Writers are never just passive observers. Whether we’re reading or watching a movie, we don’t consume stories, we occupy them. We’re drawn into the events on the surface, while our subconscious minds pick apart the mechanics behind them. Continue reading How Replaying Movies Takes Writers Behind the Scenes
The very first line in Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is, “I have a meanness inside me, as real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out…”
Right out of the gate, I knew I was going to like this book. It spit in the face of everything my screenwriting background had taught me. Libby Day, Dark Place’s narrator, doesn’t care what the reader thinks of her and that’s one of her most endearing qualities. She doesn’t pet a dog to win us over. She doesn’t compensate with a sense of humor. If she’s an ice queen with a heart of gold, she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve.
Libby wins our affection almost by accident. She’s the lone survivor of a murder spree that claimed her mother and two sisters. The moment this personal tragedy could get our sympathy, we learn she’s been exploiting it for money, living off of donations, even having a self help book on recovery ghost written for her. Now she’s down to her last few dollars. She’s a loser who strives to be as unlovable as possible.
Libby testified that her teenage brother sacrificed her siblings in the name of Satan, but didn’t actually see the event go down. When a group of true crime junkies hire her to investigate her past, Libby starts to wonder if the killer is still out there.
Libby’s call to action forces her to grow fast. Since she starts from such a low place, she has nowhere to go but up. Even though, she set out to rub us the wrong way in chapter 1, we find ourselves rooting for her when the book is done. Her no bullshit attitude proves beneficial. She doesn’t come with a strong moral code, but she finds one on the way.
These are the types of stories I love the most: likability long cons. If Libby had started as a grown up girl scout, she wouldn’t have commanded my attention.
Ask yourself, if Tony Stark was a gentleman from frame one, how compelling would you have found his transformation into Iron Man? If Han Solo never cared about Galactic Credits, how much would you have cared when he helped the rebellion at the last minute? If Catwoman hadn’t stollen Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, would you have cared as much when she decided to help him save Gotham?
Unlike those lovable rogues, Libby Day doesn’t even bother being charming, but she goes through a similar karmic transition.
Average Characters are Overdone
A trap early writers fall into is trying to make their characters likable from the get go. Treating character introductions like job interviews, they go out of their way to make a good first impression.
A lot of writers think the key to making characters relatable is to make them as average as possible. This is why sitting through movie trailers feels like watching a parade of Joe Everymen. I’ve already written about how much I hate that feeling. I don’t find regular Joe’s very compelling. Designing your lead to appear hyper normal, is a cheap way to make them accessible. A smarter investment, would be to give them a goal your audience can relate to.
Maybe we’re not all blue collar slobs, but we all want a reason to get up in the morning. Maybe we’re not all Joe-sixpacks, but we all want to be happier than we are. Maybe we’re not all average Americans, but we all want to be loved by someone.
Your character doesn’t need to be someone the audience wants to have a beer with. They’re not running for president. You don’t need to file down their jagged edges. Well developed characters are just as likable as characters that are just like us. It’s more important for your hero to feel like a human being than a delegate for all of humanity.
Don’t Avoid Every Extreme
Writing a believable character is a lot like trying to seduce someone; if you’re too calculated in your approach, your target audience is going to feel it. They might not be able to explain why it’s not working, but they’ll have a very strong hunch. If you use manipulative language on a first date, your date has every right to walk out on you. If pander to what you think your audience wants, they have every right to put your book down.
Readers have read enough stories to subconsciously recognize writers’ tricks. Character formulas are not love potions.
If you write with an imaginary audience in the room, you’ll sacrifice your honesty in the name of broadening your appeal. You’ll avoid extremes. You’ll struggle to make your character vulnerable, without seeming too whiny. You’ll make them an underdog, with an unnatural resilience. You’ll waste too much time trying to make them seem smart, but not too clever. One sarcastic quip too many and you’ll fear you’re losing your reader.
