April 22, 2011

Beware the Bellboy

You’ll have to excuse me for running a bit late. My old laptop came to an unexpected end on Monday night and I lost the first draft of this post. Believe me, it was far more witty and insightful than what you’re about to read.

That being said…
As the story goes, there once was a young carpenter here in Hollywood who wanted to be an actor. He had trouble getting parts. The problem, according to his agent, was that the young actor sank too deep into his roles and never got noticed. He’d gotten a small supporting role as a bellboy and just vanished into the background. The agent pointed out that one of Tony Curtis’s first roles was playing a grocery store clerk, but he dominated the scene. “You looked at that guy and you knew he was supposed to be the star,” said the agent.
“I thought the point was you were supposed to think he was a grocery clerk,” said the frustrated actor.
And that young bellboy grew up to be Harrison Ford.
Who, let’s all be glad, also had enough sense to stop making Indiana Jones movies after Last Crusade.
(la la la la la la la la not listening la la la la la la la)
This fun observation by Mr. Ford hammers home a problem I’ve seen with a few narratives. It’s not uncommon for fledgling writers to center the narrative around a character and then tell a story that’s far beyond the scope of said character. nailing down the perspective a story is being told from is tough, and picking the wrong one can leave the story painted into one corner after another. This comes up most often in two forms—a first person person story and an epistolary story.
To recap…
In a first person story the reader gets everything through the eyes and thoughts of one of the characters. On the plus side, we get to know and see everything this character knows and sees. On the down side, we only get to know and see what this character knows and sees. First person is a very limited viewpoint. We don’t get the suspense of us knowing something’s happening that the character doesn’t know about. This also means we can’t be privy to extra detail, nor can we have any doubt if something did or didn’t register with the main character. To Kill A Mockingbird is a phenomenal first person novel, as are Moby Dick, A Princess of Mars, and Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”
(Yeah, there’s no the in the original title. Seriously. Check it out.)
An epistolary novel is told through “existing” documents. As the name implies, it was originally letters, but it can also include journals, police reports, newspaper articles, and even blogs or tweets or social network updates. By its nature, a lot of epistolary writing comes across as first person, but there’s a notable difference. This form is very episodic. There are gaps in it where the “writer(s)” didn’t have time or inclination to put things down on paper. Dracula is an epistolary novel, as is Fred Saberhagen’s The Frankenstein Papers, and Mr. King did a rather horrific epistolary short story some of you may remember called “Survivor Type.”
Now the catch for both of these forms is that once a writer chooses to use them, they’ve just put themselves into what can be a very limiting viewpoint. If Wakko’s my main character, I can’t see, hear, or understand anything if he doesn’t. His limitations are mine. If he doesn’t know what happened out on Highway 10 that night, I don’t get to know.
More to the point, it’s going to make Wakko crumble as a character if he’s constantly stepping out of his boundaries. When he does know what happened out on Highway 10, as a reader I end up puzzling over how and when he found that out. If he suddenly reveals on page 120 that he studied Goju-ryu karate in Okinawa for twenty years, I’m going to wonder why this never came up before. Since I’m inside his consciousness, inconsistencies stand out like flares and each one means I’m going to believe in him less and less.
I recently read a book where the narrator goes to great lengths to tell us she has no writing ability. Oh, like anyone who graduated high school she knows the bare mechanics of how to write, but she’s not at that level that she’d consider herself a writer. Why, not counting work memos, this is probably the longest document she’s ever committed to paper (or computer memory). So hopefully we, the readers, will go easy on her as she tries to record the events of the past few days.
Said narrator then launches into a flourish of vivid metaphors, purple prose, elaborate sentence structure, and parallel constructions. This went on for the entire book. The vocabulary was the kind of stuff you might hear tossed around by Harvard alumns trying to outdo each other at literary conferences.
She did not come across as someone who never expressed themselves through writing.
Definitely didn’t sound like a grocery clerk.
Just as a quick note—some writers have managed to pull off stories where a first person character who should be ignorant of certain facts manages to convey enough information for the audience to understand what’s really going on. Perhaps he or she has some knowledge that goes against the character we’ve seen so far. We’ve all seen stuff like this. The illiterate guy who manages to describe a stop sign, the Neanderthal girl who explains a pistol, or the bellboy who it turns out has a degree in chemical engineering so he can help thwart a terrorist attack. You can get away with this once or twice, but it’s a device that wears thin fast so you shouldn’t be depending on it for an entire book.
Now, there’s a somewhat-related problem that tends to crop up in epistolary work. Some writers litter the journals and letters there creating with typos and misused words. The idea here is this makes the documents (and thus, the characters behind them) seem more real because they contain the kind of errors that real people make, especially folks who aren’t usually writing for an audience. And, let’s face it, it also spares those writers from learning how to spell or bothering to do any sort of editing.
The catch here is that any typo is going to knock a reader out of the story. It’s going to be an even bigger hit if the reader stops to figure out if this was a deliberate mistake or just… well, a mistake. Like up above when I used there when it should’ve been they’re. All of you stumbled on it, and a few of you probably stumbled even more as you paused to figure it out if, being the sneaky bastard I am, I was doing it for a deliberate effect. And I was. And you still stumbled and paused.
A great example of doing this correctly is the book Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It’s the epistolary story of a man named Charlie who’s mentally challenged. If you felt cruel, you could call him severely retarded. The book, in theory, is a journal his doctors have asked him to start writing. It’s painful to read. Charlie can barely spell, has only the barest understanding of grammar, and no real idea how to express himself.
His doctors are giving him a series of treatments and surgeries, though, and as the book progresses the journal entries become clearer and more elaborate. At one point they actually get close to going the other way—Charlie has become so smart he’s taken over the enhanced intelligence project and is using his journal for research notes and brainstorming. Now the journal’s almost unreadable because it’s so advanced! The language he uses becomes one of the elements Keyes uses to show the reader how much Charlie is changing.
So one of the big tricks with these two formats is to create a character who’s believable and relatable, but still has the abilities, intelligence, and experience to deal with whatever challenges the plot may throw at them. A cheerleader may be great for figuring out who ruined homecoming, but not as much for an assassination plot. A Nobel-prize winning physicist isn’t going to be much help at harvest time. The trans-warp drive on a starship is probably going to be out of the range of the guys who work at Jiffy Lube.
Choose your character wisely.
Next time, I was going to blather on about the world we live in. Or, at least, the one we thought we were living in.
Until then, go write.
April 9, 2010 / 4 Comments


