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.
June 20, 2019

The Negative Zone

Today’s musings got inspired by a couple things. A headline. A few twitter posts from people I know. Some thoughts that’d been bouncing in my head for a while. And a movie I watched last weekend during my usual bout of Saturday geekery… So, let’s take a moment and talk about negative space.

No, not the Negative Zone. That’s another thing entirely. Like, a completely different universe.


You’re probably already familiar with the idea of negative space in art even if the term might not be familiar.  It’s the space around the subject, rather than the subject itself. Negative space is a necessary thing—it helps us isolate and define elements. We need that open, less-defined area for our brains to process things correctly.

Think of this page. There’s open space between the letters and the words, which help us to read. There’s also spaces between the paragraphs. That’s more of a modern web format, sure, but even on a printed page we use indents—more space—to help mark off new paragraphs.

And here’s the interesting thing. We all know the space is there. We register it and process it. It’s blank, but it’s serving a purpose.

There’s also space within storytelling itself. We often leave things blank, so to speak. We don’t always explain everything or describe everything or answer every question. Because we know the reader can do a lot of it for us. They’re going to make their own images in their mind and fill in little details. And we all process it a little differently, which is why we don’t always picture things the same way as everyone else.

What does blank space in a story look like?  Well I’ll have the famous bank robber ride into town with a big sackful of cash. Wakko might have a scar on the side of his face. Dot could have a necklace she never takes off.

Negative space in a story is all these things, some minor, some major, that I don’t spell out for you. I mean, just off those random sentences, I bet you came up with an explanation for all of those things.  It’s something I don’t need to explain because it’s either not that unusual (lots of people have jewelry they always wear) or because we can figure it out pretty easily (gosh, where do you think Iron Thorpe got that bag of money?).

Now, you may remember I’ve mentioned Academy Award winner Billy Wilder here once or thrice. He had a great little aphorism—if you let the audience add 2 + 2 on their own now and then, they’ll love you for it.  I’m a big believer in this. I think it’s one of the honest, physical joys of reading. Figuring things out—even small, simple, subtextual things—gives us a feeling of satisfaction. It sets off a tiny little squirt of the happy chemicals in our brains, the biochemical reward for doing something right or solving a puzzle. That moment of adding 2+2 together is why we enjoy reading.

So if we’ve got the stuff I’ve explained to you and the stuff you figured out on your own, what parts are you more likely to enjoy? Which ones are going to stick with you? Sam Sykes (professional bear wrestler and author of Seven Blades in Black) has pointed out that when it comes to backstories and mythologies, the parts we figure out on our own are the ones we love. We like parsing out who the bad guy was in that hundred-year-old conflict, or the realreason Yakko and Phoebe get so icy when they end up in a room together.

And sometimes… we just don’t need to know. We don’t. Period. Sometimes the explanation’s just completely irrelevant.  Sometimes it’s better to leave the past shrouded in darkness and mystery. When we find out all the details about how Wakko got that scar sometimes… it’s just kind of a let down  We like the mystery aspect of it, the uncertainty, far more than the actual answer (Neil Gaiman once said as much in his Sandmanbooks—Cain and Abel openly discuss it with another character). I’ve mentioned William F. Nolan’s “bug in the closet” idea before, and how it limits horror, and that’s kinda what we’re talking about. Sometimes letting the reader make the final decision is much more powerful.  ‘Cause when we don’t know the answer to something, there are lots of possibilities, so many things for our minds to dwell on. But once we know… there’s only one. That’s it. Done.

I’ll add one last thought to this before we wrap it up. From a basics mechanics point of view, if I leave these things unsaid… it leaves me space to say otherthings. As I’ve mentioned before, any story only has so much room. Books only have so many pages. Movies can only be so long. The five paragraphs I spent explaining how alchemy works in this world are five paragraphs I could’ve spent on advancing my plot.  Or developing one or two of my characters.

