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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Pros and Cons of Adding a Murder Mystery

One of the best ways to strengthen the spine of any book is to add a murder-mystery element. The first three Harry Potter books have an (attempted) murder mystery element. “The Brothers Karamazov” has a murder mystery. Nick Carraway even solves a murder mystery at the end of “The Great Gatsby”. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

So I read a lot of books that have a murder-mystery element, even if the book is primarily a coming-of-age drama, there might be a background murder (or other crime) mystery to spice things up. But you must beware: It requires a lot out of you:

  • We’ll expect the hero to care about identifying the killer. The mystery can be in the background, but it can’t be something the hero just doesn’t care about until someone else solves it.
  • We’ll expect a satisfactory conclusion. Once you hooked us with a murder mystery, we’ll be deeply unsatisfied if you just end on “I guess we’ll never know.”
  • If there’s a murder mystery, the reader is going to get wrapped up in it, and other dramatic questions like “will she forgive her father?” will seem less important.
  • Because it will become your primary dramatic question, you’ll have to wrap the book up fairly quickly after the killer is revealed. You can have more scenes to wrap up your drama, but they will feel like epilogue scenes. 40 pages at most, I’d say.
I read a lot of books that try to cheat, including a murder mystery element but not giving it its due.  If you want to do it, be aware that you’re taking on certain responsibilities to the reader. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

What I Wish I'd Learned in Film School: Only Scumbags Make You Think All Your Dreams Are Coming True

Harvey Weinstein only sexually abused women, but he also emotionally (and physically) abused men. In the Washington Post article, “Law and Order” vet Warren Leight says, “He’s very seductive at the start. You think he understands you and your destiny is about to change.” Soon Leight is complaining to Weinstein of his mistreatment, so Weinstein replies, “Right now this feels like getting f---ed up the ass without Vaseline, but in 10 years, it’s going to seem like the best sex of your life.”

This reminds me of two of my old posts: In this one, I warned that if they talk about doing a lot of projects together, they’re probably about to screw you. They want something from you, and they don’t want to pay you that much to get it, and they want to be able to treat you like shit the whole time. The best way to do that is to make you think that you’ll be messing up a great thing if you rock the boat.  An honest producer will say, “Let’s see how this one goes.”

It also reminds me of this post, in which I talk about how California hasn’t changed since the days of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Once again you have an industry that wants to drive down the wages and bargaining power of its workers, so it tells the rest of the country how wonderful it would be to work there. When people flock there, however, they’re met with armed guards at the border, forcing them to beg to get in. The industry gets what it wants: A desperate workforce that will put up with any kind of treatment without saying a word.

Weinstein got away with it for a long time, and others are still getting away with it. I think the best solution is a transformation of the guilds: The abused actresses should have been able to rely on SAG to back them up, and writers should feel that they can rely on the WGA. Predatory producers need to be heeled.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

James Cheats on Me with my Wife


Hi guys, James and I discussed in our last podcast that my wife now has a podcast too (one that posts a whole lot more often than ours!)  Well now Betsy has snaked James right out from under me!  On that show, they discuss picture books and whether or not they belong in The Canon. This time they asked James which book he wanted to do and of course he chose a bizarre one, “Millions of Cats”. At the link you can also see that Betsy is far more industrious than I at finding fascinating pictures and links to back up her post, so don’t just get it off iTunes. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: More Rules for Mini-Mysteries

Last time we talked about the promise and peril of mini-mysteries. It talked about how you always want to be opening some up and ties others up, but you never want too many.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: The audience is always going to hungry for a solution to each mini-mystery, and you might find yourself feeding that hunger when you don’t want to.

In one book, the heroine’s sister was dead but the author chose not to tell us how she died. At one point the heroine reacts mournfully to a scarred tree by the side of the road. That seemed to me to solve the mystery  –clearly she died in a car wreck– so I tied off that mini-mystery. Later, we found out how she really died and it turns out that I was all wrong.

If you withhold a key piece of information from us, remember that we’ll keep trying to guess it on every page, and we’ll seize on anything you give us, so be careful what you give us.

Another variation on this: when you do solve a mystery, don’t be assume we’ll leap where you want us to leap.

In a subplot in a book I read, in a flashback, the heroine was trying to figure out why her friend was acting weird. Then she enters the bathroom at school and finds her friend surreptitiously throwing up, then looking guilty. Suddenly, everything is clear to the heroine. Nothing more needed to be said.

