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Monday, February 18, 2019

Look Forward, Not Backward, to Pull the Reader In



Hi everyone! For this week's writing tip, I'm over at Writers Helping Writers as one of their residency writing coaches. This is a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately, leaning forward in your story.

***

A lot of writers have the tendency to look “backward” when writing. They might use a lot of flashbacks, they might have a character think “back” on things, or they may simply refer to events that happened in the past. Sometimes they may even backtrack and reiterate what has already played out on the page, or repeat information the audience already knows.

As writers, we love looking backward. Part of this is because from our perspective, when we understand a character’s past, we understand the character better, or alternatively, when we understand what events led to the current point of the story, we better understand the story. From a writer’s perspective, we may even feel more powerful emotions by linking back to the past regularly.

Looking “backward” in a story isn’t necessarily wrong. It has an important role in storytelling. Maybe we do need that flashback, for example. Looking back once in a while also adds authenticity–after all, we all look back from time to time in our personal lives, and a story should be bigger than what’s on the page. Your characters should have an existence, a history, before the first chapter.

However, unlike the writer, most of the time, for the reader, looking backward is not nearly as interesting or as effective as looking forward.

Often as writers, we think, if the audience can just see the significance of the past, they’ll be drawn into the story. In reality, looking forward does this innately and more powerfully.

. . . in the rest of the article, I talk about how to best get the audience to look forward, with two types of draws that will pull them in and keep them turning the pages.

Show Writers Helping Writers some love and visit their site.

Next week I'll be back here talking about how to break the "One Impossibility" rule.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Discovery Writing and Outline Writing—Kinda the Same Thing Actually



I've talked about before on here and you can find it talked about throughout the industry, that there are really two approaches to writing: discovery writing (sometimes (controversially) called pantsing) and outline writing (aka plotting). Discovery writing is where you go directly to the manuscript and start discovering the story as you go. Outlining is what it sounds like, you outline before writing the manuscript. Most people fit somewhere in the middle. Me? I'm more of an outliner.

These approaches can seem like total opposites. And you can read and research all about them online. In fact, on here I have an article on outlining and another on discovery writing.

But for the last several months, I've been thinking about how they are actually kind of the same thing.

That might sound contradictory to some people, but just hear me out.

Months ago, I did this post on what to do when you write yourself into a corner. When I shared this on Facebook, one of my Facebook friends said he never writes himself into a corner because he outlines. I mentioned that I outline a lot and still manage to write myself into corners. For me, this is because it's impossible for me to brainstorm a perfect outline. There are usually side effects, complexities, and complications I run into that I didn't foresee. Not everyone has that, but I do. I also think it depends on the kind of story you are writing and how interconnected it is--if you are dealing with undercurrents, mysteries, hard magic systems, for example, I think you are more likely to run into issues you didn't foresee. If you are writing something like a slice-of-life story or a romance, I think it's less likely. Not one type is "better" than another, they are just different.

But as I was thinking about it, and I realized that while that post was titled "What to Do When You Write Yourself Into a Corner," it could have just as easily been titled "What to Do When You Outline Yourself Into a Corner."

At the end of the day, whether you go straight to the manuscript or you outline, you are still figuring out the story. Yes, it's true that the different approaches can produce different kinds of stories, but whether you outline or write a first draft, they are approaches to the same thing: figuring out the story.

True discovery writers may make statements like this: "It's like the story is telling me what it is, and I just write it down."

But I'm a big outliner, and I still have moments like that. In fact, not too long ago when outlining, I had a whole sequence of scenes and a character arc seem to simply manifest themselves to me, and it all felt so perfect (as "perfect" as the process can be anyway). Other times when I'm working on an outline, I feel utterly stuck on what should happen next, or how to get from point A to point B--things that discovery writers run up against when writing the story. There are times, I think, where discovery writers have to sit back and think how to do X or what's going to happen next. Some would call it writer's block.

I have heard some discovery writers say that their first draft is their outline. You get the story down and then you shape it into the true narrative.

Then recently, when I was perusing Writing Excuses to get some writing insight and inspiration, I happened to run into Brandon Sanderson talking about this same idea. That discovering and plotting are actually kind of the same thing. In outlining you front-load a lot of the work and in discovering you back load it, because you usually need to do more revisions.

My opinion has been that my writing tips and editing services and others' writing tips are helpful to discovery writers and to plotters, my take being that for discovery writers, the more you understand writing, the more you can "discover." (Not to mention, if something is "broken," getting tips can help you revise and fix it.)

Discovery writing can feel a little mystical.

Outlining feels more intentional and planned.

But in each approach you are simply figuring out the story.

And in reality, at times the opposite will feel mystical and the other requires some planning.

