Own Your Influences

On this weeks blog I go full Miami Vice

On this weeks blog I go full Miami Vice

Own Your Influences

When I grew up social networking involved passing notes, pirating movies was done on VHS, and the only wearable technology was Nintendo’s Power Glove. Young Adult fiction was stuck in the choose-your-own-adventure era, cable dramas had yet to hit their stride, and streaming video was still in its infancy.

We didn’t have the options of today’s generation. Most of us watched network television. Those of us who grew up to write stories, shared a lot of the same influences.

We watched Twin Peaks and decided to start small towns of our own. We watched The X-Files and decided to start our own paranormal procedurals. We watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and decided to start our own click of monster hunters. We thought our stories were original, but so did a lot of people. Our influences were never as obscure as we thought they were.

As another generation of writers comes of age they put identical things on the page.

Ever notice how two remarkably similar stories always come out around the same time? One theory is that publishing houses, film producers, and network executives are copying off each other’s release schedules. It seems that way with movies.

“They’re putting out a volcano movie. We need a volcano movie too.”

“They’re putting out a comet movie. We need a comet movie too.”

“They’re putting out a friends with benefits romantic comedy. We need a friends with benefits romantic comedy too.”

Maybe YA publishers are just as cynical, contracting authors to copy each others stories, or maybe the similarities are the result of parallel thinking. It’s possible that two authors from the same generation, combined their influences, and came to the same conclusions. This can be a problem for an author trying to stand out from their peers.

What You Can Add to Your Influences

While some stories start as fan fiction only to evolve into their own thing, most start as fresh ideas and our influences creep in. It occurs to us halfway through telling our tale, we’re treading on someone else’s territory.

“Come to think of it my story is a lot like that episode of The Twilight Zone.”

“Wait, didn’t I see this on Star Trek?”

“Hold on a second. This is the exact same plot as the second Sex in the City movie. How do I keep ripping that off?”

This is okay. No idea is truly original. There are only so many goals for characters to have, only so many journeys a hero can take, and only so many plot lines The Simpsons haven’t used yet.

So, if your influences are bound to show up in your work, how do you make your work stand out? You make a conscious effort to realize what you’re borrowing, figure out how to wear that influence on your sleeve, and how to set your work apart.

Wear your influences by drawing attention to them

Wear your influences by drawing attention to them

Wear Your Influences

An awareness of your influences can be the difference between creating a ripoff or an homage. When an idea comes too easily, take a moment to examine it. You might find it was a sequence from something buried in your subconscious. Before you delete that passage, think about some ways you can alter it.

  • Can you subvert audience expectations by altering a serious setup to play for laughs instead?
  • Can you wink at the audience by having a character acknowledge how similar their situation is to your influence?
  • Can you upgrade this sequence by bringing it into modern times?

In Screenwriting class, we were taught the time period our story takes place is as essential as the setting. Even if that time is now. Many of the stories we grew up with existed before the internet. The information age has changed the way we communicate, the way we remember things, and the way we see ourselves. Our work should embrace that.

Horror writers, like myself, struggle to pry our characters’ cellphones out of their hands. It’s easier to call for help when the police can triangulate your location. That’s why most cabin in the woods stories start with a character complaining about poor reception. Horror writers are always coming up with new ways to write cellphones out of our stories, but maybe we should be writing them in. It’s not like 9-1-1 makes our characters invincible, especially if the local sheriff’s department has a slow response time.

The way we depict smartphone users needn’t be a thinly veiled commentary on spoiled millennials. Let’s get past our acronym anger, our hashtag hate, and our emoji envy. Let’s think about how this new technology can help give our stories their own identities.

Early thrillers built around the net used it to poor effect. The camera panned along wires, zoomed out from monitors, and focused on 3D operating systems that never existed. Recently, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series has shown the information age can be just as terrifying as the Victorian era. Modern audiences no longer need the net explained to them. Brooker has the freedom to take our constant connections to terrifying conclusions.

The information age is a rich frontier for horror. I’ve written stories about what would happen if a killer had access to your social media profile, if someone’s internet implants glitched on them, and if a pair of trolls Doxed each other to death. These stories had their roots in slashers, classic Science Fiction, and revenge thrillers. I made them my own by bringing them into the present.

Point out your influences so you can show how you're different

Point out your influences so you can show how you’re different

Set Yourself Apart

You can get away with stealing a setup, if you go somewhere else with it, but you can’t get away with stealing an entire premise.

If your goal is to write a monster story in the spirit of your influences, don’t just come up with a cool creature design and go through all the same old motions. Don’t waste a fresh freak on a hackneyed story. Send them somewhere far from the log cabins, make-out points, and the military outposts they usually frequent. Isn’t it about time a demon went to Disneyland?

I listen to a lot of geek-centric podcasts. I’m surprised by how many fan boys remember props more than plots. They praise surface features, failing to realize that characteristics are not characters. When they pitch what they want to see in the next comic book movie their ideas have nothing to do with the story. They want to see every superhero they’ve ever heard of in the same room, never mind the reason.

If you realize that the visual aesthetic isn’t the story, you’re a step ahead of them.

I grew up watching the Hellraiser movies. I loved Pinhead and his creepy cenobite companions. I see facsimiles of them everywhere: creatures with torn flesh, held open with hooks and leather. It isn’t enough to put a monster in S and M gear to get a cheap scare. What made Pinhead so disturbing wasn’t what he was wearing, it was his reason for being. Why was there a grid of nails hammered into his skin? Because he was an explorer “in the further regions of experience.”

Cool looking characters are a dime a dozen. Fancy duds aren’t what make them interesting. It’s their actions. If you give a classic archetype a fresh motivation, you can make your influences your own.

Maybe I just wanted to see what my name looked like in the Drive font.

Maybe I just wanted to see what my name looked like in the Drive font.

Find Influences in Other Places

We all take different things from our influences. The problem arises when audiences see uniformity in what we’re borrowing.

Find inspiration in other things. This doesn’t mean discover an obscure anime and mine it for material. It means start reading nonfiction. Look into history, true crime, and social psychology studies. Watch documentaries. Listen to the people around you. Research the human animal.

Everything is Connected

We're all connected to Kevin Bacon, but how?

We’re all connected to Kevin Bacon, but how?

Why is it important for writers to keep their story elements connected?

Short answer: it makes everything easier to remember.

Long answer: brains are wired to link memories together. Our minds string lamps across people, places, and events. These associations help us trace our steps back through vast chasms of information.

One of the best ways for writers to get good word of mouth is to make their story easy to pitch. This doesn’t mean dumbing down the developments. It means giving readers clear links to reference.

Readers should be able to trace plot threads all the way back to the beginning. If the hero detoured from his quest with no clear explanation, readers will have trouble filing away this information. If the theme was too ambiguous, readers will have a hard time expressing what it meant to them.

The stories that stay with us aren’t just powerful. They’re tailored to fit our memories.

If an audience has a hard time following a plot it’s because they lost a link in the chain. You’ll need to clue them in if they’re ever going to get that bookmark moving again. Here are some ways to remind them without being redundant.

Foreshadowing:

Horror movies have a habit of hiding their setups too deep. When twists happened they don’t feel earned. Flashbacks give the audience a clear look at items that were buried in the background. These movies feel like they’re cheating. Memorable twists should be made up of elements that become obvious in the aftermath. Things viewers may have considered before a red herring had them looking in the wrong direction.

Writers should take a cue from magicians and invite readers to watch for their slight of hand.

