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The Gearbox: The Blackest Heart Doesn’t Beat

by on Mar.25, 2010, under The Gearbox

Today, I’d like to write a brief note about villains for every aspiring writer out there.

I think a lot of The Gearheart‘s success is a function of the way it taps into old pulp formulas.  Heroic characters rise to the challenge against a great menace.  Gun battles, airplane chases and explosions ensue.  The first chapters were created to be simplistic, easy to read snippets of fun.  I hoped to draw the reader into a two-dimensional, comic book universe where they thought the decisions would be easy.  People tell me they get that when they hear the story, and that makes me intensely happy.

However, as the reader progressed, I wanted decisions to become more difficult, the characters to be more developed and, most of all, I wanted to subvert your sense of ease.  I had hoped to lull you into a happy place, only to shake you from your hammock when the time was right.  Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say.  That’s your job.

This is a really long way of saying, “I don’t believe in the old pulp formulas.”

In the old pulps, you have a hero and a villain.  The hero is heroic.  The villain is villainous.  The lady character is confused and easily manipulated.  Done.  It’s a pretty straightforward thing.  Unless there is some great exception, you can expect a pulp to follow the standard arc with little to no deviation.  That’s why they were considered to be cheap, disposable fiction.

However, I don’t believe this is the answer- especially not for antagonists.  I believe there are no villains, only people.  Every single person in the world, no matter how evil, has a reason for what they do.  Each tiny interaction is the product of previous stimuli and years of built-up motivation.  Granted, their choices may not always be the most noble, well thought-out or understandable.  However, an antagonist should truly believe in their cause, whether it is love, the betterment of mankind, or simply themselves. Even Old Man Withers from Scooby Doo just wanted everyone to leave so he could sell the amusement park.

When you write that mustache-twisting, railroad-dynamiting nemesis, I believe you’re doing your story a grave disservice. Likewise, if you write someone who is merely a victim of mental of sexual dysfunction (I’m looking at you, mid-90s thrillers!), then you have chosen a shortcut. People are more than a label or a list of psychobabble buzzwords.

All I’m saying is this: When you write your villain, you should do everything in your power to capture the essence of a person. Write an antagonist, not a villain. As a small corollary I would like to add that, just because a character or person is three-dimensional, that doesn’t mean we have to like them.

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The Gearbox: Conflict with J.C. Hutchins

by on Nov.19, 2009, under Podcast, The Gearbox

7SD_cover_RGBIt was my honor and privilege to step into the studio with the incomparable J.C. Hutchins, author of the 7th Son trilogy and Personal Effects: Dark Arts. As a thriller novelist, Hutchins understands conflict better than most, and he is eager to share his knowledge. So sit down, pour a cup of tea and enjoy, as we bring you the secrets behind conflict.

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The Gearbox: From TV Guide with Love

by on Nov.16, 2009, under The Gearbox

I love writers and podcasters. I’m addicted to their aspirations. Being around folks with such lofty dreams energizes me beyond almost anything else- caffiene, D&D, and yes, even bacon. That’s why I really enjoy speaking to them about who they are, what they do, and most importantly, what they write.

You’d be amazed how many of them cannot tell me.

Let me start out by saying that writing plot synopses for brevity is difficult and people try. They really do. I have the utmost respect for writers, so please do not think I am poking fun, but I need to provide an example of what I usually hear. This is something I just made up, not related to anyone’s story in particular.

Well, there’s this guy who can manipulate matter, and it’s the future. And in the future, there are these other races, the elves, the aliens and the cat people. And anyway, this guy who can manipulate matter was made in a genetics lab by fusing all of the other races’ DNA together. So now he has the power of transmutation- to convert any item to another item of the same molecular weight. Because he has this power, the government wants him for experimentation, but the cat people think he is a religious incarnation of their god, Felina, so they want to protect him. And all along the way, he goes about collecting allies until he is ready to lead the elves, aliens and cat people in a rebellion against the human empires. Fun ensues.

