Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

The kitteh is surprised

Whether you write novellas about fierce mermaids, magazine stories for Cosmo (insert your own joke here) or speeches about the Austrian school of economics for the IMF — whatever sort of writer you are, two things matter most.

Not correct grammar and spelling. Those things are assumed.

Not pretty paragraphs and sentences that sing. That’s word gravy, while we’re talking about the main course.

What matters most: making your readers curious, then surprising them.

The kitteh is surprised
Surprise Kitteh is surprised.

This is why the inverted pyramid is a terrible structure for any writer. (Click with your mousity mouse to read Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE.)

The inverted pyramid grabs a heavy rock and smashes the skull of curiosity. Then it takes that same bloody rock and crushes all hope for any surprises.

How does it achieve this epic level of failure? By giving you the answers before you even know the questions. The payoffs have no setups.

Ways to make your audience curious

Create setups by raising interesting questions (a) about real people where there are (b) high public stakes or (c) high private stakes and (d) serious conflict.

WHAT happened? (mystery)

Debates about the past are about facts, and assigning blame.

  • Who really killed JFK?
  • Did aliens really land at Area 51?
  • What caused the Great Depression?

WHY did it happen? (whydunit)

This is often more interesting than the question of who did it.THE BUTLER ALWAYS DOES IT, so tell us why instead.

How do you CHOOSE between two goods or two evils?

Debates about the present are value choices.

Choosing between good and evil is simple and cartoonish. That’s why its for kids. Truly tough choices are between two good or two evils. Does believing in true justice mean setting a killer free? That sort of stuff. These things are deep. They’ll exercise your head.

What WILL happen? (thriller)

  • Can we stop these evil cats from taking over the earth BEFORE a giant comet destroys it?
  • What might happen if you brought dinosaurs back to life?
  • Will 5.93 gazillion pounds of TNT make a dead whale disappear from a beach — or will something else happen instead?

WHO will get together — or split up? (romance)

  • Will Matthew McConaughy get together with Kate Hudson already or do we have to suffer through all 120 minutes of this stinker?
  • Why is Tommy Lee Jones in some movie with Meryl Streep about lovey-dovey nonsense?
  • What specific drugs were involved when Hollywood executives decided that Sarah Jessica Parker was some kind of sex symbol? (I’m cheating here and inserting a mystery question about the past into a romance setup, and I should be punished by the Storytelling Gods but, to be completely honest, and to use more commas, which is usually against my religion, I JUST DON’T CARE)

What should you do about the FUTURE?

Debates about the future involve costs versus benefits.

  • As a promising high school athlete, should you let your studies suffer to chase the dream of playing in Major League Baseball, when there’s a greater chance of being hit by a logging truck than being drafted?
  • Should we try to go back to the gold standard, to make Ron Paul all happy as he shuffles off into retirement, or does destroying the global economy kinda put a damper on that whole idea?
  • Next year, should you sell all your possessions to build a zombie-proof bunker in Montana for a zombpocalypse that will never come but is fun to think about — or should you focus on that whole “driving to work and paying the bills” thing?

Ways to surprise your audience

It’s unfair to have things happen for no reason, like Anne Hathaway getting smooshed by a truck in ONE DAY.

Also cheating: letting people off the hook via deus ex machina, which is fancy Latin for “the sidekick shows up at the last minute to shoot the bad guy, right before the hero dies” (every action movie known to man) or “it was all a dream!” (an entire season of DALLAS) or “let’s bring in something we never told you about, then run away” (every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen on cable).

Surprises shatter expectations and stereotypes. Did you expect the scientist handling the landing of Curiosity on Mars to be a young man rocking a mohawk? No. You expected a stereotypical nerdy McNerd, and bam, that little surprise turned Mohawk NASA man into a national phenom.

