Tag Archives: Writing

Disney's Frozen is overhyped, but still pretty good.

Writing Lessons from Frozen

Everyone went nuts for Frozen. I was a little underwhelmed. Perhaps there was too much hype. Perhaps nothing can compare in my mind to The Lion King. But you can’t deny that Frozen struck a chord, which makes it worth a look to see if there’s any writing advice inside.

Wrap up warm, spoiler storms ahead.

Do You Really Need That Prologue?

A prologue is something of a chapter 0, part of the story that sits before the beginning proper. In the case of Frozen, I’m classing the accident, the death of the king and queen, and the Do You Wanna Build a Snowman song as a prologue. Because the story itself starts when Anna meets Hans.

Frozen is a perfect example of why prologues can often be cut: there’s usually nothing in them that can’t be told in the body of the story. Death of the parents? Their mere absence is enough. Anna’s isolation? Already clear from her ‘For the First Time in Forever’ song. The accident? Can be discussed; heck, Elsa already has a mini flashback in the film itself. The first ten minutes are dense with backstory, but they aren’t story. They drag. They’re unnecessary. Let it go.

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.

Foreshadow That Twist

Frozen manages to teach this lesson by doing it right and wrong at the same time.

Hans is Anna’s Prince Charming, her soul mate, protector of her realm and her sister, until it turns out he’s evil.

Anna’s cure is said to be “an act of true love”, which both audience and characters take to mean true love’s kiss, until it turns out it’s an action spurred by love.

Both good twists. But when you see Anna’s act of true love, you look back on what the film’s been subtly telling you and think “of course!” When you see Hans turn evil, you look back on what the film’s been telling you and think “where did that come from?”

A great twist is one a reader feels like they could have seen coming. A poor twist is one no-one could have possibly foreseen.

Defy Expectations

More on the twist that worked. Disney films love a bit of romance. So when Frozen calls for an act of true love, the characters and the audience assume a kiss is needed. But the film isn’t that interested in romance. It makes fun of Anna’s rushed engagement (which is par for the Disney course), and focuses on familial love instead. Which is partly why Frozen delighted audiences everywhere.

A genre is built on its tropes. And it’s important to know them, respect them, even work with them. But subverting them can not only entertain your readers, but it can help your story stand out from the crowd.

What are your thoughts on Frozen? Are you looking forward to a sequel? Let me know in the comments.

Title card to the Netflix/Marvel series Daredevil.

Writing Lessons from Daredevil

I was burnt twice by the Daredevil film. I watched the theatrical cut and hated it. Then, a few years later, I kept hearing the director’s cut was so much better. So I bought a copy. And hated that too. So I was understandably reticent to watch the new Daredevil series on Netflix. But it’s fantastic, and a writer can’t go far wrong in studying it.

Watch out for spoilers skulking in the alleyways.

Kill the Status Quo

Not the band. Daredevil made it clear pretty early on that it had no interest in setting up a long-running status quo. It started with a secret identity, an unnamed and unseen crime kingpin, and a host of allies and foes. I fully expected the kingpin to be revealed in the series finale, with Murdock having to fight through his underlings first. I fully expected the series to spend plenty of time showing us Murdock’s efforts to keep his identity a secret before revealing to any other characters. And I fully expected the kingpin to remain in his seat of power for many series.

But, in short order, the series blew Murdock’s identity to his best friend Foggy, named Wilson Fisk and then brought him onscreen, and then started working through the allies and foes in a string of deaths. It threw me off balance and kept me wondering just what would happen next. Anyone seemed like fair game. Nothing seemed sacred. And I loved it.

Keep the Mystery

Matt Murdock is blinded as a boy, but somehow his other senses are heightened to an incredible level. He can feel air currents, taste nails from across the room, hear heartbeats. He can, in effect, see. He can do some incredible things, and Daredevil does an excellent job of explaining Matt’s abilities. It left me in awe of what he can do and wondering what his world must be like.

But one episode tried to give us a visual representation of how Matt ‘sees’; his “world on fire”. It was a pin to the balloon of mystery, proof positive that some things are best left to the reader’s imagination. It’s not that theirs is better than ours; it’s that they’ll enjoy the numerous possibilities rather than being locked into the one we decide to give them.

