And so we come again to a segment I suspect I’ll be visiting quite a bit in the future, the ‘Dear Aspiring Writers’ post series where I talk about the habits of relative newbies (and vets who don’t know better) and the writing psychology behind them.
Dear Aspiring Writers… (Part 2)
As I said in the last installment, I’m by no means a professional, a veteran, or a master at the craft and I’m not going to pretend to be. I have my own ongoing sins and we’ll probably look at those too in posts to come. What I am is a guy who consumes a lot of media; from novels to fanfiction to television; and who has spent a lot of time breaking those things down and thinking about what works, not from a critical or technical point of view, but from the point of view of what makes a product enjoyable and why certain decisions are made on the creators’ end of things. And that’s the place where this segment comes from.
Also, don’t think that this segment is always going to be negative. There are some things that amateurs do often that I tend to think the pros should take more notice of. Er… not this one though. Net one, I promise.
With all that put in place, let’s dive into some more things aspiring writers need to stop doing, like:
Someone in the comments will tell me the real word for it, I’m sure (#SoLazy), but what I’m going for is ‘fear of names’, which is a bit of a misnomer. This is the practice why which a writer goes out of their way to avoid saying a character’s name or use pronouns, favoring instead descriptive phrases like ‘the blonde’ or ‘the wizard’, etc far, far more than the former.
If you’ve read The Descendants, you might notice that I was no stranger to this, especially back in the day when Warrick was all too often reduced to ‘the Italian’ and Cyn was ‘the white-haired girl’. And even now, when I’m aware how annoying that is, I still do it at times with Ru being ‘the dark mage’, or Anansi being ‘The Spider’.
That’s because when used sparingly, it’s still a good technique. It’s just the new writers don’t use it sparingly.
Why? Well it goes back to last article and why people use ‘orbs’ for eyes and insist on using every shade of blue to describe said ‘orbs’: They get bored using the same word over and over again and figure the audience will too. So they change it up with descriptive phrases instead of names or pronouns like him, her or they. (I beg you—BEG. YOU.–to use ‘they’ as you non-gendered pronoun. All the ones invented for the job, however well-meaning, sound like garbage to people outside of the communities that formulate them. They works. They was meant for this. Please use it.).
What these writers don’t understand is that most readers don’t read the entire sentence in the first place. Certain words like ‘said’ or ‘the’ or the pronouns basically go unread. They trigger a stock response in the brain, the information they provide is duly noted, and the brain moves on. Sometimes, people will skip whole paragraphs without realizing it because the brain is always skipping ahead and deciding ahead of time if its worth reading. Speed readers do their do by using this to their advantage and only using the pre-reading the brain does.
So the reader’s brain is all set to grab those ‘saids’ and ‘shes’ and other common words and use them to speed up like a boost in a video games. And then you (or me) decides to chuck a spike strip on the track with a multi-word phrase that it has to stop and parse before moving on.
And just like that, the pace is broken and o the reader’s conscious mind, all they understand is that something annoying just happened. Then it keeps happening, usually with the same phrase (which, by the way defeated the purpose of breaking up the boring repetition in the first place).
If you’re going to break people’s pace like that, especially if it’s a repeated phrase, it had better be damn descriptive and well deployed. Because we audiences only have patience for repeating the same thing over and over if it’s really just that damn awesome.
Show of hands: who didn’t see this joke coming?
Speaking of things you’ve seen a million times before…
Mad Lib Day Open
In case you’ve never heard of Mad Libs, here’s a link to a big o’ book of them. They’re a party game where, people are asked for a group of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc and those words are then plugged into the appropriate bits of a pre-written story, hopefully resulting in something hilarious.
Outside of that context, ‘mad lib’ has come to mean any situation where you just plug some words into predefined slots. For example, almost every Harry Potter parody, pretender and successor uses the ‘X and the Y of Z’ format and the process by which they fill these out could be called mad libbing.
Wow, look at all those words I used to explain the title. Most people would have just picked a different damn title.
