Saturday, July 4, 2020

Understanding Character Moments - A day in the life

Action and conflict – these are the stuff of fiction. But much can be revealed in stillness. In quiet. In what is normal in the life of one of your characters.

I love to explore typical days for characters. I’m curious about how their lives differ from mine, and how they respond to pedestrian challenges can say a lot about what will happen with all hell breaks loose.

Your setting can bring reality and meaning through a routine day. So instead of focusing on what your character does, focus on his or her environment.

The Place - Begin by describing key elements that would allow readers or an audience to put themselves, physically, in the locale. Max Adams has a mantra for scriptwriters – space, light, texture. Write them down in that order. Space needs to convey the size and shape of the room, hall, airport terminal, etc. Light specifies how the space is illuminated (Sunlight through a dirty window? Track lights?  Torches?). Texture anchors the scene with at least one object (a table, a jukebox, a bicycle), described vividly.

Note –While color may be valuable, texture is essential. Rough wood, smooth chrome, velvet, and sticky stains are more evocative because even though they are perceived through the eyes, they engage the sense of touch.

Beauty and ugliness – In each locale, what is the most aesthetically pleasing element? What offends the eye? Go further, and determine what might please or irritate the other senses.

Distractions – Is there anything in the space that demands your character’s attention? (Chances are it will be something in motion. We’re built to take notice of things that move.)

Surprises – Even though your day in the life is supposed to be typical, even boring, for your character, you may find an element in a scene that surprises you. Write it down.

Associations – Since this is familiar space, it is likely to remind the character of people and events. It may even stir up emotions. Note these down. They are invaluable.

Finishing details – If the above does not sufficiently communicate, keep adding elements until it really comes across. Don’t leave a scene incomplete.

As you work through these, consider some of the less tangible elements. Are there rules that restrict behavior (like quiet in a hospital)? Is the protagonist out of place and uncomfortable? Does time play an important role (say in catching a train)? Does dress matter? Don’t hesitate to explore these scenes beyond the basics, and be sure to write down what catches your interest.

Also, make notes on anything that raises questions or prompts research. There is a reason why your muse is pointing out certain elements. Many of them are there to enhance your story.

Viktor Frankl said, "For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment."

What's true for us may be true for our characters. By looking more carefully at the mundane moments of characters's lives, glimpses of meaning may reveal themselves.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

What a Story Gains Through Losses

Loss is a big part of how stories engage us, develop the plot, and help us understand characters. In many cases, loss is inextricable from the main characters goal. For instance, Dorothy’s goal in The Wizard of Oz is to get home. Therefore, she has to have lost her home. Some stories, are driven by a whittling away of the good things in life. In The Natural, the hero has talent, health, opportunity, and a woman who adores him. He loses his innocence. He loses his health, which makes his talent irrelevant and costs him his opportunity, and, in a way, he loses himself, which is why he ends up abandoning the woman he loves.

So, let’s look at this in terms of story:

Getting back what’s lost. Here the main goal— and the story question—is about recovering something lost at the very beginning of the story. Stories about healing or revenge often turn on this. In Regarding Henry, the protagonist loses his memory and nearly dies when he’s shot, and the story is about recovering health and an identity that is better than the one he lost. Or, as with The Searchers, a beloved family member is kidnapped and must be rescued. Or, with a movie like Munich, the Black September members who killed eleven Israeli Olympic athletes are hunted down, one by one, to balance the scales of justice.

Forcing change. In Star Wars, Luke is not especially interested in taking his chances on an adventure with Obi-Wan until his regular life faces disaster. He loses his home and his family, and that frees him from what he believes are his responsibilities. But it also initiates a larger goal of seeking justice. He does not want the empire to continue to take away the normal things of life from others for its own purposes. His major loss is replaced with a new life’s focus. He has another pivotal loss when Obi-Wan is killed. It forces him into more of a leader ship role. He grows up in ways that otherwise would be unimaginable.

Creating obstacles. In scores of cowboy movies, the hero’s gun jams or runs out of bullets. With the loss of the weapon, the hero is put at a greater disadvantage. Often, this results in a fist fight (a classic roll in the ditch) or forces a new strategy. Characters lie and lose their credibility. They have to re-establish trust with others. Characters may be humiliated— as happens with the” costume party” that embarrasses the protagonist in Legally Blonde when Elle shows up dressed like a playboy bunny. Even though it wasn’t her fault, it leads to a loss of reputation and allies, which she needs to fit in.

Shifting power. The most obvious of these is when the villain steals something from the hero. A clear example is in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Belloq takes the Ark from Indy.

Sacrifice. From the New Testament to Karras in The Exorcist to Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, dying for others is the climax. But sacrifices can be less dramatic and still be effective. I Remember Momma is filled with modest, but affecting, sacrifices the family members make for each other.

Exchange. For an evil example, there’s Faust selling his soul for knowledge. In a positive example, Luke gives up control (and his computer’s aid) to use the Force, allowing him to destroy the Death Star.

Never really lost. Ob-Wan still has contributions to make after his demise. E.T. is resurrected (apparently). In Heaven Can Wait, Joe Pendleton not only gets to come back to life, he gets another chance to quarterback the Rams in the Super Bowl. And back in Kansas, Dorothy finds versions of all the friends she left behind in Oz.

Of course, loss doesn’t always have to be central to a powerful and entertaining story. In Marty, the title character has never had much. He isn’t good looking, doesn’t have much power, demands little respect, lacks self-confidence, and, at thirty-six, still lives with his mother. He has his butcher shop, his customers, a family that takes him for granted, and immature and feckless friends. In a way, he has never grown up, and he doesn’t have much to lose. It’s an odd coming of age story about a middle-aged man who grows up. But the emotional core is the surprising gain of a woman who cares for him, and the wonderful wrenching change recovering her after losing her requires.

So, lives, treasures, opportunities, reputation, and loved ones can be lost. So can innocence, self-confidence, influence, health, sanity, allies, and power. But whatever is lost (even if only apparently) can reveal who your characters really are, make audiences love them or worry about them, provide insights about  important themes, surprise, and engage. As long as you include one element — whatever is lost, no matter how intrinsically vital or frivolous, must be deeply meaningful to your characters. Otherwise, the audience won’t care

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Working Backward from a Pivotal Scene

I did a series on key scenes that can be used to help create focus and power for stories. One point I had was how the right scene could be used to generate the whole story.

Much of what I explored came from Paddy Chayefsky’s comments and interviews, so I was delighted to find a perspective from another luminary, John Gardner. In chapter seven of The Art of Fiction, Gardner takes on plotting and, among other techniques, presents an approach to writing backward from a climax. It’s worth a read, but I’ll provide my interpretation, abstracted from his discussion.

Note: It does not need to be the climactic scene. It can be any of your story’s high impact, thematic scenes with an abrupt change of fortunes. Also, I may have drifted from Gardner’s perspective, so, if this interests you, going to his original material may do more for you than working through this article.

The worthy scene is one that intuition says is promising. It’s interesting. The possibilities go beyond the obvious. It feels meaningful.

Both when selecting the scene and developing it, come up with multiple choices. Have a bias toward a fresh and surprising choice. Determine what occurs.

The example that came to mind was one of a baby snatching.

At the most basic level, the climactic (or pivotal) scene suggests other scenes to be intelligible. What’s going on is more than a confrontation and its resolution. Who is this person? (Or who are these people?) Why did this person make this choice? How has this confrontation changed the person, both in terms of external consequences and in terms of internal factors, like values?

The baby snatcher could be a middle-aged man, a policewoman or a tourist. The person losing the baby could be the victim of a home invasion, a mom waiting at a bus stop, or a con artist.
Lots of motivations come to mind. One thing Gardner cautions against is victim stories, so the motivations of the person snatching are more promising for this example. For some reason, I see the tourist racing away with them baby out of revenge. Of course, there could be other reasons — a deep attraction to the baby, replacing her own lost baby, concern about the child’s welfare.
Choose the character whose perspective provides the most opportunity. This is most obvious when the scene has two people in conflict. And you can arrive at the point of view by analysis or intuition.

Not the victim. And I seem to have chosen a tourist by instinct. (Though I know remember of story where a pickpocket would toss her baby at a mark. No one lets a baby fall to the pavement, making the person depended upon to catch the baby vulnerable.) It is a less that obvious choice, which is good.

What’s the best style to use? Should the story be told by a folksy narrator or an eminent professor? Is this humor or tragedy? Is the logic spelled out? Or does the narrator miss the main point, leaving a way for the reader to engage? Is the style congruent with the subject matter or (intentionally) at odds or ironic?

The intrinsic sentimentality of this concept suggests to me that an objective treatment, like a police report, might be valuable. It’s so serious, it might be worth making this a comedy.
If you are writing a short story (or a chapter in a novel or an act in a script), first consider this in terms of as few scenes as possible, say, 3-4. This will provide focus and make you more selective. By the way, you can come up with dozens of scenes — and this may help for larger works or create more options — but the limits here will force deeper thinking on what is essential and most valuable to the work.