Great. By this time, I have forgotten what we started talking about in the first place. This problem extends into podcast promos, as well. Folks will go well into the 2-3 minute mark just telling me their backstory or introducing all of their characters. That’s very informative and all, but I don’t think it’s what an audience wants. What I think an audience wants is an easily-digested nugget of cool. I hold fast to my belief that a podcast promo should be no longer than 30 seconds to 1 minute.

I have a formula for writing log lines, and it works like a charm. I don’t know if this is the formula that the pros use, but it’s certainly the way I tackle a difficult plot. I’d like to share it with you, and have you put it to the test on your own work. Try it at your next party when you describe your book, and just see if people’s eyes light up with recognition. My formula is simple, it’s easy, and it will sell your story to the uninitiated.

There are 3 sentences in a log line. That’s it. They are as follows: The Carry, The Crossover and The Complication. Fairly simple stuff. You’ll see them defined below.

1) The Carry

The Carry is what carries (go figure) us into the world of your story. This is where you describe to us the everyday world of your hero and the things he/she does with her time. That isn’t to say that you say, “John Hero woke up and peed before brushing his teeth and going to work.” That is, unless you’re being ironic. Then you might say that. I don’t know.

The “normal world” of your hero is still fraught with some kind of conflict. Try to capture that. Maybe he or she is a secret agent. Maybe your hero just wants to be liked by the pretty girl behind the counter at the local bakery. Maybe your hero suffers from leukemia and starts out with only months to live. Let’s take the example from the top and formulate our Carry.

“John Hero’s life changed forever the day he learned he could convert anything into marshmallows.”

Short, sweet, and to the point. It captures that John has a power, and that power is marshmallic transmutation. It’s a real thing, I swear.

2) The Crossover

The Crossover literally refers to the events that precipitate your crossing into the second act of the story. In the Star Wars (Joseph Campbell) formula, this would be the moment that Luke discovers the burned bodies of Beru and Owen. This is when the hero learns that he/she can’t go back to his/her mild-mannered life of secret-agenting or bakery-lusting. I need to come up with better verbs.

You want to capture the core conflict of the story in this line, and at the same time, reveal the nemesis for bonus points. Of course, you can disregard the nemesis reveal if you’re writing some kind of murder mystery. In that instance, you tell us who died, as that is your first act turning point. Here’s the John Hero Crossover:

“However, when mysterious agents show up to kidnap John, he uncovers a mysterious past of genetic manipulation and government treachery.”

A murder mystery line might read more like, “But when a body turns up at the International Butler Convention, the police find themselves too baffled to solve the mystery!”

3) The Complication

The complication is the way that your Crossover causes the story to unfold. It’s the extra oomph that a reader/listener/viewer might not have expected, and it’s the paramount selling point. There are a lot of stories out there, but this is the third element that makes yours unique.

In Star Wars, this would be Luke’s Jedi powers and religion. In Hamlet, this might be represented by the prince’s slow descent into insanity. Without the Complication, your story is just a basic tale of cause and effect. This is the randomizing element that makes it both unpredictable and interesting.

Let’s write a Complication for the story above.

“With the aid of the mysterious Nya-meow Cat Folk, Smith must now embark upon the greatest journey of his life- one that will take him from the sinister labs, to the churches of the Cat Pope, and to the stars beyond!”

You can also finish this with sentence with another: a call to action like, “Find out on The Gearheart!” (But only an idiot would have a title like that.)

So that’s it! That was a lot of explaining, but overall, I think you’ll find the basic ideas to be fairly simple. I hope you’ve enjoyed this healthy dose of The Gearbox, and I look forward to joining you next time with an interview from the illustrious J.C. Hutchins!

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Interview with P.G. Holyfield

by on Sep.16, 2009, under The Gearbox

Oddly enough, this is not me interviewing him. I was interviewed by P.G. Holyfield for his behind the scenes look at the publishing world. While Mr. Holyfield sounds quite eloquent, I’m quite the opposite. Give it a listen if you want to hear me ramble about:

  • Discussions on cover art and creativity
  • The state of the publishing industry
  • What is The Gearheart?
  • My feelings on Blade Runner
  • Fonts and genres
  • Glenfiddich
  • Oil rigs
  • Tears for Fears

So yeah.  It’s a lot of rambling.  Check it out at and listen to HIS book “Murder at Avedon Hill” while you’re there!

