Monday, September 30, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #191: Process Vs. Revelation

I recently had to cut ten pages out of an old script, and one thing I found myself doing seemed counterintuitive, since it meant abandoning one of the strengths of the film medium. I realized that, in order to keep things moving, I had to think more like a playwright, and replace process with revelation.

When your heroes unravel mysteries (and almost every type of story has a mystery element, even if the question is just “why doesn’t he/she like me?”), you can either show your heroes visiting a bunch of places and having a bunch of conversations and see the truth dawning on their faces, or you can allow your heroes to get ahead of the audience, confront their antagonist with a bunch of facts they gathered, then have them reveal to both their antagonist and the audience where they went, what they did, and how they figured it out.

Playwrights, for a number of reasons, must do this:
  • They can’t afford to have actors who show up every night just to do one scene
  • And besides, it’s almost impossible to show “process” on stage, so they train themselves to write these scenes from day one.
  • It’s also hard to show silent moment of revelation on stage, where the hero discovers some clue and then we see the truth dawn on his or her face.
Screenwriters, on the other hand, would seem to have none of these problems:
  • We can have lots of one-scene actors show up once to shoot their short scenes.
  • Film is great at showing process: collapsing time and space to watch a long series of actions and consequences proceed in one montage.
  • Film is great at showing close-ups on important objects and then a dawning light in the hero’s eyes.
Nevertheless, screenwriters are wise to learn this trick. This is part of every event being a character event. Yes, it can be emotionally powerful to show characters discover a piece of information, but it’s more emotionally powerful to show them confront others with that information.

So why not show both? Because If you show both the discovery of the information, and the confrontation with the information, then that’s going to feel like a repeated beat for the audience. They just want to find it out once, so they get bored if they have to see multiple characters discover the same information at different times.

Of course, in order to pull this off, you must let your character temporarily get ahead of your audience until the confrontation happens. This is a risk, because it breaks the audience’s identification with the hero, but the reward is worth it.

You’ll notice that this almost always happens with the final reveal in a drawing room murder mystery: even if we’ve been right there on the hero’s shoulder the whole time, playing along with solving the mystery, the hero collects the final clue without us there, so that we can be in suspense until the more important moment, when the hero confronts the villain (surprising us just as much as the villain, if we weren’t able to figure it out without the final clue.)

Process is great too, and I love a good montage, but sometimes you must deny yourself that ability and think like a playwright.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Ultimate TV Pilot Checklist!

Okay, folks, here we go again. You all know and love the Ultimate Story Checklist, right? That was originally written for screenplays, then expanded to include all types of stand-alone stories. But what about TV shows (and other forms of ongoing stories)? More than ever before, would-be TV writers are required to write “spec pilots”: the first episodes for shows that will probably never exist. We’ve examined “How to Create a TV Show”, so let’s now create the first ever expansion pack for the Ultimate Checklist! (This is, of course, only Version 1, so feel free to kibitz!)

Part 1: Concept (in addition to the questions from the Ultimate Story Checklist)
  1. Is your show set in an unsafe space?
  2. Do you establish a unique point of view for entering this world every week?
  3. Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
  4. Does the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be achieved on a regular basis?
  5. Have you established big stakes that will persist week after week?
  6. Do the heroes engage in both physical and cerebral activity?
  7. Have you chosen serialized or procedural and accepted the limitations of your choice?
  8. Does your pilot build up potential energy (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Part 2: Character (in addition to the questions from the Ultimate Story Checklist)
  1. Do you have at least one role that’s strong enough to get a movie actor to come work in TV, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot?
  2. Are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts?
  3. Are all of the other regular roles strong enough in the pilot to attract great actors?
  4. Do your characters have irreconcilable problems and flaws (unlike heroes in stand-alone stories, who should have reconcilable problems and flaws)?
  5. Does your hero’s big flaw relate to the concept of the show?
  6. Does your ensemble have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
  7. Are your characters good at their jobs (or family roles, if that’s how they’re defined)?
  8. Do your main characters have decision-making power?
  9. Have you polarized your ensemble impartially?
  10. Does each member of your ensemble have a different metaphor family (even if they have the same job)?
  11. Does each member of your ensemble have a different default personality trait?
  12. Does each member of your ensemble have a different default argument tactic?
Part 3: Structure (in addition to the questions from the Ultimate Story Checklist)
  1. Have you chosen premise pilot or center-cut, and accepted the limitations of that choice?
  2. Does your pilot have the average page-length for its format?
  3. If your show is for network or basic cable, do you have the right number of commercial breaks for your format?
  4. And if so, do you end every act on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one?
  5. Do all of your storylines believably occur (and climax) within the same time frame?
  6. Do your storylines have a variety of tones?
  7. Does at least one character, (either a cast member or the guest star) go through all the steps (practical and emotional) for solving a large problem?
  8. Does your pilot end with a twist or escalation that will kick future episodes into high gear?
Part 4: Scenework: Use all the same questions from the Ultimate Story Checklist