A good surprise must reveal something:

  • a secret you hinted at before
  • how a person has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a subtle setup that they may have noticed, but will remember (PRESUMED INNOCENT does this better than Anything in the History of Stories)
  • how society has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a shocking decision (the hero gets what he wants but rejects it, an unhappy ending to a Hollywood movie OR a happy ending to a French existentialist movie, a romantic comedy that doesn’t feature an put-together and ambitious heroine with a loser man she fixes up)

Banning women from college degrees is an achy breaky big mistakey

random thursday crazy kittteh meme

I try to stay away from politics on this silly blog. HOWEVER: government peoples in Iran just banned women from 77 different college degrees.

I am not making that up. Read the story here: Anger as Iran bans women from universities

Women are about 65 percent of college students now and the men who decided this new policy wanted to drop women below 50 percent. How? By making those degrees — including dangerous stuff like English literature — “single gender.”

Here are three reasons why that’s not wicked smart. Continue reading “Banning women from college degrees is an achy breaky big mistakey”

Seven movie clichés that must be NUKED FROM ORBIT

Now that going to the movies more than once a year involves taking out a second mortgage to buy $9 popcorn and $7 Diet Coke and $11 tickets, you must pick your flicks wisely.

I’ve already skewered my favorite genre with Top 10 Thriller Clichés.

Then I went after the Top 10 Action Mystery Clichés — but it goes deeper than that.

Peoples of Hollywood, please stop spending the gross domestic product of Paraguay to make movies with these seven stupid clichés.

7) Romantic comedies starring Matthew McConaughey

We get it: he’s cute, and his Texas drawl is charming.

HOWEVER: He is not required, by federal law, to be in every romantic comedy on the planet.

6) Macho action heroes walking away from explosions really, really slow

Wussy little bad guys are thrown through the air by explosions.

Explosions only make macho action heroes slow down and stroll.

5) Romantic comedies where the man is a bumbling, lovable loser while the woman is a hot neurotic mess

The man is a 40-year-old virgin (Steve Carrell), a chauvinist pig (Russell Crowe) or a nerdy writer type (Woody Allen).

The woman is a beautiful mess (Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson or, God help us, Sarah Jessica Parker) who is far more educated, cultured and successful than the man.

So, she naturally hates this loser at first, then she slowly molds this wreck of a man into a real human being worthy of dating and / or marrying.


4) False alarms in Every Horror Movie Known to Man

Enough with the cat / boyfriend / little brother nonsense, and the scary music is just cheating.

3) Romantic comedies starring Kate Hudson

Though I have to say this: it’s better than Sarah Jessica Parker.

2) Movie villains who carefully explain their plot instead of KILLING THE HERO ALREADY

Why does every movie villain feel the need to talk to the hero?

Look, the villain always has hordes of minions who are completely motivated to listen to his stupid monologues. He can give speeches that make Fidel Castro look like the king of brevity.

A villain’s minions are the best listeners ever. They must not only nod and smile, but be entranced by his every syllable. The villain is their employer and visionary leader, and there’s a good chance that not listening with your entire body and soul will get you thrown into the tank full of sharks with lasers.

Chatting with the hero makes no sense.

Here’s one villain who gets it right.

1) Romantic comedies starring Matthew McConaughey AND Kate Hudson

And you thought I was making that up.

Three random airplane movies: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Anybody who’s a fan of Clint Eastwood‘s spaghetti westerns knows that THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is one of his best films ever. Clint hardly says a word the entire thing. It’s like the first 30 minutes of WALL-E, if you changed him from a robot that cleaned up humanity’s trash in an apocalyptic wasteland to a gunslinger who cleaned up human trash in an apocalyptic wasteland.

So: flying over to Germany and back, I saw many, many airplane movies. As a public service, I’m reviewing the ones that I remember to (a) save you from watching stinkers, (b) give you a head’s up on hidden gems and (c) say sarcastic things about Sarah Jessica Parker.

First up is the Good, then the Bad and finally the Ugly.


