Songs Nobody Can Hear

237525_d32a_625x1000


Describing a song nobody can hear is one of the oddest challenges a writer can face. Usually when a writer is tasked with describing something they can tackle our basic senses. They can describe how wet leaves smell, how a burger tasted, how a blast of snow felt on your face, or the bang of a gun. So where’s the difficulty when it comes to music? Isn’t it just a matter of appealing to a reader’s senses? Not exactly.

The previous examples reveal an interesting point about descriptions in general. They all deal with direct reference to our senses. With the wet leaves example, it triggers our memories of what wet leaves smell like. An author can basically instill the memory of wet leaves and so as you’re reading you get some indication of the smell. It really boils down to a matter of triggering a memory.

11-26_canal_wet_leaves_5_PS_rz

Inhale Deeply

But what about if the reader hasn’t experienced the thing the author is talking about?

Take a sword fight for instance. Two characters are in a furious battle and at one point one of the character slashes the other across the chest. Chances are the reader has never been slashed by a sword themselves so the author can’t really rely on a reader’s memories of being slashed by a sword. Instead he relies on comparisons, associations that don’t necessarily rely on direct links, but rather what being cut by a sword is similar to. We’ve all been cut, and we’ve all felt the sting that accompanies it, writers can draw on that experience even if the reader has never been sliced by a sword specifically.

hqdefault

Yes, like that

With these two things, memory triggers and association, writers have quite an arsenal at their disposal when it comes to describing things. We can describe incredibly complex and even intangible things in this manner and it’s really impressive at times. Through the power of words we can have a reader feel, smell, taste, and touch things that may not even exist at all.

Still though, this doesn’t seem to cover writing music scenes. There’s something missing there from our formula. So what’s the problem?

The trouble with writing about music is that it can’t rely on memory or association. Unless the writing mentions a specific song or an artist, chances are we can’t really rely on a reader’s memory to know what the music is supposed to sound like. After all if the song is from the author’s own imagination it’s hard to draw on the reader’s memory since, unless you’re a skilled telepath, you’re the only person who knows what the song is supposed to sound like.

What about association though? Surely we can say it sounds like something right? Can’t we just say that it sounds like a cross between the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”? Sure… If a comparison like that would make sense in your story. After all it’d be weird for a writer to describe the music at a king’s court to sound like a “ Bob Dylan tune with a touch of Judas Priest.” Because making analogies to things that don’t exist in the setting of the story is just… strange. Hilarious sure, but really awkward.

Okay, if not for direct comparison maybe we can rely on more basic sound description? We can describe what a heavy metal song sounds like; screeching and grinding guitars, growling vocals, beating thunderous drums etc. etc. But the trick here is that no matter how well I describe the song we’re all going to have drastically different interpretations of what that sounds like.

But isn’t that just a matter of human perspective in general? You know that whole, “there’s no way of communicating what red is and there’s no way of knowing if the red we see is the same as what others see” deal? Its interesting for sure but somehow civilization hasn’t collapsed into a frenzied madness whenever we say, “that’s a red balloon”

The End of Civilization

The End of Civilization

With colors especially even if our perceptions of the color differ slightly there’s enough overlap in our perspectives that we’ve come to an agreement that the balloon is red.  Basically, there’s enough agreement on what “red” is that we’re willing to accept that red is what red is. Music on the other hand is a bit more complex.

The thing with sound association is that there’s so much room to move around in. Sound descriptions when it comes to music can invoke radically different interpretations between readers much more than just than just a red balloon. Sure we all have some agreed upon notion of what “bang” “pop” “fizzle” “crack” and “splat” sound like, but music can’t be accurately described just by sprouting off onomatopoeia. With that in mind it’s easy to see that writing music scenes is more than just getting the description of the sound right.

Music scenes have to make the reader imagine a song they’ve never heard before. Go ahead and try to describe a song that doesn’t exist to a friend without making a comparison, singing, dancing, playing an instrument or doing anything else except talking about it. Chances are they’ll stare at you confused and bewildered as they slowly inch their way towards the door.

So what’s a writer to do? After all music is important, otherwise it wouldn’t be included in the first place. The important thing here is to realize that the point of music is to set a mood, to invoke a feeling. In the end it doesn’t really matter if six different readers imagine the song different ways. What matters is that they set a similar mood, aid in establishing a scene and invoke a similar feeling.

