Stuff They Get Away with on TV

I’m not a typical TV viewer. We don’t (choose to) have cable here or even an antenna; we only get Netflix. Coming at things as a writer, I’m maybe thinking about the stories in a different way than the general audience. And I’m really bothered by the total illogic of some plots.

I’ll use the show Alias as an example because it’s what I’ve been complaining to my wife about most recently. I’ve officially given up on this show; it’s just too stupid. I can’t understand how enough people like it for it to have run multiple seasons. Yet I understand it’s quite popular.

The premise is that there’s a criminal organization that recruits and trains “agents” to who believe they’re working for an ultra-secret part of the CIA. The whole idea is ridiculous, since any competent spy would certainly notice something fishy in short order, and their enemies could destroy their organization with a single email. But it’s no more ridiculous than most conspiracy theories that lots of people do believe, so okay, I can go with it. The protagonist, Sydney, has cottoned to this, but her partner is still ignorant. Sydney hasn’t told him she’s now a double agent working for the real CIA.

Of course, there are the usual silly notions common to programs of this type, such as: makers of electronic locks evidently design in a “you’re getting warmer” feature so that you can have a device that deduces the combination one digit at a time – each digit taking the same amount of time, even when there are only ten combinations left to try instead of 10 gazillion. And a smallish woman can take out numerous large armed thugs with her bare hands and never break any bones in her hands or have any bruises to explain to her friends.

That sort of thing is all in fun. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of realism. I notice it, roll my eyes, my wife and I laugh. We could have a drinking game, except neither of us wants to drink that much.

Where it stops being fun for me, is where the characters do stupid, stupid stuff, transparently to serve the needs of the plot or just as an excuse for more kick-boxing.

Here’s where I called it quits with this series: say your HQ has been invaded and everyone taken captive except for you. Unknown to the invaders, the vault they’re breaking into is booby-trapped to cause a huge explosion, killing everybody present. Do you (a) race against time to secretly disable all three bombs before they figure out the combination (one digit at a time), or (b) have your dad tell them about the bombs, reveal the location of one so they can see for themselves, and let them try to find and disable the others, removing the time pressure and freeing you to pick off more minions? I’m sure you can guess which option the scriptwriters chose. To quote Dr. Strangelove, the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret.

Then, say you manage to free your co-workers, kill the guards and steal their weapons. The head bad guy is seconds from opening the vault and blowing you all to smithereens. Do you (a) take the guns and a couple of your fellow agents who are trained in the use of deadly force, and go shoot him? Or (b) leave your co-workers to tidy up the office while you run to fight him with your martial arts skills? Hint: option (b) not only gets you more kick-boxing, but allows the bad guy to more plausibly escape so your friends in the CIA can stop him and take what he was after.

You can get away with this sort of thing more in movies and (especially) TV, because the viewers don’t have as much time to stop and think about it as they do when it’s in written form. But surely there’s some limit, some point at which the public will collectively say, “Really? Really?” Yet, somehow, there are enough viewers to support dozens of shows of this type.

I don’t know. Maybe I should just try to turn off my brain and enjoy the kick-boxing in tight clothes.

NOTE: It would be refreshing to see a spy show that played with the conventions of the genre. For instance, the spy might stop at Best Buy to gear up instead of getting custom-made wizardry from the back-room genius (hey, product placement!). But that’s another post.

Ways Human Minds Systematically (and predictably) Misperceive Things

The article cited below is very interesting if you have an interest in how the human brain makes some of the decisions it does, and does so in incorrect ways that can be predicted. It was written from the perspective of how security systems ought to be designed but has a much boader appeal and a very good bibliography if you’re interested in human perceptions.