But more did need to be said, because it wasn’t clear to me. In a teen book, throwing up at school could mean one of two things: That she was bulemic or that she was pregnant. Unfortunately, the book then jumped back to the present and never looked back.

Don’t play it too cool. Don’t trust us to figure it out if you can’t trust us to figure it out. Always try to think of any other interpretation that your reader may have. When in doubt, spell it out.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Always Have a Few Mini-Mysteries, But Not Too Many

Every story has a big unanswered dramatic question hanging over the narrative (Will they win? Will he find love? Will she forgive her parents?). In many stories, even if it isn’t a “mystery story” there will be a whodunit element to this question (Who’s the real bad guy? Who spread the rumor? Who is the secret admirer?)

But this overarching mystery isn’t enough to sustain your narrative. It’s also good to regularly open up mini-mysteries that last for a few scenes, then close them off.

  • These can be information-inferior mini-mysteries (The hero gets a call, we don’t hear the other half of it, then we see the hero acting on it in a mysterious way. Who was the call from? What’s the hero doing now? It may take us a few scenes to get caught up with our hero.) You do not want to have too many of these, or you will break identification.
  • Or they can be information-superior mysteries (we’ve gotten a glimpse of a physical or emotional danger that the hero doesn’t know about yet, and we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop).  These can brake identification as well.
  • Or they could be information-equal mysteries (the hero has found a mysterious clue and must figure out what it is, so we try to figure it out too, looking over his or her shoulder.)  These build identification, so you can have more of them.

But it’s important that you don’t leave these mini-mysteries open for too long, and it’s important that you don’t have too many going at one time. Every mini-mystery is a ball we have to juggle and you can’t keep too many of them up in the air.

Opening up and then resolving mini-mysteries at regular intervals throughout the story satisfies the audience. Forcing them to keep track of too many alienates them.

Let’s look at a story with too many information-inferior mini-mysteries: “I touched the scar on my face and repressed the memories –a gun, a carnival, my mom—No, there was no time to think of that. I saw a man coming that was the last person I wanted to see. What he told me shocked me. I formulated a plan and headed to the courthouse. I didn’t make it two steps past the door before I felt a slug knocking me out. I woke up on the beach. I had a good idea who’d done it, but first I had to play a hunch…”

Yes, I read books like this. Too many mini-mysteries! The scar is an okay example of a mini-mystery that may take several hundred pages to pay off, but because we’re holding onto that one, we might not want that many more, and don’t hit us with a bunch more right at once!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Sometimes You Need an “I Don’t Understand You” Moment

So your hero is going to cheat on his or her spouse, and yet you still want him or her to remain sympathetic to the reader. It’s a tall order, but stories do it all the time and get away with it, so why not you?

There are two things you need to avoid: You don’t want to make the relationship worthless, and you don’t want to make it too good. If the relationship is just terrible, then neither we nor the hero are going to feel any pain at the infidelity, which robs this plot development of its power. But, on the other hand, if the relationship is just wonderful, then we’ll never forgive your hero or understand his or her motivation.

You need to show that things are okay between them, but there’s a fatal flaw. I’ve talked before about how you should cement relationships with an “I understand you” moment. Well now’s the time for its opposite, the “I don’t understand you” moment. This is the moment in an otherwise root-for-able relationship where we get a brief glimpse of an unbridgeable chasm, and we empathize with your hero’s yearning for something more.

After writing this piece I watched Battle of the Sexes this weekend, wherein Emma Stone cheats on her husband with a woman, but we barely glimpse the husband before the affair begins. I thought, “See, this movie could have used an ‘I don’t understand you’ moment,” but in this case I think the movie still works without it, because repressed gay affairs (especially in period pieces) have a built-in implied ‘I don’t understand you’ element.

(And as it turns out he does sort of understand her, as he ends up being pretty cool about it)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Enough with the Dribs and Drabs

What’s the worst movie ever made? Certainly one of the candidates is the feature adaptation of The Lorax from 2012. Every aspect of this movie was an obscene desecration of one of the all-time great books, but let’s focus on one of its more minor sins.