Part 5: Dialogue: Use all the same questions from the Ultimate Story Checklist

Part 6: Theme (in addition to the questions from the Ultimate Story Checklist)
  1. If your show is not a naturalistic slice-of-life show, is it a metaphor for a universal human emotional dilemma?
  2. Does your pilot begin with a statement of philosophy and/or theme?
  3. Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas on a weekly basis?
  4. Does your world bring rich and poor together on a regular basis?
  5. Have you decided if your stories will generally be about intended or unintended consequences?
  6. Are the storylines in your pilot thematically linked in an indirect way?
Part 7: Tone (in addition to the questions from the Ultimate Story Checklist)
  1. Have you chosen whether this should air on network, basic cable, pay cable, or streaming, and are you meeting the expectations of those buyers (For instance, if this is for pay cable, have you included the nudity and/or violence those networks want)?
  2. Does your pilot ask more questions that it answers, but still provide a satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
  3. Is there something bold, weird, and/or never-before-seen about this pilot?
  4. Does your pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in your premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
So that’s it.  What do you think?  (And if you’re wondering why the categories are in a different order than the original checklist, it’s because these conform to Checklist v4, which hasn’t gone up yet, but it’s coming soon!)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How to Create a TV Show, Addendum: Give Your Main Hero a Flaw That Resonates With the Setting and Theme of the Show

TV heroes are more flawed than ever these days, and I’m totally cool with that. Dr. Kildare is our and Dr. House is in. But some shows seem to have missed the point. You can’t just reach blindly into a grab bag of flaws and randomly apply one to your hero. The most egregious offender is the disappointing FX series “The Bridge”.

Lots of people have tried to get shows about the border going for years, and this one looked like it had a winning formula, but I found the show to be grating, largely because of the tick-driven performance of the Diane Kruger, who plays a detective with a pretty series case of Asperger’s.

There are a couple of problems with this:

First of all, it literally makes no sense that she would keep her job. This is post-employment America, where people get fired at the first hint of a problem and replaced immediately from an ocean of the overqualified. Increasingly heartless employers have zero tolerance for any sort of abnormal behavior. We no longer live in a world where people shrug and say “Whatcha gonna do, we can’t fire ‘em.”*

But more importantly, it makes no sense thematically. Yes, it’s great when TV heroes have flaws, but those flaws should resonate with the setting and the theme.

They should have problems that are inherent to their role in life:
  • Walt the chemist on “Breaking Bad” is, as the tagline says, “extremely volatile”.
  • Don the ad man of “Man Men” is a manipulative liar.
  • Ted on “How I Met Your Mother” has an overly romanticized view of life.

It’s even better when their flaw makes their workplace an especially unsafe space for them:
  • Dr. House and Nurse Jackie both  have pill additions.
  • Sam the bar-owner on “Cheers” is a recovering alcoholic.
  • Carrie on “Homeland” is fighting a particularly paranoid case of bipolar disorder, but she has a job that requires her to suspect everybody.
There are lots of interesting flaws that Kruger’s character on “The Bridge” could have had:
  • It could be a problem specific to the setting, such as a secret lover on the other side, a hidden family history, or a sideline in smuggling...
  • It could be a general issue we associate with the border: bigotry, violence, drug addiction, drug dealing, rage, corruption, blind obedience to unjust laws, refusal to accept change, a cowboy mentality, etc.
  • Or if you wanted to get more abstract, you could even say “lack of boundaries”, or “slipperiness”…
There were dozens to choose from. But Asperger’s? That’s just random. Asperger’s + the border = nothing. The internal struggle doesn’t relate to the external struggle, the plot never collides with character, and the show never comes alive.

Unless your show is on CBS, your main character needs a big flaw, but please to make sure to choose a flaw that resonates with (and is magnified by) the setting of the show.

