The Walk-On’s Moment of Glory

Once in a while, you write a great story.  I know it doesn’t seem likely, but it does happen.  The plot is intricate, the setting spectacular, and the characters delicious.  And I’m not just talking about the main character.  This is a story you think could be told brilliantly from any angle.  Yes, Hans the Fairy Butcher has the best story of all of them, and you’re glad you chose him— but Gertrude the Animal Rescue Professional is almost as good, and even that unnamed androgynous janitor (you lovingly call him/her/it The Janitor) could carry the plot with some entertaining flair.  The side characters are wonderful.  So just for fun, you imagine rewriting the book, perhaps in a short story or novella, the way those characters saw it.

Examples: Parallel Perspectives (a short story Howard Tayler wrote to follow his book Massively Parallel), Ender’s Shadow (book by Orson Scott Card mirroring Ender’s Game— probably my favorite version of this, and the longest one I’ve seen), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, s3e13 or something like that.  While I enjoyed Parallel Perspectives, and Ender’s Shadow is brilliant, I’ll be focusing on the Buffy episode because that both inspired this post and did more work to be awesome than the other two combined.

In each of the three examples, the writers took a character who isn’t usually in the spotlight and followed them around through the plot of the story.  In Parallel Perspectives, there were several characters, each getting a couple pages of comics.  Ender’s Shadow got an entire book.  Buffy didn’t even use the same plot as another episode, but created two separate plots: the one the episode ought to follow and the one it actually followed.  Rather than treating Buffy as the main character and watching the characters figure out weirdness and then fight said weirdness, the episode follows Xander as he is ousted from the group for being simultaneously uncool and inept.  We don’t know what happens in the Buffy plot, so we have no clue what’s going to happen in the Xander plot, and it’s all great fun.  But the writers made it perfectly clear this story had to be told through Xander’s eyes.  Why?  Because Buffy’s plot was boring. Continue reading “The Walk-On’s Moment of Glory”

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One-Line Characterization

The world is full of people.  Depending on our situation or lifestyle, we might come into contact with as many as hundreds of people every week, or as few as a dozen.  Few people manage to live without human contact of any kind.  For me, I have about five different places I might find myself on a given day where the number of people around me meets or exceeds a hundred.  When I’m not with my family, I’m probably out in one of these areas, interacting with people.

Assuming I have five different social circles, each with a hundred people, that means I see five hundred people per week.  A couple overlap, and my family intermingles with these circles, but that’s the general figure.  Five hundred faces I see every week.  Five hundred people with completely different lives, who think thoughts wholly unknown to me.  I know many of their names, and can name the recognizable traits that allow me to tell them apart, but these are five hundred acquaintances, with some friends scattered among them.

How many people does your main character see in a week? Continue reading “One-Line Characterization”

Pacing with Acronyms

Who here knows exactly what pacing is?

Me neither.  Pacing is an ambiguous, amorphous mass hanging beyond the edges of perception.  We know how to define it, generally speaking (how quickly or slowly the story is moving), but how do you do pacing?  How do you write it, how do you perfect it, how do you even talk about it?  “Pacing was off,” people say about a story; “It tore along at a breakneck pace,” about something else.  But no one talks about it.  Sure, you get an episode with James Dashner on Writing Excuses, but it talks about different stuff.  Cliffhangers, chapter length, reveals— all things that can help.  But nothing that truly encompasses the massive scope of pacing.

Perhaps pacing is just a term that reviewers use.  Perhaps writers don’t use it because it sums up plot twists and emotion and everything else we’re trying to balance anyway— boiling it all down into pacing means we don’t focus on the little things that make it happen.  And yet…  I don’t think so.  Anything the reader can complain about ought to be fixable by the writer.  Even though pacing is the product of several writerly virtues, it’s much more than just a series of chapter endings.

