small woman, turned out to be a female leprechaun.  Kind of makes sense—little leprechauns have to come from somewhere, right?  Whenever she got worked up (in any sense) her eyes and hair would turn green and she’d get a sparkly rainbow aura.  Halfway through the story she’s bitten by a vampire and becomes one herself.  So now she’s a vampire leprechaun.  No, I’m not joking.  She’d even change into a green bat.  And eventually she dies when she can’t find cover at sunrise.
            This all sounds kind of cool, yeah, but the thing is… none of this had any affect on the story. Not a single bit.  Her leprechaun abilities didn’t do anything.  Her vampire abilities didn’t do anything.  The combination of them didn’t do anything. 
            In fact, the biggest effect on the story was a four page discussion over drinks about being a leprechaun, followed by an interesting scene (see above) back at the protagonist’s apartment, and then many references to the fact that she was now one of the undead, and an undead leprechaun at that.  Heck, sunrise happened during a big fight scene, so she just could’ve been killed by one of the evil plant people.  If she’d just been a small woman the story would’ve progressed almost exactly the same, just with more time and space to give her some… well, useful traits.  And she would’ve been a lot more relatable
            If I had to give this a name, I’d call it the Stefon Factor.  If you’re not familiar with Stefon, the overly-enthusiastic club promoter from Saturday Night Live, he tends to talk about clubs that are filled with… well, oddities.  Lots of oddities.  In his own words, “This club has everything!”  But the truth is he rarely talks about the clubs themselves.  They just get defined by the patrons (which, granted, was part of the joke).
            Y’see, Timmy, in the same way a pile of random story points don’t automatically add up to an interesting story, a handful of assorted character elements doesn’t always result in a worthwhile character.  When I’m creating a character, his or her traits should have an effect on the story.  As I’ve mentioned before, every superhero group has a strong guy because at some point they need a strong guy.  And if my story has a vampire leprechaun, then at some point things should come to a dead halt if I don’t have the powers  of a vampire leprechaun to call on.
            Now, let me give you a more positive example…
            There’s an old Martin Caidin book called Cyborg which inspired a much more well-known television show called The Six Million Dollar Man.  Now, this may sound kind of obvious, but the entire book is about the fact that Colonel Steve Austin has been loaded full of bionic parts after a plane crash.  He goes on a couple of missions which would be nigh-impossible without his cybernetics.  The story also focuses on Austin coming to grips with the fact that his government has turned him into a Frankenstein’s Monster, that almost half of his body isn’t him anymore.   If he wasn’t a bionic man, none of this would work.  The plot would struggle and his character arc would be nonexistent.  It’s not just a random label—the whole book hinges on the fact that he’s a cyborg.
            So give your characters relevant traits.  Make them necessary to your story.  Because if they aren’t… why are they there?
            Next time, a few quick thoughts on dating.
            Until then, go write.
October 11, 2012 / 2 Comments

