Tag Archives: Galaxy Quest

Trusting Enough to Fall

Have you ever been to one of those corporate seminars where they have people pair off and then topple backward, trusting their new partner to catch them?

Writing along the lines of technique can be a bit like that. It’s scary and hard. So much easier to remain timid and hold back.

Yet until you can force yourself to trust the proven principles of writing enough to follow them, your writing will probably never grow or improve past a certain point.

Back in the old days, when I was learning to write, my instructor Jack Bickham used to drill us mercilessly in techniques such as scene construction or viewpoint management. Then he would talk about a book he loved–ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE–and he would tell us to “Trust the process.”

Over and over, he stressed that dictum: “Trust the process.”

At the time, I didn’t know much about the zen philosophy and I didn’t always understand what he was trying to teach us. But he repeated “Trust the process” so often that it became imprinted on my brain.

So eventually I did trust technique enough to use it. Other than learning scene construction and the importance of conflict, trusting the process–the principles of writing, if you will–is probably the most valuable lesson that Bickham ever imparted to me.

Believing in the foundation techniques of plot and story progression got me my first publication. It got me better contracts. It kept me publishing steadily across my career. It served me well that year when I was homeless, distracted by insurance claims adjusters, and struggling to meet a book deadline. Even now, when I’m frustrated or lost, baffled by the Gordian knot I’ve somehow wound my plot into, I can hear that gruff voice speaking to me: “Trust the process.”

That’s when I stop, calm myself down, review the writing craft that I know, and make myself go to the most basic rules of writing.

The solution to my problem is always there. Always. I may not like that solution. It may involve throwing out pages or jettisoning a character. But it’s there. And if I grasp it and move forward, I reach the finish of my story without fail.

Ray Bradbury said to master the techniques of writing so that you don’t have to think about them anymore. You can then concentrate fully on your story.

Sound advice.

I spend my working days watching my fledglings crowding along the edge of uncertainty, afraid to test their wings, afraid to jump and soar, afraid that if they try they’ll fall.

They’re just learning the principles of how plots are made and scenes are constructed and stories are ended in dramatic climax. They barely grasp these concepts. They struggle to try them and falter, and when that happens they hunch up and lose their nerve.

It is safer, of course, to stay on the ground and fold their wings and refuse to try. Staying put brings no risk.

But staying put brings no glory either.

You can’t trust the process if you never jump.

Maybe you crash and fail the first few times. Practice more! Try it again. Adopt the motto of GALAXY QUEST: “Never give up. Never surrender!”

You must believe it’s possible to solve the mystery of writing. You must believe that you can do it. If you lacked any ability to write you wouldn’t be drawn to it in the first place.

Like Dumbo in the Disney animated film, you have to grasp the magic feather and fly.

Find the process that works for you. Learn it. Practice it until you can recite it in your sleep. Master it. And then trust it.

It will catch you every time.

It will catch you.


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Casting Characters

Writing references offer all sorts of strategies for devising characters, describing characters, and deepening characters, but it’s easy to get so caught up in creating individual dossiers that we may neglect thinking about the whole cast and whether it works effectively.

Let’s say you have a strong, vivid protagonist and a sly, snide, creepy antagonist. But will they work together? Or rather, I should say, will their personalities clash? Not because you’ve read that they should be in conflict but because their essential natures are like magnets repelling each other.

Or, you may have a strong, vivid heroine who’s to be the lead player in your romance story. You’ve concocted a hero who’s broad-shouldered, handsome, and possesses smoldering eyes. But is the chemistry right between them?

Is this pair going to ignite the pages or fizzle? Do you have Humphrey Bogart paired with Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart paired with Audrey Hepburn? (If, by chance, this example makes no sense to you, compare the film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT with SABRINA. You’ll see what I mean. SABRINA is a Billy Wilder gem that sparkles in all directions except for no spark between Bogart and Hepburn. It’s a baffling casting of those two actors.)

If you’re creating two characters who are best friends, do they have rapport? Let’s hope so, but if they do, why?

