How I’d Rewrite The Force Awakens, Part 1

Disclaimer: I really liked The Force Awakens. I like the characters and their actors. I am a huge Star Wars fan. It has a very special place in my heart. That said, I would approach the story and development differently, into something more cohesive and frankly, a little heavier.

From time to time, I offer rewrites to things. I don’t do it maliciously, I don’t do it slag on the people who did the work, I just come at things from a different direction. And so it is with The Force Awakens.

Do we need to run through the characters? Not the OG ones, for sure, but let’s hit the new ones.

Rey – A plucky desert world tech-rat, Rey is our Force-wielding protagonist for this next trilogy. Daisy Ridley rocks the role, but the character is a list of skills, with a translucent veneer of internal conflict. Abandoned on a planet, she’s alone, but her loneliness is demonstrated as having happened to her, rather than felt, since she reinforces her ‘lonership’ time and again, until she doesn’t. We’ll face a lot of the rewrite towards her.

Finn – The Stormtrooper-turned-Rebel, the guy with feelings. John Boyega is great. He’s playing the hell out of what’s on the page, and he and Poe have a chemistry like they should be the reboot of Lethal Weapon (with the Riggs/Murtaugh roles reversed, of course) and then be in every TV show I watch.

Poe – The trilogy’s Han Solo, and holy shit can we make him dance all the time? Look at this: serveimageserveimage2serveimage3

His character is pretty much going to stay the same, because it works.

Kylo Ren – Herein lies the bulk of the problem. It’s not wholly clear that he’s either Light Side or Dark Side, and not really all that clear that he’s stuggling to be one or the other with any meaningful intent. Sure, he tells us he is, but when have you ever known me to be all-in for telling something so fundamental to a character? He’s going to get transformed by this rewrite.

For me, the two stand-out issues with the film are two issues common to many manuscripts: A lack of arc, and a lack of motivation due to backstory and arc.

A lack of arc is two-fold: The character arcs are under-expressed, as well as the story’s arc is relayed by the title crawl and the last 5 minutes of film. Plenty of room there to show us the universe post-ROTJ, and plenty of room take it in a new direction or subversion of the expected direction.

The lack of motivation due to backstory and arc is a character problem that can be expressed by the question, “Why is _____ (INSERT CHARACTER NAME HERE) doing ____ (INSERT ACTION THE CHARACTER IS DOING)? Is it because plot-reasons?”

So let’s keep those issues in mind, and let me rewrite TFA.

The Force Awakens

The title crawl is one of danger and fear and the unknown, only a few years after the destruction of the second Death Star, and only a few years into the rise of numerous splinter groups: Empire, Rebellion, and otherwise looking to spread across the galaxy. We don’t name-check any ROTJ characters, and we don’t mention the Force (except in the title).

We sweep down through the starry space to a large swampy planet. We actually don’t just show the planet from space then cut to a soundstage, we follow the camera as it plunges through the planet’s atmosphere and moves at a pretty decent speed to about shoulder height. The audio comes back in on ragged breathing. Someone is running.

In blur, and then into focus, we see POE DAMERON running, looking back over his shoulder periodically, because he’s being chased.

Chased by whom, you ask? Stormtroopers. Classic Empire stormtroopers in fact, and they continue to be terrible shots. Great for shooting trees and swamp vines, not so hot at nailing a biped in motion. Poe runs back to his ship, a heavily modded X-Wing, where his droid BB-8 is squawking and chirping furiously. Poe yells at the droid that they’re not going to get shot, to prep the ship for takeoff. The nervous droid has the ship a few inches off the ground when Poe leaps on board.

It’s at this moment that the stormtroopers reach the ship and plaintively fire at it. Poe engages the ship’s cannon to mow a few down. He sets a course to leave atmosphere and tells BB-8 to ‘send a message to Command that four planets in this sector are Imperial, and that he’s moving on to the next.’ The droid complies as the ship heads back into space.

Cross-cut to even more Stormtroopers reaching where the ship was and seeing the dead troopers littering the ground. A few troopers sight the craft and watch it get tiny in the distance. The camera lingers on one trooper, sighing so intensely we can watch the armor rise and fall. He receives an order to get the bodies back to base and does so.

The camera slide-wipes just as a trooper’s white chest plate clears frame to reveal that a pair of hands is wiping off something white, or something that used to be white, under a few inches of sand.

We’re on the planet Jakku, and a gloved set of hands is picking armor out of sand dunes. A few dented helmets and chest plates sit in a stack on a tarp. The gloved hands are attached to a young girl, REY, and she’s somewhat desperate in her search for material. We don’t know what she’s looking for, and maybe she doesn’t know either, but she’s accumulating a lot of irregular bits like codpieces and Rebel Alliance gloves on the tarp. We watch her drag the tarp to a small speeder. We watch her try and get the speeder started, but it gives up with a cough and smoke. Also, as she tries to get moving, her tarp breaks and spills onto the ground. She curses (yes I want some kind of cursing in Star Wars, maybe she just says, “Nerf herder”) and cleans up the mess. Other speeders packed with junk and people skim past her and laugh. Rey is not well liked in these parts, and we feel it.

Cut back to Poe’s X-Wing and he’s cruising towards his next planet, Jakku. BB-8 relays some information, maybe a complaint that it’ll be hot, and Poe assures him that it’s just a big ball of sand and it won’t take long. He sets the course and that’s when a call comes in from Command.

A familiar voice, C-3P0, tells ‘Captain Dameron’ to proceed with all haste back to base, that there’s General Solo has called a meeting and he’s needed urgently. Poe banters a bit, complaining that if this is another meeting without a reason, he’s going to crash into a sun. C-3P0 assures him that it’s more important than that, and he should return immediately. Poe relents, but once the message from C-3P0 ends, plots the course to Jakku anyway. BB-8 protests, but Poe explains that it’s a quick search and won’t take long. Also, meetings aren’t his style.