See: http://www.computer.org/portal/web/computingnow/content?g=53319&type=article&urlTitle=security-and-cognitive-bias:-exploring-the-role-of-the-mind&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRokuKvPZKXonjHpfsX56%2BwkWaC3lMI%2F0ER3fOvrPUfGjI4ITcZ0dvycMRAVFZl5nQ9XF%2FCAaIVS

One of the references in the article is to the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work challenging the rational model of judgment and decision making. He has many scholarly works, this particular book is intended for a general audience. The figure leading off this post is from Kahneman.
http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374275637/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355970136&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=thinng+fast+and+slow” title=”Amazon Link”

Checklist for Chapters and Scenes

I write in layers, like a painter working in oil. First comes the idea, then a very simple sketch. When I think I’ve got the makings of a story, I write an outline in broad strokes with no detail, no life. Then comes the scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter outline. I chart the chapters to show the rise and fall of tension, ensure that the pressure keeps mounting, place exposition appropriately, etc. Meanwhile I’m writing scenes or bits of scenes on the computer – random thoughts as they occur to me, fodder for the actual writing. When the outline is complete, I put the scenes or chapters in order on the computer, one page for each, with a header and a VERY brief summary. Then I go back to my “doodles” and extract those ideas worth using and plant them in the appropriate pages. Then I can begin the actual writing of the first draft.

The first draft is  stream of consciousness; fast, loose, disjointed, and full of ugly crap. I don’t worry about redundancies, characterization, dialogue, or anything else. No one is going to read this draft but me. In a sense, it is just a more detailed outline.

When I’ve completed the first draft, I print it so I can cross things out, draw arrows, make notes, write bits of dialogue on the back of the page, etc. The story has now been told.

Next I use what I consider to be a pretty exhaustive checklist to make sure that every scene works individually, and functions within the whole. I add detail, color, light, and shade.

When this is done, all that’s left is the character-by-character read through (to check for character arc, voice and story consistancy, etc.) Then it’s ready for my trusted readers to take their whacks at it.

So, here’s my list. Have I left something out? Are some of the questions out of order? Do I have unneccessary/redundant questions?

I’d love to hear your opinion.

Jess

 

My Checklist:

1  What is the plot goal of this scene?
2  Could the book/story be told without this chapter/scene? (If so, why is it here?)
3  Does this scene advance the plot with important new information?
4  What info (bit/etc.) ties this scene to other scenes or other key story elements?
5  What is the mood of this scene?
6  What is the visceral goal of this scene? (suspense, curiosity, sympathy, repulsion, etc.)
7  Does this scene tell its own story?
8  Does this scene have its own arc?
9  How does this scene generate interest?
10  Does this scene generate excitement? If so, how?
11  Why should the reader care about this scene?
12  What will make the reader turn pages in this scene?
13  Does this scene turn, twist, or otherwise alter the reader’s perceived plot trajectory?
14  Does the main character say anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
15  Does the main character do anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
16  Do other characters do anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
17  How does the POV character feel (excited, ill, tired, alert, etc.)?
18  How do other characters feel?
19  Look up, down, left, right, forward, behind – are the surroundings realistically described?
20  What does the POV character hear in the background?
21  What does the POV character smell?
22  What does the POV character taste?
23  What tactile sensations does the POV character feel?
24  Do other characters see, hear, smell, feel, taste anything different? If so, what?
25  What key detail is brought out through the senses?
26  What does the POV character learn in this scene?
27  How is the story theme addressed in this scene?
28  Is there enough dialogue? Can more dialogue be inserted?
29  Is anything “told” that could be “shown?”
30  Is any sentence passive that could be active?
31  Is any action/circumstance passive that could be more active?
32  What is the scene’s question that drives the reader to the next chapter?

How to Plot a Story: Back to Front

Back to Front Plotting

Jess Harris, one of our other members wrote up some notes on this plotting technique.  Following is a portion of his notes (used with his permission) and after that I’ve added some of my own perspectives. 

 UNDERLYING PRINCIPLE: The action plot is driven by the character development plot, and the character plot is driven by the character arc (growth/changes in the character – not her circumstances.) In other words, the character’s changes are defined by who she is at the end vs. who she is at the beginning.

 Start with the captivating idea that is the kernel of the story and develop the theme.

*What do you want to say with this story?

Now you must understand your protagonist.

*Who is she?

*What drives her?

*What are her strengths and weaknesses?

*How can she be excited, bored, impressed, etc. (Just a rough sketch, for now, but the basic nature of the protagonist character affects all that comes after.)

