June 20, 2019

The Negative Zone

Today’s musings got inspired by a couple things. A headline. A few twitter posts from people I know. Some thoughts that’d been bouncing in my head for a while. And a movie I watched last weekend during my usual bout of Saturday geekery… So, let’s take a moment and talk about negative space.

No, not the Negative Zone. That’s another thing entirely. Like, a completely different universe.


You’re probably already familiar with the idea of negative space in art even if the term might not be familiar.  It’s the space around the subject, rather than the subject itself. Negative space is a necessary thing—it helps us isolate and define elements. We need that open, less-defined area for our brains to process things correctly.

Think of this page. There’s open space between the letters and the words, which help us to read. There’s also spaces between the paragraphs. That’s more of a modern web format, sure, but even on a printed page we use indents—more space—to help mark off new paragraphs.

And here’s the interesting thing. We all know the space is there. We register it and process it. It’s blank, but it’s serving a purpose.

There’s also space within storytelling itself. We often leave things blank, so to speak. We don’t always explain everything or describe everything or answer every question. Because we know the reader can do a lot of it for us. They’re going to make their own images in their mind and fill in little details. And we all process it a little differently, which is why we don’t always picture things the same way as everyone else.

What does blank space in a story look like?  Well I’ll have the famous bank robber ride into town with a big sackful of cash. Wakko might have a scar on the side of his face. Dot could have a necklace she never takes off.

Negative space in a story is all these things, some minor, some major, that I don’t spell out for you. I mean, just off those random sentences, I bet you came up with an explanation for all of those things.  It’s something I don’t need to explain because it’s either not that unusual (lots of people have jewelry they always wear) or because we can figure it out pretty easily (gosh, where do you think Iron Thorpe got that bag of money?).

Now, you may remember I’ve mentioned Academy Award winner Billy Wilder here once or thrice. He had a great little aphorism—if you let the audience add 2 + 2 on their own now and then, they’ll love you for it.  I’m a big believer in this. I think it’s one of the honest, physical joys of reading. Figuring things out—even small, simple, subtextual things—gives us a feeling of satisfaction. It sets off a tiny little squirt of the happy chemicals in our brains, the biochemical reward for doing something right or solving a puzzle. That moment of adding 2+2 together is why we enjoy reading.

So if we’ve got the stuff I’ve explained to you and the stuff you figured out on your own, what parts are you more likely to enjoy? Which ones are going to stick with you? Sam Sykes (professional bear wrestler and author of Seven Blades in Black) has pointed out that when it comes to backstories and mythologies, the parts we figure out on our own are the ones we love. We like parsing out who the bad guy was in that hundred-year-old conflict, or the realreason Yakko and Phoebe get so icy when they end up in a room together.

And sometimes… we just don’t need to know. We don’t. Period. Sometimes the explanation’s just completely irrelevant.  Sometimes it’s better to leave the past shrouded in darkness and mystery. When we find out all the details about how Wakko got that scar sometimes… it’s just kind of a let down  We like the mystery aspect of it, the uncertainty, far more than the actual answer (Neil Gaiman once said as much in his Sandmanbooks—Cain and Abel openly discuss it with another character). I’ve mentioned William F. Nolan’s “bug in the closet” idea before, and how it limits horror, and that’s kinda what we’re talking about. Sometimes letting the reader make the final decision is much more powerful.  ‘Cause when we don’t know the answer to something, there are lots of possibilities, so many things for our minds to dwell on. But once we know… there’s only one. That’s it. Done.

I’ll add one last thought to this before we wrap it up. From a basics mechanics point of view, if I leave these things unsaid… it leaves me space to say otherthings. As I’ve mentioned before, any story only has so much room. Books only have so many pages. Movies can only be so long. The five paragraphs I spent explaining how alchemy works in this world are five paragraphs I could’ve spent on advancing my plot.  Or developing one or two of my characters.

That Saturday geekery movie I mentioned up top? It spent tons of time in the very beginning explaining how the different magical sciences worked and where they came from. Which turned out to be a big waste of time because, naturally, once the story got going we were shown how they worked. And where the sciences came from… well, it never really had any bearing on the story. 

With all that said, would you be shocked if I told you most of the characters were pretty thin? Their motivations were all sketchy at best. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you most of their names.

A big hurdle we need to overcome as storytellers is figuring out that negative space.  Realizing what parts we don’t need to tell. What parts might be good, but just aren’t relevant.  And what things actually improve my story by being left out of it.

And what things are weakening it or slowing it down because I’ve left them in.

Next time, I’d like to offer you some investment advice.

Until then… go write.