MoreThanAFeeling(Boston)

…or maybe it’s more than that

At times its best to let your reader decide how to feel about a particular piece, since leaving it up to your reader can give your scene flexibility. Other times its best to directly state how it should make them feel by describing a character’s reaction to it. Maybe they dance wildly, maybe they gasp in awe, or maybe they hold their hands over their ears and pray for the end of their torture.

Turn off that non-existent sound right this minute!

Turn off that non-existent sound right this minute!

Sometimes music can be used as a cruel tool of misdirection. Maybe there’s a light, classical even whimsical melody being played at a dinner party while the murdered slips behind the duchess and slits her throat. In this case, the music can make the murder feel that much more uncomfortable. Because a vicious act is now associated with a rather light feeling. Uncomfortable yet?

Music is often seen as the tool of television, video and er… music. Rarely is it seen as a weapon for print mediums. No other medium can establish subtext, invoke a feeling or portray thought as effectively as the written word can. That doesn’t stop with writing a scene with music. Music isn’t a weakness for writers, its just another tool in their arsenal.

And then there's the rest of the arsenal

And then there’s the rest of the arsenal

So what do you think? What makes a scene with music effective? Who does it well? How can we do it better? Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Comic Book Supervillains: Victims of Consequence

Joker-Comic

Villains are notoriously hard to write, and perhaps none more so than comic book Supervillains. Suffering from the larger problem of consequence negation, villains have gone from threatening antagonist to monthly punching bags. Even world-shakers and cosmic level threats lose their luster after getting their butt’s kicked for almost 50 years. 

This is one of the biggest pitfalls comic book writers are forced to navigate around. How do you establish any real sense of danger or urgency without breaking the cardinal rule of the comic book industry: Don’t Kill the Money. After all, who’s going to make the villain that kills Spider-Man?

Nobody

Nobody

Nobody at Marvel is going to kill Spider-Man and yes I mean actually kill him. No going back in time, no alternate time lines, no dreams, no warped reality, no “this is just one possible future”, no clones, no “dude pretending to be spider-man”. I’m talking straight up, Peter Parker, Spider-Man Earth 616 completely and utterly and permanently dead. The villain who pulls that off is going to hold a  place in every comic fan’s heart as… The villain that ended their favorite series. That writer would need to be able to justify killing off Marvel’s poster-boy, and flagship character that has in turn generated billions of dollars for the company. It’s just a stupid move from a business stand-point.

Protected by consequence-immunity and legacy, it’s really not fair for super-villains. How are they supposed to stand a chance against an enemy who is completely immune to death? How do you create a sense of danger and panic in your foes when your latest world conquest is brushed aside so effortlessly? We have villains who have been around for over 40 years who have a track record of being defeated for just as long and we’re still looking to our writers to create danger for our protagonist.

846327

Do writers need to keep rehashing Dr. Doom’s master plans for readers who have the full knowledge and certainty that whatever Victor does it’s just going to fail anyways? Even if we’re going to introduce an entirely new villain (note that all of your favorite supervillains are at least 30 years old)  and invest in them as a recurrent characters, they’re eventually going to go through the same cycle and ultimately face the same fate. Even if their debut does something heart-stopping and incredibly wicked they all meet the same destiny of being used over and over again until their appearance generates little more than a sarcastic, “oh no, what are they going to do now…”

Don’t get me wrong. Certain writers have taken this restriction and have done incredibly innovative takes on the villain. They recognize that super-villains are much more than just “the bad guy” They have written them with a level of sympathy and have blurred the fine line of morality far more than anyone gives them credit for.

Furthermore, writers know that mortality is a jagged mountain face that no one can really climb but simply hope to hang there for a few moments. With that in mind, they’ve had to substitute “death” for other forms of danger; other ways to invoke urgency and fear in their readers. Some have done this by killing off family members, friends, and innocent bystanders. Others have done this by attacking the hero’s mental state or appealing to their vices. In many ways the restrictive nature of the medium has prompted writers to push the genre to incredible depths. There’s no denying that over the years comic writers have managed to maintain our fear, and our sense of danger in super-villains despite all this.

Loki_Laufeyson_(Heroes_Reborn)

No other form of writing calls on its creators to write compelling canonical storylines for anywhere near the amount of time, or consistency. While there have been series in other mediums that have run for decades, none of them are held to the same standards of established story arc, strict character guidelines, frequency and fan backlash like comics. We’re looking for that never-ending story.