When you foreshadow an event that pays off early on, you train your audience to pay extra attention throughout the story. They’ll know you’ll do it again. They’ll realize every fable told within the story is forecasting future developments. They’ll see every object on the wall as a hint. They’ll sift through your dialogue for subtext, because they’ll know that nothing is extraneous.

Let your readers know you plan on using every part of the plot. Give them a series of small payoffs before the big twist.

2. Awkward Pose

Six degrees of separation:

There’s a reason Stephen King writes stories about small town like Salem’s Lot. It’s because everyone in town is connected. King wastes no time introducing his readers to the mayor, the sheriff, the town preacher, and the charming outsider (the point of view character he uses to introduce the cast).

If you’re writing a story with an ensemble cast, make sure there’s six degrees of separation (at most) between everyone.

It shouldn’t take long for the audience to remember who works with who, who’s related to who, and who’s sleeping with whom. Sometimes King’s casts get so bloated they’re hard to follow despite their connections. He said this happened when he was working on The Stand. What was his solution? He killed most of them.

MacGuffins:

MacGuffins are plot devices that all the characters are going after. In Raiders of the Lost Ark the MacGuffin is the ark of the covenant. The Nazis want it as a weapon, the allies want it contained, and Indiana Jones wants to put it in a museum. In Star Wars R2D2 is the MacGuffin. The empire pursues him. The rebels need the information he contains. That little droid is the driving force for everything that happens.

MacGuffins pull every character into their orbit. They go supernova in the last act. Whether it’s the Ark of the Covenant revealing the Nazis secret plans to build a death star, or R2D2 bursting open to melt the Emperor’s face off (I may have mixed a few of those details up).

Theme:

The theme is the spine that runs through the story. The characters, setting, and plot are its limbs. While the subject of the story might be the MacGuffin, the theme is what the story means. The theme can be an intangible concept like unrequited love, artistic delusions, or political correctness run rampant. What matters is that each character is connected to it.

In Love Actually the theme is romance developing from awkward circumstances. The theme of Traffic is the failing war on drugs, and the theme of Crash is racial tensions that often go unspoken.

It’s possible to tell a story where the subject matter and the theme are vastly different.

The subject of Aliens is in the title, but the theme is a little more subtle. Ripley learns her daughter died while she was in cryosleep. Heartbroken, she follows a group of marines to a colony ravaged by alien creatures. The marines find a little girl. This lone survivor becomes Ripley’s responsibility. The theme of motherhood is subtle until the supporting cast gets killed. Ripley becomes a hardened warrior to rescue her surrogate daughter. The final battle pits our hero against the alien queen. One mother fights another.

3. Bow Tie

Give Reminders without using “As You Know” Statements

Avoid “As you know” statements. Serialized TV Shows like Twin Peaks used these all the time. Characters chatted about previous episodes to clue viewers in on what was going on, even when they already knew all the information they were exchanging.

One character would say, “As you know, the Miss Twin Peaks contest is this weekend.”

The problem with ‘As you know’ statements is they give information to the audience, but make no sense within the context of the conversation. Why would one character tell another something they both already know? It breaks the suspension of disbelief.

The best way to justify these reminders is to add something new to the conversation.

Closing Thoughts

I like meaty complicated movies, but I don’t want to lose the plot because I stepped out to use the bathroom. I like thick paperbacks, but I don’t want to lose the story if I took a month off from it.

There are things writers can do to help audiences understand what’s going on, without dumbing things down. Foreshadow things that payoff early, give the audience more than one hint at the twist, and tie your dangling plot threads together.

Give characters names that don’t sound too similar. Make their personalities unique, give them distinct voices, and remind the audience how they’re connected.

Most people can store about seven pieces of information in their short term memory. Audiences lose those details as new ones arrive. If you’re piling on the plot devices its important to keep them connected. When the path from short term to long term memory is clear, the story is much easier to remember.

Use Your Embarrassment

1. Face PalmHow do writers get their readers to identify with their characters?

One method is to make the character as basic as possible. This way the reader can fill them with their own details. Have you ever played a role playing game where you get to select your character’s class, hair, and armor? This is taking the default option: the bland blonde fair skinned male human, the rice cake of warrior classes. This option keeps the character so empty, the audience has no choice but to fill him with their own back story.

I’ve never been a fan of these Joe Everymen. I prefer characters with a little dirt on them.

Another option to make a character identifiable is to give them a strong moral code. The problem with making your hero too wholesome is you run the risk of drawing out the audience’s cynicism. Your lead will come across as a salesperson smiling through an up-sell, designed to be relatable, but scripted to a fault. If your character is too big of a boy scout the audience will expect him to do something evil.

So what do you do when you want to write a fleshed out character that your audience can relate to? You make them sympathetic.

Jennine Lanouette, of screentakes.com, made a great video essay on how character vulnerability is more important than character likability. She explains how disadvantages make us root for characters. These disadvantages could be the circumstances the hero was born into, like Oliver Twist, the situation they find themselves in, like Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, or an inherent affliction, like Alice coping with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.

What if your story doesn’t star an underdog? What if your lead is a suave spy that always lands on his feet? In this case, you’ll need to engineer a moment where they’re brought down to earth. Think James Bond getting shot off the top of a train at the beginning of Skyfall, or every time Indiana Jones gets bumped in the noggin.

Lanouette says, “You can portray an unlikable character if, rather than straining to make them likable, you simply introduce them in a position of vulnerability.”

I propose there are ways to make unlikable characters relatable and sympathetic at the same time. Here’s how:

2. My Word

Mine Your Embarrassment for Gold

The opening sequence of A Life Less Ordinary is designed to make the lead sympathetic. Ewan McGregor’s character gets fired, finds out his girlfriend has been cheating, and gets evicted. This succession of losses makes the screenwriter’s intention obvious. Each plague upon the protagonist is almost too universal.

A hero’s humble beginnings don’t guarantee sympathy, especially when their afflictions seem inauthentic. If an audience feels their emotions are being exploited, they’ll turn on the story. This is where the writer’s own life experience should replace these stock shortcomings.

Every writer is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped embarrassment. We all have first hand experience with the subtle side of awkwardness. We’ve all had moments when we had to keep our humiliation hushed for fear we’d make it worse, where we had to save face when we already had egg on it.

Remember that time your card was declined on a first date, or when your date spent the evening looking at a zit on your forehead, or when you realized your date had used the pretense of romance to pitch you a pyramid scheme?

Make a note of all those moments your ego wants you to forget:

  • That time you smiled at someone across the bar and they repositioned themselves outside of your sightline.
  • That time your sneeze went unblessed in a crowded room.
  • That time someone pointed out how you misused a word, when you were trying to make yourself sound well read, then made you repeat it so the entire dinner party could have a laugh.

The world dumps on us all the time. We might as well reuse some of that waste for our own purposes. This is an instance where it’s alright to mine real life for inspiration. Fiction writers should excavate their embarrassing stories, mix them with their friends’ adventures, and exaggerate the combination. We’re digging for universal experiences that audiences haven’t seen a thousand times.

There’s something endearing about someone willing to fess up to the things we all do, but dare not admit. There are no holds barred when your characters beat themselves up. Your first person narrations should be as shameless as a good comedian.

Third person stories shouldn’t respect your protagonist’s boundaries either. Just because the point of view is on the outside doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to peek in at their embarrassment. Your hero shouldn’t get the luxury of dignity.

People used to say I looked like Macaulay Culkin

People used to say I looked like Macaulay Culkin

Personal Failure is an Excellent Starting Point

While moral codes make characters likable, strong drives make them engaging. Heroes can be driven long before the story’s call to action. Some of the best protagonists start their stories convinced they’re nearing the end, only to falter. Spectacular failures are more compelling than characters who are the victims of a series of accidents. Failures make their own fate instead of being at the mercy of it. We root for them because they get back up again. They’re confused, but never defeated.