In order to expand the story to fill two hours, they had a second storyline set at the kid’s home, then they had him get the story from the Onceler in drips and drabs over several nights, so that they could intercut the two storylines.  But of course here’s the problem: We’ve all read “The Lorax” and we know that it takes about 15 minutes to read. It doesn’t take long to tell the Onceler’s whole story, certainly not talking all night for several nights.

I run into this problem in a lot of books I read: The hero wants to hear the truth, and someone else is willing to tell him or her the truth, but for some reason it takes several scenes over several days for the truth to come out.  Readers have little patience for this. 

It’s okay to have a story come out in dribs and drabs if there’s a reason for that in the story: The storyteller gets interrupted and taken away, then the hero has to find him again to get the rest, or there are several people who each only have a little piece of the story and they have to be tracked down one by one.  But if the hero and the person who knows the whole truth are in the same place for an hour or so, we expect the full story to come out. Get past it and move on.

One way writers try to get around this is to have the tale-teller say, “That is all I shall tell you for now, perhaps later I will say more,” or something like that, but that’s precisely when we want our hero to take a stand and demand the whole story right then and there.  If you put a weak obstacle like that in your hero’s way, we’ll expect the hero to plow through it, not meekly accept it and slink away.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Would a Reporter Really Care?

In one book I read, a social-science professor at a big-city university was found to have fudged his research. Whenever he leaves his office, he’s hounded by a horde of reporters, demanding to know the truth. Really?

This is a problem I run into all the time: Authors often overestimate how newsworthy their characters are. Of course, this was a classic trope of movies from the 30s and 40s: The hero’s exploits would be summarized by a series of blaring headlines that would all spin toward the screen in a big montage, even if many of these headlines don’t actually seem all that newsworthy.

This is why I love the props pictured above from The Goonies. The kids find a stack of newspapers from the 30s with articles that pertain to the mystery. But the guy in the prop department who was tasked with making these phony newspapers clearly balked at this assignment. Would any of these stories actually be the big headline for the day? So rather than just put up a big splashy headline that takes up the whole front page, he actually figured out what days these stories happened on and what else was going on, and then nested the relevant photos in between those. I appreciate the effort, prop guy!

It’s not a big deal, but it does strain your hard-won credibility with your audience. Not everything your heroes do will be big news!

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: We Know They’re Going to Pick the Wrong One First

The longest book I’ve read for my notes service was just over 500 pages. There was a heist element: They were looking for a piece of paper with the identity of the bad guy written on it. They knew that a man kept this paper in one of his two offices. They didn’t have any real reason to choose one over the other, but they decided it was probably in office #1. They then spent more than two hundred pages planning and executing their break-in, only to find out the paper wasn’t there. They realized that it must be in office #2 and spent another hundred pages planning and executing that break-in, whereupon they found the paper they were seeking.

Do you see the problem? Presented with these two choices, it’s immediately obvious to the reader that the paper they’re seeking will be in whichever one they choose last, and so we just sort of roll our eyes and wait for them to realize that and finally raid the other office. In this case, that was 200 pages of eye-rolling (Most likely, a reader would flip ahead to get to the second office raid).

The hero and the reader should assume that the story will end halfway through, only to be thrown for a loop when they have to keep going and rebuild after the big crash. Obviously, in this novel, they shouldn’t have known about the possibility of a second office until after the first raid failed.

But really, they should have found the paper on the first raid. Raiding two offices for the same piece of paper is too repetitive (even though the offices were in very different places). The midpoint needs to turn the story: They find the paper, find out who the bad guy is, and then launch into a new phase of the story. The big crash means that the hero needs to start over, but not that they need to start the same task over.  They’re starting over in the sense that their goal now seems ever further away than it did before, and they need a new plan, but not a new plan to do the same thing.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Move the Story Backwards

Recently I’ve been reading my little girl my ratty old copies of four of my favorite books from my childhood, the Zork What-Do-I-Do-Now books by S. Eric Meretzky. They’re much better than the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and even better than the TSR “Endless Quest” books, which I also enjoyed.

What I always preferred about the Zork books as a kid is that there were actually right and wrong answers. You were supposed to pick up on clues and figure out which choices to make. With every choice, if you chose wrong, you would die gruesomely (This is our second time through the series, and this time around, my daughter has realized that it’s more fun to make the bad choice and die every time, because you get to enjoy the gruesomeness, then they send you back to make a better choice.)

