Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 2 - Motivations

When you have a monster as the villain in your story, motivation is unnecessary. The beast can be considered a force of nature, a killing machine. Similarly, a lot of the human monsters, like serial killers, don't need a motivation. They are different from the rest of us, and we can watch their violence with complete belief. As with hurricanes and death-dealing meteorites, we may feel fear, desperation, and anxiety, but we won't feel any empathy.

As I've been digging into villains, many of them do inspire empathy — to the point of becoming tragic heroes, like the original King Kong. Watching one of the first Have Gun - Will Travel episodes, it occurred to me I still worried about the villain, Manfred Holt, long after the story was finished.

Here was a gunslinger who had killed eight men, but he escaped cleverly, cared about his wife and child, was articulate, saved the hero from certain death when he could've gotten away, and held to his own code. He never shot an unarmed man.

The problem was, the slightest offense would lead him to violence, and he gave no consideration for men whose skills with a gun were far below his own. When asked why he didn't just scale his outrage to a fistfight, he said he wasn't very good at fighting that way. Even so, might have escaped the consequences of his actions if he'd been willing to promise he wouldn't hunt down and kill a man who had been a witness against him. He couldn't do that. It would be a lie.

So, even with the kind of villain that is usually reduced to a cartoon, complexity can be worked in, resulting in a memorable character. (Of course, it didn't hurt that Manfred was played by Charles Bronson.)

So, one motivation that can work for a villain is a distorted and inflexible sense of honor.

Another motivation that can create a memorable villain is the need for completion of some sort. This may be tied to a humiliation or a vendetta or an ancient wound. The idea that a group of people must pay for a historical wrong (mistreatment of family members, taking of land, or impoverishment) can drive a villain to what they see as vigilante justice. This can resonate with views of wars between people and provide insights about the human drive for revenge.

Now, the hero might have this kind of motivation, too, but villains usually add a distorting ripple by either making it a grudge that reaches too far into the past or by delivering punishment to an innocent person or meting out punishment that is disproportional.

Trickier is a villain motivated seek to still the voices in his/her head. It needs to be tied to a trauma with which the audience can identify, and often must be presented to them with some immediacy. Again, it must be clear that the victims are innocent or the attacks are out of proportion to the suffering. Getting the balance on the latter right can be very difficult.

The villain may be acting out of loneliness or the need to love. Consider a woman who has been widowed, left without the love of her life. For her to become a stalker, perhaps based on misinterpreting a kindness, could create a distinct and engaging villain.



When the villain is taking on an organization or society so as to be heard, particularly after having made reasonable attempts, people are likely to have empathy, especially if they have had similar experience of exclusion and dismissal. But the direction of the evil acts must be toward representatives who don't deserve the punishment.

Of course, the old standby of any of the seven deadly sins (especially greed) out of control in an otherwise charming person can make for a strong villain. But work is necessary if you want a villain as compelling as Manfred. If a villain goes after a rich person for a small portion of their wealth so that he/she can pay for a child's operation, the balance might shift toward the villain. But explore and test until you find the place near middle point where readers can almost can see the villain's side.




Likability can help gain empathy. Talent and humor can make any character more likable. Even someone as horrible as Hannibal Lector.

Once a good motivation is thought through, it must be presented with human moments. This is often done in good films where just the look on the villain's face tells you that he or she is feeling for the opponent or reconsidering the action or briefly overwhelmed by regret. In novels, too often the writers try and build the case with back story or dialogue alone. Creating a reader experience that is in the moment and based on a gesture that exposes the inner life of the villain is a better way to do the job.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 1 - Getting under your skin

Villains have become a problem… For writers. I realized this as I was binging my way through old TV series. On some of the oldest shows, like Have Gun, Will Travel and Route 66, the bad guys really got under my skin in a way the antagonists in more recent programs never did. For some good reasons — like the rejection of offensive stereotypes – and some bad reasons – like a hesitancy to present truly bad behavior as as morally bad rather than morally ambiguous — I think some writers pull their punches when they create villains.

There's plenty of room for antiheroes. They been as successful part of literature at least since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it might be time to revive some good old-fashioned villains that we can boo.

