April 9, 2009 / 5 Comments

So Say We All

Variety, as a wise man once said, is the spice of life.

There’s a lot of truth to that. After all, it never hurts a person, especially a creative person, to go out and try a lot of new things. Visit new places. Taste new foods. Learn new skills. Or go out to sow a bunch of wild oats, as my eighty-eight year old great-aunt Marie said I should do right before graduation.

That was an awkward lunch, let me tell you.

Heck, even within our writing, variety is a pretty good. Repetition of words makes people’s eyes glaze over, and makes it look like you’ve got an extremely limited vocabulary. Heck, that’s why we have pronouns, so we don’t need to repeat the same nouns all the time. As Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla once said, using all those nouns over and over can really wear you down.

When I was starting out as a wee little writer, back in the days when Brian Daley’s Han Solo Trilogy was considered the apex of modern literature by most intelligent folks, I understood the need for variety. There were lots of things I didn’t know about writing, but my early exploration into words showed me that something could be blue or sapphire or sky-colored. Hair could be golden or flaxen or blond (and sometimes blonde).

One thing I came to realize was the number of descriptive ways dialogue could be attributed to speakers. My characters could declare. They could retort. They could intone. At times I had them growl, mutter, curse, hiss, whisper, shout, shriek, cackle, answer, and respond. On rare occasions, they were known to moan and gasp and groan. Once, I clearly remember one of them pontificating.

Before I was twenty I had set down a personal rule of variety, so to call it. Words should never duplicate on the same page. Especially not for mundane things like dialogue descriptors. There were so many more colorful and exotic and specific ways to get across what a character was saying.


About ten years back I had the lucky chance to sit down with an editor from Tor books at the San Diego State Writer’s Conference. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember his name, even though I’ve gone digging through old notes and emails trying to find it. This polite gent looked at the first few pages of The Suffering Map. He thought the bit with the payphone was wonderfully creepy and even liked the ravens at the library that finished off the first chapter. One thing had him shaking his head, though, and I think my face probably went a little slack as he demolished one of my long-standing personal rules.

(I’m paraphrasing a bit here, since this was face to face and about a decade back).

Said is invisible,” he explained. “People skim over said without even realizing they’ve read a word, so your story moves faster. You don’t need all these words.” He showed me the first two pages, with a good two dozen red circles across them.

My clever attempt to show off my vocabulary and add color to my writing had left an editor shaking his head.

What shocked me even more, though, was discovering how right he was. I went home, sat down at the keyboard, and about 90% of those words became said. And the story did more faster. Heck, I even lost two pages off the total length. Just like that.

I still come across folks who believe as I once did. And it’s easy to see why they do. Whispering something is very different than saying it. Snarling an answer implies a different tone and subtext than saying it.

But how much of this is the reader going to do for you? Once I know the character and the context, doesn’t that set most of the tone and subtext for me? We all know the Joker has that hysterical edge to his voice. Does he really need to giggle or chuckle or cackle his lines?

Want proof?

Look back up at the opening of this little rant, and some of the folks I talked about. The wise man. Rufus. My wonderful great-aunt Marie. Nobody intoned or declared or advised. They all just said. That’s it. And you cruised over it quickly, smoothly, and without effort.

I’m not saying never use these other words, but they should be the exception in your writing, not the rule. I’ve suggested limiting yourself to four adjectives per page and one adverb. Try going back over something of yours and using just one or two clever dialogue descriptors per page. When they’re rare, they’ll have weight. They’ll have punch. And that punch is what makes your writing stand out.

Next week, just to keep you all on your toes, I want to talk about how no one should ever see your writing. Absolutely no one.

Until then, back to writing.

April 2, 2009 / 2 Comments

What’s In A Name?

Yes, we’ve hit a bold new level here at the ranty blog. People are making requests for me to pontificate about things. Well, one person is. Still, there’s only about seven of you looking at this, so that still puts it up around 14% of the readership giving feedback and asking for specific topics to be covered.

Anyway, by request, let’s talk about nomenclature, as the fancy folk like to call it.

As a wise man once said, all things that men fear have a name. To expand off that, pretty much everything has a name, especially in the world of fiction. Try to write for more than a few pages without naming something and you’ll see how difficult it gets. The unnamed thing may be scary as hell, but it’s also very difficult to write about. So we give names to the things that scare us (even if that name is just ‘It’) and to the characters who fight those things, and even to the people who just stand on the sidelines, oblivious and unaware.

Now, one school of thought is that character names are specific and symbolic things. That a writer has a very specific reason for naming him John and her Elizabeth. They hint at a character’s true nature, or perhaps they’re grim hints at their ultimate fates. Said school is why that character has a Shakespearean name, this one’s named after a philosopher, and that guy’s name is an anagram for “other man.”

