TV Writing Seminar - Part 8

Other Things to Think About...

Here are some additional tips that I believe can help you become a better writer.

1. It is important to do thorough preparation and research. Be an "expert" in your subject matter. This applies whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. For example, obviously you will have to do extensive research on a particular time period if you are writing a historical romance.

If you are writing a current thriller from a female African-American's point of view and you are a white male, you have to do a different kind of research in order to get into the character's mindset and make her ring true. The point is to really know your subject -- whatever it may be.

2. The challenge is not to write truth, but to write seductive BELIEVABILITY. (The art of verisimilitude.) One of the things I tried to do in Riding The Snake was to weave the facts I found in my research about Hong Kong Triads and illegal immigration in with my fictional tale so that even a sophisticated reader cannot tell where research leaves off, and fiction begins.

3. A screenwriter should look for places to integrate his/her screenplay with toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball CONFLICT: social conflict, emotional conflict, spiritual conflict, cultural conflict, internal conflict, relationship conflict, psychological conflict, and/or, yes, physical conflict, too.

Conflict is crucial in maintaining the reader's interest in the story and in the characters. You may write a story about a man in solitary confinement who never has interaction with anyone except a prison guard and still have conflict which could be interesting to read about. But some kind of conflict is usually necessary.

4. Most writers don't spend nearly enough time on character, so the characters lack depth. We don't bond with them; thus they are incapable of taking us along on even the most exciting roller-coaster story ride. You can have the most complex, brilliant "roller-coaster" in the world, but if the reader/audience isn't "hooked" emotionally to your main characters, they won't be "along for the ride."

5. In good stories, you start out with a likeable Hero(s) who have psychological and moral flaws. He/she must be likeable enough to entertain and intrigue us, but flawed enough to have the potential to learn and grow. Remember, "perfect" people are not likeable!

6. Try to take us into a unique world - e.g., in my novels: a Presidential campaign, con artists, computer hackers, Chinese Triads - we should learn something new while we're being taken on a journey and entertained.

7. STORY COMPRESSION: Particularly in a screenplay or teleplay, it is important to write economically. A great scene often accomplishes several things at once, skillfully weaving together elements of plot, character, conflict and foreshadowing. Do it in one scene instead of four. Look for opportunities of compression without overloading.

After you write your scene or chapter, go back and ask yourself: What can I cut to make it cleaner and clearer? Am I showing off my research to the reader - do I really need all this detail? Does it advance the story - or is it just plain boring? Look at your work with an Editor's eye, and cut accordingly.

8. TONE: Tone more commonly requires CONSISTENCY from start to finish. If you change or mix tone mid-stream, you risk jolting the audience/reader out of the experience. Although this is another of those rules which can sometimes be broken by advanced writers in specific situations, it is better when starting out not to break it. For example, if you are writing a horror short story, don't switch to a comic tone halfway through.

You can, of course, build upon the tone in the story - Stephen King is a genius at this. In several of his stories, the atmosphere starts out perfectly normal, and becomes more and more creepy as the tale goes on. But he doesn't switch to a romantic-suspense tone halfway through: he simply builds on the original tone of the piece. Remember tone and atmosphere when you are writing, whether it is a fresh-air, wholesome action adventure or a gothic, moody ghost story.

9. COLLECTIVE PROTAGONISTS: Sometimes a story contains more than one Hero; King Con and Riding The Snake are both examples of this. Here I felt the risk of fractionalization was worth it because of the relationship dynamic that exists between Beano and Victoria in King Con, and between Wheeler and Tanisha in Riding the Snake. Furthermore, a love story is being integrated, thus adding another level of emotion to the story.

BE CAREFUL! Collective protagonists or collective antagonists, who are not potential lovers, are by nature a genuine hazard to solid story structure, and incur the risk of FRACTIONALIZATION. It is hard for the audience to get emotionally involved with too many characters. Realize that trying to write movies like American Graffiti, The Big Chill or Pulp Fiction is an extremely challenging undertaking, so just beware of the risks.

10. THE TICKING CLOCK: Often, usually early in the story, a clever writer plants a time lock, a structural device requiring some specific event to occur, or some particular problem to be resolved, within a certain period of time. This serves to compress the story's tension. Of course, not all stories lend themselves to a "ticking clock," but the resourceful writer digs deep to locate a method and a place for integrating a meaningful one into the story.

An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon, where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid, or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie.

11. PREDICTABLE VS. TOO PREDICTABLE: Predictability can often lead to great suspense. The challenge is to walk the line of predictability. Which has more sustained tension? To walk down a corridor absolutely unaware that someone is going to jump out from behind a door, or knowing somebody is going to do just that? On the surface it might seem that the former is more unsettling, because the victim has no time to prepare.

However, the latter causes the audience to tighten, to tense, to flex every muscle in terrible anticipation of what is to come. And when it arrives, the effect is all the more shattering for its predictability. When a script is criticized as predictable, what the critic truly means is that it is TOO predictable.

12. COINCIDENCE: Audiences and readers expect movies and novels to be "special," with plots that are well-written and events that are skillfully orchestrated. (This is especially important in mystery writing. Depending on the subgenre, mystery fans often feel cheated when they plot or mystery is too transparent) Even a good story may be launched or resolved by a coincidence; however, in general the writer should strive to avoid relying on coincidence to resolve a story or to provide a solution to a puzzle.

(Unless, of course, you are writing a farce where the entire story may be based upon coincidence after ridiculous coincidence.) Most readers or viewers resent a dependence upon coincidence because they understand it for what it is: a writer's laziness. (If you must use a coincidence, audiences seem more willing to accept coincidences in action, than in dialogue).

13. SUBPLOT: Creating good subplots is sometimes a difficult skill for a novice writer to master. Remember: just as a main plot line has a three act structure, so does a subplot line. A good subplot has turning points, a clear set-up, developments, and a resolution at the end. Often the turning points of a subplot reinforce the plot line by occurring right before or right after the turning points of the main plot. Traditionally, subplots are used to compare the Hero's approach to a problem to another character's approach to the same problem.

For example: Who is the subplot character in Hamlet? Laertes, Son of Polonius. Laertes has to deal with the same problem as Hamlet: "In thy visage do I see myself reflected." If you are going to use a subplot, one key rule is that the subplot should in some way affect the Hero's story. Don't throw a subplot in just because you feel you need one. A subplot must relate to the main plot or to the main characters in a way that is interesting and sheds a new light on the main story situation or it will merely be distracting.

14. MOMENTUM: There is nothing worse than a story that really drags, and doesn't hold the reader's or the audience's interest. When each scene propels you emotionally and logically to the next scene, you have story momentum. Your scenes should be connected in a cause and effect relationship, so that they flow logically (this also applies when you are doing prologues and flashbacks, as well.)

Make sure that each of your scenes has a purpose and is necessary - it must either advance the action, create anticipation or show an important event or highlight on one of the characters, leading the audience both intellectually and emotionally to the climax of the story.

In an action thriller, for example, the crucible that the Hero goes through becomes more and more intense, until finally there is no avoiding the central confrontation between the Hero and Villain. By that time the audience is eagerly anticipating the confrontation at the climax of the story.

15. THEME: A good story can work on multiple levels; a deeper level is theme. The theme is the central underlying idea/message/ morality/ philosophy/weighty issue, etc., that you believe in and are trying to express and intelligently weave into the fabric of the story. Ideally, the theme should expand as the Hero and Opponent come into conflict.

16. MOTIVE: You need an increasing motive for story and character to expand. If you don't have an increasing motive, the main character is held down by who he was in the beginning.

On to Part 9