Ask yourself, how did they become friends? When did they meet? What happened then to create a bond between them? Why are they friends now? That isn’t to say you’ll be inserting all those answers into the story. But you need to know such information and keep it in the back of your mind so you can write the interaction of your characters from that foundation.

In the Dashiell Hammett story, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Ed are lifelong friends who work together until they both fall in love with the same girl. Paul becomes a primary suspect in a murder. Ed wants to help him until he finds out Paul is lying to him. The men quarrel, but Ed’s belief in Paul’s innocence is never shaken. Achieving that kind of closeness–even between two tough guys in a noir novel–requires the creation of background. Hammett knew what it was, even if he didn’t share much of it in the story.

Presently, I’m working on a novel that involves a triangle. It’s hard enough working out the relationship of a couple, making sure they have the right traits to create sparks while being “right” for each other where it matters. A triangle complicates that task even more. I don’t want an obviously uneven group, where Mr. Wrong is so totally, obviously WRONG that only a blind, deaf, and senile bat would be attracted to him. I want Mr. Wrong to have good qualities and I want Mr. Right to be troublesome and unsettling to Miss Protagonist. Yet I must avoid going so far out on the unsettling scale that when she eventually chooses him it screams AUTHOR CONTRIVANCE.

While there are many variants of love triangles, I prefer to divide them into two basic categories: simple and complicated. These are only labels for author convenience. Don’t judge the merits of a story by them because either type can be effective.

SIMPLE: Let’s consider the Tolstoy novel, ANNA KARENINA. It’s been adapted into at least two films–one starring Vivian Leigh and a recent one starring Keira Knightley. Tolstoy is convoluted and enamored of many entwined subplots, but basically the triangle consists of the beautiful Anna, her elderly and distant husband, and the dashing young officer she falls in love with. Anna is torn between love and obligation. If she follows her heart, she will destroy her marriage, her social standing, her financial security. She will be denied access to her only child. She will be ostracized by society.

Simple? Yes, in that it’s clearcut and direct. We understand it immediately. That detracts in no way from its powerful effect. The very simplicity allows the emotional costs facing these characters to be potent indeed.

The modern novelist Danielle Steel can’t be likened to Tolstoy, but she has used the simple triangle numerous times, with a great deal of success.

COMPLICATED: Consider an old romantic comedy film called THE TALK OF THE TOWN, starring Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, and Ronald Colman. Grant’s character has been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and is on the lam, hiding from authorities. Colman’s character is a pillar of the law, under consideration as a Supreme Court judge. Jean Arthur is attracted to both men, and the audience is kept guessing which one she’ll choose right up to the very end. If you watch the film inattentively, you’ll miss the turning point and what factor decides her. Each man is very different from the other, yet they have a great deal in common. Both are equally intelligent, rational thinkers. Both are handsome and appealing. Both men need Miss Arthur’s help.

But perhaps you aren’t writing a triangle. Instead, you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters. Let’s examine the group in the science-fiction film, GALAXY QUEST. The characters play actors who once were on a hit television show and now they survive through residuals and paid appearances at conventions. We have the following basic types:

*The big ego
*The sexy babe
*The jealous neurotic
*The grown-up child
*The stoner
*The clown

All of them, except the clown, have issues with the big ego. Those issues fuel the personal conflict crisscrossing the storyline. Such conflict keeps the story advancing quickly because it either fills points in the main plot that would otherwise sag or it adds complications to the trouble the group is in. Who in the group are allies? Who in the group is the most exasperating to the others? Who nurtures? Who goads? Who whines and complains?

If at least some of the group can serve as foil characters to the others, this can be useful to keep conflict and chemistry going. Foils, as I’m sure you know, are opposites in personality and behavior. Besides the human actors, GALAXY QUEST serves up additional ensemble groups in secondary roles–the alien group and the kids who are devoted fans. The script pulls on these secondary groups as needed to serve as comedic contrasts to the actors.

What you don’t want, in an ensemble cast, is a row of similar types–for example, all shy introverts–who are going to sit still in perfect agreement. BORING!