Running a little late this week. I blame it on my landlord, who insists I have rent money every month. He’s very capitalist that way.

Anyway, pop culture reference in the title, but only the old people will get it..
Speaking of getting it, want to hear the absolute silliest thing I ever read online? It’s not a dirty joke or anything like that. This was in a defiant post someone made on a movie-predictions board I used to visit on a regular basis. Essentially, this one misogynist gent– who took great pains to tell everyone (frequently) that he was a writer– was explaining why he’d never read one of several classic books that were getting the adaptation treatment that season. I think one of them may have been the second Narnia book. There was another one, too, but I can’t remember what it was.
Anyway–the reason he’d never read any of them?
REAL writers don’t have time to read.”
No, seriously. That’s what he said. With the capitals and the italics. I can’t really blame it on him, though. I keep seeing or hearing variations on this once a month or so. Just heard it recently at a housewarming party.
Now, I write full time. Eight hours a day or more, five or six days a week. It is how I make my living. So far this year I’ve already done a dozen articles for the magazine and another half dozen or so for the weekly newsletter. Plus I’m poking at a short story for an anthology, a sequel for Ex-Heroes (shameless plug–order your copy over there on the right), and scribbling notes for another book idea that’s been poking at me. Jabbing, really.
Keeping all that in mind… I’ve already read well over a dozen books this year.
We’re barely into April and I’ve already read sixteen books–more than one a week. I’ve read classic novels like Dracula and shiny-new ones like Under The Dome. I read The Terror by Dan Simmons and then followed it up with an actual history of the Franklin expedition. I’ve read books on ancient Egyptian history and early 20th century spiritualism. I’ve read an end-of-the-world story by Dave Dunwoody that was really fun and another one by Dean Koontz that really wasn’t.
Plus I have to read a lot for work. Screenplays for Alice in Wonderland, Nightmare on Elm Street, Season of the Witch, and several other films. Heck, I read a couple scripts for films I’m not even covering.
I love reading. There’s nothing like getting caught up in a great storytelling experience. It’s like eating a good meal. It relaxes me and gets my mind spinning.
Y’see, Timmy, you can’t make something out of nothing. A physicist needs to study what’s been done in order to develop new theories. A film director has to study the work of previous directors. Writers need to read.
Look at it this way. Bodybuilders need to take in protein to create new muscle. If they continue to do all those strenuous exercises without taking anything in, it actually becomes more detrimental than beneficial. They burn up calories, their muscles wither, and very quickly it starts to affect their performance. Suddenly they can’t lift as much or go for as long. In the end, not taking in material will ruin their chances of being a successful bodybuilder.
In a like manner, a smart bodybuilder knows what to take in. They know eating nothing but steak is just as bad as eating nothing but Twinkies. There are times to eat steamed broccoli and lean turkey breast, but there are also times you need a cheeseburger. No, seriously. I used to train with a professional weightlifter and bodybuilder who made a point of eating a huge fast-food cheeseburger after every competition. In the days before he’d work his body fat down to dangerous levels, but once the competition was over it was important to replenish those levels as quickly as possible to stay healthy. He knew there was a time he had to eat fatty junk food in order to be a success.
So when you read, read everything you can. Don’t just limit yourself to your chosen genre or format. Break up all that horror with some satire or sci-fi. If you’re writing romantic comedy scripts, pause to check out a drama or two, and vice-versa. And don’t forget to mix a little bit of not-so-fantastic stuff in there, too.
It’s also worth mentioning that while the classics are great, make sure you’re staying current. Dickens is fantastic, but make sure you’ve got a vague idea what Dan Brown and Stephen King are doing. Casablanca and Chinatown are fantastic scripts, but the first draft of Wanted was a heckuva lot better than the movie and that’s what sold it. No one’s saying the classics aren’t good, but if you’re reading the ranty blog I’m guessing you want to sell something in the near future, not a few decades in the past.
Next week, how a lantern can let you get away with almost anything. Honest. You’re going to love it. Plus I’m going to get to name-drop a lot, and that’s always fun.
Until then go write. And read a bit, too.
January 22, 2010

Pinocchio Syndrome

If you’ve never heard that term and are grasping for a pop culture reference… don’t bother. I just made it up. The reasons why will soon be as plain as…

Well, you’ll see.

