What if I told you there was a movie starring Batman (Ben Affleck), The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal), the dude from Sons of Anarchy (Charlie Hunnam) along with Poe Dameron from the Star Wars movies?
You’d say “Nuh-uh,” and I’d say, “Yeah-huh” and we’d argue about who was drunk until I fired up Netflix and started showing THIS ACTUAL MOVIE THAT EXISTS.
Here is the trailer. Watch it, then we’ll talk smack.
The immediate question is, “Who is that other blonde dude who I sorta recognize?” and the answer is Garrett Hedlund, who played the lead in the TRON remake and is in other motion pictures I will not list right now because you know how to use the googles, if you care that much.
But there is more to talk about, and yes, this will involve spoilery spoilers.
The big issue is, “Did our dream team of ex-special forces experts make nightmarishly stupid mistakes?”
Yes. Yes, they did.
Let’s go into the Top Four Mistakes made by our superteam.
Mistake No. 4: Not splitting up
After they found all the money and took it from the drug cartel boss, they took the cash in a single van.
Then they tried to exit the country in a helicopter, with most of the cash carried in a cargo net dangling beneath. A long list of bad things then happens, based on this single decision, with their pile of cash shrinking each time.
All of the Bad Things could have been avoided if they split up, right away. Have each team member take their share of the cash and go in different directions, alone or in pairs, by sea or by train. Whatever.
Mistake No. 3: Not hiding the money
Hey, what’s in all those bags hanging underneath the helicopter flying low and under the radar? Any farmer, police officers, soldier, or drug cartel member who saw their chopper would not think “Basmati rice” or “every known VHS tape of The Star Wars Christmas Special.” They would hear that helicopter from far away, then see it, then notice all the bags, and think “scads of drugs” or “mountains of cash.”
And word would spread, like it did, making it hard for the team to escape.
The first rule of heists and capers is simple: Don’t get caught with the loot.
The second rule of heists and capers is: Don’t get caught with the loot.
The third rule of heists and capers is: Hide the loot in multiple places, you ding dong.
Another smart idea is to transfer or hide your precious stolen treasures immediately, so there’s nothing on you that’s incriminating, and the loot is safe even if you get detained, arrested, or thrown in jail for a year. Because when you get out, the first thing you’re doing is safely retrieving ALL THE CASH from a storage unit or whatever, then living a nice life as you sail around the South Pacific in that sweet sailboat Kevin Costner had in WATERWORLD or drink mojitos on a white sand beach with Red and Andy Defrusne.
Mistake No. 2: An exit route over ginormous mountains
Yes, it may have been the shortest route to the sea. However, big helicopters and little airplanes both have trouble getting over towering mountain ranges, especially when carrying too much weight.
This was the Stupid, and also led to many other problems, like crashing the chopper (bad), getting into a shoot-out with local villagers (very bad!), and eventually going over the ginormous mountains by foot (terrible).
If you avoid Mistake No. 3 and hide the money, you can put away the guns and body armor and also avoid Mistake No. 1 (not splitting up) and have folks leave the country by train, plane, car, truck, or whatever. You’re a normal person going home. There will be food and warmth and no need to get into firefights, or freeze your hiney off in the mountains while villagers track you down and KILL BATMAN because he shot their villager father and such.
Mistake No. 1: Not wearing masks
This may seem silly. What a small thing, wearing masks? How could this be the biggest mistake?
Except wearing masks is everything.
How does the drug cartel know to look for them, specifically? Because they left witnesses, being unwilling to kill women and children, the family members of the cartel boss. That’s honorable and good.
HOWEVER: If they wore masks, and stuck to the rest of their plan, there would be no witness description. They did kill the guards and the cartel boss, so nobody would know what their voices sounded like. Plus, it’s pretty hard to tell all your cartel minions with guns to be on the lookout for a guy who sounds like Batman, another guy who sounds like he was on that biker show, plus a dude sorta sounds like The Mandalorian.
