I’ve been writing stuff for a long, long time. I’ve been reading stuff even longer. And while I don’t diagram sentences or discuss symbolism all that much, I do observe and I do learn from every story I write, read, watch or hear.
While I by no means know everything, I can’t help but notice that there are some things missing from a lot of discussion by my fellow writers that seem to be present in a lot of the works I and others greatly enjoy. It’s another one of those things that I bring up to you, the reader because I feel like once you know about these things, it will help you enjoy things more and also help you find things to enjoy more easily.
And yet, they aren’t talked about that much, even in places where writers get in knockdown, drag-out, sabotage-people’s-books-on-Amazon fights over crap like the oxford comma and ‘show don’t tell’. They’re just not a ‘thing’ for them.
Maybe it’s because a lot of writers have kind of a chip on their shoulders about the special uniqueness of books (This is why a digital episode of a show is $1.99 but the 10,000 word Episode 1 of a 12 part short serial is often $3) and a lot of these concepts were born in television, stage and movies. There’s kind of a one-sided rivalry there that once got me yelled at for talking about structuring a miniseries like the acts of a TV show.
Speaking of TV, a lot of these were brought to my attention by listening to John Rogers, writer of the good issues of Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes), and co-creator of Leverage on the DVD commentaries of the same. If I were to suggest one resource on learning some of the nitty-gritty of writing entertaining stories that engage the reader, I would say forget all the books on the subject and listen to those commentaries.
It was there that I learned about…
The Promise of the Premise
Except in very rare circumstances, you usually don’t go into any entertainment experience blind. These days, you have access to tons of vectors for reviews and discussion for pretty much any piece of entertainment. And even without those, the marketing engines behind them will make sure you see trailers, posters, blurbs, taglines and anything else that might convince you to see, listen to or read their product. If you’ve ever had to live like a hermit in a vain attempt to avoid spoilers, you know this to be true.
Heck, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t see something that made you want to come to my site. (Speaking of which: how did you guys find me? I suffered in obscurity for years and most of you are relatively new, so it couldn’t have been Ledgermain Comics)
While there are other things that draw people to a work; favorite creators, manipulative trailers, etc, the biggest sell is the bare-bones idea; the premise.
You all know this: Batman is about a superhero who uses gadgets and detective skills instead of powers; Die Hard is about a cop trapped in an office building full of terrorists kicking their asses; the Blues Brothers is about two ex-con musicians getting into hijinks. It doesn’t always have to be about the specific plot; more about the concept that holds the plot up.
That distinction is the important bit here. The premise is the thing we all paid money to see. If we bought a romance, we want to see people falling in love. If we bought action, we want to see action. If that doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen with enough focus… that’s where we have a problem.
The act of properly delivering the thing you advertised and telegraphed in your story is fulfilling the promise of the premise. And it is mandatory for entertainment. If you’re going for art and your audience is looking specifically for the craft of what you’re doing, sure, go ahead and screw around as much as you want; for the rest of us… the natives will get restless if you don’t give the people what they want.
I see other writers talking about this almost every week and they are shocked—shocked that readers are upset when they throw in shocking swerves that take their book away from the core premise they paid for. Or, they continue to ask ‘will readers be upset if…’, then go on to describe audience alienating premises like revealing that the protagonist is really just a decoy protagonist literal pages before the end. And oh boy; I help people do the blurbs for their books and you would not believe how many people want to straight up lie about what the books is, like play up the love story when the pairing will never get together.
Yes, the readers will be upset. They will be upset and they will remember that they can’t trust you to deliver on the promise of your premise. And next time you put up a blurb for a book, they will assume that it’s a complete lie.
Basic rule of thumb here: if you care about entertaining people, you should try to tell people up front what to expect the thrust of the thing to be and then stick to it. That isn’t to say there can’t be twists, just that the twists need to still appeal to the same people who came to see what you presented the story as. You can’t lure people in with the promise of say, sexy times, then nail them with hard-hitting economics debates.
There’s a saying among writers that goes ‘write what you write, then find your audience’. I feel like an addendum should be ‘don’t narrow the field of people in your audience unnecessarily’, because sweet bejean, these folks keep using that saying as an excuse for screwing around with the promise of the premise.
Next up is something I’m sure not a lot of normal people consider:
If you’re anything like me, when you heard that, you imagined an awesome steam-powered robot built to tell stories. That, unfortunately, is not what we’re talking about here.
No, a storytelling engine is a term from serial fiction (stories with multiple stories strung together in the same setting, usually with the same characters). It refers to the mechanism by which the series keeps justifying having more stories.
