Arrival and Some of Its Layers

We start today by talking about layers. I like layers existing in certain things – cake, bricks, geological strata – but spent a great deal of my life thinking that when you mention layers around any kind of art, that it immediately becomes the cue for pretentious wankery and arrogance to emerge to show you how smart other people can be while showing how clearly smart you’re not.

People would bring up the idea that this book or that film or the painting over there would have layers and I’d nod and make very agreeable sounds, really just in an effort to make them stop talking. It’s not that I couldn’t see all the layers, I just wasn’t very interested in getting that deep into what have been a very one comedy or nice piece of desktop wallpaper.

This changed a great deal over the last few years when I started getting my hands dirtier in story structure and developmental editing, because “layers” (the concept) had layers to it, and once you get past the part where people want to tell you something  some tweed-sucking academic once told them something in an airy tone that they later used to try and get a dry handjob in a closet from someone in their dorm, you see that layers are coiled springs of potential energy – the ability to convey information in a concentrated form without overtly stating it repeatedly.

I’ve seen Arrival 3 times now, it has layers, and I’d like to talk about them. In no way am I saying these are the only layers, these are just the ones I’ve seen in my 3 times. I absolutely encourage to go check it out for yourself. And before we go onward, yes, there are spoilers here, because it’s going to be impossible for me to mention these layers without giving away some plot elements for context. Don’t ever let spoilers dissuade you from checking something out, learning what Point B is when you’re at Point A still leaves you to discover the route, and still lets you draw your own conclusions as to how you felt.

Layer 1 – Challenging the traditional sci-fi organization

Arrival is a great movie. It’s enjoyable. It’s visually engaging. It’s got great acting. It’s well edited. The soundtrack is cool. Past that, it does a really interesting job in taking on one of the major elements in alien/monster-encounter media, the knowledge-malevolence axis (that’s not its real name, it’s named after a lady who wrote about it in the ’60s, I think her name started with an R, I cannot remember it, but we’re gonna talk about it as the axis because that’s what my notes have)

The knowledge-malevolence axis is the measure of how the alien or monster (also called “a creature” when you go back to B-films), regardless of whether they’re a time-traveling murder robot from the dystopic future, or they’re a benevolent water mirage, or a Xenomorph or Mr Hyde or whatever, interacts in a positive way with the humans in the media.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to rack up a body count, they rank higher in malevolence, because there’s no “positive” interaction, the humans don’t gain anything from the experience except possibly not dying.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to help or challenge humanity, then they’re not aggressive, and in fact are represented as smarter than humanity.

The shorthand is “as intelligence grows, body count drops”

Traditionally, if your aliens are straight-up murder factories, their intelligence isn’t really developed as a story point past whatever utility it serves in making the body count rise. They’ve got to smart enough to trap, fight, and kill humans, period.

And if your aliens are super geniuses with a mission, they don’t have to murder anyone, and don’t pursue that unless the antagonist of the film ends up meeting their end via tentacle, mental power or nifty CG.

Arrival smartly packages the knowledge-malevolence axis not in the aliens, but in the humans.

In the film, all the violence (from an aborted bombing to some tanks, helicopters and I think threatened missiles) is human-generated. Because the movie smartly points out that in the absence of a traditional alien antagonist that bleeds so we can kill it, we default back onto our second greatest fear – inferiority.

This tension is so often discarded in alien media. We see some uniformed guy questioning the protagonists as to the alien’s intentions, some lasers go off, and sure enough we know the alien’s intentions to invite us all to the dead body pile.

Here the uniformed guys take that same stance, but no lasers go off. So … they wait for the lasers to go off. And no lasers ever go off. But we have to assert some kind of toughness, so we’re ready with all this military bluster. The tension is one of humanity’s design.

So there’s no body count, there’s no overt threat (we’ll get there in the next layer), so what kind of alien-encounter film is this?

It isn’t. It’s a character study, there just happen to be aliens in it as vehicles for that study.

Onto the next layer.

Layer 2- Narrative Toolbox

I think we need to do just a little plot and character setup here. Our protagonist is a linguist (Amy Adams should get an award), and she’s recruited by the military to work on figuring out what our aliens are saying, so that we can figure out if there’s going to be a body count. She’s partnered with a physicist (because you can’t have a science fiction movie without science), and the pair of them go figure out how to talk to aliens.

It’s worth pointing out here that 2 things become pretty clear: first, our protagonist has an easier time talking to aliens than people (and not in that overused Aspergers-is-a-superpower-way), and second, that this is a movie about what people say and what it means. Now before we get to how the alien language is fucking super rad, we need to lens this movie through the idea of communication. Who has what to say, and what does it mean?

Our protagonist has to, on a plot level, figure out what the aliens are saying.
Our protagonist has to, on a secondary level, figure out what her visions/dreams/thoughts mean (they grow progressively more intense as a b-plot and bookends in the film)

The aliens have to, on a plot level, communicate a particular set of ideas to the humans.
The aliens, have to, on a secondary level, validate a decision they make that’s not immediately apparent or stated to anyone else (we’re gonna talk about it, hang on)

The army has to, on a plot level, interpret the alien actions and take appropriate response.

Communication is the primary currency in power dynamics. It doesn’t matter if we communicate through words, gestures, asses getting kicked, or dance offs (dances off … is like courts martial and surgeons general?), characters communicate with the intention of either maintaining or changing a power dynamic.

Our protagonist has a unique position in the film – she’s subordinate in every power dynamic she is a part of, but she never loses agency and is a pro-active character for the majority of the film.

It’s her actions that lead to alien conversation. Her actions that resolve military tension. And ultimately her actions that end the film on brilliant gutpunch. She’s got agency for miles, and she uses it.

The other element in communication is about the distribution of information that we communicate. We know that based on the shapes of symbols we see as letters, and the sounds we know to associate with them, that a few lines and dots turn into words. And we know that because of where a word is in a sentence, it has a certain importance and value to the information we’re trying to convey.

For example:

My dog is asleep on the couch means you picture my dog, being asleep, on a couch, in that order.

When we jumble those words up (not change the words, just their positions, the package of information doesn’t make sense.

The on dog couch my is asleep isn’t something we understand based on how we’ve come to interpret language. Left to right, finding nouns, verbs, prepositions, and all that.  (I’m way simplifying the study of word order typology here)

Yes, foreign language readers, many languages either operate as subject-object-verb as well as subject-verb-object, so you can tumble that sentence around and see how it comes out in Korean or Quechua for instance and still makes reasonable sense to both eye and ear.

Now we get into something a little deeper. Let’s talk about embedding, because it’s part of the alien language and it’s one of the two primary elements that tie the protagonist and the big story question together (the other being the last 2 minutes of the film)

Embedding is the idea that you take an idea that can’t stand on its own (a clause) and you nest it like one of those Russian dolls in and around other clauses within a sentence. You bury the idea not to obscure it (at least not intentionally), you bury it to give it a context.

Like this:

The man that the woman heard left.

To dissect this, you’ve got some unpacking to do:

  1. “left” refers to a past tense verb, not the directional
  2. A marker like “that” should clue you in to find the next nearest verb (“heard” in this case) and consider that to be a clause on its own.

So, if we were going to visually organize this sentence it’ll turn into

The man || that the woman heard || left.

You can, rightfully for the sake of parsing, chop the sentence down to “The man left.”

But what about that clause, what about “that the woman heard”, it’s important, right? It gives a context in addition to us pictured an absent dude, yeah?

Yes, it is important. If we’re establishing that what happened to the person she heard is more important than the fact that she heard him at all, it’s super important (because the sentence ends with “left”, meaning his absence is the last thing we take before going forward). And if we’re establishing a contrast between people the woman did and didn’t hear, the it’s super important because it distinguishes one man from another.

