Rob Talks the Love of Podcasting with Jack Ward

I recently paid a visit to the Sonic Society’s Sonic Speaks podcast to talk with the incomparable Jack Ward about the history of my podcast- Kung Fu Action Theatre. In the interview, we talk about how I got into podcasting, my experience running KFAT, and my eventual decision to stop doing audio drama. Along the way, we discuss writing and the transition of going between being an audio dramatist and a prose fiction writer, and the challenges that come with learning to tell stories in audio before you’ve mastered prose.


It was a fun chat, and I hope we can do it again sometime. It made me think a lot about the differences between writing for audio and prose that I hadn’t considered, and I think I too learn from the exploration. If you’re planning to do Audio Drama, or make the jump from Audio Drama to fiction writing, it would definitely be a good one to listen to.

What Jackie Chan can teach us about writing action

Following up my post on what writers can learn from Akira Kurosawa, I’m going to do another blog post on writing- this time based on the nine rules that Tony Zhou outlines in the video below about how Jackie Chan masters action comedy. Naturally, it will be easier to follow if you’ve watched the video, so check it out first.

Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Action is primarily a visual creature, and is a natural fit for film, but can you do it well in prose? I would say yes, but let’s see if Tony’s 9 Jackie Chan “rules” can be applied to prose writing.

Jackie Chan’s 9 Principles of Action Comedy (as noted by Tony Zhou)

1. Start with a DISADVANTAGE

This one is pretty obvious. If your goal is to build tension, then having your character at a disadvantage in a scene in a must, whether they’re supposed to fight or just trying to run away. The more of a disadvantage you can put them at, the better, although I should note that Jackie primarily makes action-comedies. There is a reason Batman doesn’t most start fights at a disadvantage- because he’s a kick-butt reader surrogate and is supposed to make the reader feel powerful. If you take that away from the reader, they’re not going to like it much. (Although even Batman does occasionally start fights at a disadvantage for variety and dramatic purposes.)

 

2. Use the ENVIRONMENT

Tony is actually combining two points here in the video under one.

The first point he brings up is that Jackie uses the environment in his fights, which makes them more real and unique in a sense. If you can offer your reader something they haven’t seen before in a fight, like a character fighting with a ladder, then that can show that you’ve actually taken the time to think through this fight scene and make it interesting for the reader. If you emphasize the environment properly, it gives the reader a sense of place and can be used to help set up shots.

Speaking of which, the second point is really to set up your shots! If you want to have an action scene, then give the reader a sense of the terrain before and during the action sequence. Don’t be afraid to foreshadow or even lead a little with your descriptions like Jackie does in his movies. In the example they give, Jackie does a shot of a stuntman being knocked down a spiral staircase before he himself uses it shortly for his own actions- and there’s no reason you can’t do this kind of thing too! Use people, objects and even descriptions to lead the reader through the action, and make it easier for them to follow.

 

3. Be CLEAR in your shots

This is a trickier one for writers than you might think.

Normally, writers increase the pace of action scenes by using short, clear sentences and paragraphs to increase the pace of the action and story. They also focus on the very key elements of the events happening to keep from letting description bog down the action as it’s happening. However, to be truly clear about what’s happening you need to describe the action, and you need to do it in a way that paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind so they can follow it without being confused.

So you have to find a balance:

  • Too much description = slow reading and pacing.
  • Too little description = reader confusion.

This is one of the things that makes writing action so difficult- finding that sweet spot that conveys a clear image of the events for the reader to experience and enjoy while at the same time not bogging them down with too much, or disorienting them with too little detail.

 

4. Action & Reaction in the SAME frame

Not sure if this one can apply to writing. The only think I can think of goes back to #3, about being clear in your shots and #2b about letting the reader know where the action is going before it does. If any of you have other thoughts on how this one could be applied, please leave it in the comments.