If you’re a writer, you’re bound to have a slew of personal failures to draw from. Isn’t it time you did something productive with them? Put them on the page. Make your character carry the load, and maybe they’ll get the sympathy you deserved all along.

Laundering Lines: Converting Excess Exposition into Dialogue

2. Replace Thoughts with WordsMy name is Drew Chial and I have a problem: I’m addicted to exposition. I talk too much and so does my writing. I need to learn to give people space to get a word in edgewise. I need to learn to do the same thing for my readers. I need to ask my friends more questions and give readers more room to fit their own imaginations in. I need to stop assuming my friends want to listen to me “tell it like it is” and stop thinking my readers won’t notice the information I show them.

Readers don’t like to be led by the hand. They’d rather come to their own conclusions.

When I was a screenwriter my focus was on what I could capture on camera. Film is a visual medium. If the audience couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist. Now that I’m writing a novel, I’m no longer burdened by the constraints of the silver screen. I can insert annotations into the action. I can give biographies for characters who were dead before the production began. I can tell what a character is thinking while leaving the audience blind to their surroundings.

My narrator is unrestrained by cinematic convention. He can pause the movie and give commentary at any time. His humor doesn’t have to come from observations in the spur of the moment. It can be scripted, like a standup routine. He’s free to philosophize, allowing me to write chapters that read like blog entries, where the narrator talks about a subject with no clear sign of what spurred the thought.

Chapters like these were my favorite part of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Once the husband and wife narrators were revealed to be liars and cheats, their reasoning was fascinating. This worked because Flynn’s characters were living in the media spotlight. Their circumstances made it dangerous for them to externalize their thoughts. I’ve blogged about how certain situations force writers to reveal what a character is thinking, but in my work in progress I used exposition without giving my narrator a reason.

My narrator became a bad weather friend, cornering the reader in a booth, venting at them all night long. He lost interested in progressing his story. His focus was on flashbacks. He needed to unload all the details before he decided where to go next.

It’s easy to blame my narrator, but I was the one who set him up for failure. I didn’t write character bios before diving into my novel. I wrote them into the text. I didn’t draw out a timeline. I had the narrator review it aloud. I didn’t chart out character relationships. The narrator name drops everyone to let the reader know where they stand.

1. Turn Exposition into Dialogue

My Quick Fix for Excess Exposition

I write a lot about darlings on this blog. Darlings are expressions the author can’t stop using, descriptions that run so long they turn poetic, and asides that derail the flow. I’ve written about methods for sparing darlings, by copying and pasting them into new documents. Let me elaborate on one of my favorite techniques for repurposing them.

The first chapter of my work in progress starts with Murphy, the narrator, drinking his problems away. He describes the setting and its occupants before segueing into what ails him. He’s a lawyer about to be disbarred for sleeping with a client. His legalese and heavy emotions dwarf the situation around him.

Murphy’s romantic rant was fun to write. It was a portrait of a selfish prick who considered himself a realist. There were some real zingers in there. Going back, I found the chapter was a lot of fun to read, but it felt like I was cheating. The lawyer’s brazen tone left no room for the readers to weigh in on his situation.

Murphy’s lines might not have been as clever as I thought they were, but there was useful information in his whining. Cutting the entire monologue was not an option. I needed to funnel some of it into the scene.

This roadside bar had one other patron. There was no way to repurpose Murphy’s musings into commentary on his surroundings. This is when I realized he could vent his frustrations to the bartender.

This created an opportunity for comedy. The bartender didn’t need to be the stone-faced cliché we’re used to seeing in these type of locations. You know, the bearded biker, stuck in an endless cycle of wiping down the bar. He could be engaged in the discussion, eager to quote the findings of recent psychological experiments. Too bad Murphy isn’t looking for insights. He just wants acknowledgement.

This exchange sets a precedent that any biases the reader might have about small towns don’t apply in Pilgrim Valley, a place whose very name is a lie.

With a tense change and a few edits, Murphy’s exposition became the subject of their conversation. This exchange is still a form of exposition, but it feels more organic. It makes it harder to spot the writer lurking behind the scenes. I don’t have to hand the audience the setup directly. They get it by way of a courier.

By making the bartender a good listener, I can launder information to the reader. Here’s another place to exploit the freedom of the medium. Characters in books can have much longer conversations than they do in films. By providing a reason for Murphy’s excessive drinking, I can reveal information without resorting to a flashback.

Exposition isn’t always a measure of last resort. Sometimes it provides a break from the action, but when there’s more commentary than there is story, writers need to smuggle their exposition into their scenes.

Mixed Messages: How Corporate Writers Can Kill Their Darlings

1. Mixed Messenger

What Pickup Artists and Corporate Jargon have in Common

What would you think of a guy with hair plugs, a spray tan, and two bluetooth earpieces jutting out from his face like tusks? How about a man who walks into the club with a fur hat, black feather boa, and chains dangling across his pre-torn jeans? What about the guy posing with a gun and a tiger in his two seat sports car? Does it seem like they’re compensating for something?

Everyone wants to stand out, but someone who peacocks too much looks like they’re using their decorations to substitute for a personality. A pickup artist buried under pieces of flare tells the world there’s nothing really there. When a man walks into a bar with his head lost in a nest of fashion scarves everybody laughs behind his back, but when a company weighs down their job postings with unnecessary jargon no one challenges them.

There comes a time when you have to tell your friend that people are embarrassed to be seen with him, that he should really leave his spiked cap and star-shaped shades at home, and let people meet the real him. Well corporate writers, its time you stop hiding under jargon and say what you really mean.

What Business Writers Can Learn From Creative Ones

Business writing isn’t narrative writing. It has its own style. Sentences should be short, simple, and action oriented. Every business has its share of unavoidable technical terms, but so many pile them on to inflate their importance. This misappropriation of language can make these words sound hollow, even to the target audience.

The reader shouldn’t have to simplify a mission statement like a fraction. A line like: Our growth strategy is to utilize content to engage in a unified multichannel customer experience, becomes We use advertising to sell things to people. That doesn’t sound all that remarkable.

This is an area where business could benefit from artists. Creatives could write clearer copy because they know how to kill their darlings.

In narrative writing darlings are the flowery phrases that bog down stories. They appear when the narrative slows down so the author can describe every article of clothing their characters are wearing, every feature on their faces, and every plant on their horizon. Editors call these poetic excursions ‘purple prose.’

Darlings can be sneaky. They take the form of the needlessly complex words and favorite sayings the author keeps repeating. First time writers pile on their darlings to make themselves sound more intelligent.

The corporate world has its own darlings. Check out any corporate jargon generator to see a slew of them. Here are the offenders I keep spot all the time:

Redundancy

I see a lot of tautology (two words or phrases that mean the same thing) in corporatejob postings, phrases like:

  • forward-looking positive people
  • results-oriented outcome driven employee
  • a great culture with a positive environment

Pick one phrase. Cut the padding. Respect your reader’s time.

Avoid repeating the same words. Everybody wants the world to know about their ‘engaging content’ but if a paragraph uses the word “engage” more times than Captain Picard, you have a redundancy issue. This is where the thesaurus could come in handy. I don’t want my books to just be engaging I want them to be gripping, absorbing, and captivating.