Often you have some wizard’s prophesy to give you a hint as to which path to take, but sometimes you have to figure out the wrong choice simply based on your intuitive sense of what makes a better story. Pretty soon, you figure out that you’re always going to die if the choice is anything like, “Go back to the castle and search for a spell to help you defeat this bad guy.”

Stories must always move forward, never backwards. Whenever I’m reading a novel in which the hero encounters an obstacle and retraces his steps the story always loses its momentum.

Of course, if your heroes are telling you that they want to go back and get something from home, you have to listen to that, but your response should be to cut off that path and force them forward. Another thing that happens often in the Zork books is that they’ll enter a chamber and an iron door will slam shut behind them.

Of course, one thing to do is to literally blow up anyplace that the hero is done with, so that there’ll be no temptation to return there. Nothing propels your hero forward more effectively than an explosion. (This goes back to an old rule: Take away the safe spaces.)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: If You're Going to Switch Voices, Make Sure to Switch Voices

I’ve expressed concern about the screenplay-ization of movies, but now I’d like to express concern about a trend that very anti-cinematic: Cutting between multiple first-person narrators. I see this in about half of the manuscripts I read, but it’s very hard to pull off. I can see why it’s tempting: I’m tired of my hero’s POV, and I want to show things that she can’t see, so why not just jump into someone else’s head?
  • Of course, the biggest reason not to do it is because the number one job of a writer is to get a reader to bond with a hero. Obviously, jumping into another head breaks that bond.
  • The next biggest problem is that readers can easily get confused about whose voice they’re hearing. It demands close reading, and gatekeepers don’t read closely, which makes your book a hard sell.
Nevertheless, it can be pulled off, and we can all cite many successful examples. You don’t have to resort to Faulkner here: A bestseller like “Gone Girl” gets great value from contrasting its narrators’ POVs.

Here’s my biggest piece of advice for having different voices: Actually give them different voices. Don’t let us forget which voice we’re listening to, because it’s obvious from every line that we’re listening to one voice and not the other. Give them different sentence lengths, different metaphor families, different everything. Don’t cut away to a coroner who talks just like your hero but happens to work in the morgue you need to visit.

And make sure that the POV jumps are not smooth. You don’t want us to miss the jump and get confused. You want us to stop and shift gears, so put a stop sign in our way. Begin each new POV with a one-sentence paragraph where the new person says something the other one wouldn’t say. If one has just been saying how discontent he is, cut the next POV saying, “I love my job.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Voldemort Dies at the End of the First Book

Everybody dreams of writing a series. It seems like every manuscript has a subtitle: Book One in the Flizzbozz Quartet. And why not? Series are a license to print cash. Look at J.K. Rowling. Look at Suzanne Collins. Hell, look at E. L. James, and she was just writing fan fiction.

But there’s another reason why people like to write the first book in a series: Because they think that it’s less work. You don’t have to explain the whole backstory yet. You don’t have pay off the love story. And you don’t have to defeat the bad guy.

Here’s what everybody forgets: Vodemort dies at the end of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” There’s one last remnant of him, fused onto the back of Quirrel’s head, and then they burn him away into nothingness. That’s it. Sure, Rowling allows for a tiny sliver of doubt afterwards, but we’ve had a satisfying killing to provide catharsis. Then Harry has good closing scenes with all his friends and Dumbledore and returns home happier. It’s a satisfying book.

I have a creeping dread reading any book identified as the first in a series, because all too often they don’t provide that satisfying ending. Sometimes the villain isn’t even confronted yet. Sometimes the villain’s plan or motivation is still unclear. Sometimes the hero and his or her friends are still separated in different storylines and don’t get a chance to deal with the events of the story. I often say, “This makes no sense,” only to be told, “It’ll make sense in the sequel.”

Yes, there are rare exceptions, but as a rule, if you don’t provide a satisfying experience with the first book, you’ll never get a chance to finish that quartet. Reveal the whole story. Defeat your villain. Provide an emotional resolution. (Defeating the villain can be ambiguous, like shooting Darth Vader off into space, or it can be symbolic: Snow is humiliated at the end of the Hunger Games, but not killed.)

