Monday, November 29, 2010

Column: What I Learned About Writing From... by Debbie Meldrum

What I Learned About Writing From . . .

by Debbie Meldrum


1. It’s a good thing to raise questions from the start.

The opening shot of the series is a close up of a man’s eye. He stares up through a bamboo forest. He’s flat on his back, obviously hurt, and he’s wearing a suit and tie. A yellow Labrador runs by. After the man struggles to his feet, he finds a tiny bottle of vodka in his pocket.

Okay, I’ve got a bunch of questions already. Who is this guy? Why is he in what looks like a jungle? Was that his dog? How’d he get hurt? Why does he have booze in his pocket? Is he an alcoholic? Was he on a plane? Because it looks like what you get on a plane. What’s up the suit and tie in a jungle?

Get the idea? If this had been a book, I’d be punchy from lack of sleep, because I’d be turning pages all night to find out answers to those questions.

2. BUT it’s a good thing to reward your readers with a few answers along the way.

The man hears a loud noise, people calling for help, and he runs toward the sound. When he stumbles onto an expanse of beach, he finds chaos. A crashed jetliner—that’s where the booze is from—and people in a panic, many injured. He takes charge of the situation, performs medical procedures, introduces himself as Jack to someone, and so on. We find out his last name is Shepherd.

Now I have some answers, but I have more questions. Is he a doctor? Is that last name significant? Which of these characters are going to be important? Etc.

The creative minds behind the show—J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof—took some heat for raising more and more questions as the series went on without giving any answers—at least as far as many fans were concerned.

This can be a fine line to walk when you have a long story to tell. There should be some surprises later in the story, but it can be dangerous to keep too much too close to the vest. Let the reader in on some of the secrets along the way.

Which leads me to:

3. Know the end before you start.

Abrams and Cuse created a series ‘bible’ at the beginning which outlined the major plot points for an ideal 5-6 season run.

This is a good rule for stand-alone books, although you can always change things as you go. It’s really important for a series so that a character’s eye color doesn’t change or her house doesn’t inexplicable move from one side of town to the other between books 3 and 4. The writer may forget, but the reader won’t.

4. Knowing the end doesn’t always help the middle.

When the show became a bona fide hit, there was the possibility that it could go on for years beyond what Abrams and Darlton (the moniker fans gave Cuse and Lindelof) had dreamed. The middle got bogged down with more possibilities for what was happening on the island and a growing cast of characters.

A problem that’s easier to deal with when writing a book, because we can go back and fix the middle before anyone else gets to see it. Woo hoo! One for us.

5. It’s okay to have a large cast of characters, but you have to handle it right.

For most of it’s run, “Lost” listed around fifteen main characters with another dozen or so supporting players. Focusing on a few key people each episode helped fans keep things straight. That didn’t mean the others weren’t around, but they would fade to a supporting role. It helped the viewer get to know them all.

Introduce characters slowly—something I’m learning—and let each one have their own spotlight. It can be tricky to give each one enough time to complete the scene but not so much that the reader forgets some of the others.

Tread carefully. And—something I’m still struggling with—give each one a distinct personality. If Fred can stand in for Frank, maybe I don’t need Frank.

6. The Nikki/Paolo Rule.

Two new characters were abruptly introduced at the beginning of the third season. That wouldn’t have been unusual—new people showed up every season—except the regulars acted like these two had been around all along. And the couple seemed to add nothing to show. Darlton admitted the pair were brought in to answer the fan question of what the other survivors were up to. Since they were “universally despised” by the fans, they were killed off.

In a book, unless it’s part of a series, you can’t do that in response to reader feedback. So make sure any new additions are there for a good reason. Since I tend to overpopulate my books—one reason I love the previous rule—I am ever vigilant about this one.

7. Trust that your audience/readers are as smart as you are.

“Lost” did this beautifully. The writers never talked down to viewers. They gave characters names, often of philosophers, to help fans figure out what role that character was going to play. Aspects of different religions and mythologies were introduced without explanation. Either you got it or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you could still follow what was happening, but there was an extra layer of fun and meaning if you did.

This is another fine line I have to walk in my own writing. I’m trying to just write whatever reference feels right. If I get a lot of questions from my critique group, then I’ll go back and explain.

8. Playing with timelines can heighten suspense.

Another thing “Lost” did with great success. They used flashbacks from the first to help give background on the characters. But in Season 3 the creators introduced the flash forward. A glimpse of Jack and Kate in the future. Intriguing. What did it mean? Others followed in subsequent episodes.

Then in the final season, there were what Darlton called flash sideways. Was it a parallel timeline or universe? Could it be the future? We didn’t find out until the final episode.

Think about how altering the way you tell your story could up the tension. Does it need to be told in a chronological order, or would mixing it up be better? I have one story that it works with, but another would just be frustrating to the reader. How about multiple POV characters. Play a little with it.

9. Ultimately, you can’t please everyone.

The resolution of the flash sideways was controversial among fans. I loved it. Others? Not so much. The same with the answers to the big questions. And there were those who were disappointed that not every single little question was answered at the end.

This can happen with books as well. Do you spend time tying up every single loose end? Or do you let a few dangle so the reader can come to her own conclusion? I tend to prefer the latter to over.

Debbie is a daydreamer. A fact that caused her much grief during her school career but has served her well as a writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Apollo’s Lyre, The SCWP Marathon Anthology, and The S’Peaker. In addition to being a member of PPW, she belongs to Creek Writers Council—a tough but fun critique group.

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