When is a Bad Plot Excusable?

This is a spoiler-free discussion, although some general plot points might be touched on.  Can’t say the same of whatever comments are below.  You’ve been warned.

So, I finally finished series four of Sherlock Holmes last night.  As I was sitting in the afterglow, warm and fuzzy, unwilling to watch anything else lest the spell break, I was struck with a realization.  The plot of The Final Problem… did not hold up.

The more I thought about it the more I was able to unravel details that bothered me.  I’m a nitpicker by nature, so this wasn’t a new feeling, but I wondered why I didn’t notice the problems while I was watching it.  Furthermore, why was I trying so desperately to excuse its faults?

I’ve felt like this at least once before, directly after a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.  I remember that same feeling of “Wow.  Such a good way to wrap up the trilogy,” while sitting in the theater, and then listening to my friends bitch the whole way home about all the stupid details and why they didn’t enjoy it.

I’ve also been that person, most notably during and directly after Avatar, which I hate with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.  (Ok, maybe not that much, but it’s pretty bad.)  I hate the premise.  I hate every detail.  I will concede that the visuals were all right (even downright impressive, assuming you had never seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit and/or any of the Pixar cannon.)  But in general I can’t forgive that movie.

So what gives?  Why am I so harsh on Avatar when The Dark Knight Rises has third act that basically revolves around this plot point:

RIP Adam West. You were underrated.
Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

Well, it basically boils down to three things:

  1. Context
  2. Audience Goodwill
  3. Emotional Resonance

Context

It is entirely possible to hide a bad movie plot through fast pacing and clever editing.  For example, Memento has one of those plots that wouldn’t make very much sense (or be particularly interesting) if the story was played in chronological order.  Cutting it up keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and obscures some of the more head-scratching details.

Genre also matters.  You can maintain an audience’s suspension of disbelief based on what their expectations are.  Star Wars can play fast and loose with physics because it’s essential a space adventure series but everyone lost their minds when the crew in Prometheus removed their helmets on the planet.  (I know, I was one of them.)  The Alien franchise is a survival-horror series so we’re much more critical of any “stupid” action our heroes take.  Also, it tends to have a stricter adherence to the “science” part of science-fiction and generally takes itself more seriously.

We miss you too, Bill.
Er… most of the time.

When it comes to Avatar, the visuals were the big draw.  The people who loved it usually didn’t care about the plot.  They wanted the immersive experience of a 3D film and a rich fantasy world.  Personally, if I’m going to be blown away by visuals I’d like a simple, compact story with little room for convoluted plot contrivances.  (See: Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Context is entirely subjective.  What some may forgive others have a hard time getting behind.  Likewise, what some consider groundbreaking innovation others may see as a cheap gimmick.  So let’s move on to…

Audience Goodwill

Both The Dark Knight Rises and The Final Problem are the last installments of a franchise. In respect to context, we want them to be good because we want to say that it goes out on a good note.  At this point in both respective series they’ve build up enough audience goodwill to withstand some criticism.

And sometimes a movie is just so bad it can’t be saved.  (Looking at you, Spiderman 3.)  Context matters in this case, too.  The first two Spiderman movies were fairly successful and received decent reviews.  But what changed between 2 and 3?  Batman Begins came out and suddenly the cultural landscape of comic book movies changed.  Audiences loved the dark and gritty realism of Nolan’s take on the character and suddenly they were less forgiving of the Raimi series and its camp.  The pendulum swung back the other way in the middle of the Amazing Spiderman series, with #2 losing out to Guardians of the Galaxy, which reminded everyone that camp can be fun.

dance off
So this gets collective pass, but we can’t forgive Tobey Maguire?

This doesn’t just apply to serialized properties.  Both Wonder Woman and Captain America: The First Avenger had weak third acts but their movies held up without having to rely on previous installments.   The first two-thirds of the film buoyed them when their endings started to tank.  The reason they had so much goodwill comes down to the time spent on character development.  And that leads us to…

Emotional Resonance

When you have good characters the audience wants them to succeed.

I care about Nolan’s Batman.  I care about Sherlock and Watson.  I care about Wonder Woman and Captain America.  So when they come out on top, I’m happy about that, even if the way they got there might’ve been a touch stupid.

I’m going to backtrack and talk about Spiderman 3 again as a comparison.  I think one of the reasons that movie lost so much goodwill is because the character of Peter Parker is such a tool.  (At least in that film.)  In the first two we empathize with his struggles, his internal conflicts and related to him as a flawed hero.  By the end of the third movie we don’t care if he succeeds because he’s become so unlikable as a protagonist.

gwen stacey
In Pratt’s defense he never had to make up for a scene like this.

Contrary to that, when Batman finally passes the torch at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, I felt a swell of emotion.  During the montage of Sherlock and John solving cases together at the end of in The Final Problem I felt satisfied with how they wrapped everything up.  For once the details were just details, and I was able to let it go because of the way it resonated with me emotionally.