Joss Whedon gave a screenwriting lecture/chat, sometime just after the Avengers dropped.  Unlike his SDCC appearances, he managed to get away from normal fan questions and talk about the craft of writing, exposing a lot of interesting ideas.  Among them was a single paragraph describing a language fluke he experienced while working on the script for Serenity.  Writing down the initials for specific character phenomena in each scene, he found himself writing the acronym “FASTER” under a scene.

That conglomeration of ingredients, he said, makes the audience crazily engaged in the story, and keeps them moving forward.  What is that?  That’s a breakneck pace.  As you drop letters from the acronym, the pace slows.  So, what’s the acronym? Continue reading “Pacing with Acronyms”

Character-Based Humor

It’s hard to be funny when you’re trying.

With plot, you can practice easily.  Create a character (Bill), decide what he wants (a sandwich), and structure it around that.  You can easily gather your antagonist, a couple side characters, and a neat little Hollywood Formula from just that information.  You can decide your length, and use that framework to practice subplots, red herrings, and a million other things.

Practicing character is the same.  With the same framework as above, you can work on character development, introducing characters without too much exposition, and all sorts of wonderful dialogue.  With setting, exactly the same.  Brainstorm your setting a little, but don’t let yourself get carried away with either the brainstorming or the description.  Even prose is easy to practice, if you take a little more time to work on it.

But humor… ick.  It’s hard to be funny on command without falling back to a joke.  Something with a setup and a punchline…  Sure, it’s fine for dinner table conversation, but for a story?  You can’t just stick a couple puns in there and hope everyone will laugh.  People know when humor is forced, and that’s what makes it so hard.  If you can’t force it, but you want it, how do you include and practice it without, well, forcing yourself to?

You can acquaint yourself with all the humorous tools.  You can try subverting expectations.  You can try using silly words.  You can try everything under the sun, but it remains difficult.  Meanwhile, funny writers like Joss Whedon and Howard Tayler keep saying that humor has to arise from the characters, not from the situation.  Once you start making fun of the situation, the reader will no longer suspend their disbelief— you’ve destroyed their engagement with the story.

So how do you use character-based humor?  How do you practice it? Continue reading “Character-Based Humor”

Making the Mundane Show Character

They say that every word should count.

Unfortunately, “they” say a lot of things— and not all of their words count.  In fact, in most conversations, people repeat themselves, say meaningless half-sentences and fragments before stopping, or just grunt expressively.  Most of these verbal effects are impossible to convey in written dialogue, so we take them out and replace them with concise statements, full sentences, and blocking to show character.  Every word must count.

Even so… in dialogue, even stylized dialogue that you find in fiction, you see plenty of meaningless phrases.  “How are you?”  “I’m fine.”  Unless the statement directly opposes the obvious (such as a broken leg), it doesn’t do anything but fill space and make each word mean less.

Is that a big problem?  No, of course not.  You can use “I’m fine” as much as you want and no one is going to take off points.  But you know amazing writing by the way every word counts, even “I’m fine”.

Take an example, the line that inspired this post.  In the movie Serenity (sequel to all of Firefly), the characters are involved in a high-tech car chase— they’re on a little open-topped hovercraft and their pursuers are on a spaceship, and they’re zipping around the geography chasing each other.  Along on the journey is Simon Tam’s little sister, River, who is often crazy and occasionally psychic.  Simon looks out for her, but on this run there was no room for him to come.  So River is caught in a spaceship chase without her big brother.  Things are exciting, people are hurt, and metal objects go boom— all as expected, and the good guys barely come out on top, back at their spaceship.  Simon immediately rushes to River’s side and asks her if she’s all right.  River responds, “I swallowed a bug.” Continue reading “Making the Mundane Show Character”

Captain America and Corniness

Last month, I went to Europe.  Since our group was large, we stayed in large hotels, which— correctly guessing the average metabolism of a group of a hundred teenagers— kindly supplied each room with a snack, a granola bar.  More specifically, a Corny bar.

Never have I seen such an apt description.  The bar was a standard chocolate granola bar in every way.  The wrapper showed the name in big, curly letters, over a picture of the granola bar itself, which in turn partially covered a couple heads of grain and a chunk of chocolate.  Corny?  Why, yes, and not just because it included corn.

