character stuff

One More Vector On Character In Story

Let’s suppose we’re playing chess on a lovely morning at my favorite beach spot in the whole world and the scene is everything great that I love: we’ve got nice drinks, we’re comfortably dressed, it’s warm but not hot, the ocean is literally right the hell over there, and we have no care in the world except we’re playing chess.

You move first. Say you advance the queen’s pawn two spaces. I do the same on my side. You move a knight, and again I do the same. You move the queen, so I move my queen. How long do you think we can keep copying each other before we either have no choice but to stop dancing around the fact that chess is about trying to take each other’s king or that we’re just going to go around and around until one of us gets sick of the game and walks away?

There’s a mathematical answer to that, but it’s not important right now. What is important, in fact the whole point of the chess story is that how we approach our pieces and the moves we make affects the board. Not structurally, but contextually, because while the board’s always going to have that many squares and we’ll always have 2 rooks and we’ll always know that the pieces operate in specific ways, how we move them changes how the next thing in the game can go. You move a bishop and all of a sudden, I can find myself cut off from a third of the board. I put you in check and now instead of pressing me with a knight, you’re on the defensive.

Chess is a great metaphor for storytelling because it is itself a story. The pieces are characters, their actions and goals and possibilities map to storycraft incredibly well. And like in chess, we need to see the whole board, and see the relationship between moves made, moves happening at the time, and moves in the future, along with whatever possibly responses they’ll get.

Today we’re going to look at characters by looking at the whole board. It’s time to dive into some character typing.

Everyone’s Got A Type, Right?

Character typing is the name for how we label characters both individually and collectively. Yes this is how we get ‘protagonist’, ‘antagonist’, ‘love interest’, but also ‘crazy cat lady’, ‘hyper sensitive complaint monkey’, or ‘dudebro’. That term “typecasting” comes out of this idea – that the same actor often gets put into the same role or type from one project to the next.

Let’s look at our chessboard. Whenever we label anything, we use that name, that word, as a way to distinguish it from the other material around it. On the chessboards we call pawns “pawns” because they’re not called “queens.” Each distinct kind piece has its own name, even if the population of them varies on that side of the board. Yes, we have more pawns than we do kings, and that gives the impression that the king is more rare and special.

Coming back to storycraft, this is the benefit of rarity – we don’t call every character operating on one side of the conflict “the protagonist” because, well, some just end up being pawns not kings. This is where big giant ensemble casts where there’s some forced egalitarian structure in place (bonus points if this was a learned-in-school-bullshit thing about power structures), because storytelling is meritocratic – the utility of the piece and how it acts in concert and reference to the other pieces in play makes it important as part of the greater strategy to succeed at the conflict of the story.

But before we can talk utility, we have to talk about both sides of the board, the big picture. See how each king has a pawn in front of it? We’d call those pawns “corresponding.” In story term’s this is where the same role is fulfilled on each side of the conflict. In Disney fare, this is making sure both the good guys and badguys have a sarcastic character, or in a soap opera that each side has the passive aggressive mother-in-law that I’m sure someone will “Yass queen” over (what does that mean, anyway? Can anyone explain it?).

Corresponding Characters

Simplest terms: What’s on one side exists in equal measure on the other side, and their utility or capacity to function in the story is equal too. In chess, both sides get pawns, and it’s agreed upon in advance and understood that all pawns are going to operate in the same way. In a story, the nerdy sidekicks stay in their expected ranges of actions and functions. When all of a sudden you give the nerdy sidekick the chance to be the badass, the moment in the story feels out of place – often played for comedy or played for tension. When we deviate from that norm, we get an heightened emotional response.

Here comes the first red flag with corresponding characters. You can pretty quickly bloat the story structure. Look how many pawns we have on the chessboard. If we do that in a story, that’s a lot of moving parts with a lot of overlap, because we don’t need the same number of characters on both sides to tell a complete story. Are we really gaining anything substantial if you add two more snarky best friends to your rom-com? A lot of these characters can get merged/collapsed into each other to make the amalgam character stronger for both the story and the audience’s benefit.

Don’t believe me – Tell me about Johnny’s Kobra Kai buddies in The Karate Kid. Yeah, I know that one kid who looks like Mark Hamill who is way down for putting Daniel-san in a bodybag, but can you tell me about the other ones? Yeah, there are other ones.

 

 

Yeah, I do think he looks like Mark Hamill a little.

Corresponding characters work better in tighter stories with smaller casts, where there’s less necessity of having all the corresponding pairs face-off. It’s because of their utility to story that they become important – they set up what other characters do and it doesn’t matter if there’s one across the field from them, they do what they do for their side and then they get out of the way. It’s worth challenging yourself to see if you actually need equity between sides in the story. The metaphoric scales don’t have to (And shouldn’t often) balance nearly as much or as often as you think they might.

Maybe you’re asking, “So what about in comics and movies where you have two characters that are sort of the same but not exactly the same, do they correspond?

No, they’re the next thing we’re going to talk about.

Reflected Characters

Flash and Anti-Flash. Green Lantern and Sinestro. Rockford and Marcus Hayes.

Reflected characters are pairings where the members of the pairs aren’t exactly the same, but even given their changes, they’ve got the same utility. Looking back to our chessboard, we’ve got two bishops per side, but one can only move along white squares and the other black, though both move along the diagonal.

Reflected characters are built to be complimentary but not necessarily to the degree where they cancel each other out. It’s part of their inherent tension that they exist for the other to have something to bounce off of, and it gives the audience something to have an emotional connection to and a stake in. If this character controls water, and this other one controls fire, who’s gonna get the upper hand in a certain situation? Guess they’ll have to read and find out.

