Archive for writing


Surprise and Satisfaction

While I’m learning writing lessons from Star Wars, the season finale of Andor got me started thinking about audience/reader satisfaction.

There’s a tricky balance between meeting expectations and being too predictable, giving the audience what they want to have happen but not what they expect to happen. For a hypothetical example, think of the typical heist movie. The crew outlines their elaborate plan for carrying out the heist, then the job is on. But if everything in the plan works and the crew succeeds, it would be boring. If it fails and they get caught, it would be disappointing (unless maybe the twist is that you’re supposed to be cheering for the people trying to catch the thieves). So the crew has to succeed, but not in the expected way. What usually happens is that something in the elaborate plan goes wrong and we get to see the crew improvise to pull off the job by the skin of their teeth. Or else it only looks like things are going wrong and it turns out this is a part of the plan we weren’t privy to, that they knew that person was going to double-cross them and planned for it, so they’re triple-crossing the person who double-crosses them.

Just about all stories hinge on that balance between surprise and expectation. If you give people exactly what they expect, they tend to be somewhat disappointed. If you give them something that’s worse than what they expect (worse in the sense of less interesting — things going worse for the characters may be better for the audience) they’re really disappointed. The ideal is to give them something even better than what they expected. Surprise isn’t always good. I think some writers these days, particularly in TV, place too high a value on surprising the audience, as though that’s the only thing that matters, but if the surprise comes out of nowhere and it doesn’t feel like events were building to that shocking twist, that can still be disappointed. You get rewatch/reread value out of things when you can go back and spot the clues that build toward the conclusion that you might not have noticed before. If there’s no setup at all, you may be surprised, but you’ll also be annoyed. As I said, it’s a delicate balance to get surprise in a satisfying way.

I’ll keep this vague enough to avoid spoilers, but I was thinking about this in the lead-up to the Andor finale because the situation was being set up to be an obvious trap for Our Hero. The bad guys wanted to capture him and thought he would go to this particular event to honor his mother. The good guys wanted to take him out because he knew too much and were also lying in wait for him at this event. I thought it would be funny if he made a wise choice and figured the best way to honor his mother was to do something different and he didn’t show up to walk into the obvious trap while everyone else was there. But I figured that would be a disappointing outcome, since we’ve been looking for that showdown. You don’t want a major clash between most of the forces in the story while your protagonist is off somewhere else, in no real danger. On the other hand, it would also be disappointing if Our Hero walked into an obvious trap and only managed to miraculously escape because of his plot armor. The writers needed to find a way for him to be present at the big confrontation between all the forces without him being a complete idiot. He needed to do something interesting in this scenario and be involved in the big confrontation without getting caught or killed, and in a way that we believe he shouldn’t have been caught or killed (that doesn’t rely on everyone else being idiots in out-of-character ways). Ideally, this should be something that builds from the characters’ personal arcs, so that this outcome feels inevitable, and yet still isn’t entirely predictable.

I won’t say how, but I think they did manage to find something that I considered very satisfying.

As a writer, I often struggle with this because I like coming up with smart plans for the characters and I like them making smart choices — not walking into those obvious traps — but that can make for boring outcomes. I have to remember to let circumstances or other people’s choices mess up those perfect plans so that my heroes can be smart and still struggle. At the same time, you have to play fair and have the things that mess up the plan not come completely out of the blue. The possibility for those problems has to be set up. You can get away with a little more in making things worse for your characters with random coincidences, but you still have to be careful about making even the bad stuff make some kind of sense. You need to come up with challenges that reflect the cosmic lessons the characters are supposed to be learning in this story.

It’s also an issue when readers are anticipating a certain outcome to all the story threads that are being woven together. They’ll be disappointed if the thing they’re looking forward to seeing doesn’t happen, but they’ll also be disappointed if it does happen exactly the way they expected it to. Writers have to think of all the things readers might expect and find ways to throw in surprises. Every so often, you may give a few really clever readers exactly what they anticipated, but it’s only because they’ve solved the puzzle, and you have to really nail the execution for them to still enjoy seeing their predictions turn out to be correct.

I’ve heard the advice to make a list of things that could happen and strike out the first ten or so, since that’s what most people will think of first. Or you could take those things people will think of first and put a twist on them so that they happen, but in a different way. I usually end up changing my planned final confrontation once I get there. It’s still what the story was driving toward, but I try to switch things up a little by changing the setting or who’s involved. If I’ve changed my own plans, maybe the readers won’t see it coming in an obvious way.

