The folly of making a story as “cool” as can be

Made by Joel Cardboard Cutouts 1

Back in high school I knew of a kid in the graduating class ahead of me who would get to school early so he could be seen standing in front of his Mazda RX-7. A car his parents very obviously bought for him. Come time to go home, he would stand next to his car and…regale kids with stories of his parent’s wealth? I’m not entirely sure what he talked about. In my graduating class there was a kid who went a different route. A lull in a conversation? Good time for him to bring up the latest gadget he supposedly got to play with. He’d quote the price, rattle off the name of some wealthy person no one else knew who had that gadget, then tell how amazing it was. While both acted in different ways, each yearned for the same end result: to be viewed as “cool”.

A recent book I read reminds me of those two kids.

Now, I understand the urge to make a story as cool as can be. People like cool stuff. Fonzi is still brought up in conversation. People buy posters of James Dean to this day. Buddy Holly has a song named after him. Each would have ended up as obscure pop culture references if people didn’t like “cool”.

So yes, adding a little “coolness” to a story is just fine, however there is a point when that “coolness” takes on a life of its own; eclipsing the story it is part of.

This recent story, in the effort to make a totally cool, bad ass story, forgot three key elements which allowed the desired end-point to eclipse the actual story.

  1. Characters that have some sort of growth. ANY GROWTH.
  2. A plot that actually does something.
  3. Suspension of disbelief.

I probably shouldn’t have to explain this, but readers expect characters to not be static. Now, the word “static” is tricky; for how can a character that does stuff be static? When we say something is static, we generally mean it’s the same, has not changed, or has done anything. A character who is talking and running around is doing something, so they can’t be that word.

Wrong.

If characters simply do stuff and go places, doing the same stuff in these new places as they did in the old places, they are static characters in a static plot. Nothing more. But wait, you say, action isn’t the only part of a book! There’s those middle squishy areas in between the doing of stuff. True, there are those areas, but if the characters only talk/have internal monologue about the previous and future doings of stuff, then they go do more stuff; they are static/cardboard/not fleshed out.

Let’s put it another way.

If a reader can read 5 pages, skip a good 30 pages, read a few more pages and not miss anything (no matter how many times a reader does that), you have a plot and characters more static and cardboard than cardboard sent through the dryer without a dyer sheet.

Which brings us to the point about the plot actually doing something. A story that is just a bunch of psychopaths running around murdering people and bitching about the other psychopaths, is not a plot. It’s just a long action scene. And yes, if a character runs around killing people because they get in their way, that person is a psychopath.

Murdering—okay, fine, killing people to achieve a story goal is shoddy writing. It shows lack of imagination or lack of skill or both. Sure, just about every book has violence and killing in it. However, most books (at least the ones that are well written) use the trope only in action sequences to ramp up the tension, not to resolve issues/achieve goals.

Violence that solves issues and progresses the plot works in videogames. Those things can get away with plots and characters that are weak and a gratuitous amount of violence if the gameplay is super fun, because in the end that is why people play videogames, TO PLAY. Books are different. It’s the same reason why movies and TV shows don’t follow books exactly. What works in one medium rarely translates well to a different medium. What is “cool” in videogames is not the same type of “cool” in books.

Books are literary in nature. They should be written to engage the mind and imagination, not pretend to be videogames, eschewing the mind engagement in favor of balls-to-the-wall action. Read the Paradox Trilogy by Rachel Bach if you think books can’t engage the mind and imagination and be as frantic as a Call of Duty session on speed.

Stories shouldn’t be able to be read and forgotten as easily as the names of the “cool” kids we all knew back in our teenage years.

 

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NO, NO, NO. DO NOT DO THAT.

stop sign

I have an idea for a story. I enjoy Battlestar Galactica, so I think Apollo or Starbuck should be in my story. I love watching Dr. Who, so the much discussed Clara will have a place. Oh yeah, the doc from BSG is great, so he will be there.

Clichés are good, yes? I love clichés, it makes the story run so much smoother.

How could I forget? Explanation for every little action any of my characters make is a no-brainer; because, duh, how will anyone know what is happening without detailed exposition for every action?

Intense action sequences must be broken up with internal narrative; and inconsistencies during those scenes will go unnoticed, so I just gotta stick to the detailed explanations.

And this, this is the most important I have to remember: the tough, grizzled guy gets the woman who instantly falls for him upon meeting him, but she must also act stern and show she doesn’t give a shit when he reacts like a silverback gorilla challenging an intruder. People just won’t find it believable if she doesn’t show a little backbone.

facepalm

Let’s break down the reasons why the above is so wrong.

STEALING CHARACTERS

It is okay to take inspiration from a fictional or real person to create your fictional person. That’s perfectly okay. Nearly every single fictional character ever created has been inspired by person(s) of myth or reality or a little of both. What is wrong, is stealing wholesale from a character someone else has created.

For example: The Chief of Medical on Battlestar Galactica is an old man with silver hair, a rough voice, slight stoop to his back, and smokes cigarettes whenever he gives people bad news.

So, if your doctor is an old man with silver hair, a rough voice, slight stoop to his back, and smokes cigarettes whenever he gives people bad news; you’re not inspired from the doc on BSG, you’re just being lazily and stealing.

CLICHÉS

  1. The soldier with a lot of tattoos is a hot head and great in a fight.
  2. The man from a country in South America, he prays with a rosary before every mission even though he’s agnostic.
  3. A settled new planet has a bazaar, homes made out of rock, and low wealth, and is, of course, settled by people from Middle East nations.
  4. The tough guy leader has a checkered past, doesn’t care about himself cause he’s a leader, and he gets the girl.

