Books That Give Writers an Edge

December 2, 2009

Mckee_Story
I have a short stack of books by my desk that are dog-eared, highlighted, and full of Post-It notes for bookmarks. It’s my “how-to-write” stack.

Stein on Writing is there, and Making Shapely Fiction, and McKee’s Story (which keeps coming up on Novel Dog. My copy has 12 Post-Its and two bookmarks).

But I’ve been thinking about the books that have taught me about writing — or at least, helped me to write — that are not “how-to-write” books.

Can a book on pottery teach you something about writing?

How about a book on improvisational theater?

If you think I’m going to mention Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat
again, you’re right. Screenwriters know things about narrative structure that we novelists need to learn. McKee’s book is a screenwriting book, too.

But there are a few more that have inspired me and taught me good stuff, and since you won’t find them in the WRITING section, I’ll share them here.

Steven Johnson wrote a book about the increasing complexity found in television shows and video games, called Everything Bad is Good for You. He ties this increasing complexity to the Flynn Effect, which is the increase in average I.Q. scores over the past few decades.

Whatever. But his study of the relationship networks of television characters put a nice light bulb over my head. He also writes about television dialogue. Modern TV viewers, he says, are perfectly comfortable when the dialogue makes no sense at all.

Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson

“The dialogue on shows like The West Wing and ER… rushes by, the words accelerating in sync with the high-speed tracking shots that glide through the corridors and operating rooms… The truly remarkable thing about the dialogue is not purely a matter of speed; it’s the willingness to immerse the audience in information that most viewers won’t understand….

“You don’t need to know what it means when the surgeons start shouting about OPCAB and saphenous veins as they perform a bypass on ER; the arcana is there to create the illusion that you are watching real doctors.”

I’ve adopted arcana as my term for dialogue that is over the reader’s head, and there to help the reader suspend disbelief. You can find this sort of dialogue in any police procedural or spy thriller. (A different type is in hard SF or elaborate high fantasy, where the author gets to make the arcana up. Fun, but not easy!)

Johnson quotes a snip from an ER script (Crichton again, baby) to make his point. Play along with me here, and count up the words you don’t know:

KERRY: Sixteen-year-old, unconcious, history of villiari treesure.
CARTER: Glucyna coma?
KERRY: Looks like it.
MR. MAKOMI: She was doing fine until six months ago.
CARTER: What medication is she on?
MR. MAKOMI: Emphrasylim, tobramysim, vitamins A, D, and K.
LUCY: The skin’s jaundiced.
KERRY: Same with sclera, does her breath smell sweet?
CARTER: Peder permadicis?
KERRY: Yeah.
LUCY: What’s that?

By the way… arcana, done badly, is called technobabble.

Another book I’ve blogged about is Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about success, and it’s a short brain-hop from there to “writing success.” The kicker in that book was the ten-thousand-hour rule, which might seem like a long time to you, but sounds just right to me. That’s the time you dedicate to careful study of a subject in order to become a master at it.

Writing included.

I always keep The Gift of Fear in the back of my mind, should I ever need to invent a character who is a stalker or an assassin. Its author, Gavin de Becker, is a security expert who studies the predictability of violent behavior, and his book is about real stalkers and assassins.



Likewise, Sam Gosling’s Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You is handy for describing the home or office of your character, since Gosling is a Ph.D. psychologist who digs through other people’s things for a living, looking for reliable trends.

Next is the inspiration for this post. I had written about adversarial dialogue, and W. Jacob Gardner (an animator on Monsters vs. Aliens) left a comment saying, in essence, “Oh, you mean like in Keith Johnstone’s Impro?”

Er, yes.

And actually, I’ve read that book. If you thought I was kidding about improvisational theater, you’re wrong. (I was kidding about pottery.)

Johnstone teaches acting. He was trying to get his students to master ad-libbing realistic dialogue, and finally told them, “Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s.” The result:

“The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic,’ and actors seemed marvelously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless.’ It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming.”

Status is Johnstone’s word for the secret behind the motive of every character in a scene. Each seeks to raise, or lower, or maintain his or her status via dialogue, in an effort to maintain self-perception and expected social order. Realistic characters do this, because you and I and all humans do it.

If you, as a writer, screw with this, you can get amazing results, because all audiences are passionately interested in the relative status of characters. It’s wired into us, Johnstone says.

He goes very deep into revealing human nature through acting — some of his stage experiments will melt your brain — and the rest of the book is about the psychology of imagination, among other things. Improv actors make stuff up on the fly, and need to be deeply in touch with their creative powers. That sort of thing is good for writers too, so the book is more useful than you’d think.