In reality, I’d probably take no fewer than three approaches and (in one-sentence summaries) spec out about 20 possible scenes. But I’ll mention just one sequence to illustrate. Margie has saved up all her life to visit Paris. She has learned the language. She has selected clothes that she thinks will set her above the fanny pack crowd. And everything has gone wrong on the visit. She gets on the wrong Metro and loses an hour. A threat leads to an evacuation of the Louvre before she gets to the Mona Lisa. She gets distracted by a dog at the cafe and spills her cocoa on herself. By the time the baby is tossed at her, she’s itching to grab back power. So let’s say I choose two of those and an aftermath scene — with the police or the pickpockets following her back to her hotel.
If there are two characters in conflict, do they have mutually exclusive values? Why must they engage? Why can’t they have sympathy for each other? Why can’t they find a compromise or delay the confrontation or avoid each other? Why is the confrontation both inevitable and surprising?

Both characters want to have possession of the baby, and there is only one baby. If someone takes your baby (or gains possession because you tossed it), you need to take immediate action. If you are a baby snatcher, your opportunities are limited and failure is not an option.
When two people (or rational beings) are not in conflict, when it is someone confronting a force (disease, the weather, an icy mountain), what does this confrontation symbolize in terms of moments that matter in our lives? (This can be considered with two character confrontations, too.)

This story could have to do with maternity or the struggles of being an outsider, but I think it has to do with how what we possess reflects our power. And this can be ambiguous. A baby is a good example, since you baby is yours (with legal rights and privileges), but a baby has claims on your time, attention, and resources.

Which parts of the scene result from volition? Which is a natural consequence of circumstances? How are the choices of characters relevant? What motivates them, which outcomes match their motivations, and which would surprise, disappoint, delight, or appall them?

For the pickpocket, this is a way to earn a living. It is predictable and orchestrated. Everything seems to be in her control. Margie’s action is surprising and disastrous. For Maggie, the action is her deliberately taking power when she is assumed to be powerless. Ultimately, the scene is about her choice. The natural consequence is a need to maintain possession (otherwise why snatch the baby?), and that probably means fleeing. I suspect all are surprised, the pickpocket is bereft, and Maggie, in the moment, delighted.

Consider what your spare little sequence conveys, paying special attention to the specifics in your scenes (which likely bubbled up from your subconscious for a reason) and the order in which the beats come and play out your intention. These provide hints about the theme you should be exploring.

I can’t help but think of the statement, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” It’s true both for the pickpocket and for Maggie. And in direct conflict with Maggie’s saving, setting an itinerary, dressing in a specific way, etc. The folly of human order is a repeated element of each scene.

If there is an element that jumps out as symbolic or resonant, explore it in terms of the rest of the story. Going from the tangible to a theme that touches your art and provides insights brings authenticity to your work.

If I had actually drafted these scenes, I’d now have the job of noticing opportunities. For instance, Maggie might find a button that doesn’t even show has fallen off and make some effort to sew it back on before her tour. Or I could include something as simple as her straightening her collar after the wind blows it.

One thing Gardner speaks of elsewhere in his book is the artist’s vice of frigidity. This is when something of great value isn’t given the space, consideration, and effort it deserves. It is far too easy to be superficial or conventional when more is in play. My mind turned this around to insist on giving every story its dignity. One thing along these lines that sets my teeth on edge is the unserious use of a battlefield trauma or abuse to explain the behavior of a character. Major societal wounds used as devices to push less serious plots forward reflects a lack of thoughtfulness or empathy.

Because it’s part of my writing process, I make a big deal about considering the audience for the work. It helps me to focus. This is not really explored in this chapter by Gardner, but it suggests another set of valid an important choices. 

In practice, since I write rapidly, many of my choices come out in a quick draft and then those choices are tested with these questions (and more invention/experimentation). That is about putting a real investment in the scene that started it all, and it pays off (I hope) with something deeper and more meaningful.



Saturday, June 13, 2020

Excruciating details -- Immersing readers in your novels, short stories, and other prose works

I think, except when you are writing instructions, the best writing is that which people want to read again and again. They often use the word “reexperience” or even “relive.” And, even though the relationships are built on ink marks on paper (or the virtual equivalent), prose can excite our senses more that a film.

A film has sound and pictures, but a book has those plus smell, touch (which is an array of senses), taste, and, I suspect, other less defined senses, as well.

I have a friend who sees every number as a distinct personality. Because of this, you can read him 1,000 numbers, and he can recite them back to you. I taste lemon when I hear that word. I have a whole-body resonance with places I know. Mention my college campus or my grandfather’s farm or my first grade classroom, and I get more than memories rushing back. I feel these places distinctly and intensely and emotionally.

Words on paper cue all of my senses, including the odd undefined ones, in ways films cannot. I do live in the moment of a book. And the limits of ink on paper supercharge my imagination.

How can you do this for readers? I think the primary requirement is that you live in the moment yourself. If your imagination is not engaged, mine won’t be either. I believe that checklists and rules about including all the senses cannot help writers create true experiences if they are used dispassionately. They only have any use at all if they catalyze the Technicolor, all-singing, all-dancing dream of the scene that is being written. If the right brain stays quiet, the writing will be flat even if it includes all the details.

Oh, by the way, you probably shouldn’t include all the details. If you describe everything, the readers cannot engage. They become spectators rather than participants. (You can explore this further if you want by checking out the work of Marshall McLuhan.) I once asked NYT Bestseller Kristan Higgins about describing a hero in a book, and she said it was sufficient to convey one distinctive feature – the blue of his eyes, the quirk of his smile, the way he strode across the ballfield. Present and repeat, and the reader will fall in love.

Imagine it all, select enough to put the reader into the scene (but no more), and animate the same details later on in the story, as required.

Choosing the best places to set the scenes can lead to wonder, excitement, and anticipation. I have an article, “Take Me to Monte Carlo,” that explores this. If you have a choice, put a scene in an open, interesting space over a cramped, drab space. (Though, you don’t have a choice if you want people to feel trapped. A police holding cell has its own value apart from wonder and excitement.)

… and don’t forget metaphor. Poetic techniques (all of them) can bring people into scenes in special ways, but they need to be done with great care. The best way to master them is by seeing how writers you admire use them. As I mentioned in my last post, I began my writing apprenticeship writing whole scenes of my stories in the styles of Tolkien, Poe, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Twain.  I still do this on occasion when I am looking for answers. You'll find that, even where scenes might have fit the plot with the details another writer chose, each makes his or her distinct choices. Those selections create an unmistakable coherence and a unity in their work. It's worth striving for that. In prose, your distinct choices can come together to create a fresh engaging style.


Saturday, June 6, 2020

Using Favorite Authors to Open Up Your Stories

When stuck, the simplest way for me to find out how to begin a story is to take the concept on from another writer’s point of view. I give the idea to Mark Twain or Edgar Alan Poe or Robert Louis Stevenson, then I write about a page in, using these familiar voices, and see where it goes. I’ve been doing this at least since high school. It’s my introvert’s version of mimicking a distinctive high school teacher.

From a learning perspective, it’s amazing. Just as singers find their styles by imitating favorite vocalists and art schools encourage students to reproduce the masters, writers can learn about style, pacing, and character development by creating faux versions of scenes they admire.

To do so may be difficult at first, but it gets easier with time. Naturally, the author’s work must be engaging (to you) and the author’s oeuvre must be familiar. It’s a good idea to read a few pages just before writing. Fresh exposure helps make the voice louder in your head. Then, put down one to three pages for a scene that is equivalent. (If the model is an action scene with jeopardy, write an action scene. If it’s a lover’s confession, write a lover’s confession.)

With practice, the style is apt to come through. For some fun, you can type up the original and two forgeries and see if friends who know the author can tell which one that author wrote. If they choose yours, you’ve got it.

Deeper than the voice is the perspective. Writers see life in distinctive ways. It shows in the subjects they choose to write about, the characters they focus on, the genres they prefer, and the ways the story questions are answered. Little Red Riding Hood would come out very differently if handled by Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or James Thurber.

By standing in the shoes of writers you love, you can find new perspectives on your own work. I had an idea I loved, and I could not find a way to turn into something fresh and powerful. So I actually gave the concept, ultimately, to six different writers. I had, over time, immersed myself in their work, and it was easy for me to grab, one after another, their stories from my bookshelf. It took me two hours to create these imitation pages. I liked most of the results, but one really resonated. I set it aside, and charged into the story using my own voice, and it’s one of my best writing experiences.

There is a genre of creating imitations. It’s called pastiche, and it usually is done as a parlor trick or for humor. (The most famous pastiche may be Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead.) That’s fun, but it’s not my point here. The purpose is to get a point of view on the concept or disrupt a writing pattern that has become a bad habit. Imitation can be a good tool, a little like role-playing or making deliberately different choices as an actor.