As I have been brainstorming and outlining a new book, I have sometimes felt anxious or rushed because I haven't started writing anything for the actual manuscript yet, and therefore feel as if I haven't "really" started it--as if the preliminary work I'm doing isn't really work and doesn't count, because I haven't started the word count. But here is the thing, I'm front-loading a lot of the work (as most people, I am not one extreme or the other, so I will undoubtedly still "discover" some things when I actually start the writing process). So of course it's going to be longer before I actually put words to the story document. But that also means I will have to do less work during and after the story-writing.

For discovery writers it may be the opposite. You can start on the word count right away, but you may be doing a lot of work during and after the draft.

Neither way is wrong and both ways are right.

Personally, I do way better work when I largely front-load it. I think I would cry if someone told me I had to "discover" a novel. Uugh, it would be the worst (as you can see, I'm not a pantser). Discovery writers may feel the opposite--they may feel that outlining takes away their desire to write because in a sense, the story is already "written"--it's already figured out.

In either case, we all have the same goals: to write a solid story. And frankly, nearly all the writing resources should benefit both types. In fact, the other day I listened to a podcast about discovery writing, because I thought the techniques would help me "discover" my concepts and outline. For me, in that instance, I was right. It helped quite a bit actually.

So do you agree or disagree? Are pantsing and plotting sorta the same thing in some ways? Which works for you?



Monday, February 4, 2019

How Often Should I "Refresh" a Pronoun?




A follower recently asked if I had any tips on how often to "refresh" a pronoun, meaning, after you use a name once, how many times can you use "he," "she," or "they" before needing to use their name again.

Since I haven't done any tips on it, I decided to do a short post.

Admittedly, there is something about using pronouns that makes the writing process feel more personal and intimate, as opposed to using the names. I'm not exactly sure why this is this way, but I know and see writers who sense it. My best explanation is that using the proper name feels slightly more distancing than using the pronoun. As a result, when we write certain scenes, using more pronouns just feels right. And we might be sad to have to get rid of them, even if it is for clarity.

In reality, for the reader, it rarely makes much difference. The reader's and writer's experiences may overlap in places, but they aren't the same. Usually for the reader, the character's name is what people might call an "invisible" word. Like the word "said" is considered invisible. It gets the job done and doesn't draw attention to itself. Most names function the same way, which is why you can repeat names multiple times without them (usually) sticking out. Most of the time, for the reader, the proper name doesn't feel much different than the pronoun, so for them, what matters is more of the actual function: who is doing what.

And that's the most important element, because as a writer, you are communicating to the reader. They need to know who is doing what to follow the story, and if you use too many pronouns, it won't be clear. They might not be able to keep track of the characters, or they might forget who the pronoun is referring to.

There isn't a magical number for how often you need to refresh the pronoun, but there are some guidelines.

- In a scene with multiple characters (especially of the same gender), you are going to need to use proper names more often, just so the audience can keep it straight.

- In a scene with two characters of different genders, you don't usually need to refresh as much. There is only one "he" and one "she" (or "they" if you prefer).

- And of course, a scene with a character alone will need to be refreshed even less often, but if you only use pronouns, that could potentially be annoying, in some cases. 

Just don't forget the most important rule: You are communicating to the reader.

Problems come up when it's not clear who the pronoun is referring to. For example:

George called Bart to help sell his car.

"His" can refer to either George or Bart (not to mention the sentence is a bit vague in other ways as well).

If you want to get technical and dust off your grammar book from English class, it's usually best if the pronoun is placed as close to its antecedent (the noun it's referring to) as possible.

I will say that if you have a scene with dialogue, this may often not be the case.

"How's it going?" Cheryl asked.

"Fine, I guess," April said. "Pamela is mad at me." She tucked her hair behind her ear.

Pamela is not actually in the conversation, so we can all assumed the "she" is referring to April.


At the beginning of a story, I think it is helpful to use the character's name a few times so the reader can get familiar with it. If you have new characters coming on page that are important to remember, you might want to weave in their names a few times also, so it sticks with the reader. After all, the name is what we literally see on the page when reading, and it's what we have to best identify the character.

And of course, you also don't want to go to the other extreme, where you are using the proper name all the time or overusing it (this is especially true in dialogue).

With all these things in mind, you'll have to use your best judgment.

Sometimes it's helpful to read the passage aloud. Reading aloud actually uses a different part of your brain than reading silently, and it can help you catch things that sound off. You might notice you've gone on too long without refreshing the pronoun.



Monday, January 28, 2019

Working with a Large Cast of Characters



Every once in a while, I work with a writer who tells me they are worried they have "too many characters" in their novel. In some cases, this might be true, but from my experience, most of the time, this is actually a slight misdiagnosis. The problem isn't the number of characters, it's how the characters are handled.

