Here is Kurt Vonnegut having some fun explaining curves of emotional energy in stories. This is worth four minutes:
I found this referenced in The Bestseller Code, by Archer & Jockers, a book about algorithmic text-mining of bestselling books. Can a computer spot patterns in the text of the novels on the NYT bestsellers list? I’m sure I’ll post about it when I finish it.
Here’s the “eccentricity” chunk of my “Writing Great Characters” talk at Write on the Sound 2010. As before, the audio’s a little shaky, so turn it up.
Sol Stein said it:
“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.”
(Watch that ‘thank you’ sign behind me. It’s the real star of this show.)
Bob is the best-selling author of over 40 books. He is a West Point graduate, served in the Infantry and Special Forces (Green Berets)… He also served in Special Operations Western Command on a variety of classified assignments.
He is the Co-Creator of Who Dares Wins Publishing, a Flex Publishing house dedicated to military fiction and the non-fiction of Excellence.
He brings a unique blend of practical Special Operations Strategies and Tactics mixed with the vision of an artist.
And here’s 90 seconds of don’t do what I did:
(It looks pretty rustic for a classroom, doesn’t it? It’s actually a century-old inn on Whidbey Island, a ferry ride from Seattle. You can hear floorboards squeaking as people walk around upstairs.)
Writers are not so special that the rules for success do not apply to them. Here are eight reminders to keep you focused, by Richard St. John, who interviewed 500 successful people and spotted the patterns.
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.
“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?
LUCY: What’s that?
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.
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.
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.
Here is an easy way to spice up dialogue between characters in your fiction, whether screenplays or novels.
Make it adversarial.
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.
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!
Here’s a challenge I posed to my audience at the 2009 Write on the Sound conference:
Choose the “best,” if you dare, from these five exchanges of dialogue. Which would you write?
“Come on now, Baby,” she said. “You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
“I just can’t stand it anymore!” he said. “I’ve had it!”
“Come on now,” she cajoled. “You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
“I just can’t stand it anymore!” he ejaculated. “I’ve had it!”
She approached him cautiously. “Come on now, Baby,” she cooed. “You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
He swung the knife in a wild arc. “I just can’t stand it anymore!” he exclaimed. “I’ve had it!”
“Come on now, Baby. You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
“I just can’t stand it anymore! I’ve had it!”
She approached him cautiously. “Come on now, Baby. You don’t need that knife. What are you going to do with that?”
He swung the knife in a wild arc. “I just can’t stand it anymore! I’ve had it!”
(Adapted from Stanbrough, Writing Realistic Dialogue and Flash Fiction)
The talk was a lot of fun. About 50 showed up. I tried to catch it on video, using my laptop and the webcam from my work. The result wasn’t perfect… but it wasn’t bad enough to delete, so here’s the seven minutes when we discussed the five dialogue exchanges above.