Strange Bedfellows: Good and Evil in Storytelling

Least spoiler-y image I could find.

Along with what seems like every person on my Twitter feed, I’ve been watching Daredevil the last two weekends.* I’m not done yet, so keep your spoilers to yourself, lest ye be fried by high orbit laser.

Without spoiling anything, one thing the show does better than most anything else I’ve seen is show the relationship between good and evil. Not just the struggle, though obviously that’s a part of it, but the uneasy closeness of those two sometimes. How they lie only a hair’s breadth apart under certain circumstances, and look remarkably alike.

I’m a fan of saying that I love a good bad guy, but what I really love is characters with conflict, good or bad.

The least spoiler-y image out there for this show.Characters need nuance. They need depth. Every bad guy needs the puppy he rescued from a flooding river, every good guy needs the person she beat out for the perfect job. No one is universally loved or hated, and showing that is part of how you make interesting characters. The ones that you hope for and feel for and worry about, whatever side they happen to be on.

Within every good guy should be the struggle to be the good guy. Because being good doesn’t mean being perfect.

Within every bad guy should be something that could have been better. Because they chose to be where they are, and what they are.

Showing both of those struggles—how close good and evil can come to each other—is a powerful story. And probably the reason why so many people are watching Daredevil right now.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got four episodes left.

*I’ve had to create so many temporary filters and blocks to avoid spoilers that my feed looks like a wasteland right now. Sorry, people, I love you all, but those who spoil it for me will be mulched and fed to the sandworms. Not even close to kidding.

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Stepping In It: Writing Outlines With OH SHIT Moments

OH SHIT PRESS THE BUTTON

Thanks to high school language classes, we’ve all been taught to outline the same way:

1. This Thing I’m doing

       A)First part of the thing

              i. Thing that supports first part of the thing

Or some variant thereof. Very organized, very logical, very hierarchical.

But what do you do when that doesn’t work?

You can:

A) Give up, because that’s helpful.

B) Force it to work somehow. Square pegs, anyone?

C) Try a new way. This is probably the best bet.

Here’s an alternative to the hierarchical outline structure: the tentpole outline.

Tentpole moments are your big story events, the stuff that stands out. Or up. They support the rest of the plot—the tent in this metaphor—giving it a shape.

I prefer to think of the tentpole moments as OH SHIT moments. They’re what make the characters react strongly in some way. For example:

Main Character: oh, hey, this is a nice house OH SHIT IT’S HAUNTED better fix that, cool, we did it OH SHIT THE GHOST IS INSIDE ME NOW I can handle this, it’s not so bad OH SHIT I’M GOING INSANE damn it need to get rid of the ghost once and for all OH SHIT I ACCIDENTALLY RIPPED OUT MY OWN SOUL ALONG WITH THE GHOST.

Actually, that’s not a bad story. Dibs.

Caveats to the tent pole outline:

1. Tent poles should be a big fucking deal, not something the characters can ignore or otherwise not doing anything about, unless ignoring it leads to something even worse until they eventually confront it. No straw men here.

2. Tent poles should be related. In The Tale of Ghosty McGhostface up there, every big moment—and the thing that fixes that big moment—leads directly to the next big moment. You can throw random shit in there, but nine times out of ten it will just feel fucking random, like those filler episodes in long running TV shows.

3. Don’t take too long between tent poles, or the whole thing falls down. Also, we get bored. If there’s a lot of space between your big moments, maybe re-examine your story. You might be world-building or character examining or just generally pissing around when you should be telling the story. Which is fine in a first draft; sometimes you’ve got to write it all out before you figure out what to cut. But check for long spaces between OH SHIT moments when you reach editing.

So, we’ve established that I used the hierarchical outline and the tent pole outline, among others. What kinds do you use? And do you ever change tactics mid-story?

Who Let The Philosopher Drive?: Keeping Your Ideas From Murdering Your Story

Who let the Essential Absurdity of Life drive again?

