Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Stories off the Leash 4 - Bad choices make good stories

Where would horror movies be if people never went outside to investigate a noise or walked down that dark alley or opened that door? We all make mistakes in real life. Sometimes ridiculous, thoughtless ones and sometimes ones that "seemed like a good idea at the time." Many of these become tales we retell, and some reveal us in ways no descriptions ever could.

When I read manuscripts, it's unusual for me to find stories where bad choices by protagonists propel the stories forward effectively. Either the result is the plot turning on stupidity or the drama is robbed as the mistake is minimized, leading to tepid consequences. But, when a character makes an understandable decision that wreaks havoc... wow.

I'll discuss making the most out of bad choices next week. For now, let's look first at advancement of the plot by stupidity. Here, the protagonist knows (or should know) the decision is bad and goes ahead and does something that can't turn out well. This is frustrating because we want to identify with the hero and root for him or her. How (except in some comedies) can you root for a dolt? How can you feel bad when trouble follows and it's completely predictable? (And if it is completely predictable, where's the fun?)?

But we do have good examples of protagonists who make bad decisions where the story is not harmed.
  • When there's no time to deliberate. We understand bad decisions that are made in a split second. The reasons why astronauts repeat so many scenarios in training is because it's so difficult to make the best choice in the moment.
  • When we find there's special knowledge. Shrimpy David took on beefy Goliath, but he had a trick up his sleeve -- a secret weapon slingshot.
  • When there's irony. In this case, we know that the killer is behind the door the heroine is about to go through or the bomb is under the seat the protagonist picks, but she or he doesn't. And it's excruciating.
  • When there's betrayal. We can all sympathize with a protagonist who makes a decision based on bad information or advice from a trusted friend or because friends get him or her impaired (say at a drinking party) and don't look out for him or her.
  • When alternatives are exhausted. High Noon provides a great example of this. Will Kane tries everything to deal with the gunfighters headed his way. He can't get help and he can't leave town (without sacrifices his honor). He's just stuck.
  • When it leads to unintended consequences. Sometimes small acts lead to major results. People may get away with distracted driving hundreds of times before deadly consequences result.
  • When the situation is completely new to the protagonist or significantly changed.You might lose the sympathy of the audience if the protagonist is texting while driving. But what if he or she gets a sneezing fit?
  • When the choice is between to equally horrible outcomes (dilemma). This is a classic for drama. Superman must choose between saving Lois Lane or stopping a bomb from going off. Something bad will happen.
Stakes add an important dimension when considering protagonists' choices. High stakes can drive bad decisions and create better stories. I'll cover that as part of the next entry in this series.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 3 - Worlds on edge

Interesting things happen at the fringes. A yeast cell takes water and sugar and trace amounts of other molecules from its environment and sends out alcohol and carbon dioxide. A border town trades with other communities, and that extends to more than goods. Music, ideas, customs, behaviors, and recipes are rejected, transformed, and accepted by people with different cultures, and then passed on to their larger societies.

Writer James Alan MacPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow, understood the dramatic value of interfaces, consciously seeking out the conflicts and compromises of the edge. His ideas caught my imagination early in my career, prompting me to focus on where science and technology meet business, law, politics, nature, global challenges, and our daily lives.

Contrasts, struggles, and transformation belong at the heart of what you write, even if your focus is on small town romances. The differences between lovers, including the endless curiosity between sexes in traditional romances, forces endless adjustments and adaptations. We relate to stories where characters are simultaneously attracted and repelled, pulled together by circumstances and driven apart by the unacceptable.

Odd couple stories do this. So do stories of circumstance, where people are forced together. The stakes for diverse groups can be survival, as with The Poseidon Adventure or many Star Trek shows, where the right answer only emerges when a logical Vulcan and an intuitive human must find a middle path.

How do you find your edge?
  • Look for interesting differences, where neither is completely "right." Pull both ways so the values of each side get a fair shake.
  • Make it personal. Even a story of a fight to the death between aliens and humans needs to include individuals we can relate to who face challenges and impossible choices. And, if you can make it personal to you so you feel as if you are taking risks as you write the story, even better.
  • Make it external. Often writers who have found the opportunity to examine a rich story at the boundaries will get intellectual about it, turning a good tale into an essay. Enough with the reflection. No more talking. See what would happen if you presented the story as a silent movie without title cards.
  • Make it fresh. The reason I like science and technology in my stories is new concept emerge daily, and I can explore and share these. Other writers bring little known cultures and subcultures to the fore in their stories, including inside views of professions. One of the joys of Six Feet Under was how it detailed the funeral industry's interactions with people in extreme situations.
  • Make it eternal. Edge stories are engaging because they provide lots of details. That's the way to draft them. But once the draft is done, take the time to find the theme. If you dealt honestly with your material, it will be there. Then go back and use the details and trim the excess to illuminate your statement on the human condition.
  • Don't propagandize. Theme is not the same as message.
Working at the edge requires research. If you happen upon lesser known interface, you need to dig deeply and get it right. If you are privy to a cultural border town, you need to take yourself outside of it so you can see what you are inevitably missing and share with those outside your situation. If your world is as familiar as a 60s family sitcom, you need to uncover the strange and unexpected.

