November 21, 2019

Do You Think I’m An Idiot?

No, no… don’t rush to answer that. I’m pretty sure I can guess how most of the comments section would go.
However…it is an important question, whether I’m writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought my new Lovecraftian techno-thriller aren’t expecting a long lesson about how memes work. If I’m billing myself as the next Dan Brown, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if I’m hired to pen the next Pokemon movie, I probably shouldn’t spend a lot of screen time explaining all the medical reasons why little kids shouldn’t drink paint.
Cause let’s face it—nobody likes to be called stupid.  Not even kids.  Heck, especially not stupid people.  We all hate being condescended to and having things spoon-fed to us at a crawl. We get angry about it. At best we get frustrated with the person throttling the speed we can absorb things at.
So, having established that nobody likes being considered an idiot, it stands to reason most people like to feel smart, right? And that includes my readers. I want them to like my stories, not feel angry or frustrated because of them.
But a lot of stories assume readers are stupid. They spell everything out in painful detail. They drag things out. They repeat things again and again and again. These authors think their readers won’t know or understand or remember anything, and they write their stories accordingly.
So here’s a few easy things I try to do so my readers feel smart and they’ll love my stories…
I know what my audience knows
I’ve talked a couple times here about empathy and common knowledge. It’s stuff I can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Grass needs water and sunlight to grow. Captain Americais a superhero. Nazis are still the bad guys. Maybe you noticed that a few paragraphs back I rattled off Lovecraftian, Dan Brown, and Pokemonwithout bothering to explain any of them. I know the folks reading this would have—at the very least—an awareness of these words and names. Knowing what my specific audience knows is an important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets me judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.
This goes for things within my story, too. Yeah, odds are nobody’s ever heard the term Caretaker used precisely the way I use it in Dead Moon, but I don’t have to keep explaining it. I can make a couple references at the start and then just trust that my readers will remember things as the story goes on. It’s a completely made up word, but I bet most of you know what a Horcurx is. Or a TARDIS. Or a Mandalorian. They don’t need to be explained to you again and again.
I try to be smarter than my audience
There’s an agent I’ve referenced here, once or thrice, Esmund Harmsworth. I got to hear him speak at a writing conference years ago and he pointed out most editors will toss a mystery manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the hero does.
Really, though, this is how it works for any sort of puzzle or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If I’ve dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who’d have the patience to read it? It’ll grate on their nerves, and it makes us impatient when we have to wait for characters to figure out what we knew twenty minutes ago.
I don’t state the obvious
Michael Crichton got a very early piece of writing advice that he shared in one of his books. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really isobvious, you don’t need to use it.  If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.”
Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Revisiting that first tip up above, should I be wasting half a page telling my readers Nazis were bad? When Yakko staggers into a room with three knives in his back just before collapsing into a puddle of his own blood, do I need to tell anyone that’s he’s seriously hurt? I mean, you all got that, right?
I take a step back 
When something does need to be described or explained, I think our first instinct is to scribble out all of it. We want to show that we thought this out all the way.  So we put down every fact and detail and nuance.
I usually don’t have to, though. I tend to look at most of those explanatory scenes and cut it back 15 or 20%. I know if I take my audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own. People tend to fill in a lot of blanks and create their own images anyway, so getting excessive with this sort of thing rarely helps.
I give them the benefit of the doubt

This is the above tip, but the gap’s just a little bigger. Three-time Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves now and then, they’ll love you forever. That’s true for writers of all forms. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then I just make a leap of faith my audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from me. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. 

Y’see, Timmy, when I spell out everything for my audience, what I’m really telling them is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.”  My characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there.  You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.
And that’s not going to win me a lot of return readers.

Hey, next week is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and my parents are coming  to visit for the holidays and hahhaaaha I’m not stressing about it YOU’RE STRESSING HOW IS IT THE END OF NOVEMBER ALREADY OH CRAP

…sorry, that was a typo. What I meant to say was it’s Thanksgiving so I’ll probably just do something quick on Tuesday or Wednesday. And after that… well, if you’ve been following the ranty blog for any amount of time you know what I’ll be talking about on the day after Thanksgiving.

