Tag Archives: November 2019

Four Reasons Not To Subvert Expectations

There’s a concept that is becoming more and more commonplace in entertainment, in a world where a trailer can’t drop, an episode can’t air, and a sequel can’t be announced without thousands of enthralled fans dissecting every iota of material they’ve been offered, postulating every potential twist and turn in the upcoming narrative, and publishing their findings online for the rest of the world to share in their excitement. That concept is that subverting expectations is the key to great writing.

Writers, directors, and producers believe that the only solution for developing quality entertainment is to write a conclusion that no one in their respective fandoms has ever predicted. They think that if it’s a surprise to the audience, that will automatically make it amazing. That reasoning, of course, is not only fundamentally flawed, but it brings into painful focus the lack of merit that said individuals have as writers, at the very least in regard to the works in which they make this creative choice.

The following is a list of four reasons why subverting expectations is not the be-all, end-all of quality storytelling. Before we get into it, though, I want to make it clear that this is a topic that I am quite passionate about. It boils my blood when directors and writers justify the poor choices they make in their stories with such expressions as, “People would have been mad no matter what we did,” or “They’re only upset because it wasn’t the answer they wanted.”

I do not, however, intend this article to ruffle anyone’s feathers, nor to insult those who enjoyed some of the recent examples of subverting expectations that we’ve seen on both the big screen and the small screen. I believe that storytelling is an art, and for the most part, I believe that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way. These four reasons are simply my explanation for why I think subverting expectations for the sake of subverting expectations is the wrong way.

1. The biggest surprise is rarely the greatest choice for storytelling.

If your story is about a neck-and-neck political race, the most surprising result, for the sake of argument, could be that a big flying saucer comes out of the sky and abducts the protagonist’s opponent, allowing him to win the race by default. As I said, that would be the most surprising result, but it would in no way, shape, or form transform the story into an amazing work of art.

On the other hand, if the main character discovers that his opponent is a spy working to take down the government from the inside, and there were hints that this was the case all along, then you have something that you can just about call a good story, and that is the case whether your audience predicted it or not.

In the same way, having your main heroine go mad and be killed after years of character development and foreshadowing that depicted her as level-headed and sensible might be the most surprising choice available to the writer of a TV show, but it doesn’t mean that it’s high-quality story-telling.

2. You insult the intelligence of your audience.

Whether the writers like it or not, many popular movies and television shows have fanbases composed of highly intelligent, highly skilled individuals. Said geniuses can easily predict the ending of their series of choice, whether based on a gut feeling, the process of elimination, or the very obvious breadcrumbs that were laid out for them to follow in the first place.

If a writer chooses to do the complete opposite of what every one of his IP’s fans has guessed, just for the sake of surprise, it’s nothing less than an insult to the intelligence of those fans. It’s as if the writer is saying, “Oh, so you figured out what I had planned all along? Well, I’m just going to change it. I bet you didn’t see that coming! Not so smart now, are you?”

If everyone and their mother is guessing who the heroine’s parents are, and the writer decides to say that they were nobody, in spite of all the foreshadowing and insinuation to the contrary, just for the sake of choosing an option that no one among the fanbase has predicted, then the writer is essentially saying that the combined intelligence of all the members of his audience is too paltry to be able to accurately predict the ending to his movie, and he’s going to make sure of that if it’s the last thing he does.

3. A surprise resolution is only satisfying if you’re given the tools to see it coming.

There’s a detail in story-telling that transforms your tales from mindless entertainment to layered and nuanced works of art. That detail, which I’ve mentioned already, is called foreshadowing.

A high-quality, satisfying ending is one that you can analyze after the fact and realize it was hinted at all along. Whether you connected the dots or not, once the big reveal is over, you ought to be able to say, “I should have seen that coming.”

And believe me, if you’ve done your job well, if you’ve done adequate foreshadowing, there will be people who see your ending coming. That’s not the sign of a bad story, but an indication of good, high-quality writing.

4. Your audience should be rewarded, not condemned.

Movies, television, books, video games, etc., are all, when it comes down to it, produced for our entertainment. The viewers are supposed to be able to enjoy them, and that requires providing them with the best experience possible.

While some may argue that it limits creative freedom, shouldn’t most works of entertainment strive to make the audience, the ones who make their very existence possible, pleased with their endings?

If they have stuck with you as the creator through thick and thin, if they’ve watched and shared and posted about and gone to conventions and gotten autographs and all-around geeked out over the subject that you are writing, why would you choose to self-destruct your own story, rather than take it in a direction that someone, somewhere, has predicted at some point?