2. A Call From Clarity

Empty Phrases

Many job postings favor vague buzz terms instead of explicit ones. Job seekers shouldn’t have to look at the qualifications to get an idea of what they’d be doing. Potential clients shouldn’t lose your message in the translation. Social media users shouldn’t wonder who you’re talking to. Employees shouldn’t have to ask around the office to interpret your directions.

The Huffington Post had an excellent article on how phrases like synergy and paradigm shift have been so overused they’ve become “muddled and meaningless.”

I’ve listened to my share of motivational speakers. Many used phrases that sounded authoritative with no regard for their meaning. One of them told a room full of security guards we needed to “drink the Kool-Aid.”

The speaker had no idea why we were scoffing. If you evoke the Jonestown Massacre to convince employees to go along with a directive, they have every right to question it.

It’s time to put these motivational platitudes out to pasture. Rather than reach for the low-hanging fruit through your window of opportunity, consider dumping these stock phrases entirely. All this viral bleeding-edge language needs to be quarantined outside the box.

Broad statements should lead to finer details. The more obtuse your language is the less people will trust it. You don’t want to come across like a student writing an abstract essay, trying to hit all the points they think the teacher’s looking for. Your language will become all encompassing. You’ll say nothing by trying to say everything.

Verbosity

Remember that scene in the Matrix: Reloaded where Neo meets the Architect in the room with all of the TVs? In order to sound intelligent, the Architect used bloated sentences filled with adverbs.

The Architect raised his eyebrow. “Although the process has altered your consciousness, you remain irrevocably human. Ergo, some of my answers you will understand, and some of them you will not. Concordantly, while your first question may be the most pertinent, you may or may not realize it is also the most irrelevant.”

This is where the movie lost a lot of people (full disclosure: I remain a Matrix apologist).

There are a lot of ‘Architects’ writing on the net, laying on the adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. A wordy sentence isn’t a smarter sentence. Don’t value form over function. Don’t sacrifice clarity in the name of speaking with authority.

Hyperbole

Everyone pads their resumé with inflated job titles. I was never a cashier. I was a customer service specialist. I was never a janitor. I was a facilities maintenance technician. I was never a guard. I was a security enforcement officer.

The problem is these exaggerations have infiltrated the corporate vocabulary. No one has skills anymore, they have ‘core competencies.’ Companies have shut down all their departments and replaced them with an ‘ecosystem.’ There are no more industries, only ‘verticals.’ Corporations have lost control. They have to resort to ‘leverage’ instead.

When we favor the most complicated expression to make our point, we run the risk of sounding annoying and pretentious.

3. Now He Gets It

Don’t Make Reading Comprehension a Challenge

Employees should have business literacy, but documents written entirely in jargon are a chore to read. If a company wants to make their offices more efficient they should stop slowing down reading comprehension. Corporate statements should be clear.

Technical terms have their place in internal documents, but when a company shares their services on social media the jargon has to go. Your front facing website should be understandable. Users shouldn’t have to reread every sentence to comprehend your intent. If your mission statement could be written with buzzword magnetic poetry, it’s too vague.

When the competition talks gibberish, you should stand out with specifics. When they inflate their importance with taxing text, you should get by on your merits. Show you have style and the substance to back it up. Corporations can benefit from creatives, because creative writers kill their darlings all the time.

Grieving in Reverse:  A Horror Noir

1.Blowing In

In 1895, Robert W. Chambers wrote a horror collection called The King in Yellow. Each entry was about a person who had the misfortune of reading a play called The King in Yellow, a play that had the power to drive each of them insane.

H.P. Lovecraft was so inspired by The King in Yellow that he fabricated his own tome of forbidden knowledge called the Necronomicon. The King in Yellow went on to inspire John Carpenter’s films In the Mouth of Madness and Cigarette Burns. Its influence can be felt in The Ring and most recently True Detective, which references the king, the yellow sign, and Carcosa by name.

While True Detective referenced Chambers’s symbolism, the show left his premise alone. I wanted to tell a detective story where the cursed text took center stage. Enjoy.

ACCEPTANCE

Wind rattled the trees, clogging the gutters entire branches at a time. Rain spilled down the roof. The mansion’s features were blurred beneath a cascade of water. All I saw from the lot were pillars and lights.

Past the waterfall was a set of chrome-plated doors. Closed, they looked like an art deco rendition of the Empire State Building. There were two knockers. The one on the left was shaped like a comedy mask with a ring in its smile. The one on the right was shaped like a tragedy mask with a ring in its frown. I chose tragedy, or maybe the atmosphere chose for me.

A well-dressed man opened the door with hair like eagle feathers and a smile that buried his eyes in crow’s feet.

He offered a manicured hand. “Mr. Advena? I’m Edgar Staples, assistant to Mr. Freeman.”

Edgar regarded my yellow trench coat. “Please tell me there’s a zoot suit under that.”

“There’s a zoot suit under this.” I unbuttoned my coat to reveal a dress shirt, thin black tie, and pleated pants.

Edgar shook his head. “That’s no zoot suit.”

I pointed to the ceiling. “You said ‘tell’ not ‘show.’”

He smirked. “I take it you were a screenwriter in a past life?”

I nodded. “And you?”

Edgar took my coat without answering.

I stepped out of the rain and onto a red carpet. The entryway was framed in footlights that lead to a box office window with an empty marquee.

Pulling a curtain back, Edgar led me through a leather door where I discovered, not the entrance hall of a grand manor, but the lobby of a movie theater. The bar was made up like a concession stand. There was a big neon sign where the Let’s All go to the Lobby singers were joined by a smiling beer mug and martini shaker.

“Right this way.” Edgar directed me to a flight of stairs with a golden railing up the middle.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to shut off my cellphone first?”

Edgar gripped the railing. “Right after I show you the fire exits.”

4. Sandy Selfie

DEPRESSION

Ramsey Freeman was a short stout man, bald with a tuft of bangs, like Friar Tuck. He wasn’t much to look at but he was a giant in the film community. His eyes were on the notecards on that famous corkboard, where he conceived The Straw Husband, Mutiny on the River Styx, and We the Damned.

The screenwriting professor at Columbia told us that Freeman plotted every scene on a notecard. The board fit seventy, no more no less. If Freeman had extra scenes it would force him to decide what to cut. Except today those cards spilled onto the wall. Was this his Gone with the Wind?

“You have a lovely theater Mr. Freeman.” I announced myself.

He kept his eyes on the cards.

When I stepped into the room, I realized he’d filled every wall. Mixed into the cards were parking stubs, G.P.S. print outs, photos of his late son Michael taking selfies at sunset, raising a glass with friends, and rocking the Wolverine claws with the hair and biker jacket that went with them.

I spotted a print of a cute Goth chick in a tank top with a sleeve of tattoos. She was checking her phone, oblivious to the photographer. I plucked it off the wall. The edge of the picture was blurred, the telltale sign of a telephoto lens.

“What is all this?”

Ramsey spun around. “The last month of my son’s life.” Charging toward the entrance, he tapped the wall. “From when he started his internship at Screen Constellations,” he knocked on the opposite side of the door frame “to the day they found his body in the lobby.”

“I take it you don’t believe the reports?” I examined the final photograph, the blackened body with the texture of bark, arms spread out like a scarecrow.

Freeman scoffed. “That my son burnt himself alive protesting the studio system? No, I don’t.” He flattened a satellite image. “No one at the construction site saw who took the gas, no one saw who poured it, and no one saw who ignited it.”

Ramsey jabbed a black and white photo: a silhouette made of light with a Roman candle for a head.

“He was engulfed by the time the camera spotted him.” Freeman traced a construction blueprint. “The arson unit combed the stairwells, the back halls, the bathrooms and they couldn’t find the source of the ignition.”