I’d also like to take this time to point out the fun of having characters be all-too-aware of their name and what it symbolizes. In the opening of Ex-Heroes, one of the characters laments the fact that his parents hung him with the name George Bailey. If nothing else, in these cases you can assure the audience that you’re well aware of the symbolism-laden name you’ve given your character. Allow me to demonstrate with a quick snippet from a story I’ve been poking at for a while.


Some poor bastards are cursed from the day they arrive in the world. They’re born into a certain family, with a distinguishing feature, or perhaps get hung with a poorly-chosen name, and that’s really it for them. One such poor bastard, submitted for your approval, is Andrew Sleight.

With a name like that, you’d think his life had been planned from the start. On paper, it even reads like the start of a bad novel. Andrew was abandoned and never knew his parents, getting his name from the officer who amused him with shell games and coin tricks until child services arrived on the scene. He slid invisibly through the foster homes and orphanages, and had a brief brush with crime at the age of fifteen which is now sealed away and will not enter this story again. The other six, more recent brushes (more like broad strokes, really) weigh on him quite heavily. Two petty thefts for shoplifting, three larcenies for pickpocketing, and one grand theft auto, which is self-explanatory.


The other school of thought about names is… well, you don’t do any of that. Just skim the phone listings or the authors of some books on your desk and there you go.

Odd as it may sound with all that I’ve just scribbled down, I’m not really for or against either method. I think having names with subtle layers and meanings behind them can add to a story. I also think it won’t subtract from a solid story if they’re not there. In my experience, there are times having extra meaning behind a name can add a beautiful level of nuance. There are also, however, times you just get tired of being beaten with the symbolism stick and want to get back to the story.

So, anyway, a few clever ways to find names…

Adjectives. Here’s an easy one. Just rattle off a dozen or so words that describe your character. Odds are you’ll hit one that’s close to a name. Think of Mary Shelley– she gave her character who figures out how to beat death the name Victor. George Lucas named his self-interested space pilot Solo. This can also be the chance for some grim irony, as well. In The Incredibles, there’s something subtle and touching about the man who can lift freight trains being forced to spend the rest of his life as Mr. Parr (or par, as in average).

Baby books. I think we’ve all seen those little books at the checkout counter offering diet tips, how to train pets, or common crossword clues. If you look, there’s usually one with a few hundred baby names and what they mean. Browsing through one of these is an easy way to find the perfect name for your character. Priscilla means dutiful. Oscar means “spear of God.” Yoko means determined or ambitious (no, seriously).

Established names. I mentioned poor George Bailey above. I went to school with a girl named Natalie Wood. Alien Nation features the poor Newcomer cop named Samuel Francisco squaring off against alien crime boss Rudyard Kipling. God only knows how many poor kids have been named after presidents. Sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable for a character to have the same name as a famous figure, either because they have similarities or they’re polar opposites. As I said above though, if you’re going to use this one, you have to acknowledge you’re using it in some way.

Make it up. Cheating, you say? James Barrie made up the name of Wendy for the girl who accompanies his most famous creation. Edgar Rice Burroughs made up most of his character names, since so very few of them were either A) human, B) terrestrial, or C) both. In both cases, the important thing is that they sound right. Wendy reminds us of windy, and the “eee” sound is… well, a bit girly. It’s a young, fresh, happy name. Burroughs, on the other hand, used lots of hard consonants in his names. You never forget the peoples of Mars are all tough warrior races.

(Although—for the fantasy and sci-fi folks—I will toss out that if you make up a totally unpronouncable name, you’re going to be breaking the flow of your story. One of my favorite niche genre novels has a character named aM!xitsa, and it should tell you how good the story is that I could make it past that name a few hundred times…)

Again, despite all this stuff, I don’t think a lack of triple-layered names means you’re a bad writer, and it will not kill your manuscript. Catcher in the Rye would not have fallen apart if the main character was Fred Phelps. To Kill A Mockingbird would still be one of my favorite books if the narrator was nicknamed Chief instead of Scout. Odds are we all still would’ve cheered if the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark was going by the name Irv Smith when he shot that swordsman in the marketplace.

In the end, the most important thing is just to give some thought before you name a character. Not deep thought. Not meaningful thought. But if you want to bring them to life, you’ve got to put something into that choice.

Next week, I’ve been thinking of a few things I wanted to say about having a few things to say.

Until then, get back to writing.

September 10, 2008 / 1 Comment

The Ignorant Stranger

Exposition gets a bad rap.

People like to shriek that exposition kills a story, brings things to a grinding halt, and you’ll never make a sale if you use a lot of exposition. It’s an easy target, which is why lots of gurus warn against it and so many people latch onto it as an ironclad rule to be obeyed until the end of time. They can’t figure out how to do it, therefore no one should do it.

Of course, exposition isn’t a problem in and of itself, only when it’s part of bad writing. Honestly, you need to have exposition at some point or your story’s probably going to leave a lot of unanswered questions (and not in the good way). If you want proof, just look at a handful of the mildly successful movies or novels that use tons of exposition.

