Story Time

Minutemen. Women don't appreciate them. Maybe hookers do. Turn over is money. Hey. Sometimes men have a dry spell and...oops. Did I do that?

This past weekend I was working with my writing group where we critique each other’s pages. Commercial break: Listen to a hilarious podcast where we talked about our group dynamics and workshopping our books.

One of our authors is writing an urban fantasy. I read an action sequence that took place in the main character's apartment. She's fending for her life and is losing badly. Using her telepathy, she calls for help. Her friend responds, telling her to hold on, and that she was almost at the apartment. For me the tension of that action sequence lost it's hard on. Or maybe I lost my hard on.

And, no. I'm not a minuteman.

During our workshop, I suggested to the author that he remove the telepathic dialogue because it deflates the tension. He said that the main character's friend had already told her that she was coming by at the beginning of the scene. That’s right. He had a really good point.

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Still, I was bothered because my reaction was so visceral. I wasn't looking at it from a structural point of view. I racked my head. I literally put my head down on the pool table and put the triangle thingy over it. OK. No, I didn't.

A day or two later I came across an article titled: A Quiet Place: Who Are The Monsters? Such a great movie. And the writing kicks ass. Figuratively. Can't see how it would literally. 

The producers of the film discussed at length when to reveal the monster. They feared that they might have shown it too soon. In reality the film doesn't show the alien in full view until the last seven minutes. They wanted to delay showing the monster for as long as they could. Eureka! There was my answer. I figured out why my hard on had deflated. Not during the movie. Nor did I have one in the theater. That would be weird while watching a horror flick. I'm referring to my hard on figuratively.

In the pages that I had read, the character who is coming over was on the way before the action sequence happened. The main character is getting ready in her apartment when her attacker knocks on her door. She opens it, thinking it's her friend. The attacker pounces, and she fights for her life. Even though we know her friend is on the way, we don't know how far away she is. We know her pace wouldn't be urgent because she doesn't know how dire things have become. We don't know how long it'll take for her to arrive. Even if the main character calls for help telepathically, having the rescuer not respond can increase the tension in the reader. We're left wondering: What's happened? Where is her friend? What's taking so long?

Time is such a great tool. Delaying things can extend and heighten tension. Delaying pleasure can make the reader anxious. People love story because of the rollercoaster ride of life, even if we wouldn't want it literally.

Avoid Big Holes

I think one of the pitfalls of partaking in a writing group is that the criticism that we get are like holes in a boat. We hear them and want to plug them up. If they're plot holes, then plug them up. Fast! They'll sink your book faster than the Titanic. Other than that, when would we want to leave holes open?

My fellow writers had all complained that my character didn't have a scene with his wife after a very long and dangerous trip. Even if it wasn't dangerous, wouldn't a husband want to reconnect and make love to his wife after a long journey?

Definitely.

And the fact that everyone in the writing group pointed that out meant there's something to it. So of course, being the captain of my ship—book—I wanted to fix it and plug it up. Then I stopped myself because I was tense. Well, no. Kinda. See below.

Tension in a story is important. I think writers talk about conflict a lot, but tension isn't discussed as much. At least from my experience.

Conflict, in storytelling, is defined as a character having to contend with an element in the story: arguing with another character, overcoming a plot point like Do I date Justin or Justine?, or dealing with his own demons like drug addiction, etc.

Tension is what we as readers feel when we see a character that we are rooting for deal with these elements.

When a little girl has to make a choice whether to go down a dark, dank basement or not, that's conflict. She has to overcome her own fear and the possibility of being eaten by whatever beasts are hiding down there.

If the writer has done his job well and rooted us to this little girl, then we feel tension within ourselves and would prefer her not to go down there because we're imaging ourselves in her shoes. Well, her shoes are tiny, and no my shoes aren't small dammit.