 

5. Do as many TAKES as necessary

For writers, this is really about how much time you want to spend on your action scenes and effort you want to put into detailing them out. Especially in the modern self-publishing world where getting books out fast is often linked with financial success, it can be hard to spending days, weeks (or months) planning an action scene or sequence, but there are times when quality really is linked with time spent.

Again, like most things with writing, it comes down to balance.

You need to know what you’re capable of, and how much time you’re willing to spend, and then use that time accordingly. If you think you’ll benefit from storyboarding out a whole action scene first and you have the time, then why not? (It might also make a great extra for loyal readers, or to get people to join your mailing list.) But, if you’ve got two weeks to finish this book or the rent doesn’t get paid next month, then you’ll probably want to just do what you can and move on.

 

6. Let the audience feel the RHYTHM

This goes back to #3- let the audience understand what’s happening and they’ll be able to appreciate it more. Also, too many quick cuts (jumping from different points of view, or jumping between simultaneous action at different places) can prevent the reader from really appreciating what’s happening. Both POV jumping and jumping between scenes are effective tools for dramatic pacing in a book, but if you overuse them the reader can get confused or tired by it- so as with garlic and salt in cooking, use them in controlled moderation to avoid leaving a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.

 

7. In editing, TWO good hits = ONE great hit

This is a film editing trick, and I don’t think it can be applied to prose action writing. However, if anyone has some thoughts feel free to note them in the comments section below, I’d be interested to hear them.

 

8. PAIN is humanizing

This one is pretty self explanatory- we empathize with suffering, especially suffering we’ve experienced ourselves, and it brings us closer to the characters and makes them more human. Don’t be afraid to let your characters be hurt, even if it’s just superficial hurts it still reminds us that they’re people and made of flesh and blood like the audience.

Obviously, it also adds to the drama when characters are hurt, because it puts them at a disadvantage in the action and forces them to try even harder to get out of the hole they’re in. If your characters are macho tough-guys, then maybe you don’t want to show them being hurt too much, but if you want the audience to really feel for the character, showing them suffer is a great way to do it. Writer Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) once advised that if you want to connect with the reader describe a character’s feet or their mouth, because both places are filled with nerve endings and give us intense sensations in real life.

 

9. Earn your FINISH

Story can be said to be about struggle. Nobody wants to watch a story about a guy who just walks through park and nothing happens, or someone doing something that isn’t hard or difficult for them to do in some way. While you don’t have to make it a series of ever-stronger bosses like a Jackie Chan movie, you should do your best to show that the character had to overcome something (mental, physical, emotional or social, or some combination thereof) to reach their goals and achieve victory.

Don’t be afraid to stack the odds against your characters, and let them have to do something outside of their comfort zone to win. Of course, if you overdo it, it can become ridiculous, so make sure your poor character does at least have a slim chance of winning in the reader’s minds.

 

Final Thoughts

I’ve always been fascinated by the art of writing action in prose form. I think it comes from growing up on comics and action films and then transitioning into literature, where unfortunately the ability to write action varies widely by writer. It’s not an easy skill, and it’s one I struggled with when I was writing my Little Gou short stories and novel, especially since that was literally an attempt to write kung-fu adventures! I don’t claim to have mastered it, and I think I learned a few new tricks watching this video and thinking through this article, but in any case it’s a skill any writer can benefit from developing- whether you’re writing kung fu in old China, car chases through Cairo, or gunfights under the Texas sun.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please comment below!

Rob

FORCEdraft

Forcedraft

A while back, I blogged about WRITE or DIE!, which is a devilish little productivity tool designed to counter writer’s block by making noises, showing horrible images, or even erasing your text if you stop writing. I used it for a while, and I have to admit it works pretty well, but what if you’re someone who prefers to write at a slightly more leisurely pace or just needs a little freedom from distraction? Not everyone is suitable for the breakneck production speeds Write or Die! encourages.

Well, for you, there’s FORCEdraft- which as it says above is literally a program that won’t quit until you’ve reached your goals, and which will lockdown and block access to your entire PC until you reach those goals (or tell it to quit, if you wussed out and used that option). I actually stumbled across it a while ago and downloaded it, but it wasn’t until recently that I started to use it- and boy am I glad I did!