The downside and potential hazard of reflected characters is nullification, where they do cancel each other out in terms of story utility and scene consequences. Okay, Fire Lady meets Water Lady, and neither gets the upper hand, so what, they just sort of circle each other a few times and then walk away, or worse, they’re going to go back and forth until some other character steps in and actually does something in the scene?

Did you really think this wasn’t getting used?

How is that going to give the audience something to care about, especially if their possible confrontation gets a lot of hype in advance?

The solution for reflected characters is in the context and the situation where they clash. Yes, in blank space, the two will cancel each other out (and I know I’ve framed this as superheroes, but this is also true for two lawyers or two siblings or two rival chicken farmers or whatever), but characters don’t live in blank spaces. The world around them reacts and encourages them to react and because each character (no matter how reflected) is their own character with a different moral code, skill set, belief structure, or fear and goal, the world around them and their choices provides them opportunities so that they don’t end up like that chess match at the beginning of the blogpost where we’re just copying each other and not really playing one another.

Two more to go, but we can put away the chessboard.

Analogues

Analogous characters are pairings of characters and tropes or other representations that share similar backgrounds or thematic material. Analogues work best when you know the tropes and the templates that founded the particulars of the character in question. What do I mean?

Philip Marlowe, Jim Rockford, Matlock, Black Panther, Rocky … they’re all noble heroes in a world often sloped or staged against them. If you understand the formulae in and around the noble hero, you can essentially hot-swap the hero and the hero’s story around to create an overall different but somehow familiar story. This combined familiarity-difference helps the audience relate to the new material by having existing material as a home base.

A word of caution here- don’t fall down the I-need-to-know-everything-about-the-trope-before-I-can-write-it-hole. The INTKEATTBICWI hole is huge and jagged and it’s a fast track to paralyzing production. You don’t need to know everything up front, and you don’t even need everything by the time you’re done. Just like writing is a process of stratification, so too is developing and researching the ideas that will inform what goes on those pages. Research enough to give you a starting point, then start writing and let what you’ve written along with what you already know to let you know what to research and write next. Keep your story on track and your research relevant, and you’ll run into fewer instances of getting stuck.

Analogues work great when you put the focus on the story being told, not who’s in the story. This isn’t to say the characters are disposable, but good analogue use means that any and all characters are machine-crafted to fit into a larger puzzle that deserves focus, no matter how cool they are as a singular component. And because they’re rooted in tropes, you never have to go too far to see what boundaries or functionality a character is supposed to have. The Barfly is always going to supply information to the Detective more than they’d make threats (that’s the Goon’s job), and the Wise Mentor is always going to have more experience than any Fish Out Of Water (because then they wouldn’t be very wise, nor would the fish be out of water).

Knowing these things give us a box to operate in, and whenever we’re lost, a set of basal instructions for how a  character is going to default as well as how we can subvert expectation within and around the trope to add a little spark to a flat moment in development.

Okay, last one.

Variants

We know these. These are the Spocks-with-Goatees, the alternate universe versions of the bookworm who’s a party girl, the version of the hero twisted by tragedy.

A variant the same hero with some moderate to significant changes due to changes in backstory. In our version, the character made that left at Albuquerque, but the variant sees them going right. Or we take the character and go a bit farther out on the limb, but whatever, we can pass it off as something cool and special that can swim in some what-if waters for our story.

 

Yes, sometimes this does go too far.

 

The advantage of offering a variant within a story or series goes beyond the character being cooler or different (in hacky cases, this basically makes you a new character you can do-over, but I think we’re all trying to be better than that), because it drives to the audience how important choices and outcomes were. Yes, at the time it was a big emotional deal for the character, and we can later underscore that by calling it back by showing the variant what-could-have-happened if they didn’t make that choice.

This is Jimmy Stewart having never been born. Or Michael Caine being visited by 3 Muppets. It’s fun when it has a purpose, but it can often go beyond fan service and just sort of drag everything to a halt just so it can get its few moments of attention. Also, it’s worth pointing out that depending on build-up, the actual thing will often fall short compared to how it could have been.

I love you, but there’s a lot that could have gone differently. At some point I think we should deconstruct you …

 

Conclusion

So why bring this all up? Because seeing the whole chessboard, seeing the big picture and being about to discuss the components as though they’re distinct and parts of a whole is a critical skill. It comes up when you’re interviewed or when you’re talking to an editor or agent about the story. Seeing the parts and understanding its flow means you’re able to participate in its betterment in a greater way than just looking at text for proper grammar and punctuation.

Add this stuff to your writer’s toolbox, and next week, we’ll add some more.

 

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in by request, character stuff, revisiting an idea, 0 comments

Thinking of a Scene In Paragraphs

(yes, this blogpost is going up ahead of Tuesday morning, but that’s because Tuesday is a travel day for me, and I won’t have internet access for 15+ hours of it)

Last week I did a tweetstorm about treating sentences like cameras.  Today on the blog I want to go into more detail about that, and show you want it actually looks like.

Yes, I understand that our particular writing styles and choices are going to be (and should be) different, but I’m hoping the point comes through to you all the same. I believe very strongly in the idea that you have a responsibility to put the clearest broadcast of your art into the mind of the other person and that no matter what your art is, it will be filtered and affected by not only your biases and experiences as a creator, but by the biases and experiences of the audience. The best way to pierce this chain mail of expectation and perception is through clearly getting the idea out and across.

Don’t confuse clarity for simplicity or brevity. You don’t need to be simple or brief to be clear. And don’t mistake this for an argument about having more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, because it isn’t. Show and tell work together as concepts to help deliver the art into the person’s head. But that’s for another tweetstorm and another blogpost.

While today I’m using a scene from a movie, for your own work, I want you to picture it as visually and completely in your head, as if you’ve paused it and like some bad CSI CG scenes, you can fully walk around and through it.

To start off today, we need a scene. Let’s go grab a screenshot from whatever I’m watching on Netflix.