And whatever you do, unless you intend to self-publish, don’t start the sequel before you sell the first one! Your agent will demand big changes to the first one. Your publisher will demand even bigger changes. Characters will be eliminated. Timelines will shift. You don’t know what your final story will be yet. That’s not entirely up to you. So you don’t even know what story you’re writing a sequel to. More likely than not, you’re going to have to throw all that work out, and it’ll just make you more reluctant to make the changes you need to make to the first one.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Don’t Have Two Present-Tenses


Last time, I stated my preference for past-tense prose, but acknowledged that present-tense prose is increasingly more common and it’s here to stay. But another thing that feels like it’s becoming increasingly common is jumping back and forth between multiple timelines featuring the same character. Once again, I’m leery of this, but it can work.

You need to keep in mind that this sort of structure has inherent risks:
  • Most obviously, it’s hard to generate suspense in the past setting. If it looks like the hero’s going to get killed, it’ll be pretty obvious that she makes it out alive, because she’s alive in the later storyline. On the other hand, you can create another kind of suspense based on our knowledge of what’s going to happen: “Uh-oh, this guy is acting nice, but I know he’s going to turn out to be bad! When’s the other shoe going to drop?”
  • You have to motivate the jumps. One book was simply organized around “Present day 1, past day 1, present day 2, past day 2, etc.” Ideally, you should always have something happening in the present to cause the jump to the past, then have something in the past cause the jump back to the present. She looks at her scar, then flashes back to the day she got it. At the end of that sequence, someone looks at the wound and says “Do you think it’ll leave a scar?”, then we cut back to the present. It can’t always be that neat, but look for ways to subtly help us make the leap.
So it can work, but here’s my big ask: If you’re going to have a present-storyline and a past-storyline, don’t have them both be in present tense. Doesn’t it make more sense to have the present in present-tense and the past in past-tense?

We have to know when “now” is. You can’t have two nows. You need a now and a then. We have to identify with one timeline more than the other. We need to set our feet down in the present storyline and leave them there while we crane our neck over into the past storyline for a looky-loo (even if we spend most of our time there). One timeline should provide perspective on the other timeline. Both storylines should be from the same POV: the present POV. Thus one is present-tense and the other is past-tense. (Or it also works to have them both be past tense.)

Another reason to do this: It’s very easy for your reader to forget whether they’re in the present or past if you’re spending big chunks in each timeline.  This way readers can just check the tense, but they probably won’t need to, because you’ll be subtly reminding with each sentence. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Prose Writers Can Just Tell Us What’s Going On

Novelists become more and more like screenwriters every year, and I’m not sure exactly why that is. I guess that it’s because everybody is also a screenwriter on the side because they think that that’s where the money is. (It’s not.) Or they think that if their book reads more like a screenplay it’ll be more likely to get adapted.

The biggest shift is the mass movement over to present-tense prose, which I’m not a big fan of. Past tense feels warmer to me: Let me intimately tell you about something that happened to me. Present tense feels like: Let me shout out everything that’s happening to me as it happens.  But present-tense can also work just fine, and it’s obviously here to stay.

My bigger problem with the screenplay-ization of novels is an odd development: Prose writers are starting to ignore the power they have. The biggest problem that screenwriters and (even moreso) playwrights have is that they have to force people to talk about what’s going on in the dialogue, because there’s no other way to convey invisible information to the reader.

But if you’re writing prose, either first person or third person, you can just tell us what’s going on. First person: “I stepped up to the retinal scanner. I was at the White House to meet with the president’s taskforce on aliens.” Third person: “She stepped up to the retinal scanner. She was at the White House to meet with the president’s taskforce on aliens.” What you don’t need to do is have is have someone say, “What do you think you’re doing here? This is the White House!” “Relax, I was called in to meet with the president’s taskforce on aliens.”

You’re writing a novel! You have this wonderful gift that screenwriters and playwrights lack! You have direct address to the reader! Screenwriters and playwrights would kill for that! So directly address us already!

Jump in to directly tell us things about your hero’s history, rather than trying to insert those through dialogue. Jump in to tell us what the hero’s up to, so he doesn’t have to explain it to anybody. Jump in to tell us about her emotional state so she doesn’t have to betray it. Jump in!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Unfortunately, You Have to Motivate the Racism

 So let’s talk about racism as a character’s flaw. It’s tricky. It’s certainly a common-enough flaw in real life, and it can be compelling to watch a hero painfully overcome it to become a better person. (Or even compelling to watch an anti-hero wallow in it without overcoming it.)

