October 12, 2021

Behind the Mask!

Oddly enough, not a Halloween-themed post. Although… maybe it is. It’s all perspective, I guess.

Since I first started taking this whole writing thing seriously, there’s been a general mindset I’ve seen bubble to the surface once a year or so. Maybe more in some places. It’s the idea that I can’t write about X if I haven’t personally experienced X. Can’t write it well, that’s for sure. If X hasn’t been an integral part of my life at some point or another, I’m just wasting everyone’s time by trying to write about it. Definitely by putting that writing out there. It’s a version of the old “write what you know” superball that gets bounced around. If you’ve never known X, you certainly can’t write about X.

Starting out in the horror community, I’d see this again and again. The folks who’d insist it just wasn’t possible to write horror without a horrific, awful background. You want to write horror? Real horror, not this weak “vampires and demons and zombies” crap? Well you better have fought in a war and had several people killed in front of you. Or had a horribly abusive family. All your pets better be dead, and most of your friends too, and if you’re not dealing with it through life-crippling addiction to something, you’re just a goddamn tourist who has no business in this genre.

Because of this, I’d see some folks get scared off from their chosen genre. Have I experienced real, soul-wrenching love? I mean, really experienced it? Maybe I shouldn’t be writing romance. My parents loved me a lot, I get along well with my brother, and I’ve got a bunch of really cool friends. Maybe I don’t have any business writing horror. And, heck, I’ve never even killed a human being before. I guess murder mysteries really aren’t for me.

At least, that’s what notorious serial killer Sue Grafton always said.

And a friend of mine recently pointed out this is such a pervasive idea that even some readers believe it. There’s no way I could write about a character that awful unless I myself am truly that awful, right? I mean, somebody couldn’t just make that stuff up, right? If one of my characters has sex more than twice, I’m clearly a sex addict (and let’s not even talk about what their chosen sex position says about me). Heck, I think I’ve talked before the weirdness that can happen when you name a character after a family member or friend without thinking about it.

Now, before I go any further… as I mentioned above, this has all been proven wrong again and again. Seriously. Yeah, there’s definitely some horror writers out there who’ve seen some awful stuff and I’ve known one or two folks over the years who’ve written intense erotica as an outlet when, y’know, no other outlet was available. There are some action writers out there who have very intense backgrounds in the military or private security, and a few sci-fi writers with pretty solid scientific credentials.

But I also know a ton of horror writers who had really nice childhoods and now live very happy lives, without a single dismemberment or traumatic beating or other ghastly event in their past or present. I know action writers who haven’t been in a single barfight or high speed chase or gun battle. I know people with no military experience  who write very successful military books. There are more than a few sci-fi writers who haven’t traveled in time or even left earth orbit once. And I know people who write sex scenes in their books who have, if I may be so bold, fairly vanilla sex lives. At least, going off all the pictures one of them showed me. Like, insisted on showing me.

That was a really weird brunch.


I think all of this ties back to a few things I’ve talked about here a few times. So I thought  maybe it’d be worth mentioning a few totally valid ways we can write about things we haven’t actually experienced. For example…

Voice—A big step for all of us is the day we realize midwestern grocery store clerks don’t talk the same way as third-generation bio-apocalypse survivors. Dwarven warrior queens have a different vocabulary than techbro CEOs. And fresh-out-of-grad-school schoolteachers don’t sound the same as battle-hardened Army sergeants. And getting that voice right, knowing how she’d say this vs. how he’d say it vs. how I’d say it is a big step in our growth as writers.

Research—seriously, we live in a freakin’ golden age of resources for writers. I’ve been doing this just long enough that I remember ads in the back of magazines for small press books about what it’s really like to be a doctor or a homicide detective . Or I’d spend hours in the library trying to find pictures of Paristhat didn’t involve the Eiffel Toweror a museum. These days, if I need to know something I have access to so many sources. I can find research papers or anecdotal accounts or heck, even actual people who will answer my questions or help me find the answers, and usually tell me some other useful things if I’m paying attention.