I shrugged. “Matches burn. Even lighters melt.”

“Plastic melts at several hundred degrees higher than flesh.”

Of course Ramsey knew that, the man was notorious for over-researching.

He unspooled a receipt. “Someone planning to kill themselves doesn’t order a boom mic, a 750 watt lamp, and a green screen.” He tapped a printout full of word balloons. “They don’t text friends pitches for web series, hours before their deaths.”

In my experience, suicidal people did all of this. They ordered stuff, made plans, giving themselves something to look forward to, like sharks in constant motion for fear of dying.

I nodded anyways. “So where do I come in?”

Ramsey tapped his thumbnail to his teeth. “A colleague told me you had a talent for finding information that wasn’t…” he searched his cards for the words, “in the public domain. Berkley’s been forthcoming, but the studio’s been stonewalling. I need to know Michael’s relationship with everyone he worked with.”

“Where should I start?”

“There.” Ramsey nodded to the picture of the girl in my hand.

Of all the exhibits on the wall, what made me reach for that one? Later I’d recognize the decision for what it was, the type of convenient coincidence writers can only get away with in act one.

2. Hands Up

BARGAINING

Ramsey had the parking manifest for Screen Constellations. He knew who every vehicle was registered to. The mystery woman wasn’t among them. Edgar snapped the candid on her way out of the building. Uploading it into a Google image search came up with nothing, until I ran it against the headshots on IMDB.

Her name was Cassie, a screenwriter with three short films to her credit. Screen Constellations didn’t have her on any staff listings.

She’d just dropped out of Berkley’s film program, a degree so prestigious that that almost never happened. She was 22, which would’ve put her in Michael’s class. A few calls under the guise of Academic Services revealed they’d been interns at Screen Constellations at the same time.

***

Tenants in apartment buildings ought to get to know their neighbors. I could’ve been anyone ringing the buzzer at nine in the evening.

“Sorry, I locked myself out again.”

Once a stranger buzzed me in, I found Cassie’s apartment, pulled out my wallet and started knocking. The door swung open before my knuckles hit wood. Cassie stood on the other side, jet black hair frizzy, eyes squinting, a lioness primed to pounce.

I jumped, almost unfurling my wallet to reveal the bus pass.

Cassie gave a coy smile. “I saw your feet.”

There was only one vantage point that low and Cassie looked like she’d been there for a while. There was a carpet pattern on her cheek. She wore a long shirt and pajama bottoms, but it was clear she hadn’t slept in days. Her red eyes were framed with the bags beneath them.

I waved my wallet. “I’m here to ask some questions about Michael Freeman.”

Cassie held the door open. Real detectives have partners, they’re supposed to give their names and use permission statements, but sometimes when you speak with authority, people assume you have it.

Cassie’s unit was a fire hazard. The hall, the shelves, and the kitchen counters were filled with stacks of paper. There were pages on the welcome mat, red with edits. I could tell they were screenplays from where I was standing.

The carpet was littered with bleeding ink cartridges. There was a printer and a laptop on the coffee table, where fresh reams waited beneath.

“It took them long enough to send someone.” Cassie scooped pages off the love seat so I could sit.

I flipped my notepad open. “No one questioned you at the scene?”

She rolled her eyes. “I might have wandered away from that tired old scene.”

“Do you mind if I ask what your relationship was with Michael Freeman?”

Cassie fell across the couch cushions. “Relationship? We were interns. We read screenplays so the producers didn’t have to.”

I wrote “SCRIPT READER” on my notepad. “Tell me about Michael’s last day on the job.”

Cassie opened her fingers wide, pantomiming an explosion.

I kept my poker face.

She sat up with a smirk. “We’d finished grading the solicited scripts, so we decided to dive into the Blacklist.”

“Blacklist?”

“The Blacklist is a collection of screenplays that have high marks from readers, but will never get turned into features.”

“Why?”

Cassie shot up to sift through her papers for a needle in a haystack. “They’re fresh ideas in an industry churning out sequels, prequels, betweequels, remakes, reboots, and reimaginings. Why risk money on something new when you can resurrect the same ancient brands? Hollywood doesn’t care about art. They’re more interested in selling grown men their action figures back to them.”

From where I sat, I saw stacks all the way down the hall, through the bathroom and into the tub. None were bound. There was no clear filing system. I had a hard time picturing Cassie lugging a dolly full of reams up the steps.

Glancing back at my notes, I found I’d drawn a spiral on the pad. The decor was derailing my train of thought.

Cassie surgically removed a handful of pages from a stack. “If you’re looking for a suspect. I’d start with The King in Yellow.”

“The King of who?”

Cassie patted her pages. “Not who, what. The King in Yellow was the screenplay Michael was reading when the spark of inspiration hit.”

Gripping the edges, Cassie wielded her bundle like a weapon.

“It was the only script he’d given a 5 out of 5. When he wandered off in a euphoric stupor, I knew I had to sink my teeth into it.”

Cassie stared at her title page.

“Right out of the gate, the story was too outlandish. It was about a masquerade ball, in an otherworldly place called Carcosa, where the stars were black and twin suns shined underwater. There was no clear protagonist. No one’s mask slipped long enough to reveal their motivation, just a graphic orgy of decadence.”

Cassie giggled, a joke teller eager to get to her punchline.

“My notes were littered with potential breaks in the routine, when guests arrived, when they began the offering of skin, when the guards went missing, but I couldn’t decide on one. Turns out the break was a character, an uninvited guest who’d infiltrated the plot.”

She licked her cheshire cat smile. “That bland first act is what makes the story so brilliant. It lulls you into a false sense of security before charging through the fourth wall.”

I flipped my pad shut. “What do you mean?”

Cassie knocked a stack over, revealing a full length mirror. She spoke through her reflection. “A good movie draws out your empathy. It tricks you into projecting yourself onto the hero, until their goals are your goals, their losses are your losses and their changes are yours. This script did the opposite. It imprinted itself onto the reader. When the fire alarms went off, I was evacuated before I could finish. My copy was gone when I came back.” She waved her arms over the mess she’d made. “Now my story is incomplete.”

Cassie set her script in my lap. The title page read:

THE KING IN YELLOW: ACT 3

The draft number was in the triple digits.

She got down on all fours to dig out something from under the couch. “I tried to find the script online. All I found was a collection of shorts by Robert W. Chambers, published in 1895. His book mentions the play, but contains fleeting excerpts. Chambers focused on the people who’d gone mad just from reading it.”

While I debated flipping through Cassie’s offering, my fingers decided for me. Skimming the text, I saw she’d written herself into the story. It read:

CASSIE

I still can’t get the ending right.

A hammer COCKS. Cassie slides the 22 under her chin, the pistol barely peaks out of the shadow of her jawline.

THE KING IN YELLOW

Wait!

Cassie said, “I still can’t get the ending right.”

A hammer cocked. I looked up to find the situation playing out just as Cassie had written.

“Wait!” Tossing the pages, I went off script. “If you’re trying to kill yourself, a 22 caliber is the wrong way to go. The bullet might not even breach the roof of your mouth.”

Playing into someone’s delusion is a long forgotten art form.

Cassie repositioned the gun to her temple.

I frowned. “25 percent of people who shoot themselves in the head survive.”

Pressing the muzzle to her heart, Cassie waited for my approval.

I stepped through the pages, careful not to seem too alarmed. “You spent weeks writing and that’s the best you can come up with?”

Tears welled up in Cassie’s eyes. “I don’t know how else to end it.”

I cracked my neck. “Then we’ll need to find the original for reference.”

