The secret truth about writing

When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?

What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted?

When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?

More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.

It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects. STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber? JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.

And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for absolutely nothing.

So what’s the problem?

College does you wrong

You won’t find the answers in college. Everybody teaches a tiny piece of writing, happy in their little silo, isolated from the rest of the world.

  • Journalism school teaches you writing to INFORM.
  • Rhetoric and speech classes teach you writing to PERSUADE, though hardly anyone studies rhetoric these days. They should.
  • Creative writing classes are supposed to teach you writing to ENTERTAIN, but how many college professors wrote entertaining bestsellers instead of obscure literary novels that went nowhere?

I have a degree in journalism from a great j-school, competed in speech and debate, took creative writing classes and won silly awards from not-so-silly organizations for editing, reporting, speaking and fiction.

None of that really taught me how to write or speak. You get thrown into the deep end of the pool, and you either sink or doggie-paddle. Doggie paddle isn’t good enough.

Your whole life up through college, people are required to read what you write. Your kindergarten teacher gave you a star, right? Your college professor had to read your term paper.

Out in the real world, nobody has to read our stuff. You have to persuade people to read your stuff. And hardly anyone gets an education in rhetoric and persuasion. So there’s a huge switch right there.

Oh, if you have a degree in journalism or creative writing, sure, you can write a lot better than the man on the street. Technically, your writing will be sound. These programs are good.

So tell me: why are so many smart, well-educated people with degrees in creative writing, English Literature or journalism driving 15-year-old Hondas or selling insurance?

Correct is not spectacular

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Pretty words and grammatically correct sentences don’t mean a thing.

Sure, you’d look like an idiot if you couldn’t string a sentence together. It’s just that correct grammar and well-built sentences are expected. It’s standard.

Think about literary novels. I’m not talking about really good books that aren’t easy to classify as thrillers or mysteries or romance. I’m talking about Serious Literature. If pretty sentences were the trick, then the people who write Serious Literature would be billionaires, not folks like J.K. Rowling, who is now RICHER THAN GOD.

Now, there’s some great stuff out there. I read literature and watch serious, literary movies. Yet some authors of Serious Literature, and makers of Serious Movies, take it as a badge of honor if their book or movie is hard on their audience (“the text is challenging”). It’s seen as wrong to have a happy, “Hollywood” ending, so the endings tend to be intensely dour.

Yes, you can do this right. But it’s easy to make it a tough experience for the reader or moviegoer. The topic also tends to be tough, since a lot of literary novels and movies feature angsty rich people having affairs and spending crazy amounts of money and still being unhappy about it all. Sometimes, to switch things up, literary novels feature miserable stories about grinding poverty or the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life.

Are the sentences pretty? Yeah. They’re gorgeous. Serious Literature can be poetry, and Serious Movies have amazing cinematography and acting, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Is it genius? Maybe. It looked great, and the acting was good. Do I want to see it again? No. You couldn’t pay me to sit through it.

The secret truth about writing is THIS ISN’T ABOUT PRETTY WORDS.

The trick is persuading people to read your stuff, watch the movie or listen to the speech when they have 5.9 million other things they could be reading, watching or doing.

Now, I love newspapers, novels, speeches and movies. But I’m not everybody, and I know a lot of folks who think like this instead: Why listen to some politician speak when you can watch the Packers beat the Bears? Why buy a novel when you can pretend to be a space marine and shoot aliens on the Playstation? Why read a newspaper story about a natural gas refinery blowing up in Texas when you can go to a Michael Bay movie and watch all sorts of stuff blow up in super slow motion while Megan Fox tries to emote in short-shorts and a tank top?

So if it’s not about pretty words, what’s the evil secret to writing?

The inverted pyramid MUST DIE

Big city newspapers love to do these monstrous investigative stories that start on Page One and jump inside for two or three more entire pages.

I’m an ex-reporter who still loves newspapers, and I can’t drag myself through these never-ending stories. Is the writing bad? No. Reporters spend serious time polishing the words on these pieces.

It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.

The inverted pyramid is great for short pieces and headlines, for telling people the most important thing first and the least important thing last. However: the inverted pyramid should be taken out and shot, because it’s a horrible blueprint for anything of length.

The inverted pyramid is like (a) having an amazing honeymoon on your first date, (b) kissing on your second date and (c) holding hands on your third date.

It gives you payoffs without setups, events out of order and people popping in and out of the story randomly. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey. Instead, it teleports the reader directly to the best part, then beams the reader all over the damn planet until you don’t care anymore. It’s not showing a gun in Act 1 that goes off in Act 3 — it’s just a gun going off in Act 1. You don’t know why.

I know the inverted pyramid inside and out. I’ve studied it, used it and abused it. It sucks like Electrolux and needs to be retired. It’s part of the reason why people are reading The Economist and blogs — because they’re going back to the roots of journalism, which was “somebody’s journal.”

That journal, those journalists, started out as first-person accounts. The reporter wrote exactly what they saw, felt, smelled, touched.

Early novels were disguised as journals.

First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.

The dog was yellow

When I worked as a reporter, I’d write 10 to 15 stories a week. Let’s say 500 stories a year. And yeah, I won awards, but if I’m publishing 500 freaking stories a year, 200 of them should be pretty good, 12 should be amazing and six should rock the house.