See, as a general rule, most people’s lives aren’t wall-to-wall adventure or drama or comedy day after day or even once a month. While some series can get away with having random crap happen to people just fine (notably, Die Hard), but it usually threatens the audience’s suspension of disbelief when interesting things just happen to these same people.
Hence, some stories are built around a premise that self-generates more stories.
A classic example would be The X-files, where the storytelling engine is right there in the title. The titular ‘X-Files- are the strange cases Mulder and Scully would investigate almost every week until the Myth Arc devoured everything about the series. From the outset, the audience is told that these two are FBI agents assigned to look into paranormal and unexplained cases outside of the normal purview of the Bureau and from that moment forward, the writer is free to create situations and villains based around those two criteria without having to explain why Mulder and Scully are involved.
Sometimes the characters themselves have goals and situations that act as part of the engine. You know how I love to talk about animation, so here’s one I haven’t discussed yet: Phineas and Ferb. In case you haven’t seen the show, the premise is that the titular characters want to make the most of their summer vacation(s) and so resolve to do something interesting and exciting every day.
Also, there are great musical numbers.
Because they’ve already established the ‘why’ of every episode thusly, the writers don’t need to use a lot of ‘pipe’ (see the next entry) to get to the meat of what’s happening.
Why do I feel that not a lot of creators are unaware of it? Well these days, if you want to do well at all writing books, you need to do a series. People have been raised on serial works at this point and things without a Part 2 are a harder sell to people who are fully prepared to sink years into TV shows, then binged them in a single sitting on DVD or Netflix.
Not everyone is all that prepared to stretch their one idea to encompass a series and frankly, it shows. You get series where the entire world is in peril in every single book because the writer had that idea in the first book and… well it’s hard to escalate from Armageddon. Or, they have a romance tale where the couple is more or less together at the end of Book 1, so they have to break them up or separate them right quick for Book 2 to be a thing. These people generally manage to construct a plan, but the story wasn’t built to support it.
More importantly though, writers should get acquainted with this concept because it makes life so much damn easier. I would go as far as to say that a storytelling engine is more important than an outline for serial works. Even when you’re working independent like me, you’re never sure how long you’ll be going (by the way, this might just be the oldest continually updating Superhero webserial online!). With an outline, you’ll run out of steam. With a good engine, you can go for years. Hey, imagine if Lost had one—or even a basic clue of where it was going past Season 3 (or 1, which is where I bailed).
It’s not perfect of course; Heroes had TWO engines (Mohinder’s study of the powers, the prophetic painting) and had no idea what to do with them.
Anyway, let’s talk about…
The most common and also the most completely useless piece of advice any writer gets punched directly into their face every single goddamn day is ‘show, don’t tell’. On the surface, it looks pretty benign, even useful. It refers to the idea that instead of telling the audience things like a character’s emotions, motivations, and thoughts, you show those things in their actions and what they say.
Here’s the thing though. That is all fine and good when the actions and speech are unambiguous, are intended to be ambiguous, or if it isn’t important whether the audience is on the same page as you are not. It’s not hard to make someone act crazy in such a way that your audience goes ‘why yes, that character is pure farm-raised, corn-fed crazy, boy howdy’. It is not so easy to convey the precise details that a character knows and how they interpret them.
And in certain types of stories, that is damn important information to put out there with zero ambiguity or obfuscation. In times like these, it is necessary—nay—essential to communicate these things clearly by any means necessary.
In TV writing, ‘laying pipe’ (yes, I know the other meaning. Stop giggling.) is a term for dialog that normal people would almost never say out loud because they internalize such things and say them in their heads, not out loud, or communicate non-verbally in a way that’s not very filmable. Whenever someone says ‘let me get this straight’ and lays out the plot so far, says their entire backstory out loud, or puts together a lot of clues out loud, that’s laying pipe. In a nutshell, it’s called that because you’re laying down the base structure through which the rest of the narrative will flow.
Authors (often) are blessed with a narrative voice that can throw things out there without forcing the characters to state it out loud or in that awful thought-speak a lot of first person works slide into. However, they’re cursed with the specter of ‘show, don’t tell and they just plain don’t take advantage of it.
Why should you as a member of the audience care? Because in this age of the internet you can contact most authors in their comments or email and tell them it’s okay, that they don’t need to listen to that book some dude wrote about how to make money writing books and they can actually do whatever they need to in order to tell the best story.
Are you familiar with the following scenario:
The main character in a first person story, with little to no explanation, finds a reflective surface so they can describe themselves to you and then never looks into another mirror ever again, even incidentally.
