Tag: 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?
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?
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?
Just kidding! I could never presume to cover a topic like that, considering my status as an unpublished, two-book writer. No, what we’re covering today is not the whole anatomy of a scene, but rather the heart of it- conflict.
Let me just lay this out there- I am a huge hypocrite. I’m telling you all of this when I KNOW that there are scenes in The Gearheart that violate these rules. In fact, when I go back through to write a redraft, you had better believe that those scenes will be gone. Not one of them will survive.
So, according to David Mamet, there are only three important parts of a scene. I don’t want to agree with any statements of direct formula for writing, but I begrudgingly admit that I can’t really find times that I disagree with what Mamet has to say. Mamet states that the following create the conflict in a scene:
1) Who wants what?
2) From whom do they want it?
3) What’s going to happen when they don’t get it?
And it’s that simple! I would love to say, “Hey, this is common sense! Everyone knows that’s how you create conflict,” but I can’t, because I never really thought it out like that. I have several scenes that don’t work out like that, or lack one of those three answers. Let’s break down two scenes, shall we?
The Death Star Trench Run
Luke is skimming along the Death Star trench in his X-wing fighter. Most of his friends are dead. If HE doesn’t destroy the Death star, no one will, and all of his Rebel friends will be destroyed.
1) Who wants what?
Luke wants to destroy the Death Star.
2) From whom do they want it?
It’s a tricky statement, but I guess you could say, “He wants it from the Death Star.”
3) What’s going to happen if they don’t get it?
All the Rebels die, issuing in a new era of galactic terror (read: “prosperity for humans”).
That one was very simple, because the conflicts were primarily external. Now let’s take a second scene that features only one character. I don’t want to sound like an elitist, but I’m going to use one of my scenes because many of you are probably somewhat familiar.
It’s early in the morning, and Keegan is drinking. He is torn apart thinking of how the death of one of his old Agents may have been his fault. Augustus pulls up on a motorcycle and tells Keegan that Isabelle has been attacked. That doesn’t sound like conflict, right? Let’s break it down.
1) Who wants what?
The question here is one of absolution. Keegan needs forgiveness for his sins, whether real or perceived. Keegan wants a mind that is in balance, free of cognitive dissonance, and so he must confront his past.
2) From whom do they want it?
Keegan wants forgiveness from the toughest critic of all- himself. You are the least likely person to forgive yourself in most circumstances, unless you’re a sociopath like Patrick Bateman.
3) What’s going to happen if they don’t get it?
This is probably the most abstract part of the scene, and it’s where I have probably not been clear enough. Keegan is drinking in the mornings. Keegan goes back on his promises. Keegan changes tactics to keep the team safe for the moment, rather than get the job done. In effect, Keegan has become a coward, only playing the safe game. If Keegan does not overcome his past choices, he will not be a good Headmaster. In this case, his failure in the face of adversity could negatively impact the human race as a whole (but he doesn’t know that).
This trifecta of information, this Triforce of conflict, is so absolutely important to a scene. Let me add something, though:
4) Who’s stopping them?
Now, this is actually a sub-question of #2, “From whom do they want it?” However, I think you’ll find that explicitly asking yourself this question prior to writing any scene will cause your scene to take shape in a more understandable way.
I didn’t hear Mamet mention this in the interview, so if he did, my apologies. In essence, there are only two types of conflict- external and internal. Either a character wants something from someone else- external- or they want something from themselves- internal. Scenes of external conflict tend to be violent or action-oriented. Scenes of internal conflict often have a lot of hidden subtleties. To make matters more hazy, you should know that a single scene can contain several conflicts, each with a set of questions all to itself. Let’s answer question #4 for Keegan’s dilemma.
4) Who’s stopping them?
Keegan, being the caring person that he is, is unable to forgive himself. Easy, right?
The answer to #4 for the Death Star Trench Run isn’t quite as clear.
4) Who’s stopping them?
-A: Darth Freaking Vader
-B: Here’s the fun one. Luke is a naive individual who only trusts that which he can observe with his eyes. Torn between his eyes and his heart, Luke finds himself unable to ponder the deeper mysteries of the universe because of his inability to move past his mental limitations. Unfortunately, one of those mysteries of the universe is how to use the Force, and without the Force, there is no way that Luke will make the killing shot to the Death Star. He must learn to let go of everything around him, when everything around him is threatening to kill him. He must learn to trust… his instincts… Luke.
That scene is way better than my scene! Oh, well. I’ll just have to find a way to spice up Keegan’s Dilemma. Perhaps I could throw in some TIE Fighters?
Welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion of writing theory! I really wasn’t going to continue this when I started the blog, because I thought no one would care. However, over the course of this past month, I’ve gotten some amazing responses! All of the commenters (most recently Nate) have really given me cause for pause, and I greatly appreciate your help on my writing journey! I can’t believe that anyone actually reads what I have to say on this subject!