I think that’s part of what makes comic books so compelling. They appeal to a childlike reassurance that “everything is going to be okay, your hero will be there for you.” Questions of quality and craft aside, could we really stomach removing the “immortal and invincible” complex that protects our heroes? That’s precisely what writers need to do if they want villains that don’t eventually become a diminishing and irrelevant threat.

Writers have the monumental and often times paradoxical job of making everything new but staying exactly the same. And that’s one of the issues with villains. Honestly, I want to keep seeing Magneto, the Joker, Lex Luthor etc. etc. for years and years to come but I’m also bored to death of them. I want to see new villains, but at the same time I’d much rather read a comic with Magneto doing his thing than “New Super Badguy” that I’ve never heard of or really care about. I want there to be lasting consequence… but I don’t want there to be lasting consequence. Good luck trying to make me happy comic writers.

Magneto_Ultimatum

What do you think? How do you feel about comic book villains today? Do writers need to step up their game in writing compelling, interesting and threatening villains or do they have it right? What are some examples of villains that you believe have transcended this problem? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Horror is Hard

the_walking_dead_67562

With Halloween right around the corner, I find myself wondering a bit about horror. For all the movies, television series and games that have come out in recent years I’ve noticed that the horror genre in its written form is falling behind. As a piece of the speculative fiction trio, why has horror fallen to the wayside? Everyday science fiction and fantasy novels are finding spots on best sellers list and have rapidly growing fan bases, while more visual mediums have dominated horror. So what’s the deal here?

Writing horror for any medium is a challenge but the difficulty with printed mediums is primarily rooted in our culture. Television, films and even video games have cemented their superiority in a visual context and when it comes to bloody, gore-fest jump-scares, novels can’t really provide that kind of “instant-horror” we’ve grown accustomed to. Without the benefit of a visual component print mediums have to make up for it by appealing to a creeping psychological terror and warped perspective that is a challenge to keep up with for hundreds of pages. It doesn’t help that instant gratification turns modern day society’s gears.

steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_161636982_preview

Think about the tempo of a horror film for instance. We set the mood, things get a little uncomfortable, then they get scary, then they get terrifying and then they end. All within the scope of two hours. Within those two hours so much of the story is padded by sinister music, violently graphic imagery and screaming that we forget what we’re even watching, we just know that this is scary and we love it.

What about the tempo of a horror novel? There is a sort of constant rise and fall of calm, and terror. Horror novels have to really dig their hooks in because they’re competing with a culture that insists that nothing frightens it. Horror novelist must transcend our goldfish level attention span and keep their reader hooked for what could be fifty pages of calm before anything really “scary” happens. That’s one of the real difficulties with horror, there’s not really a way to capture the “in your face, gut wrenching” feeling that we associate with the genre.

Instant culture, and our obsession with the visual can’t carry the full weight of the blame however. A lot of the challenge in horror is that supernatural monsters just aren’t scary anymore. It’s more difficult to scare people with the fantastical, the imagined or the supernatural than it was years ago. We’ve come to terms with the fact that reality and humanity are scarier than any vampire, mummy, werewolf or zombie.

scary-movie_1

It’s come to a point where we’ve exhausted vampires and zombies from so many different angles that we approach them with what amounts to satirical riffing; a tell-tale sign that we’ve conquered our fear of “classic” monsters. As a society we’ve done something similar to what Harry Potter and Co. did with the boggart: We’ve been exposed to monsters of every variety and then learned to make them laughable. We’ve made such things amusing and ridiculous. The challenge of horror writing is pushing past that.

PRofessor-Boggart-Snape

Horror novelist need to rely on subtle psychological overtones that don’t necessarily “frighten” the reader but makes them uncomfortable. Way back when, authors like Edgar Allan Poe or even if we go back a bit further to Christopher Marlowe were masters at this sort of thing. But they were of a very different time, and in many respects a completely different world. It’s hard to capture that  feeling of terror that grows more after the fact as opposed to movies which seek to scare “in the moment”. Writing horror becomes a challenge of who can be the most disturbing; who can keep the reader up at night wondering.

Still though, literature isn’t completely defenseless. It has the benefit of subtext, inner thoughts and a more intimate portrayal of psychological terror than any other mediums. And to be fair because the medium can be so restrictive at times it’s made being a strong writer an absolute necessity with horror. Furthermore, if we look at short stories we see a way for horror writing to find its place in instant-culture. I think writers recognize that horror needs to be jump-started again, and in many respects the literary landscape is ripe with the opportunity to push those boundaries.