Wearing masks means even if the family members got a glimpse as they passed each other on the road, they wouldn’t know who hit them. Was it an inside job? Did another cartel come after them, or police officers? Those would be the first three logical suspects. A superteam of American ex-special forces folks would be last on the list.
Wear masks. Don’t go over stupid deadly mountains in a helicopter. Hide the money, or at least get it out of the country five different ways when the team splits up after the job.
Seems pretty simple, right?
HOWEVER: This isn’t really a traditional caper or heist. It’s almost an anti-war movie, like PLATOON. The closest thing I can think of is the damned excellent Chris Pine-Jeff Bridges bank robbery caper, HELL OR HIGH WATER, with a similarly mixed ending. They successfully pull off the heist. But it comes at a high price, due to hubris.
TRIPLE FRONTIER is actually a cautionary tale of the downfalls of greed and violence. Unlike most action movies, where the heroes blow stuff up and show the glorious thrills of killing bad guys with abandon, this movie is meant to make people question those decisions. Because people do die. Was it really worth it?
Your average action movie doesn’t pause to consider this question at all. Though I’m a giant fan of thrillers and action movies, there comes a point where most of these movies jump the shark on this issue. So many bad guys, zombies, or alien invaders get shot, stabbed, and blown to hell that you lose count. And it loses meaning.
This is why movies like JAWS, ALIEN, and PREDATOR are so memorable. There isn’t a sea of bad guys dying left and right. There is one Very Bad Guy, who seems invincible, and he’s winning until there’s one hero left.
Which means my armchair quarterbacking of the big mistakes made by our superteam isn’t casting aspersions at the screenwriter or director. They totally intended for the characters to make all kinds of mistakes, based on their greed and character flaws. Batman wanted all the monies, despite the fact that it made them spend too much time at the drug cartel house, and that it made the helicopter overweight. So if you really wanted to pin the blame on a single character, he’s most at fault, and he gets punished the worst for his sins, seeing how a villager shoots him in the head from long range as revenge for Batman killing poor villagers who wanted some of the money they found after it fell from the sky. Don’t blame them for that at all.
Back to the verdict: it is the apocalypse, and you have watched Every Possible Thing on the Televisions Already, which means tes, you should fire up the Netflix and watch TRIPLE FRONTIER.
And if you haven’t watched it, do HELL OR HIGH WATER while you’re at it. 11/10 would recommend.
I know the name Gertrude Stein, and understand that she is a Giant of Literature, so if you did your master’s thesis on Stein, or otherwise like her work, good on you. HOWEVER: For the first time, I truly read some actual words Stein wrote and published. And not something she dashed off on a napkin to pay the restaurant bill, but one of her most famous poems. And listen, she’s a literary train wreck.
Stein isn’t somebody I’d tell a student or new writer to emulate. If I actually cared about the new writer’s sanity and career, I would tell them this: read her words, then do the opposite.
Compose compose beds. Wives of great men rest tranquil. Come go stay philip philip. Egg be takers. Parts of place nuts. Suppose twenty for cent. It is rose in hen. Come one day. A firm terrible a firm terrible hindering, a firm hindering have a ray nor pin nor. Egg in places. Egg in few insists.
Here’s another chunk:
All the time. A wading chest. Do you mind. Lizzie do you mind. Ethel. Ethel. Ethel. Next to barber. Next to barber bury. Next to barber bury china. Next to barber bury china glass. Next to barber china and glass. Next to barber and china. Next to barber and hurry.
This goes on and on. It doesn’t get any better.
It just gets weirder. Here’s another section:
Cunning piler. Next to a chance. Apples. Apples. Apples went. It was a chance to preach Saturday. Please come to Susan. Purpose purpose black. Extra plain silver. Furious slippers. Have a reason. Have a reason candy. Points of places. Neat Nezars. Which is a cream, can cream. Ink of paper slightly mine breathes a shoulder able shine. Necessity. Near glass. Put a stove put a stove hoarser.
And here’s my favorite part.
