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Monday, February 26, 2018

The Most Important Part of Sequels and Retellings


You've probably noticed like the rest of the world that we are living in a period of entertainment where everything is or has a sequel, a reboot, a remake, an adaptation, or a familiar story source (fairy tales for example). People in the entertainment industries, especially Hollywood, have finally caught on to the idea that making an addition to an existing story or franchise is not only safer, but smarter--you are guaranteed to make money--because it already has a ready-made audience, and when marketing your material, you don't have spend money and energy educating the audience as much on what story you are selling. You make the tenth Peter Pan movie (too late, it's already in the works), and people already know what sort of plot they are getting. An added bonus (read: draw) is that it resonates with what audiences are already familiar with.

If you are like me, you are starting  for the 4th year continuing to wish Hollywood would put out more original stories and more standalones, even if you love series and fairy tales and superhero movies. I mean, wouldn't it be so refreshingly great to go to an amazing movie with a brand new story you haven't heard before? And then something like the Nutcracker is announced and you repent of your complaining, because I mean, oh my gosh, did you see the trailer?

Now that Hollywood and much of the world have discovered the power and (monetary) benefits of resonating closely with previous works (whether it be another installment or retelling) and the ease of having a ready-made audience, I don't think we are going to see an end to this phase any time soon, if ever.

And while I'm tired of the market being saturated with sequels, remakes, and reboots, the truth is, I love a story that stretches over several installments, and I even love retellings of stories I'm familiar with (though a little less now than previous because of saturation).

With all of these sequels and retellings (and me watching the new season of X-Files), I've been thinking a lot lately about what the most important part is to get right when writing one. After all, some of the remakes can seem widely different than their predecessors--different plot, different characters, maybe even different setting--and yet still be hugely successful. Others may still have those same components and fall on their faces.



This is because the most important part of continuing or revisiting a story is hitting the right emotional draws.

What were the original emotional draws in the previous installment(s)? If you are writing a sequel you need to hit those same emotional beats. If you are retelling a "classic," you need to hit the same emotional beats of that classic.

What are emotional beats and draws? They are the emotions that the story hits on. In a romance story, you need to have romance beats. In a horror story, you need to have horror beats. In a comedy, you need to have comedic beats.

It's obvious when we talk about them that way. But not all stories are as clear, and if you want to write a successful sequel, you need to go beyond generalities and hit the right kind of romantic beats. The right kind of comedic beats. All stories have more than one emotional draw. They may have one prominent one, but it will have others in it. Some have two, three, or four prominent ones, and still others.

There are some sequels that have different characters or settings (harder to pull off, but it can be done), but are still successful. Why? Because they hit the same emotional beats of the original.

If there is ONE thing that is MOST important about writing a sequel, it's including the same emotional beats.

Let's look at one of the highest grossing sequels of all time: Jurassic World.

You've probably seen it and will recall that the plot and characters were so-so. In fact, both the plot and characters were criticized and made fun of. But Jurassic World nailed its emotional beats. Nailed them.


The primary emotional draw for any speculative fiction, is a sense of wonder--that feeling of being enthralled and captivated, that sense of curiosity over potential possibilities, that sense of what if ____ could happen. Jurassic Park inherently has that, because of the subject matter: dinosaurs. But the film amplified it by having specific moments and shots that hit that exact beat, like meeting the Brachiosaurus. There is a lot of sense of wonder going on in that scene.

The secondary emotional draw for Jurassic Park is horror--something goes wrong and characters have to try to survive and outwit carnivorous dinosaurs. Whether it's the T-rex trying to get into a car, or the raptors getting through closed doors.

Then there are less prominent beats. Most horrors (there are some exceptions) tap into our primal need to survive. So Jurassic Park also has the same beats survival stories have. Likewise, a lot of wonder feeds into beats of wish-fulfillment. At on point or another, most of us have probably wished we could actually see a real dinosaur, and even if you take out that, most of us have wished at one point or another that we were on vacation at a theme park. Then it breaks down to even more beats, to a few comedic concepts and a few moments that relate to relationships between the characters. Then there are the intellectual beats that ask us to consider morals.

Jurassic Park has an extra oomph of power, because it's two primary emotional draws, wonder and horror, are actually opposites. And when you cross opposites in storytelling (as I explained in this big fat post 2 1/2 years ago), you get amplified emotional power.