3. Blown Away

“Talk to the sand!”

ANGER

The script didn’t matter much to me. I wanted a closer look at the things Edgar couldn’t capture with his telephoto lens, and an excuse to keep the gun out of Cassie’s hands.

“Name please.” The greeter was all silk scarves and shoulder pads, presiding over a table full of tags. Beyond her was the last Screen Constellations event in Cassie’s phone.

I could’ve chosen to be anyone, but my hand reached for a blank tag. “I’m a stranger.”

The greeter pulled it out of reach. “This is a staff event.”

“He’s my plus one.” Cassie came in a formfitting pinstripe pantsuit. Her hair was slicked back, the bags under her eyes were hidden by mascara. She’d cleaned up nicely.

The greeter lit part way up with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Cassie’s name was no where near the tip of her tongue.

“Katie.” Cassie chose a tag at random and we were in.

I’d taken snapshots of Ramsey’s blueprints, I knew which stairwell would take us where.

When we got into the office, the script was where Cassie left it, wanting to be read. She hugged the pages, while I took pictures of a pack of cigarettes. The studio hadn’t touched the desk since the incident. Turns out, Michael had an ignition on him the entire time. He just never bought smokes on any of the cards his father checked. The only mystery was his motivation.

Cassie cackled. Her madness trigger by the mere sight of the title page:

THE KING IN YELLOW

BY

ALAN SMITHEE

“What’s so funny?”

Cassie traced the name. “Alan Smithee is the alias directors give when they disown a project. I can’t believe I didn’t spot it.”

“Who’d use a pen name for an unsolicited script?”

“A messenger.”

Cassie sniffed the paper as if to open her pallet. She offered it to me. “Don’t you want to know what it says about you?”

I couldn’t help but wonder if I had the mental resilience to handle what Michael could not. After all, his silver spoon had weakened his stomach, mine was hardened by the streets. What did I have to fear?

We stayed up there, a pair of moths circling a flame, reading, sharing skin, until we came to the realization that the story wasn’t done.

Most screenplays are journeys to other worlds, this one was on its way to ours. We were the airport limo, the pages were our sign, and the Yellow King was our passenger. We had a responsibility to get him where he needed to go.

Buttoning her shirt up, Cassie studied photos of the construction site before going off to borrow some things. I gave her time to chain the doors, before I came down the elevator.

I don’t care what my lawyer said, there’s no such thing as temporary insanity, only clarity.

The executives outside the elevator had it easy. Even with a 22, I’m an excellent marksman. Those other charlatan storytellers weren’t so lucky. When I emptied the clip I was forced to improvise. The stanchion holding the velvet ropes proved too inviting. Sure, it had a heavy base, but I didn’t have to carry it alone. The Yellow King was wearing me like a mask.

Together, we left an impression on everyone.

5. Exit Sandman

DENIAL

The screenplay was a metaphor about everyone that would ever touch it, a paper reflection. In 120 pages, it had something on everyone. I saw myself staring back. I saw Cassie. I saw Michael. I saw a decadent industry brought to its knees. When you have a clear vision of Carcosa it looks into you.

Once the stars turned black and the lights rose from Lake Hali, my role was defined.

Somehow I knew the moment I touched that knocker on Ramsey’s door, I’d been cast in a tragedy. I’d been grieving my passing sanity ever since. The script knew how I’d try to deny it, like a set of finger-cuffs for the intellect, the more I resisted the more it tightened. Then Cassie sweetened the pot.

She made an airtight argument that freewill was an illusion, showing her work, bringing me to a conclusion.

Mine is not a cautionary tale, it’s an endorsement, a blurb on the back. Mark my words, The King in Yellow will come into your possession, that much is inevitable. You can put it through the shredder or take it to your armchair. The choice is up to you, but let’s not kid ourselves, we both know that decision was already made for you.

Revenge Thriller Romance

1. I hear you

Why writers should avoid cheap romantic shorthand and what they can replace it with

Valentine’s Day is almost here.

The one day a year couples are expected to make the time for one another, to rekindle the old flame, to make bold romantic gestures. So naturally I’m thinking about revenge thrillers.

Ever notice how women are portrayed in these vengeance fantasies? A widower flashes back to his lost Lenore dancing, haloed in sunlight, a ballerina spinning on top of a music box in his mind. She is the picture of innocence, riding the hypnotic bliss of her man’s presence. She rolls in the grass, laughs at nothing, and smiles for the sake of smiling.

The couple embraces. Lenore whispers “Forever” in an overdub echoing over passionate kissing.

The Lenore of these movies never asks her forlorn lover to pay the bills, to take out the trash, or to watch his drinking. She never nags, because she doesn’t want a thing. While other women ask their man what he’s thinking, she’s blowing on dandelions. While others try to get their man to guess what day it is, she’s making kissy faces. While other women scold their husbands for offering solutions when they just wanted acknowledgment, she’s undressing.

Before a killer stuffs Lenore into a refrigerator, her only goal is to make her tortured lover feel better.

I loved Joe Hill’s Horns as a book, but I turned on the film adaptation within the first ten-seconds. It opened with one of the clearest examples of romantic shorthand I’d seen in some time. Ig and Merrin are making out on a mattress in the middle of the forest.

Ig says, “I’m going to love you for the rest of my life.”

Merrin, like a true Lenore, says, “Just love me until the end of mine.”

Ig wakes up on the floor, casts a bottle aside, and puts a record on. He flashes back to a vision of Merrin. She dances with lens flair shining through her hair. I had a feeling I’d be seeing a lot of this shot throughout the film.

These scenes feel like they were written by someone with no first hand romantic experience, an alien who’s observed earthlings for a week and believed they knew everything about human courtship.

These visual shortcuts are just there to give the audience a cheap Hallmark moment before the blood starts spilling. They’re an excuse for the Crusading Widower to rack up a body count with a clear conscious, because nothing says romance like a trained killer with survivor’s guilt.

2. What Was That?

Romantic Shorthand Shortchanges Everyone

Revenge thrillers don’t have the precious minutes to develop these women beyond their roles as sacrificial lambs, so they resort to montages of interchangeable images to convey the romance. They assume their audience isn’t there for a believable romantic subplot. The problem, besides treating women like possessions to be stolen, is that this romantic shorthand is showing up in places where writers ought to know better.

While revenge thrillers use romantic shorthand to setup plot devices, blockbusters use it to showcase the likability of their leading men.

The hero of 2014s Godzilla doesn’t need to charm the audience because look he made his wife laugh with a joke he told off screen. If she sees something in him, shouldn’t we? Now she’s kissing him in a warmly lit room with a shakey cam.

The hero of 2014s RoboCop is just as charismatic. Look at how he’s putting the moves on his wife in a warmly lit room with a shakey cam. How intimate. No mood killing tripods in sight.

In screenwriting, we’re always told to enter a scene late and leave it early. These examples enter too late. If only they’d started early enough for us to overhear the couple’s interactions. We might have believed them.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with showing a happy couple kissing, but audiences are exposed to this type of romantic shorthand all the time. They recognize when they’re being manipulated. They know that when they’re introduced to lovers during a make-out session something terrible is going to happen.

Every scene needs to hold up its end of the story equally. Every scene must reveal character details, further the plot, and have conflict, even romantic flashbacks. Just because the audience for these stories appears to be mostly men doesn’t mean you can get away with underwriting.

It’s 2015, we can come up with a better excuse for violent mayhem than the sacrificial lover (at least John Wick was about a man avenging his puppy).

