The New “WestWorld”: A Show About Storytelling

fullsizerender8By Kathryn Lilley

I don’t watch many television shows, so I was surprised that I recently become addicted to a new HBO series: “Westworld”.

When I first heard that HBO was making a series based on the original concept of the Westworld film (the earlier version was written by sci-fi writer Michael Crichton), I’ll admit that I was skeptical. The original Westworld was one of the worst movies of all time, surpassed in its hideousness (despite a bravura performance by actor Yul Brynner) only by its lamentable sequel, “Futureworld”.

The premise is simple: “Westworld” is a recreation of a 19th century western town, staffed by android “hosts”, where vacationers can act out their fantasies about living in the old West. The paying guests of Westworld are told that they can live out their Wild West fantasies in complete safety. “Nothing can go wrong,” the tourists are told. Which means, of course, that everything certainly will go wrong, and fast.

Fortunately for viewers, the new HBO series far surpasses the original film. It explores issues such as the nature of consciousness, the relationship between humans and robots, and the stories we invent about our lives.

Here is the trailer for the original 1973 movie:

And here is the trailer for the 2016 HBO series.

Same premise, much more effective execution. The HBO version of Westworld is a great show for writers to watch, in particular. At its heart, Westworld is a show about storytelling. Each episode explores an aspect of telling stories, positing the notion that our memories are nothing more than the narratives we select to anchor our identities as human beings. My favorite character in the show is the writer, Lee Sizemore, a profane, alcoholic hack who is charged with writing the “depraved little fantasies” that entertain the tourists at Westworld. Sizemore’s hapless, comedic character offers a refreshing contrast to the polished perfection of the androids and robotic-seeming humans of Westworld.

Have you been watching the Westworld series on HBO? Here is a New York Times article recapping this week’s penultimate show, Episode 9. But if you haven’t been watching the series, I wouldn’t jump into one of the later episodes. Multiple timelines and unreliable narrators abound in this ambitious show, so it’s essential to watch it from the beginning. Next Sunday is the finale, and fans of Westworld are eager to know: is Arnold really dead?

Fun aspect of the new Westworld: the integration of contemporary rock music as the musical score. Here’s a clip as an example (strong language, violence advisory).

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Give your manuscript a running start

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Whenever I disclose to someone that I’m an author, the response is pretty much the same: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Despite all the would-be authors out there, not every potential novelist actually gets to the writing stage. And even fewer produce a finished product. But for the ones who not only have an idea but are burning up with a desire to put pen to paper, I’ve put together a basic outlining technique that might help get things started—a simple list of questions to kick start a book. Answering them can give writers direction and focus, and help keep them going when the wheels sometimes come off the cart along the way. To continue my Writing 101 series, here goes:

  • What distinguishes your protagonist from everyone else?
  • Does she have an essential strength or ability?
  • How could her strength cause her to get into trouble?
  • Most stories start with the protagonist about to do something? What is that “something” in your story, and what does it mean to her?
  • Is that “something” interrupted? By what?
  • Is there an external event or force that she must deal with throughout the length of the story?
  • How is it different from the original event?
  • How will the two events contrast and create tension?
  • Does she have a goal that she is trying to achieve during the course of the story?
  • Is it tied into the external event?
  • Why does she want or need to obtain the goal?
  • What obstacle does the external event place in her path?
  • What must she do to overcome the obstacle?
  • Does she have external AND internal obstacles and conflicts to overcome?
  • How will she grow by overcoming the obstacles?
  • What do you want to happen at the end of your story?
  • How do you want the reader to feel at the end?
  • What actions or events must take place to make the ending occur the way you envision?

This outline technique has less to do with plot and more to do with character development. Building strong characters around a unique plot idea is the secret to a great book. Once you’ve answered the questions about your protagonist, use the same technique on your antagonist and other central characters. It works for everyone in the story.

These are general questions that could apply to any genre from an action-adventure thriller to a romance to a tale of horror. Answering them up front can help to get you started and keep you on track. Armed with just the basic knowledge supplied by the answers, you will never be at a loss for words because you will always know what your protagonist (and others) must do next.

Can you think of any other questions that should be asked before taking that great idea and turning it into a novel?

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First Page Critique – Already Dead

Here’s this month’s Thursday First Page Critique. My comments follow.