Beyond taking on a scene, you can use imitation to explore story in a more direct form. For example, I recently wrote up the premise for Sleepless in Seattle in a way I imagined Nora Ephron might have.

Original:

To win the love of her life (Sam), Annie must discover his identity, send a note that stands out from many competitors, defy advice and her own sense of what’s reasonable, dump a fiancé, and make it to the top of the Empire State Building before it closes or she will end up settling for a life that has only a pale shadow of the true happiness she longs for.


Then I created three variations…

Mark Twain’s version:

The path of true love winds, twists, burrows under fertile fields bounces off of rocks, and, sure, finds a path eventually after tearing up the countryside. Annie had foresworn herself to leave love and all its worst habits aside for good sense, but nature had other ideas. Or curiosity. Or blamed stubbornness. The only way to get that widower every gal wanted (so she wanted him, too) was with a lot of fibbing and relieving the ship of her life of all the ballast, including a so-called fiancé, who never knew what happened. Did I mention all the gals wanted this widower?

Dashiell Hammett’s version:

She uses the kid. That’s how she pulls off the impossible stunt of baiting a broken-hearted man to meet her thousands of miles away. If a few people got hurt along the way, what did it matter. Suckers always lost, and that included the all-too-convenient man she had set up to catch her if she fell. He really thought she loved him? She was smarter and tougher than any of them, and soon they’d all know.

Jane Austen’s version:

Approaching a man who nobly holds the memory of his lost wife is a delicate thing and liable to lead to society’s approbation, but Annie is willing to risk it for love. To succeed, however, she must first set aside her practical views of what a good match is. The fine attributes of her current fiancé, not to mention the commitment she’s honor-bound to keep, are not easily disposed of. Indeed, the unmistakeable correctness of her choice has the acceptance and blessing of her family, further complicating attempts at romance. Against all of this is the greatest challenge of all. winning the heart of a man she has never met. But to fail, means sacrificing her own heart forever.

I’m not claiming any of these are art or even entertaining. Since using imitation to explore story isn’t aimed work for publication, it doesn’t need to be good. And first draft is fine for these purposes. (Getting caught up in making an imitation perfect or entertaining may take you away from your own story if you’re not careful.) The value, even in these few words, written in about 15 minutes, was unleashing a cascade of possibilities. Mark Twain would spot the human folly, but also the good hearts within the characters. Dashiell Hammett might find in the situation a story about a flawed person fighting for fairness in a dark world, but suspecting, at best, a bittersweet outcome. Jane Austen would probably focus on how Sleepless offers ways to illustrate the social norms the shape us.

So, if Sleepless in Seattle had been my story, the exercise would have provided me with some interesting choices that otherwise never would have occurred to me. Not bad for 15-minutes work.




Thursday, May 28, 2020

Making Your Comedy Funnier 3 - Leveraging the situation

A fish out of water is a classic comedy situation. Think Crocodile Dundee facing New York. Everything normal, from most of the audience’s part of view (and Sue’s) is strange, wonderful, bewildering and/or challenging for Dundee. He brings an odd, childish perspective whether facing mobs of people, a bidet, or a transvestite.

But here’s the funny (not haha) part. In Australia, though Sue is technically a fish out of water when she is in the Outback, isn’t especially funny. The humor comes more from the relationship and who Dundee is than from the context. It’s a great example of humor (often) requiring that the audience be in a superior position. Few of us are in a superior position when in the Outback. That situation is strange, wonderful, bewildering and/or challenging for most audiences.  

There is a clever connection between the two worlds — food — that explicitly equates eating roasted lizards with eating New York hot dogs.

Conflict is at the heart of a fish out of water and other comic situations. It’s all about being at odds: person against person, person against fate or god(s), person against nature, person against society, person against the unknown, person against technology, and person against self (which, when I was in school, was simpler: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself)?

For example:

    ▪    A fish out of water (Crocodile Dundee) story usually finds conflict through person against society, with a wink.
    ▪    Liar Liar, where Fletcher struggles against telling the truth is a person against self story (though not just that).
    ▪    The Music Box, in which Laurel and Hardy struggle to get a piano up the stairs, might be considered person(s) against technology (and a great example of prop humor).
    ▪    The Odd Couple is person against person, pitting a neatnik against a slob. (Many romantic comedies are person against person, often with differences in social rank adding a person against society component. A favorite of mine is It Happened One Night.)
    ▪    Clown characters, especially continuing ones like Chaplin’s Little Tramp seem to me to be person against fate stories. They strive for happiness and success, but are doomed to fail or only partly succeed.
    ▪    I can’t think of a better comic example of person against nature than the wind sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Buster Keaton was a genius.
    ▪    Person against the unknown is fairly uncommon, probably because irony, that superior position the audience holds, requires common knowledge. Science fiction humor is relatively sparse, probably for this reason. Mork, of Mork and Mindy, leans on a fish out of water premise. To get to familiarity, the story may blend together what is essentially our world with common, well-known tropes from the genre. Good examples that might pass as person against the unknown are Men in Black and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But, when the balance shifts heavily to the tropes, the humor depends less on the conflict and more on reference humor. And that is a different sort of situation. It’s a spoof.

While spoofs include conflict, they rely on making fun of something specific. Galaxy Quest references Star Trek. Spaceballs references Star Wars. Young Frankenstein references Frankenstein. Away from speculative fiction, consider Airplane!, which references Zero Hour!. Or Life of Brian references the New Testament. Note: If people don't get the reference, most of the humor is lost.

The comic situation may simply be a satire of  a genre (like the rock mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap) or it could be taking a poke at the absurdity of real life, like Wag the Dog (politics), Bad Words (spelling bees), or Little Miss Sunshine (beauty pageants).

So comedies can be spoofs, satires, and explorations of seven dramatic conflicts. Or they can be mixes of these. For you as a writer, a clearer clearer understanding of which situations you’re leveraging can provide focus to sharpen your humor and make the work funnier. Such a closer look can also lead you to some terrific films that provide good models of how to get the most out of the situations you’ve chosen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Making Your Comedy Funnier 2 - Your go-to characters

There's an old rule of comedy: Going on stage after another comedian is death. I think this is based on the premise that the humor comes from jokes. A barrage of jokes (setup/payoff, setup/payoff, setup/payoff) is exhausting. But humor based on character touches on our common humanity and becomes more compelling, even invigorating. That’s why good storytellers — even those who specialize in funny stories — can follow each other without risking death.

The characters in comedy, as I discussed in Casting Your Stories 2: The ensemble of characters, have been categorized and explored at least since the Renaissance, and can help you see the comic possibilities in your work. I’ll take a different cut at it this time.

Danny Simon said two things were most important to make a scene as funny as it could be:
  1. Have the right characters present.
  2. Make sure all the characters contribute through action, reaction, or dialogue.
In class, Simon orchestrated imaginary scenes for familiar sitcoms by pointing to different students who represented different characters. He danced, burbled, chirped, and laughed with delight. I found myself doing this when I worked with other writers on a Web series. The unstated concept of this approach was each character can be relied upon to contribute to the humor in a special way. Whether with a straight line, an insult, or a pratfall, they work together to add variety, manage the pace of the scene, and bring laughs.

For the present purpose, we’ll consider four kinds of characters. I’ll call them the Straight Man, Wile E Coyote, the Fool, and the Trickster.

In comedy teams (which used to be common), the straight man was the one who set up the jokes. The other team member — the comic or the banana man — got the laughs. So, here, the Straight Man keeps the scene on track. Usually, the Straight Man is seeking calm, order, and reasonable solutions. While his frustration may be funny, the Straight Man isn’t ridiculous, exaggerated, or (usually) needy. The Straight Man can be used to sharpen the timing of a scene by speeding up or delaying the payoff. He’s great to entrap in running gags and, because he is trying to bring something to resolution, he adds tension and encourages escalation. Watch Abbott and Costello (Who's on first?) or Burns and Allen (Say goodnight, Gracie) or Laurel and Hardy (Here's another fine mess) on YouTube. One of the best straight men in a sitcom was Judd Hirsch in Taxi (Reiger). Choose almost any episode, and you'll see him adeptly keep stories moving forward even as they threaten to spin out of control.

This character is less fun to play in its pure state. Someone like Sam in Cheers is only a part-time Straight Man. When he’s being the bartender, he’s serious and in control (often with an ironic perspective). But he also can be oblivious (playing the Fool when Diane is three steps ahead of him) or needy (when he is a Lothario).

I gave character 2 the Wile E Coyote name because the most obvious contribution is wanting something… that’s unobtainable. The Coyote will never catch the Road Runner. Lucy in I Love Lucy
will never become a professional performer. Cliff in Cheers will never be respected for his intellect. Louie in Taxi will never satisfy his lust or greed. In most cases, Wile E Coyote is typified by two things — persistence and lack of self-awareness. Wile E Coyote will never give up, always moving onto the next tactic. He’ll also never evaluate, understand why he has failed, or stop sending his money to Acme.