But it’s definitely not a flaw you would admit to in a job interview, which are the types of flaws I usually recommend. It’s not a flaw we would ever want to identify with in the first half of your story.

If your character is racist, it’s important not to overdo it. In one book, the racist hero met a kindergarten class of kids from the other race and treated them as if they were subhuman. That’s not how racism works. Even the worst racist is swayed by an adorable kid from the other race.

If your hero is going to be a believable racist, they should probably think of themselves as anti-racist, as most racists do. Let them hang themselves when they try to explain that they’re not racist.

Here’s the biggest problem with having a racist hero (or a racist anti-hero): If we’re going to empathize with and believe in the reality of this hero, then you have to show some reason for the racism, even as you totally condemn the flaw. The racist has to have a point, albeit a warped and wrong-headed one.

One of my classmates was writing a show about anti-immigrant militiamen on the San Diego-Tijuana border. Her anti-heroes were just flat-out racists with no legitimate arguments on their side. The writer knew the show wasn’t working. I suggested that she move the show to the El Paso-Juarez border, with much more extreme violence and drugs on the other side. That way, her heroes would have a more rational reason to fear what might come in over the border. But then, once she had established that that they might have a point, she could and should indict them as racists using their semi-legitimate fears as an excuse to condemn a whole race.

Racists often have reasons. Maybe they or someone they know was mugged by a member of the other race. Maybe their job guarantees that they only ever see the other race at their worst. As a writer, you can’t be afraid to show those reasons, and then condemn the lazy thinking that caused the character to wrongly generalize to blanket racism.

This relates back to this post. As a person, you can just look at another person and say “That person is racist for no reason,” but as a writer, you can’t say that. You have to say “That person is racist for a bad reason,” and you have to know and show the bad reason.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Just Tell Us Their Age and Race Already

I read a lot of Middle Grade novels, which are basically books about 8-13 year olds, and lots of YA, which is 14-18. (Of course, the age of the protagonist doesn’t necessarily match the age of the reader, which is always displaced by a few years.)

I also read books that could be one or the other because they never bother to specify the age of the hero. Of course, there are clues: Are they in middle school or high school? If that’s not clear, do they have a cell phone or not? Are they driving or not? I also read books that are clearly MG but it isn’t clear for the first hundred pages whether the hero is 8 or 13.

Don’t do this. Don’t make me search for clues. When I pick up your book, one of the first things I need to do is picture your hero. And no, that doesn’t mean I need to hear about their one lock of hair that won’t stay tucked behind their ear, that means I need to know their age, and their race.

Writers are even more coy about race. There’s starting to be a shift on this, but for a long time writers considered it politically incorrect to come out and tell us the race of their characters so they would only use food comparisons. “My skin is cashew-colored, my best friend is almond, and her sister is peanut.” Ugh. No more food, please

One book was set in a fictional metropolis in a fictional country in a post-Apocalyptic world, but a character was still referred to as African-American just to avoid saying black, although this was the only reference to America in the whole book.

When the Hunger Games movie came out, some racist moviegoers were pissed that Rue was black, but then others pointed out that she was black in the book, too, but Collins had skirted using the word.

Yes, the terms “white” and “black” are problematic, but they’re the terms we use in our own minds, so just use them already. And let us know right away, so we can picture who we’re reading about.  It’s hard to identify with a hero we can’t picture.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Readers Are Hungry for Conversation

 When we pick up a book, we start reading it provisionally, wondering, “Am I actually going to read this whole damn thing?” And our answer is always the same: “It all depends on whether or not I fall in love with the hero.” So we’re waiting for a scene that will let us make that decision. Specifically, we’re impatiently waiting for a scene where your hero has some dialogue with another character in the book’s present.

It’s tempting to begin your book with pages upon pages of your first-person hero telling us all about himself. And that’s fine. Sometimes those pages are very charming and they win us over…sort of. We can decide we mostly like a hero, but we’re still not going to fully commit.

We know that everybody is great in his or her own mind. Anyone can claim to be one of the good guys and argue persuasively for that. But only dialogue tests us. It could be that, once you leave your house, everybody you talk to says, “No, you’re actually an unbearable loser.” Is that going to happen with your hero? We want to know as soon as possible.