Okay, so then Jurassic World came out. It's easy to be skeptical because this is the fourth movie in the franchise--I mean, what else can you do with it that won't be dumb? (Thankfully, they changed it up a bit (and amplified that sense of wish-fulfillment) by having the park be open and functional).

It was a huge success. Why? Because it nailed the same emotional draws of the originals: wonder, horror, survival, wish-fulfillment, a few comedic concepts, relationship moments, moral questions.

If Jurassic World did not hit wonder and horror, survival and wish-fulfillment, it would have not been successful.

This is why in some series you can even change characters, settings, or (to some degree, plot)--it's harder to pull off and not recommended for the majority--but what matters most is hitting the same emotional draws.



Look at Chronicles of Narnia. If I asked the average American who the main character is, most people would probably tell me Lucy--a few wise people might say Aslan, which goes into a different tangent for another post (main character vs. protagonist vs. viewpoint character). But if any of you have read the whole series, Lucy and her siblings aren't even in all the books. Lucy is only a principal character in three of the seven books, and a minor character in two others. You can argue that the books are all about Narina, I mean, it is called the Chronicles of Narnia, right? That may be true, but the first book The Magician's Nephew seems to take place in other worlds that are just as important as Narnia. It may be "about Narnia," but Narnia as we know it doesn't even exist until the end of the volume. Is it a failure?

No.

It hits the same draws: wonder, danger, spirituality, morality, allegory.

Same thing with the X-Files. When they started this new season on right now (no spoilers here), I knew the kinds of episodes it would have, because regardless of changes in plot or character dynamics--writer Chris Carter knows to hit all the same beats.


-There will be an episode about the overarching plot of the whole series, that hits the drama beat, with Smokey Man and the agents, Mulder and Scully, Scully and her child.

-There will be a standalone episode about a legendary creature or monster

-There will be a lighthearted comedy episode, that reminds you not to take the show too seriously and that the creators aren't afraid to poke fun at themselves.

-There will be a conspiracy episode, about something the government is testing on people. Mulder and Scully will work with those people.

-There will be an episode that relates to aliens.

-There will be an episode about someone who has supernatural abilities.

- At least one of these will have a horror feel, another will have a relationship draw, another will have suspense or thriller beats, another will have mystery undertones, another will capitalize on being creepy, and it goes on.


And while you might point to the fact that I mostly listed types of episodes instead of emotions--each of those types have their own specific draws.



Each individual draw may not appeal to everyone. This is why among X-Files fans you may hear some people complain about the drama beats because they only want monster-wonder ones, or some who will claim that the lighthearted comedy episode is the best one of the season while others are scratching their heads at it, or why some swoon over the relationship beats between Scully and Mulder (did you know X-Files is where the term "shipping" originated?) while others are waiting to get to the government conspiracy.

When the new season started, I had couple of family members say after the first two episodes: "Oh, this is gonna be like the old X-Files."

Yes.

Why?

Because the writers understand the franchise's emotional beats. They may do some things with the plot that you may find questionable or even . . . inaccurate. They may try to bring in other characters that most people don't like. But they know what all the emotional beats of the franchise is, and they will hit all of them by the end of the season.

They could narrow in and only do a few specific draws like most successful t.v. shows do these days--such as the overall plot with Smokey Man--but if they did, they'd be axing the viewers who love the legendary creature stories the most. They need to hit all the same beats.

And they will.


X-Files is interesting because it has a lot of specific niche beats inside of its primary ones, whereas Jurassic Park has more generalized draws (a more generalized wonder and horror--and also more primal draws). But even if you look at it, you will find some that do break down more specifically. For example, every movie in the franchise has a moment where a character is trapped in some sort of vehicle with a T-rex-like dinosaur trying to get in.

Which leads me to my next point--one of the biggest pitfalls of sequels: trying to do the exact same thing as the previous installment(s). This can go really flat with comedy in particular.

As one of my friends in college once said, "The thing with sequels is they try to do the same thing that was funny in the last movie, as if it's still going to be funny."

Sequels can easily fail when people confuse plot with emotional beats--which is easy to do.

See, the plot absolutely inherently affects, helps determine, and creates your story's emotional draws--but they aren't the same thing.

