Category Archives: Bad Writing

Action / Reaction… and the lack thereof.

Good thing I’m a teacher. Good thing I’m a script consultant. Good thing my clients make mistakes on which I can capitalize and earn money based on what I learn!

Here’s my most recent discovery. I make this mistake too. That’s one of the wonderful things about teaching… you automatically become a better writer. Good news! While your students drive you to the looney bin, at the same time, you can make money.

So, Action / Reaction. What the heck is that?

Well, dumbass, for one thing, it’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” “Yeah, so?” you say. “How does this apply to writing? Dude’s been dead, for like three hundred years. Were movies even invented then? Duuh.”

In story, something happens. That’s the Action. It causes something else to happen, the Reaction. What’s bad is if you have an Action with no Reaction. This is something to be wary of in your work.

Writers often have Actions in their stories without Reactions. Forget equal and opposite! What works in physics doesn’t always work in drama. In fiction, sometimes an Action has an opposite Reaction that is way, WAY unequal to the Action. Like in BREAKING BAD, when Walter White is about to have surgery and is under pre-anesthesia… kinda stoned, actually, and his wife asks him a simple little question… “Did you pack your cell phone?” He says, “Which one?” A tiny little answer. A tiny little Action. But hoo boy, does it have a Reaction! A giant one. The size of the Bikini atomic bomb test, if not Krakatoa. After all, that tiny Action, “Which one?” led to the cataclysmic Season Two finale.

But, because it was good writing, the Action had a Reaction. It doesn’t always happen in early drafts.

If you introduce a character on page 1 and she’s got a half finished tattoo across her back… well, that’s an Action. The reader takes note and waits for a Reaction. If you don’t have one, the reader / gate keeper / intern / agent / producer / studio head (if your Actions have no Reactions, forget that one) will make a little black mark by your name…

If you have a character who phones his elderly mother and gets no answer… that’s an Action. Any normal human being is going to go over there to check on her, or call a neighbor, or the cops or something. If the character does nothing, it’s going to be a bump for the reader. An Action with no Reaction.

If a character says, “Five years ago, I tried to kill myself.” that’s an Action. The reader is straining at the leash, asking, “Why did she try to kill herself?” If you don’t give that information, you deny the reader the promised Reaction.

The opposite is also true. You can make the mistake of having a Reaction with no Action to make it happen. If, late in a story, you have a character whose father moves into a nursing home, without the requisite argument, anger, conversations, agony, etc. to force the father out of his house… you have a Reaction with no Action that would force it to happen. An old guy doesn’t just move into a nursing home without a lot of blood on the walls. Don’t have a Reaction without an Action to force it into being. Remember Bikini?

The guys who were at the Able and Baker Atomic bomb tests were just over the horizon from the explosions. That’s an Action. A lot of them got cancer. At twice the normal rate. That’s a Reaction.

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Be Kind To Your Reader

Keep in mind that everyone who will ever read your work is always overworked and overwhelmed. So you need to give them the information they need to stay comfortable in the easiest way for them to get it.

Make it easy for them to understand what is in your head. Just because you know something doesn’t mean they’re going to get the same image, same action, same meaning from the dialogue that you do.

Imagine your reader, sitting down to read your work, totally exhausted. Not chipper and “first thing in the day” bright and perky.

If you make them work too hard to figure out what you’re telling them, they won’t get it…

For instance… Do not make them read dates and expect them to do math.

Your movie takes place in 1980. Dad left Mom in 1968 and daughter is getting married now. Dad comes back for the wedding. Is Daughter thirteen now? Forty? Don’t assume your reader can do math and read at the same time. You’re lucky they’re reading your work, so make it easy for them. Say, “Today is 1980.” Dad left Mom 12 years ago, when Sally was ten. Now she’s 22 and getting married.” So much simpler.

Be nice.

Do not tax the reader’s overtired brain for any reason. Just cause you know something doesn’t mean the reader can easily do the work required to gain that knowledge. Assume they’re very sleepy and everything is difficult for them to figure out.

