The Keys to Writing a Good Story

1) It’s about the characters.

The story goes that someone broke all the possible plots down into 36 different situations, and I’ve heard 7 as well, and 3 (man vs. man, man vs. himself,and man vs. nature). The truth is, it doesn’t matter how original your plot is- it’s been done before, and it will be done again, probably better than you’re capable of doing it by sheer odds.

So what’s a writer to do?

The answer is focus on characters. It’s the characters and their interactions that will make most stories unique, not their ideas or incredible plots. Characters are the one advantage every writer has over the competition because nobody out there has exactly your life experiences, and it’s those experiences you will use to draw upon when making your characters. Even if your plucky heroine is a typical plucky heroine she will still have some of you in her, and if you let that uniqueness flower it will help to make her different and special from the other plucky heroines out there.

2) Cause and effect- Putting a Gun to the Story’s Head

Chekhov’s Gun is the key to all structured writing.

Good writing is all about setup and payoff.  If a character gets hungry then he makes food. If he’s tired, he sleeps. These are boring things, but the cause and effect is still there, and that’s what writing is all about- cause and effect.

Character A is in love with Character B, so Character A chases Character B.

Character C is in love with Character B, so Character C chases Character B.

Character A and C are both in love with Character B, so they hate each other.

Ta-dah! We have a story!

One event causes another, which causes another, which causes another.

Of course, the reverse is also true! If you set events into motion in the story, you have to be ready to deal with those events otherwise the story will fall flat. To use the above example- If you introduce the love triangle of A+B+C but then spend the whole story talking about B’s love for her cat then why did you introduce the love triangle in the first place?

Don’t introduce story elements you don’t plan to use, if they’re not relevant to the story why are they there?

3) Challenge- It does a story good.

An interesting story comes from watching characters overcome obstacles through their own skills and abilities. Nothing is more boring than watching characters have everything handed to them by the writer, and Deus ex Machina must be used sparingly.

A character going to market to buy a loaf of bread is boring. A character getting a ride to the store from a friend to buy bread is boring. A character having to figure out how to overcome the transit strike that’s shut the city down to get across town to buy a loaf of bread is interesting! (Or at least more interesting than just walking to the corner store.)

Challenge your characters. Say “no” to them, make them work to earn their victory. It makes the victory that much sweeter, and the audience will love you for it.

Trouble on the Horizon

My general formula for writing adventure stories is this- pile as many problems as you can on a character and then have them do clever (or occasionally brave) things to do to get out of it. That’s it, it’s really that simple. It comes down to the Challenge part I just talked about- they have to be troubles that aren’t easy to overcome, and need to be solved using the character’s own resources. The more you make your audience go “how is she going to get out of this?” the better! That means they’re active and interested, which is how you want them to be!

4) Right Person at the Right Time

I once had an argument with a friend about Star Trek:Voyager where he argued that the show was boring. His thesis was simple: everyone on that show is equally well adjusted emotionally, can do everything equally well (except the Captain, but that’s another topic), and seems equally competent all around in almost every area. Therefore, why did we need all of these people? Why did we need more than one of these people in a given story?

A good character is defined as much by what they can’t do as by what they can do. It’s watching the character that sucks at fixing cars try to fix a car that’s potentially entertaining, not watching the ace whiz through the process. This goes back to my last point about challenging your characters.  It doesn’t mean that you need to always stick the worst person in the worst situation, but you should try to have characters face situations where they need to overcome their weaknesses whenever possible.

Stories are fiction, they’re not reality. It’s all about sticking the right characters in the right situations to get the mix you’re going for. No different than in putting in the right ingredients to bake a cake, or using the right colours when painting a scene. Everything that happens, everything that people say, every aspect of the story is a controlled structured element, and the more control you have over them the more control you have over how your audience will react to them.

5) Trim the Fat

To continue the metaphor from the last point, if you put too many ingredients into your cake then your cake will taste horrible. Things that taste good like salt and sugar need to be used in the right balance, not too much, not too little. This applies to story elements too- more is not necessarily better, and in fact may often be worse.