Last is a doozy: The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss. This is the book that taught me how to slay the time-management dragon, after years (and years!) of deep seething rage at not having enough time to write.

It’s too much to explain here, so I’ll tease you with the relevant chapter titles — then I’ll tell you which part helped me the most.

Chapter 5: The End of Time Management: Illusions and Italians
Chapter 6: The Low-Information Diet: Cultivating Selective Ignorance
Chapter 7: Interrupting Interruption and the Art of Refusal

The real dynamite for me was in Chapter 5. I’ve tried to explain it to friends, and they haven’t believed me. Here goes.

Ever heard of Pareto’s Principle? (Vilfredo Pareto is the Italian mentioned in Chapter 5’s title.)

It’s also called the 80/20 Rule, and it says that 80% of your success actually comes from 20% of your tasks. The discipline doesn’t matter (like the 10,000-Hour Rule) — all that matters is you face the hard reality that most of your tasks are not moving you toward your goal very quickly. And the 80/20 is arbitrary… it could be 95/5, or 99/1.

It works backwards, too. 80% of your stress comes from 20% of your stressors.

Once you face this reality (and you’re clear on what your goals actually are), you’re ready to put your schedule under the microscope. This is Step One. Find tasks that aren’t working, and ruthlessly strike them. Stop doing them. Do less!

I tell you, I loved that part. Notice that this requires no creativity at all.

Later, you can phase in new tasks. But for now, don’t bother. If you do it right, you should be able to drop about 80% of your tasks (!) and lose only 20% of your success (which is still a grade of B- in my book).

The second phase of Ferriss’s plan is an application of Parkinson’s Law. That is, “a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.” If you have a week for a project, it will take a week… even if you could have done an equal job in an intense three hours, and get results that are, in the end, just as good.

This is a natural part of human psychology. It’s not your fault. But you can put it to your advantage by forcing yourself to do week-long projects in three hours. This is Step Two.

Step One and Step Two can be combined into a self-perpetuating feedback loop, in which you

strike tasks in order to move deadlines up (that’s Step One) and

move deadlines up in order to strike tasks (that’s Step Two).

Fine, don’t believe me. See if I care.

Here’s a fancy-pants video from Ferriss on Chapters 5, 6, and 7.


What if Your Readers Hate Your Character?

November 18, 2009


I obsess a little about Blake Snyder’s “save the cat” concept, because I have a bugaboo about exciting movies and novels with tedious or creepy main characters. I tend to defenestrate such things. Books can take that, but DVDs don’t hold up well to sidewalk impact.

So I ripped the “save the cat” scenes from four movies — two Blake mentioned in his book, and two I noticed in favorite movies of mine. They are:

Aladdin (1992), written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio.

Sea of Love, written by Richard Price.

Heist, written and directed by David Mamet.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, written by Lawrence Kasdan.

I think I’ve beaten this topic to death now, and I promise to move on. (Thanks, Blake. We still miss you.)


Adversarial Dialogue: “I love you, stupid”

November 6, 2009

Here is an easy way to spice up dialogue between characters in your fiction, whether screenplays or novels.

Make it adversarial.
Adam's Rib

That’s a precise word. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, went for pages trying to communicate the idea (sorry, Donald) that Sol Stein nailed in a single word in Stein on Writing.

It doesn’t mean “confrontational” in the sense of conflict. That sort of dialogue — say, between hero and villain — comes naturally to writers. Hero vs. Villain dialogue is always fun to write (and usually, to read) because it’s exciting when people don’t get along.

But what can kill your story is the dialogue between your good guys while your villain is off-stage.

Say, a young woman and her sisters in a wagon train on the Oregon trail, watching ominous storm clouds. Or a loving husband and wife, discussing a shooting reported in the local paper. Or a mother and daughter on the morning of the first day of school.

First thought: Cut the scene. But maybe you need it for exposition or foreshadowing or character development or to set up a plot point.

Okay then. Make the scene more interesting with adversarial dialogue. Don’t let them console each other too often. They don’t need to be cruel, and they don’t need to be at each others’ throats. But give your characters some biting wit, some dialogue with an edge.

Here’s a video where I talk about adversarial dialogue, and describe a couple of examples — such as a clip from Gilmore Girls, written by Amy Sherman-Palladino.

(This is from Write on the Sound 2009. If you can’t understand what I’m saying, leave a comment below.)