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The Gearbox: Worldbuilding with Jess Hartley, Pt.2

by on Aug.27, 2009, under The Gearbox

Today, we tackle the second question posed to Jess Hartley, game developer extraordinaire! To read the first interview question, click here.

Worldbuilding can be an attractive facet of writing. To a certain extent, all sci-fi and fantasy stories contain a world that almost takes on a main character role, but don’t be fooled. There is such a thing as too much worldbuilding. This trap was the purpose of today’s question.

Alex: How much worldbuilding is too much worldbuilding? Where does the exposition end and the story begin?

Jess: There are two dangers involved in extensive world building. The first is that the act of worldbuilding inherently takes time and creative energy. If you spend too little time and energy in creating a realistic world for your story to take place, you risk running into challenges as the stories you tell in that world play out into areas and topics that you hadn’t yet contemplated. For the most part, these issues can be dealt with through either improvisation or continued world-building (depending on whether the problem crops up during an interactive situation, like in the middle of a game session, or at a time when you can give it more thought and time, like while writing a story or adventure, or between game sessions.) There is, of course the risk of running into seemingly insurmountable contradictions, but most situations can be made to fit with enough effort and creativity.

If, on the other hand, you spend too much time and energy on the world building, you may never actually get to the story you wanted to tell. Compare this, for example, to an artist who spends so long preparing his canvas that he no longer has time or energy to paint the picture. The worlds we build, whether it is for gaming or fiction, are not the stories themselves. They are merely the settings in which the stories happen, and if we become too focused on world building, it can get in the way of actually creating the stories.

The other potential risk of extensive world building is that it tends to spawn exposition. Once our grand and comprehensive world is created, we (quite naturally) want to show it off. Both in fiction and in game-creating, this leads to exposition, as we find ourselves going into long written (or spoken) descriptions so that we can be sure our readers (or players) are appropriately impressed with the extensive work we’ve put into building our world. While understandable, this kind of exposition can be deadly to a story, as it pulls the all progress to a complete halt while viewers are forced to stop and examine your landscape.

Remember: Exposition is showing. Story is telling. Worldbuilding really isn’t either of them, but it can spawn exposition rather than story, if you’re not careful.

Thanks again to Jess Hartley (of for her incredible insight into this difficult but fun aspect of creative writing! For more advice, including professional ethics, game etiquette and more, check out her website! And, of course, tune in regularly for more episodes of The Gearheart!

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The Gearbox: Worldbuilding with Jess Hartley, Pt.1

by on Aug.26, 2009, under The Gearbox

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of pen-and-paper gaming’s great developers and novelists- Jess Hartley. She has some incredible credits to her name from White Wolf Publishing, a game company known for their deep, rich worlds. If you need an idea of her amazing contributions to the gaming community, please visit her website, and hit the About Jess section. You’ll find fleshed out worlds for days in those credits, as I’m sure many gaming groups have.

I’ve called Jess in as a special expert on one of the trickiest parts of story development- worldbuilding. A lot of sci-fi and fantasy authors obsess over it, and why not? Worlds flavor the book in ways that cannot be replicated by any other story element. So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like when an expert sits down to write a world, read on!

(Jess is so prolific that we only got through two questions. I’ll post one today and one tomorrow.)

Alex: Where do you start when you sit down with a world? What part tends to garner your attention first? Do you like to go for an overall hook like “mystical power is possible,” or are you more into more focused flavor, such as a specific race or item?

Jess: Each project is different, and how I go about world building depends a lot on what pulled me towards that project in the first place. While items, races, or locations can act as an inspiration, I think the real creative force in world building comes from asking “What if?” Sometimes you just get struck with a thought like… “What if the “real world” is just a computer game that we’ve all become so immersed in that we don’t remember it’s a game any more?” or “What if Little Red Riding Hood lived in the current era?” That thought, and how go about exploring it, begins setting the initial perimeters of the world, be it something wholly fantastic, familiar-yet-different, or just a touch away from the real world.