If we’re going to decide whether or not we like your hero, we’re going to need to listen to a conversation, which is the same way we decide whether or not we like somebody in real life. You can only find out so much from reading the resume, then you’ve got to sit down for the interview.

This speaks to another issue: Get to your “present” as soon as possible. It could be your book is mostly set in 1971 but your first three chapters cover the first twenty years of your hero’s life from ’51 to ’71. Well, we’re going to want to hear some actual ’71 conversation as soon as possible, so you either have to shoehorn some in before flashing back to cover the hero’s life heretofore, or squeeze that preamble down to about 20 pages and arrive in your book’s “present” so that we can finally meet the present-day-hero and decide if we like him or her enough to stick around and actually read this thing.

In fact, 20 pages is a good deadline. It’s great to have dialogue on the first page, but if not, try to have it by page 20 at the latest. And make it authentic-sounding dialogue that is appealing in one way or another. We don’t have to like your hero, but we have to believe in him or her, and we have to start to fall in love with him or her. Maybe we’ll start to fall in love with his or her strengths, or with his or her weaknesses.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Begin by Showing Your Hero Losing Because of His or Her Flaw

It’s always good to introduce your hero doing something active. If this takes the form of a physical competition, or even just hitting on someone, then it’s good to show your hero lose in a way that hints at their overall flaw, without calling attention to that fact at the time.

The hero will still not realize he or she has this flaw, and the reader may not realize it as well, but for both the hero and the reader, when the big flaw is finally confronted at around the ¾ point of the story, the fact that this first loss also traces back to this flaw will resonate.  Eventually, we want your hero to realize that he or she must overcome this flaw in order to defeat the antagonist and/or win over another character.

Don’t begin by highlighting the wrong flaw, because that can get you on the wrong track. In one book I read for my notes service, the hero lost the competition in the first scene because he was distracted by a woman, conditioning us to think that this will be a problem throughout the book. But this didn’t turn out to be the hero’s flaw. His flaw was that he was too contemptuous and snobby. If he had lost the match because he had too little respect for his opponent, that would have set up the rest of the story better.

Let’s go back to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy begins by trying to replace a religious idol with a bag of sand, because he doesn’t see any difference, but the altar can tell the difference, and it triggers all sorts of booby traps that delay him long enough for Belloq to steal the idol. It’s not obvious to us or him at the time that this speaks to his overall flaw, his lack of respect for spirituality, but it subconsciously sets us up for the for the moment when he overcomes his big flaw to “win” at the end (simply by closing his eyes out of reverence.)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Us Guess From a Character’s Introduction How Important He or She is Going to Be

A character enters the room. You write, “The door opens. Everybody turns to look. In steps a quietly commanding figure, Sergeant Elias Quartermain, son and grandson of generals and destined to make it himself someday. Three women break away from their conversations to sidle up to him, but he brushes past them all.” Then we never hear from this character again. Don’t do that.

On the other hand, you’ll have this: “I was taken down to the command room where I met analysts named Adamson, Bowers, Cahill, and Dumont. They all shook my hand and then we turned our attention to the briefing.” Then, by the time the book is over, Bowers turns out to be the love interest. Don’t do that either.

As I mentioned here, audiences want to keep track of as few characters as possible. Every time you introduce a character, you’re asking your reader for a favor, “Sorry, but I’ve got yet another character I want you to remember and keep track of.” Audiences are always looking for permission to lose track of a character.

When they read the first intro above, they think “Oh boy, I’d better clear out a bunch of head space to keep track of Quartermain, even if it means forgetting about some of the earlier characters.”  When they read the second intro, they think, “Oh good, these four analysts are not being given any distinguishing characteristics, so I don’t have to keep track of them. Their four names can go in one ear and out the other.” Then later, when Bowers becomes more and more important, they’ll think “Wait, who is this guy, did we meet him before? I forget, let me flip back…” Trust me, your readers will be pissed with you if they have to flip back.