Interestingly, the fiction genre that seems to have adversarial dialogue mastered is comedy. Often, comedy doesn’t have much conflict to fuel the reader’s curiosity. Maybe to compensate, comedy is loaded with adversarial dialogue.

Not that it matters. This is a genre-proof trick.

Here is the segment from the screenplay of Adam’s Rib (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin) I mention in the video. It’s about a married couple of lawyers who, eventually, end up arguing opposite sides of a court case:

#

AMANDA: Look! All I’m trying to say is that there are lots of things that a man can do and in society’s eyes, it’s all hunky-dory. A woman does the same thing – the same, mind you, and she’s an outcast.
ADAM: Finished?
AMANDA: No. Now I’m not blaming you personally, Adam, because this is so.
ADAM: Well, that’s awfully large of you.
AMANDA: No, no, it’s not your fault. All I’m saying is, why let this deplorable system seep into our courts of law, where women are supposed to be equal?
ADAM: Mostly, I think, females get advantages!
AMANDA: We don’t want advantages! And we don’t want prejudices!
ADAM: Oh, don’t get excited, honey, and don’t –
AMANDA: I’m not excited –
ADAM: Oh, you’re giving me the Bryn Mawr right too.
AMANDA: Well what did she try to do? She tried to keep her home intact.
ADAM: Yeah, by knocking off her husband.
AMANDA: She didn’t knock him off. He’s alive. She didn’t kill him.
ADAM: She tried. She missed.
AMANDA: Well, all right. Now supposing –
ADAM: What do you want to do? Give her another shot at him?
AMANDA: No, I don’t… it’s the kind of thing burns my goat!
ADAM: Your what?
AMANDA: My goat! My goat!


The Best Characters do the Wacky

October 23, 2009

Here’s a simple ingredient for compelling characters: Eccentricity.

Sol Stein, in Stein On Writing, lays the smack down:

Stein on Writing

Eccentricity is at the heart of strong characterization. The most effective characters have profound roots in human behavior. Their richest feelings may be similar to those held by many others. However, as characters their eccentricities dominate the reader’s first vision of them.

If you were to examine the surviving novels of the twentieth century, you would find that a majority of the most memorable characters in fiction are to some degree eccentric.

This is not a tough argument to make. Imagine your favorite characters in novels you love the most. Boom, eccentric.

If you’ve got other strengths (like a wild premise or setting), maybe you can squeak by with “everyman” sort of characters.

The problem is that our main characters are a shadow, a fragment, of ourselves… the writer. And inexperienced writers are afraid of what they might reveal, afraid of seeming ridiculous or perverted.

So inexperienced writers create characters who just want to get through this (whatever “this” is), who just want to live a normal life.

Bad news for those writers: The weight of literary history is against them. Examples:

Captain Ahab
Melville’s Captain Ahab, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, and Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz all possess eccentric personalities and drives.

Sherlock Holmes possesses unique powers, but he’s also got a set of bizarre quirks (from misogyny and cocaine addiction to… well, I would say he’s ADD).

Quirks are everywhere, from Indiana Jones’s hat and whip, to Harry Potter’s scar and glasses, to Manny’s mechanical arm (that’s Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

Shall we include unusual background, or legacy? That’s gets us Harry Potter again, and Luke Skywalker.

Call of the Wild
Animal characters are no exception. Buck (in London’s The Call of the Wild) is no ordinary dog, and a main character in Adams’s Watership Down is not only a rabbit, but a psychic rabbit.

I’m not saying that eccentric characters are all you need. If you do have nicely freakish characters, your job isn’t finished. Now you can try for some character complexity and tap the power of your readers’ envy.


How Many Characters Do You Need?

August 30, 2009

Okay, I blew it.

And I’m here to fess up.

An old writing rule of mine went, “Thou shalt not multiply characters beyond necessity.” Sort of a spin on Occam’s Razor, that kept me from packing my fiction with every character that popped into my head at the time.

Why have five characters if you can tell the story with four? And why have four characters if you can merge a couple of them and tell the story with three?

Fewer characters means a tighter story, fewer distractions, a faster plot… and a lower word count. You can make that 8,000-word unpublishable beast into a lean 3,000-word speed demon that’s easier to sell.

Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson

Notice we’re talking about short stories here. In short stories, limiting the number of characters to the minimum that you dramatically require is a good rule.

So last month I’m reading the latest Steven Johnson, a random library pick called Everything Bad is Good for You, and he’s talking about how drama (television, in this case) has grown in complexity over the past few decades. Modern TV drama, he argues, requires greater viewer memory and foreknowledge, has more parallel plotlines, more esoteric dialogue… and a lot more characters.

