March 17, 2016 / 5 Comments

All Purpose

            I’m sorry this is a bit late.  Well, four  weeks late.  That’s not a bit, that’s crazy-late.  I’m in the final weeks for this manuscript and I’m really trying to make it fantastic.  That’s pretty much been my main focus the past month or so, for what I hope are obvious reasons.
            Hey, speaking of which…
            One of the most common things that makes a character unbelievable is when they have no purpose for their actions.  We’ve all seen it.  The guy who decides to pick a fight over something petty in the middle of a crisis.  The person in charge who continues to ignore someone with key information.  The spouse who’s just a jerk.  The ninja who attacks for no reason.
            Nothing knocks a reader out of a story faster than people just randomly doing stuff.  There’s a simple reason for this.  In the real world, when people do things for no reason, they’re usually considered to be insane.  Not an interesting insane, either, but the “lame motivational excuse” insane.  If I run into a  burning house to save a baby or a dog, I’m going to be considered a hero whether I make it out or not.  If I run into the flaming house just because it’s there, I’m going to be considered an idiot.

           People need a reason to do things.  Real reasons.  Reasons that jibe with their background and their personality and with basic rules of behavior.  That’s why you’ve heard of people motivating horses with a carrot on a stick but not with a t-bone steak on a stick—horses like veggies, not meat.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s completely understandable that Belloq wants to open the Ark before taking it to Germany, and believable that the Nazi officers would feel uncomfortable about performing a “Jewish ceremony.”  This fits with Belloq’s smarmy background and it makes sense—historically, even—that the officers would be a bit by disturbed by what needs to be done to open the Ark.

            So here’s a challenge for you—try to picture that scene reversed.  Imagine if, at that point in the film, the Nazi colonel was insistent on performing the ceremony and Belloq said “no, no, I really think we should just take it to der Fuhrer and let him deal with it…”  It wouldn’t make any sense, would it?
            In the big scheme of things, most people’s motivations tend to be simple.  If you’ve ever seen a procedural show, they often talk about the common motives for murder.  Love, money, revenge—they’re very basic ideas.  The unspoken motive for the investigators on these shows is justice, or perhaps closure.  In Raiders, Belloq is looking for glory and maybe a bit of power (I think it’s safe to say he was secretly hoping he’d get all the benefits of that “hotline to God”).  Indy wants to stop the Nazis and save the Ark for a museum.  The Nazis want to obey the orders from their commander.
            In the book I’m working on right now, a major motive for the main character is infatuation.  It’s why he takes the actions he does that kick off the story.  But not very far in, fear and survival become big motivators for him.  His actions might not always be rational, mind you, but his actions fit who he is and what he thinks he can accomplish.
            Now, sometimes the story needs people to act a certain way.  It’s been plotted out and the characters need to do this now so that can happen later.  What some writers don’t seem to get is that this need doesn’t make a character’s actions more believable or forgivable.
            The reader has to be able to relate to my character’s purpose for doing things.  While characters might have very true and proper motivations within the context of their tale, those motivations still need to be interpreted by the chosen audience.  This is especially important for stories set in different cultures (Japan, for example, or India under the caste system) or perhaps in entirely fictitious ones (Barsoom, Diagon Alley, or the grim darkness of the future).  It’s common to hit this wall when the writer knows their chosen setting too well, or maybe had to build it from the ground up.  To me, it’s completely clear and understandable why a Thark warrior would act this way—why waste time going over it, right?  To you, though… this may not be so clear.
            Let me toss out one other thought about motivations.  Up top I gave a list of situations that many of us have probably dealt with.  The random aggressive person.  The jerk spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend.  The willfully ignorant boss.   These people really exist.  Hell, I had that higher-up boss for two years at one point.
            As I’ve said here many times, reality is not a story point.  It’s not part of a character sketch, either.  Once I put that boss into a story, my readers are going to expect there’s a purpose to him being there.  That there’s an actual reason for his behavior.  And if there isn’t… that’s on me as the writer.
            Look at the characters in your story.  Follow them for a few pages.  Can you explain their actions with one or two simple words?  Are they words most people will know?  Do these words relate to the character and not my outline?
            Then you’ve probably got some very driven characters.
            I’m not sure I’ll be able to post anything next week because I’m a “special guest” at WonderCon here in Los Angeles.  And I’ll be in the last two weeks before this new book is due.
            Or maybe I’ll just stop making excuses and write something.
            Until then… well, hopefully you feel motivated to go write.
April 12, 2013

Flash!! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!