At a recent GameMaster Conference in Tucson, Berin Kinsman gave a panel which really summed up World Building for me. He presented it as a series of questions, each which leads you into more questions, and at each stage, the answers to those questions show you more about the world you’re creating. I agree with what he detailed, and find that I do the same sort of thing when building my worlds. I may start with an idea – a retelling of a classic tale, a character inspired by someone I pass on the street, a conflict situation that I want to see played out in words… But the world building really expands out from there, to whatever degree it needs to for the purposes of that project.

If I have a particular tale I want to tell, and the story (be that short story, novel-length fiction, or interactive adventure ala a roleplaying game) is specifically focused on the characters involved, then the world-building may be very secondary to the characters themselves. That is, the world may exist only so far as it needs to for the characters to have a screen on which to play out their drama, and I may not need to illuminate more than what will be shown in that particular tale. For example, in “Santa Claws,” a short story that I wrote a few years ago, I really wanted to do a “holiday + paranormal” story. It wasn’t necessary, for the purposes of that tale, for me to know or detail out how the supernatural creature involved came to be what he was, or develop the history of paranomals in that story’s world, or even touch on whether there were any but the focus character at all. It just didn’t matter to the story. So I “world built” what was going to show on-screen – the two main characters’ views of the world, the supernatural creature’s involvement with his family, his views on being who and what he was, and left it at that. The world, essentially, was only as deep and broad as it needed to be for the character to be three-dimensional, because the story wasn’t about the world, it was about a single interaction between characters.

If, however, I’m looking more to create a place in which multiple stories will be told (be they various plot threads in the same work as you find in a novel, or a variety of stories all taking place in the same world, such as you might find with an anthology or a game-setting) a narrow canvas may not be sufficient. In that sort of a case, I usually start with a few “givens” – I want there to be magic, for example, but I want it to be natural (or religious, or academic) in nature. I want everyone (or only a certain caste, or almost no one) to have access to it. I want the technology level to be medieval (or modern, or beyond our current conceptions). Those few givens act as the framework between which I can begin weaving the rest of the world. And sometimes I’ll find that, as the tapestry begins to unfold, I need to change one of those “givens”. But for the most part, they stay in place, and they’re the skeleton around which the world is built.

Once again, thanks to Jess Hartley ( for her awesome advice! Look for more tomorrow!

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The Gearbox: The Rub with Resurrection

by on Aug.16, 2009, under The Gearbox

All right, all you Campbell-heads and McKee-ites, I’m about to talk about something which, on its surface, seems totally against my stated beliefs. However, try to bear with me and I’ll try to make this as painless as possible.

Let me start out by saying, I believe in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. I love the idea of the Monomyth, and I try to sell it to almost anyone who will listen. It’s an observable, anti-modernist formula, and it works fairly well for catering to the expectations of your audience. Don’t know who Joseph Campbell is or what the Monomyth might be? Click here for a quick education. If you’ve never looked into it before, you owe it to yourself as a writer. If you’re not a writer, plot dissection is a fun party trick to whip out on movie night. Okay, so maybe it’s just annoying to your friends. Don’t dissect movies on movie night.

Anyway, in some classes, the third act of the Monomyth is is referred to as the “Resurrection” after the “Atonement with the Father” segment (That’s sometimes called “The Ordeal”). Campbell makes no attempt to judge the quality of fiction that incorporates resurrection, but rather to catalog it. Resurrection could be physical or metaphorical, and I’m not sure that Campbell would say that one is better than the other.

So since he won’t say it, I’ll say it: Physical resurrection is garbage. I despise it.

“Atonement with the Father” is a major scene. It’s the part of the story where the hero and his or her friends pull out all the stops and confront their evil head on. It’s the moment in Star Wars Episode IV when Darth Vader kills Obi Wan. It is the moment when things were going so well, and yet Agent Smith just shot Neo in the chest. It’s a dim moment of horror when, instead of finding himself or herself at the end of his or her quest, the hero loses everything. Sometimes, that includes his or her life.