We’re gonna use this one. I like this scene.

This is a moment in Rogue One that I particularly like, though I chose it for the combination of dialogue, numerous things in the frame to describe, and its staging.

To get you thinking like a camera, here’s how I teach it.

  1. Make an inventory of things (not characters) you want to definitely write about in the scene.
  2. Make a list of all the characters you want to write about in the scene.
  3. Make a list of actions that happen in the scene, paying attention to both who does what, but also the order in which these actions happen.
  4. Make a list of stakes, goals, and things risked in the scene
  5. Make a list of all expectations each character in the scene.
  6. Write the scene.

Now if that sounds like I’m asking a lot of you for simple paragraphs, I don’t mean it to. But for those of you who have never done it like this, or you’re looking for a better road map so that you can better at it, I’m purposefully breaking the list out so you see how these things weave together to build something narratively sound.

Inventory of non-character things

This is objects in the scene that aren’t people. These can be the things held by people, but they’re also things like what’s in the background or furniture or the ground. Just so that there’s no confusion about my handwriting, here’s what that inventory would look like typed out.

Not a complete list, but it works for the example

Remember, these notes are just for me as the writer. No one’s going to check them out, and really I’m writing them down to keep myself on track as to what I definitely want to say either as components of a sentence or as a sentence entire.

No, the order I write this list in doesn’t matter, and no, the order I write them in doesn’t translate into the order I’ll write about them in the text. I’m just making a list, stop overthinking it.

List the characters

Again, just a list, no special order or attention. The paragraphs and the choices I make about how to write it will dictate where I put attention. Right now, I’m just corralling all the possible beings I could talk about.

I’m sure each trooper has a name, but this is my example. You go do your own.

It’s worth pointing out here that you can do this list before the item list. The order isn’t super critical, so long as by the time you get to the writing, you’ve got all the components organized. I tend to do the item list first, because I tend to skip over things in early drafts and don’t like having the “why did I leave this out” conversation with myself during later drafts.

Some of you are thinking, “Is it just a list of names?” and no, it doesn’t have to be. It can be whatever character associated information you need or want, but since this particular example scene happens well into the movie, let’s assume I’ve already covered the physical descriptions and traits elsewhere.

If this were the intro-to-the-characters scene (and you can argue that this moment in Rogue One is, but you’ve previously seen Chirrut one scene prior), then I’d attach to each item in the list a descriptor or two so that I can establish the details about the characters when they come up.

List the actions

Now that we have all the physical objects of the scene listed, we can figure out what’s going on with them. In a scene, nothing happens without affecting the time and space around it, and nothing happens that doesn’t somewhere have a documentable reaction.

I’ll break that down. If you’re going to have a character do something, the world around him and the characters around him will react in some way, even if that reaction is “nothing changes because of what’s happened.”

For instance, if the Hulk throws a building at you, presumably you’d be crushed by the building and the space where the building was would no longer have a building in it.

Actions are about what happens and what results because of the things that happen

I tend to write this inventory in the order I want the events to happen in the scene. This is the first time I start making decisions about the structure, since the later items on the six-part list will cover things like tone and atmosphere.

What this does not mean is that the first things listed will naturally take more focus or line-space than the later things. In every paragraph in a scene there’s at least one key piece of information that you want to get across to the reader. In this case it’s the Chirrut dialogue and the fact he just straight walks out among them.

The second item “no one shoots him” is a reaction to something else that happens in the scene. Reactions are actions too, so don’t exclude them. I’m sure someone will say they should go on their own list, and yes, I can see how that helps, but action and reaction will likely end up being their own blogpost, so for now, let’s stay on what we’re doing.

Stakes, goals, and things risked

For the next two items on the list, we have to get past the physical objects of the scene and look at the emotions and psychology of the moment. No one walks into a scene without having a goal and risking something to get that goal. No one gets out of a scene without some element(s) of the scene affecting them. Characters take their past forward, every time.

Every character or group of characters has a goal.

I know expectations are the next thing on the list, but don’t include the expectations into this list. Goals are objective, expectations aren’t. A goal of “I want a sandwich” is impacted by the expectation that I have the means to make a sandwich. Actions are bred more from expectations than goals, since they’re more immediate and more variable.

So why don’t expectations go first in our list? Because stakes are derived based on the situation and goal(s) colliding, which means expectations are the character’s assessment of how likely the goal is based on the situation.

What we choose as the goal is part of the overall character arc, since no arc is introduced and resolved in a single scene or beat. And yes, every character has a goal, even if they go unstated at a particular point in the story.

Expectations

Expectations are subjective because they’re the factor in character development where the skills and perceived risks come into play. I might be a fantastic golfer (skill) but I’m not sure I could play my best when my clubs are made of snakes (perceived risk), so my expectation might be that I won’t win the championship in this snake golf tournament.

Here in my Rogue One example, I’m going to make a clear decision as to what the scene is about based on what expectations I list and which ones I don’t.

Expectations shape actions because they’re the fluid influencers to achieve fixed goals

Write the Scene

Armed with all these pieces, we can write a scene.

The smoke and dust had barely settled when his voice filled the post-explosion silence. 

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me. And I fear nothing.”

Odd, thought Stormtrooper C, that this blind man, this blind fool, could just walk into this moment, his moment, and start yapping. So he watched. 

Chirrut moved in a balletic way, The soft footfalls and the crunch of gravel and sand underscored the sort of grace that stood against the explosion. There were still the smells of burning concrete and flesh. But Chirrut seemed to not notice. Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on. 

And no one seemed to fire on him. It would make sense to, to flood the air with blaster fire and turn this blind fool into swiss cheese. But no one did. Not C with all his bravado. Not B with her itchy trigger finger. Not A with their eagerness to please. 

There was just this guy, standing there, talking at them.

