Tell us what the Bad Guy wants, and fast!

I just watched The Boxtrolls. Wonderful movie.

One of the most important things in storytelling is for the bad guy to be clearly identified, and early. We need to know two things about him or her: 1.) What does he want? 2.) Why does he want it?

In The Boxtrolls, the bad guy, Archibald Snatcher, (artfully voiced by Ben Kingsley) is a grubby lower-class workman who catches Boxtrolls. He wears a red hat. His henchmen also wear red hats, signifying that they too are of an inferior class. The upper class wears white hats.

Snatcher really, really wants a white hat. Why does he want to wear a white hat, you ask? Because people who wear white hats get to eat all the cheese they want. Cheese is the Birkin bag of this grim, little world. The bad guy wants more cheese. The only way he can get it is to wear a white hat. So, first thing in the movie, he makes a deal with the aristocrat in charge of handing out white hats… “For a white hat, I will destroy every Boxtroll in this town.”

What does Snatcher want? To kill all Boxtrolls. Why? So he can get a white hat and eat all the cheese he could ever desire. A simple goal. What is extraordinary about The Boxtrolls is how quickly the opponent’s desire is established. At 1 minute 30 seconds in, and that includes head titles! Or, page 4 of the screenplay. That quick enough for you?

That’s a feature film. It lasts an hour and a half and they tell you about the Bad Guy right off the bat.

Just like the opponent’s problem in most movies is caused by his desire… In The Boxtrolls, Snatcher’s desire and his downfall are motivated by cheese. If, late in the story, the hero was not able to take advantage of the opponent’s desire to eat cheese, the hero would never have won.

A strange example, you think? Yes! If you don’t like it, come up with a better one!

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“the” vs. “a”

An incorrect “the” can kill you, in a teeny tiny way.

There’s a massive difference between “the” and “a”. Yeah, one has three letters and one has one. I caught that. This is picky, picky, but it matters.

Use “a” for a person or a thing you are introducing to us. For the first time. After that, use “the”.

Alice reaches for a worn looking stuffed dog with blue eyes. The dog sits near a small stuffed zebra.

Perfect example!

We meet the dog and it’s “a” dog. Once we’ve met him, he’s always “the” dog. When we meet the zebra, it’s “a” zebra.

All well and good, but, later in the same scene, the writer makes a mistake.

David slouches outside the junk store. He clutches ROSCOE, a stuffed zebra, to his chest.

We’ve already met the zebra, but the use of “a” this time makes us think it’s a second zebra. Confusing? Yes. A giant mistake, no. But you want the reader to stay with you through thick and thin.

Here’s another way “the” can mess up your careful plan.

Say you’ve got an office. A woman standing at the desk. A man sitting behind the desk. The woman holds a pack of cigarettes.

Ruth slams the pack on the desk. The cigarettes slide out.

What’s the difference between that and…

Ruth slams the pack on the desk. Cigarettes slide out.

In the first example, whether the writer intended it or not, ALL the cigarettes slide out. In the second example, which is what the writer actually meant, SOME cigarettes slide out. Which you can say…

Ruth slams the pack on the desk. Some cigarettes slide out.
Ruth slams the pack on the desk. Four cigarettes slide out.
Ruth slams the pack on the desk. A few cigarettes slide out.

But if you say “the cigarettes,” you haven’t created the image in the reader’s mind that you intended. Ugh.

Wow, this writing stuff is hard!

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Filed under Bad Writing, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

No dumb questions.

If someone says, “What are you doing?”… in your writing… beware. Unless they are a blind person, they are going to know what the other person is doing. It’s amazing how often that line can just be cut.

MOM
Are you hammering nails into the coffee table?

Trust me, she’d know.

Also, a tip that you may want to cut some dialogue is “what?”.

MOM
Oven’s ready. Gran gets here in an hour.

NOLAN
I don’t wanna bake these cookies.

MOM
What?!

NOLAN
I’m not feeling it. We’re outta coconut.

MOM
Are you outta your goddamned mind? She pays your tuition!

Could be shorter. Could be better.

MOM
Oven’s ready. Gran gets here in an hour.

NOLAN
I’m not feeling it. We’re outta coconut.

MOM
Are you outta your goddamned mind? She pays your tuition!

See? I’m right!

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Filed under Bad Writing, Dialogue, Good Writing, Rewriting, Uncategorized

My novel is here!!

Visit a bookstore near you and get your hands on Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way.
Get your hands on several copies!

About the war between a 4th grade boy and the Lucifer of teachers, it is now in bookstores and Amazon. Published by Regan Arts in New York, it’s darkly hilarious and was the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

Hope you like it. Tell all your your friends! Share on social media!

Take a peek at the book trailer: https://vimeo.com/156424500

MrsRavenbachsWay_Cover

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Filed under Good Writing, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Nice use of adverbs.

Most writers, from Stephen King to Elmore Leonard to me, disdain adverbs. Rightfully so. They’re pretty useless.
But not all the time. Not always. Not every SINGLE time.

Every now and then, you need them.

This by my son:

“It’s a return to form after his last novel, the dismally awful _________.”

Hunter S. Thompson is my adverb hero.
Thirty-five years after reading it, I’ve never forgotten “unnaturally massive bill.”

The Great Shark Hunt

At this stage of the gig, things like mosquitoes and sand fleas are the least of our worries. . . because in about two hours and 22 minutes I have to get out of this hotel without paying an unnaturally massive bill, drive about three miles down the coast in a rented VW Safari that can’t be paid for, either, and which may not even make it into town, due to serious mechanical problems — and then get my technical advisor Yail Bloor out of the Mesón San Miguel without paying his bill, either, and then drive us both out to the airport in that goddamn junk Safari to catch the 7:50 Aeromexico flight to Mérida and Monterrey, where we’ll change planes for San Antonio and Denver.
So we are looking at a very heavy day. . .

