TV Writers Coming Up With Ideas for a New Show

Three TV writers (known from here on out as T1, T2, and T3) get together to brainstorm ideas for a new crime show.

T1: Ok, we want a show with some originality, but not too much. It needs to appeal to a lot of people. We want to give them something new but not too strange.

T2: How about we make the two leads a man and a woman? They don’t have to sleep with each other right at the start. We can wait a few episodes.

T3: Or maybe a few seasons. Ratchet up the sexual tension for years. Throw in all kinds of drama to keep them apart.

T2: To really keep them apart, we need to make sure they act out of character. They need to sometimes act much dumber than they are for reasons that don’t make sense.

T1: How about they never sleep together. They’ll be played by attractive actors who have a lot of sexual chemistry, but they’ll never have sex, ever.

T3: Because one of them is married?

T1: No. Because male-female friendship can be one of the things that makes our show fresh. The idea that men and women can be friends.

T2: In that case, let’s also have them be different races.

T3: Yes! Diversity cred.

T2: Though, whatever the woman is, we should make the man white.

T1: Yes! He’ll be an arrogant know-it-all who’s really smart and has a good heart, deep down.

T3: And if any of the fans want to see them have sex… that’s what fan fiction is for.

T1: The woman has to be smart but not unattractively nerdy, and assertive but not too pushy, and independent but also really self-sacrificing, and gorgeous but sometimes she eats hotdogs and her hair is a little messy.

T2: If we ever show her sleeping, she’ll need to have a full face of makeup, even in the middle of the night.

T1: Of course.

T3: She has to be like a mother to the male character. Like, she keeps reminding him to eat his vegetables and be nicer to people. She shouldn’t really have a sense of humor. Just a lot of fond and exasperated eye rolling at his shenanigans.

T2: Ok, but if they aren’t going to sleep with each other, who will they sleep with?

T1: The man will have some tragic ex-lover or ex-wife who died or betrayed him or something. The ex will be blonde.

T2: And fair-skinned.

T3: And if he gets together with anyone else on the show…?

T2: Also blonde and fair-skinned.

T3: Right, and she’ll be different from his ex in important ways. Like the fact that she’s alive and not evil.

T1: What about the female lead? She sleeping with anyone?

T3: Maybe she can have a sexual hangup. One that makes her super cranky. Sound good?

T2: Who cares. I’m getting kind of bored thinking about her.

T3: She’s an important part of the show. We need to give her stuff to do.

T1: She’ll be doing a lot. She’s supposed to be smart and tough. We’ll also put her through some traumatic moments.

T2: Trauma can get boring if it drags out too much.

T1: Don’t worry, we won’t follow up on the trauma. Something terrible will happen to her, she’ll have a nightmare or two, and then, you know, she’ll be ok again two episodes later.

T3: We need to make her complex. She needs to be as interesting as the male lead.

T1: That’s what fan fiction is for. Some of the fans get cranky. They say the characters are underdeveloped, the ethical issues are unexplored, the plots are underbaked. So they write their own versions of the story or fill in missing scenes.

T3: Oh, I know! The female lead is kind of a tomboy. But she also wears stiletto heels everywhere, and her hair is always long and lustrous.

T2: There you go. See? It isn’t hard to make her complex.

10 Writing Nightmares

A version of this was published on an older (now defunct) blog of mine. Enjoy! And let me know if these bring up any bad memories.

1) Misspelling the name of the person you’re writing to in an email or cover letter.

2) Producing an embarrassing typo for a word like ‘batch,’ ‘feckless,’ or ‘public.’

3) Putting the finishing touches on a 10-page essay, only to re-read the essay question and realize you didn’t answer it.

4) Repeatedly misusing ‘matriculate,’ ‘genuflect,’ ‘obfuscate,’ or any other polysyllabic word that was supposed to make you sound smart.

5) That brilliant manifesto/sonnet/one-act play you wrote last night? What it looks like the next morning.

6) Working on a 5000-word paper that’s due in less than 24 hours and based on volumes of source material you haven’t yet read.

7) Forgetting to delete something from your submitted work, such as a note you left for yourself. (“What am I even talking about?” or “Find source to back up this nonsense.”)

8) Basing the central argument of your essay on a logical fallacy or on your misreading of another person’s work.

9) Running out of ideas.

10) Submitting a piece of writing before you’ve fini

A mix of hopeful and bleak: the ending of If I Had Your Face

The endings of some novels are unambiguously happy, while others are overshadowed with tragedy. What about endings that occupy a more ambiguous space?

