How to Fix Your Story Without Going Back to the Drawing Board

1. TitleThe Case Against Editing as You Go

When I first started writing I scrutinized every paragraph the moment after typing. I counted the syllables so I could adjust for rhythm and flow. I checked my metaphors to see if they mixed wrong, I ran every verb through the thesaurus, and I dialed all my hyperboles back.

By the end of the day my word count hovered around the same number I’d started at. Sometimes it was in the negative. My effort to fine tune the perfect page kept me from finishing my stories.

Writing is hard. I was making it harder than it needed to be, writing the way I’d seen authors work on TV. They’d type THE END, pull the last page out of their typewriter, set it on top of the stack of pages, pat it, and hand the completed work to their publisher. Their publisher called them back before the sun had gone down.

“Why, this is your finest work yet!”

Yeah, writing doesn’t work like that.

As Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it, “first drafts are always shit.”

When you accept this your output increases. You give yourself permission to experiment, to stop worrying about grammar and punctuation, and press on without editing. Your focus shifts from quality to quantity. You can side step writer’s block and keep the momentum going. When you focus on the present you get more done. You measure your commitment to your craft not by your bibliography, but by your recent word count.

It’s easier to commit to writing every day when you don’t have to worry about publishing by sundown, about your reviews, or your target audience. You don’t have to bow to your inner critic, because you have no need to reread your story until its finished.

You have to paint a base layer before you can start adding the other colors. You have to carve out the rock before you can chisel out the sculpture. You have to shoot the scene while daylight is burning. You can fix it in post later.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing he recommends putting your first draft in a drawer for at least six weeks before coming back to edit. That way you can see your story with fresh eyes. This will make your darlings easier to kill, because your emotional attachment will have waned. This will make unnecessary scenes easier to cut, because you’ll feel like you’re working with someone else’s story. It’ll make everything easier to fix, except for spotty continuity.

2. Chalk

What Plotting and Knitting Have in Common

Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are the easiest parts of editing. Fixing a broken continuity is far more challenging.

A story’s continuity is what makes it believable. It keeps your characters consistent. If your hero has a fear of heights they shouldn’t be eager to check out the view from the balcony of a skyscraper. If your hero swears in church they shouldn’t have a polite streak when they’re talking to a police officer. If you break your hero’s arm in one scene they shouldn’t be throwing any punches in the next.

A story’s continuity allows readers to follow the plot, to understand the timeline, to trace its causes to its effects, and appreciate the ending. When you write by the seat of your pants, with a focus on quantity over quality, you do so at the risk of your continuity.

Continuity is a string that knots up every time your plot twists. Whenever you knit a new subplot into the story you risk forgetting the pattern you had going. Whenever you take a thread in a new direction you risk tangling the things you’d already set in motion. Whenever you follow inspiration away from your plan, you risk turning your first draft into a big ball of yarn.

If you leave a story with a spotty continuity in the drawer for too long you’ll forget which strings need to be cut and which ones to be rethreaded. You’ll have a lot of knots on your hands. I have two methods for fixing a broken continuity. The first is a bandaid solution. The other requires planning earlier on.

How to Fix a Continuity Error Without Going Back to Edit

A temporary solution for when you feel a plot hole forming is to let characters draw attention to it. This way you ensure your audience that you have every intention of filling it. This can be done organically if you’re writing a mystery. Let’s say you dressed up a crime scene with inconsistent iconography.

Your hero could say, “Why would the killer carve the Satanic goat of lust into the victim’s back, then draw Devil’s traps on the ground around the body. One symbol is made to summon evil. The other is meant to repel it.”

Just remember that every time the detective asks those questions, they’re promising the reader a mind blowing revelation. If you tie up a loose end with a cheap explanation you’ll reveal that you didn’t know what you were doing all along.

How satisfied would you be to learn the explanation for the above scenario was that the killer didn’t know the difference between the symbols?

Let’s say your hero does something out of character. They step out onto the balcony of a skyscraper and lean over the railing. A few chapters later you remember that they were supposed to be afraid of heights, but the story needed them to venture out onto that balcony. Do you go back and delete all mentions of their fear of heights? Do you rework the entire scene to keep that character trait consistent, or do you have another character comment on your hero’s strange behavior?

“I thought you were deathly afraid of heights, but I looked out my window and I saw you leaning over the balcony.”

“I know. I’m not sure what came over me.”

This exchange repairs the continuity by acknowledging the hero’s inconsistency, but it isn’t a very satisfying explanation. If anything it only promises better explanation later on. If you do this too often you run the risk of making your story feel convoluted.

3. Time Travel

What Editing and Time Travel Have in Common

In the story I’m working on, I’ve strategically placed moments of foreshadowing. I left comments in the margins of my documents to make them easier to find. I plan on coming back to them often. They will be the most frequently edited pages of my novel.

In these chapters, there are crime scenes where every detail is pivotal to solving the mystery later on. As I strive to make the solution to the mystery more satisfying I find myself returning to these crime scenes and making adjustments.

In my first draft I make sure to use the exact same phrases for each piece of evidence. This may sound redundant, but if you have a needle in a 90,000 word haystack you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to find. By using the same terms I can search out any element I need to go back and change.

My story is filled with these foreshadowing portals; places where I can go back in time and make safe alterations without upsetting the balance of everything else I have going. I have a prophetic story within my story that I adjust to fit future events. I have a tarot reading whose meaning I keep changing. I have an autopsy report that I keep fine tuning.

Another way to keep track of your continuity is to color coat certain setups and payoffs the same color. That way if you alter the payoff you can save time by cycling through all the setups that need fixing. For instance you could color code references to the murder weapons red, and references to the killer’s motivations in green. This way if you decide you’d rather the weapon be a lead pip instead of a candlestick you can go back and adjust the crime scene to reflect that.

Closing Thoughts

With these methods you can edit aspects of your story as you write. You can keep your momentum going while keeping your continuity consistent. This will leave less knots for you to untie when it’s time to edit the rest.

How to Ruin Your Favorite Stories By Adapting them for TV

This week I'm talking all about Cop Dramas

This week I’m talking all about Cop Dramas

The Procedural Formula 

Here’s a simple formula for destroying an original idea by adapting it for television: take a film (or comic book) series and shoehorn it into a format suited for syndication. The defaults you’ll find on network television are: ER clones, law firm look a-likes, New York ad agency stories, the monster of the week, and the cop drama. When in doubt, go with the cop drama.

Find someone in the source material with a unique ability. Reduce them to a roving freelance detective who plays by his own rules. I specify “his” because the maverick on network TV is almost always a “He,” (iZombie is one of the few exceptions).

Pair your maverick with a by the book detective who happens to be without a partner. This role is usually played by a buxom bombshell, the type of woman Chris Carter said Fox wanted him to cast as Agent Scully on The X-Files.

Use your maverick’s quirky ability to solve the murders of bland under developed characters. Tease an overarching mystery to keep us hooked: the type of serialized mythology we wish we were watching all along. Finally hint at the possibility that the platonic partners have a romantic interest. Draw their feelings out beyond believability. Wait to cash in their feelings at an awkward time in their relationship, like when your show gets canceled.

