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 checkin 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

Humble Thy Story

1. Propping up

Why writers shouldn’t put up an APPLAUSE sign in the middle of their story

Writers, have you ever wondered if your story was too self involved? Ask yourself, is the hero so funny that he laughs at his own jokes? Is every walk on role just as witty? Is your dialogue so clever that it defies belief?

Does your story take the literary equivalent of a selfie, reminding the audience how beautiful its lead is, going to great lengths to characterize her elegance even when it’s irrelevant? Does it do the same thing with the settings, waxing poetic about inactive aspects of the environment, getting lost in the woods by describing every plant in it?

Do your characters give veiled compliments to plot developments? Do they praise your evil schemes? Are they liberal with their use of the word ‘genius’?

If so, expect some blow back. It’s good to be proud of your work, but a story that’s too proud of itself gives audiences the impression that it doesn’t need their business.

Even brilliant authors need to keep their work humble. This doesn’t mean writing in a passive voice, it means keeping the invisible hand of the author buried by eliminating the things that give away its hiding places.

Stop Reminding Us Its Fake

If you write one scene where a character compliments another on their sparkling wordplay, the reader might not think, “Did the writer just compliment himself?” but they will if you make a habit of it.

If the supporting cast always admires your hero’s beauty, and you have no plans to disfigure her, or have her appearance be at odds with her inner nature, readers will grow to resent that photo on the back cover.

If minor players always refer to the hero as ‘the chosen one’ then why should the audience be surprised when he does something heroic? If you keep planting characters that pump their fists and shout, “Yes!” when the hero answers the call to action, the audience will think, “Why does this character need my admiration? Their story has its own praise built right in.”

Readers will be far more forgiving of characters who slam the hero’s intelligence, looks, and battle strategies, because they’re more likely to have experience with condemnation than congratulations. We have an elephant’s memory for criticism and a gold fish’s memory for compliments. In a given day, we’re more likely to see rolling eyes, ducking heads, and whispers hidden behind fingers than we are to see proud nods, lovelorn eyes, and prolonged thumbs up.

2. Really?

Mutual Dislike

In an article titled Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others, researchers found that couples on first dates are more likely to bond over the things they dislike than the things they like. The dislike of a mutual friend will bring the couple closer than shared music preferences.

A narrator with a slight negative edge is easier to bond with than a hyper positive one. Characters with bad attitudes can be endearing. This doesn’t mean you should make all characters harsh and sarcastic. It’s fun to watch those figures lay their snark into authority, but the moment they use the first person to wink at the audience and say, “Ain’t I a stinker?” the reader becomes aware of what they’re supposed to think of the character.

In the story I’m working on, I caught my narrator bragging “What can I say, I’m cocky when I’m conscious.” I cut the line as soon as I’d typed it. By acknowledging my hero’s rebellious streak I was setting the reader up to turn on him.

In real life, you don’t get to call yourself ‘cool’ and then carry the title. You have to be cool and shrug it off whenever anyone calls you that.

If you’re writing a character with a quick wit, show the consequences of them flaunting their intellect. Characters can have high opinions of themselves as long as their world brings them down to earth. That’s why it’s not too hard to imagine Sherlock Holmes crawling out of a pile of garbage.

The mysteries I enjoy are told in the first person past tense. This format allows detectives to be clever during investigations, but humbled in hindsight. It lets them criticize their past selves for being too cocky, foreshadowing how they learned their lesson.

3. Who turned that on?

Take Down the Applause Sign

Once the reader sees the APPLAUSE sign on the page, they’ll spot all the ways the writer is cheating to score an emotional response. They’ll hear the laugh track giving them permission to find something funny. They’ll hear the scare chord when they’re supposed to feel frightened.

Unsubtle manipulation breaks the suspension of disbelief, puts the audience on a different wavelength than the story.

I feel this way whenever I see a serial killer thriller. When Special Agents are supposed to be briefing investigators on the killer’s methods, they can’t help but compliment his brilliance. So often the killers motivations would only make sense if he knew he was being filmed.

By setting up these artisan killers, who out perform their real world counterparts, the writer tips the audience’s attention from the right brain to the left, from imagination to criticism. When a writer uses dated pop psychology to rationalize his killer’s actions, the audience questions the writer’s qualifications. The story stops feeling like something that happened and starts feeling like something that was designed.