Embedding as an unconscious writing practice (where we shoehorn in all kinds of stuff because it’s important but we’re not really sure where to put it but we don’t want to lose it so it has to go somewhere) is one of the most comment manuscript murderers that I see at Parvus. It’s a congestion of information that makes it difficult to follow along and develop the intended mental picture.

Embedding as a conscious writing practice, being deliberate in the packaging of an idea inside similar ideas, is a great way to add layers inside sentences, or put another way, layers inside layers.

This is like a turducken quesorito, which sounds gross now that I’ve written it out.

So why did I have to lay out embedding? Because it’s central to the other big part of the narrative stuff here – embedding allows for non-linear development.

If you can package an idea within a sentence, and then take that sentence and put in a paragraph, and that whole paragraph creates a picture in the reader’s head, and that picture is shaped by context of all the other surrounding pictures, then it won’t matter what time this or that piece came into the mix if you’re already looking at the whole ensemble.

Back to the plot – the visions our protagonist has are due to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (no not the Klingon), which says that language either determines or at least influences thought, meaning that immersion in a material produces thoughts and therefore dreams in that material (like when you listen to the Moana soundtrack enough times you start thinking about being a voyager).  These visions are dreamlike, but they’re revelations of her future. The conceit of the alien language, the semagram nature of it and its ability to be embedded with information means that time is no longer constrained linearly, as in you can reach point C from point A even though B in the future that hasn’t happened yet is known to you and tells you how to do it.

Armed with future knowledge, she can take actions in the present to make sure the future happens.

Relevant to the subject of her visions (a dying child and a broken relationship), we go down one more level.

Level 3 Terminality

This is the level where I cried. I have zero shame in saying that, because it’s rare that I find this sort of idea expressed in a satisfying way that’s not playing completely for maudlin necessity. No one’s dying a noble sacrifice, no one’s dying to complete prophecy, people just … die. And it sucks, and it hurts.

So, you’re our protagonist, you find out that after you deal with these aliens, you’re gonna end up in a relationship, have a daughter, then lose that daughter early. The question then is – why have the daughter if you know how it ends? (See how this parallels to our spoilers mention up top?)

Our protagonist says yes, and we the audience take an uppercut to the breadbasket over it because we’re immediately shown the title and end credits. She knows what’s coming, she accepts it anyway. It’s gonna suck, but that’s her choice.

This isn’t a movie about aliens teaching us about linguistic relativity. This is a movie about embracing life and making decisions knowing that it will end in something more pointed than “everybody dies.” This is a movie about communicating and sharing that information even though it has consequences.

Her relationship ends not because the daughter dies, but because she knew the daughter was going to die and she didn’t tell her husband. Did he have a right to know? Would he have said yes to having the daughter or the relationship if he knew?

And likewise, if you needed there to be the daughter (Point C from the above layer) without the daughter how could you have reached Point B at all?

What we’re left with at this level is the question of knowing the future and allowing it to impact the present. To me, for me, that’s a big giant shout-out to terminal illness. Granted, I’m biased, but hey this is my blog and I’m me, but knowing the future absolute influences the present in positive and negative ways.

It’s great motivation for finally accomplishing dreams. It’s terrible reckoning as to the reality that a pet will likely outlive you. It’s great for encouraging a change in character, and woeful for coming to terms with just how awful that character was.

But it’s not all bad, just like it’s not all good. In Arrival, she got to have that relationship and a daughter, for a little while at least. Yeah, you can argue that it was unfair to be taken away so short, or that it was her own fault for inciting it all, but … she still had it, and it had to have some good moments, right?

And for me, yeah, it can suck knowing that there’s a finish line to the marathon I only recently starting caring about participating in, but I’m still running (well, ambling, I mean, shit, I’ve got bronchial pneumonia at the moment) and I’m not done yet.

It has good moments. And you hold onto them and you use them as raft, bumper car, touchstone, lighthouse, reference point, and starlight to get you through the bad moments.

Go watch this movie. Please. And then go create things.


Happy creating.

What Did I Just Watch – Now You See Me 2

The other night I watched/survived an airing of Now You See Me 2, and it left such an impression on me that days later, I find myself blogging about it. It … well, it wasn’t very good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Yeah, I’ll give a rewrite version, but we need to back up and cover some craftwork first. So that means it’s storytime.

Like a lot of kids, I thought magic was cool. Blackstone Jr, Harry Anderson, various magician tv shows of the mid-80s, they made magic special, a kind of happy thing that was interesting and well-executed. As a kid, this was really very ooh and ahh material, and I admit, I was a sucker for card tricks and sleight of hand.

As I got older, and it became cooler to dislike more things, I still watched those specials with David Copperfield and his blousy nearly Goldblum-ish shirt and holding these over-produced get-to-the-trick specials that were interesting, but I didn’t quite feel the same way. I think there was too much patter, too much preamble, and I’m fuzzy now on how the tricks were shot for television, if the camerawork was part of the gimmick or if a camera guy thought it would be a great idea to show everything from a weird angle.

Older still, I learned that magic got co-opted by the pick-up artist movement, and it was simultaneously relegated to “parlor tricks to make panties disappear” (not my quote, I heard that about a decade ago and it’s stuck around my brain) and part of the then-beta-now-cuck stuff that not-real-men do that prevents them from getting laid. Magic wasn’t ooh and ahh anymore it was a means to an end. I am ashamed that for many years I wrote it off. I wish I learned some.

This brings me to Now You See Me (the first one). It’s a heist movie with magicians. At least, that’s the premise sold via frenetically caffeinated, stylized trailers. And I watched it. I vaguely liked it. It was an enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes. In this fiction, 4 magicians each have a specialty and are brought together because nebulous reasons to ruin a corrupt wealthy guy all while the FBI does just above the possible minimum amount of effort to think about catching them.

Now here come spoilers.

Except that the FBI guy trying to catch them is in on it, and not only wants them to succeed, but also wants to introduce them to a shadowy organization of magicians who do “real” magic. (Since it’s never explained, I like to think of them as people who just have a D&D player’s guide and a lot of material components).

Now because Hollywood so often confuses sequel expansion with new idea generation, there’s naturally a Now You See Me 2, and if you thought the first movie was a stylized, under-explained, jittery, poorly written mess, you’re in luck, because they’ve doubled down on all that while expanding the world building and adding more characters (side note: I like Daniel Radcliffe as a bad guy, he should do that more often.)

A quick summary of the sequel: Because of what happened in the first movie, the magician characters are on the lam, and a new bad guy wants them to one more job or else they’ll be killed, and of course in the end, the magicians turn the magical tables on all the villains (because every villain from the first is back due to reasons) and then the shadowy organization shows back up to introduce them to “real” magic, even though that’s what you’re told was going to happen at the end of the first movie, but I guess it hasn’t yet even though the concept in the first Act is that they’ve been working with the shadowy organzation all film. I guess they never got around to showing them real magic. Dick move, shadow organization, dick move.

