October 14, 2021 / 2 Comments

Supporting Spaghetti

Oh, back again so soon? Well, I guess that’s as much on me as it is on you. But I did have another thought I wanted to bounce off you.

This is something I’ve seen several times in books and in bad B-movies, but it only recently struck me what was actually going on. How the storytellers were twisting things in a really unnatural way to solve a problem. So this may make you (and me) look back at some older posts I’ve done in a slightly different light..

But first, let’s talk about pasta.

I got into cooking during the pandemic. Started watching lots of cooking videos. Trying some things that were kind of new and daring for me. Maybe some of you did too. I’ve found all the prep and cooking kept my mind off other things but still working in creative ways. And now I can make really good stir-fried noodles.

Speaking of noodles, you’ve probably heard of the spaghetti test. When it’s cooked properly and ready to eat, you can throw a strand of spaghetti at the wall and the moisture and starches and, I don’t know, pasta epoxy will make it stick. If it isn’t done cooking yet, it just falls off or does a slow downward tumble like one of those Wacky Wall Walkers.

There’s another phrase you may have heard which grew out of this spaghetti test. “Let’s throw it at the wall and see what sticks.” It shows up a lot in the development stages of all sorts of things. We’ve got thirty ideas and we don’t know which one’s going to work? Well, let’s just do allof them. We throw all the spaghetti at the wall—the whole pot—and everything that sticks is good and ready to go and whatever doesn’t… isn’t. Sound familiar?

I think most of us have tried this sort of blunt, brute force approach on something. I know I’ve rewritten conversations severaltimes to see if it works better with Yakko taking the lead, or Dot, or Wakko, or Phoebe, or… who’s that guy? Let’s see what happens if he takes the lead in this. Same thing with names. Holy crap, Murdoch in Terminus went through sooooo many different names. Sometimes for whole drafts, sometimes just for a page or three. But then I found Murdoch and it was perfect.

Thing is, there’s a weird sort of flipside to this. Or maybe an inverse? Freaky mutant bastard offspring? Anyway, I talked a while back about shotgun art, and I think this is what’s going on here.

Sometimes, in books and movies, we’ll see storytellers who just pile on the characters. One after another after another, many of them with only the thinnest connection to the main plot. It’s the cousin of the best friend of a supporting character in one plot thread. Or, y’know, even less than that. I read one story where we spent two whole chapters with a character who’s only purpose was to bump into one of the main characters in a third chapter. That was it. She served no other purpose in the story except to be that two page delay in his day And, y’know, fill out the page count a bit.

What struck me a few weeks back is when storytellers are doing this—layering on dozens of simple, almost stereotypical characters and conflicts—is they’re taking the spaghetti approach and just throwing everything at the wall. Rather than developing any of these characters or elements to any degree, they’re just giving us lots and lots of quick, shallow ones. I mean why spend time making a complex character when I could just create fivecharacters with only one character trait each? It’s so much less effort, right? I mean, ex-wife, former best friend, alcoholic rival, pregnant woman, aggressive military guy—there’s got to be something there that strikes a chord with my reader, right?

That example I gave up above? The woman who served no purpose except to bump into one of the protagonists? She was late for work. That was it. That was her entire character. I mean, she had a name. She had some dialogue. She had a pet in a tank in her apartment (some kind of lizard, I think). But that was it. The only other thing we knew about her—her alarm didn’t go off, she overslept by almost two hours, and she was late for work. We never learned why her alarm didn’t go off (power outage? forgot to set it? sabotaging pet lizard?). We never learned why she was so tired she overslept by two hours (drastically overworked? got blackout drunk? a wild hookup that left her exhausted?).

Heck, weird as it sounds, we never even found out why being late was a bad thing (on the verge of being fired? abusive boss? big presentation?). We just knew she was late, had to get showered and dressed fast, had to get to work, and that was supposed to be enough for us. Anything else would require more thought about who she was, what she wanted out of life, and what she was actually getting.

And this book had over a dozen characters like her. Seriously. It spent a significant amount of time with people who could be 100% completely summed up with things like “Wakko needs some drugs,” “Dot’s worried about her dog,” or “Yakko is a no-nonsense soldier.” That’s it. That’s all of who they were.

One place you may recognize this from (tis the season after all) is old slasher movies. Okay, and some modern ones. Most of the cast is one note characters with just barely enough depth that we can tell the machete went through them. They’re the bulk filler of the plot. The serious woman. The goofball. The jock. The nice girl. The drunk/ stoner. They just exist to be minor obstacles between our killer and the one or two survivors.

