Thursday, March 30, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: If You’re Going to Break Limited POV, Do It Early, Often Enough, and Briefly

So let’s talk more about breaking limited 3rd-person POV.

I recently read a revised manuscript that I thought worked much better than the original. In the original, we began with our heroine’s 3rd-person POV, and went with that for several chapters (covering many years), then we switched to the love interest’s POV. The next chapter had the love interest’s name at the top to let us know we had switched, then it had several chapters from that POV, going back and re-covering some of the same ground as the earlier chapters, then surpassing it. Then we returned to the heroine’s POV for a few chapters, then we switched to a villain’s POV, once again with that character’s name atop the chapter, stayed there for a while, moved around in time, then returned to the heroine.

I didn’t think this worked. We stayed with our heroine long enough that it was jarring and alienating when we switched POV, then it was jarring all over again when we started jumping around in time in the new POV, then, just when we had gotten settled in to the new POV, we returned. Then, just when we were secure again in the heroine’s shoes, we jumped again to a third POV.

I recommended eliminating the other POVs, but the author tried something else. After only two chapters with the hero, we jump away to the villain for one quick chapter. Then we’re back with the hero for several chapters, then we cut away to the love interest earlier and more briefly, then back to the heroine. We keep cutting away to one of these two occasionally for short chapters. These chapters didn’t have headers saying that we were adopting a new POV, I just had to figure that out from the first sentence which began with the new character’s name.

I thought this actually worked great. That early cut-away conditioned me to accept that we would occasionally and briefly break identification with the heroine, then return. Because the cutaways were more frequent, it was no longer necessary to jump around in time to re-cover earlier ground. Everything was pretty linear.

Let’s return again to “Game of Thrones”, which does something like the first version. Why does it work there, and not here? Because that’s an epic, taking place over several continents, with no one hero. This book, on the other hand, has one clear heroine, and we don’t want to spend too long away from her. If we’re going to cut away to other limited 3rd-person POVs, we’re going to want to do so early (before we’re permanently settled in), often enough not to establish a pattern, and briefly.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Maintain Identification, Even in Third-Person

When you’re writing prose from a first person POV, it’s easy to maintain identification: Your hero can only see what he can see, only hear what he can hear, only think what he can think. When you’re writing omniscient third-person, on the other hand, you’re free to jump from head to head, POV to POV. But a lot of fiction is written from limited third-person POV, which splits the difference.

This narrative voice can theoretically go anywhere because you’re merely on the hero’s shoulder, and not stuck in his head, but practically, in order for this sort of voice to work, you have to agree to limit yourself just as much as you would if you were in first-person: You’re nailed down on that shoulder and unable to move.

Most limited-3rd person is essentially the same as 1st person: the narrative voice is even privy to the hero’s thoughts, despite referring to the hero as he/she. The key to maintaining that sort of privileged access is that you have to be privy to the hero’s thoughts and only the hero’s thoughts.

It’s tempting to cheat. In one book, a hero was talking to a social worker, and it described something the social worker saw in the hero’s eyes, “She had seen that sort of look before.” This is a no-no. That’s flirting with entering the social worker’s head, which would break our full identification with the hero. Instead you have to say, from the hero’s point of view, “He saw that the social worker had an I-know-what-you’re-going-through face”. That’s the hero’s POV. That’s all the hero can know of the mind of the social worker: what he can see.

In an old post, I talked about the limitations George R. R. Martin imposed on himself while writing “Game of Thrones”: He had chosen his heroes and couldn’t go places they didn’t go. But it’s even more limited than that: even in the rooms he’s in, he can only know one character’s perspective on anything.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Audiences Demand Skeptical Heroes

You’ve created a fantastical plot. You just made it up, and your audience knows you just made it up, and now you’ve got to convince them that it’s true. Your audience is skeptical of your story, so they want at least one of your heroes or major supporting characters to feel the same.

