Why The Silence of the Lambs is great

I’ve spoken many times about analyzing what we see and read and using that to inform our own writing. In the novel and film, we are entertained by two brilliant versions of the story of Clarice Starling, Buffalo Bill, and Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. That’s a pretty unusual accomplishment. I can think of great movie adaptations of mediocre books (The Godfather and Gone Girl) and mediocre adaptations of great books (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The DaVinci Code). And there are plenty of mediocre adaptations of mediocre books that just caught the right mood in Hollywood (Eat Pray Love and Life of Pi). But a great book that becomes a great film—that’s very unusual (Gone with the Wind). The Silence of the Lambs is one of those unusual exceptions. I can go back and forth reading the novel and watch the film and never worry that one will diminish the other. The only thing that diminishes the enjoyment is when I read or watch Hannibal, the disappointing sequel.

The Silence of the Lambs is different

But The Silence of the Lambs is almost perfect as a novel and actually perfect as a film. The film truly has no missed notes, while Harris has a few loquacious moments in the novel. Both are at their best when they keep to their economy, focus on two riveting characters, and maintain an ever-quickening pace.We’ve reached a point in movie adaptations where longer is almost always better. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is around 180 pages, but the adaptation is well over two hours and omits many things (though it’s still great). The Silence of the Lambs, the film, is less than two hours long, while the novel is almost 350 pages. And yet, nothing seems missing. The adaptation by Ted Tally is perfect. The direction by Jonathan Demme never misses a beat. The performances are great all around, but Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are at their very best. I think there is a lot for writers to learn about craft from this piece because it does the hardest thing a novel can do: it is a genre piece that has significant literary value.

What makes something genre vs literary?

To me, the defining difference between genre and literary is plot-driven vs character-driven. I know I’ve said this before but it bears repeating that for something to be truly great it should be a plot-driven piece with great characterization or a character-driven piece with a solid plot. They hardly ever happen. The Great Gatsby, though not one of my favorites, is an excellent example of a literary novel with a great plot, as is 1984. Most anything written by James Joyce does not fall into this category. Not that his works are all bad, but his focus is never on plot, and in many ways, it seems incidental. On the flip side are great genre pieces that have real aesthetic value. I would put Stephen King in this category because he’s the rarest of all writers: a genre writer who sucks at writing plot. But there are a few that can do both, though their œuvre is usually hit or miss. Tana French’s In the Woods and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are both squarely in this category.And so is The Silence of the Lambs. There are several things Harris does extremely well in this book that other writers should use.

How Harris transcends genre

The first is that he understands that Lecter, as the antagonist, is an overpowering character and so there must be a very powerful character in the protagonist. By making the character a woman, it allows us some real insight into Lecter‘s mind as he toys with Starling. Throughout the movie, we’re made to think that he is manipulating her to get a better room. But the truth is he’s using her to manipulate Chilton into manufacturing his escape. But he doesn’t allow Starling to get sucked into Lecter’s depravity (one of the reasons the sequel is awful) and he never lets the reader sympathize with Lecter by ever justifying his actions (one of the reasons the prequel, Hannibal Rising, is awful).There is something very comfortable in the fact that Lecter is bad because he’s bad. “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling,” Lecter says when she attempts to find out why he is the way he is. Lecter rejects a behavioral analysis: he’s just evil. Starling is just good. And they work together to find a serial killer. But Lecter already knows who the serial killer is. He only lets Starling discover his identity on his own terms, not so much to toy with her, as to orchestrate his escape. All of this really dovetails so well with who the characters are that it’s breathtaking when one steps back and looks all the big picture.