A Wile E Coyote is the most reliable source of laughs. He is laser-focused on his goal. He goes to extremes. The audience is always waiting for his reaction, expecting another stumble. The trick is making the stumble fit while still surprising the audience. Classically, showing someone approaching a banana peel sets up the expectation of a slip. Some laughter might come if the character steps on the peel and falls on his butt. But there will be more laughs if the character evades the peel at the last minute only to fall into a manhole.

There are variations here as well. In The Honeymooners, Ralph will do anything to get rich, but his schemes always fail. However, there is momentary self-awareness at the end when he has to deal with Alice. In The Dick Van Dyke Show, Sally never will get a husband, but she is almost painfully aware of this, making self-deprecating jokes ("Listen, if any of you out there have a lazy brother, an unemployed uncle or a nutty nephew, you send 'em to me!").

The Fool doesn’t get it. Often, he gets it wrong. This can be a mechanism for stories that rely on misunderstandings. And poignant moments can be created when other characters work to protect the Fool. Latka ("") and Reverend Jim ("I wonder about things, like, if they call an orange an 'orange,' then why don't we call a banana a 'yellow' or an apple a 'red'? Blueberries, I understand. But will someone explain gooseberries to me?"), both of Taxi, are two of my favorite fools. One is a foreigner and one drug-damaged. It can’t be guaranteed that either will understand instructions or explanations. Like most fools, they are generous and want to be helpful, and the execution of these positive impulses can lead to disaster.

In general (and unlike Wile E Coyote), they don’t want anything for themselves. The audience waits for their input, but it’s difficult to anticipate what that might be. Writers are free to create crazier, more surprising responses. Often, their answers inadvertently lead to the solution to a story (or scene) problem. At times, it turns out that the Fool is removed enough from reality to provide answers that are truly wise. (Reverend Jim: If you find yourself in a confusing situation, simply laugh knowingly and walk away.)

Like the Straight Man, Fools often are given another dimension with time, especially in a sitcom where the character is likely to deepen in over multiple stories. Latka was, at times, not afraid to play the fool to get what he wanted.  

The Trickster may be the rarest character in comedy. I suspect that’s because Tricksters are difficult to connect with. They stir things up and revel in chaos. They owe nothing to anyone else and often lack empathy. They don’t change. Ferris Bueller is my favorite example. He is the same at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. Though he satisfies his desires, he mainly wants to stir things up. Though he catalyzes needed change in other characters, he has no compunctions about causing them anxiety and distress. You can count on the Trickster for practical jokes, sarcastic (even cruel) remarks, and unexpected truths. The Trickster doesn’t make things go sideways unintentionally. He is deliberate and amoral.

Though Hawkeye Pierce in MASH often wanted to satisfy his desires ("Life, liberty, and the pursuit or happy hour."), I think most of what he contributed in the early seasons of the show was almost pure Trickster. Breaking rules was more important than what he got from doing so. He disregarded authority and sowed the seeds of rebellion. He added energy and excitement and revealed what was inside other characters (usually, but not always, their flaws). Hawkeye was given more direction and moral standing in later seasons and he connected with other characters and even became vulnerable to them, but that’s not how it all started.

All of these are at your disposal for sweetening. Do your characters fit any of them? For a scene that needs to be funnier, are the right characters there? Do they show up and do their schtick throughout the scene? If not, imagine the scene with the right characters intruding when they normally would (either to get something or to help or to get things back on track or to stir things up). I suspect you’ll discover new opportunities for making the scene (and the story) funnier.
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I have three online courses coming up: The Promise of the Premise, a Storytelling Workshop, and Developing a Web Series. The first is traditional, with lessons posted, exercises and interaction with me and among students via text. The other two are Zoom meeting, with writing, sharing, critiquing, and lectures. There will also be handouts.


Friday, May 15, 2020

Making Your Comedy Funnier 1 - Five tricks to increase the laughs

So you’ve drafted a comedy, and it really works as a story. You started with an engaging premise and built and polished a logline that defines the essential components. The beginning sparks interest, the middle has strong turning points and holds attention, and the ending is powerful and memorable. You love this story.

But it’s not funny enough. It would make a pretty good drama, spiced with humor, but you know it has the bones to be a classic comedy. One that would make Mel Brooks grind his teeth with envy. All it needs is a little sweetening.

If you have a writers’ room full of naturally funny (and highly competitive) people, they could punch this thing into shape before they kill each other (or you). Sadly, you are not at the stage of your career where geniuses have lifting you up and carrying you to fame and fortune on their must-do lists. So try these five tricks and see how far they get you.

1 - Make the endings pop. Humor works best if you withhold it to the very end. My mother-in-law had many virtues, but telling jokes was not one of them. She always led with the punchline. Everything that twisted and surprised came out first. Don’t let that happen to you. Withholding builds tension, and the more anxiety or curiosity there is, the greater the release in laughter. Look through each line to see if the funny part can move to the end of the sentence.

Find the (3-5)  beats in each scene. Identify the power shifts and discover the potential for humor in each. (A power shift almost always promises humor.) Arrange them so, as the stakes rise, things get funnier. Now make sure each scene ends with its biggest laugh. And make the last scene in the comedy the funniest of all.

But… don’t toss your earlier version because this might not yield all your story has to offer. This trick is here to explore and create options, not to create final copy. Pacing matters, too.

2 - Manage the energy. This is about setting up, surprising, and trimming. If I told you the funniest story ever written in Estonian and you didn’t speak that language, I wouldn’t get any laughs (or they’d come at the wrong times). Understanding is an essential element to humor. That means being clear and holding attention. So the setup must proceed with clear visuals that let readers/audience process the action, meaning, revelations, and (usually) conflict and concern about the protagonist. Often, people are lured into making assumptions.

Assumptions overturned create surprises, which are central to comedy. If you just fulfill expectations, it’s not likely to be funny. When, in Animal House, Bluto get high on a ladder to spy on sorority girls, we know that ladder is going down. Disappointingly, that’s all that happens. Much funnier is when he inspires his frat brothers to action by saying it wasn’t over for the U.S. when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor.

Of course, when you raise expectations, you need to come up with something funnier (or at least more interesting) than what people imagine. Just because something is surprising doesn’t mean it can’t be disappointing.

There are surprises that don’t come from assumptions. If you have a completely off-beat character (like Reverend Jim in Taxi), the forward motion can be derailed by a non sequitur. This can be used to distract or as comic relief. For instance, in one of my scripts, a character who has been ignoring a building conflict suddenly comes out with, “Have you ever eaten a cat?”

Finally, cutting out excess verbiage can make what’s funny funnier. Like poetry, humor works best when it’s distilled. Challenge every word.

3 - Play with the language. Yes, K sounds are funnier. And Bing Crosby made an art of reshaping dialogue to include big words. Silly names (in Catch-22, Major Major and Scheisskopf) are memorable and can trigger jokes along the way. The natural rhythm of sentences can suggest comedic timing (or work against it). Puns can work, and rephrasing can be an excellent way to create misunderstandings or irony.

In my experience, of all the sweetening tools, this is the one writers find most irresistible. When language intrudes, unintentionally distracts, or is not appropriate to a character in whose mouth it has been placed, take these darlings and strangle, crush, and obliterate them.

4 - Exaggerate. I can still hear comedy writer Danny Simon, my one-time teacher, encouraging the class to “Make it bigger!” We did. Pitching in real time, making it outrageous so we could get a smile or even a laugh from him. But what do you make bigger? Usually, it’s the character choice. In the classic chocolate factory scene in I Love Lucy, Lucy goes from eating the chocolates she can’t wrap fast enough to sweeping them into her hat to shoving them into her cleavage.

The ultimate payoff of the scene is exaggerating the situation. The chocolates come too quickly so, even though Lucy and Ethel have succeeded in deceiving their manager, their reward is even more chocolates to get rid of. Making the situation more desperate increases stakes and invites people to accept more and more outrageous solutions, so build toward the biggest choices if you can.

5 - Change perspective. Romances typically alternate perspective (with changes to scenes or chapters) between the hero and the heroine. Who gets the viewpoint for the scene? A rule of thumb is to choose whomever has the most at risk. Whose heart would be most ruined. Whose reputation would be destroyed. Who would be exposed or vulnerable. If your comedy allows changes to points of view (and not all do), choosing the perspective of the person most at risk usually turns out best. People will worry more. The character will be more likely to lie or withhold the truth. And make outrageous choices to protect him/herself.

Another way to change perspective is to zoom in or zoom out. In Dr. Strangelove, there’s a famous scene near the end that moves from close-in scrambling to complete the mission to a god-like view of total destruction. This makes the scene more ironic and, I think, more horrifying. Zooming in or zooming out exposes something true that otherwise might be invisible. Truth and irony can make people uncomfortable or add insights, but both also can be used to add humor.

The party on the train scene in Some Like It Hot is hilarious and includes nearly every trick in this list. It’s fun to watch and great to dissect for techniques that can sweeten your story.

