Story Genius: Can A Book Tell You How to Write?

Lord that’s a dull title. I’m getting a little serious here.

I’ve been reading my first ever ‘craft book’, Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It was leant to me by an aficionado of her method and neatly coinciding as it did with my decision to write a piece on pantsing vs plotting, the different approaches writers take, it felt fortuitous… or at least indicative of many minds – the great and slightly bonkers  – thinking alike.

Structure, plotting, outlining, formula.. lots of different words all amounting to the same thing. A concern with shaping your story before you actually write, or even conceive your basic idea. The difference in words is to my mind nothing to do with their meaning, or their result, and everything to do with how writers wish their work to be perceived. Structure has integrity while formula is derided as the approach of hacks. And there could be some merit to that – structure does matter – but in every discussion I see on it, it’s reduced to a formula, in all but name.

The questions being asked aren’t, is this working structurally? Why is this bit falling flat? Why does interest flag by this point? (And even these I write with caveats) But rather, how do I structure my novel? Who has a good blueprint I can apply? By what page must I perform this plot point in order to comply with this model? As if structure were something to be welded on to an existing story or a pre-existing scaffold you must then wrap your story around. In short that it is something distinctly separate.

When I first started reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, I was really, I have to admit, incredibly curious. I’ve never read a book like this and while I have read snippets of others, I really wanted to see honestly, fairly, whether there was any merit to such a book. Any real craft lessons that could be applied and help a writer grow. I’m about three quarters of the way through and flagging. Initially I wasn’t completely dismissive, although every time I’d think she’s making some sense, she’d say something that would make me pull back and look around, as if to the shocked spectators, thinking ‘dude? Really?’

The foundation of her premise is that readers read with their emotions. Which I agree with. How you engage those emotions however is tricky and will vary reader to reader. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to acknowledge that on her part or that you’ll never appeal to everyone. She cites big selling examples, including Fifty Shades of Grey, The Little Engine That Could and Die Hard, showing a distinct lack of (taste) and appreciation of how the medium influences your approach, using them as indicators that there is one universal truth – the only truth we need concern ourselves with  – to how story works. Since at least one of those failed to work for me, that’s straight away problematic. Further, despite her claim, she doesn’t demonstrate how any of these fit into her blueprint, even loosely. Instead she uses them mostly to push her claim that all the other concerns we have over what makes a story great are irrelevant.

It’s true that Fifty Shades is horribly written – by beautiful writing standards, that is… And yet, the year Random House acquired the trilogy it catapulted them into the black. In fact, they gave every employee in the United States.. a five thousand dollar holiday bonus. Clearly something is going on here, something that has absolutely nothing to do with the “quality” of the writing. That something is story. – Lisa Cron

Much as I would like to, I can’t dismiss this out of hand. I do think it’s overly simplistic, no evaluation of Fifty Shades can be credible if it refuses to take into account that it was a/ fanfiction that piggy backed on the fame of another best seller and b/porn. Without knowing the exact figures I do know the entire genre of romance/erotica exploded (in a non-sticky sort of way..) around the time of its publication.

Great writing fails time and time again to prove its selling mettle to the public – The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, The Stud – and sadly far too many self published success stories seem to uphold this. As Fifty Shades does. Rejected by publishers, snaffled up by readers, books rushed out in a month or two, building sales and audiences, seeming to deliver exactly what a large percentage of the book buying public want at a fraction of the cost and some would say, quality.

The major issue I would have with all the cited examples (barring Die Hard, obviously) isn’t their lack of beautiful prose but their lack of interesting story, the very thing she claims helped them sell. I may be more sophisticated than the average reader – obviously darling.. but for all I have problems with many of the best sellers I equally take issue, the same issue, with the award winners. While they are full of elegant, unconventional and complex prose, they often sacrifice story in order to maintain this style, because the truth of the matter is the two are never separate. I would go further, nothing is ever separate, including your approach.

This is the fundamental flaw with Story Genius. It continually separates things that are inseparable, creating a sort of hierarchy of consideration with her one concern obliterating all others.  One wise reviewer pointed out that its done in the name of flogging her wares. The oft touted belief that without the surety of the seller, you’d never make a buck. It’s the same thing that stops a PM from shrugging and saying, mate I can’t predict the future, but we’re hopeful.  Instead we lie  – but in order to uphold that lie we twist everything and render it useless.

Take her approach to pantsting and plotting, both of which she cites as myths. She debunks the myth of pantsing by first admitting many great writers do it, (but you know not you.. ) and second by claiming that it persists only because it’s the easy option.

But if pantsing leads to failure, why is it so damn seductive?.. Simple: we’re hardwired to do what’s easy. – Lisa Cron

I can’t believe any writer would ever write that sentence.

And okay, she isn’t a writer, she is an agent, a story consultant, which explains the emphasis on flogging and wares. Yet she wrote this book, she created her ‘method’ surely she has some understanding? All I can say is I may be a rubbish planner, but I would still chose it and housework and treating a crocodile with gonorrhoea over writing. It is the writer’s eternal paradox

I hate writing. I love having written

Plotting she dismisses as surely each and every plotter ever, didn’t consider character.. em… She also takes aim at other well known methods, for the very same reason. None  – not even the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell consider the internal struggle of the character, concerning themselves solely with plotting the external.

..these guides zero in on the sequencing of events in and of themselves as if each “hero” gets tossed into a one-size-fits-all gauntlet. So something “big” happens by page 20, something “dangerous” by page 50.. and so on. Successful stories often do follow the external patterns these guides set forth, so its deceptively easy to believe that all you have to do is ape the shape.. – Lisa Cron

All of which echoes my own concerns. Story follows a certain organic path, by its nature it’s an exploration of a problem, a moment of change and all that entails. It’s easy, like horoscopes, to apply generalities to almost every successful one out there, if you are flexible enough about what ‘big’ means, just as easy to ignore that something equally ‘dangerous’ happens three pages later, and then again four pages on. The more problematic issue is when we try to change the story to fit the model, shifting that dangerous moment to an earlier scene so it’s at the right place. When in essence we separate form and content.

I recently had a discussion about Remember the Titans with a writer who believed it failed as an example of the Hero’s Journey, because there were multiple protagonists and there was no wise mentor. In actuality most of the characters have stories that function more like obstacles standing in the way of the Coach’s goal – to harmonize his team and make them successful. While the Coach works in the role of both hero and mentor. He must guide the young players to be better than their peers, their parents and their fears, in doing so he also points the way to himself. The other writer had applied such a literal interpretation of Campbell’s model that he couldn’t tolerate even these slight variations.

Cron’s desire to marry character with plot and structure very much meshes with my own view, yet despite this claim, in reality she seems to be effectively separating them at every step; identifying one aspect then moulding and adjusting the other to fit in. The example she uses throughout, a story her friend is writing, and I presume she is guiding, doesn’t appear to be an actual novel. And I can understand why. We start with a dog and a woman who doesn’t like dogs and end up with a writer with a partner on life support, a rabid stalker-stroke-fan, an alternate time lime with a girl breaking down on a football pitch, a studio deadline, and a famous actors dog…

Apparently it’s all about how our Protag is afraid to love – which leads to her kidnapping a dog which she doesn’t love and will never love, because she doesn’t love dogs but it will help her write a script all about the power of love…

I know, I know. It’s just as easy to make a story sound ridiculous as it is to make it fit the three act structure. But my eyebrows were disappearing further into my hairline with every plot  – sorry, character motivation, we explored. It felt disjointed and painfully contrived. Cron’s blueprint is hinged around identifying your characters inner struggle – something she designates the third rail, in the belief that like the third rail on a subway train, it’s what drives your story and by default your plot. The problem is that despite understanding there is an influence between the internal and external, they are still two distinct things in her head. And they are created as such. Then she simply searches, or directs her writer to search, for anything that might tie them together, no matter how tenuous they feel, no matter how often they have to rely on coincidence and convenience.

She has decided she is going to have to save Ruby from herself by removing her from her house and sweeping her off to wherever Nora lives (I know, I know, people will wonder how in the world one adult would have the power to do that to another. I’ll figure something out… ) – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

In pursuit of her one universal truth she has cast aside all other considerations, including plausibility and bizarrely for a character-based approach, character. There is never any question of who Ruby is. Her entire personality is distilled into one belief, the one which is her third rail. Again I find myself not entirely in disagreement. I’ve never particularly ascribed to the theory that your character must be fully worked out, in the sense that much of who your character is will never be revealed in your story. Sherlock Holmes and the Prostrate Exam is none of any readers concern. However, I’m not sure that her method has anything to do with character at all, and that she hasn’t in fact just switched terms on us. There is so much simplicity in this approach that I cannot see the character’s desire as anything other than the character’s goal by another name. Her internal struggle or ‘misbelief’ is just more obstacles. Her origin scene is just another inciting incident. Because we aren’t shaped that easily by one event. If changing our belief system where that easy we’d all be psychotic. We’ve taken the external plot structure and dressed it up in ‘character-y’ sounding words.

For all the talk of brain science, which again by any other name is simply psychology or rather the neurological underpinnings of our understanding of it, there is very little scientific rigour in evidence. Even the Myers-Brigg test is more sophisticated and that only measures four out of the agreed upon five personality factors, which determine much of our behaviour and how we will respond to external events. Take Sherlock again – while I haven’t given a great deal of thought to his prostrate, should I chose to I could well imagine how it might go. Why? Not as the third rail suggests because I have some notion of his one defining belief, but rather because I know what kind of man he is. Sanguine about matters that others find squeamish, arrogant to the point he always presumes he knows best, plain speaking as he believes efficacy trumps (others) ego’s, yet finds it difficult to deal with his own shortcomings, physical vulnerabilities as much as any other.

Knowing the who and what of your story, knowing that one does not exist without the other, character always driving plot, the external always impacting on the internal, is the best guide to writing I can think of. But Cron isn’t interested in guiding. Guiding is for those who believe in the myth of ‘the shitty first draft.’ To letting it all pour out. Forget guiding principles when you can tick boxes. Yet in that lovely contrary way that writing has, the more she limits us the more the story meanders. Her tightness of focus in character and worldview leading to an external plot that escalates in ever increasingly ridiculous events –  sister-napping, dog napping, coma’s, deranged fans –  inexplicable behaviour.. again dognapping? – and disconnect from the core message – love is worth it.. again dognapping?? You know those Hollywood films you watch where you spend the entire thing thinking, but why didn’t they just *insert obvious sensible action*?