By that I don't mean creating melodramatic, all-bad characters. We do do too much of that already with monsters, aliens, and historical villains like Nazis. So giving the bad guys positive trains is fine. Similarly, it's okay – I would say essential – to have heroes who are flawed in important ways. But what's the value of a hero's flaw if the villain doesn't take advantage of it?

So here's a recommendation: create villains who will not hesitate to push against and use the greatest weaknesses or failures of character that a protagonist has. Not only does this create powerful conflict, with which readers can identify, but it makes the character arc, where the protagonist undergoes substantial and believable change, possible.

I mentioned that these villains got under my skin. I think I know why. During the stories, they caused real harm. The harm was (mostly) undeserved and certainly out of proportion. And the damage they did continued to get worse over time. As with an action film, where escalation is a requirement for audience engagement, making a bad guy do worse and worse things as the story progresses can bring out the instinct in readers or viewers to protect. Here I was, in the case of Have Gun, Will Travel, unable to stay in my chair for most of the shows because I felt such an urgency to stop the bad guy. And this response not was accomplished in a two hour movie. It was achieved in just 25 minutes. I have to tip my hat to writers who were able to do that week after week (39 episodes in season one!).

In many of the stories, there were people who could not defend themselves. They really had almost no chance. That helped to underline a very important aspect of some of the best villains. They have power. They demonstrate that power repeatedly during the story. And they create real doubt about whether the protagonist can succeed against them. In fact, in most of the stories that worked well, the hero suffered an important defeat. (This wasn't always done well. One 1950s series I watched repeatedly had the hero ambushed, clunked on the head, and tied up. I really came to wonder why he was such a dope that he didn't know enough to be vigilant as he walked down dark streets or rode his horse into canyons.)

So, an aptitude for finding exploiting flaws, an escalation of actions that cause harm, and the exercise of power all seem to be important to building these engaging villains. It's probable that many of your favorite antagonists (Darth Vader? Gordon Gecko? Hannibal Lector?) illustrate these points. But building a villain also means creating compelling reasons for their evil behaviors. What are their motivations?

We'll get into that next time as I continue this series on bad guys. In the meantime you might want to check out some of the posts I've done in the past that looked at villains.
Villains and the status quo
Crazy, bad villains
Disturb me

Why am I doing this? I'm deeply involved) creating a series of short dramas, under 30 minutes each, so I'm working to understand compressed storytelling and the roles of all the characters, including the villains, and how the best writers make these tales compelling.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Secrets of Fiction 3 - How to turn the story

Oedipus was competent, confident, and clever. He outwitted the Sphinx and knew he had managed to dodge fate (which said he would murder his father and bed his mother). But there were a few things he didn’t know. Like he was adopted. As the truth is revealed, he is tragically brought down. Such is the power of secrets.

Ishmael does one thing against his better judgment when he boards the Pequod. He doesn’t insist on getting a chance to size up the whaling ship’s captain. In fact, he doesn’t see Ahab’s face until the vessel is out to sea and it is too late to change his plans. And, other than the rants of a pesky oracle, it’s all a surprise to him.

Almost any romantic comedy you can think up turns on a secret that must be revealed before true love can find a way.

Okay. As you may have guessed, I’ve turned back to secrets after leaving them alone for a few years. Why? Because I’ve been reviewing some of my works to see how I can tune them up, and, over and over again, I’ve found hidden knowledge of what sort or another can add power.

But not every secret makes a story better. To really do the job a secret:
  • Must be significant in and of itself. If it doesn’t mean something to the reader and the characters, it can’t do its magic.
  • Must not be obvious, if readers don’t know. No one likes to guess the killer three chapters before the end of a mystery.
  • Must suggest real consequences, if readers do know. They should worry about what will happen when the truth comes out.
  • Must recast or explain what has gone before. Whether they clarify a motive or change the meaning of a comment or turn the whole story, they need to reach into the past and create new meaning and/or  bring the theme to life.
  • Must suggest “if only” scenarios. Readers should be able to imagine changes along the way that might have effected the final outcome. This is especially true with bittersweet or tragic endings.
  • Must be kept for an important reason. The reason can be wrong and may be tied to a misunderstanding, but the person keeping a secret must be strongly motivated and forced to extremes to protect the secret.
In addition, the keeping of secrets impacts relationships (and often how characters see themselves). As secrets are held, the have a corrosive effect, creating doubt and distrust.