If this formula sounds familiar it’s because you’ve seen many variations of it on: The Mentalist, Castle, Sleepy HollowJohn DoeForever, and many other shows.

This fall season’s latest crop of cop-schlock ensures audiences will see all those tropes again.

Minority Report is a sci fi thriller that dares to ask the question if our fourth amendment right to reasonable searches and seizures extends to our possible futures. The TV show is about a psychic who can’t help but betray that moral, by using his gift to thwart crimes before they happen… Oh, and he has a by the book female partner.

Limitless is a film about a loser writer who discovers his potential with a brain boosting wonder drug called EZT, and all the horrible things he has to do to maintain his dosage. The TV show is about a guy who uses EZT to solve crimes… Oh, and he has a by the book female partner.

Lucifer is a comic book series about the devil retiring from hell and doing everything he can to flee God’s creation. The TV show is about how Lucifer retires from hell to help solve crimes. In this case, Lucifer’s arcane knowledge proved too abstract for TV, so they borrowed Daniel Radcliffe’s ability to make sinners confess from the film Horns… Oh, and Lucifer has a by the book female partner.

Also, based on these three trailers, stubble seems to be in this year.

2. Does this get me in?

Let’s Turn Everything into a Cop Drama

Here are some more film franchises the networks can ruin by adapting them for television:

Idiocracy… as a cop drama

An average unremarkable police officer accidentally runs down a mob boss during a raid. A career making arrest turns into a suspension hearing when it’s revealed the officer forgot to read the boss his rights. Down on his luck the officer submits to the Human Hibernation Research Study, believing he’ll be put under for five days. Instead he’s frozen for five hundred years.

The officer wakes up to find the world has devolved into a waste-scape where morons have outbred intellectuals, where everyone is dependent on technology that’s been automated for centuries, and the police are hapless to stop the violence. The officer re-enlists in the force where he discovers he’s the Sherlock Holmes of his time. The department quickly pairs him off with the most decorated cop on the force; an up-speaking valley girl by today’s standards, but a genius in the future.

Together they catch the dumbest criminals imaginable: thugs caught playing with the murder weapon when our duo comes knocking. The ongoing mythology could pit the officer against an average criminal who’s also woken up in the future (think Demolition Man if both characters were morons).

A Nightmare on Elm Street… as a cop drama

Unlike the previous Nightmare on Elm Street TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares, Freddy Krueger will be the star.

The quiet midwestern town of Springwood is being stalked by a sadistic killer. Each victim is eviscerated in broad daylight and there are always signs of a struggle. The town’s folk have whitewashed all records of Freddy Krueger, the serial killer that haunted their children’s nightmares, but Nancy, a head strong police officer, remembers hearing whispers. She looks into Freddy’s supernatural slayings and finds that this recent string of deaths don’t fit his M.O.

Still, Nancy can’t help but fall asleep with Freddy on the brain. Her fear of Freddy Krueger is enough to summon him into her nightmare. Nancy finds Freddy an emaciated husk of his former self, starving for souls. He doesn’t even have the strength to injure her. As Nancy investigates the daytime slaying she realizes they were done by more than one culpret. When she tells the sheriff she senses a conspiracy, he tells her to drop it.

Desperate, Nancy turns to the weakened dream dweller for help. She offers Freddy the conspirators’ souls if he can uncover the mystery. Reluctantly he agrees.

Mary Poppins… as a cop drama.

And you thought P. L. Travers hated Disney’s adaptation.

Bert is a grizzled cockney copper with one last assignment before retirement. He has to find out who killed George Banks, an investment banker with ties to London’s criminal underground. When he arrives at the crime scene at Cherry Tree Lane he learns the children have hired their own investigator: Mary Poppins. She introduces herself as a private detective “Who’s practically perfect in every way.”

Bert finds himself lagging behind Mary at each stage of his investigation, arriving at crime scenes she’s turned upside down. Bert decides that if he wants to get anywhere he’ll have to tail her. He learns Mary’s results come from her magical abilities, contacts in the supernatural underworld, and the enchanted objects she always keeps on her person. The pair pool their resources. Bert gives Marry access to the department’s files while she shares her tools: a bottomless evidence bag that contains an entire forensics lab, a surveillance drone in the shape of a kite, and a talking gun.

Bert can’t help but admire Mary’s methods. She’s an expert interrogator, making her suspects sing through actual song, infiltrating hideouts by floating on the ceiling, and getting intel from talking animals. The pair make a formidable team.

3. I got a prize

Here are More Franchise to Ruin by Putting Them on Television:

  • A Harry Potter procedural where Potter consults on cases involving wizard on muggle violence.
  • A Santa Claus procedural where Santa repurposes his network of elf confidential informants to tell him which suspects have been naughty and which have been nice.
  • A Tron procedural where Sam investigates cyber crimes represented by actual crime scenes on the game grid.
  • The Matrix as a procedural about an agent charged with tracking down rogue programs who casue glitches that threaten to expose the system.

Can you think of a franchise to ruin by adapting it for television? Please share your pitches in the comments.

How Writers Can Keep Time From Slipping Away

1. Hour Glass

The Real Reason Joss Whedon Left Twitter Should Make Sense to Writers

Writer/director Joss Whedon just left twitter for reasons that should concern every writer. Reasons, as it turns out, that have nothing to do with the social justice warrior blame game twitter’s been playing. In an article titled Joss Whedon Calls “Horsesh*t” On Reports He Left Twitter Because Of Militant Feminists he told Buzzfeed:

“I just thought, Wait a minute, if I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place,” Whedon explained. “And this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life… It’s like taking the bar exam at Coachella. It’s like, Um, I really need to concentrate on this! Guys! Can you all just… I have to… It’s super important for my law!”

Of all the reasons angry twitter users have given for Whedon’s disappearance this one makes the most sense. Whedon is following Stephen King’s advice and writing behind a closed door, something those of us building our brands online have a hard time doing.

This week’s article is about time management, the burden of social media, the fallacy that distractions serve our creativity, and the virtue of delayed gratification.

Managing Time in the Era of Social Media

According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar the average person can maintain up to 150 stable social relationships at once. Technology allows us to spread our relationships further than ever before. While most of our connections online are casual, many of them require maintenance. For writers looking to build an audience that can be a challenge.

Whedon’s decision to leave twitter illustrates how much of a burden a large following can be. It’s hard to acknowledge criticism and launch a new project at the same time. It’s hard to clammer for relevance and do relevant work. It’s hard to participate in the larger conversation when you need to listen to the thoughts in your own mind.

For those of us who develop our stories while interacting with the community we need to find a balance. If we’re compulsively counting connections we won’t be able to give our own characters the same attention. If we check every notification, every phantom vibration, we’ll interrupt the flow of our writing. Stat addicts, with restless reloading syndrome, will be watching their blogs’ numbers at the expense of their word count.

Twitter sends notifications to say two users I’m following are talking about the same film. Facebook sends notifications to see if I know someone who hadn’t even sent me a friend request. Sometimes it just wants to let me know my friends are in the same neighborhood. I don’t have time to wish strangers happy birthdays, to congratulate them for their work anniversaries, and ‘Like’ their pottery zines.