Let’s talk about the good stuff in the films, because there is some:

  • Actually talented actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Daniel Radcliffe, Mark Ruffalo) give less talented actors (James Franco’s brother, Lex Luthor/Mark Zuckerberg who isn’t Michael Cera, disposable female character, Woody “I’m just here because I get to wear a hat and something something hemp and vegan” Harrelson) plenty of opportunity to improve their craft while collecting what I imagine are lovely paychecks.
  • Occasionally you get flashes that the characters deliver dialogue that seems maybe like a person could say it, maybe.
  • The CGI for the tricks isn’t atrocious. It’s not subtle, but it’s not an affront to eyeballs.
Let’s roll out SOME of the bad, because I had to prioritize this stuff:
  • Stylized shots do not necessarily make for good shots. Framing us from the top-down and then turning the top-down into a left-right is confusing.
  • The movie thinks hyponotism involves grabbing or slapping people then talking at their faces.
  • Making one character talk immediately after another character does not underscore either of their points
  • Mark Ruffalo is the only character across two films with anything resembling a character arc, but don’t worry, it’s completely neutered in the last 10 minutes of the second movie by a photograph and Morgan Freeman dressed like a pimp from a 70s tv show.
  • The female actor changes from the first to the second movie, but again don’t worry, because in the first ten minutes of the second movie, she just says she’s the new team member and everyone agrees.
  • The magic goes from you-could-conceivably-learn-and-do-this to don’t-question-the-CGI-or-how-they-know-how-to-do-this pretty quickly
  • Don’t question when they had time to plan an orchestrate the con/heist/bad guy capture, just know they are always in on it from the very beginning and there’s no actual danger ever. EVER.
 No character arcs, no stakes to the plot, no danger to characters, unclear villain motivations … yeah sounds ripe for a rewrite.
Step 1 – We’re making 1 story, not 2. If there’s going to be a series later, that’s fine. But right now, we’re gonna take this heap of applesauce and make something better from it.
Step 2 – Everyone needs something to do that is tailored to them and that something has a reward that matters to the character.
Step 3 – Any magical elements serve the story’s plot and structure, rather than being 90 minutes where people watch CGI scenes
Step 4 – There’s actual challenge and risk in the story.
Step 5 – The world building is more than ceremonial or perfunctory.
Here we go …
The Characters:
Danny, Magician Number 1, his specialty is escapes. He’s a good kid from a good family, but he tells everyone a convoluted BS tale about foster homes and youth detention centers. He has heard about The Eye, an almost Masonic order of magicians who revere magic in its classical purest forms. He’s ambitious and sincere.
Jack, Magician Number 2, his specialty is card tricks. A street hustler, he fleeces tourists in games of three card monte. Whereas Danny talks about a bad upbringing, Jack had one, although at his core, he’s sweet, sensitive, and wants very badly to be accepted. He heard about The Eye on one of his only good memories as a child, going to a magic show and talking to the magician backstage, just after he tried to pick his pocket.
Lady, Magician Number 3, her specialty is platform and stage magic. She’s used to big crowds and middling success. She can start strong, but fails to hold attention. Instead of playing up her sex appeal outside of her stagecraft, we play up her disillusionment with magic – it’s getting boring and she’s tired of prop work. She’s been researching The Eye after noticing its iconography appear on older stage props.
Woody, Magician Number 4, his specialty is mentalism and comedy magic. A failed stand-up, he transitioned to mentalism because he was unoriginal on stage, but had a knack for reading people. He’s intuitive and empathetic, but totally skeptical that The Eye is a thing. He just wants magic to be a thing that people do.
Carl, the Villain, he’s a ruthless megalomaniac CEO, fleecing people through shell corporations for decades. He puts on a facade for the cameras, that he’s altruistic, charming, and friendly, but in reality he’s willing to kill to get ahead. Flipping that switch is creepy and never played for laughs. He’s a monster in a TV-personality costume. He’s currently stockpiling medications for cancer and AIDS so he can jack up the prices.
Ruffalo, the Cop/Fed, the agent/detective who gets assigned to Carl’s protection detail. He encounters the magicians and tries to stop them. He’s not in on it. He’s not stupid, this is never played as comedy relief, he’s at best a secondary antagonist.

Our film starts with Danny, in breathless voiceover, “You need to tie me up tighter than that.” We open on him on stage, an Elks lodge, a room trapped in the 1970s with men and cigar smoke to match. They’re unimpressed and barely paying attention. It’s a mostly silent crowd as Danny moves through his routine, finally disappearing behind a curtain and reappearing with the ropes tied in balloon animal shapes. Crickets, no one applauds. We cut to Danny loading his beat up car and snatching the envelope of cash out of a drunk Elk’s hand. It starts to rain, and the car stalls. The sound of rain hitting the pavement intensifies, and we cut to …

Jack, running. We see his legs churning, we see him navigating busy streets of pedestrians and cars pulling out of alleys and side streets. He’s running from the cops, a large smile on his face. He loses two of the cop pursuers and takes a seat in a grubby pizzeria counting his large stack of twenties and tens. It’s a good take. Just when he’s about caught his breath, he looks out the window and sees two more cops heading his way. Time to run again. He starts saying “Oh shi…” and we cut to…

Lady, saying “It’s not everyday you see a woman saw herself in half is it?” She’s in her pajamas, rehearsing her act in her apartment. She narrates each part of the trick: stand here, move arm up, no higher, turn, tap box, catching herself in the mirror time and again to correct her posture. She’s trying really hard. Over her shoulder and out of focus we see a table littered with sketches and plans and models of different set pieces. There’s a dressmaker’s dummy with a half-finished outfit pinned up. Over time, Lady grows dissatisfied with her rehearsals, and flops down on the couch (which a few seconds ago doubled as her stage) to watch TV. She channel surfs before catching an interview and we cut to …

Woody, on set, making Jimmy Fallon or some other easily amused jabroni in a suit laugh. There are two people flanking the host’s desk and Woody is making snap deductions about them, before running them through a simple card trick that gets enormous applause. We track him back post-interview to the green room, where he loots the craft services table and then ducks out quickly. The rear stage door opens and when a famous celebrity gets mobbed, he slips through unnoticed. He walks in the rain, collar upturned, out of frame.

Back to Danny, who’s unloading his car into a garage, his mother’s. She’s standing there, watching him lug case after case, and they’re talking about how it went. Danny is upset because no one appreciated the work he put in, and his mom mentions that at least the paycheck was good. Danny opens the envelope to find out he’s been somewhat stiffed – he was expecting twenties and got ones. His mother consoles him and Danny heads up to bed. 

His room is a trove of magic glory. Posters of stage acts (and this is where set design can create all new acts not just Copperfield, Penn and Teller, Houdini) and line the walls, and his bookcase is a library of autobiographies and how-tos. He flops down on the bed, sighing. his mother passes by the door saying she’s going to bed, he says good night, then goes to bed himself.

We cut to the next morning. Jack is at it again, setting up his monte stand at the entrance to a city park. He’s drawn a large crowd, with Danny, Lady, and Woody making their way into it, staggered among the rows. Danny pushes his way to the front to become the mark. Jack starts his patter, and Lady yells from four rows back whichever answer is correct. Danny yells back that he knows, which flusters Jack, who resorts to palming cards and deliberately cheating, but only in a way that another magician would know. Danny catches onto this, and ends up cleaning out Jack’s wallet. He breaks away from the game, several hundred dollars richer. Except that to break away from the game, he’s gotta pass back through the crowd, and this gives us a chance to watch each of our four musicians bump, sneak, and lift the wallet. Ultimately, it ends up being dropped and picked up by Ruffalo, who breaks up the monte game and arrests Jack. 

Feeling bad his bilking, Danny sets about freeing Jack, and enlists Lady and Woody to join him. They spring Jack, but not before Jack swipes a folder off Ruffalo’s desk, and overhears something about Carl being a bad guy with a lot of money. 

The wheels are then in motion for the four magicians to collaborate on a heist of Carl. They begin with surveillance, and by combining Woody’s mesmerism and Jack’s natural charm, they get a quick tour of the “civilian” levels (let’s also give Jack a phone number or two). Danny tries his hand, and gets a few floors higher, but ultimately falls short of the prize as well. Lady gets all the way to inner office’s front door, but is stopped by a variety of countermeasures.