I was reading yesterday, it being Sunday and me still being trapped inside by the winter snow like a caged beast. For real, am I ever going to see the lawn again? I can barely remember if we have a lawn.

Anyway, I was reading a book that had started off well but was losing me now. Eventually I gave up on it, but being a writer, I had to figure out why I gave up. Sometimes figuring this out is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of preconceptions, expectations, and whatever bullshit I absorbed through trawling the internet lately. But this time it was pretty damn simple:

It was an idea, not a story.

There were some very interesting concepts, but they were driving, and it wasn’t a trip I wanted to take. Because in the car with me were the biggest collection of cardboard characters I’ve encountered outside a porno.* The ideas were in the driver’s seat, and no matter how fast they drove, they had no idea where they were going.

Nor should they. That’s what characters and plot do. Compelling characters and a decent plot make it a story, instead of an essay or a philosophical dialogue.

But, alas, in this story, the Ideas had taken over, and the story was dead. I felt like I was being shouted at, not being told a good tale. And who wants that?

You cannot let your ideas murder your story. Well, you can. You can do whatever you want, because I’m just a stranger on the other side of a monitor. Or possibly a voice in your head. Am I a voice? Do I sound like Bane? I hope I sound like Bane.

Anyway, you can do whatever you want, but so can your readers, and if they find out that you’ve taken them down Didacticism Lane instead of Story Road, they might get justifiably bored and bugger off to do something else. Something more interesting, probably.

No one likes to be preached at. That’s not to say that you can’t present points of view that you feel strongly about; you should, because if you don’t feel strongly about something then you probably aren’t writing. But be a little subtle about it. And don’t ruin the story in service to an idea.

The ideas should serve the story, not the other way around. If you find your ideas are what you’re really interested in, maybe switch to essay writing. Because no one wants to pick up what they thought was a novel only to find that it was a sermon.

*Inside a porno, at least it’s stiff cardboard, AM I RIGHT?

Boring Things Are Boring: Getting Stuck And Getting Past It

FIRE THE PROBLEM CANNONS.

Raise your digital hand if you’ve done this:

You’re writing, and you hit the point you just don’t want to write. You don’t know why, but getting through this part is a fucking slog. It’s like trying to climb a mountain wearing lead boots and cement underpants.

You’re just not interested in writing this part. It’s necessary—you can’t just flip from the intro to the big EXPLOSION at the end*—but, damn it, you’re bored writing it. So you do other stuff—hello, Twitter—and complain and generally go slower and slower.

Well, here’s a thought:

Maybe you’re bored because it’s fucking boring.

It’s an unfortunate thing to say about your own writing, but think about it: if you’re bored writing it, how interesting is is going to be for a reader? I was writing a section recently that I had avoided for ages, because it bored me. Eventually, I just cut it altogether and you know what? No one noticed.

The middles of books are tricky. You’ve introduced most everyone, you’ve got the conflict going…but you’re not sure how you get from there to the end.

So the characters remain in a holding pattern, which is boring as shit.

You’re treading water, so better get out of there before the sharks turn up. Try cutting the part you don’t want to write. Does it make a difference? If not, great! Move on. If you still need it, maybe you’re being too nice. The middle of the story is a great time to fuck things up.

What would make the section less boring? A new villain? An old boyfriend? An explosion? A car accident? Basically, what shit do you not want to deal with in real life? Try that. That might be good. Tie it into the main plot somehow, load up your Problem Cannon, and let loose with both barrels. That gives the characters something to scramble around and fix—badly, usually, because that’s how authors roll—while you explain whatever it is was boring you in the first place.

But whatever you do, never settle for the boring scene, or chapter, or book. If it can’t keep your attention while you’re writing it, guaranteed it’s going to boot the writer out of your little world faster than a handsy drunk out of a strip club. It’s up to you, writer, to make it interesting enough that they stay. And that means you have to be interested, too.

*Even if it’s a FEELINGS EXPLOSION and not a regular one.

How To Write Less Every Day

Nom nom writers.

