Why I’m Worried about the Future of Franchise Films

"Merry Sithmas to all"

“Merry Sithmas”

My Franchise Friend

When I buy a ticket to a franchise film I feel like I’m enabling a friend with a history of letting me down. It’s been a while since he’s violated my trust. Maybe it’s time to give him another chance. Maybe he’s running with a better crowd, producers and screenwriters who actually care about him. Maybe he found the help he needed.

At first, I’m so happy my franchise friend is back that I look past all his short comings. So what if he’s had a little work done, a little CGI facelift when he used to rely on practical FX? It’s his heart that matters. So what if he’s dabbling with some new age philosophy, telling a story that doesn’t suit him? At least he’s trying new things. So what if I struggle to recognize the person I remember? He’s in there somewhere, underneath the gobbledegook about Midi-chlorians and trade regulations.

My franchise friend gets drunk on the attention, doing things he thinks modern audiences want. He staggers around the room, making dated jokes, repeating old catchphrases, peppering in Facebook references. He invites one too many characters to the party, assuming each one will spinoff into a franchise of their own. He keeps telling us about all the cool things he’s going to bring to the next outing, when we’re still not sure how this one is going.

By the end of the experience, I’m embarrassed to have introduced my franchise friend to anyone.

Dragging him into the coatroom, I give him a stern intervention.

“Ever since Marvel hit a billion dollar box office with The Avengers you’ve been itching for a piece of their action. You’re introducing too many characters so soon, trying to cash in early. Slow down, be yourself. Tell one story at a time, and leave the Golden Gate Bridge alone. How do you expect traffic to navigate around the ape blockade, Magneto’s mutant army, the Terminator flipping busses, Godzilla, his Kaiju brethren, and all the star ships coming in for a crash landing?”

I’d eighty-six him, but I’m pretty sure he’d slap on a new disguise and creep back in. My franchise friend doesn’t know when to quit.

Now it's cool. We fixed the franchise, because... time travel

Now it’s cool. We fixed the franchise, because… time travel

Fan Fiction on Film

Film is a collaborative medium. As the personnel behind the camera changes, sequels are bound to differ in tone and quality. If a tent pole picture like The Amazing Spider Man 2 underperforms, a transition behind the scenes is a foregone conclusion. The director of Terminator Salvation thought he was setting up a trilogy, but a different studio is already pressing on with another continuity.

As franchises stretch beyond their outlines, they feel like exquisite corpses, mismatched story ideas written by grade schoolers, passing around the same piece of paper. In one story the Highlander is an immortal born of a human mother, in the next he’s an alien in the future, then he’s back in the present fighting a shapeshifter. Each contributor tells the story they want to. The first writer’s intention is lost in a game of telephone.

Individual entries no longer feel like episodes in a series. They feel like fan fiction put up on the big screen, scenarios pitched by a twelve year old high on Mountain Dew, licking Doritos dust off his fingers.

“What if they spliced the genes from a T-Rex with a Velociraptor and now he can turn invisible like the Predator. Oh man, that would be so hardcore!”

This new Jurassic World trailer looks like fun, but I’m guarded with my enthusiasm.

A story about modern day dinosaurs wasn’t enough, they had to create a new apex predator. So let me guess, the characters spend most of the movie debating the ethics of creating a hybrid dinosaur with an obligatory You had no right to play God speech, while the audience wished they’d stop arguing and just show the damn dinosaur.

Some people will over intellectualize Jurassic World as a big budget inditement of GMOs, while others will feel it has the exact same moral of every episode of The Outer Limits circa 1995-2002: science = bad, human spirit = good.

Last year I wrote an article on how these series nuke the fridge and keep right on going. These days the waiting period between a franchise killer and a reboot is getting shorter and shorter. There was a 19 year gap between Superman 4 and Superman Returns. There was a 5 year gap between Spiderman 3 and The Amazing Spiderman. Will a deal between Marvel and Sony deliver a new Spiderman in the next few years?

If a brand is still recognizable it can never be too toxic, a sequel can never be too convoluted, and the continuity can never be too twisted. After Star Trek proved time travel fixes everything, The X-Men and The Terminator franchises followed it through the same temporal anomaly.

This pattern has made it easy to predict the future.

Clever girls

Clever girls

The Film Forecast for the next 5 Years

The following is based on official announcements, rumors, and leaked documents.

Before the hack on their offices, Sony had scheduled at least 1 Spider Man movie with plans for up to 4 spin offs between now and 2020. Warner Bros has scheduled 12 movies based on DC’s properties (13 if you count Lego Batman) while Marvel has 11 films set for the same time frame.

Fox wants to release 2 Fantastic Four movies, an X-Men movie, an X-Force movie, a Gambit spinoff, a Deadpool spinoff, and a third Wolverine film while Hugh Jackman is ripped.

There’s also mumblings over whether Luke Evans is still attached to a reboot of The Crow.

Hope you like comic book movies, you’re about to get 35 of them.