Three Secrets To Character Development

When I was a kid, I loved developing stories. I always pictured each and every scene of my epic narrative in my mind, as if they were playing on the big screen at the local theater. Well, every scene except for one type: those of character development.

I had no idea how to develop them. I didn’t even know where to start. I knew what the types of scenes I was looking for were. I knew that there was character development going on between Han Solo and Leia Organa when they were stranded together in the Millennium Falcon. But in my stories, starting from scratch, I was worse than clueless.

I used to write a title at the top of the page at certain points in my story, where I knew the “character development” beats needed to go. It would say (Insert Character Development Here). It would then be followed by roughly five blank pages.

What belonged in those blanks? I had the rough impression that there needed to be talking. I needed to zoom in on the characters and their motivations. But I had no idea what made high-quality character development, or how long those scenes needed to be.

You might ask, though, is character development really that important for your story? As a matter of fact, it is an essential aspect of storytelling. Sure, you could have one-dimensional characters with no goals, no aspirations, and no desires. But you have to ask yourself, would the stories of such characters be compelling? Can you root for a character to win the day if you don’t even know who they are, what their history is, or what drives them?

On top of that, if you don’t establish the motivations for a character, then who’s to say that they would do anything at all when presented with the events of the story? If John Doe doesn’t have something to live for when the zombie apocalypse arrives, then he’s not going to struggle against unbearable odds to stay alive. In fact, if he really has nothing to live for, it’s more likely he will simply end his existence rather than fight for it.

So what does it take for you to develop your characters? How do you make sure that they have the proper motivations, and how do you make sure that they’re dynamic, constantly evolving?

1. Do Your Research

The first thing that is required for quality character development is a starting point for your characters. You need to develop them to the greatest extent possible so that you know exactly who they are from the get-go.

If you want your characters to evolve, to be motivated by the inciting incident, and to be changed by the climax of the story, then you need to have that starting point firmly established.

So, what does this require? Well, there are many different options for developing your characters. Countless websites and guidebooks are available with the intention of walking you through the process, with questions as varied as what their history is, what their social and economic conditions are, and what their physical attributes are.

My upcoming ebook, If So, Why? The Ultimate Character Development Guide, will contain 850 questions along with descriptions and explanations of each one. The purpose of questions like these isn’t to detail every single aspect of your character’s history and life, down to how many times they shake it when using the restroom. The purpose is to get to know who your character really is, what drives them, and what makes them unique. The purpose is to open your mind to the possibilities that this blank slate that is your character presents you with.

The question is, how many of these categories are essential to the development of your character? The answer: whichever ones give you the greatest insights into how your character thinks and how they developed as human beings.

Physical attributes, questions such as, “What color are their eyes?” or, “How tall are they?” obviously won’t be as important to their development as questions like “What was their economic situation growing up?” and “Were either of their parents abusive?”

But don’t turn this recommendation into a rule. Any abnormalities in the appearance of a character in comparison to that of the fellow youths they grow up with can cause insecurities and inferiority complexes or, on the flip side, extreme privilege, pride, and vanity.

So be sure to give plenty of thought to the questions that are of the greatest importance for your specific character. How can you identify them? The most important thing you need to do is think about your plot.

For example, in Avatar, Jake Sully needs to be compassionate and caring if he’s going to give up his old life and accept the new one that friendship with the Na’vi offers him. So that means that he has to be dissatisfied with his current life. There has to be something on Pandora for him which humanity is no longer able to offer him. In other words, he can’t be rich and well-to-do, and he can’t be satisfied with the hand he’s been dealt.

In Iron Man, Tony Stark needs to be incredibly smart if he’s going to be able to develop his suit, and he has to be egotistical and self-centered if he’s going to have room to grow as a character by learning to care about others and sacrifice himself for them.

Can you develop characteristics that are not directly related to the motives of the character, nor to their inner self? Of course you can. But it might be better if you don’t put too much effort into coming up with them right out the gate. You’ll be able to discover plenty of insignificant and mundane details about your character as you write your story.

It’s reasonable enough to assume that when the writers of the first Thor movie were establishing the details for their eponymous magical hero, a love of coffee was nowhere to be found in their notes. No doubt, it wasn’t until they wrote the scene in the diner that they realized the comedic potential of that aspect of his character. It’s not an essential detail, but it made for a great scene, and it fit the character’s personality.

2. Plot Your Character Arc

Now that you have the starting point for your character, the next step you have to take is to plan out what effects the events of the story are going to have on them. This will help you to understand which moments in your story are significant, and thus allow you to identify where to put your focus so as to fully capitalize on their character-developing potential.