Now, again, the idea is that the reader (or the audience, if this is a B-movie) has to find something more-or-less relatable in these broad stereotypes. I mean… you’ve known somebody who’s late for work before, right? Or was a jock? Or a serious woman? Okay, well… I bet you knew someone who was worried about their dog at some point, right?

I think people do this for two reasons. One is that they’re nervous about creating complex characters. Maybe they don’t think they’ve got the skill to do it, or possibly just not the skill to do it in the number of pages allotted to it. Perhaps they think their plot can’t function with only three or four threads. Or possibly they’re worried about having such a limited number of viewpoints.

I think the other reason is they’re worried about having characters with no traits. Like that woman running the register at the gas station. She doesn’t even have a name tag. She’s just there to sell the protagonist gas and a couple snacks. She’s got no arc or backstory or tragic flaw. That doesn’t seem right. We have to give her something, right? Maybe she could be, I don’t know, late for work or something?

Thing is, no matter what my reasoning is for this flood of one-dimensional characters, this always ends up leading to one of two things. Either we mistake their lack of depth for deliberate avoidance (“Hmmmmmm… why isn’t the writer saying why she was up late last night? Is she the murderer???”) and then we get frustrated when this goes nowhere. Or we recognize these characters don’t actually serve a purpose and get frustrated waiting to go back to someone who’s actually going to affect the plot in some way.

I also think it’s worth noting the three traits of good characters I’ve mentioned here a few dozen times—likable, believable, relatable. And yeah, I’ve also mentioned that supporting characters can sometimes get away with only two of these traits. Catch is, when characters are this flat and undeveloped, they almost always end up unbelievable—their actions and reactions just seem ridiculous because there’s no depth to ground them in. So we’re down one good trait already! Then my shotgun approach means they’re going to be randomly relatable at best, and lots of folks fall back on “snarky jerk” as a default personality, soooooooooooooo… Not a lot going for these folks.

Y’see, Timmy, burying my story in simple characters doesn’t work because it’s forgetting a basic truth of the spaghetti test. All those noodles that didn’t stick to the wall? I don’t sweep them up off the floor and put them back in the pot. The whole point of doing it all was to see what did and didn’t work—to figure out what shouldn’t be in my story.

So said noodles definitely shouldn’t be part of my finished entree.

Everyone gets the food-book metaphor here, right?

Anyway… next time…

Wow. Already halfway through October. I guess next time I could do the obligatory horror post. Or maybe talk about NaNoWriMo? Any preferences?

Either way, go write.

May 6, 2021

Hatching The Plot

I haven’t had to come up with an idea in weeks because all of you keep asking questions. And I’m really grateful because my attention’s been split, like, nine different ways lately so having one task where I’m just being told what to do is kind of relief. Seriously.

That said… we did the Writers Coffeehouse at WonderCon again this year (many thanks to Sarah Kuhn, Stephen Blackmoore, Fonda Lee, and Greg van Eekhout for taking part) and tried to answer a lot of your questions about writing. But after we finished recording, I realized someone had sent a question I hadn’t seen. Probably because social media algorithms tend to be jerks. Anyway, Tomasthanes asked…

”How did you learn how to plot? Did you take a course? Did you work through 50+ spreadsheets? Are you ‘gifted’ and just do it? What does the product of your plotting look like?”

Personally, I think there’s a bit of a mystique element to questions like this. Some of you may remember I’ve talked once or thrice about the difference between the textbook ability to write and the ability to compose a narrative. A simple analogy I’ve used is the difference between being able to cook and being a chef. It’s something I think a lot of us come to realize on some level when we start really examining this whole writing thing in a serious way.

However—and this is just my thoughts on this, don’t take them as gospel truth—I think this realization can also backfire on us for a bit. Some folks assume there must be some specific “pro level” they need to achieve for every aspect and element of writing. They must absorb the life-energies of ten other writers and then they’ll know how to pick the grade-A ideas and create master-class characters and have, I don’t know, gold star spelling ability.

Truth is, most of these skills and tools work the same way on the expert levels. It’s just that those folks have more experience using them. It’s like thinking chefs get some kind of special knife that lets them chop faster or make interesting cuts. It’s not any different than the knives you or I probably have. They’re just more experienced with it and have learned a few tricks that work well for them.

And when it comes to plotting… the truth is, most of us already know how to plot. We learned from comics and cartoons and movies and fairy tales yes maybe even from books (wilder things have happened). We understand the basic chain of cause and effect that makes up every story.

So I don’t think it’s so much learning how to plot. It’s just figuring out how to get better at it. Finding a workout routine that works best for us, whether it be working through 50+ spreadsheets or… something else.