When writing try to be as concise as possible. Your job is not to pad the story out (unless you’re getting paid by the word), it’s to tell the story in the minimum amount of space it takes to tell that story.

Someone once said a good story is done when nothing else can be taken away, which I most heartily agree with. If you have a solid story, your job will be trying to keep it from ballooning out, not trying to make it larger. Editing will help a lot in this area, and this is why it’s good to have someone else edit your work, or at least set your work aside for a long period of time and then go back and edit it to get it down.

6) Just DO it

Heinlein’s Rules still hold. The best thing you can do as a writer is write, and finish what you write. Even if you screw up you can go back and edit it, but the key point is that you finish and produce a work of fiction that however good or bad is yours. Editing and re-writing is much easier than doing it the first time, so don’t let yourself get caught up with details while writing it- just try to get it written as good as you can and as fast as you can. That’s the whole idea behind Nanowrimo, to get people to just spill their guts on the page so that they can later go back and sort them out.

When writing I often fondly remember a military phrase I picked up a while back that stuck with me- “FIDO”, which is pronounced like a dog’s name and is an acronym for “F*ck It, Drive On!”. It means when something gets in your way you deal with it as best you can and you keep moving. Drive around the metaphorical tree across the road and then get back on track ASAP. If you spend all your time trying to deal with every little thing, you’ll get nothing done. The wonder of word-processors is that until it hits print, everything is changeable!

The Truth about Writers and Writing

Written in the heydey of the 20th century magazine era, Lemuel De Bra’s The Truth about Writers and Writing is an interesting article from 1924 about the realities of writing from someone who made their living writing magazine fiction stories.

In a lot of ways, things were far easier for writers in De Bra’s time- it was an era where printed fiction was still the main entertainment media and even radio hadn’t quite taken off yet. People read, and they read a lot, so writers could make their living doing something they loved without having to quite jump through the hoops they do in the modern publishing industry.

But, at the same time today might not be such a bad time for writer’s either. The possibilities of connecting people with stories through the internet are still being explored, and who knows? We might just be on the verge of another renaissance in the print media. Net fiction hasn’t quite caught on yet because people still like printed books, but once the non-print experience is as comfortable as the print one perhaps we can see a day when more people can again make a living writing for others.

Oral versus Aural

I’m running into an interesting question as I work on Crocodile Princess- since this is intended to be an audiobook should I be writing it to be read aloud or read like a book?

What I mean by this is that I’ve found I’ve been writing it with the intention to be read aloud, but oral storytelling rthyms and strutures are different than traditional print ones. In conventional works of fiction for the most part you write in proper stardard english grammar, but real people don’t speak that way- they speak in sentence fragments and with unconventional rthyms.

I’ll give you an example:

“She climbed the stairs, turning slowly as she reached the first landing to peer up into the darkness. Was there something there waiting for her? She could almost feel whatever was there above her watching her. It’s eyes peering down at her like a spider waiting for it’s prey to take another step into it’s web.”

Versus.

“Stairs passed under her feet. She stopped at the first landing. Peering up at the darkness. She felt it. Hovering. Eyes boring into her. It wanted her. Waiting like a spider. It wanted her to step forward. It wanted her in it’s trap. One more step- she imagined it thinking. One more step. Then you’ll be mine.”

The first is meant to be read, the second is meant to be real aloud. The second almost bears more resemblance to a poem in structure and loose grammar, but especially when read aloud will sound more pleasing to the human ear.

Right now I’m working towards a bit of a compromise between the two, although when in doubt I’m going for something that sounds better read aloud. It will make my grammar look a little weird, but hopefully it will make the audiobook version sound that much better.