Cut to an Imperial base on Jakku, stormtroopers in not-white (let’s put them in sand and beige and rock tones) watch ships enter the atmosphere via monitors and lock onto Poe’s ship as it nears landfall. An order is given to open fire.

Poe and BB-8 detect the assault just a moment too late and the ship is hit. Poe’s first thought is of the droid, then himself, and manages to put the ship down in some dunes before launching a distress beacon along with some chaff, making the ship’s damage appear worse than it is. He checks on his droid, then using the last of the ship’s power to get a read on where the shots came from, so he knows to expect trouble.

Wipe to Rey, who saw the ship go down and is willing to dump part of her scrap haul to squeeze a bit of power from her speeder. She sets off towards the crash.

Cut back to the trooper base, where a squad of troopers has just landed, the troopers from Poe’s previous escape scene in fact, are being dispatched to go round up any survivors. We see them setting off towards the downed ship as well.

Rey is the first to the scene, and she can’t believe her eyes.An actual X-Wing, in sort of working order. She checks the seat, finds it to still be warm, and quickly pulls out some tools to start dismantling the cockpit

Which is when Poe comes out from stage right, blaster drawn. They argue about the ship and the pilot, Poe says he’s the pilot and he realizes he’s not going to shoot “a kid.” Rey says she’s not a kid, and that if he’ll just part with some of the ship’s electronics, Rey can eat for a month. Poe hands over several of his rations – more food than Rey has seen in weeks she says – and explains that he was shot down. Rey is incredulous, that there haven’t been troopers on Jakku in years.

Which is when the troopers arrive.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week after DexCon.

The Sisters of Crime Discussion

Good morning. How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting? Was the weather a sweltering furnace? I had a good one, since I always enjoy my chances to speak to groups of writers. This weekend I was in front of the local to-me chapter of the Sisters of Crime, talking about mystery and story development.

The conversation we had was excellent. But let me describe where this conversation took place.

Picture a very old colonial church, wooden, not brick and mortar. Okay, now take whatever you’re picturing and have Tim Burton re-shape it. Exaggerate the spire. Gloomy-goth-art-student the interior. Make the parking lot a Stephen King land of angry weeds up through cracked asphalt. Don’t forget that every door squeaks and every floorboard groans.

Now add a 48-star flag:

Yes, 48 stars. I counted.

 

And add a Kennedy era bingo machine:

The dust on this thing was incredible.

If you’ve ever been to one of my events before, you know I don’t make a whole lot of notes, and I swear enough, and well enough to make stevedores shocked. But, because this event was a big deal to me, and because I was really trying to make a good impression, since I’d like to do more speaking like this for other groups, I cut the 300+ usually profanities out of my discussion points and examples. The Batman examples stayed in though, because Batman.

Not every place I speak does audio recording, and the acoustics in the barn-sized room weren’t the best, so there’s no audio. Instead, I’m going to take my notes and expand on them, a point at a time. While this event was targeted at mysteries, it’s not that hard to extrapolate the general craft elements out of what I’m saying.

Cool? Awesome. Let’s do this.

A mystery is a story where the central conflict is a question and there are character(s) compelled to answer that question or face consequences. Those consequences may be short-term (if I don’t catch the murderer, they get away with it), or they may be larger in scale (the serial killer will strike again!), but there are always consequences to not answering whatever the question is, and the fear about how the world will be with those consequences in place is the driving force behind the character(s) taking action.

Unlike other genre where the conflict is an action (thriller, horror, action, etc) the fact that the conflict is a question – often a who/how/why – means that the character(s) trying to answer that question need external elements because they’re only going to start the story with some assumptions. Assumptions about how the world works, about how people behave, that sort of thing.

Side note: Rather than have the assumptions be provided just by the experiences in this story, you can build a better character by basing those assumptions on character philosophy and motivations

Because the character(s) have a set of assumptions, and need to gain knowledge to dis-/prove those assumptions, mysteries are built on an economy exchanging assumption for knowledge. Like this:

The detective (the character trying to answer the question at the conflict’s heart) gains knowledge that challenges the assumptions (whatever they might be) WHILE the antagonist (the character looking to benefit from the actions related to the conflict’s question) makes and acts on assumptions in the face of knowledge.

That knowledge comes from clues which are pieces of information (not limited to objects, but they’re most commonly objects) that increase the detective’s knowledge. There are three kinds of clues to keep in mind:

A) the inciting clue
This is whatever piece of information indicates that there’s a conflict to resolve. In most murder mysteries or television shows, this is the body. This clue incites the detective’s efforts.

B) “body” clues
“Body” refers here to “body of the story”, and there will be more body clues than any other kind in a mystery.  The clues that follow the inciting clue are all body clues. And this can cover everything from the murder weapon to the ATM photos to the piece of spinach stuck in someone’s teeth.

C) the confirming clue
This is the clue that gives the detective that last piece of knowledge to shore up the mystery. We’ve all seen that moment in TV where a secondary character says something innocuous and the protagonist gets up from wherever they’re sitting and when we come back from commercial, the detective is explaining the solution to the whole case.

It’s the sum of all these clues that guide the character(s) forward into answering the conflict’s question.

But (and here’s my last point) … this forward pursuit of the answer has to INTERSECT with the character’s arc without being the entirety of that arc.

Because your MC should be greater than just the operator/actor within one story. What they do is not the complete package of who they are, anymore than it is for you, the person reading this. And when I say ‘greater’, I mean they should have more depth and more to them. Yes, the plot events are a big deal (hopefully), yes the plot events are a challenge for them (hopefully), but you can do better than the stale-from-the-can “troubled past.” I know you can.

And if you’re just not sure how, come ask.