I recently read If I had Your Face by Frances Cha, a novel focusing on the lives of a group of young women in South Korea. They all live in the same apartment building, and each has her own struggles.

These struggles involve their job or career, appearance, relationships, and some of the paths they’ve gone down on (based on decisions they made before they knew better). Their problems are also connected to their precarious position in society – they aren’t wealthy or born into elite families. Their missteps aren’t as easily forgiven or recovered from.

By the end of the novel, they’ve generally become more savvy. Their self-awareness has increased. They’ve also helped each other out, and they seem to want to continue giving each other support when necessary. At the same time, their lives continue to be precarious. They’ve pushed disaster away for the time being, but disastrous possibilities still loom in their future or wait for them in the shadows of the paths they’re taking. They may have adapted to dealing more effectively with some of the brutal realities of the world. But the sense of hope at the end of the novel is tempered by some bleakness.

The ending feels more like a pause for breath. They’re breathing a little easier in this moment in time. But it doesn’t feel like a secure happiness.

You may be thinking that this is true of real life, which is one reason the mix of hopeful and bleak works well. However, it takes skill to pull off an ending like this. It doesn’t cater to people’s need for a conclusive answer one way or another. There’s no quick summary about how these women are doing years after the events of the novel.

But there’s still a sense of finality, because of everything that leads to the novel’s closing scene. Some scales have fallen from the characters’ eyes. They’ve stopped lying to themselves in certain ways. At the close of the novel, it’s night, and they’re all back in their apartment building. The sense of solidarity is strong. They’re better able to face the morning, whatever it brings. For the time being, they can count on each other for different kinds of support.

And maybe that’s enough, for now.

An example of reducing redundancy in fiction writing

I recently read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, a novel written in first-person POV about a newly minted detective who investigates a suspicious death. Sounds like many other crime novels, but the difference here is that no one seems to care about the investigation, because an asteroid is going to hit Earth in six months.

In the following excerpt, the detective, Henry Palace, is at a suspect’s house. The suspect, whose name is Toussaint, has something on his mantel:

There’s a scale model of the New Hampshire state house on the mantel above the fireplace, six inches high and fastidiously detailed: the white stone facade, the gilded dome, the tiny imperious eagle jutting from the top.

“Like that?” says Toussaint when he comes back in … and I set the model down abruptly.

In this excerpt, the narrator never explicitly says, “I picked up the model of the state house.” He just describes what the model looks like. It’s only at the end, when he tells the reader, “I set the model down,” that you know he even had it in his hands.

This is hardly a pivotal moment in the novel. But it’s still a nice example of how you can cut down on redundancy in fiction writing. A narrator doesn’t need to always share each movement, such as picking things up or opening or closing windows and doors.

It’s like if your narrator said, “The window was closed. I opened it.” Would it be necessary to say that the window was closed? Usually not. (Though, who knows, sometimes you’d want to keep that line, maybe to create a certain effect with your prose or to illustrate something about a character’s thought processes.) In any case, when editing your work, it’s important to be thoughtful about these choices.

[By the way, this is off the main topic of the post, but I do recommend The Last Policeman. It’s a good, absorbing read. One head’s up, though: The novel contains multiple descriptions of suicide and suicidal thoughts, plus it focuses on tragedies that are extremely improbable but happen anyway. Just keep that in mind, because sometimes you need to have a certain frame of mind to enjoy a book; other times, you may want to put off reading it.]

Which Kinds of Mistakes Do You Accept in a Nonfiction Book?

In one nonfiction book I’ve been reading recently, I found an inaccurate description of a novel.

In another nonfiction book, the author mischaracterized a Jewish holiday. The author himself is Jewish, but not observant, so maybe he bought into an inaccurate interpretation.

On the one hand, I understand that each of these books has a lot of information backed by hundreds of footnotes. Probably some mistakes are inevitable.

On the other hand, I don’t know how many mistakes the author is making. I picked up on the two I mentioned earlier, because I already knew about the holiday and the novel under discussion. But what about the topics I don’t know about? Can I trust the author to give me accurate information?

Maybe the nature of the mistake makes a difference. For example, getting a date wrong may not be a big deal, if it’s just a typo. Though even that kind of error can be confusing and misleading in certain contexts.