How do writers use this

To me, this all goes back to planning. I may be wrong but I don’t see how Harris could’ve written a story that so perfectly meshes plot and character without a lot of planning. And seeing as how Harris has only published five books since 1975, I think that’s safe to say. From Black Sunday in 1975 to Hannibal Rising in 2006, he averages almost 8 years between novels and hasn’t published a new one in over 11 years. Stephen King said about Harris’s process that essentially tortures himself. You can see that in the results. And that what we should take from this brilliant novel: take your time crafting your work. Plan out the details, write the damn thing, and then obsessively edit it until it’s where you want it. I would love to see early drafts of The a Silence of the Lambs because I bet it was four to five hundred pages at one point and Harris whittled it to until every single word, almost, was necessary. There are moments where he’s describing Baltimore where this reader notes the tedium. But then there’s one scene. A scene that may be perfect in its terse description and pulse-raising narrative. When Starling comes upon the storage unit that belonged to a patient of Lecter’s who he says is linked to the serial killer. We don’t know what Starling is going to find in the unit, but Harris does an amazing job of making the reader feel claustrophobic and terrified. We don’t know if she’s going to be trapped or if Lecter has set her up, but when we see that he has indeed sent her in the right direction, we begin to trust Lecter as Starling does. Brilliant. So, as you go forward in your writing pay attention to the lessons of Thomas Harris. • Pay attention to detail, but not to an excruciating point • Readers will only continue to read as long as they’re invested in the characters • Readers will never stop reading I those characters are in danger


How writers can avoid the problems of Weir’s Artemis

There’s nothing more important to aspiring writers than to read a lot unless it’s to write a lot. I often wonder which is more important. Then, one needs to really analyze what one has read and found out what’s good and bad about it. When you’ve figured it out, make notes about what you’ve liked and disliked about it and when writing your own work, use them as guidelines.

I’m not a genre writer. I write whatever I like which means I can take writing advice from whatever I’m reading, be it mystery, satire, or, in this case, science fiction. Two years ago I read and enjoyed The Martian, after enjoying the film. So I was excited when I learned that Weir was publishing a new novel, Artemis, featuring a permanent settlement on the moon. And when one of my favorite publications (Reason magazine) wrote about it positively, I knew I was going to read it.

So, why did I like The Martian? Part of it is that I saw the movie first and it made it easier to read the book imagining Matt Damon as the titular character. The book expanded on the experience of the movie for me in a positive way.

Similarly, Artemis’s MC was very difficult for me to picture. Anytime a male author writes a female lead, it can cause issues. With this one, in particular, it felt like Weir decided at a later point to make the character female, but the beginning descriptions of the character weren’t changed. This made the character feel flat for me. I don’t if the change was made for story reasons, though this seems unlikely, or if Weir wanted to give the readers a little shock at the end of the first chapter, or if an editor said that he needed a strong female character. But it doesn’t feel authentic considering the main antagonist is female. Besides the fact that we know she is a Saudi Arabian woman, there’s no reason for her to be a Saudi Arabian woman.

The Martian has a lot of technical jargon in it, which makes sense considering the book was written by a software programmer who is a self-admitted “nerd.” As he wrote each chapter, Weir posted them online and got feedback to make sure the technical details were as accurate as possible. Knowing this, he kept the plot fast-paced (like a Tom Clancy thriller) and the tone humorous. The slangy way it’s written and the personality of Mark Watney make all the technical jargon easy to digest. And when you keep in mind that most of the people reading this are “nerds” who enjoy that technical jargon, you see why it works.

Artemis has a lot of technical jargon as well, but it’s very different. Somehow Weir makes the moon seem less exotic than it should be. A permanent settlement on the moon would be the most amazing thing mankind has ever accomplished, but Weir makes it mundane. The main problem for the protagonist, Jazz, is that she is deeply in debt and becomes involved in a conspiracy. The main problem with Artemis is there’s no reason for it to be set on the moon.

There are many fundamental problems but that is the biggest one. The story of The Martian revolves around the setting on Mars. The story of Artemis does not. So why is it on the moon?

So how does a writer avoid this problem? First, when your first novel is as good and popular as Weir’s was, accept that the sophomore jinx may hit you and if it doesn’t, know that people will slam you for not being as good a second time. Or for veering off in a weird direction. Or for being formulaic. That’s all okay.

But don’t shoot for the moon (sorry) and think that your next story has to have an element to bring back your readers. There are elements of Artemis that are great. The libertarian society of the lunar settlement reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which I’m sure is no accident. But Weir doesn’t really use that element to drive the story. It is simple in all the ways TMIHM is sophisticated.

So when you feel tempted to give your story an odd setting, make sure that setting plays a key role in the plot. Heinlein used the gravity between Luna and Earth as the main plot point in his story. The Martian is Robison Crusoe set on Mars, and while the problems Watney faces are not unique to the setting, the solutions are.