It’s not a great moment when I write it out. It’s an example, and I could do a lot more visually with it. I could frame the explosion while slowing down time. I could take more space to talk about C and B and A individually.

There are loads of choices to make, and that’s one thing I want you to remember – the decisions you make matter.

Practice this. Watch things. Pause it and try to describe it in whatever way you’d rewrite it.

 

Happy writing

 

Posted by johnadamus in character stuff, check this out, step by step, storycraft, structure, the craft of writing, 1 comment

The Marriage of Facts and Emotions

This post started as a series of complaints and muttered grousings made to a sleeping dog over the course of the last week. It later coalesced as what was going to be an audio post I just sort of fired off, and now, after pacing the first floor of the house, it’s a blog post.

When you spend time reading manuscripts and manuscript excerpts, be they for submissions or for contests or just for critique, you see a lot of the same mistake made again and again. Even if the specific words are different and the topics covered are different, the same mistake crops up.

And this is where we make sort of a record scratch noise and have a little sidebar.

Look, I know that this post is about to go out to a lot of people who haven’t really read much of this blog, and while I am thankful for your reading it, I would be completely unhappy with myself if I didn’t disclaim that I am not in the business of rectal smoke or being a cuddly kind resource that flounces around and doesn’t address the art and craft of writing with practicality and an edge to it, because my job and passion isn’t to be your friend. It’s not to make you all warm and fuzzy when you’re clearly treading water. It’s to make you better. Because I want you to be the best you can be, and if you’re about to say, “You can be nice about it” I’ll nod and still tell you that if your shit sucks you can and should fix it and if you’re clutching your pearls and feeling attacked just wait until you get beset with years of rejections and no feedback because you stepped out of your echo chamber unprepared. My job is to help you get better. So let’s get you better. No illusions, not a lot of hand-holding. This is art. This is craft. Here, we work for our successes. You want to masturbate over the dream, head elsewhere. 

Okay, back to the post.

So many openings make a critical error in their openings. No matter the genre. No matter the POV. The text lays there sort of flat like old soda, and doesn’t interest people. It’s boring. It doesn’t grab people. No matter how many carriage returns you use. No matter how many swears you use. It’s limp. It’s old spaghetti. It’s not going to make someone read more.

That error is the imbalance between fact and emotion.

Fact, for our discussion here, is any statement that provides information to the reader that they either didn’t have or need to have because some other fact benefits from it. This can be anything from a setting description to saying what kind of boot a lady wears. It’s all about telling the reader something they need to know going forward. And we assume these facts are always true, unless something in the presentation tells us otherwise.

Emotion, for this discussion, is any statement that evokes or educes a feeling from the reader. It’s describing how someone feels sad when the other lady kicks the bucket. It’s describing how the clouds inspire hope. It’s everything from the flowery to the straight -up assignment of feelings to a character.

Fact without emotion is dry. It would be like reading a few pages of dictionary. It’s informational, yes, but does it really make someone want to turn the page to the next columns of S-words? Information alone is not engaging, and it is not the thing that makes people turn pages, give a shit, buy books, leave reviews, or say nice things in tweets.

We are led and driven by emotion. Emotion, when you partner it with fact, gives a context and a reaction. It’s that reaction we’re looking for. Here’s an example.

It kept raining all night. Gary snarled when it thundered.  Gary hated the rain.

Those are 3 facts. It establishes several pictures in your head, and it doesn’t matter if Gary is a dog, a grizzled detective on a stakeout, or the king of horseshit cliche magical creatures, because it’s not until we get to the word “hated” that we have a context for the images in our head.

We want context. Context helps provide depth and engagement with the reader or audience. Context isn’t going to just appear because you provided a paragraph of facts about what two people did in a room, it’s going to show up when you take the facts and add some kind of character development to them. Evocative language (verbs, nouns, adjectives, whatevers) is your key to building context.

You want to avoid any situation where you can be asked, “What do you want me to do with this info?” or “Why should I care?” as they’re both signs that there’s a lack of context through which the reader can clarify or connect to or want to connect more to the basal picture you’ve put in their heads.

We’ve previously established that characters need to feel human so that we can connect with them and without them giving some kind of emotional reaction to the world around them, those characters might as well be the colored cut-outs we used to make on popsicle sticks in art class – flat, not terribly precise, limited – story tools.

This is not a call where every fact needs an emotional element following shortly thereafter like a kid brother who just won’t leave you alone when all you want to do is stare at the girls on the bleachers down at the park.

You can have groups of facts get shepherded by an emotion (like my dog and the toys she wants to have near the couch versus those she brings to a spot under the desk) when related or necessary as in the description of your dystopia all getting the label “oppressive” either overtly in text or implied by other word choices you’ve made.

Now, yes, your reader will supply some emotions because they’re human beings with experiences and naturally they want to correlate their emotions with their imagination that you’ve been fueling and prompting by giving them images for the movie screen in their head. But you’re not just letting them assign any old emotion to your story, right? You’re trying to take them down a particular path, and to do that you want them to experience and think about certain emotions more than others, right?

So your persecuted lovers in a medieval kingdom shouldn’t feel like a casual comedy when you’re trying to make people feel bad when Gwen nearly gets her head taken off by the axe before Bill confesses being the wizard before the evil Duke.

So your fish-out-of-water has an appropriate sense of wonder when they, the abused orphan of prophecy gets the cliche acceptance into a cliche brand new world that will forever cliche dazzle them as they cliche proceed over many stories with cliche villains and cliche tools that allow them to cliche deal with the cliche prophecy in a cliche way so that they learn a cliche lesson.

To associate emotion with fact, you need to be clear on what emotion you’re intended, and how you’re going to use sentence structure to deploy it. If you want X emotion to be felt as a result of reading Y paragraph, what words do the emotional creating and propagating?

Here’s a delightfully merciless exercise.

