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After Earth (Or, How Not to Structure a Story)

I watched After Earth last night. Yes, on purpose. No, I don’t know what’s wrong with me either. Actually, to be perfectly honest, it’s an excellent hate watch if you’re the kind of person who likes belligerently yelling at their TV screen. Fair warning though, you probably want to arm yourself with alcohol (or the brain-altering chemical of your choice) to numb the pain before attempting a viewing of your own. All that said, there are some valuable lessons for writers to glean from After Earth – namely: how not to structure a story.

After Earth opens with a spacecraft crash in progress. It’s a big, dramatic scene where two characters we know nothing about are in mortal danger. The craft explodes then we see what appears to be the lone survivor waking up on a planet. At which point the movie immediately shifts to a montage, overlaid with a narrative voice over giving us an info dump about the history of the world. Which is followed by a flashback designed to make us care about the characters we just saw crash. Which is followed by a flashback within a flashback designed to… You know what? I don’t care anymore.

This opening is a classic example of a trap many writers fall into, especially those just starting out in learning their craft. They write a wonderful, flashy opening to grab the reader, and then they bring the story to a grinding halt. They step back and explain their world, who their characters are, how they got there, and why the reader should care. A killer hook is a fine thing, but it cannot stand alone. Catching the reader’s attention is just the first step; you have to give them a reason to keep reading once their attention is yours.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with a flashback here and there to deepen the reader’s interest in your characters, but flashbacks shouldn’t be the entire scaffolding your character is built upon. Contrast the opening of After Earth with the first episode of Lost. There’s still a big, dramatic plane crash, an action-filled hook to grab the viewers attention. The episode is still rife with flashbacks as well, but – and this is the important part- they’re interspersed with the present action. The characters in the present time are still taking action. They are trying to survive on the island where they’ve crashed. They’re looking for water and shelter. They’re having conflicts with each other, engaging in power struggles, forging new relationships, and growing as characters. In short, the story is moving forward.

In After Earth, the story does not move forward for a good twenty minutes, maybe longer. The characters are only interesting (and I use that term loosely, because they are not) in the present day because of their back story. Take away the flashback scenes, and we know nothing about the characters. Which begs the question – why should we care about them? Again, there is nothing wrong with flashbacks to deepen characters, but they should grow and change and reveal pieces of themselves in the present day action as well. If you, as a writer, don’t care about the story in the present, why should the reader care? If the present day story isn’t interesting to you, why are you writing it? Maybe there’s a different story you need to tell. The story of the life-changing event that brought your characters to their situation today, and then… The End. Fade to black with your character’s worldview shaken. Leave them knowing nothing will ever be the same. And leave it to the reader to imagine the next chapter, leave them hungry for more, their mind full of where the story could go from there.

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Self-Rejection and Self-Sabotage

This is sort of a follow-up to my last post, possibly a semi-related postscript. Whatever you want to call it, it’s relevant in that it deals with another way we authors sabotage ourselves. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “don’t self-reject” or “don’t try to do the editor’s job for them”. Basically, if an editor never even sees your work, they’ll never have a chance to fall in love with it and publish it.

But it’s easy to fall into a self-doubt spiral and talk yourself out of submitting a piece. Maybe you’re intimidated by the other works published by a magazine, by the strict-sounding guidelines, by the idea that editor X could never possibly want story Y. Maybe the story has already been rejected from a few publication, so you let yourself start to think it’s crap and no one will ever want to publish it and you’d be better off shoving it in a drawer and never thinking about it again. It’s easier to talk yourself out of things than into things sometimes.

Speaking with my editor hat on (it’s very fancy; it has feathers), let me just say: DON’T.

Don’t listen to that voice. It’s a jackass; it has no idea what it’s talking about. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, this is another thing I struggle with myself, so do as I say, not as I do etc. You know the drill.
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Permission to Fail, Permission to Succeed

As authors, we’re supposed to give ourselves permission to fail, accept our crappy first drafts (and occasionally second through thirty-third drafts), get the words wrong, and allow ourselves to make mistakes without feeling like it’s the end of the world. Too often though, we forget to give ourselves permission to succeed as well.

What do I mean? Well, a couple of things. I’ve seen and participated in variations of this conversation in person and online on several occasions recently, and what it comes down to is this:

  • We’re uncomfortable talking about ourselves and what we’ve accomplished
  • We look around at what others are doing and feel we haven’t actually accomplished anything in comparison
  • We make excuses to and for ourselves to not take our work seriously and prioritize other activities above it

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m guilty of all these offenses. Given past behavior, it’s not likely to change overnight, so consider this a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of post.