To help prove his point, he presents a “social network” of an episode of Dallas (1978-1991), a character map of everyone in the episode.

Dallas Social Network

Then he presents the character map of an episode from the first season of 24 (2001). It’s quite a bit more complex, with more characters and more relationships.

24 Social Network

Johnson’s argument that TV viewers have gotten used to, and enjoy, complicated dramas with a mess of characters, is only peripherally interesting to me as a novelist. Unless…

How have novels changed over time?

I was just wondering about that when I picked up a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

(Austen was a source of inspiration for Stephenie “Twilight” Meyer. Plus, Pride and Prejudice is wicked old, published in 1813, five years before Frankenstein. Generally I dig old fiction.)

I didn’t get very far in Pride and Prejudice. Sorry, fans. Austen broke a lot of rules of modern fiction. Good rules. Like, use speaker attributions in dialogue, so readers know who is speaking. And, don’t give characters similar-sounding names — Austen blesses us with five, that’s five sisters, all called “Miss Bennett” by other characters.

So rather than reading it, I started reading about it… and came across a character map (Johnson might say a “social network”) of it.

Pride and Prejudice Social Network

Holy crap, it’s a mess. No wonder I was confused.

It reminded me of Johnson’s map of the 24 episode.

2001.

1813.

Whatever the date, it’s clear that my old rule, “Thou shalt not multiply characters beyond necessity,” er, um… needs revision.

Still dandy for short stories. Not so useful for novels.

What, then? Pack your novels with characters?

Mckee_Story
I’m going to turn, again, to Robert McKee’s Story, because I think he really nails this. He says that a writer can use other characters as a lens through which we see the main character. More characters in your story may, if done well, better illustrate a complex central character.

In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature.

When McKee says complex, he’s talking about the Yin-Yang complexity of characters, the dual presence of opposite traits, that I’ve talked about in an earlier post.

Consider this hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and optimistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; fearless, then fearful. This four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters toward whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places. These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible.

Then McKee lets loose with a character map of his own.

STORY page 380

Character A, for example, provokes the protagonist’s sadness and cynicism, while Character B brings out his witty, hopeful side. Character C inspires his loving and courageous emotions, while Character D forces him to first cower in fear, then to strike out in fury. The creation and design of characters A, B, C, and D is dictated by the needs of the protagonist.

Wow. I’m not saying that Jane Austen and Joel Surnow included big casts of supporting characters in order to reveal the complexity of their main characters.

But forget them — I’m talking about me here. And you. No one is stopping us from doing it. Lesson learned.


Character Complexity (and Slaying Vampires)

July 28, 2009

We all agree that complex characters are good. Where we writers screw up is the damn challenge of creating them.

Say you’re beginning to think about a character. How do you add complexity? Or have you botched it already? Is complexity at a character’s core, where the creative process of the writer begins?

Here’s what complexity isn’t.

It’s not a list of traits. “Here’s my character = job + hobbies + height/weight/eyes/hair + family + place of birth + romantic relationships + …”

Details don’t make a character complex. Neither does the presence of a single all-powerful motive or all-consuming characteristic. “Ruthlessness” maybe, or “lust for power.”

No – that character would be 100% predictable and 100% dull.

Here’s a picture of character complexity for you:

Yin Yang symbol

That’s the yin-yang symbol. Yin and yang are opposite forces, like light and shade, or male and female, coming together. I’m not going to get more into the religious meaning than that – but I am going to borrow this thing to remind me about character.

A complex character is a balance of opposite characteristics or identities. My all-time favorite example is (don’t laugh)… Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer.

Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon dreamed up the character – a school girl (that’s one characteristic) who slays vampires (that’s the other). Now stop and think about it.

That’s the character. Nothing else. But that idea drove a movie, then seven seasons of a television show, followed by an eighth “season” in comic book form… and writers aren’t finished with her yet.

Buffy will sweat over her history homework… then drop her pencil and battle a nest of vampires. She’ll save the world from a soul-eating demon, then she’ll worry about senior prom. These reversals always come as a surprise – the audience never gets used to them.

It sounds ridiculous… and it is. Buffy’s yin-yang drives, essentially, all the humor of the TV show (and if you haven’t seen it… it’s funny).