June 9, 2016 / 2 Comments

Not Very Nice Guys

            Long overdue, I know. I could make excuses but… well, the honest truth is I just took a few weeks off to recharge the batteries a bit.  I watched some movies.  Built some LEGO sets and a few little toy soldiers.  There may have been some drinking, too.
            Yeah, selfish of me.  I’m not a nice guy.
            As some of you know, a few years back I was hired by Amazon Studios to do a movie treatment for a very loose idea they had about robot soldiers (nothing ever happened with it).  I even went in and chatted with some folks at the production company they’d farmed the movie out to.  As we talked about stories and motivations, one of the producers told me about a great sign she’d seen outside the door for one of the development heads at Warner Brothers.
            Let me follow that up with another story before I explain.  You may be aware of a CW show called Arrow which chronicles the adventures of the Green Arrow and a number of related DC heroes and villains.  Well, a while back one of the characters they started hinting at for season three was Ra’s al Ghul, the leader of  the League of Assassins.  And one actor name that briefly floated around was Liam Neeson, who’d played Ra’s in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy.  Much to everyone’s surprise, when MTV asked him about it on a press tour, Neeson said he’d take the part again in an instant if they offered it to him (they did not). 
           He also offered some advice about why Ra’s was an interesting character and how an actor should play him.  “They have to believe in their philosophy,” Neeson explained.  “Ra’s al Ghul absolutely believed what he was doing was ultimately saving civilization, and it was quite a good argument he comes up with.  Throughout the ages this fraternity, that brought the plague to wipe out a section of mankind because it needed to be regenerated again.  Very dangerous, but you have to believe it.”
            See where we’re going here?
            Pretty much every story has an antagonist of some kind.  A flat-out villain, maybe a misguided but well-meaning opponent, perhaps a few mindless pawns of the system, but somebody.  It’s the rare story that has no antagonist of any sort.
            As both of those stories above explain, the antagonist has to have their own reasons and motivations for what they’re doing.  That producer had gotten tired of villains who twirled their mustaches for no reason, or for extremely weak reasons.  If one of my characters is going to shut down the prom, rob a casino, or blow up the United Nations, they’d better have a real reason for doing it.
            A lot of stories fall apart because they don’t have a good villain.  All too often, writers just think their antagonist just needs to do bad things and—done!  Why are they doing it?  Well, they’re the bad guy.  Bad guys do bad things, right?
            And, please, for the love of Tzeentch, do not say “because they’re insane.” That’s the cop-out answer.  If I say my villain’s motivation is “they’re insane” I’m aiming about three inches below the dirt-simplest, first-choice answer.
            Why do I need a well thought-out villain?
            Well, my villain’s arguably the second most important character in my story (after my hero).  He or she is why the story is happening. After all, if they weren’t posing some sort of challenge to my hero… well, heck, why even put pants on today?  Why do anything?  My hero might as well spend the day in underwear and a t-shirt, drinking and getting caught up with Star Wars: Rebels or Animaniacs.
            The problem, of course, is that it’s tough to logically explain why someone would decide to be the villain, right?  Aside from vampires or demons or some kind of inherently evil thing… why choose to be the bad guy?  Why would anyone decide to be a Nazi? I mean, how could anyone do that? 
            As it happens, that Nazi reference did set something up for me (go Godwin!).  A great way to explain this is with Magneto, the X-Men’s recurring nemesis.  If you aren’t a big X-Men fan, Professor X and Magneto used to be allies.  They were friends who shared the same beliefs and goals.  But at some point, Magneto decided he needed to follow a different, more extreme path.  He became the villain of the series, and the arch-enemy of the X-Men.
            So….why did Magneto decide to become a villain?
            That’s the interesting point and what this is really all about.  He didn’t.  Magneto decided everyone else was doing things wrong and that—much like Ra’s Al Ghul up above—he was going to start doing them right.  In his mind, Magneto is the hero of the series while his old friend and the X-Men are a bunch of well-meaning idiots who, alas,  keep getting in the way of his bigger-picture goals.
            Y’see, Timmy, for every character, the story is about them.  In the same way I’m the main character in my life story and you’re the main character in yours, the villain believes the story is all about them. Try to think of the most reprehensible character you can, then put yourself in their shoes.  They all believe they’re in the right.  Yes, even if it’s a drug lord or a DVD pirate or a mutant master of magnetism. 
            Part of my job as a writer is to get inside their head and figure out how someone could rationalize things like this.  What makes someone think being a bully or a hit man or a far-right fascist Nazi is a good decision?  What’s their motivation? How do they continue to justify it as time goes on, and how do the people around them justify it? 
            We’ve talked about something like this before—triangles.  In a romantic triangle, all too often one of the two choices is made absurdly ridiculous.  We’ve all probably made a bad choice in partners at some point in our lives, but not one that bordered on being a flat-out evil dictator or sociopath.
            When someone’s significant other shows signs of being cruel, a bully, manipulative, dishonest… that’s usually when we end up asking “why the hell are these two people together?”  These triangles fail because that first choice isn’t a person, they’re just a caricature.  We don’t see why someone would act like that, let alone why someone else would choose to be with them.
            And let me toss out one last bit of advice. I heard years ago—and you may have heard it, too—that the three most common motives for murder are love, money, and revenge.  If I’m going to pick one of these as my villain’s motivation… man, it better be spectacular. The greatest love story evercommitted to paper (without being even slightly cheesy).  A sum of money beyond imagining (but, of course, not so huge it would destroy the world economy).  The most elaborate revenge-worthy crime ever (yet not taken to such an extreme that my antagonist becomes a joke).  If I’m going to have someone wear the bear suit… I have to earn it.
            A great villain deserves no less.
            Next time, I want to talk about big ideas. And ides that may not be as big as they seem at first glance.
            Oh, on another note, if you happen to be in the Los Angeles area, this Sunday is another Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  It’s open to writers of all levels, it’s completely free, and it’s at least as adequate as this blog.  This month we’re going to be talking about editing, drafts, and some social media stuff.  Stop by and check it out.
            Until then… go write.
September 19, 2013