Three About Three About Characters

            It’s not a pop culture reference, don’t worry…

            I haven’t talked about characters for a while, so I figured we were due.
            In my opinion, character can be broken down into two sets of three.  I talked about the first set a while back, and I’ve mentioned the individual elements on and off since then.  The second set is kind of a new idea here at the ranty blog, although you’ll probably see some connections with other things I’ve blathered on about.
            The first set is all about hard facts.  This is character sketch stuff that may or may not come up in my actual story, but it’s still important for me to know as a writer.  If I want Phoebe to be a good character, there are three traits she has to have.
            Firstand foremost, a character needs to be believable.  It doesn’t matter if said character is man, woman, child, lizard man, ninja, superhero, or supervillain.  If my reader can’t believe in the character within the established setting, my story’s got an uphill battle going right from the start. 
            Phoebe has to have natural dialogue.  It can’t be stilted or forced, and it can’t feel like she’s just spouting out my opinions or beliefs.  The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words Phoebe would use.  I’ve seen countless stories where soldiers talk like school kids or high school jocks talk like Oxford professors.
            The same goes for Phoebe’s actions and motives.  There has to be a believable reason she does the things she does.  A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know about her, or will come to know.  If a characters motivations are just there to push the plot along, my readers are going to pick up on that really quick. 
            Also, please keep in mind that just because a character is based on a real person who went through true events does not automatically make said character believable.  I’ve talked here many, many times about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it’s where many would-be writers stumble.  Remember, there is no such thing as an “unbelievable true story,” only an unbelievable story.
            The second trait, tied closely to the first, is that Phoebe needs to be relatable.  As readers, we get absorbed in a character’s life when we can tie it to elements of our own.  We enjoy seeing similarities between characters and ourselves so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we’d liketo happen (or be able to happen) in our own lives.  Taken is about a father trying to reconnect with his somewhat-estranged daughter.  The Harry Potter books are about a kid whose adoptive family dislikes him for being different.  Grimm is about an up-and coming police detective whose getting ready to propose to his girlfriend.  There’s a reason so many movies, television shows, and novels are based on the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations.
            Some of this goes back to the idea of being on the same terms as your audience and also of having a general idea of that audience’s common  knowledge.  There needs to be something they can connect with.  Many of us have been the victims of a bad break up or two.  Very, very few of us (hopefully) have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin.  The less common a character element is, the less likely it is your readers will be able to identify with it.  If your character has nothing but uncommon or rare traits, they’re unrelatable.  If Phoebe is a billionaire heiress ninja who only speaks in either Cockney rhyming slang or an obscure Croatian dialect and lives by the code of ethics set down by her druidic cult… how the heck does anyone identify with that?  And if readers can’t identify with Phoebe, how are they going to be affected by what happens to her?
            That brings us to the third point, a good character needs to be likeable.  Not necessarily pleasant or decent, but as readers we must want to follow this character through the story.  Just as there needs to be some elements to Phoebe we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit.  If she’s morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one’s going to want to go through a few hundred pages of her exploits… or lack thereof.
            Again, this doesn’t mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person.  Leon the Professional is a brutal hit man.  Cyrus V. Sinclairaspires to being a sociopath.  Barney Stinson is a shameless womanizer. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer with some horrific dietary preferences.  Yet in all of these cases, we’re still interested in them as characters and are willing to follow them through the story.
            A good character should be someone we’d like to be, at least for a little while.  That’s what great fiction is, after all.  It’s when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else’s life.  So it has to be a person–and a life– we want to sink into.
            Now, I’m sure anyone reading this can list off a few dozen examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits.  It’d be silly for me to deny this.  I think you’ll find, however, the people that don’t have all three of these traits are usually supporting characters.  They don’t need all three of these traits because they aren’t the focus of our attention.  If I’m a halfway decent writer, I’m not going to waste my time and word count on a minor character—I’m going to save them for Phoebe.
            So, that’s the first set of three.
            The second set of three is about putting all that information into my story.  Y’see, Timmy, it’s not enough just to have the above character elements.  They need to be established in the story in a natural, organic way.  
            Let’s talk about the three main ways of doing that.
            Firstis the easy one—characters establish themselves through their own words and actions.  I’ve mentioned before that how someone talks is very important, as well as what they talk about.  If all Phoebe talks about is work, that tells us something about her.  If every conversation she has leads to talking about sex, that gives us a different bit of insight.  If she speaks with precise grammar it implies something about her, just like it does if she talks like a stoned surfer, or if she rarely talks at all.  If I show Phoebe kicking an alley cat on her way home from work, this says a lot about her character.  On the other hand, if the reader sees her giving the raggedy cat a can of tuna and some attention, it says something else (depending on when it happens in the story). 
            Second is the way other characters talk about them and react to them.  If Phoebe is talking in a calm, measured voice but her employees are nervous—or even terrified—that’s a big clue in to what kind of person they know she is.  Likewise, if she’s trying to ream someone out over their poor job performance and they’re ignoring her, that also tells us something.  A lot of my characters are going to know each other better than the audience does, and their interactions are going to be a big hint to the reader as to what kind of person Phoebe is.
            And thirdis how their words and actions jibe with the reader’s personal experience.  Remember above how I mentioned Phoebe turning every conversation to sex?  Well if that’s the case, but we also see her go home alone every night, that’s telling us something insightful about her.  If she tells the guy at the bar that she loves animals but then throws something at that cat, it gives us a much better idea about who she is.  And if she absolutely assures somebody that she can be trusted after we’ve seen her screw three other people over, well…  As many folks have said, actions speak louder than words.  So when there’s a contrast or an open contradiction, this can be a great way to get across major character elements.
            Two sets of three.  Look over some of your characters and see where they match up, and with which sets.
            Next time, I’d like to step outside of the usual topics here and talk about why people I’ve slept with generally rate higher than other people.
            Until then, go write.
September 7, 2012 / 6 Comments

The Deadly Triangle

            You know who likes triangles?