Some authors use extensions like StayFocusd to help them temporarily block social media websites while they’re working. I use Hootsuite to schedule some of my tweets, especially during the hours I know I’m going to be writing. I tweet so often that I’ve turned abstaining from social media into a game. I use it as a reward for getting a page written. I let myself indulge in it more on Mondays. That’s when people spend the most time reading blogs.

2. Hour Glass

How Our Minds Trick Us into Thinking Our Distractions Are a Type of Training

In Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus, he tells the story of how the 5 day work week forced people to manage something they never had to manage before: free time. This gave way to generations raised on television. We started managing our free time differently when new technologies made creating and sharing almost as easy as consuming.

This could be why we’re living in a new golden age of television. Showrunners know they have to work a lot harder to compete for their audience’s attention. For those of us who want to create more than we consume we have to learn to resist the temptation of watching. Especially when we trick ourselves into thinking that consuming will serve as a springboard for creation.

Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote about this phenomenon in his book Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life Through an Addiction to Film. Between the summers of 1995 and 1999, Patton watched 3 to 4 movies a day. He rationalized this by thinking an education in the history of film would improve his screenwriting.

The theater owner kept asking, “When am I going to see your screenplay?”

Patton would’ve had something to show had he not been spending so many nights watching all these films.

Smart people are good at justifying bad behaviors. Even I have written about how replaying movies takes writers behind the scenes, but there’s only so many times writers need to learn the same lesson before they should get going.

We’re told the best way to become a better writer is to read more. Writers can get an education in storytelling by reading as many stories as we can, but at a certain point all that consummation becomes a distraction. We end up sublimating our creative drive, absolving ourselves of the self doubt that comes with fleshing out a new idea. By occupying our minds we let our own creativity off the hook.

Our heads can be overflowing with other people’s stories, but that doesn’t mean a fresh one will ever spill out of our own.

Binge reading can teach us style and structure, but those lessons come at the expense of our work ethic. We’re not going to learn everything we need to know about writing before we commit pen to paper. We need to be willing to learn while doing. We need to be willing to fail.

Books give our imaginations a workout, but our diligence will weaken if we abandon our writing routine for too long.

3. Hour Glass

How to Delay Your Gratification and Get Your Writing Done

In the late 60s and early 70s psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a study at Stanford University. Children were offered the choice between a single marshmallow or two if they waited 15 minutes. In follow-up studies, the researchers found the kids who held out for what they really wanted tended to have better lives. They had higher SAT scores, higher levels of education, and better paying careers.

What does this marshmallow study have to do with writing?

Let’s say you have an hour lunch break at the office. You could spend it streaming an episode of something, or working on your writing. The TV show promises to give you a complete experience in one viewing, your writing will take many more sessions before its done, but will ultimately feel much more rewarding.

For writers sometimes marshmallows take the form of smaller pieces. I get instant gratification whenever I share a short story online. I don’t get ‘likes’ and comments when I’m fleshing out long form writing, but while my short stories are forgotten my novel has the potential to resonate for a longer time.

If you’re serious about writing you need to think about how many marshmallows you really want. I used to blog 2 to 3 times a week. I’ve cut that down to once a week. Why?I’m working on a novel and I’ve got my eyes on a whole hill of marshmallows.

The best piece of advice you’ll ever get on writing is: sit your ass in the chair and do the work. You can wait until your blog accumulates comments and respond to them all at once. Your @ replies will be there when you check them later. Wait until the end of the day to count all of your new followers.

If you want to make writing your profession take a close look at your free time. Think about what little rewards you can stave off now in favor of the bigger one down the line.

How to Build Character Profiles… For Writers Who Hate Planning

1. The Best Laid Plans

How Architects Build Character Profiles

When I started screenwriting I discovered my characters as I wrote them. It was fun to meet them for the first time, but when I went back to edit their personalities had problems. They seemed less like themselves in the first scenes than they did toward the end. Their dialogue drew from stoic clichés in the first act. Their voices didn’t sound distinct until the third. I decided to take screenwriting courses to help fix the problem.

George R.R. Martins says, “There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.”

My screenwriting professor was an architect. He worked from blueprints. He had us summarize our scenes before we could write a single line of dialogue. There are only so many pages that fit into a script. That’s why he had us edit our screenplays before we ever wrote them down. Our hero needed to make an impression early on. The professor wouldn’t let us start writing our stories until we’d proven we knew who our heroes were already.

My screenwriting professor gave us a character research template with 40 questions, each with 5-10 subquestions of their own. This was the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Index of character profiles.

It got Freudian. We needed to know the relationship between our hero and their parents, their siblings, how they were disciplined, schooled, the religion they were brought up in, their travel experiences, and their economic situation.

We needed to define our heroes’ political beliefs, even if we had no intention of airing them. We needed to dress the set of our heroes’ homes, even if our story spent no time in them. We needed to take our heroes in for a checkup, even if their health never came up.

The descriptions of our characters’ physical features needed to go way beyond their fashion sense. We needed to know the gestures they used most often, their most common facial expressions, the tonality of their voices, their manners, and their posture.

The psychological profile of our heroes ran the gamut of the Meyer-Briggs Type Indicator. We needed to know how they managed stress, without knowing what the stressors were. We needed to imagine how they dealt with errors, without knowing the circumstances. We needed to know how they coped with suffering, without knowing the causes of their pain.

The problem I had with front loading all of this character information was that it was hard to remember once I started writing. It turns out I’m not an architect.

How Gardeners Build Character Profiles 

I’m that second kind of writer George R.R. Martin was talking about: the gardener. I plant my ideas. I have a sense of the type of flower I’m nurturing, but I let it branch out in directions beyond my predictions.

My screenwriting professor’s character profiling exercise told me a lot about who my heroes were when they were sitting down. Those details changed once they were in motion. His exercise gave me a baseline for my heroes’ emotions, but did little to predict the fluctuations.

People don’t know who they really are until they’re given opportunities and faced with challenges. As a gardener, I need to see how my characters react to fertilizer and how they fair through stormy weather.

Here’s a character research exercise to help you imagine how your hero would react to things beyond their control. The goal of this is to help you build a profile that reveals who your character is when they’re outside of their comfort zone, when their nightly routine is broken, and things don’t go according to plan.

2. Hammer Time

The Party Scenario

What’s your hero’s ideal gathering look like?

  • A dinner party where everyone does their best to accurately quote scholarly articles, where drinking wine is a procedure, and there’s a special fork for every course.
  • A marathon viewing of a cult TV show where the guests come as their favorite characters and all the horderves resemble props from the series.
  • A place where the kegs are vaulting horses for inebriated athletes, where girls take turns holding their breath in each others’ mouths, and there’s a trail of red cups leading from the entryway to the boulevard.

It’s a thought experiment so feel free to come up with your own scenario. Just identify your hero’s comfort zone, so we can take them to the opposite place.

What does your hero do when they walk into a party and realize it was a mistake?

  • Do they make a beeline for the booze?
  • Do they note the locations of the bathrooms an other hiding places?
  • Do they find the one person they know and attach themselves like a barnacle?
  • Do they pretend to text on a dead phone?
  • Do they orbit the most attractive people, hoping they get invited into the group?
  • Do they stand on the porch and wait for someone else to acknowledge them?
  • Do they turn tail and run?

Where does your hero end up spending most of their time?

