Special thanks to my friend, James D'Anna for sending me this article by Chuck Palahniuk -- author of Fight Club...
"In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.
Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The
mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.
“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”
Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.
If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.
Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.
Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”
Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.
Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”
One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.
For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”
A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”
A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.
Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.
No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”
Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”
Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.
Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.
Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.
And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”
“Ann’s eyes are blue.”
“Ann has blue eyes.”
“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”
Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.
And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”
Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.
For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.
Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.
“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
“Larry knew he was a dead man…”
Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.
An interviewer asked me what genre I wrote in the other day.
I think I botched the answer.
Gave a huge disclaimer how I like to write all kinds of things, then spewed a bunch of nonsense that I wrote thriller, paranormal, adventure, suspense, hints of romance, one was a western, modern, ya, mg, na, and some "creepy" elements in all the above.
Just about covers it, right? Goober.
I just write stories. I love tales. Characters thrown into weird circumstances that aren't like my own. That's it. Many times, and old Mr. King would be proud -- I don't even know the type of book or journey it's going to be. I just start with the characters that I find interesting start talking and doing stuff and the rest...just comes.
So why all the fuss about Y.A.? Young Adult. What's the deal with Middle Grade? Why is everyone all excited about New Adult? This is what I don't get. I mean...take one of the greatest classic stories of all time: Treasure Island. Jim Hawkins is what...14? Yet it was originally published in children's magazines. The Hobbit -- also a children's story. Yet today they are both known as classics for all ages. If a book simply has a "teen" protagonist, it may be considered YA now I supposed. Same with MG. Same with this new 20's-focused NA that everyone's talking about.
I for one...don't care. I want the story to be good. I want to LOVE the characters. I want to write a book that I would want to READ. If a reader is taken up and transported away to another world and fully believes the journey -- WIN. Regardless of what moniker or genre it's given. One of the most famous has to be Rowling's stuff. Considered as one of the greatest accomplishments in children's literature -- adults got just as crazy about Muggles and Hypogriffs. (Don't tell me some thirty-year-old isn't typing "alohomora" into their computers as a password.)
I know the bookstores (that are sadly disappearing) need a place to organize the books -- but agents: just let us write. Don't tell us that you are only interested in YA steampunk with a lead character that talks like Katniss Everdeen but kisses like Bella. Let the story be the story. Come along for the ride. Enjoy yourself. With a limited scope like that, you probably would have given a "not for me" response to Harper Lee...
For your consideration
Walked into a Ross today. Don’t judge. I needed a cheap dress shirt, ok?
Ok, ok, it should have been Burlington. Leave me alone.
Anyway, a guy walks in ahead of me and I’m ready to catch his door. In reality, thinking he’s at least going to hold it for a second.
Nope. Lets it shut right on me.
Hm. Ok. Now I REALLY wish I had gone to Burlington.
Went to a movie. Lone Survivor, or as it was originally pitched, “You think you’re a man, but you’re really not. Not a man at all.”
Anyway, despite a funny little commercial before the feature, several slides informing us, and even a verbal announcement – some dude starts texting in the row ahead of me. If I hadn’t been so emasculated by this movie I would have confronted him…
Waved someone into traffic. No response.
Held MY door open for someone and let them go through. Nada.
Guy in front of me in traffic just throws his McDonald’s bag out the window.
What. The. Heck. Dude?
“Be considerate,” we have heard while growing up. Often we think of it as being kind, nice, sweet, or fair to someone. We think of it as a verb. An action word. Something that we do. And you know what, at times I would be all for that, too. Just seeing people performing actions that helped someone else is nice – why else do we tear up at Extreme Makeover shows or Undercover Boss? The action of kindness is great…
…but it’s not consideration.
Consideration is simply this: careful thought.
So if we strive to be “considerate” to others, we are just committing to CAREFULLY THINKING ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE. It’s classic Golden Rule stuff, and it’s not geographic. This happens in every state in our union – and it’s a selfish epidemic. Somewhere careful thought for other people has slipped, and many are only thinking of themselves.
I beg of all of us. Think about someone else today. It could be simple as holding a door going into a Ross or ignoring that response to my Tweet during a movie. ( Trust me, the Tweet wasn’t that funny to begin with.) If we can all think of someone else more often, then we can BE considerate – which then and only THEN leads to proper action.
We can do this.