It’s a lot easier to forgive something that makes you happy, even if that happiness is entirely subjective.

Additional thoughts

When I originally wrote this, I put a disclaimer saying that this discussion doesn’t apply to intentionally self-aware camp, so-bad-it’s-good schlock, or guilty pleasure movies.  I want to retract that statement.

When it comes to bad movies we love, it still applies.  Either the context is there (Adam West’s Batman knows exactly what it is) or the audience goodwill is (The Room might be the worst film ever made but I’m enjoying myself so I forgive it) or the emotional resonance is (I won’t try to convince anyone else to watch Last Man on Earth but I also can’t look away.  When it’s good it’s really good.)

So what about you, gentle reader?  What gets a pass in your book?  What can never be forgiven?  Let me know in the comments and feel free to tell me how my interpretations of your beloved films are horribly, horribly wrong, while my favorites totally suck.

See you there. 😉

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5 Do’s and Don’ts for an Amazing First Page

At the Atlanta Writing Workshop two weeks ago, I attended their signature panel called “Writers Got Talent”—a Page 1 Critique Fest.  Participants anonymously submitted the first page of their manuscript for critique by a panel of agents and publishers.  They got through 18 entries of various genres and skill levels and I took copious notes on their feedback. While I can’t share the manuscripts themselves, I did sort through the comments and found some pretty common trends across the board.

So, without further ado, here are your Do’s and Don’ts for writing an Amazing First Page:

Do’s (and where to find examples)

1.) Set the scene.  Who are your characters?  Where are they?  What’s going on?  These are three things you need to establish in your first page in a coherent way.  Good openers introduce the reader to your world and draw them in.  It’s also a great time to establish the tone of the work or the overlying themes.

Examples: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, or 1984 by George Orwell.

2.) Have a unique, memorable voice.  A unique voice will pull the reader into to narrative and gives them an immediate investment in your characters. I also noticed that the judges were more forgiving of other flaws if the voice of the piece captured their attention.

Examples: The Martian by Andy Weir or Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for first person narration; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and anything by Terry Pratchett for third-person POV that still retains its own unique voice.

3.) Draw them in with an intriguing set up.  You could start with some sort of action sequence that sets the scene or dive right into the premise of your story if it’s off the wall.

Examples: The Gunslinger by Stephen King, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson or either The Trial or The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.  (Tell me you don’t want to read more about a man who wakes up as a bug…)

4.) Tactile, sensory imagery is a plus.  If you’re going to start by describing the environment rather than establishing a quirky voice or introducing your main character, make sure the imagery is excellent and the scene is rich enough with sensory details to set the mood and immerse your reader.

Examples: The Scarlet Pimpernell by Baroness Orczy, Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind, Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.  Anything gothic that relies on atmosphere could fit here.

5.) Send them something they can sell.  This is a little more nuanced, so bear with me.  Publishers are going to have their own tastes, but of the submissions that were read, humor, “classic” genre fiction (as in it read like it was written in the fifties), and tone that clashed with the intended readership were all tough sells.  Not impossible, but tough; agents and publishers just won’t accept work they can’t sell.  My advice?  Research your market and see if you can imagine your book on the same shelf as your contemporaries.

Snoopy
What not to do.

Don’ts

1.) Don’t go overboard with your action.  Your opening page shouldn’t jump around to different characters, different settings, or different points in time.  Why?  It’s hard to build momentum and investment in characters if you switch gears too soon at the beginning.  (This is also why a lot of prologues don’t work.)  Too many scenes lead to bad transitions and instead of drawing the reader in, you end up leaving them behind.

2.) Don’t introduce too many characters at once. Like with too much action, too many characters will be confusing for readers who are meeting your cast for the first time.  Even the Harry Potter series had catch-up chapters to reintroduce readers to the world.

3.) Watch your language.  The judges would get stuck on clunky metaphors and word repetition, which threw off their reading rhythm.  You’ll catch a lot of this if you read your opening page out loud, so be sure to proofread and find some betas who will be honest with you.  Ask them if there was anything they stumbled over when they first read it.

4.) Don’t fall in love with your own description.  This is the opposite problem of too much action in that it takes too long to build your momentum.  In a first page you have roughly one paragraph to set the scene and then it’s time to move on.  Keep up the pace and don’t indulge yourself with flowery prose.

5.) Don’t be cliche.  Turn off’s for the judges included pieces with stock characters, situations, or voices that were too much like what they had seen before.  To impress, you have to know what’s out there and prove you’re doing something different enough to catch their attention.  So how do you avoid tropes?  Check out small publishers in short story markets.  They’re not shy about posting what they’re seeing too much of lately.  (Don’t know any small publishers?  Check out my Publisher’s Spotlights for some ideas of who’s out there.)

Well, that’s all the advice I have for now.  Got any tips of your own?  Disagree vehemently with any of mine?  Leave a note in the comments and share your advice!