As always, I try to look at how I would’ve solved these problems if I were in the writer’s shoes. First, the novel would’ve been much, much longer. The Martian is 95,000 words. Artemis, with a much more complicated plot, is under 80,000.

Second, I would’ve gotten rid of some of the characters. Rudy is a cop constantly harassing Jazz, but his contribution to the novel would’ve been better served by someone else.

The opening of the story is slow, and when the novel takes off the pacing feels more cumbersome than exciting because Weir is mixing in technical details with the plot to, I guess, not lose readers who would be bored by those details. I would’ve spent more time explaining the world of Artemis (Weir knows he’s given this short shrift because he includes a map, in the beginning, to avoid boring us).

Lastly, I would make sure that plot has something specific to do with the moon’s environment. The 1/6th gravity, the lack of atmosphere, something. But the idea that the fiber optic must be made in space doesn’t drive it enough because the novel is essentially a murder-mystery that isn’t very mysterious. We never really invest in that part of the story, because the mystery falls flat. Weir would’ve been much better served by abandoning that aspect and finding something else to hang the dramatic tension on, like the animosity between the haves and the have-nots on Artemis. There was definitely a story there.

Or maybe make a story about how a group of pioneers establishes that permanent settlement at great cost of money and blood and then new people come in and enjoy the fruits of their labor at a reduced cost. This would parallel nicely with the immigration issues so many countries are dealing with right now.

Artemis is an entertaining story that will probably appeal to juvenile sci-fi fans, but it should serve as a warning to aspiring writers that you need to take your time in world-building and make sure that it directly connects to the story in an important way.

The problem with The Last Jedi and how writers can avoid it

Let me begin this post by saying that I truly enjoyed The Last Jedi. The second part of a trilogy can be the most difficult because you have to bring things down from the first one and it’s difficult to end on a positive note. You have to find that balance. I thought TLJ did that pretty well. Ultimately, it’s setting the viewer up for big resolutions in the finale.

That said, I also understand why people did not care for it and there are things the creative team could’ve done differently to avoid some of the criticisms. But there are some out there who were not going to like it no matter what. And I’ll address both of these things later in this post.

I enjoyed TLJ because it was a character-driven piece more than a plot-driven one. As we’re learning about what happened to Luke and Kyle Ren, we see that Luke has changed and not necessarily for the better. He blames himself for Ben Solo becoming Kylo Ren and decides to isolate himself to prevent doing any further damage to the galaxy. Fans see Luke as a quitter and hate the choices he makes, but he essentially does the same thing Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda do after Revenge of the Sith. He says it himself: “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”

Just because this is far different from the Luke Skywalker I grew up with, I respect the choices the creators made here. They took a huge gamble and they had to know it would piss off fanboys who only wanted a continuation of their very favorite three characters who saved the galaxy in the original trilogy. But that story would suck. What would it be? Luke and Leia running the galaxy in perfect harmony. Leia married to Han and raised 2.4 beautiful children. There’s no story there. There had to be chaos and the old characters had to make way for the new characters.

When I watched Star Wars the first time I didn’t really care that Obi-Wan died (and in hindsight, Luke has a pretty dramatic reaction for someone he knew less than a week) and the new generation doesn’t really care that Han and Luke died.

Now, I do understand the problems with TLJ. The slow speed chase and running out of fuel scenario bothers me because there could’ve been a better way to break the story. Why not find a place for them to hide knowing they would eventually be discovered for tension. The slow speed chase reminded me of OJ Simpson.

And if I have one rule as a writer it’s that you should never write a story that in any way evokes OJ Simpson.

I also have an issue with Luke force traveling across the galaxy to distract the First Order and then dying anyway. Why not just have him go there and die? He had his X-wing fighter so why not? And how awesome would it have been to have Rey searching the planet and finding that fighter in a cave somewhere perfectly preserved?

And I felt the humor didn’t always land. I liked Luke flinging the lightsaber, but not the milking of Thala-siren. And I didn’t care for Finn’s turn as cowardice to serve as a moment to eventually send him to the casino planet. Could’ve been a better way to do that. Hell, you could’ve had him wake up from his coma knowing that they had to find the code breaker.