Don’t Let Old Ideas Hobble You

Daredevil took a slow walk from vigilante to superhero. It called Matt “the man in the mask” and “the devil of Hell’s Kitchen”. And he wore a simple, plain outfit and a mask. It’s only in the series finale that he wears a costume and gets the name “Daredevil”. But the truth is the name doesn’t fit the show. The show is a gritty, brutal, emotive thing. The name sounds like a circus act. And whilst Matt’s desire for armour made sense for a man on the receiving end of some brutal beatings, a costume isn’t something that fits with his character. He’s not trying to be a symbol like Batman. If anything, he was doing his best to work in secret.

Sometimes it’s tempting to hold onto old ideas. You might really love them. They might even be the genesis of the entire story. But if the story has evolved, don’t hang onto something that doesn’t work anymore.

Love Makes a Villain Loveable

It would have been easy to have Wilson Fisk as evil. A kingpin of crime, concerned with power and money. But Daredevil made him more than that. He has a tragic backstory, yes. He has a mission that differs from Matt Murdock’s only in the execution. And he thinks of his right-hand man as his friend.

But the real moment that makes you secretly love him? His love for a woman. It’s a normal, fierce, romantic love that makes Fisk human. Vulnerable. But it doesn’t undermine him at all. He’s still violent and ruthless. But he’s also loyal, protective, emotional. Rather than a two-dimensional villain, he’s a three-dimensional character. Fisk is one of the primary reasons Daredevil is so good.

What did you think of Daredevil? Is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

How to Develop Ideas

How to Develop Ideas

I’ve previously made the claim that asking writers how they come up with ideas isn’t the best question, that having ideas is easy. But once you’ve had some, what then? How do you develop ideas?

It’s a bit like opening the fridge and realising you forgot to do the shopping. You’ve got a few disparate ingredients and you need to make dinner. You’ve got an egg, an onion, a couple of mushrooms and a tiny lump of cheese. You can take the innards of the egg, trim the mould off the cheese, beat them together and make an omelette. And you take the same approach when you develop ideas into a story.

I asked people for a few random ideas to get me started (and to prove how easy it was), and here’s what I got:

I wish Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Travellers Wife author) and Steven Moffat (current Dr Who series writer) should get together and make Clare the Dr’s next companion!

I wonder what it’s like to live on a cloud and throw cloud bombs on to the humans?

Wouldn’t it be cool if it rained chocolate sometimes?

What if aliens are here, known to the government, disguised as humans to study us, or here as interstellar immigrants?

Can we develop those ideas into a story? I hope so, otherwise this post will make me look a bit silly.

First things first: we don’t own the rights to Doctor Who or The Time Traveler’s Wife so we’re going to create our own versions. (Writers do this all the time; George Lucas created Star Wars as his own version of Flash Gordon, for example). So we’re writing about a time traveller and a companion.

The key to developing ideas is asking questions about them. So why would Clare make a good companion for Doctor Who?

For those who haven’t read The Time Traveller’s Wife, Clare is the titular wife. Her husband, Henry, sometimes bounces around his own timeline. But it’s not something he can control. Why would that make Clare a good companion? Well, she knows about time travel already. Does she know more than our time traveller? Maybe she’s trying to help her husband, find answers or a cure for his own random travelling?

What about those aliens? Why are they studying us? What if what’s happening to her husband is their fault? They’ve invented time travel and they’re testing it on humans, like we test products on mice and dogs etc.

So already we’ve got a basic idea: a woman is looking for answers as to why her husband keeps disappearing into his own history. And she meets a time traveller. A time traveller who lives in clouds. (That’s why it gets foggy sometimes; it’s the time traveller sending the clouds to the ground so he can get off.) The aliens could be the antagonists; the story would be about trying to stop them.

What about that chocolate rain? Well, you could mess with the clouds to cause it to rain chocolate. Maybe the aliens seed the clouds with something to stop the time traveller interfering? That might cause it to rain chocolate (or something else; chocolate would be appropriate for a children’s book, but if we want to write this for adults we’d have to change that).

That’s a story idea. It’s not the story; we’re not there yet. There’s still plenty of questions to ask. Who is the time traveller? Why does he live in clouds? Where have the aliens come from? How does the woman meet the time traveller? And we need more ideas, too, and we need to develop those ideas into the story as it grows. But that is, in essence, how it’s done. That’s a peek behind the curtain.

