Friday, December 14, 2012

How I Wrote a Serial

Part One: Formulaic Nonsense
I’m already five-deep into the “Weirdo Company” 10-part serial. When I first started, I did a little research and I looked up some monsters that I thought were either interesting to build an action/adventure story around or that I’d simply never heard of before and thought would be cool. (“Hellshark” was an idea I came up with a couple years ago as a joke, and it fit right in.) So I found 10 monsters as I had already decided I wanted to write 10 chapters of this story.

While that idea was still forming, I settled upon the idea of mapping out the entire story like it was a season of a television show and treating each chapter of the serial like an “episode.” I looked at my list of monsters and started coming up with basic plots for them. Sometimes these were as simple as “The team is trapped underground with _____” or “zombies vs unicorns.”  But as the list went on, I had other elements I wanted to introduce that would link all the stories together until I basically had a short paragraph for each of the ten episodes. From there, I decided on a certain format each episode would (loosely) follow.

The basic formula is that each episode begins with a “cold open.” For example, the first story, “Zombies vs Unicorns,” opens with a brief scene of a scientist escaping a facility overrun by zombies, and then we jump a couple weeks later to introduce our characters as that situation has grown out of control.  The second story, “Ninja Werewolf Assassins!” begins with a harrowing chase sequence, and then the next scene actually jumps back in time to explain how we got there. So both stories follow the same format, even if the content of the scenes themselves is wildly different - and even the time jump is diametrically opposed.

Next, introduce the characters and throw them into the plot. In “Blood of the Keres,” I introduced the characters via a briefing scene, followed by them traveling to Europe and generally getting slowly drawn toward the inevitable final confrontation. That’s fine - I still had a big action-packed opening, and then I built every action sequence larger and larger until the all-out battle at the end.

And that’s the basic formula for each episode. Think of it like a check mark - Start with some big action, then bring it down a little, then build bigger and bigger and bigger.  

For “The Great Dragon Egg Robbery,” I eliminated the opening teaser.  The story has three major action sequences - a train/highway chase, a truck highway chase, and the finale.  In between are sections of plot and character development, but what I wanted this story to be, as the big “halfway there” episode, was essentially an action showcase. So I formatted the story around that. In terms of the plot, we actually open three days after this particular mission has been going on, and the team is frazzled and harried from the last few days. I sprinkle some information here and there in the dialogue to fill us in on what’s happening.

And here’s where we get to one of the important things I want to talk about: Length.

John Ward asked me to help him understand how to write something and keep it short. He said the temptation for many writers is to expand their story as large and as long as they can make it.

Each episode of “Weirdo Company” is around 14,000 or 15,000 words. That’s more than enough time for me to develop relatively simple plots, sprinkle in some action sequences, character development and one-liners.

Think about your average TV episode. I’m going to give my college screenwriting professor, Robert Johnson a shoutout here, because he was awesome and so were his classes. I learned a lot of wild stuff in those classes, such as that TV dramas are often split into A-plot and B-plot. The A-plot is the one with the major focus, while the B-plot tends to get less screen time. In the case of CSI, the A-plot is the murder and the B-plot is generally character-oriented, such as one of the investigators is dealing with a family issue or something along those lines.

In “Zombies vs Unicorns,” the A-plot is the mission - Weirdo Company has to deal with the zombies and the unicorns in a little town up in the mountains of New Hampshire. The B-plot is the new recruit, Davis, acclimating to the team and their charter to deal with strange and dangerous monsters.  In my chosen format for the serial, the next episode, “Ninja Werewolf Assassins!” sends the team on a new mission, but continues the character arc for Davis, who deals with the emotional repercussions of the first episode. And then the third episode does that again - new mission, coupled with character side-plot.

I did that five times.  Now it’s time for episode 6, “Chupacabras on a Boat.” My original plot outline had the team hunting Chupacabra through some tunnels and an oil rig, but since I used tunnels extensively in “Blood of the Keres,” I decided I wanted to look at some different locations. Well, where’s one place that Chupacabra absolutely doesn’t belong? On a boat, duh. So now that I have my simple, ludicrous premise... it’s time to get to work.