FORCEdraft lets you set a time goal or word-count goal, and keeps everything from distracting you until you reach that goal. Even if you change your mind- too bad! Once it’s running, nothing short of turning off your computer will stop it. I discovered this when I did a test run and realized that it doesn’t automatically stop when you reach your goal, and I didn’t know how to turn it off. I tried every single trick I could think of and the darn thing wouldn’t let me stop it! (In the end, I discovered by accident that you turn it off by clicking on the logo at the top of the screen and then it will save and exit. And it’s saving constantly, so if there was a crash your work would be fine.)

Since that first trying experience, I began using the program and came to like it so much that I added it to my startup programs so it comes on when it boot up my PC. (In menu mode, not writing mode- I’m not that hardcore! Having to write 500 or more words to get access to my PC would be good for productivity, though!) I’ve found I liked it so much I actually donated to the author, and am now using the PRO version which offers a few extra little bells and whistles. (You can change the screen colors, and it has a clock and word counter.)

It would also be great for writers using the Pomodoro Technique, or something similar, as you could set the timer for 25 minutes, do your block, and then set it for the next 25 minute block after you’ve had your break. However, whatever your schedule, I suggest you check it out if you’re looking for something to increase your writing productivity. I love it because I can craft my prose in a stress-free environment, but still know I have goals that I must meet before I can do anything else. (Including check my mail or Facebook!)

Rob

What Akira Kurosawa can teach us about writing

I recently watched an excellent short analysis of some of director Akira Kurosawa’s film-making techniques by Tony Zhou, and it got me thinking about how we prose writers could apply some of Kurosawa’s techniques to our own work.

So, before we begin, take the time to enjoy Tony’s short 8-minute video. It’s well done, and just watching it makes me want to run out and watch all of Kurosawa’s films just for their sheer artistry and beauty…

Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Okay, now you’re up to speed, let’s talk about how some of his key ideas can be applied to writing.

Now, my first takeaway from Kurosawa is the obvious one- nothing in a story should be wasted. Everything down to the last period should be in a story for a reason, and should be working to make that story into the best possible story you can make it. Since as a writer you have absolute control over what’s on that page, and what your reader perceives, you can control what they see much like a camera does, and like Kurosawa you should be using every tool at your disposal to bring your story to life with the greatest effect.

Let’s look at a few specifics:

The Environment

One of the first things Zhou discusses is Kurosawa’s masterful use of the environment- Kurosawa uses it to create both visual stimulation and to show the mental states of characters. While it might be trickier for we prose writers to use the environment to create direct visual stimulation, it’s definitely a good reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of weaving the environment into our writing. It’s very easy to write everything as happening during sunny days and breezy evenings, but aren’t you missing an opportunity if you do so? Think about what environmental conditions could help to push your scene or theme to the next level, and weave them into the story in a way which supports and reinforces the story in some way. Whether it’s swirling fog to represent a character’s confusion, or a distant blazing forest fire that progressively fills the character’s world with smoke and indicates looming trouble, it can only make your story stronger.

Groups

Dealing with groups of people might seem a more visual element than a prose one, but it can still be useful for writers to consider. It’s very easy to picture characters doing things alone or with only the other main characters, but having groups of other people around can help to remind the reader that characters do have a place in society. As with the image of the showgirl crying while the other actresses rush past her from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), how groups of people react to a character can very much represent a character’s inner life as well as their greater place in society.

Key Gestures

Kurosawa liked to have each actor take on a unique gesture or way of moving so that the audience would instantly recognize him or her. This isn’t a bad tip for writers in general, either. Just as you can use visual cues like clothing, accessories or appearance to bring your characters to life in the reader’s imaginations, you can use gestures and movement as well. If you give each of the central characters a motion they consciously or unconsciously perform on a regular basis, it acts as another layer of characterization and something to play with. Of course, the gesture shouldn’t be overdone or comical (unless that’s your goal), but if subtly worked in it could reflect a lot about the character and their inner life.