3. Can you hear him too?

Conflict Can Be Romantic

It’s possible to show brief romantic encounters without the relationship feeling shallow. If you really want us to believe we’re looking at a real couple, show us how they navigate turbulence. Do they avoid arguments or do they cross each other’s boundaries? Are they jealous? Do they have conflicting expectations about where the relationship is going?

Marriage takes work. Show the daily grind. A struggling couple is more relatable than a pair with perpetual smiles.

If the lovers are driven into opposite directions, but still find some common ground, they’re much more compelling. If they struggle to make the relationship work, the relationship will seem more important to the audience.

If you really want to sell me on a couple show them fighting. How much more tragic would a revenge thriller be if the couple left things on a bad note? What if the hero isn’t haunted by his wife’s perfect visage, but the last things he said?

How much more likable would a hero seem if he admitted he’s on the wrong side of an argument? Make him eat some humble pie. Make him earn that kiss goodbye.

Here’s another option: introduce the lovers separately. Give them a scene of character development that shows them doing something independent of the relationship. Make us appreciate them as individuals before we see them as a couple. This way if something happens to one of them, it’s not just the hero’s loss, it’s the audience’s loss as well.

Think about this the next time you’re writing cheesy declarations of affection to help set up your explosions. Romantic shorthand is a flimsy foundation to build a plot on. It forecasts further clichés to come.

***

Comedian Patton Oswalt says, “You have to love something in order to make fun of it.”

I love B-movies, horror schlock, and revenge thrillers. I’ve seen enough of them to recognize their shortcomings.

In the eighth grade, I watched a VHS copy of The Crow every day after school. The Crow is the story of Eric Draven, a rock singer, who comes back from the dead to avenge the death of his girlfriend Shelly.

Eric returns to the couple’s abandoned loft. The Crow, Eric’s spirit guide, uses the environment to remind Eric of his mission. Eric flashes back to a greatest hits collection of their tender moments. At the time I found this romantic shorthand compelling. I thought love was a constant reciting of vows over a playfully passionate montage. Life had yet to teach me the reality.

When I lent The Crow to some girls in class they said they couldn’t get into it. They didn’t like that Shelly’s sole purpose was to die a brutal death so Eric had something to avenge. They had trouble accepting his grief, because they didn’t believe the relationship in the first place.

I thought they’d missed the point, but maybe I was the one who had it wrong.

What The X-Files Taught Me About Writing Scary Stories

1. Grown Man with Action FiguresThe X-Files defined dramatic science fiction in the 90s. It inspired fans to write spooky stories of their own. Rumor has it, the show is returning for a limited run. Mulder and Scully will wave their flashlights across our TV screens one last time.

I wanted to share what the show taught me about plot structure, characterization, and planting scares in an audience’s imagination.

How Mulder and Scully Taught Me to Write My Own Scary Stories

Modern TV shows are tailored for binge watching. They have serial story lines to keep us streaming all weekend. They tease mysteries, love triangles, and thematic shifts that will carry into future seasons. Shows no longer use the ‘TO BE CONTINUED’ caption because it would be redundant.

Before J.J. Abrams gave the Ted Talk where he said, “Mystery is the catalyst for the imagination,” The X-Files was answering questions with questions. Would Mulder discover who abducted his sister? Would Scully recover from her cancer? Would the pair ever realize they were perfect for each other?

The X-Files didn’t invent the serial storytelling format, but it helped popularize it. Too bad the network only allowed for eight mythology episodes a year. The rest of the season focused on the monster of the week.

This was an era where dramatic character changes only happened in movies. People on television only learned lessons. The agents’ circumstances reset after each case was done. This made it easier for the network to broadcast reruns out of sequence.

Since The X-Files spent most of its run as formula television its predictable nature makes it ideal for studying plot structure. An hour of television has five commercial breaks. The show needed five cliffhangers to keep the audience coming back for more.

"When I play with action figures I make them kiss"

“When I play with action figures I make them kiss”

The formula for The X-Files procedural episodes went like this:

The Teaser

Horror movies call this ‘The Opening Stinger.’ This is where the setting, tone, and creepy catalyst are established. Its a short film starring the episode’s victim.

The teaser serves three purposes, it justifies Mulder and Scully’s involvement in the case, it forecast future scares, and poses a question that takes the entire episode to answer.

The paranormal prologue buys the opening scenes time to set up the story. Its a good tool for horror writers who want to develop character, atmosphere, and lore without front loading the rest of the first act with gore.

Act 1: The Argument

Mulder and Scully arrive in a small town that looks suspiciously like Vancouver, Canada. The sheriff justifies calling them through a single line of dialogue. Mulder has a hunch about the killer rooted in obscure folklore. Scully challenges the superstitious belief his theory is founded on.

Every scene needs conflict. Here it’s built right into the formula. The agents pursue their leads with their biases on their sleeves. They both want justice, but they disagree on how to pursue it. Their drive is the same, but their goals are different.

Act 2: The Split 

This is where Mulder and Scully split into their areas of expertise. Mulder examines occult symbology while Scully performs autopsies. Mulder develops a forensic profile of a demon, while Scully samples the evidence. Mulder consults his hacker friends, while Scully catches a hoaxer in action.

When the pair regroup, their findings are in stark contrast with one another’s suspicions.  Their egos clash. With the agents divided, the killer seizes the opportunity to strike again.

The rigid structure of Mulder and Scully’s investigations keeps the plot in motion.

Crime scene, court room, and medical dramas follow procedures with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. There’s no room for these stories to meander. Their writers are less likely to get blocked.

Even when you’re writing without an outline, it helps to have some idea where the plot is going.

Act 3: The Truth

The X-Files uses two types of red herrings: suspects that appear to be the obvious culprit (usually proven innocent by their death) and Mulder’s original hunch.

With a new crime scene to investigate, Mulder and Scully refine their suspicions.

Turns out, Mulder is half right:

  • The woman he thought had telekinetic powers is really being stalked by the ghost of a coworker.
  • The vampires the agents are dealing with wear false teeth and are immune to stakes.
  • The town isn’t overrun with Satanists. It’s on a “cosmic G-spot” that makes everyone go crazy when the stars are in alignment.

Armed with this new information, the agents set out to prevent dark forces from claiming another victim. This is where The X-Files subverted the audience’s expectations. Mulder’s original hunch was always a few degrees off by design. This kept the audience from guessing the ending earlier on.

Act 4: The Chase

The last act puts someone in peril. It’s where Mulder uses Scully’s findings to save her, or Scully acts on Mulder’s suspicions to save him, or they come around to each other’s point of view to save a guest star. Either way, one of them learns a lesson that gets someone out of harm.

Contrary to popular opinion, Mulder and Scully’s arrest record is well above the bureau standard. The agents put handcuffs on humans, while supernatural entities always evade prosecution. They can’t bring conclusive proof of the paranormal to the Bureau without breaking the reality of the show.

As series creator Chris Carter puts it, “You can’t arrest the devil.”

Ambiguous endings give the audience’s imagination something to do when the story is done. If writers explain their mysteries down to the molecular level, the audience is quick to forget them. Leave your audience’s imaginations with somewhere to go.

3. Full series

Why The X-Files Still Matters

There have been many imitators since The X-Files went off the air. Most of them rip off the wrong elements. They cram the paranormal into police procedurals with bland stoic stock characters. They’re more concerned with putting CGI on screen than monsters in the viewers’ dreams.

Unlike shows that dress the same stuntmen as a rogues gallery of urban legends, The X-Files kept its creatures in the shadows. The cinematographer never gave the audience a good look at an alien. The camera showed a silhouette off in the distance and left the viewer to fill it in.