When a churn say suddenly when a churn say suddenly. Poor pour percent. Little branches. Pale. Pale. Pale. Pale. Pale. Pale. Pale. Near sights. Please sorts. Example. Example.
Listen, I get that Stein was being avant-garde, and purposefully deconstructing the stodgy old nature of poetry. I’m not ideologically opposed to literary and artistic craziness, if done well.
This poem isn’t done well.
When you’re already famous and you commit this sin against humankind, simply because you can, it’s seven separate kinds of self-indulgent.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: The fact that nobody can understand you doesn’t make you a genius.
Sure, you can become famous by going to extremes, then hopping on waterskis to jump the shark guarding the Outer Fringe of Extremes before you reach the Neutron Star of Complete Insanity.
The first man to paint a canvas black made some news. The second, third, fifth and 30th artist to paint a canvas black–or white, or whatever monochrome shebang you like–doesn’t shock us. And yes, the artist Banksy just had a painting sold that shredded itself as the sale concluded. New and shocking. What’s not shocking is now others will copy him, or come up with twists on the same idea, though none of those attempts will work half as well, or at all, because the surprise factor is gone baby gone.
I read that some of Stein’s later work is more accessible, which is literary jargon for “you might like this better, since it makes A LOT more sense.” That’s cool. I get that she was experimental. Here’s the thing, though: you do all kinds of experiments knowing 99 will fail and hoping for one to just rock. This doesn’t rock. Sure, it’s kinda interesting as a train wreck, in that you can see the pieces strewn about and think about why it’s a mess, and speculate on what she’s trying to say amidst all the wreckage. Yet when you really drill down on it, Stein’s poem is a lot like Bansky’s latest stunt: its only power is shock value, and only because Stein was rich and had all kinds of famous literary friends like Hemingway.
If a student or unknown writer had done this, we would never had known.
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.
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting
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.
I don’t care what you’re writing: whether it’s spy thrillers, speeches, newspaper stories or romances about men in kilts, the only thing that matters to the reader is the journey you take them on.
How far – and how fast – is that ride? Where does it start and where does it end?
The roller coaster you take readers on is far, far more important than how pretty you’ve painted things with words.
Oh, there are people who write so beautifully that they can make a trip to Safeway sound more interesting than the latest Michael Bay explosion of robots and cleavage. And yes, there are people who are bestsellers despite the wordsmithing skills of a middling sixth-grader whose main hobby is eating paste.
Those bestsellers are millionaires because story – structure, really — beats pretty words.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t considered the Great Communicator because of his verbal skills. Go back and listen to his Berlin Wall speech, considered a great one. He’s got all sorts of verbal tics and delivery problems. He wasn’t that smooth of a speaker. Reagan’s genius was in being a great storyteller.
The same thing is true of great reporters. It’s not the quality of the prose that makes us hand out Pulitzers and buy Bob Woodward’s books. What he’s truly good at is getting people to give him juicy things to write about, so he can tell a great story, with twists and turns and shockers.
Bad writing is all bad in the same way.
People want a thrilling ride? The Michael Bay School of Storytelling says OK, let’s blow their minds with the most intense story ever. Except when everything is dialed up to 11, the audience goes numb.
Here’s the script for every TRANSFORMER movie ever made. Act 1: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 2: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 3: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions!
You see the same problems with bad action movies starring Chuck Norris, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. If it’s exciting to watch the hero take on five bad guys on top of a roof, then it must be twice as awesome to have him dismember 10 thugs with a chainsaw in Act 2 and three times as cool to torch 20 thugs with a flamethrower in Act 3. Except it’s not.
It’s not much different with the typical Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel, which starts out wallowing in misery and angst in Act 1, moves on to more misery and angst in Act 2 and ends with, just for variety, an extra dose of misery and angst for Act 3.
Technically, the insanely rich hero does go on a journey. He goes to the country club. He goes to dinner. He goes to a polo game where he sneaks a rendezvous with his mistress, who he secretly despises.
