Los Otros Planes
25 Things You Should Know About Outlining
25 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT OUTLINING
1. PANTSER VERSUS PLOTTER: THE CAGE MATCH
The story goes that most writers are either pantsers (which regrettably has nothing to do with writing sans pants) or plotters (which has nothing to do with plotting the fictional in-narrative demises of those who have offended you). We either jump into the story by the so-called seat of our pants, or we rigorously plot and scheme every detail of the story before we ever pen the first sentence. It’s a bit of a false dichotomy, as many writers fall somewhere in the middle. Even a “pantser” can make use of an outline without still feeling pantsless and fancy-free.
2. NO ONE OUTLINE STYLE EXISTS
Remember that classic outline you did in junior high? Roman numerals? Lowercase alphabet? Lists of raw, unrefined tedium? Scrap that shit, robot. Nobody’s telling you to do that outline—unless that outline is what you do. For every writer, an outline style exists. It’s up to you to find which method suits you. (And if you’re looking for options, you can find a host of them right here in 25 Ways To Plot, Plan And Prep Your Story.)
3. PREPARATION H
Writing a novel, a script, a comic series, a TV show, a video game, a magnum transmedia pornographic opus told over Instagram — well, it’s all rather difficult. Writing a story can feel like a box of overturned ferrets running this way and that, and there you are, trying to wrangle them up while also simultaneously juggling bitey piranha. It’s easy to find the writing of a story quite simply overwhelming. An outline is meant to help you prepare against that inevitability by having the story broken out into its constituent pieces before you begin. It’s no different than, before cooking, laying out all your tools and ingredients (called the mise en place, or simply, “the meez”). Think of an outline as your “meez.”
4. THE CONFIDENCE GAME
Sometimes what kills us is a lack of confidence in our storytelling. We get hip-deep and everything seems to unravel like a ruptured testicle (yes, testicles really do unravel, you’re totally welcome). You suddenly feel like you don’t know where this is going. Plot doesn’t make sense. Characters are running around like sticky-fingered toddlers. The whole narrative is like a 10-car-pileup on the highway. Your story hasn’t proven itself, but an outline serves as the proving grounds. You take the story and break it apart before you even begin — so, by the time you do put the first sentence down, you have confidence in the tale you’re about to tell. Confidence is the writer’s keystone; an outline can lend you that confidence.
5. STOP BUILDING THE PARACHUTE ON THE WAY DOWN
A lack of an outline means you’re burdening yourself with more work than is perhaps necessary. You’re jumping out of the plane and trying to stitch the parachute in mid-air, working furiously so you don’t explode like a blood sausage when you smack into the hard and unforgiving earth. Further, what happens is, you finish the first draft (tens of thousands of words) and what you suddenly find is that this is basically one big outline anyway, because you’re going to have to edit and rewrite the damn thing. An outline tends to save you from the head-exploding bowel-evacuating frustration of having to do that because you’ve already gone through the effort to arrange the story. A little work up front may save you a metric fuckity-ton later on.
6. THE TIRED (BUT TRUE!) MAP METAPHOR
Let’s say you’re taking a trip. You’re driving cross-country to a specific location—a relative’s house, a famous restaurant, Big Dan Don’s Baboon Bondage Barn, whatever. You don’t just wake up, jump in the car, and go. You pack your bags. You get your shit together: food, first-aid, road flares, baboon mask. Then you plan the trip. You get a map. Or you plug the address into the GPS. Finally, you take the trip. Writing a story is like taking a trip. Why not prepare for it?
7. SOMETIMES, YOUR GPS WILL STEER YOU INTO A BRIDGE ABUTMENT
Okay, to be fair, sometimes a GPS will have you turn sharply left and crash into an orphanage. The lesson here is that your GPS is not sacred. And neither, as it turns out, is your outline.
8. THE OUTLINE CAN BE A PAIR OF HANDCUFFS
So, you’re taking this trip. You’re driving across the country. You know you’re supposed to stay on the highway, but holy fuck, the highway is boring. Endless macadam. Hypnotizing guardrails. Blah. Bleagh. Snooze. So, you see an exit ahead for a back road that takes you to Brother Esau’s Amish Muskrat Circus. Ah, but that’s not on your map. Do you drive on past? Stick to the plan? No! You stop! Because Motherfucking Muskrat Circus! Your outline is the same way. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and while you’re writing you’re going to see new things and have new ideas and make crazy connections that are simply not in the outline. Make them. Take the exit! Try new things! Don’t let the outline be a pair of shackles. Unless you’re into that. You’re the one going to the Bondage Barn, not me. Nice baboon mask, by the way.
9. A GOOD OUTLINE DEMANDS FLEXIBILITY
It’s okay to leave room in your outline for things to change. It’s even okay to leave sections of your outline with big blinky question marks and hastily scrawled notes like NO I DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS HERE BUT IT INVOLVES VAMPIRE SEX AND KARATE. An outline must bend with the winds of change, but it must not break.
10. AWOOGA AWOOGA ALERT ALERT
Plot is a twisty motherfucker. It loops around on itself and before you know it, the thing’s crass contortions have left you with plot holes so big you could lose a horse in one. An outline is an excellent tool for hunting down those pesky voids and vacancies early so you can cinch the plot tighter in order for those holes to close up — or, at least, can remain hidden from view. An outline fixes your plot problems before you have 80,000 words of them staring you down.
11. AN ARCHITECT SHOULD KNOW HOW TO SWING A FUCKING HAMMER
Having some understanding of how a story fits together can be helpful when outlining your story. It’s not critical, but grokking the way a story rises and falls and reaches its apex can give you beats and goals to aim toward when outlining. Might I recommend “25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure?” No? TOO BAD DOING IT ANYWAY HA HA HA JERKWEED.
12. MACRO TO MICRO
You can go as big and broad or as tiny and micromanagey as you want when it comes to outlining. Some folks outline just the tentpoles of their fiction—“These five things need to happen for the story to make sense” Others detail every beat of the story—“And then Martha makes a broccoli frittata, summoning the Doom Angels.” Do as you and the story demands.
13. CONSIDER AT LEAST MARKING THE MAJOR ACTS
In film, a story is said to have three acts (though some folks wisely break that second act up into two “sub-acts” bisected by the midpoint of the tale). Generally, most stories conform in some fashion to the three-act-structure, even if only in the loosest way — as such, it’s worth looking at the major acts of your story and giving them each a paragraph just so you have some sense where the larger narrative is going. You’d be amazed at what clarity you bring to a story when you write it out in three paragraphs (Beginning, Middle, and End).
14. OUTLINE AS YOU GO
Not comfortable with doing one big hunka-hunka-burning-outline right at the outset? Ta-da,outline as you go. Boom! Solved it. YOU OWE ME MONEY NOW. Ahem. What I’m trying to say is, every week, outline for the week ahead but no further. This keeps you flexible and still makes it feel that you’ve still got some mystery and majesty ahead of you around the corner of every cliff’s edge. Hell, you could even outline only the next day — stop writing today, outline tomorrow’s writing before you begin. Just to get a base.