I was very critical of Secret Window, because the film had built itself up to be such a head scratcher. When the twist came I found myself slapping my forehead. The movie seemed to be setting up the hero’s split personality as a red herring, but it turned out to be the culprit all along. The revelation was obvious from act one. The film’s best trick was convincing me it was too smart to do that.

Secret Window’s epilogue couldn’t help but compliment its own brilliance.

Johnny Depp’s character writes an account of the climactic finale where he calls the ending “Perfect.”

I shouted at the screen, “No, it wasn’t!”

It’s hard to see a story that is that self congratulating in a flattering light. If a story keeps patting itself on the back, my inner critic wants to stab it. Victory laps heighten my desire to see a story falter.

It’s important to recognize that certain emotional responses are harder to conjure up than others. Sometimes your characters have to tip toe around their revelry until the end of act three.

If the mayor of your character’s hometown declares it ‘Protagonist Day’ and gives them the key to the city, either something terrible needs to happen in the next scene, or the credits need to start rolling immediately.

If you have to tell your audience how to feel about your story they’ll never feel that way naturally. Cut the APPLAUSE cues and let the audience do the cheering on their own.

Writer Confessions: Volume 2

Volume 2

Explore the sinful depths of my writing confessions, transgressions against composition, and crimes against literacy.

Continue reading

The Virtue of Risky Ideas

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Why writers should continue to challenge what literature can be.

A Confession

I have a confession to make, now that the statute of limitations has passed: I’ve committed academic fraud. In the second grade, I was awarded a Pizza Hut gift certificate for reading more books than any other student, when in fact my mother had read them to me. Mired in guilt, I ate my ill gotten deep dish pizza on her behalf.

My reports were, in fact, dumbed down summaries of the blurbs on the back of the books I’d claimed to have read. In instances where I couldn’t infer the endings based on the illustrations, I had my parents rent the film adaptations.

While my classmates read, I ran my finger down the text waiting for the kid next to me to turn the page. I could read, but my imagination never made room for the soft family-centric melodramas assigned to me. The time for fairy tales had past. As far as I knew, this was what literature was from here on out.

When I read the text I recalled basic narrative beats, but I never retained enough information to answer my teacher’s laser focused questions. I never remembered the names of streets or the color of the wallpaper.

My mother took me to the library, armed with a list of books appropriate for my age. She picked the one with the most awards on the cover and sentenced me to my room to labor on it.

Full disclosure: I shift the bookmark whenever she came in to check. When she asked what it was about, I made up my own story and slapped the assigned reading’s title on. When the door shut, I resumed work on the Ninja Turtle sketches stashed beneath my mattress.

I assumed there was something wrong with my attention span. I didn’t understand how kids could spend all recess sitting in the shade reading. Books had an appeal, but I was too dumb to get it.

My reading comprehension scores revealed me for a fraud. I was placed in the remedial reading class. If I’d thought the previous assignments were boring these were mind-numbing. They were stripped-down, plotless, conflict free, non-events. I spaced out completely, astral projecting my consciousness far from my peers stuttering lips.

It wasn’t until they forced me to read aloud that they realized I was in the wrong place. Even at a young age, I could read like a newscaster off a teleprompter. I didn’t need to sound things out, I didn’t require visual reminders. It wasn’t until I worked with a tutor that the school realized what my problem was: I didn’t find the assigned readings very compelling.

The next class I was placed in met in the library, where the readings were more advanced and far more interesting. The stories featured curses, amputations, and murder.  The stakes were higher than the sub sitcom offerings my classmates were reading. There was conflict, a sense of urgency, and mystery. I comprehended what I’d read, because I cared about what happened in it. The stories were eventful. They weren’t softened to shelter my young mind.

My first genuine book report was on Avi’s Wolf Rider. The story opens with a boy getting a phone call from an anonymous stranger who confesses to murdering a girl just for fun. This wasn’t The Baby Sitter’s Club, this was dangerous. It was forbidden text with a name that was ambiguous enough to let me get away with reading it. Now, when my mother asked what my book was about, I lied because I was actually reading it.