* But wait, what about Monk and Sherlock Holmes, who were just as twitchy?  Didn’t they get to solve crimes? Yes, but they weren’t police employees.  They were specialists who were brought in on hopeless cases where the value of their insights outweighs the liability of their neuroses.  The heroine on “The Bridge” is full-time and taking any call that comes in!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What’s the Matter With Hollywood: Hair Edition

So I watched the pilot for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, which was so-so. There were various problematic things about it, but nothing moreso than this:
That hair! I am so sick of that damn hairstyle! To a certain extent it’s always been the case that every actress on TV has the same hairstyle, and I understand that hairstyle fashions come and go, but what makes this style so bad is that it’s particularly unrealistic, and it’s been the universal default actress haircut for almost ten years.

Now please understand, I’m a manly-man catch-bullets-in-my-teeth tough guy, so I’m not supposed to know or care about hairstyles, and I don’t, I promise… That’s why it took me years to notice how omnipresent this damn thing was, and why it bothered me so much.

I first noticed it in the ads for “Rizolli and Isles”. The whole point of this show is that these women have nothing in common. One is tough, butch and no-nonsense, while the other one is feminine, fancy, and stylish. But just look at the damn ads:

They’re clones! The “tough” one has the exact same super-girly hairstyle as the girly one! The problem is that no woman who isn’t paid to be pretty has ever woken up in the morning and given herself this hairstyle. It takes about half an hour. Stylists pride themselves on this hairstyle because it’s hard to create.

In real life, if you’ve got really long hair, you have limited options for keeping it out of your face: bangs, barrettes, ponytails, or product. Women with serious jobs only have time for the first three, but every career woman on TV or in movies somehow has time for the fourth. Here’s another example of two women who are supposed to be very different, and in this case they’re both supposed to be super tough: the remake of Total Recall...

How different can they be? They have the same damn hairstyle! And how tough can they be? They’ve both spent all morning with their stylist!

But “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a new low, because in this version, the character is a radical revolutionary who specifically explains in her very first scene that she lives in her van. This is not just a throwaway line. We see the van. There’s no shower. And she goes on constant rants against the government and conformity! And she’s got that goddamn hairstyle!  I can’t take it anymore!  I can’t take it!

That is all. I just had to get that out of my system.  Back to real content tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #190: Limit Yourself

PIXAR had a problem. They had pioneered the idea of computer animation and made some very appealing short films featuring a jumping desk lamp, so they were eager to move into features ...but their technology seemed to have huge limitations.  

There was a reason that they had been anthropomorphizing lamps: they just couldn’t get the hang of creating hair or warm-looking skin, which seemed to mean that they would never be able to feature human characters.

They parleyed their short Tin Toy into a first feature called Toy Story. While that was in production, they sat down for a now-legendary lunch in where they tried to figure out the future of the company: they couldn’t make movies about toys forever, but how many movies they could make about heroes without hair or warm skin?

In addition to more Toy movies, they wound up brainstorming a list of five more ideas, all of which eventually got made:
  • Ants: A Bug’s Life 
  • Monsters: Monsters Inc. (They didn’t know at the time that by the time they got to this movie, they would finally master hair, and be eager to show it off) 
  • Fish: Finding Nemo 
  • Cars: Cars 
  • Robots: WALL-E
Once they had their list, they realized that had a really hard job ahead of them. The problem was that all of these potential heroes would be hard for audiences to identify with…in large part because they lacked hair and warm skin!

So was it worth doing? Was there any point in making movies about such unlikely subjects? Yes, but they’d have to make up for the inherent liabilities with extra assets: they would have to create heroes that were extra-lovable, extra-compelling, extra-human.

Faced with such a daunting task, they had to admit something that no one else in town was willing to say out loud: the Hollywood way of crafting stories was broken.

In the heyday of the studio system, as historian Thomas Schatz famously described in his book “The Genius of the System”, the studios managed to closely manage their artists in a way that unleashed creativity instead of stifling it. During the system’s peak, from the mid-‘30s to the mid-‘40s, they somehow created something unprecedented and never again replicated: quality and quality control at the same time.

PIXAR realized that, if they were going to create five very expensive movies about five different types of hard-to-like creatures, they were going to have bring back that studio spirit. This meant that they had to bring back the idea of the “story department”. Egos had to go out the window, replaced with rigorous group critiques. Everything was constantly second-guessed by their “braintrust” and whole movies were sometimes sent back to the digital-drawing-board.