Extrapolation— I’ve never been shot in the knee, but I’ve had the meniscus behind my kneecap rupture (and collapse again and again and again). I’ve never done super heavy drugs but I’ve been very drunk a few times. I’ve never been able to fly, but when I was a kid there was a bridge in my hometown we all used to jump off into the river. Yeah, these experiences aren’t the same, but I can use them as building points. If this registers as a six, what would a nine be like? If it felt like this for ten seconds, what would it feel like after twenty? Or thirty? I stayed conscious here but would that much short out my brain for a few seconds (from pain or pleasure or excessive introduced chemicals)? It’s a basic creativity exercise. 

Empathy—I’ve talked about empathy here a few times, and I have to say once again it’s the most important trait a writer can have. Seriously. It’s what everything here really boils down to. Being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I’ve never had a parent die, but I’ve had friends who did. I’ve never served in the military, but I have family who did. I’ve never been married or had kids or burned dinner when someone’s coming over I really want to impress. But I look at my friends and family, I listen to them, I take note of what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, and I try to relate it to things I’ve gone through. I try to imagine how I’d feel in a similar situation, based off my own experiences. And I use some of that in stories.

In fact, let’s take this one step further and address one of the points that started this off. If I’m going to tell someone they can’t write great horror unless they’ve been through awful stuff (like I have)… well, isn’t that kind of implying I don’t have great empathy? I mean, think about it. I’m saying I can only write this because I experienced it, and I’m also admitting I can’t imagine being a person who can write it without experiencing it.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that’s something I should be bragging about.

Y’see, Timmy, much like “write what you know,” this mindset assumes people can’t learn or grow or imagine anything. And if I want to be a good writer, I have to be able to do that. I can’t tell myself not to write about bank robbery until I’ve actually tried to rob a bank. Hell, where does that people who write murder mysteries? Or giant robot sci-fi? Or dark period fantasy. I mean, if you haven’t had sex with at least three people from the twelfth century, how do you expect to write medieval romance? I need to understand most writers research things, extrapolate feelings and reactions, get inside their character’s heads, and just try to have an honest sense of what someone else would feel in this situation.

Look, the truth is, if I’m doing my job right, you should feel like all my characters are real people in real situations. The janitor. The nymphomaniac barista. The half-human, reluctant cultist. The little kid with PTSD. The burned-out secret agent trying to forget most of his life. The world-ending cosmic event that they’re all tied up together in. And when we read a description of a real person, when we hear about the believable, relatable aspects of their life, it’s natural for us to assume they’re… well, real.

And the obvious real person is me, the author, telling you this story. So it’s not surprising some people think I must’ve experienced these things firsthand.

But I shouldn’t need to.


Next time, I want to throw a bunch of characters at the wall and see which ones stick.

Until then, go write.

March 12, 2020 / 6 Comments

A2Q Part Five—Setting

We’re still in the early days of creation. I know that seems weird. We’re five parts in, but I’m still saying it ‘s early days. Not quite halfway through, going off my rough outline for this whole thing.

One of the things I’m trying to do with this A2Q thing, especially with these first few parts, is point out a lot of elements we need to think about before we sit down and get going. I really think the reason a lot of writing projects hit a wall is ‘cause people get one or two cool ideas, start writing, and then hit that first big gulf those ideas don’t cover. And that gulf will always appear, because one or two cool ideas don’t make a book.

Like I mentioned last time, it’s a lot like trying to cook. I want to make sure right up front I’ve got everything the recipe needs, because I don’t want to get halfway through and find out I don’t have that half-cup of brown sugar. We’ve all been there, right? Suddenly I’m wasting time digging through the cabinets or looking online for brown sugar substitutes and going through the cabinets for those. Now the oven’s smoking because it’s been preheated for a while and the dough’s been sitting half-mixed for fifteen minutes while I’m trying to figure out if I really need the brown sugar and wow cookies were a bad idea and jeeeeez I shouldn’t’ve tried this.

I don’t want any of you to go through this with your writing. So that’s why we’re going to make sure we’ve got everything we need before we sit down and start with the serious writing. And why I want to continue this gathering-up-of-elements by talking about settings a bit.

I know at first glance, the setting might not seem like a big deal. I mean, if I’m writing something super-sci-fi set on another planet or a fantasy in some alternate world… well, sure. Setting’s important then. People are going to be blue with orange hair and swords will talk and everything’s going to be different.