Readers can surprisingly remember a lot of characters. Like usual, I'm going to point to Harry Potter as an example (really, is anyone surprised? 🙃). Even if you are only looking at the first book (which is the shortest), the audience is still interacting with a lot of characters. You have not only Harry and his family, but his close friends, other students, the faculty, non-faculty residents of the castle (like Nearly Headless Nick and Firenze), the Weasleys, and even pets (Hedwig, Scabbers, Trevor, Fang, and Norbert), not to mention off-page characters, like Lily and James.

So how do we make a big cast of characters work?

First, consider if your story actually benefits from a large cast of characters. Some genres and settings do not. You obviously don't want to put a lot of characters in Gary Paulsen's The Hatchet. It doesn't work with the premise and setting. Other stories and premises almost beg for a big cast--stories that have a lot of worldbuilding and societal aspects. But I think the average person can deduce whether their story could actually have (or needs) a large cast.

A lot of the tips in here can really apply to any size of cast of characters, but they are particularly important for large casts.

Pick the Right Character Names

 

For sure one of the best ways to confuse your audience with your large cast is to use names that are difficult to differentiate. After all, we are dealing with reading and writing, so that is visually what the audience is looking at.

Watch for these qualities:

Rhyming names - This might sound like a good idea (and you might even point at Tolkien as a reason to do it), but you should almost never use rhyming names. It makes it harder for the audience to see those characters as individuals. People may be tempted to do this with twins (which feeds into the "Twins as Clones Epidemic"), particularly if the twins are "clones," which in that case, they should probably be combined into one character anyway.

Look or Sound Similar - Beyond rhyming, you should really be watching out for any names that may be similar on the page. Cognitively, we often notice the first and last letters--and especially the first. Beyond that, we notice the length and syllables. If you introduce two side characters around the same time and they both have H-names that are short, like "Henry" and"Harry," it will be more difficult on the audience.

Too Many Common/Traditional Names - Some names are just common and traditional. Which isn't bad in and of itself of course, but they can sometimes be difficult to differentiate when there are a lot of them all at once for side or minor characters. "Tom," "John," "Joe," "Robert," "David," and "Michael" are some examples. Fine names, but if you have a bunch together, you'll need to differentiate using other methods.

Also:

Stick with the Same Name - If you are worried about people not keeping track of your characters, try to call the characters by the same name every time. For example, you might introduce one character as Alfred Johnson, and then sometimes call him Alfred and sometimes call him Johnson, and maybe he's also a fireman, so sometimes you call him "the fireman." Instead, almost always use one name, like Alfred. (Note: this may not be a problem with all stories, but it will help with a large cast in particular.)

Note: Use an usual name to make a character stand out. But also keep in mind that if it's too difficult to pronounce, it may also be difficult to remember, since the reader may just scan over it.

If you do have characters with similar names, make sure to differentiate other characteristics and try to introduce them in completely different scenes. Also, the more important the character, the more likely you can get away with similar names, because the more differentiated they will be.

Learn more on picking character names here.

Use Character Tags


Character tags are words or descriptions repeatedly used in association with a character. The great thing about character tags is that, for the reader, they immediately bring that specific character back into their mind, with very little work. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, Count Olaf is tagged with having a unibrow, shiny eyes, and a tattoo of an eye on his ankle. All of his henchmen are tagged too. One has two hooks for hands. One is androgynous. Another is bald. The sisters use white powder on their faces. In fact, in the series, most of the characters are over-tagged simplistically to make them more into caricatures, which suits the kind of "unreality" the author is working in. But this sort of thing works of any kind of story.

For a tag to be effective, make sure it is specific and not generic or vague. For example, you probably don't want to tag a female character with long hair--a lot of women have long hair, so it's not memorable (unless in the worldbuilding long hair isn't allowed). The best details to pick as tags are the things that are most noticeable about that character--that's what the viewpoint character is going to notice first anyway. This post talks all about picking the right details.

Note: Character tags don't always have to be physical descriptions. They can be demeanors or dominating personality traits--you may use words like "cute," "greedy," "whiny," but almost always the tags include some physical description. In Harry Potter, Ernie Macmillan is tagged with the word "pompous." But this brings me to the next section . . .

Choose Specific Demeanors and Dominating Emotions


There are some people in the world who walk in the room, talk to you for a few minutes, and you immediately get a sense of who they are. This effect can be especially helpful with large casts. Some of you may remember Disney's remake of the movie Tron. Like it or hate it, in it there is a side character who does this exact thing, Zuse. I remember talking to my family member about how even though that character wasn't in the movie much, the actor immediately told me what kind of person he was.

People have their own worldviews, lifestyles, voices, and emotions. Try to convey that with how your character presents herself. Again, if you need to differentiate them, try to make it specific. I love the story of how Johnny Depp came up with Jack Sparrow's demeanor--he actually took two unusual people (one fictional) and smashed them together to create something new. I did a post on that and demeanors here.