When it comes to sequels and retellings, people want the same thing . . . but different.

That sounds so vague, right? What the heck does that mean?

It means they want the same emotional draws and beats, not the exact same events and lines and contexts.

I don't want to hear the exact same joke in the sequel. I want to hear the same kind of joke.

In the sequel, you can take things from the original, and twist, tweak, flip, or invert it, to make it different, but the draws 99.9% of the time need to be the same.

You can take the last joke and build and twist it to make it funny again, and hit that same humor beat, but you can't do the exact same thing over and over again. It's annoying and falls flat.
 

Sure, the Jurassic movies always have a T-rex-like dinosaur trying to get in a vehicle where people are trapped, but each situation varies somewhat, and unless you are a writer, you may not even be conscious of how often this set-up happens over and over.

Jurassic has very generalized and primal emotional draws--things all humans can relate to. It doesn't need to be as varied in its installments as other franchises do. In fact, because of the nature of the story set-up (how many different ways can you put humans and dinos together in this age?), it can't be without falling on its face. It needs to stick to somewhat of a formula. A different franchise with more primal and generalized draws may have more freedom and need to utilize it in its set-up. For example, the Maze Runner movies have different set-ups each movie, but still the same generalized, primal draws. Wouldn't it be annoying if each movie really was the exact same thing, the exact same maze, over and over?

In order to hit the right emotional beats, the installments or retelling may follow a close pattern or formula, but that's not always necessary. What matter most is that they hit them.

The fifth Indiana Jones movie probably can't be a spy romance that takes place in New York City because it's very unlikely you will be hitting the primary beat of the franchise: adventure. And not just adventure, but the franchise's specific type of adventure.

Other times you may even have the same characters, setting, or a similar plot, but it doesn't hit the right specific emotional draws, and falls flat.

Again, this why it's so important to see emotional draws as something different than plot. They relate and overlap, but they aren't the exact same thing.

 A couple years ago, the new Ghostbusters movie came out. I haven't seen it, I admit, so I can't give my opinion on it. But I can tell you a fact: the trailer is the most disliked video in Youtube history--1 MILLION thumbs down, and only 302k thumbs up. Some people said it was because others were sexist, which could be true, but when I started listening to what the dislikers were saying, what they were really complaining about was that it had different emotional beats. That the trailers for the new version weren't hitting the same specific beats--particularly the more serious and sinister beats--that the original trilogy hit. People were even complaining that the theme song sounded too comedic and campy and dub-steppy, and when the original had come out, it had a somewhat creepier, sinister undertone. I haven't seen any of the movies for a long time, and think I'd probably actually enjoy the new one, and I'm sure you have your own opinion, but I'm just using this as an example to teach the point I'm trying to make.

Emotional beats are where it's at. They are the reason professionals in the industry tell you to pitch your novel by comparing it to other stories (for example, "It's X-Men meets The Notebook")--which drives many readers and fans crazy. This pitch method is used to quickly communicate the sorts of beats and draws your own story has.

You can even take this all a step further and include specific emotional beats to appeal to specific audience.




A couple of weeks ago, a family member called me on the phone, and then started talking about Stranger Things. "It's reminds me of Harry Potter," he said. Then after a pause, "Even though they are completely different. . . ."

Are they completely different?

In characters and plot and setting, they definitely are.

But the reason it reminds him of Harry Potter is because Stranger Things hits most of the same emotional draws and beats. I was going to list them out, but this article is getting rather long. So instead, if you want to test yourself and you're familiar with each story, I'll leave it to you to consider: What emotional draws and beats do Harry Potter and Stranger Things share?

Is it really so surprising that Stranger Things is the most successful show to grace Netflix?

In closing, I think it's important to leave a note that some retellings (not sequels) work off slaughtering the original beats--for example, spoofs do this. Perhaps you want to write a story where Cinderella is actually evil. People will be drawn to that story because of different reasons than the Disney version. And even if you go to the original recorded fairy tales, they are very different than what we have today. So part of hitting the right beats, is going off what today's modern audience is familiar with. And sometimes going against the previous beat is blatantly intentional, but for almost all retellings, and definitely almost all sequels, you need to hit the same beats.