  1. Go double-space and print out your first page, or the page of the MS you’re the most proud of, no matter where it is in the story. And grab one highlighter and one pen (or two different colored pens, but I’m going highlighter/pen combo here).
  2. Choose either the highlighter or pen. If you’re using the highlighter, mark all the facts. If you’re using the pen, circle the facts. Yes you can mark a whole sentence if you want, but try to focus on whatever you think the facts are.
  3.  Now pick up the other thing you didn’t use in Step 2 (for me, this is where I get the highlighter because I just used the pen) Again, if you’re highlighting now, mark all the parts of the text that convey emotion. Or if this is the pen, circle them.
  4. In the margin, at the end of every paragraph, I’d like you to write down the number of facts in that paragraph. If this number seems very high, consider what you’re trying to do deploying info piece after info piece.
  5. In the margin, at the bottom of the page, I’d like you to write down the number of total emotions conveyed on this page.

Now because I sense that some of you are going to say, “I don’t get it.” Here’s an example page. EMOTIONFACT

Notice how the emotional stuff helps build voice and the factual stuff frames what I want you to picture in your head. And if I didn’t have the emotional stuff, you’d have a very boring recitation of A to B to C to D events, without many points for reader connection.

Voice is important. Facts are important. But you have to partner the two together for the whole page to lead us forward to the next page.

One of the major reasons why queries and manuscripts get rejected is because the mix of fact to emotion is skewed as to either bore the reader or under-detail the pictures intended to keep us reading.

To close here, let me point out that when I say emotion I’m talking about 2 types.

First, the emotions of the characters that help establish the voice and tone of the piece. And second, the emotion intended to be brought out of the reader.

By showing the character having an emotion (or even just emotions in general, a whole lot of stories start with boring people not feeling anything yet able to fully explain what they do as if telling me that they’re a tired worker is an emotional incentive to invest in a person for 300+ pages), and then be able to reference that emotion by coming back to that scene (think of a movie soundtrack where every time a theme comes back into play we feel a thing) or a shade of that scene, you reinforce the emotion in-character without bludgeoning the reader by always saying that Ronald is sad.

A lot of people pause here to say, “What about pacing?” What about it? If you’re early on (first page or pages), it’s obvious that you haven’t built pacing yet and that you’re building it there, so we know that you’ll hit 60 miles an hour after you accelerate up from zero. Also, good detail that paints a picture in the mind and reinforces voice does not slow down, it escalates it. Because the picture in mind will be clearer and the inertia will sweep me along like an avalanche.

Instead of a second sidebar, let’s rock a little wrap-up.

Hey creative. How are you? Ready to get up and give this a try? I know, there’s a lot here. But I want you to do me a favor – just think on this as you write:

I’m in charge of putting a movie in the reader’s head. So I need to control what the person sees, how clearly they see it, how they feel when they see it, and how they understand why I’m showing it to them. This book is my film. I need characters and emotions and arcs and decisions and risks and goals, not buzzwords and GIFs and excuses and fear. I’m going to make this movie on paper, and then share it with people because it’s awesome and it makes me happy to do so. None of the shit that the barnyard chickens cluck about matters, it’s just me and this movie and my want to get it out. 

You can do this. Even if you think you can’t right now, even if you tell me a whole host of reasons why all these other things need to be a certain or how other people need to act in a certain way or whatever fluffy cloud of shit you dredge up, you can do this if you keep at it. One word after the other, one idea moving into the next. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be yours. 

 

Happy creating.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, art hard, character stuff, check this out, get help if you need it, 0 comments

The Passage of Time In Story

Good morning. Welcome back to the week. The sky is clear, the sun is out, I think today might be worth seizing. So let’s pour ourselves a morning glass of iced tea into our best mug (mine talks about butts) and talk writing, shall we?

Today, I want to talk about time as it is used in a story. Time is one of the most manipulated and relied upon elements of storycraft, because it’s instantly familiar to the audience regardless of genre or any reader specifics. We all know about time, we all have feelings about time, we all know how time works.

And like the other instantly familiar concepts (like emotions or world physics), when it’s done well, the story maintains its cohesion and proceeds as planned. However, when time gets monkeyed with (and I don’t mean as a function of the story, I mean when the author sucks are expressing the passage of time), it can stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s that point I want to address. Time has a lot of story components, some of which I think warrant more explanation and definition, rather than just a blanket statement.

Have you ever defined time? It’s the progression of events in one direction, presumably forward. We have different units of time that we all agree upon (seconds, minutes, centuries), unless the genre calls for a change to them, as may happen in science fiction where a particular planet has a month marked in 41.3 days or something.

There’s something known as baseline time in storytelling, and that’s the idea that there’s the accepted measurement of time in story as the readers have in real life. When a story mentions a day, they mean 24 hours, that sort of thing. This baseline creates familiarity, and keeps the author from having to eat up valuable space in a manuscript laying out the chronological metrics.

There’s something known as assumptive time, which is the basis for Stretch Theory. Assumptive time is the idea that a “moment” where a story beat happens isn’t defined unless the story calls for it. A bomb defusing scene, for instance, has a need for time to matter more than something vague like “And then Sharon went to the grocery store.” because we don’t need to know that Sharon spent 9 minutes and 3 seconds in the store, just that she went there. Stretch Theory is based on assumptive time, and says: A beat stretches  or dilates time as needed in order to present the most complete version of itself. Translated into English, Stretch Theory says things take as long as they need to.

There’s something called narrative time, which is the time that passes during the story as the events of the story happen. Harry Potter, for instance, measures narrative time in an imagined school year, allowing for seasonal changes as well as social change to be factors in-story.

There’s also something known as read time, which is how much time the reader spent in the act of reading, both on a sentence-by-sentence case, but also the bigger scale of how much time the person sat down to read.