One more thing. Don’t cut funny. Humor is particularly vulnerable to wearing out, as anyone who has suffered repetitions of dad jokes knows. As a result, it can be tempting to take some of the best bits out of your comedy. One solution is to mark what brings laughs as early as possible. Protect them until the story is finished. Then read the work to friends (who appreciate your humor) and only remove them if the parts that made you laugh turn out not to be funny.
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I have three online courses coming up: The Promise of the Premise, a Storytelling Workshop, and Developing a Web Series. The first is traditional, with lessons posted, exercising and interaction with me and among students via text. The other two are Zoom meeting, with writing, sharing, critiquing, and lectures. There will also be handouts.


Friday, May 8, 2020

Make Your Protagonists Pay More to Achieve Their Goals - Bigger stories through better prices

I did a series on the value of identifying pivot scenes and using them to create focus for a story. One thought I shared was The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story.  This post will take a closer look at that premise, beginning with a few examples (many spoilers ahead):

Diehard provides a direct, simple example. John McClane wants to reconcile with his wife Holly and bring her and the children back to New York. A good, thoughtful conversation should succeed, right? John thinks he’ll find her adrift in LA.  Wrong. She’s thriving. But he makes his pitch anyway and botches it. It’s a small domestic drama at this point.  Then the super thieves show up. The simple answer? Call the cops and get some help. Or bring in the fire department. No way. The bad guys have those angles covered. And when help finally arrives it’s inept and makes John’s job more difficult. Before it's over, he has to risk his life, out thinking and ultimately wiping out a band of super thieves essentially single-handedly. It takes physical prowess, intellectual skills, and courage for him to succeed.

In Casablanca, Rick has lost his purpose and become a drunk. He also lost Ilsa, and, for a while, his goal is to settle things with her. Either by getting her back or by making her suffer. But his real goal, expressed through actions like helping a stranded couple, is to recover his purpose. To do that, he has to "stick out his neck" for others. Ultimately, this costs him his bar, his safe harbor, his position in the community, and the shell of protection he built around himself. He has to risk his life taking on the Nazis in Casablanca, and finally must sacrifice what’s most precious to him – letting go of the woman he loves.

In Apollo 13, the goal of landing on the moon is lost early in the story. But Lovell is only able to let go of that dream once the crew passes out of the moon's orbit. That's part of the price he pays for the real goal, getting home alive. The basic idea for returning home is to use the lunar excursion module as a lifeboat, travel back to earth, then returned to the command module for reentry.

But, there are obstacles along the way, including illness, carbon dioxide levels, completing thruster burns, calculating angles, and more. Some of these are anticipated but don't have answers. Some of them emerge over time and require imagination and courage. A key moment is when Lovell defies the flight surgeon and tears off the telemetry equipment. That's an act of rebellion very different from his nature and signals his willingness to recognize and pay unexpected prices to survive.

I think The Shawshank Redemption illustrates the value of price best. When you put a sympathetic character like Andy into prison, freedom is the assumed goal. Obvious dramatic choices are proving the protagonist's innocence, parole, and escape, and Shawshank doesn’t disappoint. The story’s poignant glimmer of hope is when the true murderer is identified, but this is crushed when the key witness is murdered. Ultimately the hero must escape to gain freedom. But, along the way, prices are paid. Any is brutalized. He's forced to collaborate with his ruthless and corrupt jailers.

He also has to escape from the prison he's built himself in his mind, at one point expressing his free spirit through daring to share music he loves. He has to transform his hobby, being a rock hound, into the serious business of creating a way to escape. The story vividly explores the idea of long-term prisoners becoming institutionalized, doomed never to truly be free. And the brilliant climax presents years of planning, sacrifice, and stealth in one rush of images as it shows the story, narrated by Red, of Andy’s escape. And it dots the Is by turning the tables on the warden. The hero is paying a price in plain sight of the audience, but this is only revealed near the ending.

So what kind of price should you exact from your protagonist? My advice is to do three things:
  1. Make the goal bigger. Reconcile with a spouse becomes escape a life-threatening situation. Recover love becomes recover purpose and identity. Reach the moon becomes getting home. Stay safe and mentally free in prison becomes escape and save someone else. Note: The original goal (like reconciliation) may or may not survive the escalation.
  2. Pick a price worth exploring. The easiest way to do this is by clearly articulating your story’s theme. The Shawshank Redemption explores the cost of freedom at many levels through several different characters. Consequences, including punishment and suicide, are vividly presented. Tools for freedom - including courage, ingenuity, knowledge, connection, and power - are put into play.
  3. Make it personal. Primarily, this means digging into the needs and flaws of the protagonist. Price is relative to vulnerability. Price requires personal change, often at the deepest levels of identity. Secondarily, making it personal means choosing a price with which you, as the author, connect emotionally. If it's a price that horrifies you or embarrasses you or makes you profoundly uncomfortable, it's likely to make for a strong story.
In the pivot series, I provided a list of questions to help identify these critical scenes. And, with that list, you can find scenes in stories you love and use them to gain a better understanding of prices characters pay and how the simple answers fall away to reveal the real cost.

But you also can dig into prices you yourself have paid in your life that were larger and more difficult to pay than you imagined. Having these in hand will give you ideas and a sense of proportion for whatever you are asking your protagonists to take on.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 7 - Fear of failure

When you write a story, no matter how good, some people will like it, some people won’t. Some people will find it dull, and some may find it fascinating. Some people will grossly misinterpret it, and some will really get it.

In other words (in a strained paraphrase), you can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time.

Once your work is out of your hands, anything can happen. That means, it can fail on your terms — you may miss your target. And, if you’re a sensitive person who cares about your reputation, this possibility may make you hesitate to put the work into the world or even take up your pen. Let’s look at a few possibilities for failure.

A failure in craft. If you’re simply sloppy, this is all on you. It is better not to subject other people to a work that  you know is not grammatical or clear or worth someone’s time. It is best to revise your work until it is as good as you can make it (though that is not always possible).

It’s okay to abandon first drafts that are a mess if you conclude they hold no promise. That’s not giving into fear. It’s admirable to write something that stretches you in terms of style or subject area or structure, revise it until it’s as good as you want it to be, and set it aside because it did for you what you needed it to. (I shudder to write that, remembering the request by Kafka that his unpublished works be destroyed. But it’s a legitimate choice.)

So walk away if the craft is lousy, but improving it won’t matter. But consider revising if there’s a chance that it will be a good investment in time. Don’t worry about the work’s failing in someone else’s eyes. Don’t miss a chance to learn.

A failure of perspective. One writer I knew didn’t have any stories published from the point of view of another gender and withheld everything he wrote from the viewpoint of a person of a different race for decades. I don’t know if he ever tried writing from the point of view of a character other than cis male. I know writing a protagonist of another race was something he tried, tested with people of that race, and eventually published successfully. It took courage for him to try. It took respect and wisdom for him to have his worked checked. It took courage to let that work out into the world.

Similarly, you may discover he true insights a story problem implies are beyond you. It’s easier to recognize a rich story situation than it is to develop an angle that makes you the one who can write it. This could be because the time in your life isn’t right (for instance, too young to inhabit an older character) or the subtleties of a culture outside yourself aren’t really accessible or the central experience is still too close and personal. I wrote one novel three times over decades before I both understood what the most promising point of view was and had the experience to realize my ambition. If either of the first two attempts (each of which had solid stories and good story problems) had found their ways to publication, I would have cheated myself. However, there is a lesson here: returning to a story later may make one that has set off alarm bells earlier perfect for later, making fear of it unworthy.

Fear of being typecast. Eugene O’Neill’s father was famously cast as The Count of Monte Cristo, a role that brought him wealth, fame, and despair. But it's not something that's just a risk for actors. I know a lot of genre writers who are managed into sub-genres, like romantic suspense and cozy mysteries because agents and editors can sell those books. And it can happen to literary writers, too. I was reading Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer, in which he stated he withheld his first novels because he felt the expectations they’d create would move him away from the kind of writer he wanted to be.

This fear-inducing concern actually has a simple, mostly effective solution. Publish under a pseudonym. Sure, if you are a gigantic writer like Stephen King and you publish under the name Richard Bachman, you might get outed but that's not a bad problem to have.

Sophomore jinx. If you have had some success, fear of failure takes on a different quality. Whatever you write will be judged, based on the work that was well-received. “Not bad, Mr.  Heller, but it’s not Catch-22.” I always wondered if Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison were haunted by having written To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man.

Dealing with success isn’t limited to fear of how the next book is received. Apparently, J.D. Salinger never stopped writing even as he fought to maintain his privacy. His solution to society’s reception was not to publish what he wrote. I would not recommend not publishing as the solution for this kind of fear. However, pretending you’re not going to publish (and avoiding signing a contract) might be a good choice.

