Interview with Matt Myklusch (2/2)

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.

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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?

Pens.

Pencils are for drawing, and pens are for writing.

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Ladies and gentlemen, author Matt Myklusch.  You can find his books here, and his radio personality here.  I hope you found the interview as useful as I did.

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31 thoughts on “Interview with Matt Myklusch (2/2)

  1. YES! Pens! Though, admittedly, I’ve had my pencil phases.

    I’ve seen Return of the Jedi. The rest of these… but I still understood what he was talking about.

    Admittedly, I get battle fatigue easily. I don’t even like writing fight scenes because I don’t like writing the actions in early-reader-style (He ran. He followed him.) and it’s pretty unclear for me at first how not to do that. I like what they did in Return of the Jedi, where they change scenery and characters. I hadn’t realized that before (not on a plot/writing level). That is a cool idea that I want to put in my never ending idea basket.

    1. Unfortunately, the change scenes style of overcoming battle fatigue, while possible, would be difficult to do in a tight third person. Sanderson does it in his novels because he’s got two or three viewpoints per novel (in Elantris he did this pretty blatantly, by throwing out all rules about POVs), but it might be difficult otherwise.

      As for the easy-reader style, that falls under blow-by-blow fight scenes. How about some emotions?

      1. I know that it falls under blow-by-blow. That’s exactly what I try not to do. It drives me insane. I still haven’t figured out “emotions”. Not enough to utilize it. I know that sounds really odd but…

  2. Well…..this reminds me that the last three chapters I’ve written from a certain character’s PoV are entirely telling instead of showing. And I don’t even know how to fix it yet, not completely.

    I’ve never actually had a problem with battle fatigue before. At least, not that I can remember. But that’s still interesting…. and it probably can apply to more than just battles, can’t it? It occurred to me while I was reading that that I kind of switch back and forth between multiple PoV’s in the climax in my outline. That isn’t so much for fatigue, but actually to try to help with suspense… I dunno if it works yet.

    I’ve always liked pencils better. Maybe that’s because I sometimes doodle while I’m drawing… You have no idea how many dragons I’ve drawn in the margins of my notebooks. And on my math pages. Oops.

    1. Yay, someone else who likes pencils! My handwriting isn’t great and I’m not a brilliant speller, so I’ve always preferred pencils. Glad I’m not the only one who doodles in notebooks and on homework.

      1. I used to like pencils for everything. Then I discovered fountain pens. I still prefer a pencil over a ballpoint, but a fountain pen is far above both.

      2. I love pencils. I have an almost collection which I then promptly lose, but…I’m pretty sure I’m cursed with forever losing pencils. I went through three or four just trying to finish one math page this morning. That said, I’m not sure I’ve actually used a fountain pen before. Actually, I’m not sure I really know for sure what one is. Ballpoint are okay, and so are gel pens, at least in the three seconds before they stop working. So pencils are still the best.

        Oh, nope, you’re not the only one. My handwriting is atrocious, too. Sometimes, I can’t even read it myself… Hehe, oops.

      3. Oh, yes, the curse of not being able to read what you’ve written. Quite annoying.

        I have a collection of pencils too, the only mechanical ones in the house, and I make sure they don’t leave my desk because any pencil that does risks being the prey of the Pencil Stealing Imp.

      4. Yup.

        Hehe, I have one of those, too. My little brother finds pencils in the strangest places and goes around the house saying, “My pen! My pen!” until somebody manages to take it away from him.

  3. Excellent, excellent interview. Love what he said about showing vs. telling and battle fatigue and characters. I’m sure I’ve heard a lot of it before, but maybe this time it will actually sink in. This will be very helpful when I return to revision.

  4. Love what he said about the “showing telling” business, completely agree. You mentioning Man of Steel rekindled my dislike for that movie. Extremely boring even though pretty much the whole movie was one giant battle.

    For me, I’d use either the pen or pencil. Which ever is closest. Most my pencils don’t have erasers so they’re basically the same.

    -Reach

      1. Yeah, I don’t know if I would recommend it. A friend and I argue about superheroes almost daily, and we both agree that Man of Steel is probably the worst Superman movie.

      2. It’s really just his enormous capability that destroys Superman’s chances– the hero should never be more powerful than the villain. Thus, Megamind.

  5. Pens all the way. Hey! I just thought of something to do with my mithril fingernails: I’ll melt them down and make a mithril fountain pen!

    Thanks for posting these interviews. Lots of useful ideas and tips. And what a cool experience meeting one of your favourite authors face to face!

  6. Like Lily said, the parts about showing/telling and battle fatigue were quite interesting. I’m thinking about how I can apply that battle fatigue stuff to other parts of my writing as well.

    Yes! Pens! Ballpoints are terrible, though. Gel pens, please.

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