“We’re living in a SOCIETY here, people!” -- George Costanza
Okay. We had the bad news. Now it’s time for the more “positive” side of things. These are 5 movies that actually EXCEEDED my expectations in terms of story and writing. I’m not saying they were the absolute BEST movies of 2013, but at least they were well written – and they probably surprised me, as I was expecting less. Remember -- minor spoilers ahead.
This movie was really great, honestly. One will instantly tell me that I only liked it because of cinematography or the innovative ways that they used camera and space, etc. Not true. The characters were very well written -- especially with very minimal dialogue. The screenwriter then had to write in what the main character’s actions would be and how they would interact with their environment, etc. In addition, you very seldom see the characters actually interact – much of it is v.o. and you still have to believe they are connecting on certain levels. Finally, the scene where Bullock’s character is howling is absolutely incredible. What an idea, and what a way to communicate the loss of home and hope. Wow.
4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Obviously the idea stems from Thurber, but the only real similarity is the daydreaming nature of the character. The screenplay (written by Steven Conrad) is absolutely epic – using this stemmed idea to really explore what Life’s purpose is, and how one chooses to live. What an incredible example of utilizing the diminishing instances of Mitty’s daydreams as he embarks more and more on an adventure. I also must say that Conrad immediately puts an end goal in mind. We want to know what the heck is on that negative through the ENTIRE movie. This keeps an audience engaged like crazy! I was really worried that they would never reveal the negative – because I honestly could not remember what the last cover was supposed to be! Conrad rocked this adaptation – and while it completely different than the short story – it is well worth the watch.
3. Saving Mr. Banks
Just getting past the notion that P.L. Travers was a real weirdo is one thing. Getting into backstory without looking to “flashbacky” or awkward is another – and Marcel does this perfectly. She weaves incredibly interesting scenes from Travers’ background in perfectly with the “present” scenes of the writer at the studios. Utilizing Disney archives and a huge amount of real life accounts from rehearsal tapes (and one of the Sherman brothers) was obviously helpful – but it took real talent to not have it just be a documentary. One thing that surprised me and I can really appreciate were the tiny things that she set up and then PAID OFF later. It bugs me when something comes up early, but never gets addressed later – and this was an example of how to do it! In addition, some of the best parts of the story (and most touching in my opinion) was the relationship that actually DIDN’T exist – i.e. Travers and her driver. Excellent story!
2. Iron Man 3
Another superhero. Another action flick. Another CG-loaded piece of fodder for the movie consumer, right? Nope. This one really shocked me. Very good writing in this otherwise lacking genre! The journey of Stark losing everything and having to –in effect – “reboot” is a wonderful departure from this franchise and I thought the scenes where he interacted with the boy were absolute gems. What was great was his adherence to the Stark character – i.e. a sarcastic jerk – with some added pathos and eventual provision for the boy. The villains were well conceived – and of course, one of the biggest twists that has ever occurred in a superhero movie regarding who the Mandarin really was and who was really pulling the strings. I had so much fun in this movie!
To tell you the truth, I’m not SUPER surprised by this – but let me finish. Pixar movies had eclipsed the stories put out by Disney ever since Toy Story. The amount of time and care the writers took to nail every moment and every beat easily shined – catapulting Pixar to the top of everyone’s charts in regards to quality of story. Then Disney got smart and started assimilating these guys and gals into their ranks – and of course finally bought the studio. Now we see a shift. Where some of Pixar’s recent offerings like Up, Brave, and some of the “sequels” have been less than stellar – Disney’s recent offerings of Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, and now Frozen, are absolutely amazing. One reason why these animated movies generally fly to the top is because of the sheer amount of time that they take to make! Often these pictures can be in development for up to 5 years! I remember hearing how Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) said that the movies took five years and they often were terrible for four of those five! This story went through several iterations, and it shows. My only complaint was that the comic relief character seemed a little wedged in – but the different take on true love was unbeatable. Good, tight, story!
Hope you enjoyed this. What stories did you enjoy this last year? What were some that disappointed you? Do you agree with my choices? Why or why not?
Everyone does their "top" lists of the past year. Why would I let myself be left out?