When you combine all these things together, you start to see the potential of time as a story element. You want to maximize read time, because more reading is good, and builds audience, is enjoyable and leads potentially to sales, etc etc. You want to use accepted time as a way to keep the reader following along, giving them a frame of reference they can understand, so that they can focus on what you’re talking about (also maximizing read time) and you want to manipulate assumptive time so that you present the most interesting beats and moments in a story.

Let’s do an example as we dig deeper. Suppose we have two people, let’s call them Kerry and Tracy. Assign genders and age as you like, but let’s put these two people in a relationship. Let’s not marry them yet, but let’s say this example is the story of how they met, and concludes with them getting married. Let’s also agree that we’re not going to introduce too much randomness into this example (like there’s no magic spell to make them fall madly in love on a Tuesday and be married Wednesday). Here are two people in a story, regardless of genre, and we’re telling their story.

Time and relationships is tricky, because while yes, I have tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words I can devote to creating this relationship, there’s a sweet spot as to what’s going to be believable and what isn’t. Take too long, and the reader can grow impatient, assuming the obstacles preventing the relationship’s development aren’t substantial (Tracy not calling Kerry back “just because” is not as substantial as Tracy not calling Kerry back because Tracy is still getting over the loss of their ex due to a tragic playground accident.)

Move too quickly, and the reader won’t believe these characters truly care. (I’m looking at you Les Mis and Twilight). This is due to reader experience almost universally indicating them that outside the world of your story, relationships take time. This is particularly important if we’re going to put some realism in our story, because realism is going to require us to mirror reader experience.

So how do you find the sweet spot?

The good news is that you can look to other story elements to figure it out. A relationship is a symbiosis between people, so it’s important to have a sense of the qualities and shortcomings of each character in the relationship as well as a sense as to how they overlap.

Coming back to Kerry and Tracy, let’s keep Tracy with a problem letting go and a dead ex, and since we’re building a healthy relationship here, we can either give Kerry a skill at letting go, or a comparable issue with relationships, since we want to see the two characters develop together by working on their issues collaboratively as well as individually. Let’s give Kerry different issue, so they’ll have no problem with letting go, but they’ll instead have a problem that Tracy can assist them with.

(This is called “simple symbiosis”, when Character A’s faults play to Character B’s strengths and vice versa.)

But, you ask, how long can this take? Stretch Theory.

Map the expression of the plot and symbiosis across beats, not chapters, and here’s why: Because beats compose chapters, and staying fluid here allows you to let Stretch Theory be an asset and not a bore.

Take the problem at the heart of the story: Tracy and Kerry need to get together, stay together, and get married. If we present this arc as three beats, or even 3 chapters, it’s going to be a very short progression, and its brevity asks a lot of the reader – the less information provided, the more assumptions you’re tasking the reader to make and agree with. (There’s a danger in information saturation, where there’s too much material, but we’ll get to that.)

We can divide this whole relationship into pieces. When slicing, try to end up with even or divisible numbers, because your overall structure benefits with division. (It’s easier to tell a story in 8 parts with 4 two-parters, than a story in seven parts with 1 4-parter and 1 3-parter.)

Here’s Kerry and Tracy’s relationship, divided into thirds, because three act structure.

MEETING
1. Characters meet
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy

GETTING TOGETHER
4. A date is arranged
5. Dates happens
6. Relationship faces difficulty

MARRIAGE
7. More difficulty
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties
9. Marriage!

These 9 elements could be scenes, they could be chapters, they could be beats. Right now, this is the story mapping stage, so I’m not concerned yet with word counts for each part, because I’m just putting my ideas on paper. Subsequent development will have my putting word counts to each section, and expanding this very crude outline, likely with dialogue and a breakdown of the moments that interest me: specifically 3, 5, and 6, because those moments are where I can write some really fun stuff and show off my writer skills.

Notice though that there’s no concrete mention of a chronology with graduations. I’m not specifying here how long the 9 steps take. Step 5 must take some bit of time though, because I’ve labeled it as “dates” (plural), so I must have some idea about multiple things that will happen. The unspoken graduation is forward progress, and that’s established in the idea that the sections are meeting, together, marriage. But within the three parts, there’s additional progression baked in, one thing leading to another until we reach our goal.

When we put time into this outline, we start to see a sense of scale and pace. Let’s put together a really simple progression and use the seasons as our chronology. This will turn our outline into this:

MEETING
1. Characters meet (SPRING)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER)

GETTING TOGETHER
4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER)

MARRIAGE
7. More difficulty (WINTER)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER)
9. Marriage! (SPRING)

By partnering our outline with seasons, not only are we giving our story a sense of “how long is this gonna take”, we’re also playing with the assumptions and expectations a reader may have about what the seasons mean to them. Spring is often rebirth, so we end our story with these two people starting a life together with new growth, winter is a dark and miserable time, so we partner it with the rough part of our story.

But this still doesn’t tell you enough about how long this should be. Even if we add in word count, like this:

MEETING
1. Characters meet (SPRING) (5k)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER) (4k)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER) (4k)

GETTING TOGETHER
4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN) (4k)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER) (10k)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER) (5k)

MARRIAGE
7. More difficulty (WINTER) (2k)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER) (6k)
9. Marriage! (SPRING) (5k)

word count isn’t an indicator of time passing within a story. I can spend a thousand words in the present tense while describing the contents of a suitcase and never advance narrative time forward, though reader time passes, because human reading is not instantaneous.

Story believability is not a function of narrative time. Many adventures take place over an unspecified number of days, often without characters doing anything outside of the specific adventure (Hi, first season of 24, where Jack Bauer doesn’t stop to pee). For our Kerry and Tracy relationship, we’re not counting on time doing the heavy lifting of broadcasting our idea. Time is there, but it’s a support structure: the actual events and character growth relative to those events are what’s going to make this relationship feel realistic.