The other kind of Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel features a noble poor person, who suffers even more than the rich schmuck, and yes, he also technically goes on a journey, though going from one cardboard box in a bad section of Skid Row three blocks down to a rattier cardboard box WITH HOLES IN IT in an even sketchier part of Skid Row isn’t much of a trip for the audience.
A story like this isn’t a thrilling roller coaster. It’s a slow slog on the Train of Misery.
This is why tragedies work. Inherently, they are a fast and exciting ride, because you start at the very top, with a king or president or otherwise Important Person Who Has It All.
Then, because they can’t resist temptation, or otherwise succumb to hubris and stupidity, they plummet from the top to the bottom. Not that they don’t fight back. They try. They pull out of the slide a couple times, and you think they might make it until their inner demons get the best of them.
That is exciting. You’re letting the audience peek into a different, secret world – the Land of the Rich and Famous – and bringing one of the exalted few down to earth. Who doesn’t want to watch that, or read that?
Reporters make a living doing this. Greek playwrights were doing it 2.94 bazillion years ago. Novelists and screenwriters are still doing tragedies, and will be doing them until the sun turns into a red giant and fries the earth.
The reverse story, Underdog, is so simple and well-known that I won’t make a silly chart for it, because I have faith in you.
I believe, deep in my soul, that you have seen ROCKY once or twice, and watched THE KARATE KID many times, because that movie still rocks to this day despite the lame remake starring Will Smith’s kid, which didn’t involve karate at all, because IT WAS IN CHINA and was about kung fu, not karate. Though I do love Jackie Chan.
Unlike the Bad Action Movie, the hero in an Underdog plot doesn’t start out as some insanely skilled and handsome muffin of stud who, if armed with a folding toothbrush, can take on 43 bad guys. Driving tanks.
Rocky starts out as a washed up boxer, a loser. Ralph Macchio starts out as a skinny kid who gets his butt kicked by local bullies 25 hours a day.
Rocky and Ralph go on real journeys, from rock bottom to the top. Ralph goes from getting beat up by the bullies to beating the leader of the bullies in an honorable way, and having his foe shake his hand. He gains their respect. He suffers and sacrifices in order to change and grow. Also, Mr. Miyagi is the Man.
ROCKY has a more interesting plot, and the script won a freaking Oscar because of it. I kid you not: Sylvester Stallone, Mr. B Movie, started out by winning an Oscar for screenwriting. That is the only thing in the world he has in common with Matt Damon.
The end of Rocky isn’t your typical action movie, which features the hero (a) impaling the Villain of the Week, (b) throwing the Villain of the Week into a bottomless pit or (c) watching the Villain of the Week get impaled after he falls down the bottomless pit.
Rocky ends without a victory at all. He doesn’t beat Apollo Creed, despite all his sweat and blood.
He battles Apollo to basically a draw, and for him, that’s a huge moral victory. He has grown. He has changed. And when he gets the girl, it’s not perfunctory movie nonsense, the typical, “Oh yeah, it’s the end, so the hero needs to kiss the girl after he says some clever one-liner.” You care about this schlub getting the girl, even if you didn’t care one bit for TANGO AND CASH.
Sidenote: I did enjoy DEMOLITION MAN, mostly because Sandra Bullock was awesomesauce, Wesley Snipes was believably insane and they made it so after the apocalypse or whatever, every restaurant was Taco Bell.
To whoever wrote that script, I salute you.
The lesson here: no matter what you write, figure out the ending, and that determines the beginning.
If you have a down ending, you need an up beginning. Otherwise, you’re not taking the audience on any kind of ride.
If you have an up ending, you better have a down beginning. The lower, the better.
ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are minor examples.
Let’s go big. The billion-dollar stories follow this formula: STAR WARS, the Harry Potter movies and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the three biggest stories on this planet, spanning many movies, countless spin-off books and enough merchandise to sink the continent of Australia.
George Lucas and J.K. Rowling have more money than God — end of debate.