And I guess if I’m getting all these deep writing thoughts from watching Star Wars stuff, that means watching Star Wars counts as work, right?

movies, writing

Saving the Cat

I’ve started a rewatch of the Star Wars saga, going in internal timeline order, since some of the recent series have put things in a new context (I’m only including live-action shows and movies in this because there’s so much of the animation that it would take me years, and I recently finished watching Clone Wars). I’m on the prequels now, and I figured out a valuable writing lesson from watching Attack of the Clones last weekend that I actually used in my own writing because it made me realize what I needed to do in the scene I was working on.

I normally fast-forward through the Anakin and Padme scenes when I watch this movie because that part is painful while the rest of the movie can be a lot of fun. I made myself watch the whole movie this time, and I think Hayden Christensen gets a lot of unfair criticism for his performance. He actually does a good job portraying the character as he’s written. The problem is that his character seems to be in a totally different movie from everyone else, particularly Padme. They’re all reacting to a different person than we actually see, and I think that has a lot to do with it all being so unconvincing. He’s this seething volcano of arrogance and adolescent rage, someone who hates the universe the way it is and thinks he could fix it if he could force everyone to do what he wants, but everyone’s acting like he’s this great guy who’s just a little cocky.

The romance really feels out of sync. It seems like every romantic moment is preceded by a scene of him being kind of scary, or at least creepy. Padme hears him having a hissy fit about how he’s the greatest Jedi ever and how unappreciated he is, and she has to ask him to stop staring at her because he’s making her uncomfortable, then she calls him out for mansplaining her home planet to her — and that’s what leads up to their first kiss. Since I usually skip these parts, I’d forgotten what happened, and based on her behavior leading up to that moment, when he started touching her and leaned in for the kiss, I expected her to flinch away and tell him to back off, so the kiss came as a shock. Later, the scene of them romping in the meadow and rolling around on the ground, giggling, comes after the conversation in which he talks about a dictatorship being a good idea, something she actually seems to find alarming since it goes against everything she believes. So why is she getting all romantic with him immediately afterward? And then before she declares her love for him, she hears him go on yet another rant about being better than everyone else and admitting that he slaughtered all the sandpeople, including the children.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that not only were there a lot of reasons why she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him, but they also didn’t bother to give any reasons why she would. During their whole side of the story, we don’t see him do anything kind or heroic. There’s the chase through the city scene at the beginning, but she didn’t see that, and then there’s the battle after she declares her love. But during the middle of the movie, when she’s supposedly falling in love with him, he doesn’t actually do anything. He’s there as a bodyguard for her, but he never has to save her. They don’t have an adventure together where they have to work as a team — even when they’re in that factory, they’re off on their own, not working together. She doesn’t see him help anyone else.

The funny thing is, George Lucas has managed to make this sort of thing work before. I also rewatched Willow last weekend (to prepare for the launch of the series). That story has an even higher hurdle for the “why?” since it’s an enemies-to-lovers story, but you can see why she fell in love with this guy (the actors were falling in love in real life and ended up married, so there is something of an unfair advantage since they had crazy chemistry, but I think the script still supports it). First, we saw the way her mother constantly criticized and berated her, so when the guy starts spouting poetry at her and praising her, we can see it get to her (he was under a love spell at the time, but she didn’t learn that until later). It may have been the first kind words she’d ever heard. Later, we see her react to him being loyal to and protective of Willow and the baby. Still later, we see her impressed by his swordsmanship and bravery, the fact that he’s singlehandedly taking on her army in order to protect Willow and the baby.

In screenwriting, there’s a term, “save the cat,” which basically means a moment in a story when you make the audience like a character by having that character “save the cat” — they have a moment when they do something kind or heroic without receiving any benefit from it. That’s particularly useful when introducing a character who might be edgy or problematic if the story isn’t going to show them being heroic or good for a while, but you want the audience to like them. For instance, in the animated Disney Aladdin, Aladdin is introduced as a thief, stealing bread and then running from the guards. Along the way, he sees a starving child and hands over the bread he stole for himself. That’s a save the cat moment.