If you pay attention, you'll notice most people in the real world have certain dominating emotions. Some people always seem miserable and whiny. Others might be too optimistic. Some smug. In reality, we all have a dominating range of emotions--and our characters should too. You can learn more about that here.

Note: Other than specific, special circumstances, make sure that you don't give the same demeanors to multiple characters. And even if they are similar, for example, both are arrogant, try to find a way arrogance manifests differently in each character.

Remind the Audience of When the Character was Last on the Page


This is pretty self-explanatory. Sometimes you need to jog the audience's memory of a side character they met who hasn't been on the page for a while. The above techniques can help, but sometimes you'll want to slide in a bit more. For example, if the protagonist meets Jennifer and learns Jennifer rescues wild birds, you might slide in a line like this when she returns to the page later: "I wondered how the injured robin was doing."

What you don't want to do is spend a lot of words backtracking to when we last saw that character (unless it's important to the story of course). Find some words or a line that associates the current moment to the last to jog the audience's memory and help them place the character.

Focus the Story and Limit the Viewpoints


Sometimes the writer has a big cast of characters and they like so many of them, their perspectives and personal stories, that they try to write more plot and viewpoints than fit the story.

You can absolutely include more than one plot (in fact, you should, in some sense) and more than one viewpoint, but they need to work together to focus and clarify the main point of the story, not muddy it.

In rare books, you can have loads of viewpoints. In college, I read Brownsville by Oscar Casares, which basically has a different viewpoint for every chapter, but it works because the book is really about the city, Brownsville, rather than the characters.

But most stories, especially commercial stories, aren't like that. Focus on a few main viewpoint characters. In some cases, you can still sprinkle in scenes from other viewpoints, but almost always the scene needs to have a function beyond just giving that character's view.

Remember that just because one character's view and personal story line doesn't fully play out on the page doesn't mean it's nonexistent. In fact, having that is an important part of writing authentic side characters. Not to mention that it's helpful for you as an author to know it.

Anyway, with side characters, sometimes "less is more" when it comes to helping the audience make a meaningful connection with them. Often a smart line of subtext that suggests a traumatic past is more effective than putting the whole backstory on the page. Let the audience fill in the blanks so they become more invested in the character. (You can also consider putting the information elsewhere, like on your website, so that readers who want to learn more, can.)

Choose the plots that speak to the main elements of the novel. To some degree, this is based on your own judgment and vision for the story, but other elements, like considering your target audience and the appeals of your novel, are helpful too.

One of the most effective ways to focus a novel with a large cast of characters is to consider the theme and ask which character stories best relate to it. In Hamilton, almost every "character story" explored relates back to the theme of legacy: Hamilton, Burr, Eliza, Angelica, Washington, Lafayette, Hercules--and provides different manifestations and views of it. More on that here.



In the end, the main thing is to focus the story and differentiate the characters. If you have a large cast of characters, the audience will likely need more of the narrator's guiding hand to keep things straight. Focus on the most important characters and let the side characters be side characters. You can learn more about crafting great side characters in this post.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Writer's Block with Depression and Anxiety




Anonymous asked: How do you deal with writer's block? What if you have depression/anxiety and it's latching on to said block? Is it a "power through it" thing? Or a "take a day for self-care and come back tomorrow" thing?


First question:

I’ve found there are a few reasons we might get writer’s block.

A Lack of Brainstorming
Usually when I get writer’s block, it’s because I haven’t brainstormed enough. I’m stuck because I don’t know what to do next. That’s when I stop and have a few brainstorming sessions to get the ideas flowing.

The Wrong Turn
I’ve heard other writers say that if you get writer’s block, it means you’ve taken a “wrong turn” with your story, and you need to go back a few pages to figure out where you strayed. I just did this today, on a small scale. Totally helped.

Writing into a Corner
Sometimes you can get writer’s block because you’ve written your character into a corner. Maybe you’ve had a kidnapper tie her up and you can literally think of no way she can get out of the situation. In that case, you may need to go back and rewrite the story so she doesn’t get that stuck.

A Loss of Motivation
Sometimes it’s not really writer’s block, but me losing my drive to write. I might just need a break (like you mentioned), or I might need to consume some fiction that I love, which helps.

Perfectionism
Sometimes I get writer’s block when I’m trying to be too perfect with my writing. It’s like I want to get everything right all at once! For that, I have to try to give myself permission to mess up and overlook problems until later.

Other questions:

Depression and anxiety can be the worst. I’m not qualified to give any professional advice or anything in that realm, but I can talk about my own personal experiences.