These moments of evolution that your character experiences throughout the story come to be known collectively as a “character arc.” We discussed the general concept of character arcs in Issue #004 of this magazine. Basically, the character arc is the transformation of a character over the course of the story.

There are three different types of character arcs: positive character arcs, negative character arcs, and flat character arcs. The question is, do you want your character to end in a better (positive) position than when they started, a worse (negative) position than when they started, or do you want them to be the same (flat) as when they started?

Characters that are already heroic and selfless at the beginning of the story, as well as characters that are classified as anti-heroes, or even villains, may not be significantly changed by the plot of the story. Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark are two examples of characters with flat character arcs.

In that case, your character development will be limited to zooming in on them as individuals and showing what the standards and morals they hold dear are, and perhaps what caused them to be so resolute in the first place.

On the other hand, characters that develop positive traits, becoming better human beings by the end of the story, as well as those who become worse, offer many opportunities for character development that aren’t just limited to the establishment of their characters.

3. Identify Key Events

There are going to be key events over the course of the story that you will discover while plotting your character and story arcs. As you find them, you’ll realize that these are the points where you need to write your story as if viewed from under a magnifying glass, if not a microscope, to show exactly how the characters are developing in these significant moments.

Tony Stark is selfish and self-centered. He doesn’t care what is done with his weapons. Then he’s attacked, nearly killed by his own missile. We see the reaction on his face. If this was a written story, his thought process about the significance of this event would be clearly on display. He realizes that he’s not untouchable and that it matters what is done with his weapons.

Then Tony Stark makes his first genuine friend, someone who he lets in past his rough, selfish exterior, someone who selflessly sacrifices himself for Tony. That death is a life-altering event for Stark, and thus, we zoom in on him and his feelings, the tragic loss he experiences, and we know that it’s going to come to define him down the road.

Following that loss, Tony Stark, with his idealism and sensibilities renewed, is presented with the fact that his weapons are still being sold to and used by terrorists. He now knows that he has a responsibility to do something about it, because his name is on those weapons, just as it was on the missile that nearly killed him. He can no longer stand idly by, so he builds his Iron Man suit and takes the fight to them.

You need to identify the major life-altering events of your own story as well. What are the most significant changes that occur to your character, and when do they take place? When you get to these moments, be sure that you really zoom in on them, and don’t allow anything to to fly under the radar.

So do your research. Plot your character arcs. Identify your most important events. Once you know where they are, don’t be afraid to write a little note in your manuscript that says (Insert Character Development Here). There’s nothing wrong with that, in spite of my earlier antidote. Just don’t forget about filling it in down the road.

Issue #005: Insert Character Development Here

You may have an entire plot firmly in mind for your story. You may be able to picture every epic battle or thrilling jump scare. But what about character development? Where does it go, and what does it entail?

Check out “Insert Character Development Here” in this issue of The Writer’s Everything! #TWE @QJ_Author

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Can Authors Trace?

When it comes to writing, most people have their end goal firmly in mind: sign book deals, get published, sell the rights to Hollywood, move into a mansion, live off the royalties.

royalties: Writers that have their works published for sale generally earn a percentage of the money that each copy earns, although at times, magazines and other publishers may pay outright for the story, so as not to owe royalties to the author.

Ok, that may or may not be a little exaggerated, depending on the person. Most of us who have been in the business for any amount of time know that it’s an ever more elusive goal. Even so, deep down, we all still want our writing to have the potential to make money.

That being said, now that NaNoWriMo is in full swing, I can’t help but think that this is as good of a time as any to discuss writing from another perspective. The perspective of which I speak is writing as an exercise, the sole purpose of which is to enhance your skills.

I like to think of this idea as tracing for authors. I mean think about any other artistic endeavor.

How do you learn to draw? You copy the works of others, perhaps even using tracing paper so that you can absorb every detail of their technique.

Likewise, how do you learn how to be a musician? You recreate the works of others, playing their pieces note by note so that you can learn not only how to play your instrument, but what the salient features of a good piece are.

If you’re an actor, how do you learn to hone your craft? You replicate famous scenes from movies and/or well-known pieces of literature, such as Shakespeare’s plays, scenes that teach you new the techniques of your craft.

The question now, though, is this: Is there a method for writers to “trace” the work of other writers?

Well, the first issue in this method of creation is that copying someone else’s works word-by-word without attribution is, in fact, illegal. It’s called plagiarism.

There is one important detail that it would be good to remember regarding plagiarism: Plagiarism requires you to attempt to publish the writing and pass it off as your own.

That is not to say, though, that you can’t copy the writing of others for your own edification in your own notebook or note-taking app.