 

3 Virtues of a Successful Writer

I’ve seen a number of articles discussing what not to do when it comes to writing, but when it comes to habits to emulate the advice seems to dry up.  After all, every writer is different – what works for some may not work for all.  So rather than habits, let’s talk about three virtues that all successful writers seem to have and how to translate those into success for yourself.

A Diligent Work Ethic

“I don’t like to write, but I love having written.”

It’s a common sentiment among writers to prefer accomplishment to the work that goes into actually writing something.  But if you’re ever going to be successful you have to learn how to finish what you start.  “Finishing” can mean any number of things from polishing a not-quite-there piece to actually sitting down to write in the first place.

It takes self-discipline to practice your craft, and not just the writing part.  You need to read your contemporaries as well as the classics.  You should have an idea of the history of your genre and be aware of where it’s headed with new publications.  You have to market yourself and engage in writing communities.  You have to research possible publishers and polish your work until it’s ready to submit.  Successful writers put in the work.

Humility

Successful writers acknowledge their flaws and want to improve their craft. You can’t do that without a dose of humility.  It can be tempting to write off publishers because they don’t understand your genius, but is it really helpful to tune out legitimate criticism?  When publishers tell you “No,” respect their decisions and use it as an opportunity to reflect and improve.  Listen to your editor, your beta readers, and anyone who is willing to read your work and offer helpful suggestions.  You don’t have to take every piece of advice you get, but humility means accepting that your work may not be perfect as it is.

In the same vein, humility can mean respect for fellow authors.  Sure, we’ve all read something we didn’t like and secretly wondered “How on earth did this get published?  My stuff’s better than that!” But with some humility you can take a long, hard look at what it is that made them successful and learn from it.  That will translate into success for yourself, rather than jealousy.   And as you get more experience, respect the up-and-coming authors who are trying to break into the market.  Successful writers pass on what they’ve learned to those who share their aspirations, rather than viewing everyone as competition.

A Resilient Spirit

This is sort of the opposite of humility.  It takes a lot of self-confidence to stare down a contest and say “Yeah, my story could win that.”  Submitting is an act of bravery, and perseverance in the face of rejection is the most important of all virtues.  Success does not come easy. As I said above, you have to put in the work.  You finish what you start.  You revise.  You take advice where you can get it.  Sometimes you do it all over again and the answer is still “No.”

Successful writers don’t give up, even after all that.  The great thing about writing is that you can do it for your entire life.  You never stop learning.  You never stop improving, so there’s no reason to get impatient with a lack of success.  The submission you send out today is bound to be better than the one yesterday because you’re always improving and evolving.  And if you put in the work and are humble enough to actively seek to improve yourself it’s really only a matter of time before that effort is rewarded.  But you can’t give up before that happens – not if you want to be successful.


What say you, readers?  Is there anything I’ve missed?  Anything you disagree with?  Leave your suggestions below in the comments so we can all learn from each other!

How To Research Publishers

Well, Flash Fiction has passed.  The comments are coming in and as you work on your revisions it hits you: you’ve really got something here!  You should publish this!  But where should you look?  Should you just google publishers and hope for the best?  (Short answer: no.)

I mentioned this briefly in my post about the Submission Checklist.  For a refresher, the first step in getting published is to research your market finish your story.  Sorry, got ahead of myself there.

What kind of story do you have?

This assumes that you have a finished story that you’re satisfied with, now you’re just looking to find it a good home.  Before you get started you need to categorize your story.

  • Genre
  • Style (is it literary? humorous? appropriate for young audiences?)
  • Word Count:
    • 0 – 300ish Micro Fiction
    • 300ish – 1,000 Flash Fiction
    • 1,000 – 5,000 Short Story  (Ok, some markets allow up to 10,000 or 12,000 for short stories but most I’ve seen top out around 6,000 max.)

For this example let’s say you’ve got a Mystery, in the style of a hard-boiled noir, approximately 2,500 words.  It has some gratuitous language, but at this point you’re not editing, just noting that could be an issue.

Searching for a Publisher

The next step is to search for markets by genre.  The Submission Grinder and Duotrope are both excellent sites for researching potential publishers and tracking your submissions. Why not Google?  Well, I’ve used it occasionally, but it’s not very useful.  You’ll occasionally find lists of publishers or sponsored content, but sometimes the information is out of date and a publisher may have closed.  You really need a dedicated site to find the best results.

I’ve used both and recommend either of those two sites above, but because The Submission Grinder is free to use, I’m going to use that one in this post.  Feel free to follow along.

