Readers’ Questions – Day Three.
This is a Wednesday post, posted on a Thursday, but there shall also be a Thursday post. In fact, I’ve now enough questions to post for the rest of this week (except Sunday, which I’ll use to take a break before regular weekly posting schedule resumes on Monday).
Today, I have a question about stories that don’t cooperate, and then I get to talk about what would happen if my stories were to be turned into movies.
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Rosie Narnen, psychologist and charity worker, asks:
How do you not get discouraged when you hit a bit of story that refuses to come together?
Oh, make no mistake, you do get discouraged. You get discouraged like HELL, and why wouldn’t you? Your story, your word-baby that you thought and sweated and bled onto paper, which was SO CLOSE to working, starts coming apart at the seams, going down in flames, up in smoke, all over the place in miscellaneous pieces, as you stand there, your arms raised to the heavens, imploring the cold and merciless universe ‘WHYYYYYYYY?’.
So, yes, you get discouraged. You huff and puff and throw your computer out the window. Then you go to pick it up and awkwardly shuffle back indoors, avoiding the neighbors’ glances. Then, as you sit over a pile of plastic, you ask the same ‘whyyyyy’ question again, but in more detail this time. Not ‘Why do you do this to me, story?’, but rather, ‘Story, why aren’t you working?’.
That’s one tough question to answer, but before you try to fix a storytelling problem, it’s imperative you figure out what the problem really is. First, you want to ask yourself:
Is a certain piece of plot not happening because it CAN’T – or because it WON’T?
CAN’T means that an event is impossible in the framework you’re operating in. In a modern-day realistic novel, a car can’t take off in the middle of the street and fly away. The Genie (pictured above) can’t make people fall in love (even in a world with magic, there are always rules). Unless time travel is involved, a person can’t be in two places at once (unless we’re talking about The Prestige, but that trick is kind of the point of the whole film).
With some imagination, a lot of CAN’T problems can be solved through alternatives and workarounds. You hijack a medevac helicopter to get people out of that car, set up some surveillance cameras, and give a street rat some pretty clothes and hope for the best.
WON’T events are events that are possible, given the available resources and technology, but are highly unlikely to happen for reasons of character and probability. A prison guard is fully capable of opening the cell door to let a prisoner out, but they’re not going to do that because of their sense of duty, fear of losing their job, fear of their prisoner, hatred for the prisoner, etc. A drug addict with a cane and a medical degree has the physical capacity to flush the Vicodin down the toilet, but he’s not going to do that because of the pain he’s going to feel without the drugs (pardon the oversimplification). A cell phone’s battery has a small chance of exploding in someone’s pocket, but it’s hardly an event to bet money on.
Solving these problems requires some knowledge of the WHY behind the WON’T. Can you rig the technology to increase the chance of an improbable event happening at the right time? Can you put someone in circumstances where they are forced to act in a way they otherwise wouldn’t? Can you motivate someone to do better things, or frighten them into doing worse things?
In solving both CAN’T and WON’T cases, keeping things believable is extremely important. A Lawful Good paladin when forced to do something against their code under threat of death might easily choose to die rather than break the code. A simple homeowner has no reason to have CCTV in their house. Ah, but what if the homeowner was paranoid about their spouse’s suspected affair, and the paladin has had their doubts about the true goodness of their order for a while now? While being valid explanations, revelations like this can make the reader roll their eyes when dropped on their head out of the blue. My rule of thumb is – if I can say, ‘well, that’s convenient’ when a revelation makes it to the page, then I need to go and leave a few breadcrumbs throughout the story. That way, when the reader gets to it, they’re more likely to go, ‘Oh, so THAT’s why…’.
(But if you ever need to retcon, remember to retcon with care. I never forgave Robert Asprin for the carrot juice incident in Myth-ion Improbable. That’s what happens when you write midquels. Kids… don’t write midquels.)
Hopefully, answering that question that can shed some light on the roadblock. I’m going to put one more question there, because being a pantser type of writer (one who ‘flies by the seat of their pants’ rather than plotter, who… guess what that one does?), when encountering an obstacle, I always ask myself:
Can I just
drive write through it?
Almost everything I write is character-driven, so rather than trying to solve problems for my characters, I often let them find their own solutions. Sometimes that results in the story going places I didn’t expect it to – but on every unfortunate occasion where I tried to railroad my characters, the story always jumped the track, sometimes to catastrophic outcomes. I learned fast to never try that again.
