Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Earning Your Payoffs--& Paying Off Your Set-ups

I came to this post topic by way of television, but it works just as well for books. It's still a little easier to explain with TV examples, though--mostly because that's where it's most exaggerated, I think. The majority of (successful) TV shows, unlike books, get years and years with their viewers, and some have more than a hundred episodes by the time all is said and done. This means some stories get a very slow burn.



Think about the over-arching plots many shows have--the one that may build for an entire season, or perhaps even over several seasons. Police procedurals often do this. In Castle, for example, every episode has its own case, but the case about who killed Beckett's (one of the main characters) mother stretches seasons. Likewise, in The Mentalist, we have the usual cases, and then we have the looooong-running plot of catching Red John, the guy who killed the main character's wife and daughter.



I haven't watched either show up to the point where either of those over-arching plots is resolved, but when it does get to that point, the final resolution is going to have to be about 10 times (if not more!) exciting and huge and dangerous and satisfying than any resolution to the-case-of-the-week because of all the time that has been invested in the plot.

The more build-up there is to a plot (or subplot, or whatever), the bigger the resolution has to be in order to satisfy your audience. Imagine how disappointed everyone would be if the Big Bad the heroes have been working up to all season turned out to die in three seconds! (of course, you CAN do that, and it has been done to "subvert" the usual plot, but then that usually means there needs to be something else in your plot to give your readers/watchers some kind of satisfactory ending).

On the other hand, some other things require build-up in order to be satisfying. This is the basis behind every Will-they-or-won't-they romance. Every misunderstood sentence (people in stories are forever misunderstanding each other...I mean, I know we misunderstand each other in real life, too, but seriously...), every missed, love-lorn glance, every almost-but-not-quite kiss makes the final romance that much more satisfying.

Some things need to be built up to. I often cringe a little when characters (who don't even know each other that well) start pouring their hearts out to each other about sad personal histories or whatever without any build-up. Not only does it make you wonder where this trust is coming from (sure, some people are more trusting than others and more willing to talk about more personal things, but this should be part of that character's characterization), but when it happens too early in a story, without build-up, it leaves the audience so much less involved than if it happened a little later, when we're more curious, more caring. Emotional moments like this (your "payoff," so to speak) need set-up.

What do you think? Do you pay attention to this kind of stuff while reading? Writing? (watching TV? :P)


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Step-by-Step Sketch #2

Okay...so I feel bad that I'm skipping a real post for week #2 now, but things have been a little crazy here on the other side of the screen :P So here's another sketch, this one colored, that I did this past week.

Promise I'll have a real post next week!















Thursday, February 13, 2014

Step-by-Step Sketch

So, due to the crazy weather this week and some unexpected work I needed to get done, I didn't really prepare a post for this week, but I don't want to ruin the post-a-week schedule I've manage to keep up, so I'm putting up a sort of step-by-step series of a sketch I did. I haven't posted a random drawing in a while anyway :P

This was supposed to be more concept than anything. I like sketching characters from my stories, but I have a really hard time getting them to match what I imagine in my head, so I end up drawing them over and over and over again. Eventually, I get them to the point where they match what I imagine.

Haven't quite gotten there yet, but here's a doodle I did for one of them :)












:)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

When to Show, When to Tell, and When to Do a Bit of Both



One of the first things young writers get told is “Show, don’t tell.” Show us Tommy is angry, don’t just say “Thomas was mad.” Show us the school play was a disaster, don’t just say it was.


This is just what I got when I googled "school play." Seems like better costumes than my school plays... ;)


In general, this is great advice. Showing is often how a reader starts believing and living a story, instead of just feeling like it’s being related to her. But the advice can be taken too far. Writers start feeling like they have to show everything. And of course, showing takes up far more room than telling (usually), and then we run into all sorts of problems like lagging pacing and a general lack of interest because no matter how vividly you show someone brushing their teeth, if there’s nothing else going on, people are going to get bored.

