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But What’s In the Box?

I’m in the middle of reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It’s beautifully written and has a really interesting and unique premise and, as I haven’t finished the book yet, this isn’t going to be a review, exactly. Mostly, reading the book has reminded me of an interesting complication when trying to deal with the mysterious in your writing.

Throughout The Night Circus, there is some kind of mysterious “competition” going on, the details and purpose of which is unknown to the reader and even unknown to the participants. It is, apparently, the driving conflict of the book and the central mystery of the plot, but here I am, halfway through, without any real idea what it is. That worries me.

Mysteries are double-edged swords. They draw the reader in and are also key to creating suspense. The longer the mystery draws out, the more intriguing the solution seems to be. However mysteries, once revealed, lose their magic. There is a danger, therefore, that the longer you draw out the mystery without revealing it, the more disappointing the reveal will be (or the more difficult it becomes to create a satisfying reveal).

There is a clip from Weird Al’s UHF that always comes to mind when I think about this problem:

Weaver, the contestant, is drawn in by the mystery of the box. Indeed, we all are – that’s why the mystery box is a thing in game shows – but the box, in this case, contains nothing at all. The reveal is a let-down and what makes it funny is that it is a deliberate one. UHF is mocking television conceits – it’s the crux of the whole film’s humor – but I also think the warning here is weirdly instructive: just because it’s mysterious, doesn’t mean it’s worth discovering.

So, back to The Night Circus and, by extension, writing in general. The thing that worries me about the central mystery of The Night Circus is that, once I get the reveal, it won’t end up being very interesting at all. It will break the magic that the rest of the book has worked so hard to construct. Now, part of me thinks that maybe this is intentional  – the book is all about a magical circus that creates an artificial environment through mystery and subtlety – and that maybe Morgenstern is setting the reader up to have their illusions crushed (and no spoilers, please). However, even if so, that means Morgenstern is deliberately mining the precise pitfall I’m trying to elaborate, here.

Sure, yeah - I get that. But how long do you expect us to care?

Sure, yeah – I get that. But how long do you expect us to care?

Perhaps some more instructive examples will help explain what I mean. The two most obvious ones are the two mega-hit shows The X-Files and LOST. In The X-Files, we are introduced to the idea that there is some global secret conspiracy to conceal the existence of aliens to the public. This is central to the show, and drives it through most of the run. However, every time Mulder gets close to the truth, it gets stolen away again. This works to create great drama through the early part of the run. However, at some point it lost steam. We kept wondering what was in the box so long that, once the box was opened and we looked inside, we just saw a bunch of old, nebulously rich dudes and, well…it was a let down.

The trouble was, ultimately, that Chris Carter (show creator) let the mystery drag out for too long. So long, in fact, that there was no possible reveal that could justify the delay. Instead of having a revelation that rocked our world, we instead just shrugged. That was it?


How mind-blowing was it when you first saw this? I mean, seriously, right?

How mind-blowing was it when you first saw this? I mean, seriously, right?

LOST sought to sidestep this problem by solving mysteries only to lead to larger mysteries. So, yes, they opened the box (literally, in the case of the Hatch) only to reveal another box. This was pretty brilliant, by the way. However, this was ultimately just an act of grand misdirection: the show got most of us to stop asking “what’s with all these boxes” and instead trust that newer and more interesting mysteries would keep revealing themselves until it all made sense.

Of course, the creators of LOST never actually planned to or cared to connect or make sense of all their mysteries. They just kept showing us more and more boxes until the whole thing refused to make any sense and then expected us to just shrug and accept that “life is a mystery.” Yeah, no – if The X-Files disappointed its audience, LOST deliberately cheated it. I still enjoyed that last season, mind you (the character arcs were perfect), but the mystery aspect of the show was a grand betrayal of everything much of the audience had invested.

So, okay – mystery is hard to balance. How, then, do you do it well? I can’t claim to be an expert, myself (though I do try), but generally think the key is that you have to reveal your mysteries before the payoff is eclipsed by the build-up. You can either do this by having a very subtle build-up (The Usual Suspects) or by revealing the great mystery about halfway through (the original Star Wars trilogy). You could even, perhaps, do what LOST was doing, except instead of throwing up your hands and not solving anything, you could roll up your sleeves and try to come up with the most God-awmighty big reveal in the history of storytelling.

But yeah, good luck with that one. No, “they’re all in heaven” isn’t an acceptable plot twist. Nor is a glowing Jacuzzi.