Visualize and describe the character ending.

*What is her personal discovery?

*What is her nature (most, least desired, etc.) at the end?

*How have her interests, concerns, etc. changed?

 Next, visualize and describe the character beginning:

How different can you make the character at the beginning from the character at the end without being absurd, or at least unrealistic? (Even in fantasy, the character’s development must be realistic.)

 (Jess has more, and I’ll push those comments in another post.)  Here come my editorial comments:

I don’t know if I can start a story with consciously thinking about what I want to say.  Unconsciously, it is there, but I’m not likely to have thought it through consciously.  Most likely, I have one or two critical scenes, maybe including an ending, which are the hints of a story.  Those hints tell me the nature of the story and its characters, and that takes me to the ending of the story.  The ending of the story is the ultimate definition of your protagonist’s character.  I don’t really know their character without knowing the choice they are going to make at the end.

Therefore I do agree with Jess that it is absolutely, positively, vital that you know the ending of your story before you start writing.  I know I’ve just lost a lot of people with that statement.  For those of you who are still with me, let me give a rationale:

Most people when asked to do any task will do it in stages.  Say you want to write a setting for a scary moment in a horror story.  The first settings that come to mind are almost certainly cliché, pulled from our unconscious pile of scary places (cemeteries, dark abandoned buildings, woods at night, undersea cave…).  Problem is, all of those are probably TERRIBLE and UNORIGINAL ideas.  You need to think about this for a while to come up with a really good one.  How about cheerful daycare center and a child’s bloody finger found on a sink?  (Yeah, that isn’t great either, but it’s not quite so cliché.)

A novel-length story is composed of many scenes.  Each one of them requires a great deal of thought to make them interesting and effective.  And, here’s the rub—those scenes need to link together in a coherent whole, culminating at a satisfying ending.  They don’t have to just be good, they have to connect, build off of each other, feed off of each other. 

So, if you agree that it is really hard to come up with a single excitingly innovative scene, when you hit that happy spot and put in a chapter break or a scene break, how likely are you to carefully mull over the many alternative options for the next scene?  Or are you most likely to go with what feels about right, and keep typing?

And, if you don’t know what the ending is, how likely is it that any given scene or any collection of scenes actually does an outstanding job of sending the reader on the roller coaster ride that ends in a perfect ending?  If you know the ending, you can think about what does it take to get to this place?  You can contrive to confront your characters with the escalating challenges that are necessary to culminate in a final, ultimate test.  And you are making those scene decisions before writing the scenes.  All you need is a couple sentences that describe what has to happen.  After due consideration, if the order isn’t right, or a scene is too much of a trope, or it doesn’t have the necessary impact—you fix it by crossing out a few lines and substituting the much better idea.

Most important—I think that we all are striving to do our very best.  We want to provide the most satisfying experience for the reader that we can.  I don’t think we can consistently come up with house-on-fire scene ideas, one after another, writing serially.  And I really doubt that most of us can string those powerful scenes together into a successful whole without knowing where we are going.  Without starting at the end, the story certainly can get written.  It will have satisfying moments.  But will it be the best story we are capable of writing?  Unlikely.

On the other hand, following this last shall be first scheme does not guarantee goodness.  There are abundant opportunities to go seriously wrong.  But for us mere mortals, it gives us a fighting chance.

Humans who really fly, and why time seems to stand still when you’re scared s***less.

This specatacular video, courtesy of www.sciencefriday.com, shows what Luke Hively sees as he executes a BASE jump, skimming along a rock cliff-face and through a misty waterfall.  Hively, veteran of thousands of skydives and over 150 BASE jumps, discusses what he sees and experiences.  Neuroscientist Chess Stetson talks about why we feel that time slows down when we are under stress and offers an explanation for the effect (and why time isn’t really slowing down).

If one of your characters pulls on, forgive me, a flying squirrel suit like Luke is wearing and makes good their escape from the Bad Guys, you’d best have set up that skill long before you needed it.  It’s like whipping out that magic wand at the precise moment you need it–quite unbelievable when it hasn’t been seen before.  But if your readers can see it coming, you could have lots of fun planning the route, anticipating the rush, maybe guiding your neophyte partner…

Story Structure Made Easy. Well, almost easy.