Now this is embarrassing

Now this is embarrassing

Everybody wants a Piece of that Marvel Money

Disney is making live action versions of many of their classic cartoons, including: Cinderella, Cruella (a Cruella de Vil movie in the spirit of Maleficent), Dumbo, The Jungle Book (not to be confused with Warner Bros Jungle Book: Origins), and Beaty and the Beast (again, not to be confused with Warner Bros Beaty and the Beast). Warner Bros also has a Peter Pan prequel coming, and they’re rumored to be developing a version of Pinocchio.

Following the trend Universal has a Little Mermaid adaptation in development.

Not to be outdone, Disney plans on releasing 6 annual Star Wars movies, split between at least five different directors.

Universal has plans to turn their monsters into the next Avengers team, with talks of The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and Van Helsing reboots well underway.

Warner Bros has plans to release 3 more Terminator Movies as well as 3 more films set in the Harry Potter universe.

I’ve never felt so conflicted in my excitement. With so many of these familiar franchises returning, a few of them are bound to be great, but I won’t be buying my tickets in advance, I’ll be watching the scores on Rotten Tomatoes, ignoring any film with a release-day review embargo.

I can’t help but fear that every one of these represents an original concept we’re not going to get to see, one less Inception, one less Source Code, and one less Looper.

Right now, Lionsgate is scraping the bottom of the barrel, scheduling a Power Rangers reboot for 2016, in an attempt to get the Millennials on the same nostalgia train aging Gen-Xers are getting off of after the last Transformers movie. I can’t help but wonder, what’s left to resurrect after that?

My argument isn’t that I simply prefer the classics to artless remakes, it’s that there aren’t enough new intellectual properties to draw in younger audiences. What will they be nostalgic for when they grow up. Where’s their Labyrinth? Where’s their Dark Crystal? Where’s their Never Ending Story? I want to see something that aspires to measure up to that level of quality, a new Princess Bride for everyone to rave about. Something with a sense of newness, a product of our time, not one that’s past.

Death Flix

"Where every movie ends tragically"

“Where every movie ends tragically”

Desperate to combat movie piracy, the Motion Picture Association of America brought the major studios together to find a creative solution. Spending an unprecedented sum, they implemented a plan to thwart digital theft for generations to come. Lobbying the authorities to sink file sharing sites like The Pirate Bay, they found two more sites rose up to take its place. Realizing they couldn’t stop people from sharing movies online, the MPAA decided to flood the net with altered versions.

Anyone who downloaded one of these movies was in for a nasty surprise come act three, that’s because Hollywood had gone to the trouble of reshooting each of them so that every story ended badly.

In the altered version of Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones sneaks a peak at the ark of the covenant at the moment it opens. When Marion opens her eyes, she finds his face has dissolved from his skull. To make matters worse, the Nazis headed Indy’s advice, and now they’re poised to debut their new weapon on the beaches of Normandy.

In the altered version of Star Wars: A New Hope Luke doesn’t realize his R2 unit is actually Jar Jar Binks in an android costume until he’s made his descent into the trenches of the Death Star. The Gungan’s antics cause the X-wing to scrape against the walls, dumping its proton torpedo reserve. Luke is forced to ram his ship at the battle station’s thermal exhaust port. His sacrifice fails to trigger an explosion. The shock of witnessing Luke’s death leaves Han distracted. Vader’s TIE fighter loops behind the Millennium Falcon and blows it apart. The Death Star obliterates the rebel outpost on Yavin IV.

A post credit teaser features what appears to be Boba Fett, until he lifts up his helmet to reveal Jar Jar has somehow survived.

In the altered version of Back to the Future Marty helplessly strums his guitar as his parents first dance is rudely interrupted. In this version, George McFly doesn’t work up the courage to punch the prick that’s cutting in. The guitar falls to the stage as Marty fades from existence.

Fleeing to the parking lot, George is confronted by Biff Tannen. With tears streaking down his cheeks, Biff admits the reason he’s so aggressive toward women is to cover his true feelings. He only picks on George, because he’s wanted to be him all along. The words TO BE CONTINUED come up before George can figure out a response.

Devoting server farms to these tragic reinterpretations, the MPAA flooded the net. Infiltrating torrent sites, they made sure these versions buried the original films in search rankings.

The MPAA’s idea was that the general public would have no choice, but to pay for the happy ending. There’s no way they could have predicted that film connoisseurs would prefer these new ones. Torrent traffic surged. Users who found the format intimidating learned how to pull files down. What was supposed to kill the format gave it a second renaissance.

IMAX screens shut down. Theaters plead for these tragic cuts in order to keep operating. Surprisingly the Criterion collection managed to go on with very few alterations to their selections.

The public had spoken. They wanted downbeat endings.

"Sappy, sentimental, and liberal with your heartstrings"

“Sappy, sentimental, and liberal with your heartstrings”

Rather than take the loss, the MPAA doubled down on their plan, spending another fortune to flood the pirate market with more altered films. Instead of saturating the net with more tragic flicks, Hollywood uploaded Saccharin sweet happy endings designed to make the viewer sick.

The pirate version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest now ends with Jack Nicholson’s character getting a clean bill of health at the height of a romantic subplot with Nurse Ratched.