According to Cron actually making sense is irrelevant. Cause brain science. I suspect brain scientists might want to disagree. She poo-poos the notion of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ claiming we have no control over it, that we are in fact hard wired to believe, that it is an evolutionary tool, a means of figuring out ‘what if’.

We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.  – Lisa Cron

Noticed the problem? I’m fairly sure I’ll never find myself with a writing partner I never married lying in a coma, a sister who kidnaps me for my own good, a studio boss who wants to replace me with a fanfiction/stalker and the deep seated belief that kidnapping a dog will solve all this. That’s not a ‘what if’ I’m ever going to ask, nor am I even sure what I would be asking. Credibility matters. Plot matters.

I’m a character writer, I’m supposed to say it doesn’t.

But ..

PLOT MATTERS

Cron is absolutely determined that our internal struggle is the only thing that really matters; that external events need only work like switches on a railway track triggering our emotions, but beyond their ability to connect, the shape and form they take are utterly without meaning.

Yet if I say to you there was a pile up on the motorway your husband drives everyday.. I don’t need to tell you about your fear of abandonment because your mum always missed parents night, or that time you lost your pet turtle when you were five, you can in fact have lived a life without any bereavement at all and you’ll still have a pretty good idea of how gut wrenching such an announcement would be, how potentially life altering even those few minutes of uncertainty would feel. The external matters because it’s the world we have to navigate. It’s the world that smacks us down, lifts us up, terrifies, bewilders and excites. If we’re using story to figure out how to predict and survive what might be coming, it matters who we are, but it also matters what we face. Even the seemingly fantastical are often grounded in real day present fears, an apocalypse by another name is disaster. War, famine, plague – these are realities people through time and in the present day have had to deal with. Dystopia’s tend to speak to our fear of political control and to the need to conform, the consequences of not belonging, and again they draw from world’s we know have existed, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Iron Curtain to the incredible tales of North Korea.

Connection isn’t enough, story works best when plot and character are so interwoven you cannot separate one from the other. Its why Batman only works in Gotham, while Superman just makes it look dirty. It’s why hi-concept sells despite all that poor prose and idiotic characters. Ever heard of how the team behind Alien got the green light?

Jaws in Space

It’s the most famous tagline that’s never been used. Because all the emotion you need is in those three words, that one simple idea, event, what if, is what everything else flows out from. And sometimes that what if can be internal, or character based. Lolita. Animal Farm. Forrest Gump. Edward Scissorhands. We should be careful not to confuse complicated with complex. One has depth, but can usually be distilled down quite easily to a simple idea, event, individual. The other just meanders wildly and leaves the reader bewildered.

Cron’s story has no what if. Her very base premise, detailed in the blurb, the introduction and the opening chapters, is ignored. Ruby’s dilemma is convoluted, her fear of losing someone she loves natural and identifiable, but it’s disconnected from the story that is being told, from the initial idea dreamt up:

I kept thinking about a story with a woman at the centre who doesn’t like dogs. That’s all I had – this woman with this strange and somewhat unpopular characteristic – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

became..

what if a woman who’s spent her whole life believing she’s successfully hedged her bets against love (of people, of things, of dogs) is on the verge of losing everything – the one person she’s felt close to, her lifelong career and her grasp on reality? Mad with grief she has one chance to set things right but first she must convince those around her that she’s not suicidal so she devises a scheme to steal a dog… – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

It goes on…

..but when she can’t get rid of the dog..

And on..

..is what makes the inevitable grief of loss endurable.

Then ends with Cron’s applause…

Bingo!

Me – I’d say go back. There is one word in that initial idea, one word that resonates: Unpopular. And it seems oddly potent that it’s the one idea she’s refused to address in favour of a much more popular theme: better to have loved and lost..

Many writers and critics of writing would say that in the end we’re all writing about the same few things. Some might even go as far as saying we’re all writing about death: dying unloved, dying alone, dying unremembered, dying too soon… But themes, however powerful, aren’t what we write. They are what emerge from what we write. They are the dark shadows that lie beneath and the more you try to address them directly the more they slip through your fingers. It is the concrete world that allows us to grasp them. Cron’s basic premise, the what if’s, the power of emotion, is undeniable, it’s her failure to connect that successfully with the surface, the concrete form of story, that illustrates how much the two work together and fall, apart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do You Do It?: Plotting, pantsing and gardening.

As someone who doesn’t regard The Rules as great dictates chipped into stone and then dissolved into binary ether and sent forth to confound us all (or even something deserving a capital), I feel like I should begin with an apology. There’s a possibility this might get a little biased…

I’m a pantser – which is an odd word for a Brit and always makes me want to assure folk I’m not just wandering around the house in my knickers.

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It’s never felt like a choice as much as a compunction. Something’s are bone deep. This is the way I write. I love the idea of organising my head. I periodically attempt it, before, during, after – more during and after. I like the surety, the systematic certainty of it whispers to me and I have often tried to whisper back, but for me when I create, I must create. That’s simply how it works. Only in the act do I find my inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, for all I talk of feeling the lure of the planner, I know well how alluring the pantser (ye know without that name sullying it) can seem. They are the epitome of the romantic writer, ink smudged across their pensive faces, caught in the mania of creation, the passionate scribbles of the possessed. We’re all a little in love with that image of ourselves, mostly because we know the reality and yeah, pants might be a better description..

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This debate goes right to the top. King calls himself a ‘discovery writer’, believing he doesn’t create anything, just keeps chipping away, one word at a time until he uncovers the story.

Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses. ~  On Writing, Stephen King

George RR Martin believes in Gardeners and Architects.

There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like… And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up.. they don’t how big it’s going to be, or what shape it’s going to take. I am much more a gardener than an architect.  ~ GRR Martin

As for the plotters, it would be so tempting to go with Patterson, whose entire writing is an outline. However there are a few others who have come out in favour of the planned approach. Grisham has claimed the more time dedicated to preparation the better the final work while JK Rowling imagines this is a basic outline…

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Beyond them are the middle-grounders, the ones who believe we’re all on a sliding scale that tends to tip us towards the middle where we’re all slightly pantsing and slightly plotting. Oddly in this instance I think the dichotomy has merit. There are inherent differences between the two that I believe matter and will show in the end.

That’s not to fully sway you towards one when you’re naturally drawn to another. Part of the reason I think the distinction is relevant is that how we write is such a personal issue that trying to force ourselves to fit to someone else’s style can be crippling. Lisa Cron, in Story Genius states that she believes only one percent of writers are capable of holding all their story in their head – nice to know I’m finally a one-percenter even if I can’t afford a car. Of course she also believes that both plotting and pantsing are flawed and instead preaches her blueprint, somehow magically different from your bog standard outline as it focuses on your character and their internal struggle rather than external events. Which in turn brings me to my second concern, something created almost entirely by the misdirection of semantics.

A blueprint is an outline. Which is also a plan. Which is something we plot. This is the heart of a plotter. It’s not someone who has an idea, or a scene playing in their head. It’s not someone who only writes events, it doesn’t preclude those who don’t delineate chapters, or call characters A,B and C. As we can see from JK’s outline, her concern isn’t simply plotting action, certainly not in detail, but takes a big picture approach, laying out the underlying thematic arcs, ‘prophecy’, key relationships, ‘Hagrid & Grawp’ as well as important scenes, such as ‘Ron and other w’s told about fathers injury’. Whether you snowflake from thematic logline to intricate outline, or research everything to do with police procedure before killing off your first victim, the point is you are amassing a body of material so you will know what to write.

Many pantser’s have an idea of something when we sit down to write. What that something is will vary considerably, not just person to person but work to work. I free write many shorts, I usually have a story idea in mind when I write a novel, not much when I started my first three, but as time has gone on, the list of what I would like to write just keeps growing, giving me plenty of time to ruminate on them – although I rarely get much past  a series of vague images in my head. Sometimes a scene or a unique character as well. Like I said it varies. Saying that adds up to a plan is like getting in the car to go on holiday and remembering to pack underwear. I may even have some sense of the destination, but it’s a long way away and I have no idea how I’m getting there or even if I will. I’m prepared for that but I haven’t planned for it. And that to my mind makes a difference.

Where you put the emphasis will guide where you put the emphasis in your story. If I’ve packed sunscreen, I’m going to be looking for the sun. I’ll drive south, to the coast. If I know how much money I have I’ll plan ahead to make sure I can stretch it out, know where the cheap petrol stations are, good camping or luxury hotels.. The more I know before hand the more it will inform the decisions I make, no matter how much I believe I am open to change.

But as I said, I’m not sure it’s a choice. Lisa Cron wants us to put the emphasis on characters. I’ve yet to read a story where the characters, their wants and needs, behaviour and personality weren’t a defining factor. Not necessarily to the benefit of the work, and that probably comes down to things you’re not even aware of. If you naturally incline towards a fascination with character it will show in your work; you’re always looking for interesting attitudes, unusual relationships. If you like battles and magic systems, rich playboys or sexy werewolves, it will show not by lack of characters but in how they come across – and not everyone will have a problem with that. Recycled tropes are as popular as ever. Lisa herself cites 50 Shades of Grey as an example of how her method works, but there are some of us character writers who think its an example of how it doesn’t work, sales be damned.  Planning or pantsing will not change this, but it might indicate slightly which you are more likely to benefit from.

As a character driven writer I need to let the characters lead. A plot driven writer is more likely to stunt the development of her characters and I wonder if it’s because they’ve boxed themselves in with a plan? Take JK for instance, a planner. It was evident early on in the books that Harry and Ginny would end up together, yet by the time it happens, I wouldn’t have shipped them for all the gold in Gringotts.  She hadn’t given Ginny time to breathe or room to grow into an interesting character in her own right. It felt like ticking a box.

I can’t help but feel the approach we take is knitted into our mental makeup – the very reason I know many dislike thinking of it as a dichotomy. Yet I can’t dissuade myself from this idea that our attitude defines our work in myriad nuanced, even unseen, yet important ways. I don’t know what is going to happen until its happening, til I’m there living, breathing, fighting.

No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader ~ Robert Frost

Science has identified something known as the incubation effect, where creativity is fostered by a wandering mind. Ever get great ideas in the shower? Or taking the dog for a walk? These rote mechanical tasks free up our higher minds to make incredible leaps. Conversely when we try to force our focus we tend to follow well laid plans, the road already known. To take planning and pantsing to their absolute, I create as I write – or to be more specific as I type. This is my rote mechanical aid. While when I plan I sit thumbs twiddling, waiting for inspiration before I write a single word. Even there the attitude of the planner is defining, the emphasis always on the before. Before we write we must have something tangible, concrete in hand, fuelled by a belief that we cannot spin nothing into gold, cannot discover something that doesn’t already exist.