The result is that the team must rely on al their talents: escapes, card tricks, platform magic, and mesmerism to breach the inner office, only to find that the best “loot” is a few vague memos explaining pricing policy. However, this celebration is short-lived because just as the team goes to make their escape, in walks Carl to catch them. Cue Ruffalo’s return, and all four magicians in handcuffs. 

At least until mid0interrigation, Danny escapes, Jack palms the key, Woody convinces the officer to let him go, and Lady disappears behind a table only to re-emerge several feet away, locking Ruffalo in his own interrogation room. This commits Ruffalo to catching them, but also plants the seed that these four magicians have an interest in doing something about Carl. 

Danny spends his time at home, rehearsing the same tricks that they used in the Carl heist when his mother starts coughing. Turns out mom has been hiding an illness, and now the meds are too expensive. This clicks things into place, and Danny calls the magicians to finish what they started. 

Which they’d do, if Carl hadn’t counted on them coming back, and ratcheted up security. Not just Ruffalo, but greater countermeasures and more armed guards. The office is a fortress. The team aborts one attempt and is nearly caught by Ruffalo. They console themselves and Lady makes a passing comment that Danny would have done better if he hypnotized the guard. Jack tells Lady she’d have done better if she had palmed the keys. And that’s when they realize they need to learn each other’s craft to have a better chance. 

So they practice. On the street, in broad daylight and in their individual gigs. Think of it like a protracted montage. It starts off shaky, but they all start showing proficiency in other magical aptitudes. Excited to share this news, they reconvene and that’s when we all learn they have a shared interest in The Eye. 

Feeling well armed and unified, they go after Carl. And after several near-misses, they pull off the job, and get into the office, finding Carl’s documents saying he’s been adjusting prices and withholding medications. Except Carl was counting on them getting that far, and holds them at gun point. Ruffalo arrives and hears everyone out, which leads to Carl getting impatient and Ruffalo revealing that he’s been recording the story the whole time, because breaking and entering is bad, but it’s not tampering with people’s health kind of bad. Carl takes a shot at Ruffalo, who fires back. Ruffalo makes the arrest of the wounded Carl, and goes to thank the the magicians, only to find them all absent – they disappeared. 

One week later (we’re told by the graphics department), the magicians are casually chatting when Ruffalo pulls up on them. They get suspicious and nervous but he thanks them and hands them a stack of cold case files, all rich business types thought to be hurting the little guy, but nothing could be proven, and maybe they had some magic to spare. The foursome agrees, and just before we go to credits, Danny’s phone rings. He gets a single image as a text message, that of an address and a blinking eye. 

Okay, I think this quick rewrite works. It’s not perfect, I bet I could ratchet up the tension, but this post is already running long. Thanks for checking out my little patch job on a movie that so annoyed me I had to write myself angry notes on my phone until this blogpost came together.


Happy creating.

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.


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.


InboxWednesday – Spines and Queries

Good morning. Thanks for coming. Dive in, the inbox is fine.

As we do every Wednesday, I snag an email from the pile and answer it. Today’s email is actually a comment left on Monday’s blog post. This is from Greg, who is awesome:

The entire time I read this I was thinking of how this relates to making the query letter concise. Maybe you could relate or connect this to synopsis and query letters. I know it would at least help me and maybe grease someone else’s skids.

So let’s talk spines, queries, and concision. And to do that, I’m probably not going to be concise.

As we said Monday, a spine is a stack of beats with an emotional connective cord, and when you can be objective about it, you’ve got some query content. Being objective about the spine works with the idea that the query isn’t a synopsis, so it’s not that you need to recap the spine, but instead present it from a distance.

The query is going to be distant from the story to some degree, because it’s not written by a character, not written in-world, it’s not a manuscript excerpt. In order to make the manuscript attractive, it has to be distant, so that we can be drawn in and read it.

Let’s do an example.  We’ll create a story with four beats first

Tom is a struggling shoe salesman.
Tom makes his own shoes, and is mocked for it everywhere he goes.
Tom prototypes a shoe so awesome that NASA buys it.
Tom makes buttloads of space money.

To turn these beats into query ammo, we’ve got to find the best stretch of words within each of them, and either use them directly, talk about them using other words, or a combination of the two. So let’s highlight some words within the beats, and number them:

Tom is a struggling shoe salesman. (1)
Tom makes his own shoes, and is mocked for it everywhere he goes. (2)
Tom prototypes a shoe so awesome that NASA buys it. (3)
Tom makes buttloads of space money. (4)

Yes, astute reader, I wrote four backloaded beat explanations. It’s easier to explain this way, but I want to point out that you don’t always have to write backloaded sentences in order to talk about something.

Using these highlighted phrases, we can write a query, or at least part of one. Let’s just focus for now on these phrases as part of one paragraph in the query.

The shoe struggle is real (1). Tom faces mockery and derision as a laughingstock in the cutthroat world of shoes (2). It’s only when he develops the Q-4 hypershoe that people start to take notice, but even when NASA comes calling (3), can Tom stand up to a changed lifestyle (4)?

It’s not the prettiest query paragraph, but it works for our example. Each of the four beats got rewritten so that they read smoothly, and I presented them linearly so that the paragraph came together quickly (because it’s an example). In your own queries, you don’t have to do any of those things, and shouldn’t always – let the ideas develop and connect with as natural a feel as possible so that you avoid the “Oh and one more thing” feeling.

I picked four there because it’s an example, but if you have more (and you likely do) you’re going to have to prioritize the better beats to query with, and that means taking your spine out of order. Here’s a longer example:

Mandy  has terrible luck with finding a job and sticking to it
Her last job, bank teller, ended when her branch was robbed for the third time.
Convinced she’s cursed, she finds a psychic  who can “help her.”
The help she receives comes in the form of a magic ability to alter other people’s luck.
Mandy tests this power out, with some comic results.
She uses it to set up a date with a person way out of her league but uses the power to keep things going.
Mandy starts to worry though that the person only loves her due to this power.
She returns to the psychic to remove the power.
When she goes back to the psychic’s storefront, she finds her new relationship trying to kill the psychic and steal the magic for themselves.
A fight breaks out.
Mandy uses her power to keep herself safe, but can’t mount any offense.
Mandy uses her experience from her job as a bank teller to lock her now-ex in the vault.
They escape, swearing vengeance.
Mandy goes on a quest to gain the skills she’ll need to stop him, and keep down a job.

You can’t fit all those beats into the same query. One of the advantages to mapping out a story’s spine is the ability to use the pieces to write multiple and different queries. Looking at the list, I could write this with almost a rom-com serial tone, where Mandy just can’t get her shit together despite her likely minority best friend starts every sentence with “Girl,” and the gay friend is catty and often sleeping around.

I could write this with a supernatural or urban fantasy bend, making the magic truly spectacular and extraordinary, playing up the outside-the-norm and framing her partner as a monster.

Because I have multiple directions, the queries can look radically different. And that’s to my advantage. The problem though, is that however I frame the query, that’s going to be the lens through which the MS is read. And if I overhype Mandy’s inability to get work and the magic takes a backseat in the MS, it’s going to make the urban fantasy feel sort of rushed or tacked on.

There’s a balance between the content of the MS and the upsell you use in the query. You’ll find your balance through trial and error, but I can point out that sticking close to your spine, and understanding the emotional cord (throughline) will help you direct the query both to the most receptive audience as well as the best version of itself.

A query is a blend of fact and feeling, and to sell both, work on word choice. State the beat outright or describe it where needed, and don’t lock yourself down to a strict … well, anything. There isn’t a “best single query” template, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to experiment on both an in-sentence and on-the-page level.