And why send them to find one codebreaker, fail, and then find DJ? What was the point? Were they too concerned that it would call back Lando in The Empire Strikes Back? Odd choice and one that didn’t work. DJ betrays the Resistance just like Lando betrayed Han and Leia.

So yes, there were many plot points I had trouble with but I ultimately understood that this movie was not driven by choices characters are forced to make through plot but internal decisions every character has to make. This is very different from other Star Wars movies and one many fans disliked. And because there were some plot holes to poke at, they had plenty of ammo to shoot the movie down with.

But that doesn’t mean it was a bad movie. It means there are millions of forty-year-olds who have an emotional connection the original trilogy and they didn’t connect to this one. Anytime you had an emotional reaction to a piece of art, you need to look internally first and find out the source of that reaction. In this case, these fans felt someone had stolen something from their childhood and reacted emotionally. That’s unfortunate because all this movie really did was let those fanboys know that their childhood was over a long time ago and now it’s time to accept it.

So how does a writer avoid these problems?

The first thing is to give your fans what they want all the time no matter what. There are many successful formulaic writers out there who have made millions doing just that. And I don’t have a problem with that. The majority of bestselling novels out there are plot-driven thrillers and mysteries that all follow a similar formula.

Or you could write nothing but character pieces that have little in the way of plot. There are many Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning authors that wouldn’t know a plot if it fell from the sky, landed on their face, and started to wiggle. And I don’t have a problem with being with that.

Are you could learn to do both, learn to find that balance between character and plot that make authors truly great. But to do that you can’t just write organically. You really have to take your time and craft your plot the way fantasy writers craft their worlds. They spend all their time using “character sheets” and creating special magic rules and then they just start writing and let their characters lead the way, no matter what follows.

The result could be very similar to what we see on screen with TLJ.

And that’s what’s kind of mind-boggling about the visceral reaction to TLJ. I can think of many fantasy stories that do the same thing TLJ does, but because they don’t have a legacy like A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back to live up to, so they get a pass. The Lord of the Rings has some very painful moments, plot-wise. And many fantasies are crazy derivative, from Harry Potter to Eragon. But fans don’t have the same issues because they never set the bar as high as A New Hope did out of the gate so they’re judged on a different level.

So how does a writer really avoid the problems that Star Wars is having with the release of The Last Jedi? Don’t be awesome to begin with.


Climax, resolution, and story goal

The easiest part for most writers is to come up with a premise.

A computer hacker learns about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. (The Matrix)

A serial killer helps an FBI agent hunt another serial killer. (Silence of the Lambs)

The patriarch of a crime syndicate transfers control of his empire to his reluctant son. (The Godfather)

You know what these are without seeing the title. And if you’re ambiguous with a few words, a premise describes multiple stories.

An orphaned boy is raised in the care of a powerless uncle but watched over by an aged but powerful wizard/warrior. When the boy reaches a certain age, the old wizard tells the boy about his true heritage and helps him develop his powers until he is able to avenge his father’s death. (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Eragon, King Arthur, etc.)

That’s the power of the premise—even a simple one can be used multiple times with small variations.

But some writers really struggle when it comes to the back end of premise, resolution. They come up with amazing premises that keep you riveted to the page or screen and then the end is a huge letdown. It should come as no surprise that these writers generally consider themselves “organic” in the sense that they do not plan.

Stephen King believes that the story exists within you and your an archaeologist brushing the dirt away to find the fossil underneath. As such, many of his stories had the exact same resolution.

A killer clown comes out of hiding every few years to kill kids. (It) Resolution: the monster was an alien.

An invisible dome cuts a town off from the rest of the world. (Under the Dome) Resolution: aliens did it.

M. Night Shyamalan has this issue as well. After the brilliant Sixth Sense, he decided all of his movies needed a twist ending (Dr. Crowe is dead, Mr. Glass is the bad guy, The Village isn’t real). I don’t have a problem with that, but if you’re not O. Henry, then this can cause problems.

So, when setting out to write a story that has a good resolution you need to start at the beginning. Yes, you may stumble upon the right ending by writing organically, King nails it in Pet Semetary, but it mostly you’ll get bad endings or obviously tacked-on endings where he just ran out of steam.

