Plot Development (Part Six)
INDUCING REALITY The Holy Grail of Storytelling
by Ken "frobber" Ramsley
RE-WRITING -- WHAT WE REALLY DO!
It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and THEN do your best.
W. Edwards Deming
Once the basics are in place ... premise, character, setting, and roughed-out events ... the task now for the writer or game designer is fixing, reworking, and cleaning up the mess -- that is, tossing out the garbage, adding new (and better) material, and polishing every element that makes its way into the final draft.
Among wannabe writers of his time, Ernest Hemingway was famous for claiming to rewrite every paragraph at least 50 times before releasing it for public consumption. This might be overkill in an age of spell-checkers and other digital tools, but it does serve to illustrate the point -- everything we write can benefit from rewriting ... or said the way it really comes to mind ... nothing written is ever perfect from beginning to end as it spews out of the writer's fingertips.
But that is easier said than done, because rewriting is more like walking through a minefield of possible screw-ups than any sort of certain process. Fixing a creative work can just as easily ruin it. So inasmuch as how I don't normally define anything by "what it is not" -- perhaps the best way to describe this rewriting process is to point out the more common buried ordinance along the pathway for success.
I'll address these in the order that they afflict my own writing...
As I write something for the first time, I have noticed how the creative process very often excludes the objectivity needed to see mistakes along the way. As I type right now, for instance, I am taking my best shot at saying what I want to say -- but not until I switch into detail-editing-mode can I see how this is okay or not.
With practice, though, I have gotten better at real-time editing. I can now detect excessive repetition, and my internal sense of rhythm and pacing keeps me from piling too much in one place. My spelling is still terrible, and I am all thumbs on the keyboard -- but that is no reason to stop typing when I'm on a roll.
Only the worst of what I write gets hacked out immediately. The rest of the drivel is processed after I have written several paragraphs --when I take a more objective look at the details. But I don't stop after every word or phrase to rewrite what I have just said.
Too much of a stop-and-go writing style only serves to crash my concentration --which is pointless-- given how I can always fix anything later.
EDITING IN DETAIL
Detail editing involves removing repetition and replacing words and phrases with better terms and expressions. I will also remove points developed here that have already been developed better elsewhere. And I will rip out my sacred cows at this stage as well -- phrases and sentences that may sound cool, but don't support the point I am trying to make. Sometimes I rearrange the order of sentences, paragraphs, and whole sections if needed.
Personally, though, I have a hard time objectively editing my own work. Printing it out can help, but I would rather edit on-screen. So one of my favorite approaches is to publish my rough drafts on a website somewhere and then read it on-line with a browser. Somehow this distance allows me to see it as though I were reading someone else's material.
Another useful trick I play on myself is to make promises about when I will deliver this material to someone else for comments and feedback. This self-imposed deadline seems to kick in a different way of looking, since now I am on the hook to actually show this to someone else (in fact this is my motivation for publishing anything -- since without a critical audience I might not work so hard to make my points.)
My other main trick is to leave the material lying fallow for a few days before I plan to read it for the last time. That way I can not remember exactly how I said everything, and perhaps now notice mistakes that "weren't there before!"
Or course, I'm only talking here about editing an essay -- but editing anything uses the same basic process of taking an objective look and seeing how things can be made better.
If in doubt chop it out, because a good idea is always easier to see in fewer words.
Ham-handed editing is one of the more popular ways to mangle a story. But not the only way. Sometimes we are too conservative. Sometimes too witty. Often we write something that makes perfect sense to us -- but it makes no sense to anyone else. The minefield is littered with all sorts of potential disasters like this -- any one of which can ruin a good story.
Here are several notorious tripwires in the rewriting minefield that I have discovered...
The "Big Scene"
Many writers get started by jotting down a powerful scene or sequence of cool dialogue -- and the rest of the story gets written around this. But unless this tidbit quickly turns into a clear definition of the premise, it will do nothing more than drag the whole story down. As a personal aside on the this point, what I am writing today actually started when I jotted down a diatribe blasted out of nowhere. But once I got down to making my case, I found that these notes did nothing to support any points I had planned to make -- so this space is now filled with something else.
The big scene becomes a problem when the writer keeps running with it before there is a point in mind, and once it achieves a certain central location, the writer can no longer imagine the story without it. Perhaps after a few of these great scenes it may even look like the writer has is a winner here ... until the sticky glue gets applied to hold all the disjointed pieces together, and the so-called "story" turns into a gooey mess that nobody can fix.
By "the glue" I refer to those trite and quite unbelievable contrivances we see in many bad films ... the totally implausible subplots and lousy dialog which only exist to hold the monster together as it writhes through the projection machine, or across the pages of a book, or through the course of some terrible computer game. These events, or the words that get said, are only there to set up the sacred scenes. And it is a miserable experience to behold for all.
This is not to say that writing loose scenes is a bad idea early on. I write a lot of drivel in search of new ideas -- but once I know what I want to say, I pitch it all and start from scratch. Anything that is worth keeping will leak back in, and the rest will not be worth saving.
Once you know what you want to say, then toss out the sacred cows and rewrite everything from scratch with the premise centrally in mind. Amazingly, most sacred cows will not be as good as the new material that gets created.
High concept places a quirky idea in the role of the premise, and almost always this takes on the form of a "what if..." statement like... "What if suddenly there were no gravity?" or "What if there were a volcano in downtown Los Angeles?" Many situational comedies are high-concept in nature by creating unusual (and unlikely) scenarios among people... "What if a communist and a right-wing fascist were room mates?" There is nothing wrong with this per se, but the problem comes when the need for proving the premise is constrained -- which is often the case.