15. SOMETIMES YOU’RE AN OUTLINER AND YOU DON’T KNOW IT
I tried writing one novel, Blackbirds, over the course of several years. And the story just kept wandering around like an old person lost at K-Mart. It felt aimless, formless, like I couldn’t quite get it to make sense, couldn’t get the damn thing to add up and become a proper story. Eventually, while in a mentorship with a screenwriter, he told me to outline it. I said, “HA HA SILLY MAN I AM A NOVELIST WE DO NOT OUTLINE FOR IT WILL THIEVE THE BREATH FROM GOD AND OTHER SUCH POMPOSITIES.” And he said, “No, really, outline.” And I groused and grumbled and kicked the can and punched my locker and finally I sat down and took my medicine. I finished the novel a few short months later and that novel later became my first original novel debut. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity.
16. THE POWER OF THE RE-OUTLINE (AND THE RE-RE-OUTLINE)
I outline before I write. Then, when it comes time to edit, I re-outline before committing any major rewrites. I do this because things have changed — both in terms of what I wrote and what I’m going to write. I outline the novel I just wrote (the re-outline), then I outline the planned changes (the re-re-outline). It sounds like a lot of work. It takes me less than a day to do it. And it feels like hell to do, but I’m always happy for having done it.
17. SEE ALSO: THE RETROACTIVE OUTLINE
Some folks never do an outline up front — they let their first draft (or the “zero draft,” as it is sometimes known) be the pukey, sloppy technicolor supergeyser of nonsense and then they take that giant pile of quantum hullaballoo and from it pull a proper outline before attempting to rewrite. This may take you a bit longer but if the result is a story you’re happy with, then holy shit, go forth and do it. Every process you choose should be in service to getting the best story in the way that feels most… well, I was going to say comfortable, but really, comfort is fucking forgettable in the face of great fiction, so let’s go with effective, instead.
18. MOST PROGRAMS HAVE SOME KIND OF OUTLINE FUNCTION
Most writing programs come built with some manner of outlining function — Word’s is pretty barebones but a program like Scrivener has a very robust outline engine built into it, allowing the outline to eventually become the table of contents. You can also look for programs (OmniOutliner, for instance) that handle outlining as its sole (often robust) function. Consider me a big fan of outlining on my iPad with the Index Card app — an app that also syncs up nicely with Scrivener, if that interests you.
19. SOME OUTLINES ARE MORE EXPRESSLY VISUAL
Hey, nobody said an outline had to be all text-on-screen. Maybe you draw mind-maps on a whiteboard. Maybe you string together photos you found on Flickr. Maybe you mark your up-beats and down-beats in the narrative with little smiley faces or frowny faces, respectively. Get crazy. Break out the fingerpaints. The sidewalk chalk. OUTLINE YOUR NOVEL IN THE SCAREDY URINE OF YOUR FOES. Whoa. I mean. What? I didn’t say anything.
20. HELP YOU UNSTICK A STUCK STORY
You’re toodling along on your pantsed story, and everything going fine until one day it isn’t. You’re stuck. Boots in the narrative pigshit. You have some choices. One choice is to sit there in the poopy mire, crying into the fetid muck. The other choice is to backtrack and outline the story you’ve written so far and the story ahead. The value of this approach is that you don’t need to outline at the fore of the draft and maybe you never need to outline — ah, but if you get stuck, the outline makes a mighty tidy lever to get you free.
21. NO, OUTLINING DOES NOT STEAL YOUR MAGIC
Writers are beholden to many fancy myths. “The Muse! My characters talk to me! I’d just die if I couldn’t write!” The myth of how an outline robs you of your creative juju is one of them. I don’t want to defeat your magic. I don’t want to suggest that writing and storytelling isn’t magic — because hot damn, it really is, sometimes. The myth isn’t about the magic; the myth is that the magic is so fickle that something so instrumental as an outline will somehow diminish it. If after outlining a story you think the thunder has been stolen and you don’t want to write it anymore, that’s a problem with you or your story, not with the loss of its presumed magic. An outline can never detail everything. It’ll never excise the magic of all the things that go into theactual day-to-day writing. If that magic is gone, either your story didn’t have it in the first place, or you’re looking for excuses not to write the fucking thing.
22. CALM DOWN, NOBODY’S GOT A GUN TO YOUR HEAD
Nobody’s making you outline. Relax.
23. OOPS, EXCEPT MAYBE THIS GUN RIGHT HERE, CLICK, BOOM
Okay, somebody might actually make you outline. I had one publisher who demanded a chapter-by-chapter outline before committing to the project. I’ve also had to hand in outlines for various film or transmedia projects. Someone might actually ask you to outline at some point, and when they do, you probably shouldn’t freak out as if someone just set your cat on fire.
24. IT’S ONE MORE TOOL FOR THE TOOLBOX
Look at it this way: even if you don’t like outlining and don’t really plan on using it, it’s a skill that’s useful to learn just the same. Not every tool in the toolbox will see constant or even regular use, but it’s still nice to have in store for when the shit hits the fan and you need to ratchetblast the rimjob or maladjust the whangdoodle.
25. EVERYBODY HAS A PROCESS, SO FIND YOURS
No one process for planning your story is going to work. What works for me won’t work for you. Hell, what works for one of your stories may not even work for the next. Try things. Explore. Experiment. This isn’t math. It isn’t beholden to an easy equation with a guaranteed output. Find the outline style that suits you. Look at it this way: it’s like eating your vegetables. You might try kale and think it tastes like ursine toilet paper. Or you might try it and think it’s the best thing since bacon underwear. Try the outline. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t.
It only works if you try.
25 Turns, Pivots, And Twists To Complicate Your Story
25 TURNS, PIVOTS, AND TWISTS TO COMPLICATE YOUR STORY
1. THE HEINOUS FUCKERY IS REVEALED
This is the “first turn” of the story: something happens that disrupts the status quo and this event pushes the protagonist (and perhaps the world around him) into the tale. The king dies! Terrorists attack! My beloved pony has been pony-napped! A vampire just joined your Little League team! This turn, unlike all the others in this list, isn’t optional: storytelling is an act of taking the straight line that is the status quo and kinking it like a garden hose. This first turn — known sometimes as the inciting incident — is why the story exists in the first place.
2. THE ACTUAL HEINOUS FUCKERY IS ACTUALLY REALLY REVEALED
In some stories we chug along thinking we know what the problem is (“My boyfriend broke up with me!”) but at some point during the tale, perhaps around the midpoint of the narrative, we learn of the real problem lurks behind the scenes (“My boyfriend broke up with me because he’s actually a robot hell-bent on invading our high school and turning us all to robots and now I have to save us all!”) The initial problem, the one presented by the inciting incident, is something of a stalking horse — it’s a bit of magical misdirection that the protagonist and the readers fall for while the real problem waits in the shadows to be exposed.
3. THE TRULY VILLAINOUS FUCKER IS REVEALED
Similar, but different: the problem is connected to a particular antagonist, and we think we know who the true antagonist is, but oops, there’s a meaner scarier malevolenter (not a word) motherfucker in the wings: Darth Vader steps aside and it’s The Emperor! We think it’s George Bush but it’s really Dick Cheney! Agent Smith is the bad guy but really it’s a bunch of, uhh, squidbots and spider-borgs and whatever it doesn’t matter because it turns again and actually it’s really Agent Smith anyway haw haw haw you just got played, audience!
