Author Matt Myklusch was kind enough to let me interview him a while ago about his books and writing in general. While I meant to keep things short, I had so much fun asking questions I almost couldn’t stop. Thus, the interview had to be split into halves, the first of which can be found here. Today we cover all topics from writing style to keeping a sense of progression through a story. I hope you enjoy it.
With first drafts and interesting concepts you want to explore, it’s easy to just have a string of scenes you want to see in your story, with almost no connection between them except the main character. How do you make sure you are writing a cohesive story instead of simply writing an anthology of short stories about this character?
For me, it’s all about knowing where you’re going. If you know your story’s end point, everything becomes about helping your main character get there. Every scene has to earn it’s place. If it doesn’t advance the story, it’s out. Doesn’t matter how cool it is, it’s out. You have to ask yourself what each chapter accomplishes and be honest about the answer.
What are your thoughts on showing versus telling?
Showing, not telling is good advice.
The simplest example of how to show and not tell is with characters. Don’t tell me a character is insensitive when you introduce him. Create a situation that shows him being an insensitive, self-centered jerk through his dialogue and actions. That will resonate with me more. I’ll remember that scene as a major building block in my opinion of the character. Say a character is a racist. You could tell me he’s a racist, or you can show him discriminating against someone unfairly. You could have him spew out a disgusting and hurtful slew of racial slurs. Which option is going to get burned into the reader’s brain more?
The goal is to strike a nerve with the reader. Make them connect with what’s happening and visualize it in their brains. They get a clearer picture of things that way because we are enlisting them to use their imaginations and “see” who the person is. We aren’t just giving them the answer by telling them.
Putting things in visual terms can make scenes more powerful and interesting too. In THE SECRET WAR, there was a moment when the androids and robots of Empire City (the Mechas) were afraid for their safety. There was a computer virus that let the bad guys take control of them, and the Mechas were worried that the rest of the city would see them as a threat. I could have had the Mecha leader vow to do whatever it took to defend her people, but it was a better moment to have Jack Blank turn on the news and see that she had built a wall around her section of the city overnight. The extreme action and sudden nature of it tells us more about the Mecha leader’s frame of mind than anything she could have said. I look for visual angles to tell a story wherever I can find them.
In a story I’m writing now, there’s a scene where a character is snooping around someone’s house, and the person who lives there walks in on him. The snooping character is there as a guest. It’s not a burglary situation or anything like that. It’s just awkward and embarrassing. I could say my character feels awkward and nervous at the sight of his host, or I can have him try to put a bunch of picture frames back the way he found them and clumsily knock them all over in the process. The second way shows you more.
Showing and not telling is good advice. I try to follow it as much as I can. That said, I’m sure there are times when I fail to do so. Nobody’s perfect.
Action movies commonly have enormous final battles, raging for up to a quarter of the movie—almost the entire third act taken up by a single action scene. Often, the battle is so long the audience gets battle fatigue and doesn’t care about the scale of the destruction or the emotion of the scene anymore (you mentioned this in a podcast episode, about Man of Steel). How do you keep from causing battle fatigue?
I think there are a number of things you can do, but as usual it all really comes down to investment in the character and the feeling that something is at stake. Something personal.
To keep action from getting stale, you can change the location and dynamic of the conflict as the scene progresses. For example, start as a big battle scene with a lot of characters, then narrow things down to a personal level in a different area. But, when you bring it down to a personal level, the characters have to be dealing with issues the reader cares about. We need a strong desire to see the bad guy get his comeuppance or the underdog hero finally win out. Just saving the world, or stopping evil is important, sure. But, it’s also generic. How does what’s happening affect these characters on a deeper level? What is the human element of this that I am relating to?
You can also go back and forth between different battles going on at the same time. A good example would be in RETURN OF THE JEDI, when the action goes back and forth between Luke versus Vader and the Emperor on the Death Star, Lando and the Rebel Fleet outside fighting in spaceships, and Han, Leia, and the Ewoks fighting on Endor. We don’t spend too much time in any one place (at least not in a straight shot) so things don’t feel like they are dragging on in any of those places. That’s important, but the real reason these scenes all work is because we are rooting for (and rooting against) the characters in them.
You should be putting the finishing touches on your character developments in the final scenes. Things that change the game so the hero can win. For these to feel satisfying and not “thrown-in”, they have to be things you were building to, as in THE MATRIX where Neo’s development into “The One” is what allows him to take on the Agents of the Matrix. Seeing his transformation from “wide-eyed novice” into “take charge savior” is what the whole story is about. When he goes to save Lawrence Fishburne’s character Morpheus, he’s doing something we haven’t seen anyone in the film do yet. He’s also doing something we have been hoping to see him do since he first entered the Matrix.
If your finale is where your main character is overcoming the internal issues that have held him back the whole book, then there is more going on than just explosions and buildings falling down. We won’t get tired of seeing that. We’ve been hoping to see that. In a way, the action is just the background.
On a lighter note, pens or pencils?
Pencils are for drawing, and pens are for writing.