But I think the save the cat can be more than just for the audience. It can be a way of making a character like another character. There’s an example of this in another Star Wars film. Early in Rogue One, Jyn Erso is kind of being a brat. She’s being forced to do something she really doesn’t want to do, and she’s got an attitude about it. Cassian Andor is having to babysit this brat on a mission he’s not crazy about, and he’s tired of her attitude. Then they get caught in the crossfire when a group of rebels attacks some Imperials. She spots a small child who’s out in the open, in danger, and she jumps out of her hiding place to whisk the child to safety and return her to her mother. It works as a “save the cat” for the audience because we see that there’s a kind heart underneath the attitude, and I think it affects the way Cassian sees her. They get along a bit better after that point. In Willow, there’s not really one particular save the cat moment, but the fact that this brash swordsman is willing to risk it all to protect the small, weak, and helpless has a similar effect.

And that’s what we needed some of in Attack of the Clones. Lucas may have gone too far in showing Anakin’s downward spiral starting so soon. Maybe he could have held off with the ranting and slaughter of children until after Anakin was already married to Padme, or maybe it should have been in secret and she didn’t know about it. But at the very least, Anakin needed to save a few cats. He needed to whisk a child from danger, use the Force to levitate a kitten out of a tree or stop something from falling on someone. We needed to see that he had a good heart underneath the attitude and the rage. And we never did see that. The audience does see him saving Obi-Wan a time or two, but Padme doesn’t see him doing or being good in the whole time between their reunion for the first time since she met him as a child and the time she declares her love for him.

The characters I’m working with aren’t nearly that problematic, but I did have a situation in which I needed to get one character to trust another character quickly, even though she met him in difficult circumstances, and after thinking about these movies it struck me that she needed to see him doing an act of kindness that showed a gentler, softer side to him. And from there, I knew what my next scene needed to be.

movies, TV, writing

Epic Overkill

A couple of weekends ago, I rewatched the Hobbit trilogy. It’s weird that it takes longer to watch the movies than to read the book they’re based on. They took a fairly simple book that was written to read to a kid at bedtime and turned it into a bloated epic. It’s pretty obvious the parts in the movies that came directly from the book. They tend to have a warmth and wit and are on a “human” scale (using the term loosely for this story). It made me think about epic vs. intimate in fiction. I think sometimes when writers or filmmakers go overboard in trying to make things exciting by making them epic, it comes back around to being dull. I kept checking the clock while watching these movies, and usually during the biggest, most “epic” scenes.

I think a lot of that comes down to something I’ve heard said about the news, that two lives lost is a tragedy, and two thousand is a statistic. Seeing one character we care about in a reasonable amount of peril against a foe they have a chance of fighting against can be gripping, but seeing thousands of faceless CGI characters we’ve never “met” in a massive battle is boring.

I had a similar problem with the overkill in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There were so many cases when our heroes would be overwhelmed by swarms of orcs, and those scenes got kind of ridiculous. It was hard to believe that they could survive those odds without major plot armor. The scene would end up being the hero fighting about six stuntman orcs while dozens of CGI orcs swarmed around. I guess all the bonus extraneous orcs were meant to make the scene exciting, but it had the opposite effect on me. If they’d kept it to the few stuntman orcs, it would have made for a more engaging scene.

I think one way that the Rings of Power series worked for me was that the fights all had reasonable odds. It wasn’t a mass of CGI characters. It was mostly characters we knew fighting a realistic size opponent. We saw more of the one-on-one fighting in a way that seemed like either side had a chance of winning, without the need for plot armor and with skills that fit what we knew about the characters.

I’m in no danger of going too epic because that kind of mass battle doesn’t really interest me, but looking at things this way made me more aware of what interests me. I’m far more engaged by character interactions than I am by battles, and if you want me really engaged, make me care about the people. A few weeks ago, I had to pace the living room during an episode of Andor (to switch franchises) because I was so anxious about what would happen to the characters in a big heist/fight scene. I cared about those people, and the focus was on the characters we knew instead of them trying to make everything massive (it turned out that they actually had some other plans, but COVID restrictions meant they couldn’t do a big crowd scene, and so they wrote around their limitations in a way that made the story work better).

If you make me care, you don’t need all the epic bells and whistles to engage me. The makers of The Hobbit movies wasted a lot of money on CGI when they had strong enough characters (and actors) to keep us involved with something on a smaller scale.


A New Start

I started work on a new book yesterday. Well, re-started. Or re-re-started. I first started writing this book about thirty years ago, then nearly ten years after that finally finished a draft. It never really worked and it got shelved after a few rejections. I took it out to play with a couple of times over the years because I could never quite forget it. Then last year I realized I was Doing It Wrong all that time and figured out how to fix it, but then found some other problems and shelved it again.