(For the people still looking to get incredibly crunchy and prickly over time, I’d like to point out that the montage, flash forward, and scene transitions all show time as a malleable narrative factor if that’s the story’s need.)

Go back to our outline, and look at item 5, where there are multiple dates happening. We’ll likely have to subdivide that time into its constituent date components of planning, executing, resolving, and the repeating those phases for each date. Additionally the successes and failures stack, so that date 4 is predicated on date 3 going well, and over the course these dates we’ll also escalate the attraction and presumably throw these characters into bed together, likely after they laugh while getting caught in the rain after one too many margaritas at happy hour … or something.

I point these dates out because each date is important, but not the timing of each date. One date might be seeing a movie, written out in two or three sentences, despite the movie consuming 2 hours of narrative time. The total read time for that date? Depending on how long it takes to read the paragraph, so … seconds? Our seconds translate into their hours.

Time is malleable, and we buy into its progress not because we micromanage it, but because we use it to buttress our developmental efforts.

There isn’t a clear formula where you plug in variables for number of characters or word count and get the precise amount of narrative time necessary. In two words (“Years later…“) I can advance time a non-specific amount, even though I give you an indicator of its vector when I use later, suggesting that time has advanced, so likely Kerry or Tracy has an eyepatch or scar or cybernetic limb in the dystopia spawned from in an alternate timestream only visible to Kerry while dreaming after a date night when they stayed up too late playing a very aggressive game of Uno.

The amount of information I use to distribute the the progress and growth of characters is not always proportional to the importance of the thing the character does in order to grow. Yes, it might take years to master an ancient martial art, but I can turn Tracy into a warrior within less than a dozen words: Tracy eventually mastered Fighting Hippo Style.

Let’s wrap today by taking our outline and putting it into a paragraph breakdown. We’ll include the 9 steps parenthetically.

Tracy and Kerry meet (1) at the corporate mixer for new employees of The Job Corporation. Both Tracy and Kerry were hired by Gary, and both of them develop a friendly relationship after some initial professional competition (2 and 3). When their individual dates bail/were secretly killed by Gary, Tracy and Kerry agree to go out together (4), and eventually see more and more of each other (5), though Tracy’s rigid martial arts training that started after their ex was killed by a rogue jungle gym and Kerry’s inability to avoid office drama, keep their relationship somewhat unstable (6).

Gary institutes more corporate changes in his bid for power, and the Tracy/Kerry relationship hits its lowest point (7), when Kerry is kidnapped by Gary’s robot army and Tracy must use their martial arts training to rescue the person of their dreams (8). With Gary ultimately defeated, the couple reunites and moves forward with their lives (9).

Framed like that, time becomes an afterthought rather than a panic engine. This story will develop at the pace it needs to, because we see the whole map, and we’re not just faffing around when we want our characters to grow/change along a particular arc.

My many thanks to my client ZA Maxfield for suggesting this topic. I’ll see you on Wednesday, when we’ll grab a question out of the inbox.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, by request, character stuff, living the dream, 0 comments

The Ins and Outs of “Good” Fiction

I hope you’re enjoying your Friday. Fridays as a freelancer have always felt like every other day of the week, in that there’s always some kid of work to do. Granted, the workload isn’t always the same, but there’s always something I could be doing that isn’t a video game or watching Netflix.

Today I want to talk a bit one of those questions I tend to deflect, because there’s always some other question to answer first, but today seems like a great day to answer it. I don’t skip this question because it has no answer, it’s just that the answer it does have is really … never what a person is expecting.

When the question is “What makes good fiction?” there are two ways to take that question. First, it’s “What book can you recommend?” but more often than not, I’m being asked as a freelance editor or as an editor at Parvus Press, “What makes for a good MS?” meaning “What can I do to get my MS published?”

If you’re asking for book recommendations, I just finished The Force Awakens audiobook, because I’ve been listening to it while driving places. It was a full production, with the Williams score and sound effects under great narration. Totally worth the $20-something iTunes price tag.

But chances are you didn’t come here for books to read/hear today. So let’s talk manuscripts.

Before we get too much farther along, I have to disclaim that what I’m talking about here is specific to me, and that while many people may share similar suggestions, because “good” can be such a subjective decision, you may find that what I like, some lady over there may hate. And I know, I know, a lot of writers decry the fact that there’s no enforced standard, but I’m glad there isn’t. Because all of the variation in writers and criteria and edits and revisions, we get a wealth of books on the shelf rather than a collection of sameness. We’re not making beige cubes at our local Norse furniture emporium, we’re telling stories – we wouldn’t want them to be the same.

Here then are my signs for “good” fiction:

Characters I can connect with in multiple ways. I will prize a character above all else, because they’re the people doing the stuff in the stories. A good character has many different ways  I can connect/agree/believe in them, whether that’s their attitude, their decisions, their moral compass, or their skills I envy. I put myself as the character in the story, and ask, “Were I in this spot, would I do the same thing?”

It’s not that I believe myself to be the character (do you know many cops, detectives and superheroes I’d be?), but I can project myself into their situations and get a sense of whether or not I’d do what they do. It helps ground the character for me. It helps me to feel like I’m connected to an actual person, even if they’re a space robot with shoulder missiles.

Conflict that matters. A boring story is boring because I’m not sure why people are bothering to do whatever they’re doing. There are supposed to be stakes, and they should be high, relative to the scope of the story. The bigger the scale, the higher the stakes. If the whole world is in trouble, I expect to see a big deal at the heart of the matter.

I want to see the characters on an atypical day, a day that isn’t like the ones you haven’t mentioned, even if all your characters do is save the world Monday through Friday. Why should I care about what you’re making these people do? What’s the point? Why do I want to read on if you’re just telling me that they’re going out for tapas? Find your stakes, and elevate them, consistently, keeping a view on the consequences and their potential rewards or failures. Make what the people do matter. Give these things weight.

