Busting Writing Myths
Let's bust some writing myths. The first myth we wanna bust, we're gonna bust some writing myths. So the first myth that we have to bust, and this is a big one, and that is don't tell your reader what your protagonist is thinking or feeling, don't take us into their head in fact because if you do, you're talking down to the reader. I hear this all the time. I think one of the biggest struggles that writers have is when they lock us out of their protagonist's head they're locking us out of the specific. You're locking us out of the why. We don't know why someone's doing something unless we're in their head and we see how they're making sense of it. And so because we're told not to do that writer's don't do the work to figure out what that would be and so you have very shallow characters or characters who therefore become very generic. I mean here's the thing about prose, and that you get as a prose writer, which is prose can take us to that one place that other forms of storytelling don...
't tend to take us. Certainly not a movie, not TV, and not really plays. Prose take us into someone's head so we can really see what they're thinking (chuckles), that is what we come for, mind reading is really why we're there. Story is the difference between what you're saying out loud, and what you're really thinking when you're saying it. That's what we come for, the why lives internally, and yet, writers don't wanna put that onto the page. That's where they can feel clunky doing it because they're not used to doing it. Certainly you don't wanna take us into a protagonist's head when they're just musing about something, or they're thinking something, you know, about, that might happen some time in the future, but doesn't really effect them in the moment, or just objectively narrating what's going on. That is not what we're talking about. We're talking about when they're struggling with whatever choice, difficult choice, the scene is forcing them to make, and they're trying to figure out what to do or how to respond. The problem is, writers will say, I don't wanna tell, why should I tell my reader what my character's thinking or feeling because they should figure it out themselves, that's their job, they'll think I'm talking down to them. They're gonna automatically know it, in fact, it's redundant. Here's what happens, here's, and I see scenes like this all the time when you don't give us a clue. Now imagine this scene, protagonist is named, Camalya, and Camalya is working at a job, she's worked very hard for a very long time and she's up for a promotion and a raise that she thinks in fact she's gonna get at the end of the day. Her boss is Rashida, and is a friend of hers, as a matter of fact. So she's sure at the end of the day she's gonna go in and get that raise because she's taking care of her mother who's ill and whose medicine has just, the cost of it has spiked through the roof and insurance company doesn't wanna pay for it, and so she needs this raise. So she goes into Camalya's office, end of the day, or Rashida's office, end of the day. She thinks they're gonna like pop a cork of champagne, you know have a glass, toast to it, and it's just gonna be this wonderful thing. Instead, when she gets there, Rashida says, I'm really sorry to tell ya, but you didn't get the promotion, in fact, Bradley, he got the promotion. Bradley, the slacker by the way, the nephew of the CEO for christ sake, got it and not you. And so there's that scene and now the writer will write, and Camalya, who had a plan that night to go out with some friends and go to a movie and then come home early, say goodnight to her mom and go to bed, this is exactly what she would've done, exactly what you already knew she was gonna do. Doesn't talk about it, doesn't think anything, just does it. You say to the writer, why didn't you let us know she was sad, and the writer says, why would I have to do that? The reader knew how important that job was to her. The reader knew she thought she was gonna get the job. The reader knows how she feels. The reader gets it, why would I need to tell the reader, that would be talking down to them. Here's what the reader really thinks in that situation. Wow, I knew she really needed that job and I knew that she really thought Rashida was her friend, you know, that she was supposed to get it, I know how she feels about Bradley, that slacker, and she didn't get the job and there she just did whatever she was gonna do and it didn't seem to have any effect on her, I guess I misread, I guess I didn't understand it, I guess there must have been something back over there where she really didn't want the job at all. And as I'm very fond of saying, the problem is, readers also, while they will allow you some plot glitches, they do not allow you emotional and psychological glitches. When somebody doesn't do something, or feel the way that we assume they are going to, you have just destroyed the credibility of that character. So writers might go, okay, I hear ya, I gotta have something over there, gotta be something. Still not willing to go into the head of my character though, not willing to do that because we're not supposed to, that would be talking down to the reader. So how about, how about, what if we did body language? Let's do that. So let's talk about the myth of relying on body language to get emotion across. So imagine that same scene that we're talking about except this time, afterwards, she goes into her office and she sobs and when she goes out with her friends she's hunched over and she looks really sad the whole time. Now we know she's sad. Readers are really finicky though, because now here's what readers think. Duh, I knew that, I knew she was sad, why isn't she reacting, what is she thinking, how is it effecting her, what's her plan, what does she think about what happened, what's going on there? Body language is way overrated when it comes to prose, way overrated. Because here's the thing, body language should only be used to tell us something that we don't already know and with a secondary character. In your point-of-view character we need to be in their head, not being told how they feel because they're limping or because, or because they're sobbing or because their shoulders are hunched. The only time body language is really effective is with a secondary character, a character whose head you can't go into to, or