The story’s spine provides ammunition for the query, as well as being a kind of spine for the query too. You’ve got these ideas, these emotions, to get across, and a limited space to do that in. Yes, that’s not easy. But it is doable, so go work on it. Build a spine, identify beats you can put into a query that support an emotional throughline relevant to genre and submission and keep writing.

See you on Friday for what apparently will be the 400th blogpost. I feel like we should have a cake or something.

Happy writing.


InboxWednesday – Dialogue Construction

Hello and welcome to InboxWednesday, where I use the carnival claw machine on my inbox to pull out a question and answer it for public consumption. If you have a question you’d like to see answered (I should point out that if you submit a question, you also get an answer in email, I don’t just leave you hanging), you can email me.

Today’s question comes from Mark, who asks:

Hey John, got a question for you. I’m writing a lot of dialogue, and don’t want to keep saying, “Bob says,” before every quoted thing. What are some things I can do, and how can I keep it interesting, not just for the reader, but for me as I keep writing?

There’s actually a name for this issue, and it’s constructed repetition. Normally it’s a speaking concept where a person references the same phrase to establish it as a buzzword or theme for their discussion. Partner that with a physical gesture, and you’re looking at one of the tenets of neurolinguistic programming.

But since Mark isn’t asking me for a recipe on how to rally loads of people into action or organize disparate minds into a frenzy, we’ll just look at the constructed repetition that causes boredom.

To get into this, we’re going to have to first talk abstractly about what it means to read. I’ll spare you the load of science I know, and condense this down to one idea — reading is about pattern recognition, where the patterns are shapes and lines that have a sound associated with them. We call them letters, and groups of letters are called words. We see the same words over and over again, and we intuit and then understand their meaning.

This is how we know that a “dog” refers to a domesticated pet, and not that thing with a peel you eat as part of a balanced breakfast. This collective understanding is called context.

Pattern recognition works because our input system (eyes, braille, hieroglyphs, cuneiform, etc) processes the same symbols over and over again, and we derive meaning from them. (We call this reading.)

The tricky bit about reading is that it’s also about sameness in those patterns. We see the same letters forming the same words repeatedly, and we get lulled into less careful processing. We realize that all the paragraphs are going to start with “So”, and then we skip that word, because we’re used to seeing it, and we’ve built this momentary expectation that it’s going to be there, so skip ahead and get to the new bits.

When we get to dialogue, we need to focus, because not only can that dialogue convey new information (I mean stuff we didn’t already know, not specifically plot-stuff), it’s an opportunity for us get insight or access to the character doing the talking.

The two words Bob says are called a dialogue tag, because they tell us who is expressing themselves and how. The who is most often a proper noun, though it can be a pronoun, and the how is a combination of the verb, but also any adverbs hanging out nearby. Remember that verb choice carries with it an expectation and a context, so that we can distinguish saying and yelling by different volumes, for instance.

Dialogue tags can be found in three places: pre-line, mid-line, and post-line. Let’s take a look at each of them. And it’s important to think about a dialogue tag as two+ words functioning as one item. It’s not just the “said” or “Bob”, it’s their combination that we’re talking about here.

Bob opined, “Why can’t anyone pay attention?”

The sentence opens with a tag, using the comma to indicate a pause, and the quotation marks to trigger a switch from exposition/narration to character. All dialogue tags mark and make obvious this transition.

By setting this on its own line, as you should always be doing, you’re making a paragraph.

Giving Bob two more things to say, we can create this example:

Bob opined, “Why am I an example?”
Here is a sentence about something happening in the room.
Bob huffed, “I’m not sure I like being this example.”
Something else happened in the room.
Bob spoke, “I’m glad this example is over.”

Remember that Brady Bunch complaint about “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” ? That’s what you get with a proper noun + verb dialog tag as a sentence or paragraph starter. It sounds whiny. It reads monotonously. It’s not striking visually. It seems safe and simple.

Is it wrong? No. It’s sort of like setting the cruise control at one mile under the limit then sticking to the center lane – you won’t get a ticket, but you’ll only aggravate the people around you.

There are uses for it, sure, but to have it dominate the text is to get a bit formulaic. Here’s another point about pre-line tags – where do you want me to focus. You’ve name-checked Bob, but to what idea within this line of letters am I supposed to be rapt? Should I care who’s talking and how they’re doing it, or am I supposed to care about what they’re saying?

“This,” Bob said, “isn’t much better.”

Don’t let the ‘mid’ fool you, the tag doesn’t need to be precisely 50% of the way in the line to have the effect I’m about to describe. It could be one word (most common is one to three), it could be a whole sentence, then a tag, then another heap of words. So what’s wrong with this?

First, it makes the text look like a pair of bubbles or wings, with the tag between them. My second writing professor referred to them as “swimmies on a toddler”, meaning those blood pressure cuff inflatable pontoons you lash to a kid’s biceps before putting them in water.

Second, and more critical to me, you’re breaking up the line of dialogue just to tell me who said it. It’s a sometimes unnecessary pause. If the context is clear enough, I should be able to figure out who’s saying what, particularly if you’ve only got the two characters and they’re going back and forth. Bob, then Alice, then back to Bob … even if you don’t name check a character with a “Holy dicksnot, Alice” or “By Zeke’s flowing beard, Bob!” So long as each line of dialogue gets its own line, trust me to be smart enough to know who’s saying what to whom.

Again, this has its uses, particularly if your swimmies run long and technical (I’m looking at you, SF/F manuscripts redolent with technocrunch), or if you adding a bit of weight to the moment the dialogue speaking creates. As in:

Now,” Bob loaded the shotgun, “this is where I stop being your monkey.”

“I think I really love Janice from the examples in the draft,” Bob said.

Here the dialogue tag is hanging out at the end of whatever’s been said, and that’s often vestigial. Again, context should help the reader figure out, so sometimes we don’t need any tags.

The tag at the end can render the whole line in a kind of decay, where all the good stuff happens (long) before the period, which means I don’t need to be paying complete attention at the end of the sentence, since I’m only there to see what the character says and move on.

So What’s The Fix?

The fix is pretty straightforward – mix and match. A combo of pre-and mid-. Throw in a few post-. And stop relying on the same verb. There’s nothing wrong with “said” but there’s nothing wrong with changing up the word while still being specific as to what’s happening.


Loads of words exist, and use them. Place tags where you like and need to, but also be willing to not have any. Remember, you’ve got revisions and editing and beta readers to tell you if something does or doesn’t need a tag.

Break the repetition. Make a conscious effort to try and not go with that first instinct with “said.” You might just surprise yourself.


Mark, I hope that answers your question. It’s a kinda crunchy one, and I’m hoping the examples streamlined it a bit. Let me know how it goes.

I’ll see you all back here Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Happy writing.

Show vs Tell, Emotion vs Information

Welcome back to your work week. I know, I know, weekends always seem so short and the hours you do other stuff seem to vastly outnumber the hours when you don’t have to put on pants. And as a guy makes his living doing the opposite of that – I only have to put on pants when I’m not working – I get it. So let’s dive into making good art and we’ll get through this.

There’s a big deal made about “show versus tell” and it’s worth the big deal, for sure, but I ask a lot of writers what they think it means, and I hear a lot of differing answers. They’re not all wrong, some are just incomplete, or vague. Today, I want to give you another definition for it, maybe you’ll find this more applicable or understandable than how I normally talk about it.

But that means we need to give the usual definition first, so we can build a point of comparison. Usually, I talk about show vs tell as a way to give the reader a sense of investment, or “room” to be a part of the story, as the writer doesn’t over- or inflexibly explain the elements in text, so the reader is drawn deeper and forward into the fiction.