Rob

Audiobooks

I just had the following e-mail exchange with a friend about Audiobooks:

Friend:

There seems to be a lot of love for Little Gou. It’ll be interesting to see how the audiobook goes down in relation to the audio dramas. I wonder what people are more into listening to…

Rob:

Here’s another interesting factoid- part of the reason I initially had a lot of interia with my audio dramas was from doing the audiobook readings. The audiobooks make up about 9000 of my site’s total downloads, even though I effectively took them down almost 7 months ago (they were still available through the KFAT blog as well until recently but not on the podcast feed, and now that’s gone too!) and I believe it was when I lost those audiobook listeners who hung around that’s when I had the real slump in my ratings.

Simply put, audiobooks are just damn more popular than Audio Dramas. Sad but true. Which is in part why I decided to start branching back out into both.

I should add an extra comment to go along with that, though. Just to keep things in context. Since I started in August 2006 my podcast feed has had 27,000 listeners, of which 9000 (as noted above) were Audiobook listeners. That still means Audio Drama listeners make up more of my listenership, but since there are more of them than the audiobooks each audio drama has fewer listeners.

Rob

Freedom!!!!!

This week, I started something I haven’t in a very long time- I started to write a novel.

I had tried to write novels before in my youth, but it never seemed to come together and I couldn’t seem to finish them. Looking back now, I can see this was mostly my own inexperience with storytelling kicking in, and that I just wasn’t ready for such a project. Now, with 30 audio dramas under my belt, I have decided to take a run at it, and what an amazing experience it suddenly turned out to be.

The biggest shock has been going from writing audio drama, which is an extremely condensed and concise form of storytelling, to writing general prose and discovering the freedom that comes with it. Suddenly it doesn’t matter how long my scenes are, or how many characters I have. I don’t have to worry about background noises, music or sound effects. There’s a complete different set of limitations of form to consider, ones which are actually much broader than my audio work. My writing, which now feels like it’s been unknowingly cooped up in the house for the past two years, can suddenly fly free in the sky and go where it wants to go.

Of course, I’m not going to stop writing audio drama, I love it too much to stop. ^_^ So don’t worry about that. And in fact, I think I can credit much of what I see as an incredible leap in my writing ability to having been forced to write the very constrained form of audio drama for so long. By writing audio drama I had to master the art of storytelling through dialogue on a level most regular authors will never venture to. It really honed my writing skills, much as I’ve often heard journalists claim writing newspaper copy honed theirs, and I think I’m a much better writer for it.

You can judge yourself, of course, when Little Gou’s first prose adventure serial debuts sometime in the future!

Rob

In the Land of the Blind- Clarity is King

Something I keep coming back to in my discussions with others about writing and producing audio drama is the issue of clarity. To me, the first commandment of producing audio drama is “thou shalt not confuse thy audience”, because in a form like this that’s 100% reliant on the listener’s imagination it’s really easy to lose them, and a lost audience tunes out in more ways than one.

How do you lose an audience? Let me count the ways.

  • Too many characters.
  • Too many characters that sound the same.
  • Sudden scene shifts with no indicators.
  • Lots of action with no points of reference as to what’s happening.
  • Over-reliance on sound effects.
  • Forgetting that sound effects are not universal (A police siren in Europe sounds different from a police siren in Japan, which sounds different from one in Canada.)
  • Poor use of sound effects.
  • Confusing storylines.
  • Forgetting that not everyone has seen the same shows/read the same books/listened to the same music/etc that you have.
  • Too much reliance on in-jokes- personal or cultural.
  • Forgetting that Anime/Kung Fu Movies/Star Trek/Geekdom/Etc. are subcultures, and so ideas common within them often aren’t known or understood by the general public. (Go ask your mother what a Naruto Yuri Nekomimi Doujinshi is, or how a Klingon War Poem sounds.)
  • Forgetting who your audience is, or worse, not knowing who your audience is!

There’s more, but I think that list wll do for now. Any of these things can completely kill an audio drama for the listener, especially a casual listener who has no real reason to stay or continue listening if they’re bored or confused by what they hear.

