September 3, 2020 / 2 Comments

Comedy Hour!

I know I said I was going to talk a bit about endings but I had this kind of funny epiphany at the grocery store the other day. As in, an actual epiphany about funny things. No, really…

I’ve wanted to talk about comedy for a while. I tried once years ago, but—to be really honest—I didn’t quite have the vocabulary for it at the time. I’m not sure I do now, but at least I thought up two things that sounds kind of clever. That’s better than nothing.

Once or thrice I’ve brought up my bad movie habits and explained them. A fairly common thing I’ve seen are movies that bill themselves as comedies or something-comedies. I say “as” because they’re rarely funny, and I think there’s two big reasons for that. Well, three, but the third one’s not really relevant here. Maybe some other time. For now, two big reasons.

One is that comedy is very empathy-dependent. Possibly more than any other type of writing. If I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes, I’m going to have a tough time figuring out how to make them laugh.

The second reason is what I wanted to blather on about.

I’ve talked about genres and subgenres here a few times. Sometimes these subgenres have really specific rules. Take horror for example. Cosmic horror stories are not the same as slashers, which are not the same as supernatural thrillers, which are nothing like torture porn, which definitely aren’t monster stories. Or mysteries! There’s over a dozen sub-genres for mysteries, and publishers take them very seriously. Cozies, noir, capers, amateur sleuth, professional sleuth, procedurals… every one of them has their own expectations and requirements and guidelines. I can’t write a cozy mystery about a serial killer who collects his victims’ genitalia. They just don’t work that way.

Comedy is the same way. There are satires, spoofs, farces, romcoms, dramedys, and many more. And just like above, each of these has certain rules and expectations. I can’t just throw down a pile of funny things and declare it to be a spoof. And truth be told, no matter how big that pile of funny things is, I might not even be able to call it a comedy.

Y’see, Timmy, funny is to comedy the same way notes are to music (that’s clever thing #1). You need one to make the other, but that doesn’t mean a pile of one equals the other. I don’t expect thirty random notes to come together and make a song—we all understand I need to arrange them in a certain way, they need to work together, they need to have a certain flow to them. Just like a pile of random ideas doesn’t make a plot, just because I’ve got a pile of funny beats doesn’t mean I’ve got a comedy. What’s funny at the bar might not be as funny at work. That little bit of physical comedy from your date is definitelynot going to go over the same way at work. Heck, it might not have even been that funny on the date.

If you don’t want to believe me, I had a chance to talk with Kevin Smith years ago and we discussed ad-libs. He pointed out something you hadn’t planned or scripted can be incredibly funny on set, but the important thing is that it works in the editing room. Just because it’s funny doesn’t automatically mean it’ll make sense in the final film. ”It’s not germane to the discussion,” was how he put it.

When I’m writing a comedy story or screenplay, I need to be aware of what kind of story I’m telling. Am I adding things because they work within the framework I’ve established and they propel the narrative forward… or am I putting it in because people laugh at poop jokes? Is this part of the comedy, or is it just some random funny element? One that’s hopefully still funny in this context. Hopefully.

More doesn’t always mean better. Just because I add more funny things doesn’t mean I’ve made a better comedy, in the same way that just because I added more types of robots doesn’t mean I wrote a better sci-fi story. And really… does anyone think a bunch of jump scares make for a better horror movie?

Remember, whatever it is I’m writing, my elements should serve my story, not my genre.

(and that’s clever thing #2).

Hey, speaking of whatever it is I’m writing, he said by means of a segue, the exclusive period on my novel Terminus has ended. That means you can pick up the ebook version of the book right now. It’s not narrated by Ray Porter, yeah, but I did include a nice-sized afterword where I talked about where some parts of the book came from and how a lot of the characters developed. And if you’ve been waiting all this time for it, I made it fairly cheap, too, as a small “thank you” for your patience.

Next time… endings. Definitely.

Until then, go write.