That, my friend, is a writer suffering under the choke-chain of a world without pipe and with horrid writing rules.
Speaking of things that don’t happen enough in novels even though it should be easier…
I’ve talked a bit about ‘business’, but in case you’re wondering if I’m going to start talking about sales charts, I’ll explain.
‘Business’ is a film term for an actor making use of a prop beyond just holding it. For example, while talking in their office, they’ll pick up an item from their desk and fidget around with it, or if there’s food around, they’ll actually eat it.
As an aside, eating food is a problematic thing in filming. Most scenes are shot over and over, not only to get the best take, but to shoot the scene from multiple angles. Because of this, you run into the problem of the amount of food on a plate in a shot from Take 2 not matching the preceding shot that was actually from Take 6. If you’re going to eat in a shot, you better plan to eat the same amount over and over again at the same pace for EVERY TAKE in order to preserve continuity. Or you can eat Chinese food because it comes in a box, which hides the amount eaten.
It’s just those complications that make ‘finding business’ as it’s called when an actor does this on their own accord and scripted business a double-edged sword.
For all those problems though, a little bit of well-placed business can add an amazing amount to a performance and to a scene by conveying just a little bit more emotion and real human actions that ring true with the audience.
When you’re writing, there’s no such thing as coverage and continuity means something else entirely for the most part. So it is both baffling and galling that so many authors fail to add business to their scenes, especially static ones, such as discussions while sitting in an office or standing in a store.
What you’ll often get is what I call ‘body diagnostics’; people talking about the biological effects their changing emotions, or constant babble about eyes (but I’ve ranted about eye-stuff too often here). What these writers assume this stuff does can be preformed and done with more variety if it was replaced by some business with objects in the scene—plus the prose would be at least a little less purple.
Next week, hopefully, finally, my friend will be guest blogging. Hope you enjoy that.
By the time I’m done writing this, We Could Be Heroes (Descendants Basic Collection, #1) will be available in paperback.
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
You can check in on what Vaal’s working on or just what’s on his mind by following @ParadoxOmni on Twitter, checking out his new (incomplete) Facebook Page or using the hashtags #TheDescendants or #RuneBreaker. Sign up to learn about new book releases by Vaal by clicking here.
Vaal now has many of his books available in multiple platforms in his bookstore.
You should patent “Visionary Vaal’s Steam-powered Storytelling Engine” as soon as possible, just in case. Never know when you may want to go steampunk, after all. Personally, I’m picturing it a some sort of hand-cranked thing, though I have no idea why. Mostly I can picture the sign advertising it.
The points on writing are all worth making, I think, though the one about “Business” is probably the one that hit me closest to home. I think part of it is that writers, trying to scribe what they imagine, can find it difficult to remember to describe the little stuff because they are focused on the main points of the scene; I know I’ve had that problem, at least. I might be dialed into the characters emotions, so I’m busy trying to convey their facial expressions or whatever, and I forget to write down anything about the bottle of water they’re drinking, or the backpack they put down, or the way they’re absently checking their email. It’s relevant, but imagination is four-dimensional, and rendering that into text is always a major hurdle. A lot can get lost in the translation, which is essentially what I think writing is.
I do sympathize somewhat with the creative people who want to write things with interesting twists, when it comes to the Promise of the Premise, as you put it, and avoiding false advertising. It’s a challenge to write major twists (whether plot, setting, or tonal) well, and warning the reader that it’s coming can really detract from the impact that has and lessen the reading experience. It’s a tough issue to handle. I’m not talking about things like “so-and-so is murdered,” so much, unless the story has avoided death to that point, in which case it can be a huge deal.
So tempted to make that sign. I even have the correct fonts…
I think I probably have less problems remembering business because I write ‘wrong’. That is, what’s going down on the page is exactly what I would be watching if it were a show. I don’t really craft sentences or anything so much as convey information when I’m in a scene. I only get fancy with narration. The one time I tried my hand at craft was the LI issue that had the narrator’s voice veer into dripping disdain for Betty and Annette.
But dude, you write? Got anything online?
Yes, actually. I’ve been trying to talk myself into writing more and sharing it more, and eventually I worked up the courage to go ahead and start posting, largely thanks to reading this website, as well as wildbow’s Worm and Jim Z’s Legion of Nothing. I just created my site and made my first post, literally days ago (the 30th.). haven’t even posted the link anywhere else before today, so your site gets that dubious honor, I suppose.