What do you think? Where does horror need to go from here? What is the genre missing? Why has horror lost ground while the other two pillars of speculative fiction have seen a surge of popularity and constant evolution? Why is it more compelling to push the boundaries of sci-fi and fantasy than in the horror genre? Let me know what you think in the comment section below and tell me your favorite horror novel from the last 10 years.

Write Talk: 5 Ways to Screw with Time in Your Story

Writers can control time.  Allow me an analogy if you will, think about spaghetti. Take some time to go eat spaghetti because it’s tasty …

Now that you’ve returned from your spaghetti gluttony-fest and probably ravaged a few small villages during the course of your meal let’s talk a little bit about time and its relationship with you the writer. Take a look an uncooked spaghetti noodle, it’s long thin and tasteless and a bitch and a half to chew. Yet, it’s the beginning of many creative and tasty pasta dishes.

Phil: God I love pasta. This reminds me of a time—

Not yet Phil you’re not supposed to come in until much later in the article.

Phil: I cant help it if pasta is delicious

Will you shut up

Norman: Hey! You cant Talk to him that way

Are you two going to write this article?

Phil: We’d do a better job of it than you, you hack.

Norman: Yeah! You’re lucky we’re just random names given to symbolic  strawman charactertures created with the sole purpose of providing clarity and entertainment to your readers.

Phil: What’s that supposed to mean?

Norman: You aren’t real Phil.

Phil: Oh…

Annnnyways,  let’s go back to the important thing here: spaghetti uh I mean writing. So often writers fall into the trap of believing that their writing has to be linear in which events happen in a specific sequential order at a pre-determined rate. Basically, writers aren’t cooking their noodles when they could be cooking and playing with them too.

Go ahead right now cut your noodles up, twist them together, slurp them up quickly, neatly twirl them using a fork and two spoons, or heck even throw a plate of them at small children (don’t actually do that). Wasn’t that fun? Why aren’t you doing that with your story?

Norman: It makes a mess?

Phil: Just think of all the angry emails you’re going to get from people aggressively cleaning their kitchens right now.

Norman: Was he always this insensitive about kitchen cleanliness?

That’s it, I’m putting you both back in my brain!

Phil: Nooo

Norman: MMfhGgmmgmgnff

Phil: ~cartoon swearing symbols~

Granted, screwing with time for the sake of your story can get a little messy but with a strong voice and an engaging plot to back it up, experimenting with how the events in your story are displayed can really add to the quality of a story in my humble opinion.

Without further ado, I present to you: 5 Ways a Writer Can Screw with Time in their Story

  1. Slow it Down (Or Twirling your Noodles on a Fork and Spoon) 

Slowing down a scene to the point where time is at a crawl allows for more descriptive language that would otherwise be awkward at a normal tempo. Additionally giving a scene a slow motion effect can allow for deeper inner-reflection from characters without distracting from the action too much. Finally it can really emphasize a distorted perception especially with a first-person narrative.

  1. Fast-Forward (or Cutting your Noodles Up and eating them Aggressively)

Going through vast stretches of time can give the reader a quick but wide scope of a plethora of events without completely overwhelming them with useless data. Springing forward also raises questions of what happened “between the lines”. Writers can experiment with this directly or leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. In other words not drawing direct tangents between events gives readers an empty space to work with; think of it as the literary equivalent of using white space to frame your story.

  1. Flashbacks (Or Fondly Remembering that Spaghetti You Just Had)

Flashbacks are a great way to weave past and present in your story. They can provide clarity and depth to a plot without writers having to go through lengthy expository marathons. From a character standpoint it can give them substance and a bit of depth since flashbacks are a great way to build a character from the ground up

  1. Shift Angles (Or Cutting your Noodles)

Shifting Perspectives between different points of view, time, or even just location is a great way to play around with the idea of distorted realities, perception biases and gives the writer a lot of room to experiment with. By providing multiple angles to essentially the same story it gives the writer a chance to work with a plot while giving the readers new viewpoints. It can also provide them with a sense that events are happening simultaneously

  1. Experiment (or Throwing Your Spaghetti at Small Children)

Get weird with time. Turn it inside out. Split it in half. Jump Rope with it. Use it to do surgery. Floss your teeth with it. Twirl it into a ball, cut that in half and tie the two ends together. You’re   a writer after all, experiment.

I hope you enjoyed this installment of Write Talk even if it did get a little weird at times. Hope to see you next week! If you have an idea for a Write Talk topic or have a writing problem you want me to tackle make sure to let me know in the comment section.