Movement

There are many ways to look at movement and how it could benefit writing prose. The most direct one would be to try to have your characters doing actions or activities in their scenes, which both make the scene a little more lively (avoiding a “staged” feeling) and allows for a lot of subtext where you connect the actions with the inner life of the characters or themes playing out. I can’t recall who it was, but there was a famous author who said that they always started scenes with characters in motion in some way and finished in similar form.

Of course, movement can also be played out with the “camera” of the descriptive prose itself. Looking at description as a camera and thinking through the effects that different “shots” would have like a cinematographer could definitely benefit your writing in subtle ways. For example, did you know that each of the standard camera shots (close up, medium shot, long shot, worm’s eye view, etc) actually have a psychological or emotional effect on how the viewer interprets the character and scene? There is a whole language to film that’s developed over a hundred years and that we learn as children on a subconscious level. Learning the different shots and why directors use them could benefit your writing by letting you tap into that treasure trove of audience psychology.

Regardless of what you decide to use (or not use) from Kurosawa’s approach, thinking through your approach to scenes in a visual or cinematic way can only enhance your final work. However, do remember that the power of prose over video is that it can go deep inside characters and to places that video can’t, and you should be taking advantage of not just the visual and audio, but also the other senses in your scenes as well.

Rob

P.S. Check out Tony Zhou’s other videos, they’re really something else and will give you a new appreciation of the power of film.

Random Dramatic Scene Generator

I’m feeling rather proud at the moment. I managed to code a simple webpage that generates a pair of naturally conflicting characters and an action verb which defines their relationship in that scene, in other words a Random Dramatic Scene Generator.

Of course, by “code” I mean I found an already existing webpage that did something similar, copied pieces of that code and modified it to suit my own purposes. ^_^ So, coding in the truly classic sense!

In any case, I made this page for use by my students in my scriptwriting class since they need to do short 5-minute dramatic scenes for one of their assignments, and I wanted a random way to give them a starting point in their scenes. Of course, it can be used by anyone who needs a quick dramatic situation for their stories as well.

Enjoy!

Rob

Good Advice from Author Scott Sigler about Writing Your First Novel

Legend of Korra Finishes (spoiler lite)

And with tonight’s episode, Avatar: The Legend of Korra reaches it’s final conclusion with the end of Season Four.

It’s been a rocky road for what has turned out to be one of the best animated series Americans have ever produced. The show itself was only meant to last a single season, and then suddenly given three more when it turned into a mega-hit, which left the writers scrambling to continue a story they’d rushed to finish at the end of Season One. Then, once Season Two didn’t get the ratings of Season One, the executives at Nickelodeon lost faith it in to the point they pulled it from the air halfway through Season Three due to “low ratings”. (Low ratings on a show that they didn’t advertise, and which they threw onto the air during the notoriously low-rated Summer season. Surprise!) In the end, it only got a fourth season because it was already in the can when Season Three was stuck online-only, and because it still got great ratings in overseas markets.

Despite all this, the writers and producers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra managed to produce a fine show. A series with unique characters that grew and had a life of their own, a setting that actually changed with the story, and some amazing heroic action sequences that could be mind-blowingly good. Korra started as a unique lead, a hotheaded “female jock” who didn’t fall into the stereotypical “strong female lead” traps, and changed as the series went on into a balanced and considerate person. She suffered, and grew from her suffering, and since the theme of the show was “change and transformation”, she exemplified those ideas in the best possible ways.

Each of the villains represented a different philosophy- equality, harmony, anarchy, and order taken to a radical extreme (mostly in the pursuit of power) and that gave the show a thoughtful edge that challenged the preconceptions held by the main character and the audience. It forced Korra to expand her way of thinking about the world, and in doing so also made the audience question as well. Even if it was all in the service of some great action/adventure stories, it gave the show a subversive depth you rarely see on TV anywhere, much less on a Nick cartoon.