To search you don’t need an account.  To log your submissions you do.  Let’s just worry about how to search for now.

sg_2

Ok.  So you click on the search field and then fill out the basics for your story.  Leave it as general as possible to pull the most results or use the filters to slim down.  I find that Story Subject and Story Style are best left blank – hardly any market uses those fields, even if they accept stories in that style.  The best thing is is fill in these three fields:

  • Genre
  • Story Length
  • Minimum Pay Scale
    • Pro: $0.06 per word or more
    • Semi-Pro: Usually between $0.01 and $0.05 per word
    • Token: Less than that.  Usually $5-$25 per story regardless of word count.

Applicable markets will fill in below, with Genres, Lengths, Payment Rates and Average Response Days listed on the side to help you pick what to find.  Once you find one that’s interesting click on the listing.

sg_3

Here’s a magazine that looks like a good fit for my example.  Since the piece is Noir in nature, their descriptive paragraph should catch your attention.  The other info seems to fit with the other criteria, so you should click on the Website and Guidelines links (in the red box) to read more about the publisher.

That’s important – sites like The Submission Grinder are primarily a search engine/database.  It’s up to you to continue researching the publication by going through the website and reading the stories available.  If you still think you can see your story fitting in with them go ahead and check out their submission guidelines to polish your piece.

If your story is a little over their word limit (10-20%) you can probably trim down enough to fit it to their limits without major revisions.  If the language is a little coarse/content is a little too grim you can do an edit to tone things down.

Which Publisher is right for me?

So how do you pick who to submit to?  Determine what your priorities are.  Pro-paying markets are always going to be more competitive.  Maybe you want to submit it to several places at once, so you only pick publishers who accept simultaneous submissions.  Maybe you want ones with the quickest turn-around because you hate waiting for an answer.  (Note: you may be in the wrong field if patience isn’t your thing.)

I personally like to pick magazines that I enjoy reading, whose stories I admire, and whose content seems to gel well with my own voice.  I feel like those magazines are the ones that have the highest chance of accepting me, even if the money isn’t as good.  If you’re getting a lot of rejections and you know that the work is good try shopping out your story to a lesser known market in a different pay bracket.  Smaller publishers are hungry for good stories – don’t overlook them.

Have a publisher you love that needs a little attention?  Want to ask about one you’ve found?  Leave a note in the comments!

Political Satire: Comedic Writing (Part Two)

Note: Today’s regularly scheduled MicroFiction piece has been bumped to Wednesday in order to give everyone a little more time to think about Political Satire in time for the competition on Friday.

Political Satire tops the list of genres NYC Midnight writers are scared of getting.  I think a lot of that fear comes from the fact that people don’t understand it as a genre.  So before we get into what it is, let’s start by debunking a common myth:

Political Satire is not a bunch of jokes about politicians.

Quips about Donald Trump’s hair or David Cameron being replaced by a cat need not apply, not matter how clever your joke is.  So what is it?

Satire is a genre of writing that criticizes and attacks vice, folly and abuse, particularly of ruling parties or those in power. It is marked by anger and a desire to change or destroy that which it attacks. It has a definite target and often uses humor to make a specific point. It does not simply “make fun” of a subject but seeks to inspire change.  – TV Tropes

Here are examples that have elements of the genre, but not quite there:

  • The Jungle & Uncle Tom’s Cabin – these seek to inspire change, but they don’t use humor to illustrate their points.
  • Animal Farm – that’s an allegory.  Political Satire often uses allegorical elements, but a straight allegory is not the same thing as satire if it doesn’t have the humor.

Jokes about political candidates might be funny, but political satire doesn’t have to be overtly about politics to make a political point.

The plot of a political satire piece usually has nothing to do with the subject or message you’re trying to get across.  For example, both “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift and “Baby Cakes” by Neil Gaiman are, on the surface level, stories about eating babies.  But the point they’re trying to make is very different.

Swift’s piece is about British policies regarding the Irish and the cruelty and indifference towards the plight of the impoverished.  Gaiman’s piece (originally a short story but linked as a comic) will make anyone consider converting to vegetarianism.

Some points on this:

  • You don’t necessarily have to agree with the points in your political satire piece.  Gaiman has said, “For the record I wear a leather jacket and eat meat, but am quite good with babies.”
  • Hyperbole is your friend.  Obviously neither Swift nor Gaiman was actually advocating eating babies.  But if you’re really good, your satire might get mistaken for the real thing.
  • Political satire is timely.  Remember: it’s meant to inspire change.  So while you could write a piece similar to Swift’s regarding politics of a bygone era, it doesn’t really fit the spirit of the genre because the issue is already over.
  • Some issues are pretty timeless.  For example, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is about women going on a sex-strike to protest a war.  It’s been adapted several times, most recently in the film Chi-Raq by Spike Lee.

 

Since we’re talking about Flash Fiction in particular, let’s look to the following examples of sketch comedy for ideas.  These are quick skits and would easily translate into a complete story that will fit in under 1,000 words and will give you a more modern take on what Political Satire is.