            Pirates and ninjas. 
            Just saying.
            However, since no one here (to the best of my knowledge) is either a pirate or a ninja, I should probably just talk about how writers deal with triangles.
            Triangles are a form of conflict we’ve all come across.  Probably one of the easiest a writer can create.  It’s when a character (A) has to choose between two options (B and C).  A is pursuing B, but it’s clear C should be the priority.  Making the decision between B and C provides the conflict, the drama, and maybe even some comedy depending on how it’s done.
            We’ve all heard of romantic triangles.  It’s one of the most common ones out there.  Phoebe is dating Wakko, but then comes to realize her best friend Yakko is her real soulmate.  Bob is engaged to a bridezilla, but can’t help falling for the caterer.  The standard in most romantic triangles is that B is very clearly not the right person for A, while C is so blatantly right it’s almost frustrating.
            Another triangle most of us have probably seen is the “work vs. family” one.  Will Doug choose to spend the weekend with his family or working on the Hammond account?  Mary’s training so hard with the team that her relationship with her boyfriend is starting to suffer.  There are a few versions of this.  Sometimes it’s friends instead of family.  It’s usually work on the other leg, but it could be any sort of mild obsession or compulsion.  Am I choosing my best friend or this treasure map?  My pets or my new apartment?
             Triangles are great because it’s a very simple plot and framework that we can all immediately relate to and understand.  They make for easy subplots in novels, and for short stories and screenplays they can almost be the entire story.  This is one of the reasons we keep seeing them again and again and again.
            Just because something’s easy and common doesn’t mean it doesn’t get messed up.  I’ve seen a lot of scripts and stories where the writer messed up the triangle.  Heck, I’ve seen a few films that messed it up.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that none of these films did well at the box office.  Or on Netflix…
            How can I mess up a triangle, you ask?
            Well, the whole reason we have a triangle is because there’s A, B, and C.  If I eliminate one of these—let’s say B—then all I’ve got left is a straight line between A and C.  This means there’s no choice.  It’s just process of elimination.
            Let me give an example…
            I saw one film a few years back where a young man decides to travel cross country to lose his virginity with a young woman he met online (she’s his soul mate, after all).  Along for the ride is his longtime best friend, the ugly-pretty girl from next door (played, as usual, by a Victoria’s Secret model wearing slouchy clothes and a pair of glasses), who we all sense is a better match for our hero than this mystery online woman.  In fact, his good friend points out if all this is just about having sex, they could just lose their virginity to each other—at least then it’d be with someone they each care about rather than a stranger.
            Our young protagonist is determined, though, and it turns out our mystery woman is an honest-to-god psychopath.  Some third act hijinks take place, our heroes get away, and a few nights later they settle in down on the basement couch to finish up their unfinished business.  The film ends with the happy couple together. 
            Or how about this one—not a specific story in this case, but we’ve all still seen before… 
            Phoebe is so obsessed with getting her next promotion that she misses her son’s baseball game, her daughter’s violin recital, and the anniversary party her husband arranged for them.  But she keeps at it because this promotion will put her in a key position for the nextpromotion, and that’s the one that’s going to put her on top and change their lives. 
            The stress of all this is too much, though, and Phoebe snaps.  She screws up an account and yells at a client.  When she’s called on it, she even yells at her boss.  The end result is that she’s fired.  But after a week at home with her kids and her husband, she realizes this is where she was supposed to be all along, with her family.  They may not be filthy rich, but the film ends with the happy family together.
            Did both of those feel a little hollow to you?  A little lacking?
            What happened in both of these examples is that character A never really made a choice.  Once B was eliminated, there wasn’t anything to do except go with C.  Character A didn’t do anything active, they just went with what was left.  Which isn’t terribly satisfying for C, one would think.  Or the readers.
            Y’see, Timmy, A has to realize C is the right choice before things go bad with B.  If not, getting C isn’t a triumph.  It’s just a consolation prize.
            If my story has a triangle, it has to keep that triangle up until the moment of resolution.  B can still be a poor choice, but A has to actively realize that and then make the choice to go with C instead.  Once that’s happened, I can get B out of the picture, but not until then.
            Make sense?
            By the way, if anyone’s got any particular topics they’d like me to address or revisit in my weekly prattlings, feel free to toss something in the comments.  In the meantime, I’m going to try to stay one step ahead of the readership here.
            Starting next week.
            Until then, go write.