So when my whole writing group wanted my character to reconnect with his wife after his long trip, I agreed. I admitted that was a huge misstep on my part and beat myself up about it. I went to Starbucks and sat down in their cushy bench seat, and tried to imagine that scene.

Nothing was coming up. And no, I don't need to take the little blue pill.

I sat with the 'not knowing' for a while because usually images would eventually pop into my head. But nothing. And that's when I realized that I could rewrite that segment and have my character yearn to be with his wife, but due to the plotting, he can't. I think that raises both the conflict and tension a little bit, adding to everything else that is going on in his world. If I can add layers to the conflict and tension, why not do it?

One of the things we as writers have to be aware of is manipulative writing. A really good example of that is the God's Not Dead movie. The writer, Cronk, manhandles the characters who aren't Christians into villainous cartoons. And of course the Christian characters are saint-like. Not only does he make these characters unrelateable, we as viewers can feel the heavy handedness, the manipulation. And that pulls us out of the story. In many ways that's worse than having a plot hole because not everyone will notice plot holes. And when we do, we can overlook them if the hole is small.

Moral of the story, avoid big holes and assholes, ratchet up the tension, don't be manipulative, and freakin' have fun.

Flashbacks

A fellow writer and I were talking about flash backs.  Flash backs takes us back to a time before the current moment of the story, be it novel, TV show, film, etc.  And, as this zombie dog growls, there's a guideline in storytelling that states don't use them.

The reason is simple.  The threat of death to the character having the flashback is removed.  Makes sense. Makes even more sense when the reader/audience is supposed to be connected to the main character, the heroine.  We see a lot of supporting characters die.  Rarely do we see the main character die before the climax.

Then the hero can die.  Otherwise, who will finish the story?

The problem is exacerbated when we're reading a series, watching Showtime's Dexter (I watched four seasons knowing Dexter wasn't gonna die), or a movie franchise.

But can flashbacks work?  Yes.  Here are some examples:

Pulp Fiction

Memento

Slumdog Millionaire

Pulp Fiction shows pieces of the story out of order.  And we don't know who to really support or connect to until the pieces start to fall together like when loyalties form between enemies Butch Coolidge, Bruce Willis, and Marsellus Wallace, Ving Rhames.  Where before we were rooting for Butch to get outta there before Marsellus Wallace gets to his ass.  Then a cop has Marsellus Wallace's ass, literally, after being kidnapped.  Butch is about to escape but decides to save Marsellus Wallace's ass, literally.  And at the end of that scene, we feel for both characters.

Memento directed by Jonathan Nolan, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, was critically acclaimed and has a cult following.  Basically, it shows the movie from end to beginning because the main character has short term memory loss.  A piece of genus.  Here, the end scene shows someone shot, but we don't know who.  And as we watch the story barrel to the beginning, we're in anticipation of who died and what happened.

I loved Slumdog Millionaire.  Talk about a sleeper hit!  Most of the movie depends on flashbacks.  But the goal is to figure out whether Jamal Malik, played by Dav Patel, was cheating.  As we go along for the ride, tension rises because of the things that happen to Jamal, and whether the supporting characters will live.  Some do.  Some don't.

So do flashbacks work?  Hell yeah.

Just as long it serves the story.

Do you know any other movies, shows, or books that depend on flashbacks?  How about any movies, shows, or books that have the main character die before the climax?

Tell Parents Go to Hell

A movie based on the most beloved children's book opens this weekend. I remember reading Maurice Sendak's book Where the Wilde Things Are.  I was taking a short break at work and saw this picture: maurice-sendak-wild-things-little-bear-gay-nigh-kitchen-art-author-illustrator

In an interview, Sendak was asked what he'd say to parents about the movie being too scary for kids.  His response?

"I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."

I love that.  Not that I want people to go to hell.  Nor do I believe in a hell, but one that we create for ourselves.  That's a topic for another post.