  • “What if Bears Killed One in Five People?” is a political satire of the issue of rape on college campuses.
  • Amy Schumer parodies a commercial to satirize the regulations limiting accessible birth control (and one other issue, if you watch through to the very end.)
  • Key & Peele use a skit about the zombie apocalypse to make a point about racism.

I hope you recognize these skits and the comics who produced them – hopefully Political Satire will be a little less scary when you realize you’ve already been exposed to it.  I suggest you check out more of their sketches, as well as South Park and The Colbert Report for other examples.

So, with that in mind, how do you write a Political Satire piece for the Flash Fiction Challenge?  Well, my advice is to pick an issue to write about.  What do you care about?  What’s in the news today?  Read through your Facebook feed and current events news pages to get ideas.  Embrace your inner snarkiness and start joking about it about!

 

Have any examples of your own or questions to share with the class?  Leave them in the comments below!

 

Make ’em Laugh: Comedic Writing (Part One)

Last week I left off with a few subcategories from the NYC Flash Fiction contest that deserve an in-depth look.  Today we’re going to be discussing the comedic genres, particularly these three:

  • Comedy
  • Political Satire
  • Romantic Comedy

So, what’s the difference between these?  Way back when we only had two dramas (Comedy and Drama) a Comedy meant it had a happy ending, usually a wedding, while Drama ended with a tragic death of some kind.  These days we use Comedy to mean that which makes you laugh.  The differences between the comedic genres come from how it makes you laugh and why.

Comedy

In a broad sense, comedy covers all the sub-genres but in general, let’s talk about Classic comedies, aka comedies that are not making fun of something in particular but are their own self-contained stories.  Early examples include Commedia dell’Arte with stock characters and improvised situations, and Shakespeare’s comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.

Some common tropes of comedic genres:

  • Mistaken/Hidden Identities
    • Twins
    • Long lost relatives
    • Disguises
  • Trickery of some kind
  • Stock Characters (i.e. the Lovers, the Servants, the cuckolded buffoon, the greedy miser, the doddering professor.  Since you’re meant to laugh, flat caricatures do well here even though they can be hallmarks of bad writing in other genres.)
  • Gender bending (A classic trope from Shakespeare to Bug Bunny.  Beware of distasteful humor regarding transfolk here, the same way you’d do well to avoid racial/ethnic humor in your stock characters.*)
  • Differing personalities having to work together  (Buddy Cop movies)
  • Mad cap adventures
    • Babies
    • Animals
    • Cross-country races for fabulous sums of money

For a more complete list, and/or if you’re out of ideas and forced to write something comedic, start clicking through this page until inspiration hits you.  (Be forewarned, lots of TV Tropes links are coming, set yourself a timer so you don’t fall down the rabbit hole.)

*Before anyone starts arguing about political correctness and its place in modern comedy, I want to first say that you can of course write whatever you want.  But if you’re a novice comic I would advise you to avoid polarizing tropes.  If you’re trying to make a point about race it takes a lot of skill, and even then people may not get the joke. And if you’re not, it’s just lazy writing to rely on outdated tropes.

Romantic Comedies

I’m not going to go into too much depth on this because it essentially has a combination of the above tropes, with the added emphasis on one or more couples and a focus on their romantic relationship.  In dated works it meant the couples got married at the end, in modern takes it means the couples either “get together” or maybe even rekindle a fading romance.  Unlike the other Romance genre, this one should have a happy ending, regardless of how unrealistic it may be. Indulge in a little wish fulfillment.

For flash fiction you should probably stick to the relationship itself, but it should be noted that Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, one of the earliest examples of the RomCom, has its dramatic moments, so don’t feel limited if you want to include some heavier plot elements.  It’ll flesh out the story and add depth to your characters.


Sitcoms are good modern examples of short-form stories, but if you’re looking for novels most of the greats tend to parody certain genres (Terry Pratchett: Fantasy, Douglas Adams: SciFi, Christopher Moore: everything from the Bible to Shakespeare to Vampires.)

This is as good a place as any to talk about the difference between Parody and Satire.

Parody

Parody is the practice of copying the mannerisms, style or appearance of a work or its author’s voice to make a point about that work (or sometimes unrelated other works)…it is often good-natured or affectionate. It only attacks the style and content of a fictional work and not real-life events. -TV Tropes

Remember when we talked about what fell under Fair Use?  That’s parody: “Something you’ve seen before in a different form.”  You’re making fun of someone else’s concept or intellectual property or a genre or whatever.  You’re joking about a concept that you yourself did not invent.  (Side note: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sounds like it ought to be a parody, but it’s actually played straight and gets away with it because the Jane Austen work is in the Public Domain, same as the Wizard of Oz and Wicked.)

While Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is original content, it’s a parody of the SciFi genre in much the same way Galaxy Quest is a Star Trek specific parody.  What do I mean by that?

The protagonist, Arthur Dent, rejects his call to adventure and spends most of the novels as a reluctant hero.  He and the main love interest never really get together.  The climax of the novel, leading up to Arthur being the chosen one for having the ultimate answer question to Life the Universe and Everything is never actually resolved.