  • Do they camp on the couch with their head down?
  • Do they eavesdrop on a conversation waiting for an opening?
  • Do they gage the interests of the party goers so they can lie to fit in?
  • Do they think they’re hitting on someone until that person’s significant other enters the room?
  • Do they get drunk and tell jokes that aren’t suited for the room?

What is your hero’s breaking point? How much social anxiety can they take?

  • Do they feel their age, when the millennials around them reminisce about the boy bands they grew up listening to?
  • Do they get beached whale drunk and pass out on the floor?
  • Do they get up when a couple starts making out on top of them?
  • Do they get into a punch up with a jealous lover?

How do they leave?

  • Do they shake hands with everyone they spent more than a second speaking with, giving out business cards as they pass?
  • Does your hero wait for the person they came with to turn around before giving them the Batman goodbye?
  • Do they get tossed out on their ass?
  • Do they leave with the first person who hits on them?
  • Do they linger until the last cabs arrive and walk home alone?
  • Do they drive home drunk?

The point of this exercise is to help you identify your character’s social disposition, to find the core of your character on the introversion extroversion spectrum. Your hero’s reactions to a bad party should give you some idea of how they’d function in a lot of social situations.

More Scenarios to get Your Imagination Going

How would your hero deal with being pulled over when they’ve done nothing wrong?

  • Would they keep their hands at 10 and 2 and just take their ticket?
  • Would they dispute the officer’s claim?
  • Would they lay down some legal jargon?
  • Would they lay on the charm?
  • Would they presume they actually did something wrong?
  • Would they play dumb?
  • Would they pump the gas and keep going?

You can put your hero’s feelings about authority into a character profile, but it helps to imagine how things would actually play out in the real world. Who knows, you might even find an idea for scene in this.

How would your hero react to the sound of a scream coming from a dark alley?

  • Would they call 9-1-1 and then check to see what’s going on?
  • Would they charge in that direction, never mind the odds against them?
  • Would they gather a crowd to go in at once?
  • Would they throw a rock through a shop window to trigger a security alarm?
  • Would they keep their head down, move on, and spend the night telling themselves they didn’t hear what they thought they heard?

What kind of hero are you working with? Are they a coward, action oriented, or levelheaded? Imagine the same scenario again, but this time the odds are stacked against them. If the rush into the alley with the intention of fighting they’ll lose. If they run the authorities will not respond in time. How does your hero react now? Do they bargain with the attackers? Do they appeal to the attackers sense of reason? Do they work out some kind of con?

3. It All Falls Down

Characters Should Be Defined by Actions

Come up with your own version of one of these scenarios and run your characters through it. If a few of them do the exact same thing, combine them. If the entire cast does the same thing you need to tweak them. You need a diversity of personalities to keep the conflict going.

If you’ve already written a draft ask yourself if your hero would answer your questions the same way when they’re introduced as they would in the end. If their answers differ make sure the story justifies the change in their opinions.

Your hero’s past, physical features, mannerisms, and surroundings matter, but their actions matter more. Research your hero’s personality in order to predict their behavior. Come up with your own guided meditation challenge course and put your hero through the rigor. Then you’ll know who you’re actually working with.

As the old Gotham Proverb goes, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”

The Narration An Audio Drama By Drew Chial

Check out this audio drama based on my short story The Narration produced by the good folks at Fancy Pants Gangsters.

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Every person has an internal monologue, a place where they can speak their innermost desires and private thoughts. But what if those secret musings didn’t stay secret? Find out as four friends encounter The Narration by Drew Chial.

Find it here:

Redshift Season 1 Episode 3 – The Narration by Drew Chial

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Characterization Lessons from Pop Culture (Updated)

1. Narcissist

Audiences love watching characters in dire situations work their way out. We want to believe that with enough determination anyone can lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. More than that, we want to believe that people have the power to look inward and turn themselves into someone better.

A character’s growth should account for shifts in his attitude, but if his personality does a complete 180 it will affect his believability. New situations should nurture the hero’s evolution, while his nature should remain the same. Inconsistencies in the hero’s essence will feel like a betrayal to the audience. The more the hero changes, the more parts of them need to remain the same.

Allow me to illustrate my point with a sampling of references pulled from pop culture: from Bill Murray’s filmography, to panned superhero movies, and the Star Wars rereleases.

What Bill Murray Teaches Writer’s About Constructing Characters

Western storytelling is built on the idea that human beings can change. A TV executive who’s outgrown his conscience can still learn the true meaning of Christmas. A jaded big city weatherman can still discover the joy of helping others in a small town. A crotchety old drunk can still be a hero to someone.

Audiences want to see Bill Murray better himself while continuing to be the charming cynic we’ve grown to love. Whether he’s bonding with a neglected woman in Japan, tracking down the mother of his child, or hunting a mythical shark his outlook evolves while his personality remains the same.

Many of Bill Murray’s roles play to his public perception: the man who laughs in the face of Armageddon, the slacker soldier, the narcissist we just can’t resist. In the 80s and 90s, when audiences saw Bill Murray’s name on the marquee they walked into the theater with certain expectations. He’s expanded his repertoire since, but at the time the man was a well established brand.

Before writers’ can set their characters on the quest to better their lives they must first discover their hero’s inner Bill Murray, that core of the character that remains pure. You can’t duplicate the appeal of the man, the myth, the national treasure that is William James Murray, but you can build fundamental traits, like his, into your characters.

If your story opens with your hero making jabs at his surroundings, he shouldn’t lose that edge once he likes what he’s seeing. If your hero was a lawyer in the first act and a civilian by the second, don’t expect him to forget all of that legal jargon. If your hero has obsessive compulsions, a narrative victory isn’t going to cure him.

Everyone has traits that remain the same no matter what our circumstances are. We all have our resting happiness rates. We all lean one way or the other on the introversion/extroversion spectrum. We all have quirks that are too deeply ingrained to change.

If you want to know how audiences react when their favorite characters’ natures are altered beyond repair look no further than Superhero movies.

What Superhero Movies Teach Writers About Character Consistency

I have a friend who is a hardcore fundamentalist (when it comes to superhero films). He doesn’t treat graphic novels like they’re gospel. He doesn’t swear by the sanctity of the source material, but he is puritanical about the representation of superheroes, orthodox about their origins, and trenchant about their treatment on the big screen.

It shakes his faith when their spirit is violated. He cries, “Heresy,” when he sees them misrepresented.

After watching the Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer he said, “Why would Batman ask someone if they bleed? He’s a protector not an instigator.”

I used to think that he was taking these movies too seriously, but time has made a convert out of me. I shared his feelings about X-Men: The Last Stand. The compassionate Professor X of the first two X-Men films sat that film out. An impostor stepped into his place. The man who worked so hard to tame Wolverine’s savagery lost his patience. He dismissed his friend.

“I don’t need to explain myself, least of all to you.”

In the first two films Magneto was established as an unwavering advocate for all of mutant kind, but in X-men: The Last Stand he’s a mustache twirling villain. When his lieutenant/lover is stripped of her powers, he turns his back on her. “She was beautiful once.” When his first wave of mutant followers fall in battle, he grins. “That’s why the pawns go first.”

The writers strayed too far from their characters’ emotional cores for the audience to recognize them anymore. These changes broke my suspension of disbelief.