Maybe all writers need to believe enough to take that leap. Maybe that’s why every time, every story I think I got nothing.. until I start. I keep hoping it’ll get easier to trust I will always be able to unearth something, but thus far.. And sometimes I think that is the true lure of the plan. Writing is hard. Planning is naming spaceships and thinking about how much I really love my eccentric new android – he’s got a thing for cockroaches, so cute! – planning can very easily fall into procrastination. No matter how much stuff you accumulate the only thing that’s truly tangible is the writing. Until then you’re still in the before, facing a blank page.

I promised myself this wouldn’t turn into a plea to pants and its worth reminding myself that I love Harry Potter and never really liked King. And who can ever remember how his stories end?

As I said it’s a matter of listening to your bones. In my first ever drafts I got consumed with research to the point it was crippling and it distracted me from what I really wanted to write, what I believe is my strength: character dynamics. Likewise when you consider Tolkien it’s that world which has blueprinted an entire genre, the history, languages, geography and breath-taking scope that works. How much of this lies in planning and plotting? Martin is six books and thousands of words in and does anyone feel closer to a resolution? He, like King, has always struck me as a man who is exploring the nature of the darkness within us.

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It’s easy to read that as me condemning all plotters to the formula or action-heavy genres – which in itself isn’t a condemnation unless you’re not overly fond of reading it – but Joss Whedon, a man who puts huge emphasis on structure, can deliver larger than life personalities better than almost any screenwriter working today. He does however fall victim to trope-holes more than I suspect a man less inclined to plan would. I suspect it happens most when he is hemmed in not by his own creativity, however it comes to him, but other’s expectations.

I wrote down everything that I thought would be useful–what we hadn’t had enough of, what I thought had clicked, what we could improve–and also things that excited me about the second season. Once I had that memo out to the writers I felt like I was ready for anything. I wasn’t, but it was cute that I thought so ~ Joss Whedon

And that’s really how I’d like to leave it. The most important thing to remember when it comes time to try and figure out the best approach is to shake yourself free of any expectations, romantic notions of a real writer, wannabe’s selling you their latest four pronged, ten-horned, thrice guaranteed formula. Listen to you. There is room for every kind of writer, even bad ones. Thank god 😀

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The hidden side to character: relationships (aka a blatant excuse to talk about Star Wars)

As with so many things, this might seem a little obvious, but before you snort and think ‘she’s at it again’ sometimes it’s worth taking a second look at the obvious. Sometimes things are so obvious they get overlooked and then, when the misinterpretations and abuses crop up, we don’t recognise them for what they are.

Character too often comes at us like a laundry list of traits, a static and unengaging wishlist; relationships are the sharp, working end, where what you want can be brought to life and cliché and stereotype shaken off. Or at least they offer that opportunity, if we pay attention to them.

The hidden part isn’t so much what they can do to reveal character, it’s that a good writer knows that character often exists in service to relationships. Because relationships aren’t merely the who, but the what, serving to not only further the plot but very often they can and do become subplots of their own. Many times they are the reason your reader is still with you, the true driving force of your story.

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Take one of the most despised films of recent times; take a trilogy of them: The Star Wars prequels. People – not just sci-fi freaks like me – loved the original trilogy. When the prequels were finally announced as going ahead they’d been nineteen years in the making and anticipation was high. But even so there were already stirrings, how could they live up to the originals?

But what was it precisely that made the originals so good, so good that our love has only grown not faded?

Not the special effects. We’ve kinda beat those. Advancements in technology were always cited as the principle reason Lucas started half way through his story with episode 4, fearing he couldn’t bring his vision of the first three to life until the special effects caught up with his imagination.

Not the acting

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Despite the late great Alec Guinness’ best efforts.

The recent episode, The Force Awakens, clearly believes it was all about the world, as it offers us substandard acting and mediocre special effects all bundled up in a story free nostalgia fest of OT memorabilia: canteenas, the Millenium Falcon and sand. A lot of sand.

I’m standing with Lucas on this one. I think the world building was one of the few things that he got right, along with far superior battles, for the most part. Where he got it wrong was his relationships.

I don’t merely mean the romance, although obviously the time put in to try and erase the image of a grown up Natalie Portman tucking wee Anakin in just served to bog the pace, leaving a bad soap-y taste in the mouth and damaging the entire trilogy timeline.

I mean the relationship at the heart of our intrigue: Obi-wan and Darth Vader, master and pupil, battling to the death. The most iconic and intriguing scene from the OT.

fight

Lucas did show at least an inkling of an awareness of this by the last film, Return of the Sith, which is centred around the showdown of Obi-wan and Anakin, completing his transformation to Darth Vadar. The anticipation for this battle, I think, is why so many want to count it as the best of the three, as it finally gave them what they had been waiting for.

However, the ground work had never been laid. Our investment in their relationship was still best encapsulated by that original scene. In the first film not only are we stuck with cute kiddie Anakin, trash talking insect racers and eyeing up Padme – ewww – but the relationship being built is between him and Qui-gon-jinn. Obi-wan is stuck in the ship and doesn’t even meet him until a good way through the film, where their sole interactions consist of talking about each other to others. It is Qui-gon who risks everything for the boy, Qui-gon who has Obi-wan’s devotion. The boy is an obligation and not even one that risks anything. As relationship set ups go that’s about as interesting… as.. well… any other risk free obligation. A teenage/young adult Anakin stealing his master’s admiration and trust, an almost equal, always threatening to usurp, yet still needing him, bound together in their admiration of the lost Qui-gon, now that might have held our interest.

And the fact that yet again in the second and third films they spend most of the time apart, wouldn’t have mattered.

All those vital elements that we aspiring storytellers are beaten over the head with, tension, conflict, agency, rise and fall, all of these exist organically within relationship. It is by definition what happens between two or more characters, it cannot be told, it must be realised by what unfolds, what is said and done. It is where story and character meet.

What is character but determination of incident? And what is incident but the illustration of character? – Henry James

Romance is predictably where most minds will go whenever you mention relationship, but as with Anakin and Obi-wan, they are often not the one we invest in. An interesting side-note on this can be found in fan fiction, a place rather interestingly were relationship has become a verb. The sheer volume of shipping that goes on between characters whose base relationship is antagonistic, troubled, platonic or any thing other than what the writer intended, shows that we invest in far more than what we are told to. I’m not sure that is always a credit to the writer. Relationships exist like an undercurrent, opposing riptides pushing and pulling at our emotions. However often I feel that the gap between what the writer seems to presume we want to read and what the reader actually plucks from the pages, is indicative of a rather rote and formulaic approach to relationships which relies, as does character, far too heavily on tell.

Just as Obi-wan tells us – you were like a brother to me!  – while we’re left to presume the bickering, rivalry, one-up-man-ship, and intimacy of a true sibling relationship, too many authors just tell us what our characters feel for one another. We’re told of their great passion – actually we’re told ad nauseum. Emphasis on the nauseum. It’s become de rigueur to build entire scenes around two characters telling us of their passion/love/devotion, and then through these endlessly repetitive scenes build entire relationships, build entire stories.

I can just about forgive this in romance. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t read the genre. I couldn’t stomach talking about my own relationships to that degree let alone reading about someone elses. However if it is something readers of the genre do enjoy, who am I to suggest another approach. In other genres, as the shipping fan fiction shows, many, many readers are far from satisfied with what is presented. Insta-love has become like Mary Sue, a put down of a very particular type of story, usually young adult and usually with paranormal elements, wherein story and plot and character are all side-lined in favour of what is called relationship but isn’t. Rather than show an interesting dynamic playing out between two interesting characters, we’re told about how interesting, nay amazing, these characters are and that alone apparently suffices.

Plot is a vital side to relationships. What happens shapes, guides, reflects back on who they are, who they might be, connecting and binding them. Too often these things seem to be kept distinct, or reduced to points of such base simplicity that story can only be the victim. Love is proven in acts of self sacrifice, but it’s never developed through acts of self. To return to Star Wars (cause why not) the love story that worked was Han and Leia. It draws on an abundance of well established tropes, which you are quite within your rights to call clichés, love/hate, opposites attract, even that initial latent hint of a love triangle (perhaps I saw them when I was too young, that never seemed too convincing to me) but interestingly, the one who rushes to her rescue is never Han. Luke is forever coming to save her, throwing off his training, abandoning his family, facing Darth unprepared, all recklessly for her (and later Han too). It becomes part of his personality, a hint at the recklessness we know undid his father. While Han is forever reluctant – a volunteer for Luke’s respect in the first film; a helpless patsy in the second; and the rescued in the last, by Leia herself, who like Luke has already shown her willingness to take risks and suffer for her beliefs. Perhaps that has categorised her life, all of it that we have known. Her actions don’t prove her love, they’re a natural part of story and character as we’ve already seen, it’s their cute bickering that we invest in, their innate differences, his arrogant ‘I know’, the way she echoes it back to him, the dynamic that’s peculiarly theirs, however stereotypical.

But romance is such a limited perspective. It doesn’t even have to involve two characters. Sometimes the most important relationship is between a character and society in general. The strict code and layers of bureaucracy that surround and bind the Jedi’s, create an interesting dynamic when juxtaposed with a boy raised in slavery, both shackles that deny him, both threaten to take what he loves. A dynamic yet again that the prequels squandered. In part because Anakin spends more time as Jedi than slave, and as a young boy he is presented as angelic and hopeful. Plus, ya know, he pod races in his spare time, instead of doing his homework which makes it difficult to sympathise.

Sometimes it is with different conflicting forces within themselves; light and dark, past and present. Beyond even Obi-wan, perhaps the most anticipated aspect of the prequels was the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, beautifully illustrated by this image.

star-wars-episode-i-the-phantom-menace-original

Yet you cannot help but feel that image became part of the issue. The contrast between innocence and evil would not have been nearly as stark if we’d replaced the young slave boy with a sneering (although quite sexy) Hayden Christiansen. What works in one medium doesn’t always translate. Even here that decision to cast the younger Anakin throws its shadow over everything that follows, as if the extreme actions of the last film, the slaughter of the young padawans, were yet again driven by the desire to wipe our memories of his saccharine sweetness. The beginning and the end weren’t ever in doubt, it was Lucas’ job to show us the journey, the decisions that led him to the dark side, and convince us. Because the most important relationship of all is that between writer and reader.