It wasn’t a perfect show, of course. There was the horribly rushed ending during the last 15 minutes of the first season, and then the second season didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the first in terms of writing. (It was very much a generic “evil villain wants to take over the world because he’s evil” plot.) And, while the third and fourth seasons were amazing (and even managed to make the second season look better in retrospect of what we learn later), there was a lot of character randomness as the writers struggled to make characters designed for one season work over four seasons. (This was especially true of Asami, but more on her shortly.) There was also the decision to “break” the link between the Avatar and her past selves during Season Two that I maintain was a big mistake that even the writers felt later on. But, what’s done is done.

And, in the end, it all came together in a spectacular fourth season that echoed real Chinese history, with Kuvira standing in for Shang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist Army. The finale played to the show’s strengths, and the whole thing showed how Korra had really changed the world and herself through her actions and choices. If Korra hadn’t come along, the ending never could have happened, and that’s the mark of a good story- where everything fits together.

Everything except one small piece…

SPOILERS from here on in! Don’t read if you haven’t watched the ending yet and care.

So, first, let me say that I don’t care who Korra ended up with. I’m not a (relation)shipper, and don’t often invest in character romance stories or pairings. In fact, Korra could have ended up with Kuvira, or Tenzin, or even the Ghost of Uncle Iroh for all I care. That said, I didn’t like the pairing of Korra and Asami at the end, and in fact it pissed me off.

When I first saw it, I actually smiled. Both because it was nice to see Korra start a new relationship, and because I was impressed a Nick show would end with such a LGBTI friendly ending. It took guts to end the show that way, and they must have worked hard to slip that past the Suits. (I wouldn’t even be surprised if it’s edited for later airings after a flurry of “concerned parents” write like crazy to Nickelodeon.)

However, something bugged me, and after a bit of thought I realized what it was.

You see, one way to see a story is as an argument. The whole story is an argument for why it ends the way it does. It sets up evidence and puts into motion events that produce the ending we get. A perfect example of that is Varrick and Ju-Li. Varrick starts as a heartless capitalist rogue with Ju-li as his assistant, and then after he loses everything she still sticks with him. When he loses her too and goes on a journey of self-discovery he comes to realize that she is the most important thing in his life, and eventually appreciates her and asks her to marry him. (Something the Varrick we first meet would never have done.) She also grows in her will to be a person, and in doing so, earns his love by not just being his assistant, but by being his partner. You can think back and examine the trail of evidence, and reach the conclusion that this was the proper ending for their story.

Not so for Korra and Asami.

When Asami was introduced, it was as a romantic rival/femme fatale/non-bender character who represented the new technological age and stood between Korra and her love-interest Mako. She was intricately tied into the story for Season One, since her father was one of the main villains, and so when Season Two came around the writers struggled with what to do with her and ultimately stuck with the romantic-rival role. Finally, partway through Season Three, she took on the “best friend/confidante” role, and that’s where she sat until literally the last second of the story when it’s implied she and Korra are starting a romantic relationship.

Now, over-viewed like that it doesn’t look so bad, but in actual presentation there was zero clues or hints of anything romantic between the two of them until the very very end. Like nothing. After more than two seasons of chasing a man and being passionately in love with men, and being heartbroken about losing men, they suddenly decide to run off together. How does that work? This would be like if at the end of Harry Potter, Harry and Ron suddenly decided to run off together after spending the whole story chasing girls. It’s a valid ending, but is it the valid conclusion to the argument the story makes?

Now, you could make an argument that Korra wasn’t emotionally in a position or ready to take on a relationship like this until the end of the story. She’s a changed person, and as a result she’s ready to try something new and go in a new and more balanced direction. That would be fair, however, it takes two to tango, and Asami was never shown to have any romantic interest in Korra either. If she had, I could have bought the ending, but we’ve never had even the slightest hint that Asami also likes women, and every piece of evidence in the show tells us the opposite.