Planet of the Apes now ends with Charlton Heston realizing he’s on Mars and that no time has past since he left Earth. Dr. Zaius plays him messages transmitted by his family and friends. Heston takes his human companions back with him. They visit the Statue of Liberty as tourists.

Requiem for A Dream ends with a thirty-second montage of the friends finding religion, going through their twelve steps, and getting sober followed by a half an hour wedding sequence. The foreboding Clint Mansell Kronos Quartet score has been transcribed for an uplifting ukulele, accordion, and glockenspiel arrangement.

These cheesy versions also found an audience. Some who enjoyed them for irony’s sake and other’s who thought they were a genuine improvement.

Knowing they could decide the outcome of a film, audiences demanded the same options across all platforms. Marques now required parentheses after titles that read, “(TRAGIC ENDING) (EXTRA HAPPY END) (ORIGINAL ENDING).” Television broadcasters had to buy up separate stations so they could simulcast all three versions, allowing channel surfers to decide the outcome of what they were watching.

The choose-your-own-adventure model fragmented the industry. A film’s tragic interpretation garnished Oscar nominations while the other versions got snubbed. In some instances films were in direct competition with themselves. David Fincher hung his head as he accepted his Academy Award for the super happy version of his film, his least favorite version.

3. LucasFlix

As the MPAA’s methodology advanced, so too did the pirates’. They bundled every version of a movie into one convenient link. The cost of film production skyrocketed, while DVD and Blu-ray sales plummeted. Supermarkets had empty imprints where Redbox machines once stood.

That year Bob Iger, the head of Disney, opened his investor’s meeting by saying, “And this is why we can’t have nice things.”

Iger was in the middle of outlining plans to dismantle the company, when in walked his salvation. It had been a long time since any of the investors had seen George Lucas in public. Lucas had grown a long silver beard that wrapped around his shoulders like tinsel  around a tree. He’d stitched together several of his iconic flannel shirts into an open robe. He wore only this and a pair of sunglasses.

“Not so fast.”

Lucas reached out toward the projector, opening and closing his hand until Iger hit the POWER button on his remote, and the screen went blank.

Satisfied, Lucas raised his chin, “I sensed a disturbance in the force.”

Lucas compelled the investors to give the MPAA’s plan one last try, adding his own bent on the scheme. He said, “Hollywood is digging it’s own grave, reuniting cast members to shoot new endings, leaving the rest of the film unaltered, giving the public something it didn’t know it wanted. We need to streamline the process, to program an algorithm that arbitrarily replaces beloved aspects of movies with unnecessary computer imagery.”

Hopping up onto the table, Lucas let his robe fall to the floor. “I want to turn proton packs into squirt guns, put wheels on hover boards, and turn light sabers into actual swords. I want to give Wolverine a digital manicure, trimming his claws right out the picture. I want to swipe Harry Potter’s wand with a laser pointer. It’s not enough to replace shotguns with walkie talkies, I want to swap out E.T. with the creature from Mac and Me.”

Iger stood to meet Lucas’s manhood head on. He brought his palms together in slow deliberate claps. The boardroom followed suit, erupting into applause behind him.

Implementing Lucas’s algorithm, Hollywood rushed these new versions into production. Within days they were all online.

And this, dear reader, is why Blu-rays still cost $29.99.

Too Much Information: Why Writers Should Conceal Their Research

"I have to resist the compulsion to reference everyone of these"

“I have to resist the compulsion to reference everyone of these”

A few years ago, someone approached me about adapting a thriller into a screenplay. Reading through the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure where the script should begin. The first scene involved an autopsy where the pathologist missed the symptoms of a biological agent. The author took us through each stage of the autopsy including each instrument the pathologist used, where he made his incisions, and the weight of every organ.

It was clear the author knew what he was talking about, but he wasn’t telling a story, he was teaching a lesson.

The scene had no conflict until the author told us about the crucial detail the pathologist missed. The prologue read like it was supposed to function as the opening stinger of a crime drama. This might have worked if the pathologist had struggled to find a cause of death or started to show signs of the contagious infection, instead he gave an extremely technical description of a routine procedure with no conflict.

Writers have a tendency to over share our research to prove we’re qualified to write about certain topics. We write what we know and we want to make sure you know our knowledge extends beyond Wikipedia. The problem is, it’s clear when we’re compensating for something.

The trick is figuring how much technical information our audience needs to understand our story and how to reveal it naturally.

Some pieces of research material don't age too well

Some pieces of research material don’t age too well

The Importance of a Well Placed Point of View

If technical information is necessary for the audience to follow your story, find a point of view character to relay that info through. The point of view character could be someone in a new profession like Agent J in Men in Black, or someone trapped in a new situation like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, or even someone that’s unaware of their own importance like Neo in The Matrix.

In fantasy stories point of view characters are proxies for the audience. They have limited knowledge of the fantastical elements of their universes, until a call to action forces them to go exploring. Their limited experience justifies lectures from mentor figures, like Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Authors build worlds around these characters, inviting audiences to see the new terrain through the point of view character’s eyes, ensuring we’re all on the same page.