Once Upon a Time…

            …there was an aspiring writer.  And he lived in a beautiful world of wild dreams and deep denial…
            But let’s not talk about that guy.
            Last week I talked about basic linear structure.  This week I want to talk about narrative structure.  Narrative structure relates to—big surprise—my narrative.  It’s about how I’ve chosen to tell my particular story.  While events unfold in a linear fashion for the characters, how I decide to relay these events to my audience can change how the story’s received and interpreted (more on that in a bit).  So linear is how the characters experiences the story, narrative is how the reader experiences the story.
            One quick note before I dive in.  Within a story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story.  For the purposes of our discussion here, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about the writer.
            That being said…  here we go.
            In a large chunk of the stories any of us will encounter, the linear structure and narrative structure are going to be the same thing.  The story starts with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, through Wednesday and Thursday, and concludes on Friday.  It’s simple and straightforward, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it.  My own book, 14, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.
            There are also a fair number of stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story.  Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences.  Other times, the story may be broken up into several sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to where these sections line up.  These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there). 

           A great example of a non-linear story is Christopher Nolan’s early film Memento, where the story is actually told in reverse order, starting at the end and moving to the beginning.  My own Ex-Heroes series employs numerous flashbacks (although it’s worth mentioning that the flashbacks are all in linear order).  There was also a brilliant Marvel Comics miniseries by Roger Stern and John Byrne called The Lost Generation, which involved a time traveler moving back through history to see a forgotten superhero team, get wiped out as they saved the world, then moving forward (for the traveler) to see how the group formed and the origins of the heroes.  The issues were even numbered in reverse order.