            Pop culture reference.

            You godless heathens.
            So, one thing I’ve heard from a fair number of writing gurus—both for books and screenwriting—is to never, ever use flashbacks.  Which seems a bit odd, because there are plenty of well-known novels and films that use them.  Yet folks keep saying it again and again. Don’t use flashbacks.  Don’t use flashbacks.
            The thing is, it’s actually quite easy to do great, fully functional flashbacks.  The kind that make your readers get a thrill rather than leave them scratching their heads.  It takes a basic understanding of story structure and a bit of thought, but that’s it.  They’re something I wanted to go over in that big structure series I keep promising to revisit, but… well, we’re all here now.
            So… flashbacks.
            And this is kind of big and sprawling, so I apologize now.  But it makes up for missing last week.
            For our purposes, the term flashback can cover a lot of things.  It can be an element within the story like a recalled memory, dream sequence, letter or journal entry.  Sometimes, like in my own Ex-Heroesseries, it’s just part of the way the narrative has been structured.  Whatever the flashback is, however, it’s going to need to follow certain rules in order to work.
            When someone says a flashback doesn’t work, it’s almost always because it inherently has one of four major flaws (I say “almost” because there’s always some bold, daring folks who will find very unique ways to make something not work).  And it’s interesting to note that these four common flaws also pretty much define a successful flashback.  Once I understand the flaws, I’ll understand how to do fantastic flashbacks.
            So, first big helpful hint.  I cannot start a story with a flashback.  Never.  This is the first of those four flaws, and it’s a simple logic/labeling problem so it’s pretty easy to deal with.
            Why is starting with a flashback illogical?  By its very nature, a flashback implies we’re going to a point in time that’s before now.  This means we need a now before we can flash back to anything else.
            Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade does not begin with a flashback.  It begins in the “present” of 1912, when Indy’s just a teenage kid trying to stop a group of treasure hunters.  Again, this isn’t a flashback, it’s just a different setting.  The story then moves forward thirty years to a new setting where Indy is an adult and reclaiming that same bit of treasure for his museum.
            Calling this sort of thing a flashback (especially in a screenplay) is just going to get my story labeled on page one as something by a  rookie who doesn’t understand basic structure.  Personally, that’s not a first impression I want to make.
            All clear?
            Okay, moving on…
            Now, I can use a flashback anywhere in my narrative (except at the very start, as I just said), but this switch in the linear structure can’t affect the dramatic structure.  If I’m going to drop linear point D between R and S in my narrative, it has to keep the story moving forward.  D has to keep advancing the plot.  It also needs to keep building tension.  If it doesn’t, there was no point to this flashback.
            A lot of writers use flashbacks as infodumps.  The flashbacks are seen as a chance to show how Wakko met Phoebe, how Phoebe became a ninja, why Wakko hates snakes, and so on.  The mistaken belief is that if I do this in a flashback, I’m not affecting the structure of the present storyline because these events aren’t happening now—they’re happening in the past.   
            When I do this, I’m confusing linear structure with narrative structure.  This is the second major mistake.  As I mentioned above—and have mentioned before—the narrative needs to keep moving forward.  Just like a shark, if the story I’m writing (or reading) stops moving forward, it dies.
            So when I have a flashback, it has to keep moving the story forward.  It has to tell me something new and relevant.  It doesn’t matter where the events fall in the linear structure of the story, but wherever I’m using them they have to fit into the dramatic structure.
            For example…  here’s a flashback failure from a book I read last year.  Some names and situations have been changed to protect those I wanted to pummel senseless a third of the way into the book…
            A man’s family dies when they eat tainted meat (he’s off banging his mistress, so he survives—no guilt there).  The narrative then flashes back a few months and spends three chapters in the boardroom of the meat-packing company’s parent corporation.  They’ve just found out the meat is tainted.  Should they shut down the plant?  Announce the problem?  Should they do a recall?  Realistically, how much would they spend on lawsuits?  Maybe it’s better just to let it go and roll the dice.
            So the plot was put on hold for three chapters (three long, full chapters) so we could see the board reach a decision we already knew they made—to let the meat be sold.  One could make the argument that we find out their exact motivation in these chapters.  Thing is, their motivation is exactly what most of us would expect from a bunch of corporate executives.  In this tainted meat scenario, what’s the most likely reason the executives would decide not to issue a recall?  Money, of course.
            This flashback served no purpose at all.  It gave us a resolution we already knew, with a motivation nine out of ten people automatically assumed.  It did nothing except bring the narrative to a dead halt.  There’s a good argument to be made that it actually made the narrative go backwards.