Already dead

 Aguascalientes, Mexico

     Leo wasn’t dead yet, so that’s a good thing … he thought. One never ever knows how these meetings will end up. Sometimes they finish nice and easy, some information passed around, possible issues are brought up and dealt with or maybe some questions need to be answered. A nice meal usually followed, some alcohol, if you are lucky maybe even some hookers. Then again, sometimes they ended with a loud BANG! and that was it. When you were summoned by the “higher ups” coming out alive was never a guarantee. The fact they were meeting in a public place did nothing to calm his nerves. In this business, you could get clipped in your own front yard with your all your neighbors, your mother a group of mariachi and even fucking mother Teresa watching and the only thing that mattered was someone got a job done. He was escorted to the banquet area of the restaurant by a young, pretty hostess. Walking in, he was a bit uneasy, he didn’t even notice how beautiful she was or how perfect her ass looked in her black slacks. What he did notice was the five bodyguards scattered throughout the room.

“Enjoy your meal/ Provecho” she said with a sly sexy smile, she motioned for him to advance forward to the farthest table in the large room. Leo smiled back and walked up to the table and exhaled. The three older gentleman seated at the table did not bother to formally stand up. They greeted and acknowledged Leo, smiled and offered him the only seat to join them. Everything is always business with these types.

My Comments

Although I do think there could be an interesting snarky, wise guy ‘voice’ to this first page, it is submerged beneath extraneous information and stylistic choices that slow the pace and detract from the story. Overall, I wanted to see more action and tension in this first page – to have questions (and stakes) raised and to be exposed to the unique voice of Leo and his POV.

Here are my specific concerns:

  1. POV confusion: We have a lot of pronouns going on in this first page. First we have ‘Leo’ then we have ‘he’, ‘one’ and ‘you’ and then back to ‘he’. This wouldn’t ordinarily pose too much of an issue but in this piece it feels strained, like we aren’t too sure about the POV the writer intends to use. The first line “Leo wasn’t dead yet, so that’s a good thing … he thought.” makes it sound like the narrator is someone other than Leo (otherwise why not say ‘I’?) Then we switch to the more detached use of ‘one’ and ‘you’ then return to the pronoun ‘he’ – although by now we aren’t totally sure who ‘he’ is…I assume it is Leo since Leo is the character referenced in the last paragraph. As a reader, however, I shouldn’t have to puzzle at all. From the get go it should be clear who is speaking and the POV should keep me engaged (to be honest the use of ‘one’ and ‘you’ created a distance for me from the narrative voice). Also, if the writer is using Leo’s point of view than Leo cannot say: “he didn’t even notice how beautiful she was or how perfect her ass looked in her black slacks” because, as the narrator, he obviously did…
  2. Generic information/sentences: It is crucial that the first page intrigues a reader – it should raise questions and tension that means a reader can’t wait to turn the page and keep reading. That’s why sentences like: “One never ever knows how these meetings will end up. Sometimes they finish nice and easy, some information passed around, possible issues are brought up and dealt with or maybe some questions need to be answered” are flat and dull. There’s no real information being imparted  that is specific to the situation. This sentence could be used for almost any meeting…but what the reader wants is specifics – details that ground the story and which add texture and sensory detail that is gripping as well as believable. Once we get to the statement that people get gunned down in their front yards we’re starting to approach the detail we need, but, it is still too generic and stereotypical.
  3. Lack of Tension: I really wanted to be worried for the protagonist’s safety in this first page and to feel that there was a very real threat of him being bumped off. Yet in this first page we never get the level of tension needed for a reader to believe that this is a drug meeting that could easily go horribly wrong. The fact that we had the beautiful sexy girl beckoning Leo to the table also seems too much like a stereotype. I wanted to see more specific details that made me believe this scenario.
  4. Telling but not showing: This directly leads on from the last comment. I wanted to see more action in this first page but instead, although I was told a lot of information about the dangers (as well as the banality) of these meetings – I never really saw or experienced it on the page.

So what about you? What comments or feedback would you give for today’s submission?

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Back In a Flashback

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Flashback is a writing technique that allows the author to convey backstory (events from the past) while remaining in the present. It usually involves a situation in which something in a current scene causes a character to reminisce or ponder a previous event. The reason to create a flashback is to build character or advance the plot, or both. The secret to successfully employing this technique is to construct a smooth transition into and out of the flashback so as not to confuse the reader.