Under the best of circumstances, it is the secret the transforms the story, creating resets on the lives of the characters and dramatically changing their fortunes.

One of the best ways to understand and appreciate secrets is to think of favorite stories with endings that you love. Chances are that most of these have surprises that matter in the last act (if not the last scene). Do any of these reflect what’s in my list of Musts? Do they illustrate the impact of secrets on relationships?

Want to use the power of secrets in you own story? Try this. Think of five secrets that your protagonist might go to extremes to keep. Think of five secrets that might put power into the antagonists hands. Think of the most important assumptions in your story and what would happen if any of them were turned on its head.

If any of these make your story better, you now have a secret to better writing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Writer's To Be Read Pile - Novels and nonfiction

I don't know how you can be a writer without being a reader. Some people try it, and perhaps some are successful. But most accomplished writers that I know seem to swallow libraries whole and to have To Be Read stacks that reach to the ceiling.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, reading should be on your priority list. Stephen King says so. This time, I'll look at reading in more detail.

To begin with, let's acknowledge that books should lead the way. If you are writing books or even scripts of any length, most of your answers to your most difficult problems have been worked out by other authors. While you might find good prose in magazines and newspapers (along with a lot of appalling uses of words), books are the only place you'll find big answers. Like what?
  • How to maintain reader interest over hundreds of pages. 
  • How to create a satisfying character arc. 
  • How to interweave plots and subplots. 
  • How to eke out loads of information in powerful and engaging ways.
Novels provide models on how to immerse readers for hours and hours. They create characters whose heads you can get into and whose lives become part of your own. They create worlds like Middle Earth and revive societies like Tudor England that encourage people to enter and reenter.

You might be wondering what the differences between works of fiction (most of what I've covered so far) and absorbing films, like the Star Wars series, and television shows, like Breaking Bad. Films and television, especially for those who delve into the scripts on which they are based, have a lot to offer the writer. Storytelling and characterization both come alive in these media. However, viewers are different from readers, and the experiences and lessons of film and television are usually incomplete and obscured because so much of the final work of art depends upon others (actors, directors, designers, composers, sound engineers, cinematographers, etc.).

So, have near the top of your To Be Read pile novels. Make them an important part of your diet. Personally, I always have at least one novel in progress. And I tend to alternate between classic works (usually from the 19th century) and contemporary works. I make a point of throwing in wildcard novels from time to time so I see what's happening in other genres.

Poetry has made its way back into my life. Primarily, I listen to readings. I have the great pleasure of hearing a number of poets read their work at Bread Loaf last summer, but YouTube and The Sonnet Project provide excellent sources for a regular (and painless) infusion. You might set yourself a target of, say, listening to one of Shakespeare's sonnets each day at lunch time. (When I actually put a book of poetry into my hands, I read it the first time to myself, and then make sure I read it out loud.)

Nonfiction reading is standard for research, but I'm a big believer in having much of it be driven by curiosity. Scientific ideas, including social sciences, can give you more to say when you're writing. Histories — especially when you read contrasting views about the same incidents or historical periods — provide perspectives on how the world ask, the role of chance, and the consequences of bad decisions.

The best biographies revealed how people work and can extend your view of how extreme their choices can be. They provide some of the best ways to understand gut level how complex humans are.

I could go on for a long time, but let me close by endorsing writing books. I've already mentioned Stephen King's On Writing. Robert McKee's Story should be on your shelf. Jack Bickham provided some of the best help on nuts and bolts. And I like almost any writing book that focuses on interviews with working writers. The current favorite of mine is The TV Showrunner's Roadmap.

That's it. I'd love to hear what you feel belongs on a serious writers to be read pile. Ultimately, what reread shapes us. As humans as well as writers. So keep reading a priority and never stop challenging yourself with typical works.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Writer's Perfect Day - Scheduling your tasks

Imagine your calendar is clear and you can spend whatever time you wish working as a writer. Create a list of activities. It probably will include some time for drafting new pages, adding to your story. If you're like me, and you have a lot of projects that need attention, you might also spend time on revision. I also regularly get involved excavating through files of notes, ideas, titles, and unfinished manuscripts – often uncovering some surprises. Research might be added. Connections with other people might be added.