So how would you develop this story? Leave a comment and let me know where you’d like to see it go.

Big Hero 6 is a lesson in emotive writing and in three-dimensional secondary characters.

Writing Lessons from Big Hero 6

This isn’t a review, but I’ll just say this: Big Hero 6 is awesome. Seriously, if you like animation, go see it. It’s better than Frozen.

Yeah. I said it.

You should also see it because, like all these Writing Lessons posts, there be spoilers ahead, matey.

Flesh Out Secondary Characters

My one gripe about Big Hero 6 is that some of the secondary characters are paper-thin.

Naturally not every character in a story can have the depth of the protagonist. Aunt Cass, Fred and Wasabi were purely supporting cast and therefore are characterised by quirks, foibles, and small nuggets of history, all introduced naturally without slowing down the story.

But Gogo and Honey? There was nothing to them. They were so forgettable I had to look up their names when I wrote this. Disney inherited the title ‘Big Hero 6’ from a Marvel comic book and it felt like Gogo and Honey were just there to make up the numbers.

The lesson here? Build them up or knock them down. Don’t keep a character for the sake of it.

Don’t Stop Hitting Them in the Feels

By Kenobi’s beard, no film has ever had me so close to tears than Big Hero 6. When Tadashi died I thought that was going to be the big emotional gut punch. But then were was another one, and another. And each one hit harder than the last. I had to clench my jaw by the end to stop bawling like a baby.

And I loved it.

They always tell you to touch the reader (emotionally, don’t get handsy). At times it almost felt like Big Hero 6 touched me too much, but I loved it for that. If you don’t move the reader, they won’t care. Don’t be afraid to make them cry.

Don’t Preach Your Theme

Big Hero 6 is all about loss and how to cope with it. Like many who have suffered a loss, Hiro seeks an external force to blame and he wants to make that force pay. The film’s message is simple: revenge isn’t a curative for loss. But no-one says that. No wise old man or caring aunt or cute sidekick tells Hiro this. Instead the audience sees it for themselves: when Hiro abandons his quest for revenge, he solves the problem of loss, almost literally, when he saves Abigail Callaghan.

Nothing switches off a reader like a soapbox. It’s okay to have a message, but make it one readers can figure out and think about on their own. If the reader feels they have to agree with you to read the book, they might not do either.

Did you like Big Hero 6? It’s totally better than Frozen, right? Tell me what you thought in the comments.

Everyone has ideas, not just writers. Image courtesy Alan Cleaver (Flickr)

How to Have Ideas

“How do you come up with your ideas?” If there’s one question that every writer gets asked, it’s that one. And I find it rather flattering, because it suggests you’ve performed a feat that others wish to emulate. But here’s a dirty little secret: everyone has story ideas, all the time.

I’ve heard a lot of writers saying their ideas come from inspiration or a muse or some other external force. Ideas can’t be coaxed, they say, and not everyone has the ability to have good ideas. That’s a load of manure.

Ideas come from your brain. You don’t have to sit at a special writing altar and pray to divine forces. You just have to stimulate your mind. Doesn’t matter what with. Read the back of the cereal box, play a game, doodle on the back of your hand. And when you have an idea, you write it down. Doesn’t matter how good it is. Making a bad idea good and a good idea great comes later.

And the ideas themselves? Perhaps you think you don’t have them in the first place. But if you’ve ever finished any of these sentences, you’ve had ideas:

I wish the creator(s) of (a book/film/TV show) had/hadn’t…

Wouldn’t it be cool if…?

What if…?

I wonder what it’s like to…?

They should totally…

Boom. You just had some story ideas.

This isn’t a glib answer. This really is how the process starts. Using The Fey Man as an example, I would have answered as follows:

I wish Tolkien had included fairies in Lord of the Rings.

Wouldn’t it be cool if dragons could remember the future?

What if the differences between elfs, dwarfs and men are a product of magically-driven evolution?

I wonder what it’s like to spend seven years as a captive, but be released into a world where a hundred years had passed?

But you’ll have noticed by now that these ideas don’t equal a novel, or even a short story. You’re absolutely right. one idea doesn’t make a novel. These initial ideas need development. Sometimes said development will change, sideline, or even usurp the original idea. But that’s all part of the process.