A while back, I wrote one freelance newspaper story the entire year, about a man losing his dog on top of a mountain, because that man was my friend. The dog, too. My friend — and a bunch of old mountaineers nicknamed the Silver Panther Rescue Squad — went back to that mountain and rescued his dog from a cliff, just off the summit.

That solo story won an award. I batted 1.000 that year, and not because I’d grown so much as a writer since my cub reporter days.

Oh, my sentences were a little prettier. Just not THAT much prettier.

It was because I took the inverted pyramid out back behind the barn and shot it between the eyes.

If I’d had written the story using what they’d taught me in journalism school, the headline would give away the ending — “Man rescues dog on top of mountain” and the lede (first sentence) would be something like this: “After four days of being stuck on a cliff without food or water, one lucky dog is happy to be back home with his owner.”

The story would only get less interesting from there. The last line of the story would be what editors could chop if they were short on space. That last line would be something like, “The dog was yellow.”

To hell with that. I wrote it like a story, because giving the ending away in the headline and first graf is CHEATING THE READER.

College types call this “narrative non-fiction,” which is an overly fancy way of saying storytelling.

Good storytelling is the hardest thing any writer does.

It’s also the most powerful, and the most fun you can legally have as a writer of any sort.

Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices

I don’t care if you’re (1) a speechwriter for a U.S. senator, (2) a romance novelist writing a novel about Men in Kilts and the Women Who Love Them or (3) a screenwriter sipping margaritas by a pool in Hollywood while you pen a movie about a zombie attack during a high school musical.

Storytelling and structure is the hard part.

The bodywork is not the most important part of the car. The engine under the hood is what makes the car go fast.

What they teach us — in college, in most books in writing and at writing conferences — is mostly bodywork.

I don’t care how pretty the car looks. If the engine is a mess — or is completely missing — your readers aren’t going for a ride. At all.

Storytelling and structure is why every Pixar movie has been a blockbuster. The other computer-animated movies look just as pretty. The folks at Pixar simply are ten times better at telling stories.

It’s why novelists who frankly are pedestrian, line by line, sell millions of books while brilliant literary novelists who write gorgeous sentences, every phrase a poem, starve in obscurity.

Clive Cussler may have an ugly bare frame, a glorified go-cart painted seven different shades of bondo. Next to the shining Lexus of a literary novel, his car looks horrible. However, Cussler has a honking V-8, while the Literary Lexus has a lawnmower engine put in backwards.

Cussler, John Grisham and Stephen King understand the structure of stories. They draw the blueprints. They spend most of their energy on the storytelling engine and a lot less time polishing the chrome.

And right there, with those three authors, you see three entirely different levels of writing ability:

  • Cussler is meh.
  • Grisham is workmanlike.
  • King is great. I’d read his Safeway shopping list, because he could make it epic.

Yet all three made it big despite the vast differences in writing skill, because all three mastered an entirely different skill: THEY KNOW HOW TO TELL A DAMN STORY.

Do I hate Cussler’s writing style? Yeah, it grates on me. Do I want to know what happens next? Yes.

Does Stephen the King sometimes ramble on too long and give you a 1,000-page novel when 400 would do? Yes. But we forgive him, because he is a God of Writing and Storytelling, and also because he looks kinda scary, like he might kill you if you pissed him off.

Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.

Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.

It’s not the intensity that matters — it’s the distance you travel

Think of any B-movie, and they all have the same flaw. The structure is bad. The storytelling is horrible.

You might say, hey, it’s a low-budget flick. That’s what you get. No. Indie movies with no budget can be great.

B-movies are bad because they’re built wrong. They’re full of repetition without a purpose.

Right now, you and I can write a better story than the script of TRANSFORMERS 2, which had an army of screenwriters who got paid — I kid you not — something like $4 million for a script about explosions and computer-generated robots born from a cartoon meant to sell toys to seven-year-old boys in the 1980s.

Here’s a short version of the script for TRANSFORMERS 2.

ACT 1:
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 2:
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 3:
Megan Fox has some dirt on her cheek
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS! Bad robots die, but they’ll be back for the sequel.

This also works, in a pinch, as the script for TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS 3.

Is it intense? Sure. Lots of running, lots of fighting, lots of explosions.

Yet it’s boring in the same way most martial arts films get boring, and I love those movies. Here’s the problem with them: Oh, look, it’s another fight. Man, it’s been almost three minutes since the last battle. Why is the hero fighting the blue ninjas? Three minutes ago, he was getting chased by a gang of fat shirtless dudes waving meat cleavers.

After an hour of this, you start praying for a training montage with the old wrinkled mentor who farts a lot and picks his nose and teaches the hero some secret fighting technique before the Big Bad Guy snaps the old man’s spine and kidnaps the old man’s daughter, who happens to be hot, and now the hero will go fight 4,082 different henchmen until he gets to the Big Bad Guy and battles him on a rooftop with rain and lightning going crazy. Yeah. You know I’m right.

B-movies have the same intensity throughout the movie. They crank it up to 11 and stay there.

If every scene in a movie — or every paragraph in a speech — has the intensity cranked up to 11, then you’re shouting at the audience. It becomes noise, and it makes for a flat ride. There’s no momentum, no velocity, no meaning.

Don’t shout at your audience

Most bad speeches have the same B-movie problem. People shout their way through them, confusing volume with passion.