4. OH, SHIT
This turn is also fairly essential: “Oh, Shit,” means, “We just escalated the problem.” One tiger got loose? Now it’s ten. The protagonist’s love interest is getting married? His fiancee is also pregnant. The hero is being hunted by terrorists? Now the terrorists can psychically control bees. This turn is a very simple one to understand: you have a pot of water on the stove, now it’s time to turn the knob click by click until it gets hotter and hotter and eventually boils over.
5. HOLY TITS, IT LOOKS LIKE WE’RE GONNA LOSE
In many stories you’ll have that moment where it looks like everything is basically fucked. In the original Star Wars trilogy, this is perhaps best embodied by the end of Empire Strikes Back. You reach the end of that film you’re like, “Oh, okay, so, that’s it. Obi-Wan’s long dead, Luke lost his hand, the Rebellion is against the ropes, Vader’s way too powerful and also Luke’s… uncle or whatever, Han Solo got turned into a coffee table for a slimy turd-skinned space gangster. Okay, everybody. Time to pack it up and go home.” This is the dark pit, the bleak moment, the part in the aerial acrobatics show where the plane dives right toward the ground and you think it’s impossible to pull up in time but then vvvooooooom there it goes.
6. SWEET JEEBUS, WE TOTALLY FUCKING LOST
We’re conditioned to believe that the heroes are going to win. Even when we reach that all is lost moment, we still have a tiny ember glowing bright in the ash-pile of our expectations: we still suspect that things are going to turn out okay, we just don’t know how. Ah, but, again, storytelling is an act that refutes the status quo and in this case audience expectations are that status quo. Which means we must defy the audience. Which means in this case actually letting the characters lose. Not a fake defeat. Not a temporary one. But that thing they were hoping to achieve (save the victim, rescue the hostages, defeat the Satanic Unicorn Lord in his lair of bedazzled bones and elf-flesh), mmmnope, too bad, sorry, too late. The victim cannot be saved. The hostages are fucking dead. The Unicorn Lord is triumphant. Take them past the point of utter loss and there may lie the end of the story or a new story may exist in the dread and unexpected space after. The goals shift. The emotional frequency changes. The plot turns.
7. THE FAKE-ASS VICTORY
This is a real fuck-you-flavored move for the storyteller to make, but hey, sorry, that’s life in the Big Story, pal. In this one, you lend the protagonists a victory: “Oh, ha ha ha, I did something good! We’re gonna win!” and then you kick the chair out from under them and watch them hang for it. John McClane calls the cops and goes through hell to keep them there, but his only ally turns out to be a donut-chugging desk jockey and the entire police force not only doesn’t help him but instead accuses him of being one of the terrorists.
8. A GODDAMN KNIFE IN THE BACK
Betrayal is powerful story-fu. A character close to the protagonist suddenly turns and sticks a dagger in the hero’s back either out of new opportunity for the traitorous character or because he was planning on doing some cold-as-ice backstabbing all along. The girlfriend is really a demon! The boyfriend is actually a doom-bot! The jealous best friend has been planning the downfall of his buddy for the whole book! This works only when we believe the original relationship to be rock-solid but at the same time engineer into the narrative reasons that the betrayal makes sense. (That’s the weird trick of storytelling: on the one hand, you have to tell the story with all the elements in place to uphold logic, but at the same time you’re trying to direct attention away from many of those elements so that the audience isn’t stunned into disbelief.)
9. HA HA HA THIS IS ALL PART OF MY SECRET PLAN, DICKHEAD
Here the oil-slick story squirms away from the all is lost or the false victory moment and tears off its mask and says, “HAR HAR HAR, I ENGINEERED IT THIS WAY FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.” The hero appears defeated but then she pulls a machete out of her ass-crack and starts cutting fools to pieces. Or the antagonist is thrown in jail but suddenly we realize that was his intention all along and now he’s closer to the Queen’s Jewels he wants to steal or the orphanage he wants to blow up or the Whole Foods where he buys his sinister quinoa.
10. VARIATION: THE VILLAIN KNOWS EVERYTHING, DUMBASS
This is a variation on the above — except here, it’s not so much that the villain has engineered the whole thing from the beginning but rather that the hero hasn’t been as sneaky or clever as he thought. The hero performs some elaborate scheme and sneaks into the monster’s lair only to have the monster slow-clap while emerging out of the darkness while wearing a smoking jacket. The monster says, “I knew you were coming because you butt-dialed me two days ago and haven’t hung up since.” Or maybe this ties into the earlier Knife in the Back and the villain’s surprising knowledge comes from a betrayal within. (Mix and match for maximum fun!)
11. THAT ONE ASSHOLE IS REALLY SOME OTHER ASSHOLE
Darth Vader is really Luke’s father! Verbal Kint is really the serial killer in Se7en! The kid from The Sixth Sense is actually Casper the Friendly Ghost! The Gilmore Girls are actually The Fabulous Baker Boys! All along we expect that Character A is, as told, Character A. But then he rips his face off (probably metaphorically) and reveals the true face beneath: he’s really Character Z. And also, a woman. And a werewolf. And the Prime Minister of Canada.
12. VARIATION: THAT POOR ASSHOLE HAD NO IDEA WHO HE WAS
This variant assumes the same as before (one character is actually another character), except in this case that information is kept from the actual character in question — imagine, if you will, Darth Vader not realizing he’s Luke’s father or that he ever had kids at all (“That damn princess ran off and had a litter of Jedi piglets on some dirt planet. I tell you, Tarkin, it’s a cold, cold Galaxy out there.”). Here you have the power of dramatic irony at your command: the audience may end up knowing something well before the characters themselves realize it.
13. THAT POOR ASSHOLE ALSO HAD NO IDEA WHAT HE HAD
Picture it: King Arthur thinks he needs the magical sword given to him by Lady of the Lake in order to fight off a… I dunno, a phalanx of randy leprechauns or a buncha grizzly bears or some shit (what am I, an Arthurian scholar?) And then at the end the sword is destroyed in battle (oh, shit!) but then the Lady of the Lake appears like a Force ghost and is all, “Excalibur was within you all along, Artie-boy,” then light shines out of his mouth and butt and King Arthur becomes Excalibur. (Somebody throw some money at my face so I can write this up, proper.) Point is, a character goes through the tale not realizing he had what he needed all along: the secret weapon, the launch codes, the love of his life, a delicious Snickers bar, whatever.
14. MOTHERFUCKING PERIPETEIA, BRO
Peripeteia is a fancy Greek word for “Is it worth it, let me work it, I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it,” as made famous by Missy “Artemisdemeanor” Elliot. Or, put differently, it suggests a reversal of circumstances. The Shakespearean tragedy known as Trading Places(starring Dame Daniel Akroyd and Knave Edwardth Murray) is a good example of this. Someone rich becomes poor. Someone with no power gains all the power. Man becomes God, God becomes man, dogs and cats switch places, you know the drill.
15. THAT SUBPLOT IS A REAL SONOFABITCH
Subplots help interrupt the standard narrative storyline — the main story is about a cosmic battle between good and evil while there’s this subplot about an emperor’s daughter and how she’s trying to find her lost moon-horse. Thing is, a subplot has to eventually collide with a main plot, and sometimes when that happens, it causes a kind of pivot. The subplot may become the main plot (imagine that the emperor’s daughter and her moon-horse, Mister Buckets, suddenly become the catalyst for the conflict at hand), or it may simply flip the main plot and change the circumstances by introducing new conflicts, characters, or settings.
