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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!