I'm tired of parents, or people, telling an author, film maker, or storyteller what their story should or shouldn't include.  First of all, it's not those people's story to tell.  Second of all, authors usually don't know where their inspiration come from.  What they do know is they have to be loyal,honest, to the stories that are given to them.  Any conformity the author makes, outside of story structure, can destroy the story itself.

J.K. Rowling has been bombarded with upset parents and church groups for writing her Harry Potter novels.  Her books have been on many banned book lists.  A sign that an author has made it. Her response has been the same when questioned about her dark material.  She's told them not to read her books.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn written by Mark Twain has been banned.  And that has been considered a great American novel.

If a parent, or anyone, who finds a movie, book, TV show, anything offensive, then ignore it.  Time is too precious to focus on what you don't like.  Focus on what you do.

Even when a story comes to a writer, and it goes against traditional story structure, then the writer should go with their intuition.  Take the hit book to movie Slumdog Millionaire.  It uses flashbacks to tell most of the story.  I can't tell you how many books, teachers, and professional writers state flashbacks are a big no no.  It simply takes the threat of death away.  But it worked.  It worked so well that tension was still a driving force in those flashbacks.  That's because other's died.  But still, it worked!

Follow your passions.  Follow your intuition.  Great thinkers and leaders do.

What Happens Next?

A lot of teachers and instructors of story talk about tension and suspense. But they seem to accompany that with conflict. And conflict is pretty simple: want vs obstacles. When I attended David Freeman's Beyond Structure weekend seminar he explained tension and suspense the best: What happens next.

Think about it. You know that scene when the lone girl opens the door to the downstairs basement. A guttural sound grates against the darkness.

A normal person would be like, "Oh, hell no." Then slams the door locked.

But that's no fun.

The girl slowly places her foot down on the first step. It creaks. She dips her head but can't see through the darkness. She takes another step. Something below shuffles around. The step creaks as she takes another step.

Why is she doing this?!

Then we realize the steps are the split kind. The kind where someone can reach through and grab her ankles. I hate those! Every step she takes we see it from behind the stairs. Is someone or something going to grab her?

She continues down and is now in the bowels of the basement. That same guttural sound emanates from a black corner.

What she gonna do?

She heads for it.

What?

"Yargh!" Her little brother jumps out and says, "You're it!"

Something similar happened to me this morning. I was taking the train to work. The smell of body odor permeated the seats, people were stuffed into every square inch of the train, a baby cried somewhere upfront. The train stopped and a rush of people offboarded. A flood of morning fresh air washed in.

Then a stale smell like jeans that had been worn for six months turned my nose. I looked up and a guy in what I describe as rags for sweatpants and a dirty hoodie stepped onboard. He had fingerless black cotton gloves. Face was shiny. He started singing, badly.

The doors closed and the train headed toward the city.

He saw the baby that cried earlier, walked over to him and his mother, and started baby talk in Spanish. He took out what looked like curly, shiny barbed wire without the barbs. And as he sang he straightened it. Cotton gloves seemed to protect him from cuts. The wire got longer and longer. His vigorousness made the wire swing above the baby, close to the mother. The mother turned her back to him, grabbed a hold of a handle, a quiet attempt to shield her baby boy.

The guy continued to straighten it, and the sharp wire shook over the stroller. Then he straightened one section, holding it as if to strangle someone. The train shook, and he stomped toward the mother to gain his balance, wire in hand. He looked down at the baby and spoke Spanish again, wire in hand. Mother still had her back to him. Every one snuck peaks at the scene. He started to straighten the wired as it got longer, it got closer to the stroller, to the mother.

The train stopped. Door slid open. And the man stepped off the train. Every one breathed a sigh of relief. Except a girl who got up because she had to get off at the same stop. She dragged her feet out.

That was intense because I wasn't sure why he was straightening the wire, or if he was just going to go postal and strangle someone.

In both the made up scene and what happened this morning the tension came from wondering what was going to happen next. Conflict, in story terms, didn't exist.