Anyway, here’s an easy something else for you to try.

Think of a story you loved as a kid. Not in the YA range, but more single digit. Maybe it was a book or a comic, possibly a movie or TV show. Something you know you loved.

Here’s the catch—it needs to be something you loved then, but you’ve since revisited and discovered it’s not as great as you remembered. Maybe it feels a little goofy or simplistic now. I mean, it might just be flat-out stupid. A plodding structure, a complete lack of worthwhile challenges, painfully obvious clues for the transparent “mystery.” I bet if you’re the type of person who reads these little rants, you can think of at least one story like that, right?

(I know I can)

So… think about how that story’s bad. Why is it silly or goofy? What would need to change, structure-wise, for it to be better? Something more suited for an older, somewhat more savvy audience?

Does it begin at a good point, or does it need a new one? Is there some sort of antagonist? Should there be? Are there real stakes? If not, what needs to be done to the story to increase them? What did our hero do to accomplish their goals? Were they actually challenged? Is there a satisfying ending? Or at least, satisfying in terms of the story I’m telling?

If you can explain why alongside any of these answers, even better.

A lot of these tweaks will probably also mean making adjustments to my characters. They might need to be a little more complex to justify some of their decisions and actions in the story. And that means they may end up having an arc of some kind, a story, and well, I’ve talked about that feedback loop. Plot pushing story, story driving plot, which lead to the plot again having an effect on the story…

Whoa! Hey, look at that. We’re plotting stuff. Just like the professionals do.

Will this be perfect? No, probably not. Like I said up above, there is an experience aspect to this as well. Some folks might have a knack for it, others may need a little more work, but none of us are going to be phenomenal at it right out of the gate. Maybe not out of our fifth or sixth gate. But it’s not because we don’t know how to do it. It’s just because we’re still figuring out our way of doing it.

And speaking of doing it…

Next week I’ll be trying to finish a huge pitch document for this new project, so I’m probably not going to have a post for you. Unless one of you gives me a really amazing question that I feel compelled to answer as soon as possible. But check in here anyway and I may have a cartoon or quick thought for you.

Then after that… clowns. Probably.

Until then, go write.

March 18, 2021

Good and Bad Conflict

Sorry I missed last week. Taxes. As I mentioned earlier.

A few weeks back, during my usual Saturday geekery, I had a sudden epiphany about Asylum movies. Even though, technically, it wasn’t an Asylum movie I was watching. I feel safe saying whoever made this film studied at the feet of the mast… well, at the feet of the Asylum producers. And it’s a problem I’ve seen in a lot of book manuscripts. So I made a note of it and told myself I’d have to do a post on it sometime soon.

And then last weekend’s geekery gave me a trio of movies that suffered from the exact same issue. So I thought, wow, serendipity. Definitely a sign of… something. So sometime soon became this week.

Once or thrice here I’ve talked about the ideas of plot and story. Plot is what happens outside my characters, story is what happens inside my characters. The basic idea of a narrative is that conflicts (of many different types) will drive that plot forward, and the plot and story will work together and feed off each other like some beautiful alien symbiote that bonds with you and manifests as bio-armor under times of stress or when you summon no, wait, that’s the plot of the Guyver. I’ve talked about how plot and story work together before. Stick with that, forget the Guyver. For now.

What I wanted to talk about was the conflicts, all those roadblocks that pop up between the beginning and end of the story. The things that get in the way of my characters getting what they want. Because some of these things are great and some are… not so great.

As I mentioned above, I have conflict in my book to drive the plot. My character has to overcome social pressures, financial constraints, power structures, ancient death traps, and a variety of other obstacles. Dealing with these things (or failing to deal with them)  forces my character to grow and change internally (sometimes called a character arc) while at the same time usually subjecting them to greater pressures/constraints/death traps. That’s dramatic structure. Who my character is at the beginning of the book starts and shapes the plot. Who they become at the end helps them resolve the plot.

Here’s a cool way to think of it. Picture a staircase. Every time we climb up a stair, it feels like we’re on level ground, but we’re actually higher than we were before. As we keep climbing stairs, we keep going higher. That’s conflict moving the plot. Climbing stairs moves us higher. Make sense?

Now, the problem I was seeing is that some storytellers had lots of conflicts popping up—but they didn’t actually do anything. They didn’t affect the plot in any way. They’d encounter a new obstacle, deal with it, and then be… right back where they started. Nothing gained. Nothing accomplished. Nothing learned. Our characters haven’t moved any closer to the end of the plot, haven’t grown or changed in any way. These conflicts were so self-contained we could just snip them and lift them out and there wouldn’t be any real change. Heck, we probably wouldn’t even need to stitch things together on either side.