I can feel the weird look you’re giving the title of this post.*

It’s okay. In your place, I’d look at it like a three-headed chicken crawling out of my Eggs Benedict and demanding that I take it to my leader, too. It’s not what I’m supposed to write about, here on a goddamn writing blog. It’s supposed to be me breathing fire and roaring “MOAR WORDS” like a literary version of Smaug.**

But here’s the thing: just as you can write too little—too little to finish, too little to keep the spark of the story going, too little to force yourself to invest in these godforsaken characters like they’re your own children—you can also write too much. You can exhaust yourself. You can write yourself into a corner that you see no way out of, and give up in frustration.

Both writing too little and writing too much are different symptoms of the same disease, which is lack of confidence. You write too little because you’re unsure; you write too much because you no longer care about being sure (good) but also stop caring about putting in the proper work (bad). Consider it the writer’s version of doing a shit job so that you can prove you’re no good. Setting yourself up for failure.

This is the problem with zero drafts, for some writers: you spill all those words out, never giving a good goddamn about how they fit together, and tell yourself you’ll fix it later. But sometimes you find that you can’t fix it later. Or you think you can’t, anyway, and you give up.

As you lot well know, I’m a big fan of the zero draft. But I always go into it knowing that whatever I produce will need so much work to be readable it’s going to be a completely different book. The zero draft is a way for me to think on the fly. Half of what I think up will be bullshit, and half of the rest will be mediocre. But I’m perfectly well prepared to dig through a ton of shit to find a single diamond. If you’re not, then the WRITE ALL THE WORDS NOW approach may not turn your crank.

So, though I completed the zero draft of the Big-Ass Novel in a mad sprint, I’m rewriting at a much slower pace. 1,000 words a day. That’s it. I’m trying really, really fucking hard not to go over***, because I’m trying to think ahead now, trying to fit everything together, and it’s a bit like solving a Rubick’s Cube in five-dimensional space. I move this, but it changes that, and now I have to fix this, but that makes this other thing slide out of alignment, so I tweak that bit over there…

You get the idea.

A caveat here: the ideas of ‘too little’ and ‘too much’ are so subjective I shouldn’t even be allowed to write them out using only two words, as if those two words could possibly convey the inherent complexity. It’s like the world’s worst short hand. Only you know what is too little or too much for your daily word count; it’s going to be different for everyone. And—here’s another qualifier—you’re probably only going to figure out your limits with time. By fucking up a few dozen times. By not finishing stuff, and by writing other stuff until it looks like a tangled mess of intestines spilled out on your desk.

Isn’t writing fun?

*I’m pretty used to weird looks, so believe me when I say I know how they feel.
**”I am fire! I am death! I am the end of the dangling preposition!”
***Unless I’m on fire that day. Obviously.

Squid-Priests and Second Acts: What Novel Writers Can Learn From Screenwriting

‘Sup?

So, this novel rewrite: it’s turning out to be a giant pain in the ass.

It’s no secret that I’ve been stuck for a while. That’s why I decided to devote this entire year to making the manuscript a good one. None of my usual method were working, so, at the suggestion my my friend Kat, I tried screenwriting exercises. And you know what? It’s finally coming together.

Here’s what I’ve learned about screenwriting methods in the last month or so: 1) they’re compact; 2) they’re broad strokes; and 3) I always imagine a bunch of white guys in suits whenever they talk about pitching an idea.*

The thing about using the screenwriting format to outline is that it’s all Big Picture. Some systems out there use a finite (and small) number of index cards to plan it out. Others rely on beats, again of a limited amount. You have to focus on the big stuff in order to hit that number. So all the fiddly bits and the little scenes and the nuance falls away. You’re left with the essentials.

This turned out to be just what I needed. I was getting too caught up on the minutia. Which, you know, is a part of it too, but I was getting too deep. Couldn’t see the giant robot for the bolts. I’m a scene-by-scene outliner, but I needed to pull back and hammer out the big moments so I could see where the problems were. Now I know, so I can start fixing them.