If you write with your audience in the room, you’re setting yourself up for writer’s block. How can your story move forward, when you’re so afraid your reader will turn on you?
There’s something freeing about writing nasty characters, then unleashing them on the total squares that occupy their universe. We all spend so much time saving face, it’s fun to watch someone cast off social mores with reckless abandon. Audiences might find your hero repellant in the prologue, only to root for them later on.
Sarcastic, cynical, arrogant people are not without their appeal, so long as they’re three dimensional. Defects give your characters room to grow. Don’t rob them of a deep emotional change by making them too likable from the get go.
Everything has been done before. Accept it. Everything has been said before too, you can check Google for the transcript. Odds are your fresh blockbuster pitch is already on Netflix, and The Twilight Zone beat you to your fresh story by more than half a century.
A writer can only make so many variances to the same old tale. There are thirty-six dramatic situations, fitting into seven basic plots, told in three acts, following the same hero with a thousand faces. Do the math, show your work, or go ahead and copy off your neighbor because it really doesn’t matter.
My early efforts tried to break the formula by adding variables to the equation. I’d mix genres, combine my favorite characters, and play with dated one-liners. I thought it all added up to something unique, until my friends easily pegged the sources of my inspiration. My creativity was less than the sum of my influences. All of my additions amounted to a zero sum.
So I got abstract, bogging my screenplays down with themes I’d taken from dreams. My professor called them Lynchian, another apt comparison, pointing out that David Lynch was already on the road I was going down.
When I started writing horror, I trekked into obscene depths, searching for a story so grotesque no writer would dare tell it. I’ve mined the pit of human depravity only to find others had been there before me. The moment I thought I’d come up with an original concept, I’d find it’d happened in the real world and there was already a made for TV movie.
Like Chuck Palahniuk says, “You can’t invent a new sin.”
Turns out I’d read so many books and watched so many movies that I could never be sure if an idea was truly my own. Of course I could have gone out into the world in search of inspiration, but I grew up in Minnesota, it’s cold and it’s not good to leave your video games on ‘pause’ for too long.
I was down to a few options: plagiarize an obscure story and pass it off as my own, like a bad musician sampling without giving attribution, or show up to the party in the same dress as Stephen King and just tell everyone how I’m wearing it different (yup, that’s the analogy I’m going with, now it’s up to you to try to visualize it).
I decided if anyone pointed out that Mr. King was donning the same sparkling skirt I was vamping around in, then I would just say, “I know, my outfit is an homage to his.”
The Difference Between Fan Fiction and a Proper Homage
The biggest difference between fan fiction and homages is that fan fiction brings established characters into new situations, while homages bring original heroes into familiar ones. With an homage, it’s not uncommon for the setup to be the same as a classic, while the payoff might be completely different.
If you’re writing modern day characters the audience will assume they’re familiar with pop culture. You can’t introduce a vampire and pretend your characters have never heard of Bram Stoker. Dracula is the most filmed literary figure of all time. If your characters see someone sucking blood from a neck they better not say, “What the hell was that thing?”
If they do, we’ll be wondering if they live in an alternative reality where Nosferatu never happened. That kind of convenient naivety breaks the suspension of disbelief. It’s better to have one of them hang a lantern on your influence, draw attention to the similarities to let your audience know that your interpretation is going to be different.
Right now I’m working on an homage to Robert W. Chambers’s classic supernatural horror story The King in Yellow. In Chambers’ 1895 book, copies of a mysterious play have caused such widespread madness that the government has installed Suicide Chambers on every street corner. The banned text The King in Yellow resonates so powerfully with anyone who dares read it that they go mad from the revelation.
My story is about a modern private detective, investigating the death of a script reader who read an adaptation of Chambers’s fabled play right before setting himself aflame. The detective has to trace the cursed screenplay’s origins before it can claim another victim.
Now I know, Chambers isn’t that obscure of an influence to borrow from.