What’s the solution? That’s the easy part, ironically enough. It’s to know your form (what can audio do and what can’t it do?), know your audience, and know what you have to say to most efficiently convey what you want them to get from your show. Often that means minimal cast, careful use of sound effects, sometimes narration or explository speech, and a clear focussed story that knows where it’s going and takes the best possible path to get there.

Rob

Writing Speed

A friend just mentioned to me that she knows of someone turning out a full 20-30 page script in 45 minutes. That’s astounding! O_o! My own writing speed when it comes to audio drama scripts is about 6 hours for a 20-30 page script. The time seems to fly by while I’m working, but when I look at the clock usually about 6 hours worth of time have passed to produce a single first draft.

Of course, I rarely write scripts in one sitting. Most of my scripts are written in 2 or 3 sittings, depending on how hard the script is and how things are flowing. Sometimes I have to force myself to sit down and just write, since it’s all too easy to plan instead of write. Hmm…I guess I’m not including planning time in that 6 hours either, and I do spend a lot of time thinking about scripts as I plan them. As I try to have hooks or twists in my scripts, and most of them are meant to be self-contained stories it takes a lot of extra little planning to make sure it all fits together well.

So, how long does it take to put together a script? I guess the real answer is- as long as it takes to do it right.

Rob

The Life of a Pendant Show

Jeffrey Bridges, the incredibly devoted executive producer of Pendant Productions just posted a blog entry outlining the process Pendant shows go through from idea to production. It really is like a professional studio over there! Amazing work, Jeffrey!

While the process for a one-man show like KFAT is much simpler, it shows you how many hats an audio producer needs to wear and what they need to think about as they produce so I thought it was worth sharing on here too.

Rob

Sine Language- the Japanese art of writing combat.

So, I’ve been reading a lot of the Naruto manga recently.

Like it (which I do) or hate it, Naruto really is one of the most popular comics and anime on the planet, and it’s struck a chord with young people everywhere. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the manga both for enjoyment (it’s easier when I justify buying them as “research” ^_-) and to deconstruct the storytelling methods he’s using to find out how and why they work like they do.

I’ve long believed that manga are the key to pushing audio drama production to the next step, as they have a lot of innovative storytelling techniques that I believe can be adapted to the audio form to make it stronger and more vibrant. Comics are stories told in words and pictures, whereas audio dramas are stories told in words and sound effects- very similar in so many ways. I keep meaning to sit down and do a full analysis of their similarities, and maybe someday I will, but for now I’m focussed on just learning what I can from one medium to improve another.

The aspect I want to talk about today is combat, which is important to me because I’m writing action-adventure stories that involve a lot of fighting and conflicts between characters. The Japanese long ago mastered the art of writing combat scenes in their mangas, techniques that Naruto is using to the fullest, and which I wanted to see if I could apply to audio drama. Of course, to do this I first had to figure out what they were doing! Something I’m still figuring out, but I have reached at least one conclusion that I’m ready to share.

I told one of my closest friends (who’s in the entertainment industry and also studies the Japanese storytelling methods) about my thoughts on the subject over the phone last week, and he immediately replied: “Oh, you mean the Sine Wave“.

“What?” I replied. “What do you mean?”

He then went on to explain that combat in Japanese comics and anime tends to work like a sine wave- combat alternating with periods of downtime to allow things to cool before the next round of combat. This allows the writer to both build tension and add extra information into the fight while keeping the fight going until reaching a climax. It works a little like this:

(two Samurai, A and B, are fighting each other)

Round One: A and B rush in and attack each other, neither has the upper hand and they back off.

Pause One: A has a flashback to how B was his rival for the woman they both loved when they were young, it makes him angry and drives him to attack again!

Round Two: A launches a furious attack that pins B against a wall, it looks like B is going to lose when B suddenly spits in A’s eye and then counterattacks in the moment of shock. B gains the upper hand and goes for the kill, and as A falls back he remembers…

Pause Two: Another flashback, this time to his master training him and telling him how much he regretted training B. But, now that B has run away with the girl, A should forget her and devote his full attention to the studies at hand. A swears he will never give up, and always keep fighting!