The imitators should have ripped off the interplay between Mulder and Scully: the hard believer and the staunch skeptic, burying their affection behind a strong work ethic.

It’s a lesson that’s lost on many horror writers: the stakes only matter if we care about the characters. If the leads aren’t compelling we won’t mind if the monsters feed on them. We measure the value of our heroes by the strength of their opposition. The inverse is just as true. We measure our monsters based on the strength of those who oppose them. It was Mulder and Scully that made the monsters scary.

Fanboys love to talk about what makes Star Wars so memorable. Is it the light sabers, the imperial walkers, or the Millennium Falcon? The truth is without compelling characters none of these things are worth remembering. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had more fantastical elements than A New Hope, but it lacked the film’s most crucial ingredient: characters that made us give a damn.

Three dimensional characters add substance to fantastical universes.

Mulder believed in alien abduction, psychic phenomena, past lives, time travel, cryptozoology, and parapsychology, but he was an atheist when it came to organized religion. Scully was a woman of science, advocating vaccinations and stem cell research, yet she was a devout Catholic.

The pair had private peculiarities. Mulder littered his ceiling with pencils. He slept on his couch because he’d stockpiled porn in his bedroom. He was obsessed with Elvis and Ed Wood. He had an oral fixation that left a trail of sunflower seeds in his wake.

Scully was a physics major who went into medicine only to be recruited into the FBI later on. Her addiction to academia had her flaunting her knowledge in casual conversation. As a girl, she was obsessed with Moby Dick. She called her father “Ahab” and named her dog “Queequeg.”

No matter what dark place the agents ventured into, we always learned something new about them. When the show runners weren’t expanding the mythology they were revealing character elements. The series bible was thick with back stories.

Too many legal procedurals make it seem like their heroes were bred for law enforcement, like their ties never come off, like they clock in the moment their eyes are open. Their recreational activities are limited to poker nights, and pitchers at the local tavern. They’re not humans so much badge wielding automatons.

It’s easier to care about a character’s profession when they have a life outside of it. It’s easier to care about a character’s future when they have a colorful past. It’s easier to be scared for a character’s life when they have a personality worth saving.

The best X-Files episodes used the series mythology to advance the characters’ relationships. The forthcoming mini series promises to resolve the alien invasion plot line. When I imagine what that will look like it isn’t flying saucers I see on screen. It’s the characters I’ve been missing. Here’s looking forward to season 10.

Don’t Spread Your Love Too Thin

Sometimes a writer doesn't have enough love to go around.

Sometimes a writer doesn’t have enough love to go around.

The Flash Fiction Fling

A writer who flirts with several forms of writing at the same time is in a polyamorous relationship with each of them.

Flash fiction has no delusions about its role in the relationship. It knows the wordsmith is just looking for a ‘one write stand,’ a moment of passion in a micro medium. Flash fiction doesn’t mind when a writer forgoes first act foreplay and dives right into the action. It isn’t surprised by the premature punctuation before a resolution. It knows that once its 300 words are up the writer will be on to the next one. Wham bam publish ma’am.

The Short Story Shrug Off

A short story might get a little more optimistic, surprising the writer with new ideas the moment they were going to call it quits. The short story plays with its dangling plot threads, fantasizing about where else the relationship could go.

At first, the short story says it was only in town for the weekend, now it’s talking about staying on through the season. “What do you think about riding this thing out a little longer, nothing too serious. If we have to put a term on it, we can call it a novelette.”

The short story gazes at subplots through shop windows. It tricks the writer to come with it to look at chapter titles. Before long it’s kicking at prologues.

“It’s our ten-thousand word anniversary. Wouldn’t it be crazy if we made it all the way to fifty? We can still keep it nice an open, we’ll just call it a novella.”

One night the writer realizes they should’ve broken the story off earlier, when the intensity was stronger, now it’s just meandering around the apartment looking for a plot line.

3. Spit way apart

The Blog Bewitchment 

A blog is a long term relationship that comes in the guise of an affair. It looks like fun, a low maintenance lover. It only wants the writer’s attention a couple of times a month. That all changes when it sees the true potential of the relationship. Then it requires the writer to check in several times a week.

The blog texts the writer in the middle of the night and wonders why it doesn’t get an immediate response. The blog insists the writer introduce it to all their friends. It doesn’t care if the writer’s work buddies aren’t interested in its niche. It craves approval from everyone.

If these possessive blogs had their way, every writer would change their relationship status to: Full Time Blogger.

The blog knows it doesn’t have everything a word weaver is looking for. It tricks the writer into staying by encouraging experimentation. It’s open to a little kinky satire every now and then. Why it even welcomes poetry, memoirs, and fiction as long as they all crawl beneath the cover of its platform.

The Novel Nuptials 

A novel might not seem like such a commitment at first. A writer might rush in without a plan, but the first argument they have about plot points ought to clue them in to how deep it’s gotten. A novel might start as a short story, some midsummer fun, but it quickly evolves into something serious. The writer knows this relationship will be more fulfilling than the others, but they’re not sure if they’re mature enough to handle it.

A novel can be a jealous lover, especially when a writer’s late night excursions have made them forget important story events. The novel deserves the writer’s full attention. It needs to be nurtured, edited, and reassured.

There comes a time when a writer’s relationship with their novel needs to be monogamous.

2. Blog Novel Split

Being a Novelist and a Blogger is a Sitcom Scenario

Juggling a blog and a novel is like going on two dinner dates at once. The blog is in a casual diner, while the novel waits in an restaurant with a strict dress code. The moment a writer starts enjoying the conversation with their novel, they realize they have to run across the street and chat up their blog. Pretty soon the writer mixes topics, confuses one medium for the other, wears formal structure to their blog, and lets it all hang out in front of their novel.

The writer ends up spreading their affection too thin. Their heart may be in their novel, but these other relationships offer instant gratification. A writer’s true feelings get lost beneath a swarm of documents.

Good luck convincing a novel all these side relationships are for its benefit. “I’m only doing all this to make myself a better writer, so I can come back and please you more.”

For the sake of punctuating this metaphor, imagine a giant anthropomorphic book throwing their drink in your face.

Writer’s get burnt out trying to maintain all these relationships at once. We end up taking time to practice artistic abstinence. I end up bingeing on video games and TV shows I’d put off during the writing process.

4. Blog Novel

Remember Your First Love

Writers are told to sell themselves before they sell their material, to put their brand before their book, to lure readers in with articles before asking them to commit to reading novels. In an era where readers have too many options to choose from, this is a good plan. It gives readers a taste of a writers’ voices without charging anything.

The problem is, what’s the use of setting up a brand when you have nothing to sell?

If you’re blogging with the intention of introducing your books to an audience, you’re going to have to take the time to finish one. If you’re charging through a novel, your blog is going to have to take a hit.

This doesn’t mean you have to resort to social media silence, just pay attention to what your audience responds to and streamline it. I have a document full of writing topics worth developing into blog entries. This way I don’t have to spend all weekend coming up with new ones. I’ve started turning my better tweets into meme galleries that I share throughout the week. Even with those backup plans in place, I haven’t had time to post poems, flash fiction, or short stories. Those things will just have to wait until I’m done with what I’m working on.

While you’re in a committed relationship with your book, blog on your own terms. Blog entries that feel obligatory to write will be a chore to read. Don’t just go through the motions to hit artificial deadlines. Don’t spread your love too thin.

#WriterConfessions: Volume 3

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Behold the continued chronicles of my lapses in lucidity, infractions against intelligence, and brain farts on brilliance. I, like every other connected confessor, have opted to admit my written wrongdoing in the form of a meme.  Continue reading