This week is a short one from me, since DexCon is Wednesday-Sunday. We’ll do InboxWednesday for sure, and let’s put a ‘maybe’ on Friday’s post … it depends on if I can write it Tuesday.

Go write good stuff. Follow me on Twitter and Snapchat (johnwritesstuff) for more info and other things of wordly nature.

Happy writing.

My DexCon Schedule

DexCon is fast approaching at the end of the month, and it’s one of my favorite conventions of the year. This year, there’s A LOT of Noir World.

If you’re asking what Noir World is, it’s the game I’ve written that features film noir and noir tropes in everything from 1920s gangster pictures to near-future Blade Runner tales, and everything in between. Get some people around a table and tell a wickedly sinful tale of emotion and tragedy.

Here’s my schedule:

R0194: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. An INDEPENDENTLY PUBLISHED GAME – Part of the Indie Games Explosion! In The City, it’s always a good time for bad people to bad things. Noir World is an Apocalypse World hack that features shared narration and tells a tragic drama set in a film noir-influenced world of the players’ creation. The story involves either a crime that has happened or will happen, and the players can be anything from the cops eager to solve it, or the criminals eager to get away with it. Thursday, 9:00AM – 1:00PM

R0206: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Thursday, 2:00PM – 6:00PM
R0233: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Friday, 9:00PM – 1:00PM
R0251: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Friday, 2:00PM – 6:00PM
R0319: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff” presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Saturday, 2:00PM – 6:00PM
R0376: Apocalypse World; “Noir World: A Good Day For Bad Stuff”presented by John Adamus. See R0194. Sunday, 3:00PM – 7:00PM

Oh and don’t forget –

D1192: “The DEXCON 19 Writer’s Workshop” presented by John Adamus. Are you an aspiring writer? Have a story inside you and want to find out how to get it into print? Join our esteemed panel of authors and other professionals who will talk about how to get your wonderful ideas into the hands of millions! Sunday, 10am – 12pm

So, yes, that’s SIX games. For more information as the convention draws near, be sure to follow @noirworldrpg on Twitter.

No post on Friday, but I might try some Facebook Live stuff. I’m playing around with it.

Realtalk: Pitches, Part 3

On we go to part 3 (the last part) of our series on pitching. You can catch up on parts 1 and 2 here.

We’re concluding our look at pitches (for now, I mean, this is a topic that comes up a lot, so we’ll revisit it), by looking at what to do with the pitch once you’ve built it.

And before I forget, hello. It’s good to see you again. Hope you’re doing awesome.

So … pitches. Quite a few people (the count is up to 9 as of the time I’m writing this) have said that while they’re really happy I talked about what goes into a pitch, they still don’t know what to do with it once it’s out. (Pause for a minute because that’s a really dirty sentence to start off your Wednesday)

Pitches have a purpose – to make someone read the story. But we have to put our publishing hazmat suits on if we’re going to define “someone.”

For some, the pitch is going to be their first step in traditional publishing. Maybe it gets said and heard at a conference, maybe it’s said and heard at one of the craptastic pitch cattle-calls that skeevy “gurus” organize. Maybe it’s part of a Twitter event like #pitmad, where you tweet the pitch and an agent or editor likes it and wants more.

For others, it’s going to be a straight route to consumers. There’s nothing wrong with either. It’s just aimed at a different target, but it’s still the same shot.

That said, here are 6 pieces of advice to help you aim your pitch to its best goal.

a. Have more than one pitch, and make sure they’re not the same pitch with some words swapped. Pitch A and Pitch B should approach the story in different directions and with different delivery styles. The more varied your toolbox, the more interesting you’re going to come across to the audience, whoever they might be.

b. If you’re writing the pitch, keep it under 3 sentences. If you’re speaking it, keep it under 45 seconds, but breathe normally. The danger in a written pitch is that it goes on and on forever before making a point. The danger in a spoken pitch is that the speaker is nervous and allthewordsruntogetheruntilyousoundlikeyouarestuckonfastforward.

c. Rehearse over and over. Practice speaking it out loud. Practice writing it down. Both. Often. The more rehearsal, the more familiar the ideas are going to be, and familiarity are going to carry you past the nerves.

d. Be willing and able to make comparisons outside the genre in order to give the audience a picture of what you mean. For instance, call your space opera a Bob Hope Holiday Special meets Blade crossed with Earthworm Jim, if that’s the best way to make someone say, “Yeah I’d check that out.” Go outside the genre box.

e. Social media is a pitcher’s paradise. Using Twitter will develop your concision skills. Using Snapchat will get you used to being in front of a camera and having a short window of time to get an idea across. These are not simple habits to develop, some people are absolutely wigged out at the prospect of speaking up about what they’re doing. (I am not one of those people, I’ll talk your face off and twice again on a Thursday if you give me water and snacks, I am an orbital platform of writing conversations shooting information beams into people’s heads.) If you’re not on social media, GET ON IT. It’s free. And you can find a ton of people in exactly the same experience point as you right along side people who want to help you get better. You can do this. Really.

f. Accept the flubs and keep going. You’re going to say “um.” You’re going to say “uh.” It’s cool. I pitch a lot. I talk a lot, and I say them a lot. An ‘um’ or ‘uh’ isn’t a death sentence for your pitch unless you hit that wobbly moment and let yourself collapse under the weight of panic. Don’t collapse. This is why you practice. This is why you don’t go into these opportunities cold and unpracticed. You’ll never know when you find an opportunity to pitch (see point about social media above), and do not throw away your shot.

Where can you pitch? Make with the Google-fu. Check social media for hashtags like #pitmad or other #writer or #pubtip tags for your chances. When that’s insufficient (and yes, this is where we get more active), get your pitch(es) on YouTube and Snapchat, take advantage of your strengths (video blogging about your MS progress, shooting a day-in-the-life video where you document your publishing efforts, telling all the people at bingo or shuffleboard or that artisanal dog food meetup about your book), and make your own opportunities.