I want to start with my standard disclaimer: The Gearbox is the study of writing books I want to read. It’s not intended to be any sort of authority or anything like that. It’s kind of like a manual where I tell you how to get me to give you my money. What’s worse is that, like any good customer, I might not have any clue what I actually want. Please, feel free to chime in and smack me around as much as you please.
Here’s how I begin to craft a story, as might be evident from my previous posts:
1) I start with something I want to see. This is an event, and thereby, a plot point. It must be poetic and beautiful, cinematic and compelling- a visual. I’m well aware that not everybody thinks like me, so I am in no way endorsing this as a valid method. I do not bother with any of the rest of the plot at this point.
2) I ask myself what characters are participants in that visual. What do they look like? What brought them to this point? Why are they wearing what they’re wearing/doing what they’re doing?
3) I create a backstory support structure to get the character to an “alpha” state- their mindset when they begin the story. I try to really get to know the character, even going so far as to look at primary attributes of my friends’ personalities (but I’ll never tell those friends anything about that). I also look at animals and philosophies and try to imagine which ones for which my characters will have an affinity.
4) I throw all of that stuff out except the characters and the visual, and I evolve the backstory and plot as necessary to complete the story. It feels bad to just drop most of what I had created, but I think it has to be done. What’s worse? The visual, the thing I want to see the most, might not- probably won’t- even happen! Hopefully, something even better will happen.
I basically look at all backstory and plot as a way to fulfill and subvert the desires of the characters. It’s true (and I am a hypocrite for this) that I actually start with PLOT, then move on to BACKSTORY, but I do so in minuscule amounts. I just want to know why I saw what I saw in my head, and how I can repeat it. I still feel that true, logically-extrapolated character interaction is the king of any story, but I realize that I have sold short the other elements in my previous posts.
(By the way, when I say “character interaction,” that can mean gunfights and explosions. It doesn’t have to be Woody Allen talking to Diane Keaton.)
So that’s how I begin to craft a story. To all of you writers out there:
What’s your recipe?
Hello, and welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion on writing theory! Be warned, everyone: I am not an expert. I’m a guy who likes to write. Because of my very nature as an untrained amateur, nothing I say should be taken too seriously, okay? If you disagree, please weigh in at the comments section!
Disclaimer #2: For the purposes of this essay, let us put aside existentialist writings, or any stories where the characters are too impotent to affect their surroundings. Those stories will always have a place in my heart.
What is the difference between inorganic and organic plot generation? Why should writers care? Well, I’ll tell you.
Let’s start with a comparison of organic and preserved cookies. Organic cookies are made naturally. They come from a series of unpreserved, un-bug-sprayed ingredients, and they spoil really quickly. They taste good, but they’re gone so soon, and certain bad tastes cannot be masked. Preserved cookies have things added to them to make them predictable, to add life and lastly, to add value to the retail overlords that sell them. They are unchanging, with each one as mediocre as the next.
Now let’s move on to the point, since I’ve made such a loaded analogy.
Inorganic plot generation- sometimes I call it a static plot- is a method wherein you as a writer say, “This is what will happen. I will make this so.” You have a plot twist so cool, a backstory so unbelievably great or some other motivation so compelling that you bend the events of the story to your will. These sorts of plots make for high-concept books when executed well, but more often than not, they turn into disaster movies or twist-ending flicks… or stalker movies. These books and movies are easy to turn into 90 minute movies or 90,000 word novels. Inorganic plots are the tripe of Hollywood and the bread and butter of executives and accountants alike.
Organic plot generation occurs when you start with a very loose timeline, and you let the characters do whatever it is they want to do. No one is un-killable. No plot point is set in stone. Sometimes, what would have been a novel is a short story. Sometimes, what would have been a short story becomes a trilogy. You literally have no clue with what you are dealing until the story is done. You, as the novelist, set the parameters, run the program and wait on the other side to see what comes out.
Well, I have painted a very flattering picture of organic plot generation, haven’t I? It would almost seem like organic plot generation has no flaws, from what I’ve said.
The flaw is gigantic. There is no built-in “zing” to a scene. There is no predictably unpredictable outcome! Where is the action? Where are the twists? What if the hero would rather go home and microwave a burrito, when all you want is for a huge gunfight? I’ve never been in a gunfight, but my bet is that a microwave burrito is better than getting shot… depending on the brand. When the hero wants to leave, how do you make him stay? How do you make him stand up for himself?
The way I see it, you have two choices at this point:
1) The hero goes home. You are making a Coen Brothers movie. It will probably win an award for best screenplay, but you will be left alone with your unspent bullets and a raging need to see something get shot. This is an example of organic plot generation in action.