The structure for 99 percent of speeches is also wrong. Listen to any random stump speech from that and there’s nothing holding it together. There’s no story being told, no setups and payoffs, no real structure. This is why the rare candidate who says something different gets hailed as a political rock star.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t a great speaker in a technical sense. He had a lot of verbal tics. What he was great at was telling a story from his days as an actor. He knew that audiences didn’t want to hear just about policies and programs. He made sure to talk about people, too.

Barack Obama was quite different. He also isn’t technically perfect; there are flaws in his delivery that you don’t notice because he and his speechwriters really care about the bones of a speech, about making sure the pieces fit together. They work on the engine first, THEN make it look pretty. Obama’s best speeches are structurally amazing. You can take them apart and see how the pieces intertwine. Or turn an Obama speech into an epic music video.

Velocity and power

No matter what you’re writing, what matters is the journey you take the audience on, the distance traveled. That’s what gives you velocity and power.

This is why tragedies have worked for 2,000 years.

You start UP, say with a wealthy, powerful man. You end DOWN after he falls from grace through hubris. There’s power and velocity there, because it’s a big fall from King of the World way on down to Hobo Begging for Change.

The opposite — Rags to Riches — works as a structure because it’s a big jump.

The bigger the trip, the better the story.

Little jumps don’t work.

This is why most literary novels about grinding poverty go nowhere, because a Rags to Riches story would be too happy-happy Hollywood, right? That sort of text is not challenging! So instead, things go from really bad to even more miserable.

Except that’s a bad structure, because it’s a small hop. It’s not a fall from the top to the bottom. It’s going from the gutter to a different, less desirable gutter, where the food scraps are inferior and the cardboard boxes aren’t as roomy.

Non-jumps don’t work, either.

If you’re a French existentialist director, the last frame of the movie is the hero being hit by a bus, not because he deserves it, but because life is random. There’s a reason why only college students trying to be hip take their dates to French existentialist movies. That reason is this: the movies stink. Give me something that will make me laugh, make me cry, scare me silly. Don’t give me “Life is random and pointless, so let’s have random and pointless things happen to characters for two hours.”

Tales of redemption are powerful because you’ve got the full a roller coaster: UP, DOWN and UP again.

Here’s an easy example: all six STAR WARS movies are really about Darth Vader’s redemption. Luke is only in the last three movies. Vader is in all six. He was good, then he turned bad, and in the end, he sacrificed his life to save his son and kill the real bad guy, the Emperor with Seriously Angry Wrinkles.

Take the audience somewhere

For any kind of writing, this is a law: Take your audience on a journey that actually goes somewhere.

If you’re going to have a down ending, you need an up beginning.

Together to alone.

Democracy to dictatorship.

Life to death.

If the ending is up, the beginning better be down.

Alone to together.

Dictatorship to revolution and democracy.

Hopelessness to hope.

Here’s a non-story example. I bet you’ve seen a lot of TV ads about drunk driving. A tough issue. The usual way people talk about drunk driving — or any problem — is wrong. You’re trying to persuade them to DO something. To take action. The typical way is to beat the audience over the head. “This is a problem. It’s bad. Really, really bad. I’m serious: the problem is bad. Just look at these numbers. Don’t let it happen to you.”

Not persuasive. Not a good structure. It’s all down, isn’t it? Just as flat as a Michael Bay explosion-fest or a literary novel swimming in misery and angst. Sure, the ending should be down. It’s not a happy topic. Then the beginning better be up. And like Reagan, you should talk about real people instead of numbers. So let’s start talking about a real person:

At 7:15 a.m. last Thursday, eight-year-old Ashlyn hugged her daddy goodbye and got into the Subaru with her mom, Jane, to drive to school. Across town at 7 in the morning, Billy Wayne was getting out of the county jail. At ten in the morning, Ashlyn practiced singing the national anthem, which her third-grade class will sing at halftime during the high school homecoming game. Half a mile away, Billy Wayne stole a twenty from his baby mamma’s purse and drove down to the Qwik-E Mart to buy two six packs of Corona Light. At a quarter past 3, Jane picked up Ashlyn from school and they met Billy Wayne at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, when he blew threw a red light at fifty-six miles an hour and his Chevy pickup turned that Subaru into a pile of smoking metal. It was the fourth time Billy Wayne got arrested for driving drunk. People like Billy Wayne get second chance after second chance. Little Ashlyn and her mom won’t get a second chance. But we can change the law. We can lock up chronic drunk drivers.

That’s a far more moving than statistics. Even something tiny like this — it’s less than 200 words — needs structure, because that’s what gives it emotional heft and persuades people. Statistics can come in later.

Those words I just wrote are rough and raw. Not pretty at all. The thing is, they don’t need to be pretty. There’s an engine in there.

Is that plot? Sort of. Except if I’d looked up what specific plot fit this situation and tried to cram in inciting incidents and turning points and all that nonsense in there it would take hours to write instead of two minutes and make my head explode.

All I needed to know was the ending was down (death) and I wanted a big contrast (life) without giving it all away in the first sentence. So there’s tension in that single paragraph.

Emotion matters most

Cussler, Grisham and King understand that fun is OK, that people like a good story that makes them laugh and cry, to feel thrilled or scared out of their minds.

People want to FEEL something.

Misery is actually fine, if you start with misery and take people on a journey that ends in joy. Or if you do the reverse. What you can’t do is pile misery on top of misery for 100,000 words or two hours in a dark room where the popcorn costs $15 — or even two minutes at a podium.

And you can’t stack joy on top of joy.