Moral of this story, kiddies: it never hurts to mix things up.

If you’re getting stuck in the minutia and the details and the neat character relationships but you can’t seem to get the whole thing together, try taking a few steps back. Hell, take a mile. And look at the biggest moments. You want the pieces of your story that you can see from space. Then you might see why it’s not working. Maybe there’s not enough happening in the middle. Maybe there’s too much. Maybe you’ve had the Horrible Thing happen to the wrong character.

Conversely, if you have the bare bones but the story just isn’t filling you with the righteous holy fire of creation**, get closer. Dissect it. Take a good hard look at the innards: the characters, the world, the little nagging details. The way people talk. The changes having domesticated dinosaurs has changed the nature of public transit. The headdress of the Water Priests, which is supposed to be a stylized squid but looks disturbingly like a penis, leading to their irreligious nickname of the Holy Peckerheads.*** That’s how you find the stuff we’ll care about.

Yes, I just used the word ‘peckerheads’ to illustrate things you should care about. And now you’re stuck with that image in your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

*Drops the mic, leaves the stage*

*Might just be me.
**Or that could be heartburn. Hang on, let me check the coffee pot level….yeah, heartburn. My bad.
***Which now also sounds like a sports team in my head.

Got You In My Sights: Knowing Your Audience

I see you. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Writing can be a kind of echo chamber: all you hear is the reverberations of your own shouting coming back at you from the walls. Part of being a inner process instead of an outer one. But the thing that you’re making—story, blog, article, novel, poem, manifesto, whatever—will, eventually, be read.*  And so you need to think of who the hell you’re writing for. In other words, it’s time to consider your audience.

And before we get any further, I’m not advocating writing to a market trend or any of that bullshit. For one thing, trends are as ephemeral as a unicorn fart. For another, you still have to be pleased and excited with what you’re doing, or that lack of interest will be as obvious as a dismembered corpse under a rug.

But there should be someone in mind when you start juicing your brain and smearing the results on the page. It doesn’t have to be real specific, but think about who would read this. “People who like epic fantasy” is perfectly acceptable, if broad. Likewise, “my mom” is also acceptable, if narrow. Aim for somewhere in the middle. For example, “people who like epic fantasy but are interested in seeing something other than an endless parade of interchangeable white dudes waving a Freudian Penis Metaphor as a weapon” could be your audience.

It’s not just fiction, either. When I get that first cup of coffee and hit the keys to write blog posts in the morning, I have a pretty good idea who would like to read this. My audience for Bare Knuckle Writer consists of: writers; people who want to write; people who like bizarre metaphors and profanity; and people I knew through various schools, jobs, and organizations who have found me online and are checking in to see if I ever did go crazy like they figured I would. Oh, and those people who accidentally find the page through search terms like “bare ass living” and “erotic shop dick”.**

Somewhere in the Venn diagram created by those things is my ideal reader: a writer who occasionally needs a boot to the ass for motivation, enjoys swearing, and likes watching the World Series of Going Insane as presented to you by me. And is not adverse to the odd pornographic reference because, hey, that’s just how I roll. That person might be you, for all I know. My powers are many and varied, but I can’t read people as they read the blog. Yet.

Think about your ideal reader. What person, when reading your work, will enjoy it the most? What categories does that person check off? What do they want, and, more importantly, how do you keep them reading? For fiction, those last two are often not the same. Readers want characters to be happy, but they keep reading because the characters are not happy yet. You need to get them on the hook.

When you figure out who your audience is, keep them in mind while you write. Not so you can pander, but so you can aim.

*I assume that, if you’re writing, you might be writing so that it can be read. If not, then you’re excused. Have a hall pass, go down to the study hall and count the tiles or something.
**Other gems from the recent search terms are “pocket sized flamethrower”, “yoga kick your ass”, and “earwig costume.”***
***I am overcome with speculation about whether this is a costume to allow you to dress as an earwig, or—and I’ll admit I find this idea far more interesting—a costume for an earwig.