In stories set in the real world, point of view characters are necessary to bring us into situations requiring a minimum level of technical expertise. This is why so many pilot episodes follow rookie cops, paralegals, and resident physicians.

Sometimes the point of view character is an expert returning to a job they’d quit. In Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, Will Graham is a former FBI profiler who’s persuaded to return to the bureau by Jack Crawford, his old mentor. Jack bring’s Will, and the audience, up to speed on an active serial killer. In NBC’s adaptation, Will Graham is a forensic psychology professor who’s lectures happen to be on whatever case he’s investigating. In one interpretation of the story Will is the audience’s point of view, in another it’s his students.

There’s more than one way to share specialized information. The point of view character doesn’t need to be the protagonist, they could be an apprentice our hero is relaying wisdom to.

In the Lincoln Lawyer, Matthew McConaughey plays a defense attorney who shares legal strategies with his driver. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a videographer who explains his methodology to an intern. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a dream thief who reveals his cerebral schemes to the newest member of his team.

The problem with passing information through a POV character comes when you use the wrong one. When you funnel information through someone who should already know it, the audience gets wise to what you’re doing. In the film Gravity, George Clooney’s character keeps telling Sandra Bullock how satellite debris behaves in space, I kept expecting her to say, “You do know I’m an astronaut too, right?”

This is the equivalent of one character saying, “As you already know,” before dispensing wisdom to another. This makes no sense. If both characters know something already, this character is breaking the fourth wall to relay it to the audience directly.

It breaks the suspension of disbelief when experts give each other text book information. The film Interstellar got around this by specifying that each astronaut’s knowledge was limited to their area of expertise. Matthew McConaughey, our point of view character, was a pilot, not a quantum physicist. It made sense for his peers to share information on how black holes distort space time (2nd McConaughey reference in the same article, alright alright alright).

3. Chrome Face

What is Too Technical?

When it comes to technical information, give your audience just enough to follow the plot, establish your characters’ skills, and flavor your universe.

Michael Crichton filtered his medical knowledge through scenes. He was a master at creating urgent scenarios where characters  shared what they knew to survive. He kept our attention by respecting the flow of the format, rather than just dumping information.

Right now, I’m reading a book by an author who’s guilty of writing chapters where nothing happens, where characters list things they know about seedy subjects just because they feel like sharing. These characters cease to be three dimensional the moment they become mouth pieces for the writer’s research. Their monologues would read better in social psychology books.

It’s alright to know less about an area of expertise than your characters. If a cop has a walk on role in your story, you don’t need to know every police procedure, just enough to represent them in their scenes.

Sometimes sharing too much information on an area of expertise can reveal how little you know about it. If you’re copying and pasting information from sources that go over your head, your story will have problems. You might be basing it on a theory that’s already been discredited.

The more technical information space opera writers put out there, the more they give Neil deGrasse Tyson to tweet about.

Not every Science Fiction fantasy needs to take place in the realm of possibilities, but it helps to have an understanding of what you’re building on. If your foundation is a fringe theory, it might fall apart upon closer examination. If your premise is shrouded in mystery, we might not spot its weaknesses. This is where some well placed ambiguity can really help a story.

Someone is plotting something

Someone is plotting something

This Year I Will Not Hibernate (Audio Short)

IMG_2419

(If SoundCloud is down, download the track)
(Download the instrumental version here)

These last few winters, the arctic chill has given me a good reason to stay in, to sink into my introversion. I’ve made a habit of hibernating, stocking up on movies and curling up to the warm glow of a TV screen. Come spring time, my prolonged isolation makes it hard for me to reenter society. Real people don’t talk like they do in the movies.

This spoken word mantra is my attempt to break myself of this habit, to brave the cold and do something with my nights, to stop waiting for the groundhog to give me the all clear, to help kick old man winter in the keister. I hope you enjoy it.

Repurposing SMART Goals for Character Development

SMART goals might not help you make big life changes, but can they help your characters?

SMART goals might not help you make big life changes, but can they help your characters?

Whether we’re using SMART goals to break a process down into something less intimidating, or for our lofty ambitions, no one is entirely sure what the acronym stands for: Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timely, Small Material Attainable Relevant Time-bound, or Sporadic Mixed Abstract Romantic Transcendental (probably not the last one).

SMART goals are a great way for businesses to fully articulate ambiguous “commitment to excellence” mission statements. They provide a quick mnemonic to improve employee output, but for those of us aspiring to make big life changes, SMART goals can leave us wanting. If your goal is to write 2,000 words a day and a sick day has you coming up short that slight deviation will make you feel like you failed the system. Research shows minor setbacks can derail these types of outcome driven goals.

The best system for improving retail sales, might not be the best system for quitting smoking. What if it could be repurposed to help your writing? I’m not talking about setting a goal to get published by the end of the year, I’m talking about making one of your characters use the system to show you something.

I propose warping SMART goals into a character building exercise, a way for your protagonist to state their desires, while showing if they have the presence of mind to acknowledge what’s preventing them from getting there.

The following excerpt is a SMART goal written by a character in a situation where she ought to be panicking.