(For a better synopsis of this than I can write, go here)

Once you had your premise, you need a goal, something the protagonist has to achieve. Then you set the antagonist up in opposition. Some writers put the cart before the horse and come up with a hero and a villain before they know what the hero wants. That’s fine, but realize that you may realize as your planning that the antagonist is not a true antagonist but may be a contagonist. If you have a story goal, you can more clearly set your protagonist and antagonist against one another.

Once you have these basics, you need a solid climax. To me, this is the hardest part. I almost always know how a story is going to end, which you may think is the only thing you need, but for me it never is. A resolution without a convincing climax is not possible. The resolution flows from the climax, so even if it makes sense with the original premise, if you cheated to get there, your readers won’t ever trust you again.

The reason most climaxes struggle is that they come from outside the MC, and that’s no way to sell a story. You’ve shown your MC as either a tragic or a heroic figure and then you’re going to let the sidekick save the day (Star Wars)? No. The climax is about your MC either changing or not changing a fundamental trait that your story is based on. Andy Dufresne in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption wins because he never gives up hope. Michael Corleone in The Godfather loses because he is unable to stay true to his convictions at the beginning of the novel and turns into his father.

Once you have that decision in place, the resolution follows. If it’s a comedy, it ends happily, and if it’s a tragedy it ends badly. Right before the climax of a comedy, everything should look impossible for the MC. Right before the climax of a tragedy, it should appear that the MC is going to pull it off.

In a poor resolution, these things either aren’t connected, or the final resolution is affected from without instead of within. In Under the Dome, we see Barbie trying to maintain control of the town despite Big Jim’s machinations and the town survives because the aliens release the dome. How is that in any way satisfying?

And it took King three tries to finish this novel? I hate to think what the first two ended like because the last one is awful.

And it’s that way because the ending was never planned from the beginning and King was looking for a resolution that was at least plausible. But why not have the govt in charge of the dome? Why not have Barbie, who is trusted by the govt, realize that he is being manipulated and finds a way overthrow our domestic overlords? That would’ve been a fantastic finish. Just as everything is about to fall apart, Barbie makes a last ditch effort to find the source of the dome. He finds it and it reminds him of some govt research plan from his past military career. He puts two and two together and blows the whole thing up.

I can’t have a post without a Breaking Bad reference. In the final episode, Jesse is at absolute rock bottom. He’s being held prisoner and forced to cook meth for a bunch of new-Nazis. He tries to escape and to punish him they kill his ex-girlfriend, who happens to be a single mom. He knows that this is life. He will cook until there’s no more methylamine and then they’ll kill him.

Throughout the series, Jesse Pinkman has the most dynamic arc. In the beginning, you hate him and want him to die. Slowly, you understand him, then you pity him, and then you root for him. More than anything you want him to get free of all of this.

And when he breaks through that fence at the end, I cheer every time, choking back tears. That, my friends, is resolution.


The dangers of overplanning

I’ve spoken before about being careful not to spend too much time planning your story before actually writing it, but there are other fears as well. Namely, ignoring where your story should be going based on the daily writing you do. And once again I’m going to reference Breaking Bad, and also Game of Thrones.

It’s an open secret that Jesse Pinkman was supposed to die at the end of season one of Breaking Bad and his death, at the hands of Tuco Salamanca, was going to push Walter into some pretty dark places as he exacted his revenge. For the entirety of season two, Tuco was going to be the “Big Bad Wolf” and he was going to drag Walter into a world of criminality that would begin the process of “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.”

But several things happened that changed the course of the series, and it’s truly hard to imagine Breaking Bad without these changes.

The writer’s strike

The writer’s strike of 2007 impacted many, many shows, and affected the state of the industry as a whole. Residuals from DVD sales and payment for webisodes were the biggest topics, but the strike took place in the middle of the season and had a huge impact on the rust season of Breaking Bad.

Vince Gilligan has repeatedly said that they’d planned to kill Jesse and decided not to because the final two episodes were canceled due to the strike but also because he saw the immediate chemistry between Aaron Paul’s Jesse and Bryan Cranston’s Walter. I’m not saying the writer’s strike saved the series, because Gilligan has also said that he realized after the filming of the second episode that he couldn’t kill him, but just the fact that such a huge plot development was changed at all show that Gilligan and his writers were always open to any development. As I’ve said before, everything was on the table.