Part Two: Don’t Do What I Do

I’ll admit that a lot of times when I start writing, I don’t really know where I’m going with it. I’m not a fan of outlines, I never have been. That got me into a lot of trouble in school when teachers would force me to outline a paper I was going to write, and it was like pulling teeth. Then, once I’d finally come up with an outline, I’d ignore it completely and get an A.  My brain just seems to organize things on the fly, then I go back sometimes and edit.

So, and here’s where my process should probably not be recommended to everyone (or anyone) I often just start writing and see where it takes me. While I’m doing this, the story is slowly coming together in the back of my mind. When I finish a scene, I think for a bit about what should logically come next. Sometimes, that works out fine. Other times it doesn’t.

A lot of writers will read this and think, “You’re freaking insane.”  So be it.  I probably am. But I found that this is what works for me. Some writers will say, “Yeah, me too!” and that’s cool, also.  If you’re the kind of person who’s super organized and you need to have an outline, then here’s what I’d suggest:

Act One
Act Two
Act Three
Act Four
Act Five

Or variations thereof, depending on your story. But try it. This is what’s called “breaking the story” in Hollywood. Tear it up into chunks and put them together in a way that makes sense.

TV dramas, at least when I was learning about them, were organized into a teaser and five-act structure. The teaser, as I mentioned before, sets things up.  “CSI” usually starts with some kind of act of violence, then jumps forward hours or days to when the team has found the body. Gil Grissom looks things over and spouts some kind of pun or witty remark and then all of a sudden The Who is rockin’ us through the title sequence. After that, each act progresses the plot forward but it also does one other thing: each act ends on a cliffhanger. You want your audience to come back after the commercial, right?

In writing this serial, I’ve tried to sprinkle little cliffhangers throughout as I would jump from scene to scene.  Give it a try! Outline a teaser and five acts for your story, each one increasing the stakes for your characters until you get to the climax, then slam us with the best you’ve got!  

Should you end each episode of your serial on a cliffhanger?  Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the nature of the story you’re telling. For “Weirdo Company,” the stories don’t end with explicit “To Be Continued...” cliffhangers (yet...) but I like to hint that the overarching plot is advancing, hoping that the reader likes these little teases enough to come back next month for another bite. I’ll admit, in five episodes, I haven’t given away much about the villains’ plan, but those revelations are coming. How quickly you seed them through your story is up to you. But a good place to do so is probably around the end of each episode, to sort of set the stage for your next one.

Part Three: Watch Your Mouth

So we’ve looked at the structure of a serial being devised like a TV show - carry over your character arcs even if you resolve your plot, divide your episode into acts, etc. So what? You could probably still write a 100,000 word novel with that structure. How do you keep it in check?

Most TV dramas, without commercials, clock in at about 40 minutes, sometimes a little longer like 42. Since I’m developing “Weirdo Company” in the mold of a TV series, that means there’s not a lot of space or time for artful navel gazing. So the plot of each episode is going to be relatively simple. The “CSI” crew have only 42 minutes to solve a murder. Well, I’ve only got about 42 pages to do the same thing.  

Economy of language. Don’t screw around.

One of the things I don’t do much of in “Weirdo Company” is talk about what things or people look like. I’ll give cursory descriptions like “a black Mercedes,” “a gray BMW,” or “a high-ceilinged room that felt like a cathedral.”  I think I might once have mentioned the hair color of a particular character, or that one character is large and muscular.

But otherwise, I’m not spending a lot of time on what things look like unless it’s important. I try to trust the reader’s brain to fill in that information for themselves. Since that’s taken care of, I mostly just focus on action.  In this sense, I don’t mean action in terms of gunfights and explosions, but actions, movements, etc. Instead of focusing on describing the way things are, I focus on describing what they’re doing.