The Story of Jack

Jack_the_Giant_Killer_1So, there once was this guy named Jack – nevermind his last name, I can’t remember – anyway, he grew up very, very poor. Eventually, however, fortune smiled on him and, due to an unusual confluence of incredible stupidity and amazing cleverness, he got himself a reputation as a champion giant slayer and beanstalk climber. There was a good amount of money in this in the form of gold-laying geese, which allowed his family to live comfortably for a while. True wealth was beyond his reach, sadly, since that golden goose didn’t live all that long (gastrointestinal distress, said the veterinarian), but wise investing and the maintenance of a literal nest egg put young Jack through college.

speed-keanu-bullockHe started his career with the government, first as a hot-shot bomb-squad cop with something to prove. After a particularly poor bus ride, though, he met a girl and, after she dumped him, started to re-think his career path. He floated through a cool dozen different homicide detective jobs, investigating this and that impossible crime or terrible tragedy, and even took the occasional foray into massed automatic gun battles. He wasn’t very good at listening to his brusque but ultimately admiring captains/lieutenants/chiefs, which led him to think police work probably wasn’t for him. After a while, it just seemed like most of the reason they kept him around was so they could yell “JACK” at him, really loud, usually followed or preceded by some kind of profanity.

Anyway, Washington was calling him, and Jack answered. He did a stint in the FBI, but it turned out his real calling was in the CIA and its intelligence partners. Using his

He didn't age gracefully.

He didn’t age gracefully.

inherent knack for bucking authority at just the right time coupled with his unparalleled ability at being right, Jack’s career was off and running. He hunted down rogue soviet submarines, he fought IRA radicals, spent some time being shot at by Columbian drug lords, and there was even a bit about a nuclear bomb.

His decision not to dance with the president, though, was indicative of his career’s trajectory, since before he could be made president himself, he shifted his focus towards a counter terrorism group. No, wait – he became president I think. No, maybe that was a different Jack. Anyway, the Jack I’m talking about worked for CTU for a while. The days were long, though, and he had to spend a lot of time torturing people, which proved taxing. Worse than that, though, was the amount of time he had to spend on the phone so that he could understand what was going on and keep his bosses up-to-date on the things he learned while torturing people.

This job proved pretty dangerous.

This job proved pretty dangerous.

Burned out with that line of work, he went into the military for a while. Seeing his interest in doing things others wouldn’t, the first thing they did was task him with going through this wormhole device to explore other planets. This got him involved in a variety of interstellar conflicts older than the planet itself, but which, of course, he wasn’t allowed to tell anybody about. There was a lot of shooting and being shot at, which Jack typically enjoyed, as well as some workplace romance.

Still, eventually his bosses got tired of him and went off to try building some kind of super spaceship and he…wait. What happened to him? No, no, no – wrong Jack again. I think. Anyway, the Jack I’m talking about eventually got into the space program. Of course, his resume suggested he might be interested in off-the-beaten-track type exploration, so rather than shooting him into space, they miniaturized him and stuck him into Martin Short’s rear end. This was pretty exciting and, not only did it result in him being able to marry the girl of his dreams (who may or may not have been Russian…can’t remember), but it was a great career move. I mean, how many ex-cop, ex-spy, ex-military astronauts could say they killed giants and managed to spend a couple hours floating around Martin Short’s insides?

There were lots of job offers at this point, but Jack was pretty worn out with the dangerous, violent work of space exploration and so on. He drifted for a while, eventually getting a job as a truck driver. This was nice, calm work – the kind Jack had never experienced before – and he spent most of his time telling

This is after some reconstructive surgery, mind you.

This is after some reconstructive surgery, mind you.

people how awesome he was on the radio. Inevitably, Jack’s inability to accept his limitations led him to a fairly hair-raising encounter with an ancient Chinese sorcerer. His friends in the Chinese community helped him sort it out, but it led Jack back into police work of a sort. He became a drifter, travelling about in muscle cars, and not caring about evidence or laws and focusing, instead, on what was right.

He beat up a lot of people during this period. A few of them died of shame whilst he was being gentle with them, but that’s the way vigilantism goes sometimes. Overall it was a good life, barring the various gunshot wounds and his incessant arguments with government officials. The special age-reversing serums and reconstructive surgeries the government gave him when he left their service came in handy here, since he had the vitality of a much younger man.

Eventually, however, the government had need of him again. They talked him into taking a long-rang mission to the Jupiter area (his Russian wife was on board, which was an enticement) to investigate some big alien artifact. He was, of course, kidnapped, cloned, memory wiped, and the rest of it. Earth was mostly destroyed, and it was partially his fault. It was okay, since he blew himself up. No, wait, different Jack. The point is he made peace with it and then hooked up with some time/space travelling alien for a while.