Occasionally, as a writer, I look at something I wrote and find that it is completely, utterly, corny.  The main character is a Chosen One orphan who lives as a farmer/blacksmith in the backwoods of a medieval country with grotesque and snarling beasts that ravage things (who doesn’t believe in magic but sort of believes in the legend of the Dark Lord from whom all ravaging beasts were born); and the plot is just the Hero’s Journey expanded to fit a sassy but lovable rogue (also an orphan) picked up in the first city the hero comes to.  This, my friends, is nothing new— and yet, occasionally I find myself writing something like that.

This used to be my greatest pet peeve in reading and writing: originality.  With the world so stuffed full of fiction already, can there actually be anything original?  My goal as a young writer was to find that thing.  But it’s difficult to break out of conventional genre and define something new all by yourself.  It’s difficult to be completely original.  In fact, almost no one is original— they just know how to work with corniness. Continue reading “Captain America and Corniness”

I am a Leaf on the Wind (TCWT)

Isn’t it great to realize you’ve put off your mandatory TCWT post until the day before it’s scheduled… two months in a row?  I’m so glad TCWT is back, and with it that wonderful feeling of horror.  (EDIT: and I also left this a day late.  I apologize.)

Anyway, the prompt this month is an interesting one: “If you could co-write a book with one author– living or not– who would it be and what would the book be about?”

When I was young(er), I often dreamed about coauthoring.  Not because I liked the idea of writing a book with someone, but because, infallibly, the person with whom I chose to coauthor would be rich and famous and I would be a longtime fan.  With this in mind, I fantasized about coauthoring Redwall novels with Brian Jacques, because let’s face it– his plots got a little formulaic near the end.  He wrote beautifully, but I could come up with a better story than “Villain with bad teeth attacks the Abbey, but a small group of intrepid travelers escapes and brings back help at the last moment.” Continue reading “I am a Leaf on the Wind (TCWT)”

How to Break Things with Humor

Have you ever made a joke at a funeral?

Take my advice: don’t.  I can’t remember if I ever had, but I wouldn’t put it past myself.  In general, however, it’s not a good policy.

For one thing, a funeral is the perfect time and place to be sad.  It exists for no other reason.  When people go to funerals, they don’t expect canned laughter during the service.  Yes, that would be hilarious, but hilarity isn’t the point of a funeral.  It’s a time of solemnity as we remember the deceased.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the jokes from popping into my head as I sit through the service.

The same thing happens when I read books.  There’s this great emotional scene, perhaps a love scene or a death scene (they’re remarkably similar), and I’ll get an idea for a killer joke that the author didn’t include.  I always wondered why… until I realized something.

Is it possible to create strong emotion when you’re laughing at it? Continue reading “How to Break Things with Humor”

This Character… I Like It!

This post has been sitting in my head for the whole day and I am determined to write it.  It is inspired in part by the latest Writing Excuses podcast episode, called “Transitioning Characters in Prominence”, and it’ll probably just echo a lot of what they said, but I had a few more thoughts I wanted to give on the subject.  If you’re looking for an excuse not to read this post, I recommend that episode.

This post is primarily about making characters interesting.  I know I’ve done a post before about the same subject, but that was characters in general, and it missed quite a few things.  This is mostly about side characters.

Side characters have to be interesting for many reasons.  Yes, it’s the main character who runs the show, but the side characters are part of his surroundings, influencing him and generally making things interesting for everyone.  It’s the side characters who are always halfway faded into the background, there but not interesting.  Some side characters are rather boring, and have to be– too many subplots and your book turns into Les Miserables (which wouldn’t be a bad thing, I merely meant it would be really big)– but other side characters have to be interesting or the plot moves far too fast.  The best stories are woven together with several subplots between characters, and the most interesting characters aren’t always the main characters. Continue reading “This Character… I Like It!”