June 18, 2015 / 2 Comments

Don’t Look Back Now…

            Okay, I’m still trying to get caught up on things after a whirlwind of publicity stuff for The Fold.  And to be honest, the storm flags are still blowing a bit.  So I just wanted to offer some quick advice on drafts.  Specifically, how to approach my first draft.
            As I’ve mentioned here a few times before, I tend to treat my first draft as the “just finish it” part of writing.  I just want to get it done with a beginning, an end, and the majority of points in between.  I also don’t hold back.  I let dialogue, descriptions, and action scenes run on a bit longer than they probably should.  A lot of it’s not perfect, but I know I’ll start cutting in the next draft or two, so there’s no reason to worry about length now.  The most important thing is to get the overall framework done.  Personally, I find it’s a lot easier to deal with the small things when the big things aren’t looming over me.
            A lot of folks I’ve talked to try to do this, but they get caught in early-editing mode.  Ten pages in and they’re going back to edit, or rethink a character, or to tweak the structure.  Forward motion crashes to a halt because the writer’s spending all their time looking back.
            Now, in all fairness, a few people can do this and it works fine for them.  It’s how Kevin Smith writes.  He goes in blocks of ten or twelve pages, writing, rewriting, and polishing until they’re done.  Then he moves on to the next ten. 
            If you’re one of the folks who can do this, power to you.  But in my experience, with all the writers I’ve talked to over the years, those folks are a rarity.  Most of us, alas, have to go through the whole thing, then go through it again.  And again.
            So, if you’re one of us, too, here’s my quick piece of advice.
            Don’t look back.
            When working on a first draft, I can read the page I left off on.  That’s it. If I stop halfway through the page, I can look at the top half before I start writing again.  That’s it.  If I ended at the top of a page, too bad.
            If I close the document, I’ll make a note somewhere else of what page I was on.  When I reopen it, I go right to the page I left off on.  No slow paging through the document.  Get back to where I left off and start writing again.
            Under no circumstances while writing will I hit the up arrow or page up or push the scroll bar.  None of that.  Not even to go up to the last paragraph.  No corrections, no re-reading, no going back to adjust. I don’t go back to fix typos or formatting or anything.  This draft moves in one direction and it doesn’t stop moving in that direction.
            I do not stop.  Ever.  Until it is done.
            This is an adjustment, yes.  And a very tough one.  It might not work for everyone.  But I’ve tried it twice now and found it helps. There’s a lot of stuff to clean up, yeah, but I’m getting to the clean up stage a lot faster than I would normally.
            Y’see, Timmy, forcing myself to only go forward means I’m forcing myself to write.  I don’t get to rethink yesterday’s work or tweak that first encounter or even double check if I usedthe right spelling of prophesy (I didn’t, but it doesn’t matter in a first draft).  I just write until the first draft is done.
            So try going forward.  Only forward. Never back.  Not one line.
            Next time, by popular demand from my fan page, we’re going to talk a bit about screenwriting, clan wars, and hunting.
            Until then, go write.
June 8, 2012 / 2 Comments

Crystal Clear Tone

            The title will become clear further into the rant.  Hopefully.