Whatever fantastical element your story has, whether it’s an actual sci-fi or fantasy element, or just a conspiracy of some sort (which almost every story has, in some form), at least one of your heroes should roll his or her eyes at first, because that’s what your reader will be doing. As your hero is gradually convinced that the problem is real, your audience will be as well.

One of the most alienating things is when everybody gets on board with the plot too quickly, before the audience is ready. When you have a lone hero, that hero must be skeptical. When the hero has a close companion, the hero can be credulous while the companion is the doubter.

I’ve said before that one great way to make a plot is to ask “What if it’s all true?” You can bring your audience along in any direction, even giving them a plot that they would normally find offensive or outrageous, as long as at least one of the heroes starts off saying the same thing the audience says, “It can’t be true!”

One of the reason later season “X-Files” didn’t work is that it didn’t make any sense that Scully would be a skeptic anymore. She had been our way into the story, but now the whole story had gone around the bend, and the audience tended to just roll our eyes.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 4: Disputatious Dialogue

If you subscribe to The Secrets of Story Podcast on your phone, you may notice that episode 4 appeared today! If not, you can stream it or download it above.

James and I wind up discussing two “Star Trek” scenes. First we discuss the one I transcribed and criticized here, in which Bones and Kirk celebrate Kirk’s birthday in Star Trek Beyond but then James points out that this is a knock-off of a very similar scene in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, so we take a look at that one to contrast it. I play the audio of it, but you can watch the video below:
Here are the two crazy things about this discussion:
  1. On the night we recorded it, it was the eve of James’s birthday, and we wound up drinking past midnight, so we were doing the same thing they’re doing.
  2. Someone on Facebook mentioned that today, the day I’m posting it, just happens to be James T. Kirk’s birthday! (But I’m sure you already knew that.)
All that and James has a story idea that you might want to take! I think it’s a pretty good episode! Give it a listen…

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

One Last Super-Cool Laika Bit

We’re finally going to post Podcast #4 soon, and I’m proud to say that it will be pretty-much entirely Laika-free. You’ll recall that, in the first podcast, I attempted to give away a story idea about Laika the Soviet Space Dog. Little did I suspect that my very own co-host would catch it, then come back in the second podcast with the news that he had written the idea himself as a 75 page screenplay. We then devoted our third episode to a dramatic reading and critique of that screenplay, and we’re now finally ready to move on…

…But wait! It turns out that James is not the only one to catch it! My brother listens to the show with his 10 year old daughter Alexa, and she, too, decided to try her hand at it, before episode #3 aired! I just recently got a copy and Alexa has consented to share it! If you tried out James’s epic take, then feel free to compare and contrast with this relatively brisk 6-page version.

If you’re up for one more take on Laika (and I could certainly understand why you wouldn’t be), check it out. I think it’s pretty great. She really captured the pathos of the opening, and she crafted a rousing finale.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Difference Between Drama and Melodrama is “Would It Make the News?”

I saw a lot of bad indie movies back in the day, but surely one of the most annoying was Blue Car. The main storyline involved a girl having an affair with her teacher, but there was also a subplot –a subplot!- in which, if I remember correctly, her seven year old sister commits suicide.

This is a note I give all the time: It’s too much. I love a good ripe melodrama as much as the next man, but melodrama involves a certain over-the-top tone. Blue Car was played as a straight drama, but the events were beyond the limits imposed by that genre.

Here’s the difference: Would it make the news? Seven year old girls don’t often commit suicide. It’s a huge deal. There would be think pieces about it. But in this movie, it’s so unremarkable that it’s not even the main topic of the movie.

I’ve said before that Moonlight was a little too bleak for me, but it’s a good example of how far you can push drama without going into melodrama. A boy getting beaten up by one boy and then breaking a chair over the back of another boy is violent and shocking, especially if you know the real circumstances, but it wouldn’t make the news, so it’s drama, not melodrama.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Audiences Hate Therapists

One of the best scripts I read had one glaring flaw: the hero’s best friend was a therapist, and diagnosed his problems with insight. Audiences hate therapists. They do our job for us. It always feels like the writer is inserting himself or herself into the story to tell us what's really going on psychologically. We want to be the ones who figure out the subtext.