You can do this. Pitches are a strong tool in your toolbox, so get out there are pitch. Want some practice? Put your best pitch (include the genre) in the comments below.

We’ll talk again at the end of the week. Happy writing.

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RealTalk Pitches, Part 2

Pitches, pitches, pitches!
It’s Monday, and we’re on part 2 in our series on pitching. You can catch up on Part 1 here.

Reading some feedback on Friday’s post, I want to make clear that there’s no one single “best” way to pitch, and that there are a lot of different ways to find success with a pitch. What I’m talking about is the composition of the pitch. The goal isn’t to make you follow one format over another, the goal is get you to see that pitch success is possible, it’s about avoiding red flags and making a passionate expression of your idea.

Today I want to look at 3 red flags in pitches, and offer some fixes. Then on Wednesday we’ll wrap up this series with a look at converting your pitch for different media or opportunities.

Red Flag #1 A Boring Pitch
It might be a great idea, but how you’re expressing it doesn’t make it sound like someone would want to read it. Remember our example from Friday (The story of an outlaw who robs the rich to feed the poor, ROBIN HOOD is the story of a man against dangerous odds)? Based on that string of words, would you read the manuscript? Maybe you would, if you already like the subject matter.

Let’s assume though that you’re not already a huge Robin Hood fan, just like you should assume that whoever you’re pitching to is not a super-fan of your work … yet (but they will be, once you rock their face off with this pitch). To make a pitch not so boring, it’s about word choice and word placement. The words you use and where you put them in the sentence plays a big part in how your idea comes across (not that different from the Let’s eat grandma meme about punctuation).

Knowing that, we can improve the Robin Hood pitch like this: When a nobleman returns from the Crusades, he begins another – to stand up to the oppressive puppet regime of the kingdom, even if he has to live like an outlaw to do it.

That’s not as boring, right? We get a bit of worldbuilding, we get a sense of the conflict, and we get an interesting plot element, the nobleman-as-outlaw.

Red Flag #2 A Pitch That Doesn’t Go Anywhere
It can be really exciting and nerve-wracking to have to pitch to someone in an authority role, whether they’re an agent, an editor, or even a whole writing group. One of the toughest parts of those nerves is that people respond to them differently. One of those responses is rambling, or point digressing, or point loss. You’ve heard or even done this – as the conversation goes on for more than a minute or two without the expected response, someone becomes aware that they’re talking too much, so they double down and talk more and gets even more away from the thing they started talking about. I am super guilty of this. It’s how I can start talking about paragraphs and end up talking about the 1997 wrestling pay-per-views I like least (Calgary Stampede tops that list)

To fix this, stick just to the topic, and be okay with the response even if it’s a moment a silence before a spoken response. And if that means saying less than you think you should, so be it.

I know, there’s so much you *could* put into the pitch, and so many things you think are not just important, but critical. Double-check to see if they’re so critical they need to be spoken or written. Would they have greater impact being found out over the course of reading? Is this thing you’re dying to say strong enough to stand on its own and be in the manuscript to be discovered by the hungry reader?

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to say everything in a pitch … And that is an awesome segue to our last red flag of the day.

Red Flag #3 A Pitch That Gives Too Much/Everything Away
As I say on Twitter a pitch (similar to what a query letter does) encourages people to get to the manuscript, the same way a movie trailer makes you want to see the movie. And just like a trailer, it can easily give you all the best info and all the plot.

A pitch isn’t a synopsis. You don’t need to talk about how it ends to interest someone in reading the whole story. This isn’t all that dissimilar from the idea that you need to give all the details so that people “get” it, and sometimes it’s exactly the same thing. Now sometimes this is fueled by excitement, sometimes anxiety and all the words come racing out.

The fix is to get okay with leaving the reader hanging, and knowing how much you need to say and what you don’t need to say to keep the reader hanging. Let’s go back to our Robin Hood pitch and see if we can tweak it a little to keep the reader wanting more.

First version: When a nobleman returns from the Crusades, he begins another – to stand up to the oppressive puppet regime of the kingdom, even if he has to live like an outlaw to do it.

New version: A nobleman turns noble outlaw in his efforts to strike back against a corrupt regime oppressing the poor.

Granted, I’d keep both of those pitches and use them in different places, because it’s about having many tools in the toolbox, not just one super-tool that we keep trotting out over and over. (That’s for Wednesday).

Looking at our examples, the new version has fewer specific details (missing the Crusades, for starters), and is shorter. I could use this on Twitter, for instance. In place of the specificity, the focus tightens on what words are there. The “noble outlaw”, the “corrupt regime” stand out, because they’re broad ideas (even though for me, both are inherent in Robin Hood and other Chaotic Good stories.

The hard part here is not being married to specific phrases in specific orders, so that you have a breadth of options when you need to express what your MS is about. The funny thing is that you get better at letting the ideas go by coming up with as many different (and complete, don’t half-ass the idea once you start writing it down or saying it out loud) sentences to express your idea. Rehearse the hell out of it. Yes, even in the car. And at the grocery store. And while taking out the trash. You can do this.

We’ll wrap up our series on Wednesday where we’ll talk about a pitch toolbox and where you can use your pitches. What do you think of the series so far? What other series would you like to see?

See you later this week. Happy writing.

Real talk: Pitches, Part 1

It’s another Friday. Here’s hoping that wherever you are, the weather is glorious, the food is fresh, the drinks are cold, and you don’t have pants on.

I’d like to kick off a series of posts that will go from today through next week (at least through Wednesday) all about pitches and pitching. This comes from reading many pitches on Twitter (from the hashtag #pitmad, and those just tweeted around/at me, either personally or through Parvus.

And if we’re going to do this right, I’ve got to label this series as realtalk, because we need to be frank about it.