Linear Storytelling: Pure Imagination (Part 3)

The last book I read was a fantasy by a new rising author with a hit or two under her belt and plenty of favourable reviews. Rave reviews. I’m not going to name it. I’d feel mean. Not that it was unreadable. It was initially quite promising, quickly devolved into mildly diverting before sinking to who cares? Not me, being the answer. I’m a tough reader, in that I know exactly what I want, but I can’t believe this is what others want.

imagination

Even if I had managed to fix the craft issues – and there were some of consequence – I was left with the depressing realisation it wouldn’t have saved it. Only a complete rewrite would do. Why? Because it needed a heck of a lot more imagination.

Imagination is a lot like creativity; most of us only consider a tiny fraction of what it comprises. Both are assigned solely to the weird wacky guys in the arts. Ignoring the fact that being weird and wacky, if you are weird and wacky in that way that countless other guys in the arts have been, requires little to no imagination and the straight laced accountant who tweaked the tax system might be a creative landmine.

This book was an intriguing idea with poor realisation. The world building was non-existent. The magic was quite literally hand waving. Consequence was – linear. And every page crowded with clichés. We can call them tropes but when that’s all you see, it’s too fine a slice from here to there.

I could simply call her lazy. Maybe she was.

I could simply call her arrogant. Maybe she was.

It’s hard to credit either because world building is just about the most fun a fantasy author can have. Clothes on or off. Seriously.. they’re weird…

I know, because if there is one thing that will make me write fantasy, as a sci-fi lover, it’s the world building. So even if you’re arrogant or lazy, I’m still hesitant to believe that the world building would be the thing you skip, not deliberately. The only conclusion is that she did what she believed to be the best she could. And a whole lot of people told her it was fine.

She wrote a bestselling fantasy book, calling her unimaginative might seem daft, and it might seem like there’s no cure. But if you can write, if you can conceive an interesting idea you can be pushed to be better. I’m sure every runner under the sun has bust their guts doing the best they could, but a few years of training and they’ll bust their guts for three points of a second less. And that’s the difference between being a champion and not.

This is my biggest bugbear with craft groups and writing sites, with amateur critiques. This writer had fine prose. A great little intro. Seduced me, stubborn ornery cow that I am, I’m sure it was worked to death. If she’d ever spent time on a writer’s critique site it would have been, certainly. But we never address the imagination. And until we do I don’t believe we’re ever going to get better. Agents don’t crit your world building. They’re big picture people, they want to know if they can sell that picture. If they can sell your voice. Your concept. Your central character. They might prefer a happier ending, or want a love interest squeezed in, but they aren’t looking at the nitty gritty.

And so the linear story form flourishes.

If you aren’t quite on board with me, there are exceptions. JK Rowling is the first that jumps to mind. Ever wondered what made her so different from every other writer, every kids boarding school and magic book out there? Try length. The Philosopher’s Stone was around double the standard word count for a middle grade novel. What she filled that with was detail. Immense, consistent, inventive, believable details of a world that made us wish it was real. King, Adams and Martin, Tolkien, Pratchett and Asimov are others. These writers stand out. They stand out across time. Not just through time. Because no one else can do what they do, quite like they can. Though god knows, plenty have tried. Tolkien developed three different languages and writing systems to accompany his worlds. Three whole languages.

Detail makes your world. Detail distinguishes your characters. Detail hooks your reader. Detail enriches your plot.

A great deal of this falls under show don’t tell – I’m not apologising, I could talk about that all day long – not least because if you try and sit and tell your reader all those details it’ll turn into a text book. Every step of your plot should be a way to reveal your world, every revelation of your world should be filtered through your character and every aspect of your character should drive every step of your plot.  That in and of itself is imagination. It’s not about coming up with something a bit weird or different, its about seeing how it plays out, every little consequence across many different levels – about understanding how a burnt soufflé in chapter one led to an act of treason in Chapter 12. It’s even about understanding how your decisions will be received by your readers. Imagination, like creativity, lies in the connection between the points, the trajectory, the path, the faint finger web of arteries leading to and away from your points of interest. Too many put all the attention on the points of interest and you know, making them wacky..

Consider one of the greatest discoveries of all time. A man sitting beneath a tree gets hit on the head by an apple. And suddenly he understands how the moon stays in the night sky. Somewhat embellished, but however it transpired it’s safe to say for most of us there is no obvious connection. No link between the two, but Newton and his immense imagination (unequalled apart from his arrogance apparently) saw the pattern beneath the surface that joined them.

That word beneath is key. Because creativity isn’t just about a imaginative plot, its about building up the outline, putting flesh on the bones. A well thought through world, a detailed backlot gives three dimensions to your story. It means your plot will hold water, even if its a bit holey, it means we won’t see the strings you’re pulling, even if they are pulling in an obvious direction. Or at least we probably won’t care. Yeah, boy gets girl, but what a tale, what a man, what a dame..

Star Wars is loaded with tropes. And in the words of the great, late Alec Guinness, “the dialogue is excruciating.”    

We have an innocent young ingénue, a princess in desperate need of rescuing. A big bad, who is literally big and bad, ooh and all in black, just in case you missed it. A rogue with a heart of gold, a wise old mentor.. And we win. We blow shit up. We get lucky. We accidentally press the right buttons. There was nothing unpredictable about any of it, not the first one. And it didn’t matter. Because also in the words of the great, late Alec Guinness, “It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted…it remains a vivid experience.”

The world we were presented with was unlike anything we had ever seen. Lightsabers, death stars, wookies, Jawa’s, big buns. But it went beyond that, it was the ripples under the surface not yet realised that we’d fallen for. The connections between Obi-wan, Darth Vader and Luke. The only three who seem to have any awareness of this mysterious Force. The intrigue peaked by the casual mentions of the lost religion of the Jedi knights. Obi-wan’s strange, triumphant even, surrender to his own death. The friction between Leia and Han, the devotion of the rebellious R2D2. We like rogue’s with a heart of gold and wise old mentors, we just want you to bring them to life.

writers she could nver be

Books and films are different beasts in how they do this. A film can leave much more unexplored, as visual spectacle. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier or less important, but there’s a limit on how much you can realistically put in without putting your audience to sleep – hence big yellow letters at the start of Star Wars.

A magic system in a film is mostly about setting clear limits and establishing level of ability. In a book it can go so in depth it’s a like a university degree. In weird ass physics. This for me is where show and tell come into their own. Because while I love the depth a book can offer, I don’t want a lecture. Moreover, simply telling us this is sort of how magic works is actually one of the worst ways for the writer to renegotiate their own rules. Like in a textbook there are often addendums, footnotes. Or worse, as in the book I just read we can simply say, who knows how it works. I mean we use it every day, but we don’t really get it and it might just work this time. The minute I read this I know magic is going to work just cause. Our writer attempted to build up tension by implying it shouldn’t, then waved her magic hand and somehow it did. By the end of the book everything I knew about the magic and in fact the different worlds of her novel, was the same as what I knew at the beginning. Most of it was covered in the blurb.

I had no idea how magic functioned on an everyday level. I had no visual, sensory grasp of it. I couldn’t tell you if they cooked with it, if they altered their appearances or governed their world. If it made a difference in how well they did in society. How it was administered. Did they purchase spells? What did they teach in school? Was money a dictator of magic or magic a dictator of money? She did drop a few funny sounding words in. But only our hero uses them. He’s different. We’re told.

Returning to the seeming contradictions that make writing so much fun, one of the main issues that made this story and world so thin was her tendency to try and explain everything. As with everything else in linear storytelling doing what seems to be a good idea usually ends up being a really bad idea. Explain is an excellent synonym for tell. Every time you start to explain you’re shifting out of show and weakening your readers suspension of disbelief.

The force in the first three Star Wars films can be summarised with ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ In the – well technically the first three, but really the second three – we get midi-chlorians and it all starts to sound a little like an advert for toilet duck. However, in terms of what it can do, in the original three we have Jedi Mind tricks, lightsabers, vision of the future, some telekinesis, all in play in varying degrees. Oh and the lure of the dark side. In the second three we have Jedi mind tricks, lightsabers, visions of the future, some … essentially everything we’ve already seen.

What details you bring in and how you bring them in is key. You’re not looking to give your readers an easily memorised wiki summary, you’re looking to embed them in it. Give them a visceral, sensory grasp of what it looks, feels, tastes like to live in this world.

The only magic system I’m even remotely well read in, is JK Rowling’s. I’ve seen plenty of spirited debates both viciously attacking and staunchly defending her world. This in itself is only possible because there was enough detail to substantiate different interpretations. Detail that many felt needed explaining, but often wasn’t. Detail that was sifted through every chapter, every scene, every line. It was a constant, specific and interconnected presence.

That artery of Newtonian connections is often effectively – ‘should’ even perhaps – be accessed through your characters. Nothing brings the varying classes of Rowlings hierarchy into focus as the way she distributes her magic and wealth, position and power, through her cast.

You’ll as a writer often come up against a warning about diluting focus and using to many characters. Not saying it’s bad advice, but here’s a few facts. In the book I just read, comprising several magical worlds, there are nine characters I can name, three I remember but can’t really name. And then ‘people’

In The Philosophers Stone, I stopped counting characters I could name around 21, because counting bores me and I think the point is made.

If you plan on writing epic world creating fantasy, you might want to actually populate that world. That’s not the same as shifting your point of view or using Omni. It’s not to say that each character must have their own arc, but they should be distinct. I can describe every one from Harry Potter, both rough physical descriptions, and basic personality traits. I’d really be struggling just with hair colour for the last book I read. I’d be struggling to write more than a couple of lines on any of the main characters.

The comparison’s continue. The backstory of the Wizarding War and it’s legacy is seen in virtually everyone’s inability to say Voldemort, in Ginny’s inability to speak to the legendary Harry Potter, in Dedaldus Diggle bowing to him mysteriously in a shop, the crowd in the Leaky cauldron, Mr Olivander’s owl eyed curiosity over his wand, in Draco’s confrontation on the train, in Quirrell and Snape and….

This more than anything is where the other book truly let me down, because a huge part of it is basically exploring this very issue, magic gone bad, the why’s and wherefores. It’s not background, it’s pretty much Main Plot. And yet it rests on two horribly clichéd characters who are really horrible cause …??

