“And then” is the key to writing shitty stories that don’t hold together (UPDATED on Feb 24, 2018)

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.

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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:

  1. You don’t know what’s motivating your characters to do what they do or
  2. 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.

Recommended Read (Listen): “Bring Rope” by Liam Hogan

An excellent little horror story; starts ~4min 30secs into this episode of Tales to TerrifyTales to Terrify 306 Liam Hogan Franz Kafka.  This podcast is usually pretty solid, if you like straight-up traditional audiobook-style readings of short horror fiction.  Puts me in the mind of Kathe Koja’s The Cipherbut more for art reasons than horror reasons.

Listen: There are a lot of different ways to live and love and believe in this great Nation . . .

. . . but either you agree that this is the greatest space alien The Twilight Zone ever coughed up, or we can’t be friends any more. This is my thin blue red line in the sand, folks.

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DISCLOSURE: If you wanna argue that the alien at the end of this episode is technically the better alien, you are welcome to do so

 

Continue reading “Listen: There are a lot of different ways to live and love and believe in this great Nation . . .”

Dave-o’s patented “magpie and junk drawer” speculative-fiction drafting strategy @fandsf

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.

Amen.

Looking for Something to Call Your Reps About? May I suggest Mick Mulvaney?🇺🇸📞

Long story short: Mulvaney the current head of the Office of Management and Budget, and last week the President also made him acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  This is a little odd, since Mulvaney is on the record calling the agency a “joke” that he’d eliminate—but that’s all just talk.  What’s fundamentally rotten is that Mulvaney received roughly half a million dollars in donations from financial organizations that have been fined muy mucho dinero by the CFPB.

I’m not casting aspersions on Mulvaney or claiming he’s done—or would do—anything wrong; I’m sure he’s a great guy, and plausibly has many good ideas that make him highly qualified to filly two essential 120-hour/week gov’t positions.  But just as a thought experiment, say you had a kid in day care, and that day care hired someone who seemed like a fine pick and totally passed the criminal background check, but had also accepted millions of dollars from a group of notorious and powerful pedophiles.  Would this cause you concern?

Anyway, please take a minute and call your reps, and explain that you think there is maybe a moral hazard here.

*Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame* Yup, that's me; you're probably wondering how I ended up in this situation. Lemme tell ya; it all started…
*Record Scratch*
*Freeze Frame*
Yup, that’s me; you’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation. Lemme tell ya; it all started…

Dave-o Is Helping Folks Find the Good Noise in Toledo!!!

Almost every Saturday in December I’ll be down at the Toledo, Ohio Imagination Station Hands-On Museum as their “guest tinkering artist,” showing folks how to find the Good Noise.

Lots of other cool stuff going on there (Dinosaurs!  Star Wars! You can ride a crazy tight-rope bike!!!)—plus, I’ve built a little “Slinky Sound Forest” for you to explore, any day of the week, all December long

My schedule in Toledo is something like this:

  • Saturday, December 9: Diddley bows, acoustic and electric
  • Saturday, December 16: Simple synthesizers
  • Saturday, December 30: New Year’s noisemakers (free make-n-take!)

I’ll also happily show folks how to make quick-n-easy didgeridoos, elephant trumpets, and “two-handed” double-reed quacker bagpipes, and give them a tour of the Slinky Sound Forest, on any of those days.
ToledoImaginationStation

Beats per Week #09: “The Excitation of Sympathetic Song” (Russian monks? Aliens? Cthulhu cultists?)

Found this in a stack of unlabeled 78 rpm records I bought off eBay, like, a billion years ago.  No time to lay down a new track this week, so I just digitized this instead.  Mysteries within mysteries, etc.

In Case You Missed It: Beats per Week

Since September I’ve been posting a new track each week.  Nothing new this week (I’m in a cabin in the woods right now, and thus can’t upload new music; this post was pre-scheduled).  In the meantime, here’s a little widget so you can listen to all of the tracks in one go.

Have a great holiday weekend!  #gobblegobble!