Friday, August 29, 2008

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got

One thousand years ago, when I was a teenager, I went a sci-fi convention in Seattle. This was probably 1978 or ’79. In those days these kinds of conventions were only attended by hardcore geeks (called nerds in those days) who were on the fringe on society. Big movie stars did not go to these events. The biggest star at this convention was the actor who played Boomer on the original Battlestar Galactica.

In attendance were a smattering of comic book creators. And it was while sitting in on a panel with these creators that I heard the best piece of writing advice I have ever heard to this day.

I can’t remember who the writer was, though it may have been Steve Englehart, who I met at that convention and still talk to from time to time.

Whoever it was listened to a story pitch from the crowd and gave back this golden nugget, “If you have a Batman story and you can turn it into a Superman story, it isn’t a very good Batman story”.

That was it, that was the advice. I use this advice whenever I write.

Some of you will think this is nothing special. Too simplistic. But the mistake of not making a story character specific is one of the most common mistakes that I see writers make. It may be simple advice, but few people know it or use it.

First you must understand that all plot and character are linked. They are one and the same – one does not exist without the other. “Character driven” is how people describe a story that has no plot, but is just an observation of people behaving. There is a reason that this type of story reaches a small audience and is boring to most people. Nothing happens.

On the other end of the spectrum is the story that uses characters that are simply buffeted around by the story. Things happen to them – character and plot are not really intertwined. These stories may excite people, but have little or no emotional impact on us.

It is the combination of plot and character that makes a story sing. You cannot remove Hamlet from Hamlet and replace him with King Lear. Those characters and plots are unified into a single entity.

In Finding Nemo, Marlin is an over protective father who is afraid of the big bad ocean. What happens? His overprotective nature pushes his son to take risks he might not otherwise take, resulting in him being taken away. This means Marlin must face his fear and search the ocean looking for his lost boy.

See how the character is interlocked with the story? They are not separate things.

Characters create plot through their actions or lack thereof. And these actions are driven by the hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses, desires, loves, hates or insecurities of these characters. It is how these characters confront or avoid these things that creates drama in your stories.

In the film The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is not simply a girl who is taken to a faraway land by a twister. No, she is a girl who dreams of life away from her farm. She wants to be somewhere far away. It is this Dorothy who is swept away by the tornado, only to find that she wants nothing more than to go home.

Here again, story and character are linked.

Ask yourself when you write, “Why this character for this story?” Make sure one cannot exist with the other. Can you plug in any generic character to your story? Character and plot are respectively the body and soul of stories – the yin and yang. Make sure you don’t have a Batman story that can just as easily be a Superman story.

If you follow this piece of advice, the quality of your work will be consistent and appeal to more people.


benton jew said...

Interesting post! It reminds me of some conversations we had in the past where you seemed disdainful of "character driven" movies as opposed to "story driven" ones. It always puzzled me, but now I realize we were arguing the same point! In my definition "character driven" means the character traits of the principals drive the plot. The needs, aspirations, fears, paranoia's of the characters are integral to the plot. Hitchcock's Vertigo, could not be Vertigo without the main character's fear of heights. That to me is a character driven plot. Story, or "plot" driven stories are more based on how to get to get character "A" to place "B" then "C" then "D", but the unique qualities of the principal are unimportant, and therefore interchangeable. "War of the Worlds" (the book ) is a plot driven story, as his individuality is not important, as he merely act as an everyman observer. Any story that has "no plot, but is just an observation of people behaving" I don't label those "character driven stories". I tend to call them "slice of life" at best, or "navel gazing" at worst.
Good to see that we've actually been on the same page all along, we've just used different labels.


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Morgan Hawke said...

“If you have a Batman story and you can turn it into a Superman story, it isn’t a very good Batman i>story”.

This sounds like a derivative of Azimov's Law of Science Fiction:

"If you can take the Science out of the Fiction and still have a viable story in another genre, you did it Wrong."

It's a law I follow in my own fiction; in every genre I write. :)