I listen to music basically whenever I write, often as a simple practical matter (I have a wife, a barky-bary-bark, two school-age kids at home, and a house that backs up to an apartment parking lot). What I’m listening to during a given period often seeps into what I’m writing. I listened to Steely Dan’s “Fire in the Hole” every morning while working on the middle section of this novel—both the longest and darkest (“Where There is Nothing, There is God”—itself a title stolen from William Butler Yeats.) At some point, I’d gotten the notion in my head that the narrator of the song was a waiter/actor, which is why the protagonist is a waiter/actor. Looking at the lyrics now, I have no idea where I got that impression. (I’m told Fagen—who co-wrote the song—said in an interview that it was about dodging the draft during the Vietnam War, which makes a lot more sense than my interpretation of the song.) Doesn’t really matter; it was always the piano that caught my mind. It’s the piano, more than the words, that seeped into that story.
You don’t have to love—or like, or even give shit one—about skating to enjoy watching Richie Jackson skate. You don’t need to know a lexicon of jargon to appreciate it, because most of what he does has no formal name, since it’s arisen from the immediate conditions and his feelings about them.
I guess I maybe dig Richie Jackson so much because he’s kept skateboarding—a thing that, since I was a kid, has been transformed into a sport and a career—as an expressive art form.
“I for sure had a vision, but how close to it I’ve gotten, I don’t know [because] I’ve dissolved it by making it a reality, and it’s different. [laughs] The original vision has ceased to be. I’ve replaced it with a bunch of pixels.”
Amen, brother. Amen.
… and I hella love how he leverages Penn & Teller’s familiarity with classic versions of the matrix in order to fool them.
At its core, this writer advice is a variation of the One True and Eternal Law:
Always take the path that leads to writing and editing more
This should be painfully obvious—wanna swim faster? swim more! wanna play piano better? play piano more! wanna draw better? draw more!
In truth, the secret isn’t the strategy (“write more!”); that’s self-evident. The tricks are the tactics that folks who excel use to make it a tad easier to get their shoulders to the wheel. Wanna write more? Here’s a tactic…
Advice for Writers: Use Annoyance to Fuel More Scribbling
It is very common for artists to spend a lot of time annoyed: You love a thing so much that you want to create more of that thing, and thus invest a lot of energy in honing skills at creating that thing. Meanwhile, since you love the thing, you keep seeking the thing out. As your skills improve—and noting the immutability of Sturgeon’s Law—you’re bound to come across plenty of examples of imperfect executions of that thing you live. Profound, near-constant annoyance is the natural consequence of this.
You can do two things with that annoyance:
- You can kvetch about it (e.g., preaching to your choir on social media)
- You can rewrite it the way you would have written it (i.e., the Right Way, Dammit!™)
PRO-TIP: Almost every working artist I’ve asked about this has landed squarely in Group #2.
Advice in Action: Fixing a Broken SNL Skit
Consider this SNL skit—which comes very, very close to being The Best Twilight Zone Episode Never Written:
This piece could be great, but it falls flat and is unsatisfying. Why? What went wrong?
The problem is in the Resolution (that’s the final 10% of the piece — for an overview of my 45/45/10 Formula for narrative, check out this blog post or this one). In any piece the Setup creates series of “open loops“ that need to be closed in the Resolution in order for the piece to feel satisfied. The open loops here include social isolation (which is introduced by Danny almost from go, and keyed to his goofy dream of singing his “I wish” songs with friends), a Twilight Zone leitmotif (evoked by the musical cues, camera work, and acting style, especially with He-Man and Lion-o), and also elements of sexual frustration. This last item is lightly implied by mother’s nap, but really explicitly introduced by He-Man—and this is crucial—at around the 2min10sec mark, when he punches through a wall out of sexual frustration. The 2:10 mark puts this bit of stage business at about 45% of the way through the piece, where it naturally transitions from the Setup to the Tangle (no clue what these terms mean? Check the bulleted 45/45/10 Formula overview here). Given both the timing in the narrative and the drama of having a character punch through wall out of sexual frustration, you’re making this issue seem really, really important.
And then you introduced She-Ra—already a sorta-kinda sexually charged nostalgia callback—being played by Arianna Grande.
So, to recap, here are the unresolved open loops:
- Social Isolation
- Sexual Frustration
And we’ve just brought Arianna Grande onstage: a very gregarious and sexually attractive young woman with a stunning singing voice. The audience is gonna have certain sorta obvious expectations of the basic outline of how these loops should be Resolved.
So let’s look at the Resolution: Sexual frustration is sorta addressed (but not for the primary character, just for side-characters mom, Lion-o, and He-Man). But, social isolation and the Twilight Zone aesthetic go entirely unaddressed. Watch that final scene again: It seems almost like the actor is expressing his frustration at the skit more than Danny is expressing his frustration at the fictional situation.