I was going to use The Fey Man as an example, but I think it’d be more fun with some audience participation. So please leave a comment completing those sentences. I’ll pick one comment, and run through how those ideas could be developed into a story. So go as nuts as you like! The wackier the answers, the more fun (and the greater the challenge) it will be!

Deleting characters is as easy as pushing a button, but why do it at all? Image courtesy YaCBot

An Open Letter to Arvel, A Deleted Character

Dear Arvel,

No doubt you’re wondering why you don’t exist (insomuch as any fictional character can be said to exist). After all, you were a character in The Fey Man for many years before I wiped you from the page. Only me, and a handful of beta readers who found your name in a dialogue tag I missed, know you were ever there. And what did you do to deserve this fate? Not very much at all.

Don’t mistake me, Arvel, this wasn’t personal. I actually quite liked you. As the youngest of the Eastern elfs you had a naive air to you that humanised the elfs a little. You also didn’t really know why Neirin had brought you on his quest, and your ignorant trust in your master was quite sweet. But, initially, you had only one purpose: to die.

That meant you had nothing else to do, and I forgot you for pages at a time. So I gave you more to do. Being made a sailor by trade gave you a bigger role in Neirin’s plans and made you vital to his quest. But events in The Fey Man meant you never got to demonstrate that role. So, again, I forgot about you. Nice as you were, you were relegated to hanging around in the background.

I want you to know it wasn’t an easy decision to cut you from the novel. Because I liked you as a person, I kept convincing myself that you served a purpose. I thought you added depth to the world of The Fey Man, a further dimension to the story. I thought if I could just get one thing right, find one small tweak, that it would solve the problem of you.

But ultimately I knew you added only ambience, like mood lighting. I don’t mean to be harsh, Arvel, but you were dead weight. You were dragging the novel down, another character for the reader to remember with no reason for being there. You had to go.

Being a writer is a strange occupation; who else mourns a person who never existed? Sometimes I wonder if you might come back in some way. But I think you’ve developed too much of your own baggage. And I’m afraid your best qualities were given to other characters. Brega inherited your familial shame from the poor death of an ancestor. Judge Hullworth inherited some of your naivety. And someone else died (sorry, Arvel, even you’ll have to read The Fey Man to find out who).

So I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with almost existing, Arvel. At least your sacrifice made The Fey Man a better novel so, for that, you will always have my gratitude.

Yours,

James

The cover for The Fey Man

Writing Lessons from The Fey Man

They say that there’s no better way to learn writing than by writing. Which is certainly true. After all, you can’t find any bad habits, see any common flaws, or make any mistakes by not doing anything. And, although The Fey Man is the fourth novel I’ve written (but the only one to be published) it still had a lot to teach me.

Be Prepared to Sacrifice Everything

I cut a lot from The Fey Man. A whole character, Arvel, was scrubbed from existence. A subplot in which Tom ensured the new employment of his personal attendant before he left Cairnagan. Encounters with fay, men, even a few dwarfs.

All of these things slowed the story down at best and made it confusing at worst. Arvel had nothing to do, Tom’s attendant meant it took too long to leave Cairnagan, and the other plot elements prolonged the journey too much. I was sad to see them go, but the novel is better for it.

Made-up Places Need a Clear Geography

One of things my beta readers seemed to agree on was this: they struggled to picture the world of The Fey Man. How big it was, where one place was in relation to another, and so on. One reader thought the party was travelling north even though I’d mentioned south a dozen times.

Maps are one element that will help the reader, but I didn’t want to force her to flick back and forth. So I went through the manuscript and tweaked a lot of text to try and establish a sense of the world. I just hope I succeeded!

It’s Also About What You Don’t Write

At the beginning of this journey I had a tendency to spell everything out. Characters thoughts and feelings were shown with words, either the characters’ own or through narration. But that bogged down the narrative with constant exposition.

So I tried to cut a lot of that from The Fey Man. A lot can be said with a look, an action, even a silence. Tom often wondered what all those meant, but I tried to make those thoughts about Tom, not about exposition.

What have you learnt from your own writing? I’d love to know. Leave a comment and tell me all about it!

Battlestar Galactica has a lot to teach writers.