How Jared Leto’s Joker Proves My Point

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I went into a nerd rage when I saw the recently revealed image of Jared Leto as the Joker for the upcoming The Suicide Squad movie.

They gave the Joker a grill, a teardrop, and an old English tattoo. These accessories are cheap Hollywood shorthand for ‘thug.’ Jared Leto’s Joker isn’t the enigma that Heath Ledger brought to The Dark Knight. He’s a stereotype. By cramming the Joker into an established mold they betray the mysterious nature of the character.

As for his other tattoos: the skull in the jester hat, the smile on his forearm, the playing cards, and patterns of ‘HA-HA-HA,’ they all seem redundant. Slapping the word ‘Damaged’ on his forehead reduces him to a Halloween costume with a label of what he’s supposed to be on it. Cool ink can add an edge to a character, but this Joker is over branded. His presentation is a contradiction. He’s a lunatic with the patience to sit in a tattoo parlor long enough to get complex shading.

This is the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to character design. He wears a purple glove on one hand and a fist full of rings on the other. I can’t help but imagine the brainstorming session where all of these accessories were envisioned.

“Let’s Marilyn Manson him by 15%.”

“Can we add some juggalo into the mix?”

“What if he only wears one glove like Michael Jackson?”

The Joker has never been subtle, but he’s never conformed to the look of a typical criminal. This image shows the producers of the Suicide Squad don’t get the core of the character. The Joker is an outsider, a conundrum to cops and criminals alike. This interpretation looks like he belongs in prison. His mystique is gone.

This is what happens when a character changes hands too many times. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand intended. It tries to make a figure shrouded in mystery fit a convention.

I think Jared Leto is a good fit for the character, but I don’t trust the people writing the material he’s working with. They seem too concerned with modernizing the character. The same thing almost happened with Spiderman.

(UPDATE) There’s some evidence to suggest that this promo image does not represent the way Jared Leto’s Joker will look in the film and that the tattoos were an exclusive to this picture. If that’s the case, then well played Warner Bros. That’s one way to get a lot of ink, so to speak. Here’s hoping for the best.

Another Reason Sony Lost Spiderman

An ex-MTV executive pitched an “experimental exercising” Spiderman to former Sony head Amy Pascal. He thought it would be cool if the web slinger was into Hot Power Yoga, Tough Mudder Triathlons, and the Color Run. He wanted to play up the character’s athleticism. He thought a EDM listening, Snap-chatting, humble bragging Spiderman would appeal more to millennials.

The ex-MTV executive wanted to see Spidey on social media. Never mind the fact that Peter Parker’s shy nature is at the core of his character. The coveted millennial demo means all the previous characterization had to go. Rather than appreciate a hero’s timeless appeal a middle-aged man tried to suss out what teenagers think is cool. Imagine how well this “buzzworthy” Spiderman would’ve aged compared to the original films.

This is why Sony and Warner Bros are losing the Superhero arms race. In the process of modernizing their heroes they betray their fundamentals.

2. Alas

Why It’s Important for Writers to Remember that Han Shot First

When George Lucas rereleased the Star Wars special editions he altered an important scene. In A New Hope Han Solo finds himself corned by a bounty hunter in a bar. In the original film Han demonstrated his guile by shooting Greedo under the table. In the new edit Greedo shoots first. Han awkwardly tilts his neck, dodges the blast, and returns fire.

In this edit Han Solo is less of a scoundrel and less resourceful. His back is against the wall. He freezes. Then finds his courage after a spot of luck. That’s not what someone with Han Solo’s swagger would do. Han shooting second was a betrayal of his character.

It’s these things authors have to pay attention to when editing their work. Ask yourself if your hero would allow you to make alterations to their behavior and still be the same character. Your hero should change over time, but their evolution should be gradual. They need a rudder to keep them on course. Parts of their personality need to stay set in stone.

The audience should feel like all the good the story drew out of your hero was buried in them from the start.

How Writers Can Make Gatekeepers Work for Them

"Nobody can see the great Oz, even I haven't seen him"

“Nobody can see the great Oz, even I haven’t seen him”

The gatekeepers who once decided what art was worth publishing are losing relevance. We need not kneel at their feet to gain entrance to the public square. There are paths in everywhere.

Director J.J. Abrams told the audience at the Anaheim Star Wars Celebration that they could all be filmmakers. “Everyone has a camera in their pocket now… The technology has been democratized. Everyone has access… If you want to do it, the only thing stopping you from doing it is you.”

It’s great to think everyone will be creating art instead of passively consuming it, but it will be harder for people who want to make it their career to pay the rent. Professionals will find themselves in direct competition with amateurs. Audiences will be confused when dabblers and experts use the same channels to distribute their work.

This is why Edgar Allen Poe despised the printing press. He said, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful lumber.”

I don’t believe the multiplication of books has given us only wood shavings, but it has made new classics harder to find.

Blogs on writing focus on words of encouragement. Come, join the self-publishing revolution. We give the impression that everyone who wants to make it as an author can, so long as they’re committed to self promotion.

I’ve watched writers who helped perpetuate this idea turn on it like they just saw a glitch in the Matrix, launching into Twitter-tantrums, telling off their followers, calling us all part of the problem. They lashed out at amateurs giving their work away for free, while professionals struggled to make a living. They called the situation hopeless. They called it quits.

If only they’d reached out to the gatekeepers instead of shunning them.

"You're wasting my time"

“You’re wasting my time”

Who Separates the Hobbyist from the Artists?

If everyone writes a book, how will audiences discover the next masterpiece? When they have too many choices, they settle for nothing. Options can be overwhelming. People need help whittling them down.

Wattpad, a social network for sharing fiction, seems like a great democratic option for writers. The charts are driven by users. The more people who read and comment on a work the higher its placement.

At the time of this writing a search under the word, “horror” brings up three pieces of One Direction Fan Fiction. The first page of what’s hot in the horror category features two pieces promoting Unfriended, the new found footage movie. If we’re starting from the bottom we can’t rely on these voting metrics to elevate our work. We need endorsements from people in the know.

We need gatekeepers.

They haven’t disappeared. Their role has evolved. Print may be dying, but the printers still matter. They used to be the sole source of marketing and distribution, now readers rely on them for content curation.

Don’t shut the Gate on Yourself

I self published my first novella for free. I have two unpublished novellas I’m planning on releasing on Amazon. I want to find a traditional publisher for my current work in progress, because a published product seems vetted. It helps readers hear the signal through the noise. In this era of industry change the most responsible thing an author can do is leave all options on the table.

In the past grant sponsors, writing contest holders, agents, and publishers were the only gatekeepers, but just as the definition of an artist has expanded so has the definition of a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers no longer require publishing power, they just need an audience who trusts their opinion.

Now that we’re all artists, everyone is a critic. This is why YouTube is producing celebrity media experts, because audiences want critics with credentials, mavens they can trust to recommend entertainment that’s worthy of their time. If you’re publishing on your own you shouldn’t cup your hands together and shout, “I have a book!” You should find a tastemaker with a megaphone.