And that’s not a bad definition – you show the canvas, you don’t have such a rigid sense of what’s been painted on it, and you had the reader a little brush and a little color and say, “Yeah, I know I’m talking about a coffee table, and it’s not that critical that I need to be so controlling, so you picture whatever table you want, it’s cool.” A fair definition and explanation, but it’s hard to grasp if you’ve never done it well.

Here’s the new way to come at this. We’re going to talk information transfer theory, but rather than get super technical and duller than bad paint, we’re going to stay simple.

Information transfer theory is the idea that one person has something to convey to someone else, and how they choose to do that. Maybe it’s spoken, maybe it’s a gesture, maybe it’s written. Maybe it’s smoke signals and arranging rocks. Whatever it is, info goes from one person (the creator) to another (the receiver), and we use have very declarative verbs to express that transfer: speak, say, yell, write, draw … tell.

Telling is all about conveying information. And yes, when we relay information, we don’t want there to be any wiggle room, we want our meaning and our specifics conveyed, especially when the information relates to something critical. Would you be okay with playing the telephone game if the original message is “Your house is on fire!” or “Would you like medical attention for that gunshot?”

We learn a lot of telling in school. We tell the class about the book we read. We tell the teacher the answer for question 18. We tell the attractive person that we want to go to the dance and then she tells two people she doesn’t want to go with you, so they tell you her message, with their fists. (8th grade was a very strange experience for me).

We learn a lot of telling from our media. The television tells us the news, weather, sports, political atrocities and traffic updates. Those blogs you subscribe to tell you all kinds of stuff about whatever you’re interested in.

Telling lets the receiver be very passive in the transfer relationship. You sit there, the other person does all the work. Telling is the lapdance of writing. You get an experience … but is it really the experience you want? Save some dollar bills and keep an eye on how much telling you’re doing.

Showing though is the champagne room. You get past the expositive bouncer, and you have some ability to feel something (that’s some wordplay for your Monday). The flip side of information transfer theory is emotion prioritized over information. We feel however we feel based on the information, but we can be steered towards some emotions over others based on context.

A writer has a responsibility, though I’d call it a duty and obligation, to make the reader feel something.

But, you say, if I’ve got information to convey, and I can’t control whatever the reader feels upon hearing that the sky is overcast on a particular day, how can I make my reader feel anything?

Well, writer, assuming they feel nothing doesn’t speak very highly as to what you think of your readers. What you’re subcutaneously asking is how you can make them feel “what you want” when they read that the sky is the color of pigeon wings.

Which is why we need the combination of show AND tell when we create art. No, you can’t and don’t want to be all one or the other.

All tell, and you’ve got a dry stack of words with minimal warmth and interest. You’re Spock telling me about planetary life signs. After a while, we need to go find another crew member to interact with.

All show, and you’ve got words with greater width than depth. You can go on and on, adding adjectives and flourish to same ideas, making them more ornate or being more specific, but you’re not combining them with other information to build a complete picture. It’s a teenage love letter, happy to be repeating “I love you” a thousand times, but not having a depth to the idea. And after awhile, it loses its meaning.

But telling serves a critical role: it gives us a boundary, or more like several boundaries. It establishes the perimeter within which we can do all the emotion-evoking we want. And the more definite the boundaries, the more detailed we can get within them.

For example, let’s look at the room I’m sitting in while I’m writing this. It’s Sunday, at 1 minute past noon as I write this sentence, and I’m in an office chair, a bottle of water on my left side, next to my phone that I’ve plugged in to charge while it streams Spotify. The blinds are up on the windows to my right, and the windows are closed. I can hear morning doves. My feet are cold.

That’s a whole lot of telling. I’ve put together quite a few boundaries:

  • The time of day, and the day of the week
  • The chair I’m in
  • Some of the items to my left and right
  • The state of the window blinds and windows
  • What I hear
  • A physical sensation I’m experiencing

With those things defined, I don’t have to qualify additional boundaries. You have enough there to picture me sitting here writing on a Sunday afternoon. What I can do now is add in elements I think will help you feel something in the ballpark of what I intend the text to feel. I can add character and color and shading and narration so that we see a completed picture that tells you a story, not just a set of facts.

Like this: It’s Sunday, just after 12 noon, and as I write, there’s two thoughts at war with the writing – first, I want a shower, second, I want it to be about ten degrees warmer and ditch this grey sky. It’s a downer, no matter how loud I play swing music or think about delicious food. The chair creaks under even the gentlest strains, locking me into a posture like I’m stuck in an economy seat next to some shoe salesman named Earl. Checking wordcount, I’m through 1260 right now, so I’m pretty satisfied. My feet are cold, and I wish I had something other than water to drink as I stare out the windows.

No, the above facts didn’t all make it, because when you aim to evoke emotion, you’re not going to need all the facts to stay, because narration isn’t recitation.  Nor will there be a perfect 50-50 balance that you can always strike.

But you need to define the sandbox somewhat before you go play in it. Information is the basis upon which we educe emotion from our audience, whether we’re writing a touching eulogy or using green on a canvas to make someone remember the lawn of a childhood home.

Consider your boundaries. You control the focus and camera movment, so why do we need THAT piece of information in THAT spot at THAT time? Is it to get us to feel a particular way in a particular moment? Or are you building towards something in word-increments so that when we soon reach another point, we’ve got this whole context in hand so we can appreciate what you mean?

Consider the emotions. How intensely do you need us to feel them? Do we need to feel them as intensely in every sentence, every time? Is that going to yield diminishing returns, constantly keeping the reader cranked to 11? Don’t forget you also hold the ability to push/pull, to vary the words and the emotional triggers and state. The audience has come to you for a whole story, and you’re leading people through the experience a word at a time.

I know, it’s one thing to talk about it, another to do it. So go practice it. Draft after draft. Paragraph after paragraph. You’ll get better at it, the more you do it, and the more you push yourself to do it in ways and places you didn’t think you could or should (yes, you can and should do it all over the place).

See you back here for #inboxwednesday. Happy writing.

FiYoShiMo Day 18 – Plot and Time

Today, we’re talking about time, and how it relates to plot.

Time is one of the story elements that sits in a very unique position – either the story is built around it, or it doesn’t get mentioned outside of passing details that end up being of little consequence. You can’t say that about other elements like setting or description of objects. Time is at once critical and not, flexible and fixed, static and dynamic.

Wrong franchise, but valid idea here.

We need to know the time. It provides a boundary over the scale of a story, it helps gives actions and characters a significance. If we’re telling the story of a kidnapping, knowing the time of certain scenes and beats help us map out the events of the story, even if it gets all chopped up Rashomon style. If we’re telling the story of a planet being forged out of starstuff and gravitic forces, we’re less concerned about the congealing of hydrogen on a particular Tuesday, and more interested in the zoomed out galactic view of millions or billions of years.

The nice thing is that as storytellers we have an infinite supply of it. Even if our storied is bounded within the confines of a single day or a weekend or a few hours, no matter the boundaries we can set up the pacing of the story to allow for lots of actions to be occurring simultaneously within our chronological windows. As I write this post it’s early afternoon. I’m willing to bet that while I’m writing this post, there’s someone elsewhere who is answering a phone, or pouring a glass of water, or thinking about pickles. I’m comfortable with that bet because there are so many people and places in the world that I can’t easily conceive or count them all, so I’m chalking a lot up to possibility.

As a creative, you have such enormous control on what’s possible in your world. How much can someone do in a day?

Well, Die Hard (the movie that’s on in the background while I’m typing this), takes place over one night. John McClane does a lot of things, if by a lot you mean shoot, run, and quip.

I pick that film because it shows a stretching of time. Over the course of an evening, Gruber and his forces infiltrate, take hostages, begin a robbery, and get foiled, all before the sun rises. Outside of a few plot demands that people be released or actions be taken at certain times, you don’t really know how long it’s been from shooting that security guard to the Rickman plummet. And you don’t have to. In Die Hard, time is immaterial. It takes time to do these things, but whether it’s 3, 5, or 7 hours doesn’t matter to you.