And elsewhere in the same book…

Dr. Squane, the Bends Specialist in Miami, says Thompson is “acceptably rational” — whatever that means — and that they have no reason to keep him in The Chamber beyond Friday. My insistence that he be returned at once to Colorado — under guard if necessary — has not been taken seriously in Miami. The bill for his stay in The Chamber — as you know — is already over $3,000, and they are not anxious to keep him there any longer than absolutely necessary. I got the impression, during my talk with Doc Squane last night, that Thompson’s stay in The Chamber has been distinctly unpleasant for the staff. “I’ll never understand why he didn’t just wither up and die,” Squane told me. “Only a monster could survive that kind of trauma.”

The Eagles, “Life in the Fast Lane”

He was a hard-headed man
He was brutally handsome, and she was terminally pretty
She held him up, and he held her for ransom
in the heart of the cold, cold city

1. Daniel goes to the bathroom and washes his hands.
2. Shirtless, Daniel looks at himself in the mirror.
3. A group of kids are playing soccer.
4. Daniel watches the soccer game thoughtfully.

Randall, in his 30’s, is unemployed, living with his parents and absolutely single.

This scene is beautifully awkward.

With those examples in mind, here’s my thought on adverbs: use them only if they REALLY change the meaning of the adjective in a supremely gigantic way (which that one does not, btw).

dismally awful
unnaturally massive
acceptably rational
absolutely necessary
distinctly unpleasant
brutally handsome
terminally pretty
Daniel watches the soccer game thoughtfully.
absolutely single
beautifully awkward

These are marvelous uses of the adverb.
99% of the time you won’t need one.

But, if you’ve got the RIGHT one, use it!

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Walking and Talking and Writing

Thought I ought to share what I’ve found out about dictating and writing. In some ways, it’s easier than normal writing with your fingers. I’ve known about it for a long time but, lately, I’ve begun to think it might apply to more people than just me. I know of two.

Courtney Stevens, who wrote the amazingly excellent YA novel, Faking Normal, walks and writes. She feels it has changed her approach to her material, story, and characters.

To learn about the characters in her new novel, The Lies About Truth, she walked a certain route every day for two or three hours. The exact same route, so that there is nothing new to discover, see, or take her mind off the game, which is to think. She goes on the road with a prompt, a question about a character that needs solving. And she walks and thinks. At the end of the walk she comes in and writes down notes. She doesn’t do any “writing,” just making notes.

My son, W. M. Akers, is a playwright, novelist, book editor, and sports journalist. He walks, talks, and writes. He carries a tape recorder. He talks into it and never listens to the recording. When the walk is over, he writes down the most important things he remembers.

This is what he told me about it.

***

Whenever I want to think through a new idea, or try to solve a problem with a story I’m currently working for, I go for a long walk in my neighborhood with a tape recorder. I talk into the tape recorder, asking myself questions and trying to sort through the answers.

“Okay, so, why isn’t this chapter working?” “What does she want in this scene, and how can she try to get it that’s an approach we haven’t seen before?” “What happened to him before the story started that affects how he’s behaving in this scene?” “What are some locations we could use that are more interesting than the ones we currently have?”

I find that talking into the recorder forces me to organize my thoughts more than if I were just thinking to myself, but isn’t as restricting as brainstorming straight to a pad of paper. Being outside, and moving my legs, probably helps get my brain moving too. Thankfully, since I live in New York, nobody really looks twice at someone who’s talking intently into his hand.

And here’s the best part: I never listen to the tapes. Once I’ve worked through whatever questions I was asking myself, how I got there isn’t important. I’ll scribble down the answers, either while I’m walking around or as soon as I get home, but I never need to go back to the files—which is great, because I hate transcribing, and really hate the sound of my voice on tape. Just forcing myself to talk out the problem is enough to get my brain working—and getting a little exercise along the way probably isn’t a bad thing, either.

***

When you’re talking, your brain engages in a different way. When you’re walking and talking (or just thinking), your brain engages in another different way. The thoughts seem to come easier when they are not slowed down by your fingers. One thought triggers another thought in a different way than when thoughts are flowing down your arms to the page.

I can get in the car, having absolutely nothing to say, and pick up the recorder. Then I start talking. And, whether I have a thought in my empty head or not, ideas come. They trigger different ideas, which trigger different ideas, which trigger new, better, more unusual ideas.

I use Dragon Dictate for Mac software to type up the notes I dictate. That means I have to speak the punctuation for the software to put it in. It takes almost no time to learn not to think about it. I use pretty simple punctuation… not even punctuation as high up the food chain as the semicolon. And, hey, it spells every word right.

Dictating is easy for notes, harder for “writing.” For it to sound like “writing” when it gets to the page, I had to practice.

An added benefit of walking and writing is… you’re walking! It’s actually good for you.

Unlike sitting at a desk feeling your back muscles turn to goo.

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Work on the big stuff first.

Don’t waste time on sentences if you haven’t fixed your paragraphs. Don’t waste time on the paragraph if you haven’t fixed the page. Worry about big picture first, then the details.

If you spend a monumental amount of time tweaking sentences and then cut the whole scene, you will feel like an idiot.

This is true in editing as well as writing. Get the story structure right, then start worrying about what’s happening in the scenes.

What you don’t want to do, ever, ever, ever, ever, is spend one second on something you’re going to throw away later.

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Filed under Details, Rewriting, Scenes, Uncategorized, Writing Process