Thing is though, almost every fictional world is going to be slightly different from the real world. Especially the real world of the reader. Maybe I’m writing about spy thrillers in Europe or werewolf hunters in northern California or a galactic hit man who just crashed on an unnamed alien world. There’s going to be big, obvious differences and small subtle ones, too.

Charlie Jane Anders made a wonderful observation a while back. To paraphrase, if my setting is “a world just like ours, except…” then it’s not really a world just like ours. Like that butterfly effect I mentioned last time, any change worth noting is probably going to have a ton of repercussions across all levels of society.

And if I don’t see those repercussions in the manuscript… it’s going to ring false. In a world where anyone can turn invisible and everyone knows this, why wouldn’t I have better safeguards in my home? Why would I assume “the wind must’ve knocked it over” or those footsteps upstairs are “Just the house settling in for the night.” That kind of thing makes my characters (and me) look dumb. They should understand the world they live in and not be shocked or surprised or caught off guard by it.

Another key thing to remember here is that a lot of the setting is my character’s view of the world. So even if they’re in the “real” world, their day to day experiences may not be just like mine. Odds are really good they’re not. Simple truth, I don’t live in the same world as somebody who lives in Egypt. There are so many elements that make our day-to-day experiences–our thought processes—different. The climate. The economy. The history. The government. The society. And all of these little differences—these excepts— make for a very different world.

Heck, my world’s radically different than someone living in Canada. Just the simple fact that they don’t worry as much about healthcare. Or childcare. Seriously, just take those two items off your plate right now and how is it going to change your view of your job? Does it matter as much that you didn’t get that two dollar raise? Or the extra overtime shift? And if you’re not working overtime, how does that affect your life?

And just what a character knows can change their view of the world. Maybe they learned an ugly truth or got the veil peeled back, and now the world is a very different place for them. The best example I can think of this is that old-timey flick of yesteryear, The Matrix. For the first third of the film, Neo thinks he knows and understands the world. But later, after learning some ugly truths, he goes back and is shocked just to see a noodle shop he used to go to a lot. Because now he sees the world as a very different place.

Let’s talk about Phoebe’s world for a little bit and flesh some things out.

We’ve established she doesn’t make a ton of money, and she’s responsible for her teenage sister. These two things are going to be big factors in a lot of her decision making throughout the book. For example, we know she’s not living in a mansion, and even though she’s renting a house, it’s not going to be a great house. Not too big, probably some faults here and there. Maybe crap plumbing or an old, too-small water heater. And the wiring’s from the ‘50s so don’t try to run your laptop and a hairdryer while the lights are on. Plus, this lack of money’s going to be reflected in her diet, her wardrobe, and probably—to some level—her self esteem.

Of course, this isn’t the big element. Phoebe lives in a world where werewolves are real. We already know some of the changes this implies—there are professional werewolf hunters, with lots of related jobs and organizations.

But one of the other things we’ve kinda been dancing around is… who knows? Is the werewolf-hunting world hidden away from prying eyes? Or is it commonly known and you can buy werewolf-repellant spray at every Home Depot?

(seriously, don’t buy that stuff—it’s a scam and it never works)

See, this is really going to change the book depending on which way we go. It’s going to affect who Phoebe can talk with about different things. It’s going to affect her day job. Heck–it’s going to affect how she dresses at different times. If people don’t know werewolves are real, it’s going to be tough explaining why every four weeks or so she goes out wearing a heavy leather trenchcoat, heavy boots, a quiver of crossbow bolts on her belt, a bandolier of silver-plated knives.

Again, it’s a world just like ours, except

I’ve gone back and forth on this while talking about plot and story and character, and I’m going to say people in general don’t know about the werewolves. They exist, they’re 100% real, but to the vast majority of the population, they’re just fiction and folklore. These folks all believe they’re living in the regular real world you and I are living in right now.

Why am I going this way?

First, the more I played around with it, the more it felt like making werewolves something everybody knew about would make my book lean a little more into comedy. Not a full fledged comedy, probably a lot of gallows humor, but it’s still just not the direction I want this to be going. If we’re going to talk about lycanthropy as a global problem, it just seems like we’re going to be very serious (which I don’t want) or pretty goofy (which I also don’t want). Making it so most people don’t know gives me two worlds, essentially, that Phoebe can move back and forth between. This will give me some nice, believable transitions when I want to shift tone a bit one way or the other.

