Thursday, 15 December 2011

Dead Story Walking


You’re writing a scene and it’s active and energetic. The character has a goal, he’s motivated and the stakes are high. He’s putting maximum effort into getting the job done.

And yet...

On his tail are one or more highly incentivised adversaries, doing whatever it takes to bring down our hero.

And yet...

Everything is in place, all the elements for a good scene are present. And yet... it doesn’t work. The action feels flat, the outcome feels predictable, and even though it’s all vivid and clearly conveyed, it’s boring. Why?

 
Chances are it’s for this reason: what a character does in a story isn’t automatically interesting. It might be death-defying or earth-shattering, but the stakes, the goals, the point of what’s being done isn’t as important as how it’s being done.

If secret agent Jack McCool is going to save the world from imminent destruction, that sets the stage. If all he has to do is press a button to do it, then the scale of the stakes become meaningless. Even if it’s a really big button and he has to push down on it really hard, no one is going to care all that much.

There is a tendency among aspiring writers to learn the basic techniques of producing an exciting scene, but to not put enough emphasis on having a good idea at the heart of it. A story is more than stuff that happens. A man chasing another man, no matter how well you describe the exertion, the sweating, the pounding of hearts, will read as flat and pedestrian. Doesn’t matter how keen one man is to escape, or how brutal the murder the other has planned, simply having one run and the other chase is not engaging.

In movies you can get away with it. Flashy visuals, fast editing, rousing music, all these can help manipulate the audience. But in writing you don’t have those gimmicks at your disposable.

If Jane escapes from the killer’s lair, with the killer in pursuit, and she’s in the middle of a forest and doesn’t know where she is, her running, tripping, sounds of pursuit sending her into a fit of panic... is boring writing. You might as well have them on a race track and just running as fast as they can in a circle.

Switch it up, add obstacles, show adaptation to ever changing circumstances, choices being made on the fly, consequences being dealt with, the unexpected, the opposite of what you were led to believe, and the scene will come to life.

The idea of difficulty, of danger and risk can make a scene feel like it’s got a lot going on, but those things are the same for everyone and require the same simple solutions. That doesn’t mean those solutions are easy, but they are predictable. Like a mountain climber climbing a mountain, it’s hard but it’s still just putting one foot in front of another.

The whole point of showing your character doing something, whether it’s high octane or everyday mundane, is for the reader to see what kind of person they are. So whenever a character is in a pressurised situation, the first thing to consider isn’t what would any person do in this situation, it’s what would this person do in this situation. And if they do what anyone would probably do, then you need to reevaluate why they’re the main character.

The problem is the more straightforward version (with melodramatic descriptions) feels perfectly plausible, but it makes for a dull read. Imagine a fight where I hit you then you hit me, then I hit you then you hit me, all very visually and dynamically described, until one person falls down. It’s very one-note. Whereas if I hit you, you throw a punch at me, I duck and grab your belt buckle, you try to kick me in the balls... the variation in action, the response to each other's behaviour, that makes the scene interesting and brings it to life. 

And it’s not just about out and out action scenes. If Brad has the diamond ring and plans to ask Amanda to marry him, and feels nervous and isn’t sure he’s ready and you build up that anxiety all through their dinner and finally he pops the question, sweat forming on his brow as he awaits her answer... that may seem like a dramatically constructed scene, but it is not.

When you set out a goal and then achieve that goal, the emotional and physical effort is purely arbitrary. Your character might be worked up about it because it’s in their nature to be, but another person need not be. And that other person is called The Reader.

But if Brad is tense about proposing, and gets to the restaurant to find Amanda talking to her ex-husband, what does he do now? It’s when people react to events happening in real time (rather than sticking to a premeditated plan, even a difficult one) that the story becomes engaging. Because a writer controls their world and is able to make the plan work how they want. And if you make it too easy for yourself, the reader will be left unimpressed.

Whether the person running away escapes or gets caught, the journey from one end of the scene to the other should not be a straight line, it should be a constant battle between what a character plans to do and what they end up having to do.

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26 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So a giant Staples Easy button is not acceptable? Damn.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

In other words, when things are tough for your character - make them tougher, and then again....and then AGAIN. The stakes should always be getting higher. Life's not easy as the protagonist of a fiction book.

mooderino said...

@Alex-giant Staples Hard button also no good.

@Ciara-yes, but not tougher in a simplistic manner. Not just: I was tired, and then I was really, really tired. And you have to avoid random or contrived events like: i was tired and then I was attacked by a bear! It has to be connnected e.g. I was tired so I took shelter in a cave and that's when I disturbed the bear...

L.A Speedwing said...

very very good post. Thanks. You make writing interesting. And the examples help a lot, now that doesn't mean I let you grab my belt buckle! ;-)

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Where do you get these post ideas from? Tell me! LOL. I like how you emphasized that every person would react differently to a particular situation. Reminds me how much fun you could have with your characters.

Julie Daines said...

This is a wonderful post. I've often thought about this as I'm writing. Critics always like to point out phrases and metaphors that are cliche. But a lot of writers fail to recognize that whole scenes and events and even plots can be cliche. Even with the tension at a 10.

I think what you've discussed here really helps take the cliche out of a storyline. Thanks.