This is what hard, heroic living will do to you, kids.

This is what hard, heroic living will do to you, kids.

Of course, he grew tired of that, too (I mean, the ship was only so big on the inside, and tempers flared), and decided to settle down in the golden age of piracy, where he retired being the worst pirate anybody had ever heard of (though, he hastened to point out, most people had heard of him). Here he lived a long, productive life of being dead but then not being dead and much of the things happening to him not making much sense. He lives there to this day.

No, wait – I forgot about that time his plane crashed on a desert island and he had to save everybody and then died. I think. Wait, was this Jack a spinal surgeon, or was it that other Jack? Well, anyway, I guess it doesn’t matter that much. The point is that Jack has had a long and productive life and, ultimately, would like to be left alone at this point. He’s done enough. Leave him alone.

At Last: Good Television!

The last good television show I watched was Lost. Yes, yes the last season wasn’t ideal, I know, but even with that caveat, the last season of Lost is better than the first season of pretty much any other show to come out since then. There have been things that are watchable (Defiance,

Yes, this guy is goddamned awesome. Have they given him ALL THE AWARDS yet? Why the hell not?

Yes, this guy is goddamned awesome. Have they given him ALL THE AWARDS yet? Why the hell not?

for instance, along with a laundry list of crime procedurals), but nothing that I saw and actually felt motivated to see more of. I would point out that I am aware Mad Men is supposed to be awesome and lots of people love The Walking Dead, but given my distaste for zombies and soap opera melodrama, the prospect of watching either of those shows sounds a lot like going to the dentist to me: good for me, and probably not that painful after all, but hardly something I’m rushing out the door to experience.

Oh, right, and there’s Game of Thrones, but seeing how I read all the books only to become disenchanted with the story at the end, the only reason I’m watching is to see Peter Dinklage tear up the screen. I’ve got the first two seasons on DVD, and I haven’t worked up the motivation to keep watching through season two. I mean, I already know everything that happens.

This brings me to my delightful discovery of the past week: Not one, but two shows whose pilots looked sufficiently interesting and fun that I am probably going to watch them both! Yes! Crazy, right?

Under The Dome

This is just a fantastic 'WTF' moment.

This is just a fantastic ‘WTF’ moment.

This is based off a Stephen King novel. I would imagine if you read it, that might suck some of the fun out of the series (much as happened to me and Game of Thrones), but beyond that, this show looks pretty awesome. It isn’t just that there’s a magical force field that’s cut off the town, it’s the completeness with which this idea has been imagined. King has thought of all the implications, here, and it shows. I know it’s been thought through because right at the end of the first episode (spoilers, sort of), I knew Duke shouldn’t touch the Dome, I yelled it at the screen, and I was right. Why? Because the Dome is operating under consistent principles and, therefore, can be anticipated. It also means there’s a lot more to discover, too. Throw in the devilish array of quintessential King small-town weirdo characters, and there is enormous plot potential running around here. So much has been set up and, goddammit, I want to see what happens. That hasn’t happened to me for the longest time.


This one snuck up on me. It just kinda came on the television just before bed, and it is just so gloriously new and interesting that I can’t help but be sucked in. If you loved Lost and its weird, mystery vibe, there is no reason you shouldn’t love this show, too. That, though, is basically similar to a lot of attempted shows since Lost, and the majority of them have fallen utterly flat. What gives Siberia the edge? Well, it’s filmed like a reality show. It’s a show about a reality show gone horribly wrong; it’s the Blair Witch Project on steroids with actually good actors and a better special effects budget. Besides, if you loathe reality show contestants the way I do, why wouldn’t you want to watch some of those self-absorbed assholes get devoured by monsters in Siberia? Throw in a series of creepy mysteries on top of it, and I’m sold! I’m in! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait until the next episode!

It’s such a relief to say this, since I was worried I was becoming jaded and cynical towards the world of television science fiction. I’ve either been indifferent or hated almost all of it for years, and now, all at once, I’ve got two shows I am seriously interested in watching. So, kudos, tv executives, for finally stimulating that bug in me. Now, off I go to On Demand…

Character Death Calculus

You know when you’re reading a book or watching a movie/show involving beloved characters and it’s all coming to a head and you know somebody’s probably going to die, but you aren’t sure which one? Well, I’m the guy who usually knows who it’s going to be. I’ve got a system, you see, and it’s relatively foolproof (though not perfect). Let me show you how it works:

Step 1: Who Has Plot Armor?