The high concept is not a point -- yet it takes center-stage as though it were the point. One person is a communist, the other a fascist, and there isn't much that can change without ruining the gag. It is a fixed situation that can not be challenged -- sort of like some silly antagonist who has actually won, and now everyone is just trying to make the best of it. An audience may have a long wait to see if the characters ever actually bother to fight the battle --already having lost the war.
There are rare examples of high-concept stories that can be made to work. Men in Black is very much high-concept in nature ... "What if the tabloids were true?" But this story works because of how the concept is retooled as a premise -- the tabloids are true, and what you read really does happen, and rather than taking this for granted, the whole point of the movie is set up to prove this point. But a high-concept which has not been converted into a premise will fail to prove anything beyond showing how many ways this situation creates a confusing mess in the lives of the characters.
It is much easier to start with a premise, then pull in cool what-if ideas to help prove it, than to start with a what-if high-concept and try to shoehorn a premise into the scheme.
Melodrama happens when every character is a stereotype with no reason for being who they are or doing what they do. The characters overplay their rolls and their excessive presence dominates the experience of the audience. Soap Operas are melodramas. Everything happens in endless overt detail. Everyone overreaches and overreacts. Nothing is left to the imagination. Everything is way beyond larger-than-life. The patient has cancer, a bad heart, liver trouble, bankruptcy, girlfriend problems, a lost twin brother in jail, and a contract out on his life -- all in one episode.
Melodramas are charades that masquerade as stories. There is no premise, there isn't even any real attempt at fixing the dilemma. The whole point is to go beyond plausibility and to have impossible characters facing impossible situations.
Under very narrow circumstances, some melodramatic methods can be made to work. A farce, for example, is a melodramatic device used to illustrate a point through huge exaggerations. But this sort of overplaying should only happen sparingly, and should always focus on proving the premise.
Anticlimax happens when the temperature of the story peaks too early. The audience will look for more, and when nothing else measures up, they'll start to ignore pretty much everything after this early peak. I once had a great moment midway through a screenplay where the protagonist escapes doom in a most dramatic fashion. But the scene was so powerful that it killed the rest of the movie. And only after I changed the scene --leaving it unclear as to whether or the not protagonist escapes-- could the story continue with any interest.
Another problem happens when too much is put into the epilogue. The story is over and the audience does not want to see any more. So any action beyond tying up a few loose ends will drain away whatever good feelings the audience had about the real climax of the story.
If you have a scene which genuinely proves the premise in a convincing and fitting way, and it is the strongest scene in the story -- then it either needs to be set at the highest peak of the concluding sequence of scenes, or else it needs to be trimmed back so that it does not overshadow the rest of the story.
Stories should never stop to tell the audience what is happening (except perhaps as a comic gag). Everything which is worth knowing should already have been pre-planted. For example, in James Cameron's movie Titanic, there is an early scene where we learn about the technicalities of how the ship sinks. Later, when we see this actually happening, there is no need to freeze-frame while somebody explains how the ship breaks in half. The story just keeps on rolling because we were already told what to expect.
If anything needs to be explained -- do it early. And if the explanation is taking too long, either simplify it or see if you can leave it out altogether. Perhaps the audiences can just dig into their own experience... or maybe they won't even care to know all the technicalities. For example, is it really necessary for George Lucas to tell us in Star Wars: Episode1 how "The Force" actually works? ...or show us the cute-looking kid who someday turns into the big bad Darth Vader? Good grief!!
If you must introduce a new concept or technical point, for the sake of your audience keep it simple and only explain what really needs to be made clear -- and then do it early enough so that it doesn't stink up the action.
Dialogue Versus Action
What happens in a story is far more more important than what the characters have to say about it. This is not to imply that characters should not speak. I simply mean that the writer must show what happens, and what happens needs to be more than characters sitting around talking about what they want to do, or what they think about some other character. Dialogue is only convincing in the context of the action. Han Solo's pithy remarks reveal his bravado when he's in the heat of battle -- but they come close to dropping dead on the floor when nothing much is happening.
Good dialogue confirms and punctuates what we already sense about the characters. It fills in the details and rounds out the edges of who they are. But dialogue is no substitute for action. What the characters decide, what they do, how they react to success and failure -- that is what defines them in the rough. Good dialogue can help us see the characters more clearly and perhaps learn about secondary elements of the story. But the audience is not a jury weighing every word the characters say, and to tell the story through dialogue as the main vehicle will leave most members of the audience exhausted. Not everyone is up for an evening of My Dinner With Andre.
Stage plays (which are mostly dialogue) get around this problem by having the actors tell each other stories (for the most part), and in so doing their dialogue contains a measure of information about the actions of others. But in movies --and particularly in computer games-- this will not work, because on-screen --where anything can happen-- actions will always speak louder than words.
It is bad form for music to be about musicians, painting about painters, or stories about writers. And I get more than a little nervous when a computer game makes a "hacker" the hero.
Of course I tread close to this self-imposed taboo by writing this series. But I will never do it in a story. Stories should transport us a little distance, and frankly I don't want a story about the life of a person writing a story -- unless it is someone whose life is unique and interesting in some other major way. If all of your ideas revolve around sitting at a keyboard -- then the time has come for you to see the real world.
And when you come back from your real-life adventure you will have something new to say.