FOR ME I’ve actually found that writing helps me deal with depression and anxiety. It DOES NOT make writing easy. In fact, it can be really, really hard to write when I’m depressed or anxious. But 9/10, I feel better writing when depressed than not writing when depressed. Even though it’s hard, it helps me feel like I’m moving in a direction. Sometimes we don’t have any control over the depression or what is causing the depression–but I always have some control over my words. At least at the end of the writing session, I know I tried, if nothing else. On great days, it may actually help me get over depression (but there are so many facets to depression, that it’s hard to generalize and it can be so individualized).

For me, I usually try to keep writing. But if it’s really, really bad and doesn’t seem to be getting better, then I’ll consider taking a break. I don’t know that the answer is really clear, other than to try both. Keep writing and see how you feel. If it’s not helping, take a day off and see how you feel. If taking the day off doesn’t help, I usually assume it’s just something I’ll have to power through and keep writing. But it may not be the same for everyone. And it also depends on your personal circumstances.

Those are my thoughts anyway. Hope they help.

If anyone wants to chime in via comments, go ahead. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Taking Risks as Part of the Creative Lifestyle




Months ago, I did something scary that I didn't originally tell many people about. I quit my job to pursue my own writing and freelance editing full-time. Even though it was something planned for months, I felt uneasy when the moment arrived. Despite having prepared, saved money (I've worked extra the last year), and knowing it was the right decision for me to make, I still felt a somewhat irrational illness about it. When I got home, I hopped on Facebook only to read another writer I know preparing to do the same thing and quit her job as a teacher. She said she was both excited and terrified.

I got to thinking how these two emotions seem to be regular company for the writer--and frankly, probably any creative.

In reality, creatives have to deal with a lot of risks. Here are some to consider:

- When you start writing, you may fear that you won't be able to complete a story or meet a goal. What if you get writer's block? What if you are cliche? What if you are horrible? You may fear personal failure. But you keep writing--after all, isn't that what you want to do?

- When you finish a story, you may fear that it's not good enough, doesn't measure up, that no one will want to read it, that people will hate it. You may fear that it was a waste of time, and that you could have done something more productive with your time. You take those risks simply by creating and sharing the manuscript.

- When you send it out for feedback, you have to take the risk of having to endure criticism that at least some part of you doesn't want to hear. In some cases, you might be told that your fears were right--this is not a great story. You used too many cliches. And worst of all, it's boring.

- When you revise and edit a manuscript, you might fear you won't be able to fix the problems and make it better. It might feel impossible. You may wonder if you are making the wrong choices. But you take those risks.

- When you send it out to agents or editors, you again take risks. Will anyone want to represent or publish it? What if I put in all this work, and energy, and stress, and worry in and nothing happens?

- It gets published, but what if "no one reads it"? What if it doesn't get marketed right? What if someone online, maybe a "social justice warrior" tears it down, hurting sells before it has the chance to take off?

- What if (more like when) it gets stolen and put up online everywhere for free, and you lose sales, hurting your career?

- What if you can't write another book as good as your first? Let alone better? What if you can't do it again?

As creatives, we deal with a whole slew of fears--some legitimate and some perceived, but all powerful.

We have to risk feeling afraid, and we have to risk what we fear time and time again.

Being a writer and a creative is all about risks of one sort or another.

I think this is one reason why writers can sometimes seem rather emotional about their work and career. One second they are on top of the world, and the next they think they are being crushed by it never to surface.



When we hear "risks" we usually think of someone chopping and coloring their hair into something wild, embarking on a big and scary financial venture, moving to another country, or skydiving. But most risks are far less obvious. The majority probably happen within ourselves.

A couple of months ago, I heard an author describe her writing journey as humiliating. I think all of us have probably felt like we have had eggs on our faces, felt like we were imposters, even failures, at some point in time. Trust me, you are not alone.

All of these thoughts and feelings are completely normal.

Last year, I went to a panel were an artist talked about what actors (apparently) call the "yabba yabba." He explained that the yabba yabba is that voice in your head that tells you those fears and doubts and warns you of risks. The yabba yabba is not inherently a bad thing. It keeps us alive and safe. If I think of driving off a cliff, the yabba yabba is going to tell me I really shouldn't do that. Without the yabba yabba, we'd all be dead.

Some people get upset and even angry with that voice. They may reprimand it. But it is not inherently bad. Rather than have a war with it, simply acknowledge it, and move on--take that risk.

The yabba yabba is afraid of risks, because they aren't safe. But that doesn't mean they are wrong.

Write that novel. Send it to that agent. As Jim Carrey famously said in a commencement speech, "Risk being seen in all your glory."

It's scary to do that, but it's okay to do that.

And it's 100% okay to feel scared--but do it anyway.

I once heard someone say that if your dreams don't scare you, they aren't big enough. So sally up with your buddies Excitement and Terror and take those risks.

Living the creative lifestyle can seem like the best and worst idea you've ever had. But if you never take those risks, you never have a chance of getting those amazing rewards. As the maxim goes, "You miss every shot you don't take."