Never settle for the obvious.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 2 - Crunch time

Time flows differently in a story, and you can use the freedom from real clocks and calendars to set your story free.

Most obviously, you can manipulate time and the reader experience by the use of flashbacks and flashforewards and parallel storytelling and fracturing. Many stories raise question that, if the story were told chronologically, would already be answered -- but withholding information is part of the fun of stories, leading to emotional payoffs as surely as putting a joke's punchline at the end. Secrets always add to fun.

On the opposite side, reordering important reveals, such as the death of the main character in Sunset Boulevard, expectations are set (so the audience does not expect a happy ending) and dread is increased.

A third reason for this kind of time is to assure rising conflict. The logic of a story may not take the protagonist along the path of worse and worse complications, but manipulating the order of scenes (and the protagonist's awareness of what has happened) can up the tension and avoid dramatic plateauing. Oedipus has murdered his father and married his mother long before he realizes his mistakes, long before they transform his story.

These composition choices don't match real time, but, unless the writer messes up, all of these approaches are apparent to readers. In fact, they usually are called out specifically by starting new chapters or, at least, sectioning with added white space.

There are less obvious choices. Compression (where we don't see every moment of a scene) happens in film so often, we probably don't notice it. (Those who first saw movies did notice.) It can be used in novels and short stories, too. Actions described are limited to those that are essential without destroying flow. Summation is used to present scenes that are needed for logic but don't have enough interesting going on to offer moment-to-moment.

Obsession represents another use of time. Real people are regularly distracted by and drawn away from their pursuits of even critical goals. We all need to deal with eating, sleeping, phone calls, headaches, itches, and wandering minds. These are limited in stories to the point of what would be syndromes or diseases for any of us. Protagonists, on the other hand, are monomaniacal about their goals. If they were real, we'd lock them up.

One way obsessions are hidden is through timeboxing. We all understand deadlines, and the ticking clocks in stories feel right for us and automatically add tension that both increases our enjoyment and keeps us from looking too closely at the artifice.

Everything can't have a deadline, or course. That can become tedious or exhausting. Usually, the big event has a deadline. Rocky has both a deadline for the beginning of the fight (when training ends) and the fight itself (with the limited number of rounds). There may be deadlines for some of the tasks that must be accomplished to succeed, but probably not all.

Deadlines for tasks can be flexible or end in failure, provided alternative task that make it possible to stay on the road to success are hinted at. The final deadline almost always must be firm, or readers will feel cheated. Villains can have deadlines, and these can turn out to be flexible if it messes up the protagonist. Supporting characters can have deadlines for subplots or that make the protagonist more miserable.

Irreversibility is another subtle use of time. The idea that a choice made provides no way for the protagonist to go back and resume his or her original life is essential to story drama. Time branches, and the road not taken can never be taken. Decisions matter. They have consequences. And the one-way nature of time enforces this.

Finally, there is subjective time. We feel this in our own lives, when things seem to speed up (often during a crisis) or slow down (when life gets dull). Controlling the expression of this in stories is one of the writer's most important jobs. Getting it right is intrinsically linked to pacing (something I covered in the Fast Reads series).

Time is stories is a mixture of emulating time in our own lives and choosing techniques we can master to manipulate tension, surprise, and emotion within a story. The many approaches are your toolbox as a writer to make your stories more engaging. It's good to experiment with using these tools so you can create the effects you want. One caution is to be careful about using them in ham-handed fashions that take readers out of stories. Pay attention when you notice in your reading that other writers have not succeeded. These are great lessons. (And, since readers change, you can often find what would be failures today in "classic" novels from earlier eras.)

When the use of time does not feel authentic, it's like seeing the wires used for improbable leaps in Hollywood action scenes. Get good at this. Readers are more and more likely to spot techniques with time, so special attention (often during revision) needs to be paid to hiding you tracks.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 1 - Characters in jeopardy

"When you're in combat, you're not fighting for your honor or a ribbon or even your country. You're fighting for the guy next to you. You're fighting for your buddy."