"Well bust my buttons"

“Well bust my buttons”

Why Gatekeepers Matter More than Ever Before

When I first started sharing stories online, I made the mistake of only posting links on my friends’ walls. I figured they’d share it based on the quality of the content. It turned out very few of my proximity friends were interested in horror fiction. I thought if just one of them got the word of mouth going, they’d be an evangelist spreading the gospel of my writing. When that didn’t happen, I assumed the marketplace of ideas had spoken and I’d had a bad one.

My next strategy was to post links to my blog on every social media outlet in the hopes that some of them would stick. My delivery schedule didn’t leave me time to mingle. I’d copy and paste the same promotional material on all my walls. The people following me in multiple spaces saw the same tag lines at the exact same time. I left links on subreddits that banned me for ignoring the rules. I hijacked hashtags without looking up their meaning, like #wwwblogs which stood for “Women Writers Wednesday.” Whoops, sorry.

Some social media gurus encourage this behavior. They come off like pyramid schemers, saying the only thing preventing you from getting more readers is your commitment to self promotion. Many of us strain our backs planting as many seeds as we can, when our efforts would best be served finding fertile land.

If you’re a Young Adult Author your target audience uses Snapchat, the photo messaging application where messages disappear after they’ve been read. As of April 2015, 71% percent of its users are under 25. Your audience is there, but if you think it’s a place to find new readers you’re wasting your time. Consider the nature of the medium, unless you’re running a time sensitive promotion, you’re writing with disappearing ink.

Social media advisor Gary Vaynerchuk told Time that this shouldn’t matter. “Last time I checked, when I’m listening to a car commercial on Z100, that shit disappeared.”

It did, but he wasn’t using the radio to have a conversation. That distinction matters.

As of September 2014, 71% of adults were using Facebook. This seemed like a good place for me to set up an author page and get the word out about my next book. This was until they tweaked their algorithm so less than 5% of the people who ‘Liked’ my page saw my posts. I know this because Facebook shows my link stats above the option to pay to promote them.

If Twitter introduces a similar algorithm driven feed, like many have speculated, I’ll have to pay maintain my reach or it will be cut to stumps.

The internet isn’t a democracy. It’s a republic. We elect Facebook and Twitter to be our social networks. They decide how much of our speech is free. They have the power to push content creators to other side of a paywall. When that happens, we’ll need those gatekeepers again.

I love the notion that artists online can all be dandelions casting thousands of seeds to wind in the hope that a hundred of them will take root, but if our offerings are treated like weeds, we’ll need someone who can vouch for them.

"Well that's a horse of a different color."

“Well that’s a horse of a different color.”

You May Already Be A Gatekeeper

Many of us lack the courage to submit our work to critics capable of discerning between polished pieces and experiments. It’s doesn’t take much courage to wait for an audience to discover our stories, but it takes guts to send them to someone who’s qualified enough to eviscerate them. We need to get over our fear of gatekeepers if we ever want a place in the public square.

It’s our job to find them. Follow publishers on twitter. Keep a watchful eye for holiday-centric contests and story pitching hashtags.

Find critics in your medium, not just the book reviewers on Goodreads, but the ones on YouTube too (for Young Adult writers check out the reviewers at Chez Apocalypse). Interact with them. Suggest obscure works you think they’d enjoy before asking them to examine your own.

There are gatekeepers at every level. Many of them are fellow travelers. High profile bloggers are always looking for contributors. Bookmark people giving writing advice about the genres you work in. Seek out people who are already covering your niche.

Podcasters are always looking for guests in their own backyard. Find someone in your neck of the woods with mutual interests and share your podium with them. If you’re a geek find out who’s covering the local conventions and try to meet up with them.

Your author platform may not big enough to land you on the bestseller list, but you might have a following worth envying. If so, you have the power to be a gatekeeper. Lower your drawbridge and let other artists in.

How to turn a Complex Story into a Simple Synopsis

1. Profile

A lot things go into telling a simple story

My least favorite type of writing has always been summarizing. Whether I was pitching a screenplay or a synopsis for a book, I got too concerned about what producers and publishers were looking for. I hated whatever I put on paper. It felt like I was cutting out the tastiest parts to make it palatable, misrepresenting the material by packaging it for mass appeal.

When my screenwriting professor videotaped the pitch for my first script, I ranted for twenty minutes. This was no elevator pitch. The lift for the tallest building in the world doesn’t take that long to get to the top. I had to lower my time to two minutes or less.

Since then I’ve learned the memorization techniques I needed to keep myself on task and how to select the parts of my story that were worth focusing on. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Brand Your Book

When our stories are medleys of multiple genres, we have to pick one to encompass each of them. When our themes branch off in too many directions, we need to identify the root from which they stem. When we have an ensemble cast, we have to choose a clear protagonist to be their delegate.

My work in progress is a horror story, a legal thriller, a relationship drama, a dark comedy, and a mystery. Since it features supernatural elements I’m calling it a supernatural thriller, because the genre’s conventions are the most prevalent.

In my case the opening might read:

We the Damned is a supernatural thriller in the spirit of…

2. Close Up

Familiar Only Different

If I included all of my story’s layers my synopsis would seem convoluted. This is why I reign it in with a comparison. I give my audience a point of reference then I diverge from it. My work in progress is similar to The Devil and Daniel Webster in that it’s about a trial for a man’s soul, beyond that the two stories couldn’t be anymore different.

In The Devil and Daniel Webster the devil takes center stage. In my story the Devil has no screen time.

In The Devil and Daniel Webster the defense attorney uses patriotic rhetoric to challenge Hell’s jurisdiction. In my story the defense attorney’s strategy is to challenge hell’s definition of a wasted life. In The Devil and Daniel Webster the Devil is a symbol for America’s sins. He was there when the first Native American was gunned down. He stood on the deck of the first slave ship. In my story the demons are a symbol for depression. They’re more concerned with the human condition than a history lesson.

In We the Damned the trial for Mr. Black’s soul is a framing device. The real story comes from the ghosts on the witness stand. They tell the tale of Pilgrim Valley, a town manipulated by unseen forces. The story hints early on that the demons, the ghosts, and the trial are not what they seem.

Despite those differences my opening may reference my influence. It could read like this:

We the Damned is a supernatural thriller in the spirit of The Devil and Daniel Webster.

This would lead into the…

3. Adjusting Tie

Logline

A logline is one or two sentences that setup the dramatic arc of your story, introducing the situation, the players, and the stakes.

I used to treat my loglines like lumps of concrete. I’d write a longwinded sentence and start chiseling away at it, hoping my sculpture would reveal itself. The end result was an incoherent mess. These days I treat my loglines like prototypes, whose parts can be mixed and matched.

Upworthy comes up with 25 different headlines before settling on the one they think will entice readers. This is a strategy I have no qualms with stealing from the click baiters. That’s why my logline documents are filled with bullet points.

When writing a logline don’t use your hero’s first name. Identify them by their job, social status, academic pursuit, hobby, or creative passion. In my case, I’m using:

– an attorney

Use adjectives to give your character some distinction. It never hurts to introduce them as underdogs. That’s why I’m specifying that my hero is:

  • a drunken attorney

I come back to this next part over and over. I try to include the break in the routine, show the character’s goal, and give a sense of the stakes without getting too wordy.