Do you want to know what's more scary than taking those risks?

Living a life of unfulfilled dreams.


Monday, January 7, 2019

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Write What You Know"



You've probably heard the writing rule, "Write what you know," but in the world of fiction, that advice can seem questionable, especially if you work in the speculative realm. No one alive has ever met a dragon, but there are load of books that have them. On the other hand, if you write about Latter-day Saints attending churches filled with crosses, those familiar with the religion will be shaking their heads.

So where do we draw the line? And what does it mean? And when can we write what we don't know?

What's the Rule?

Write what you know.


Why it's a Rule

My church example above is problematic because that religion doesn't use crosses. So the person who wrote it doesn't know what they are talking about. Here is another example from the book Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern:

"Mush, mush!" Nooknook shouted, as he threw bits of meat to make his dogs bound across the ice floe.

That's not how dog sledding works.

One of the most obvious (and quickest) problems that arise from this is that it messes up believability. We are instantly taken out of the story because we know that's not how dog sledding works.

Having done ballet, including pointe shoes, I find myself cringing a lot in movies when they incorporate it. For those that don't know, wearing pointe shoes requires very specific technique and you also need the shoes to fit in the exact right way (you should have a professional fit your foot), which is one reason why you have to sew the ribbons and elastic on yourself. If you haven't developed the right muscles, haven't learned the accurate technique, or you wear shoes that don't quite fit, you can develop serious health issues. It's hard to get to the threshold where you can even use pointe shoes, but being able to continue to use them can be even harder.

So when I see Gwen Stacy zip down from the trees and land on hers hard like this:


I cringe inside.

Look at how damaging that alignment is! Ouchie.

(Even worse is when movies show a character skipping the ballet slippers and going straight for the pointe shoes. *facepalm*)

But there are more problems than just believability issues.

If it's a reoccurring thing in entertainment, negative and inaccurate stereotypes can emerge. Also, if audiences see inaccurate information enough times, they begin to believe it as truth.

As a writer, you probably know what I'm talking about. You know those movies that are "about" writers? Where the character has a moment of inspiration and then stays up all night and completes a novel by morning? It's a joke, right? But because that's how the process has been conveyed so much, the average person thinks that's how it works and is completely clueless as to what actually goes into it and what it takes (same with pointe shoes).

I still remember watching La La Land and laughing internally as the protagonist spends the entire movie struggling to be an actress but then magically becomes an amazing screenwriter/playwright after writing two stories (one when she was a child). Please. Even when they try to show how difficult the arts is, they show the writing part of it wrong.

Anyway . . .

My writer examples are rather harmless, but these things can have real world, real serious consequences. Such as when someone started slipping off the edge of the Grand Canyon, so their loved one reached out for them and they both ended up dying. Folks, real life is not like the hanging-on-the-ledge-by-one-hand movie trope. Also, mines don't really go off after you step off them--if you wanted to kill someone, why would you invent it like that? You'd have it go off asap.

Then there are the stereotypes, which is a whole other thing. Some of you might be familiar with the popular Disney ride, Splash Mountain. Fewer of you may know that the movie it's based on, Song of the South, is actually banned because of racism. Lots of people who've seen it will argue all day that the movie has nothing negative about blacks in it. But the point isn't that it doesn't have blatantly negative depictions of blacks, the point is that it perpetuates damaging stereotypes and ideas about blacks.

See, back in the day, blacks were often depicted as being happy to be slaves, in order to encourage society to keep them as slaves--which in some ways is actually more dangerous than being blatantly racist, because the average person watching the entertainment is blind to it. Whether or not you agree that Song of the South should remain banned, the reason it was banned, is because it taps into and perpetuates that damaging stereotype. This is also why every Halloween there is controversy over someone painting their face black--because back in the day, people in power intentionally did that when intentionally portraying blacks in negative or damaging ways, subtlety keeping them in a culture and societal state of less power (and in a way that would seem harmless). This is also why there are arguments regularly about who has the right or ability to portray minorities, period.


If this is a new idea to you, or you are bit skeptical, let's go back to the writing example. How many people have you interacted with that expect you to whip out a book in a week, and if it takes you months or years, they become skeptical of how you spend your time, or if you are "actually" working? Probably a lot of us have had an interaction like that of some sort (seriously, no wonder there are so many closet writers! Because writers don't want to deal over and over again with all the misunderstandings). Even as a writer, you may be faced with perpetuating myths and misinformation that have been so ingrained into our culture and society that people do not even know to even question them as possibly being false.

This is one of the crazy powers of storytelling.

So.

I guess I had a lot to say about that. But the point is, when you write what you don't know, not only do you damage the audience's suspension of disbelief, but if the audience doesn't know, you can intentionally or unintentionally create or perpetuate false ideas as truth, which can be harmful to individuals or even a culture or society.