I took it out again to look at this summer and realized that part of the problem was that it was woefully underdeveloped. I hadn’t really figured out the settings and some of the characters. I’ve spent the past few months doing development work, and the more work I did, the more obvious how blank it was. I’m kind of embarrassed. But once I started really developing, it all clicked into place and became so vivid.

Along the way, I “recast” one of the main characters. I’d always seen him as a particular physical type, but lately I had a totally different image of him pop into my head. I resisted it because I knew the character the way he was, and this version was entirely different physically. But then the more I thought about it, the more right the new version seemed. It fits his character so much better, and the moment I made that change in my head, the character came to life for me in a way he never has before. I felt like I knew him so much better.

The scene I wrote yesterday is a totally new one, starting the story in a different place, and it was amazing how much easier it was to write and how much more interesting it all was when I had the details in place.

I’m doing double duty this week, drafting this book while also doing the final proofread on the next mystery. When I feel like I’ve run out of words, I switch over to the mystery and read a chapter out loud, then when my voice gets tired, I switch back to this book and write a little more. But I’m afraid everything else is going to fall by the wayside this week while I try to get all this done.

TV, writing

Sympathy for the Villain

I’ve mentioned more than a few times that I’m not a fan of villains. I don’t pull for the bad guys until/unless they truly turn themselves around in a way that shows they know where they went wrong and sincerely feel bad about what they’ve done. I don’t care how sad their backstory is or how sexy and misunderstood they are. I’ll still be on Team Good Guys. And I resent stories that try to make me feel bad for the villains because they grew up poor and were mistreated, or anything like that. In the real world, the real villains on a big scale tend to be those who grew up with privilege and feel entitled.

But the series Andor is doing some interesting things about building (and removing) sympathy for villain characters, and not by doing the usual “sad childhood” things. I’m going to try to keep it vague to avoid spoilers, but I recommend watching this series. Even if you don’t like Star Wars, this isn’t really “Star Warsy.” It’s more of a spy thriller in a science fiction setting. There are no Jedi, there’s no mention of the Force. It’s a look at life under the rule of the Empire for people at all levels of society.

One thing they do to make you look at the villain characters in a different way is to put the various storylines in silos. There’s a storyline about the Imperial Security Bureau that’s tracking down and eliminating threats to the Empire. There’s no doubt that these are the bad guys, but because everyone in the storyline would be considered villains, the protagonist of this storyline is a villain but is sort of the “good guy” for this story, as long as it’s not intersecting with any of the actual good guys. They do all the sorts of things you do to set up a protagonist. This woman is clearly smart and capable, and yet she’s an underdog because she can’t get people to listen to her. She’s figuring out what’s going on with the rebel movement, but she gets in trouble for crossing jurisdictional boundaries instead of praised for spotting a potential threat. I think just about anyone who’s worked in a business setting can relate to feeling like the smartest person in the room but not being able to get anyone to listen because they’re all stuck in petty bureaucratic fiefdoms. When she finally got recognized for her work, I caught myself cheering for her — and then I remembered that this is a bad thing. We don’t want the Empire figuring out what’s going on with the rebels. It was an interesting way to make us sympathize with her and see her as a human being without playing the “poor, sad backstory” card. It won’t make me hate her less when she comes into actual direct conflict with any of the good guy characters, but it does make me see the threat they face. This incredibly competent person who’s had to struggle to be recognized is scarier than your typical mustache-twirling one-dimensional villain.

There’s another character that’s giving me emotional whiplash. In a way, he’s similar to this woman in not being able to get his superiors to listen to him, but what we see first about him is that he’s focused on appearances. The very first thing we learn is that he’s had his uniform tailored and enhanced to have extra decorative piping. It’s such a silly little detail, but it tells us so much about him and sets up what he ends up doing. I hated this guy more than any of the Star Wars villains because he reminded me of people I’ve had to deal with. I referred to him as the Hall Monitor from Hell. When he got consequences I felt bad for him because his consequences were bad, and we also got a glimpse of where he came from, but then when it was clear that he’d learned nothing, I hated him again. Either way, I care, whether it’s wanting to see him get taken down a peg or four or hoping he learns something and gets better.

I’ve struggled with writing villains and tend to keep them offstage, but I’m going to study this and see if I can use any of it in my work. Can I show things from the villain’s perspective and make readers care, even if what they care about is the villain falling into a volcano?


Building Nuanced Worlds

I finished the plot/structure draft of the next mystery book this week, and I think I’m going to do another pass for emotion and description and generally making the words better, but while it’s resting a bit so I can look at it with fresh eyes, I’ve been doing some development work on a fantasy series, and I’ve realized that good worldbuilding is hard.