As I’ve said once or thrice before, good dialogue is everything. We learn so much subtle stuff from characters by what they say and how they say it. Does Bob call Cindy his girlfriend or his woman or his old lady? Is she his lover, his ho, his chica, his bitch, his significant other? No matter what their relationship is, the words he uses to describe it tell us something about him.

One term that comes up a lot while reading contest submissions–or writing of any type, really—is on the nose dialogue. I’ve seen it tossed out to beginners numerous times in feedback, but usually without any explanation. It’s the difference between “Why are you always so disrespectful to me in staff meetings, Bob?” and “What the hell’s your problem, anyway?” At its very simplest, what this means is the character (or characters) are saying precisely what they’re thinking with no subtlety to it whatsoever. There’s no inference, no implications, no innuendoes or layered meanings. It’s dialogue stating the obvious, and I’ve mentioned before what a horrible idea it is to state the obvious.

On the nose dialogue usually strips away character, too. When your gangsta drug dealers begin to lament the failed potential of their fallen brethren, they’re not speaking like people who grew up on the street. That’s the writer poking through and trying to tell us something. Often it’s to spew out some character elements or backstory, and it comes out awkward because it’s being forced from the character speaking.

To be clear, there is a difference between on the nose and exposition. While most exposition is on the nose, the reverse is not always true. You can have on the nose dialogue when people talk about their relationship (or someone else’s), the Thai food they had last night, or the movie they want to go see tomorrow.

Here’s a couple things you should be on the lookout for–these are all either common with on the nose dialogue or sure signs you’re avoiding it.

Proper English–I’ve mentioned before the difference between written English and spoken dialogue. When dialogue follows all the rules of grammar it starts to get wooden and lose a lot of its flavor. Sometimes there’s a point to this. One of my own characters in Ex-Heroes, Stealth, is a bit of a grammar Nazi. So is Data on Star Trek (robots and aliens always have great grammar for some reason). For the vast majority of us though, we get a bit loose when we speak. We use contractions and mismatch verbs and numbers. It just happens. When we don’t, dialogue becomes rigid, and that’s just a short shuffle from being wooden.

Characters talking to themselves–Nine times out of ten, if someone’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose. All those monologues about stress, Yakko psyching himself up, or Dot trying to figure out how to get past the thirteen ninjas to free Wakko… odds are every bit of that is on the nose dialogue.

Telling what’s happening–While it’s never good, on the nose dialogue is a killer in scripts, especially when it takes this route. It’s when characters describe what they’re doing for no real reason. Not when they explain what they’re doing (say, defusing a bomb), but when they’re just saying their actions aloud. Have you ever heard an old radio-show when the actors had to depend on just dialogue with no visuals at all?

“Lamont, is that you? Help me! I’m tied to this chair.”

“Easy, Margot. Just let me get this blindfold off you… there we go.”

“Oh, that’s better. I can see now.”

This kind of clumsy dialogue immediately tells the reader that the writer isn’t picturing this scene visually at all. For screenwriters, this kind of thing is almost guaranteed to get your script tossed in the big pile on the left.

Lack of jargon–The idea of slang has been around for a long time. Bram Stoker talked about it in Dracula 120 years ago, and it’s a safe bet printers had their own special jargon in the workplace less than a decade after Guttenberg made his printing press. Everyone has their own set of words and terms that gets used within their particular group, and these words spill out into most of their conversations. In other words, lawyers speak like lawyers, mechanics talk like mechanics, and sci-fi geeks with no lives talk like Klingons (or Na’Vi, these days, I guess). When these characters lose these basic subtleties, their dialogue starts getting on the nose.

Lack of flirting–It sounds silly, I know, but it’s one to look for. This is a fact of human nature. We show affection for one another. We all flirt with friends and lovers and potential lovers, sometimes even at extremely inopportune times. It’s not always serious, it can take many forms, but that little bit of playfulness and innuendo is present in most casual dialogue exchanges. It’s impossible to flirt with on the nose dialogue because it requires subtlety and implied meanings. If absolutely no one in your story flirts on any level, there might be something to consider there.

Five easy things to look for in your dialogue. They’re not the only ways your words can be on the nose, but they’re the most common, by far.

Next week, I’d like to talk to you about… well, you know. Everybody knows, right?

Until then, go write.