Everybody loves Psycho, but everybody hates the last scene, where the therapist arrives and explains what it all really means.

I recommended to that writer to have the friend just be a normal schlub, giving amateur advice filtered through his own needs, prejudices, and flaws.

I told you that some of these would be short!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Your First Sentence is Probably on Page Four Right Now

Oh shit, you have to start writing, but how do you do that? Do you really have to right to create your own world? To create something from nothing? How can you make these character talk when they haven’t talked to you yet?

The tendency is to just kind of dump the characters on the page and let them mill around for a bit while you get to know them. Eventually they clear their throats and begin to speak, which freaks you out, because you created them, but soon, wonder of wonders, they come to life. You’re doing the work: You’re creating someone the audience can believe in, care about, and invest in.

Now it’s time to go back and cut out the milling around. Slice out your first four pages or so. If it’s first person, cut out the pages of the character introducing himself to us. If it’s third person, cut out the character going through a typical day. Start when the story starts.

(One of the best things you can do is jump to the first decision. Choices, more than anything else, show us who a character is, in a way that “Hi, here’s who I am” just can’t accomplish.)

There’s often a great opening sentence hiding on page four that you wrote when you were feeling comfortable and not so formal. Slice out the rest, including that first sentence you labored over for a month.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Writers Aren’t Set Decorators

You don’t want to create a generic world. You want to include some visual details that make your world unique and interesting. So you create a very unique-looking world in your mind, with fascinating costumes, props and set decoration.

But now it’s time to describe that world, and anxiety sets in. How can you get your audience to see what you see? You’ve created these great non-generic visuals in your own head, so how do you show them all to your audience? The answer is that you can’t. You can only suggest what you see, in a few broad strokes. There simply isn’t time, whether you’re writing prose or a script, to describe the beautiful world in your mind.

Whether you’re writing prose or a script, you are not the set decorator, you’re not the costume designer, and you’re not the prop designer. You’re the writer. You can, and should, give us a few salient details about the objects, the room, and the clothes, and then let each reader imagine the rest, even if that means they’ll never see all the great details you see.

If you’re writing a script, once they buy your script, they’ll hire other professionals to create those details. If you’re writing prose, then it’ll only ever be up to the reader, so let’s hope they have a good visual imagination.

Are you picturing a fascinating tapestry behind the throne? Well too bad, because unless it’s super-necessary to the plot, you don’t have time to describe it. Your reader wants the plot to get going and keep moving, and they have no time for your tapestries.

J.K. Rowling was lucky.  When they adapted her books, they revered her vision, which means that they asked her to help them fill in the rest of the details that she kept in her head and never had time to set down on the page, so that she could finally make her world come alive the way she saw it.  For most of us, we just have to trust our readers and/or the filmmakers who eventually adapt the work.

Monday, March 13, 2017

How to Get Ahead: Never Be in a Hurry to Send It, And Never Send an Outline

Someone important has agreed to read your stuff: Hallelujah! You want to take advantage of this opportunity, and you want to strike when the iron is hot. Of course, you had hoped to take one more pass at it to fix some glaring problems, but you can’t let an opportunity like this pass by!

Nope. Stop yourself. Don’t send it yet. Even if they said they want it right away. Even if they said they have a brief window of time to read it. When they say they want it right away, they really mean “I want it as soon as it’s perfect, however long that may take.” If they read it and they don’t absolutely love it, they won’t cut you any slack and say “But at least it got here on time, so that counts for something.”

Just about every opportunity in this business is a one-time opportunity. There are thousands of would-be writers out there, swarming around. If someone decides you don’t have the goods, they’re not going to check back in later to see if the goods have suddenly developed.