I figured I would try to do something different, however, since I pride myself on writing and story. So I'm giving you my top 5 lists of movies in 2013 that either fell BELOW my expectations or EXCEEDED my expectations in terms of story/screenplay/writing, etc. This is not comprehensive, just a quick post as I was thinking about those movies that hit MY personal radar this year -- and either fell below or exceeded what I thought they should be. Ready? Here we go... Part ONE is coming up here. Part TWO to follow shortly...
FELL BELOW --
5. Lone Ranger
I knew it was going to be a "Pirates" clone, but Johnny Depp and the Old West? I have to admit I was a bit excited. At least I thought that Elliott and Rossio would give a bit more umph to it than they did. Artie was a cool idea for the hero -- but he did nothing heroic. In addition, I think there was a bunch of stuff that was missing from an earlier draft -- and rumor has it that it included werewolves (hence the weird silver bullet stuff.) Overall, fell well below expectations.
4. Man of Steel
Before you get mad -- I'm a HUGE Superman nerd. And ultimately, I sort of liked the movie, but I was really anticipating a cool story from Goyer (supervised by Nolan himself) and this one fell a little short. While I loved how the origin story intertwined with his life -- and thought the extra time on Krypton was cool -- I just could't get over how Superman couldn't think to get those bad guys away from Metropolis. Honestly, the fights would have been just as epic and cool in some old abandoned warehouses, and 6.8 million people wouldn't have died. Oh...and WHY did Superman have to be the one to fight that weird World Builder? Couldn't Superman be the one to throw his ship into phantom drive? Wouldn't that just destroy the link to the other side of the world anyway? Hm?
3. Oz the Great and Powerful
Remember, I'm not talking about acting and casting. (Franco? Really?) But story on this was...urgh. This could have been so cool! But to have some weird sister thing that didn't work and then somehow trick Mila Kunis into changing into the wicked witch? Boo. And what great characters to play with -- but they just let us down. The only line that I really liked from the movie is how the monkey sneezed away the plan.
2. Pacific Rim
Yikes. Now I know, I know, you may be wondering why I'm bagging on a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters when it comes to story and writing. But this was really really bad. Like Gypsy Danger bad. If you're going to go cliche with different countries, bad accents, and shallow characters that's actually FINE. But just go ALL THE WAY with it. Use tongue-in-cheek methods and cartoon it up a little bit! How cool would it have been to write in CRAZY cliches like the Russian robot using a hammer and sickle as weapons or the Australian robot throwing a massive boomerang? Instead, you tried to make the movie serious in some parts and crazy in others. Also, don't introduce cool things and kill them within 5 minutes. If it's not in the budget -- leave them out in the first place!
1. (breaks my heart...but) Star Trek Into Darkness
Kahn. Benedict Cumberbatch. JJAbrams. Good momentum from the first movie. Kahn. I'll say it again. Kahn! How could we mess up this story? Oh let's see. Just kind of rehash the old story but flip-flop Kirk and Spock? Nope. Big miss on this one. And magic blood? Magic blood never works. Not just magic blood, but resurrection blood? Works in the bible, but not in Star Trek. How cool would it have been to pitch the incredible mind and strength of Kahn against the relatively new crew of the Enterprise? We don't know. We never saw it.
That's it for the bad news. Good news coming up soon!
...to be continued.
Full disclosure: I wanted to see this anyway. I would have seen it even if I wasn't a writer. And in the fairness of all things internet: there are some spoilers here.
Why will writers dig this movie? Uh...der. It's about a writer. And story. And collaboration. And frustration with creative-types working together.
It's good. Really good.
In the age of super cgi-fueled behemoths that honestly lose all senses of subtly (sorry Desolation of Smaug) we have a very nice and refreshing story that actually takes the entire movie to develop. It's slow storytelling, but it's worth it. So again -- why is it for writers? P.L. Travers (according to this film -- and the research seems to back it us) is crazy. Full on wacky in her creative and collaborative process. She has weird demands, hates the idea of Disney and the U.S., and despises how Walt wanted to turn Mary Poppins into a musical. We see that this is mainly due to alcoholic father, family troubles, sadness, melancholic upbringing yeah yeah yeah. But this still is not my point. Ultimately, Mary Poppins is HER creation, and it means something to her. Something big. The cathartic process that Travers went through in creating Poppins somehow helped her cope with her own life. And if anyone else wanted to mess with that creation in any way -- Momma Bear claws came out. It's a wonder that she even got the books published!