Contrast that with Ghostbusters. There’s a pretty generous collapsing of time. How long does it take for the busters of any g-h-o-s-t to build a following, make radio and television appearances and get a small business in New York City off the ground? Sure, it’s all montage with cuts back to Sigourney Weaver, but that montage represents weeks or even months.

Between those two films, you can see the flexibility of time as applied to story.

Ask yourself how critical time is in your story. Do we need to track time as if it’s finite (as in a kidnapping or heist story)? Do we need to stop considering time altogether, because there are more important things at work (like in high fantasy where it’s all warfare and drama)?

Ask yourself what benefit time has in your story. Are your characters challenged by a lack of it? Is time so abundant they can procrastinate without any consequence?

Ask yourself if time is bound or unbound. Bound time is the period of time the story takes place in as a range of days in sequence, but we don’t look past it. A story about a weekend bachelor party where we’re only concerned about Friday to Sunday, is bound time. Yes, we have an idea that time exists beyond and existed prior to the story, but we’re only asked to focus on a specific range of contiguous time.

Unbound time is the period of time the story takes place in, but it doesn’t matter if the days are in sequence or not. A story told in non-linear chronological order, or a story with inconsistent stretches of time (a weekend here, a Tuesday over there, a Monday to a Wednesday later on), gives us a sense that time is a thing, and it’s “sort of” acting as a boundary in our story, but it’s more of a guideline than some concrete rule.

We’ll end today with this – managing time in the story goes a long way to giving it credibility and a feeling of groundedness. Even if you don’t use our Earth-based calendars or time metrics (any of them), even if you rename all the days and months and give them irregular lengths or durations, you’re still giving the story one additional layer that people can hold onto and invest in.

Don’t dismiss time. Don’t put it off. Some of us have waited many many years for some stories to get advanced, so don’t think it’s not important to us.


See you tomorrow, where we’ll conclude our discussion of plot with Plot Crutches.

FiYoShiMo – Day 15 – Plot Sustenance

More plot today on FiYoSHiMo Day 15. I hope you’ve been finding this series helpful. Plot is one of the more abstract and variable elements in storycraft, since we can all come up with a different one even if we start with the same components.

Let’s keep at it today, where we talk about plot sustenance.

You have to be able to keep a plot going once you get it started. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking main plot (the big conflict in the book) or a subplot (a lesser conflict in the book) or a character arc (the evolution of the character over the course of the book), because whatever you start, you need to keep it going.

It’s sort of like running. If you stop moving your legs, you’re not running anymore. Thinking about it now, without moving your legs while running, I think you’d be falling. Someone go test that for me.

Or maybe you’d see it like a fire. You have this nice stack of small pieces of wood and then you introduce this spark, and it catches and burns, continuing to do so for as long as there’s wood to consume.

Either way, you need to keep the plot moving.

This breeds three questions:

a) How do I move the plot forward?
b) How much do I move the plot?
c) How quickly do I move the plot?

So let’s look at each question.

How Do I Move Plot Forward?
The nice thing about plot is that it only has one intended direction (forward) and two possible speeds (moving or immobile).

Plot is driven by scenes, and scenes are driven by character decisions and any consequences that arise from those decisions. Any reactions that other characters or the world has to those initial decisions are also decisions, which is also bear consequences, and around the cycle turns. Basic algebra tells me then that plot is driven by character decisions.

And since a plot can only be acted on by the characters involved in it, the number of decisions is actually pretty small. Which means you get to map them out. Go get your opening scene. I’m going to go get a cup of tea.

Ready? Cool. List me all the characters in this scene. All of them. In any order, doesn’t matter. Just make a list.

Now put a star by the main character(s). Include any antagonists. These are your decision makers in this scene.

What decisions can they make? Write them down too. If any characters can make the same (or similar decisions), make sure they each get it on their list.

As an example, let’s say I have 3 people: A, B, and C. They’re going to go holiday shopping. A and B arrive together in B’s car. C meets them there. The mall is crowded, noisy, and busy. A and B get into an argument about a gift. C is tangential to it.

So what can they do?
Both A and B could work out their problems.
Both A and B could concede their position in the argument
Both A and B could use a variety of tactics to win the argument.
Both A and B could drag C into the argument
C could jump in to defend or attack either A or B
A, B, or C could walk away from this scene at any time.

I’m not talking about what could happen, I mean, I could easily introduce D through Q into the scene. Hyperintelligent dinosaurs could attack the mall Santa. Asteroids could strike the parking lot. There could be a sale on handtowels. Tons of things could happen.

But I want to see the decisions that the involved characters could make, because those decisions are going to make this scene feed into the next. The scene needs to resolve itself, but not all resolutions are pretty things with bows on top. Resolution just means conclusion. It doesn’t always need to be satisfactory, it just needs to be over so the next thing can start.

To move plot, make decisions.

How much do I move the plot?
Since we agree you have to move the plot along over the course of however many words and pages you’re writing, now we start to look at pacing.

Pacing is the flow of plot. The first part of pacing is called “plot division” which is a measure of how big each package of plot is. Do you give out plot every (I’m making numbers up here) 3 scenes? Every other chapter? Every tenth page?

There isn’t a single “you must do it this way” answer. Whatever speed at which you choose to lay out the plot, you just need to be consistent about it. Why? Because if you’re inconsistently delivering plot pieces, then you’re not establishing how important each piece is. And your plot is supposed to be important.

This is usually where someone asks, “What about unimportant pieces of plot?” and I have two responses:

a) Why are you giving the reader unimportant plot?
b) If there are many similar items that can be grouped together (like all the evidence at a crime scene, for example), why aren’t they coming all in one package?

As you build your story through the first two acts, as you reach the climax, your rollercoaster should be gaining momentum. The pacing of details and scenes should reflect the chug-chug-chug of the car up the tracks until we have no choice but to rocket down the slope. And on the downturn, the pacing can slow back down until we’re off the ride.

How fast do I move the plot?
We just talked chug-chug-chug. Now it’s a question of how many chugs, how quickly.

How quick a pace can you maintain? That’s an important question to consider, because you have to be writing this thing, and invariably there are going to be moments that are slower than others. And knowing your own development, even a little, can provide a lot of insight as to how you’ll plan to write. And I’m not just talking about the time you’ll spend sitting and writing, I mean the scenes you right as well. Do the intense scenes take more out of you? Does knowing that you have to do the dull scenes tempt you more to procrastinate? You’ve got to do all the scenes either way, but how you view getting them done is going to affect how you write and what you write, even if you don’t realize it.

Move the plot at whatever speed works best for your production and whatever speed works best for the development of the tension you want to build. Rush me through something, I’m going to assume it’s not important. Take your time and set up something, I’m going to look for a proportionally large payoff.

All of this is up to you: based on your plot, how you divide it, how you choose to dole it out, and how large a story you’re telling. Try out a few different pacings, see what feels comfortable. Practice. Try again. Keep trying.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about plot filler. See you then.

FiYoShiMo – Day 14 – Plot Negligence

Let’s go FiYoShiMo Day 14, there’s a good topic on our plate today. Onto more plot goodness!

We’ve all been there – we left a light on in the kitchen, we forget to replace the toilet paper, we skip items on the grocery list. It’s easy to overlook and forget things, especially when we’re stressed (it is the holiday season after all), or when we’re already so busy worrying about whether or not some fascist with a combover might be a legitimate political presence sans a Hugo Boss leather trenchcoat.

Today we’re going to talk “plot negligence”, which is the collective term for all those plot elements that get introduced but don’t get resolved.

