Sunday, October 29, 2017

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Give Most Women and Girls a Sense of Humor

Here’s a rule hiding in a movie write-up from the opening days of the blog. My wife Betsy can always tell when a movie was written or co-written by a woman, because male writers almost never let women or girls have senses of humor. This came up in my write-up of Stage Door, based on a play co-written by Edna Ferber, where the women are wonderfully funny.

(Betsy later went on to edit a book of funny writing by women, Funny Girl. Check it out!)

Even in comedies, when written by men, the women are often the butt of jokes, or impassively reacting to the humor, or sticks in the mud trying to shut down the comedy. If they’re allowed to joke, some male writers seem to fear they’ll take some of the agency away from the hero.

Exceptions are always refreshing.  I recently read an excellent YA book written by a man in which the heroine has body-image issues, which is typical for the genre, and true enough to real life, but she’s funny about them, which is also true to real life, but something you rarely see in books written by men.

Yes, people have issues, and those issues can sometimes be serious, but don’t think that you have to be humorless to be serious. First and foremost, you have to convince us of the reality of the situation, and in real life, people have senses of humor about their problems, even if it turns out to be a grave situation.  Stage Door has a lot of seriousness to it but the female characters are believable, which means that they have senses of humor. along with their more serious reactions.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Heroes Can Be Smart, But Not Even-Keeled

In too many books I read, the hero is half-in and half-out. She’s not an idiot after all, and she can see that things may go wrong, so she half-commits, ready to bail at any time. And then, sometimes, along the way, the hero will remind herself not to get too excited when things go well, and not be too surprised when things go poorly. In the end, when she wins, she’s quietly pleased that her sensible attitude has won the day.

But the audience doesn’t care.

If your hero half-commits, your reader will half-commit. Your hero has to go all-in, drink the Kool-Aid, get wrapped up in the possibility of success. Even if the reader can tell that it’s all folly, we don’t want our hero to know that. Even if we know better, we don’t want to identify with heroes’ good sense, we want to identify with their naked emotion.

We want them all in, and then, after the crash, we want them all-out: No hope, no chance. Then, when they step back in, they can be little wiser, a little more wary, just for that third quarter of the story but by the end they’re all-in again.

We want them to be true believers, then totally disillusioned then true believers again. We want them to be unevenly keeled, tipping radically from one side to the other. To shift metaphors, the reader wants to ride an emotional rollercoaster with the hero. The bigger the hills and valleys, the more the reader will enjoy the book.

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 Heard at Graduation: Only Scumbags Make You Think All Your Dreams Are Coming True

Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses were reserved for women, but he was emotionally and physically abusive to both men and women. 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.)