Let us guess correctly how important a character is going to be. Don’t bother to name Sgt. Quartermain if he’s never going to be mentioned again, and if your heroine is going to fall in love with one of those four analysts, have him stand out when he’s introduced. You don’t have to mention how hot he is or tip off the fact that he’ll be the love interest, but at least give him a little character note, so we’ll (begrudgingly) remember who he is later.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Sometimes It's Better to Humanize Than Incentivize

 This is a rule that James mentioned in our sixth podcast, and I thought I should give it its own post.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones begins the story with a very standard social humiliation, losing the idol he just found to another archaeologist. He then returns home to his university empty-handed, only to find out about an intimidating opportunity to redeem himself when the government comes around and asks him to find the ark of the covenant. First, however, he hangs out with his friend and senior colleague Brody.

As James pointed out, if you were writing strictly according to how a guru told you to write, it would tempting to pile on another humiliation and escalation here. Brody could be critical of Indiana coming back empty-handed, and even tell him that he’ll be fired if the doesn’t bring back something better soon.  On paper, that sounds like a good idea. The hero now has more motivation for the story going forward and bigger emotions (more humiliation) to deal with. So why not?

Because it’s more important to humanize Indy at this point. Let him be a human being for a few scenes, won’t you? Give him a nice normal friendship and some comfort. You’ve already started your story off with a bang, so your audience should be willing to put up with a few scenes of downtime before we launch back into the big conflict.

Don’t get me wrong, downtime is risky, and under-motivation is deadly, but if you’ve earned a breather, take it. We want to like Indy, and so we want to see that at least one other person likes Indy.

(After writing this, I remembered that two of my very first posts seven years ago were on the dangers of over-motivation.  This is a good example of a movie that avoided that problem.)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

New Podcast Episode on Dan Harmon's Story Circle and Raiders of the Lost Ark


Hey guys, it’s been a long time since we put up a new podcast episode, hasn’t it? Well we’re back, baby! In this episode we start off by comparing my structure to Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, then we basically just end up talking about Raiders of the Lost Ark for a long ass time, so long that this is our second longest episode, and it doesn’t even have a free story idea! Nevertheless, I think you’ll like it.

Lots of links this time around:
And here’s a series of posts from Dan Harmon where he discusses his story circle:
And here’s Film Crit Hulk (in annoying all caps) making the case for a five-act structure, which is also worth a read:

Monday, September 04, 2017

Happy Labor Day

Hi guys, new content resumes tomorrow!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Community: The Archive

How many of these people are starring in their own shows right now?  (I guess Joel McHale and Danny Pudi’s new shows just got cancelled, but Brie, Olver, Glover and Jacobs are going strong.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Cheers: The Archive

This was one of the first ones I did, back when I didn’t do as many posts about each one.  I should go back and add some more at some point.  There’s certainly no shortage of things to say about this great pilot.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Mackendrick's Rules: The Archive

Writer-director Alexander Mackendrick made underrated movies such as The Man in the White Suit, then became a revered film professor and published a great book called On Filmmaking.Commenter J.S. found a list of 41 Mackendrick truisms online, so I spent a few days discussing how those excellent rules lined up with my own advice... 

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Shining: The Archive

Yay, it’s my final updated checklist ever!  (Unless I do the TV checklists.  I don’t think I will because those checklists were only slightly updated.  I still may archive them though.)  Unexpectedly, this movie did a pretty terrible job with the checklist, mainly because it kept switching heroes.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Infographic on Theme

Hi, everybody! Before we do the next archive, a reader named Martin Cavannagh asked me share a big infographic he made about Theme. He defines Theme slightly differently than I do, but there’s a lot of good insights here, so I’m happy to share it. Check it out!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The First 15 Minutes Project: The Archive

 So back before the Road Tests of the Ultimate Story Checklist, I had a series where I would go step by step through the first 15 minutes of a film or TV pilot and figure out how they got us on the side of the hero.  Many of these eventually got checklists, but many never did, so they can only be found here (How have I never done The French Connection or The Apartment?) The above graphic is from the fifth piece below where I went through the first four and noticed something: One shortcut to sympathy is to have your white character high-five a black person. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Problem, Opportunity, Conflict: The Archive

A good series.  I enjoyed making graphics like the one above, and it was a bit of a let-down to realize that none of them were going to make it into the book, but its probably for the best.  It might have made it harder to set up the audiobook.

Monday, July 24, 2017

How to Write a Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps: The Archive

This is obviously a relic from the days when this was pretty much exclusively a screenwriting blog, but this method (which is no longer really my method) could apply to other types of writing as well. I love the comic I chopped up to use as illustrations for this. I totally forget what it was or where I found it...