A parody can be funny without having any real jokes in it.  For example, the episode Pillows vs. Blankets on Community is funny precisely because it’s played straight – a pillow fight documented in such a way that it parodies the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.  It’s the absurd situation that makes the comedy, and it’s not quite as funny if you don’t get what they’re parodying.

As for Satire… I’ll be honest, this post is much longer than I expected it to be, and I don’t want to rush that one, so we’ll have to get into it on Friday instead.  But before we go, I want to leave you with this:

General Pointers

Everything I’ve listed above are plot-related comedic tropes.  You should note that when it comes to comedic writing there are other ways to tell a joke that have nothing to do with the plot.  They include but are not limited to:

  • Timing
  • Sarcasm
  • Hyperbole
  • The Unexpected

The last one is my favorite.  There’s just something about the unexpected that makes me laugh, and I love that good comedic writing will work jokes into the description as well as the dialogue and situations. Like the quote below:

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t. – Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Comedy is an art, and I can’t really go into what’s funny or why.  I can’t teach you how to tell a joke; it would take far too long and I’m out of time as it is.  But check out the following resources to unlock your inner comic:

Got any tips and tricks for comedic writing?  Authors/novels you love?  Share them below!

NYC Midnight Genres: A Primer

For those of us who regularly participate in the NYC Midnight contests there’s a certain dread that comes from the last few weeks leading up to the contest, particularly regarding the genre prompts.

I personally love the different genres – there’s the possibility of getting something you’re familiar with, but it’s just as likely you’ll get something you’ve never written before, and that you’ll discover that it was your secret calling.  I pulled Mystery twice – the first time the 1,000 word limit almost killed me.  The second time around I had 2,500 words and that first experience under my belt, so it went much smoother and I ended up really enjoying it.

…And then there’s that third option: something everyone hates and is equally terrible at (*cough*Political Satire*cough.*)  But then again, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.  So, because I don’t know what your personal preferences are, here’s a quick primer on the possible genres and how to break them down.

(I’ll go into detail on some of the tougher ones over the next couple weeks.)

Note: I know everyone here isn’t necessarily going to be participating in these contests, so even though these genres are specific to NYC, what I have still goes for genre-related publications.


NYC has the following genres:

  • Action/Adventure
  • Comedy
  • Crime Caper
  • Drama
  • Fairy Tale
  • Fantasy
  • Ghost Story
  • Historical Fiction
  • Horror
  • Mystery
  • Political Satire
  • Romance
  • Romantic Comedy
  • SciFi
  • Spy
  • Suspense
  • Thriller
They also have “Open Genre” but that basically means write whatever you want, and you’ll basically only see it for the final round, if you make it that far.  So let’s break the given genres down into a couple subcategories, shall we?
Plot-driven genres

I’ve grouped the following together because their plot drives the genre.

  • Crime-related stories
    • Crime Caper: usually have criminals as the main characters in a “how they committed the crime of the century” kind of story.  Think Ocean’s 11, or The Italian Job.
    • Mystery: usually involves solving a crime, often involving murder, missing persons or stolen items, etc.  Think of this as a Crime Caper after the fact.
    • Spy: More action than either of the above genres, Spy stories can involve international crime syndicates, large scale espionage and can be from the point of view of someone thwarting crime (James Bond) or someone committing crime (Jason Bourne, or the Mission Impossible team).
  • Pacing-related stories
    • Action/Adventure: This is pretty generic for fast-paced, explosion-filled fun.  Die Hard, Indiana Jones, you get the idea.
    • Suspense: I had to look up the NYC definitions for the difference between Suspense and Thriller.  In general, suspense is slower paced, with a dramatic flair as the tension builds.
    • Thriller: Thriller seems to be fast-paced, with action scenes and plot twists.  I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% clear on the difference, but luckily some genre bending tends to be the norm with these contests.
  • Love Stories
    • Romance: Romantic elements can be present in any of the categories, but with a Romance story, the relationships are the central focus.  Most people I’ve asked agree that a Romance may not have a happy ending, but that dating and/or love and relationships need to be central to the piece.  I’ll put Love Actually in the category – not all the tales end happily but they’re all about love in some form or fashion.
Self-Explanatory Genres
  • Drama
  • Historical Fiction

Drama is the way to go for all you literary types.  Historical fiction is exactly like it sounds: set against a historical backdrop.  I’m not really going to go into either of these two.  They’re pretty standard, really.


That’s enough info to digest for now.  In the upcoming weeks I’ll be talking more about the following sub-categories:
Comedic Style/Tone

This is anything that counts as humorous.  There are some differences here, and we’ll go into that in detail.