As an audience member, I’m kinda let down. As a writer, I’m almost fatally annoyed because they were so close to knocking this out of the damned park!
How would I fix it? It’s so simple: First, keep the Setup unchanged (that’s the first two minutes or so). It’s a fine Setup, really. In the Tangle (that’s the next two-ish minutes), I would keep almost everything the same as well, but would strike the birthday hug gag between Danny and She-ra. (Don’t worry; we are still going to use this gag, just later, to close the skit.)
Let’s run through what we’ve got now: Same Setup (with Twilight Zone look-n-feel and Danny’s social isolation). We introduce sexual frustration. He-Man busts through the wall after Sister. He brings back She-ra. The three toys-come-alive all start trashing the joint. Mom comes in, chemistry sparks with her and the hunks. Those three leave for the hot tub. Now Danny asks She-ra for his birthday hug. We keep She-ra’s reply as written—she doesn’t like hugs; she likes to smash!—and Danny announces: “Well, I like singing songs with my friends—even if that means singing by myself!” Unashamed, he begins belting out his “I wish” song. She-ra (who, you’ll recall, is being played by a goddamned operatic pop star) is taken by Danny’s heartfelt song; she’s a warrior princess, and has never before heard the beauty of song. She begins to sing along with him—and then returns to smashing, never flagging in her song. Danny, thrilled to have a friend, keeps singing and he starts smashing the joint up, too.
The camera pulls back, swivels, and reveals a black-&-white Rod Serling impersonator (everything else is still in color). Cue Twilight Zone bongos. Rod Serling looks dead into the camera, puffs cigarette, and delivers a Twilight Zone-style summary outro:
“A lonely young boy. A savage warrior princess. An unlikely birthday wish—and an unlikely duet that could only happen … in mom’s hot tub”—Serling stomps out his cigarette and races out the door to join the hot tub orgy.
Boom. That’s the skit this skit clearly wants to be.
Key takeaway: If the beats on your story outline can only be conjoined with “and then”, you are fucked. They need to be joined by “but” or “and therefore.” By forcing yourself to use “but” and “and therefore,” you force yourself to go into the heads of your characters and actually pin down why they are doing what they do—which is a thing readers want to understand, and will be cranky if they can’t figure out.
Watch this for details:
UPDATED February 24, 2018
Just to clarify, this is exactly what folks are talking about when they talk about character’s “motivations.“ If the characters’ motivations aren’t clear to the audience, it’s either because:
- You don’t know what’s motivating your characters to do what they do or
- You haven’t put those motivations on the screen/page
Subsequently, all the audience can figure out is “This happened and then that happened and then the other thing happened”—and unless they are willing to work overtime to dowse those motivations by reverse engineering them from the results, they are not going to be able to figure them out (and, even if they do figure out this unnecessary puzzle, they have every right to be pissed at you, because solving plot/motivation riddles isn’t their job; they’ve paid you to entertain them).
This is the Number One problem that I see hobbling (or, more often crippling) otherwise solid storytelling—especially in film (where, for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, a lot of the writers are really just barely cutting their storytelling teeth): the story gets lost because the plot goes slack because characters are just doing stuff for no discernible reason. The result is that the audience gets bored—and subsequently angry, because you have wasted their money and time.
My wife and I were watching a horror movie the other day that perfectly illustrated the value of making sure you’ve got a story held together by “but”/”and therefore”, not “and then”. The movie ended, and we were lost for a second, trying to figure out what had just happend. Then it all clicked together. The story, I realized, fit together really nicely—in fact, it fit together more then nicely, it fit together gratifyingly—but in many individual scenes, the character’s didn’t seem to be motivated to do what they were doing. From the audience’s perspective, the scenes were stitched together by “and then”s, instead of“but”/”and therefore”s. The story was solid, but the plot was muddled because understanding a plot requires understanding the causality at the heart of the story and understanding that necessitates understanding why folks do what they do—i.e., their motivations. (For the canonical bit on story vs. plot, check out E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel or just read this.)
(Incidentally, the horror movie in question was The Gateway, streaming on Hulu [originally titled The Curtain—which is, for a variety of reasons, a much better title]. Despite what I’ve just said, I really did dig this movie; if you like quirky non-Euclidean horror, give it a whirl.)
So, how do you avoid pissing off your audience this way? One trick I know a lot of writers use (I think I first heard it from Jeff Vandermeer, who calls it “reverse outlining”) is to take the offending story and then re-outline it. 9 times out of 10, just writing it out in outline form, beat-by-beat, will surface problems in the logic or pacing of the story (even if you aren’t an outliner usually—I almost never write from an outline, but reverse outlining can often help me see where I’ve messed up, in much the same way as art students used to be taught to critique drawings by first flipping them upside-down). Once you have that outline, step through it and make sure each element can be connected to the next by either a “but” or an “and therefore”. Flag any line items that you can’t almost immediately link in this way, and then go back and look at them. pro-tip: Many of this, you’ll find, can just be cut—turns out they’re meaningless little skin-tags marring the smooth skin of your plot. Others, you’ll need to sort out and rewrite, but even there, you’ll be shocked at how often the “but”/“and therefore” pop out once you clean the crud out of there.