Also, you want to run far, far away from the Invincible Hero problem, which explains why Batman (no powers) is beloved while people sorta kinda hate Superman (invincible) because it’s never a fair fight. No villain has a shot and you know Superman will win without paying a price.

The only books on writing worth anything, I learned from my genius screenwriter sister, were about screenwriting, because it’s all about storytelling and structure. There’s no way to hide bad structure with pretty words, not in a screenplay. It’s pared down to bare bones anyway. Setups and payoffs. Public stakes and private stakes. Emotion. Turning points. Revelations. Raising the stakes. Building to a climax.

Asking questions without answering them. Will they get together? Who’s the killer? Can the planet be saved from the aliens / comet / zombies?

Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now

Movies are the easiest to talk about because most people have seen them.

THE MATRIX was amazing. Both sequels were terrible. Why? Same writers and directors, same cast, same crew. Giant budget.

The sequels sucked like Electrolux because of structural problems. Story problems.

The first movie had a down beginning and up ending.

The last two movies were flat and boring, despite all the action and fights.

I didn’t care about the last scene of the last MATRIX movie because I wasn’t watching it with some fanboy who could explain to me why the Oracle made a deal with the Architect or whoever, with the deal being the robots take stupid pills and declare a truce after Neo dies killing Agent Smith, when any five-year-old would know that if they continued to fight for three seconds, they’d wipe out the rebel humans once and for all.

Maybe I’m too stupid to fully enjoy the ambiguity and philosophical BS involved. Or maybe the last movie sucked, and the fact that the first movie rocked, making the train wreck the second and third movies all the more painful.

Let’s fix it. Right here, right now.

Who’s the real villain in THE MATRIX? Not Agent Smith — he’s a henchman, a virus.

The real villain is whoever controls the robots while keeping humans as slaves and batteries.

Neo is alive in the beginning and dead in the end. It’s a big leap, a real journey. We can roll with that. His death simply has to mean something other than preserving a bad status quo and an endless war. What are the stakes? Freedom vs. slavery. Life vs. death. Humans are slaves in the beginning. A good ending — a true leap — would have all the humans be free.

Here’s our new ending: Neo sacrifices his life to free the humans and win the war, leading the humans as they finally beat the evil robot overlords and retake Earth.

This way, you’ll care about the last scene, and root for Neo to take out the Evil Robot Overlord in the Most Amazing Fight Scene Known to Man, because if he wins, humanity wins. If he loses, every human starves. We are wiped out.

The stakes are raised, aren’t they? Yeah. Can’t get any higher. Plus, I’d much rather have Neo fight something like the Borg Queen than endless clones of the same stupid henchman he’s been fighting since the first movie.

Take things apart and put them back together

You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car can wait until the V-8 under the hood can pur and roar. Focus on that storytelling engine.

Take something short — a newspaper story, your favorite movie, a column by Paul Krugman or George Will — and outline the structure, the bones.

Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.

Circle the setups and payoffs.

Is the beginning up or down? What about the ending?

Does the writer make it abstract, talking about ideas like freedom or justice — or are there real paper in there, with names and families?

You can learn from amazing writing and horrible writing. Mediocre writing is frustrating. To hell with it. Ignore that stuff.

Look for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Take apart the best to see how the author put it together to make it magic. Restructure the worst to make it work.

Slaying sacred cows

Maybe all this is sacrilege and rebellion. It could be that my pet theories are completely insane and that what you really should do is sign up for journalism school or get a master’s in creative writing or attend seminars about the correct use of semi-colons in headlines and how to write dialogue that sings.

Frankly, I don’t care what you do — follow your heart. Not selling anything here. What I do know is this: every day, I see writers, professional and aspiring, banging their head against the wall, spending hours and hours destroying a house while they’re building it, taking six days to write something that should take sixty minutes.

I see other friends of mine holding something it took them ten months to write, something they slaved over and just can’t fix with line editing because the bones of the story are broken, and they have to hold their baby over the round file and let all those pages, all that work, hit the bottom of that trash can.

It makes an awful sound.

I don’t want to hear that sound.

I don’t want my friends thinking they have to suffer when they write.

Writing doesn’t have to be painful.

It should be fast.

It should be fun.

And it should be magical, for the person banging on the keyboard and for the people who read it.

The world explained by TWO COWS

the world explained by two cows

If you went to university, like me, and studied the philosophers and the political science and such, you learned that people far, far smarter than us violently disagree on (a) how the world works, (b) how the world SHOULD work and (c) who should run the world.

However: I can boil down all the major approaches to these worldly questions simply by using two cows. No joke. Won’t even charge you $30k for tuition and $25 for room and board. I’ll do it for free, and for fun.

Here we go:

ANARCHY: You have two cows. Either you sell the milk at a fair price — or your neighbors steal your cows and kill you.

FEUDALISM: You have two cows. Your lord takes some of the milk.

PURE DEMOCRACY: You have two cows. Your neighbors decide who gets the milk.

NIHILISM: You have no cows. Who really cares, anyway? They’re just gonna die some day, and so are you. And nobody’s going to remember you. And even if they did, you’d still be dead. It’s all so pointless. You might as well be dead now.

COWS WITH GUNS: You are a cow, and humans want to turn you into hamburger. The only solution? A revolution.

DARWINISM: You have two cows. They develop opposable thumbs and milk you.

NORTH KOREAN COMMUNISM: We do not need cows. Those are the tools of the ruthless capitalist exploiters and rapists of the proletariat in the oppressed, feudal South. We will, in keeping with the principles of Juche, eat our own grass. Please do not pay attention to the mooing coming from the two large crates addressed to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.