One of the easiest ways to enter a flashback is with the word “had”.

As Jim walked through his old neighborhood, a distant dog barking reminded him of the day he and his friends had skipped school to . . .

In addition, you want to shift the time progression from simple past tense (As Jim walked) to the past perfect tense (his friends had decided). Once you’ve entered the flashback and established the “past”, you can then revert back to simple past tense. At the conclusion of the flashback, use “had” again to transition back to current time.

Jim climbed the steps of his childhood home knowing those summer days with his friends had been the best times of his life.

In addition to transitions in and out of the flashback, it’s also important that the timeframe in which the flashback covers somewhat matches the real-time in which it’s experienced by the character. For instance, a flashback that covers the highs and lows of a woman’s previous marriage cannot be experienced during her stroll from the kitchen to the bedroom. But it would be an acceptable timeframe if she poured a glass of wine, strolled out onto her back porch and experienced it while sitting and watching the sun set and night fall. The reader must accept that the past and present timeframes are not unreasonably out of sync.

One final thought about flashbacks: it’s not a good idea to use one in the first couple of chapters. They can be quite confusing if thrown at the reader too soon. Wait until your reader has established at least a basic relationship with a character before taking them on a leap into the past. Flashbacks should be used sparingly. Better yet, use other techniques to relay backstory and avoid flashbacks altogether if possible.

Any additional advice on using or not using flashbacks?

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Developing Memorable Characters

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

As insatiable readers, we all have a favorite character or two or three. From Jay Gatsby to Sherlock Homes, from Atticus Finch to Hannibal Lecter, from Jack Ryan to Dirk Pitt. They all bore their way into our brains and became memorable. What was it about them that made them so? Why is it that even after years have passed since you read their stories, you still remember them as if they were your friend or neighbor? As a writer, can you produce characters like Scarlett O’Hara or Santiago or Jason Bourne? There’s no reason you can’t. Just follow these simple tips to creating memorable characters.

Probably one of the most effective techniques in character building is to give your characters flaws. If you want characters with perfect looks, perfect bodies, or perfect personalities, pick up a copy of Vogue. Otherwise, give them imperfections for which the reader can relate. We all have flaws, so should your characters—all of them from the main protag and antagonist to the most minor walk-on. They need to be imperfect.

Speaking of flaws, your protagonist should always have a fatal flaw. It could be anything from speaking in public to something life threatening like Kryptonite. It’s always there hanging over the protagonist’s head never knowing when it will fall.

Next, your main characters should be larger than life. This has nothing to do with physical size although it could. I’m talking larger than life in regards to courage, faith, kindness, intelligence, generosity, loyalty—a characteristic that exceeds most people, one that becomes necessary by the end of the story to solve the story question. We all have courage, but at the point where the common man’s courage gives out, the protagonist’s kicks in to save the day. And whatever the larger than element is, let the character learn how to use it having not known it existed before.

The antagonist should be equal to or in some respects greater than the protag. But not by much. The antag must challenge the hero’s standards and morals down to his very fiber. The antag must be a worthy adversary. If it’s a heavy weight fighting a bantam, who cares.

Your characters should have multilayers. They’re not just a tough guy or a beautiful woman or a genius. Give them a defining characterization such as being an introvert, then place them in a situation where they must become the opposite.

Indiana Jones had a fatal flaw—snakes. He had to overcome his biggest fear to answer his biggest call to action. Put your hero in a situation where the thing that stands in the way is that biggest fear. Now have them figure out how to overcome it.

Throw obstacles in your protags path. Never give them a cakewalk assignment. Always place speed bumps and walls in their way. You want your reader to be asking “How will they get out of this one?” And make each wall higher than the last. Even if the reader has no idea how to escape that current predicament, the protag somehow figures it out. That’s what makes them memorable.

Finally, make life miserable for your protagonist. When it gets bad, make it worse. Never give them a decent brake. Push, push, then push some more. That’s why we read thrillers. We want to see what happens when the good guy or gal gets pushed to the limit and overcomes it. If need be, torture your protag. Not necessarily physically. It could be mental or moral. Give him or her a decision that builds their character. Memorable characters are those that step up to the plate, make the right choice, and swing for the bleachers.