OK, at first blush, this seems like nothing more than a mildly sexist—but still basically harmless—”invisible touches” routine: Magician has a volunteer stand with her eyes closed as she pays super-duper sensitive attention to any physical contact she might perceive. He then steps well away—way, way too far to have any direct or indirect (e.g., creating a draft, blowing on her, tickling her with threads) contact. As witnesses watch (confirming that Magician never makes contact), he is able to make the subject believe she’s been touched (in this case, that her boobs have been squeezed)—simply by the power of his psychical abilities!
(Here’s another vid of the same dude. Note that he puts in our heads the notion of an unambiguous boob squeeze, but that his volunteers consistently describe a tap high on the chest. That gap—between his implication that he’s honking their boobs contrasted to the women’s implication that this is more of a light tap—is the tell.)
Yes, this dude is a creep, and his impinging on women’s time and space and totally leveraging huge cultural forces that oblige them to smile through bullshit like this.
But it’s still basically harmless, right? I mean, he isn’t actually touching their boobs while they are defenseless and non-consenting, right? It’s just a trick.
Accept for the thing is, he is for real and with his actual physical flesh-and-blood hands, touching these women’s breasts without their prior consent, and only getting away with it because he’s manipulating the situation owing to an information (and thus power) imbalance. And, in a move that’s both cheap from a magic performance perspective and indicative of a guilty conscious on the part of an assailant, he mostly cuts from the video the part where he does the touching.
Because he is indeed a fucking creep of the first degree.
Psychokinetic Touches Background
Back in the mid-1990s a guy named Steve Shaw was selling an effect called “Psychokinetic Touches.” Shaw himself is a really, really interesting guy (as is the pre-Internet—and even current—market in cheaply printed pro-grade performance techniques like these). Shaw he designed Penn & Teller’s famous bullet catch, although I myself first got wind of him in the 1980s, when I was a kid and he was a teen working with James Randi to fool some ESP researchers; Shaw caught my imagination then because of how straightforward and cunning his techniques were.
None of that is really germane, accept for the fact that if you maybe spend some time googling “Steve Shaw” and “Psychokinetic Touches”, you’ll dig up a blurry PDF of the old comb-bound booklet explaining his technique (which is marked by the straightforward cunning of Shaw’s work). If you do so, you’ll note that in the introduction to that work Shaw explains his inspiration: a routine from the early 1900s that is the totally obvious inspiration for the YouTube creepers stunt.
I.e., not only is dude a creepy perv, but he’s also an unoriginal creepy perv. *sighs*
(I myself got acquainted with Shaw’s PK Touches after seeing this bit on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, which is basically 100% textbook Shaw, and an overall better effect and performance.)
At any rate, here’s an overview of Shaw’s “Psychokinetic Touches” routine:
The performer selects a volunteer from the audience, and explains that blah-blah psychic blah-blah ghosts blah-blah From Beyond—and for that reason, he is able to physically touch a receptive individual with nothing more than his mind. He then makes some gestures to “clear the volunteer’s aura” (or whatever) and steps far away. Now, standing much too far away to conceivably physical reach the volunteer, and in full view of an audience (who can be surrounding the pair on all sides), the performer makes his cooky touch-touch gestures—and low and behold!, the astonished volunteer can confirm that she has been touched(!!!)
I won’t spoil the whole thing, but SPOILER ALERT!!! : Dude is not a psychic or ghost wrangler or whatever. Here’s the basic schtick: The performer gives his little spiel, then has the volunteer close her eyes. At this stage he explains a few more things—reminding her to be “psychically receptive” and super attentive to even the lightest contact. He shuts up, does his little “aura cleansing,” and steps away to do his mambo-jahambo magical passes and psychic touching, singling out certain parts of the body (the right shoulder, the left elbow—whatever). N.B. Everything he’s done since advising her to be super attentive and receptive has happened in absolute silence. The next time he speaks is to ask “Have you felt any contact?” He than has her indicate where that contact was on her body. Lo and behold, she reports being touched in all the right places. OMFG! How did he do it?! And here comes the spoiler:
HE TOUCHED HER DURING THE “AURA CLEANING.”
From the audience’s perspective, this isn’t part of the trick yet, so they are not being super diligent; he has an easy pass to brush her gently. But remember, he’s fallen silent and the volunteer’s eyes are closed: She has no frame of reference for what’s going on, and thus from her perspective everything from when he stops talking on is part of the trick. Her perceptions are temporally out-of-synch with the audiences’, and they have no easy way to rectify that, even after the fact.