            Now, the reverse of this problem is also an issue.  It’s the third one, as a matter of fact.  This is when the writer confuses the narrative story with the linear story.  This is very similar to a problem I’ve mentioned before, being clear on the first time something happens in a story.  When this problem arises with flashbacks, instead of destroying all possible tension, as mentioned above, it destroys logic.
            Let’s say I’m telling a murder mystery.  On page 75 of my story, the lead character has no idea who the murderer is.  Then, on page 125, I flash back two weeks to something that happened “off camera” earlier.  Here I reveal that my heroine learned the identity of the killer because of a clue she spotted near the mellonballer.
            In a rough, quick way, this makes sense.  On page 75 she doesn’t know.  On page 125 she does.  Except once I put these story elements in linear order… well, now they don’t make any sense.  While it makes sense that this is a new bit of information for the reader on page 125, it’s not new to my heroine.  She’s known all along.  Which makes her actions and dialogue for the last hundred pages complete nonsense.
            A quick story.  One I’ve told before…
            I worked on the really, really bad sequel to a fairly clever murder mystery film, one which was far more famous for Denise Richards making out with Neve Campbell in a pool then it was for its cleverness.  At the end of the original film, there are a series of flashbacks that show how the various characters were intertwined and involved, and also how the various twists were pulled off.  The film I worked on had these flashbacks at the end, too, but with one major difference…
            When you put these flashbacks in place within the linear story, they didn’t make a bit of sense.  Either they added absolutely nothing to the story or else suddenly people had conflicting motivations, plot points became bizarre twists, and once-clear twists became muddled nonsense.  The writers were simply seeing this as “new information” and not considering that, within the linear structure, it was all actually old information that needed to match up with the rest of the film.
            One of the best ways to test this is to take a narrative apart and put it back together in linear order.  Are motivations still clear?  Do plot twists still make sense?  That’s a good sign the flashback is solid.
            At least, solid in this respect.
            There’s one last way flashbacks tend to frustrate readers.  The fourth way.  By the very nature of a flashback being out of sequence, the readers or audience have effectively seen the future.  If my character is alive at story point S, flashing back to show her in a life threatening situation at D doesn’t really accomplish anything.
            For example…
            Let’s say I’m writing a story where Yakko and Dot are writing up their mission reports at Monster Slayer HQ after killing the Great Vampire.  And then they remember that they still owe a report on the mummy outbreak in Cairo.  So they start scribbling their report and I write a big dramatic flashback scene that ends the chapter with the two of them backed against a wall, outnumbered and surrounded by a dozen mummies and the avatar of a very pissed-off Egyptian god. 
            Thing is… there really isn’t any tension in this cliffhanger, is there?  Because the moment the reader pauses, even for an instant (like, say, at this chapter break), they’ll remember Yakko and Dot are sitting back at HQ writing up this report.  Alive and well.  No missing limbs or sensory organs.  Not even any notable scars.  Heck, we know they’ve gone on another mission since this one (killing the Great Vampire) and survived that one, too.  So in this case, the flashback actually hurts the story because it’s sucking all the tension out and killing forward momentum.
            While it wasn’t really a flashback (because, again, it wasn’t flashing back fromanything), this was one of the huge flaws with the Star Wars prequels.  By peppering the story with characters whose future we already knew, Lucas effectively tied his own hands and sabotaged any attempt at tension.  He could threaten young Obi Wan Kenobi with all sorts of things, but at the end of the day we all know he survives to become old Ben Kenobi.  And old Ben had all his major limbs, all his fingers, both eyes…  He was in great shape.
            So, four basic rules.
            1) A flashback needs to flash back from somewhere.
            2) It needs to work within the dramatic structure.
            3) It needs to work within the linear structure.
            4) It can’t create tension that undermines the present.
            Now, I’m going to suggest a movie to demonstrate a fantastic series of flashbacks, and you may laugh a bit. Resident Evil.  Yep, it’s corny fun and the series has degenerated into near-nonsense that just showcases Milla Jovovich’s figure, but—credit where credit is due—the first film has a fairly tight story and uses flashbacks very, very well.  There are three major flashbacks (each one a slightly more detailed account of a past event as Alice’s memories come back), and they’re a perfect fit for those four rules I just mentioned. Go grab it from Netflix and check it out.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about some events from last week…
            No, wait… next time I wanted to talk about good genre stories.
            Until then, go write.
January 24, 2013 / 6 Comments