Fear of success. This flips the titular fear on its head. For many people (myself included), success implies new responsibilities. For instance, because I can explain scientific and technical material into speeches and articles that reach broad audiences, it has been hard for me to say “no” to some opportunities. That takes time away from what I want to do best, storytelling. I suspect other people are gnawed at the the possibility they might win the writing lottery and bring dramatic change to there lives. When I worked in construction, a co-worker did win a big prize. And he was aware of the sad stories of winners. (Among other dismal outcomes, 70 percent of lottery winners go bankrupt.) He paid off his house, gave the rest away, and came back to work, hammer in hand, the same week his good fortune was announced. I’m guessing he had a plan, just in case he won.

Beyond quitting, using pseudonyms, hiding your work, and making a plan, you might consider doing short works. These stretch you as a writer and are of very low risk. If you write a few hundred short stories, it is the large body of work that matters. A few failures represent little investment in time for the writer, editors, and (if published) readers. Occasional clinkers are forgiven and forgotten.

So… for drafts, this fear should be irrelevant. No one needs to read them, so they don’t reflect on you. For public failures consider the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 6 - Fear of pain

Most of the fears in this series can be managed, and I’ve tried to offer some strategies and assurances. Pain is qualitatively different. In general, pain is your body trying to tell you something, and it’s wise to listen.

Psychological pain is real. Trauma is real. And I’ve seen writers damaged by what amounts to self-vivisection in their writing. To be sure, the vast majority of writers I know find facing painful life situations through journaling and fiction to be therapeutic. But there is some pain that should be avoided or faced only with the support of others.

I don’t worry about my friends who kill off fictional characters based on people who wronged them. I confess that I did worry about Vonnegut when he wrote about his Dresden experiences in Slaughterhouse Five. I found it difficult even to read those chapters.

But what about fiction that is not apparently based on real events? I compare the pain in these to the pain in nightmares. It can seem real. It can elicit panic and anxiety. It also may be rooted in an experience that is not easy to reference. And, I suspect, even a fictional experience can cause damage, especially for sensitive and empathetic people (most writers I know).

Is it true that great art often comes out of trauma? Yes. Is it worth the price? It depends. Would we rather have Sylvia Plath around? Or her writing? Is it possible to have both the suffering artist and the art? Can readers (and artists) accept contentment by moving on, away from agonizing honesty?

I admit courage and heroism are socially valuable, but personally, I’m not a big fan of martyrdom. So I’ll offer a few suggestions:

    •    If you must test the water, be ready to stop. Declare a deadline to reevaluate explorations into traumatic territories.
    •    Don’t go alone. If you are edging toward trauma, friends and, perhaps, professional help should be aware and providing support.
    •    Know the symptoms of trauma and post-traumatic shock. Assess yourself regularly.   
    •    Don’t allow anyone to pressure you to continue. Even if the pressure is encouragement. Even if the pressure is a contract.
    •    Be careful about timing and time committed. It’s not great to take a on a project that promises pain when you are going through a life change. (And, since life happens in the middle of projects, it’s good to quit or postpone work if circumstances change,) How long you can be immersed in difficult work is also relevant. You can only get up every day and face pain for so long before the damage becomes too much.
    •    Find healthy relief. Make appointments to meet with friends, walk in the countryside, and watch a comedy.

“No pain, no gain,” is an especially bad slogan for artists. While it may be possible to suffer for your art and come out the other side in better shape, don’t take that for granted. Practice self-care.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 5 - Fear for your reputation

What will people think? While we vary on how social we are and how sensitive we may be about the opinion of others, social connection is a fundamental need. It's right there in Maslow's hierarchy. So, when we communicate, it's natural that we are somewhat reserved and careful. We want to be liked. Generally, we don't want people to consider us to be rude. Or dangerous. Or foul. Or even weird.

I've unavoidably touched on concerns about reputation in previous posts in this series, but this time I'll dig a little deeper.

Who thinks up stuff like this? I'm guessing Stephen King has had to deal with hordes of people who think he's a creep. And I wonder how many people think Thomas Harris is a little bit like his creation, Hannibal Lecter. While many people love stories out of the mainstream, writers who write them may find their works become too closely identified with who they are. The monster doesn't fall far from the Frankenstein, they think.

The most stark example I can think of is Kurt Vonnegut, who wasn't reluctant to insert himself into his stories. Dresden traumatized him, and I found myself worrying about his depression and drinking problems, even though I never met him. I have no doubt that some of what Ishmael suffered in Moby Dick was based on experiences Herman Melville had at sea. But, famously, Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage never went to war. Female authors have written brilliant male characters, and vice versa. Gay writers have created memorable straight characters, and vice versa. The magic writers do through imagination comes from research, listening, and humanity, not just from personal experiences.

And yet, there is a danger of the work being read as biographical when it's not. This does not have to be faced (and probably shouldn't be) in draft mode. But it can become real when the story is made public, and the writer has to decide if the story is worth paying the price of being misunderstood. I heard an actor say once that playing a character who was a bad actor was lose/lose. Do good job, and you'll convince audiences your bad actor. Do a bad job, and you'll prove that you're a bad actor. About the only thing you can do to protect yourself from this is to have a good explanation and have reputable people ready to defend you. Jack Benny was a generous man who played a miser through a character named Jack Benny. Throughout his life, his many famous friends deliberately let the public know how charitable he really was.

Exposure. Though not everything in a fictional story is factual, some may be. It may be personal. It may be damning. It may inappropriately share a secret. It may reveal an attitude that is considered antisocial or could shatter a relationship. Yet, part of the bargain for writing stories worth reading is authenticity and even confession. The workaround?  Disguising the truth — especially when it might put others at risk — is a good choice. I recommend it. You may go further by moving away from mimetic fiction into science fiction or fantasy. (That's what some writers did during the McCarthy Era, and, famously, how Rod Serling dodged the interference of sponsors.)

Of course, you may want to reveal yourself as less-than-perfect. We all have dark sides, and acknowledging this can be both healthy and engaging. Showing flaws makes authors more approachable just as surely as it makes characters more interesting. Everyone has to do this respecting their own health and security. Especially in an age of trolls, being vulnerable carries the risk of opening old wounds.

One writer friend said something that rang true and articulated an idea that helps me to be more open in my writing. She said she had never written anything that didn't have important and risky biographical material within it. But, in her experience, people were never able to pick out the things that really happened to her. Furthermore, things that never happened (and, thus, were easily denied) were the things people focused on and tried to attach to her. So maybe go ahead and tell the truth. It’s likely people will never notice.

Taking the other side. I once wrote a first-person story where the narrator was unreliable and despicable. In the end, that character was defeated. Five editors told me that if I changed the story to have a “happy ending,” they buy it. Of course, it did have a happy ending. The horrible narrator failed. Luckily, the sixth editor understood what I was doing and bought the story. He liked how well he had been misled until the very end. Especially since it happened in a story that overturned a common science-fiction trope.

The point is, if your story includes someone advocating a horrendous point of view, someone may suspect it's something you believe. It could even be used against you. When Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California, some papers attributed quotes from his novels’ villains to him.

When All the Family was on television, the writers worked very hard to present Archie Bunker, the bigoted main character, in a rounded way, but to show him gain his comeuppance or his being gently mocked. This was effective for much, perhaps most, of the audience, but not everyone. Some saw him as a hero.

Just as I winked at readers at the end of my story with the unreliable narrator, you might want to cue people in so they know your actual view. (You may not want to do this. It's a tricky aesthetic choice.) Having a character who articulates the other side can also offset toxic opinions. I think the strongest way to present concerns about "other side" statements is by showing reasonable consequences.

Illusions of self. If you let it, your writing, especially what you put down the first draft, will tell you things about yourself. I think listening to these is invaluable, even if what is revealed to you doesn't end up in the final draft. It takes a level of distance and humility for this to work.

For me, distance involves letting the manuscript sit for a while and reading it as if someone else had written. It's easier to say what slipped out from your unconscious from a point of greater objectivity. Humility comes with developing the capability to avoid marking up, correcting, or expunging bits that make us feel uncomfortable.

It's natural to carefully protect whatever concept of identity we have. It can even be painful to allow that to be challenged. But recognizing illusions of self is a powerful way to grow and adapt. To mature. There are lots of reasons to protect your privacy and your social standing. But if you protect yourself from your true self, you'll lose something of great value.

The fear of reputation can be reduced by withholding some stories from the public, disguising others, having defenses and excuses at the ready, and calling upon others to defend you. But this fear can also be reduced by accepting your true self more fully. Humility. Forgiveness. Gratitude. These are virtues and habits worth developing, and all of them contribute to moments of courage.


Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 4 — Fear of conflict

Write a recipe, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be trolled or become a pariah. On the other hand, if you write something that is clear, non-trivial, and related to values, issues, or pride, it will create conflict. If you dare to use anything but vanilla characters or you explore controversial subjects, multiply to pushback you’ll get. Sometimes, that can be a good career move, getting attention and selling tickets or books. But most writers aren’t looking for a fight.

I understand that. I know primary school teachers who write erotic novels, but they do so under a pseudonym. One friend of mine would not let her children read her books until they reached a certain age. One of my favorites, Cordwainer Smith, protected his real identity so his writing of science fiction would not derail his standing in the academic community or undercut his public service.