Second is that if everybody know werewolves are real, it’s logical to assume the lodge would be publicly subsidized somehow. Maybe even fall under a state or federal government office. The CDC or maybe the DOD, depending on how I approached it. Heck, maybe the Department of the Interior. This’d put a different tone to the underpaid/undersupplied aspect of Phoebe’s story that I don’t want to deal with.

Also, kind of a third thing, somewhat related to the above point. If we follow the logic that the lodge is connected to the government, then like it or not this story’s becoming a bit of a metaphor. The government having licensed contractors eliminate “undesirables” or the underfunded government office that’s woefully unprepared for a major outbreak. Hahahaa, yeah, no way any of that could seem political in this day and age. I’m not at all against political elements in work, but—for what I want to do with this story—it just feels like it could easily be a little too much right now.

Plus—on a more positive side—I kinda like that werewolves being unknown will add a little more conflict in Phoebe and Luna’s lives. It’s a big aspect of both their lives they have to keep hidden from people, like a good old-fashioned secret identity.

Worth mentioning that thinking about all this solved another small issue and added a little more depth. Why would Phoebe be using a crossbow in this day and age? Well, to be honest, I just said crossbow a couple of times at first because it’s kind of a werewolf-hunter standard. But thinking of the setting and financing made me think of something else. Silver’s expensive, even for the lodge. Oh, sure, if there’s a major outbreak there’s going to be boxes of silver 9mm and buckshot for everybody, but nowadays, on regular patrols, crossbow bolts are reusable, which means they’re cheaper.

Heck, they could be heirlooms you leave to your daughter for when she takes over the family business.

This is also a good place to point out something I see crop up. Some of you might be seeing a contradiction here. I said earlier that characters need to understand the world they live in, but now I’m saying most people don’t know there are werewolves. This really isn’t a contradiction, though. If most people don’t know werewolves are real, then their world is built around the idea that werewolves aren’t real. As I also mentioned above, their day to day experiences tell them they live in a normal, werewolf-free world, and they’re going to act and react to things accordingly.

I know this seems silly to point out, but it’s amazing how often I’ve seen this kind of thing pop up in manuscripts (or geekery movies). Characters are confused/ surprised by/ completely ignorant of the world they live in, and behave in unbelievable ways because of it. I can’t say everybody in the world can read minds, than have one of my characters surprised that somebody read his mind, followed by “Oh, of course—you read my mind. Hahahaa.”

Again… I’ve seen this exact sort of thing.

So play around with your setting a bit. Figure out what it is and how your characters see it. Try to work on a couple of those sharper corners now so we don’t get snagged on things later.

I’ve got one other thing I want to talk about in the A2Q before we (finally) start putting stuff together. But that’ll be in two weeks.

(unless you’re all seriously loving this and just want me to focus on the A2Q for a while. The comments have been kinda dead so I have no idea)

Next time, I’d like to talk a little bit about information and noise.

Until then, go write.

September 5, 2019 / 1 Comment

It’s the Real Thing

So, I’m trying to plow through the end of some line-edits, which means I’m a bit short on time. But I really wanted to talk about something that’s come up once or thrice recently. It’s an old idea I’ve talked about a few times so… don’t be shocked if you smell a bit of recycling in here.
One thing we all (hopefully) work for in our writing is realism.  We want our characters, their dialogue, their worlds to feel real.  If my story’s set in the real world, I want it to have that level of detail you can only get with authentic knowledge and experience. If it’s a made-up world, I want every aspect to be as lifelike and believable as possible.
Because of this, we writers get a bit of a… a reputation. And it’s kinda earned.  We people-watch and eavesdrop and sometimes travel to weird places just to get an idea of what the air smells like. Some of us give our characters feet and ankles and knees of clay and overly-complex pasts.  Yeah, us.  I did this too.  We rewrite dialogue again and again to make it as real as possible. We sometimes add random events to the narrative—even major events—to give that broader sense of uncaring fate. Anything we can do to cover our story with a big, thick, oozing coat of reality.
There’s one problem with this, though.
Nobody wants reality. 