16. BESIEGED BY BASTARDS ON ALL SIDES
John McClane’s got it bad in Die Hard. Not only is he dealing with international bank thieves, he’s also gotta contend with an incompetent police force, a psychopathically aggressive pair of FBI agents, and whoever it was that decided Nakatomi Plaza needed so much goddamn glass. In your story, just as your protagonist (and the protag’s proxy, the audience) thinks she’s seen the face of her enemies, give her new enemies to fight on top of her existing enemies.
17. TURNS OUT YOU CAN’T TRUST THAT JERKOFF, THE NARRATOR
The unreliable narrator is a classic move (Verbal Kint! Tyler Durden! Huck Finn!) — but it’s not one that needs to be telegraphed so early on in the story. We begin every story, I think, assuming that what’s on the page is as honest as Abe Lincoln’s yearning need to behead vampires. That’s good. You can use that. Let the audience settle into that sense of comfort, then start seedings hints throughout that the narrator might not be on the up-and-up.
18. WHAT THE SHIT, I’M PRETTY SURE THAT MAJOR CHARACTER JUST DIED
(AKA, The George R.R. Martin Honorary Authorial Serial Killer Hugo Award.) Take one of your main characters and kill them. Do so as a part of the narrative, of course — I mean, spoiler alert, I guess, but it’s not like Ned Stark gets hit by a VW Bug crossing a dirt road in Westeros. His death is an explicit part of the story — it’s just a death nobody ever expects. Think of this as a character-specific version of the aforementioned Sweet Jeebus We Totally Fucking Lost — the audience really doesn’t expect you to drop the axe on a beloved major character. Which is exactly why you sometimes need to do just that.
19. PISS ON THE GRAVE
In both religion and comic books, death is not so much a permanent condition as it is a troublesome speedbump — Jesus was, of course, one of the earliest superheroes, and that guy was pretty much unkillable. Point is, once again it’s time to mess with audience expectations. Outside religion and comic books, generally speaking when a character dies, we assume it’s a permanent pipe-sucking daisy-pushing state of affairs. So, to resurrect a character — whether literally bringing them back to life or simply making it clear they never really died — you turn the tale and surprise the audience. And that is part of what we do, isn’t it?
20. ACCELERATE THE NARRATIVE ON GODDAMN GO-GO-PILLS
A show like Homeland, you think it’s going to be this one thing, right? They’re going to drag out this War on Terror vibe and because it’s television the entire “Who is Brody?” and “Get Abu Nazir!” plotlines are going to streeeeeetch out like what Bruce Banner does to his man-panties when he becomes The Incredible Hulk, but that’s not what happens. Without spoiling anything, the show is on some kind of trucker meth — there is no “laggy middle.” It’s all rocket-boosters and caffeine enemas — and so you can give your story the same kind of energy by just pushing, pushing, pushing. Shove the narrative forward. Accelerate the timetable. Let the audience think your tale is about one man’s struggle to dethrone a king but then, fuck it, he dethrones the king in the first 100 pages. The audience is like, blink blink, “WHUUUUT.”
21. AH, CRAP, IT’S THE PYRRHIC VICTORY
A Pyrrhic Victory is a victory that only comes with great cost and sacrifice — something lost, something given, a hard choice made. Victory in one hand is a pile of steaming monkey shit in the other. It’s a good turn because our expectation is that victory is absolute — you can’t win while losing, right? DOES NOT COMPUTE BEEP BOOP BEEP. Except, fuck that. It works.
22. JERKOFF’S GUN
Chekov’s Gun is pretty straightforward: reveal a gun in the first act, that gun better get fired by the third act. Put differently, something that shows up earlier may seem important or it may seem insignificant, but if you’re mentioning it, it probably matters. The trick is that the audience doesn’t know how or why and so this makes for a powerful turn: any detail you reveal in an earlier portion of the story can come back in a big way. A stray footprint, an odd comment made by passersby, a funny-looking pubic hair stuck to someone’s creme brulee.
23. THE SHIT JUST GOT FIXED — NOW WHAT?!
The opposite of everything is lost is yay everything just got solved, except the trick here is that the end of the conflict doesn’t come at the end of the story like everyone figures but rather, far earlier. (Beware: spoiler incoming.) Look no further than Breaking Bad, where Walter White effectively solves the problem put forth in the pilot: cancer’s gone and the treatments are paid for, so what’s the problem? It would seem as if a vacuum is created by the loss of conflict but instead it demands a deeper, more meaningful conflict as a troubling truth is revealed as he continues on his path: Walter White wanted to be the drug lord Heisenberg all along.
24. STORY WITHIN A STORY WITHIN A MY HEAD JUST FUCKING MELTED
For a good portion of the story, the audience thinks the story is one thing but then we realize that the main story is nested in a larger (or smaller) story: one minute it’s a girl on a space station who wants to explore the stars but then later we realize that the space station story is the delusion of a girl abused by her mother and who just wants to escape her house. Or, maybe a more abstract version of this: we think the story is one about redemption but it ends up being about one of vengeance. We think it’s porn but it turns into something about love. We think it’s love but it turns into something about hate. We think it’s a Western but it’s really Elfpunk BDSM. Once in a rare while a story deserves big changes: dramatic thematic shifts and setting flips. (The Princess Bride and The Matrix are examples of this.)
25. THE NATURE OF BOREDOM IS A STRAIGHT LINE
These techniques all add up to one thing: the audience grows bored when the story marches forward in too-straight a line. Even the standard “escalation toward climax” is a straight line that needs to be kinked up and broken apart from time to time. Which means all of these techniques boil down to: change shit up. Envision what the audience will be thinking as they read it. What do they expect? What is the predictive course they have in their head? Then tweak that. Maybe a subtle shift. Maybe a really violent one. But don’t be afraid to change things up. Go risky. Get crazy. In life, we adore comfort. In fiction, comfort is our greatest enemy.
I’m in the planning stages of my next project, which is honestly my favorite part of the writing process. There’s no emotional cost to killing unwritten scenes, no niggling logic flaws, no exhaustion at page 72.
Plotting a movie is mostly figuring out who the characters are, and what obstacles they’ll face. In film school, we were taught to look at character motivation as the combination of two questions:
- What does the character want?
- What does the character need?
The implication is that your characters should be able to articulate what they want (true love, the championship, revenge) at or near the start of the movie, but remain clueless to what they truly need (self-respect, forgiveness, literacy) until quite late in the story.
The screenwriter-creator leaves explicit prayers unanswered, but performs subtle psychological revelation so that the characters exit profoundly changed.
Like most screenwriting hackery, this want-vs-need concept works just often enough to seem useful. You can trot out the familiar examples. Every character in The Wizard of Oz can be addressed this way (the Scarecrow wants a brain, but needs to realize just how smart he is). Ditto for The Sound of Music, though it gets a bit vague amid the younger Von Trapps.
Of my films, Big Fish and Charlie and Chocolate Factory come closest to fitting this template, though it requires a bit of hammering to get there. In Big Fish, Will Bloom begins the movie wanting to find the truth in his father’s tales, but he ultimately needsto accept that his father is contained within these tales. In Charlie, Willy Wonka wantsan heir, but needs a family.