  • a drunken attorney is forced to represent a man on trial for his soul

With your hero’s mission established it’s time to give a idea of the forces working against them:

– To save a man’s soul a drunken attorney must defeat the finest minds hell has to offer, little do they know he provides better council when he’s drunk

I added that last part to show that my story has got swagger. The tone of your logline is just as important as the events it references.

4. Arms

Narrative

The worst way to write a synopsis is to try to tell a condensed version of everything that happens in your story.

Have you ever watched a film adaptation of a book that tried to cram in every character and every scene? A ninety-thousand word novel doesn’t fit into a ninety page screenplay. If a screenwriter tried to include every sequence they’d have to breeze through them. Each scene would be twenty seconds long. The result would feel like a ninety minute montage.

Rather than write an abridged version of each of your chapters, start with a basic framework and build outward. I try to write one sentence for each of these story beats.

PARAGRAPH 1: ACT 1

  1. Who is the hero, what’s their lot in life, what’s their drive, and what makes them sympathetic?
  2. What breaks their routine? What goal does that leave them with?
  3. Who or what is in the way of their goal?
  4. What’s the situation surrounding the events? What’s the setting, and the time period?

PARAGRAPH 2: ACT 2

  1. What’s the hero’s point of no return?
  2. What is the hero’s quest teaching them? How are they starting to change?
  3. How do their alliances shift?
  4. What’s the hero’s lowest moment? Have they learned their lesson? Do they get their goal only to realize they wanted something else all along?

PARAGRAPH 3: ACT 3

  1. What’s at stake when the hero nears the climatic confrontation? How do they use their new knowledge to resolve it?
  2. What’s the resolution? Does it set another story up?

Your story will have more to it than this, but you should focus on this barebones structure if you want to fit it all on one page. It’s possible to be accurate while omitting your favorite part. This is no place to include quotes, editorial commentary, or flowery description.

If you’re posting a synopsis on Amazon, treat it like a trailer. Give the audience enough information to make them curious about how it ends. You can make vague allusions to everything that happens beyond the midpoint. If you’re submitting your story to agents and publishers then you should include spoilers.

There are tough compromises every author has to make to categorize their book. If we want audiences to be hungry for our work, we have to package it for the taste makers first. Happy summarizing.

The Mob Comes for Everyone: On the Age of Public Shaming

The villagers find the windmill offensive

The villagers find the windmill offensive

There is wisdom in crowds.

Ask a classroom full of children to guess how many gumdrops are in a jar. They’ll give you a small margin of error. Groups are better at estimating than individuals. Bring researchers with different theories together and watch them cancel out each other’s biases. Groups with diverse opinions are good at making rational decisions. Go to trivia night with friends with different interests and you’ll increase your odds of success. When people with different focuses collaborate, they raise the collective knowledge pool.

There is madness in crowds too.

Fill your Facebook feed with people who share your beliefs and they will never be challenged. Groups of like minded individuals are less inclined to let new ideas in. Get your news from one point of view and you will see through the same narrow lens. Groups with spokespeople are less open to independent thought. Limit your Twitter tribe to users on the same side and they’ll choose your battles for you. Groups that don’t value outside perspectives will tell you your opinion.

Our peers pressure us to raise a torch to someone who tipped our sacred cow. Someone who made a joke that didn’t connect. Someone who said something that wasn’t politically correct. We form cyber mobs before our target has time to explain. We turn their humiliation into a game. We hurl insults just to feel like we’re part of something.

Our cause may be pure, our indignation may be righteous, but when so many of us are wielding pitchforks we overkill our target. We cost them jobs, their sense of security, and sometimes their lives.

The madness of a crowd is never more apparent than when it’s on a witch hunt.

George Carlin once said, “People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a ‘common purpose’. ‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3AM.”

Social media has given us surgical control of the groups we pledge our allegiance to. We don’t have to tolerate family members with opposing viewpoints. We can simply ‘hide’ them. The editorial nature of the news allows us to select which reality we want to see. We bookmark the world we prefer to live in, and pity those poor saps looking in the other direction. Online reporters are so comfortable with our allegiance that they resort to name calling within the headline.

My Superstition About A Public Shaming

I have my share of politically polarizing beliefs. It doesn’t take much to trigger my anger. My blood boils at room temperature. Still, every time one of my groups drafts me for war, I dodge it. The networked name-calling seems inviting. Some people seem like they really have it coming, but I have a superstition that keeps me from joining in. I can’t help but imagine what it will feel like when the mob comes for me. I say, “will” because in this day and age it feels inevitable.

Share your thoughts online, grow your audience, spend a lot of time doing it, and the odds of a backlash increases. For every off the cuff tweet I make, there’s a greater chance someone will take offense. For every article I post, a public shaming feels inevitable. For every photo I upload, there’s a higher probability I’ll turn myself into an unflattering meme.

The repercussions are at the ready. The mockery is in the mail. The insults are inbound.

I’m not a target of significance, but I can’t shake that irrational notion that the mob is coming. That one of my dumb jokes will go viral and a group’s rage will not be quelled by a retroactive artist’s statement. That even after I issue a sincere apology, my words will continue to haunt me. That after my 15 minutes of shame has passed, I’ll still be backpedaling over a toxic brand.

I want to keep participating in the conversation without worrying how my words could be used against me. I want to make jokes without crossing the line, but I’m sure your line isn’t the same as mine. I want to use satire without dumbing it down so much that it’s obvious on first glance. I want to embrace the totality of language without limiting myself to well trodden topics.

The villagers can't take a joke

The villagers can’t take a joke

On Comedic Irony

On Pete Holmes’s podcast You Made it Weird, Comedian Patton Oswalt said, “I like social justice. I like political correctness. I like progressivism, but I don’t like when it’s used to silence and control other people.”

Oswalt likes to make fun of difficult subjects to reduce their power. “If you start laughing at that, that’s how you get your control back.”

Comedians make absurd statements about absurd situations like racism, rape, and homophobia, to undermine them. Often an offensive joke isn’t meant to make light of a situation, but to cast a light on the reality of it.

If you’re too afraid to address a taboo you give it power over you. If you can’t joke about “He who shall not be named,” then Voldemort has control over you.

Not every moral message needs to be delivered with a straight face. Comedy can be a round about way of reenforcing our ethics. Satirists have the power to enlighten while they entertain.

This doesn’t mean that comics can say anything with reckless abandon. It means we should ponder their intention before we overreact. Sometimes they’re being offensive for the sake of it, and sometimes they’re doing something with a little more nuance.

When comedian Sarah Silverman makes a joke about racism, her intent isn’t to perpetuate a bias. She’s making a joke at the expense of her dim witted onstage persona. The joke isn’t the racist statement. It’s that her character is too dumb to realize she’s being a bigot. An entire group of people aren’t the crux of the joke. Prejudice is. To chuckle at the racist statement, is to laugh at the wrong part of the joke.

Silverman calls this laughing with a mouth full of blood.

Someone who hears an endorsement of their own bigotry, didn’t get the joke. Someone who takes personal offense, didn’t get it either. The question is just how clear does a humorist have to be?

Sometimes a comedian’s intention gets away from them. When Dave Chappelle left The Chappelle Show Time Magazine reported he felt his sketches were reinforcing racial stereotypes rather than sending them up. His cowriter Neil Brennan told Maxim Magazine that Chappalle walked out when a crew member laughed at the wrong part of a sketch.