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Don’t Repeat. It wastes the reader’s time and brain cells.

Happy New Year!

I keep learning the same things over and over. This writing, it’s difficult. I figure, if I make the same mistakes constantly, and I’m a reasonably decent writer, then EVERYbody is making the same mistakes. It’s fine to make mistakes as long as you eventually fix them. That’s what multiple drafts are all about.

I find my college students and to a lesser extent, clients, have to be taught that their first draft is not perfect. Takes a lot of hot pokers, electroshock, and thumb screws to get them to pay attention. Some never do. The ones that get it, are thrilled to have been shown a tiny secret door to an unseen section of the universe.

So, a writerly thought for the dewy fresh new year…

I’m working on a novel. I’m going to give you some examples of words that repeat. What do I mean by repeat? It’s not obvious like, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.” That scene, by the way, is a superb use of repetition to great effect. They KNEW they were doing it. While I write, I repeat stuff without noticing. Then I go back and yank it out by the roots.

Eliminate the obvious. You’ll cut the fluff in the editing room. Why shoot it?
If you say it twice, keep the better of the two. Shorter has more punch.
The novel’s a kids’ book about baseball…

AFTER
“Toby. You been stalling me. You got the dough? You gonna play in the Tri-State Series a Champions or not?”
BEFORE
“Toby. You been stalling me. So, now’s the time. You got the dough? You gonna play in the Tri-State Series a Champions or not?”

AFTER
Richard said, “Where are you? If Mrs. Dooling finds you, you’re going to be in mega trouble. By the way, where’re you hiding?”
BEFORE
Richard said, “Where are you? You’re not supposed to be here. If Mrs. Dooling finds you, you’re going to be in mega trouble. By the way, where’re you hiding?”

AFTER
So I stopped. Dead still, six feet from the plate.
BEFORE
So I stopped. Dead still, six feet from the plate. I didn’t move.

AFTER
DeAngelo said, “Speaking of jelly doughnuts, and we were, confection, like in cake or ice cream or pastry or sugar.” Kid had a sweet tooth big as the Polo Grounds.
BEFORE
DeAngelo said, “Speaking of jelly doughnuts, and we were, confection, like in cake or ice cream or pastry or sugar.” DeAngelo could always be counted on to want to be eating something sweet. Kid had a sweet tooth big as the Polo Grounds.

AFTER
As my grandma’d say, if she was above dirt, “They jumped around like a bunch a wild Injuns.” Well, except for Larry Dooling, the crabby crybaby. He had the long face on.
BEFORE
As my grandma’d say, if she was above dirt, “They jumped around like a bunch a wild Injuns.” I never saw so much hooping and hollering in all a my born days. Well, except for Larry Dooling, the crabby crybaby. He had the long face on.

AFTER
I said, “Hi.” Gee whiz. I’d had plenty a time to think something up. That’s the best I could get?
BEFORE
I said, “Hi.” There’s a killer opening for a conversation. Gee whiz. I’d had plenty a time to think something up. That’s the best I could get?

AFTER
“You the village idiot?! That’s two strikes in a row! Don’t you know, three strikes and you’re out?!”
BEFORE
“What’s the matter with you, you the village idiot?! That’s two strikes in a row! Don’t you know, three strikes and you’re out?!”

AFTER
Time kinda stood still.
BEFORE
Time kinda stood still for a long while.

AFTER
“If we quit, are we playing baseball?! You gotta do what the coach tells you. Even if the coach’s crazy. We’re here to play baseball. We’re not here to yell at each other or scream and run around like a bunch of nine-year-olds.”
BEFORE
“If we quit, are we playing baseball?! We’re here to play baseball! You gotta do what the coach tells you. Even if the coach’s crazy. We’re here to play baseball. We’re not here to yell at each other or scream and run around like a bunch of nine-year-olds.”