More good stuff from George the Clooney and Ryan the Gosling, who does a good job portraying the crazy life of a political campaign.

As a reporter who covered all kinds of campaigns, and as somebody working in politics now, this movie gets a lot of things right. The long hours. The mix of cynical veterans and 20-something interns full of energy. Lofty ideas crashing into the shores of reality. Reporters working angles. War by leaks.

I appreciated this movie, and how it saw all the shades of gray in the characters.

Ryan goes from a wunderkind who can do no wrong to having no job — and then, having learned things the hard way, rolls around in the mud to pull a coup on the boss who fired him to get the job of running Clooney’s campaign. You see this character suffer and change.

Clooney could have played his presidential candidate as a straight-up hero, a cartoonish good guy. Once again, Clooney has the guts to play somebody interesting and flawed.

Verdict: Rent it on Netflix at least TWICE, because I say so.


From watching this with the sound off: Paul Newman is a good-looking jerk. He broke his leg, so he lays around the house all day, drinking up the booze and glowering at people. For some reason I never understood, Elizabeth Taylor is completely nice to him the entire time, even after he tries to break her ribs with his crutches.

This movie raised many, many questions in my mind:

First: Why doesn’t Elizabeth Taylor — or whoever owns this house — kick angry Paul Newman to the curb?

Second: Who’s paying for all this booze that Paul drinks?

Third: Does he have a job?

Fourth: Yes, he’s good looking, but does he have blackmail photos of Elizabeth or something? Because being good looking doesn’t usually let you sit around a house for weeks and weeks, drinking all their alcohols while you throw things at your host and act like a total dipstick.

This is a talky movie. There are old people and kids and a birthday cake.

I’m guessing it was a play (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF?) before it was a movie, because nobody every drives anywhere and there’s just a few sets. The camera keeps bringing us back to Paul Newman’s bedroom, where he demolishes Elizabeth Taylor’s liquor while giving her the cold shoulder.

She is far too kind in this flick. I would’ve kicked him out of the bedroom, crutches or not, after his first hissy fit.

Also, why is Paul the Newman such an angry drunk? My guess is he was some kind of high school sports jock, sad about the passage of his glory days, because the first scene I saw was Paul at some high school stadium at night, killing a bottle of whiskey or whatever while he throws stuff around before running hurdles. On the last hurdle, he trips up and that’s when he breaks his leg.

I found Paul Newman to be completely unsympathetic. Plugging in the airline headphones wouldn’t change my opinion because he never seemed to say anything anyway.

Note: After firing up the googles, yes, this was CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and the internets say Tennessee Williams, a playwright famous enough to have his OWN STATE, hated this movie adaptation of his play so much that he told people the film would set back cinema for 50 years or whatever. 

Verdict: This might be a good movie with the sound on. Who knows? Visually, it was boring. You’d have to pay me in purple euros to watch it again.


I also watched this with the sound off, peeking every 10 minutes, and that was plenty to understand the plot: Sarah Jessica Parker is a working mom with a husband, kids, a gigantic loft and many, many pairs of shoes. Her boss is Remington Steele / 007, which makes her life even more miserable, right?

It’s a rough life.

There are more than 7 billion people on the planet. Half are women. I bet if you showed this film to moms in Africa who walk miles every morning to fetch drinking water, or moms in China working on assembly lines 14 hours a day, they’d break down and cry at all the hardships that Sarah Jessica Parker has to endure in this movie. Should she spend more time at the office with the suave Pierce Brosnan, more time at home being a wife and a mother or maybe hire another nanny and just not feel guilty about it?

The climax of this movie, I believe, comes when Sarah Jessica Parker faces the ultimate test: should she pack five pairs of shoes on her business trip or six?

The Hollywood executives who greenlit this turkey should be belted into a 15-hour airplane ride, halfway across the world, while they’re forced to watch this thing five times straight.

Verdict: Kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit. No mercy.