Books That Give Writers an Edge

December 2, 2009

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.

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!

Dialogue: Rock Your Reader’s Socks With Tags and Beats

October 9, 2009

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.

I Miss Blake Snyder

August 16, 2009

Blake passed on August 4, and it’s taken me this long to settle down and gather my thoughts.

It’s been like gradually and gently working a poisoned dagger out of my kidney.

Blake Snyder
A few years ago, my dear ol’ Mom surprised me with a book about writing. I hadn’t asked for it or anything, and neither one of us knew the author. Mom had picked it up (I suspect) because it had a kitty on the cover. Mom’s a sucker for that sort of thing.

I flipped through it and realized that it was about movies, not novels.

I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter. I’ve never written a screenplay (although, since those days, I’ve read them). But I’ve noticed, at writing conferences, how often authors illustrate concepts of drama by referring to movies instead of novels.

Okay. I sat down and read Save the Cat, even though it was a “movie book” rather than a “how-to-write” book.

It blew me away — I realized that screenwriters knew a lot of things that authors didn’t. I saw that there was a science, a craft, to cinematic drama that was totally missing in written fiction. Novelists often see literature as an art to be approached viscerally, and while I have respect for this point of view, I knew that Blake Snyder and the screenwriters were on to something.

I used Blake Snyder’s “Beat Sheet” (a list of essential plot points found in any successful movie) to outline the novel I wrote for my first Nanowrimo attempt. I wrote a 77,000-word novel in 35 days and was hooked.

Blake Snyder, genius.

I would have met Blake at the Write on the Sound conference this October. I had dreams of interviewing him for this blog. Now, the staff and volunteers there are scrambling for a new keynote speaker, and the rest of us are just deeply, profoundly bummed.

Earlier this year, Blake created a Youtube profile and started to upload some wisdom. I’ll let him finish this post for me.

The Mystery Box

April 29, 2009

This is about one of my favorite keys for building suspense. It’s simple and applicable to any fiction — not just thrillers or mysteries — so go ahead and spice up your romance novel with it (I use it constantly in the science fiction novel I’m writing now).

I learned it, originally, from reading Dan Brown (don’t pooh-pooh Dan Brown just because he’s popular. His structure is brilliant). Go ahead and read any Dan Brown prologue. They’re all the same.

1. Somebody (usually the point-of-view character) bites the dust.
2. The reader is presented with a dazzling lack of information.

For example, in the opening paragraph of the prologue of Deception Point (my favorite Brown) we read:


“… and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.”

Okay, that’s like smacking the reader with an axe handle, and it takes a stinking dump on point-of-view, but notice what we know and what we don’t know. We know the character, arctic geologist Charles Brophy, is about to die. But we don’t know how. That word unnatural is troubling and suggestive. So we turn the page.

And that’s all we need to do.

On the next page, soldiers emerge from a landing helicopter and force Brophy at gunpoint to transmit an emergency message on his radio.

The first man handed him a note card with a few lines typed on it. “Transmit this message. Now.”
Brophy looked at the card. “I don’t understand. This information is incorrect. I didn’t–”
The man pressed his rifle hard against the geologist’s temple.
Brophy’s voice was shaking as he transmitted the bizarre message.

A few lines later, the soldiers take Brophy 4000 feet up in the helicopter and toss him out, “tumbling toward the chasms below.”

Prologue over. 500 words, tops. What don’t we know?

We don’t know who the soldiers were.
We don’t know what the message was.
We don’t know who the message was for.
We don’t know why Brophy was killed.

And it’s the lack of knowledge, the questions, that draw us to start Chapter One. Brown keeps it up, answering some questions… and always asking more, until — holy crap — we’ve read 140,000 words.

Let’s shift gears:

Ever watch Lost? If you haven’t, the first season is worth renting on DVD, just to see Brown’s technique done cinematically. The producer, J.J. Abrams, made sure to withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. It worked. Fans would watch episode after episode just hoping to find out what the monster is, or who the Others are, or what those darn numbers mean.

This works independently of character development. If you can also have characters your reader cares about, you amplify the obsession your readers will feel for your book exponentially.

I was feeding all this into the writing hopper in my skull when I stumbled across a TED talk by J.J. Abrams that laid out his thinking on the tactics of suspense (along with the evolution of special effects and other topics). He uses a metaphor — the Mystery Box — to make his point.

This is that TED talk.

— Steve

“Save the cat” scene in “Hang ‘Em High”

April 11, 2009

“Liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat

Blake Snyder is a screenwriter, not a novelist. But it turns out that screenwriters have learned a lot more about what makes a good movie — that lots of people want to see — than novelists have learned about what makes a good novel.

Hang Em High

The science of screenwriting is more advanced than the science of novel writing. We novelists have some catching up to do.

(If you’re planning to write a novel that no one wants to read, go ahead, suffer for your art. Meanwhile, Blake Snyder is keynoting Write on the Sound this year, a Northwest convention of primarily novelists.)

Blake coined the term save the cat scene. It’s easy, it’s quick, and connects the reader to your character, so the reader is willing to go along for the ride. “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”

Here’s a no-nonsense example I found. It’s in the first few seconds of the 1968 Clint Eastwood movie Hang ’em High (screenplay by Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg). In the movie, Clint (big shock) hunts down and blows away the dudes who wronged him. It’s a revenge movie — not an easy sell, unless we see some reason to believe that his character, Jed Cooper, is actually a good guy underneath it all, worth rooting for.

Here is that scene —