It may sound like I’m quibbling because they never really planned to kill Jesse after a certain point, but it does follow the message that you have to be willing to adapt our outline once you start writing. Granted, TV writers also have to take into account the performance of the actors and the directors, but, if you’re anything like me, when you start writing, there will be many moments where you see things happening before you write them.

Your characters will talk to you—you’d better listen.

Another issue they had was with Raymond Cruz, the actor who played Tuco Salamanca. As I’ve said, the plan for season two was for Raymond Cruz’s Tuco to be the primary antagonist for Walter White. But that all fell apart when Cruz b came a series regular on TNT’s The Closer, and Cruz was unable to devote the time needed to be a regular cast member of two shows. At that point the decision had to be made whether to recast or to move on with another character. Many shows recast characters, usually minor characters, and Breaking Bad could’ve found another actor to play Tuco, but they chose to kill off Tuco.

That decision was important for two reasons.

First, the death of Tuco at the hands of Hank is one of the pivotal moments in the show’s history and dealing with it provides Hank’s story arc for that season.

Two, because they had to find a new bad guy, the show would move in a direction that would take from good to great to legendary. As they broke season two without Tuco they knew they needed to bring in a new bad guy. This led to the creation of Gustavo Fring, played by the inimitable Giancarlo Esposito.

Fring was the single most important character in Breaking Bad behind Jesse and Walt. More important than Hank or even Skyler, Fring was the ultimate counterpoint to Walter. He’s intelligent, deliberate, and vicious. In many ways, he’s everything Walt wants to be: an illicit drug emperor. And all this because Kyra Sedgwick learned how to fake a Southern accent.

Then look at Game of Thrones. It between seasons three and four, the part of Daario Naharis had to be recast, when Ed Skrein left to star in a Transporter reboot. But Game of Thrones, rather than going a different direction, kept the character and recast the part to Michael Huisman.

Now I’m sure many people will feel that the Game of Thrones creators had to stick with the source material and couldn’t bring in a new character for the part Daario’s character provides. But I’ve seen seasons four and five several times and I can tell you that Daario is not that significant if a character. But seeing a different actor playing the same role always bothers me. It’s jarring as a viewer and forces us to suspend our disbelief for just a moment.

Now what does this mean for a writer? How does the average writer not dealing with a billion-dollar TV franchise use this information?

Just realize that everyone has different ways of dealing with the same issue and so should you. The only way that is right for you is the one you decide is right for you. Don’t force your style of working any more than you can force your actually style of writing. Just as you need to let your writing flow to find your style, you need to experiment with your technique until you find what works for you.

And, above all, remember that you are creating this world. That means you have complete control over what happens and you can change whatever you want. No one can tell you what to write, and that includes the you that wrote the outline.


How to use sparks of inspiration

“It doesn’t matter if something is hard or easy. It should matter if it’s possible and important. If it’s both of those things, then it must be done.”

I came up with this phrase while discussing a problem with someone from my corporate office. As soon as the phrase came to mind I had to write it down. I didn’t necessarily know what to do with it or what it meant but I knew that it was important because it sounded exactly like a character I was currently writing. Once I realized that it was this character talking and I could use it in this specific novel I didn’t wait for a moment where it would work or look for a moment where it would work, I created the moment where it would work.

Every once in a while you’ll know you have something that’s important but you won’t have the exact place for it. Rather than scrapping it or writing a note down and looking for the best moment or forcing it into the scene, you’re currently writing, maybe just create that place. I had been struggling with this novel since I started. I knew where I wanted to start I knew where I wanted to end but I had no idea how to get there. The entire middle was a mess.

Once I wrote the scene that included this quote I knew everything that had to happen before that scene and I knew everything that had to happen after that scene. It was the most important scene I had written for that novel. And I literally wrote it thought about it when I was at work doing something pretty trivial.

It’s also an important message for learning how to break a story. I fear as writers we give up on something because it’s too hard. But that shouldn’t matter.

Every once in a while you’ll come up with a perfectly worded phrase. Sometimes it’s a string of dialogue that is particularly pithy. Sometimes it’s the way to describe an epic sword move. But usually what we do as writers is make a note of it in one of our many epic notebooks, or just on a napkin, and forget about it. A month or a year later, we see that scrap of paper and wonder what we’re supposed to do with it.

But what if we didn’t do that?