I’ve been known to mock the science fiction trope of the forest planet, the desert planet, the ocean planet, the ice planet, or else the “Ancient Greece” planet, the “Old West” planet, the “Nazi” planet, etc., but fantasy is prone to similar lazy tropes, only it’s kingdoms instead of whole worlds. You get the desert kingdom, the mountain kingdom, the seafaring kingdom, etc. That’s perhaps a bit more realistic than having an entire planet having a single climate and bioeme, but it’s still a pretty broad brush. Or else you get earth cultures pasted onto the fantasy kingdoms, so you’ve got Not!Scotland, Not!Norway, Not!Ireland, etc.

Even if you get a little more granular than that, it’s still tempting to have the Uptight Religious City, the Party City, the Serious Business city, the Warlike City, etc.

And that’s because it’s a lot of work to drill down and create multiple cities in multiple kingdoms that are distinct from each other and that have their own culture but that also have nuance. The less important a place is to the story, the stronger the temptation is to just go “they’re businesslike and somewhat British-like” and leave it at that.

But failing on building a three-dimensional, coherent world can actually make writing harder. This book I’m developing is the one I worked on briefly last year. I’d come up with the core of the idea more than thirty years earlier, wrote it and had nothing come of it, then pulled it out last year and replotted it. I thought it would be easy to write since I knew the plot and the characters, but the problem I ran into was that I realized I didn’t know the world. The characters were moving through a featureless void. I knew the history of the place, but I didn’t know what it was like on the ground, to live there or travel through there, and that made it difficult (and kind of boring) to write. So now I’m working to create a world for them to exist in. I seem to have made it difficult for myself by having the situation be a cluster of smaller kingdoms that’s unified, so I need to develop each kingdom, at least in broad terms, and then I need to figure out what the actual places the characters will visit are like. It’s a “road trip” story, so I have to fully create more than one place. I have to keep reminding myself that I need specific details.

This is fun work to do, but at the same time I get impatient about wanting to write, especially when I come up with a detail that gives me ideas for the story.


Impatient Projects

This is my catch up and get my life together week in between book drafts, and wouldn’t you know, that’s when an entirely different book pops up in my head and starts giving me details. That makes it really hard to focus on doing stuff like writing cover copy, thinking about metadata, and planning promo campaigns.

I have to tell that project to be patient because it’s next month’s work. I’m jotting down the thoughts that occur to me so I don’t forget them, and I hope I have this same kind of eager enthusiasm when I start writing it that I have now and that my current eager enthusiasm isn’t just because writing this book sounds a lot more fun than proofreading or messing with metadata. Sometimes when I get like this, I designate some trigger for switching gears to play with the thing that’s demanding attention. Like, when it’s raining I can work on the other thing, but otherwise I have to focus on the main work. Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks of frequent rain, there’s little chance for the next week, so that won’t work. Maybe I’ll think of a composer, and when the classical station plays that composer, during that piece I can play with something different.

That other project really isn’t ready to be written. I have a lot of development work to do, which I guess is what my brain is working on. I’m not getting bits of plot. It’s more details about the world. Like figuring whether there would be a bridge to cross this river at this point, or maybe a ferry, and what kind of ferry. I must have crossed that river a dozen times in my head as I was falling asleep last night, changing the details each time. This is not an important scene in the book, but the details do help create the world, and the details might end up influencing other things.

I’m doing some of that brainstorming work in the evenings. But for now, back to the other work that’s essential and sometimes fun but that tends to trigger story ideas for other things I want to write.


Strange Writing Advice

Since I’m somewhat addicted to writing how-to stuff like books, workshops, articles, etc., I occasionally run into some advice that strikes me as a bit odd.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I saw a workshop in which the speaker said it was better to write your first draft in longhand than to type it on a computer. She had some reasons that made sense. For one thing, there are fewer distractions. You can’t check e-mail, Facebook or Instagram (though that depends on where your computer or phone are while you’re writing longhand). You can’t delete stuff you don’t like. You can only scratch through it, so it’s still there, and that means if you change your mind you can retrieve it. There was also something about how the act of writing longhand engages differently with your brain than typing does.