DICTATORSHIP: You have two cows. The government takes both and drafts you into the army.

THE MATRIX: There is no cow.

poster for The Matrix
Spoiler: the first movie is perfect, while the two sequels put the S in Suck. Image via Wikipedia

REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY: You have two cows. Your neighbors pick someone to tell you who gets the milk.

ROMANTICISM: You have two beautiful, majestic, elegant, bovine companions. You think about them daily.

PURE SOCIALISM: You have two cows. The government takes them and puts them in a barn with everyone else’s cows. You have to take care of all of the cows. The government gives you as much milk as you need.

BRITISH DEMOCRACY: You have two cows. One of your cows has a small foot infection. The government orders you to burn both cows. All the cows in the surrounding area are also burned, roads and footpaths are closed and the media throws the country into a panic. You decide to protest about not being allowed to hunt foxes on public roadways.

PURE COMMUNISM: You have two cows. Your neighbors help you take care of them, and you all share the milk.

BERKELIAN ANALYSIS: You have two cows. You put your cows in a drawer and close it. Your two cows cease to exist.

RUSSIAN COMMUNISM: You have two cows. You have to take care of them, but the government takes all the milk.

VEGANISM: You have two cows, and choose not to exploit them. Everyone is happy, especially the cows.

CANADIAN CAPITALISM: You have 2 cows. The government takes the milk and puts it in a bag. You get free health care.

YODAISM: Two cows you have, hmmm?

INDUSTRIALISM: You have two cows. You dissect them both and figure out how to build a milk-factory instead.

CONSERVATIVE CAPITALISM: The poor should give their cows to the rich so that the milk will trickle back down to the poor.

BIG BROTHERISM: You have two cows. Black is white. Eurasia is ungood. Eastasia is ungood. Oceania is plusgood. BB is doubleplus good. You have one cow.

SWISS CAPITALISM: You have 5000 cows, none of which belongs to you. You charge for storing them for others. If they give milk, you tell no one.

FREUDIAN ANALYSIS: You have two cows. You dream that they come to your bedroom at night, dressed in your mother’s clothes. On waking, you initially deny that this could mean anything. On further consideration, you move through phases of intellectualisation, displacement and projection, and finally determine that the cows represent a psychic compensation for the passive/aggressive treatment you received from your father during your adolescence. Also, you have a thing for mom.

RUSSIAN CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You drink some vodka and count them again — whoah, you have FIVE cows. The Russian Mafia shows up and takes however many cows you may or may not have.

GOVERNMENT COW-ER-UP: Cows never crash-landed in the New Mexico desert. In fact, cows never even existed. You never saw anything.

UTOPIAN LIBERTARIANISM: You have two cows. You sell one, buy a bull and grow a prosperous herd of cows.

HONG KONG CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt / equity swap with associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax deduction for keeping five cows. The milk rights of six cows are transferred via a Panamanian intermediary to a Cayman Islands company secretly owned by the majority shareholder, who sells the rights to all seven cows’ milk back to the listed company.

DARTH VADER: The two cows would be powerful allies. They will join us or die.

IDIOCRACY: You have two cows. One cow is stupid and breeds with other stupid cows, while the smart cow doesn’t try to mate. Eventually, you have lots of stupid cows.

NIGERIAN CAPITALISM: DEAR FRIEND, I AM SON OF FORMER NIGERIAN PRESIDENT SANI ABACHA. YOU WERE RECOMMENDED TO ME BY A COLLEAGUE. I HAVE A BUSINESS PROPOSITION FOR YOU. I HAVE TWO COWS…

PACIFISM: You have two cows. They stampede you.

CYNICAL LIBERTARIANISM: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull and grow a prosperous herd of cows that your neighbor steals. He may or may not shoot you first. But we don’t need a government or police — your survivors can always sue the evil neighbor for damages.

PROTECTIONISM: You have two cows. You can’t buy a bull from another country.

FRISBEETARIANISM: You have two cows. One of them flies up on the roof and gets stuck. You hope the government provides cow ladders.

SURREALISM: You have two giraffes. The government requires you to take harmonica lessons.

Writing prompt: Bob the Butcher puts his thumb on the scale

Character is revealed by choices–and not regular old choices. Decisions under stress.

There’s a good bit from philosophy about looking at this, because it’s binary choices don’t describe the real world.

“Brave” and “cowardly” doesn’t cover the range and complexity of humanity.

A five-part scale does a better job: cowardly – meek – measured – brave – reckless

So here’s a little writing prompt where the goal is to have a character–a hero or villain you love–respond to conflict in their unique way, in a single line of dialogue.

 

The problem: You’re in line to buy steak for a big summer BBQ, and Bob the Butcher just put his heavy thumb on the scale.  

A normal person might ask Bob to try again, which is expected and somewhat boring.

A meek person would maybe raise and eyebrow and hope Bob sees the error of his ways. A coward would simply pay to avoid confrontation.

A brave person would refuse to get cheated and walk out unless Bob the Butcher did things fairly, while a reckless character would start a fist-fight with Bob in the middle of the butcher shop.

But we all know characters who’d react far differently than even those basic examples, which is what makes fiction fun. I did four quick ones just now. Have at it.

 

Four one-line responses

Hannibal Lecter: Bob, I’d love to have you for dinner.