I was at work discussing bad weather with a customer when a thought popped into my head. It got me to thinking about how things are handled in govt or corp bureaucracies as opposed to how things are handled by the “boots on the ground.” It occurred to me that if something was too difficult, a bureaucrat either doesn’t do it or pawns it off as someone else’s problem. But people in operations don’t have that option. If something has to be done, then it gets done. If it’s considered difficult or even impossible. If it has to be done, then it gets done. And that’s when the phrase above came to my mind. I immediately wrote it down because it sounded exactly like something a character in my WIP would say.

Now, truth be told, this WIP is still very much “In Progress.” But I knew the broad strokes and wanted to capture the moment with that phrase. So, rather than writing the phrase down and remembering it for later, I created a scene around the phrase. What would be happening to my MC (who is not the person speaking this line)? Who would this character be talking to? What would be the context of him using this statement?

I had no idea if I could make it work, but I knew that if I answered those questions, I could find a way to create the whole scene and the scenes leading to it and away from it. And that’s what I started to do.

At this moment, this character is separated from the MC and a significant point in the story. The character speaking this line, Mike, is talking to the sidekick of the antagonist, an obsequious toad naked Joey. Joey works for the govt, Mike works for Home Depot, and they’re arguing over gasoline prices during a hurricane. Joey is sequestering all the gasoline for govt use to prevent price gouging and Mike is trying to help the MC, Christine, find her daughter, who is missing after the storm goes through.

Now the whole premise of the story is about the chaos dealing with the aftermath of a disaster, but all I had was big picture problems between different govt leaders and businessman, all of whom were pretty awful. But I never had the subplot of why it personally mattered so much to Christine, who is the protagonist.

With this one scene, precipitated on one line, I figured out the whole climax of the novel. For me, climaxes are always harder than resolutions. I think where most authors fail is they pick the wrong climax (I’ll discuss that more in another blog about Stephen King and Kevin Smith). So, once I had the climax, I was no longer the tail wagging the dog, so to speak. If you know whether your novel is a tragedy or a comedy, which means it ends unhappily or happily, then the really hard part is the climax.

In a tragedy, the MC looks like they’re gonna big to win at the climax. In a comedy, it looks like they’re going to lose. So, if you know how the story is going to start and end, you just have to figure out the climax and then connect the dots.

So what does this mean for writers in general? For me, it means never taking anything for granted. You never know where an idea is going to lead you unless you follow that thread. Give it a good yank and see where it takes you. Allow your characters to surprise you. Let the bad guys win every once in a while. Let minor characters provide the death blow.

And always torture your MC as much as possible.

But, above all, remember that nothing is off the table. You’re creating a story here and it only belongs to you. When you get a crazy idea, follow it. In fact, it may be better to stop whatever you’re doing with your WIP at the moment and follow that crazy idea wherever it may lead. If it doesn’t work, that’s fine, too. Learning what your characters won’t do and where your story won’t lead is as important as what they do and where it leads.

That’s not to say I’m a proponent of Edison’s maxim of finding thousands of ways to fail, but I am a proponent of failure. You should learn from your mistakes. You should investigate why things don’t work when it feels like they should. And then you should apply those lessons in future projects, especially in the planning stages.

What techniques have you tried that hasn’t worked? And those that have?


Breaking Bad and ricin: How to use items effectively and avoid Chekhov’s Gun

This is a very difficult post for me to write because I’m not sure of the technical terms I’m using. The best term to use is “item,” and it refers to anything that a character physically uses that has great significance, either for the plot or symbolic significance. The best example I could think of would be the magical items featured in many fantasy novels (the One Ring in Lord of the Rings). But it’s not generally listed as a literary element the same way characters, plot, or tone are.

In general, when writers talk about items, they refer to Chekhov’s Gun or symbolism. An item is either important because a writer refers to it and then doesn’t use it, or if the item imparts great significance to the story. Rarely do they just talk about how to use items effectively.

Truth be told, I’m really bad at using items this way and am also pretty bad I’m forgetting things early in a story and never referring to them later. So maybe I’m not the best person to write about this. But if only experts were allowed on the Internet, it would be a pretty barren (and boring) place. And Wikipedia would have about five articles.

Chekhov’s Gun is a narrative principle that states one should remove everything unnecessary to the story.