SMART Goals for a Character in Peril

My name is Cameron Mendax, full time blogger part time prisoner. I’ve been arrested by impostures, posing as highway patrol officers. I broke out of their interrogation room to discover a wall full of my online credentials and social network thumbnails, as well as several other bright young faces.

These mock-cops, with their frayed patches, have me in solitaire until they can figure out what to do, now that I’ve had a peek at their plan. This compromising situation offers few options, but rather than give into despair, I’ve decided to upgrade my SMART goals to pass the time.

The keys to separating a general goal from a specific one

The keys to separating a general goal from a specific one

Specific

My general goal is to escape. I realize there’s precious little time to work out the specifics. All those “W” questions:

Who is involved?

The arresting officer, who was far outside the jurisdiction printed on his squad car. An older man, with a face like tattered boots, who might have been a real cop in a past life. He seemed to know his way around an interrogation room. Not to mention the two others he yelled at over the radio, Cyrus and the one he called, “The Poet.”

What do I want to do?

If life had a God-mode that made me impervious to bullets, I’d like to investigate further, figure out exactly what these boys are doing here, but since it doesn’t, escaping with my life will be a fine consolation.

Where do I need to execute my plan?

Here in this cell, before these cosplay cops move me someplace they have more control of. I get the sense they don’t know this precinct or its equipment as well as their uniforms imply. I was able to get out of those ancient cuffs by wedging a pen clip in the teeth. The bolts keeping the interrogation chair fastened crumbled in my fingers. This room must have a similar weakness worth exploiting. A handful of gravel would make a decent distraction. A loose chunk of concrete would make a fine club. If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to fashion a shank.

When should I act?

When my captors let their guard down.

They’ll be in numbers when they come to transfer me to a torture chamber or a shallow grave in the middle of nowhere. If I can get the door open I can get the jump on them. Maybe I should pretend to go into convulsions. What if they’ve already seen the same prison movies I’ve been watching? Maybe I could lay my hoodie on one side of the room as a distraction, so I can attack them from the darkness, drop from the ceiling, maybe even get myself a gun.

Which requirements and restraints will I have to work with?

I’ll have to commit to one of these scenarios and practice it. Once the fear kicks in, I’ll find myself stuck between fight and flight, in a mode I call “Deer in headlights.” If I pry a chunk of drywall free, I’ll need to practice swinging it. If a sharp bit of rock breaks loose, I’ll have to practice slicing my shank across my captor’s throat.

Why do I need to go this far?

They’ve knocked me out twice. Once with chemicals dispersed from a breathalyzer and once by clubbing me in the head. If the room with all the photos and social media profiles is anything to go on, these guys have been at this for a long time. Since I didn’t hear any voices in my brief jaunt down the hall, I have to assume I’m the last one. I have to act or I won’t live long enough to see how Marvel’s thirty-part film franchise pans out.

Measurable

How much will I have to do? At a minimum, I’ll have to assault or vault over two armed men, this is with limited martial arts and track and field experience.

How will I know when my goal is accomplished? When this run down police station is a dot in my rearview mirror, preferably with flames billowing out the windows.

Achievable

As long as I don’t starve, never fall asleep, and channel a level of Herculean strength I’ve never been able to muster in order to do a pull up, we’re golden.

Realistic

If Hollywood has taught me anything, skinny models can clear a room full of armed guards by power-sliding in with both guns blazing. Imagine what a girl with an average build can do. Here I am clawing at the walls, hoping a club will fall into my lap, but really, all I have to do is wait for the slow motion to kick in, run up one of my assailant’s chests, do the splits, and knock ‘em both in the noggin. Easy peasy.

Timely

Ideally I’ll accomplish my goal before I get maimed, short of that, before I get completely dismembered.

Here in the maddening dark, I doubt I’ll lose my sense of urgency and start slacking. If they do give me that kind of time, I’ll start doing pushups so I can go full Linda Hamilton all over their asses.

That is if “T” stands for “Timely.” If it means “Tangible” then I’m totally screwed.

It’s important to set goals, not just for you, but for your characters

It’s important to set goals, not just for you, but for your characters

It’s clear Cameron’s in a tight spot, but her musings have revealed several directions the story could go from here. To me the most interesting one involves her attempting to play possum and failing to slice her assailant’s throat with a dull bit of rock.

Cyrus clutched his throat.

Garret steps into the cell. “What happened?”

Cyrus smirked. “She grazed me.”

“Are you hurt?”

Cyrus shook his head. “Nah, just confused. It felt like she was trying to tickle me or something.”

From here, the cosplay cops drag Cameron out of the frying pan and dump her into the fire. Still, she’s resilient enough to set another set SMART goals.

What's the Big Ideation?

What’s the Big Ideation?

What’s the Big Ideation?

Though not a requirement, a character background is a good source of inspiration to fuel your writing. What’s great about this exercise is that it taught me things about Cameron I didn’t know going in.

You probably don’t need to fill out a Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory on behalf of your characters, but it doesn’t hurt to have some idea how their outlook differs from your own. If your story isn’t written in the first person, this exercise can tell you what your characters’ are thinking.