His But Looks Like an Asterisk

             Bonus points if you get that reference…

            Something quick for you.  I’m trying to finish some rewrites.
            I’ve mentioned conflict once or thrice.  Usually I prefer the term challenge, which has also shown up here a few times.  Challenges are what make a story.  When my character deals with problems, obstacles, and unexpected twists, that’s what makes him or her interesting and keeps the audience engaged
            Yeah, there are a few character-heavy stories out there that manage to have no challenges at all and still be interesting.  Believe me when I say that they are very, very few and far between.  Much, much rarer than some of our college writing instructors and chosen gurus would have us believe.
            And really, at the end of the day, readers want to see challenges.  They want to read about characters who are doing something active—physically, emotionally, spiritually.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, characters who never face any sort of challenge are boring as hell.
            And that hundredth time is a coin toss.
            So here’s a simple test to see if my story has any kind of challenge in it.
“Who knows?  In a thousand years, even
you may be worth  something!
            Back when I was talking about expanding ideas, I mentioned that I should be using a lot of conjunctions when I explain my plot to someone.  If you look back at the example I gave (the first half of Raiders of the Lost Ark) you’ll notice that butaccounted for almost half the conjunctions I used.  This is because but represents conflicts and setbacks.  Indy finds the Ark of the Covenant, but Belloq and the Nazis steal it out from under him.  I would’ve had a great time at the party, but my ex was there.   Congress says they want to accomplish a lot, but the House and Senate never agree on anything.
            Take your novel, screenplay, or short story.  Try to summarize it one page.  This isn’t a sales-pitch summary like you’d find on the inside flap of the dust jacket or on the back of the DVD.  Write up an honest summary from beginning to end with all the beats and plot points.  Don’t hold back, include as much as you can, but keep it at one page.
            Now let’s take a look at it.  How many times did you end up using but as a conjunction?  You can count however if it shows up, and maybe though, as well.
            If I can summarize my whole story without using the word but, I have a problem.  Because but is where my challenges are.  No but means no conflicts, and no conflicts means my characters aren’t doing anything worthwhile.
            And that means they’re boring as hell.
            Hopefully you see my point.  But I’m sure some folks won’t.
            Next time… hmmmm, not really sure what I’ll do next time.  Open to suggestions as always.  If none appear… well, I’m sure I’ll think of something really interesting.
            Until then, go write.
December 7, 2012 / 2 Comments

That’s Crossing The Line!