If you wanted to use that staircase analogy, at this point the steps have kind of fallen over and become more a line of peaks. Every time we go over one, we’re just… right back at ground level. Not to mention, they’re all kind of the same peak. None of them stand out, and we realize pretty quick it’s just going to be that same thing again and again.

A term I’ve brought up here before is episodic. Yes, like TV episodes. Its when the conflicts resolve and the plot and story basically reset to where they were at the beginning. Our characters don’t grow or change in any way, they gain nothing, they just… go to the next episode. Which is exactly the same.

Neat thing to think about—because of that “reset,” it doesn’t matter what order we watch a lot of older shows in. We can go from episode twenty-three to episode fifteen to the eighth episode of season four and… you can’t tell. There’s no change because there’s no actual goal. The characters aren’t really trying to accomplish anything past the particular obstacles of this single episode.

When this happens in a larger story—say a novel or a movie—the storytellers are just dropping in these episodic conflicts because… well, we need conflict, right? So we’ll get a flat tire, spend ten minutes changing it, and then we’re back on the road. Or we’ll get caught in a super-embarrassing, borderline scandalous situation at work that nobody remembers or comments on the next day. Or we’ll find ourselves going out to rescue Wakko againand drag him back home because he just won’t stay put during the zombieapocalypse. These events are there. They fill pages. But they have no repercussions. No lasting effects. They don’t spark any changes in the way anyone thinks or acts.

Y’see Timmy, there’s conflict that advances the plot and conflict that just prolongs the plot. It isn’t there to help develop the characters or their stories, it’s just there to keep us from reaching the end too soon. So people get flat tires. Or wander out of their house during the zombocalypse. Or—no joke—fall off the Great Pyramid of Giza.

And absolutely nothing happens. No one suffer any consequences from these events at all. None.

Now, this isn’t to say nobody can get a flat tire in my manuscript. Flat tires are a real thing that happen to all of us. But I should think about why this flat tire’s happening. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the all-powerful Creator-of-your-choice in the world of my story. Nothing happens here except by my choice and my will. So why is this flat tire happening? What purpose does it serve in my story? Is it advancing the plot? Giving someone a moment to expand their character arc?

Or is just happening to keep them from getting where they’re going too soon?

Look over some of your story points. Are they advancing your plot? Or are they just stretching it out?

Next time… I had a new idea I wanted to talk to you about.

Until then, go write.

December 23, 2020 / 2 Comments

It’s Not Christmas Without…

And here we are, at that wonderful time of year when a young man’s thoughts turn toward… Nakatomi Plaza.

I wanted to do a holiday-ish post, and then (while watching a favorite seasonal movie) it hit me I could address a fierce debate that’s surged up over the past few years. And maybe I could even make it semi-educational. From a writing point of view.

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

Now, let’s be honest. If you’ve got strong opinions about this, I’m not going to change your mind. But if you’re somebody who cares a lot about stories (and if you’re reading this, I’d guess there’s a semi-decent chance you are) maybe this week’s little ramble will make you look at Mr. McLane’s late December adventure a little differently. And maybe some other stories, too.

With that disclaimer out of the way… let’s start by talking a bit about the difference between an element and a genre. I’ve mentioned this before, so I won’t go into it too much. Simply put, there are a lot of labels we can slap on both story elements and genres, but the presence of one doesn’t automatically create another. For example, there’s a strong romance element in Bloodshot, the Vin Diesel movie that came out earlier this year. It’s also got a few funny moments. But I don’t think any of you would be surprised to learn Bloodshot isn’t considered a romantic-comedy. Romance, comedy, suspense, mystery, horror, sci-fi… all of these things can be in a story that’s not in that same-named genre.

So let’s talk about Christmas as an element and as a genre.

As an element, Christmas can be a couple things. Easiest is the setting—it’s a specific timeframe that pretty much everyone on Earth knows and can understand to some extent, even if they don’t celebrate the holiday themselves. Also worth noting that Christmas is one of those (if you think about it) rare holidays that has a very fixed date, unlike lots of other that slide around the calendar a bit each year.

Christmas is also in the details and descriptions. Christmas trees, wreaths, presents, garland, lights, a Santa on every corner and a snowman in every yard. These are things I can mention in my story (or show in my movie) and they create an immediate association for people.