The urgency of this adventure won’t afford Cameron too many detours for her backstory. Her personality has to surface while she’s coming to terms with her environment. This SMART goals activity lets me fire up my imagination, without overwhelming it with too much information. It’s a character development exercise woven into the plot, not a sprawling character bible full of random details I may never use.

Give it a try, before you start writing, or even when you’re stuck in the middle of a scene.

Demon Drinking Contest

Bottoms up

Bottoms up

When Father Higgins heard I was calling from a bar, he recited the serenity prayer. When I begged him to repeat the blessings of salt and water, he thought I’d fallen off the wagon.

“No matter what you hear, I need you to keep repeating.”

Setting my phone on the table, I aligned the speaker with a glass. Checking my watch, I poured some table salt in, praying O’Brien still watered down his drinks.

The demon Naromach leaned over my shoulder.

“What’s all this?” He nodded toward the lines of shots.

Sweat trickled down my brow. “A drinking contest.”

Naromach sat. Candles flared. His talons tapped the Long Island Iced Tea at the end. “And this?”

“Something to wash it down.”

Naromach’s forked tongue licked his lips. “What’s at stake?”

“My soul.”

“We have your soul.”

“My soul, tonight.”

“And if you win?”

“A reprieve.”

Naromach smirked, “Agreed.” Without warning he swallowed the first shot.

I raced his demon constitution, downing my drinks with one hand, making the sign of the cross with the other.

Naromach was sipping his Long Island by the time I was halfway down the line. I kept on until he slurped the last drop. I was seeing two demons by the time he clutched his throat.

“What was in those shots?”

“Whiskey, but the water in that Long Island Iced Tea, was just sanctified by a priest.”

Naromach tried to grit his teeth, but his jaw dissolved before he could.

Behind the Mask: When to Reveal What a Character is Thinking

Hear no exposition, see no exposition, speak no exposition... or maybe just a little.

Hear no exposition, see no exposition, speak no exposition… or maybe just a little.

When I started writing, I was more concerned about what my characters were thinking than what they were doing. I wrote uneventful chapters, where the lead spent most of his time talking about his feelings. He rarely explored settings or exchanged dialogue with other human beings. His conflict was internal, his journey was cerebral, and his musings floated free from any kind of story structure.

My narrators weren’t passive observers, giving accounts of events as they happened, they were philosophers whose ideas read more like blog entries than stories. Their selfish nature was made apparent by an avalanche of I feel statements.

After some eye-opening criticism, my writing veered into another direction. I traded narration for strict description, play by plays of what my characters said and done. These stories read like screenplays converted from present tense into past tense. While my writing improved, it felt like it was missing something.

Compensating for my early first person sins, I’d let the plot reign over characterization. At their worst, my descriptions were so devoid of emotion they read like crime scene reports:

“One armed protagonist entered the room, shortly after sunset. He fired several rounds.”

My leads had lost their edge. I tried to smuggle some of their attitude into the dialogue, but it felt forced, especially when they weren’t sharing scenes with characters worth confiding in. I didn’t want to resort to soliloquy, so I tossed their clever musings into the waste bin.

It took a while before I realized I wasn’t taking full advantage of the medium. I was applying the limitations of movies to written stories, denying myself the tools that set the format apart.

Whether you’re writing in the first person or the third person, books let the reader see inside your characters’ heads. The trick is figuring out when to show what they’re thinking through their actions, and when to tell by getting beneath their skin.

Internal monologues can take us beneath your hero's mask

Internal monologues can take us beneath your hero’s mask

Sometimes Telling is the Best way to Show

Writers are told showing is preferable to telling. If given the option to reveal a character trait in a scene or through a narration, we’re supposed to write a scene. We’re told that narration is a form of telling that cheats the reader’s imagination out of its contribution. Writers shouldn’t ask readers to take the hero’s word for it, readers need evidence.

Subtext is the preferred tool for illustrating what a character is thinking through their actions, a way to launder information to the audience without the other characters noticing.

On the surface, your romantic leads sound like they’re arguing over which grocers they trust with their business, but they’re really talking about an entirely different set of trust issues. The scene isn’t about either one of them being embarrassed by a food seller’s practices, it’s about the couple’s mutual fear of being hurt.

There is a way to use telling to show. If a character’s thoughts are in stark contrast with their actions, it helps to run commentary over their scenes. Watch an episode of Dexter on mute and it’ll look like the title character is a working stiff who loves his family, until he flies off the handle and murders someone. Dexter’s internal monologue reveals his “dark passenger” lurks behind his every action. He makes the subtext explicit because he knows we won’t catch it.

If your character is a sociopath, they might not emote enough to reveal their motives. They could have a working knowledge of poker tells, they could keep their expression in check.

Characters are allowed to be shrewd with each other and outspoken with their audience. Their high society world might have them on their best behavior, but they can be shamelessly crass with the reader. We forge an intimate bond with characters who let us peek beneath their social graces and tell it like it is.

Reveal as much of the character as you can through their actions, but don’t deny them the occasional brazen declaration of their feelings.