2) You introduce a new element and run the program again. Give the hero a gun. Give him an opening. Make it more exciting/honor-binding/profitable for him to stay and shoot than to go home. This may literally mean hundreds of rewrites, but you have to keep going until that hero pulls the trigger willingly.
Here’s what you DON’T do: Don’t EVER use inorganic plot generation. There is no good reason.
Welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion on writing theory! Today we’ll tackle a topic that should be a no-brainer. Why? Because I’m pretty much an amateur, myself, so I can pretend to be knowledgeable by writing well about this idea.
The question is simple, really: What is the difference between plot and backstory, and what are the uses of both?
I know that I said that it was a no-brainer, but the relationship between plot and backstory can be quite hairy, especially for writers of science fiction and fantasy. Have you ever spoken to an aspiring fantasy author and asked him or her what their book was about? How many times have you heard a response like this:
“Well, there was this war a loooooooong time ago, right? It divided the universal race into these three races: elves, men and dwarves. Anyway, so like, they’re all at war now because Misha the Red (she’s one of the Antediluvian Witches) decided that she wanted to take the Sickle of Life from the Cave of Peace. So now the elves are leading this blah blah blah blah blah…”
I hate to say this, because writing is supposed to be subjective, but WRONG. That is not what your book is about.
Your book is not about your caste system. Your book is not about the fancy name you came up with to call your giant mechs (I’m talking to you, anime!). Most of all, your book is not, and cannot be, about things that happened before your book takes place. And yet, so many authors focus almost the entirety of their attentions upon the backstory. Why? Is it because a bunch of us started our fantasy/sci-fi careers with Dungeons & Dragons campaign guides?
The plot of a book is the series of events that happens over the course of the story. I know that’s crazy talk, but there you have it. It starts on page one and it ends at the end. Also, I don’t believe that plot is something you can write, but that’s a discussion for next week.
I had a writing teacher tell me something once that absolutely changed the way that I looked at writing sci-fi and fantasy forever. I came into class with this mega-binder of backstory. It was the freaking Bible of that universe. It had historical details, timelines, races, magical abilities… even stats for D&D versions of a bunch of stuff. He took one look at it and asked, “Well, how does the book start?” I didn’t know, and that’s when he took me aside and told me, “Alex, I can tell you’ve worked really hard on this, but your story is like a stew. Right now, you have all of the spices in it that you could ever need, but you don’t have any meat or water or anything else. The backstory is just the flavor. You need to add in everything else.”
Simply put, a setting is not a novel. Don’t make the mistake of planning your story out that way.
Now, in order of importance for story planning:
BACKSTORY < PLOT < CHARACTER INTERACTION Of course, I could be totally wrong. If so, please- I urge you to step in and correct me!
Welcome to The Gearbox. Each Wednesday, I’ll post a little writing theory discussion, and you guys can weigh in and tell me I’m full of it. I’ll try to reveal to you the tools and inner workings of my story, and you can tell me if my torque wrench needs replacing or if my sprockets are corroded.
Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to listen through the first episode, and you’ve gotten acquainted with the characters. I realize that there are a lot of them (five), and that we didn’t get much time with them. In fact, none of them had more than about four lines apiece! However, I hope that Initiate Andrews’s character has come slightly into focus.
I wrote Jonathan to be who he was because I despise perfect characters. Rather, I have something of a disdain for characters whose only flaw is that they are “distant” or “brooding.” This includes a lot of stock-standard male anime leads. They are always beautiful, talented and intelligent, in addition to being potent fighters. Their built-in flaws are that they are “bad boys” or “too focused.” In other words, their flaws are that they are too awesome. Hamlet may have had all of those qualities, but he was also a raving psychopath who made a fool of himself in front of others.
This brings me to Jonathan’s flaw (or at least the only flaw demonstrable after one episode): Jonathan Andrews has poor mental equipment for the serious tasks ahead of him. Jonathan needs to find a way to be serious and graceful, combat-minded and quick to solve problems. He needs to learn decorum and politics. At the outset, his lack of these things should be somewhat apparent. He’s not a very good magical secret agent, but he is special, and the Seekers are stuck with him.
So I’ve talked about the fact that Jonathan does have a character flaw, but why? Why not make him Superman? Why not make him some Adonis with a MENSA card? Why are those options totally boring?
That’s because stories are about growth and learning. Well, at least, good ones are. Gaining wisdom is as integral to the human condition as a journey over long distances. In fact, a physical journey is just an analogue the growth of the human spirit. To have a main character who begins the story at the end state, who never learns and who never needs to make exceptions- well, that’s like saying that a movie is only good for the twist ending. Once you know the twist, all points inbetween are revealed to you. After that, why bother watching the movie. (Are you reading this, thriller-directors?)
We as a society don’t want to read about the men and women who are simply better than us, who have triumphed even before the story begins. Rather, we want our storytellers to help us understand our human potential, and show us that anyone can be great.