The results, as you probably know, were stunning. They were creating characters that were so lovable, even people who disliked computer animation were flocking to the theater every year. More than any other studio name in town, “PIXAR” came to mean quality.

And then a funny thing happened: they ran out of limitations. Now that they can tell any type of story, the PIXAR name has started diminish in the public’s eyes. They aren’t bending over backwards to make us fall in love anymore, because they seem to feel like their new human characters should be inherently likable.

But no character is inherently likeable. Even if you’re making a live-action movie, your character are just cold constructs until you hook them up to a lightning bolt and jolt them to life. Every character starts off as a bug, a fish, a car, a robot… they only have as much life as you give them. I wish that every studio would take PIXAR’s lead and bring back story departments, but unfortunately, it seems PIXAR is joining their competitors instead of beating them.

Meanwhile, if you don’t run a studio, what lesson can be learned from this? Limit yourself. Put yourself in a box and try to figure out how to do great work inside of it. Can you write a great thriller set entirely in two apartments, like Bound? Can you make people cheer for a love affair between a teenage boy and an eighty-year-old woman, like Harold and Maude? Can you make an entire super-hero movie out of found footage, like Chronicle? Can you write a silent movie, like The Artist?

Hold your own feet over the fire. Create a situation where you find yourself saying “This will only work if I do everything right.” Because guess what? That’s always true.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #189: The Audience Will Vet Your Hero Thoroughly (And Most Heroes Fail the Test)

So I’ve been revising an old screenplay and also puttering around with a novel for kids, and in both cases, I see that I’m making the same mistake. I’m introducing the main character when he’s alone at home, and in both cases, I’m letting him talk about himself… but in both cases I hold off way too long before I get to an actual dialogue scene with another person. The problem is, no matter how compelling I try to make him, the audience isn’t going to engage with this character until they see him interacting with someone else.

We’re all awesome in our own heads. We’re all cool. We’re all righteous and justified. But the audience knows to be dubious. The thoughts in our heads and even our actions when we’re alone don’t show who we really are, only interactions can do that.

The audience is waiting for a chance to evaluate whether or not they want your main character to be their hero. They can’t make that choice until they’ve heard this character have a conversation with someone else. Only dialogue tests a character. Will your hero pass that test?

This is one of the big problems with movies where the “good guy” is suddenly revealed to be the bad guy more than halfway through, such as The Perfect Getaway and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.
The writers of these types of scripts labor under a fundamental misconception. They think that the audience assumes that the main character is the good guy until being told otherwise. But the opposite is actually true: the audience will automatically distrust your main characters, and will only invest in them if they prove themselves to be sufficiently heroic early on in your story. Your audience will be watching your heroes like a hawk, and they’ll know your heroes aren’t really heroic enough long before the storyteller reveals this “shocking secret”.

Both of the above examples were very popular among industry folk, but then they unexpectedly did terribly with test audiences, and so they were barely released. (Mandy Lane just got dumped in a few theaters, seven years after its festival debut) Film people have to watch too many movies (sometimes 3 or 4 terrible new movies a day), and they’re totally jaded. They crave shocking twists that will wake them up from the their boredom.

But general audiences don’t get to watch hundreds of bad new movies for free. We have to pay for each one, and so we have high standards. We still demand characters we can really care about. And, in order to spare ourselves from being hurt, we’re going to decide early on in the story whether of nor we want to like your main character, based on what we think of their interactions with others.

Audiences didn’t really care when Mandy Lane turned out to be the villain, because, before that, she had been nobody’s idea of a compelling hero.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Adding to Your Cosmos

Hey guys, I’ve been noticing that lots of old series aren’t in the sidebar. I’ve just added them in, or you can find them here, you button-pushing babes! Enjoy:

Know More Than You Show
Checklist Roadtests
Straying From the Party Line
Specific Genre Structures

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How to Create a TV Show, Addendum: Build Up Potential Energy

We’re currently barreling towards the end of “Breaking Bad”, and I’m happy to say that, unlike just about every other show from this recent flowering of great TV, they seem to be sticking the landing. It helps that the show can now take advantage of the planned end to deliver a series of pay-offs that have been looming ever since the pilot.

Think of all the questions that were dangling by the end of that pilot... What will they do with the dead bodies? When will each character find out about the cancer? When will each character find out about the meth cooking? Especially Hank? The answers to these played out very gradually over five seasons, each one landing at a different devastating time.