Bolstered by these two examples, I spent a few hours this week looking at the characters in my project through the want-vs-need lens, before finally concluding it is complete and utter bullshit. Trying to distinguish between characters’ wants and needs is generally frustrating and almost universally pointless. The fact that I can answer the question for Big Fish and Charlie after the fact doesn’t make it a meaningful planning tool.
I’ve written about character motivation a few times, but hadn’t thought it necessary to define my objectives. But I think it can be simplified down to a single question:
Why is the character doing what he’s doing?
Here’s what I like about this definition:
It scales well. You can ask this question about a character in a specific scene (“Why is he trying to get in the bank vault?”) or the entire movie (“Why is he racing in the Iditarod?”)
It implies visible action. Characters in movies need to do something. That sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many scripts slather motivation on like spackle to fill the holes. ( “He has OCD because his father abandoned him.” Umm, okay, so why is he robbing a bank?)
It can be both concrete and psychological. In Go, why is Ronna trying to make the drug deal with Todd Gaines? (A) Because she’s about to be evicted. (B) To prove to her friends (and herself) that she can. Both are true.
When I started asking this question, many of my concerns with the project I’m writing slipped away. The problem wasn’t character motivation, but how I was looking for it.
That said, you need to be careful not to stop at the first easy answer: Why is he racing in the Iditarod? “To win the prize money.” The better answer will likely lead to a better story. Why is he racing in the Iditarod? “To beat his ex-wife, the five-time champion.” “To catch the man who killed his brother.” “Because the ghost of his childhood dog is haunting him.”
For the record, I’m not writing Snow Dogs 4.
How Storytelling Is Like Tantric Sex
Man, that title is a gratuitous grab for eyeballs, isn’t it?
I HAVE NO SHAME.
Further, I have very little understanding of Tantric Sex — I mean, I understand that something-something “enlightenment-through orgasm,” and something-something “erotic-ecstatic-consciousness,” and I’m pretty sure the penis becomes a magic wand and the vagina becomes a wizard’s hat and then Harry Potter yells “ejaculus patronus!” and a baby appears.
What am I, some kind of Kundalini Master? Whatever.
What I do know about Tantric Sex is the same thing probably the rest of you know, which is that one of the touted erotic techniques is the withholding of orgasm to intensify the power of the sex and its climax. Through this technique an average sexual encounter goes from the right old rumpy-pumpy to the coupling of two divine beings on a bed of writhing ghosts, and the standard orgasm goes from the popping of a tube of cookie dough to a mystical shower of embers from an iron-struck blade on the sexual force of that godly hornball, Hephaestus. Or something.
I’m probably losing the thread.
Point is, orgasm must be withheld.
And this is the lesson I want you to take away as a storyteller.
The power of withholding is key to telling a good story.
When describing something, withholding description allows for the audience to do work, to fill in the gaps, to bring something to the table and be a collaborator (at least in spirit) to the work. Further, by withholding description, you do not overwhelm with needless illustrative information. (Do we need to know what every lamp and sidetable and fingernail and skin tag look like? No we do not.) Pull back. Leave room. Do not overwhelm.
When creating characters, withholding aspects of that character (but teasing the existence of those aspects) gives us a sense of wanting to know more, more, more. A character with unrevealed secrets or stories interests us: we’re the kids at Christmas morning tearing through a pile of presents hoping to get to the big reveal at the end (a new bike! a BB gun! a Barbie dream home! a Turkish scimitar with which to behead thine enemies!).
When orchestrating plot, withholding information is the act of creating mystery, of removing points of data and replacing them with throbbing, pulsing question marks. Every question mark is a door that the reader wants desperately to walk through — and will do so almost to the point of compulsion, and compulsion is what we want, the compulsion to pick up the book again and again, the audience hungering to get back to the pages of the tale or to read the next issue or see the next episode. Litter your tale with unexplained mysteries big and small. The question will drive them: what does that strange tattoo on the woman’s back mean? Why did the wife kill the husband? Who is the one-eyed man? Who put the bomp in the bop-she-bop?
When instituting a relationship, withholding the culmination of that relationship has value. The will-they-won’t-they of romances. The denial of vengeance between one character and another. The mending of a broken friendship. The audience will continue to tear through pages, hoping to see the hero and the villain have their climactic showdown, hoping to see if the two star-crossed lovers will ever uncross the stars and come together, hoping to see if the sea-king and the mer-girl finally realize that they are father-and-daughter.
When complicating the goals of the protagonist, withholding victory and denying her success or an escape or an answering to her own questions is key — the audience is bound up with the protagonist and they want to see her safe and happy and vanquish darkness and find love and learn the truth. But by continuing to dangle the carrot, we see the protagonist urge forward through the story and we see the audience trailing along with her.
When determining the relationship between the protagonist and the audience, consider also withholding knowledge from one half but not the other. Things the characters know but the audience does not goes a long way toward establishing that gravitational mystery noted earlier. Withholding information from the characters but then revealing that information to the audience is dramatic irony, and makes the audience feel like they’re “in on the secret,” and further, become eager to know when the damning information they possess will finally catch up to the characters on the page.
At the end, this is about withholding what the audience wants. It’s about not showing the money shot right up front. It is about denying them narrative orgasm. It’s about build-up. And tension. And hesitation. And uncertainty. And fear. And lust. It’s about a trail of moist little morsels pulling them deeper and deeper into the tangled wood. It’s equal parts baited trap andStockholm Syndrome. It’s about not giving up what the audience desires most and at the same time making them thank you for the privilege of being denied.
Further, it is the act of withholding that helps ensure that your climax is not a soft, limp rag plopping down on a cold linoleum floor. Save things to reveal until the end. Reserve those key sought-after moments until the final act.
Release them upon reaching the final thrust of your story and few will leave unsatisfied.
Do this poorly and withhold too much and you’ll have them leave the story frustrated. Or confused. Or feeling needlessly punished and left out in the cold. But do it right — dangle the carrot, drop the crumbs, give them a taste of what they can have if they keep on reading and watching and consuming the tale — and you’ll have them scurrying after you on their hands and knees, eyes bugging, tongues wagging. Hungry for their narrative fix.
GREAT NOW I NEED A COLD SHOWER. And a tissue.
One of the loudest voices in my head, the real dick of all the voices, likes to tell me that what I’m making won’t be perfect. It’s an impossible standard to live up to, perfection, and is therefore an effective weapon against my own creativity. I’m often tempted to give up before I begin. But I’ve tried to stop doing that. After 41 years, I’ve finally begun to realize that you have to start. You have to begin to make something before you can worry about how
it’s going to end up. If you don’t start, you have nothing.
I want to be like the people who keep pushing forward, in spite of the critics, self doubt, and uncomfortable odds. They try new things. They take risks. They eat
shit sometimes. They get back up and try other new things. Their successes are widely embraced. Their misfires are lonely. Most of all, their art is inspiring.
If I’ve learned anything in my shaky life as an artist, it’s that you must stop talking and spinning and whining and start making your thing today. Pick up a
camera. Pick up an easel. Open your laptop and turn off your Internet connection while you write. Find a starting point.
Ignore the voices. Ignore the critics. Reward yourself for having ideas by valuing them enough to believe in them.
Failure does not exist.