Nonfiction authors often do use fact-checkers, so I’m hoping that many errors will already be caught before publication. Meaning that the book will largely be accurate, with maybe a few minor errors slipping past detection.

But I’m interested in what the line is. Which kinds of mistakes would lead you to put the book aside? And which would you respond to with more lenience?

Verbs That Inflame the Senses!

A while ago, I was reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and came across a description I liked of a cat that “oiled against” the main character’s ankle.

“Oiled” captures a slick movement and a shivery, slick, clinging sensation. A moment where a cat brushes against someone’s ankle becomes even more unsettling.

Months later, when I was reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I found a noun-to-verb usage that I really liked: “The evening paper rattlesnaked its way through the letter box…”

“Rattlesnaked” conveys the movement of the slithering newspaper, and the sound it makes when traveling through the letter box. (Although I’m not 100 percent sure this was the author’s intention, the verb also makes the newspaper seem like a venomous creature – and given its contents, maybe it is.)

These kinds of verbs, which include nouns transformed into verbs, deliver a memorable sensory impact. In your own writing, you can use them to add more flavor to the text and to capture multiple sensations or feelings in one word.

But it’s important not to use them too much. If you insert them into every other sentence, they start distracting the reader. They each become less memorable and effective, and you give the impression that you’re trying too hard as a writer, that you’re straining too much to produce a certain effect. If you want to, try using these verbs here and there, in moments that stir the senses and keep the reader hooked to the world you’re building with your text.

Please Stop Confusing Criticism With Censorship

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I don’t confuse criticism with censorship,” that’s great. This post is for people who do, or for people who aren’t sure what I’m talking about and would like some elaboration.

I’ve participated in many discussions over the years where someone reacts to a criticism by saying, “I have a right to my opinion,” even though no one questioned their right to have an opinion. Because there’s a difference between criticizing the content of a statement/opinion/argument and denying your right to express it.

Maybe this reaction is heightened in an environment where people are subject to various forms of censorship. Not just censorship from the government, but the threat of being fired, unpublished, or attacked for expressing a dissenting opinion on a subject. No matter how thoughtful or courteous you are, there may be people who look at any dissent as “harmful” and use it as an excuse to try to ruin you.

But it’s still important to distinguish between criticism and censorship. For example, it’s especially weird seeing so-called “free speech warriors” rail against criticism in the name of free speech, even though criticism itself is a form of speech. But maybe not so weird when you consider that the “confusion” can be deliberate – a useful strategy for staving off criticism and making your opponents seem unreasonable.

I’ve also seen the flip side of this – people calling for censorship while pretending their call for censorship is mere criticism. For example, people may ask for a book to be banned or unpublished and claim that this request is merely a form of criticism. But it isn’t. There’s a difference between thoughtfully writing a negative review of a book and asking for that book to be banned (or burned).

A Book With a Built-in Writing Lesson

In Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo, a police chief going through an emotional crisis attends the funeral of a local judge he dislikes. During a long-winded speech by some clergyman (it’s unclear what denomination if any he represents), the chief remembers a lesson taught him by his eighth grade English teacher: the rhetorical triangle.

On the rhetorical triangle, the three sides are as follows:

  • Subject – What you’re writing about.
  • Audience – Who your audience is.
  • Speaker – Who you are.

The triangle seems simple, but really it can get complicated.

Regarding “Subject,” you may not be sure what you’re writing about. Maybe you have a general topic, but you don’t know what to focus on within that topic. You’re not sure what questions to ask.

When it comes to ‘Audience,’ do you have a person in mind, or a group of people? What is it about your writing that they’ll find interesting? (The police chief kept thinking that for his school assignments his teacher was his audience, but she denied this.)

‘Speaker’ seems like a straightforward one, until you realize that the issue of who you are isn’t always clear. Who is the ‘you’ that’s writing? Do you think of your writer-self as a persona, one of many roles you play? What ‘you’ is in the text?

The police chief’s English teacher would write on his essays, “Who are you?”

There was always, she claimed, an “implied writer” lurking behind the writing itself. Not you, the actual author – not the person you saw when you looked in the mirror – but rather the “you” that you became when you picked up a pen with the intention to communicate.

Part of what the chief struggles with in this book is who he is, decades later. With his teacher, he always wanted to tell her “Nobody,” because he hoped that passing himself off as a nonentity would mean she’d dismiss him instead of expecting anything good from him. One of his dilemmas in the book is that he has been roped into writing a speech for a ceremony in her memory, so her lesson – and her questions – have elbowed their way to the forefront of his thoughts. The speech that he’s meant to deliver about her will reflect something about himself, and he doesn’t want to confront himself. He’s tempted to ask one of his officers to write the speech for him.

