January 31, 2014 / 1 Comment

The Eight Worst Words You Can Hear

            Many thanks for all your patience while I was busy having my teeth drilled out .  Hope you enjoyed Thom’s rant last week and he didn’t hurt your feelings too much.  No matter how you felt it about, rest assured… you were having more fun.
            But enough of my whining…
            …whining like a high speed drill on enamel…
            This week I said we’d talk about Robocop.  The original, not the remake.  I haven’t seen the remake yet, so I can’t comment on it.  Well, not in a non-nerdy, non-whiny way…
            And we said enough whining…
            I wanted to talk to you about a common problem that can lead to a lot of issues in a story, no matter what the story is.  It doesn’t matter if I’m writing sci-fi (like Robocop), romance, horror, fantasy, or an intense little character piece—this can kill my story.  And, in a way, it’s something I’ve talked about here before.
            As it happens, this issue’s been summed up by a few people in one simple sentence.  These are the eight worst words a writer can hear.  There’s no way to put a positive spin on them.
            What are these deadly words…?
            I don’t care what happens to these people.
            You’ve probably heard that old chestnut about the tree falling in the forest.  If there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?  Let me ask you this—is Jason Voorhees still scary if no one’s in the forest for him to kill?  Is that candlelit dinner on the rooftop still romantic when it’s just sitting there?  Are explosions that action-packed if there’s no one running away from them?
            I’ve said many, many, many times that my story depends on my characters.  A good character has to be relatable, believable, and (on some level) likeable.  If my characters are just thin, undeveloped stereotypes, they’re just empty placeholders.  If spies are hunting Man #3, it doesn’t mean anything.  If I tell you they’re after Bob, it’s a little better, but not much.  Once you hear they’re after Jason Bourne, though, now this suddenly means something.
            This is the big problem with “starting with action.”  That was a storytelling mantra for years.  “Start with action—don’t make us wait to be interested.”  It didn’t help that some people misunderstood “action” to mean explosions rather than just “something happening”.  Thing is, like I was just saying, action is meaningless if I don’t know the stakes and I don’t care about the characters.  It might grab me for a moment, but I need someone to latch on to, to identify with, to care about. 
            Consider this.  I’m betting you’ve seen a commercial or headline for the news sometime in the past couple of days.  Odds are, with the extent of news coverage and the way it leans toward the sensationalist—you’ve probably seen something along the lines of “five dead in a house fire” or “two killed in shooting” or something like that.   Sound familiar?  You’ve probably seen at least a dozen variations on this  since  New Year’s, yes?
            How many of these stories stuck with you?  Can you name any specifics from any of them?  Can you even remember when you saw them?
            Odds are, the reason you can’t is because you weren’t connected to them in any way.  The news was starting with the events—the action—not with the people.  And it bored you. 
            It’s okay to admit it’s boring.  We can all be awful people together.
            There is no way I can make a story work if the reader doesn’t care about the characters.  None.  It doesn’t matter how amazing my futuristic predictions are, how clever my zombie origin is, how fantastic my descriptions are.  If there aren’t any fleshed-out characters, it’s just trees falling in the forest.
            Now, there are a few exceptions to this, but they’re finesse things.
            Many years back, I read an interview with Paul Verhoeven about the original Robocop(see, I told you we’d get back to it).  The journalist was questioning him about the extreme (at the time) levels of violence in the film—most notably when Murphy is blown apart little by little with shotguns until Clarence Boddiker gets bored and puts a bullet in his head.  How could Verhoeven justify this?
            It was pretty easy, actually.  As the director explained, he only had two scenes with Murphy to establish him as a character before killing him.  Not much at all.  And while he did good things with these scenes, he realized that the death scene could be used, too, to trick his audience a bit.  By giving Murphy a brutal, utterly nightmarish murder—the kind of death any decent person wouldn’t wish on anyone—he immediately built sympathy for him.  We don’t know much about Murphy when he dies, but we know he sure as hell didn’t deserve that.  It’s the same technique used by a lot of horror stories, especially slashers and torture porn.  We might not care about the specific character, but we can identify on a basic human level and know this is an awful thing.
            Again, though… it does take a little finesse.  I can maybe do this once or twice, tops. After that, my readers are going to be numbed to that shock
            And then they’re not going to care anymore.
            So remember to build great characters that your readers care about.
            And then do awful things to them.
            Next time, speaking of awful words… I wanted to rattle off a few more.
            Until then, go write.
June 15, 2012 / 4 Comments

Patting the Dog

            Oh, get your minds out of the gutter.