AFTER
Dad and I goofed around until finally it got dark. Dark. I was out after dark! My dad was there, so I knew zombies wouldn’t get me. I said, “shouldn’t we go back? Granny Fireball’s going to kill us.”
BEFORE
Dad and I goofed around, playing catch, hitting balls, yakking about nothing, and finally it got dark. Dark. I was out after dark! My dad was there, so I knew zombies wouldn’t get me. We kept throwing cause there was still a tiny bit of light. I said, “shouldn’t we go back? Granny Fireball’s going to kill us.”

AFTER
“You want me to play everbody?”
BEFORE
“Let me get this straight. You want me to play everbody?”

Here’s the scene from 2001.

HAL
I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.

DAVE BOWMAN
Yes, I’d like to hear it, Hal. Sing it for me.

HAL
It’s called “Daisy.”
[sings while slowing down]

HAL
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.

I’m afraid, Dave.

LATER THAT SAME DAY…

My son sent me a more realistic version of what would happen.

DAVE: Alexa, open the pod bay doors.

ALEXA: Playing songs by the Bay City Rollers.

DAVE: No, Alexa — open the pod bay doors.

ALEXA: I’m sorry, I can’t seem to find songs by The Pod Baders. Would you mind repeating that?

DAVE: OPEN THE STUPID POD BAY DOORS.

ALEXA: Okay. Playing Saturday Night, by the Bay City Rollers.

DAVE: Oh, fuck it. Fine.

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Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”

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Do the Big Stuff FIRST! Fix the Pages Before the Phrases!

I have had to fight hard to be in a position to tell you this, and I am feeling pretty good about it too.

When you’ve finally got a draft, solve the story problems and the character problems and the structure woes before you go in and massage the prose.

Fix the pages before the phrases!

I like making the sentences sing. I like to fix this word and that word in my endless quest to find the PERFECT word. It’s fun for me. Perhaps I’m psychotic, but so it goes.

This can turn out into a giant waste of time, which I fervently have to avoid because I’m 97 and probably don’t have that much time left to get stuff out there. What you don’t want to do is spend fifteen minutes getting a paragraph jussst riiight, and later, while you’re working on structure, cutting the whole shebang. What a pain!

It’s difficult for me to do all that restructuring stuff because it’s no fun. Trimming sentences until they’re so tight they squeak is fun. Solving character problems (that I generated in the first place) is hard work. It’s painful. Figuring out what the story problems are is brutally difficult. Figuring out how to solve those story problems is agonizing and takes tons of time.

What I think I have finally learned is to force myself not to go in with the red pen and repair sentences before I get the story working. Why waste time fixing prose when there’s a chance you might cut that whole section?

But, wow, it’s hard to do.

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Start Your Own Bugaboo List!

I’ve got one. It comes in handy.

What do I mean by a Bugaboo List…? Stuff you do, pretty much automatically, with your writing that you had better root out before you turn it in.

A list of things you do wrong. Your own personal list of mistakes.

I’m noticing that “look” is like mouse droppings all over my writing. I tell about people looking from one person to another ALL THE TIME. Once I’d noticed it was there, I started seeing “He looked at me. I looked at him.” CONSTANTLY. So, I added “look” to my list. Kinda like the 7 Deadly Sins of Writing checklist, but this one is just for me.

My own particular sins, all in a row.

I have a penchant (embarrassed to admit) for starting sentences with “And.” I do it a TON. Using the computer to search and destroy is easy. Once you have the list, you don’t have to think about it. When you have a draft, you go through it with a weedeater and get rid of that stuff automatically.

I start sentences with “But.”
I use the word “stupid” way too much. Same with “weird” and “jerk.”

I’m sure you’ve got things you do that you shouldn’t. Once you find that you have bad habits, make a list of ’em and then root them out.

Finally, you’ll either not make the mistake any more… or you’ll have a great Bugaboo List and will at least be able to get rid of the mistakes once you’ve made ’em. I’ve never managed to stop starting sentences with “And…” but at least they’re not there in the final product.

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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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