 

Obi-wan Kenobi *waves hand*: That’s not the price you’re looking for.

 

Bruce Wayne / Batman: Bob, I won’t be paying for these steaks, or this basket full of other goodies I grabbed, because I just bought your store.

 

Darth Vader: Pray I don’t cut off your other hand.

 

This sort of situation is the acid test for a truly memorable character. Is their response clearly different than other characters we all know, or are they pale copies and stereotypes of what heroes and villains are supposed to be?

Six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK by Lee Child

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Let’s say it: Lee Child has a Superman problem.

His hero, Reacher, is beloved by fans for having the brains of Sherlock Holmes and the body of Conan the Barbarian. The man never gets outsmarted and is invincible in a fight. Here’s the last post about these books: Secret recipe for any Lee Child novel

The latest Reacher book, NEVER GO BACK, slams smack-dab into the Superman problem. Because an invincible hero puts the B in Boring.

Did I enjoy the book? Yeah, it’s always fun to read about Reacher. With every new novel, though, Reacher struggles less and less to overcome the bad guys.

If the hero doesn’t sweat, the reader doesn’t worry. Or care.

Because I do care about Reacher and Lee Child, here are six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK.

Lee Child's NEVER GO BACK is something you should read. Do it now.
Lee Child’s NEVER GO BACK. Buy two copies, one of each cover, because I say so.

1) Don’t simply remake THE ENEMY

The only other novel with Reacher in the Army was Child’s best book: THE ENEMY, a true mystery with all kinds of crazy twists and turns and a real sense of menace. Just like that book, the latest novel has big-shots in the Pentagon and such as the criminal masterminds, using other officers as their puppets.

That book was first-person and visceral. It put you in the head of Reacher and made you feel what he felt, see what he saw. I’ve happily read that book seven bazillion times.

NEVER GO BACK starts out feeling like that book, with the full force of the Pentagon and Homeland Security poised to squash Reacher … until he escapes them, easily and repeatedly.

THE ENEMY was amazing, and the ending isn’t a clear win. Reacher is demoted and leaves the service. This latest novel doesn’t hold a candle to that classic.  Which proves that yeah, you should never go back.

2) Give Reacher a real daughter, not a fake one

What are the odds that the bad guys randomly picked a fake daughter for Reacher who looks like him, thinks like him and even talks like him?

I’ll tell you the odds: zero.

The fake daughter is an achy breaky big mistakey. It feels like Child planned on making the daughter real up to the end of the book, then decided nope, Reacher can’t have a teenage daughter, because that would tie him down in future books. So he turned her into a ruse.

If you’re gonna do it, do it.

3) One-sided beatings aren’t really fights

Fight scenes are a Reacher staple. A novel without Reacher getting blood on his elbows would be like a Jean Claude Van Damme movie without him doing the side splits and kicking a single guy in the face.

However: there’s a big difference between a fight and a beating. Every fight in NEVER GO BACK is a cake walk for Reacher, who doesn’t even break a sweat when he takes out two angry rednecks with both hands behind his back.

Give us a real fight. Let’s be realistic and let the bad guys land a punch for once.

This leads to Number 4.

4) Tough guy villains better be tough

In this book, there’s one thug we keep getting told is a giant muscle-freak with weird ears. A monster who looks like a match for Reacher.

So for hundreds of pages, you keep expecting the final battle between these two men to be epic. I was getting the popcorn out.

The fight between Reacher and this incredible hulk was over in about two seconds. Boring, and a huge let-down. Come on. That’s like showing us Darth Vader on screen for 90 minutes and Luke training with Yoda for 20 minutes only to have the two meet for the Greatest Lightsaber Battle of All Time … and have Luke cut Darth Daddy in half within two seconds. No.

The badder the bad guy, the longer the fight should last. Redneck idiots can get dispatched in a paragraph. Medium baddies should take a chapter. The boss villain should take a couple of chapters.

When every villain, big or small, goes down without Reacher chipping a nail, or doing anything at all (see Number 6),  it’s not exciting.

5) The Girl with a Gun has to be some kind of Challenge

It’s totally fine for Reacher to swim in a sea of attractive women, just like 007.

What’s not fine is for the Girl with the Gun to fall in love with Reacher in about two micro-seconds and be like a loyal puppy dog for 300 pages. THE ENEMY had a good love interest, with a conflict: he was an officer, and her commanding officer, and she was a sergeant. There was risk, and you got a real feel for the sergeant with them doing the investigation a long time before falling in the sack. It was credible and interesting.

A perfect woman who falls in love with Reacher instantly and never really does anything, well, she’s cardboard and snooze city.

6) Finish with a bang

So the bad guys are two high-powered dudes with insane connections, the ability to track Reacher in real-time, a lust for power and a network of thugs. It’s suicide for Reacher to go after them, right? They have the full reach of the Pentagon and Homeland Security to smack him like a fly.

Yet the final confrontation … never happens. Because the bad guys shoot themselves in the head.

What?

Maybe I’m nuts, but I believe, deep in my Swedish soul, that the end of a novel or movie should be more exciting than the beginning. The beginning was exciting. This ending wasn’t even as suspenseful as six random rednecks surrounding Reacher in the motel.

If you set up Reacher as some kind of invincible Superman, the bad guys can’t be cream puffs who fold at the end. To make it interesting, you have to make the villains even tougher than Reacher.

That hasn’t happened yet. Not even close.

I hope someday it will. Because that would be an amazing book.