I’m afraid I’d never get a book written if I had to write it longhand. I do my brainstorming and outlining longhand, but when it comes to actual composition, it goes straight from my brain to my fingers. A lot of the time, I’m not even conscious of the words. They just flow as I type, and I type quickly. Writing longhand would seriously slow my productivity. I also have terrible handwriting. I had a teacher once who found it odd that such a good student had such bad handwriting, and he watched me as I was writing in class, then told me he’d thought I was just being lazy and sloppy, but he could see that I really was trying. He figured that I don’t have good fine motor control in my hands. I don’t have a lot of grip strength, and that may have something to do with it. The more tired I get, the less control I have over my writing, so by the time I got to the end of a writing session, I’d be in pain and I’d have absolutely no idea what I’d written.

Which would tie to the next weird bit of writing advice I’ve heard. At a conference I went to about twenty years ago, a speaker said the way to do a second draft was to finish your first draft, put it aside without looking at it, and write the book again. Supposedly, you’d remember the important parts, but since you knew how the book went, there would be less meandering and rambling. You’d remember the stuff you liked, forget the boring parts, and would have a better draft than you’d get just rearranging the words from the first draft.

I know a lot of authors who write longhand drafts, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who did a second draft by just rewriting the book. If I wrote a longhand draft, the second draft when I transcribed it into the computer would essentially be writing from scratch because I wouldn’t be able to read what I wrote in the first place, so maybe combining the two might work, though it would seriously slow me down.

I have started fresh with a difficult scene when I’ve realized that the way I’m doing it isn’t working and I can’t break away from what I’ve written if I just try to edit, but I’m not writing the same scene over again. I’m writing something entirely different. I am working on a project in which I’m rewriting instead of editing, but I’m writing a whole new book using the same basic premise, not writing the same book over again.

I’m considering giving longhand writing a try. After the terrible summer we’ve had, in which I’ve basically been trapped inside the house, I’m planning to spend as much time as possible outdoors once it gets cool enough, so I may take a notebook with me and go sit in the woods or by the lake to write. It won’t be a whole draft by hand, but I may write scenes that way. We’ll see what happens and how it works. I’m willing to give just about any bit of writing advice a try because I never know how it will end up working for me, but it has to be drastically better for me to change my entire process.

movies, writing

Much Ado About Tropes

A couple of weeks ago, I rewatched the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing. That’s my favorite adaptation of that play. Branagh does a lovely job of making it so real and vital, and the cast manages to make the Shakespearean language sound perfectly natural. It takes maybe one scene to tune your ear, and then you just get caught up in the story and forget that it’s Shakespeare. Emma Thompson is particularly good, able to spit out all those zingers while still showing humanity and vulnerability.

I realized while watching that this play contains one of my least-favorite romantic comedy tropes and one of my favorites.

The least favorite is the old “see something involving the other member of the couple out of context, leap to the worst possible conclusion, flounce on the relationship without even discussing it with the other person, then realize they’re wrong, but then everything’s okay and the other person doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that someone who supposedly loved them was willing to jump to the worst possible conclusion about them.”

You’d think this would have died out long ago, since it’s more than 400 years old for Shakespeare, and it comes from an even older work that Shakespeare based his play on, but it’s still a staple of rom-coms and Hallmark movies. Shakespeare actually does a somewhat better job with this trope than many of the modern stories do. It’s a deliberate set-up, for one thing, intended to give Claudio the wrong impression. He’s brought to a particular place just in time to see something being staged for his benefit, with Hero’s name being said, and what he sees is unambiguous. Someone he highly respects sees the same thing and comes to the same conclusion. It’s not like the “dark moment” in the Hallmark movies when the heroine sees the hero hugging another woman and decides to flounce back to the city and let the ornament factory close because she thinks he’s involved with another woman.

Then once Claudio learns the truth and realizes he wronged Hero, he does penance even though he’s not the one truly at fault. And in their society, even though she’s been proven blameless, her reputation might have remained damaged if the one who accused her hadn’t taken her back, so of course she’s glad he still wants her. I don’t cut the modern characters as much slack. If she assumed he was cheating on her and didn’t even discuss it with him, then after she realizes that was his sister he was hugging and she goes back to him, I don’t get why he would be so willing to take her back. Why would he want to be with someone who’s that irrationally jealous and who thinks the worst of him?

I have seen one movie in which the woman visited the man’s workplace and saw a wedding photo of him, assumed he was married and she was the “other woman,” so she refused to speak to him again, and after she learned that he was a widower she apologized, but he wasn’t ready to take her back. It took some big gestures on her part, a lot of apologies, and some strings being pulled by his friends for them to move past it and get back together. That worked a bit better, but I’m ready for that misunderstanding trope to be given a rest or at least a twist. Maybe have that happen at the beginning of the story, and that’s why the character is single and maybe a bit bitter when the story’s real love interest comes along. They wouldn’t take back the person who dumped them in a fit of misplaced jealousy, or else they’re the one who screwed up. There could even be a second-chance thing, where this is backstory, and they meet again after this happened.