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Monday, February 19, 2018

The Benefits of a To-Do List



Today is a really special day for a couple of reasons. 1 - This is my 300th blog post, which is pretty crazy. 2 - Back when I was sophomore in college, I took my first class from an instructor who actually understood the publishing process and in that class I had my first ever legit publication. While my end goal was fiction, the class was focused on writing columns and articles and reviews for magazines. It was the first class where I began learning how to actually be a professional writer. Prior, I was looking for resources--whatever I could find online--and was frankly feeling a little lost. Writing Excuses was just getting started, so I didn't have that, and the blogging boom in the industry hadn't hit yet.

One of the books that was part of the curriculum for that college class was Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer by Moira Allen. I loved the book enough that I kept it and have even referred to it several times since graduating.

Last month I got a an email informing me of a new book release, Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (third edition)--I immediately recognized the title--and asking if I'd be interested in hosting the author on my blog.

It only seemed right that she be here for my 300th blog post.

So if you are interested in learning how to be a professional writer, definitely check out her book. In any case, she's here to give us our writing tip for the week.

The Benefits of a To-Do List


I’m a huge fan of to-do lists. They’re one of the handiest tools to help you become a more organized, efficient writer. You can use them to help you:

1. Prioritize. When you’re juggling half-a-dozen tasks in your head, it’s difficult to decide which comes first. Writing tasks down helps you view them from a different perspective. On paper, it’s easier to see that A is more important than C, while D should move to second place, F has been dragging on far too long, and B could certainly wait for another day.

Prioritizing can involve many factors. One is deadlines. If a task is due in two weeks, it’s likely to move to the top. However, deadlines aren’t the only priority. If you’ve been meaning to research a query for a high-paying market, it may have no deadline, but every week you wait is another week away from an important career move. To-do lists also help identify tasks you’ve been procrastinating over.


2. Organize. My list doesn’t just include business tasks; it also covers the rest of my life. If I’m planning a family get-together, that ensures I don’t load up that week with a bunch of writing tasks that won’t get done.

Lists also help you assign time values to your tasks. Once you’ve written your list, you’ll immediately notice tasks that require a lot of time, versus tasks that can be done in a snap. Moving quick-response tasks to the top of my list encourages me to get them done, adding to my accomplishments without cutting into my schedule.

That doesn’t mean you should always go for the shortest job first. Don’t focus on trivial tasks to the exclusion of more important jobs!


3. Identify problems. When you maintain a list from week to week, you’ll soon notice tasks that keep “sliding” from one week to the next. You may need to take a closer look at why you’re procrastinating.

It could be that the task isn’t actually important to you. It might seem like something you should do, but it never reaches top priority. If that’s why it keeps sliding, drop it from the list entirely, or postpone it to a later time.

Conversely, you may keep postponing a project because it is important. Often, the tasks we put off the longest are those most important to us—and also the most intimidating. If you feel unready to tackle something significant, it will keep sliding until you’ve identified and dealt with your fears or concerns,


4. Recognize achievements. To me, the best part of a to-do list is turning it into a “done” list. A list helps you identify exactly what you have done with your time. It helps you identify achievements instead of berating yourself over things you haven’t done.

Some folks laugh at the idea of writing something on your list simply to cross it off. I find, however, that making a note of something I’ve done, even if it wasn’t on the original list, helps me track achievements and identify where my time was spent. Then, if I’m not able to cross off all the original items, seeing the new entry helps me understand why—and perhaps recognize that I achieved something more important than I had originally planned.


To achieve these benefits, it's important to manage a to-do list effectively. Here are some tips that can be applied to nearly any type of list:


1. It must be reasonable. A list that reads, “write my novel, clean the garage, develop lesson-plans to home-school my daughter, achieve world peace” won’t help you accomplish anything. It will simply lead to frustration. Your list should include only tasks you can hope to achieve within the timeframe.

This means distinguishing between “tasks” and “projects.” A “project” is the big picture. Writing a novel is a project; writing a chapter is a task. Some projects (“clean my desk”) are small enough to count as standalone tasks. Others need to be broken into smaller chunks. For example, writing a 2,000-word article may need to be broken into smaller tasks, such as interviews, research, outlining, writing the first draft, editing, and so on. Each task should be a separate list item.