  • Comedy
  • Political Satire
  • Romantic Comedy
Speculative Fiction genres
Speculative Fiction encapsulates anything with a “speculative” element, i.e. something that doesn’t exist in the real world.  So monsters, magic, spaceships that travel across the universe, all that belongs here.
  • Fairy Tale
  • Fantasy
  • Ghost Story
  • Horror
  • SciFi

Got any questions about what we’ve already covered?  Dying to know more about something I may have glossed over?  Ask me in the comments!  And for everything else (including the dreaded Political Satire), stay tuned!

Authentic Voices

I have a confession: I don’t like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein very much.  Not for the usual reasons one might dislike a piece of work (plot, character, etc.)  This is solely because of how she writes from the perspective of different characters.  Let me explain.

Frankenstein begins when Robert Walton meets Victor Frankenstein in the arctic.  Walton begins the story in first person, which then transitions to Frankenstein’s recounting of creating the monster, which then moves into the Monster’s account of what happened to him after Frankenstein abandoned him.  The novel stays in the first person, but the narrator changes.  When it does, each narrator sounds exactly like the last one.

This is a common dialogue problem, but it also crops up in any body of work with multiple first person narrators.  Because the problem goes dialogue, I tend to categorize this as a problem with characterization.  The problem stems for the fact that your characters are too similar.

You might have characters that look different physically, who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, who are different ages, different races, etc., but if they all speak in the same manner, make the same observations, well, they will end up blending together, which can take you out of the story.  When you think about it, of course they characters sound alike, they were all written by one person.

So, what are some counter-examples?

Cloud Atlas is one of my favorites for multiple perspectives.  Not only do the main characters in each section of the novel sound different, the entire piece of work shifts genres so that it feels as though you are putting one story down and picking up something completely unrelated on your bookshelf and so on.  It does go a little overboard with this though, as the final story (which is told entirely in the middle section of the book, rather than broken up) reads like A Clockwork Orange.  It can be a difficult slog if you’re not prepared for it.

If you’re looking for a three-minute example, check this out.  For context, this is a clip from the show Galavant, with songs by Alan Menken (think every Disney movie after 1988.)  The character is an unintelligent thug who has fallen in love, trying to express his feelings.  And it is hilarious.

It works because that character is so fully-formed that even his love song is reflective of his personality.  The better you know your characters and the more work you put into making them individuals the better you’ll be at giving them unique voices.  So dig deep and don’t fall into lazy writing patterns.

Got any examples of writers who excel at character’s voices?  Read any that were so similar you had to laugh out loud?  Leave them in the comments!

 

Twist Endings Part Two: What Makes a Twist Work

Last week  A bit ago we got in-depth on what kind of twists are best to avoid.  So, if not all twist endings are bad, what are the good ones?  Why do they work and how can you write one to wow your readers?

“[The surprise ending] depends on a writerly balancing act, in that to be successful a twist must be an ending the reader did not see coming, but also logical and plausible once it happens.” – Nancy Cress

Ok, so, surprising but logical.

A good twist needs to have a set up and a payoff.  It’s best to have your twist in mind before you sit down to write your story.  That way you can leave a trail of clues that hopefully the reader won’t notice on first read, but will be glaringly obvious the second time around.  When you get to the reveal, you want the reader to think “Of course!” not “What just happened?”

How to hide your clues:

1.)  Use people’s assumptions against them.

If you set up a story where a knight has to rescue a princess in a tower from a dragon, we automatically have assumptions that the knight is good, the princess is sweet, and the dragon is evil.  That’s the way tropes work; we rely on them for shorthand to fill in the details in a reader’s mind so we don’t have to describe every desk in the classroom, every evil deed a mobster has done, etc.  You get the point.

So a good twist will lie by omission.  The knight kills the dragon because he assumes the dragon is bad, after all, it captured a princess didn’t it?  It didn’t?  The princess is actually a horrid monster and the dragon has locked her in the tower to protect the surrounding villages?  Now that’s a twist.

2.)  Use ambiguous language.

Let’s say that when you’re writing the dragon story you start with the king sending the knight on his quest.

“Far away from this kingdom is a ferocious monster who has terrorized the countryside.  We’ve contained it to the island but we won’t truly be safe until the beast is dead.  Go forth and get rid of it once and for all!”

Because the dragon is never mentioned by name, the reader will assume (as the knight did) that the dragon is the beast.

Pronouns can also be used to your advantage, if you use them sparingly.  Girl on the Train has scenes where the narrator addresses a character solely as ‘he’ thus using your assumptions about who it is to hide his true identity.  Unfortunately, this is also a tell-tale giveaway that something is amiss, so try not to do this too often if you’re writing a mystery, or other genres where twist endings are expected.

3.) Use unreliable narrators.

The way your narrator sees the world colors the reader’s expectation.  We root for first-person narrators because we’re in their head.

So if your knight says the dragon was ferocious or the princess was sweet or the king was a doddering old fool that he was only sort-of listening to, we’ll assume that he was correct until proven otherwise.