It’s worth thinking about how the three sides of the triangle interact – more generally and for specific pieces you’re working on. How does the Subject, for instance, influence the voice of the author-you? What if author-you seems weak or phony?

The clergyman at the funeral (the police chief thinks of him as Reverend Tunic) seems to have held on and enlarged the Speaker side of the triangle while dropping the other two sides as inconsequential. But without giving much consideration to Subject or Audience, what kind of a speaker/author is he?

Four Annoying Things People Do When Discussing Fictional Characters

I like talking to people about fictional characters, for two main reasons:
1) It’s interesting to think about psychology, behavior, relationships, and culture.
2) As a writer, I find it worthwhile to think about how other writers have crafted characters. How did they portray a character’s development or find a creative way to describe appearance?

Along with many enjoyable conversations with people, online and offline, about characters, I’ve also run up against some frustrating behaviors. Here are four examples of annoying things people do during these discussions:

1) Exaggerate the flaws of an unliked character

I won’t try to argue someone into liking or disliking a character. How people feel about a character isn’t always easily explainable, and people have preferences that you can’t control.

What I do care about, however, is a fair and well-intentioned reading (or viewing, if we’re talking about a movie/show). For some people, it’s not enough to dislike a character. They have to make that character the WORST EVER, blowing up all their faults while minimizing or erasing any good points. They’ll exaggerate mistakes or terrible behavior while pretending that the character has never done anything meaningfully good or interesting. Sometimes, they’ll completely make stuff up.

(I’ve also seen the reverse situation, where someone favors a character to the point where they exaggerate everything good about them and give that character credit for things they never did. This can also be annoying.)

2) Reduce a character to one dimension

Oversimplification bothers me. When a multi-faceted character gets described – and dismissed – as “the muscle” or “the babe” or “the brat” or “the bitch,” we miss out on an opportunity to consider a more complex figure with a mix of characteristics and motives, a character who may have changed in key ways throughout a story.

3) “Well I wouldn’t have done that!”

It’s normal to wonder how you would have handled a situation similarly or differently from a character. It’s interesting to consider how the same situation can affect people in different ways.

It gets annoying, however, when people keep using themselves as the sole yardstick for determining whether a character is good, wise, kind, beautiful, worthy of sympathy, or written realistically.

Regarding whether or not a character is “realistic,” there are multiple issues to consider. A character may seem unrealistic because the author failed to portray them convincingly – maybe the character seems flat, written without care or consistency, or the author messed up some major details about their job or religion. Or maybe the character is meant to come across as deceptive or unreliable in some way. Or the story is set in an unsettling fantasy realm, and as a reader you haven’t yet figured out all the “rules” for the way things are. There are interesting discussions to be had about what it means for a character to be realistic.

In any case, your personal experience is important, but it isn’t the sum total of existence. People don’t all act/speak/think/feel the same way in similar situations.

4) Make unwarranted, uncharitable assumptions about the author and other readers

Authors do sometimes write themselves into a story as a character, or they seem to favor one character greatly (possibly at the expense of the other characters or the plot).

But I’ve also seen many cases where readers make unfair assumptions about an author based on the behavior of a character. One example – they assume that a character’s racism is reflective of the author’s beliefs. Or that if a villain didn’t receive a harsh punishment, it must mean the author is condoning what the villain did.

They may also make assumptions about other readers (or viewers) in a similar way. In some fan forums and social media subcultures, it’s imperative that you feel a certain way about a character, or else you’ll get viciously harassed, dog-piled, or even doxxed. By liking a certain character, you become indistinguishable from them in values and world view. Never mind that it’s possible to like a character for multiple reasons. For instance, you can be drawn to a character because they’re interesting and make the whole story more interesting, even if in real life you know they would be harmful to you.

Implications Beyond Fiction

Everything I’ve mentioned here can derail a discussion about fictional characters or make it become deeply unpleasant, an exchange of attacks rather than a conversation. But what also bothers me is that I see the same kind of reactions applied to actual people:

The need to demonize opponents, while downplaying the flaws (or dismissing the crimes) of those you support. A strong tendency to sum people up with a label or two before stuffing them into some mental compartment within easy reach. An inability to see beyond yourself and try to understand why another person (someone in the present day or perhaps a historical figure) acts, thinks, or feels a certain way. A desire to ascribe unwarranted, perverse motives to people or leap to conclusions based on faulty judgments of collective guilt or guilt by association (“you agree with so-and-so about one political issue, which means you agree with them about every political issue, you bigot/communist/fascist/insult-buzzword-of-the-day”).