Internal monologues are effective in moderation. Let them flow with the plot. Let them riff off of ongoing scenes. Don’t let them derail the action. If a chapter reads like a journal entry you’ve gone too far into telling territory. If you ever want to see a film adaptation give the director something to put on screen. Sometimes it’s better to put your lead’s internal monologue in their mouth. Give them one good friend to gossip with, so they don’t have to talk to themselves.

We need to see more of your character than they're willing to show the world

We need to see more of your character than they’re willing to show the world

Let Your Characters Gossip with Your Reader

In his book Robert’s Rules for Writing, Robert Masello says, “One of the greatest virtues of gossip is it gives us a chance, in a casual, nonjudgmental format, to check our own proclivities and attitudes against everybody else’s.”

Is it wrong to bully phone support into doing their job right? Do other people have scripted excuses they give to panhandlers? Does anybody else have friends who live-tweet their panic attacks?

We all want to know if we’re the only ones who do what we do or if our actions are part of a universal human condition.

As much as eavesdropping and observations can help your writing, so can accounts of other people’s wrong doing. The trick is to capture the spirit of these gossip sessions without quoting them verbatim.

It’s good to reveal characters’ relationships through scenes, but the medium allows them to gossip with the audience, to confirm hunches without the other characters knowing.

Why not give our leads a little too much wine and let their tongues hang loose?

Let them say things like, “How long have I been with my husband? Long enough to experience his entire sexual spectrum, from his premature ejaculations to his inability to perform.”

From scene to scene, this character’s mask tells the world they’re satisfied with their marriage, but we know different.

The narrator cuts us in on a dramatic irony, unknown to her husband. This insider information tints how we see the couple’s interactions, it foreshadows tragic outcomes. We get to chuckle at the false assumptions others make about the state of the narrator’s relationship, because we’re closer friends.

There are subtler ways to get this effect, but sometimes giving your audience a peek beneath your hero’s mask is the most entertaining one.

My favorite first person stories are littered with moments where the hero says something so shameless it makes my jaw drop, where I think, “I can’t believe they’re trusting me with this information,” where I mistake them for a real person.

It’s important to ground your story, to show as much of your character as you can, but indulge in telling what they’e thinking every so often.

Human Error

"Am I the only one who sees that?"

“Am I the only one who sees that?”

Albert woke up in a hospital gown, on the floor of a small white cell. Rather than try the door, he sat up in the lotus position, waiting for the world to boot up.

Rubbing his eyes, Albert looked to the fluorescents, then to the shadow cast by the mattress. The brightness didn’t shift. Smoothing the pillowcase, he waited for the white balance to change. The fabric stayed beige.

Albert tapped his temple. When the H.U.D. didn’t show, he tapped it again. This had happened before he just had to remember how he’d fixed it.

Pinching the air, Albert waited for the search field to appear. The memory interface drew a blank. There were no folders, no windows, not even a floating pinwheel of death.

Turning around Albert wasn’t shocked to find a wall length mirror, but rather what he saw there. The lights in his eyes had been reduced to two tiny sparks, the same bland color as the florescent on the ceiling. There were no notifications, no pending messages, no emoticons. This was the first time Albert had seen the natural color of his eyes in a long time. The windows to his soul were wide open and what he saw was unsettling.

Despite the size of his cell, the world seemed so much larger than it had before.

Dr. Locke entered the viewing room behind the mirror. “What do you think?”

Dr. Walton shrugged, “He’ll be crying out for tech support in about five seconds.”

The Gremlin on My Wing

Someone has a bad idea

Someone has a bad idea

(If SoundCloud is down, download the track)

Submitted for your approval a radio play of sorts; a conversation between a pilot and the passenger that’s taken him hostage. One part drama, one part essay, and one part rant. All three fit the scenario, because the stowaway is the captain’s depression, and their argument is internal.

This was originally posted under the name The Depression on My Shoulder, but since the gremlin metaphor factored in so heavily I changed it to reflect the Twilight Zone episode that inspired it.

I’m always looking for new ways to articulate what it’s like to function with depression. Thank you for listening and passing the piece along.

Beware of the Anti-Muse

Don't let the Anti-Muse steal your spark

Don’t let the Anti-Muse steal your spark

It takes a lot of positive reinforcement to support a writer’s ego. Flattery fades, while words of discouragement echo. It’s not that we don’t know how to take a compliment, it’s just that we lie for a living and we’re skeptical of everyone.

Praise for our writing feels like a put-on, something that dissolves upon cross examination. “What was your favorite part of my novel? What did you like most about the characters? Did you even finish it?”

Harsh criticism feels genuine, because it confirms our suspicions. “I knew that story came too easily. I should’ve outlined more. I should’ve shown it to more beta readers.”

What writers aspire to do is hard. We’re a generation trying to launch careers on Amazon while our competition gives everything away on Goodreads. It used to be that no one was buying what we were selling, now no one is taking what we’re giving.

One bad reaction invalidates a thousand compliments from family and friends, who we suspected were only feigning an interest to spare our feelings. A stranger’s insults resonate, because they have no stake in our wellbeing.