Star Wars – Ignoring the fact every movie in this series begins with a two minute text scroll, let’s look at the classic first film. Obi Wan spends a good four or five minutes explaining to Luke what the Force is and how it works. Darth Vader has to explain his relationship with Obi-Wan. The rebels have to explain the plans to the Death Star and how they’ll exploit its weakness.

Shogun—James Clavell’s best selling novel involves constant explanation as Captain Blackthorne, called Anji-san (Sir Pilot) by his captors, is forced to learn the Japanese language and culture in order to survive. He has to learn from scratch and drags the audience along with him.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – Right in the beginning of the film, Indiana Jones and Marcus Brody have to tell the two visiting federal agents about the legend of the Ark, its mythic powers, and where it may be hidden, a lecture that comes complete with pictures and chalkboard diagrams. Note that the two Feds don’t need to explain who the Nazis are and why they’re bad—everyone knows this.

The DaVinci Code – In Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, which pauses to explain historical details every ten or fifteen pages or so, Langdon and Sophie pause for two whole chapters in Leigh Teabing’s library while he relates a dozen or so different hypotheses about the blood line of Jesus, his relationship with Mary Magdalene, and how the Catholic Church has corrupted the Bible over the centuries to serve their own needs.

The Matrix—This movie has a staggering amount of exposition considering it’s known as a dynamic action film. It begins with characters discussing Neo (in voice-over no less), moves through Trinity and Morpheus each describing the mystery of the Matrix, and then Morpheus explaining the truth of it once Neo wakes up in the real world. The crew is explaining things constantly as Neo’s training begins. Cypher gets a little speech, so does Agent Smith… the exposition just goes on and on and on in this film.

Now, Damon Knight makes an interesting point in his book Creating Short Fiction (go buy it—most of his lessons are universal for fiction writing). A fact you don’t know that’s presented to you is information. It holds your attention for the sheer reason it’s something new. A fact you already know that’s presented to you is noise. It’s something you want to ignore and block out so you can get past it and back to the good stuff. This is why a lot of exposition fails—it’s information the audience either already knows or would be able to figure out on their own with minimal effort.

I’ll add one other tenet to that little point. Relevance. Information the reader needs for this story is vital. Information that has nothing to do with the story is wasting time and space. The catch here is the audience won’t know if something’s relevant or not until the final scene or the last page (although sometimes it’s painfully obvious). Notice in the above-mentioned scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the good Doctor Jones doesn’t progress into a lecture on Masada, the fortress-city where almost a thousand Jews were besieged by the Romans in 70 AD before committing mass suicide rather than be captured. The first time we all sat down, we wouldn’t’ve know any better and I have no doubt screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan could give us a completely gripping lecture on Masada. But then we’d reach the end of the film and say “What the hell was all that stuff about a fortress in there for?” Masada has nothing to do with the story of Raiders, which is why no one talks about it.

All those stories mentioned up above manage to pull off their reams of dialogue because they all do it essentially the same way. People in the know are giving information to people not in the know who need it. Years ago while writing one of my very first DVD reviews (for the miniseries adaptation of Shogun, actually) I came up with a term for this which I call the ignorant stranger. It’s when a character who is a source of information gets to do an infodump on a less-educated character. The name comes from John Blackthorne, the main character of Shogun, a man who is ignorant of Japan’s culture and language for the simple reason that it’s all completely new to him—an ignorant stranger. This is a surefire, never-fail, completely acceptable way to have exposition in your writing.

So, keeping that in mind, here’s the only two things you must remember so you can pull off the ignorant stranger in your writing.

First, the ignorant stranger can’t actually be stupid—there’s a big difference between ignorance and stupidity. It’s this particular situation that has put him, her, or them at a disadvantage. Your stranger has to be on the same level as your readers or viewers. We, the audience, are learning alongside them, so we don’t want to wait while the stranger’s educated on where hamburgers come from, what firemen do for a living, where Oklahoma is on a map, and who his friends and family members are.

Second, the Source explaining things has to be smarter than the stranger, and thus, smarter than your audience. If what’s being explained is something we can figure out on our own, or something that we’ll never need to know (within the scope of this story), then the Source is wasting their time, the ignorant stranger’s, and ours by explaining it. Remember, you want information, not noise. Yeah, maybe for whatever reason the Source doesn’t know much about U.S. currency, cooking on a grill, or this thing called love, but on the topic they’re explaining this character needs to be an authority. They don’t need a degree of some kind, the audience just needs to be clear the Source’s knowledge and understanding dwarf the ignorant stranger’s.

That’s it. Follow those two simple rules and you’ll be amazed how well exposition can work in your novels, screenplays, and short stories.

Speaking of which… aren’t you supposed to be writing?