It’s also a mood, and a lot of traditions. If I’ve got a story set at Christmas, it’ll probably show up in dialogue. Let’s face it, people interact and talk a little differently in December, no matter which way they feel about any particular holiday. Scrooge is a little nastier. That super-peppy woman at the coffeeshop is almost scarily happy and peppy.

I think there’s a lot of movies and stories out there that get marketed as Christmas tales, but really just have a few random elements tossed in. We could move said movie to Memorial Day weekend or a random bank holiday and nothing notable would change. The romance would have the same meet cute, the comedy would have the same awkward moment at the dinner table, the zombie movie would have the same stupid montage of our protagonist fighting the horde witha baseball bat.

And this would bring us to Christmas the genre. There’s a lot of thoughts on defining genre (I’ve shared some too) but I think one notable thing is how abundant those elements are. Eventually the romance or the comedy becomes a dominant aspect and we think of this story as a romance, a comedy, or maybe a romantic comedy if it’s got both. The horror or sci-fi elements are so intrinsic to the plot my novel would crumble without them. 

What marks something as part of the Christmas genre? The setting, absolutely. Sometimes the characters. It’s really hard to do a movie where Santa or Rudolph’s a main character and not have it be a Christmas story. And we see a lot of common themes in the Christmas genre. Joy. Peace. Happiness. Love. Togetherness.

Simple, right?

However…

There’s another aspect to this, and it’s something I hinted at up above and once talked about with (shameless name drop in three… two…) Shane Black. Christmas, maybe more than any other Western holiday, is an amplifier. Everything hits a little harder at this time of year. Romance is great, but Christmas romance is even better. Friendship is wonderful, but being with your friends at Christmas is fantastic. Family squabbles can be funny, but during the holidays they’re even funnier. And, yeah, puppies are great, but have you ever seen CHRISTMAS PUPPIES?!?

(seriously, you just grinned at the thought of Christmas puppies, didn’t you? See?)

And, yeah, this goes the other way. If something’s tense, it’s three times as tense at Christmas (scientifically measured). When something horrible happens, it’s even more horrible because it happened at Christmas. And to touch on a serious issue, depression’s never great, but depression during the holidays is just awful.

So I think it’s fair to say there are stories that may lean heavily toward non-Christmas elements, but the Christmas setting amplifies these stories. It inherently makes them more than they would be without it. Not a coincidence how many Christmas stories involve finding true love or reuniting with your family. And there’s a serious glut of Christmas horror movies. No, seriously. They’ve been a thing for decades.

Now… keeping all that in mind… let’s talk about Die Hard.

Die Hard is loaded with Christmas elements. I mean, 90% of it is set at a Christmas party gone very bad. And it’s a high-end party so decorations are everywhere. Really, look at a lot of these scenes and check out how often there’s a wreath, a garland, a Christmas tree, something. I’d bet half the scenes in this movie have a direct, visual tie to Christmas. And the music! It’s all Christmas music. All of it.

Plus, this setting is a big driver for the plot. John’s out in LA to see his kids and maybe patch things up with his wife. The Christmas party is why there are so many people conveniently in the building after hours to be taken as hostages. The watch she got as a Christmas gift from her boss is a point of contention (and a great Chekhov’s gun). When the FBI wants to shut down power to the building, the main reason there’s a fight is because it would mean shutting off the electricity to ten blocks of LA on Christmas Eve. Hell, John’s last minute surprise for Hans Gruber and his Huey Lewis look-alike pal? Remember how he pulls that off…?

Finally… the amplification factor. Realizing your relationship is collapsing is always bad, but on Christmas Eve? Sweet jebus, that’s a gut punch. Getting taken hostage absolutely sucks, but when it happens at the company Christmas party? And issuing ominous threats to the bad guys is badass, but when you get to tag on Ho-Ho-Ho…? Seriously, it’s one of the most memorable moments in a movie filled with great moments.

And so many of those moments get cranked up five or ten percent higher ‘cause we’re constantly reminded… it’s Christmas. 
So… is Die Hard a Christmas movie? I mean, I think it is. And if you want to argue it isn’t then I think there’s a lot of other movies (many of them with Christmas in the title) that we’d have to toss out as well. ‘Cause if we’re saying hitting all these benchmarks doesn’t matter… well… 
Look, nobody likes a grinch, okay?
With that, speaking of grinches, I give you one last shameless capitalist reminder that you can give people ebooks as last-minute gifts, and I happen to have a ton of them out there. 
I hope this long weekend is wonderful and peaceful for you, no matter who you are, whatever you believe, and whatever you celebrate this season.
And maybe we’ll squeeze in one more chat before 2021.

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