In Jonathan Swift’s book A Modest Proposal, he suggested solving poverty in Ireland by selling Irish babies as food for English aristocrats. Swift was being intentionally offensive to draw attention to human suffering in the wake of the Irish potato famine. To this day, there are people on Yahoo Answers wondering if Swift was serious.

Maybe people are that gullible. Just look at all the people on Facebook who react to Onion headlines like they’re real. Maybe people just want an excuse to be offended, because deep down they like the feeling, as comedian Jim Norton suspects in his article for Time Magazine.

The villagers find Frankenstein's monster offensive

The villagers find Frankenstein’s monster offensive

You Can’t Please Everyone

Comedians should consider their forum. Places like Twitter, where’s it’s hard for audiences to gage intent, might be the wrong place to workshop edgier material. If you can’t fit a disclaimer in a 140 characters, be prepared to own up to the joke later.

As for those of us sitting in the peanut gallery, we need to consider the speaker’s intention, and learn to accept apologies when they’re given. When someone offends our groups’ sensibilities, we need to downgrade our homicidal rage and show a little empathy. Our reactions shouldn’t force people to water down their language for fear of the consequences. If we do there’s some harsh truths we could be losing.

In his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

If you disagree with someone, know that threatening them will only strengthen their position. Don’t give them a token resistance to point their finger at. Be the charming alternative to their misconception. Be a delegate for your belief system. If you don’t have the patience for a rational conversation, then you’re the wrong person to represent your position.

Syphoning Nightmare Fuel

1. Syphon

The Difference Between Dream Logic and Story Logic

People always ask authors where their ideas come from. In the case of Sandman creator, Neil Gaiman, fans always ask if he gets his ideas from dreams. On his blog, he answered:

No. Dream logic isn’t story logic. Transcribe a dream, and you’ll see. Or better yet, tell someone an important dream – ‘Well, I was in this house that was also my old school, and there was this nurse and she was really an old witch and then she went away but there was a leaf and I couldn’t look at it and I knew if I touched it then something dreadful would happen…’ – and watch their eyes glaze over.

Dream logic is story logic’s drunken roommate, mumbling through an anecdote, easily distracted by details, always losing his place. Despite dream logic’s meanderings, its abstract nature makes it interesting. Dreams feel prophetic, like a sixth sense foreshadowing coming events. Dreamscapes seem like they’re aware of the dreamer’s presence. Every object is personified. Even the walls have feelings. Dreamworlds are hardwired to our emotions. They resinate with importance, which is why, despite their abstractions, they’re still a source of inspiration.

Filmmaker, David Lynch has directed three movies with dream logic: Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. Their themes drive their stories, more than characters or structure. Their plots are incomprehensible by design. Their outcomes are open to interpretation.

As much as I enjoy Lynch’s work, I believe nightmares can fuel clear stories too. David Robert Mitchell, writer/director of the new horror hit It Follows, says his film was based on a reoccurring dream where he was being stalked by a slow moving predator. Everyone has their own version of that nightmare. Mitchell tamed his, gave it rules, and made it fit a story structure.

Dreams don’t conform to story logic, but Lynch and Mitchell show how they can be repurposed. I’m going to show you how to make your dream sequences feel relevant and how to mine your nightmares for material that makes sense.

2. Syphoning

How to Make Dream Sequences Matter

The “It was all just a dream” trope can feel like a waste of your audiences’ time, unless the dream does more than provide a cheap jump scare.

In 1845, Elias Howe was struggling to invent a working sewing machine. He had a nightmare that cannibals were stabbing him. He looked down to find their spears had holes in the tips. When Howe woke up he realized he needed to put a hole in the tip of the needle for his contraption to function.

Have you ever struggled to remember a word only to recall it when you didn’t need it? Your subconscious continued to work on a problem long after your conscious mind had given up. Howe’s subconscious continued work on the machine after his brain had called it a night.

This is why dream sequences aren’t useless. They can clarify information characters were exposed to earlier but didn’t understand. To be clear, a dream sequence shouldn’t be a dues ex machina, a plot device to get your character out an impossible situation, it needs to be set up early in the story so it feels earned. A dream can present images the hero has already seen, but in an order that makes them make sense.

The rules that apply to every scene apply even more to the ones happening in your hero’s head. Nightmares need to reveal character in a way your hero would never dare externalize. Show us the dark side of the hero’s ambition. Show us the doubts they have about their goal. Show us the internal nature of their conflict.

You can play with metaphors to reward more attentive readers. Make sure there’s substance in your symbolism. If the sequence features a backward talking little person, make sure there’s a reason behind that decision, even if it’s never fully explained.

The scene should further the plot. As with Howe’s dream, the surreal should offer solutions to real world obstacles. This way your audience won’t feel cheated by something that didn’t actually happen.

Mine Your Nightmares for Material that Makes Sense

Some nightmares are so powerful they linger long after you’ve torn their page out of your dream journal. They stick in your memory like good stories. The trick is to find a way to cram their square shape into the circular peg of narrative structure. I do this by whittling them down to their essence and building a fresh story around them.

So you just woke up screaming? Here are some ways to tell if you have something worth developing.

Audition your Nightmares

Clive Barker keeps a dream journal. He says he discards 98% of the material, but the remaining 2% is filled with creatures like Hellraiser’s Pinhead.

James Cameron says he got the idea for the severed torso of the Terminator from a dream.

Mary Shelly said she dreamt about a pale student kneeling beside a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with uneasy, half-vital motion.”

Her vision became Frankenstein’s creation.

In each of these cases, the appearance of these phantasms inspired the premise for their stories. Before casting a nightmare as your villain, ask yourself what makes them narrative worthy. Do they wear their origin on their face, like Freddy Krueger? Do they have a reason for stalking you? Could that reasoning speak to a greater theme?

3. Syphoned

Consider your Subconscious’s Pitch

The best nightmares to lift material from are the ones set in interesting situations. The trouble is most of these situations aren’t grounded in reality. They need to be reigned in.

I’d once dreamt a killer bound a line of victims up like paper dolls. He strung their naked corpses across a walkway in the middle of the night. The morning commuters were mildly upset by this horrifying presentation. They shook their heads, saying things like:

“Will you look at that?”

“Well, that’s too bad.”

“Geez, not again.”

The drivers’ tepid reactions made the dream all the more disturbing, but if I were to adapt this situation into a story, I’d have to up the ante. Traffic would have to stop. Drivers would have to be hysterical in the streets. The sky would be full of news choppers. Police tape would be everywhere. The bodies would be covered, while the authorities tried to figure out a way to take them down.

Stephen King got the idea for Misery when he fell asleep on a plane. He said, “I dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’ Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling.”

Although King’s original vision was far more ghastly, he had to change it to play better in reality.

Develop Your Dreams

Once your subconscious earns its ‘story by’ credit, it’s up to you to do the rest. You need to filter your dream through story logic. Things in dreams can happen for no reason. If you’re going to adapt an idea from one, you have to find a cause to justify the effect the nightmare had on you. Come up with an explanation for why the shapeshifting creature stalked you through town. Then your nightmare will be a story worth telling.