I mean, imagine everyone grabbing pointe shoes and dancing around on concrete.

Aaack, let's not! It's too cringe worthy.

Does this all sound like a burden?

Let's talk about what the advice actually means.


What it Actually Means and How it Applies

"Sound bite" advice can always be dangerous when it's applied to everything. Very, very few things in life can apply to everything.

Let me give an example.

I hate the adage, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Because there are so many exceptions to this, depending on how you interpret it.

However, in the right context it can be absolutely true. But as human beings, we don't want to reiterate the whole context and setup and everything else every single time we use an adage. It's monotonous and long winded. And it looses its punch. We like when phrases sum an idea up and communicate it quickly. "No pain, no gain." --obviously this doesn't apply to everything in life, but it's shorthand advice for a particular situation. Problems come if we take it out of that context/situation and assume it applies to everything. Sometimes, we hear an adage so much, that the context is lost over time, so we assume it's absolute--that it's intended to always be true on all accounts. (Dangerous.)

But really, adages are meant to serve as a written/verbal symbol for a thought process. We don't want to go on a long winded speech about courage, liberty, and purity every time we incorporate American ideas, so we display the flag as shorthand. Same with adages.

"Write what you know," probably originally had a whole thought process, but it's been used as shorthand advice for so long, that a lot of us don't know what it actually means or what it applies to anymore. (And this happens a lot with writing advice.)

But I like how Stern rewords it in Making Shapely Fiction. He notes it might be better to think of this advice in the negatives:

Don't write what you don't know.

If you don't know about dog sledding, and you are going to write, "Nooknook threw bits of meat to make his dogs bound across the ice floe," we have a problem.



Don't write what you don't know.

Great.

But it's still vague, right? I mean, does any of us actually know definitively what real aliens are like, assuming they exist? No.

What the advice is really saying is:

Don't write something wrong that you (or society) can know to write right.

Don't write something wrong when you or society has the capacity to know what's accurate.

Obviously, for a lot of things, this is taken care of through research. I can research dog sledding. You can interview someone who has done pointe shoes.

Heck people, we have the internet these days! Research is easier than ever (though it takes a level of discernment with your sources).

However, some of this section overlaps and is bleeding into the next section, so I'm going to move onto that.


When to Break the "Rule"

The most obvious, and the one I touched on in the last section, is speculative fiction.

Speculative Fiction


None of us know about aliens, so in that case, we have to imagine them. We get to make it up.

Have you or has anyone you've known met a dragon? Of course not. In order to write a dragon, you will have to write about what you "don't know." Sure, you can research all you want about "dragons," and if you want to, that will fill in a lot of blanks. But since they don't exist, it's all myth anyway. And even if you do use what's historically available, you will have to make up some part of it.

Same with science fiction. Even with things we know, like all we know about dinosaurs, Jurassic Park still had to imagine and make up what we don't know about dinosaurs to fill in the blanks. How they moved, how they sounded.

Remember my modified version of the rule:

Don't write something wrong that you (or society) can know to write right.

Is there really a wrong way to write your own made up magic system? In most cases, no.

HOWEVER

Weirdly enough, sometimes even the fantastic can go wrong. That's because even the imaginary needs to be believable within the realm of the story and within the audience's suspension of disbelief. (For more on problems with believability, see this post). For one, your magic system probably needs to follow the rules you established in the beginning of the story. If fantasy or science fiction doesn't follow the established rules, there is (probably) a problem.


Personal Experiences

Because I already talked a bit about what the rule is actually supposed to mean, I almost feel like I don't need this section, but I'm adding it because people get stuck on it.

Sometimes we think "knowing" means we have to have experienced it. Obviously experiencing something firsthand is super helpful when writing, but it's not a requirement. Just because I've never owned a sugar glider doesn't mean I can't write what it would be like to own one, if I do the proper research. Just because you are a man doesn't mean you can never write from a heroine's viewpoint. Learn what you can, then draw from your own intellect, imagination, or experience to fill in the blanks. (Notice I didn't say "make up the blanks," I said "fill in the blanks.")

I'm not a murderer. In most ways, I don't really know what it would be like to actually be one. I know some things because I love watching the creepy I.D. channel on tv. But I have been very angry before, and I have imagined what it might be like to be a murderer (if only through television and fiction), so I could use that to fill in the blanks.

When we confuse "knowing" with "experiencing" we can really paralyze ourselves as writers. For most of us, it's impossible to experience everything everyone in our cast of characters has experienced. If you want to cripple under powerful bouts of imposter syndrome, this is a fantastic way to accomplish that.