That Saturday geekery movie I mentioned up top? It spent tons of time in the very beginning explaining how the different magical sciences worked and where they came from. Which turned out to be a big waste of time because, naturally, once the story got going we were shown how they worked. And where the sciences came from… well, it never really had any bearing on the story. 

With all that said, would you be shocked if I told you most of the characters were pretty thin? Their motivations were all sketchy at best. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you most of their names.

A big hurdle we need to overcome as storytellers is figuring out that negative space.  Realizing what parts we don’t need to tell. What parts might be good, but just aren’t relevant.  And what things actually improve my story by being left out of it.

And what things are weakening it or slowing it down because I’ve left them in.

Next time, I’d like to offer you some investment advice.

Until then… go write.

May 9, 2019

Expletive Deleted

A few weeks back, a superhero movie kinda came and went in the world. No, not that one. That one’s still doing fine.  The other one, that came out two weeks before it. I admit, I didn’t see the other one. I’m not against reboots or remakes, but it felt like all this had going for it was… it was R-rated.  So the protagonist could swear.  And the filmmakers could show more gore.  And maybe a butt or a boob or something.  Again, didn’t see it.
Thing is “profanity” isn’t really much of a selling point once we’re past… what, ten years old? Blood and gore usually just draws attention to it vanishing between scenes. Seeing a naked butt on screen lost a lot of its appeal once the internet became a thing. I guess you could make an argument for whose butt it is, but even that’s only going to get you so far…

We’ve all known for a while now that this sort of stuff doesn’t make a good movie.  It doesn’t automatically mean my movie is bad, but if these are the only elements I’m pushing to say my movie is good… well, I can’t be surprised if I don’t do well at the box office.  As A. Lee Martinez noted a few weeks back, ”I never trust a story that wants to impress me with its gore and vulgarity. I have enjoyed many a story with gore and vulgarity, but never one that was sold to me that way.”

I think this is true of most storytelling. There isn’t much we’d consider taboo in stories anymore.  And there’s an audience for almost everything.  There are sub-genres and sub-sub-genres and when you go deep enough pretty much anything goes.
Because of this, though, I think sometimes writers get caught up in the idea of just showing everything.  All the gore and sex and violence they can manage, all written out in long, elaborate detail.  I mean, it fills up the page and, hey, check it out.  Bet you’ve never pictured someone getting split in half that way before, have you?

We need to understand, though, that these excessive and explicit moments are very rarely part of the story or plot—they’re just descriptions.  If Bob dies, it rarely matters if it took me one sentence or seven pages to kill him.  In the end, Bob is dead and it kinda boils down to how much of this actually advanced the plot, and how much of it my readers could just skip over with a yawn.

And yeah, sure, sometimes there’s a point to it.  There’s a narrative reason I need two pages of gore or three pages of sex or a character who drops f-bombs in every sentence they speak or think.  Nobody would say otherwise (nobody you should listen to, anyway).  But this is a lot like adverbs, adjectives, or exclamation points.  The more I use them, the weaker they get.  They start to clutter up the page.  So I want to be a little conservative with them.

Here, lemme give you a very non-conservative example….

My friend Autumn Christian wrote a wonderful book called Girl Like A Bomb. The main character (and narrator), Bev, discovers she’s got an unusual superpower. When she has sex with people, they get… better. They clean up. They get focused. They become the best, self-actualized version of themselves.
Now, you might guess sex is a big part of this book, and you’d be right (consider that your warning if you decide to pick it up). The first few times Bev has sex—like any teenager—it’s a wild ride and it’s very explicit. It’s an all-new experience for her, she likes it, and she is, as they say, DTF.

But after those first few encounters—and one much more violent one (consider that your other warning)—Bev becomes all-too-aware of the effect her gift is having on her partners. It’s still fun, but it’s also a responsibility, and this shows in her narration.  Less than halfway through the book, her various encounters becomes a quick sentence or less, sometimes coming across as more of an annoying obligation or burden.  Because while the story involves sex, it’s not really about sex—it’s about what Bev can do with her superpower. So that’s what Christian focuses on.