Happy Tax Day!

————————————

Vengeance can be earth-shattering!
tomb-cover-smallMaxine Decker returns this July in her most dangerous adventure yet; THE TOMB.
Be ready.

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Tips on Pacing your Novel

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

The story in most novels takes place over a period of time. Some are condensed to a few hours while many epic tales span generations and perhaps hundreds of years. But no matter what the timeframe is in your story, you control the pacing. You can construct a scene that contains a great amount of detail with time broken down into each minute or pacecareven second. The next scene might be used to move the story forward days, weeks or months in a single pass. If you choose to change-up your pacing for a particular scene, make sure you’re doing it for a solid reason such as to slow the story down or speed it up. Remember that as the author, you’re in charge of the pacing. And the way to do it is in a transparent fashion that maintains the reader’s interest. Here are a couple of methods and reasons for changing the pace of your story.

Slow things down when you want to place emphasis on a particular event. In doing so, the reader naturally senses that the slower pace means there’s a great deal of importance in the information being imparted. And in many respects, the character(s) should sense it, too.

Another reason to slow the pacing is to give your readers a chance to catch their breath after an action or dramatic chapter or scene. Even on a real rollercoaster ride, there are moments when the car must climb to a higher level in order to take the thrill seeker back down the next exciting portion of the attraction. You may want to slow the pacing after a dramatic event so the reader has a break and the plot can start the process of building to the next peak of excitement or emotion. After all, an amusement ride that only goes up or down, or worse, stays level, would be either boring or frantic. The same goes for your story.

Another reason to slow the pace is to deal with emotions. Perhaps it’s a romantic love scene or one of deep internal reflection. Neither one would be appropriate if written with the same rapid-fire pacing of a car chase or shootout.

You might also want to slow the pacing during scenes of extreme drama. In real life, we often hear of a witness or victim of an accident describing it as if time slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The same technique can be used to describe a dramatic event in your book. Slow down and concentrate on each detail to enhance the drama.

What you want to avoid is to slow the scene beyond reason. One mistake new writers make is to slow the pacing of a dramatic scene, then somewhere in the middle throw in a flashback or a recalling of a previous event in the character’s life. In the middle of a head-on collision, no one stops to ponder a memory from childhood. Slow things down for a reason. The best reason is to enhance the drama.

A big element in controlling pacing is narration. Narrative always slows things down. It can be used quite effectively to do so or it can become boring and cumbersome. The former is always the choice.

When you intentionally slow the pace of your story, it doesn’t mean that you want to stretch out every action in every scene. It means that you want to take the time to embrace each detail and make it move the story forward. This involves skill, instinct and craft. Leave in the important stuff and delete the rest.

There will always be stretches of long, desolate road in every story. By that I figuratively mean mundane stretches of time or distance where nothing really happens. Control your pacing by transitioning past these quickly. If there’s nothing there to build character or forward the plot, get past it with some sort of transition. Never bore the reader or cause them to skip over portions of the story. Remember that every word must mean something to the tale. The reader assumes that every word in your book must be important or you wouldn’t have written it.

We’ve talked about slowing the pacing. How about when to speed it up?

Unlike narration, dialog can be used to speed things up. It gives the feeling that the pace is moving quickly. And the leaner the dialog is written, the quicker the pacing appears.

Action scenes usually call for a quicker pace. Short sentences and paragraphs with crisp clean prose will make the reader’s eyes fly across the page. That equates to fast pacing in the reader’s mind. Action verbs that have a hard edge help move the pace along. Also using sentence fragments will accelerate pacing.

Short chapters give the feeling of fast pacing whereas chapters filled with lengthy blocks of prose will slow the eye and the pace. Make sure you write it that way for a reason.

Just like the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 sets the pace for the start of the race and dramatic changes during the event such as yellow and red flags, you control the pace of your story. Tools such as dialog versus narration, short staccato sentences versus thick, wordy paragraphs, and the treatment of action versus emotion puts you in control of how fast or slow the reader moves through your story. And just like the colors on a painter’s pallet, you should make use of all your pacing pallet tools to transparently control how fast or slow the reader moves through your story.

How about you Zoners? Got any hot tips on pacing?                                           

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