All three of those stories start down. Way down. The evil emperor is gaining power. Harry Potter is an orphan because Voldemort killed his parents, and now he’s coming for Harry the Potter — and meanwhile, this big glowing eye on top of a volcano controls all sorts of trolls and scary dudes in hoods who ride black horses of the apocalypse. Our only hope is a tiny man with hairy bare feet and a magic ring whose mighty magic power seems to only turn him invisible and really grumpy.
Sidenote: while in Maui, I read the preface to the introduction to the liner notes for LORD OF THE RINGS, and around page 83, after the index of Elvish words and an anthropological study of Hobbit culture, I was still waiting for the actual story to begin. I did not throw the book across the room, because there were no men in kilts in it that I could detect, but I did lay it down gently and look hard for a hollowed-out pineapple full of alcohols.
Now, I’m not saying all stories are either comedies (up ending) or tragedies (down ending). That’s simplifying things way too much.
For example, dramas and sitcoms are the most common things on TV, right? And they are completely the opposite of what you expect, when you drill down into the story structure of dramas and sitcoms.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: dramas are not tragedies. Dramas end up.
LAW AND ORDER is probably the most famous drama, since at least five cable channels play nothing other than reruns of LAW AND ORDER, LAW AND ORDER: CSI, LAW AND ORDER: LA, LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, LAW AND ORDER: SOME FIELD IN NEBRASKA and, best of all, LAW AND ORDER: BRITAIN, which I threw in here at the end as a sneaky segue allowing me to play The Best Video On the Planet.
Yes, dramas are about horrible things like murder and rape and war.
Except what they’re really about are heroic people who swim in the muck and chaos caused by idiots and greed. Dramas really say, “Despite how bad things are, there are people who’ll try to make things right.”
That doesn’t mean they succeed every time. About one out of twenty times, LAW AND ORDER lets the bad guy get away with it, and yes, it seems like one out of three times, but if you’re reading this, you’re a writer, and bad at math, and you’re not going to go back and watch all 4,398 episodes to do a tally. So I could make stuff up all day.
Comedies don’t always have down endings, per se – but they are NOT happy.
Comedies are about how absurd, hopeless and screwed up things are.
Specifically, comedies target an institution.
Sitcoms usually go after marriage and family life, usually middle-class suburban families.
M*A*S*H was an indictment of war.
ANIMAL HOUSE lampooned frats and college life.
Comedies have mixed endings. It’s OK for the hero to get what he’s after – but only in an absurd way. His best efforts to achieve his goal always backfire. Things don’t happen like they should. It’s screwball.
The other kind of mixed ending is ironic. The hero gets what he wants, but decides he doesn’t truly want it. He finds the king’s treasure after slaying the dragon and decides he doesn’t want all that money, that he’d rather go back home and be a simple farmer. That sort of thing. ROCKY is a bit of an ironic ending. He doesn’t win the fight. He wins other things: self-respect, a future, a girlfriend. Then in the sequels it gets all conventional and boring, though Mister T, for a brief moment in time, before he sold out and joined the A-Team, was a scary, scary man.
Bonus material for story nerds and intellectual types
There is another type of ending, Random Nonsense, which is more common in indie films with subtitles. Think black and white. Think French existentialism.
Here’s an example: the hero is a downtrodden detective, investigating a killer far smarter than he will ever be. His only son hates him, his boss wants to fire him and wife just left him, though he starts up a flirtatious thing with a girl who works at his local café. Just as he starts catching some breaks – he’s walking the café girl home from their first date when he spots the killer running from an alley, the scene of his latest crime – he’s hit by a drunk driver. The End.
Random Nonsense has a message, too, just like tragedies are about hubris, dramas are about the human spirit overcoming adversity and comedies are about how absurd life is. Random Nonsense is trying to make a point about existentialism and chaos, that we don’t really control events. Things just happen.
This may make for deep conversations in your Philosophy 301 class, and you may feel all intellectual talking about what the movie really meant at 3 a.m. at Denny’s while you eat sides of fries and drink bottomless cups of coffee while smoking cigarettes bummed from your roommate, the sociology major. Sociology!