I ignored whatever was on offer at the PTA book fair. I wanted to read the books they were banning. It was the paperbacks with the red and black cover art that were worth exploring.

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Artistic Epiphanies 

Ever since I discovered horror fiction, I’ve been chasing the feeling of revelation that came from finding something different. I sought out risky works, not just taboo ones, but pieces that challenged my preconceptions of their mediums.

I found song writers who articulated the thoughts that were on the tip of my teenage tongue. They over shared, valuing honesty over likability. They challenged the stigmas of mental illness, openly questioning their own logic. They wrote songs with internal conflict.

I sought out authors who could evoke the same emotions.

Jonathan Swift taught me that words could be dangerous, that sometimes the best way to protest an unjust position is to write a story that takes it to its next logical conclusion.

Allen Ginsberg taught me that poems could be more than ethereal collections of abstract emotions, they could be howling declarations of personal freedom, bold enough for the establishment to find obscene.

Philip K. Dick taught me that I could be tricked into devouring a memoir on the perils of drug addiction, so long as there were holograms and identity scrambling cloaks thrown in.

These authors broadened my understanding of their mediums enough to invite me in.  inspiring me to transition from observer to participant. They planted seeds in my imagination that sprouted from my fingertips.

The risks they took gave me permission to take some of my own.

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A Pep Talk for Originality

My favorite art captures sides of life I’ve experienced, but never seen documented. It contains truths that have yet to be proven universal. It sets out to nail something new. When authors put their own personal oddities on the page, I can’t help but nod while I’m reading, I see myself between their lines.

Maybe every story has been told before, but these authors took the maps drawn by their predecessors and discovered new terrain. Maybe they weren’t smuggling their confessions through the mouths of their characters, but they weren’t afraid to have those characters say and do things that had readers examining the author.

Writing has the power to put allusive emotions into words, to clarify the abstractions of the mind. It can give us metaphors to put form to feelings, to identify our ailments so we don’t have to suffer in silence. Of all the feelings we should aspire to raise in readers, this is one of the most important.

Early writers have a habit of putting stock phrases in their character’s mouths, of borrowing setups, of wedging their original concept into a familiar template.

I did this. I took the books I was reading, the TV shows I was watching, and video games I was playing and mixed them into a stew, hoping the combination would make me seem inventive. I was a DJ, sampling obscure singles in the hopes of making a hit.

I wrote fast, but I was drawing from tropes I’d seen so many times they’d burrowed their way into my subconscious. When I was faced with options, I always went with the safest one. I never went with the mystery box, where the truth was hiding.

My critics told me that those stories never delivered on the promise of their setups.

You don’t want your readers to feel like you’re wasting their time, retreading the same well trodden ground. You want them to feel like they’re discovering something new about the world and their place in it. This means you have to be willing to explore stories that venture off the beaten path.

#WriterConfessions: Volume 1

TITLEOnline confessions are nothing new, but mine fit into a very specific niche. These are author admissions of literary sins and crimes against inspiration. Since I’ve commit so many scholarly atrocities in my time, this batch is only the first volume. Continue reading

Too Much Dread

These images were inspired by Karin Dreijer Andersson’s makeup in the Fever Ray’s music video for ‘If I Had A Heart.’

These images were inspired by Karin Dreijer Andersson’s makeup in the Fever Ray’s music video for ‘If I Had A Heart.’

The Balance of Hope and Dread

Writing a compelling story is a balancing act between hope and dread.

When the hero staggers down the sidewalk with a pink slip in one hand and an eviction notice in the other, put a piece of dread on the scale. When the hero discovers an old cellphone, with a genie trapped inside, granting wishes through text messages, put a piece of hope on the scale. When the phone’s battery starts running out of juice, put a piece of dread on.

Keep a tally of how many pieces you put down.

If the story breezes by without conflict, the audience will get bored and float away. If the story takes the audience’s emotions by storm and never lets up, it will get too heavy for them to take. Writers should use dramatic tension to draw out the audience’s emotions, but they shouldn’t exhaust them.

There is such a thing as too much dread.