Can’t touch this…

Writers have characters who are essential to their story. If they kill them, they risk breaking the story or ruining the good thing they have going. These characters, if they ever die, will only die at the very end of the story arc, whenever that is, after they are no longer needed, since the story is about to end, anyway. Such characters are referred to as having ‘plot armor’ – they are, essentially, immune to death. Good authors, of course, keep you in suspense over this, anyway, but you all know, in you heart of hearts, that Luke Skywalker isn’t going to die.

These characters are usually fairly easy to spot and you can eliminate them as possible character deaths in most instances. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but they are rare.

Step 2: Which Characters Have Reasons to Stick Around?

Thank you both for helping the main characters develop. You may go now.

Secondary characters are usually the ones lined up for the firing squad, but not all secondary characters are created equal. Ones that have essential purposes to the conflict or plot can’t die until that duty is fulfilled. If that duty is ongoing and they cannot be replaced, they cannot die. Now, once they reach that expiration point, their purpose is fulfilled and they are immediately candidates for termination, provided a few other factors are fulfilled.

Very often, it becomes apparent that particular characters, while they had been interesting, compelling, and important to the plot, are no longer in that category. The writers have milked their usefulness to the fullest and, they discover, (as per Step 3) that the character would be more useful dead than they would alive. As soon as this happens, boom – no more character.

To take Lost as an example, Boone was handy for a little while as a protegé to Locke and as a point of conflict for Shannon, but this got stale. After that, they needed him to help the plot but didn’t want him hanging around gumming up all their scenes, so *splat* – no more Boone.

By the transitive property of Character Death, Boone’s death meant Shannon was much closer to the chopping block, since her character had one less thing to keep her around for. Oh, and thank God they killed her, too – damn, she was annoying.  

Step #3: Which Characters are More Useful Dead than Alive

Guess which guy is the guy they shoot. Go on, guess…

 Once you’ve established whom you can kill without derailing the plot, then it becomes a matter of ‘which character is better off dead’. This, ultimately, comes down to a certain degree of taste, and the best way to predict is to try and figure out what kind of story the writer is going for. The death of a beloved sidekick is a great motivator for the hero, but the death of the comic relief can take a lighthearted adventure and make it grim. The death of a beloved, comical sidekick does both things, which automatically bumps them ahead on the hit list, provided that the author needs to motivate his or her hero and wants the story to take a grim, frightening turn. Then again, there might be characters that are simply a drag on the plot and, by killing them, you kick the story out of a rut and start hurtling towards your third act.

Point in case: Joe Pesci in Goodfellas had it coming from a mile away. They needed to keep him for a while to give the movie some spice and, even, some cruel levity. However, there came a point when it simply would be too arduous to keep the character present and have Henry Hill do what he had to do. Bam! Dead Pesci. Now, granted, Goodfellas was based on a real-life story, so I doubt the *actual* mob killed the *actual* Joe Pesci character for the sake of plot development, but, then again, I don’t know if that part is factual, either.

Step #4: Which Character Will the Audience Miss the Most?

Admit it: you’re getting a little misty *right now.*

Okay, once we’ve narrowed down our list of characters to those non-essential, secondary characters whose deaths will actually help the overall plot somehow, we might still have two or three guys standing around. Who to pick? Well, the one that will hurt the worst, of course. Writers want to evoke pathos, and you don’t evoke pathos by killing Jar-Jar; nobody will care or they will be actively pleased, which is the opposite of what you want. You want tears or anger or bitter snorts and shakes of the head. You want people to feel it in their gut somehow. If you don’t, why are you killing a character at all? So, you pick your crowd favorites. You pick the nice, fat geeky kid (sorry, Piggy from Lord of the Flies) or the kindly old tutor (eat it, Dumbledore) or the positive father figure (here’s a bullet just for you, Willem DeFoe in Platoon). That way, while Charlie Sheen is weeping in the Huey on his way back to the States, the audience is weeping, too. Pathos. Catharsis. Yes.


Now, good writers wouldn’t be good writers if they weren’t inherently aware of this equation. Some of them buck the trend intentionally, killing off the characters you least expect when you least expect it (George RR Martin, looking at you), or decide they aren’t going to kill anybody at all, after all (let’s face it: Lando Calrissian dodged a bullet in Jedi, and you know it). Sometimes, breaking the equation means ‘breaking’ your story just to begin telling another one–a kind of plot calculus bait-and-switch. This is a risk, of course, and it doesn’t always pay off (looking at you again, George RR Martin), but it is bold storytelling. All that said, there is nothing wrong with the equation above, just so long as you are careful in managing the variables and keeping the audience guessing until it’s too late.