What about reader acceptance? Some writers worry about creating “unlikable” characters. Or tasteless humor. Or villains that go too far. I even know writers who see subtle writing or the use of “big” words as being confrontational or passive aggressive. (And trolls are always lying in wait to confirm these fears.)

What if you create bad examples or inspire bad behavior? Supposedly Saddam Hussein’s favorite movie was The Godfather. Rod Serling’s story, The Doomsday Flight, only received one airing (instead of the usual two) because of a concern about copycats.

I think all writers who are successful invite criticism. What should you do about conflict?

There is no reason for self-censorship on a first draft (other than to protect your psyche). Stephen King calls this the draft with the door closed. You never have to show it to anyone. Fear that holds back first drafts is almost always unfounded. Personally, I recommend that writers prove this to themselves by writing pieces that they would never want others to read. Whether it be sex or violence or politics or some other taboo, compose it, let it sink in that you have not been shunned or struck by lightning, and then erase the file (if you worry about post mortem discovery). In other words, inoculate yourself against the fear.

What about conflicts that might come from later drafts? This is a very personal decision. I recently killed a story because it felt exploitative to me. Once I turned out a large sum of money to work on a nonfiction book that included advocating violence. I have a well-developed sense of responsibility for writing (as I did when doing communications and science).

My general rule of thumb is to avoid sending toxic work out into the world. This does not protect me from unintended consequences. Sometimes you can get surprised. But it’s good to have an ethic for your work, in my opinion. Coming up with some rules ahead of time will make it harder to be lured into crossing the line. But, while I don’t claim a license to harm others, I try not to tighten my ethics to avoid risk.

What about modeling bad behaviors or inspiring evil? I think context is everything. What is the story world? Is there a character that critiques the bad behavior? Do consequences make a point? To me, The Godfather does not seem to glorify organized crime. I don’t blame Coppola for anything Hussein did. But I could be too generous on this point. You get to decide.

On people seeing themselves in stories, my guess (which many writers have confirmed) is most people don’t. Don’t use their names. Do a little disguising. You’ll probably be safe. Still fear that midnight phone call? Disguise a little more until you don’t.

If you worry people will think a character speaks for you or something in the story actually happened to you, context and disguise will help. In a way, I see people inferring reality from my fiction as a compliment. Verisimilitude rules! But there is no sure-fire way to stop people from making assumptions. Have a defense ready if it’s a big concern for you.

There are times when what is in a story, drawn from real life, can make you feel vulnerable or exposed. For these, I let the story sit a while. To date, I’ve only had one person confront me, very concerned, about something in one of my stories. It wasn’t pure fiction, but I told him it was. The uncomfortable moment passed. And I don’t feel guilty because I get to choose what I share about myself.

Controversial issues can lead to a fight. Politics can be especially fraught. Most writers I know avoid getting explicit, but allow political points to be made within stories that have their own integrity and reflect the human experience. I like that, but I’ll concede that there is room for work that is directly provocative. You may have a story in your head that could unleash a firestorm. Do you publish it? Do so thoughtfully. This is where fear of conflict may need to be matched by courage. In my study of ethics I found that courage is not required of the individual, but it is indispensable for a heathy society.

Making characters likable or protecting them from bad things is worth a closer look. Flawed characters seem to worry and upset writers more than readers. I think that’s because many writers identify deeply with protagonists and don’t want to think ill of them. But a character without a flaw is almost always dull.

Writers also have a hard time causing their characters suffering and pain. Again, readers tend to be okay with that. There have been TV shows that have killed off characters and lost viewers. Hurting beloved characters is not risk free. If the cruelty is gratuitous cruelty, the chances of driving people away rises. (Though, it can get a certain kind of audience—one I don’t seek.) On the other hand, the willingness to hurt or kill characters, balanced with honesty, can lead to real art. When such a character has a happy ending, it’s all the sweeter for the suffering and sacrifices.


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 3 — Fear of qualifications

My first full-time writing job was as a science writer. I would not have gotten it if I hadn't had credentials as a scientist, combined with evidence of publication. But the first things I sold were short stories and reviews, and, for those, the work credentialed itself. To me, that reveals the limits of qualifications. Boxes checked may be real or arbitrary. Quality is always the best credential.

Now, the world of science writing is both collegial and competitive. When I began, veterans were always willing to give me advice so that I could ask better questions, probe a little more deeply, and direct my articles toward readers. But they also mumbled about who had better or worse jobs, who had won awards, who had science backgrounds, and who to avoid listening to because their journalistic ethics were questionable.

It occurred to me this week, as I mourned one of the better science writers (one without a science degree), that considering what was either guidance or gossip was relevant to this week's topic. Essentially, qualifications tend to be more complex than we pretend. Many people with great resumes don't live up to them.) And a lot of the criticisms I heard early on, direct at other writers, emerged from a need to bring the competition down a peg. Which in turn, reminded me of someone familiar to all writers, the editor in your head.

In the first draft or when considering a new project, the editor in your head is not your friend. The editor in your head uses qualifications as a weapon to stop you from writing. When it gets things right, it's often accidental.

I'm not a big fan of imposter syndrome, but I think confidence – even among the most talented and skillful people — is always under threat. The fear of not being qualified can manifest itself in a lot of unpleasant ways. A topic could make you defensive, and while the arguments to take it on anyway might be sound, having a chip on your shoulder closes off possibilities for a new work. Openness and curiosity have much more power and are likely to lead to more interesting ideas and questions.

Hopelessness is also a strong indication of the fear of qualifications. In your bones, you want to tell a story that means something to you but doesn't seem like a good fit for who you think you are. You may be right, but you won’t know that until you do a little work. Exploring a topic, recognizing whether your perspective is fresh or banal, and coming to estimate the time involved – whether it be doing research or allowing yourself to grow and mature – will reveal if internal objections are valid.

My best guess is that you'll find your intuition is right most of the time, and the reason why you chose this topic is because you can bring something new to it. (Now, actually following through and doing the work and standing up to critics and daring to pay the emotional price is another story. No one guarantees that a work you were meant to do, in some sense, will be executed well.)

Isn't this presumptuous? Don't you need permission to write on a topic? No. Today you have less need for permission to write than ever before. It's still valuable to have support and the acknowledgment that comes from gatekeepers approving you, but anything you write can be made available to the world. The apparatus of creating books or commentary or even movies is much more available than ever has been in history. (We also live in a time when no qualifications are needed to be a critic. Thus, trolls.)

More relevant here than reaching the public with your work is a permission that has always existed – You are allowed to write whatever you want to (except when there are political or privacy concerns). You get to decide to write about a different culture, not someone who standing on the sidelines waiting to accuse you of appropriation. You get to decide to try your voice through a character of a different sex or age or income group, which is likely to reveal something about how you, being human, connect with people were very different from yourself. You can write from the point of view of a robot or an alien or a 17th-century serf. You have that freedom. And, without a doubt, when you exercise your freedom you will learn and become a better writer.

This is not to say that reaching into new areas doesn't involve responsibility. Too often, someone will use their imaginations to create or defend conspiracy theories or "cures" or accusations against innocent people. If they keep these private, they do little damage. But if they make them public, they are being irresponsible. As a human being, there are things you don't know about and need to explore. There are things you think you know about and you need to verify. And you are, certainly, blinded by your own perspective and need to seek out alternate views.

Even if you have the qualifications on paper, such that no one would question your work, you need to be thoughtful, inquisitive, humble, and diligent. Qualifications are complex because individuals, our society, and nature itself are complex.

I make a practice of crossing lines, doing things that would not meet with the approval of the editor in my head (and often of people I know) with the intent of challenging myself to learn more and discover what I might have to offer on a topic. When this is a disaster, the work is set aside (or even destroyed). When it seems like the work has value despite the arguments against it, I begin to share it.

What I've found is that much of what I'm glad I wrote could be challenged (as I was writing it) because I didn't have a full set of qualifications. Take more care if you don't have credentials. Expect a lower chance of acceptance. But give yourself the opportunity to do work that you'll be proud of.

Note: I'm teaching a course on writing a novel in a month beginning next week. That means there's a bonus blog post you might want to check out, The Best Prompt Is Passion.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How to Write a Plague Journal

We live in interesting times. I'm breaking away from my series on Fear to provide some guidance on how to keep a diary of some sort during these days of stress and confinement. While I don't think anyone should be expected to write King Lear, as Shakespeare purportedly did, as they stay home, we all can take notes about the current situation. Reflecting on and writing about our experiences in a world of restrictions and losses can help to maintain mental health, provide a distraction, document this moment for history, and provide fodder for fiction.