Whether the audience realizes it or not, they’re weighing the hero’s victories against their losses, trying to predict what side the story will rest on. Sometimes you need to keep the scales in motion to thwart their predictions, and sometimes you need to give them relief by including moments where the scales are dead even.

The end balance isn’t the only thing that matters, there are other factors to consider like how long the scales stay tipped to one side, and the weight of each piece you put on.

Don’t Keep the Scales Tipped Too Long

The slasher film, The Strangers tips the scales all the way to dread in the first scene, when the leads’ blood soaked corpses are discovered on the floor of their vacation home. This flash forward pushed me out of the story.

Why would I care if Scott Speedman’s character finds a shotgun? I already know his attackers are going to get it away from him. Why would I care if Liv Tyler’s character makes a run for the radio in the barn? I already know that help doesn’t come. Once the killers got into the house, I knew they weren’t going to gut the leads until the eighty minute mark, by then I found myself saying, “Just get it over with, already.”

I suspect, the writer let the audience know the characters were doomed to make his slasher feel more hardcore, to promise us murder and mayhem. If anything, this decision stabbed The Strangers in the foot. The writer told us that no matter what the heroes do, their efforts will amount to a zero sum. This is why I couldn’t invest interest in their wellbeing, even when the big reveal is that one them survives for some reason.

Turns out, the audience needs a smattering of hope to appreciate the dread, otherwise the conflict feels meaningless.

In the typical hero’s journey, the hero goes through a change that allows him to overcome an obstacle. In tragedies, the hero’s change might lead him to sacrifice himself, or show the folly of his ways. Sometimes what changes is the audience’s expectations of the character, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We want to see Jack Nicholson’s character evolve but ultimately we realize he’s too stubborn.

In any event, the audience should keep guessing until the end.

It’s okay to plant the seeds of catastrophe throughout your story, but you don’t want to forecast the entire ending in act one, nor do you want to be so bleak we get a strong hunch of where it’s going and lose interest in the outcome. If the scales are tipped toward dread for too long, we’ll know what’s going to happen. If they shift all the way back to hope at the last minute, the audience will feel like the rug was pulled out from under them, and that happy ending will seem tacked on.

2. Blank Face

The Quality of Conflict

A few months ago, I blogged about why writers should be evil. It’s our job to make bad things happen to good people, but I should’ve specified that those bad things need to be engaging. Not every piece you put on the scales of hope and dread has the same weight. Conflict isn’t captivating on its own. Even tragedies need to be entertaining.

If you make bad things happen to background players just to make your setting seem darker, your audience will wonder if they’re supposed to care. Obstacles shouldn’t be speed bumps in the scenery, they should resonate throughout the story.

Imagine this scenario. A high school girl sets out to bring integrity back to her debate team. She wants to make well reasoned arguments, but her rival undermines her efforts by using appeals to emotion that echo the tone of cable news pundits, therefore our hero has to choose a topic where an appeal to reason will be more persuasive…and then there are bullies in the school who duct tape freshmen to the showers in the boy’s locker room.

Our hero never addresses this issue on the debate stage, nor does she have to deal with the bullies directly. Their antics are a meaningless subplot that goes nowhere. It’s only reason for being is to show how the hero’s school is rife with conflict.

In this case, the plight of the freshmen is a piece of dread set beneath the scales, disconnected from hope, it doesn’t tip the story in either direction. In this draft, it wastes the audience’s time. If the audience realizes a subplot has no real dramatic tension they’ll stop paying attention to the main one.

TVTropes.org calls this: Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy. Their article on the subject says, “Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy occurs when a conflict exists that simply lacks any reason for the audience to care about how it is resolved. This is often because the setting is extremely but meaninglessly Darker and Edgier, and/or all sides are abhorrently, equally evil.”

The pieces you put on the scales need to add weight to the story.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker call those free floating pieces ‘and thens’. Their advice is to replace ‘and thens’ with ‘buts’ and ‘therefores,’ to them make pivotal to the story.

If our hero on the debate team brought the topic of bullying to the pulpit, those scenes in the boy’s locker room would become relevant.

3. Big Smile

Don’t Break the Scales

A story might have every intention of showing how the human spirit can triumph over adversity, but long stretches of adversity can be draining for the audience. If you tap their empathy dry, you’ll find them rolling their eyes when you want them to be crying.