Oh, they may say they do, but they’re lying. To me or to themselves.  My readers want fictional reality, not here-in-the-real-world reality.  They want characters who win (maybe not cheerfully or without scars, but they do win).  They want clean dialogue.  They want things to make sense and story threads to get tied up, preferably with a very neat, precise knot. Or maybe a bow, depending on how wide some of my plot threads are.

Let me give you some examples.

Before I wrote fiction full time, I interviewed a lot of people.  And one thing quickly became clear to me as I transcribed these interviews—real dialogue is a mess. When people talk in reality, they pause a lot and trip over their words and sometimes make false starts that they have to sort of go back over.  They can drone on for several minutes at a time.  They talk over each other.  If you’ve ever looked at an unedited transcript of a conversation, you know that real dialogue’s the worst possible thing for fiction.  Readers would claw their eyes out, and everything would take forever to say.
So we don’t write real dialogue. We write “real” dialogue, lines that seem like the kind of things real people would say. The dialogue gets cleaned up and tightened and measured out to make it sound authentic, even though it’s being crafted. And then people say,  “Wow, her dialogue felt so real.” 
You’ve heard that sort of thing before, yes??  The dialogue seemed real or  felt real or sounded real. Think of how often we all phrase things like this—which is pretty much quietly admitting we know it isn’t how real people talk.  Even though it feels like how real people talk. 
As I mentioned before—heck, I’ve mentioned it here a few times–I made this mistake.  When I was starting down my pro fiction path I copied real people’s real speech patterns into my first serious attempt at a novel. Then I had a couple of real editors mention that as a specific reason I was really being rejected.  It didn’t matter that it was real dialogue, because it wasn’t “real” dialogue.
Make sense?
Here’s another angle.  Weird, unbelievable stuff happens in reality all the time.  There are odd coincidences.  Unlucky circumstances.  Heck, humans have a bad habit of dying in freak accidents and leaving so many things incomplete and unresolved.

But we’re not talking about reality. We’re talking about fiction. And in fiction, all things are equal. I beat cancer, you got kidnapped by an Atlantean princess. It doesn’t matter if one of them is true or real, it just matters that it’s a good story or not.

Here’s another example I’ve used a bunch of times before (and will continue to use again)—Vesna Vulovic.  You remember her, right?  The flight attendant back in the ‘70s whose flight got bombed by terrorists so she fellsix miles to Earth. And survived. Not in the powderized bones/being fed through an IV sense—she walked—I repeat, WALKED—out of the hospital barely ten weeks after they found her, and lived into her sixties.

I mean, that story’s so amazing, look how many times I had to use italics.

The point is, though, what would happen if I tried to have this happen to one of my characters? It honestly doesn’t matter if it’s true, that it actually happened… does it? When it happens to Yakko, my readers are naturally going to call foul (“foul” if I’m lucky). That’s just ridiculous. Yakko got caught in an exploding plane and fell six miles… and survivedThat’s just nonsense. I’m writing nonsense at that point. Why not just put him in an old fridge and have him flung a mile or two through the air? That’s actually less ridiculous.

Y’see, Timmy, reality is a messy thing.  All of it.  The people, the way they talk, what happens to them.  And I don’t want my writing to be messy.  I want it to be clean and polished and perfect. To paraphrase Mr. Twain, the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. When I’m a writer I’m the God of my world, and if something doesn’t serve a greater purpose… well, I’m a really bad god.

And probably not much of a writer.

Even when I’m making it real.
Next time I’d like to talk about… well, look, it’s not really important who they are, okay? We’re just going to talk about them.
Until then, go write.
August 8, 2019 / 1 Comment

And They All Lived Happily Ever After

Finally got this finished.
Endings are funny things, yeah? In a weird sort of way, we don’t get them much in real life anymore. We demand sequels to everything. Moving away doesn’t mean what it used to, not with Facetime or Twitter or any other messaging devices. Heck even death has been softened a bit, with social media accounts getting memorialized and lingering long after we’re gone.

And sometimes, people just throw on an ending because they can’t think of anything else.

The ending can make or break my story.  It’s the rich, perfectly sweet dessert after a feast of savory words.  I can have the absolute best filet mignon in the world paired with an exquisite wine, but if we end the meal with a pie made from rotten apples… well, that’s the part we’re all going to remember.  A so-so story with a really fun ending usually gets favorable reviews.  A strong manuscript that spirals downward at the end, more often than not, doesn’t go anywhere except into that big pile on the left.