But it makes for a terrible story. There’s no roller coaster. That’s why the audience for these kinds of stories fits on a postage stamp.
I don’t care who you are — you need an editor. And you always will.
In fact, the more successful you are as a writer, the more editing you’ll need.
The time crunch.
You’ll never have as much time as you did when you were struggling to break in.
A journalism student can get away with writing and polishing a major story for weeks or months.
Once you get a job as a reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper, the first step on your path to The New York Times, you’ve got to crank out two stories a day, every day.
I used to write three or four stories before 10 a.m. every deadline day at papers of news. You get used to it. But it’s a shock at first. The time crunch is real. Which leads to problem No. 2.
The sophomore slump
Think about famous debut novelists who had a tremendous first book, and when you hopped inside your automobile and raced to Borders — back when Borders existed, and sold these things we called “books” — to buy their second novel on release day, it made you weep like a Charlie Sheen who’s run fresh out of tequila and tiger blood because that second book sucked like Electrolux.
Why does this happen?
Because debut novelists spend years polishing that first novel until it shines like a diamond made of words.
And when a debut novelist finally makes it, and has a three-book contract with Random House to crank out a book a year, it’s a struggle. They aren’t used to writing that good that fast.
You only need editing three times: when you start out, when you’re middling and when you’re a busy pro
Some people who write for a living — and didn’t spend time at newspapers or magazines getting edited every day — sometimes think success means they’re infallible. Their words are perfect, becausee otherwise why wouldn’t they be famous? Or they are richer than God and simply don’t care.
And even great writers sometimes just write long. They’re in a rush. They have to crank out the product and move on to the next thing.
Stephen King, who I adore, writes beautiful little short stories and novellas while cranking out novels that clock in at 800 or 1,000 pages.
I could close my eyes, reach onto my bookshelf in my secret lair and grab five King novels that weigh more than most second-graders. Some of these novels are fine being that long. Others are overloaded semis with a sleek sports car of a novel lurking inside and waiting to burst out.
Even literary snobs now admit that King’s novels — even the giant ones — are good. But you could chop 400 or 500 pages from any of his monstrously overlong novels and make them even better.
Think about J.K. Rowling, and how with every paycheck and movie deal, the next book in the Harry Potter series doubled in size, until Boeing had to invent a new freight version of the 747 just to deliver the last novel so we could find out why Hermione winds up with What’s-His-Face, the redheaded doofus sidekick, instead of Harry, her true love.
Get the right editor
Most people get the wrong kind of editor.
You don’t need an editor for nancypants nonsense like dangling modifiers and misplaced commas. That’s a proof-reader, not an editor. Any semi-literate fool can proof-read a document. Microsoft Word can take a whack at that.
The editor you need is (a) a professional who (b) edits or writes for a living in (c) the specific type of writing you want to do FOR MONIES.
Any old professional will NOT do
A roomful of reporters and editors at a newspaper is a good example. They all write and edit for a living, and 99 percent of them want to write the Great American Novel — but 99 percent of the time, they fail.
Because it’s not their specialty.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Writing short non-fiction newspaper stories is far, far different than writing 400-page novels. The structure reporters use for news stories — the inverted pyramid — is exactly backwards for fiction.
Now, there are exceptions. Opinion page editors and columnists could make the transition to speechwriters, and vice-versa. The structures and techniques for persuasion on the page are quite similar to the ones used in speech and rhetoric.
But if you want to make a switch, the fact that you already write for monies doesn’t guarantee anything.
It’s like professional sports. The fact that you play shooting guard for the Bulls doesn’t mean can play left field for the White Sox.
That’s exactly what Michael Jordan tried to do. This is the greatest basketball player of all time. He’d won enough NBA championships. He’d climbed every basketball mountain. He was one of the best athletes on the planet.
So when he decided to try playing major league baseball, it wasn’t a silly dream.