And this holds for everything.  If I push any story element up to ten for my whole book—sex, action, violence, gore, cool lines—it’s going to get boring fast.  Sure, there’s a small percentage of readers that’ll be thrilled, but it’s reeeeeeeeeeeeeally tough to find any sort of wide appeal that way.

Plus… in a way, all this extensive description is me feeding everything to my reader.  I’m telling them everything instead of showing them everything.  And, yeah, I know that sounds weird but…

Okay, look… I’m going to let you in on a secret.  This is one of the six Great Secrets of storytelling that you can only learn from a crow after they eat 169 peanuts in a row from your hand.  It’s the first and easiest of the secrets to learn, but I’m just going to give it to you for free…

You’ve probably heard people talk about showing vs. telling all the time, but we rarely bring up the obvious.  We haveto tell.  That’s all we can do. I’m typing words for you to read, telling you what the characters see, hear, feel, smell, think, whatever. On the surface, telling is pretty much it for us as writers.

When we talk about showing, we’re talking about making images appear in the reader’s mind. And the longer it takes for those images to form, the less effective they are at creating some kind of emotional response. So, to speed things up, we want the reader to do some of the work for us. We want them to tell them just enough—just the right things—and have them fill in the blanks.  They supply the horror or the excitement or the disgust so it’s instantly summoned to their mind, rather than waiting for me to spell it all out. It’s the difference between me telling you a joke that you immediately get and me having to explain the joke to you (“Because, y’see, the last guy was hiding in the refrigerator, so when they threw it over the railing he ended up…”).

That’s what showing is.

See, when I wrote out that little bit of dialogue, you got that.  Even if you didn’t recognize the joke, you understood the situation of having to spell out the punchline for somebody.  You filled in everything around that sentence fragment.

Truth is, the big majority of readers like doing this. They enjoy it when we trust them enough to understand things. When we don’t spell everything out for them.  In graphic detail.  Billy Wilder used to say you could let the audience add 2 + 2 now and then and they’d love you for it. Heck, I’ve got a whole loosely-scientific theory about how this kind of writing sets off the pleasure centers of our brain.  No seriously.

So y’see Timmy, I don’t need to wipe every single one of these excessive, over-described bits from my manuscript.  But, like adverbs, if I’ve got a bunch on every page… ehh, I might want to stop to reconsider some of my choices.

Next time, I’ve got a few more ideas to bounce off you.

Until then, go write.
June 6, 2013 / 1 Comment

Where The Problem Is

             A quick pointer…
            Every now and then I throw open the floor here to suggestions.  What would people want to hear me ramble on about next?  What topics or elements are giving them trouble in some way, or maybe they just want a few pointers on something?  Pretty much every time I do this, someone will ask about agents or networking or publishing, and I will politely explain I don’t cover that stuff here.


            When asked for screenwriting tips, Oscar-winner Billy Wilder would often remind would-be writers of a simple rule of thumb.  To paraphrase, a problem with your third act is usually a problem with your first act. 
            In other words, if the end isn’t working, it’s probably because of the way I did things in the beginning.  Perhaps I didn’t establish characters well or set up things for that twist.  Maybe the gruesome, depressing ending just doesn’t work after two acts of comedy and slapstick.
            My career as a writer has three acts, too.  A beginning, middle, and an end.  I learn the basics and practice a lot.  I write a good book.  Someone gets interested in the book and offers me money for it (either in a contractual or individual sense).
            So if I’m having trouble with that last part, the third act of my writing career, maybe the problem is in my first act. 
            Maybe it’s not that publishers and agents are jerks who won’t recognize my genius or try anything new.  Perhaps the problem rests in that first part of the equation.   Do I even know my basics?  Did I bother to practice and polish my skills?  Or did I declare the first thing I scribbled out perfect and leave it at that?
            It’s just possible, believe it or not, that I can’t get anyone interested because I didn’t write a good book.
            Next time, I’d like to share some thoughts about a new topic I’ve been researching.
            Until then, go write.