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Sex, Blood, and Dirty Words

The question came up at a local writers’ group I attend semi-regularly as to how much gore, sex, or profanity is appropriate to include in a novel or story. The very sensible answer was ‘know your audience’. It’s good advice. Obviously, if you’re writing a children’s picture book, you probably don’t want to be dropping f-bombs left and right (with the exception of Go the Fuck to Sleep), but that’s only half the equation. Just as important, or perhaps more important, is ‘know your story’.

Children’s books aside, most audiences are pretty good at determining the level of sex, violence, and profanity they’re comfortable reading. If it’s not their kind of story, they’ll walk away. So, yes, knowing your audience is part of it; if you really want to reach the people who will put a book down for being too violent, then obviously tone the chainsaw-wielding maniac scenes down a notch. But if that isn’t the story you want to tell, one full of fluffy kittens who share and are nice to each other and don’t own chainsaws, don’t write it just because you think it’s what readers want. Contrary to popular belief, most people are pretty good at figuring out what they want without being told. Don’t assume group X would never read a story about Y. Write the story you want to write, and let the audience find you.

Of course, there’s a flip-side, which comes back to ‘know your story’. Don’t lace your story with profanity, blood, and sexyfuntimes just because you can. Whatever choices you make, swearing or no swearing, sex or no sex, they should support your story. A five-page-long graphic sex scene is all well and good, but if you’re writing a manual on operating postal machinery, it probably doesn’t belong. However, if you’re writing a story set in the trenches of WWI, and your main character happens to be a field medic, then yes, descriptions of gory wounds and infected limbs might very well be appropriate.

So, the question is, does the inclusion of sex, blood, bodily functions/fluids, or profanity reveal something deeper about your character? Does it forward the story? If you remove the loving description of guts oozing through an open stomach wound, does the story fall apart?

Sex, blood, and dirty words that don’t serve the story can be sneaky sometimes. Though it does happen, not every author sits around, fingers steepled Mr. Burns style, wondering what they can throw in for shock value. Often times when those elements creep in, it’s the equivalent of an ‘idea story’. The wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if-giraffes-ruled-mars-and-also-monkeys idea that sets your brain on fire at 2am so you pound out the story as quickly as you can, not realizing there’s no ‘there’ there. It’s not a story, it’s a fragment, an idea that could be interesting with the right plot and characters to support it, but won’t stand on its own.

As authors, sometimes it’s hard to take a step back from our work and look at it objectively. We get excited about stuff. We get passionate and throw things at the page, and sometimes we lose sight of the big picture because we’re so in love with each shiny detail. This is where a good critique group/partner comes in handy. Hopefully they can tell you when you’ve gone over the top, when your language and scenes are gratuitous and no longer serving your story.

Before you get all excited about your blood-soaked space opera set in a whorehouse on a Mars ruled by a foul-mouthed giraffe and fire it off to an editor, take a step back, take a deep breath, and let it settle for a few days. Run it by a first reader and get some feedback before sending it out into the world. Whatever changes you do or don’t make from that point on, don’t do it because you’re worried about alienating a particular audience; do it because it’s right for the story.

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What’s in a Name?

Titles are often the hardest part of writing a story for me. That, and character names, though those are slightly easier what with lists of names and their meanings easily available on the internet. Unfortunately, there’s no handy list of story titles, or if there is, it’s probably best avoided. Naming a story is every bit as personal and important as naming a character. You want it to stick out; you want it to be remembered.

Once upon a time, I used to settle for the first title that came to mind, which frequently meant using something generic. Even though it seems obvious now, it took reading something another author wrote (sadly I don’t remember who) to make me realize how important titles are. It’s your first chance to make a good impression and, perhaps more importantly, it’s your chance to leave a lasting impression. After all, you don’t want the name of your awesome story slipping a reader’s mind before they have a chance to recommend it to a friend, or being confused for some other less awesome story with the same generic name.

The subject was brought to mind again recently by something author and editor Michael Matheson wrote:

“Your title tells me how to approach your story. It sets mood and tone, and (usually more than you think it does) tells me what you were trying to do with your story.”

It drove home the importance of titles for me all over again.