Jake Henegan said...

I'm pretty sure I make this mistake with my writing fairly often. So I'm going to write this down so I can remember it.

Good post, Mood.

Halli Gomez said...

You are a mind reader. My scenes for today are action. Running through the woods, escaping the person ready to pound you. All that while trying to hide the treasure you found. Hmmm, can I do it?

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Another excellent post. I kept coming back to this particular part...

"...the first thing to consider isn’t what would any person do in this situation, it’s what would this person do in this situation. And if they do what anyone would probably do, then you need to reevaluate why they’re the main character."

I am definitely going to keep this in mind as I revise my ms, esepcially when I hit a part that doesn't work but I'm not sure why. I hear so much about how the scene has to have "action" but it really has to be the right kind of action, doesn't it?

Rebecca Bradley said...

A great post. It's about knowing your character and knowing how they will react and why. We all travel through life with many different experiences to make us the people we are today and putting that very real concept into your characters makes that run from the bad guy a much more interesting read. A reminder that the book isn't just a flat page.

Michael Offutt, Supra-Genius said...

Great post Moody. I love coming here, and reading your articles so that I can improve my writing.

LD Masterson said...

I'm bookmarking this one to come back to. Good food for thought here.

Margo Berendsen said...

This is so quotable: "the first thing to consider isn’t what would any person do in this situation, it’s what would this person do in this situation. And if they do what anyone would probably do, then you need to reevaluate why they’re the main character."

off to tweet this!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Brilliant as always. And great example with the potential fiance talking to her ex. That really upped the stakes. :D

mooderino said...

@LA-glad to help.

@Darlyn-most of my ideas come when I'm supposed to be writing my novel.

@Julie-thank you for the kind words.

@Jake-Cheers

@halli-yes, you can.

mooderino said...

@Madeline-yes, at this point in history everyone is so familiar with the usual tropes it makes little impact.

@Rebecca-the thing that makes you like you character can only make others like her if they can see it.

@Michael-Thanks.

@LD-cheers.

@Margo-many thanks for the tweet (I tweeted your deja vu post earlier today-great pos ton voice).

@Stina-very kind of you to say.

Nance said...

If you don't care about your hero...if you haven't shown your caring...nothing will work. Least of all, for this crucial scene.

mooderino said...

@Nance-sure, but if you do care about your hero but make life too easy for them, or give them uninteresting action, that won't win you many fans either. And there are plenty of vile, disreputable, evil, or even buffoonish characters people love to read about - because they do interesting stuff.

Lorena said...

A thought-provoking post, as usual. Thanks!

MISH said...

Great post, as per usual! I remember reading (on more than one occasion), that the trick is to make your MC encounter many obstacles - the manner in which he/she deals with and overcomes these obstacles is the difference between an excellent story and a mediocre one.

Beverly Diehl said...

So, where's your Google+ button? Was all set to give this a +1, but no button... I even worked my way through the Share button with 335 options - everything but that one. :-(

Talk about building tension... okay, maybe not. But great post, anyway.

Suze said...

'Whether the person running away escapes or gets caught, the journey from one end of the scene to the other should not be a straight line, it should be a constant battle between what a character plans to do and what they end up having to do.'

I disagree. It appears, to me, that what you propose is the intellectual's version of too much cool-guy CGI.

There have to be moments of respite in a story. Or, well, there don't have to be, but I think it's a disservice to the full spectrum of human experience to insist, along with a bottom-line-oriented industry, that all stories we feed into the system be one giant strain. That's like gunning it too hard during the approach. There have to be texture and contrast. And one really good way to achieve as much is to release the tension on the string by writing what some might dismiss as pedestrian. Life is almost entirely 'pedestrian.' Having some of that in story can be the new black -- if executed well.

mooderino said...

That's not what I'm saying. An interesting route doesn't indicate a set pace. All story should vary in tension and intensity. Pedestrian writing is where it becomes monotone, whether all fast or all slow. And while a lot of real life is pedestrian, that's why a lot of real life doesn't make very interesting reading.

Suze said...

All right, well perhaps it's just a confusion about terms, because I'll agree with all fast being just as annoying as all slow is tedious.

I do, however, think that the mundane can be written in a very engaging manner. As an example, I refer you to Skomsvold's 'The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am.'

mooderino said...

The subject matter is not what I'm talking about. Mundane or fantastical doesn't matter. It's the journey, not the destination I'm discussing here. There are plenty of examples of small, mundane things making for great stories. But if what you see is what you get, if it is a literal depiction of a thing and nothing more, it won't be interesting.

if a man is hungry and makes a sandwich and eats the sandwich, and then isn't hungry, it's not a story. If a man decides to kill himself, but first decides to make a sandwich, the making of that sandwich can become very meaningful. It's not what you're saying that counts, it's what you're really saying, and most often with aspiring writers they manage to convey the mundane well enough, but they forget to make it into a story.

angelaquarles.com said...

Glad Stina linked to this today as I don't know how I missed it the first time. Usually see your posts in CC's What did you blog about? forum. So adding you know to my Reader...

Great post! I know I've made this mistake and probably still have some lingering scenes like this. Good food for thought as I go into the weekend revising :)

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