Possible script for STAR WARS VII by J.J. Abrams

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

First of all, J.J. Abrams should direct everything.

Not just STAR TREK and the new STAR WARS: EPISODE XVIII-whatever, but every film for one entire year. You’ll say, “That’s not possible — J.J. can’t direct every film made during a calendar year.”

Sure he can. We can clone ourselves an army of J. J. Abrams, or download his brain into that Big Blue supercomputer thing IBM built just to beat Ken Jennings in a game of Jeopardy. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY.

And here’s a brilliant take on how the first new STAR WARS film should go. Now that Disney owns Marvel and Star Wars, I hope studio executives take notes.

Why new STAR WARS movies by Disney are an achy breaky big mistakey

yoda after the death star blows up

Disney just bought LucasFilm for $4 billion dollars, causing a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of souls suddenly cried out in pain and anguish.

Maybe because they did cry out in pain.

Now, you can argue that this is not so bad, because (1) this definitely means George Lucas isn’t directing new STAR WARS movies, which does, indeed, avert disaster, (2) Disney didn’t do half bad after it bought Marvel and started pumping out IRON MAN movies and CAPTAIN AMERICA and THOR and such, which leads to the Ultimate Fanboy Fantasy of (3) Joss Whedon directing a STAR WARS movie, which would cause the universe to implode out of sheer awesomesauce.

HOWEVER: All those reasons are destroyed by the Death Star of one simple truth.

And no, that truth is not the fact that Disney buying STAR WARS means we will be swimming in all kinds of direct to video trash aimed at five-year-olds, along with special editions and special-special editions and God knows how much other new nonsense the Disney factory will pump out, month after month, year after year, until kids who grew up watching STAR WARS movies band together and march upon the House of the Mouse to burn that sucker down.

Here’s why STAR WARS: EPISODE 7 OR WHATEVER is a terrible idea: the hero and villain are both dead.

But oh, you say, we’ve still got Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, C3P0 and R2-D2. They’re still alive, right?

Sure. I bet Jar-Jar Binks is still breathing after the Death Star blew up for a second time. That’s beside the point. Who’s the hero of STAR WARS? Who’s the villain?

Those two serious questions need serious answers. If the answers stink, or make no sense, the new movies will stink no matter how many dollars you throw at the screen in CGI nonsense.

Luke isn’t the hero. He’s only in the last three movies.

Obi-Wan seems like the hero, and is heroic, but he’s dead for the last three movies. He’s a glowing spectator, and his role is mentor anyway.

Han Solo is a great character, but he’s not the hero. He’s comic relief and part of the love subplot with Princes Two Buns on Her Head.

The Shiny Robot Who Complains A Lot and his pet tin can, hey, they’re in all six movies. Are they the heroes? No. More comic relief. More sidekick action.

Hmm. We seem to be stuck. The hero is AWOL … except he’s not.

This is really Darth Vader’s story. He’s in all six movies, and he’s got a real character arc: Darth is good, gets really whiny and turns to the Dark Side — that’s the first three (prequel) movies. Then he gets conflicted about the whole Dark Side thing, wants Luke to join him and kill the emperor (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) and finally sacrifices himself to kill the emperor and save his son.

Darth Vader goes from slave to Jedi, from Jedi to Sith, then Sith to Jedi again. He finds redemption. It’s his story.

So: who’s the villain?

Well, at first we thought it was Darth Vader, because he really was the bad guy in the first STAR WARS movie and such. The emperor barely got any screen time until RETURN OF THE JEDI.

Don’t let the sea of mini-bosses fool you. Darth Maul, Count Dooku, Jabba the Hut, the Trade Federation dipsticks, General Grevious Chest Cold — all those guys are random nonsense. They sell toys, fine.

The villain through all six movies, however, is clearly the emperor.

Accept no substitutes.

Here comes the Big Stupid Problem

And now we come to the giant flipping problem with any future STAR WARS movies: who’s your hero and who’s your villain?

Because your real hero, Anakin / Darth Vader, is a goner.

Your real villain, Emperor Wrinkly Pants, got thrown down a bottomless pit in the Death Star right before that sucker went all kabloomy for a second time. He ain’t coming back.

Unless the new movies are going to be space opera-style romantic comedies about Han and Leia’s Big Fat Alderan Wedding, or Christmas on Tatooine, you need a villain worthy of the surviving band of rebels and Jedi, seeing how they’re not rebels anymore. They won. They’re in charge.

Sure, there are all kinds of books out there, books I don’t read, that supposedly tell the story of what happens after the Ewoks do their jub-jub dance and shoot off all kinds of space fireworks. People tell me the Sith aren’t really done for, that Luke sort of turns bad, or Han Solo and Leia have a dozen kids and half of them turn into angsty teenage Vader wannabes or whatever. And that there’s some kind of thing where the emperor gets cloned, or random Sith Lords and remnants of the old Imperial army and navy and marines (no Air Force?) come back for more space battles and such with stormtroopers who can’t shoot straight to save their lives.

None of that will fly.

Why? Because the first six movies kept telling us, over and over, that Anakin / Vader was The One, just like Neo in the Matrix.

They beat us on the head with the fact that the prophecy told us Anakin would wipe out the Sith and bring balance to the Force, and peace to the galaxy. Also, that he would cut marginal tax rates by 20 percent and eliminate capital gain taxes entirely, because that’s how you create jobs in places like Tatooine.

Either they lied to us for six movies or they didn’t.