            Now, there’s more to narrative structure than just wanting to switch around my story elements so I can look all cutting-edge.  If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind.  Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
            First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story.  As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I do is tell you what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to reflect that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who the murderer is, then roll the story back to Monday were everyone witnesses the killing and sees the murderer.  If they knew then, why don’t they know now?  There’s no logic to it (barring a case of mass amnesia).  If I have Phoebe act surprised that she owns a cat on Friday and then have the narrative jump to her finding the cat in an alley on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are very broad, simplistic examples, yes, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff up, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy one to fix, it just requires a little time and work.  And sometimes a bit of rewriting.
            The other big issue with having narrative and linear structures so far apart is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I can have tons of fancy word choices and beautiful language in my story, but readers are still going to put it down if they can’t figure out what’s going on. 
            For example…
            Think about when a little kid tells you a story about Iron Man and Batman and Snuffleupagus and there’s a moon base and they had a spaceship that Iron Man made before they fought the werewolf and the werewolf hates only getting to go out on Halloween so he decided when he was a little kid because only Snuffleupagus liked him and the rest of the time he has to get shaved because it’s too hot so he decided to go to the Moon so he could be a werewolf all the time and no one would make fun of him cause he didn’t know there were aliens on the moon but Batman saw the wolfman spaceship and tried to stop it and asked Iron Man to help and they fought the werewolf and Batman knew the werewolf when they were kids before he was Batman so he decided to help him move to the moon because they broke his spaceship but Iron Man had another spaceship he built after the Avengers movie and it looks like a big Iron Man and the werewolf had promised Snuffleupagus when they were little that he could come and so they got him out of the broken ship and you kind of tune it out and start mentally skimming.  I mean, you just skimmed a lot of that, right?  It jumps around so much that after a point it just becomes noise.
            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with chopping up my narrative too much is that people are automatically going to try to put it in linear order.  As I mentioned last week, we all do this almost automatically because it’s how our brains are set up.  The harder the narrative makes it for someone to reorganize the linear story, the less likely it is they’ll be able to follow it.  Which means the more likely it is that they’ll put it down.
            I talked about the idea of a detective at a crime scene last week.  If you’ve read a few mystery stories—or watched a few crime shows—you know a standard part of the mystery formula is the hero going through the events of the story and putting them in linear order for the other characters and the audience.  And how many are there? Eight or nine, usually?  Call it ten elements that are out of order and  the writer’s admitting it might be kind of tough to keep up at this point.
            There was a movie that came out about eight or nine years ago (I’ll be polite and not name it) that was a non-linear mess.  I don’t think there were two scenes in it that followed each other.  So we’re talking about well over a hundred scenes that were all scrambled and out of order.  Maybe as many as two hundred.  The actors were fantastic, but the story was impossible to keep up with.  It didn’t help that certain events repeated in the story.  Again, to be polite and protect the innocent, let’s say one of the characters was in a serious car crash and then was in another serious car crash two years later.  The audience was getting random scenes of burning cars, ambulances, emergency surgeries, recovery, and physical therapy… from two car crashes.  So we’re left trying to figure out which car crash the character was experiencing/recovering from at various points–once it was clear there’d been two car crashes–and then figuring where this scene fit in relation to all the other scenes.  The audience had to spend their time trying to decipher the movie rather than watching it.
            So non-linear structure can be overdone and become a detriment if I’m not careful.  This can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes.  Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, even though for someone coming in cold it might be an illogical pile.  This is one of those times where I need to be harsh and honest with myself, because if I don’t my story’s going to be incomprehensible.
            That’s narrative structure in a nutshell.  Maybe more of a coconut-shell.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure, it still needs to be logical, and it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I want to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine via dramatic structure to tell a good story.
            Until then… go write.
October 14, 2011 / 4 Comments

God is My Co-Writer

So, a few years back one of my friends read for a religious-themed screenplay contest. And, when it got to the point that he was pulling his hair out, I pitched in and read a few scripts for him (I owed him money, anyway). It exposed me to a lot of stories about God, Jesus, various members of the heavenly host, and—to be terribly honest—a lot of really bigoted, small-minded people. Not all of them, by a long shot, but enough that it’s worth mentioning, unfortunately.

Two weeks back I asked for ideas, and one fellow (stand up and wave, Matthew) suggested the idea of approaching God, or any god, in a story. How can you do it without annoying readers while still doing justice to your chosen almighty?
And then, by yet another odd coincidence, on one of my favorite message boards, a few of us were recently batting around the film The Adjustment Bureau, which, in the big picture, is about… well, guess.
First off, a few grammar and spelling points. If we’re talking about the Judeo-Christo-Islamic deity, it’s always God. Capital G. This also holds if you choose to call him the Lord. It doesn’t matter if you or your character are an atheist or agnostic or whatever—this isn’t a religious point, it’s just standard, accepted spelling. This deity is considered the definitive article and as such his (if I may be so presumptuous) name is always capitalized. It’s a proper noun. The same goes for the Bible. If you’re referring to the religious text that encompasses the old and new testament, it’s the Bible. You only use lower case when you’re speaking about a generic book of absolute fact, like if I tell you that Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is my bible.
And, really, if you’re going to write about Biblical-era tales, check out the MLA Handbook, because there are a bunch of unique grammar and spelling rules that apply to these names.

All of which leads to point two. I’m not talking specifically about God in this week’s rant, because a lot of the folks reading this are just as interested in Greek gods, Norse gods, Egyptian gods, Chinese demons, and cosmic entities from beyond time. But when it comes to stories, they all deal with a lot of the same issues.