The King in Yellow inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s tome of forbidden knowledge The Necronomicon. Lovecraft also put a copy of the play itself in the Arkham Library appearing in many of his stories. He found Chamber’s story so inspiring that he included the titular character in his pantheon of cosmic beings under the name Hastur.
Director Sam Raimi borrowed the Necronomicon for his Evil Dead series, while John Carpenter used the concept of the deadly book in his film In the Mouth of Madness, ensuring that the universe shared by Chambers and Lovecraft expanded into other mediums.
The King in Yellow made the jump to TV when True Detective’s show runner, Nic Pizzolatto, incorporated names, symbols, and themes from Chambers’s book into the show.
Chambers himself borrowed the names Carcousa, Hali, and Hastur from Ambrose Bierce’s short stories An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haïta the Shepherd. In his story, Chambers offered a mere glimpse of The King in Yellow play, but the setup bears a striking resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.
If a piece had a profound impact on your work, why not slip in a mention of it? Stephen King’s short story N, has a character slyly compare his situation to the plot of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (which inspired me to quote it at the beginning of my own novella).
The take away point here isn’t stealing is fine because everybody does it, it’s that influences are for everyone.
If Everything has been Written Before, Why Bother Writing Anything?
If after reading all this you find yourself having an existential crisis, then good. My work here is done. Until next week. I mean, wait.
So what if everything has been done before? It hasn’t been done by you yet. Those stories haven’t been told with your voice, using your life experiences. Your take is going to have some variances. An awareness of what came before will allow you to play with your audience’s expectations, a slight deviation will feel like a full on twist.
So what if your idea shares a setup with something else? Movies are pitched like that all the time. Under Siege is just Die Hard on a boat, Passenger 57 is just Die Hard on a plane, and Home Alone is just Die Hard with a kid. Isn’t it time you stopped worrying about being so fiercely original and wrote a Die Hard of your own?
I started writing lyrics when I was twelve years old. My early efforts were journal entries confined to rhyme schemes. They overused hole/soul, skin/within, and love/above way too often. While I spent my teens singing my feelings, something strange started happening. I found myself asking a question that had less to do with what made me tick and more to do with my imagination: what if?
What if aliens invaded by posing as demons?
What if a cyber mob drove a girl to suicide only to find her ghost haunting them online?
What if a man discovered his depression was actually a person in a parallel dimension where happiness is frowned upon?
What if an exorcist challenged a possession victim to a drinking contest and the final shot was spiked with holy water?
The answers to these questions didn’t fit into a verse chorus verse structure so I let them float back up into the ether. I passed on my ideas, only to see them watered down in other mediums. I’d be playing a video game and realize it was using one of my ideas badly. If only I’d put it down on paper and gotten it out there.
Every one of us has a marquee full of blockbusters in our brains, but so few will ever get to share them. For many, the only time they share their ideas is to fill a lull in conversation, their story might be a fan theory for a franchise that’s already in production, or it might be something that shouldn’t be forgotten.
I started writing because I wanted to answer that question.
Sometimes I posed it in a way that applied to my life, “What if I’d told her how I felt when it mattered?” Sometimes I let it venture outside the realm of reason, “What if I traveled back in time to tell her how I felt only to accidentally kill my past self?”
Either way, the question was worth asking, because…
Writing Gives You Super Powers
Stephen King says that writing is telepathy. Neil Gaiman calls reading a form of empathy. The process is a shared experience that turns the imagination into something tangible, something real.
Writing is time travel. It allows us to bring clarity to memories, to refine our past into stories, or to alter it to play out the way we wanted it to be.
Writing is playing God, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, but always in mysterious ways. We build worlds. We break characters down. We do the impossible: we create a situation that forces a person to change.
Writing is immortality. It’s more reliable than cryostasis, less committal than vampirism, and cheaper than uploading your consciousness to a server. It’s a way of telling future generations, “I was a thing. I happened. I may be gone but my thoughts live on.”
How I Launder My Emotions into Writing
When I write fiction, I compartmentalize my emotions to keep them from changing my story’s events, but sometimes I just let them in.