Some pitches suck, and a bad pitch isn’t going to help you going forward. Not onto a query, not to getting that manuscript read. Bad pitches are lethal. They produce cringing, they produce rants and sighing and eye-rolling. So today, we’re going to look at what stuff goes in a pitch, and build from there, because I think without the basics, this is just going to get really subjective (because there is an element of subjectivity to pitching, but it’s not as big as you think).

A pitch is built on three parts: the question, the hook, and the potential. Granted, these three parts are the parts as I explain them, so you’re going to get my definitions and my composition style. You tailor this however you like or need to.

The Question
At the heart of every pitch, just like at the heart of every story, there’s a conflict, or there’s something unknown that needs to get known, the undiscovered to be found out. A pitch that implies the question is counting on the question being understood even though it’s absent.

What am I talking about? The easiest pitch is a question. It states the conflict or the unknown openly, with very little room for doubt.

A question like: “Can a man truly fall in love with a milkshake?” Or “Will the young girl fulfill her destiny to rule the great kingdom?” doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt as to what it’s talking about or what conflict more or less is. The downside to framing the pitch’s conflict as a question is that you can answer with a ‘No’, and that’s not really going to get people to read the manuscript.

The upside is that you’re being clear about what’s going on in the MS.

When we start to make the question a little more nuanced, we change the pitch’s structure while keeping the question intact but unspoken. Sometimes this means asking one question in place of another, as though we’re leading from A to B, sometimes this means no questions at all, just an impending drive forward to get more details.

Like this: “A widower keeps all the same rituals as when he was married but things change when he gets a coupon for a free milkshake.” There’s no question stated there, I’m not reading or inflecting a question into that sentence, but I am circling a question of “What things change and how?” (So two questions, really) by upping the complexity of my pitch.

The Hook
A hook is the part of the pitch that engages the reader. It’s the “Ooh” factor. It’s the novelty or the new dimension put on an existing expectation or presentation. The hook might be a turn of phrase in the pitch, or even the whole sentence of the pitch depending on wording and word choice.

What makes a good hook is that it’s not just what word is used, it’s how. In our young-girl-to-Queen story, the pitch hangs a lot of importance on destiny, and that’s because I chose the word fulfill to go along with it. It’s not clear whether or not she knows this is her destiny, I can figure that out in the text, but the initial idea I’m playing with is that she has a destiny and a choice to make about it.

A choice is always a good hook. Presented earnestly, the choice can be a little too pat and cliche, like it will take itself too seriously and send the reader looking elsewhere for their enjoyment. But by presenting a choice, you’re suggesting the reader stick around the see how things shake out. You’ve hooked them.

Keeping them on that hook is a trickier proposition, since you can never tell when a reader is going to get bored and put the book down, and frankly, you can lose a lot of time and good energy trying to anticipate and course-correct for it before it even happens. Don’t assume it will happen, don’t start thinking your MS isn’t good enough. Trust yourself to put the words together in interesting ways and that a hooked reader will naturally want to stay hooked themselves.

The Potential
Potential is the sum of the hook and the question. It’s where the story is going, and ideally you’ve chosen words to suggest that this story is accelerating to Awesomeville. When I say, “where the story is going” I don’t want a spoiler. A pitch is not a summary. A pitch is the breadcrumb trail I follow to read your MS. If you tell me how it ends, why should I go read it?

Potential is probably the trickiest part of the pitch to grasp, because it means you’ve got a lot left unspoken. Unlike the question or the hook which comes down to word choice, the potential rests on the part(s) you’re not talking about. So how do you make something you’re not talking about turn into something I’d want to read about?

By focusing on the things you are telling me about. Let’s come up with a new example. Let’s say you’re pitching me Robin Hood. And let’s start you off with a not-so-great pitch:

“Robin Hood is this story about a guy who comes back from the Crusades and ends up living in the forest with a bunch of guys while they all rob rich people and help poor people.”

Yes, I really made that suck. Yes, I’ve seen pitches seriously made at that level. And oh man, we can all do better, right?

Breaking this down, we have to find the conflict. For Robin Hood, that conflict is usually in the robs-from-the-rich-and-gives-to-the-poor angle. This makes him an outlaw (A social conflict), but it also speaks to his character (A moral conflict). The fact that we write this conflict in sort of bland way and we leave the conflict until the very end doesn’t evoke a lot of interest in the conflict, right? It’s just sort of there, like overcooked vegetables your mom would serve.  We’ll need to spice it up.

And where’s the hook? No clue. That’s the problem with stating the idea/premise of the story so flatly – it’s about as compelling as lint. There’s no allure in a presentation of facts. The allure, the draw, is that the presentation of the facts leads us somewhere up to and then against the conflict, ultimately leading the character(s) to some kind of change to the status quo.

We’ll end today with a re-tooled version of our Robin Hood pitch, and we’ll pick this up Monday with the next level of pitch development.

Our pitch is now: The story of an outlaw who robs the rich to feed the poor, ROBIN HOOD is the story of a man against dangerous odds.

Don’t forget your sharp sticks for Monday. See you then.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – What’s A Story?

It’s Wednesday. That’s pretty awesome. I mean, it has the potential to be awesome. Let’s try and make it awesome.

As we do here every Wednesday, we go jump into the inbox and see what question jumps back at me. Except today we’re not going to swim through my inbox, we’re going to go through Chuck Wendig’s.

On Monday, he posted this. And it’s a great answer. I want to go more into it. So today’s Inbox Wednesday is addressed to the person who wrote Chuck, except I don’t have their name, and don’t know anything about them. This should be fun. Here we go …

Dear Person Who Wrote Chuck Asking What Makes A Story,

Hi. What’s up? I’m John, maybe you don’t know me, maybe you do know me. Maybe you come check out this blog, maybe this is wholly new for you. Whatever the case, hello, I’d like to answer your question too. It’s a good question, I think a lot of people have that question, and there are even a lot of ways to get to an answer. Consider this one more answer, though I’m going to supplement this answer by giving you a task. Or a noble quest.