So make them wait for it. If they were willing to read it during this window of time, they might also be willing to read it during their next window of time, so you have to take that chance. Only ever send out work that seems great to you.

One more point: Never send them a numbered outline. You’re telling a story, not a series of disconnected beats. An outline automatically reads as “And then, and then, and then…” Force yourself to rewrite your outline as a prose treatment, and it will be more likely to read as “And so, and so and so…”, which is what you want.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Change the Topic of Conversation in a Scene

Plays follow different rules than novels, screenplays, or comics. In a play, we’re plucked down in one location for a long time, and characters come and go to give us scene after scene set in that same place, right after another. It’s claustrophobic, but it’s an inherent limitation of the medium.

But if you’re not writing a play, you have the freedom not to do that, which means that you’re pretty much not allowed to do that.

I’ve found this frustrating in my own scripts: I have two characters, I’ve brought them together in a certain time and place, and they two different discussions they need to have, so why can’t I just get halfway through the scene and have them say, “Anyway, moving on, I also thought we should discuss…” But such transitions never work. After that scene gets attacked by every reader, I have to reluctantly break it up or cut it.

Scenes should be short. You should use any possible excuse to change the scene, and a change in topic is the most obvious excuse you could have. Cut to later, as the characters are doing something different, to cover the next topic of conversation. Ideally, in fact, you would break it up with another scene, because it’s best not to have two scenes in a row with the same two scene partners.

Another thing that they have to do in plays that you should therefore avoid in any other medium, in order to avoid staginess: Whenever someone enters a scene and announces that something visually interesting has just occurred elsewhere.  Cut away and show us the thing happening!

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Your Genre is Your Taskmaster

This is possibly the number one mistake I see in the manuscripts I read.

You’re written forty pages of great relationship drama and you know that it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. You’ve created deep and rich three-dimensional characters, you’ve imbued them with your own history and pain, and you’ve put them on a collision course, forcing them to deal with their issues and with each other.

But your manuscript begins with an action sequence, has intermittent action sequences throughout, and ends with blowing up an underground lair. Your genre, inescapably, is action, and that forty pages of relationship drama has no action, which means that it has to go, or be significantly transformed.

Your genre is your taskmaster. Action needs action every twenty pages or so. Comedy needs frequent laughs, etc. So what do you do with all that great relationship drama? If you don’t want to lose it, you have to find a way for it to serve the action. The relationship confrontations need to be inextricable from the life-and-death confrontations. The interpersonal breakthroughs need to result in plot breakthroughs. Clocks must always be ticking.

Great writing that violates your genre isn’t great writing. Everything must serve your genre. You either have to jettison a lot of the relationship drama, or you have to jettison the action elements. Good Will Hunting started out as an action script, until they realized that they were doing a better job with the backstory than the frontstory, so they just got rid of the frontstory. Nobody missed it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Magic Should Always Be in the Past or Present, Never the Future

A while ago, I talked about the opening card of Star Wars and how it set the tone for the movie. As I read manuscripts, another reason for that card has become clear: Star Wars has to be set “Long, Long Ago” because it has magic in it, and magic must always be set in the past or the present.

Usually, magic and science fiction don’t mix, but Star Wars pulled it off, and that title card had a lot to do with it. Even if your story has no traditional sci-fi elements, if it’s set in the future we will expect it to have no magic.

As I understand it, in the early books of the Shannara Chronicles, author Terry Brooks played up the fact that his Tolkien-ian fantasy actually took place on a post-apocalyptic Earth, but as the series continued, that element completely fell away. Nevertheless, when MTV adapted the series for TV, they brought that element back. I suspect that was one reason for the show’s lack of success.