Sometimes writing is the only way I can take control of my feelings. Paper seems as good a place as any to vent, to put my nightmares to work, to have a breakdown without making a sound. The page is a place for fear to pose its arguments so I can refute them.
I’m too frightened of public speaking to be a comedian. Fiction is how I smuggle my humiliation to an audience. It lets me laugh with them.
With all the social graces governing my behavior, sometimes writing is the only way my thoughts get out there. With all those tell-off speeches bubbling up inside me, sometimes I need a place to say the things I’d never speak. With my ego wounded, I need a place to chronicle all the power fantasies I use to inflate it.
I write because I don’t want those ideas to stop at my brain. I’ve got the foresight to write them down and the audacity to think other people should read them. Call it an inflated self image, call it delusions of grandeur, call it sociopathic narcissism. Whatever.
I know I’m not special. Anyone can ask, “What if this crazy terrible weird thing happened?” I just put my answers into words.
Daydreams are only a waste of time if you never jot them down.
Hope you enjoyed reading my long winded explanation for why I’m in this writing game. I nominate the following folks to answer the same question:
Mark has written two noir novels: Killer’s Coda and Dark as Night. He’s coedited several collections on how pop culture intersects with philosophy, including The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Philosophy of Film Noir and The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers.
On Twitter @MarkTConard, Mark takes the inspirational quotes authors use as filler tweets and adds things that change their tone, like “and shit” or “bitches” which he uses to punctuate Shakespeare’s dialogue under the hashtag #ShakespeareBitches.
Jessica has one novelette and two short stories for sale on Amazon, and her blog houses a massive library of Flash Fiction, this is because Jessica participates in every writing challenge known to twitterdom. I have lofty daily word count goals and Jessica regularly kicks the crap out of them.
Follow her @West1Jess to find out what she’s working on.
Writers are always asked where our ideas come from. Our answer is usually a deflection in case potential rivals are listening in. If we told the truth, everyone would be making a play at our game.
Of course we know where our ideas come from, we just want to keep our inspiration in house. We have a monopoly on our muses, exclusivity deals with our delusions, and first rights with our figments of the imagination. Our creativity is under contract. We lie to keep poachers off our lots, to keep talent thieves from ensnaring our rising stars, to leave headhunters scratching their own.
Writers are the rulers of our own entertainment empires. We keep our spark moving through our internal studio system. Non-disclosure agreements forbid us from discussing our process, but today I’m feeling generous.
The majority of my ideas come from Daydream Agents tirelessly pitching their clients. My job is to choose which one I want to spend the next several months with. Writers are really producers deciding which bright ideas to green light.
Hearing Pitches from Daydream Agents
As a producer, I don’t live behind my desk, nor do I need a room full of Evian swirling executives to tell me when a story has potential. I hear elevator pitches everywhere I go.
When I page through the terms of service on my brand new tablet, a Daydream Agent appears in the reflective surface.
Leaning over my shoulder to scroll through the fine print, he smirks. “What if there was a clause that claimed your soul just by tapping the ‘agree’ button, maybe just a fragment of your spirit so you wouldn’t notice it was missing? You go about your routine until you realize something about you was gone. Not a memory, but a sense of understanding.”
I arch an eyebrow, “I’m listening.”
Having whet my appetite, the agent earns my business card. We set up a meeting for whenever I’m having trouble sleeping.
Later that day, I’m at the bookstore looking to expand my library, when I overhear a pair of women talking about how a certain memoir ought to be labeled as fiction.
Flipping through the pages, a woman shakes her head at the book in her hands, “Go Ask Alice was written by a psychologist trying to make a cautionary tale for teenage girls. She dressed it up as this anonymous diary to make it more authentic than an after school special. I’m telling you, she wrote a whole series of these. Her next one, Jay’s Journal, was about this dude who got seduced into a Satanic cult. It read like a bad found footage movie.”