Even when the characters are imbued with certain traits, or behaviours which might illustrate our world, they are shallow and everything continually rests on the shoulders of our tiny little group of heroes and villains. No one man can represent a world that effectively. He can be a conduit, a filter through which to view it, but you need to build in those details, those characters that will allow the landscape, its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, to come to life. We humans that’s our downfall. When we say world we don’t mean the hills and the valleys, we mean the politicians and the farmers. We understand scope by how far away the last man stands, not by points on a map. When Ron is humiliated by his mother’s screeching in the dining hall, we feel his embarrassment because we can picture Draco and Neville, Lavender and Seamus, Percy and Fred and Oliver and Kate, all of them with all of their different responses, all of them looking at him, hearing his mother’s words.

When our Hero in LBIR (the last book I read) falls down, who’s there to see it? A shadowy nothing? Faceless mute crowds? People are a powerful way of taking an abstract concept and making it real. Know how in cop shows whenever a serial killer kidnaps someone, the family are always encouraged to use the name of that person to make them real? Well, it works in fiction too. Other serial killer analogies should be carefully scrutinised though.. Characters are your way to map your world, to make the edges distinct, but you have to make them distinct. Stereotypical can be distinct, as long as you don’t make them all the same stereotype. Give them a face, a name, a voice, a habit, give them details.

People are also wonderfully, stupidly illogical. At least if you’re applying linear logic. Human logic, the logic of emotion, the conflicting needs and desires and fears that drive us, are much less easy to predict. I despise contrived behaviour, and despite the fact it’s done by everyone, I’m still not advocating it, what I am saying is that when it comes to circumventing, or just plain ignoring plot holes this is your friend. If your characters and their behaviour hold true, we’re generally willing to overlook, a lot of the times don’t even notice the gaps, until some smart-ass points it out on Buzzfeed. According to Amy Farrah Fowler Indy was pointless in his own film, except Indy’s why we watched, not the ark.

So, a quick summary, cause even in fiction it can be a very necessary tool, and when your mind wanders as mine does, an exceptionally useful one.

When trying to avoid linear storytelling, something marked by moving – plodding – predictably from action to reaction, the best things to consider are: Consequence – how can you build more in? Expectation – how can we build more in? And remember never, ever explain yourself.

All clear? Grand..

Linear Storytelling: No Ordinary Plot ( Part 2 )

Ultimately linear storytelling is a plot issue. Plot is how we organize our story, how we ‘plot’ our course through the events of the tale. Amazing how they come up with these terms.. And every little decision we make, to go left, right, move forward, turn back, needs to be considered on multiple levels – tension, character, consistency – it needs to answer to what came before and what comes next, not just immediately but every other step taken will play its part. And I say that as someone who is a pantser.

writer-island

Many would argue the pantser is the prime linear sinner. (Ooh I like how that sounded.. linear sinner). How can we foreshadow events we haven’t conceived of yet, lay the breadcrumbs for a betrayal we never knew was coming? As we have nothing but the previous steps to guide us, the only line we can follow is action > reaction.

I disagree with this wholly. First a pantser still often starts with something in mind. At least, a story. And a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We know we want to write about Superheroes who turn rotten and have to be brought down by ordinary people taking a stand. Your end – your guiding star – is built into your premise. We may build haphazardly, but as with a jigsaw different parts reveal themselves to us, even if we don’t put the pieces down yet. I think of myself more as someone who plans in my mind rather than on paper, somehow its easier to scrub and take fantastic leaps that the writing might unexpectedly offer when you’ve haven’t laid out a path in black and white.

Another accusation would be that genre writers are linear sinners, because they are beholden to the conventions of their form. A quest involves a mythical target of great value, a series of clues leading the way, and a ragtag crew with the requisite skills to get us there. Basically its a polite way of saying they are formulaic. I won’t delve into the issue of whether literary fiction is a genre all of its own, I’ll simply say that formula exists wherever there is a body of work. It’s the familiarity that presents the problem when it comes to linear storytelling. However ingenious certain ideas were at their inception, time and repetition will quickly erode their value.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself – The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar

Formula is scored into our brains. We watch too much television, read too many books and as writers that’s going to bite us on the bottie if we’re not aware of it. A lot of writers aren’t aware of it.

One of the pitfalls here is different for the sake of different. We still need to be considering the whole, the internal logic of your world and story and providing something that will satisfy. Much like before it comes down to readers expectations. Only here we’re looking to subvert. The key to knowing the difference between what to change and what to keep? Emotional investment.

A romance reader is invested in seeing the main characters come together and there are certain ‘plot points’, for lack of a better phrase, that they definitely don’t want to see skipped over. As one friend of mine frequently rants – years later – ‘they didn’t even kiss!’ However, there are plenty of other steps along the way that exist only through repetition of established form and these works, despite following the successful model, fail to satisfy.

Or we see variations on the surface, changes to the superficial world that don’t carry through to the underlying form. Either in terms of leaving it essentially unaltered, something which insults the readers ability to recognise the manipulation. Readers are much more sophisticated than many writer’s credit them. The rise of the anti-hero who is actually just as self sacrificing and noble as a Ideal Hero, but you know he wears black and smirks a lot, is a good example of this.

Or they change the wrong element,  failing to understand why it was the way it was, and leave the reader disengaged or dissatisfied emotionally.

I want to take a moment to address that word, ’emotionally’, because some people tend to take issue with it. They think its applicable only to soap operas. They think when I talk about making it emotionally appealing I’m suggesting something along the lines of the abysmal Arrow or Smallville. Good lord no, that’s precisely what I am advocating against. They’ve alienated their primary audience precisely because they didn’t understand what would appeal to them. Emotional engagement speaks to excitement, intrigue, tension, curiosity. It doesn’t just mean weepy declarations of love and self-pitying angst fests. Just as relationships are not all sappy romances and likeable characters aren’t always nice guys. You’re a writer, engage with the word in all its dimensions.

Lets return to our quest. Because I know nothing about romance. There’s a scroll. You have been tasked with finding it and saving the Kingdom. You assemble your ragtag crew. There’s one clue, passed down through the generations. You solve it, it leads to another. Then another. You throw in some fanatical snake headed pursuers, a helpful smitten princess – mildly distracting our hero from his beautiful but prickly crewmate. A final face off with the King of the snake headed fanatics, and boom! we’re all saved..

What would you change to make it non-linear? Unpredictable and exciting?

A great deal of emphasis tends to go into the end twist. The mildly distracting Princess is the King(ess?) of the Snake heads! Gasp!

Not only is the twist so common it’s now a formula all of its own but something as superficial as this won’t remedy the plodding nature of the journey. The reason that Sixth Sense worked was because of how it altered the way we thought about everything that come before, how we perceived the character, his life, his purpose. The twist made it into an entirely different story. Not only is this particularly hard to do well, but even when it is, it tends to leave the writer unable to dig deeper into the world and characters for fear of revealing too much. The entire thing risks becoming a sleight of hand, balanced precariously on misdirection and withholding. And in books, far more than films, that’s a problem, we’re investing far more time to the journey, and most of us, we rather like digging.

What are we actually invested in? Do we care about the Kingdom? We haven’t spent much time there. I have seen an attempt to remedy this by creating alternate storylines wherein we spend time with the helpless Kingdom as it crumbles under the magical ravaging threat. If you make the threat incredibly interesting, this might work. Mostly however it ignores the reason we picked up a quest book in the first place – it’s the closest we’ll ever get to setting sail for high adventure. We’re explorers. Our gaze is forward fixed not backwards.

The Scroll then? The scroll is simply a means to saving the Kingdom. You can add another twist to this, a la Kung Fu Panda. Long lost, turned to ash, a old man behind a curtain. But the emphasis is still on saving the Kingdom, something we’re not that interested in. Even if you throw in that helpful princess and her elite fighting forces as a nice alternate solution and create a backwards loop, until you identify what it is that really hooks the reader, you’ll be left with something neat, clever but hollow. And yes linear, because trust me, your reader has already noted that elite fighting force. Your surprise will be expected, but their expectations will not be surprised.

The answer will vary from person to person, and the best answer you’ll find is when you ask yourself. And then ask yourself again, and then again. Most of us initially don’t know exactly why we are drawn to certain books and away from others. Like me struggling with why so many left me dissatisfied as a kid. We don’t know how to verbalise what we feel and we latch on to obvious superficial details, which is probably how genre arose in the first place. I don’t like much fantasy, yet some of my favourite books are fantasy. I almost never read historical fiction yet I adore both Austen and Lee.

That’s not to say many readers of fantasy don’t love fantasy. I used to say I was a sci-fi slut. I’d read anything from that section of the library. I’ve grown more discerning but yes, the weird and fantastical, the inventive and mind boggling has an allure of its own.

However, I don’t want to delve too much into character and worldbuilding, because these are the pieces and the board, and plot is the game. That doesn’t mean they are separate – they are never separate in good storytelling – but in this instalment the emphasis is on the relationships, the dynamics between the elements, how we use plot to reveal character and our fixed elements to drive the action.

 It was never about the monster. It was about the emotion. The monster came from that. We didn’t always make them unique. We tried as much as possible, but what was important was how they related to the characters and that’s what made them unique. – Joss Whedon

One of the main things that bothered me in both of the books I read recently, those that inspired this series, is how shallow and uninteresting the relationships were. In part of course this does come down to character and other fixed elements. Their needs, wants, fears and obligations were never well developed, or even mentioned in some cases. But it goes so much further. There was no tension, no growth, no conflict. In one, the main potential hot young love interest declares his love for our heroine before our adventure even begins. They even plan a date.  This explodes the ticking timebomb of their relationship and kills any will they/won’t they speculation. Some – I’m guessing the writer – might labour under the misapprehension that this is an annoying cliché best got rid of. How its done can certainly be annoying and clichéd, but all they are actually getting rid of is a good reason to read on, tension, stakes, curiosity about how things will pan out. When our heroine makes a tit of herself in front of Hot Young Potential Love Interest (HYPLI?) it doesn’t matter, he’s hers. Whey they run into that sexy alien, no worries, he’s hers. When he comes across like he’s thoroughly p’d off with her, she knows he’s still hers. If I am completely honest I couldn’t really figure out what he was doing there.