But the play also contains one of my favorite tropes, which is the people who act like they dislike each other to cover for the fact that they do like each other but are too afraid to let on, for fear that the other one actually does dislike them and would use the knowledge of their feelings as a weapon against them. Benedick and Beatrice bicker and shoot zingers at each other, but they’re ridiculously easy to trick into confessing their feelings. The moment each of them “overhears” (thanks to a scheme by their friends) that the other likes them, they’re delighted and go all-in. There is one speech by Beatrice early in the play that suggests they have a past. It hints that maybe they had a relationship before that ended badly. In the “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode on this play, actors who’ve played these roles said they read it as them having had a romance that went wrong, and both of them see themselves as the wounded party, so they’ve been bickering, but they never got over each other. They’re just both too proud and too wounded to lower the barriers and let their feelings show. It takes other people intervening to make them feel safe to express their feelings.

This isn’t really an “enemies to lovers” thing because they’re basically on the same side. They just pretend not to get along. It’s sort of a second-chance thing. Whatever it is, it can be a lot of fun if it’s done very well, with good dialogue and sizzling subtext. But I suspect it would be very tricky to pull off in a novel that allows you to get inside the characters’ head. It works in the play/movie because they can have fun with the subtext (especially with actors on the level of Branagh and Thompson). It would lose something if you got into their heads and knew how they really felt. I’ve been trying to think of how to make it work in a novel. I’m not sure it could work in third-person narration, where you get to eavesdrop on their thoughts. It might work in first-person narration, with the narrator not being privy to the other character’s thoughts and editing her own thoughts so that she’s not telling the whole story or being entirely honest either with herself or the reader. Or it could be told from some other character’s perspective, say, if the couple were members of a team and the viewpoint character is someone else on the team being amused by how dense those two can be. That was kind of what happened in the Harry Potter books with the relationship between Ron and Hermione, which was seen entirely from Harry’s perspective, except he wasn’t even amused by them. He was as dense about what was going on as they were, and the reader had to figure out what was going on from the subtext and realize that although they bickered a lot, their feelings regarding each other were quite strong.

Now, of course, I’m trying to figure out if I could make the mistaken assumption story work in a way that I like, and I’m mentally scanning my story ideas to see if there’s a place for a “Beatrice and Benedick” relationship. Because I need more story ideas. (Not! I don’t have time to write all the ideas I currently have.)

writing, video project

Scene and Sequel

One of the writing concepts I struggle with is the principle of Scene and Sequel. Jack Bickham has a whole book about it in the Writer’s Digest series of how-to books, and it also shows up in Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, and in any number of other writing books and workshops.

The basic idea is that a novel is made up of a series of scenes and sequels. The scenes are the action part. A character has a goal and does something to try to achieve that goal but runs into conflict or opposition so that he has to try multiple approaches. The scene ends in some kind of disaster in which the character either definitively fails to reach the goal so that trying another approach won’t work, or he achieves it, but in a way that makes things worse for him. Either way, it throws the character off-balance so he has to regroup. Then there’s the sequel, which is the reaction part of the sequence. The character responds to the disaster, has a dilemma about what to do next, then makes a decision about his next step, which becomes the goal for the next scene.

When I read about this or hear someone speak about it in a workshop, it makes so much sense. Following this kind of structure ensures that there’s conflict and that the action drives from one scene to another. And then when I try to apply it to what I’m working on, that’s the part my editor or agent says needs to be cut. All that trying multiple approaches and ending in failure results in a bunch of extraneous scenes that keep the story from progressing.

At some point, the characters have to get what they want in order for the story to go anywhere. You wouldn’t want the detective in a mystery story to find the definitive clue to solve the case in the first scene of his investigation, but the story won’t go anywhere if his goal in a scene is to find a clue and he doesn’t find anything.

In my favorite story structure example, the original Star Wars, we’ve got a similar situation. Luke and Obi-Wan go into the cantina with the goal of finding a starship captain who’ll take them to Alderaan. There’s a bit of conflict — a bar fight and some negotiation with Han Solo — but the first pilot they talk to agrees to take them. If this had followed the “rules,” they would have failed to achieve their goal, and it would have ruined the movie because they’d have never left Tatooine. It would have been a movie about them trying and failing to find transportation while the Death Star was out there blowing up planets.