So there’s the problem, we have not one, but two characters making total left-turns at the end of the story out of the blue. I can only guess that the writers/producers wanted to do something controversial, or perhaps please the Korra/Asami Shippers by giving them the ending nobody expected to get. Then again, it was the ending that nobody expected because it didn’t make any sense, not because it was socially radical.

For the record, I was rooting for Korra and Bum-ju. (It had just as much evidence to support it.)

Rob

Parkinson’s Law for Writers- Introduction

Although he was not entirely serious at the time, Cyril Northcote Parkinson once declared one of life’s truisms- “The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.”

What does this mean?

Well, let me give two examples:

1) If you only have $10 for food that week, you will find a way to make do with $10 worth of food, but if you have $100 you will spend $100 on food that week even if you could have made do with $10.
2) If you say you have one day to get a project done, it will get done in one day. If you say the same project will take a week, it will take you a week to get it done.

Because of many factors, be it laziness, practicality, or procrastination, it’s just human nature to make maximum use of resources like money or time for our own convenience, even if using them more wisely might bring us long-term benefits. Maybe it’s a side-effect of short-term thinking, or our selfish natures, but this is a problem that keeps popping up again and again, and often we let this side of ourselves keep us from doing what we want to do. This is what’s known as Parkinson’s Law.

I’ll give you an example (the one which got me thinking about this topic)- National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is a month where would-be writers are encouraged to pump out a 50,000 word novel (or 50,000 words of a novel) in an effort to force themselves to write. It creates a time limit, sets a clear goal, and forces writers (who are horrible procrastinators) to actually commit to using that month to produce the book they’ve always wanted to write. The idea is that 1,667 words a day (50,000 roughly divided by 31) is an easily achievable goal for almost any writer, even one with a day job, and if they just reach that goal consistently for 31 days they’ve got their book finished!

It’s a great idea, and for many people it works. It gets butts in seats and words on the screen, and overcomes many of the hurdles that writers tend to find themselves facing in an effort to make their dreams into reality. But, what really made me think was what writer Matt Ahlschlager did- he finished NaNoWriMo in 1 day! In fact, he did it in less than a day, while bogging about it as he went, and this November he did it 3 times!

So why does it take other writers 31 days? Yes, Matt is a fast typer, but couldn’t most people carve out a weekend (2 whole days) and produce a book, especially if they wrote “Chinese Style”?

Isn’t this just an example of Parkinson’s Law in effect? Writers give themselves 31 days, so it takes 31 days, but it doesn’t HAVE to. Writer Michael Moorcock wrote an essay called “How to Write a Book in 3 Days“, and it outlines exactly how to write a book in one weekend. Even most professional writers (the prolific ones) often talk about writing a novel in 2-3 weeks at most, and author Rachel Aaron discusses how to do it in one week by writing 10,000 words a day. It can be done.

Think about it- if you had 2 days to write a 50,000 word novel or pay a $100,000 penalty, could you do it? I bet you could. I bet most people with at least some writing talent could, especially if given a bit of preparation.

So why don’t you?

Every book you write is a potential “lottery ticket” which could actually make you $100,000 (in the long run, if it sells well) and the more stories you write, the better your chances are of writing that winning book. So why are you capable of that kind of productivity only if it’s penalty? Why can’t you do it as a reward? (Yes, I know, one is certain, and one is a gamble, but if you don’t write anything you’re guaranteed to make nothing from it.)

It’s this thinking that got me wondering about how writers could find ways to use Parkinson’s Law to their advantage. If this is a part of human nature, how can we “hack” it to benefit ourselves as writers and make ourselves more productive and profitable in the process?

So let’s explore this “law” and see what it can do for our creativity. When I have time, I’m going to write a series of posts on this topic, and my thoughts on how we can benefit from it.

First up- TIME!

Rob

Why I Hate Football Plots

I hate Football Plots.

I hate them with the passion of a thousand suns.

What are Football Plots?

Football Plots are when the whole story centers around a piece of information (or item), and the story is basically about the characters trying to get that “Football” to the other end of the “field” while avoiding the people trying to stop them.