If we change the way we think about and discuss fictional characters, can we change the way we look at real humans in the messy world around us, present and past?

Narrative Point of View (POV): A Lesson From Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. What POV should you choose? Should it be a first-person narration (the “I” or “we” POV)? Or some form of third-person POV (using “he/she/they”)?

There are many reasons to choose one type of POV over another, or even to mix multiple types of POVs in a single work. One example comes from Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, which is set during the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. The novel is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different kid from a fifth-grade glass in an Atlanta elementary school. These kids are struggling with personal problems unconnected to the serial murders going on around them, though the murders will also change them in profound ways.

For each of the three kids, Jones uses a different type of narrative POV: third-person, second-person, and first-person. I don’t know what led her to choose a certain POV for a particular kid, but I’m going to post my own reasons for why I think the choices work well.

LeavingAtlantaTayariJones

LaTasha Baxter: Third-Person POV

Tasha gets the third-person POV – what’s more, it’s a third-person limited POV. In her section of the book, the reader can experience only what she experiences. None of the action takes places without her present, and the feelings described are only hers (though of course you can guess what other characters are thinking/feeling based on body language, word choice, and other clues). She doesn’t speak in the first-person “I,” but she’s the focus of this part of Leaving Atlanta, and the reader is meant to stick by her side through the events.

I think this POV suits her because she’s an “everyman” character. She isn’t the smartest or most successful student, but she isn’t struggling and failing either. She isn’t the prettiest girl in her class, but she isn’t considered ugly, though she’s sometimes taunted about her looks. Her family is neither the richest nor the poorest among their acquaintances. She definitely isn’t the most popular kid or even among the chosen circle of popular kids, but she also isn’t the class pariah. Although she’s capable of cruelty or thoughtlessness (usually when she cares too much about what the popular kids think), she isn’t mean for the sake of being mean; she isn’t a bully. Her concerns and hopes are typical for a kid her age, and her middling social standing gives her a vantage point from which she can observe a range of kids in her class, including the ones who are regularly trodden on. The reader can easily observe things alongside her.

Rodney Green: Second-Person POV

The second-person POV uses “you.” (From the book: “As you chant nursery rhymes to distract yourself from the news report, Father stacks his breakfast dishes in the sink and shuts off the radio.”)

Rodney is a boy who’s regularly being judged and accused. Most painfully by his own father, but by many others as well. He has no friends and is considered an unintelligible weirdo; only one other kid (see Octavia, below) gets treated worse in class.

He fears scrutiny. He wants to be furtive and unnoticed. The “you, you, you” is like a drumbeat of accusations or a constant reminder that the boy can’t escape from someone’s critical eye. It creates an impression of a character being watched by someone who’s dogging his footsteps.

At the same time, the second-person POV also works because Rodney wants to be understood. It’s as if he’s appealing to the reader and trying to form a connection. He wants you, the reader, to put yourself in his shoes. (The stuff he goes through – you’re the one going through it too as you read the second-person POV.)

By the end of his section of the book, he’s given up on anyone ever caring enough to understand him.

Octavia Fuller: First-Person POV

Octavia, even more than Rodney, is the class pariah. She’s very poor and her skin is also darker than everyone else’s; her classmates, although they’re also black, have made her skin the butt of most of their jokes about her. Her school experience is one of perpetual shunning. Even Rodney is wary about openly associating with her. Aside from an older boy who lives in her neighborhood, no one has been consistently friendly to her.

Generally, Octavia is quiet. But in one scene, when a boy insults her openly, she fights back, lobbing insults and rocks at him. She carries around a lot of hurt and anger, but she isn’t defeated. She has a strength that carries her through day after day of mistreatment and disappointment. The first-person POV suits her, as she’s a person with a firm, distinctive voice and character. She’s also fairly isolated. In multiple ways, she remains apart from the crowd as an “I.”

Not Sure Which POV to Choose for Your Work?

Sometimes authors will try out different POVs for a particular character or story to see which one “rings true.” With each change in POV, the readers’ relationship with the characters and events will change.