            This week’s topic comes from a comedy sketch done many years ago by British comedian Benny Hill.  He’s best known in America for having lots of scantily clad women dancing around him, while the rest of the world also remembers his ability to rattle off some clever wordplay or jokes.  If I do this right, though, “patting the dog” will become a regular writing phrase and we’ll all get to give him credit for that, too.
            Many years back, Hill did a sketch where he played a foreign film director being interviewed by the press.  When asked about his new film (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), he explains in broken English that it’s a “deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness.”  When the interviewer prods him a bit, Hill goes into further detail.
            “It’s about a man who tries to leave the mob and sees his friends slaughtered by criminals with machetes.  So he tracks down the villains and kills them all.  Then he finds their boss and kills him in front of the man’s family.  Then he kills the man’s wife, and then his children.  Then he desecrates their bodies and, as he leaves, he sets fire to their home.”
            “I thought it was a deeply emotional tale of love and human kindness?”
            “It is,” insists Hill.  “As he walks out the door, he pats the dog on the head.”
            That got a big laugh from the studio audience.  And from me, even though I was only eleven and really watching the show for the scantily clad women.  It was clever enough to stick with me, even past those distractions.
            See, the studio audience and I both recognized the absurdity of what Hill’s character was suggesting—that one miniscule, token act could balance out, or even override, the atrocities he’d just described.  Patting the dog is a nice thing to do, yes, but in all honesty it’s kind of low on the scale.  Heck, for most of us it’s more of an automatic response than a deliberate act of kindness.  We see a dog and we pat him or her on the head.  That’s all there is to it.  We probably think more about tying our shoes in the morning.
            So the idea that patting the dog would make us completely change our views on this character or this story is… well, laughable.  It’s too little, too late.  It’s the weakest kind of spin job.
            And yet, how often have we seen this sort of thing in books or movies?  We’ll have a completely unlikable person who does nothing we can sympathize with or relate to.  Violent drug dealers, sadistic assassins, abusive spouses, jerk bosses, there’s dozens of characters that could fit this category.  And all too often, the writer will give them some tiny, banal moment that’s supposed to make us suddenly change how we feel about them.  They pat a dog.  They thank the guy who sells them their morning coffee.  They get drunk and confess their awful childhood.  They go to church and say their prayers.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m patting the dog, it means I’ve got a character who’s doing some small, token thing that’s supposed to counterbalance a lot of really awful things. And that just doesn’t work.  I can’t spend page after page making the audience feel one way about a character, then expect their views to completely shift because of one minor action.
            Now, at the risk of possible Armageddon, let’s mix dogs and cats
            I’ve mentioned the “save the cat” moment once or thrice.  This is Blake Snyder’s term for when a character does something small and quick early on in the story that gets us on their side.  His example of this is “saving the cat” (which some writers take way, way too literally) but it can be any number of things.  It’s just a simple action that assures us this person is a decent human being.  In my new book 14, the main character’s saving the cat moment is when he decides not to drown a cockroach.
            Here’s a well-known save the cat moment from the movie Robocop.  Remember when we see the still-human Murphy practicing his quick-draw and spinning his pistol into his holster?  He explains that he’s learning the trick for his son, who sees all the great cops on television do it and therefore assumes his dad should also be able to do it (because his dad must be a great cop).  And, Murphy tells his new partner with a grin, it is just kind of cool.  It’s a quick little moment, barely thirty seconds long and only about fifteen minutes into the film, but it establishes Murphy’s a good dad and an overall decent guy.
            Now, the big catch with a save the cat moment is that we’ve never been againstthis character.  Saving the cat has never been about changing our view of a person, it’s about emphasizing our view of them.  It’s just a shortcut to help the reader like them quicker so the writer can move on to more important things.  Like, say, the plot.
            A lot of folks try to have half-assed save the cat moments in their stories, but really they’re just patting the dog.  A couple easy ways to figure out which column my random act of kindness falls in…
–If everything I’ve done up till this point has been to make the character unlikable, then this moment is patting the dog.
–If it comes more than halfway through the story, odds are I’m patting the dog.
–If I’m trying to change the reader’s perception of my character with this moment, I’m just patting the dog.
            This isn’t to say I can’t reverse how my readers see one of my characters, but it’s not going to be a quick fix thing that I can do with one line.  It’s going to take lots of moments and a lot of work.  It’s a long process that can’t be rushed.  Even if I’m doing it with a clever twist, the reader needs to look back and see that the seeds of this change stretch all through my story.
            Because there’s another word for when someone does a sudden reversal like that.  It’s called a betrayal.  And no one likes to be betrayed.  Even if it’s just by characters in something they’re reading.
            Next time, I’d like to run some numbers by you real quick.
            Until then, go write.  And remember to thank Benny Hill.