Another hurdle: Yoda and others kept saying stuff like “always two, are there” when talking about the Sith — a master and an apprentice. Now, this wasn’t entirely consistent, since the emperor had Darth Maul and Count Dooku at the same time, but those movies also included the anti-reality field known as Jar Jar Binks, which means anything that happens in those flicks doesn’t really matter or count.

A third hurdle: if you bring in a secret new villain from the outside, or invent five new villains to throw at our remaining collection of random heroes, then it just becomes an incoherent mess.

The bottom line is we’re in for more movies that may stink more than the prequels, if that is possible. And more commercialized nonsense like this Darth Vader – Emperor dance-off on Kinnect or whatever.

Hollywood: Sidekicks do NOT need their own stupid sidekicks

THE EXPENDABLES 2 movie poster.

Ever look at an overstuffed movie poster and wonder, “Is that tiny figure over on the left a man, a woman or a smudge that didn’t get properly PhotoShopped out of existence?”

THE EXPENDABLES 2 is the latest movie to stuff 40 pounds of characters into a 5-pound bag.

Here’s the movie poster.

THE EXPENDABLES 2 movie poster.
Who’s that one guy way in the back, wearing a hat? NOBODY KNOWS, but he made $15.3 million for this movie. Remember that tomorrow at work.

I counted 11 action heroes on that poster, which is 10 more action heroes than you typically need for an action film, even if eight of these guys just got broken out of the Beverly Hills Nursing Home.

Bet you anything the team of screenwriters — if I put a 9 mm to their head and started counting down — couldn’t tell you all 11 character names, and the average movie-goer wouldn’t notice if you chopped five of them from the film entirely.

This is a common problem, not just for Hollywood but for novels, especially anything involving fantasy and sci-fi, because no self-respecting Jedi or Hobbit goes off on an adventure without at least 23 other people tromping around with them, squabbling with each other when they’re not getting captured by Darth Vader and such.

IT IS A MESS.

Now, this problem also happens in comic book movies, partly because of the Comic Book Movie Laws.

Movie No. 1: The origin story of the hero along with the hero’s nemesis, the best villain. So: one hero, one villain.

Movie No. 2: The hero gets two sidekicks as he battles TWO villains.

Movie No. 3: The hero juggles an entourage that won’t fit in a Greyhound bus while he battles THREE villains.

Movie No. 4: Doesn’t happen, unless your name is Joel Schumacher and you’re making the mistake known as BATMAN FOREVER. Otherwise, the series dies and reboots.

I just watched THOR again, using the powers of Netflix over the Series of Tubes and such, and it is a fun little popcorn movie.

However, the cast of characters will make your head hurt: Thor, Hannibal Lecter, Loki, Princess Leia‘s mom, the Guardian, the Frost Giants, that arrow-shooting guy from THE AVENGERS and BOURNE LEGACY, Agent Coulson, the Frost Giant King, Yoda, the shark from JAWS and other people I’m probably forgetting.

In all seriousness: There’s a scene where Thor’s buddies are walking down the street and one of the SHIELD agents calls it in, saying he just spotted Xena, Robin Hood and Jackie Chan.

This agent is not only sarcastic, but wrong, because he’s completely forgetting Thor’s fourth sidekick, the fat bearded guy who — and this is shocking — likes to eat a lot.

In this movie, Princess Leia’s mom is Thor’s love interest, which is like a sidekick, but different, in that Thor makes goo-goo eyes at her. With his other sidekicks, he simply claps them on the shoulder in a manly way, or maybe hugs them — though he hugs her, too. IT IS CONFUSING.

Anyway, the point is, she has two of her own sidekicks: an old Norwegian scientist guy or whatever and some kind of sarcastic girl scientist who is apparently there for contrast, to make Princess Leia’s mom look even more smart and beautiful.

You heard me right: The sidekick has sidekicks of her own.

This is all too common and all too wrong.

Every movie and book could be improved by killing off every possible character.

In fact, thinking of “Who could we erase from the page?” is the wrong question. Start by saying, “Who is the ONE essential character?” and work up to the number two, the number three, pi (3.14-whatever) and some imaginary numbers.

Then break the Four Barrier and stop to reflect upon WHAT YOU HAVE WROUGHT, which is a far, far better story than what you started with.

THOR can’t exist without Thor (1) and if we need a second character, it’s obviously Loki (2). Odin (3) and the Frost King (4) would round out a top four. That story could work. Everybody else could go take a nice long vacation on a desert planet with two suns.

Going the other direction, just for fun: Say goodbye, Xena / Robin Hood / Jackie Chan / Fat Guy sidekicks (minus 4). Not essential to the story at all. See ya to Princess Leia’s mom and her two sidekicks (minus 3). Goodbye to Agent Coulson and the arrow man (minus 2). No more Guardian and Odin’s wife (minus 2). That’s 11 characters out the door, and those actors need not be unemployed: we will send them to star in THE EXPENDABLES 3: STALLONE NEEDS ANOTHER FACELIFT.

IRON MAN 2 had it much worse than THOR, with the villain played by Mickey Rourke getting buried by layers upon layers of sidekicks. I mean, look at this movie poster. All sidekicks, all the time. Villains are so boooring.

Peoples of Hollywood and writers of books, please kill off sidekicks.

Do it with a sharp pen, a 12-gauge shotgun or a red lightsaber — I don’t care.

Just do it before they make IRON MAN 3.