A retired marine told me this when I was in college. It's relevant to your writing if you think about it in terms of the stakes you create in your story. Certainly a macro view -- moving from a neighborhood at risk to a city at risk to a nation, planet, or galaxy -- can raise the stakes. It may even add to reader engagement, especially in a visual medium like the movies. But it can become abstract and distancing, too. To me, the death of Obi-Wan in Star Wars is more upsetting than the destruction of Alderaan. I know Obi-Wan, but my strongest connection to Alderaan is an indirect one, Princess Leia's reaction.

Good stories raise the stakes throughout. Great stories raise the personal stakes throughout because we experience stories through individual characters, not crowds. (Looking at this concept from the opposite direction, when a villain wipes out innocents, even in a movie, the experience becomes more visceral and important if the death of one individual is given attention.)

Raising the stakes is about the potential for bad things to happen. The emotional score goes up as you do the following:
  • Make it real. At some point, show that something really bad can actually happen. This makes readers/audience members worry.
  • Make it individual. When there's one character we care about at risk in means more than a busload. Unless it's a busload of kids.
  • Make it personal. Put the protagonist at risk or, better yet, his/her loved ones.
  • Make it public. When bad things happen publicly, there is potential for humiliation. And it's impossible to pretend it didn't happen.
  • Make it irreversible. If the bad thing that happens is easily fixed or the protagonist can do something that makes it feel as if the bad thing never happened, that lessens the stakes. If the harm cannot be fixed (like when the hero in Misery loses his foot), the reader can't imagine the harm away.
  • Make it unfair. Damage that comes to people who in no way deserve it hits a lot harder.
  • Add dilemma. When the protagonist faces two bad things and gets to choose which one, it's excruciating.
  • Make it a choice. A classic choice for a protagonist is between stopping an evil by committing an evil or doing nothing and allowing something horrible to happen. Honor or horror?
In addition to the above, it's worth exploring the potential for bad things up and down Maslow's Hierarcy of Needs. Survival is always engaging. As are threats to close relationships. And you can play these off each other.

Of course, stakes are all in the future. Within the story, some of these bad things must actually happen. And the bad things that happen need to put the screws to the protagonist and create change and growth. They shouldn't be bad just for the sake of being bad.

If you want to take emotions to a higher level, consider blending stakes in a way that is  uncomfortable, provocative, or ironic.

In Gone With the Wind, there's a scene where Scarlett is looking for a doctor for Melanie.  When the camera pulls back, her urgent need is put into a bigger perspective, as the screen fills with the wounded and the dying. Does Scarlett's lack of perspective make her seem less compassionate? Or more human? Or both?

In Casablanca, Rick reduces Ilsa to tears when he says, "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." He has put their love in perspective (and aside) for the sake of a higher cause.

This is how you go from effective... to memorable.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 5 - Special tricks

The main tools for creating fast reads are clarity, emotional engagement, and raising questions. In this series, I've suggested some the dos and don'ts of backstory, dialogue, characters, and action for those who want to write page-turning stories.

Before I leave this topic, I'd like to present a few tricks for breaking things up and, sometimes, adding a little spice. These should not be overdone or they can wreck the continuity and even give a reader a comfortable place to put down the book. But, when a story that is otherwise working feels like it is slowing, these tricks can pick up the pace.

White space. The appearance on the page makes a difference. In our attention deficit society, when a paragraph fills a page, readers are likely to feel overwhelmed and move onto a video game or a TV show. Even when, formally, your paragraphs make sense, it is a good idea to scan your manuscript for long sections without much white space and break up the paragraphs.

Short scenes and chapters. Providing you are taking care to raise questions and propel readers forward, consider using shorter scenes from time to time and chapters that have fewer scenes. This can be especially valuable near the end of a novel where the reader may be feeling fatigued. Overall, with pages literally turning more quickly, it will feel as if the story is speeding up and the work of reading is all downhill. Just don't violate the sense of immersion or provide easy stopping points.

Artifacts. One of the joys of Dune is the use of quotes, essays, prayers, and other artifacts throughout (especially at the beginnings of chapters). These provide a different voice and hint at a bigger, unexplored world. Tolkien uses poetry and songs. Other authors use letters and even snatches of film scripts.

These add variety if you don't use them in a haphazard manner. I follow two rules of thumb when they are included in one of my manuscripts. The first is that they must not just be placeholders. If they don't add to the story and increase my interest in it, they get removed and replaced. The second is they need to come at about the same rate. Having a bunch of artifacts at the beginning of a story and not at the end, or vice versa, knocks things out of balance.

There's more you can do the create fast reads. You can take advantage of a distinctive voice (your own or a characters) that charms the reader. Or use the traditional tools, hooks and cliffhangers. And, of course, a rich premise that pays off in anticipated and surprising ways can keep readers engaged.