It’s so easy to write a thing and forget about it, when page counts climb and larger plot things kick off. “Oh I’ll get back to it,” you say, but then the minor point falls to the wayside. Or maybe it’s not a minor point. Maybe it’s a big deal, but due to time or space or energy, you don’t address it when it needs addressing.

The good news is that you can learn to curb the habit. I can’t promise you’ll never do this again, not without miniaturizing myself and navigating your mind. And I’m not sure you want that, especially if I find out where you store your weird freaky thoughts about that one teacher you had, or the people you work with. Yeah, you should totally give that person your number. And give them my number. Hell, give them all the numbers hashtag ifyouknowwhatiamsaying.

So we begin by figuring out what you’re leaving unresolved. We have to talk about that, we can’t talk plot and not talk about plot construction. A plot is built out of a scenes, like we talked about yesterday, and these scenes are scalar, to some degree.

In shortest, simplest terms, plot is a set of scenes strung together because they represent an arc, or a progression of ideas that show some kind of change from beginning to end. The change doesn’t have to be all positive – you can show someone diving face-first into a habit or addiction, you can show someone on the decline – but there does have to be change and it has to be “visible”, meaning the reader can pick up on it. To be visible, you have to put it into words, because readers read text not minds, so if you don’t say anything about a thing, who’s going to know about it?

An arc has parts we all recognize to some degree: a beginning (inciting action), a middle (rising action), and an end (climax and conclusion). It has to start somewhere, it has to travel to some other point, it has to end at that other point.

Usually the negligence happens during the middle. It’s easy and even exciting to start stuff, but when it’s revealed there has to be a middle, screw that, let’s do something else exciting (you may have heard this same idea expressed around diet, exercise, doing your job, or cleaning). So what is it about arc-middles that makes us not followthrough?


These guys know all about followthrough.

Maybe we can come at this from the ends. What makes plot-start exciting?

New is always exciting. New toys, news people, new experiences. Since we’re early in our exposure to a thing, we’re not sick of it yet. There are things left to discover, and often a lot of unknowns to make known. Plot-starts, also called inciting actions, are interesting to write, because we’re usually writing them as an alternative to what we’ve been writing already. We take a break from the middle of something to introduce something else.

These introductions can happen any time, though they’re best when started in the first act of whatever you’re making, because the later an element is introduced, the less time you have for a payoff and the less native it will feel to the story. Imagine reading hundreds of pages about a questing knight, and only in the last fifty does the knight get a sword, but not the sword he’s been hearing about all book, just a plain old magical sword. If that sword suddenly becomes the go-to weapon that kills the dragon he’s been battling all book, whatever weapons he’s had pre-sword get cheapened.

An inciting action (or incident) has two pieces: a tension, and a release.

The tension is the moment or event the character sees happening that prompts action or intervention. It isn’t the moment where they act (that comes next), this is the moment that leads to them doing something. For a budding superhero, this is the mugging they see and think they can stop.

Tension prompts action. They see the mugging, so they go do something about it. Whatever they do (and if you’re showing a character’s first attempts at something, barring superpowers, that first attempt is often played for comedy. With superpowers it’s played for amusement or excitement), they do something, and that leads to the release of the inciting action (beat). Yes, it’s our old friend, the action beat, making an appearance.

The release is the character doing something about it. They see the mugging, they intervene. The payoff, the reward for seeing action is taking action to do something about it. It’s a cycle of beats. It doesn’t have to get more complicated than “see a thing, react”.

An inciting action (beat) to your character is some other character’s climax, or their conclusion, or whatever, it falls somewhere on their arc already in progress. The mugging our proto-hero stops, if we look at the mugger’s arc, maybe that’s the height of their (the mugger’s) story.

These inciting actions are exciting to write, because they’re new, because they’ve got stuff going on, because it’s a chance to show the character doing something. Doing stuff is a chance to show off your writing skills. It’s also a chance to show off the ideas you have for the character, at least in part.

Once things are started though, they do have to be sustained, and that’s where we start to lose interest. Because it’s work. Because the newness has worn off. Because once you rescue one cat out of a tree, the idea that you have to rinse-and-repeat for all the cats in the forest is tiring, and you haven’t even started yet.

We’re going to talk about plot sustenance tomorrow in more detail, but let me lay out some foundations here – nothing has changed so drastically since the inciting action, just your view and expectation of the idea.

Sustaining an arc is not the same as furthering it or developing it. Sustaining the arc means it doesn’t do anything other than progress at its current pace in its current direction. It doesn’t speed up, it doesn’t slow down, it doesn’t rise or climb, it flattens out and stays in that direction. How could that not be duller than watching hair move?



Yes, I hear you, doing things the same way over and over is how we build a habit. But we’re not talking about writing everyday or not eating that candy bar, we’re talking about showing your character do stuff in your story. The specifics of what your character does are immaterial at this point, so long as the character is doing something.

It’s still work, I know. It takes up space and words, and you have way more exciting things to talk about. It’s way cooler to use the computer than to build it, I get it. But you have to get through this stuff to get to whatever you think is the more exciting part.

Here too, I question you, why isn’t talking about a character’s arc exciting you? Why is the arc here? Yes, you need one, but if it’s not interesting, compelling, or exciting to you, why are you writing it, and do you think it will excite the reader if you’re not jazzed by it either?

When I look at discarded arcs, I see either a deficit of excitement, or over complication.

The second part of an arc, the rising action, is a build-up to a climax. This consumes the second act of the arc. It’s what happens after the hero discovers powers, before they go confront the big bad. This is often a montage, but since we’re writing, we get to detail the montage.

Look, complicating a thing doesn’t necessarily make it better. Think about cell phones and your parents. You know they’re just going to use it to make calls and barely listen to voicemails, so why bother explaining to them that they can make a WiFi hotspot or that it can listen to all the music ever?

The climax needs to be reached no matter what, so why clutter up the route to it? I don’t mean get to it quickly (not A-B-done), I mean why make so many digressions? Why dilute the progress with detours? Are you just showing off that you can write? Are you hunting for someone to say “Good job <YOUR NAME HERE>, you’re officially a writer now. Take off your pants and relax” ??

You have the whole second act, so use it. Keep each action beat functioning as the cog in the machine it is. You don’t have to escalate the power level so drastically every step of the way, the increase comes in the potential for success. Just like the montage, the outcome is mastery and confidence, progress from unknown to known.

The last part of an arc is the climax and resolution. In larger terms, if we zoom out, this is just a release for the tension of the first two acts.

A climax is the height of story experience. It’s where all the groundwork of the previous parts gets acted upon, which is why a climax often lives in the back of act 2 or start of act 3. It needs that much time to germinate, it needs that much prep in order to get a proper delivery. Rush your climax, and no one is satisfied.


You get what I’m saying?

But your climax is built on your prep work. Skimp on the development, and it will read and feel like things are missing (because they are). Diligence, here, dear writer. Keep your focus small and keep going, a beat at a time.

That’s all you’re doing. Yes, you’ve got your outline, your character study, your developmental notes. You’ve got a queue of beta readers, you’ve got all these things in a row like little ducks … but they all come AFTER the part where you tell the story a beat at a time.

Post-climax, there must be resolution. Resolutions are the other part people skip, and I think it’s because it’s either perceived as boring to wrap things up (remember how weird it was that so many 80s cartoons ended with characters in a group all laughing?) or there’s some fear that if this thing ends, you won’t be able to generate a next exciting idea? I know that fear really well, it has kept me from finishing a lot of things in my life.

Ideas are always there, as is your ability to craft and shape them into story. We all got this. We can all do it. We just have to keep at it.

Tomorrow, we’re talking plot sustenance, see you then.