Thursday, September 21, 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
- NEW FOR THIS EPISODE, I’ve expanded my classic structure guru concordance to include Dan Harmon’s story circle and Film Crit Hulk’s five act structure (which we never get around to discussing)
- Here are my massive charts of how 50 movies line up to my structure.