It does drive me a little bit crazy that everybody on TV keeps their cancer a secret. Trust me, folks, this makes no sense, because telling people you have cancer is awesome. You get showered with love every time you drop the C card. All sins are forgiven, and you instantly become a great and noble hero in everybody’s eyes. But TV writers know the value of a great secret, so everybody on TV has to keep mum as long as they can.

In stand-alone stories, every secret that you set up is something that you’ll have to pay off before the end, so you’re just creating lots of extra work for yourself, but when you’re writing a pilot, secrets are free energy. They create subtext for the dialogue, conflict for the scenework, and motivation for the plot. And best of all, you don’t need to have to have any idea how they’re going to pay off.

Once again, you’re rolling rocks uphill, creating potential energy. That built-up energy will vibrate through everything until you finally let it go. It keeps your audience asking, “How long until…?”

Of course, the ultimate form of potential energy is “I want to see those two kiss!” This can take two forms: Protest-too-much conflict (Sam and Diane) or unrequited pining (Jim and Pam). The first gives you more conflict, the second gives you more intense audience identification.

On most shows, this will happen whether you want it to or not. You may want your TV show to be a sensitive, hard-hitting expose of socio-economic conditions in a particular sub-stratum of society, and you may succeed spectacularly, but rest assured, even if you’re not trying to create any romantic tension, the message boards for fans of your show will quickly be filled by “shippers” who have paired up your character against your will.

So don’t fight it. Romantic tension is the lifeblood of TV, both drama and comedy, for a good reason. More than any other medium, you’re asking your audience to commit. You’re asking your audience to spend one night a week with you for five years, but you know that they will mysteriously disappear the moment their passion goes away. Guess what the best way to stoke that passion is?

When the TV turns off, it’s totally up to your viewers whether or not they want to come back next week*. The best way to do that is to include something specific that they hope to see happen.  So start kindling those hopes in your pilot.

* Unless they’re binging on Netflix, of course, where they now have that nerve-wracking countdown clock that gives you fifteen second to decide if you want to abort the marathon. I can’t take that kind of pressure, you bastards!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How to Create a TV Show, Addendum: Create an Unsafe Space

The good news was that I was getting to take a class with one of my idols, the great Tom Fontana, creator of “Homicide” and longtime showrunner of a show I love even more: “St. Elsewhere”* The bad news was that he was coming to discuss his recent show “The Bedford Diaries”, which I hadn’t liked. I had a dilemma: should I pretend to love it, so that I could get in good with him, or should I tell him what I really thought?

There was never really any question, given my congenital case of logorrhea. I wound up bringing up quite a few of my frustrations with the series, first gingerly, then not so much.

“The Bedford Diaries”, which ran for half a season on the CW, was about a small group of students at a Columbia-like school who attended a popular but controversial sexuality seminar, taught by a sensitive professor played by Matthew Modine. They were each expected to make video diaries about their love life, and then share them in intimate class discussions.

On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a very promising premise, but I still think there might have been a version of this series that could have worked…with one big change.

I’ll certainly admit that, if I had been a university administrator, I would only agree to host such a class on one condition: it would have to be a “safe space”. I would want a sensitive, caring, non-judgmental professor who made sure nothing too upsetting ever happened. And that’s exactly what the show had in Modine, with his soft eyes, soft smile and warm voice.

But TV showrunners aren’t university presidents, and they need to create the exact opposite atmosphere: TV shows, whether drama or comedies, must be about unsafe spaces, where on a good day, you’re going to get lovingly-but-incisively mocked and judged, and on a bad day, you’re going to get humiliated.

From very early on in the pilot, it was obvious that these kids could lie to Modine, about experiences or feelings, and he would never call them out on it, which turned the class into nothing more than a bragging session, with almost no stakes or emotional jeopardy.

I was turning a little red as I found myself spouting all of this off to Tom and his class, but I blundered on: I suggested that the show could have worked if, instead of Modine, he’d cast the always-underutilized Michele Forbes, who had been so good on Tom’s own “Homicide”. Forbes has perfected that take-no-shit attitude and penetrating stare that makes bullshitters automatically wilt, and yet she does it in a way that maintains  her vulnerability. Forbes was one of the most appealing characters on “Homicide”, but there was never any doubt that the detectives who entered her autopsy room were entering a very unsafe space.

What if those students had walked into that class and met those judgmental eyes (not to mention Forbes’s intimidating sexuality)?  They would have said, “Oh hell, I signed up for the wrong class if I just wanted to brag about getting laid..this lady’s going to tear me open.” I think that maybe the show could have come alive.