Until then, go write.
             Running behind this week.  Sorry.  I’ve just gotten too relaxed after Ex-Communicationand the success of 14.  And I got zombie Legos, which have taken up far more of my time than a grown man should probably admit to…

            Bonus points if you know when Batman blackmailed someone with that title line.  Yeah, Batman.  Hiding a bomb somewhere in Gotham to stop his opponent.
            Anyway… on a related note.
            The late, great Alfred Hitchcock had a famous example about suspense that you’ve probably heard before.  To paraphrase, suspense is when two people are having breakfast and they don’t know there’s a bomb under the table.  If the bomb goes off, it’s a shock, absolutely, but the longer they sit there and the bomb doesn’t go off… well, the tension’s going up a few notches every minute.
            Now there’s a few conditions that have to be met for this to work.  It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a short story, a novel, or a screenplay.  Suspense needs certain elements to be effective.
            Firstoff is that there has to be a real threat.  A can of whipped cream under the table just doesn’t equate to four pounds of plastique.  Neither does four pounds of liquid negathilium with a dynochrome timer, because none of us have the slightest clue what that is (for all we know it might be tastier than the whipped cream).  The bomb under the table has to be something the readers immediately understand is a horrible thing.
            Second, the reader or audience needs to know about the threat, even though the character doesn’t.  We have to be cringing every time they bang a glass on the table or pound their fist for emphasis.  If one of them is checking their watch, it should make us tremble every time we see those hands tick forward another minute.
            Thirdis that the characters need to be smart enough to recognize that threat—if they knew about it.  This is where it gets tricky, because this requirement has to be carefully balanced with the first two. 
            Let me toss out a trio of quick examples.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
            A while back I watched a movie where the main character’s friend was… well, psycho.  Not quietly, in-the-background psycho, mind you.  She was brutally-kill-your-pet, attack-and-mutilate your next best-friend, constantly-check-up-on-you, stare-at-you-longingly while you sleep psycho.  There were so many warning signs that she was unstable.  How could everyone not catch all those pointed glances and wild eyes and trembling hands.
            My lovely lady was reading a script a while back where a naive country boy moved to Manhattan and was taken advantage of again and again.  And again.  And then one more time after that.  And every time it was made painfully obvious that the woman/ man/ indeterminate the main character was dealing with was screwing him over.  It was like reading a cartoon script where nobody recognizes Snidely Whiplash as the villain, even with his black cape, twirling mustache, and bad habit of ending every sentence with an evil cackle.
            Finally, there was a fairly popular sci-fi prequel this summer.  It featured, in one scene, a hissing alien which seemed to be a cross between an cobra, a python, and a gigantic, albino leech.  One of the human characters, you may remember, kept trying to pat it on the head.
            In each of these cases, the writers were so desperate to meet one or both of the first two requirements (establishing the threat and letting the reader know about that threat) that the third requirement suffered for it.  This is a recurring mistake I see when people try to create suspense.  My characters aren’t supposed to know about the bomb (to keep using our main example), so they just don’t see it.  No matter how much evidence there is that a high explosive device has been activated under the breakfast table, no one reacts.  Because if they reacted, there wouldn’t be any suspense.  So the attempt to create tension just creates a ridiculous blind spot instead.
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s a corollary lesson to be learned here.  If there’s a bomb under the table and my characters don’t know it, that could be considered suspense, yes. 
            However, if the bomb has a bright red flasher, ticks louder than Big Ben, and the characters still don’t know about it, that isn’t suspense. 
            It just means my characters are idiots.
            And it’s tough for any of us to relate to characters who are idiots.  I’ve mentioned a few times now that my characters should always be as smart as my audience.  If they’re not, everyone’s just going to get frustrated.  So when I’m building suspense and tension, I have to make sure it’s in a way that makes my characters look smart while still informing my readers.
            No, it isn’t easy.  If it was, everybody would be doing it.
            Next time, I want to talk about triangles.  They’re dangerous, pointy things.
            Until then, go write.
April 14, 2011


For those who never played it, Jenga involves making a tower out of long wooden blocks. Then multiple players take turns sliding the blocks out without toppling the tower. Eventually, though, someone will pull out one block too many and it begins to sway. It might stabilize. It might not. In the next turn or two that tower’s going to come crashing down into a pile of wooden blocks.

More on that in a minute…

I’ve mentioned the idea of withheld information once or thrice before, and it struck me that I’ve never quite explained what it is and why it should be avoided

So, hey… no time like the present.

Withheld information is when the writer or characters hold back facts from the audience for no other reason than to drive the plot forward. It’s the clumsy, unskilled version of mystery and suspense. I usually see it employed by novice writers who don’t have a mystery but are trying to create the illusion of one.

If you think of it in terms of Jenga, withheld information is when you know the next block is going to make the tower collapse… so you pass your turn to Wakko. Who in turn passes his turn to Phoebe. Who passes it to Yakko. Who passes it back to you. Yes, the game is still going on, but it’s only continuing because it’s stopped moving forward. And has become very boring in the process.