These days, I agonize over titles. Every now and then, one will come to mind fully formed, but more often than not, it’s a struggle and the title will remain a blank space through several rounds of the story’s revisions. Frequently, I’ll resort to begging my critique group for suggestions. Occasionally, I’ll be tempted to go with: Fuck It, Here’s a Story. But since I can’t name them all that, I’ve been known to steal lines of poetry, song lyrics, and the titles of paintings. Of course, not any series of striking words elegantly arranged will do. As Matheson says, the title should set the mood for your piece and give the reader a taste of what’s in store.

Now that I’m the editorial side of things as well as the authorial side, I have to admit, a good title will get me to sit up and take notice. Obviously, it won’t sell a story on its own, but as I said – it’s an author’s first chance to make a good impression. Although it’s an unfair example, with our recent reading period for the Unlikely Acceptances Issue, there were certain stories we wanted to take on the strength of their terrible titles alone, so much so we had to create a whole list of (dis)honorable mentions just to, um, honor them. Like I said, it’s a somewhat unfair example, but it does help make my point.

As a better example, I’ll let some of my favorite recent story titles speak for themselves: His Sweet Truffle of a Girl by Camille Alexa; If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky; Selkie Stories Are for Losers by Sofia Samatar; In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind by Sarah Pinsker; Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream by Maria Dahvana Headley; and The Sea Half-Held by Night by E. Catherine Tobler.

Each is memorable and poetic in its own way, and conveys something about the story. In some instances, the titles set the story’s tone; in others, they set expectations for the story to beautifully shatter. So, you see, titles are important. Which is part of the reason finding one can be so goddamned hard. So, where do you get your titles from?

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Death and the Captains

Bear with me, folks. I’ve been thinking about Star Trek, and the Hunger Games (the movie, to my shame I haven’t read the books yet), and the choices characters are given, and what makes for interesting fiction. Deep breath, spoiler alert, rambling thoughts ahoy, and so on.

I saw the Hunger Games recently and (see the disclaimer above about spoilers and not having read the books), there was a thing that bugged the fuck out of me. Okay, maybe that’s extreme. Let’s say there was a thing that disappointed me. The premise is interesting, the acting is brilliant, but the characters – as presented on screen – have a tendency to be dull as dirt. Every time something potentially interesting about them arose, it either occurred off screen, or was taken away from them. Let me explain.

Here there be spoilers… Continue reading

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One Angry Man: An Interview with Paul Dias

And now, for something completely different. Today, I’m virtually sitting down with playwright Paul Dias to talk about his new play 5 Angry Men. Picture us sipping coffee and chatting in a faux-dive diner, or sipping brandy by a fireplace while we sit in wing-backed chairs, or swilling moonshine and smoking off-brand cigarettes around a campfire – whatever suits your mood. Regardless of your mental image, enjoy…

ACW: Thank you for taking the time to drop by and talk about your new play 5 Angry Men. The play opens April 19th at McGill’s Players Theater – care to give folks a quick overview to whet their appetites?

Paul Dias: The play is a Hitchcockian spoof on love and relationships. It’s a tragi-comedy that pokes fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of dating.

ACW: You accomplish this by telling five separate stories. In Necro-Sheila, you draw on the horror genre. In Still Waiting – Act 2, you draw on the idea of a play within a play, and characters confronting their creators – was the chance to experiment with different tropes to show different facets of a common theme part of the appeal of structuring the play the way you did?

PD: Absolutely! The idea was to have fun by paying homage to different genres. By telling different stories in different ways (hopefully) it makes it more interesting for the audience to watch. It was a lot more engaging to write – especially the inclusion of a zombie.

ACW: You’ve also turned your hand to short stories, novels, and poems. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing a play vs. a story, novel, or poem? How did your previous writing experience inform your process in writing the play? Did you have to kill any previous writing habits while working on the play?

PD: The cool thing about drafting a play is that it’s far more practical than any other form of writing. You’re always thinking about staging, set-design, costumes, lighting, sound, blocking etc. Operating within those constraints makes you more focused. Also, the one good habit I did develop was plotting things out before I started. Knowing where something ends makes it easier to begin.

ACW: Too true! Dialog is something a lot of authors struggle with. Given plays are almost entirely dialog – do you have any tips or tricks to share? Did you draw on people you know and their modes of speaking? Eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations?

PD: Dialogue is so much fun to write. You’re literally putting words in people’s mouths. The benefit is that you can get away with so much more – especially in the genre of comedy. I think using slang and common speech is the way to go. I also feel that once you envision a character, you’re more or less listening to what comes out of his/her mouth and writing it down. (It’s a little schizophrenic in that respect).