            I’ve been asked about a dozen times lately to take part in “The Next Big Thing.”  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of a self-promotional blog tour that a lot of authors are passing around.  I passed on it because that’s not the kind of thing I use this page for.  Oh, sure, I’ll mention it if I have a new release or maybe if something of mine goes on sale, but I don’t want to go much further than that.  This page is more about hints and instruction than anything else.

            And I suck at self-promotion.
            But that’s all a bit besides the point.  I didn’t want to blather on about crossing that line this week.  I wanted to talk about crossing lines.
            Some people think a genre story has to be pure.  A horror story should be nothing but suspense and scares and gore.  Every moment of a drama should be serious and weighty.  Comedies should be non-stop laughs—there shouldn’t be a moment where something inherently funny isn’t happening on the page or the screen..
            The thing is, those “pure” stories are all boring as hell.  The horror ones stop being scary.  The drama becomes melodrama.  The comedy becomes painful. 
            The reason for this is a lack of variety.  An idea I’ve mentioned before is that the tension levels in a story should rise as the story progresses.  It’s great to begin my story with the action dialed up to nine, but it doesn’t really leave me anywhere to go.  If my novel or screenplay has everything dialed up to nine, what I’ve really got is a monotone story.
            Likewise, if every point on my story graph is the same point—say unspeakable horror or maybe uber-cool action—then what I now have is a homogenous script.  Flipping pages is like cutting into a block of cheese.  Every part is just like every other part.  Case in point…
            unspeakable horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Even when I’m escalating things, getting the same point over and over and over again becomes silly pretty quick. 
            Consider most of the good stories you’ve read or seen.  There’s a lot of comedy in Jaws.  Ernie Cline’s cyber-fantasy tale Ready Player One has some moments of serious suspense.  Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wonderful love story in it.  Dan Abnett’s sci-fi action novel Embeddedhas a pretty enthusiastic sex scene.  Ghostbustersactually gets a bit scary at points.  The characters in the new Hobbit movie break out into song.  Twice.
            That being said, I don’t think any of us would call Jaws a comedy, and Embedded is hardly a porno.  Raiders has that love story and a couple really good laughs, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call it a romantic comedy.  And The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journeyis definitely not a musical.  We all realize that little dips and swings into what would qualify as another genre doesn’t invalidate a story.
            If anything, they usually strengthen it.
            The secret to all storytelling is characters, and the best characters are going to act like real people.  They’ll tell jokes at the wrong time.  Some of them will think about love and sex when they should be paying attention in board meetings, and others will fret about those board meetings at moments they should be thinking about love and sex.  A few of them might even be stressed about scratching the paint on Dad’s car when they should really be worried about the axe murderer lumbering up behind them.  
            One of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back is when they’re about to test the carbon-freezing on Han Solo.  For all intents, he’s walking to his execution.  He knows it, his friends know it, we know it.  Even if he survives– he’s gone.  Leia knows this and finally admits her true feelings… and Han responds with a wiseass comment.  We all giggle and then there’s a horrible blast of steam as Han’s turned into a piece of collectible wall art.
            Y’see, Timmy, if my stories and characters lack this kind of range they’re going to come across as very flat and tedious.  If I can’t have a moment of laughter, a bit of flirting, or a non-sequitor distracted thought, my characters are going to feel like puppets rather than people.  Much like a chef uses a few different flavors to bring out the main tastes of a meal, a writer wants to sprinkle in a few moments that step out of the genre to make the characters and the material much more powerful.
            So don’t be scared to stretch a toe over those lines now and then.
            I know I said I was going to talk about structure, but that’s kind of a huge set of post so I think I might save it until the new year and take a bit of stress out of my holidays.  So next time, I’m  probably just going to say something quick about heroes.
            Until then, go write.