Like Jenga, information in a story can hit a certain tipping point. There comes a time when you have to tell the reader everything because it’s foolish not to. I can have the mystery, I can have the characters discover the answer… and then I need to let the audience know the answer.

At some time or another, most of us have been in a position where we have a vested interest in not answering a given question. Or taking as long to answer it as possible. A few such questions are….

“How old are you?”

“Do these jeans make me look fat?”

“Are you claiming this as a deduction?”

“Did you eat the last piece of cheesecake?”

“Is that lipstick on your collar?”

Now, by the same token, there are questions that should take no time at all to answer. When life and limb are at stake–or when nothing at all is at stake–nobody beats around the bush. These are the times you have to seriously wonder why someone isn’t answering a question–and they’d better have a damn good reason for not answering. I loved LOST. Absolutely loved it. But it did suffer when Ben became a regular part of the cast because we all knew that he knew stuff he wasn’t telling us. While there were still lots of cool mysteries on the island… well, there were also lots of things where it was just Ben sitting there with his lips pressed together in that creepy flat line.

There’s a sci-fi show on right now that suffers from this. I won’t name names, but a third of the show is the government trying to figure out what a group of humanoid aliens are up to, a third of it is one lone character trying to find out the alien secrets that are keeping him from his girlfriend, and one third of the show is the aliens themselves. And the aliens tend to talk in very vague, general terms, like they think every room and car they’re in is loaded with listening devices.

You can probably see how the writers have put themselves in a corner. If the aliens talk freely, it kills the mystery for the other two-thirds of the show. If they don’t, a third of the show becomes obtuse for no reason except to keep the other two-thirds going.

Now, there is a point when the pendulum swings even farther. Sometimes the information has been revealed, but people keep acting and insisting it hasn’t. So the audience is left drumming their fingers while they wait for the characters to learn something that’s already known.

I read a book recently that suffered from this twice-over. First, much like my own Ex-Heroes, it switched styles and viewpoints now and then. Every second or third chapter was done in epistolary form, a series of 16th century letters between a spy and his master, encoded with an elaborate, almost unbreakable cipher. Sounds kind of interesting, yes?

Thing is, most of the other chapters were about a search for the key that would let the modern-day characters read those letters. They’d go on and on about how important it was to decode them and learn the secrets contained within, etcetera, etcetera. So the motivation for a big chunk of the plot–maybe a third to half of the book–was deciphering some letters that had already been deciphered for the audience.

In the same book, though (twice-over, remember), one of the characters also had a secret. I felt there were a few too many clues, but overall it was passably hidden (I guessed it a third of the way in). At the halfway point, two different characters (solving different halves of the secret) came together and realized their halves met to form a whole. I felt clever. The characters didn’t realize what they’d discovered. The “secret” went on and on and was finally “revealed” in one of the final chapters.

In other words, for most of the book the reader is waiting for the characters to catch up.

To keep up our Jenga metaphor, this is when the tower has collapsed but your host is insisting you keep playing. So everyone’s sitting there picking up little wooden blocks off of the tabletop and telling themselves it’s a fun game of skill.

Now, I’d also like to point out that there are times when the audience does know things the characters don’t. That’s where we get suspense, and suspense is great… if it’s real suspense. Y’see, Timmy, one of the keys of suspense is that the characters don’t know they’re lacking this information, but it’s very important they learn it. Life-threateningly important. In suspense the stakes are high and they’re almost always personal. It may not be my life that’s in danger, but maybe the life of my girlfriend, my brother and his family, or even my cats. It’s tough to have good suspense without high stakes that matter to me. And the thing about high stakes is that they eventually have to pay off.

Hitchcock spoke of the bomb under the table (or was it under a chair? Or under the car…?). Wakko doesn’t know it’s there. The audience does. We can see the countdown timer and we know Wakko’s life is in danger. But if the bomb never goes off or Wakko never finds it, that bomb is just as frustrating as the pile of wooden blocks.

So, to recap, here are three great story elements that are not withheld information.

A mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware that a piece of information has been hidden from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. At it’s simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

Suspense is when there’s an important piece of information the audience knows and the characters don’t. The key here is that the characters don’t know that they need to know this vital fact. The bomb under the table. Wandering off with the murderer. These are common suspense situations.

A twist is when a piece of information is revealed that your characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them. They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story. When a twist appears, it comes from out of nowhere and changes a lot of perceptions for the characters and the audience. We’ve all made the natural assumption that Luke Skywalker’s father is dead, so when we learn that Vader is his father, it’s a bombshell that alters our view of everything.