Too much tragedy can break the suspension of disbelief and make the audience realize you’re toying with their heartstrings.

Writers should put a fair amount of distance between a death row execution, a suicide, and a hit and run. For this reason, I think the film Monster’s Ball was a brilliantly acted character study that I never want to see again. The scales tipped from hope to dread for so long the film went from being engaging to brutalizing.

TV shows like Lost, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones are consistently tragic, but they use deaths to pose questions that are too interesting to leave unanswered. A character doesn’t just die to coax a reaction from the audience, their death tells us something new about an over arching plot line. The grief the audience feels is mixed with fascination. Even when our favorite character dies, we keep watching, because we need to know what happens.

Intriguing mysteries tip the scales back toward hope.

There are other ways to coax hope out of the audience in hopeless situations. Sometimes we root for dreadful characters when they’re the lesser of two evils.

On Breaking Bad, a chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer decides to cook meth to pay for his treatment. Walter White’s metamorphosis from mild mannered father to meth kingpin, doesn’t happen over night. Vince Gilligan, the show runner, tricks us into cheering for Walter’s transformation by setting him up against people whose methods are more ruthless.

As Walter becomes more of a monster his opposition gets worse, forcing him to pit his wit against a cartel henchman, a drug kingpin, and a ruthless gang of Neo-Nazis. Even after everything Walter’s does to his friends and family, we can’t help but hope for him to win.

Breaking Bad’s harsh subject matter could’ve made it a chore to watch, it could’ve been buried in dread, but Vince Gilligan put just enough hope on the scale to make it addicting.

More writers should pay that much attention to what they’re balancing.

How Replaying Movies Takes Writers Behind the Scenes

Reaching Cool

Writers are never just passive observers. Whether we’re reading or watching a movie, we don’t consume stories, we occupy them. We’re drawn into the events on the surface, while our subconscious minds pick apart the mechanics behind them.

The more we read, the more we understand story structure. In my piece Don’t Just Read More, Watch More I talked about the benefits writers get from watching movies too. Not only do we consume films faster, but their time limitations force them to have predictable three-act structures. Watch enough movies and you can predict when the protagonist’s routine will break, when their journey will take them past the point of no return, when their alliances will shift, when they’ll be at their lowest point, when their change has lead them to a new goal, and when they’ll rebound at the climax.

Aspiring novelists need to know those beats by heart. Films crush complex storytelling mechanics into tight time frames. The medium doesn’t allow for the freedom to explore the details that literature does. Many argue that movies are just dumbed down versions of books, but for our purposes that’s a good thing, especially when it comes to watching the same ones again and again.

Replaying a film lets us peak behind the screenwriter’s curtain, to see how their tricks are done. We know when to look up their sleeve, to spot their sleight of hand. We catch all those setups that got past us, all those plot threads that seemed so random upon first viewing, all those knots and twists, we can trace them all the way to the payoffs at the end.

Replaying a mystery, we realize how soon the clues started dropping. When we know who the killer is, we scrutinize everything he does. We catch the backhanded confessions that went over our heads the first time we heard them. Knowing a killer’s secret motivations, we can retrace the steps that led them to the end.

Knowing how the story goes, we’ll pay careful attention to when the author chose to reveal information. We’ll understand why they entered some scenes too late for us to know what was happening and left some scenes too early for us to know where the story was going.

We’ll understand why the writer chose to share somethings with us before revealing them to the characters. We’ll be able to apply the same dramatic irony techniques to our own stories. The more of these tricks we’re able to spot the more we’ll have at our disposal.

Reaching Warm

Double Down on Your Meanings

Dual meanings aren’t just for obvious double entendres like, “If I told you, you had a great rack, would you rub my nose in it?” or cheap puns from villains stringing dynamite around their prisoners, “Once this party bus reaches the capital you’re all going to have a blast.”

Dual meanings can hide under harmless lines only to reveal themselves upon repeat viewings.

Give The Usual Suspects another watch and Kevin Spacey’s statement on Keyser Soze takes on a different tone. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist…and also, I can’t believe how unfamiliar you are with the contents of your bulletin board. Seriously dude, I’ve been reading from it all morning.”