Now in the stories I like, the hero loses something extremely valuable, like an ally or a magic bullet, and the so-called “Resurrection” is a metaphorical one. The hero learns to triumph over adversity based upon his or her sheer grit, and though he or she mourns the loss, the hero understands that all victory comes at a price. It maintains the cost of a sacrifice while proving to us that the hero really and truly is a triumph of humankind. The very meaning of the “Atonement” is sacrifice, and it’s a potent plot point that serves to give meaning to the rest of the book.

Physical resurrection, however, feels like a cop-out. It is the ultimate Deus Ex Machina, where God reaches out and puts a character back on his or her feet after the villain rightfully slew them. It’s easy to write, too, as it requires no real cleverness to say, “Well, they weren’t really dead. Well, they were, but now they’re not.” There was no daring escape, no cunning plan to fool the villain and, most importantly, there was no sacrifice.

What is the meaning of sacrifice when we, the readers, are not allowed to grieve? How are we supposed to feel gratitude toward a character who has literally given up nothing? Indeed, in most instances of physical resurrection, the character returns wielding some ridiculous spiritual power that is also just a poor excuse for Deus Ex Machina. I don’t feel moved by physical resurrection… I feel tricked for caring about the fact that a character died.

It does not take a clever writer to resurrect a character. It takes a desperate one.

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The Gearbox: A Diamond in the… Diamonds?

by on Jun.22, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hello, and welcome back to The Gearbox: the writing column where I tell you what I want to read! This week, I’d like to cover one of my pet peeves: perfection. That’s right- perfection. I hate hate HATE it, and I’m going to explain to all of you why it sucks. So let’s tuck in and I’ll start my post with a story:

Once upon a time, there was this awesome dude, who was a great swordsman, really good looking and super-funny. He always knew what to say, and he was a total hit with the ladies. Then one day, an evil villain came along and took the great swordsman’s girlfriend! The villain took her high into the mountains, where no man had ever climbed before. When the great swordsman heard about the kidnapping, he climbed up there, punched the villain in the face, made a couple of cracks at the villain’s expense and took the girl home. The girlfriend also said some pretty funny stuff. The end.

Unless you’re being ironic, that’s a terrible story.

There are a couple of reasons why that story might have sucked, so let’s narrow them down to get a root-cause analysis. What could I have added to make the story better?

1) Better combat and special effects. Some visual flair! Okay, Michael Bay- calm down now. If I added a lot of style, even if I altered the plot to be not so ridiculous, I think folks would still identify with the villain.

2) A more believable villain? Well, now we’re getting a little closer. I never will understand why villains are so into kidnapping girlfriends. In the world of fiction, I bet there are actual legal codes pertaining specifically to the abduction of a significant other. However, even a believable antagonist taking believable actions won’t work. In fact, I would wager that it would cause you to like the villain a LOT more than the hero.

3) Character flaws for the hero and his posse! There! That’s it! It’s so obvious (especially given the title of the post)!

Here’s the truth of the matter: It’s not obvious. It’s not even close to obvious to both aspiring and published writers alike, and the blandness of perfection seems to sweep over the world of fiction like a blight. Beautiful people of inviolate perfection seem to pop up left and right, leaving me with a feelings of both boredom and insecurity. If you haven’t seen what I’m talking about, let me give you two major examples.

1) Hyper-power: This category of perfection is reserved for characters with absolute physical prowess that seems to climb to an even higher state whenever they are threatened. These are your Superman characters. These are your Gokus. One might think that awe-inspiring displays of power make for an interesting story, but deep down, I don’t think that’s what people want to read about. I don’t think people are into shock-and-awe at all, in fact. I think they want clever characters, and brute force characters who simply “evolve” every time there is a problem are the opposite of clever. They never use their brains, so the audience is never impressed.

2) Monofilament Tongue: This category of perfection is so insidiously subtle, so oft overlooked, that some of the best writers in the world fall prey to its clutches. Have you ever seen a character who always knows what to say, no matter what the situation may be? Have you ever seen a character that never stops joking, even in the heat of a battle? That character may be beaten to a pulp, that character may lose his friends, but at least that character always has a joke. Yeah. That’s a type of perfection too, and it’s as bland as bland can be.