Staggering Exposition

So I’ve been reading Michael J Sullivan’s novel Theft of Swords in between epic bouts of pre-semester preparation and a titanic move that seems endless. The story is passably engaging, the characters fairly familiar takes on the same old tropes, and has a few winning moments. I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any further in the series after this one, but it has got me thinking about a particularly onerous and prickly aspect of writing science fiction and fantasy–exposition.

One thing I like about spec-fic is the immersion in a new and alien world (I describe this affection in more detail here). When you first start reading, you don’t understand the world, its rules, its history, its culture–nothing. You need to learn this as you go. Furthermore, the more intricate the plot and the more convoluted the intrigue, the more work the reader needs to do to figure out what’s going on, what the stakes are, and where the tension lies. The way writers need to help the readers along is with the use of exposition. The funny thing is, though, is that exposition is atrociously boring to read. No matter how necessary it is (and in a fantasy novel, it is very necessary), reading giant walls of text wherein the meaning of this or that thing is revealed is, well, dull. If you’re anything like me, you start hearing the voice of the teacher in all the Charlie Brown specials (“wah wah, wawah, woh WA wa wah”). Anybody who’s read The Fellowship of the Ring probably knows exactly what I’m talking about–those two chapters in the middle (“Many Meetings” and “The Council of Elrond”) are DREADFUL reading. I think I’ve read that book four or five times now, and I still nod off during those things.

It’s easy, as a writer fully invested in your own fantasy world, to forget how boring exposition is. We sort of expect

Friends don’t let friends infodump like Holmes.

everybody to be as fascinated in the minutiae of our imaginary kingdom’s foreign trade imbalances and pottery exports as we are. We need to remember that this isn’t so. I could go on and on and on about the politics involved between the Guild Lords and Barons in the Duchy of Galaspin and how this has affected the history of Freegate, but I know none of you really, truly care. The reader only cares insofar as it is related to the story, and that’s it. My primary problem with Theft of Swords is how often the bad guys sit down, drink brandy, and spend pages after pages chatting aimlessly about their stupid plans–conducting conversations no real person would ever have–simply for the obvious and naked purpose of making sure the audience is keeping up. Ugh. 

So, if you’re writing fantasy and you need lots of exposition to get people on the same page as you, but exposition kills reader interest, narrative momentum, and dramatic tension, how, then, do you do it well? Well, keeping in mind that I’m just a poor unpublished author with an MFA, here are my humble suggestions:

  1. Trust Thy Audience: Don’t assume your readers are idiots who can’t keep up. You don’t need to spell every single thing out for them, nor should you. Keep it understandable, sure, but don’t hold their hands. They are smart people–they’ll figure things out through context clues faster than you think. Holding their hands too much makes them roll their eyes. Of course, there is a careful balance to be kept in check here. When I figure that balance out myself, I’ll be sure to tell you.
  2. Spread it Out: Under no circumstances should an author infodump the whole she-bang in one indigestible lump. In the first case, nobody really talks like this and no one allows themselves to be talked to in this way. There is literally no one I have ever met who will let me explain the full concept of reality-tweaking from The Rubric of All Things  in just one sitting. There’s too much to be said, and it gums up a person’s mind. Don’t do this to your audience–explain a piece at a time over a long period. Trust the audience to remember–they will!
  3. Explain Only What is Necessary: Always remember that characters aren’t going to have conversations about stuff they consider to be everyday, normal things. We don’t explain how the subway system works to each other each commute because it is, to us, utterly normal. To do otherwise is artificial and weird, and it reads that way, too. Therefore, exposition should always be strictly curtailed by what would naturally be discussed by the characters in question. Don’t talk about irrelevant stuff, either–stick to the point.
  4. Keep Exposition Tied to the Plot: Only exposit what is needed for the audience to understand and follow along. If it isn’t important, it gets almost no space to be explained. Don’t spend pages explaining how a magic ritual works if it doesn’t come up later in some important capacity. The minutiae aren’t all that important.
  5. Have Something Else Happening: Don’t pull the old Isaac Asimov trick of having two men in a room talking their heads off while sharing coffee. Exposition is no excuse to eliminate tension or conflict–have your characters explaining things quickly, on the fly, during something interesting or dangerous. Granted, there is a point at which a character shouting ‘no time to explain’ gets annoying (eg Lost), but equally annoying is being forced to eavesdrop on an artificial conversation that is constructed solely for the reader’s benefit.  

So, there you have it. Those are my rules, as they stand. I think I’m following them, but it’s not easy. Exposition is a delicate balance that even the best fantasy or scifi authors have trouble handling. It is, arguably, one of the most challenging aspects of the genre.