I’m pretty sure that’s how that quote goes.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden says, “Forget about what you think you know about life, about friendship, and especially about you and me.” Upon first viewing, it seems like Tyler’s sick of Jack being such a clingy friend, but it means something different the second time around.

Double meanings can be far more subtle, to the point they’re accidental. The villain might confide in the hero thinking they have similar goals. They think they’re having the same conversation, that there’s no conflict between them, until a twist reveals the villain’s true intentions. In this scenario there’s no deception, just a misunderstanding. This is the opposite of dramatic irony, where characters know things the audience does not.

Watch the recent Black Mirror: White Christmas special for a particularly nasty example of this device. It’s obvious upon a second viewing.

Double speak is a great tool for foreshadowing, it justifies your twist, while rewarding your audience for paying attention.

Open Palm

Cast a Foreshadow

One device I see in comedies involves a dim witted character predicting the story’s outcome early on. The joke is just how stupid this prediction makes them seem at the time. Of course it turns out, their ridiculous prediction is exactly what happens.

Edgar Wright is notorious for slipping spoilers like these into the beginning of his movies.

This Buzzfeed article points out how Ed’s pep talk at the beginning of Shaun of the Dead foreshadows the entire plot of the film.

In Hot Fuzz, Danny spends the first act asking Angel questions like, “Ever shoot two guns at once while diving through the air?” Angel ends up doing all of these things by the end.

In The World’s End each of the names of the 12 pubs in the pub crawl foreshadow events that will happen there. For instance, ‘The Old Familiar’ has exactly the same interior as ‘The First Post’ and the gang gets into their first brawl at ‘The Cross Hands.”

Foreshadowing has many benefits. When a tonal shift is forecasted early it makes the change less jarring for the audience. By replaying the classics we learn to spot the subtle cues the masters used to do this.

Watch the Crying Game again and the nature of the nightclub will be obvious.

Horror movies with carnage-free setups often lead with chilling stingers. The X-Files used this device at the beginning of every episode. Breaking Bad used flash forwards to give the audience a taste of just how bad things were going to get. Some films flash forward to deceive audiences into thinking the outcome will be far more hopeless than it ultimately is.

Foreshadowing allows you to hang a lantern on your dangling plot threads, to let your audience know you’re going to get back to them.

Screenwriters leave threads to dangle so the heroes will have something to reach for when they’re backed into a corner. In Jaws, there’s a reason Hooper has to explain how combustible scuba tanks are, it’s the same reason Bill mentions Pai Mei’s Five-Point-Palm Exploding-Heart-Technique in Kill Bill, and Egon makes a big deal about crossing the streams in Ghostbusters.

As Anton Checkhov once said, “If there’s an unlicensed nuclear accelerator hanging on the wall in act one. It must go off by act three. Otherwise it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

I’m pretty sure that’s how that quote goes.

In Aliens, when Ripley demonstrates her command of a mech suit in act one, we know she’ll be wearing one when she faces off against the alien queen in act three. The sly screenwriter’s trick was to introduce Ripley’s proficiency with the suit as a way for her to show her value to the team. With her expertise proven, we forget about the suit, but when she straps it back on, we’re not so surprised that our suspension of disbelief is broken.

That’s the trick movies can teach us: how to plant seeds and make our audiences forget we planted them.

Remote

If repetition is the mother of all learning, there’s knowledge to be found in repeat viewings. Replaying movies allows us to reverse engineer their design. It gives us plot devices, subtle dialogue cues, and foreshadowing tools that writers can bring with them into other mediums.

The Benefits of Creative Limitations

3 Crushing

I never had writer’s block when I was in college. Assignments had a way of getting my imagination going. The more constraints professors put on my papers the more coherent they became. I found inspiration in limitations.

A minimum requirement of citations kept my essays informed. Word count caps prevented me from going off on tangents. A strict thesis kept me on topic. The clearer the criteria the more it felt like I was cheating.

I never hit a wall when my boarders were defined.

Time never slipped away when it was hanging heavy on me. That sense of urgency kept my creativity from running rampant. I didn’t have a moment to work out every idea in my head, so I didn’t have to.