So there it was, I was now flat-out giving Tom showrunner lessons in front of his class. I was shrinking down into my chair after I finished, but Tom just chuckled, nodded and said, “I sure wish that you’d told me that before we started!” I breathed a sigh of relief.. he’s a true class act. (…and I did get to work for him later, but, alas, not yet as a writer, though the possibility has been floated a few times. Here’s hoping.)

* Looking back, it’s weird how little I’ve talked about “St. Elsewhere” on this site. Maybe it’s because, like “Slings and Arrows”, the show was so brilliantly original that it’s hard to draw general examples from it. And before anybody asks, I don’t mean to slight Tom’s other big success, “Oz”. I was too delicate for that show, but I respected it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #188: Have Something Authentic to Say About Your Setting

A few years ago, I read a “New Yorker” article and thought, “Wow, that’s a great movie idea!”

A former mafia lawyer told the reporter that he had switched to representing inner city crime bosses, but he discovered a problem. His Sicilian clients had always pretended to have a code of honor, but they didn’t really, except for in the movies. On the other hand, when inner city crime bosses imitated the mafia, they actually did follow a movie-like code of honor, which was why they kept getting in more and more trouble. Their lawyer had to reassure them, yes of course you can rat to stay out of prison, just like the real mafia guys do all the time. My mind began spinning plots...

But when it comes time to write that movie, what do I really have? I have an irony. That irony can enrich the theme of the final project, and it could maybe provide a plot twist, and maybe a few scenes, but it doesn’t give me any characters, or a plot, or a structure, or any dialogue…

Most importantly, just because I know this piece of information (me and everyone else who read that issue of “The New Yorker”), doesn’t give me an authentic connection to this world.

I now had something to say about that world, but as a fiction writer, that’s not really your job. You’re not saying something about that world, you’re saying something from within that world.

Here’s another example. At one point I was reading through the plays of Moliere and it suddenly occurred to me that almost every issue he was dealing with in the French royal court is now being paralleled in America’s private schools:
  • “The Misanthrope” is almost expelled from the court for criticizing a rich young man’s poetry and hurting his self-esteem. 
  •  “The Imaginary Invalid” takes too many prescription drugs for everyday anxieties. 
  • “Tartuffe” sells his own mixture of new-sounding moralistic platitudes to a wealthy family that actually just confirms all of their old prejudices. Etc…
So I realized, “Hey, that would make for a great YA novel, or a series of YA novels, called “Moliere High”, or something like that.

In this case, my idea gave me a lot: it gave me plots, characters, scenes, and themes… (It also gave me lots of great dialogue, but that didn’t do me much good because most of Moliere’s dialogue was in rhyme, which I certainly wasn’t willing to emulate!)

But once again, I may have had something to say about the world of modern private schools, based on my own vaguely-understood prejudices against them, but I was incapable of saying anything from within that world unless I was willing to immerse myself in it.

As a fiction writer your setting is not merely one of your topics, it is your material. If you wish to use that material, you have intimately understand and care about the situations, the people, and their authentic dialogue.

If I had wanted to write those “Moliere High” novels, I would have had to get to know a lot of prep school kids, and get to like them. Even if your whole point is to criticize your hero’s world, you still must have genuine affection for that hero (and for his or her antagonists) or you will write obnoxious crap. I wanted to write those “Moliere High” novels to show my disdain for that entire world. That’s a terrilble reason to write.

Remember: whoever you’re writing about, that’s also going to be your audience. Who reads YA novels set in prep school? Teen who are in prep school or wish they were. Teens don’t mind at all if you’re hyper-critical of their world, since they’re hyper-critical themselves, but they’ll be horrified if you write about them with snotty condescension. My adult friends all share my prejudices about private school kids, but none of them would ever read a YA novel set there, so there’s no point in writing to please them. You have to write for the people who would actually purchase your material.

Moliere himself criticized the French court but he didn’t condescend to it. He loved his characters. Yes he wanted to chide them for their foibles and the general hypocricy of their world, but he wanted to do so as a disappointed friend, not an outside judge. He performed his plays for the court, and they loved them. (With notable exceptions, of course. There are always going to be few people who don’t want to hear your friendly criticism!)

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Back in Action!

...but not right away.  Life has intervened in various ways, so the big, bad return of Cockeyed Caravan will have to wait two more weeks, sorry.  Regular posts resume September 16th!  Be there!