            Shamefully, some pandering, too.  My new novel, 14, just came out.  It’s there on the sidebar.  Ebook only, at the moment, but this time next week that link should take you to the paperback version.
            As some of you know, I used to write for a fairly popular screenwriting magazine.  It let me talk to lots of professionals about their job, and it also let me see a lot of movies for free.  A lot of movies, sometimes weeks or even months before they came out.  To be honest, the last movie my lovely lady and I paid to see was V for Vendetta.  Before that was probably Batman Begins, which we saw twice—once with our friend Max and once just the two of us.
            But that really doesn’t have anything to do with this week’s topic.
            Or does it?
            Anyway, one day I was in the office and the editor, Amy, asked me about a film she knew I’d seen a few weeks earlier.  One of the other journalists had suggested the idea of doing a big piece on horror-comedies for the September-October issue, and the movie I’d seen (let’s call it Gorefest) was one of the ones that had come up as a potential subject.  Amy wanted to know if I thought Gorefest would fit the article.
            I didn’t think so.  The filmmakers were telling a horror story, and they knew that too many jokes and cheap laughs would shift the tone of the film and knock it into a different category.  Gorefest was a horror movie, and it had several moments of comedy in it, like a lot of modern horror films.  But it wasn’t a horror comedy.  They never crossed that line.
            The other journalist insisted it was, though, and used it anyway.  In the final article, the screenwriter of Gorefestopenly said it wasn’t a horror comedy.  And Amy gave me a little grin the next time I was in the office.
            This is an example of someone being a bit tone deaf.  You’ve probably heard this term applied to both music and writing.  In music, it’s when I don’t realize that a group of notes or chords clashes with another group.  And that’s pretty much what it means in writing, too.  When something doesn’t work in my story, tonally, it means something’s clashing or overpowering something it shouldn’t, to the point that it stands out.  In this particular case, the journalist was projecting emphasis onto those comedy bits that wasn’t there in the script—he was deaf to the actual tone of the film.
            I interviewed Kevin Smith a few years back for one of his movies (Zach and Miri Make a Porno).  One question I asked was about working with Seth Rogen.  After all, Smith notoriously hates ad-libs and Rogen is famous for constantly riffing on lines, coming up with new ideas and variations for almost every take.
            He was quick to correct me, though.  His reputation for hating ad-libs came from his first few films, when he realized he and his cast were too inexperienced to be making big deviations from the script.  So back then, he was very strict about sticking to the page.  And while he’s loosened up a bit, he still favors the script over random interpretations on set.  “So often you’ll get an actor who just starts saying stuff that’s very funny to the crew or me or the other actors, but it’s not germane to the discussion,” he told me.  “It’ll be great on a friggin’ blooper reel, but I can’t fit this into the scene.”
            And, yes, I did clean up Kevin Smith’s quote a bit for those of you reading this at work.  Feel free to swap in the words you think he used.  You’ll be right.
            Just because something’s good in and of itself doesn’t mean something is good in the bigger scheme of things.  I can throw a great slapstick comedy scene into my Somalian pirates script, and it may be some of the greatest slapstick ever written.   But it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb amidst the gunfire, brutal killings, and mounting tension.  I could write some stuff right now that could make most of you reading this cringe or get grossed out.  It’s not really that hard. 
            The thing is, what would be the point of doing it right now?  You’re reading this to learn about writing, not to get nauseous.  It might be some fantastically disgusting imagery, but it just wouldn’t fit here any more than… well, a random discussion about the last couple of movies I paid to see.
            I see this kind of stuff all the time.  Random gore for the sake of gore.  Long monologues in an action film.  Comical sidekicks wedged in for no reason except to be the comical sidekick.  Romance that’s shoehorned in just so there’s a reason for a female character.
            Another quick story, one I’ve mentioned here before.  A friend gave me a horror script to look at a few years back.  It was a basic “cabin in the woods” setup with a clever idea behind it.  My friend knew that sex sells, and he told me before I read it that he’d added a nude scene.  It actually turned out to be a hardcore lesbian sex scene.  Three pages of boobs, some bondage, toys, and insertions.  It was so graphic, in fact, there was nothing to call it except pornographic.  And that’s a major shift in tone right in the middle of a fairly creepy horror story.
            This is one of the harder criticisms to give.  For a lot of people—especially inexperienced people—it’s also one of the harder ones to receive.  It’s very hard for some folks to grasp that something can be good and still not be right
            If I had to guess, I’d probably say part of the reason people have trouble with this concept comes from that reverse-engineering idea I mentioned a few weeks back.  Element X works well in story Y, therefore it stands to reason element X will work in story Z.  There’s also probably a bit of special snowflake mentality—the idea that doing something good should somehow automatically translate to success.  And, for some writers, there’s probably an empathy issue in there as well.
            Y’see, Timmy, tone is about my story as a whole.  Not this particular funny joke or that one creepy description or that strongly-implied (or blatantly shown) sex scene.  Tone is how my entire story feels overall and how it’s going to be viewed.  That’s not to say I can’t have comedy or romance or action in my story.  It’s these little moments of flavor and color that make a story really sing.  The trick is to know how much comedy and how much romance will work in a given story—and maybe accepting that the answer is “none.”  Because things that break the tone generally break the flow, too.
            And if you can’t tell you’re breaking the flow… well, don’t worry.  Your readers will let you know one way or the other.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about a wonderful lesson we can all learn from an old Benny Hill skit.
            Until then, go write.
February 3, 2011 / 2 Comments