Go get a piece of paper and a pen. Yeah I know, Internet age, who has time for pens, but seriously, get a pen and paper and keep it next to the computer/tablet/mystical divining pool as you read this. I’m going to answer your question by challenging the idea in your head.

Story is what happens when five things collide: want, need, power dynamic, rewards, and consequences. This is all framed under the umbrella of a character. Whether that’s the main character is up to you, but the breakdown of these concepts is character-centric, since the character is the being doing the plot.

STEP 1: Divide the Paper into 5 Quadrants
To do this, divide the paper into 6 Quadrants and then skip one. Make an X, draw a horizontal line through the center. I put a giant “Yay!” In the top center space because I need encouragement. Mine looks like this:

Yours will be more page-sized I’m guessing.

STEP 2. Number The Quadrants

So that leaves us with 5 spaces and we can put a number in each. 1 for Want, 2 for Need, 3 for Power Dynamic, 4 for Rewards, 5 for Consequences. See how there’s an inherent tension in these concepts. That tension is going to be what generates the momentum in the story, so when we label our quadrants, set the Wants against the Needs, the Consequences against the Rewards. Power Dynamic gets its own space. Like this:

 

Again, yours is going to be bigger.

What we’re making is a visual reminder of the story’s core. So before we go to step 3. Let’s define these terms, cool?

Want
All characters want something. Ideally, they want multiple somethings, otherwise just wanting one thing would have been solved already. (Like if they just wanted a nap, they’d take a nap, story over.) These wants have a very personal and often selfish scope to them, because they poke the id pretty hard – I want that person’s phone number, I want to watch videos about the moon being hollow, I want to learn how to make gluten-free waffles – all these wants scratch a character’s internal search-itch for comfort or knowledge or pleasure. A character has base instincts to be explored, after all. Even a droid wants something, even when it’s just “complete programming” or “you pass butter.”

Wants can be independent of the plot and can also include resolving the plot. If the plot is “I want to get a date to prom” then a want like, “I want Stephanie to be my date to the prom” makes total sense. Now if you don’t know what your plot is yet, that’s fine, this map will help you find it.

Need
Here we get a little trickier, because a need is something definitely has to happen for one reason or another. And we can get really pat in our answers and say, “the character needs food and water” but that’s obvious to the point of being not helpful. Instead, let’s work from the position that the basics are covered, and think about the character from the broader context. If this story is all about asking Stephanie to the prom, then a need relevant to that would be “character needs to be socially accepted.” If the plot is “gotta stop the bomb from destroying the city” then a need would be defusing that bomb.

Needs are more absolute and often more concrete and enduring than wants, but here’s the tricky bit for characters: wants can pose as and feel like they’re needs. For example: you might tell yourself you really NEED to go buy that new electric guitar, but really you just super want it. Or a need adopts a want as a cover, because admitting the need may be embarrassing. You need that electric guitar because it’s awkward to admit that what you really need is some comfort and fun.

Need-Want Conflict
The tension between needs and wants comes from two places. First, it’s about the efforts trying to get those needs and want met. It’s not easy asking Stephanie to the prom, because there are obstacles in the way. Maybe she’s got a boyfriend. Maybe the character  already has a girlfriend who sucks the happiness out of their bone marrow. There are always obstacles. (Find them, write them down below the six quadrants)

Second, there’s an internal mechanism in getting needs and wants met that we call guilt or shame or embarrassment or fear of response (meaning we don’t know how other people/the world is going to handle us saying we want or need something). Characters experience this too, even if physically the act is simple or hasn’t even happened yet. It’s the alcoholic angry at themselves for even wanting a drink even though all they’ve done is just wake up in bed.

This conflict is fertile not just for internal crisis, but also external crisis. If the character’s internal crisis is not feeling good enough to ask Stephanie to the prom, this can be expressed externally as Stephanie’s jock boyfriend (we’ll call him Brad) mocking the character  in front of other people for even standing around waiting to ask Stephanie as soon as he was done being a dick within ten feet of her.

The more depth you can put into these crises, even if the backstory on each is shallow (we wouldn’t need that many flashbacks to show Brad is a dick, right?), the more connective a situation you create for the reader. We’ve all been there, we’ve all dealt with Brads in our lives. We’ve all had a Stephanie you wanted to ask out, and we’ve all felt that sting of shame when we fail to make that happen.

Power Dynamic
When we talk power dynamic, we start to frame the character in opposition with other factors in the story. How do they relate to other characters? To their environment? To authority figures? To gatekeepers?

Yes, there are going to be different power dynamics between characters A and B and A and C, which is what we want, but at the same time, there have to be those dynamics. Everyone’s got them. Personally. Professionally. Socially. Sexually. All the -lys.

In our example, there’s a power dynamic where Brad is superior to our character. If we give our character some friends, maybe they’re all equal in that they’re all inferior to Brad’s social status. (That’s a social power dynamic. If we made these people work in an office and Brad’s the manager, then it’s also a professional dynamic, see what I mean?)

Power Dynamic Conflict 
No character is going to be constantly superior to everyone and everything else in the story. Unless you’re writing Superman, and we all know how craptastic Superman is. It’s from the shifts and differences in power dynamic that we can build an arc, because a character either wants to maintain their superior position, or elevate from an inferior one. See how we tie power dynamic maintenance back to a want or even a need, depending on situation?

Rewards
These are the prizes a character is seeking. In our example, it’s getting Stephanie to say yes and going to prom with her.  When you build a reward, there’s no thought about what has to happen to get the reward, there’s just the state of having the reward. It’s like when we say we’re going to lose 25 pounds but then don’t talk about how we have to give up triple cheese pizza.