Stephen King pointedly reminds writers that they need to be readers, so that probably gets on this list, too. And I think that no matter where you are in your writing career it's important to keep yourself fresh with education, exercises, and conferences.

Certainly, some time would need to be dedicated to career planning, exploring opportunities, pitching, and marketing. Reasonably, it's good to schedule some "oops" time because things don't always go as planned. For me, plotting and outlining tends to be a separate, dedicated activity, which could come before drafting or after I've spewed out the first draft.

This has become quite a long list of activities, and I invite you to consider how you would prioritize these items and what time you would dedicate toward each. You also may have some items you care about that I missed here. Go ahead and add them. Or you might want to slice up my items, such as revision, into smaller pieces like story development, scene analysis, and ferreting out typos.

When you have a your list done, you'll probably see more than can be done in one day. You may wish to look at a full month and see how a perfect month might play out for you with these activities assigned to different times and days. My recommendation would be that you put together a perfect day, just for fun. Then put together a perfect week, which would be good to take more seriously.

So now you've taken a blank week and populated it with the jobs you need to do as a writer. Feel free to fill up every available hour or to stick to the bare minimum — 15 minutes of drafting per day, five days a week (based on my experience with people I've mentored). I hope you feel pretty good about it. I hope it makes time for the efforts you've prioritized and chosen. (You can check out more about making good decisions on where to put your efforts in the writer's decisions series I just completed.)



I hope it looks to you like the kind of schedule that would make all your dreams as a writer possible.

I suspect, that as good as this may look, you still have a problem with the schedule – the rest of your life. Many things intrude -- day jobs, family, household work, health, and more. Presuming you done a good job as far as your fantasy schedule, now you have time to put together a week (or day) with achievable tasks. So the next step is to go back to a blank week and populated with commitments that can't be avoided. Usually this begins with boxing out time for work or school. If you have regular medical appointments, you probably can't trade them off. So make sure all the absolutely untouchable things (church on Sunday for me) are marked down in indelible ink.

Other tasks may offer more flexibility. You want to take advantage of that so you can shift things around to take advantage of your golden hours. For me that means drafting in the morning and revising the early afternoon. So you might want to shift the time or day for that phone call with your daughter or trade-off the days on which your responsible for dinner.

Your week is beginning to fill up. In all likelihood, you feel a level of frustration because this calendar leaves out activities on your ideal calendar or doesn't provide enough time for work you care about.

The good news is that you probably do see more opportunities for writing related work than you imagined. How do you get more time? Having things scheduled and working more efficiently will immediately provide more productive time, so you've already taken an important step. You may also see that there are big open areas that normally capture web surfing, television, and sleep. To an extent, these may be negotiable. How much are you willing to sacrifice for your writing career?

Also, looking at your original list of tasks and those that didn't make it into the one-week schedule, consider putting some of these jobs into slots that might become available once a month or even once a quarter. Just get them onto the calendar somewhere if you can.

I have two other suggestions regarding perfect days and perfect weeks. First, always have a list of tasks that can be done in 15 minutes or less. If you make sure you're prepared to jump right into them, these can be disposed of during what I call interstitial times. If a phone call and early or your waiting for water to boil order appointment gets canceled, that creates openings to get these done and off your lists.

Second, don't schedule every moment. Leave lots of extra time for projects that go over, illness, emergencies, unexpected visits, and all those things that surprise us on a regular basis. Acknowledge that life cannot be completely controlled and make allowances for that.

I'll repeat one thing – make time at least five days a week for drafting new work. This is the essence of what being a writer is. Sacrifice all the other writer-related work before you skip this. A writer writes.

I begin an online version of my How to Write Fast course next week. To tee it up, here's an article on the Five Reasons to Fast Draft.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 4 - The Use and Misuse of Deadlines

Thanks to years of training, most writers have two powerful tools at their disposal for achieving the goals they commit to — clocks and calendars. Typically, they have had to schedule work, show up on time, and meet deadlines from an early age.