As writers, we can hold NOTHING dear. Write with the door closed, yes, but there comes a time to let others help move it forward. Might be an editor. Might be a publisher with some good (or bad) notes to help shift some things. Might be a marketing person or agent or manager that wants to add their two cents. Find a way to work it out and don't be afraid to change things a little. There's more in the well. There's more to offer. We can all let our precious darlings go a little more, can't we?
I know I can.
See the movie. See what holding on to an ideal will do to you and the people around you.
This movie helped me be ready to change my works if needed...
...but only if I want to. Through gritted teeth.
And no pears for me either.
I just erased two people from existence in my latest book.
I did it with great aplomb. Ambivalence even. Didn't shed a tear. Didn't care.
They didn't help my story. They didn't move it along. They didn't contribute. They were in the way.
So I took them out.
I didn't kill them in the story, or anything like that. I didn't hatch a scheme or build a plot to exterminate them. I didn't use Ricin, Lilly of the Valley, a wheelchair bomb, or a robot gun mounted in my trunk.
I just went back to chapter three where their genesis was...and rewrote chapter three. And four. And five. Without them.
Where did they go?
Don't know and don't care.
Why did I even put them in there in the first place? I'll be honest -- I put them in there because I thought I needed them. Pack of friends going on an adventure, stuff like that. Rowling did it. Riordan did it. Heck, Lloyd Alexander did it. Tolkien did it the best.
So I thought I needed to. Nah. Mine didn't breathe yet. They didn't bring grins like Ron, giggles like Gurgi, or guffaws like Samwise. They didn't bring anything.
Part of my mind told me to wait -- things would get better with poor Lawrence and Holly. They didn't get a chance to develop yet. They didn't have room to run in Chapters 3-5. True, Part of My Mind, true. But if I didn't like them in three chapters, my audience sure wouldn't. And if my audience doesn't, it becomes a very simple reason to put the book down. And if the book gets put down, I'm screwed. If that happens, there's no talking my way out of it. Hank and Skylar don't believe my ramblings and pick the book back up and give me another chance.
You have to make tough choices when writing for the benefit of the arc. For the sake of the story. "Kill your darlings" indeed. Get rid of ancillary crud that doesn't move the tale forward. Make the decision and do it. Do it quickly, before there's time to waver.
Be brutal. Like me, I guess.
Because apparently after this week...
I am the danger. And I am the one who knocks.
Happy New Year! :)
"Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." William Congreve
But there’s more. Music is crazy. It taps into a unique section of our brain that no one can explain. No one that I would want to listen to, anyway. We all know this, I’m not some new unique voice to point this out.
That one song brings you back to the sweaty palms, BigRed-flavored-breath, and small pit of fear in your stomach that your deodorant was not doing its job at the Freshman Winter Formal -- (Terence Trent D’Arby Sign Your Name).
That other song transports you to the first time you had the death of someone close to you, and you still really couldn’t make sense of it – all the while noticing that your heart felt just sick and you were unable to shake it – (Huey Lewis and the News, Perfect World).
Music connects. Inspires. Generates. Shapes. Cleanses.
Has spiritual power. David chased demons with it.
Even now, Israel “IZ” Kamakawio’ole’s version of Over the Rainbow is doing something to me that I can’t explain. I’m a child in one part in my mind – remembering scenes from Oz, but I’m an adult in another…trying to remember what movie this version is from. I even have pictures of the television series Lost in my head that I can’t explain.
Thank God for music. I’m not a musician – far from it. I can sing, and I can thump out chords on a guitar, and I can air drum with the best of them – but I don’t do theory or understand the weirdly mathematical facets of the art. But music is so good – especially for writers. Or I’ll say especially for me, as a writer.
I never get writer’s block. I really don’t. Music takes me out of it every time. Every time. It inspires me every time. It prompts me every time. It gives me ideas. It solves plot problems.
I owe thank you’s to artists for being faithful to THEIR craft so I could be faithful to mine.
Thank you, Wailin’ Jennys for so many parts of Daisy Hill.
Thank you, Lindsey Stirling, for inspiring a feeling in Crimson Partridge.
Thank you, future unknown artist for what you will bring next.
Soothing beasts? Yes.
Softening rocks? Yes.
Bending a knotted oak? Yes.
"Gift." Hope you enjoy, and Merry Christmas :)