One way to help make something you haven't experienced still feel authentic is to make it very human. Another helpful way is to ask how that experience would play out for that specific person in that specific setup. So, maybe you are a man writing about a woman walking home in the dark. How is walking home in the dark different for a woman than a man? Well, a woman is going to be more cautious and suspicious of others. Personally, I'd have my hand on my pepper spray. So you brainstorm that, then slide some choice details of that experience in. They key is you slide in some--don't overdo it. Some people draw attention to their lack of experience by overcompensating.

The Information is Known, but Inaccessible

There are still some things you can not know, even if other people exist that do know. Secret experiments. Government cover-ups. The latest technology in weaponry. Even if you manage to get some information from someone, you may not be able to get all of THE information.

Like the last section, build off what you do know, and then fill in the blanks. In some cases, it's okay to be vague (though it depends on the situation). For example, maybe you have a character fixing an advanced piece of equipment that is real, but you don't have access to information on how its components actually work. So write a little vaguely about him fixing it. The average audience member isn't going to care or notice, unless it's something already established as very important to the story. It's okay to bluff a little. After all, as writers, we are making stuff up. Remember, it still needs to be believable in the realm of the story.


Intentionally Writing What You Know is Wrong

In some cases, it might be worth really breaking the rule by intentionally writing what you know, wrong.

An Exchange is Worth the Cost

Remember my complaints about Gwen being on pointe shoes? Guess what? Even though I cringed initially, who really cares? It was a fun and cool character design. Maybe portraying pointe shoes wrong was actually worth the exchange of a cool character design. Spider-man is my favorite superhero, so a Spider-woman who does ballet and is in a rock band? Um, okay, that's really cool and fun.


Despite all my complaining above, after my initial response, I actually kind of loved the pointe shoes. I've never seen them used for a superhero costume. Also, let's not forget she's freaking Spider-woman, so she can flipping get beat up, mess up her body, and break her bones and still survive. Sure, we probably don't want girls running home and trying to do acrobats and land on pointe shoes they've never worn before, just like we don't want them to run through traffic in New York to get away from police. But at the end of the day, I'm willing to forgive any inaccurate portrayals in exchange for a cool character design (also the fact she's super-human does really help).

You might run into similar moments. Sometimes intentionally doing something wrong is worth the cost.

It Serves the Story

Similarly, you may want to intentionally write something wrong when it serves the story. HOWEVER, this is not to be confused with ruining the suspension of disbelief (believability). It's possible to write something wrong without making the audience roll their eyes.

As a lot of you probably know, I'm a huge fan of Interstellar, and it was interesting watching the behind-the-scenes clips for the movie and hearing Christopher Nolan talk about the things he portrayed wrong, intentionally. I mean, it feels like we aren't allowed to do that right? But he did.

One thing he did in particular was put a whole cornfield on fire. When he said he was going to do this, people told him that Cooper's cornfield wouldn't actually burn. It's too green. Nolan said he was going to do it anyway.

Other than maybe a percentage of farmers in the audience, did anyone really care? No. It was a minor change that served the plot. Those who knew better would probably make note of it, but as for actually ruining the suspension of disbelief . . . ? I doubt it. You're going to tell me that having a green cornfield catch on fire is going to ruin your movie experience? If you are that guy, you need to loosen up and have some fun. "It's a movie!"--as they say.

It Serves the Audience

Sometimes the audience will actually enjoy the story and benefit more if you portray something inaccurately.

Also in Interstellar, there are a few lines of dialogue where the science is slightly wrong--intentionally. At one part, the characters talk about sling-shotting their spacecraft via gravitational pull. In order to do what they were talking about, you would need to slingshot around a little black hole. One problem: there was already a black hole in the story, and mentioning another one, in passing, was just going to confuse the audience. It wasn't important enough to slow down and explain that there were two and differentiate them, so instead, they said something else (I think it was a pulsar) to keep the story flowing.

A harmless little white lie.

That served the audience.


Note: You probably almost never want to portray minorities wrong--unless the point is that it is wrong, and therefore ridiculous for it. Any controversial topic should also probably not be portrayed inaccurately either. Use your brain.



Room for Forgiveness

After everything I said in the beginning of this about the importance of portraying things correctly, I also want to note that we are all probably going to get something wrong at some point. I mean, we're only human. Even writers can't know everything. ;)

It's better to make some mistakes or write a few minor things wrong than to not write at all.

I mean, if a writer gets something wrong, but the rest of the story is great, I'm going to forgive the error. I'd rather have a good story.

Also, don't forget that it's a story.

On the one hand, it can be incredibly important how we portray things in storytelling, on the other, it's important to also remember it's a story. It's not real life. And sure, that character can hang off a ledge by one hand and be fine, and that soldier can step on a land mine and not have it go off until after he takes his foot off. Sometimes we go so far one direction, that we can forget that it's a work of fiction and not necessarily a perfect nor accurate representation of real life. Or in other words, "It's just a movie!" (or book.)

Now go forth and write!