ACW: This play is collaborative on multiple levels. You wrote it alone, but you’re working with a co-director to stage it, and obviously the actors bring something to the process as well. Unlike a reader bringing their interpretation to a work, you get to experience the reactions to your words in a very visceral way, watching other people perform them. Did anything surprise you the first time you heard actors reading your lines? Did they bring out aspects of your characters you hadn’t considered? Did you find yourself re-writing lines, or stage directions based on what the actors brought to the performance, or based on your co-director’s suggestions?

PD: Other people’s interpretations can make things tricky. As the writer, you always want to control how the work is being perceived. However, as soon as the words are on the page, it’s out of your hands. For the most part though, I’ve found that — transcending ego — it’s about putting on a show that the audience will enjoy. Keeping that end-game in mind means that everyone involved has to be flexible.

ACW: What are you working on now, or what do you plan to work on next?

PD: The thing I’m working on currently is the maintenance of my sanity. That’s a full-time project in and of itself.

ACW: Are there any other projects you’d like to mention while you’re here?

PD: I’ll be putting on a play for the Montreal Fringe Fest in June, specifically June 16-17 & 19-21. But after that, I fully intend on belly-flopping into a giant vat of vodka.

ACW: Thanks again for dropping by!

PD: Thanks for having me. You ask awesome questions.

To learn more about this fabulous play, visit the 5 Angry Men facebook page. Buy tickets to said fabulous play here. (You know you want to). And finally, for information about the Montreal Fringe Festival, click here. (You know you want to do that, too.)

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The Consequences of Character

It struck me recently as I was walking to the train just what’s bothering me so much about the current season of The Office (American version, obviously.) Bear with me, author-folks, I do have a writing-related point here. The show has gone from being an ensemble-based comedy to Andy Bernard’s personal Hell. Recent story arcs for Andy, played by Ed Helms, have included romantic rejection, being a disappointment to his father, to the point he’s almost invisible to him, lack of respect and attempts to undermine his authority from his co-workers, and increasingly ridiculous and impossible to fulfill demands from his new boss. The situations he’s put in are awkward to the point of being painful.

Contrast that with the Office’s former manager, Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell. His character was the type you love to hate. He was arrogant, and almost never admitted to being wrong. He was someone to root against, someone who you wanted to see get their comeuppance. Yet, because the writers did such a good job with his character, he’s someone you wanted to root for, too. Every now and then, the plot would twist in such a way to show his vulnerability, his need to be loved, his insecurity and his loneliness.

Therein lies the problem. Michael Scott had a crunchy outer shell off of which the show could spark comedy. Andy Bernard wears all his desperate vulnerability on his sleeve. All his puppy-dog-eager-to-please-ness is right there on the surface. He puts others before himself, and goes above and beyond to make them happy, and the shows insists on kicking him right in his puppy dog face again and again. Puppy kicking is not comedy.

Here’s where I get to my point. Probably. The Office is a great example of creating well-rounded characters for the audience to care about. The characters have distinct personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and you wouldn’t mistake one for another. It’s also an example of how shoehorning your character into a plot, rather than letting the character’s actions and personality drive the plot, can be a huge mistake. Maybe it’s a conscious choice, but at the moment, the writers of The Office seem to be writing the show as if Michael Scott is still in charge. The plots haven’t adapted to suit Andy’s character, and the result is, instead of a character-driven show, a show that drags its characters along in the plot’s wake.

The point, as promised: Authors, your character is there for a reason. If you could swap out your main character for any of your other characters, and it doesn’t make a difference at all, something is wrong. Let your character have their passions, their opinions, their shortcomings, and their victories, and let those shape how they move through the world. In short, don’t kick the puppy, or if you do, make sure you have a damned good reason.

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The Devil is in the Details

Thinking about the language of genre and tropes as shortcuts got me thinking about descriptions in fiction and when enough is enough.

Sometimes, shortcuts can be incredibly useful. Common experience and the basic intelligence of most readers means you probably don’t have to describe the mechanics of a doorknob, how many steps it took your character to reach the door, or the material the door is made of every time a character enters or leaves a room. Most people know what it’s like to walk through a door, so unless it’s particularly germane to the plot – your character suffers from agoraphobia, and leaving the house is a big deal for them, or the room is on fire, and your character is fighting for their life – you can probably skip the details and simply say X entered/left.