It is at this point that I want to be clear about one thing, and that is that I am not recommending that you copy the works of other authors word-by-word.

There may be some situations where, in very small quantities, such a tactic could be beneficial to your writing. Maybe you read a paragraph that is masterful in the way it guides you through the visualization of a scene, or that conveys the exact emotions of a character in a few short sentences. In such cases, it could be extremely beneficial for you to study the structure of this writing, to find out precisely what makes it so great, and, hopefully, to add those methods to your repertoire.

There are, however, other ways to trace the work of others. Let’s look at a few of them.

Characters and Settings

The first aspect of writing that you can trace from other authors is their characters and settings.

It can be very beneficial for those who are not experienced in the techniques of world-building and character development to work within the sandboxes of other authors. In that way, you can learn how to work with well-thought-out, developed characters and settings and, at the same time, you can come to understand what your characters and settings need to carry you through an entire story.

The thing about this method of tracing is that you can, in fact, publish your finished works online, albeit for free, and thousands do just that every day. This sort of writing is known as “fan fiction”, and these works have a large following online. Posting your fan fiction on websites such as Wattpad can allow you to have your writing read and assessed by those who know exactly what makes a great story and who can tell you what you’ve done well and what you could stand to improve on.

Tone and Concepts

The second aspect of writing that you can trace from other authors is their tone and concepts.

If you love James Bond stories, then maybe you can try your hand at writing about the international adventures of a super spy. If you love Star Wars, maybe you can try your hand at writing an ensemble story with a “chosen one” and magical powers or a space-western complete with shady characters and train robberies.

This manner of tracing is the greatest choice to provide you finished product that is your sole creative possession. There is no copyright on the concept of spies, nor is there a copyright on the ideas of magical powers or space cowboys. As long as you develop your own stories and characters, the result will be a piece of fiction that you will be free to do with as you please.

Plot and Story Beats

The third aspect of writing that you can trace from other authors is their plot and story beats.

This can be incredibly helpful if you have difficulty developing your own plots or even if you are just unsure what should happen next in a story with a plot of your own.

Really, you’d be surprised how often writers copy the plots of other authors. Think about the story of an orphaned young man living with his aunt, uncle, or both, who discovers he has an amazing inherent ability, and he needs to save the world from a dark lord. Several stories fit that plot, including Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and Eragon.

The question of how much is too much when it comes to tracing the plot of another story is nebulous at best. No one accuses Harry Potter of being a rip-off of Star Wars, although they share many similarities. On the other hand, some feel that Eragon contains such blatant plagiarism from both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings that it should not be considered an original work.

What about story beats? Perhaps you’re writing a police investigation. It’s more likely than not that you do not have any personal experience with the steps that police officers take when investigating a crime. On the flip side, it’s incredibly likely that you have read or watched a piece of media that contained such investigations and from that media you can have at least a base idea of what steps are involved and what obstacles may arise.

Is the process of tracing the works of other authors a waste? Not necessarily. Every writer is going to start as an amateur. And every writer is going to need to write for quite a while before their work is worthy of being sold. The question is, will you use that opportunity to learn valuable lessons in your methodology as a writer, or will you not? And, of course, there’s always the possibility that you can develop your traced work into a work of your own. Fifty Shades of Grey, regardless of its merits as a novel, famously originated as a Twilight fan fiction. So get tracing, get writing, and update me on your progress.

Issue #004: Tracing For Authors

So you want to learn how to be an author. There are plenty of methods available to you to help hone your craft. But have you ever considered tracing?

Check out “Tracing For Authors” in this issue of The Writer’s Everything! #TWE @QJ_Author

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Are Prologues Really That Bad?

There is a sort of stigma in the writing community, especially in certain circles, when it comes to prologues. We can probably postulate that the premise of this pre-plot problem is, put simply, that prologues are a bait-and-switch.

Most writers agree that a novel must begin with a “hook,” something that hooks the reader’s attention and makes them want to continue turning page after page. The issue comes when the beginning of your novel is, quite simply, not that interesting.

To solve such an issue, many writers begin their novels with a prologue, something fast-paced and exciting, to serve as the hook of the novel. However, many readers believe that this is a bit of a cheat. They think that you’re using characters and settings and time periods that may potentially never appear again to convince your reader to keep turning pages past your boring first chapter.

So the question is, are prologues truly as malevolent as some writers feel they are? Are they the kiss of death for your story?

The Power of Prologues

As with any other advice, there are nuggets of wisdom found in the suggestion to avoid prologues. You do, in fact, run the risk of disappointing your readers.