Here’s where we start to see plot begin to solidify. A reward and a want or need may partner up to determine a character’s goal, and then the efforts and obstacles in accomplishing that goal become the story’s plot.

In our example, the character has a stated want to ask Stephanie to prom, and has a need to be seen as cool. The reward is taking her to the prom and having that slow dance to whatever slow jam we would put as the fifth or sixth track on the soundtrack album.

Consequences
Consequences are the ramifications of the pursuit for rewards. They’re the resolution of scenes. They’re the end of one part of an arc and the drive into the next. In our example, our MC will likely get into a fight with Brad, during the Prom, and they’ll both get ejected. But maybe the other consequence of that fight is that Stephanie leaves Brad and finally wants that slow dance with our MC, albeit in the parking lot of the local police station. Or something.

The nice thing about consequences is that they require scenes in order to happen. We’re not going to get to that slow dance in the parking lot without the arrest. And we’re not going to get to the arrest without the fight. We can work backwards as far as you like, and every time we land on an event that happens, that’s a scene in this story.

Now we go to step 3.

STEP 3: Fill out your quadrants
Make some decisions. Start with the Wants (1) and work in order (2) through (5) until the story takes on a rough shape. If you get stuck at some point, go back to the section you just did and see if there’s more explaining you can do. Remember that nobody’s gonna see your notes, so they can be as messy as you need. If you’re stuck on Wants, dissect that character until you know them better. Ask tougher questions. Challenge yourself and don’t settle.

As for our example, here’s what it looks like:

My handwriting remains terrible.

 

Do I think this system will help you, person who emailed Chuck? I do. I think it’s an incredibly useful tool that can educe story from a few ideas and put it on the track to getting down on the page. Give it a try. Let me know what you think. Email me or find me on Twitter or Snapchat (johnwritesstuff) and give me an update on your progress.

Thank you to Chuck Wendig for graciously letting me expand on his blog post, and my sincere thanks to you for reading it. Let’s talk again at the end of the week. Happy writing.

3 Necessities For Your Manuscript

Good morning creatives. I’m writing this to you from the Ugly Couch (though I believe its technical name is “The Couch No One Really Likes But Never Tells John Why”), while Minnie the Wonder Dog and I engage in our second favorite activity – watching old replays of WWE Raw in between naps.

See?

This was her big moment. Not pictured is the snoring. Pictured here is just how badly I need a haircut

If you hadn’t heard the news from Twitter, over the weekend I formalized an arrangement to work with Parvus Press in a more complete and serious capacity, having removed the “Consulting” out of the “Consulting Editor” title, and take over their Editorial operations. Call me The Managing Editor/Writer Next Door.

So from the casual office, I put together this post to talk about 3 things that are really super 5-star giant thumbs-up important and should be in the pages of your manuscript (but so often aren’t, for reasons I cannot guess).

1. The opening page YES REALLY, THE PAGE, should involve some combination of character, world, story tone, and your writing style. When I say “character” I mean ideally a character that’s a main character. Think about Watson in Sherlock Holmes; Daredevil in … Daredevil; Princess Leia in Star Wars; or the Sea in Old Man And The Sea. It doesn’t always need to be the mainest of main characters (especially if you have an ensemble story to tell, but that also doesn’t mean the reader needs to be force fed you entire MS roster), it just needs to be a character that isn’t going to get ditched when the “real” characters show up.

How does “story tone” make itself different from “your writing style”? Because you use your writing style to flesh out your story’s tone. Erratic tone, where you jump from (for example) comedic to romantic to Gothic to fantastic, is a killer, because the reader isn’t going to know how to interpret or how to feel about your story. And if we look at this from a publisher standpoint, erratic tone makes the book a hard sell. How do you market a book that feels all over the place?

If we accept the maxim that the average published page is 250 words (I’m willing to take that up to 255), then you’ve got some decisions to make. It’s okay to go skimpy like a bathing suit on world building if you’ve put some word count on your character and style. But there does need to be a little bit of everything. There’s a lot riding on your first page, and when you go all in on something to the exclusion of something else, the void you leave is palpable. And it’s tough to keep a critical reader engaged and determined to hit that second, third or even fifth page. Don’t leave it up to them to “keep reading and see if it gets better.” Don’t pin a lot on the idea that if the reader just gets into chapter 4, that’s where the story really picked up. As the kids say, “Ain’t no one got time for that.”

So what’s the right balance? That’s up to you. Sorry, I don’t mean to be a dick about things, but there’s no magic bullet. There’s no one single formula. I can tell you the best combination of character, world, tone, and style is the one that best serves you and what you’re trying to do.

2. Something more than theTalk Template“. The “Talk Template” looks like this:

The dialogue starts,” a character speaks, “and then carries on to start every paragraph or nearly every paragraph on the page.” (italics mine)

I see this especially with inexperienced authors. Page after page is built out of paragraphs that start with people talking, often to each other and often as a way to describe what they’re about to do. And sometimes the whole paragraph is dialogue. We already have a word for a manuscript that is more character talking than anything else, it’s called a screenplay. If you’re writing one of those, awesome, you’re doing great with all the talking. But if you’re writing a novel, not so much.

We need more than dialogue. We need exposition. We need plot development. We need and so badly want your story to play out beyond just characters talking.

3. A plot that may appear complex, but can be parsed into a simple understandable package. Pick a favorite story. Can you put the plot in a sentence, especially if you don’t use proper nouns?

How about: While never taking a math or gym class, a young wizard student and his magical group of friends are put in constant magical danger as they quest to defeat the world’s vilest sorcerer by breaking his stuff.

How about: A mumbling boxer takes on the greatest boxer ever while learning about love thanks to a pet store.

How about: Kevin Bacon and Remo Williams fight giant dirt slugs with the dad from Family Ties.