So, are all these writing gurus wrong about this, or was I misinterpreting it? Dwight Swain does refer to incidents and happenings, which are story fragments that aren’t technically scenes because they don’t have goals or conflicts. But in this cases, the characters do have a goal, and this scene is critical to the plot. The cantina scene isn’t just a filler moment to flesh out characters and relationships.

I finally figured out that maybe the problem is the terminology. I was thinking of a “scene” in theater terms. In a play, a scene is the part of the play that takes place in a particular location and time, and at the end of a scene, the stage goes dark and people wearing black run out and rearrange things to create a new setting or show that time has passed before the lights come on and the next scene begins. In a movie, it’s similar, but there may be a quick blink to black as a transition or, in Star Wars, a wipe transition. In a book, you get a blank line or a graphic item between scenes.

But I think in story structure terms, what they’re calling a scene isn’t the same thing. You could have multiple theater-type scenes in a story scene, or you could have multiple story scenes in a theater-type scene. Maybe there needs to be a different term for this to reduce the confusion, but I haven’t been able to think of anything.

So, looking at Star Wars again, I think I need to broaden the scope and back up a bit. The scene goal comes after Luke’s previous goal to just drop Obi-Wan off and go back home ends in the disaster of his uncle and aunt being killed. He tells Obi-Wan he’ll go with him to bring the droids to Alderaan, and that’s his new goal. Finding transportation is just one of the things they have to deal with along the way, along with avoiding Imperial entanglements. The disaster comes when they reach where Alderaan should be and it’s not there—which would certainly count as a definitive failure to reach their goal. Then they find themselves taken on board the space station whose plans they were taking to Alderaan, so it’s a big disaster. In response to that, they have to come up with a plan to escape. This “scene” has encompassed multiple theater-type scenes: the arrival in Mos Eisley, the scene in the cantina, the arrival at the docking bay, the escape from Tatooine, the lightsaber training and game on the ship, and the arrival at the ruins of Alderaan, and all this is braided around scenes taking place on the Death Star.

We still don’t have our heroes trying multiple approaches before they fail. They fly to Alderaan and it’s not there, period. That may only apply to certain kinds of stories. Going back to my hypothetical detective story, the scene goal might be to find evidence that Suspect A is the killer, so the detective might look at clue 1, then clue 2, then interview a possible witness, all without getting anything definitive, but then the last approach they try leaves them with proof that Suspect A couldn’t have been the killer — a disaster— so now he needs a new line of investigation to pursue.

Realizing that I was taking things far too literally and narrowly helped me finally make sense of this concept. I can take a bigger-picture view of my scene goals, and then I can have proper disasters without bringing my story to a screeching halt and without a lot of extraneous filler in the attempt to give my characters disasters. I’ve also seen a story structure that has this approach built in. Instead of looking at in terms of scenes and sequels, there’s a part of the outline for goal A, then the drive to achieve goal A, then failure of goal A, and regrouping, followed by a new goal.

In those smaller theater-style scenes, you don’t have to keep the characters from getting what they want. I like to think of that in terms of what’s going to get them closer to having to deal with the main story problem. You want them to fail at anything that would make life easier, but succeed at things that are going to get them in deeper trouble. So, Luke and Obi-Wan succeed in getting transportation because that will take them closer to bigger trouble. If they fail, they’re stuck on Tatooine, away from all the problems. But they fail to reach Alderaan because it would be too easy to just bring the droids straight to where they were told to take them.

A good test would be whether or not achieving the goal would end the story. If achieving the goal ends the story, then they have to fail. If failing ends the story, they have to succeed. Luke not getting passage to Alderaan would have ended the story. Luke successfully delivering the droids to Alderaan would have ended the story (or sent it in a different direction). In a mystery story, the detective finding evidence that tells him exactly who the killer is would end the story, so that has to happen late in the story. But the detective searching for evidence and finding nothing at all might also end the story.

Ultimately, I think it’s a mistake to get too tied to any one bit of writing theory. The scene and sequel format is a good tool to use when you’re trying to figure out what should happen in a scene or when you’re trying to analyze a scene that isn’t working, but if you’re too rigid about it, it will stifle your story. At some point, you just have to write and let your story play out.

Here’s the video version of this post (I had to fight my inner perfectionist to post this because I made a few flubs and I was losing my voice, so I may end up reshooting, but it’ll have to do for now):