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.

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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.