Now, some folks are content to say “well, that sucked” and leave it at that.  But as storytellers we need to know why something doesn’t work.  Bad endings don’t always have the same root problem.  Sometimes the writer had a phenomenal way to start a character arc, but wasn’t sure how to wrap it up.   Or maybe they have a really cool idea for a story, but don’t know where to go with it past that initial idea.  Sometimes an ending just doesn’t work with the rest of the story.

And some endings almost never work, no matter what the rest of the story is. Endings like…

Nothing Changes
Let’s start with the basics.  My characters are supposed to have an arc.  Arcs end at different points than they began at.  If my last ten pages show the characters in the same place as the first ten, doing the same things, with the same people, and they’re not any wiser for what they just went through…  well, that wasn’t much of an experience, was it?  For them and probably not for my readers.  I’m not saying my characters need to have some gigantic emotional breakthrough or spiritual growth, but somethinghas to be notably different or this was all just wasted time. 

One type of story that does this a lot is the “slice of life” tale.  You know the one, just two or three average days in the life of two or three average people.  It’s hard to say this kind of thing is wrong in a general sense. Most of our lives don’t change radically on any given day.  I’ve spent most of today here at my desk writing, just like I did yesterday and probably like I’ll be doing tomorrow.  So it’d be a realistic ending if a story about me ended with me back here working at my desk. 

The question I need to ask myself is… why would anyone want to read about that? I know I sure wouldn’t. I already go through a slice of life every day where nothing changes.

The Heroes Don’t Do Anything

Every now and then, often enough that it’s worth adding to this list, I come across a weird story where the hero or heroes don’t save the day. Not that they lose they just… they aren’t the ones who bring the victory. Somebody else saves the day, hits the target, makes the big sacrifice, or what have you. Imagine we’ve been watching Harry Potter for seven books and then Seamus Finnegan leaps in to fling that curse back at Voldemort and kill him dead. Which, y’know, yay Seamus and wooo! Voldemort’s dead, but at the same time… why’ve we been following Harry for the last two thousand or so pages?

When I get to the end of my story, what’s my character actually doing? I mean, sure, pointing and shouting and worrying are all things you can do, but are they actually doing anything that’s directly affecting this outcome? Or is someone else doing it?  And if it’s someone else… have we been following the wrong person?

Everybody Dies and the Antagonist Wins
One of the biggest problems with ending things up this way is it gives my reader a sense the story was pointless.  They’ve just invested a few hours (or perhaps days) into this tale only to see it come to an unpleasant ending.  This can be especially frustrating if the reader comes to realize the character never even had a chance at succeeding.  It’s even more frustrating if my characters made a bunch of stupid decisions somewhere along the way. I mean, it’s bad enough when we have to watch the fifth person in a row decide to go check out the old Murderama Amusement Park where all those kids got killed last summer, but when that’s the point I decide to end the story on…? 
My protagonist doesn’t need to come through unscarred, mind you.  Heck, I can even get away with killing my lead.  But they need to succeed on some level.
The Left Fielder
This is the ending that comes out of nowhere. The quarterback finally gets his act together, aces his exams, convinces the cute girl from drama club that he really loves her, gets voted prom king but turns it down… and then gets hit by a bus on the last day of school. Our heroine stops international terrorists working with alien invaders, but in the end her girlfriend accidentally drinks the tainted Soylent and is devoured by necrotic nanites anyway. Or, as I experienced many years back, a friggin’ hilarious ninety minute sketch comedy show ends with a bleak monologue about racial inequality and prejudice.
No, seriously.  I worked on a stage play back in the ‘90s that actually did this. The director and producer rewrote the end to give it “meaning” and couldn’t figure out why nobody liked it.

In my experience, the vast majority of writers who use this kind of ending are trying to achieve art. It’s me attempting to show how this story flawlessly mimics a random and sometimes meaningless real world by having a random and meaningless ending.  It doesn’t relate to anything that happened because… it’s real.  And tragic.  And artistic.