You’re thinking about the story you’re writing, or the one you’re about to write.  And you want to make sure you keep the reader’s interest.  Do you have something good happen to your protagonist, and then something better happens, and then something really really good…?  No.  Boring.

How about something bad happens, and then something worse happens, and then something truly and utterly bad happens…?   No.  After a while the reader thinks bad is normal for your protagonist, or the readers themselves become beaten down by the constant string of tribulations.

You can see this coming.  Your protagonist needs to have a succession of experiences, some work out well, some not so well.  That way the bad doesn’t become a new normal, and the persistent good doesn’t become boring.  But you can’t merely alternate good things and bad things—where’s the motivation to read to the end in that.  It’s still more of the same; there isn’t any progression.

People have been telling stories, and telling them well, for a long time.  They must have this figured out, right?  Of course.  Like all other things having to do with artistic expression, there isn’t a single right way to do it.  There is, however, a tried and true way to do it.  Does your story use it?  No—you must have consciously chosen an alternate form because you knew it fit the story better, right?  Sure.  When pigs fly.

This is, I hope, the first in a series of little pieces on story structure.  Writing them gives me a chance to solidify some of the concepts in my own mind and hopefully put some ideas out there that others may find helpful.

So here’s the answer:

  • Start with an inciting incident—something happens that utterly disrupts the protagonist’s life (could be something good).  They are motivated and capable of doing something to put there life back in balance.
  • A series of scenes follow that provide a slow escalation of good and bad outcomes from conflicts the protagonist leads the story through.  That collection is building towards a major event where life goes from good to bad (or vice versa).  That collection is your first act.
  • Another series of scenes follows, again with escalating conflicts and consequences, ending with the reverse of what ended Act I.  That is your Act II.  If you’re writing a novella, you’re probably done now. 
  • Three acts is a minimum for a long work.  Each act is a reversal of fortune.  In each act your protagonist has to work harder, extend themselves further, to achieve what they want.
  • The Climax.  This is the obstacle, the choice that has been constructed to clearly be the ultimate challenge for this protagonist in this place.  This is make or break time.  This is not “If this is Thursday, this must be Paris.”

And the really neat thing, is you need to construct your story from the ending, working backwards to the beginning.  That is the way to ensure that everything that precedes the ending is there to serve a purpose—the ending.

If you like visuals, this graphic (from Jess Harris, one of our other members) is a nice way to think about how your overall story might look if you were to keep track of the overall state of “success” that the protagonist is having in reaching their goals:

 

Looking inside of an act, or a chapter, you would see a more finely grained structure:

 

 

Another, overall story view is the Story Spine, as described in an article written by Chris Huntley, one of the developers of Dramatica, and can be downloaded from: http://www.dramatica.com/downloads/Dramatica%20paradigms-0707.pdf.  It is a well written article and well worth reading.  (It compares seven different story paradigms.)

Takeaway:  designing from the ending backwards, you create an escalating series of events with major reversals of fortune creating turning points (Acts), and each act composed of individual scenes containing their own escalating conflicts, all starting from an inciting incident that launches your protagonist off on their voyage.

Sounds easy.  Sigh.  Maybe not quite so easy.

A new story by Tyler

My story, “Night Shift of the Living Dead,” is available for general reading in Stupefying Stories October 2012 issue. I haven’t read the other stories yet, but I feel confident that editor Bruce Bethke has done his usual excellent job of choosing compelling and entertaining stories and whipping them into shape (if needed).

Now available for Amazon Kindle and Kindle Reader apps.

Nook users can buy from Barnes and Noble.

Cheap!

P.S. There is a cow in the story.

Coping with the future

Anyone writing stories set in the future has to worry, at least a little bit, of their vision of things yet to come becoming ho-hum.

How about this for a 2012 robot:

Or this 2010 pack-robot test:

 

These things are so capable (although not very “smart”), it is a challenge to properly account for them, even 20 years into the future.