Anyway, this one is the tendency of novice writers to start their stories telling you just how unremarkable the day in which their story takes place is. This usually takes the form of ‘It was an X day in [Location]’, or ‘It started out as an X day’, though sometimes you get the clever bloke who thinks riffing on the ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ cliché is their ticket to Originalsburg.
These can be as simple or as complex as you’d like, but most of them still boil down to simply conveying the information that there is a day happening her.
Let me tell you this: these openers are the most useless damn things a person can read. So useless that I can’t not be mean on this point. No, seriously. It is not an interesting tidbit, worthy of the opening lines of a story to tell me that this story exists in a world with a day/night cycle and is not currently trapped in temporal stasis. I can’t speak for everyone, but I tend to just assume that time exists and is measured in every story I read without any prompting whatsoever.
But it’s everywhere. Every. Where. Go to Fanfiction.net or FictionPress and just take a random sampling of the opening there. Then go to you local library and just open some fiction books. My rough estimate is that 30% of all stories start by trying to make you aware that a generic day has indeed downed.
If you the writers reading this take anything away from this blog post, I hope it’s this: if you want to open a story, do not start it by telling the reader that a day is happening unless it is the most exciting goddamn day ever and something interesting and unusual is happening.
By all means, set the scene and tell us about weather and stuff, but convey this information in an engaging manner instead of just dumping it in and ‘It was a day’ mad lib.
And yes, I’ve done this too, and yes, the reason behind it is pretty dumb.
See, the problem is that everyone does it. From the lowliest pencil pusher, to the most mighty of bestsellers, you can find this particular artifact in every layer of the writing strata and it continues to exist because we have all read all those other people who also thought it was okay to do.
Plus, beginnings are hard. While not as hard as endings, beginnings are the main selling point of any story. You have to establish setting, characters, plot, tone and a dozen other things fast enough to hook a reader’s attention. And your average writer is trying to do all this with a hundred ‘its was a day’ openers crammed in their noggin.
My god. It’s full of banal turns of phrase.
It’s more like a virus that we in the writing community all pass to one another than a simple bad habit. Too bad there’s no vaccine. But if we could vaccinate against that, we’d need something to deal with the hideous Outbreak-like scenario surrounding…
There are a lot of heavy-hitting topics out there that aren’t particularly part of the standard fare for entertainment. Taken seriously and treated with respect, topics like rape, child abuse, drug use, etc can make for compelling and meaningful stories.
Drama Syndrome is what happens when a writer does the other thing and treats them like they’re gear in an RPG that adds points to their Drama! Score; firing and forgetting these sensitive topics without proper research, thought or any intention to actually deal with the realities of them as part of the plot.
A common manifestation of this is tacking a rape or child abuse to a character’s back-story In particularly terrible works, these events will be the sole basis for their characterization or motives. Fanfiction and comics (which, in the case of the mainstream companies actually is fanfiction) make use of this to ‘darken up’ previously happy and unbroken characters or give tough females a ‘reason’ to be tough, which is wrong on so many levels.
Another common variant is to use these things as a cheap way to show your audience that the villain is evil (Because the actual plot isn’t enough somehow). Feel like your bad guy isn’t clearly evil enough? Pull out the non-comedy version of kicking puppies and have him do it. (This isn’t to say I find kicking puppies funny. [Even thought it totally is])
In the very first book of the Sword of Truth series, Terry Goodkind didn’t think subjugation of the people and trying to murder like everyone ever was really quite evil enough, so he gave the guy a squad of magic dominatrixes (dominatrices? And is squad right? Maybe it’s like ‘crash of rhinos’. A ‘spanking of dominatrices’ sounds about right.) and then had the bad guy’s dragon (of as John Rogers on the Leverage commentaries calls it, ‘The Busey’ –Just making sure you realize we’re not talking a big scaly beastie here) actually molest young boys.
Because even the concept of subtly itself has a restraining order against Terry Goodkind, or pretty much anyone who’s read too much Ayn Rand for that matter.
The reasoning here is pretty much the same MO as any troll on the internet: to get a reaction. Writing for an audience is all about provoking emotional response: that’s how we hook you, the reader. We make you happy, sad, excited, amped, whatever and that’s what makes you come back because that’s the point of entertainment.
