Sorry this took so long to put together.Life happened.Here goes:
“There is a corpse in the barn!!!”X finds a corpse in the barn. S/he needs to go tell Y about this, but doesn’t want Z (who is in the same room) to grok the situation.(Back when I used to teach high school, we’d frame this exercise like so: “You have found a corpse in the barn; alert your sister to this fact.You may not use the words ‘body,’ ‘dead,’ ‘corpse,’ or ‘barn.’Go!”)Who are X, Y, and Z to each other?Why must X inform Y of this situation?Why doesn’t X (or Y or both) want Z to know?What happens if (when?) Z figures it out?
Eschew the VoodooWe all have voodoo around our creative processes: We only work in Scrivener or with this font in Word or using that pen or writing in a Moleskine or before 8am or whatever.For your next project eschew your usually voodoo and replace it with a totally foreign “habit.”Write the story entirely on 3×5 cards, or in the “Stickies” app on your computer, or in emails sent to yourself from your phone, or on a piece of crap 99-cent notebook from the drug store or in Comic Sans or only working before getting out of bed or after brushing your teeth for the night or whatever.Feel how changing tools changes the feel of writing and the piece itself–but also see how little difference it can make, how your good work is still good scrawled on a Post-It note stuck to your kitchen table, and how lazy hackwork is still just that, even when you’ve used your favorite pen in the prettiest journal anyone ever gave you for Xmas.
Write in Freddish: Write your next story in a style that is a. highly constrained and b. very different from your “default” voice—for example, borrow the voice of an autoclave installation manual, or a EMT handbook, or extremely constrained vocabulary (see, for example, any early-reader children’s book, of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words Hardcover). My absolute favorite recent fiction application of this technique has to be Greg van Eekhout’s “Will You Be an Astronaut?“That story fucking crushes my heart every time.
Rewrite What Vexes You:Take some story that recently annoyed you by not living up to your expectations and rewrite it the right way. (I just found myself doing this the other day via text message with my Mom and sister after we all separately saw, and were annoyed by, Solo—a film that I desperately wanted to love, but could not; it has some good gags, but a thin plot that is massively overburdened by something-for-everyone, “fan service,” and box ticking. Something thats for everyone is for no one, and box ticking us inherently boring.Most annoyingly: You can actually make Solo into a really good movie purely through cuts; it’s a good, lean story buried in flab.)
Write to the Formula:I usually use the 45/45/10 Formula as a tool for revising—I have something roughed out and now it’s time to make it run smooth—but you can use it to build a story from scratch.Outline it in three sections (I. is the Setup, II. is the Tangle, and III. is the Resolution).Flesh out each section, noting that I. and II. need to have about equal amounts of material, while section III. has only about a quarter as much stuff.Draft from there.
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.
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:
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.
The 45/45/10 Formula for narrative/argument is one of the perpetual bees bumbling around my bonnet.This video for this song is such a stone cold perfect example (and, subsequently, so rhetorically devastating) that I just had to share.PRO-TIP: The first two-and-a-half minutes will likely be almost unbearable to watch for most white Americans.If it helps, know that Joyner Lucas (the musician and the voice you hear throughout the song) is black (although not the black guy in the video).
At any rate, to review my 45/45/10 Formula:
The first 45% of a piece is the Setup: Characters/concepts/situations/dynamics are presented and relationships among these made clear
The next 45% is the Tangle: Complication(s) disrupt (or at least complicate) the situation laid out in the Setup
The last 10% is the Resolution: The knot is Untangled, for better or worse
In the case of this track, the Setup runs from the open to ~2:50. The Tangle then runs to ~5:50, and from that point to the cut to black is the Resolution. What especially thrills me here—beyond the hard body impact of the rhetoric itself and the lean power of the videography—is how shifts in the music mark out the transitions between stages in the argument: Each section break is marked out be an abrupt shift in the tone and mood of the backing track.
This is a wonderful primer on how to structure an narrative argument to hold an audience and not persuade them, per se—because that’s not the goal—but rather to enduringly stick in their craw, so they keep troubling over your argument long after they’re done with the piece of entertainment.This is how you write moral fiction.This is how you plant the seeds that grow the trees that, indefatigably and seemingly effortlessly, bend the arc of that moral universe back toward justice.
And that, kids, is our business.Go, watch … and learn.