What if the characters that you are following are more interesting than your main characters? In that case, your reader will be disappointed when the switch is made. What if the characters that you are following are less interesting than your main characters? In that case, your reader will probably be rather disappointed in the prologue anyway.

The same can be said for plot and setting. And thus, you can see the conundrum we as writers have in this regard. But I don’t think we should shy away from including prologues. Prologues can serve one of two purposes, and I believe they must if we are to include them in the opening of our stories.

Setting The Tone

Picture yourself in a large theater. There’s a soda in your left hand, a bag of popcorn in your right, and above you the lights are rapidly dimming. The musical score of the film you’re there to watch reaches a crescendo. The camera pans down. There’s a planet. We zoom in. The main character is with his uncle walking around a pawn shop, looking through their collection of droids.

He reminds his uncle that the droid they select needs to speak Bocce. His uncle chooses the appropriate models and tells his nephew to clean them up. He whines that he would rather go to the store to buy power converters.

Is this an interesting scene? No, not in the slightest. Yet it’s still necessary for establishing Tatooine as a setting, and Luke as a character who is going to develop in a clear arc throughout the rest of the story.

So how do you hook your viewers (readers) if the essential establishing scenes are so bland and ordinary, as they often are?

You include a prologue that sets the tone for the rest of the story. Instead of going straight to the planet, open with a tiny spaceship being pummeled by an immense Star Destroyer. Have a shootout, followed by a looming, dark, evil knight walking through the destruction.

Does this scene provide us with our main character? No. Does this scene provide us with our setting? No. Would the story still have been comprehensible without this prologue?

I’d argue that it would. Our knowledge of events would be stripped down, becoming equal to that of both Luke and Han, and thus, we would still learn everything as they learn it.

So what is the purpose of this opening prologue? Simply put, it’s to set the tone. It helps us to see that this is going to be an epic space adventure, that it’s going to be a story of good versus evil, of the weak opposing the strong, and that there’re going to be a lot of exciting action scenes to boot.

If Star Wars IV: A New Hope did not take place in space, if it did not feature good versus evil, if there wasn’t a single dogfight or laser-gun fight in the film, then it would have been that dreaded bait-and-switch of which we referred to earlier.

Simply put, though, there are few, if not none at all, who would have a problem with this prologue the way it was presented in the movie. It hooked us with the promise of what we could expect in that film, and then it made good on that promise.

Providing Backstory

You go back to that same theater next week. Last week’s film got you pumped up. You’re looking forward to this next epic movie. The lights dim yet again, and the logo crosses the screen, accompanied by the soft ringing of the string section of the orchestra.

Then strange, short characters appear on the screen, drinking ale and lallygagging around. They’re shushed, and an equally short, old man walks up onto the podium in front of them and gives a little speech about turning one hundred and eleven years old.

Is this an interesting scene? It has the potential to be, but it’s not inherently so on its own.

After all, we don’t know who these characters are. We don’t know why they are the focus of this story, and we have no idea what the main conflict of the plot will be. So how do you make sure that the viewers (readers) know what’s going on, know what’s at stake, and are ready to be fully immersed in this second world?

You include a prologue that establishes the concept of this world, the struggles that the characters may be confronted with, and even background information about the characters themselves.

This is nowhere as necessary as it is in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Of course, prologues that are nothing but pure exposition dumps can be weak and undesirable in themselves. At times, writers may choose to circumvent this issue by creating a main character who serves the function of the curious audience. However, that has the potential to be just as clunky. Not every story can have a character who is so purely ignorant of the goings-on of their world without the occasional narrative hiccup.

But a prologue done well can serve to give us the backstory and information that we need to be able to comprehend what is going on in the story, so that we can read the book unhindered by a lack of knowledge.

Once again, if the story of The Lord of the Rings did not revolve around elves, dwarves, and humans opposing a dark personification of evil, if the main characters weren’t hobbits, and if their characteristics were not essential to the advancement of the plot, then its opening prologues would have been a bait-and-switch.

But how many people did not enjoy the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring? How many people thought it was false advertising? Conversely, how many people would have had no idea what was going on if they were not offered this backstory to Middle-Earth, its various races, its oppressive villain, and the hobbits themselves?

There are plenty of ways to write poorly executed prologues. However, rather than vilifying prologues outright, I believe that our focus should be on identifying when they may be necessary and what the elements of a great prologue are. That way we’ll know when a prologue would be beneficial to our story, and we’ll be able to add skillfully add it to our novel.

No, prologues aren’t the kiss of death. Rather, like every other aspect of writing, they require training and finesse. So go write yourself a prologue. Find out how it affects the opening of your story. And don’t be afraid to go against the grain.