The reason why characters with the sharpest of tongues and wits are such a problem is that dialogue is a battle, too. It is often times this repartee that drives a story to the more interesting reaches of plot, and yet so many writers seem to overlook what creates that drama. When a character is in a heated conversation, and they no longer know what to say, that character is flapped! It’s like the other guy reached out in a fight and stabbed the character. Would you have a boxer who is never punched? No. Would you have an action hero who is never shot? No! Why do writers settle for the mediocrity of having a character who always gets in a dignified, witty response before a scene is over? Those characters should occasionally be dumbfounded, dang it!

So remember, friends, flaws make the world go round. Does a character with invulnerable wit get on your nerves? Can you name some examples?

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The Gearbox: Conflict II: Return to Conflict Mountain

by on May.20, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hey, everyone! I know that I talked a lot about conflict in an earlier Gearbox, but I thought I would revisit it after a great visit with a writer friend yesterday.

Before I get down into the nuts and bolts of this week’s Gearbox, let’s talk for a moment about Phineas T. Barnum. For those of you who don’t know who he is, P.T. Barnum is the founder of Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus, also called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The man was a brilliant amateur psychologist and a consummate showman, and he knew a thing or two about what audiences wanted to see. And from this glorious man, we receive two of the greatest quotes ever to grace the ears of mankind. The first is, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The second quote is the rule of writing romance:

“Always leave them wanting more.”

When people read a romance, what do they want to see? On the surface, they think that they want to see a relationship where everything goes well, and things are consummated with little to-do. However, what makes people turn a page is that feeling of tension. When it comes to writing a romance, if you really want to capture that feeling of first love, you can’t just have your characters meet, then jump into bed. That’s too easy. It vents the pressure on your story, and while temporarily satisfying, it really doesn’t help your narrative in the long run. Your characters have to long for each other, yet be oblivious to each others’ needs. There must be moments when characters are precariously close to a kiss, only to be interrupted awkwardly with something that cannot be ignored. Model your two characters like you would magnets- get them close together but never let them touch, and you will be rewarded with the energy you need to power your story.

However, this post is not about romance. Who knew?

The post is really about danger and mortal conflict. It’s about turning a scene on it’s head and scaring the bejeezus out of your reader. It’s about convincing your audience that there is no way that your main character can survive the situation that the main character is in, even though that character should be nigh-unkillable. It’s about convincing your reader that you are heartless, that no one is sacred and that anything in your story can be destroyed.

Now I appreciate Barnum’s old adage more than a lot of people. I believe that the guy was a genius, and that his paradigm had its applications, but to create a lasting memory of your great epic combat, we’re going to have to throw that idea out the window. Let me tell you a successful recipe for an addictive, action-packed, third-act denoument downhill slide that’ll knock a reader’s socks off:

STEP 1: Start with an organically-generated plot. If you’re not sure what I mean, you can check out my post on the matter. You’ll need a high degree of character-based predictability. You want your reader to feel like, based upon the character’s previous actions, they know exactly what the character will do next. The reader should feel like the character has a clear line of sight to his or her goal, and that things will probably work out just fine. So to recap- understandable character, predictable actions, predictable outcome.

STEP 2: Turn it on its head by making the situation go from slightly unpleasant to hellish. Give your characters little time to react. Have the airship armada arrive over the open field where the characters are sleeping. Maybe the power goes out on the anti-zombie protection grid. Maybe the character’s best friend is actually a traitor. Whatever. Just come up with the cruelest thing you can do and DO IT.

STEP 3: And this one is the kicker- Repeat steps 1 and 2. Let your characters get adjusted to their crappy new reality, then ram something even worse down their throats. Show them the meaning of suffering. Teach them fear that your audience could never have even imagined. Do these things, and your audience won’t be able to put the book down. Once you’re out of the second act, your characters should never be safe, never be comfortable.

So there you have it. If I could have a rule for love, it would be, “Always leave them wanting more,” but if I could have a rule for conflict, it would be, “BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!”

How about you? Have you seen this formula successfully employed?

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The Gearbox: Overstatement

by on Apr.22, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hey, everybody! Welcome back to The Gearbox- the weekly writing column where I tell you how to write what I want to read. I realize that a lot of what I talk about is already covered in books like Between the Lines and Stephen King’s On Writing, but I don’t care! I’m covering it anyway!