Writing Lessons from Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica finished in 2009 so, of course, I only just finished watching it myself. It garnered plenty of criticism and praise and I myself enjoyed it immensely. I thought it was quite a brave series and quite a thoughtful one, with plenty of explosions whenever it got too thoughtful. Was it perfect? No, sometimes it meandered and got lost, and Starbuck was a constant irritant. But there’s plenty for a writer to learn from.

Warning: (major) spoilers may be masquerading as humans…

You Don’t Have to Have a Grand Plan

Ronald D. Moore, showrunner of Battlestar, has often admitted there was no master plan. Unlike the writers of Lost, for instance, he made no claim of knowing exactly where the story was going. Instead he played it by ear.

Whilst that leant itself to organic and responsive storytelling, it also meant that sometimes the story spun its wheels or took a wrong turn as writers tried to figure out what happened next. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, but it’s a sword worth considering.

Be Careful With Your Characters

Starbuck is an ace pilot, but she’s a mess at the beginning of Battlestar. She’s rash, mouthy, can’t play well with others and has little respect for authority. She either cannot or refuses to help herself and, because it’s never quite clear why, she is an irritant to both other characters and audience. I couldn’t stand Starbuck. When an episode focused on her, I wanted it over with as soon as possible.

A character can’t start perfect and stay that way until the end of the tale. They have to change. Usually they start the story flawed and overcome those flaws. But they can’t be too flawed otherwise the reader won’t be interested in them. There’s a delicate balance to be struck. Whiny, irritating, or otherwise unsympathetic characters risk alienating your readers just as much as boring, perfect ones.

A Simple Idea

Ever heard of the elevator pitch? It’s a one-sentence description of the story. “Young rebels battle against an evil empire in outer space.” “A prince suspects his uncle has murdered his father and stolen the throne.” “Survivors of a human/robot war must escape and find a safe planet to call home.” They’re so popular because they’re easy for the brain to manage. The story is clear. Evil empire. Evil uncle. Find a home.

From the end of the pilot, the goal for the survivors was clear: find Earth. That’s not enough to hang the entire narrative on; characters still need their own private goals and subplots to help keep the story fresh. But maintaining that elevator pitch creates a single vision and voice for the story. Whatever else might happen, viewers knew that finding Earth was the guiding light for the entire series. Until…

Don’t Be Scared to Mix It Up

Until they found it. And it was a barren, radioactive wasteland.

What followed was a season of Battlestar that seemed to be as lost and directionless as its characters. I’m not convinced that it particularly worked. But I’m willing to overlook the flaws of that season purely because of the twist that preceded it. And it will keep your reader’s attention too; an Earth-is-dead moment tells them that there is no sacred ground you won’t litter on, and that’s compelling stuff. What will they do next?

Fake Swear Words Aren’t Cool

Seriously, if one more character said frack this or frack you I was going to hunt down Ronald D Moore and beat the frack out of him. If you want your characters to swear, be brave enough to use real swear words.

Provide a Satisfying Resolution

Not every character made it to the end of Battlestar, but those that did got a conclusion to their arc. Not all of the conclusions made sense. Not all of them seemed fair. But all of them carried a sense of satisfaction in some way. That satisfaction will be remembered by readers; it might even smooth out any faults or umbrage they’d taken at some earlier part of the piece.

So, is Battlestar Galactica a strong contender for Best TV Show ever? It totally is, right? Agree with me in the comments.

A baked alaska causes drama in Great British Bake Off

Writing Lessons from the Great British Bake Off

The great lie of Reality TV is in the name. Yes, what happened in front of the cameras happened. But actors stood on that set and said those lines. The trick is in the narrative, and reality TV constructs that narrative with no less care and artifice than “fictional” TV. Great British Bake Off is no exception.

For the uninitiated, Great British Bake Off is a reality TV programme in which twelve contestants have to bake cake for two judges and one contestant is sent home each week. The one left standing at the end wins…well, I’m not sure what they win. But it’s a civilised as it sounds. There’s no drama, no recriminations, no back-biting. It’s what you watch when you want to see nice people with some cake.

But one episode decided to change all that. Viewers saw contestant Diana Beard remove fellow contestant Iain Watters’ ice cream from the freezer, turning it into a sludge. Understandably angry at the sabotage, Iain ditches the gloopy mess and is sent home for having nothing to present to the judges.