Besides suffering from all the same issues as the “everybody dies” ending, the left fielder just isn’t that special anymore.  It’s become one of the most common conclusions in indie films and “literature.”  So besides making my audience roll their eyes so hard they sprain something, they’re probably going to see this “unexpected” ending coming for the simple reason that it’s just, well, expected at this point.
There’s nothing wrong or pedestrian about putting an upbeat ending on a story.  As I’ve mentioned before, nobody got hit by a train at the end of Slumdog Millionaire and it’s somehow still a good film.
The Y’see Timmy
This one’s a little odd.  I use this phrase here a lot, and it’s kinda an homage to the movie I found it in–Speechless (written by Robert King). This ending gets its name from the old Lassie TV show.  Little Timmy encounters some problems, works his way out of them with Lassie’s help, and at the end Mom sits him down and explains what happened and why.  “Y’see, Timmy, sometimes people get hurt or scared and it just festers down inside of them…”  Timmy and the audience learn a little something about life and we all go home as better people.

The problem is, in clumsy hands the Y’see Timmy quickly becomes “brutally beating the audience with my message.”  That’s why it’s on this list.  A great example is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where the 98 page monologue (no, seriously) at the end of the book recaps every single one of the subtle lessons that were shown in the first 800 pages, but all dialed up to eleven-point-six.  And if you know what I’m talking about,  I’m betting you probably ended up skimming and/or blotting out most of that monologue.  Just like everyone else did.  Except Paul Ryan.

…And They Write a Book About It
I think I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that this is pretty much the worst ending you can have for a screenplay.  It isn’t much better in a book. This almost always feels like it’s tacked on ending to assure the reader that our hero didn’t just survive this story—they benefitedfrom it.  Immensely.  Yeah, you’d think clearing my name of murder charges, getting the girl, and killing Thanos would be enough for most folks to consider it a good week, but noooooooo… apparently I need acclaim and wealth and celebrity, too.
I think writers tend to fall back on this ending for one of three reasons (sometimes more than one of them). One is that it falls into that “write what you know” tip we’ve all heard for years and years. I know writing, so I’ll write about writing.  Twois that, because of one, this feels like a natural thing to happen, so it adds an element of reality to my characters and story.  And three

Okay, I think three’s a sort of wish-fulfillment-validation thing, to be honest.  Work with me here. My character writes a book about how she used to be a international assassin and it becomes a New York Times bestseller, right? So, logically, my book about someone writing a book about how she used to be an international assassin should alsobecome a New York Times bestseller.  Right?

It Was All a Dream

Probably the worst offender of all of these.  All too often the amazing tale of adventure ends with one of my heroes waking up on the couch or in a hospital bed.  None of the story my audience has just invested their time and attention in actually happened. Not even within the world of the story. We all just put ourselves into a story about a person who was putting themselves into a story. The end.

As I mentioned up above with Everyone Dies, this just tells the reader they made an investment for no reason.  How often have you read or seen a movie like this and immediately been able to pick out the moment things veer off into a dream?  My partner and I often watch shows or movies and find ourselves quickly declaring “Dream sequence!”

To Be Continued…
No, I lied. This is the worst offender. Hands down.

We all want to write great, sprawling epics.  Okay, maybe not all of us, but I’m sure a lot of folks here do. We want to write that massive series that spreads across at least six books and gets us an HBO deal. Starz at the least. But it just doesn’t happen this way.

There’s an ugly lie that races through writing groups and threads—the idea that publishers only want to buy series. First, that’s just not true. I know dozens and dozens of writers who’ve sold one-off books (myself included). Second… editors and publishers very rarely want a series. What they want is a book with series potential. A book that—if the preorders are good and word of mouth is great—I can easily write a sequel to. And another sequel. And maybe a fourth.  Or even a fifth.

More to the point, as a beginning writer I need to convince agents and editors that I know what I’m doing. That I’m able to bring things to a satisfying close.  So if my conclusion is “maybe I’ll end this in the next book”… well, that’s not going to score me points with anyone. Especially readers if that second book isn’t already a guaranteed thing.

So, there’s some endings that I may want to think twice about before falling back on them.  Again, I’d never say it’s impossible to do one of these and make it work.  But I am saying…I’d think twice before tackling one of them.

Next time… well, heck. we’ve been talking about the end. Whaddya say we just kill a few people?

Until then… go write.