The above are called, “clichés”, although I think number 3 is also an overt racist stereotype, and number 2 makes you seem ridiculously uneducated.

I wish I could say people hate clichés, but if that were the case The Big Bang Theory would not be popular. Clichés do ensure you’ll have a ton of really terrible reviews, and not nice things coming from word of mouth because of the lack of originality. You’ll never get away from every cliché, but don’t over do it and stay away from the stereotypes.

EASE UP ON THE EXPOSITION

No. I’ll say it again. No. You do not need to explain every little goddamn thing. If you are writing a military sci-fi book, you do not need to tell the reader what MRE stands for. If the person reading a military sci-fi book does not know what MRE stands for or what a MRE is, they are in a super duper tiny minority and they will look it up.

Explaining precisely why a character is going to do something, and then having the character do exactly what was in the previous two paragraphs is called, “telegraphing”. There is no such thing as good telegraphing, unless you are using a telegraph to send a message to another telegraph. You’re not though, you’re typing on a keyboard.

Ease up on the exposition, and while you’re writing, pretend for just a minute that your reader has an iota of intelligence and can figure something out without you having to paint the Mona Lisa in every paragraph.

INCONSISTENCIES

If you are in walking with maglev boots on the outside of a spaceship in the vacuum of space and you jump off…You will not land with a thud against the ship.

THE DAMSEL

Take a moment to look at what year it is. You’re reading this on a web browser; the date is going to be somewhere within eyesight.

It’s the year 2016 CE. It is not the Mad Men era in the 1950s.

If you create a character who is a giant asshole with mood swings so violent, he has an armed guard to meetings, the woman he talks to will not instantly fall in love with his rugged handsomeness and manly attitude when she meets him for the first time. She will not tell the guard to leave the room while he slams his fists on the table because his authority is being challenged. Seriously, if you think this is perfectly okay for a story…

book and coffee

I love reading; great stories, wonderful stories, just okay stories, it really doesn’t matter. However, authors are supposed to uphold some sort of standard with storytelling. Not everyone on Earth writes stories, which means being the bulwark against terrible storytelling falls to just a small percentage of all alive.

Let’s do the world good.

Let’s create magic with words.

 

My own worst critic

God, at times, over analyzing what I’ve written really does me harm. I have been writing a new book for the last three weeks, after nearly two weeks of pouring over the outline of it. I spent a day and half creating the two characters that would follow through at least two books, possibly more. I use a character questionnaire that has near 150 questions on it, and there’s two of these questionnaires, and I did it for two characters!

About a week ago, while sitting and watching football I suddenly got it in my mind, I forgot to develop the characters. I got it in my mind, that the story is great, but the characters are terrible. I couldn’t pin point what made me think that, I still can’t. I just knew I completely screwed up. So I started my other book.

A few days later I emailed the first book to two people to read over and tell me if I really did screw up on the characters.

Both like the characters and like the story.

I don’t know why I over analyze what I write. I will love, love, love what I’ve written one day. The very next day, 24 hours later, I’ll think back through the entire story and hate it. 2 hours later I’ll like it again. It’s agonizing and annoying, but I do love writing.

Word of advice: Write your novel. Finish the damn thing, Let someone else decide if its bad or not. When someone does think it’s bad, don’t let it get to you. No matter how well you write, there will always be people who think you write like a caveman throwing shit at a wall. And there will always be people who love what you write so much they pre-order your next work.

strong story does not equate to strong characters

To have a memorable story, to have a series people want to follow for years across many books, to have a story readers clamor about a sequel for, you need characters people want to follow. It does not matter if you have a strong plot, great action, tense drama; if you forget to create a character(s) people want to read about, you won’t have a book people want to read past page 50.

It is true, you can create a kickass story without memorable characters. The plot can be so strong that it stands on a pedestal by itself. The big picture is great and engaging. And therein lies the problem. It is easy to get caught up in the big picture, to create scenes that are so engaging that you tear through them while reading and writing, but the character development is forgotten about.

To put it another way. Before a story is written it is a good idea to develop a character, the protagonist or antagonist to start with. You go so deep into the backstory you know what movies that person likes, what food they hate, how they did in school, what fights they got into when young. You know the character so well that describing that character to the reader is forgotten about. Not because you don’t want to waste the energy in describing the character, but because in your head the character is alive and you know why they are doing what they are doing.

This brings me to my next point: beta readers

It is in my humble opinion that it is absolutely impossible to know if you (I) create an amazing character, without someone who knows nothing of the storyline/backstory to read the story and tell me if the characters work. I can read and reread what I write and love it, but I cannot take that step back and read it like a person who has never seen it before. Read it like a person who knew nothing of any character until they saw the words in the book.

Beta readers are that person. Beta readers can read the work and immediately see the shortcomings of the characters, because they know nothing about them beyond what they see in the book. They can see the characters not developing past, “Hi, I’m the protagonist.”

It is hard to find a good beta reader. A lot of people say they will be one then life gets in the way and reading your unfinished book goes to the back burner. But I tell you, find one. Search long and hard. Find that friend who likes reading, or a family member who likes reading and implore on them that you NEED their help. That without their help your book is going to suck (it may not but a tiny guilt trip isn’t bad 😉 ).

Find that beta reader and write yourself a novel that puts the works of the great Neil Gaiman to shame.

As seen on Tumblr (I love that site) – Just in time for NaNoWriMo

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