— Shane Nickerson
25 Things You Should Know About Narrative Point-Of-View
1. KNOW THY NARRATOR
One of the first questions you have to ask is, who the fuck is telling this story? Is intrepid space reporter Annie McMeteor telling it in her own voice? Is a narrator telling Annie’s story for her? Is the story told from a panoply of characters — or from a narrator attempting to tell the story by stitching together a quilt of multiple minds and voices? Is the story told by a gruff and emotionless objective character who sits fat like a fly on the wall? You can try writing your story without knowing who the narrator is, but you’d better figure it out by the end of the first paragraph or you’re going to be writing one big, barfy, confusing mess. Your uncertainty in this regard will punish the reader, so it’s time, in Glengarry Glen Ross parlance, “to fuck or walk.”
2. WHO’S ON FIRST, I DON’T KNOW’S ON THIRD
You already know this but it bears repeating: first-person POV is when the story is told with the pronoun “I” (I went to the store, I like cheese, I killed a man in Reno not so much to watch him die but more because I wanted his calculator wristwatch). Third-person POV is when the story is told with the pronouns “she,” “he,” “it,” “they” (She opened the window, he peed out the window, they all got peed on by the guy peeing out the window).
3. HA HA HA, SECOND-PERSON, THAT’S A GOOD ONE
The second-person mode uses the pronoun “you.” As in, it’s telling the story from the perspective of you the reader. In theory, this is awesome. In practice it often comes off totally fucking goofy. Sure, a gifted storyteller can pull it off — and hey, sometimes fiction is about risks. It probably works better in short fiction than long (as sustaining that narrative mode will be tricky and tiresome). To be honest, whenever I read a second-person narrative, I keep thinking in my head, “You are eaten by a grue.” Then I quit reading it because, y’know, grue.
4. WITNESSING VERSUS EXPERIENCING: WHERE TO PLACE THE CAMERA?
A novel has no camera because a novel is just a big brick of words, but for the sake of delicious metaphor, let’s assume that “camera” is representative of the reader’s perspective. We often think of point-of-view as being the character’s perspective (and it is), but it’s also about the reader’s perspective. A third-person narrative has the camera outside the action — maybe hovering over one character, maybe pulling back all the way to the corner. A first-person narrative gives one character the camera — or even goes so far as to cram the camera up their nether-cavern and into their brain and against their eyeball. The question then becomes: is the reader here to witness what’s going on? Or experience it? Third-person asks we witness, first-person allows us to experience (and second-person really utilizes the experiential mode but, again, probably don’t do that).
5. THE INTIMACY OF THE READER
Put different, it becomes a question of intimacy. How intimate is the reader with the story, the setting, the characters? Once we begin to explode out the multiple modes of POV (objective, subjective, omniscient, etc.) it relates to how intimate the reader gets to be — is she kept close but privy to the confidence of only one character? Is the reader allowed to be all up in the satiny guts of every character in the room? Is the reader locked out? How much access does the reader have to the intellectual and emotional realm? Is she granted psychic narrative powers?
6. OBJECTIVE: THE READER AT THE WINDOW, PEERING IN
The objective mode of storytelling says, “Hey, reader, go stand outside and watch the story from the window, you funky little perv-weasel.” The reader isn’t privy to any of the psychic realm: it’s like watching a closed-circuit television feed. This happened, that happened, blah blah blah. It’s almost informationally pornographic: close-ups and thrusting but no emotional tangle.
7. SUBJECTIVE: THE READER AS A PSYCHIC MONKEY RIDING A SPECIFIC CHARACTER
The subjective narrative mode filters the story through the lens of a single character. The reader is allowed inside (as long as he pulls up his pants and wipes his hands) and gets to play the role of a psychic Yoda-monkey clinging to one character’s back. The intimacy increases: the reader is now allowed access to one character’s internal realm. That character filters everything through an intellectual, emotional, and experiential lens for the reader.
8. OMNISCIENT: READER DROPS ACID GETS TO LIVE IN EVERYBODY’S HEADS
YOU ARE NOW A GOLDEN GOD. Or, you just quaffed a cup of ayahuasca and now you’re hallucinating. Either way, omniscient POV allows us to become not a dude at the window or a telepathic lemur but rather, a hyper-aware psychic cloud floating above and withinall the character action. We are granted a backstage pass to every character’s internal world.
9. THE LIMITED LENS OF THIRD PERSON SUBJECTIVE
Third-person subjective is often called “third-person limited” because you are, duh, limited to the lens of just one character. This allows us some of the intimacy of first-person while still remaining a witness to the action rather than the closest thing to a participant. It’s like having your cake and being able to eat it too, which is a phrase I’ve always considered a bit silly: of course I want to eat the cake I have because then what the fuck is the point of cake? If you’re trying to make some comment on the corporeality of cake (“once you’ve eaten it you no longer have it”), it still falls apart because relocating it to my belly still counts as me having it. Further, I might have eaten a single slice of cake and retain the other seven slices for later cake consumption. (And by “later” I mean, “in two-and-a-half minutes.”) So, whatever. What was I talking about? Who are you people and how’d you get in my Secret Cake Room?
10. EPISODIC THIRD: THE MONKEY HOPS FROM SHOULDER TO SHOULDER
This has lots of names — Third-Term Episodic, Third-Term Multiple, Third-Person Limited Shifting, Menage-A-Character, Third-Person Monkey-Head-Hopper, and so on. The point is that in a given narrative unit (most commonly, a chapter) the storyteller limits the filtering of the narrative through a single character — in the next chapter, the storyteller switches that filter to a whole different character. (I tend to like this approach in my own work. If third-person limited is ‘having your cake and eating it too,’ this is like ‘having cake with ice cream on top and then also pie and maybe cookies and eating it all but still having more.’)
11. THE DEEPER PLUNGE OF FIRST PERSON SUBJECTIVE
First-person subjective is the most common version of the first-person POV, and it allows for a deep dive into one character’s psyche. It is the most intimate in a 1:1 sense — the strength is that we get to know one character very, very well. We are more than just the monkey on the shoulder; we are a thought-eating brain parasite. We are given a vicarious thrill as both storyteller and reader in this mode. Sometimes, this mode can be overpowering; further, there exists the danger that the storyteller’s “voice” and the protagonist’s “voice” are a little too close. In a sense, first-person subjective is a bit like acting: the writer embodies the role of a character, attempting to wear the costume completely while on the page.
12. THE NEWS REPORT HAD SEX WITH A SCREENPLAY AND BIRTHED THE OBJECTIVE POV
Journalism is all about details. Screenplays are blueprints for action and dialogue. The objective point-of-view — in both first- and third-person — offers us that sense of utter detachment. It is an exercise in, as noted, detail and action and dialogue. The internal world is closed off completely; any intellectual or emotional details are left to reader interpretation only. Much of this is actually about how much interpretation we want the reader to do — how much burden do we grant to the audience? The more objective the narrative becomes, the more must sit on the reader’s shoulder. The more subjective we become, the less interpretation the reader must do.
13. FIRST PERSON OMNISCIENT IS LIKE HANGING IN THE HEADSPACE OF A GOD
Here’s how this works: the narrative is first-person (“I pooped…”) and yet offers total awareness and exploration of the internal world of every other character (“I pooped and Tom wonders why I did it on the salad bar, but Betty doesn’t care because she’s thinking about how she thinks salad is for assholes, anyway”). This is not a narrative mode you can get away with easily — it has to have a hook. A reason for existing. Like, in the Lovely Bones, the character is a ghost so that pretty much makes sense. But a character shouldn’t be able to offer an omniscient viewpoint without being psychic, or a ghost, or a god, or… well, a warbling moony-loon. Could be cool. Could also be a garish gimmick. Tread wisely.
14. MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON NARRATORS
You can, if you want, tell the story from alternating first-person narrators. One chapter tells it from Tom, the second from Betty, the third from Bim-Bim the Saturnian Baboon Lord, whatever. Like I said: you do what you want. You can take a shit on the grocery store salad bar as long as you don’t mind Tom giving you the stink-eye afterward. (Oh, one note about alternating first-person narrators: the voice of each needs to be strong and distinct so that readers aren’t left scratching their poor little reader noggins over who the fuck is talking to them.)
15. THE COOL KIDS OF POV HIGH
The two most popular points-of-view are, I believe, first-person subjective and third-person limited (often third-person episodic limited — aka the monkey-hopper POV). First-person is particularly common in young adult fiction the reasons for which are either that “it’s the trend so shut up” or “because younger readers want that level of emotional intimacy with younger characters.” Not to say you must cleave to trends, but it’s good to be aware of them.
16. FIRST AND THIRD LIVING TOGETHER AND MAKING SWEET LOVE
You can, if you’re really bad-ass, alternate from first to third. It’s tricky and can become just a stunt if you’re not careful. “BECAUSE I WANT TO SO SHUT YOUR GODDAMN MOUTH” is not always the best reason to try something inside your fiction: it helps to have some logic behind it. Is there some reason to perform the switch? Is there an epistolary component sandwiched like taco meat inside the narrative? Seek reason for the choices within your writing.
17. BE CONSISTENT, BE CLEAR
Seek consistency and clarity in point-of-view, lest you confound and bewilder, lest you seem like the king of amateur-hour karaoke. Hell, seek consistency and clarity in all of your writing. Also, in your take-out orders. Because you think you ordered a “ham and cheese sandwich” but then you open the bag and suddenly your face is on fire from a thousand stingers and you’re like OMG THEY MUST’VE THOUGHT I SAID HAM AND BEES.
18. THE READER IS YOUR PUPPET AND POV IS ONE OF THE STRINGS
The storyteller’s job isn’t to be the reader’s buddy. The storyteller is an untrustworthy fucker, a manipulator on par with the love child of Verbal Kint and Hannibal Lecter. Point-of-view is one of the most critical weapons in the storyteller’s arsenal: you can use to reveal information or to restrict it. You can use it to regulate the distance between reader and character, or between one character and another. You can use it to display false testimony or misleading detail. You can use it to open stuck jars or drown noisome chipmunks. Okay, maybe not that last part.
19. PERSPECTIVE CREATES TENSION
Perspective — both its revelation and restriction — creates tension. The third-person POV allows different characters to notice individual details and experience separate events and we as the reader are privy to all their conflicting plots and schemes. Third-person omniscient is a blown-open diaper of perspective: the characters on the page don’t know what one another are thinking but we often do, and so we know that Tom is planning on killing Betty and that Bim-Bim the Space Baboon is really Tom and Betty’s long lost son. First-person pulls all that back and restricts the experiences to a single character, so instead the sense of external mystery is heightened even as internal mystery is reduced — the reverse can be true when you go back to third-person, where internal mystery is increased at the expense of external intrigue.
20. WUZZA WOOZA WHO NOW?
Beware confusion with any exercise of point-of-view. Omniscience can overwhelm and bewilder. Subjectivity can leave out critical external details. Mystery is not useful when it seeds utter befuddlement. Or, put differently, “mystery” is not a synonym for “I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore in this goddamn story I’m so lost I think I need a nap.”
21. THE DANGER OF ILLUMINATING ASSHOLES
That sounds like someone’s shining a flashlight on an anus, but that’s not what I mean — what I mean is, the first-person perspective lends intimacy and sometimes that intimacy is exactly what fiction needs. However, characters who are in some sense “unlikable” often gain extra unwanted dimension with the first-person perspective. One danger is that the character’s moral complexities are watered-down because now we’re forced to march through the justifications for the character’s rampant assholery. The follow-up danger is that the deep psychic dive only magnifies the assholery to the point where the character is now a prolapsed anus the size of a Christmas stocking heavy with driveway gravel. An unlikable-but-interesting character can fast become a hated motherfucker when we live too long inside their heads. I want to watch Don Draper and Tony Soprano. I don’t want to lurk inside their heads.
22. WHAT OBJECTIVITY MISSES
Objective narrative view can offer a strong, clinical approach to storytelling. Though, one could also suggest that the power of the novel above other storytelling forms is how it allows us to plunge — however deep or shallow — into the internal world of the characters rather than just exploring the physical realm. The novel is a complicated beast and as much happens inside the action as around it, within it, and through it. If I wanted to watch Bim-Bim the Space Baboon run around and shoot laser pistols, I’d write a cartoon script. If I’m writing a novel, it’s because I want to behold the pathos of Bim-Bim. Which is also the name of my next novel: “THE PATHOS OF BIM-BIM,” with the follow-up, “DESOLATION OF THE MOON GIBBON.”
23. IS THE NARRATOR A POO-POO-FACED LYING LIAR WHO LIES?
The more intimate the readers are allowed to be with the narrator, the more able the storyteller is to create conditions for an unreliable narrator, which is to say, a narrator whose experience and/or telling of the story is questionable. An unreliable narrator creates a sub rosa layer of the story where we the readers are left to wonder what is true and what is false. The more layers a story has, the more we have to discuss over all that cake and pie when we’re done reading it, and the more we have to discuss, the more cake and pie we eat, so, y’know, FUCK YEAH CAKEPIE.
24. THIS IS ALL WRAPPED UP WITH NARRATIVE TENSE
It’s common for narrative tense to be wrapped up with narrative point-of-view, lumped together in something called “narrative mode.” (Which is also the mode that Teddy Ruxpin exists in at all times, I believe. Since Teddy Ruxpin is a bear, does he tell you a story as he’s eating you?) It’s too much to talk about here, just realize that adding tense to point-of-view adds further variable to your storytelling offerings — first-person present tense feels very internal and in-the-moment, whereas third-person present carries the urgent-yet-distant action of a screenplay. Third-person past tense feels very traditional, whereas second-person omniscient future tense feels like you’re just fucking with everybody, you crazy avant garde sonofabitch.
25. WHEN IN DOUBT, REWRITE TO A NEW POV
If you’re hip-deep in the book and you’re just not feeling it, try switching to a new point-of-view before giving up. You may find that a different way into the story — a different lens, camera, and filter — will enliven your investment and reveal the story you really want to tell. Think of it like an Instagram filter: you’re like, “Man, this foodie photo of foie gras Buffalo wings just doesn’t do anything for me,” but then you start clicking Instagram retro filters and suddenly you’re all HOLY FUCKSHOES NOW IT’S ART. Try new things until the story clicks. Which is a good tip, I think, for all aspects of writing and storytelling, so tattoo it somewhere on your body. Maybe your forehead, backwards, so you can read it in a mirror!
The point is getting it all down, even if it’s crap or incomprehensible to anyone but you, so you can see it outside your own head. And then you can start adding to it. Expanding it, putting new layers on it, winding a new plotline around it, moving bits of it around. Just get it down.