Some writers, however, have the troll mentality that any attention is good attention and go for the cheap shots by invoking things we viscerally know are horrible to give us a gut-punch. They might not even know that’s why they’re doing it, thinking that adding this stuff in, however randomly, makes them more artistic.
The problem? These are real things that happen to real people and if you’re just using them to push buttons, you’re a manipulative bastard and not the good kind. It’s just plain disrespectful to look at a character and go ‘well, I need to drama this back-story up. I’ll just prescribe 200CC is vitamin rape and we’re good to go’. It’s not just bad writing, but it’s being callous on top of it.
A bizarre tangent to this is fanfiction’s relationship with cutting. For whatever reason, fan fic writers not only tend to use cutting as their go-to issue for milking drama, but almost always deal with it in the kind of intelligent manner that you rarely see applied to any other issue of its kind. They delve into the psychology going on in the character’s heads, give their support network realistic reactions, and almost always have therapy and professional help involved along the way. You won’t see a psychiatrist show up for a character who was forced to kill their best friend in a one hour realistic TV drama, but fan-ficcers the world over know that’s what’s needed for people who cut.
I give them kudos for that, I really do. However it’s also nearly always added on to an existing story solely for the sake of creating a high-drama arc to an otherwise normal story. So they’re still doing it wrong. For all their thought and apparent research, they’re still using a serious problem for cheap drama. That’s some kind of accomplishment.
Also strange: fan-ficcers seem intent on assuming that any and all cheerful characters or characters who are good with kids were abused as children. How the hell does that even follow?!
But let us shift gears and talk about…
Lazy Fight Narration
We’ve all seen this, especially in genres were action tends to be rare like Romance or Slice of Life. A fight breaks out and the normally descriptive text breaks down into a very stilted version of a play-by-play commentary. Punch. Block. Kick. Go flying. (It’s always ‘go flying’. I don’t know why). It’s usually over quickly, doesn’t move around too much, and rarely has dialogue. If the writer is not so merciful, you might see the same attacks used over and over from people on both sides. Expect every strike to either do a lot of damage or be blocked. The only exception is when everything leaves a bruise (instantly!) or a thin scratch.
This is a serious problem because we all know that a fight should be fun an exciting. I even wrote an article about it. Fights need to be kinetic. They need to be varied and well thought out and it’s just not happening here. Why?
Well, there could be two reasons:
One, the writer really doesn’t want to write combat, but feels obligated. This happens a lot when a write is trying to mix a generally non-violent genre with one where gun play and punch-ups are expected. A spy romance is less romantic without an element of danger, after all.
The same thing can come into play when the writer is doing fan fiction for a series that typically has a lot of action and they mean to keep it original flavor even though they’re not actually interested in that aspect. Fics for superhero works are filled with this.
The second reason is that the writer actually is trying to write good action, but doesn’t fully grasp what the audience needs in order to visualize all the ass-kickery that’s going on in their head. When they say ‘Bill punched a dude’, they’re seeing Bill winding up with a hateful gleam in his eye, nostrils flaring just before he sends a crashing right hook into the jaws of that dude, making his jaw pop in the socket. They just thing you’re seeing the same thing.
For those of you who are in the second group, I’m prescribing ass-beat infusions in the form of some books with good fight narration with combatants of varying levels of skill: Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling, Soulless by Gail Carriger, and Lies of Locke Lamorra by Scott Lynch.
For those of you in the first group… please either start putting effort into it or stop putting yourself in situations where you’re writing what you don’t like. Find creative ways of avoiding it, for example.
Well that’s it for this week. If you’ve got questions or comments, don’t hesitate to direct them to me on the forum or in the comments.
One last item, I just put up a book trailer for Rune Breaker on YouTube. Check it out:
And finally, for more of the random stuff that occurs to me on a day-to-day basis, follow me on Twitter at @ParadoxOmni, and set your internet watches to next week, February 14 when I’ll be doing a tweet bit with the hashtag #FakeVDayAdvice.
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