And he did it right. He didn’t try to muscle his way onto the White Sox starting lineup by having lunch with the owner. He trained with baseball coaches and played for the minor league Birmingham Barons, batting .202 with 3 home runs, 51 runs-batted-in and 30 stolen bases.
Batting .202 isn’t good enough. Jordan went back to basketball.
When you try to cross-over, you’ve got to be just as careful and serious and hard-working as if you’re trying to break in for the first time.
Your editor needs to do it for monies
If you really want to pay the mortgage writing full time, you’ve got to go all in with an editor who wields their Red Pen of Doom for monies, too.
Not your husband or wife or best friend. Not a coworker or a buddy who writes something sort of close to what you’re doing, even if they do it full time.
It’s an achy breaky big mistakey to use a non-pro as your editor. Friends and family may be great readers of books but horrible at editing. Either way, you’ll take what they say far too personally.
Dreams will be crushed. Friendships will fray. Marriages will sour. DO NOT DO THIS.
Even if you’re friends with somebody who writes or edits for a living, and they say sure, they’ll edit you as a favor, that might be OK for one small piece. A short story. Your first shot at a stump speech. But not anything of length. And not as a habit. When you start cashing checks for what you write, stop being a freeloader. Set your friend free.
Better yet, don’t lean on the friend too much in the first place. Because they’re your friend. They won’t tell you if you truly stink up the joint.
Your editor must be in your specific field
It’d be silly to use a professional writer or editor in a different field.
They won’t know the conventions and quirks of another type of writing. They’ll make you feel confident that your text is perfect when it has some formatting flaw or deadly structural boo-boo that neither one of you spotted, because your buddy writes screenplays and you’re doing a novel about elves with lightsabers who ride dragons.
Find an editor who does exactly what you want to do, whether that’s writing novels, newspaper stories, magazine features, non-fiction books or speechwriting for the politicians.
Now, the natural response to this is, “Professional editors cost money, and I am a poor, starving writer with six kids who lives in a cardboard shack and feeds my family Top Ramen, raw, like popcorn, because we can’t afford a pot to boil the stuff in, so there’s no way I can pay some fancy editor to bleed on my words, words that I carefully put on this paper towel in my own blood because Bic pens and Underwood typewriters and Toshiba laptops are out of my budget, unless I spend my every weekend robbing the local 7-Eleven, which for some reason hates AP style and won’t go with Seven-11.”
To this I say: suck it up.
Professional editors don’t cost THAT much. Scrape together $100 or $200 and have a pro look at the first chunk of whatever you’re writing. Believe me, they don’t need to read all 400 pages to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Though it’s a lie that you can figure that out after five pages. It only takes one page, to be honest.
If you were trying to cut hair for a living, it’d cost you more than a couple hundred bucks to get a license. A writing conference plus three days in a hotel can run you $1k, and that’s if you NEVER EAT ANYTHING and completely abstain from bourbon. So suck it up and find somebody good to look at your first bit, long before you write the entire shebang.
Because a great editor is priceless.
Plug: Theresa the Stevens, who reads this silly blog and makes witty comments, is a professional editor and former literary agent who also edits for publishers.
Theresa the Stevens is also kind, because she does a special deal where she wields her wicked pen on the first 75 pages of a novel PLUS the synopsis PLUS the query letter.
Think about how long it takes a human being to write and rewrite and rewrite a novel and synopsis and query letter. Hundreds of hours. Bazillions. Think about paying yourself minimum wage for those hours.
Then close your eyes and imagine there’s a glowing mystical being who, for the price of the complete first and second seasons of The Jersey Shore on DVD, could save yourself hundreds of more hours of pain while making you (a) seem incredibly brilliant and (b) have ten times the shot of not only getting the thing published, but making decent money at it.
Is that worth a couple hundred bucks?
Cowboy up. If you really want to write for a living, and not toy with it as a hobby, find yourself the best professional editor possible. And pay them in something other than thank you’s and cups of coffee.