A plot can have a lot of moving parts, it can have great nuance and subtext, but it does need to be boiled down to a degree that can be translated into “Hey you, other person, you should check this out.”

That’s not to say it’s simple, or that it needs to be dumbed down at all. But the plot that’s so complex it can’t be boiled down into a sentence is not a plot that’s easily shared with someone else. See, when you put all the material in one sentence, you present everything you need. The proper nouns are window dressing, no matter how cool they are. The backstory behind the plot, all those sweet bells and whistles you’ve built, are just bells and whistles. What’s at the heart of the plot?

If the heart is solid, then I will get into the manuscript to see it unfold and burst forth all its awesome. Keep it simple, keep it exciting.

Let’s talk more about this on Wednesday. See you then. Happy writing

More Character Thinking

It’s Friday, and like the kings and queens that we are, let us celebrate by having meat cakes, or however that saying goes. Anyone got any good weekend plans? Anyone playing skee-ball?

We’ve been talking thinking and how to express what a character thinks. We closed Wednesday with a brief mention about psychic distance, and the idea that the more obvious you make the act of character thinking, the farther away you set your reader against that.

Put another way, when you put a big neon sign on ‘My character is thinking!’, you make the reader aware of the fact that they’re reading, which pulls them out of the imaginative world you’re both cooperating in. And you want to limit how often and how intensely you yank them from the act of picturing and sharing your world.

A little of this is inescapable. There’s no way to completely eliminate the awareness that a book is being read or an audiobook is being heard, nor can you limit the infringement from the outside world, that phone is going to ring, or they’re going to yawn or something. But small intrusions aside, people will stay in the world as often and as long as you encourage them to do so, like when we have a warm bath or we get into the ocean when we’re five and the water seems to go on forever.

But there’s a great number of manuscripts I’ve read where the jump-cut from thought to action, regardless of first- or third-person, is so jarring that I lose track of what’s going on, even if the idea being thought is critical to whatever moment it’s happening in.

Like I mentioned on Wednesday, there are three ways to demonstrate thinking: With thought tags and italics; with italics but no thought tags; with no tags or italics. Let’s look at each.

With tags and italics
Here is the broadest and most obvious method for indicating thought. You’ve got a thought tag, which is a verb that informs the reader that the idea around/near it is a thought, and you’ve got the visual cue of italics to indicate that you have to make a distinction between this idea and the same idea being spoken, as well as the different consequences thereof. (If you don’t know what I mean, it’s the difference between walking up to someone and calling them a jerk versus just thinking they’re a jerk)

There’s a place for this in a manuscript. Depending on how you want to spike the separation between thought and speech, depending on how you want to express a character’s line of thinking, tags and italics can serve you well.

When taken too far though, you shift into a hard “tell” where the character’s thought(s) shortcut the plot development and eliminate the reader’s opportunity to figure out what’s going on and then enjoy it. This happens, for instance, when the cop trying to solve the murder thinks about all the clues in order, all as thoughts, and then concludes the thought train with Doug being the killer because he was the only one who mentioned liking yams during sex.

Because this expression of thought is so obvious, it can very easily wind up as a whole mess of tell in the show-vs-tell scale. Does that mean never do this? Does that mean tags and italics makes you a poor writer? No. It just means you need to deploy this skillfully.

Italics but no tags
Now we get a bit more nuanced. Without the tags to cement that the action being taken is a thought, you’re relying on the visual difference between italics and non-italics to prompt the reader to make the internal/external switch.

Sounds easy, right? That’s what makes this ripe for abuse. Authors often think they’re being “better” (better than other authors) because they’re not using tags. And that’s horsefeathers. First, there’s no ranking based on using thought tags. Second, there’s a time and place to use tags, just like there’s a time and place to not use them.

Don’t use the tag when you need the thought itself needs to be clearly seen on its own (I don’t mean on its own like its own line in the MS, I mean making it distinct from the rest of the text) as part of context in the scene. When there’s a line of text called out by typographic difference (italics), you’re suggesting it to be special from the other lines nearby.

This is doubly so in the context of the moment within the fiction. Doug and his sex-yams might be so intriguing to Kim that she has a thought about it while she’s grooving to some polka in the conservatory after dinner. That thought, because it’s part of what helps build the Doug/Kim arc, needs more weight for the benefit of the reader and story than just exposition (since that’s not giving Kim a chance to have her own thought).

Abuse creeps in when so much of the text ends up italicized. The words of the thought get italicized. If the character isn’t thinking about another character or action, and is instead thinking of a whole scene or fantasy (like Kim about Doug), that IS NOT italicized, because it would lead to multiple paragraphs. Yes I know, those are what Kim is thinking, but imagination isn’t thinking. Break out of the fantasy back to exposition.

No tags or italics
Let’s swing the pendulum a little bit and go back to that author who thinks they’re being smart(er) by not having any italics or tags. Maybe they think that’s edgier than my neighbor’s manicured lawn.

Except it’s not edgy. In first-person this isn’t so bad, because the line between narration and thought is already translucent. But in third-person, it’s a demand posed as a request for the reader to follow along closely, and that’s something earned by having the text not … well, not suck.

The problem with trying this in third-person is that if your thought uses “I” or “we” or “my” (or a variation thereof), you’re suddenly jumping from the top-down view of third-person and individuating into the head of a character. Even if you double super pinky-swear promise that you’ll jump right back out when you’re done, it’s still a POV-shift, which gets the editorial red flags flying.

Working in the past tense makes this easier, but still, it’s a careful deployment designed to collapse psychic distance and drive us to the present minute (like when Kim picks up yams and walks to Doug’s hotel room)

To sum up, there’s a time and place for all three of these techniques. Use them throughout an MS to distinguish and develop the story you want to express.

See you guys next week. Have an awesome weekend. Happy writing.