Of course, I know many writers whose raison d’etre seems to be to be to miss deadlines. They make procrastination an art. Douglas Adams famously said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Bad deadlines

If you tend to ignore and consistently miss deadlines, they are NOT helping you to become a more productive writer. In fact, the more you abuse them, the more you build bad habits and put your mental health at risk. Instead of deadlines, you probably would be better off creating rewards for yourself. That way, you can finish any time you want, but you won’t get that cup of coffee until your page is full of words. Two cautions:

  • First, be careful of using vices as rewards. Many a writer has promised him or herself a shot of whiskey once a goal was accomplished. Not a good idea.
  • Second, don’t try this with real deadlines, such as turning in a book to an editor. Failing to meet contractual obligations will not help your career. And be careful to understand what the deadline really means. 
Once I was working on a book where I was required to turn in a chapter a week. This became a problem when each chapter came back with edits (over and over again). I never got to create a proper beginning, and, by the sixth week, I was hopelessly mired in rewrites for each of the previous chapters — with the editor gleefully filling my calendar with more deadlines. (The next book I did was written only on the condition that they would not see one page until the due date for the draft. That worked out fine.)

Good deadlines

These are the ones you accept that are reasonable and clear. For contracts, this means getting everything set up correctly before you sign (as happened with the second book above). For your personal deadlines, it means writing out your promise to yourself. Two tips:
  1. Keep a record of you time spent in writing activities. If you do, over the years, you’ll have a good basis for estimating the time to draft a page, proofread a chapter, write a synopsis, etc.
  2. When you make your estimates for time devoted to a given task or project, add 50%. I draft about 5-7 pages an hour, so, for a 70,000 word book, experience tells me I should complete the first draft in about 60 hours. My estimate for creating a deadline would be 90 hours.
Deadlines can get tricky in cases where you are collaborating. Making sure there is good communication on roles, responsibilities, decisions, and version control is essential. Then, because creative people tend to have more success if they are good team players, set deadlines that are easy so no one feels let down.

Realistically, good deadlines on collaborative work or projects for clients or publishers are not always possible. Opportunities may have due dates (say for a Christmas story) that may not be moveable or that were set before you got involved. In these cases, it is good to have a plan B (with the ability to hand off other projects or household chores). It’s also wise to mentally move the deadline to an earlier date.

In-between deadlines

What I call in-between deadlines are those that may or may not help with your productivity. Contests, new anthologies, and bluebirds (opportunities that come out of nowhere) often fit this definition. For instance, I belong to a script writing group. Many of us use the annual contests, with deadlines generally coming up in May, to mark the endpoint for finishing a work (film or TV script, usually). That seems to work symbiotically with goals aimed at regularly creating marketable works, and it also can create a sense of everyone working together toward common goals, even though these are not collaborations.

On the other hand, contests and pitch opportunities for novels and short stories seem to come up every week or so. Some writers dart from one to another, starting and stopping work, drifting away from their designated Work in Progress, and generally destroying momentum for their projects.

What about intrusive deadlines you don't seek? It is hard and possibly unwise to turn away from an agent’s email asking for a manuscript, even when it comes six months after the query was sent and you are deeply involved in other work. And, when you get a call from a producer asking for a treatment, hanging up the phone might take dedication beyond what’s reasonable. But populating your calendar with deadlines that, upon analysis, would not pay off as well as finishing the Work in Progress, will, in most cases, delay the achievements you’ve planned and worked for.

Limit the deadlines in your life. Strive to make them all achievable and take steps to meet them even if life gets in the way. Make sure the projects you put deadlines to, especially those that intrude on your career plans, are worthy. Take care of your reputation for meeting deadlines that involve clients, collaborators, and publishers. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 3 - Choose wisely

No one can guarantee that all the important decisions you make in your writing career will be the best. There is no such thing as perfect knowledge and luck always plays a part. In addition, what's best for you, even if you have thought things out well, isn't static. Changes in your life and the new possibilities that emerge as your skills and interests change add elements of volatility to any of your decisions.