A key element of magic is that it’s constantly receding: “The Magic is gone”. When we are children, the world seems magical, but when we become adults, cold reason replaces it, and it is never to return. The notion that one day in the future magical elves will walk the world again, or “old wizards” will work magic in outer space, seems inherently wrong.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Rules for Flashbacks

In novels or screenplays, it’s always tempting to cheat the beginning. On the one hand, you know that the story should begin at the beginning, but you want to lay the groundwork for both the plot and the hero’s psychological make-up. Should you begin with a brief scene in the past to set something up, or should you begin in the “present”, let your readers find their footing, give them a hero to care about, give that hero a moment of humanity, and then jump back?

What you shouldn’t do is start with a very first scene that’s designated as a flashback. A novelist might do this by heading the first scene with “2 Years Ago”, but that’s the equivalent of sweeping our feet out from under us just as we try to set them down. You’re saying, “Care about this, but don’t care too much, because it’s not really part of our story.”

Wherever you go, there you are. Where you start us out is where you’re starting us out. Whatever hero we start out with, that’s our hero. If we only get a few pages with that hero before we leap ahead a few years, so be it. Make us care enough about the hero, at whatever age, that we’ll maintain our interest as time jumps forward.

Another rule: Let’s say that, to avoid this, you begin in the present, but you intersperse the opening scene with a series of flashbacks to lay the groundwork you need. This can work, but you need to remember that each of these flashbacks is a lot to ask. Each one will be disorienting and frustrating to your reader at a time when we really just want to hop in the car and hit the gas. One manuscript I read did a big no-no: First we jumped back five years, then seven years, then two years. At least do us the favor of putting the flashbacks in chronological order.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Name as Few Characters as Possible

So I’d like to try something new for a while. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I do manuscript consultation, and I really enjoy it. As I give people notes on their novels or screenplays, I often find myself coining new rules on the spot, because of something the writer did either right or wrong. I’ve been saving these up, planning on turning them into blog posts if I ever found a movie example to pair with each one, but screw it: I’ll share some of these in shorter posts without movie examples, since many of them, such as today’s, don’t really lend themselves to that. As a result the picture will sometimes be a stock photo. I’ve got more than a hundred of these things, so let’s see how long this lasts:

This is a rule that applies equally to screenwriting and prose: You always want to name as few characters as possible. Certainly, if the character doesn’t speak, they don’t deserve a name, but most of the characters who do speak don’t need to be named either.

Every named character is a burden you’re placing on your reader: Now I gotta keep track of this guy. Your audience would much rather you let them know right away that they needn’t worry: You don’t have to bother keeping track of this guy.

Only a few major characters should get first and last names. For other characters, you can  reassure the audience that they’re more minor by only giving them a last name (with or without a Mr./Ms. before it), or just a first name, or even better, just a description (Skinny cop)

One of the manuscripts I consulted on did a great job with this. The heroine went on a mission and eight soldiers were sent along to protect her from aliens. He knew he couldn’t burden us with eight names, and these guys were basically just cannon fodder, but he didn’t want to just keep saying “Another soldier got shot in the chest and died. Then another got it in the head”, etc, because that would be too boring.

He realized that the important information here was the number left: So gave them a distinctive name as a group (The Elite Eight) and then counted down their deaths by number: “A fourth member of the Elite Eight threw himself over me, but then his head exploded. I looked over and a fifth member had lost his legs,” etc. Only the leader of the group is given a (last) name.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Storyteller's Rulebook: Avoid "Character Scenes"