This week: Overstatement!

Overstatement is probably the biggest killer amongst young and aspiring writers. At least, when I edit other people’s stories, overstatement is the thing that I gripe about the most. Writers should realize that you only have a few words to capture a reader’s attention, and overstating everything is like shoving a stick in the spokes of the reader. As readers, we want to get into a nice flow, where the information trickles off the page, straight into our brains. We don’t want some overblown double-explanation of every idea in the story. Words must be chosen like the cuts on a bonsai tree- too few and you have chaos; too many, and you have stripped your ideas bare.

There are many kinds of overstatement:

1) Adverbial/Adjective Overstatement

Adverbs and adjectives are nothing short of fallbacks. They’re modifiers for when a noun, verb or preposition doesn’t exist to cover the thing you’re writing about- and they’re important. As writers, they’re one of the greatest weapons we have in our arsenals, but frankly, they can be overkill. They’re powerful, and too many writers employ their use when a well-chosen word would have served better. Consider the following sentence:

“The angry man walked quickly from the room.”

Every single time you pull out an adverb or adjective, you should ask yourself, “Is there a word that I can use that connotes the meaning that I am about to apply with this adjective or adverb?” This is where thesauruses come in handy. I believe that there are no synonyms in the English language- only subtle and hidden shades of meaning. Pull out a thesaurus and find the right word. A much better sentence would have read:

“The man stormed from the room.”

There. It reads a little better now, right? I would wager that all of the meaning of the first sentence was captured in the second sentence, and it added a nice visual. Adverbs can be useful, but most of the time they’re just crap. Adjectives are a little better, but you have to start from the right noun before you begin modifying it.

2) Character Description Overstatement

Okay, this is a pet peeve of mine. It’s a special kind of overstatement, of which I am particularly guilty. Character description overstatement (or “CDO” to save me some typing) happens when you describe a character in specific terms of his or her appearance, even if those attributes are not plot relevant. CDO is typically worked in at the most awkward times, and it serves to destroy the pace of a book during the first few critical pages when the book is supposed to hook the reader. Here’s an example:

“Andy bent down to wash his face, and when he looked up, he found himself looking into his own hazel eyes in the bathroom mirror. He casually examined his wavy, neck-length, straw-blond hair and strong, Roman nose. Looking down, he could see the muscles on his torso. He didn’t think he was much to look at, but the ladies disagreed.”

That is terrible! This should only happen in a novelization of a Quantum Leap episode! So much of that doesn’t really need to be said, and if someone doesn’t like the way that character looks based upon your description, you might have lost a reader. Consider, instead, this substitute:

“Andy was graceful, with the form of a gymnast, and his smile made him irresistible to women.”

By speaking in abstractions, you allow the reader to unconsciously create the character that they would prefer to see in their version of the story. That heightens the reader’s involvement quite a bit.

It’s not too bad, though, if you use the character description as a chance to either lampoon or illuminate your character’s personality, for example: “His clothes were perfectly ironed,” or “her teeth, blackening from years of addiction to sweets.”

3) Dialogue Attribution Overstatement

The last type of overstatement that I want to talk about is dialog attribution overstatement. DAO happens when you place some sort of indicator in the dialog attribution about how a line is read, even though there is really only one way to read the line. For example- suppose that you have a tense scene in a psychological thriller wherein the killer has just been discovered and becomes hostile. Our heroine tosses dirt in his eyes and bolts into the woods. The next line of dialogue is:

“‘I’ll kill you for that, you little witch!’ he shouted, his voice full of rage.”

Don’t waste page by adding an adverb, or “his voice full of rage.” We know his voice is full of rage. He’s trying to kill someone, and they may have seriously injured him. He’s not going to be jovial.

Now Stephen King and I diverge on this next point. He says that you should only use “he said/she said” dialogue attribution, but I think it’s okay to get spicier with your verbs. What is most important is that you disambiguate without becoming tedious.

Surely, though, I’ve belabored the problems of overstatement enough. What do you all think?

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