Who is Keyser Sose?

Why am I using that famous question as the title?

No reason.

So, a while back, someone I was working with asked if I’d be willing to look over a script he’d been working on with a friend. I said sure, because I hadn’t yet learned to be wary of such situations. And then spent a few days figuring out what I could politely say about said script

Almost two-thirds of the script was other movies. Quotes from other movies. Visual references to other movies. Deliberate parallel scenes from other movies. Discussions about other movies. And what was left–the original material– wasn’t much.

Let me tell you another little story.

I was reading a script for one contest where the main character was named Sam Spade. He worked in a diner where their specialty chicken sandwich was called the Black Bird. One of his regulars was named Archer. There’s a waitress named Brigid, and the cook was named Wilmer. Then one day a guy named Cairo wanders in. He works for a fellow named Gutman.

These are the names of pretty much every character in The Maltese Falcon, by the way. If you didn’t know that, hang your head in shame and go rearrange your Netflix queue. How are you going to write anything new if you don’t know the classics?

Anyway, I’m getting away from the point.

What was the point, you ask?

Well, that’s a good question. What was the point of all these names and moments and interactions? If someone’s characters are going to do nothing but talk about movies and they’ve written their script to shamelessly copy movies, what do you think it’s about?

That’s right. It’s about a lost dog.

And that other one. With all those Maltese Falcon references, there’s got to be a lost treasure or a mystery or something going on, right?

Nope. It was a slice-of-life story about this person’s dreams and that person’s aspirations and desperate sex in the storeroom and driving home at night with the music loud. That’s it.

Soooooo… what’s up with all those references?

Personally, I blame Kevin Smith.

Ever since those guys in Clerks had a long debate about the contractors who built the Death Star, dropping references into stories and dialogue has become a standard. Oh, people did it before him but he started doing it in movies and made it very widespread. Smith still does it. Stephen King does it. I do it.

(…like how I lump myself in with the big guys? Not egotistical at all…)

The catch, of course, is that these writers have a reason for doing this. When Dante and Randall get in an argument about the Star Wars trilogy, we’re learning more about them than we are about the movies. When Milla Jovovich’s confused character in Resident Evil goes down into an unbelievable underground world, is it that shocking to discover she’s named Alice?

And let’s not forget that sometimes the reference is just there to drive home similarities or contrasts. In my own books, the Mighty Dragon’s real name is George Bailey. Remember the poor sap in Office Space who’s named Michael Bolton but loathes that musician’s songs?

Y’see, Timmy, once you start throwing out lots of familiar names and sequences, people are going to start looking for patterns. That’s what a good audience does. And there needs to be one. Each of these odd names or references is going to knock a reader out of the story for a moment or two, and if you don’t have any sort of payoff for that disruption… well, it’s not going to go over well.

Not only that, if you don’t acknowledge the oddness of everyone who enters this diner having the same name as a Maltese Falcon character, your readers are just going to get annoyed. If you acknowledge it but don’t have a real, in-story reason why all of them have these names, that’s going to be seriously annoying.

No, sorry, it’s not acceptable just because your three best friends said it was really cool and it wasn’t disruptive.

If you’re going to do something clever in your story, awesome. As long as there’s a real reason for doing it.

Speaking of doing it… next week’s going to be pretty close to Valentine’s Day. I thought I’d ramble on about the rules of love. Yep, there are rules. If only I’d known them in high school. Or college.

Until then, go write.