2. It must be in line with your goals. Creating a to-do list works best when combined with your long-term vision. For example, let’s say you have a goal of setting up a website. This involves a number of steps, some of which must be done sequentially, some that can be done simultaneously. By adding those tasks to your list, you remain aware of where you are in the project and what needs to be done next, which keeps you on track toward your long-term goal while keeping specific tasks manageable.


3. It must have a defined time frame. I prefer weekly lists to trying to assign tasks to specific days. Others prefer daily lists, while others prefer to write lists for the month. Some even make lists for the year. Studies have actually shown that keeping a more flexible to-do list with a longer time frame (e.g., weekly or monthly rather than daily) can actually improve performance. Some people keep separate lists for tasks vs. projects. A monthly list might include “write travel article” and “organize photos,” while the weekly list includes “conduct interviews” and “obtain photos from travel bureau.” The key is identifying what you wish to achieve within a specific time frame.


4. It must be visible. My husband keeps his list on his computer. I keep mine on a pad of paper on my desk, where I can see it at a glance. If you can’t see your list, or never refer to it, it won’t help you.


5. It must be flexible. Your list is written on paper, not graven in stone. No matter how well you plan, something may come up that is more important or urgent than your list. When that happens, simply jot down the new priority, and don’t be surprised when older items must be postponed. This is one reason I prefer weekly rather than daily lists; if my goal is to complete Task X by the end of the week, having to postpone it by a day or two doesn’t necessarily affect my list as a whole.


It’s important to remember that a list is not a schedule. A list is simply that—a list of objectives within a particular time frame. Many of us feel stifled by schedules. A list tells you what you need to get done but leaves the management of your time up to you.




(Excerpt from Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer)

***

Hope those tips help you be a more productive writer. I must admit, when my life is really crazy, I sometimes keep two to-do lists, and sometimes the same task is on each one--so I can feel really good crossing it off twice ;) 

Next week I'll be posting a tip about the most important part of writing a series, so I hope to see you then :)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

How to Write Introspection Well (+updates)



Hi everyone! For this week's tip, I'm over coaching at WritersHelpingWriters.net and talking about introspection. You can read it here.

If you are into teasers, however, here is the beginning part of it:

Nothing can quite kill a story’s pacing like a big hunk of rambling introspection, except, of course, its cousin, the info dump. The reason for this is that the more time we spend reading a character’s thoughts, the less immediacy the story has, which means the less the audience cares about it. And yet some stories have whole passages of introspection. So what gives?

Here are some tips to help you master introspection that makes your writing stronger, not weaker.

Less is More

Because beginning writers love character depth (who doesn’t?) and are trying hard to get the audience to feel close to their characters, they will often write huge chunks of introspection, especially in the opening.

In reality, writing less is more. If you truly want your audience to love your character as much as you do, you need to let them discover the character themselves—you don’t need to spoon-feed them with chunks of introspection. You need to let them come to their own conclusions about your character.

To get your audience interested in your character’s interior, you need to show them just enough. Keep it short enough to stay interesting, but long enough to cover the character’s point. A glimpse of an interesting interior will make us want to come back, without slowing the pacing in your story so much we want to get away.

You can sneak in bigger chunks after we already know and care about the person. But almost never put big chunks in the story’s opening.

Look Forward, Not Back

A mistake that is easy to make is to only include introspection that looks back at something—something that happened earlier in the story, or, that really naughty thing, a flashback, and have the character relive it in his or her thoughts.

Since introspection naturally takes away immediacy, it’s often better to have your character think forward on something.

. . .You can read the rest here.


Updates

In other news, I'll be teaching at LDStorymakers this year in Provo, Utah! This has been my third time pitching to them, but since they get 300+ pitches a year and 400+ this year, competition can be a little tough, so I'm excited to finally be able to teach!

I'll be teaching about tone on Friday, May 4th.

If you haven't heard of LDStorymakers, it's perhaps my favorite writing conference, and I'd argue that it's the most professional one here in Utah, and the most professional one you can get at such a great price--which is probably why it sells out so fast. All the tickets are already gone (but you can join the wait list!).

I'll also have a vendor table for my editing work, which I'm pretty excited about, because it will be my first time. :)

Other than Storymakers, I now have a Facebook Page for Fawkes Editing, my editing business. I've resisted having a Facebook Page up to this point, but some features on Facebook you can only use if you have a page. So, if you are interested, you can like my page here.