Example: in “The Great Dragon Egg Robbery,” the opening action sequence involves Harper trying to stop a runaway train. I don’t describe what he’s wearing. There’s no scene that says “Harper arrived, wearing a neatly-pressed Saville Row suit with pinstripes and two buttons, his tie cleanly cutting down the center” or whatever. Instead, I just make passing mention to him straightening his tie.  Suddenly, your mind pictures him in a suit.

I could say something like, “Anders was a beefy man with a thick neck, square jaw, and a scar that ran across his eye. He’d gotten it years earlier in a battle with an enraged sasquatch. He looked at him quizzically, the meaning plain in his face.”

Or, I could say, “The big man, Anders, looked at him with his one good eye, questioning.”  The focus isn’t on the fact that Anders is big, or even that he’s scarred but on the action of him asking an unspoken question.  If I toss in that he has “one good eye,” the reader will more than likely conjure up an image of a man with an eyepatch or a scar, or whatever they innately want him to look like.

Spend just enough time on what things look like to get the basic gist across, and the reader will do the rest on their own. A short-form serial is no place for you to go wild with your characters’ deep inner thoughts, or to lovingly explore every nook and cranny on that tree in the background.

After all that, what am I saying?  Get to the frickin’ point.

Do it quickly. Do it succinctly. Still do it with flair, because you don’t want your prose to be boring, but don’t dilly-dally.  This also relates to your plotting and structure, too, not just how many words you use.

I started writing the opening of “Chupacbras on a Boat” and it was about four hundred words that mostly consisted of characters walking into a room, dropping their bags on their beds and then sitting down in an office for a briefing before getting to the fighting. it was totally boring. So I lopped it right out and got down to business. Sometimes you might have to do that - write the boring part until you get to the good part, and then ditch the boring part. Remember that you can always sprinkle some background info into the good part to explain things to the reader without having to actually explain things to the reader.

Part Four: The Gang’s All Here

The “Weirdo Company” series has seven or eight recurring characters that are generally in each episode. Think about the original “Star Trek.” Everyone knows about Scotty, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura, right?  Sure. But the main characters of every episode were Kirk, Spock and McCoy. The others were around, but they were rarely the focus of an entire episode, maybe just a few scenes here or there. Still, everyone tends to think of them as main characters.

Well, I might have seven or eight characters that are always in these episodes, but I’m really only focusing on three. Harper, Davis and Rhymes are the characters with the most “screen time” in my serial. The others are there, and they serve their distinct purposes, they’re just for support because I need a larger world than three characters. You might not, but in continuing the TV analogy, they’re my supporting cast. They’re my Scotty, Sulu, Chekov and Uhura.

Even in a modern ensemble TV drama, you’ve got a couple people who are always at the forefront of the action. “The Walking Dead” is undeniably about Rick Grimes, even with the hugeness of that show’s cast. We might focus on Andrea and Michonne for a bit, or toss a couple scenes to Glen and Maggie, but we’re mostly following Rick.

So don’t try to give all your characters equal time. Don’t always try to flesh them out as much as you can. Sometimes, you just need your characters to be who they’re supposed to be. Flint is the medic, Mendez is the gunner. Tailor their actions and dialogue to those purposes and they’ll do just fine.

And now: Villainy.

Your story will probably require some kind of antagonist or villain. Mine has two, a pair of brothers who call themselves Joker and Thief. Joker is the plotter, Thief is the doer. I’ve set up that dynamic, so the characters feel fairly well established even if we don’t know much about them - particularly their plans. But through the dialogue we know that Joker wants to rule the world and has some sort of intricate plan to do so while Thief does what he’s told and is resentful of his brother’s power over him.

All these things lead back to being economical. Don’t put more effort into something than you have to. Focus on telling a good story, rather than trying to flesh everything out. The short form prose is less about depth. I could write thousands of words about the backstories of every character, give all of them more time to do things like drink coffee or walk their dogs, but I’m stripping away everything that, while interesting, is ultimately unimportant.