So, when I feel that a part of a story isn’t working, I ask myself:
If it’s a technical problem, can I write my characters to the point when they are directly facing it, and have THEM work out an alternative?
If it’s a situation where I’m not sure about my characters’ decisions, can I write until they’re in it, and watch them react in real-time, rather than predict their responses?
If it’s something I feel I don’t fully understand, can I feel my way through the scene until more information becomes apparent?
(In my last novel, I experienced the full scope of that third question. Let me break down the situation for you. We have the protagonist – A; his dead ex-girlfriend – B; and her boyfriend at the time of death, the man who last saw her alive – C. Finding out that C, for some reason, blames him for B’s death, A goes to clear things up. It took me four or five attempts to write the dialogue where said clearing up happened, mainly because I myself didn’t know what C’s problem with A was. I simply didn’t know C well enough. After those four or five drafts of that chapter, I learned that C’s feelings for B were deeper than I ever thought and, secretly, he blames himself for her death – but unable to live with that guilt, comes up with a paranoid scheme that makes out A to be the guilty party.)
Of course, the above doesn’t even scratch the surface of talking about plotting issues, but I have to shut up at some point, right?
To sum up:
Question Five – Best Way to Deal With Story Roadblocks?
Method one – considering whether the plot problem is a matter of possibility, probability, or character; see if the circumstances and motivations can be altered accordingly.
Method two – let your characters deal with it!
Question Six – My Demands for Movie Adaptations?
Olga Varnava, translator and small business co-owner, asks:
I know that when you create something you have an entire universe pictured in your imagination. But what if one day some cool filmmaker would like to make a movie basing on your scripts? Would you agree that someone interprets your vision and adapts it to his/her own, and offers to public instead of the actual imagination of a reader? And are there any specific actors you consider to be fit for this or that character of yours? For example, everybody knows that Joanne Rowling demanded only British actors to be engaged for the Harry Potter movie; so would there be any conditions or preferences from your side?
Let us take this in parts, shall we…
What if one day some cool filmmaker would like to make a movie basing on your scripts?
That one’s easy. I might have a happiness-induced heart attack.
Would you agree that someone interprets your vision and adapts it to his/her own, and offers to public instead of the actual imagination of a reader?
This is where it gets trickier, especially as one still has to work out of the hospital… My rather idealistic hope is that having a whole universe behind the story already worked out would actually save a lot of work to the filmmakers. Whatever question they might ask about different aspects of the world that will end up on the screen (while they might not have made it to the page), I’ll be able to answer.
I’m aware of the numerous challenges of taking books to the movie screen, so I would welcome additions and adaptations, as long as they were done in the spirit of the original. To use existing books and films as an example, I want someone with the attitude of Peter Jackson, rather than the collection of different directors and writers who worked on the Harry Potter series.
Ideally, I’d like to be involved in the writing of the screenplay. Large portions of books get lost when translated to the screen, and I’d like to be there to make sure that pieces that become important later survive – especially if we’re talking about a series (and if anything of mine ever makes it to the screen, the current six-novel Firebird Rain series is the most likely candidate). In short, I’m very protective of my stories, so I think that if I were told I don’t get to be involved in the film-making process, I’d be reluctant to sell any movie rights.
For example, everybody knows that Joanne Rowling demanded only British actors to be engaged for the Harry Potter movie; so would there be any conditions or preferences from your side?
In my head, I have faces attached to most characters I write. In fact, I used to have a ‘dream cast’ folder somewhere – but it mainly existed to help me keep visuals on my characters, since some of my choices would involve time travel (for instance, I would love for a young Sandra Bullock to play Nox), and some tricky genetic engineering (some of my dream cast members were described as ‘so, if this one, this one AND this one had a baby together…’).
Whatever happens, I would have to have a say in casting Rain, because he’s the easiest to mis-cast. He’s supposed to be good-looking, but pick a face that’s too *handsome*, and he’ll turn into a textbook hunk, which he’s not. Pick a face that’s too *pretty*, and he’ll end up as a sleazy fallen-angel type. Rain is pushing thirty when he appears in my stories, but his looks are still boyish rather than manly.
(An additional casting note is a running joke I have with whoever knows Rain: the role goes to whoever can smile in a way that’ll make me want to sleep with them after knowing them for five minutes.)
To sum up:
Question Six – My Demands for Movie Adaptations?
Answer Six: In lieu of time travel and genetic engineering, I’d insist on having a hand in the screenplay, and a say in casting the central characters.
Come back tomorrow for practical advice for organizing freelance work, avoiding distractions, and project management.