Laundering Lines: Converting Excess Exposition into Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Turn Exposition into Dialogue

My Quick Fix for Excess Exposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mixed Messages: How Corporate Writers Can Kill Their Darlings

1. Mixed Messenger

What Pickup Artists and Corporate Jargon have in Common

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

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

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

What Business Writers Can Learn From Creative Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redundancy

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

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

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

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

2. A Call From Clarity

Empty Phrases

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verbosity

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

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

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

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

Hyperbole

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

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

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

3. Now He Gets It

Don’t Make Reading Comprehension a Challenge

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

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

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

Grieving in Reverse:  A Horror Noir

1.Blowing In

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

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

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

ACCEPTANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “And you?”

Edgar took my coat without answering.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Sandy Selfie

DEPRESSION

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

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

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

He kept his eyes on the cards.

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

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

“What is all this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where should I start?”

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

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

2. Hands Up

BARGAINING

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

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

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

***

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

“Sorry, I locked myself out again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cassie opened her fingers wide, pantomiming an explosion.

I kept my poker face.

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

“Blacklist?”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

“The King of who?”

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

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

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

Cassie stared at her title page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE KING IN YELLOW: ACT 3

The draft number was in the triple digits.

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

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

CASSIE

I still can’t get the ending right.

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

THE KING IN YELLOW

Wait!

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

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

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

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

Cassie repositioned the gun to her temple.

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

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

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

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

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

3. Blown Away

“Talk to the sand!”

ANGER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE KING IN YELLOW

BY

ALAN SMITHEE

“What’s so funny?”

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

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

“A messenger.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together, we left an impression on everyone.

5. Exit Sandman

DENIAL

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

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

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

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

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

Revenge Thriller Romance

1. I hear you

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

Valentine’s Day is almost here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. What Was That?

Romantic Shorthand Shortchanges Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Can you hear him too?

Conflict Can Be Romantic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

What The X-Files Taught Me About Writing Scary Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teaser

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

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

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

Act 1: The Argument

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

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

Act 2: The Split 

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3: The Truth

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

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

Turns out, Mulder is half right:

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

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

Act 4: The Chase

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

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

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

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

3. Full series

Why The X-Files Still Matters

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

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

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

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

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

Three dimensional characters add substance to fantastical universes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Spread Your Love Too Thin

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

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

The Flash Fiction Fling

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

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

The Short Story Shrug Off

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

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

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

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

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

3. Spit way apart

The Blog Bewitchment 

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

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

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

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

The Novel Nuptials 

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

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

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

2. Blog Novel Split

Being a Novelist and a Blogger is a Sitcom Scenario

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

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

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

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

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

4. Blog Novel

Remember Your First Love

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

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

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

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

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

#WriterConfessions: Volume 3

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

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.