Another way to make your narrator unreliable is to hide something from the character, therefore obscuring it from the the  audience.

4.) Make sure the story makes sense both with and without the twist.

If your twist is too obvious it won’t be an enjoyable ending, so you have to make sure it works with the reader’s assumptions.  But when you read it through a second time, knowing the twist, it has to make sense.  The best twists work both ways, and get your reader to read it all over again, looking for the clues you left, leading to an appreciation of your writing skills and a great recommendation.

For that reason, please, please reconsider including a double-bluff (i.e. the agent was really a double agent was really a triple agent!)  Most of the time it makes no logical sense unless you really, truly know what you’re doing.  You can get away with a shocking ending once but after that it’s a game of diminishing returns.

5.) Use twists sparingly.

This goes with the double-agent point above.  Sometimes the genre will require a bit of a twist (mysteries for example) but for the most part, twists are supposed to be unexpected.  I think that’s one of the reasons why M. Night Shyamalan’s movies seemed to decrease in quality: if you go into a work expecting a twist you won’t be able to enjoy the ride.  I personally know that if something has a twist ending I’ll be too focused on looking for the clues (which are sometimes obvious) that it’ll kill my suspension of disbelief.

Great Twists I Recommend:

The Twilight Zone – Probably the best short stories ever put to film (stand alone 30 minute episodes famous for their twists.  But let’s be honest, the first 25 minutes still hold up, even if you know how it’s going to end.)  They’re all worth watching, but I do like “Spur of the Moment” for a great piece that keeps you guessing.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Don’t laugh.  It’s a great mystery novel, and one of the tightest examples of storytelling with hints and clues scattered throughout the book as to what’s really been going on.  I love how there are absolutely no loose ends by the end of the book – something the movie didn’t have time to include.  If you haven’t read it in awhile it deserves a second look, particularly from a “twist” perspective.

Over the Garden Wall – Episode 7: The Ringing of the Bell – You might need a Hulu paid account to view this one.  It’s part of a 10 episode animated mini-series (10-20 minute shorts) that deserves a full viewing, but if you only have time for one, check this out.  It is by far the best example of a twist I have ever seen, and I will rewatch it again and again and again just to take notes on the excellent storytelling.

For follow up reading I recommend:

(This goes without saying, but beware of spoilers.)

Got any recommendations of your own?  Leave them in the comments!

 

Word Counts Part Two: How to Trim

Remember when we were talking about how to write for a specific Word Count limit?  Yeah, neither do I.  It’s been a long month, mostly because I started a new day job.  (In case you were wondering why the #MFM Contest winners were posted later than advertised.)

Anyway, refresh yourself by reading Part One and then continue below for Part Two.  Also, note that most of this advice is going to be geared toward Short/Flash Fiction where you have to stay within the bounds of a certain word count.  It will always be easier to write to a designated word count limit than to trim a piece you’ve already written without serious revision.

And yet, it can be done.


I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.

– Stephen King, On Writing

I think most drafts can lose about 10 – 15% of its word count without sacrificing content.  Personally, I don’t freak out if I’m 100 – 150 words over the word count when I finish a 1,000 limit.  I know that I write in a meandering sort of way – I can cut a paragraph’s worth of words just by trimming my sentences one by one.

Anything more than that and I know that it won’t help to switch every “was wondering” to “wondered” – I’ll still need to trim a scene or cut a paragraph, maybe even lose an extraneous character who isn’t contributing much.

So how do you do that?

1.) Lists.  Oh sweet reader learn to love your lists.  List your characters.  List your scenes.  List your plot points in order.  Anything that’s taking up space, write it down.  Then take a break and come back to your lists looking for things that stick out.  Do you really need all those characters?  Does your subplot tie into the main theme?  If you had to write your story all over again from scratch what absolutely, positively has to make it into the final cut for it to say what you want to say?  That’s your bare bones outline.  Anything else is filler.

2.)  Focus and simplify. Cut out anything you listed that is distracting or that doesn’t contribute to your overall theme.  One way to do this is to limit your scenes/dialogue to two people whenever possible to save on dialogue tags.

3.) Read every sentence and look for wayward phrasing.  “Get out!” Sarah shouted angrily might’ve seemed just fine when you were in the zone but you know better than that.  And if you’ve cut characters you can trim dialogue tags here.  Watch out for unnecessary adjectives. Do you really need to say “he turned the knob, opened the door and left” or can you just say that he left?  Trust your reader and tighten your prose.

4.) Use Beta Readers.  Find someone (preferably more than one) whose opinion you trust. They don’t have to be a writer, but they do have to be a reader.  Someone who understands stories, someone who will help point out things that are extraneous, and things that don’t make sense (if you go too crazy in your subsequent drafts and start cutting out important details.)  I owe one of my betas a serious debt of gratitude for catching some major issues with a second draft.

Remember: every word counts.

Got any tips for how to trim?  Leave them in the comments below!