Blindly attempting to subvert formula, being different for the sake of it, often leads to contrived conflicts, going against established rules of character and world. Even those who identify (and it aint rocket science, sadly I’d be terrible at that) the importance of creating emotional draws, don’t seem to recognise how to do this, mostly they put the emphasis on the story and not on the reader and how the two interact. It leads to an over-reliance on blunt tools, such as raising the bad guy body count to that of an exponentially self replicating virus, trite montages, poor little unloved hero flashbacks, long monologues where our HYPLI tells our modest heroine of how amazing she doesn’t know she is and the inclusion of otherwise pointless characters such as dying children and siblings with random ailments (most of which cause big eyes and sickly sweet advice). The reason they feel the need to raise the stakes til the universe is ending, is because no matter how high they ratchet it up, they just don’t care. This is linear thinking. A sad thing causes sadness, an exciting thing causes excitement. Fiction is not that simple, especially in the written form. Car chases make me yawn, body counts are literally just numbers. You need to think beyond the obvious. The most exciting moment in The Chamber of Secrets was when a boy wrote his name: Tom Marvolo Riddle..

 There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT – Men In Black

A linear plot is marked by static signposts. Moving parts make it infinitely harder to see the full picture and predict the outcome. In short they keep your reader on their toes, excited, engaged. All your main elements should be interacting and acting on one another, changing one another, shifting the goalposts. Or signposts.

To return to our quest. We follow a clue, we turn up in our new exotic land, adventure ensues, odds overcome, clue found and we’re on to the next land. This fails to do the above, because no matter how interesting a diversion it was, it didn’t really matter much. Nothing that happened there apart from the clue was of consequence, and even finding the clue doesn’t deviate from our course, like the sun following the moon, it’s as expected. Even if this is where we meet our mildly distracting Princess who becomes either saving grace or King of all Evil, it doesn’t change the linear flow. She simply reappears at the end. But what if mildly distracting Princess ends up coming along with our crew? That’s really going to throw a spanner in the budding romance with Prickly But Beautiful. And should she turn out to be the King of All Evil, after becoming a member of the crew, friend, trusted ally?

That’s a particularly bold example. You can’t pick up a new crewmate in every harbour, that becomes a formula in itself. But the way that one change can create other changes throughout your story, is where the interest really lies. Men in Black use a similar format, tracking down clues which leads them ultimately to a face off – or skin off – with the Big Bad. In one early interview we have a squeeze-the-slightly-dodgy-informant-set -up, a standard of the genre, however the way in which they play with this format makes it a genius piece of subversion and non-linear revelation.

Not merely because of the way it plays with our expectations in all the ways that we want it to, but never would have predicted, but because of the way they subtly alter how Jay interprets his new world and develop the relationship between him and the stoic Kay. The noisy cricket, the tiny little Kinder egg gun, from the man who calls him ‘sport’ and ‘kid’ at every opportunity, but turns out to be so powerful it blows him out the window. Kay’s seemingly cold blooded act of murder, forcing Jay to turn his noisy cricket on him, right at the moment the man he’s just shot grows another head. He is increasingly being wrong footed and it is forcing him to put his trust in a man who explains nothing, and is as unpredictable as the new world. Of course Jay isn’t quite the trusting type, yet.

To return to an analogy I used in the first part of this, think of it like throwing a pebble in a pond. Too many writers think it causes only one ripple moving in one direction. In reality the ripples are everywhere, moving forward, back, sideways. And when they bump into those static elements, those signposts stuck in the water, more ripples form.

Consequence is your friend if you are remotely interested in depth and nuance. Not a shocker that I like this. I like the little touches, the details. It’s hard to even think of an example because the real little touches, they fade into the background, but it’s this background that allows everything else, the important things, to stand out. A good way to get a handle on ripples is to understand the currents that drive them. Some might refer to these as themes. They aren’t always obvious til the end, but good writing is re-writing. In Men in Black a recurring theme is seen in the way the obvious is subverted, from Jay ignoring the monsters and shooting the little girl in the training test to the galaxy on the cats collar. The theme is things are not always what you think; small can be powerful, ugly can be beautiful. Using a theme this way, a link between your ripples, creates a sort of alternate storyline beneath the surface adding depth and making that line a little less linear.

No, I’m not finished yet. One more instalment, then I might have a handle on this. Here’s a pressie in the meantime. I still love this!! You have no soul if your foot doesn’t start tapping immediately.

 

 

Linear storytelling: Graduating Class

Disclaimer: Terminology in writing is – well, its indicative of how unorganised and confusing the field can be – but its difficult to find agreement, and being writers you tend to find yourself arguing semantics and rather missing the point. I acknowledge up front that I am stretching the definition of linear storytelling here. If I knew a better way of defining it I would use it, but like show and tell, at the moment we’re stuck with this one.

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For most, linear storytelling defines a basic structure and is generally meant in a temporal sense: A problem arises on Tuesday, shit gets serious on Wednesday, a ray of hope on Thursday and a happy ever after just in time for the weekend. It’s probably the most common structure in fiction, across all mediums, and even if you have a few flashbacks, dreamy memory sequences, dotted through, by and large it will still be regarded as linear. Austen is linear, Dan Brown, Jk Rowling.

Others would ignore the temporal aspect and say its the causality, specifically that it follows a clear cut line of action, that matters. Simply it’s a story that goes from a to b to c… One development leading directly to the next, so that even in a time travel story such as Back to the Future, the line between action and consequence is so clearly marked that it is still linear. Time is essentially functioning as a location. However, a story such as Kate Mosse’s, Labyrinth, where two storylines from two different time periods are explored simultaneously, is generally not considered an example of linear storytelling under this definition.

I’m going to stretch the definition a little further. I’m going to say time travel, multi-pov, flashbacks, flash-forwards, frame narratives, all the so-called alternatives can suffer from linear storytelling. The key is in the ‘storytelling’ part; it’s the execution that is going to make the vital difference.

And yeah, I said suffer.

There’s never been a time as a reader that I haven’t been a writer as well, but back when my terminology was nil and I had only gut instincts I was often left with a sense of dissatisfaction. A promise the blurb made that the writer had been unable to deliver on. Usually I put it down to the characters, I had/have a lot of problems with characters, but that was only the visible part I could easily grasp. Recently I reread a childhood favourite – one I remember liking the characters in – and found a whole other problem, one repeated in a adult fantasy book that is garnering lots of rave reviews.

Linear storytelling.

It is in essence the literary equivalent of doing a join the dots puzzle. I could see the whole picture before I began, I knew every step we were going to take and when complete it was exactly as expected and nothing like I’d hoped. Still barely a sketch.

The issue here is that most of us will construct linearly. Life is constructed linearly and, as said above, a shift in time, or pov, will not necessarily solve the issue. I recently read a Sue Grafton novel which divided the pov and was so bored with the alternative narrator I started skipping it, and it was a better book for it. Grafton follows the classic PI model of digging where the clues lead, surely as linear as they come, and yet never delivers a linear story.

And I would be a liar if I said screw the consequences! Consequences matter, causality matters especially when it comes to suspension of disbelief and getting your reader fully invested. If your PI gets shot, she needs to make a pit-stop at the hospital not take on six henchmen after tying a hankie over the wound. If anything I would plead that most storytellers pay more attention to consequences not less.

What about throwing random curveballs in a la Gothika? Also not the answer. Simply saying Gothika probably told you that. In fact pretty much everything you automatically think of as breaking the line of action can be problematic, while those things that might seem to exacerbate the issue might actually be where your answer lies.

I likened the effect as being like a join the dots puzzle where you can see every step that’s coming. And now I’m going to suggest that the answer, the cure for what I consider the great ill of the mediocre, might lie in foreshadowing. Not the answer, like I would ever suggest anything is that simple, but a technique that if mastered could definitely help.

Many interpret foreshadowing as the classic.. ‘If only she had known what was about to happen..’

On Wednesday Morning it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent’s house for what was to be the last time.  –   The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

The interesting thing about Adam’s foreshadowing is that he immediately goes into the explanation that a bypass is planned right where this house sits. Of course once you read on you realise the real threat is a little bit bigger and a lot more interesting. Thus even this most rudimentary form of foreshadowing creates a loop within the line, information in the future is effecting how we read what came before, making us draw backwards, pull forwards and rewrite our understanding.

Breaking the linear curse relies on understanding that it is essentially an effect, as are most of the more complex ideas in writing, and its all about understanding how your words are working on the reader. The lines that matter are the ones drawn in the mind, the connections they make, what they expect, see and hope for. Expectation, whether anticipation or dread, is vital to good storytelling.

The above form of foreshadowing is pretty blunt and best suits an omniscient narrator. There are far more subtle ways to seed the present with expectations of the future. Something as simple as changing this line – The moon was shining – to  – The moon was shining that night – will create a greater sense of something noteworthy about to happen.  However, I don’t want to put the focus on the prose. There are potentially countless ways to seed through your narrative, the things that make the difference – really make the difference – lie more in the content than the style.

Take for example a theft from a high security building.

As the thieves carry out their heist, a small red light starts to blink in the corner.

An alarm?

But what if an alarm is not heard?

What if we don’t see guards sitting in a room with another flashing red light?

What if we don’t see them storming down the corridor, guns drawn?

What if our thieves don’t suddenly have to complete their task in seconds?

What if they don’t realise anything has changed?

What if that light just quietly blinks? And no one knows why, not even our readers.

The above (that I am suggesting you avoid) are all standard actions you’re likely to see in a heist movie. Our heroes would still get away, after a battle against an army of heavily armed guards. Causally it follows, one action leading to another. It follows standard rules of fiction – nothing can be easy, throw as many obstacles as you can think of at your heroes. It breaks the line of action with a pov shift (to the guards). What it fails to do is create a non-linear form, a realistic outcome, or any anticipation in your reader. The pov shift steals any mystery clearly showing exactly what is happening, the consequences force our heroes to do in seconds what they had previously thought – just for fun? – they’d do in hours and the obstacle, the problem, is solved by the end of the scene.

A classic feature of linear storytelling is raising an issue and solving it before moving on to the next. Once we’ve moved the pen through dot 3 we can forget about it and move on to dot 4. This actually stems from a lack of consequence, because it doesn’t allow for the truism that even a small pebble in a big pond will cause ripples long after and far away from where it landed.  One of the most effective ways to break the linear curse is to create a sort of sub plot out of your obstacle, an underlying festering threat that never quite goes away, or at least not immediately. To carry the ripples with us as we move through the dots.