Here is a more benign version of PK Touches, and the tell is more obvious. Watch carefully at 1:55: when the performer waves his left hand in front of her face, he surreptitiously taps the back of her left shoulder with his right hand. This is largely obscured owing to how he’s positioned the volunteer relative to the audience and cameras—blocking Shaw suggests in his PK Touches. The waving-arms misdirect is also straight out of Shaw’s PK Touch. (Peter Boie uses Shaw’s exact stage business at 3:13 in the Penn & Teller video I linked up above.) Once you know what to look for, it’s pretty easy to spot the Creep-o-Perv Magician moving into the “magic passes”(/secret boobie poke) portion of his routine around the 0:34 mark in the video embedded above, when he squares up the girl’s shoulders.
Bad Touches and Bad Jokes
And I’m gonna come correct right here: I don’t know what annoys me more: A skeevy dude using a decades-old store-bought routine to non-consensually poke girls’ in the bust, or the fact that he has so little respect for his craft that he resorts to cheap “camera tricks” to pull it off.
Naw, I take it back: What annoys me most is using a third-rate performance of a first-rate effect to make a jokey pantomime of sexual assault in order to cover up the actual sexual assault you just perpetrated, ’cause it so clearly gets to the heart of what enrages me about the “Lighten up; it’s just a joke!” attitude toward minimizing the crazy-making reality of microagressions: The problem isn’t the stupid joke, but the very real assaults the jokes conceal.
I know that makes me sound like a dick, but for context: I was a teen in the 1990s, and so Norm MacDonald is sorta fixed in my head as a half-funny smirk standing off center in a scene framed around David Spade abusing Chris Farley. It isn’t that I wrote him off—upon reflection, I just realized I never even evaluated what the dude was doing; the director, camera man, SNL staff, and guys I sat with at lunch wrote Norm off, and I took their word for it.
All that aside, this is a really, really fascinating interview. Neat stuff about craft in here—which I’m always down for—but also a really nuanced view of art as a product of human interaction and actualization.
I was gonna write a book about how to be a stand-up without being funny, but I thought it would be too cynical. I really think I could write it though.
A manual for how to perform an impression of a stand-up comedian?
That’s exactly right. It was mostly about crowd control. If you’re not very good you have to deal with the audience a lot, so it was a lot about how to do that. Like, you can pick on one person in the audience, and then the rest of the audience gets on your side because they’re afraid of being picked on. It’s all the psychology of mobs. You can learn it. I’ll go to a club and suddenly the guy who was the bouncer last time I was there is a stand-up, because he’s been there, watching how it works. Even jokes, you can do them mathematically without having any inspiration.
How’s that work?
You just take a premise and instead of following it to its logical conclusion you follow it to its illogical conclusion by having a faulty premise to begin with.
It’s surprising that you ultimately decided against writing a book that would’ve suggested that your vocation, the field of your life’s work, can be an empty, soulless shell of an occupation.
Yeah, I also thought it would be too pompous. It’s nobody’s fault there aren’t more funny comedians. If I were an awful comedian, I’d probably still be drawn to doing it. I remember when I first came to Los Angeles, Jay Leno was there and at the time he was the king of all stand-ups. And one night, I had to follow him. I was thinking, My god, this is going to be the worst. But Jay told me it’s fine to follow a good comedian. You just don’t want to follow a bad comedian. Or a filthy comic. They pull the audience down. It’s hard to go on after a filthy comic with, “What about Raisin Bran? Doesn’t everyone know how big a scoop is?”
Are you following the Kathy Griffin stuff at all?
What she did was grotesque. Disgusting. It shows how isolated everyone is. I was golfing last week and I told the guy I was golfing with, “It’s getting pretty crazy. I heard someone say they’re trying to ‘humanize’ Trump. Well, he is human.” And this guy goes, “Well, barely.” Jesus Christ. But Kathy Griffin went about as far as you can go. It’s like she had no sense of the history of that kind of image.
It’s hard to understand how someone didn’t say to her or the photographer, “Maybe let’s dial this down from an eleven to about a seven.”
The photographer, her manager, her agent, the person who made the severed head—no one said, eeeh. And I hate the immediate apology. Why are you apologizing? You apologize and then everyone just accepts that the apology is genuine.
What’s wrong with apologizing?
If it had gone over good she wouldn’t be apologizing for it. She’s only apologizing for the result and what it might mean for her career. It’s like when a guy like Anthony Weiner says, “I’m sorry. I made a terrible decision.” A decision? You had a pros-and-cons list about texting with that 15-year-old? The action wasn’t the result of a real decision.
Do go and read the whole thing. It is worth your time today.