Now, speaking of definitive articles, I’d like to start with an analogy…
In Danse Macabre, King tells a wonderful story about hearing William F. Nolan (the writer behind Logan’s Run and the legendary Trilogy of Terror films) talk at a convention. Nolan explained horror in terms of a closet at the end of the hall in a creepy, old house. Maybe the hero or heroine can hear something bumping around in there from anywhere in the house, and every now and then it thumps as whatever it is in there knocks an item off a hanger or tips a box off a shelf. As he or she gets closer, perhaps they can hear it scratching on the inside of the closet door. Endless scratching, scratching, scratching…
Finally, despite all our silent urgings, the character reaches out, turns the knob, and yanks open the door to reveal a ten-foot tall cockroach!!!
Thing is, even with the screams and the hissing and the mood music blaring, it’s kind of a relief to see that oversized bug. A ten-foot cockroach is pretty scary, no question about it, but a twenty-foot cockroach… man, I don’t know about you but that’d make me wet my pants pretty quick. It’s kind of a defense mechanism. Once I know what X is, I can imagine a scarier Y and X is reduced by comparison.
In the same way that naming the unknown horror lessens it, deities are lessened by defining them. When a writer tries to explain or show the scope of a god’s power, more often than not they’re really just establishing the god’s limits. If you tell me your god burns with the light of a hundred suns, I can say mine burns with the light of a thousand. If yours is a thousand feet tall and moves mountains, mine is ten-thousand feet tall and moves continents. The more the writer tries to show me, the easier it is for me to imagine something bigger and better (or nastier).

A great example of this is The Omen. No, the original. We shall not mention the remake here. Without giving away too much (although, why don’t you know this story already?), The Omen is about a diplomat who adopts a little boy. The boy, Damien, might be the Antichrist. I say “might” because… well, the movie actually makes you wonder. There are definitely people who think he’s the Antichrist. There sure are a lot of accidents and disturbing events that circle around the little boy. But the thing is… he never does anything. His eyes never glow, he never speaks in a deep, stentorian voice, he doesn’t shoot flames or lightning from his hands. Damien comes across as nigh-omnipotent because it seems completely effortless for him to get to anyone, anywhere—and that what makes him all the more terrifying. Because he doesn’t actively do anything, how’s anyone supposed to stop him? And what will happen when he does start being active?
Y’see, Timmy, defining something in any way automatically minimizes it, because the moment it’s been defined we can think of something bigger. Think of the little kid who yells, “infinity” and immediately gets countered with “infinity-plus-one!”
That’s why it’s always best to leave such omnipotent beings in the shadows rather than dragging them out into the light.  By their very nature, they’re vast, undefinable beings.  Thus, the moment they get any sort of definition they’re being lessened.
So, here’s a few quick thoughts for including a deity in your story.

Don’t—The simplest thing to do. Is a personal appearance really required for this story to work? The members of Congress have a big effect on my life, but I’ve never seen a single one of them in person. Heck, the only messages I’ve gotten from them have been spam emails and robocalls. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t there influencing aspects of my existence, and it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be impressed if one of their aides gave me a call to chat about something. Which leads nicely to…

Minions—Gods of any type are impossible to fight, so including them on either side of the story equation really unbalances things. But I believe someone could beat cultists or demons or maybe even an angel. These are the beings my characters should be encountering. Remember, you can almost never get to the CEO because there’s a wall of flunkies, advisors, junior execs, and bodyguards in the way.

Silence is Golden—They used this one way back in It’s A Wonderful Life, when Clarence the angel would have one-sided conversations with the sky. Neil Gaiman did it in both The Sandman and the wonderful Good Omens (with Terry Prachett). Kevin Smith did it in Dogma. Mere mortals can’t hear the voice of God and expect to survive, so the Lord speaks through a number of mediums… or not at all. Keep in mind, to pull this off—especially the one sided conversation—your dialogue needs to be sharp and you can’t fall back on clumsy devices like repeating everything the silent person says just to make it clear what your god hates.

Comedy—People are a lot more willing to accept divine intervention (of one kind or another) if it has a comedy element. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because when the writer’s not taking the matter seriously, it’s hard for people to have serious complaints. That’s why George Burns and Christopher Moore get away with mocking the man upstairs and The Last Temptation of Christ gets months of picketing. But this tone has to spread through your whole story. You can’t have your deity be the only source of comedy, because then you’re mocking him or her in the bad way.

Minimal Miracles—D’you ever hear the old saying about being so tough you don’t need to fight to prove it? More to the point, have you ever watched a movie where the bad-ass hero just fights and fights and fights and fights and fights? It gets boring, no matter how often he wins. Your omnipotent beings shouldn’t be expressing their power just to prove they can, because that power will start to get boring and take all the challenge out of the story one way or another. If everybody who dies gets brought back to life, what are people even fighting for?
Simply put… gods are the ultimate “less is more” when it comes to writing. The more a god—or demon, or cosmic entity—gets defined, the easier it is to name god-plus-one.
Next week… well, I’m going to miss next week. I’m one of the guests at ZomBCon up in Seattle. But when I come back, I’m sure I’ll have all sorts of scary and horrific things to talk about.
Until then, go write.