non-point-of-view character in the scene. And in that case it's not just to let us know something we already know, but to fly in the face of something that we think we know and to make the point that even when you do that, it is about, and only to setup, this internal struggle? Let's go back to that scene and let's think about that scene again. So now you've got Camalya and she's gonna go into Rashida's office and she thinks she's gonna get the raise, right? End of the day, positive she's gonna get that raise, and she walks in and she knocks on the door and Rashida says, come in, and she opens the door and Rashida can't meet her gaze, can't look her in the eyes. And she thinks, uh-oh, and then Rashida's got one of those, like, like paper clip things, you know, those paper clip magnet things and she's playing with it on her desk. And Camalya knows that when Rashida does that it means she's really uncomfortable, something bad's coming. Now, okay, so what would happen then, and think about it in your own lives, what would you do if that was you? Here's what you'd be thinking, you'd be thinking, wait a minute, she can't meet my gaze, I hope something bad didn't happen, I know that she was struggling with her boyfriend, I sure hope he didn't break up with her because that really wouldn't have been good 'cause I know they've got this plan to go to Hawaii next month, and wait a minute, she's also doing that thing with the paper clips. Uh-oh, maybe I'm not gonna get the job. Maybe something happened. Do you think, do you think she could've found out that I'm, that I'm embezzling from the company, I don't think she could've known that, but what else? The point is, two things, one, the minute we see something we can't account for we try to figure out what it means and not what it means in general, but what it means to us based on what our agenda is in the moment. And notice also that in that description, that I gave you right then, I could've gone on forever with that 'cause that's really fun, (laughing), it's like improv almost, and na, na, na, na, na, but you notice I never mentioned an emotion, I never said how she felt, and yet, can't you feel how she feels? Image just thinking, oh my god, what if they found out that I'm embezzling, we don't need to hear and her stomach clenched, or her pulse raced, or who cares, I wanna know the logic she's making out of it and what she's gonna do and wow, and you notice how also in those cases you're getting relevant back story. Maybe we didn't know much about the boyfriend there, or maybe we didn't even know the way Camalya's embezzling, wait, what, I bet she's doing it to. And now you've really been good to the reader because you've given them enough that they can start to try to figure out the why on their own. That is what you need to do. That is where your story lives and breaths. But writers still might say, okay, I hear you. I'm not gonna use body language then with my, with my protagonist. What about action? Isn't traumatic action a way to get emotion onto the page? And the problem of course is, is that dramatic action, in and of itself, is not at all dramatic. Dramatic action, in and of itself, is just a big giant thing that happens if it's not affecting someone who's really struggling to do something else and trying to make sense of it is just a big giant thing that happens, is it a good thing, is it a bad thing? I don't know. And yet, writers will throw traumatic action in, in order to make their protagonist have to deal with something difficult. It's almost like there's a grab bag of different dramatic things that you could have and could throw into the story to up the, to up the action, and to up the drama and the emotion. Like for instance, let's talk about that, relying on body language to convey emotion. You might go, okay, I'm still, still not willing to put us into Camalya's head, so how about action? What about she's really mad at Rashida, what about if she took that little thing with the paperclips and threw it on the floor? No wait, let's make it more dramatic. What if she went to the parking lot and keyed Rashida's, no wait, she doesn't key the car, she is gonna set that puppy on fire. How about that? That would be dramatic. And yeah, you'd think, oh my god, did Camalya have a psychotic break, because again, coming back to it, if that isn't something that character would have done and you've been building to it from the first page, we're just gonna think what's, what's wrong with her and we're gonna circle right back to what I said, which is, readers are not very forgiving when you mess with the emotional psychological arc of a character. We get to know them. We know that they would or wouldn't do. And unless she's been the kind of a person who was a pyromaniac, from the beginning, and we always knew she had that pack of matches with her and was eyeing things with, with ill intent, this is not gonna go over well. And yet writers are taught to do this all the time. I'm gonna give you another example of this as we redefine the deeply, tragically misunderstood writing maxim, show, don't tell. Show, don't tell, is so deeply misunderstood. Let me give you an example and then we will dive into it. I was working with a writer at UCLA, and I had read his pages and his main character was a guy and he was having breakfast in his house alone, no one else was there. And he poured a cup of coffee and he sat down and then he got up and he slammed the coffee cup against the wall. It shattered, coffee was everywhere and I'm reading and thinking, okay, this guy definitely had a psychotic break with reality 'cause why on earth would he have done that, that makes absolutely no sense? So I was talking to the writer and I said, I don't understand, why did John throw that coffee cup against the wall? Did something happen (laughing) I mean, I mean, what, what was that about? And he said, oh, no, no, the reason that that was there, he said, was because last year, what I'd written was, John was really angry and my writing teacher said oh no, show don't tell, don't tell me John is angry, show me he's angry, so I had him throw the coffee cup. And it's like (laughing), it's like okay, it doesn't work that way, you just showed me that he was crazy, I don't know what to tell you. And if one thing I know about John is he's not crazy. Here is the problem. Show, don't tell is not external. It's not like don't tell me, 