Now when you read that, the first thing that might come to mind (if you’re a geek) is Lord of the Rings (Frodo tries to get a ring to Mount Doom while dodging Orcs) or perhaps even Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Luke tries to get the plans to the Death Star to the Rebels) and while yes, those do fit the criteria I list above, real Football Plots take it to a whole other level.

I first noticed Football Plots when I was watching Korean Historical Dramas, and they are masters of the Football Plot. In a typical Korean Historical Drama, very often a character will find out a piece of information (say X is a spy for the enemy) and then the moment they find out that piece of information the whole world turns against them. Why does the world turn against them? Because if the character were able to say a single sentence to the right person, then the whole plot would end there and then. So, as a result, anything and everything has to happen to keep that character from being able to give that piece of information to the right person until the appointed time (or page count) in the plot.

This commonly includes:

  • Being interrupted before they can speak.
  • People falling sick at bad times.
  • Old enemies being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Friends (temporarily) turning against them for plot-convenient reasons.
  • Family members who have known them their whole lives suddenly not trusting them.
  • The people they need being in hard to reach locations at just that moment.
  • The people they need being distracted by something else at just that moment.
  • Nobody believing them.
  • Doing things that they’d know they shouldn’t do if they just stopped and thought about it for a moment.
  • Accidents happening at just the wrong time.
  • Everything they’ve ever done wrong in their life coming back to haunt them at just that time.
  • Amnesia.
  • Being Kidnapped.
  • Misunderstandings with almost everyone around them.
  • Just missing the people they need to see.
  • And every other possible coincidence you can imagine that would prevent them from being able to pass that one piece of information along.

Now, while a few of these in a story is hardly a cause for annoyance (they’re tricks for building drama, and they work) if you use too many of them, it can quickly turn a dramatic and thrilling plot into a silly soap opera where the audience feels strung along, and when it reaches this level I call it a Football Plot because that’s all it is, an endless series of plays and interceptions as Character B tries to stop Character A from talking to Character C. Of course, in a real Football game, a single goal doesn’t decide the whole game, but here it does, which is part of the problem.

Football Plots are inherently weak, because they’re dependent on a single action. To give an example, I’ve seen Korean Dramas where twenty or more episodes of plot could literally have been skipped or avoided if Character A said “I’m sorry” to Character C. Literally skipped, as in it would have made no difference to the story whatsoever overall, and wouldn’t have changed the characters or their relationships. That was twenty episodes (20 HOURS, give or take) of time and events which didn’t need to happen, but did because the writers wanted to pad the show out, thus a Football Plot was used to fill time and create fake drama.

And this is one of my main problems with them, most of the time they’re used there’s no reason to use them at all, except to create fake drama where it feels like something exciting is happening, but in reality there’s nothing important going on. They just serve as filler to keep a story moving that otherwise should have ended a long time ago. Of course, sometimes they really do have consequences, but even then they can run off the rails and into “Why Does God Hate Me?” territory.

“Why Does God Hate Me?” is a type of Football Plot where the main characters are trying to accomplish a goal that is important to everyone involved, but literally everything that can go wrong goes wrong to ridiculous levels, as though God has a hate-on for the main character(s) and is betting on their opposition to win. This is usually the result of the writer taking the old writer’s adage “Put your characters in trees and throw rocks at them” and turning it into “Put your characters in trees and shoot at them with a 50 calibre minigun”.

And, lest you’re thinking “Oh ho! Those silly Koreans and their crazy Dramas” this whole post was inspired by one of the most beloved of American speculative fiction writers- Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files and Codex Alera series. For at the moment I’m reading his almost 700 page novel The Furies of Calderon (Book One of Codex Alera), and it is one of the most maddening examples of a “Why Does God Hate Me?” Football Plot I’ve ever seen. One that would make the Korean drama writers point fingers and laugh ironically.

How bad it is?