This is a tremendous example of practical rhetoric: understanding an audience deeply and meeting them where they are—without assumptions or bias—so you can guide their thinking in a way that’s a win for everyone. If there was ever an example of “white-hat marketing,” then this is it: “Mr. Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children”
“State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.
“Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
“Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, Ask your parents where it is safe to play.
“Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
“Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
“Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
“Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
“Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
“Rephrase your idea a ﬁnal time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.
I write and have written all sorts of things (DIY books and essays and textbooks and book reviews and reference articles and newspaper stories and business columns and fiction and blah, blah, blah). For the last decade most of my money has come from writing marketing copy. If you’re covering your bills that way, then you quickly learn the First Noble Truth of Marketing:
You need to meet people where they are.
You cannot “create demand,” only meet it. You cannot “educate customers,” only furnish names for things they already feel in their hearts. Everyone is busy and distractible. Everyone hates ads and hates marketing. They have absolutely no desire to bother figuring you out; you need to figure them out and talk to them where they are.
And once you grok that First Noble Truth, you instantly understand the Second Noble Truth of Marketing:
All writing—every article, every story, every poem, every email—is marketing; no one has the desire to squander their energy figuring you out. You must meet them where they are.
And once you meet them, you can take them where you two need to go together.
In almost all regards—from title through execution, in the fears it tries (and fails) to exorcise, right down to its final graff—this is the 100% perfect short story for me. (And it’s likely no coincidence that it’s just about a perfect fit for my favored story formula, the 45/45/10 Three-Act.)
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.
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.
…when I go to sum up the story in a Big Picture way, I end up saying the same thing that I said about that election:
I totally hear where folks—angry, aggrieved, not-gonna-take-it-anymore folks—are coming from, because I totally agree with them: They are getting screwed. We just totally disagree on who is screwing them, or what is a sensible way to address that.
This story is about that, in a fundamental way.
I also tell an anecdote about seeing a homeless guy get ejected from a Coney in the mid-1990s, and make mention of Michigan trespassing laws, the sovereign citizen movement, my neighbors from Chennai, and Dave-o’s patented “magpie and junk drawer” speculative-fiction drafting strategy.
The Nov/Dec issue of F&SF is still on newsstands—but only for a few more days. Nab your copy soon!
If you write fiction long enough, interviewers will start to ask you “Where do you get your ideas?”
Readers love this question (it’s also a dreaded chestnut of con Q&A panels). Writers hate it. It’s like asking “Where do you get the time to write?” Every one of us gets the same 24 hours each day; doctors spend some of those doctoring; drug addicts spend some of that getting high; writers spend part of one of those hours writing stories. One person can be any or all of those, and more.
Likewise, we all see/hear/mis-hear/read/misread/imagine all sorts of crazy crap every day. Those are ideas. That’s where ideas come from.
But that’s maybe a cheap answer, because it takes the question too literally. I think maybe what folks are asking when they ask “Where do you get your ideas?” is “How do you store/catalogue all the weird shit you see every day so that it’s useful to you later?”
And to that, my answer is this:
My brain locks on to odd shiny things and hordes them.
Most of the fiction I write comes out of a collision: I’ll stumble across some interesting fact or idea or snatch of plot or dialogue, but won’t really have any use for it, and so it just sorta bobs around in my head. Sooner or later, as other shiny ideas catch my notice and get tossed into that cranial junk drawer, several will bang together and stick in some interesting way. When ideas stick together they make a distinctive POP!ing sound. I listen for the pop, then start writing.
This is the essence of the “magpie and junk drawer” approach to research and writing. I stumbled into it as a kid having to do research papers, and it’s served me well ever since. Go forth, apply this in your life, and sin no more.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this (and the audio version—also free on the Nightmare Magazine website—is really good).
Nominally a horror story, Sam J. Miller’s “Angel, Monster, Man” is, in fact, a really interesting piece of speculative fiction.Gets me thinking about how frequently fiction that speculates on a disenfranchised group getting power gets slotted into “horror”—and once you start thinking that way, all horror starts to look like a liberation fantasy as seen through the establishment’s eyes: Is Night of the Living Dead more about zombies, or more about the terror experienced by rural whites and the patriarchy when confronted with a competent black man? Is The Exorcist about demon possession or the threat of women’s liberation (see also, Carrie)?Is Psycho about a “psycho” or about the terrifying prospect of homosexuals no longer shackled by shame/guilt?