Don't panic. There's some evidence that searching for "good enough" choices will lead you to better and more satisfying results than always trying to optimize. This is why being thoughtful about which criteria are the most essential to getting what you want (rather than all possible criteria) is among the most important factors in good decision-making.

A good place to start is considering your basic goals as a writer. Think about:
  • What kind of writing you're interested in (Screenplays? Novels? Short stories? Poetry? Nonfiction?),
  • What genre or genres you wish to master (Romance? Science fiction? Mystery?),
  • Why you want to write (To change the world? To express yourself? To make money? To attain fame? To entertain?), and
  • What you’re suited for.
It's good to begin a personal inventory. Where do you want to spend your time? (Hint: look to see what your heart tells you, where your passion lies.) You may want to assess your current skills and what education and practice might be needed to engage in different kinds of writing. Anything you can do to determine what opportunities are in front of you and where your talents lie can help you make better choices. (Just you don't let anyone tell you what you want to do is impossible.) In a general way, considering the investment you might need to make (time, money, social capital) is worthwhile.

So, for instance, Writer Smith might decide to write SF scripts, aiming at enough success to make a living and get a few fans. Or Writer Jones might instead have the goal of exposing people to the values of medieval Irish clans by self-publishing a series of romance novel that bring that era to life.

Once you have clear goals (understanding that it's not failure to change your mind or shift to Plan B), you have foundational information for sorting through options. Choose projects that fit your goals. Investigate markets and contests and helpers (such as beta readers, editors, and agents) that are aligned with steps toward achieving your version of success. Smith might then learn screenplay format, create a script about alien monks who look like monsters, and enter it into the Austin Film Festival’s annual contest. Jones might learn all there is to know about producing e-books, join Romance Writers of America for its courses and camaraderie, and gather fans and beta readers of short stories, novellas, and, novels.

Note – it's okay to experiment and take on tactical work (such as, paying gigs that are not part of your plans) on occasion. These may expand your skill base and put food on the table. Just be careful not to make too many choices or sacrifice too much of your career to nonstrategic work.

Some of the things to consider when choosing projects include whether you will regret not doing some work or whether you will not like yourself if you do. Can you handle the consequences of a particular choice? It's sometimes useful to dig into a question by taking a contrary point of view and explicitly articulating and challenging your assumptions. One recommendation is to generate not just options that fit your criteria, but a few that don't. Even though these are unlikely to be chosen, they can sometimes lead to out-of-the-box thinking.

One danger as you consider the possibilities are in front of you is giving people too much space in your head. Whatever choices you make are ones you'll need to live with and they won't. Don't be afraid to go against advice or to make decisions that are popular.

People, of course, are the only sources of input. As you consider what factors might lead to good choices, brainstorm on possible ways you can get more information and clarify the answers. All the sources won't be equal, so it might be good to explicitly mark the uncertainty and credibility of each source.

I've often found it useful to take a list of 10 or 20 things I want to know for each of a set of options, narrow that list down to 5 to 10, and then create a spreadsheet scoring the different options against these (after getting enough information on each).

You go into a decision process, remember that you don't have infinite time. For some decisions, the clock is ticking from the time you're aware of the opportunity. You can't worry too much about incomplete information. But for those decisions that can be made, you need to give yourself a deadline. No decision deserves an infinite investment in your time and energy. But, be aware, that big decisions with indefinite deadlines are booby-trapped by our brains. Humans have a tendency to overestimate the value of missing data. This leads to delay, frustration, too much work put into finding answers of less value, and self-doubt. Don't get caught this way.

Has this implies, once you've made an irreversible decision, it's good to move forward and not continue to evaluate and reconsider your choice. Instead, work at making the bests of the option you selected. If your decision is important and reversible, mark an appropriate date on your calendar to give it a fresh look. And don't waste time thinking about it until you get to that date.

Deadlines are tricky. They can be of enormous value, but they can also be distracting. I’ll examine their role in effective decision making next time.

In addition to looking at the previous posts in this series, you may want to look at some of the articles I referenced:

7 Questions You Should Ask Yourself When Faced With A Tough Decision In Life

Four Tricks to Help You Make Any Difficult Decision


Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision-Making
7 Steps to Making Better Decisions
6 Tips for Making Better Decisions