Sometimes, telling is just better. The trick is to tell in an interesting way. There’s also the mixing of the two—we don’t come right out and tell something, but we don’t go into a long scene, either. A lot of things can be summarized neatly this way—arguments that need to happen (but where what they’re arguing about isn’t particularly important), dinners that need to be eaten, etc.

For example:

Purely telling: The school play was a disaster.

Purely showing: [long scene where we actually see the entire play, and how everyone messed up, etc, etc, etc.]

Mix: The audience started filing in by 7pm. By 7:50—twenty minutes later than planned—the curtain rose. By 8:15, four children had forgotten their lines, one seem to have forgotten he was in a play at all, and Billy Johnson had knocked a hole in the scenery. By 9pm, it was all, blessedly, over.

Another example:

Purely telling: John and Molly had a terrible fight in the alleyway behind the restaurant.

Purely showing: [long scene full of actual lines of dialogue]

Mix: Halfway through dinner, both John and Molly excused themselves from the table, assured everyone that everything was fine, just fine, don’t worry—and went to shout at each other in the restaurant’s back alley, the air thick with the stench of garbage. Between the kitchen noises of pots scraping against burners and waitresses calling out orders, Molly told John absolutely everything she’d ever hated about him, past, present, and future. He responded in kind. They were halfway through screaming about the time he’d lost her dog when they were both, suddenly, absolutely, exhausted by it all.

“We need to get through the rest of dinner,” Molly said, her shoulders slumped.

John nodded. Without either saying it, it was understood that this dinner was the last thing they’d need to get through together.

Of course, the two examples I gave were both slightly humorous/tongue-in-cheek in tone. They needn’t be, though. What do you think? Have you ever found yourself trying to figure out just how much “showing” you should do in a scene, and what can just be summarized?  

P.S. I’m over at a reading group on GoodReads until Feb 6th, answering whatever questions you guys can think of! Check it out if you’re interested :)



Monday, January 27, 2014

Character Movement & Characterization




When coming up with a new character, or trying to introduce him (or her) to the reader, writers often focus on what he looks like, or perhaps how he talks. What color hair does he have? What color eyes? (fiction, as a whole, is very obsessed with eyes, and I totally fall prey to this, as well) What kind of clothes does he wear? When he speaks, is his voice loud or quiet, slow or fast?

Less frequently, I think, writers talk about how a character moves. And yet there's so much information that can be gleaned from this. I notice this most often through watching actors on TV and in movies--of course, those are more visual media than literature, but while writers can't "show" a character the same way a TV screen can, we can describe him.

There are so many things to consider when sketching out a character in a scene, or in general. His clothing might tell us a little about him. His hair color and eye color tell us even less. But how does he stand? How does he walk? Does he hunch and look up at people, even those actually shorter than him? Are his hands constantly fiddling with things, or are they straight by his sides, or jammed in his pockets?



I sort of love the way this scene in Hannibal is shot in general, but the way the characters move (or don't move) in it do so much to characterize them.


When he sits, is he slumped in his chair, or straight-backed? If slumped, how so? In a wide, casual way, as if completely comfortable, or as if he's so exhausted he can't manage anything else? Or is he slumped because it makes him seem smaller, less threatening?

Even if we want to talk about eyes, there's much more interesting things to talk about than color, which is pretty much something we're born with and tells us very little about who we are. More reveling is how our character's eyes react. Does he stare? If so, how so? In a threatening way? In a creepy way? Do his eyes twitch? Does he blink more often than normal--less often than normal?

Of course, you can't overload a scene with every single little tic. That would quickly get excessive and boring. But too little of these physical descriptions, and characters start feeling less like actual human beings and more like chess pieces.

Next time you watch TV, study the way a good actor/actress embodies their character, telling us things about him or her with the way they move or stand.

Have any recommendations for good shows/really fantastic actors? Personally, I love the way Natalie Dormer plays her role (it's a tad spoiler-y, so I won't say which role) in "Elementary," and I've only just started "Hannibal," but Hugh Dancy is pretty brilliant as Will Graham.