Other film examples of lively ensemble casts would include STEEL MAGNOLIAS, I REMEMBER MAMA, and TWELVE ANGRY MEN. The latter is focused on twelve jurors locked in a non-air-conditioned room on a hot summer’s day, forced to work together in order to reach a verdict in a murder trial. They’re all quite different and distinctive from each other. Their roles clash terrifically as they attempt to sift through contradictory evidence.

Don’t let these considerations overwhelm you. Create your lead characters–your protagonist and antagonist–first. Build their personalities and check their chemistry of antagonism to be sure it works. Then build their ring of friends or cohorts, one at a time. Minimize the number of characters as much as you can. You’ll find it easier to handle.

Ask yourself, if I were a casting director in a movie, would I hire these characters? Do they have chemistry enough to carry their roles?

If you’re inexperienced at writing, especially long fiction, you may not be able to judge in advance the potential chemistry combinations between your characters. At least, not until you’ve written a big chunk of rough draft. That’s okay. As the characters speak and take action in scenes, they’ll grow more definitive–or some of them will crumble from weak design.

You’ll discover as you go who needs to be reworked. Just keep the sparks flying.

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Why, Oh Why? Writing Diagnostics VIII

Remember GALAXY QUEST?  Remember when Jason is confronting the rock monster and calling for help?

Sir Alexander Dane:  You’re just going to have to figure out what it wants.  What is its motivation?

Jason Nesmith:  It’s a rock monster.  It doesn’t have motivation.

Sir Alexander Dane:  See, that’s your problem, Jason.  You were never serious about the craft.

That dialogue never fails to make me laugh.  As a writer, it’s my job to always consider the motivation behind any character.  I should hope that were I really facing a monster, I wouldn’t be quite as pedantic as Alexander, but when I pit my characters against monsters — or even against each other — I had better know why.

Sometimes, when we’re working hard to create a viable story premise, and we’re busy juggling action, a goal-oriented protagonist, lots of conflict, an oppositional antagonist, and a series of cause-and-effect events leading to a showdown while trying to be original, we may forget a little detail called character motivation.

There’s so much else to deal with.  Does it really matter? 

I’m afraid so. 

But I’m writing scenes.  I have conflict.  The actions are speaking plainly.

They can.  They will, for a while.  But you can only dodge and fake your way along to a certain point.

There always comes a time in the story, a crucial scene, a big confrontation, a turning point … where the stakes begin to go up.  At such places of high conflict, the motivation of your characters must be clear to you.  If you haven’t figured them out by then, the scene can’t help but be weaker than it should be.

Early on in my career, I knew enough craft to put credible, fast-paced novels together and get them published.  I was still gaining experience, however, and although I understood why I needed strong conflict in scenes and why I needed high stakes I couldn’t always figure out everyone’s motivations.

Impatiently I would go at things the hard way, slogging through a rough draft, writing and rewriting scenes.  Somewhere in the middle of the book, the big confrontations would start to happen, and then I’d achieve clarity.  Oh, that’s why he’s doing that.  Oh, that’s why she loves him.  Oh, that’s why he’s lying.

It was always such a relief to hit that place in my manuscript where I understood my characters.  Then I’d set about revising the front half of the manuscript to reflect what I’d discovered.  It always made a difference to the characters’ actions and dialogue.  And rewriting — reweaving — the storyline could be quite tricky and difficult.

With time, and a certain number of completed novels to my credit, I learned how to evaluate an idea first before plunging in.  And I learned the value of figuring out character motivations before I wrote.  Doing this saved me at least one draft of writing effort, and I could write progressive scenes that were stronger, closer to the mark of what I wanted to accomplish, and even contained subtext.

So take the time to ask yourself why a character is refusing to accept a marriage proposal, why a character is rebelling against authority, why a character wants so desperately to reach Mars, why a mobster wants to wipe out a witness. 

Not understanding what lies behind your characters’ actions and comments can lead to the pitfalls of silly plotting, implausibilities, lapses of logic, and plot holes.  It can allow the story stakes to fall, and scene conflict to become trivial.


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