The reader wants to know what the light was. It bugs them, it draws them back. They’re reading with an eye to figuring it out, to draw allusions, connections within the innocuous.

An example of this, sometimes used well, sometimes not, is Superman and his secret identity. While it became painfully clichéd, in every episode/film/recreation, we’re still wondering how Clark will explain his absence this time, how he’ll be both helpless captor and heroic rescuer, creating an extra layer of obstacle to what might otherwise be painfully easy for the invincible Superman.

The Hunger Games I always felt missed out on a great opportunity when Kat volunteered to save her sister. It was a simple solution and allowed us to quickly move on to the next obstacle. If however she’d not been able to volunteer – why give the tributes any choice, make them think they have some measure of control after all?  – and had to pretend to be her sister, it creates a extra dimension to her already unfortunate situation. Does Peeta know? Will he out her? The dynamic between them becomes even more complicated, she has to trust him, manipulate him or get rid of him. Or all three. And that’s before the games even begin.

Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it… the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters …

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.  -Alfred Hitchcock

Furthering this point I would suggest you don’t mistake mystery for surprise.  The key is expectation. Surprise after all is ‘what you didn’t expect’. When deciding what to reveal or withold, the important point is whether you are creating an emotional investment in what is unfolding. Hitchcock would have it that ‘whenever possible you need to keep the audience informed’  I would slightly modify to say that ‘whenever possible’ means that you need to understand when it is beneficial. Too much and your story is already told. Too little and there is no story.

Another form of foreshadowing is what I term back-shadowing. JK Rowling famously made this her own with the Harry Potter books. It’s where seemingly straight-forward things happen that are then cast in an entirely new light by later developments. Hagrid winning a dragon’s egg in The Philospopher’s Stone creates the immediate problem of what to do with a dragon and how not to get fired over it. Later on we realise it was part of a larger scheme to draw information from him. In this instance its a form of misdirection, one issue is dealt with while the real problem goes unnoticed and is allowed to become a much bigger issue for our heroes to face.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this would be the one ring to rule them all. Found in one book, a trinket, a saving grace, and nothing more, it becomes the fate of the world in another. Despite the recent filmic attempts to suggest otherwise, there was not initially any suggestion the ring was more than a magic trick. Tolkien himself later suggested revisions that allowed a hint of the true power the ring had, at least in terms of how attached Gollum had become to it.

In the second edition edits, to reflect the new concept of the ring and its corrupting abilities, Tolkien made Gollum more aggressive towards Bilbo and distraught at losing the ring. The encounter ends with Gollum’s curse, “Thief! Thief, Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” This presages Gollum’s portrayal in The Lord of the Rings. – Wikipedia

It is still considering everything – burning worlds, bound to the will of pure evil etc – a relatively inauspicious introduction, yet those reading out of order will find a chill running down their spine, a sense of ‘when does it happen?’ in their minds at the start of each chapter. Even those who read in order, if they know anything of what will come, will read with a certain guiding curiosity.

This got away from me a little. It is one of my greatest bug bears in writing, a hidden trap that even seemingly competent and assured writers are too often unable to avoid. Both books that inspired this are well received, one award winning, yet I struggled to maintain interest in either. They both had different flaws at their hearts, different styles, different techniques, yet the effect was the same, linear and dull. A flattening of a story that should have throbbed with intrigue and life.

I’ve only begun to touch upon how it might be remedied. So I guess if you are interested, stay tuned for part two.

 

Why do you write…really?

Ask most writers why they write – and its a question that gets asked a surprising amount by writers themselves – and you’ll likely get an answer that either draws an awww or a respectful nod. Most of us claim we write for the joy of it, despite also claiming that it is a torturous process we struggle to force ourselves to engage in. The anonymous, oft quoted phrase, ‘I hate writing. I love having written’, is a writers favourite, seeming to many of us to simply be a truism of the craft and needing no attribution except ‘that’s the way it is.’ We – and that’s definitely including me – claim to be driven by the story within, the need to recreate it perfectly on the page and the frustration of our own inadequacies.

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Another commonly cited reason is to effect change. To put out something of value that the writer believes the world must hear. I try and avoid books like those and yet…. I don’t want to be responsible for the world and I haven’t come up with any answers other than, be nice. I think people should think for themselves. But I also frequently shake my head in horror when they do. From democracy to the realisation the lunatics are running the asylum, there’s no part of that I want my writing to be held accountable for, but I can’t in fairness deny that I am commenting on this messed up, pissed up, pissed off world with every word I write. I don’t know how not to. Frequently I wish I could master it, because I really don’t want – should I get my dues and become rich and famous – to be rich or famous. Not when I know this messed up, pissed up, pissed off world is going to want to have a little chat with me about my views on it.

And hypocritically, I want more honesty from writers. More credibility in their attempts to address relevant issues or better put, I am assuming a lack of credibility in their attempts. I want them to step up and answer to my beliefs, take a look through my eyes. Perhaps because I am too cowardly to do it myself? I’ll still quibble that I am not offering answers but simply a new vantage point. Yet given the nature of my stories I have to own that its a possibility I might be writing to say something.

*shudder*

I’ve always felt a certain ambiguity with publication. I’m not comfortable with it, with being in the public sphere, however obscure I might remain within it, and yet I still write, I still dream of this career. I can’t let go of the need to say something and to have that something heard.

Why do we write?

George Orwell, a man I listen to ever since he said, It was a bright cold day in April and all the clocks were striking thirteen, believed there were four main reasons. And they aren’t going to make you think ‘awwww’.

The first, egoism. Pure and simple. You write to say to the world, look at me, listen to me. I am worth it.

The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

Interestingly I think its worth remembering that he wrote this essay back in 1946. The second world war had just ended, a time when millions of men and women had given their lives in the defence of their country, their home, but also for strangers, for a belief in duty and the responsibility of every man and woman to fight for the greater good. I can’t help but wonder if he would find the entire world of 2016 acutely selfish? Me-time is a thing, we’re raised to follow our passions and a life well lived is a life of self-fulfilment.

On the other hand every time I read a meme on facebook or twitter I wonder who it serves. My liberal friends preach to their liberal friends about their liberal values – are they genuinely under the impression it might effect some change or merely looking to cement their sense of self righteousness?

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The second reason, a little purer. Aesthetic enthusiasm. I do love how he phrases that.

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

I love this, especially that last line. It’s a truly lovely way to put it and yes, to contradict myself, did draw an ‘aww’, but only half of one as I was already half way through the next line..

The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers..

He does go on to say that he believes beauty or the appreciation of it at least, is present in even the most workmanlike prose. I’ve read his opinions on his peers’ prose, so that’s really, honestly, little comfort.

Third, he calls Historical Impulse.

Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity

This is a little nebulous and I can’t help think owes much to the first, a desire to store oneself up for posterity, certainly our own perception of true facts.

Finally fourth, seeming to my mind to be another subset of the first, Political Purpose.

Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after

Every dictator in the world was likely motivated by reasons three and four. And just in case you do have any last remaining notions of nobility, he sums up..

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.  For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

So, why do you write? Willing to be a ‘windowpane’ and look upon yourself with the same searing honesty?

What Jason Bourne Can Teach Us About Agendas and Suspension of Disbelief

Let me start by saying, if you watched this and liked it, or you plan on watching it sometime soon, don’t read on. There will be spoilers and there will be honesty. Brutal honesty. This film was a mess. A glossed up pile of poo, the budget was spent on a paintjob when it should have gone to the script. What I am about to discuss doesn’t even begin to cover the problems it had.

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The plot is not only painfully simple, it’s a rehash, a watered down summary of the last three: Dead girl he feels responsible for, evil government program trying to clean up after him, as he hunts a secret from his past with an asset on his tail.

However, Bourne was never really about the complexity of its plot, nor did it preach any particular message, it was about the depth of its characterisation, the humanity and intimacy it displayed in a genre that epitomised mindless spectacle, and the skilful way this was delivered. It became a turning point in modern film making, a masterclass in physical storytelling; and it managed to take a genre that was all about the unbelievable, and make it believable, without actually removing any of the established tropes. The car chase wasn’t ridiculous. It ran up and down stairs and somehow, evidenced by small touches, the concentration on the almost mundane, the way he checks the systems, the brakes, before he begins, made us fully invest in the possibility of what we were seeing.

It forced a complete rethink of Bond and countless other tired franchises. World War Z tried to copy it with a fresh credible take on the zombie genre. Unfortunately it focused on all the wrong parts, copying the grey tinted cinematography and the pared down dialogue, missing the point that when someone needed – needed by dint of who wouldn’t?– to scream in Bourne, they screamed. They threw up, fell down, they knew in essence who they were and what they were feeling, they weren’t just working to someone else’s agenda of what they should be.

There were no heroes in Bourne, there were only characters. Marie was foolish, naive and frequently showed that she didn’t fully grasp just how bad this was. Vikander’s character was a cypher in a suit. Perhaps in some recognition of just how ludicrously young she appeared in the role, she played it so seriously she was a virtual non-entity: a po-faced non character without charm, warmth or humanity. We saw Joan Allen, in a similar role, slowly shatter under the pressure, like a brittle figurine.

The tragedy is that there was a ready made character with an amazing potential arc in Julia Stiles. Nicky Parsons in the Bourne Identity was exactly the character Vikander should have been in this. And the way she developed from eager, frightened young analyst to whistle blower working on the outside made the screenwriters job easy. She was poised to finally step into the centre of the story and instead they reduced her to a trope, killing her off in a repeat of Marie’s tragic death in what I can only guess was meant to give our reluctant hero the motivation to see this through. Even though throughout the rest of the film his motivation was repeatedly referenced as his need to understand the truth of his past. The number of threads on IMDb detailing the disappointment of the fans over how Nicky’s character is treated, actually restores my faith in the viewing public.

I don’t know if its as simple as Hollywood being ageist, as many have surmised, not consciously at least. Julia’s been off the radar for a while now, while Alicia is the current It girl. And there is nothing Hollywood  – and certain directors  – love more than the hot, young muse. She and Jennifer Lawrence are both consistently miscast in roles that should have gone to women with at least a decade on them.

26 year olds don’t move and shake the ranks of the CIA. They climb, they conspire, but they don’t lead. In the American education system you’re likely to be near this age when you first apply, not running a major division. By the end of the film we are expected to believe she’s just secured herself the Assistant Directors job. Fiction needs some plausibility in its foundations if we are to justify the leaps we are about to take. If you make one obvious poor decision it can have the effect of turning a lens on all the other flaws, that might have slipped beneath the radar otherwise.