See you guys next week for my next writing tip post. It's a special one because it's my 300th blog post!


Monday, February 5, 2018

Breaking Writing Rules Right: Don't Use Filter Words




In the writing world, filter words are often considered problematic, and for good reason. You may have been told to cut back on them in your story, or you may have been told to cut all of them. But sometimes filter words are actually the best choice. Today I'm going to talk about what filter words are, why people discourage them, and five reasons you should break the rule and use them.

What's the Rule?

"Filter words" are words that filter us through the character. They are phrases such as:

He looked

She felt

Julia smelled

Derek tasted

She saw

Chris touched

London stared

. . . and it goes onward.

While not as well known as some of the other writing rules ("Show, don't tell," "Don't use 'was'"), if you look around in the writing world, you'll see there is no shortage of sources that say we shouldn't use filter words.


The Rule:

Don't use filter words.


Why it's a Rule

At first glance, phrases like, "He looked," seem rather innocent.

But they are weak for a few reasons.


1. They put the character between the audience and the story. 

On my blog, I've talked several times about how it's important for the audience to experience the story for themselves, instead of just reading about the events that happened. Only when the audience is invested and experiencing the story will the story reach its full breadth of power. (There are some stories that are exceptions of course, but they are rare.)

Filter words distance the audience just a little bit. There is a degree between them and what's happening in the story.

When we want the audience to feel as if they are in the story, we want them to get as close and as invested in what's unfolding as possible.


2. They are unnecessary. 

Often filter words don't communicate anything new in the story and can just be cut.

For example:

Aiden saw a beetle climbing up the mulberry tree.


The phrase "Aiden saw" is taking up space and can simply be cut.

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree.


Unless you are writing from what I call "guided omniscient" or "first-person omniscient," (and sometimes even then, depending on how the narrator handles it), the fact that the sentence is even on the page implies that at least the viewpoint character of that scene saw it, if not other characters.

Say that Aiden is our viewpoint character for this scene. The fact that a beetle is mentioned at all automatically suggests that Aiden saw it, because the audience knows (if only subconsciously) that we are experiencing the story from Aiden's view.

So to say that Aiden saw the beetle is redundant and unnecessary.

If Aiden isn't the viewpoint character, but someone with the viewpoint character, we can still imply that he also saw it. Here is one way:

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree. 

"Woah!" Aiden said, drawing closer to the trunk. "Come look!" 

Dani didn't budge. The last thing I'm going to do is get close to a bug, she thought. 


In this example, Dani is the viewpoint character, but we can clearly tell Aiden saw the beetle too.

However, I should explain that since here Aiden isn't the viewpoint character, those phrases probably aren't technically filter words, because we are seeing the scene from Dani's viewpoint, so we can't be filtering through Aiden. So if I wrote this:

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree.

Aiden stared at it.

Dani didn't budge. Where do those bugs keep coming from? she wondered. 


I'm not sure I could agree we are "filtering" through Aiden, but it's still a phrase you might get some flack for, even though here it's communicating that Dani saw that Aiden was staring. So some people might still have a problems with it and argue against it on your manuscript.


3. They are weak verbs

Filter phrases can kill your writing quick if you use them all the time, mainly because they are weak verbs.

For example:

Marley went out back and saw the forest. He saw it was right up close to the hotel. He looked deep into the trees and saw a squirrel. He could hear a bird singing. He felt a cool breeze on his neck. A strange noise sounded to his left, and he looked to find a man sitting on a stump. Marley wondered how long he'd been there.

Do you see all those filter words? All those verbs are pretty bland and weak. You should use stronger verbs to make the story come alive.

(Hopefully you also see that all those filter words actually distance the audience, at least a little bit.)

Sometimes filter words can simply be cut, like I showed with Aiden. Other times getting rid of them takes more effort.

When you're a beginner, it's a lot harder to write without them, because, darn it, "saw," "looked," "smelled," "touched," are all verbs! And if you don't use those, well, crap, you have to find a way to get a different verb in that sentence to make it complete!

I feel your pain.

This is usually the part where the more experienced writer comes in and explains how the beginning writer needs to use more "strong verbs"--verbs that are more specific and powerful. Filter words are considered to be "weak verbs."

I still remember the first assignment back in college where I committed myself to stretching and reaching and using only strong verbs.