– Warren Ellis
So much of screenwriting is information management. A script is made of interlocking chains of necessary revelations
— Screenwriting 101: Jon Spaihts
In creative writing classes in college, the professors will say, ‘Write what you know.’ And that’s often misinterpreted to mean you should write a thinly veiled autobiography. [Like] a graduate student in English Literature at University, writing a story in which the hero is a graduate student in English Literature at University. It would seem to, on the surface, disallow science fiction and fantasy and so forth, since none of us are actually barbarians or knights or lords or even peasants. But I think you have to interpret ‘Write what you know’ much more broadly than that. We’re talking about emotional truth here. We’re talking about reaching inside here to make your characters real. If you’re going to write about a character witnessing a loved one die, you have to dig into yourself, and say, “Did you ever remember losing a loved one?” Even if it’s only a dog that you loved as a child or something. Tap that vein of emotional energy. In some ways, it’s not terribly different from what method actors do…. We observe other people from the outside. The only person we ever really know inside and out is ourselves, and we have to reach into ourselves to find the power that makes great fiction real.
– George R.R. Martin
Where characters come from
Fiction is weird. The people in fiction are, well, fictional. Made up. They have no lives, and nothing they do, and nothing that happens to them has any consequences in the real world. By definition: made up people don’t affect reality.
And yet, our bodies don’t seem to know this. Yesterday, I actually made a loud, horrified noise as I read an advance copy of Daniel Kraus’s forthcoming – and wonderfully horrifying – novel, Scowler . People on the bus stared at me. My heart raced. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My brain knows that none of the events depicted in Kraus’s novel are real, and yet my autonomic nervous system goes into full-on sympathetic reaction mode as I read the – once again, totally made up – accounts of the characters in the novel.
What’s more, this reaction isn’t limited to readers. As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters ‘‘catch,’’ they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.
In some ways, this is even weirder. For a writer to trick himself into feeling emotional rapport for the imaginary people he himself invented seems dangerous, akin to a dealer who starts dipping into the product. Where does this sense of reality – this physical, limbic reaction to inconsequential non-events –spring from?
I don’t know, but I have a theory.
I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be
trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.
The simulator is good at extrapolating from incomplete information. When you’re told that Ted in Accounting is a secret drunk who can’t be trusted with any serious deadline work, your simulator instantiates a crude stick figure with a bottle in one hand and a dopey expression on his face. As you learn more about Ted – what he looks like, what he does in your presence – the figure becomes more fleshed-out, better realized. Operating from incomplete information is part of the simulator’s function – you don’t want to have to learn that Ted can’t be trusted the hard way, if there’s an alternative. (Incidentally, I think that this operation from incomplete information is the root of much prejudice – it’s practically the definition of prejudice).
The simulator can tell you about the likely actions of people who aren’t physically present. You can use the simulator to try out arguments for convincing your spouse to choose the destination you want for Christmas break; you can audition apologies against the avatars in your simulator, trying to find a successful resolution to an upcoming confrontation; you can imagine your kids’ delight when you tell them a truly gross knock-knock joke you’ve just heard.
The simulator also contains dead people. When you imagine your departed grandfather’s pride at your graduation; your long-gone dad’s disappointment at your messy apartment; a dear, lost chum’s potential delight at a great meal, you’re interrogating the simulator about the reactions of people who no longer exist.
If the simulator can tell you about the reactions of people who no longer exist, it’s not all that surprising that it can also tell you about the motivations of people who never existed. The simulator picks up on any fragments it can find, pieces them together to build a model of a human. It extrapolates, guesses, and pattern- matches to fill in the details that it hasn’t directly experienced.
This, I think, is what happens when you write. You and your simulator collaborate to create your imaginary people. You start by telling your simulator that there’s a guy named Bob who’s on the run from the law, and the simulator dutifully creates a stick figure with a sign called ‘‘Bob’’ over his head and worried look on his face. You fill in the details as you write, dropping hints to your simulator about Bob, and so Bob gets more and more fleshed out. But the simulator isn’t just adding in the details you tell it about: it’s guessing about the details you haven’t yet supplied, so that when you go back to your imagination and ask it about Bob’s particulars, some of those answers come from the simulator – it’s a kind of prejudice that affects imaginary people, a magic trick where your conscious and subconscious minds vie to fool each other with compounded lies about fake people, each building on the last in a feedback loop that runs faster and faster as you go.
That’s why your characters eventually ‘‘come to life.’’ Eventually, your characters’ details contain so much data gleaned from things the simulator “knows’’ – because it has supplied them, after guessing about them – that they come to seem real to you, and to it (which is the same thing). Write about imaginary people long enough, and they will feel real, even to you, who should really know better. And even though their lives and decisions have no consequences, even though their death has less real-world tragedy than the untimely demise of the yogurt culture you digested this morning at breakfast, you feel for them, because the simulator is where our empathy lives.
And that’s how it works for readers, too. Readers meet your characters and sketch them out as you supply details, filling in the bits that you miss out, refining their sims with each scene. At a certain point, those people tip into sufficient resolution that we can feel empathy for them, and the next thing you know, you’re making horrified noises on the bus and getting weird looks from real people.
Here’s an interesting thought: if dead people can live on in our simulators, is it any wonder that imaginary people live on after the stories they come from are done? Why should closing the cover on a book cause your simulator to jettison one of its hard-won models – especially if attending a funeral for a real person won’t do the trick?
I think that explains part of the drive to write fanfic, and some of the response to it from writers. If a writer has done his job, the reader should finish the book with ‘‘living’’ characters running in her simulator – if they’re not there, then the book will have had no emotional impact on the reader. It’s only natural that some readers would want to write the adventures that the people in their heads continue to have in their minds. It’s also only natural that writers would feel affronted when they read accounts of the people running as simulations in their heads doing things that their own sims would never do.
But writers need to get over this. If fanfic is a sign that your characters were successfully transplanted from your head to someone else’s, you’d be nuts to want to undo that. It’s like getting upset with someone for feeling full after eating a delicious meal you spent hours getting just right and laying out for them. If you don’t want your people to live in other peoples’ heads, you shouldn’t set out to put them there.
10 Tips for 2013
1. When considering whether to collaborate with someone, ask yourself this question: Do they have talent? . If the answer is no, you have no business being on that project.
2. Work with problem solvers. People who are eager to cross the finishing line . If someone is always stressed and drowning in trouble, you have no business working with them.
3. Set a start date. Set a finish date. Stick to it . This applies to everything from the big things, like production dates and festival
entries, to the little things, like updating your Résumé, and emailing potential employers.
4. Engage in social media. Don’t be afraid of it. Be sure to actually communicate with people . If you like their statuses, reply to their tweets and comment on their YouTube videos, they’ll do the same for you when you’re releasing your project.
5. But also, find time to get away from the computers and phones. It’s hard to have genuine insight and originality when you are constantly taking in tidbits of information. Step away.
6. The problem isn’t that you can’t find a job, it’s that you haven’t honed your talent enough. Get better at what you do.
7. Practice every day (apart from allocated days off).
9. Remember that it’s creativity! Not everything will be perfect. Some of it will absolutely suck. It’s a learning curve , and one you can’t avoid, not if you want to succeed.
10. Enjoy yourself .
The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.
— Goodreads | Quote by George R.R. Martin: The best fantasy is written in the language of …