I can still quote the first negative comments I got online. They came from a message board where I’d previewed a few poems from what I’d thought was a collection worth publishing.

The first response read, “If you have a book coming out, then I’ll eat my hat.”

Enter the Anti-Muse. At the time, I had no idea how gentle he was being, that this was him on his best behavior. As I continued to share my work in public forums, the two of us became very familiar.

The Anti-Muse believes his tastes are universal. If something isn’t his cup of tea then the person who made it ought to shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s not enough for him to dismiss the author’s spark of inspiration, he needs to suck it right out of them.

Rather than leave others to separate the wheat from the chaff, the Anti-Muse burns the field down, planting seeds of doubt to spare the world from another crop of poets, bloggers, and self-publishers. When a budding author asks for advice, he tells them to quit. The Anti-Muse prides himself on his ability to quell artistic ambition.

I remember those first harsh reviews more than what I’d shared. That’s the problem with the Anti-Muse. He likes to linger.

2. Spark Hoarder

Living with an Anti-Muse on Your Back

Once the Anti-Muse gets under your skin, he sets up shop, stirring up intrusive thoughts, flooding the imagination with bad memories. He needs your self doubt on hand so he can reference it at a moment’s notice.

The Anti-Muse has you writing slow, editing as you go, making you so self conscious about what you’re working on, you’re forgetting crucial details about the story to come. He has you overworking for simple statements, second guessing every line of description.

At first you worry your descriptions are too poetic, then you worry your verbs aren’t evocative enough. You use exaggerations to add emotional weight, catch yourself doing it, then resort to procedural accounts like you’re writing a police report. Your purple prose turn beige.

The Anti-Muse has you over researching your subject, then wondering if your dialogue is too technical, as if you dropped all this knowledge just to prove your knowhow. Then he has you gut every plot line that required any level of expertise.

When your imagination suggests a bold new direction, the Anti-Muse keeps you pressing on a familiar one. You play it safe, making sure everything you write feels familiar. Your characters speak in tired clichés, not because you lack an ear for dialogue, but because you lack the confidence to write your own.

Rereading your result, the Anti-Muse has you wondering if you should even bother editing. That’s his function. He’s a demon, sabotaging creative endeavors until the artist is ready to throw the towel in.

Dismissing the Anti-Muse

The good thing about encountering the Anti-Muse online is that he makes himself easy to identify. Like a desperate lawyer who knows the law isn’t on his side, the Anti-Muse makes appeals to emotion. He hates your art without offering a clear reason he thinks it’s wrong.

In some cases the Anti-Muse doesn’t know enough about the medium to offer constructive criticism, literary theory eludes him, he tears you down, because he doesn’t know how to tell you what to fix. He may not know art, but he knows what he hates.

In other cases, the Anti-Muse knows too much, but refuses to share his wisdom. He’s failed to make it on his own, now he resents anyone with similar aspirations. If he can’t be successful, why should anyone?

Either way, the Anti-Muse’s hostility is easy to dismiss, because you know there’s no sense in reasoning with it.

When I’m online, I tune the Anti-Muse out at the first signs of name calling, profanity, or the words “Sheesh” and “Bro.” I don’t put a spotlight on him when he’s heckling, because I know he only speaks in zingers.

Exploring forums on writing, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t see an angry know-it-all, who is only there to put newbies in their place, trash talking like the conversation is a match of Call of Duty. Examining their comment history, I find they’re terminally toxic, self-congratulating, flame war veterans.

Some people come across as the Anti-Muse by accident. They know their stuff, but refuse to cushion their candor. They’ll grade your writing, without a professor’s kindly classroom manor. They don’t have the patience to pay you compliments. They spot problems and dive right in.

Before you go dismissing critics based on their tone, see if they’ve gone to the trouble of citing examples. Did they use terms that seem like foreign jargon? Look up their lingo to see if they touched on tropes you use too often. Did they give suggestions for taking your story in another direction? If they hadn’t come off as smug, would you listen to the advice they’ve given?

Every screenwriter that came to speak at my school said the same thing about getting notes from producers: if a suggestion was based on an abstract feeling, the screenwriter ignored it. If a producer touched on something specific, their advice was always considered.

When it comes to taking criticism, developing a thick skin isn’t a writer’s only responsibility. Developing an ear for good feedback is more important.

A critic’s ability to articulate is what separates assessments from reactions.

“No one cares about you, so why the hell would they want to read your memoir?” Isn’t feedback worth paying attention to.

“Every character speaks with the same voice, same dialect, and same pop culture references. You need to make them more distinct so we know which one is talking.” Is feedback you can use.

Just remember, your work will never be universally loved. You will always be a hack to someone. Accept it and keep writing.

3. Bright Eyes

There’s a reoccurring phrase characters on Lost always shout when someone tells them that something is impossible:

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”

Something about that stubborn declaration has always resonated with me. I find myself thinking it, every time someone tells me there’s no future in fiction, that I shouldn’t even bother, that I should leave the storytelling to some old Hollywood producers recycling the same franchises year after year.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”