I was soooo slow. I looked up so many words. It was so hard. And even after that assignment, I was still at a snail's pace. I started to think it would always be like that. 

But it gets better.

And it was worth it.

When to Break it



- Establish and remind the audience who the viewpoint character is (third-person with multiple viewpoints)

Some people will probably disagree with me on this, but sometimes a nicely placed filter phrase is the best way to tell or remind the audience who the viewpoint character is. It's simple and straightforward.

If you are writing in third-person and have multiple viewpoint characters, when you start a new scene with a new viewpoint character, you've got to alert the audience to it quick.

Usually the first viewpoint character name to show up in the scene is the one the reader first assumes is the viewpoint.

Sure, there are a few ways you can do this.

For example, you could do it with an action:

Tiffany slammed her bedroom door.


But for some scene openings, the focus isn't what the character is doing, it's what the character is witnessing or feeling--that's what's important.

In the novel I'm perpetually working on, I open a scene with the viewpoint watching someone else. If I'm not using filter words, I'm going to be describing what someone--who is not the viewpoint character--is doing, and the reader is either going to get confused, assuming that person is the viewpoint character, or they are going to feel "ungrounded" and unsure how to view or interpret what they are reading.

In one of my scenes like this, I avoided using filter words, cause I mean, they are sorta bad, right?

But when I got feedback on it, a comment I got was something like, "say 'Mark looked.'" I had mixed feelings about it, but later realized it was exactly what needed to be done. It simply, quickly established whose viewpoint we were in.

See, imagine that Mark is witnessing a classmate sabotage someone else's test. And maybe because that's going to be my hook for the scene, I want to open with that in the first and second sentences.

I could just open the scene describing what that person is doing (in other words, no filter words).

Amber put her finished Honors History test on top of the rest, leafed through the stack until she found another, and promptly began erasing its answers. She didn't even look over her shoulder, only smiled. Mark still sat finishing his.


Now, sure, if Mark is a regular viewpoint character prior to this, the audience may assume he's our viewpoint character here. But if this is the first time that he's the viewpoint character or if Mark and Amber are regularly viewpoint characters, this opening might be confusing.

You can try reworking it and maybe finding other ways to communicate that Mark is the viewpoint, but maybe at this point in the story, the most powerful opening image is Amber sabotaging this test. You can appease both goals with a simple filter word.

Mark watched Amber put her finished Honors History test on top of the rest, leaf through the stack until she found another, and promptly began erasing its answers. She didn't even look over her shoulder, only smiled. Mark still sat finishing his.


When you are working in a scene that has several of your viewpoint characters in it, then in some scenes, particularly ones where the viewpoint isn't always obvious (the team of characters are working together to accomplish a physical goal, so you have a lot of physical blocking, often focusing on the group overall), then it might be helpful to your readers to occasionally remind them who the viewpoint character is through filter words.

Linda felt sick. She watched Brad and Joe climb over the wall and into shadows.

(Linda is our viewpoint character. "felt" is important in particular, because we know we can only know what the viewpoint character feels.)

vs.

Brad and Joe climbed over the wall and into shadows. 

(No filter words.)

This can also be really important when the viewpoint character knows what another person is thinking and feeling (out of being familiar with that person).



-When a viewpoint character knows another character's thoughts, emotions, or knowledge, and you need to signal to the reader that you didn't hop heads.

Imagine reading this when Linda is supposed to be our viewpoint character:

Brad held back panic and curse words.


You might think for a second that we are somehow now in Brad's viewpoint, or that it's a viewpoint error. But actually, what it is, is that Linda knows Brad so well that she can tell what he is feeling and thinking. 

So we might want to use a filter to help. 

Linda knew Brad held back panic and curse words.


OR

Linda felt sick as she looked at Brad. He held back panic and curse words.
 

Assuming that it's been established that Linda knows Brad and his expressions very well, that would work. Other times you just get characters who are good at reading people, their body language and expressions, to know what they are thinking and feeling, even if they don't know the person personally.

Here, Linda's filter words remind and validate to the reader that we are in Linda's viewpoint, even though there is a line about what Brad is feeling and thinking. The author didn't suddenly hop heads.

Here is another example:

He wanted Sharon dead. Natalie considered ways he'd want it done. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?


In this example, Natalie comes to a conclusion about what "He" wants.