The Internet erupted. It was a travesty, a miscarriage of justice. Check out the hashtags #JusticeforIain, #BringBackIain and #DirtyDiana to see just how well the Bake Off narrative worked. And, when you’re done, let’s see exactly how the showrunners managed to evoke that outrage.

Prepare the Reader

The BBC showed an advert in the week leading up the episode in which one of the judges says “that’s unacceptable”. That’s a total smackdown in Bake Off land and viewers were waiting for the sponge to hit the fan. They were expecting drama. People often talk about expectations with a view to subverting them, but expectation can train a reader how to react when something does happen. If you start telling a joke, your audience is already preparing itself to laugh.

You Can Paint a Story with a Small Brush

Bake Off viewers actually saw very little. They saw Diana pointing out something in the freezer and saying it belongs to Iain. They saw Iain discovering his ice cream on a counter. And they saw Diana telling him, “you have your own freezer”. That’s it. Out of this, the audience turned Iain into a wronged party, a gentleman when he didn’t tell tales and a stoic victor in defeat when he was sent home. And they turned Diana into a wicked sabateour, a selfish old woman willing to screw the competition and act like nothing happened.

Human beings create stories all the time. We seem to excel at adding two and two and making five. It’s worth remembering that skill when we write our fiction; the reader is not a passive but an active partner. They’re painting the scene and creating the characters before you have a chance to describe them. So you can get away with feeding them very little and letting them fill in the gaps by themselves. You can also use that to build and, yes, subvert those expectations I mentioned.

Don’t Lie to the Audience

In a twist on the tale, one of the presenters took to Twitter to set the record straight: the ice cream was out of the freezer for only forty seconds.

The betrayal, the sabotage, the drama, none of it was true. The Bake Off team used creative editing to construct a narrative, revealed to be smoke and mirrors. The equivalent of Bobby Ewing turning up in the shower.

Don’t do this. Ever. This is not subverting expectations. This is a dirty trick. The reader feels betrayed and lied to. And, yes, of course you’re lying to them. But there’s an unspoken agreement that your lies will be fair. If the reader is enjoying the tale, they don’t want you to spoil it by saying it was all a dream.

What do you think we can learn from reality TV? Leave a comment and let me know. Or let’s talk about Bake Off instead; I want Richard to win!

Writing Lessons from Short Stories

Anyone who has met me or frequented this site has probably guessed that brevity is not my greatest strength. I have a habit of over-thinking things, which means I like to dig down deep into ideas and places and people, clawing beyond the foundations into the bitter, dark, twisted, glowing dirt in the underbelly of their existence…

I forget where I was going with this.

So, I prefer writing novels, where I can dig down deep. Not many of my short pieces survive. That said, being forced to write something outside of my comfort zone always improves my writing, and I suspect you could use it to improve yours too.

Try to Cut Everything

You Are Just A Guest used to weigh in at 8,000 words. A critical eye reduced that down to 5,000 by cutting redundant scenes and extraneous description that slowed down the narrative. Now I couldn’t tell you what I cut because I can’t remember it; it wasn’t pulling it’s weight.

But every character, scene, even sentence needs to have a good reason two good reasons three good reasons for being there. If it can’t, then it’s got to go.

Giving Clues to the Reader

You’ve not got a lot of room for deep and exhaustive characterisation, description or backstory. But skipping that will leave you with two faceless dialogue puppets in a white room; who cares about that? But you can do a lot with a little.

For instance, the narrator for The Homeless Hero had a falling out with her mother over something that happened in their past. Most readers probably know all about it except I never once explained it. I used a few lines scattered throughout the story and let the reader put it together. They fill in all the blanks, giving me room in my word count for the story.

It’s a Great Place to Experiment

Before writing The Homeless Hero I had never written from a female perspective before. The notion scared me a little bit. I was worried I’d end up writing a man in a woman’s body or, perhaps worse, a stereotype or a cliche; something nobody would believe in.

But a short story is a much smaller environment and so it’s ideally suited to experimentation. Trying my hand at a female perspective boosted my confidence and helped me explore places and thoughts I can use again in the future.

You can get my short stories from Amazon now, as well as all other major ebook stores.

What have you learnt from short stories?