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I’ll confess to being a cyberdunce but even I was rolling my eyes at the cartoonish programming. They even conveniently distinguished in primary colours between the asset and Bourne’s phone trackers as if the photoshop guys had come in after with the highlighters. They probably had. Everything was simple, glib, answers had in under a minute – unless we needed to stretch the tension.

Bourne was stupid. I mean flat out stupid, although he did seem to acquire some new technical skills, impressive for a man who spent the last few years bare knuckle boxing in the dusty nowhere. The guy who had sized up a room and its occupants, exits, cameras and weapons before he ordered his coffee was now happily striding about with no worries about being recognised, using old passports and never thinking anyone might possibly be listening in.

Maybe it was nervousness on the part of the producers. They felt the need to ensure success. And producers it seems always reduce that to the lowest common denominator. The silly end stunt scene, the last twist, the unnecessary body count, the idiocy of staging a meet in the middle of a riot, all point to people making bad decisions, the kind of decisions that would count for miscasting the latest pretty young thing. Or – perhaps worse – actually imagining this will play to the feminist culture of the day.

This was a film that seemed painfully crammed with contemporary references in a desperate attempt to seem culturally relevant. Why else other than a nod to the current political – faux political – climate of the day, would you arrange a meet in the middle of a riot? Firebombs make pretty effects but the likelihood of being accidentally taken out by a panicking mob somehow undercut this.

And why did the CIA follow them in? Why not simply monitor the perimeter and move in when the targets reveal themselves? And there’s the plausibility issue in the number of active agents who are clearly onsite (even the CIA can’t defy the laws of physics and fly several thousand miles in less time than it takes Bourne to put his shirt on and wander down the road.) Not to mention their spec-saver-tastic ability to follow an average sized brown haired man through the rioting darkness. Although the real clincher was the moment a vanguard of Greek policeman decided the one guy fighting in the train was more important than holding the line against the dozens throwing firebombs and started to chase him as well.

There are frequent references to Snowden, which makes their decision to keep all their covert files internet accessible especially questionable; a privacy sub-plot which seemed shoehorned in; even a ‘con’, not the the bait and switch kind – although this whole film could be termed as that – no the modern kind, Exo-con, where we can justify flying to Vegas and blowing a lot of shit up under sparkly lights.

The logic holes are so gaping it seems nonsensical to imagine that one small casting change could remedy that. I personally would’ve voted for a script change and put Nicky Parsons front and centre. But like tipping over the first domino, the simple act of casting an actress more of an age with Bourne himself, or removing the intended romantic friction (there wasn’t any anyway) and casting an eager male hungry to prove himself and take the top job, creating a dynamic more akin to what we saw in Michael Mann’s Heat, would have subtly but significantly altered the way we watched.

Political correctness would hold that being young and pretty shouldn’t be a detriment to getting ahead. That you can cast attractive men and women alongside each other and somehow not bring romance into it. That we can in fact simply rewrite the way society works to how it we think it should work.

Should is a dangerous word if you want to introduce any sense of realism, even just basic credibility. When Vikander’s character randomly begins helping Bourne, we don’t think double cross, it might tickle the back of our mind, but the first loud thought – romance. We suspect (wisely, I suspect) they want to manoeuvre the two together. If it had been Joan Allen’s character, while some might have questioned whether her reaction, her willingness to see him not simply as a target might be ‘too feminine’ we’d still believe her motives, not revealed to us, were to manipulate the situation. In short, that she had some sort of plan.

Vikander’s casting was a constant and undermining distraction, inviting us not to assume more depth than was actually present in the onscreen twists, but telling us to see the film as it truly was, an empty, pretty spectacle.

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The First Cut is…

..the shittest. 😀

I realised I hadn’t written anything for my Common Writing Advice series in a while so it seemed  – providential? Foruitous? summat of that nature  –  that I have been churning this phrase around in my head for a while…

shit

Now I don’t spend the time I used to on writing sites, but whenever I chance to pass one there is always someone quoting this. And it’s not necessarily on a thread titled ‘Why is my first draft so shit?’ It can manage to crop up anytime, anywhere..

Adverbs – well you know, the first draft of anything is utterly shit and totally full of adverbs…

Love triangles …. I wouldn’t worry, the first draft of anything is shit and you can always turn the other guy into her pet tortoise later.

And it’s FUCKING BRILLIANT ADVICE.

Yes, I was yelling, I apologise. It’s still fucking brilliant advice though.

Essentially said by every writer ever, it boils down to, just write.

It almost feels like its not writing advice at all, more a matter of reaching in to the ether and pulling truth out. Because..

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You gotta crack the marble, sully the page – and it does often feel like that, like we’re staining something pure with something less than.. something a bit shit. Whatever confidence I have – there’s gotta be some somewhere, as my mammy says, if I really didn’t believe in myself would I still be trying? – so whatever it is that keeps me trying, it’s not what I haven’t written, it’s buried amongst what I squeezed out… okay I’m a bit squeamish about the shit metaphors so I’m dropping them now..

The writer must write and they must stop expecting perfection every time. If you aren’t sorely disappointed then you’re probably frighteningly delusional. Though I’ve heard that works in Hollywood 😀

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However…

This might be the one piece of advice that I can’t question, would probably need my head examined if I did, and yet knowing the wisdom in doing something and actually doing it are two very different concerns. Worse – for me – is when you do manage to do something and it doesn’t remotely end up the way you expected. The good advice about writing shit, just leaves you with a lot of shit (okay last excrement word play.. promise)

For many writers however much sense it makes, actually powering through is a very difficult task. Unfortunately I know no neat little tricks to get round it. If you fall of the wagon one day, get up the next and try again. And the next. And the next. This isn’t just a matter of the first draft. Writing, like exercise, is a battle of will.

For me it can be a peculiar form of torture, alleviated by all too brief Eureka moments, a sudden realisation, twist, revelation (entirely textual not spiritual, though it feels almost as if it were). On the odd occasion I have attempted to explain this no one gets why I would do it, how I can still love it. But I do. Passion can be painful. But if its there, you’ll find a way to endure. And if its not, you’ll probably still be working on chapter three a decade on. That’s okay. It’s a personal battle and the true measure of the results is yours alone to judge.

I’ve mastered for the most part the powering through. It’s a fight every day, so that answer can change every day, but the books are balancing in my favour. My first novels were masterclasses in ‘don’t stop, just write’ and testament to how hard that is. So much so I had to cut 70,000 from the first one. The problem is that’s pretty much where my editing days ended.

I don’t edit.

I read through and tweak. Sometimes. But shit needs a lot more than mere tweaking.

I could argue my first drafts have improved with time. It could be that I still struggle with reading my own work. I’ve heard some actors feel this way. I don’t know much about the practical realities of acting, but I know a writer needs to read their own stuff. And in a sense I do. I read as I write. Sometimes the flow carries me to the end of a chapter, but often I stop every few lines, to read and tweak (if necessary) and think where the direction is taking me and where I might prefer to direct it. And if I don’t like what I read, or the direction its going in, that’s where the ‘don’t stop, just write’ mantra gets particularly painful.

I have one sequel I’m 40,000 words into, and was really quite enjoying it, til I wrote a scene and now, I’ve tried but I just can’t seem to pick it up again. All I can think about is that one wrong scene.

I have another which earned me a kind rejection from an editor,  who advised I get an agent, rework the issue she’d flagged and re-sub. I haven’t looked at it since.

I have a start on a kids book that I totally bungled the voice on. I could probably write it in about two months, it’d be exactly the kind of thing I would have loved aged ten, but I think the only way I’ll return to it is if I start completely from scratch.

The list goes on. Having mastered powering through step one, I now feel like I have to master powering through step two. I often feel that the only good edit looks like this

paper

I’m sure I’m wrong.

It’s fucking brilliant advice. It is…

But… if you are having some issues with putting it into practice and making it work for you, this might help.

1… Don’t stop thinking.

Its easy to get caught up in the word counts, deadlines. To put your head down terrified that if you pause those fingers for longer than it takes to find the capslock key, you’ll end up frozen. If you allow yourself to think, maybe all you’ll think about is how bad it is. Thinking is the untalked about part of writing, which is a shame because thinking is the most important bit. You have to discipline your mind as much as you have to discipline your fingers, it’s as easy to get caught up in a cycle of ‘oh my god I suck’ as it is to get caught up in Candy Crush Saga. But you can’t stop thinking, questioning the path you’ve chosen for your character, the dialogue you’ve written, decisions made and you have to learn the difference between something being wrong and something just needing  a bit of finessing.

2…Don’t stop listening to your gut

If something feels wrong, it’s wrong –  nine times out of ten –  but you need to learn the difference between fearing its wrong and knowing its wrong. Every word I write leaves me unsure, but some few leave me a little more unsure than usual. They tend to stick. This is why I find it useful to go back the next day and read over what I wrote. Most often they still feel wrong. In the majority of cases it’s a story issue – a matter of driving the scene in the wrong direction, putting the wrong tone or emphasis on it, rather than feeling there were better words I could have used. Dusting off the prose is the easier side of editing. This leads me directly to…

3… Don’t ever be afraid to rewrite

There seems at times to be a blurring of the concepts of editing and rewriting. We use them interchangeably, yet when looked at closer, often you’ll find the average writer has a real fear of rewriting, especially rewriting that involves scrapping anything.

I’m a scrapper. Sometimes for the wrong reasons but..

If you continue to write – to power through rather than listen to your gut – you could end up spending a lot of wasted time going in the wrong direction. One small mistake can knock everything out. Go back to where things were last good and start again. If you think you can tweak it into shape, by all means try, but don’t be afraid to scrap. I’ve heard a lot of advice – all writers in fact that I know give this advice – that nothing should ever be thrown away. That’s not something I would necessarily agree with, although I won’t insist upon it either way, but I would say, a writer should never be precious about their prose, any more than a painter should be precious about his paint. He doesn’t save his dirty palette wrapped in clingfilm to preserve the mix for his next painting. He trusts that his eye will guide him to know what is needed when it is needed. The words aren’t going to run out and neither is your ability to put them together. Each story will require its own peculiar configurations, recycling and pasting in never feels organic or stable to me. Perhaps my issue with editing in a nutshell.

It might be another way of saying kill your darlings, but there is something incredibly liberating about scrapping. You just have to know when you’re being insecure and when you’re being brave.

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