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

First off, this applies to all things in your story, not just items. Second, there are still times when it’s okay to do this, for instance when the element is a red herring. But you should avoid baiting the reader too much or without cause. Don’t attempt to confuse the reader simply for the sake of being clever. Make it serve the story.

Symbolism in items is more problematic. Tolkien was famous for saying that the One Ring did not symbolize the nuclear bomb, but many people still believe that today. Sometimes we can subconsciously give meaning to elements in our story without even knowing it. You may not remember your father always drinking his scotch with water when he was happy and straight when he was mad. But your subconscious does and it makes your MC do it without you even realizing it. And then, at a critical moment, he’s drinking scotch straight and everything ends up okay and the spell is broken. There’s symbolism inherent in our working without us realizing it and there’s symbolism the reader brings with them. Don’t fight it, but learn to find it.

The best example I can think of in the use of an item is, you guessed it, Breaking Bad. From the first episode of season two to the series finale, ricin plays a significant role in Walt’s and Jesse’s predicaments. The first attempt to use it ax gains Tuco Salamanca, a psychotic drug dealer who has taken them hostage. But the plan is foiled by Tuco’s uncle, who is debilitated by a stroke. It’s not too significant here, just one more example of Walt using his chemistry knowledge for nefarious means.

But in seasons four and five, it is absolutely critical and provides a valuable lesson for writers. Walt again makes a small vial of ricin to again kill a psychotic drug dealer, this time named Gus Fring (I’m sure we can argue about whether he’s psychotic or not, but killing Victor the way he did counts for me). Walt makes the ricin and plans to use it himself, but when he realizes he can’t get close to Gus, he gives the vial to Jesse who hides it in one of his cigarettes. And that’s where things get interesting.

Jesse decides not to kill Gus so Walt needs a new plan. Jesse no longer trusts Walt so Walt needs to find a way to convince Jesse to help him. So he poisons Jesse’s girlfriend’s young son—though not with the ricin—and makes it look like Gus did it. When Gus is dead, Jesse learns that Brock was poisoned with berries from a plant called Lily of the Valley, which, unbeknownst to him, grow in Walt’s backyard.

And then the writers did something they would fight with for the next two seasons. When Walt gets the vial of ricin back, he doesn’t throw it away but hides it behind a wall plate in an electrical outlet in his bedroom. At this point, the ricin is Chekhov’s loaded gun, right on stage for everyone to see. The writers knew that at some point they would have to use the ricin. This couldn’t be a red herring, and it wasn’t.

When Jesse eventually realizes that Walt did steal the ricin and manipulate him into killing Gus while also almost killing a young boy, he finally turns on Walt. It was the last straw and Jesse’s betrayal sets the final five episodes in motion. But the ricin still isn’t been used. When the writers had Walt hide it, they knew they had to use it.

In fact, in the teaser for episode nine, they show Walt, in the future, going back to his abandoned home and retrieving the ricin. At this point, they admit they had no idea what they were going to do with it, which is amazing, but they felt they had to get it.

In the final episode, Walt is extracting revenge on everyone who has wronged him, and the ricin finally makes an appearance. Lydia, the super uptight executive that had been surreptitiously providing Gus with the precursor to make meth, always puts stevia in her chamomile tea. She also had a standing appointment with Walt at 10 on Tuesday in the same restaurant. Walt goes to the restaurant, knowing she’ll have her same routines and sit at the same table and switches out the stevia with ricin. As she puts in her tea, the camera closes in as the poison sinks to the bottom of the up and she stirs it in.

Now, this isn’t an amazing piece of writing that sets the whole series apart from every other but it is an example of the attention to detail that true fans of the show looked for and the writers felt deserving of a payoff. Isn’t that how you want your readers to feel about your writing?

In the podcast, Vince Gilligan talks a great deal about how the ricin played into the final episodes. It didn’t have to be a major plot point, though it does end up being one. But it does need a resolution. Some argue that there were many plot holes in the series. What happened to Huell? Or Ted? How did Walt know where to park in the compound when he’d never been there before? And how did that sliced pizza land on the roof in one piece?

And you’re going to have them as well. In fact, if you’re very lucky one day you’ll have a whole Reddit about mistakes in your oeuvre.