Watching the women through the bookshelf, I’m startled to find I’m joined by someone else: a Daydream Agent with a stack of memoirs in her hands.
Snapping her fingers, she turns to me. “What if someone hired a ghostwriter to forge a memoir, but instead of scaring teens straight it kills them with a curse? It’s Go Ask Alice meets The Necronomicon.”
Grabbing the Agent’s shoulder, I shush her. “You had me at a curse that kills teenagers.”
Ensuring this idea has an opportunity to build a rapport with me, we schedule a meeting for the next time I’m stuck in a long line.
That night I’m out at the bar, listening to a group of hipsters talk about the dark side of viral video: gross-out porn, gore memes, and the disturbing snuff footage posted by trolls in random comment sections.
A Daydream Agent slides into the stool beside me. He speaks without making eye contact, like a confidential informant. “What if someone shot a snuff film and a tech savvy viewer set out to exact revenge on behalf of the victim?”
I roll my eyes, “Like in that Nic Cage movie?”
The Agent raises his finger, “This is different, because it turns out the hero’s online allies, the ones helping him track down the killer, are the producers of the original feature. Our hero unwittingly helps them make a second, delivering them another victim.”
I sip my beer like it’s a fine wine. “Sounds complicated.”
The Agent rubs his hands together, “That’s because there’s a twist. Our hero realizes this group has been in the snuff business for some time and according to their pattern he’s slated to be the star of their next production.”
“That’s pretty downbeat.” I cock my head, he has my ear but it’s on the move.
The Agent slaps the bar in a desperate attempt to keep the energy up. “Okay, knowing that he’s marked for death, the hero stages evidence that points the next vigilante patsy to the creep that showed him the footage in the first place. The producers accepts this dummy offering and our hero goes into hiding.”
“Sounds like a novel.” I rub my chin. “Right now, I’m more into producing smaller features.”
The Agent snaps his fingers, “How about a novella? No subplots. No more than nine chapters. We could give it a micro-budget and streamline the whole thing.”
I shrug. “Now that’s something I could see happening.”
A person like me doesn’t get the luxury of going for a run with headphones on. I have to be available to hear pitches everywhere I go.
“What if a boogieman stalked a little girl only to find he was being hunted by her imaginary friend?”
“If only time travel was possible, a publisher could go back and hire a whole hosts of writers before they died in obscurity.”
“If this NSA surveillance continues a rogue agent is going to develop feelings for someone he’s watching. What happens if he tries to make contact with her?”
They pitch me in the shower, they pitch me on the John, they captivate their captive audience before I even put my clothes on. They pitch me in my sleep, but dream logic always needs a few dozen rewrites before it ever makes sense. It’s hard to suss out substance from the surreal. I buy the rights to a few visual elements and leave the story to float back into the ether.
My favorite Daydream Agents are the ones that comeback without a callback. I want a fantasy with the confidence to knock on my door after my assistant has told it I’m out. The kind of idea that doesn’t care if I’m working, driving, or in the middle of a conversation.
The best daydreams are the ones I remember without having to write down, the ones with staying power. They’re memorable but timely enough that there’s an urgent need to rush them into production. After all, every author running a private entertainment empire has a slew of summer release dates to lock down.
Ideas are the Easy Part
When readers ask, “Where do your ideas come from?” they don’t realize they’re asking the wrong question. The right one is: “Where do you get the tenacity to flesh your ideas out?”
I’ve been warned that I shouldn’t share my ideas with strangers. I say, why not? There are no million dollar ideas, they’re a dime a dozen. A good idea doesn’t write itself on its own. You still have to write scenes that flow into acts that fit together into something greater.
Hearing story pitches is the easiest part of a writer’s job. It’s putting them into production, keeping them on schedule, and getting a final edit that’s the real challenge. Anyone can say they want to tell a story, it takes skill and dedication to finish it. A good idea doesn’t guarantee memorable characters, witty banter, interesting settings, or good pacing. That’s the real work writers do.