Notice how that might get confusing without Natalie's filter.

He wanted Sharon dead. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?


Depending on the scene--for example, if this line happens when Natalie is thinking back on a conversation with "him," and "he" is no longer present--you may not need filter words.

But if it is happening during a conversation with him, you should probably consider using filter words.

And again, there may be ways around these things in your particular story.

He wanted Sharon dead. Natalie bit her tongue. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?


If her mouth is closed, we can assume that Natalie would be the only one to know she bit her tongue, so she must be the viewpoint character.

It should be noted that context plays a big role. What may work in one instance may not work in others. It really depends on the context you've given the reader.



- Emphasize an action over what is perceived or experienced

Remember how I touched on the idea that filter phrases contain verbs?

Sometimes the fact that a character sees something is more important than what she actually sees.

I'll give a stark example, and then get more into the details.

Imagine your viewpoint character has been temporarily blind. When his eyesight comes back, the fact he can see is maybe more important than what he sees.

I could simply write what he sees:

Bright yellow paint coated the wall.


But if he's just barely gotten back his eyesight, that might actually sound like a viewpoint error (for the average reader, we need to communicate that he sees it).

Besides, walls are kind of boring. But maybe that is the setting that he's in.

What's interesting is the fact he can see. And it's more important.

Eddy saw the bright yellow paint on the wall.


And also as I touched on, if we refuse to use filter words, we might accidentally not give the reader enough context to understand that his vision is back. They might think that our description of the wall color is actually a viewpoint error, since last they knew, Eddy was blind. In some scenes you can reword things and get around that, but in some scenes you just can't.

You may even want to use the phrase "Eddy saw" a few times to emphasize the fact he can see (stylistic choice).


Then there are sentences during conversations that read like this:

Miranda looked at Lily.


Major filter sentence, right? According to the rule, you should just skip the filter and describe what Miranda sees, which in this case would mean describing Lily's face.

But sometimes the fact Miranda looked at Lily in that moment, is more important than Lily's face. The point isn't what Miranda saw. It's that action. You know what I mean, when you are sitting and talking with people, and you say something, and someone suddenly looks at you. It's the action of looking that carries meaning.

Sometimes the fact the character sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, wonders, thinks, or feels something is more important than what the thing is.



- When you need a simple, bland, low-key beat, and don't want it to take attention away from something else.

In a few places on my blog, I've talked about naughty phrases and words like "There are" and "was" and even passive voice--filler words that don't actually communicate anything. In fact, they can be viewed as a method that actually lacks communication.

But that doesn't mean they are worthless.

We get so focused on making every word count, that we sometimes forget about the sounds and beats of our words.

Sometimes we just need that dang beat in our scene, a low-key beat that doesn't draw attention to itself--that doesn't take away attention from our real focus of the scene--it's that pause before the delivery of an important line, that part of silence during an important conversation, that preparation before a killer descriptive paragraph, that bland component that balances out complicated ideas we're trying to communicate.

Using a filter phrase can help with all those.

Sometimes it's because they communicate very little that they are perfect to use. They exist, they are there, they give us that beat, but they don't compete with what else is on the page for the reader's attention.

Sometimes "She thought for a moment," is exactly what you need. 


- Describing smells (I know it sounds random, but it's true)

When it comes to smell, at least in the English language, the verb word pool is really small. Like, seriously. What are your verb options that you can use that aren't filter words without getting weird?

Stunk
Wafted
Rose
Filled
Permeated

For some reason our language has a lot of words that relate to stinky smells:

Stunk
Rank
Funked up
Fumed

But I mean, there are only so many stinky smells in the world, and yet the English language is hugely lacking when it comes to finding other strong verbs for other smells. I've probably used "wafted," "filled" and "permeated" hundreds of times, but I don't want to overuse them either, so really, my other option, other than to try to get so fancy it turns weird, is to use "smell" or "sniff"--filter words.

Frankly, I don't know how you can get through a whole novel regularly appealing to the sense of smell without using those filter words. Our language lacks dreadfully in that category.

Avoid getting too weird trying to coin strong verbs for smells.

Say "She smelled . . . "



Other Rule-breaking Posts
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use 'Was'"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Adverbs, Adjectives"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only Use 'Said'"
Hiding What the Main Character Knows from the Reader


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