But there are some things you don’t want to shortcut. There’s nothing wrong with spare, stripped down language, but leave out everything and your narrative may end up suffering from ‘white room syndrome’. Your story could be taking place anywhere, anywhen. If there are no sensory details, how will you pull the reader in and make them want to get lost in your world?

Janice Hardy has a wonderful post on her blog about how much description you need to set a scene. Two points from her post that struck me in particular are: focus on what makes your setting unique, and focus on what affects your character. It’s damned good advice.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that, because nothing ever is. Going heavy on the description can be a stylistic choice, and one that can be very effective. Elizabeth Bear makes the description of her characters’ movements, their appearance, and their environment part of the rhythm of her prose, and it’s one of the things I love about her writing. On the other hand, after about the third chase scene where Stieg Larsson named and described in great detail every single goddamned street his characters ran down, I wanted to throw his books across the room. All three of them at once. Seriously. So, your mileage may vary.

Historical fiction and far-future hard sci-fi are particularly good case studies for the detail question. When you’re dealing with a world outside most readers’ every day experience, you have to work a little harder. Most people know what it’s like to walk through a door, but very few people know what it’s like to live in Ancient Rome, or on a space station. The thing that turns me off when it comes to historical fiction or hard sci-fi is when it’s clear the author is super-proud of all the research they’ve done, and they’re determined to show their work, math problem style. Look at me! Look at all the things I know! Praise me! Praise me!

Obviously, you want your world to be plausible, but that doesn’t mean you constantly have to rip aside the scenery to show the framework backing it. This is where the tips in Janice Hardy’s post come in particularly handy. Do your research, then focus on the details that make the world you’re describing unique, and those which are most relevant to your character. If the gravity on your space station is failing, sure, it may be worth it to describe what makes it work in the first place. However, if your character is simply walking down the hall, they don’t need to stop and reflect on what’s keeping them on the ground. After all, how often do you think about gravity on a daily basis? I’m willing to bet you take it for granted until you’re tripping and falling down the stairs.

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Shortcuts, Or The Language of Genre

I’ve been talking a lot about tropes lately, and how they can be used well, or not so well. Tropes can be reasonably described as the building blocks of any genre. It’s how you assemble those blocks that allows a story to transcend. There are a lot of good reasons to play with tropes – to subvert them, to use them in new and brilliant ways, and because, as the old saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. Tropes can be like words, strung together to make a sentence. A skillful author can use them to build something brilliant and wonderful. Just because you aren’t inventing a whole new language doesn’t mean you have no right to tell a tale.

The flip side of that, of course, is that over-reliance on tropes can lead to laziness. There’s a real danger when playing with archetypes of having them stand in place of character, or when playing with tropes, of having them stand in for plot. I’ll trot out my old example of the hero’s tale, because everyone is familiar with it, and I don’t have to explain it. (See what I did there?) There can be a tendency, or even a temptation, to use the hero’s quest tropes to kick-off a narrative, because it’s an easy way to get the ball rolling. The hero’s family is slaughtered, or someone informs them they have a great destiny – it’s a great reason to get your hero out into the world and have them encounter all the wonderful adventures you have in store for them.

But why? What really motivates your hero? What repercussions does their family’s murder, or the weight of destiny have on them? If an author is doing their job, the initial set-up will ripple throughout the book. If not, well, the trope comes off as en excuse to kick the hero out the door, and then have them get distracted by something shiny. It comes off as lazy.

One of my pet peeves in comedy is the ‘it’s funny because that character is fat/short/foreign/etc. trope.’ It’s the worst kind of laziness, because it can so easily cross the line from lazy to downright offensive. While I liked the first Austin Powers movie, the second two were frequently guilty of that lazy form of comedy. Mini Me is a perfect example. He doesn’t have any lines. He’s reduced to a prop, a sight gag, so the majority of his comedy is ‘it’s funny because he’s short’. He’s not a character, he’s a caricature.

Coming back to the written word, I’m not arguing for abolishing archetypes or tropes, I’m saying authors need to be careful deploying them. It’s not practical to re-invent the wheel every time you want to drive a car, and it’s not practical to re-invent the genre language every time you want to tell a tale. There’s an equal danger that you’ll end up with a square wheel, and a car that goes nowhere. The trick with tropes is ‘use with caution’. Examine your motivations for using them, and look for points where you can break them, push them further, and really make them shine. A shortcut may get you there faster, but it doesn’t always make for the most satisfying journey.

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