Write Talk: Strengthen Your Exposition

Write Talk: Strength in Exposition

Exposition is a tricky son of a bitch. On one hand too little no one will know what you’re talking about, too much and it can end up doing the worst thing a writer can do to a story: kill it. As a writer, there are obviously exceptions to every rule but if there was ever a rule to be put in stone, “If it kills your story, it’s not a good idea” seems like a worthwhile candidate. In the end, exposition is a necessary but cruel part of writing especially in terms of speculative fiction that we’ll have to learn to live with.

In my opinion strong exposition comes down to giving your reader exactly what they need to know and then nothing more. While this may very well be a personal preference I’m a proponent of exposition that gets to the point, and then gets out of the way of the story. If it’s integrated into the story naturally rather than being a jarring interruption exposition can really add substance and clarity to a story. Again though there’s a danger in knowing just how little exposition you can get away with. In a sense it’s a balancing act; one false step and the story splatters all over the pavement thirty-stories below. We don’t want that to happen, so let’s talk about it.

What does “good” exposition look like? What about “bad” exposition? To help explain these concepts please direct your attention to Phil and Norman. (If you do not have a Phil and/or Norman in your immediate vicinity you may use the Phil and Norman located below):

Phil: Hello

Norman: Hi There

In this example Phil will be telling his friend, Norman, about how he got a flat tire on the way to work. Remember Phil’s purpose is to keep Norman’s attention because (according to Phil) he has a really awesome story to tell Norman.

First without any exposition…

Phil: I got a flat tire on the way to work, and this guy pulled over to help me. It was Hank.

Now, given there is nothing wrong with Phil’s story. There was a problem, rising action and a resolution, he told Norman only what was absolutely necessary. Norman will be satisfied but it’s not necessarily a story that’s going to stick in his mind. Just for fun let’s play around with Phil’s story a little bit:

What about if he were to use too much exposition?

               Phil: It was morning, and the sun was just barely up when I decided to pour myself a cup of coffee that I had bought from the grocery store just that weekend. It was Folgers, I would have gotten something better but there was a guy standing there looking creepy, he looked a little bit like Randy they guy who sits outside of the bar we go to on Saturday’s the Beer Pour Tavern, the one that was built in the fifties by the Col. Kint. So I finish my cup of coffee when I realize that I   got a bit of it on my tie, that I bought from the store just two weeks ago it was a blue and black one with stripes that I really like. My father used to have a tie just like it; he bought his at a flea market and blah blah blah blah blah…

Norman: zzzzz

Poor Phil, you had a great interesting story about how you got a flat tire on the way to work and Norman has already fallen victim to expository overload. Not to worry Phil, we’ll help you out.

So we let’s take a look at just one of the many ways expository information can be integrated into a story effectively.

Dialogue. Let’s try this again Phil…

Phil: I got a flat tire on my way to work. When this guy pulls up in a beat up blue Chevy and I thought I recognized him. Next thing I know he yells out, “Oh shit is that you Phil? It’s Hank from School” So I’m just blown away at this point I haven’t seen Hank in twenty, twenty five years. So I ask him, “Where you been all this time?” And he gets this big grin on his face and is all “I’ve been in jail for murder.”

In this example the exposition is integrated seamlessly into Phil’s story, it doesn’t interrupt the main plot of the story and does more than just exude information. Norman will be on the edge of his seat demanding more. Of course dialogue isn’t the only way to effectively utilize exposition. Some other tools can be to have the setting itself give expository details, use a flashback, have it done as a story within a story or who knows maybe you can find another cool way to deal with exposition.

I’m a bit reluctant to ever dish out “rules” for writing because on one hand I confess that I’m just an amateur with nothing more than a strong interest in writing with maybe too much to say about it but more importantly that 95% of the time “rules” are just plain inaccurate, too overreaching and just plain stubborn. Having said that though I would like to leave you with at least some general guidelines when it comes to exposition feel free to spit on them and prove me wrong though; that’s the beauty of writing after all if it works, screw the rules.

  • Try to start your story as late into the story as possible
  • Good exposition gets to the point and then gets out of the way
  • Only tell the audience as much as they need to know
  • You probably need less exposition than you think
  • Good exposition is integrated into the story naturally, rather than a jarring interruption
  • Good Exposition conveys more than just data
  • First person narration can be an ace when it comes to exposition. It’s warped, biased and unreliable and when it comes to exposition that subjective point of view can be very effective
  • There are exceptions to everything, even this.

Now go forth and write!