Mental health. I don't think it's good to dwell upon those things that make us anxious, but it may help to put them into a list. Just writing down what we fear can contribute to a sense of control. For me, personally, this means just having a page at the back of the notebook where I can write down single words and short phrases that provide the contours of the nightmare landscape. I know that for me, this is calming. I suspect if I wrote all of these down in full sentences or tried to work through options at this time, it would be overwhelming. However, having dealt with other stressful circumstances in my life, I expect to see some of these get struck out or explored more fully as more information becomes available. I'll probably be adding to the list often, making it longer, just so some of the worries have a place to sit away from my active mind.

Once fears are listed, I'll leave them behind and work on something else. That will help me to avoid dwelling on them, and if you have a routine of watching movies or reading or talking to friends to distract you from your fear list, you might make plans to take such actions as soon as you finish your list. Right now, your habits are your friends. Writing about the things you like to do now provides a reminder of these possibilities when you need them most to provide balance. One thing I'm doing is observing nature. I can watch birds visit my feeder, but I can also write about it. Ultimately, I think it's good to document quotidian experiences, especially as we move to a new normal.

A plague diary can be a place where you can privately discuss things you're responding to emotionally. This could be an online post that delights or appalls you. You can dig into it and express your feelings. The same thing is true for new stories (which are probably good to confine to only a few times a day), political remarks, frustrations, successes, and observations.

A special note on observations – discovering something new or unusual is a kind of triumph. If you can develop the habit of seeing something you haven't seen before every day, you'll have a way to expand your world in the face of growing restrictions. Surprises add wondered to your life. When you are writing on a regular basis it becomes easier to notice these and to appreciate what they suggest about the world around you. “Puzzlements” provide the real treasure. There is a delight to keeping track of what you see and can’t explain. These are the things that open doors, but not right away. A puzzlement allows you to be a child for a while.

If you use a plague diary to distract yourself, you might want to have a series of questions to answer each day. Who did I speak to? What chores did I get done? How did I handle challenges — getting exercise, making sure there was enough food in the house, keeping peace in the family?

You can even make this kind of a game. For instance, you could create a cartoon that exemplifies the day or write a short poem or give each day a report card.

As bits and pieces of daily activity and amusements build up, you may (even inadvertently) find yourself documenting this moment in history. If you've ever had the chance to look at diaries of relatives kept during big moments like World War I or the fight for civil rights, you've probably appreciated the blending of the personal and the epic. One thing that almost always emerges is the growth of an individual against the backdrop of great events. Reading contemporary reactions,, sharing their concerns and gains and losses can become a way to connect generations and defined yourself within the story of humanity. Now, you may consciously shape the narrative around the coronavirus, but what you write is likely to be more resonant if it is more spontaneous. However, some people need some guardrails for writing. I'll suggest a few of them:

    •    Write at least one "day in the life." Consider writing one every week.
    •    Somewhere in today's entry, include not just the date, but a reference point is likely to matter. Commenting on what may turn out to be part of the big story can add value and perspective to everything else you put down that day.
    •    Make a habit of "before and after" entries. Something as simple as how I pick up the mail and handle it is different, but larger issues, like dealing with a routine medical problem, could help to dramatize how life is changed.
    •    Humor, reactions to announcements or changes in the circumstance, tough choices, good luck, emerging hopes and concerns, and anything else that matters to you is likely to matter to future readers who will probably empathize with your situation.
    •    Look at things on many levels, including individual, family, neighborhood, business, community, and nation. Also, don't hesitate to think in terms of needs fulfilled and unfilled. For you and for others. Maslow's hierarchy doesn't go away during challenging times, it becomes more vivid.
    •    Pay attention to firsts. The first time you get bad news. The first time you spend all day inside. The first time something frightens you. The first time you see something wonderful about yourself that you didn't suspect.
    •    The biggest experiences will take some processing. Noting these in your journal is just the first step. Revisit these. (You might want to underline or highlight experiences, choices, or projects that might reveal more with later assessments.)
    •    Pay attention to how other people's lives are impacted. There is an amazing amount to learn and document if you watch, and listen, and ask good questions.

As for fiction… Everything above can feed into future stories. But you might want to do a first draft of a character outside yourself in this setting, bringing the skills you already have for description and perspective to going beyond the facts and reaching for truth and beauty. Be sure to store up what might become valuable later on. I use as inspiration for that a story I heard about director of feature films who sent his crew out during a riot. He did not have a movie in mind for the images they captured, but he knew that he had one chance to get those pictures. Be ready for your chances, too.

Next week I'll be back with more Fear. You are also invited to look at the post I did on prompts for a course I'm teaching.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 2 — Fear of commitment

Characters must face irreversible decisions. These cause them stress, doubt, and anxiety. Or should. One of the best ways to engage readers is to get them worrying about the characters they love and/or identify with.

Writers, on the other hand, don’t usually face truly irreversible decisions until they turn in a final manuscript. Yes, there are submissions to editors, contest judges, producers, and agents. But there are always more of these people out there to give the story a chance.

And yet, writers (and other creative people) tend to imagine they have only one chance to select a protagonist or get the ending right. They have to choose a genre or a form and stick with it, o they’ll never have a career. Sometimes, they get hung up on individual words in a manuscript.

My experience says “irreversible” is an illusion. One story I’m most proud of went from having a middle-aged man as the protagonist to a young woman to a teenage boy. I wrote a hundred pages with the middle-aged man and more than that with the woman. (By the way, these helped me work out plot ideas. And the middle-aged man ended up being a secondary character in the final manuscript.)

On genre, I’ve written SF, romance, thriller, fantasy, comedy and straight drama. I have published short stories, six one-act plays, two produced Web series episodes, and two optioned scripts. I’ll produce my own fiction podcast later this year. This diversity of projects isn’t for everyone, but listen to your muse and don’t be afraid to experiment. You’ll learn more and have more fun.

Besides commitments on specific works, writers can have trouble committing to a Work in Progress. This leads to dithering, as valuable writing time is squandered deciding which project to work on each day. Or, even worse, it can lead to a kind of literary promiscuity that causes unfinished manuscripts to pile up.

What looks like indecisiveness may be an unrealistic vision of success. (I’ll have a novel published by the time I’m thirty.) Or concerns about losing ground. (I can’t waste time with multiple drafts or my opportunities will disappear.) Or comparisons. (By my age, Fitzgerald already had three successful novels.)

At heart, all of these pretend there is a path or a schedule. Unless you’re like a man I know who felt stalked by death (no man in his family had lived past 50), it’s time to recognize the limits of ambition. When it keeps you exploring and developing stories and developing your craft, ambition is your ally. When it becomes your judge and taskmaster or encourages to chase market trends, it is your enemy.

Doubt may also be behind making decisions. This is healthy if it’s a signal to explore how a scene might be written (say, by looking at the work of other authors) or flesh out a character or ask questions or do some research. If doubt keeps you active and contributes to moving a story forward, it isn’t really fear of commitment. It’s a deepening of commitment. When it freezes you or causes you to look for distractions, that’s a problem. Some unhealthy doubts may be:

    •    “I’m not good enough.” - Which is better seen as a chance to try and prove it. If you fail, you’ll learn something that makes you a better writer. If you succeed, mark it down as proof you’re a better writer than the editor in you head tells you you are.

    •    “I’ve gotten off track.” - Even if you have an outline, there is no track. Even if the genre has obligatory tropes (like meet cute in romances), there are no wrong turns. There are just pages that respond to muse or experiment with possibilities. There is a rule of thumb for reading a book. Read 100 pages minus your age. I think this works for fiction writing, too. Write 100 “off-track” pages minus your age before you jettison the effort.

    •    “This is a waste of time.” - This is an unrealistic view of writing. Real writers have false starts. They complete works that should never see the light of day. They end up revising over and over again. This is not you screwing up. It is you learning to be a better writer or moving from rough idea to polished story through the normal process.

This last leads directly into concerns about literary promiscuity. Now, sometimes, that’s doubt manifested in a bigger way. Or it may be fear of pain and exposure (which will be explored later in this series). But it probably is more along the lines of “This is a better use of my time.” With very few exceptions, this perspective is wrong. This is true even if you have a sure-fire idea that will be a big hit and make your career. Why? Because you never know what your story offers until you finish it.

And if you pile up a lot of unfinished works, you’ll miss important —essential — lessons you must learn to create that sure-fire hit. Go ahead and make notes on that glorious idea, but finish what you are working on. Don’t set it aside. Two approaches to being more persistent: 1) Make a list of reasons why the Work in Progress must be finished. 2) Write shorter works so you can complete them and move on to your current infatuation.

Fear of commitment is a theme in romances. It’s often associated with Dan Kiley’s Peter Pan Syndrome, which Wikipedia defines as “an inability to grow up or to engage in behavior usually associated with adulthood.“ What this implies to me is that writers facing a fear of commitment may still be maturing.

Suffering the disappointment and uncertainties created by indecision and literary promiscuity may be fine before becoming a professional or in the early years of a career. Growing up isn’t easy, and the process brings its own lessons. But, if you think it’s time to be a grown-up writer, a deeper look at your fears and trying persistence and literary fidelity and articulating reasons for finishing a work and acceptance of your own creative timetable may be worth considering.