Dialogue that sounds like people. Yes, I know, you’re maybe not writing people. You’re writing an advanced race of techno-yeasts that want to save the galaxy from the outbreak of the Bast virus, but if you want people (readers) to relate to your yeasts, they need to communicate in a way that we can understand and empathize with, else we’re right back to the “Why should I care?” problem discussed above.

One of the ways, and I think the strongest way, is to get a ear for hearing how people speak. Get a sense of their cadence, their volume when speaking some words over others. Listen for how they break up the sentences. Listen to how they run on. Find the quirks. No, I don’t mean manufacture quirks just you can insert world-building jargon (looking at you BSG and “frak”, you’re that sore in the mouth that would just heal if everything stopped being so damned cutesy about it), I mean distinguish characters not only by aesthetics or cosmetics, but also their linguistics. How someone says something can be as or more important than what they’re saying.

*

These are all practical skills that take time to learn. Nope, it’s not easy. But that’s why we take our time writing and rewriting. You can get better at this stuff, just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys next week. Have a great weekend.

 

Happy writing

Posted by johnadamus in character stuff, checklist, living the dream, 0 comments

Wants, Risk, Drive, and Fears – Character Motivators

So while I’m laying here recuperating today, and in anticipation of my birthday tomorrow, I wanted to talk a little about character development.

When you’re writing a character, whether that’s a protagonist, an antagonist, a character you’re about to portray in a game, or some side character with a few lines, it’s helpful to frame them in your mind so you can deliver what you think the best performance is, situationally speaking.

To find that character, here are five questions:

  • What does this character want?
  • What is this character willing to risk to get what they want?
  • What drives this character forward to whatever comes next?
  • What is this character afraid to lose?
  • What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss?

And here’s the breakdown:

What does this character want? What are the character’s goals, both the short and long terms? Do they just want to rob this one bank, or are they going to spend their whole life getting rich? Do they just want to stop this badguy, or does the whole city need protecting?

Goals are tricky to identify. Yes, they can change, and one goal can masquerade as an other, but there’s no denying that everyone has goals. And those goals are getting pursued in nearly every action they take. Yes, a character can have more than one goal, but when lots of little goals tie together into a larger goal, those little goals are just steps towards the bigger achievement. Stealing the chemicals + kidnapping the scientist + testing chemicals on civilian hostages  are all individual goals sure, but they all combine as steps in the antagonist’s plan to hold the city hostage and threaten chemical warfare.

What is this character willing to risk to get what they want? Risk is a “conflict motivator” because there’s danger present in whether or not loss will happen. And since you can’t lose what you’ve never had, whatever’s being risked is something the character already has at the time they make the decision to be risky. Yes, there are circumstances where some risks are dependent on other risks – robbing the bank risks capture or death in a shoot-out, and gambling with that stolen money won’t be possible unless you rob the bank successfully – but on an individual basis, risk is put into the story to change the status quo.

A character willing to risk something means they want to change that status quo. It also means that the thing being risked is either of sufficient value that you’re willing to use it as collateral to change the status quo or it’s of such little value that any risk is negligible. The valuable stuff getting risked must mean the challenge seems sufficient to warrant it, right? Why would you risk your life over something tiny? There are side questions here to explore as well, about how the character will change with either the success from the risk or the loss because of it.

What drives this character forward to whatever comes next? Usually this is concept or a core part of the character’s moral code. (Shameless plug – I wrote a great article on character development that talks about moral codes, it’s on Smashwords). Superheroes are driven by a need for justice or redemption or vengeance or something broad but universal. (The more universal the concept, the more the audience can project onto the character and escape into their adventures.). More grounded stories often personify this driving force – a child, a wife – to show a broad category of “reasons to do the right thing.” This can too easily become obvious, dull, and expected though if every hero is driven by the exact same thing(s) as the hero on their right. But there does need to be a reason for the hero to move forward, and it should be bigger than the plot.

Yes, the plot will give them a reason to go forward – the hero has to defuse the bomb after defeating the villain, the lady has to lead her people into battle after accepting the mantle of authority – but consider what the character would do if there wasn’t a plot. Is your character sufficiently realized and developed that you could think of them as something more than a plot-solver?

What is this character afraid to lose? What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss? Loss and risk aren’t the same thing. Risk requires a choice to be made, loss can happen outside of a person’s control. You risk money when you gamble, you lose something when the house burns down. It’s entirely normal to be afraid to lose things. And those “things” don’t even need to be objects. Yes, I’m afraid of losing my glasses or my pills or my dog, but I’m also afraid of losing control over my anxiety. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of discovering that no one cares about me or my work, and that I don’t matter.

Because we can quantify and qualify our fears, we can act in ways to prevent them from coming true. We can earn income so we don’t have to fear poverty. We can make friends or learn to like ourselves so we don’t have to fear being alone. The same is true for characters. We don’t need to reduce them down to some infantile idea of them just afraid and lashing out, but understanding the reaction between being afraid and taking steps to avoid that loss can give a character a dimension that can help explain everything from anger they feel to decision making.

Don’t think though that a character has to exist only in the space between fear and acting to avoid that fear. You can stack the protections and the actions into an interesting chain. For instance:

A character is afraid of getting sick -> So they avoid sick people -> But they keep finding sick people -> So they discover a chemical to boost their immune system -> But it’s expensive and only in one place -> So they decide to steal it

You could have easily clipped this chain of ideas off at “avoiding sick people”, but by giving more context, by adding in more story elements, you’re creating opportunities, risk, and a plot.

These five questions can give flat characters some extra nuance and facets. I hope they serve you well.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in character stuff, check this out, exercises, 0 comments