I thought it might be instructive to look at a truly terrible scene. As you begin a story, it’s always tempting to just launch right into the plot, but of course most writers know that they need to first take some time first to establish their characters. But how do you write a good “character scene”? Not like this one, from Star Trek Beyond:
  • [Montage of life on ship]
  • KIRK: Captain's Log, Stardate 2263.2. Today is our 966th day in deep space. A little under three years into our five-year mission. The more time we spend out here, the harder it is to tell where one day ends and next one begins. It could be a challenge to feel grounded when even gravity is artificial. But we do what we can to make it feel like home. The crew as always continues to act admirably despite the rigors of our extended stay here in outer space and the personal sacrifices they have made. We continue to search for new life forms in order to establish firm diplomatic ties. Our extended time in uncharted territories has stretched the ship's mechanical capabilities but fortunately, our engineering department led by Mr. Scott is more than up to the job. The ship aside, prolonged cohabitation has definitely had affects on interpersonal dynamics. Some experiences for better and some for the worse. As for me, things have started to feel a little episodic. The farther out we go, the more I found myself wondering what it is we're trying to accomplish. If the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something forever out of reach? The Enterprise is scheduled for a reprovisioning stop at Yorktown, the Federation's newest and most advanced starbase. Perhaps a break from routine will offer us some respite from the mysteries of the unknown.
  • [Kirk drinks in his quarters, looking glum. Bones arrives with a bottle]
  • BONES: Sorry I'm late. Keenser's leaking some kind of highly acidic green goo and Scotty’s terrified he’s going to sneeze on the warp core and kill us all. What the hell are you drinking?
  • KIRK: I'm pretty sure it’s the rest of that Saurian brandy we picked up on Thasus.
  • BONES: My God, man! Are you trying to go blind? This stuff is illegal. Besides, I found this in Chekov's locker. [Offers bottle]
  • KIRK: Wow.
  • BONES: Right? I always assumed he’d be a vodka guy.
  • KIRK: Vodka. Exactly.
  • BONES: I wanted to have something appropriate for your birthday.
  • KIRK: It's in a couple of days. You know I don’t care about that.
  • BONES: I know. And I know you don't like to celebrate on the day because it is also the day your pa bit the dust. I was being sensitive.
  • KIRK: Didn't they teach you about bedside manner in medical school? Or is it just your southern charm?
  • [They drink]
  • KIRK: That's good.
  • BONES: Lordy. Are you going to call your mom?
  • KIRK: Yes, of course I will call her on the day. One year older.
  • BONES: Yeah, that's usually how it works.
  • KIRK: A year older than he ever got to be. He joined Starfleet because he… he believed in it. I joined on a dare.
  • BONES: You joined to see if you could live up to him. You spent all this time trying to be George Kirk, and now you're wondering what it means to be Jim. And why you're out here. [proposes toast] To perfect eyesight and a full-head hair
  • KIRK: Kirk Here.
  • SULU [on radio]: Captain. Approaching Yorktown Base.
  • KIRK: I'm on my way, Mr. Sulu. [Hangs up] Let's keep the birthday thing under wraps, huh?
  • BONES: You know me, Mr. Sensitive. 
This has so many elements of the bad character scene:
  • They’re just sitting around talking, with no other activity to busy their hands.
  • The hero’s selfless friend has come to have a conversation about the hero’s problem and nothing else. This is a classic “Do you know what your problem is?” scene. In real life, nobody ever asks that question, which is good because nobody wants to hear it.
  • The hero is not worried about a specific problem or crisis, he’s just vaguely discontent with life. This is a problem so vague that it can addressed by virtually anything that might happen in the movie. Basically, he just wishes something interesting will happen. Unsurprisingly, it does, and this vague discontent is immediately dispelled, and never mentioned again.
  • The closest thing he has to a specific problem is his father issue, but the actual story will do nothing to address this issue.
Ideally, a story will have no “character scene”. There will be early scenes that involve the hero engaged in some activity in which the hero and/or others will say things that speak to a growing annoyance (either from or towards the hero) with the hero’s longstanding personal problem, but the story won’t stop dead for a moment of reflection. The rest of story will stem from this personal problem and address it, directly and/or ironically. It’s good for a hero to have growing discontent with one specific, untenable situation, but not general discontent with life or aging in a vague way.

This scene sets up the movie for failure. It makes Kirk and Bones both seem annoying and unrealistic, and gives the hero a problem that we cannot invest our interest in. Do not write these “character scenes”.