If you’re trying to use one of these devices, make sure you’re using them correctly. Don’t just withhold information from your audience. Your characters should be just as smart and clever as your audience, and if they aren’t talking, make sure there’s a real reason why.

Next time, a wonderful story about Harrison Ford and a bellboy.

Until then go… you know. Do that thing. The thing we were just talking about. That.

April 30, 2009 / 1 Comment

How Stupid Do You Think I Am?

A pretty loaded question, I know. And I’m sure I don’t want to hear all the answers you’ve got for me.

It’s an important question, though, whether you’re writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought your new Harlequin Romance aren’t expecting a long lesson about the way colors mix to form new colors. If you’re billing yourself as the next Tom Clancy, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if you’re hired to pen the new Yu-Gi-Oh movie, you probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time explaining why kids shouldn’t lick stove burners.

Nobody likes to be called stupid, after all. Not even children. Not even stupid people. We all hate being looked down on, being condescended to, or having things spoon-fed to us.

This is why so many people fell in love with the television show LOST, yet so many of these same folks despise the “enhanced” version ABC showed for a while. These episodes now had “pop-ups” added in which explained every single thing occurring on screen. Everything. Every name. Every reference. Every way every point tied back to other things. Now, it’s fun trying to figure out all the various, intertwining mysteries and stories on a show like LOST, but the moment there’s someone walking the viewers through every single one of them—even the ones that just got explained to you a few minutes ago—well then the show’s just become insulting.

Y’see, Timmy, when you spell out everything for your audience, what you’re really saying is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.” Your characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there. You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.

So, having established that nobody likes to be thought of as an idiot, it stands to reason everybody likes to feel smart. One of the easiest ways to make your readers feel smart is to let them figure things out on their own. Triple Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder once said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves, they’ll love you forever, and that advice holds true for writers of all forms (except maybe journalists, who should probably put a little more effort into spelling things out).

I’m going to fall back on a favorite example, Scott Frank’s amazing screenplay for Dead Again, also one of the best films Kenneth Branaugh ever directed. If you’ve seen it, you doubtlessly remember the scene when detective Mike Church finally gets to interview the old reporter. And as the octogenarian prattles on, he lets drop one word which twists everything we thought we knew about the story.

The real genius of this moment, though, are the two beats between when he says this word and Church realizes what he’s just been told. There’s just a breath of him brushing off the news as insignificant before it sinks in and his eyes open wide. And why are those two beat so important, you ask?

Because that’s when we figure it out.

The audience barely gets a second, but it’s enough. We get to realize the import of that fateful word just a hair ahead of Church. We figure it out on our own, and we figure it out before him. And even then, Church still doesn’t say what he’s just realized—he just runs out of the room.

A few easy ways to let your audience feel smart, so they will love you…

Know what your audience knows. I’ve talked a few times about common knowledge. It’s stuff you can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Nazis are bad. Jesus was good. Dinosaurs are extinct. The sixteenth president was Abraham Lincoln. The Red Sox are a baseball team. For all of you reading this, you’ll notice I rattled off the words Harlequin Romance, Tom Clancy, and Yu-Gi-Oh without bothering to explain any of them—I know for the folks reading the ranty blog these terms are all recognizable. Knowing what your specific audience knows is the most important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets you judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.

Be smarter than your audience. The ever-quotable Esmund Harmsworth once pointed out mystery editors will toss aside a manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the protagonist does. If you think about it, though, this is true of any sort of mystery, puzzle, or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If the writer has dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who would have the patience to read it? It grates on the nerves, and it makes us impatient as we wait for character to figure out what was plainly obvious twenty minutes ago.

Don’t state the obvious. The late Michael Crichton once explained a writing rule he got from his father. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really is obvious, you don’t need to use it. If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.” Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Looking at that first tip up above, should you be wasting words to tell your audience Nazis were bad, the sky is blue, or Harvard is a prestigious school? Within your own writing, when Bob finds Cindy clutching a bloody knife with a look of glee on her face, do we need to be told she’s unhinged and dangerous?

Take one step back. When something does need to be explained, we all feel the need to go the distance with it. You don’t always have to, though. Look at some of those explanatory scenes and pull it back to 85-90%. If you take your audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own.

Give them the benefit of the doubt. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then make a leap of faith your audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from you. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. When your audience pulls those slim threads together all on their own, they’re going to love you for it.

So, now that we’ve (hopefully) established I’m not quite as stupid as you all thought I was, perhaps you’d like to stop by next week for a few thoughts on writer’s block.

Provided, of course, that I can just figure out how to get them all down.

Until then, go write.