4 Concepts Writers Should Be Aware Of (But Usually Aren’t)
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.
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