Buffy, The Long Way Home

But a character’s yin-yang complexity isn’t just for laughs and witty reversals. Fans of Buffy know how tortured she is – you see, she wants to be a school girl, she yearns for a normal life, she hates the crypts and the undead gore… but she also knows she’s chosen to be an epic warrior, blessed with strength and speed and the power to save people’s lives.

Spider-Man 2
It’s the same inner conflict Peter Parker struggles with in Spider-Man 2 – hero vs. normal guy.

After humor and surprising reversals, this intense agony of inner conflict is the other gift of a yin-yang nature.

These sorts of characters are fascinating to us.

Darth Vader is a black-suited, faceless villain (worth hating, but not thinking about) until he reveals that he’s Luke’s father… and gains complexity (heartless villain vs. compassionate father). And that inner conflict needs a whole third movie (Return of the Jedi) to play itself out.

And Luke (farm boy vs. Jedi)? And Harry Potter (orphan vs. wizard)?

Shakespeare, Chicago
Let’s stop screwing around: Shakespeare’s character MacBeth’s yin-yang is pure ambition vs. guilt – that drives the whole Scottish play.

This last example comes from Robert McKee in Story. “MacBeth is a brilliantly realized character,” McKee says, “because of the contradiction between his ambition on one hand and his guilt on the other. From this profound inner contradiction springs his passion, his complexity, his poetry.”

McKee’s word for the complexity of a character is “dimension,” as in “three-dimensional character.” He says it right out: “Dimension means contradiction.”

I’m going to cite one more example from McKee to wrap up this post.

Mckee_Story

“Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written… He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent worldliness, a worldly innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.”

(Does this remind anyone of Holden Caulfield?)


Using the Green-Eyed Monster

July 2, 2009

“Make sure your reader can identify with your main character.”

Gee, thanks.

I’ll file that lovely bit of advice next to “Only buy stocks that go up.”

If I freaking knew how to make my freaking reader identify with my freaking main character, don’t you think I would!?!

Techniques of the Selling Writer

Well, now you can, because here’s a trick that helps. I learned it from Dwight Swain, and like certain bits of writing advice, once I read it, it struck me like a diamond bullet in the forehead and I knew it was true.

Stop and think of your favorite characters from novels you’ve read. (Movies are okay, too.) Got it?

They all have something in common, and that’s the specific emotion they invoke in you. Time for some honesty here. Ready? Swain says:

How do you persuade your reader to identify?

You shackle him to the character with chains of envy.

That is, you make the character someone who does what your reader would like to do, yet can’t. You establish him as the kind of person Reader would like to be like… a figure to envy.

Envy? Envy! The word rolls around in my head every time I make a new character.

Sherlock Holmes: we envy his deductive skills.
Harry Potter: don’t you wish that you could be a wizard? That your school could be like Hogwarts?
James Bond: where to begin? Gadgets, girls, guns… and fast cars.
Batman: Envy is emotion, not logic. Logically, we’d rather not be a traumatized neurotic who dresses up in a bat costume. But our gut tells us we’d love to strike terror in the hearts of bad guys, come and go like a shadow, and drive… again, a super cool car.
Bella Swan: Please. Is there a 13-year-old girl on the planet who doesn’t want to date Edward Cullen?

(Note that boys want to be Batman, and girls want to be Bella Swan. Think about your audience.)

Swain generalizes, proposing a universal enviable characteristic present in every well-loved main character:

Courage.
Courage to do what?
Courage to attempt to control reality….
The exciting character is the one who challenges fate and attempts to dominate reality, despite all common sense and logic.

Mckee_Story

Robert McKee, in his libromagus Story, proposes that every story has a “Center of Good” that the reader (or viewer) seeks out and latches on to. I think this is envy again, expressed in a different way. McKee says that envy is relative, and if a character merely outshines secondary characters, we may be drawn to him. In the novel and movie Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is a villain… sort of.

The writers place Clarice at the positive focal point, but also draw a second Center of Good around Hannibal Lecter and draw empathy to both. First, they assign Dr. Lecter admirable and desirable qualities: massive intelligence, a sharp wit and sense of irony, gentlemanly charm, and most importantly, calmness….

Next, to counterpoint these qualities the writers surround Lecter with a brutish, cynical society. His prison psychiatrist is a sadist and publicity hound. His guards are dimwits…. We fall into empathy, musing, “If I were a cannibalistic psychopath, I’d want to be just like Lecter.”

hannibal

So when your main character makes your critique group snooze, think about that single powerful word, envy. It explains Han Solo… and Darth Vader. And along with an early “save the cat” scene, it can hook and hold your readers.