The questions in my notebook were designed to prioritize which of my ideas were most important. I started with open ended ones to gage how I felt about a subject. I moved onto closed (yes or no) questions to see what facts I already knew. I wrote a list of supporting topics and used less than half.

Clarity was more relevant than totality.

These limitations helped me make major edits before I got started. When I graduated those parameters disappeared. I figured it’d be easier to write without the pressure of 17 credits hanging over my head. Turns out, it was a whole lot harder.

2. Walls Closing in

Freedom from Indecision 

When you have too many options it’s hard to decide on a single one.

It was easy for me to decide what movie I wanted to watch when I was limited to my old VHS library. Now, in the era of Netflix, I scan through thumbnail movie covers until it’s time to go to sleep. It was easy to decide what I’d be listening to on the way home from work when I only took three CDs. Now my iPod fits over two months of music.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice – Why Less is More says, “Too many choices produces paralysis rather than liberation, with so many options to choose from people find it very difficult to choose at all.”

This is especially true for writers coming up with fresh story ideas. We could write about anyone in any place in any time period. We could build a universe from scratch, come up with our own alien races with their own languages, and systems of government. Our only limit is our imagination, which can be a problem.

Writer’s block isn’t always a wall, sometimes it’s a fork in the road. A scarecrow mocks us, standing there scratching our heads.

“Some people go down the horror genre, others go down the comedy genre. Of course, some people do go both ways. Some people find success down one avenue then decide to go another way, afraid to pigeon hole themselves.”

I’ve gotten lost trying to go my own way. I’ve researched too many subjects, I bring in too many of my interests, and too many of my influences. When it comes to deciding on my next project, I can get really indecisive.

1. Sky is Falling

Long Live Deadlines

One of the best ways to get past writer’s block is to find limitations that force you to make quick creative decisions. Writers should be on the look out for short fiction collections that are taking submissions, not just to pad your resumé, but to push yourself to produce something in a timeframe.

Every November, writers pit themselves against the clock for National Novel Writing Month. The structure of the project forces them to think fast, to let their subconscious do the driving, instead of slowing down to consider all the notes their inner editors keep giving them.

Sometimes there’s more inspiration in the hour glass than the heavens. Sometimes the ticking clock is more moving than an orchestral arrangement. Sometimes Cronus is a better muse than Calliope.

It can be hard to find the discipline to keep artificial deadlines, especially when no one is awaiting our manuscripts. We could set up short term goals, like write two thousand words a day or write a chapter a week, but we’ll feel like failures when we come down with the flu and break our routines. These type of objective based goals can be easily derailed.

So how can we get the creative benefits of deadlines without that sense of urgency? By recognizing how deadlines force us to narrow our vision.

In college, my essays were usually the first ideas that came to mind. I didn’t have time to sift through my options. I’d get a premise and make it work. If my thesis didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of my research, then that’s what I’d report. I’d explain where my bias came from and why it was wrong.

These days, my blogging strategy is the same thing. I use a similar method for fiction. I ask myself what’s the “What if?” scenario my imagination keeps coming back to this week. That’s what I end up writing.

Too much contemplation can be a bad thing. When you maximize your possibilities you limit your ability to focus. When you give yourself the freedom to choose the best possible story, you waste good ideas by spending too much time considering the alternatives.

If inspiration has given you a pretty good premise, you’re better off flushing it out rather than brain storming until a better one comes along. Choosing the material shouldn’t be as much of a project as developing it.

Best Soundtracks for Writing 2014

A skull wearing Skullcandy headphones

A skull wearing Skullcandy headphones

Writers need to keep our attention focused on the page in front of us, this is tough when we live in buildings where sound proof vaults are against the fire code.

It’s hard for us to describe tranquil meadows, when our upstairs neighbors are jousting on rolling chairs. It’s hard to write about winds whistling through ancient ruins, when frat boys are catcalling from the balcony across the street. It’s hard to stay on task, when the pothole of death sends another hubcap into an orchestra of car alarms.

That’s why I’m always on the hunt for music to cancel out the noise pollution and keep me in the right frame of mind. I’ve blogged about how my soundtrack for writing is always expanding. These are my favorite albums for writing from 2014 (with a few entries from 2013 mixed in). Continue reading