'cause definitely you don't wanna tell us how someone's feeling, like Marilyn's mother died and she's very, very sad. But it doesn't mean show me, like show her crying a river of tears, or keening under the cycle moon, that's not how you get emotion across, or meaning across. Because again, there's very little difference between, you know, she was (mumbles) telling us she's sad and having her keening under the moon, showing is not visual. Visual locks us out. Visual is the surface. We don't wanna know about the surface. We wanna know about what's going on beneath the surface. What show, don't tell is, is internal, as in show me why the protagonist is doing what she's doing. Show me why she feels the way she feels, and again, that means take me inside her head. I mean wouldn't you have rather been inside John's head before he threw the cup? He wouldn't have had to throw the cup. Get his wall washed by a new cup, I mean, what a pain. We would've been inside and have some clue as to why. We come for why, not for what? Show, don't tell, is internal means and this is what we've been talking about. You take us into the protagonist's skin, or point-of-view character's skin, as she's struggling with what to do in the story, the choice she's gotta make in order to move things on because she's in a situation that she can't get out of and she's trying to figure out what the hell to do. That's where the struggle comes in, that's where emotion comes in. You never have to mention a word of emotion. But talking about this, this notion of it's internal, it's what the character's thinking. Let's now bust what I think is actually the most damaging writing myth out there and that is the myth that surrounds backstory. And I know you've probably heard it. Backstory can be seen as something very negative, it's seen a pa-jor-i-te of like, oh my god, backstory, it's an info dump, don't use it, and writers are told this all the time. Backstory is best avoided, use it sparingly, and only when the reader needs to know something. You never use backstory when the reader needs to know something which doesn't mean there aren't times when the reader absolutely needs to know something, but that's not why you put it on the page. You put it on the page because your character is struggling with what to do and they're thinking about this in order to try to figure it out. Backstory will be on every single page of your novel, every single page and yet writers are taught there's one writing book out there that says no backstory in the first 50 pages, to which I say, have you never read a novel, really? Because if you get that highlighter out you will find backstory on every page. It is there always. In fact, I'm very fond of saying, I'll give you two very quick examples, I don't know if I've already talked about one, I can't remember, but, but not this one. I was working with a writer and she wanted to see exactly, okay, how does this work, is this really on the page? And so she, she said she was reading, Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl, that's her first novel. More people know about it now then before because of the HBO miniseries that was on recently, and she said, I wanted to see how much of this there actually was. She says, so I took out a highlighter and I decided to highlight everything that was backstory in this internality that you talk about. She said I'm halfway through the book and I've highlighted 60, yes that's 6-0 percent of the book. It is all over. I say that you take whatever you're reading, pull out a highlighter, start to highlight what's backstory, start to highlight what your character making sense of things. The reason that we don't see it is because we've so been told that it is this bad negative thing that's going to be an info dump. Yeah, when it's done wrong that's, that's not a good idea. Don't do it wrong is my advice to you. When done right we don't even see it because when done right it doesn't, it doesn't pull us out of the past. The use of backstory doesn't stop the story, pull us into the past, and then we have to pick up the story again, we're in the story, the character pulls the backstory into the story present as they're struggling with what to do and trying to figure out how they can best get what they want and have to give up the least. That is how backstory comes onto the page. And the real sin about being told, use backstory sparingly, or rarely use it, is that it implies that you don't need to know it, you don't need to develop it, because you're hardly every gonna use it. So you get to a place where you, you need to have something in the past and you just make something up and throw it in. It doesn't work that way. Your protagonist steps onto page one. Remember we were talking about with something they wanted, have long wanted, and that misbelief, they bring their backstory with us. Aren't we always talking about the baggage that we bring. You can't put a character onto the page without having developed their story, specific backstory. When I say backstory, to be very clear, I am not suggesting that you write a birth up until where the story starts bio, I do not mean that, that would be just as useless as knowing nothing. I mean you need to go back and you need to find those story-specific events that led, cause and effect, up to the problem and then it plays forward story specifically so that it'll be relevant to your story. 'Cause there could be a million things that your protagonist has done that are completely irrelevant to your story, you don't need to know them. So story-specific backstory, that is what creates that lens, they step onto the page with, what they're gonna use to make sense of everything, and again, that's where emotion lies, 'cause as we talked about earlier, meaning and emotion are one thing. When something means something to you, you feel an emotion. When you're conflicted about something, as your protagonist and every character will be going forward, that conflict, that meaning, evokes emotion. Backstory is your most potent tool when it comes to getting emotion onto the page. To be very clear; however, you do not need backstory inherently to get emotion onto the page. Meaning that there are times were your protagonist is gonna be struggling with trying to figure out what to do and they're not gonna think about the past, it's just gonna be right there in the moment and that is fine too.