Well, you see that list up there. The list of crazy weekday afternoon soap-opera plot twists that you were probably mocking a moment ago as you read it? Well, Butcher does ALL of those twists in the first 400 pages of the book, and we’ve still got another 300 to go.

Go back and look at that list.

Then think- ALL of it, to the main characters, in 400 pages.

All because if the main characters spoke to the wrong person for five seconds, the whole story would come to a screeching halt and the heroes would win. So he’s pulling out every single trick he can think of to keep that from happening, while at the same time giving his villains every bit of good luck they can handle.

Actual condensed (non-spoiler) scene from the story:

Villain: This sucks. I’m randomly lost in the middle of nowhere, the heroes will win and have no shoes.
(A messenger carrying the information the villain can’t have get out happens to pass that exact spot out of the whole valley at that moment, and the villain kills him.)
Villain: Hurray! Now I have stopped my enemies, know where I am, and have gained shoes!

This is sandwiched next to a scene where the heroes almost reach their goal, and a literal random act of god knocks them back halfway across the story field for no reason except to keep the plot from stopping there and then.

I swear, I nearly threw the book at the wall at that point. But I like my wall.

It’s a decently written book, with interesting characters and ideas, but my god is it one of the most maddening things I have read in a long time. The heroes get almost no breaks (except in ways which don’t threaten to prematurely end the plot), and the villains get all the breaks they need to keep the plot going and people running around. A good story should have a balance between successes and failures that keep the reader interested and make them believe that what they’re reading is there for a reason, not just to keep a weak plot alive.

Which I guess is why I hate Football Plots so much. They’re usually more flash than substance, and aren’t really giving the reader anything new, just stringing them along until the writer can get their payoff. They’re the opposite of creativity, and a cheat.

Now, as I said before, there’s nothing wrong with using some dramatic twists to keep the reader interested and make the main character’s life interesting, in fact you need to throw a few in, but like a good chef, you need to know just the right amount of spice to use to make the dish nourishing and tasty at the same time. A Football Plot is all icing and no cake, and that makes Rob an unhappy boy.

Rob

Reading for Better Writing

Occasionally, I get asked by students who want to write fiction what they should read to become better writers. My immediate answer to this question is always the same- On Writing by Stephen King. It’s THE book by one of the greatest literary craftsmen of the last hundred years, and in itself almost functions as a perfect introduction to the art of writing fiction.

However, what about once you’re ready for something a little more advanced than King’s essential starter?

Until recently, my answer was to recommend people read Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, it’s a book on scriptwriting, but much of what’s in that book applies to writers of fiction just as well. Snyder’s unique Genres are a great tool for focusing your story, and his master plot outline can bring a story into clear (if formulaic) shape. However, it’s a book of structure and tips, not so much about the nuts and bolts of writing fiction, and that always left a bit of a gap.

Well, now I have something to fill that gap- advice that will take an author’s writing to the next level, or at least give them piles of tips from the hands of another master writer.

36 Writing Essays by Chuck Palahniuk

As the name suggests, this is a collection of writing essays by Chuck Palahniuk originally done for the writing site Litreactor.com. They were done between 2005 and 2007 on a monthly basis. Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, is the writing teacher you wish you had, and the advice he gives as he pulls back the curtain in those essays is invaluable to anyone who wants to write fiction. He’s the graduate class to Stephen King’s undergraduate class, and I cannot overstate what an effect reading those essays had on my own approach to writing.

I highly recommend anyone who has started writing, and perhaps finished a few stories, to go and find a copy of that essay collection. The official collection is only available on Litreactor.com as part of a paid membership, which I recommend you go for, however if you’re lacking in cash there are a number of bootleg collections floating around if you do a simple search. These essays will be most helpful to people who have written a bit already, and are meant for people who are serious about writing, but if you are they’re worth every second you spend reading them.

Palahniuk also starting writing occasional new essays for Litreactor.com, such as this gem about thought verbs, and it will give you an idea of what to expect. It was the reason I sought out more of his writing advice in the first place.

Happy Writing!

Rob