Round Three: Returning to the present, A remembers his promise and whips around to avoid B’s deadly blow, then manages to fight his way back into a neutral position. With both of them panting, B suddenly starts telling him about what happened to their mutual love…

Pause Three: B tells a tale of how he and the love escaped together, but over time she came to realize she loved A instead, and wanted to return. The girl tried to return to A, but B in a drunken rage killed her by accident and then found himself a wanted man on the run from the police. He regrets what happened, but he also blames A for her death, if only A hadn’t been in the way, B and the girl could have been happy!

Round Four: Both men dash at each other again, they fight and this time B is wounded by A’s sword when he suddenly fails to block an attack. A steps back, shocked.

Pause Four: B thanks A, and explains he wanted to die today, but not before knowing which of them was the better swordsman. Now that B knows it’s A, he can rest in peace, and will be the first one to see the dead love in heaven. He got what he wanted, and dies.

See how it goes? Back and forth, back and forth.

Now, it’s not always talking or flashbacks. That’s part of the beauty of the system- the pauses can be filled with all sorts of things like other characters commenting on the fight, other events occuring elsewhere at the same time, inner monologues and witty banter. All that matters is that it’s relevant somehow to the action which is occuring and gives the reader a chance to rest between rounds of combat so it can build up to the next level.

You might wonder, do Americans do this? The answer seems to be “not so much anymore”. American fights now tend to be fast non-stop affairs with occasional pauses to reload, and those pauses seem to be becoming fewer and farther inbetween as each generation of hollywood action filmmaker tries to make their films even more boring…err…I mean intense! Perhaps as the Japanese influence continues, it will start to shift to this method (which isn’t perfect, but is pretty good!), but right now there is definitely a difference in approaches and styles.

So how can this be applied to audio drama?  Well, the most obvious part is that audio drama’s greatest weakness is in it’s presentation of combat. Because combat is generally a very visual thing, just hearing sound effects doesn’t usually carry it well, and combat in audio drama without some form of narration tends to be very short because of this. Even with narration, it’s hard to make combat last very long and keep it interesting because the audience can’t see the elements that make combat cool and interesting in a movie or TV show.

To a degree, I believe this Sine Wave approach can help to overcome that by turning the shortness of the combat itself into less of a liability and more of a building point. By jumping back and forth between the combat and downtime the fight can be made to last longer, and become more intense by virtue of being given the chance to build towards a more dramatic climax. Some of the techniques the Japanese use are too visual, and would be hard to do (jumping to events occuring elsewhere might be tricky unless handled well…) but generally I think this is a viable technique and I look forward to testing it out in my future works to see how far I can take it.

Rob

Writing Promos

I’ve just finished producing 2.3 of the hardest minutes of audio production to write- my Promo.

Ironically enough, it was written in less than 40 minutes (to you who say “it shows”, my reply is “you know where the find the exit” ^_-) but that made it no less difficult to come up with. In reality the writing wasn’t so much the hard part as was the idea. I went through sooo many Promo ideas over the year and a half since I made the last KFAT promo (which was for my old audiobook podcast, not the audio drama one!) but none of them ever seemed to gel. Most of them were about Little Gou having some (very) short adventure/situation that turned into the promo, but I did consider various mix-montage promos (made up of clips from my shows) and other types such as plain old me talking to the audience.

I’ve heard all of these done with effectiveness, and turned into good promos, but I wanted to do something different. I guess that’s one of my flaws as a creator, if I can’t do something a little different, I don’t really want to do it. I suppose in the worst case (since I’ve had people asking me for promos to exchange for a while) I would have just gone with a me talking to the audience promo since it’s the simplest and most effective in my opinion. But, I held out for a better idea, and suddenly as I drove to work yesterday morning it hit me- I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. Thus came the promo I whipped off at work and mailed to myself, the one with little change you can hear as the KFAT 2008 promo.

I think it reflects the group, and manages to be entertaining at the same time, but only time will tell.