If you have the time and inclination, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Frankly, a large part of the reason I finally took the plunge is because I’m in a bit of superhero withdrawal. While I know there’s more good superhero fiction out there, none of it is quite what I find myself wanting…so in the end I decided I’d just have to suck it up and write it myself. The only stuff I’ve ever put out there on the internet before was fan fic, and not the kind that I’m proud enough to share, sadly. That was a while ago, though, and I think I’ve improved since then. Now to figure out how much…
Sweet, I’ll check it out tonight. Just ignore that I’m doing that instead of writing 77.3
Oh the promise of the premise. I get annoyed all the time when the back cover copy is just wrong. It’s usually not so bad as faking out the genre, but the storyline itself.
FYI, I found you through The Pen & Cape Society, specifically Drew Hayes’ stuff. And TVTropes.
I’ve been burned by lying blurbs so often. >_< If you found me through PCS, you're really, really new. Welcome!
When it comes to false advertising, one of the worst offenders I can remember was a Morgan Freeman/Jack Nicholson movie from 2007: The Bucket List. The trailer I saw basically depicted it as a comedy, or at least a partial comedy. Spoilers: it wasn’t. I was actually really pissed off, because it ruined my experience of the movie; I watched it with family on a day when we wanted to see something funny and get cheered up, and it was an awful choice despite the fact that it was a decent movie that we might have appreciated if we hadn’t gone in with false expectations. What angered me the most wasn’t that I was “tricked” into watching it, but the fact that the misrepresentation got in the way of appreciating the movie for what it was. Now I can’t watch it again without remembering the first time, which occurred on a bad day.
You go into any fiction with certain expectations. There have been a couple times when I read something on a recommendation that was intentionally vague, and that’s fine. Lack of information I can handle; someone recommended A Game of Thrones to me, for example, but only said that it was fantasy and it was different from what I was accustomed to reading. They were totally correct, and I trusted them enough to take the chance, which paid off, in that case. But if they’d lied to me about what the series was to get me to read it, I would have been annoyed even if I ended up liking it.
Ugh, the eyes! I remember that one author who made paragraph-long descriptions of the personality of some characters just from the look of their eyes! “These are the eyes of a warrior, hard and blah blah blah…”
And I have honestly no idea how I found you, it’s been years. But I try and pimp your stuff when the subject comes up in the comments section of some other serial.
(Woah, like, literally YEARS. Looking at the Back Issues, I think I can remember being there when some Volume 2 stuff was originally put on the web. Excuse me for a moment while this strikes me off-balance.)
Wow, that means you were around when I was hand coding the site. My thanks for staying with me through those awful times, old friend.
I hate blurbs. Not for being outright lies, though they sometimes of course are and that sucks (the first Finnish edition of Andromeda Strain had a blurb that claimed it was about an alien invasion), but simply because for some reason I haven’t fully managed to understand yet every blurb ever, even ones for stuff I’ve already read/seen and liked, always make the product seem bad and uninteresting.
I have no recollection how I found your site. It was years ago, must have seen a link somewhere and I have a standing policy to give a chance to any superhero fic that’s available for free and has enough installments out already to look like the writer is going to stick with it.
I can tell you exactly why that is! Blurbs are not usually written by the creator, they’re written by marketing guys trying to shove in as many ‘money’ words as possible and sell the book as being like whatever’s popular at the moment, even if doing so without outright lying means sounding as bland as hell.
And among self-pub authors… well most of them are trying to be marketing guys when they blurb. I’ve been writing other people’s blurb for a bit of side cash and I try not to do that, but sometimes you get ‘can you make my book sound like X?’ where ‘X’ is something their book isn’t.
I started reading in either June, late July, or August of 2011. I think June, because I have memories of going to camp and thinking there would be four new issues waiting for me when I got back (Do you have any idea what you were publishing back than? It must have been either mid to late volume 3 or early to mid volume 4.)
I found you through FanFiction. I read your story ‘What Grows in Deception’ and I clicked on the ‘my website’ link thingy on your profile. That brought me here, and I’ve been here ever since. (I also pulled my dad into it. And a random sales clerk at the Crocs store. And I’m currently in the midst of some of my friends. And my mom, she needs something that’s always cheering to read.)
Actually, since it appears that everything was posted in April 2011 for some reason, I probably started reading earlier; June is just probably the first time I reviewed. I read that fic from early on, if I recall correctly.
Thanks for hanging in there and spreading the word 🙂 I also owe you a Street Team email. *so disorganized*
As for the dates on the site, August 2011 is when the new site came online. before that it was a hand-coded site where I had to update everything manually. June of 2011 was probably the end of Volume 4. I remember having to make a banner for 5 specifically for this site, so it was likly the end of 4–Everyday Heroes/Inexorable.