Monday, August 24, 2015

What Writers Can Learn from Zombies

As a huge Walking Dead fan, I spent all summer looking forward to Fear the Walking Dead. My anticipation was, sadly, not rewarded. And looking at my Twitter feed, I was not the only one disappointed in Sunday night’s pilot. The writers violated two important rules, and lost their audience. Don’t make the same mistakes they did!

Rule #1: Your main characters should be likeable/sympathetic/empathetic. This is a rule that gets debated a lot. Google “unlikeable protagonist,” and the number of hits that come up is in the zillions. A lot of these links are complaints from writers who have unlikeable protagonists and are mad that they can’t find an agent or publisher. The rule does get a little muddled sometimes. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be nice. But there have to be reasons for the reader to root for him. Screenwriting guru Michael Hauge lists five things for screenwriters to do in the first ten minutes of a screenplay to make readers support your protagonist: be funny, be really good at a job, be kind to an underdog (stray dog or homeless person), be in jeopardy, or be nice. In other words, someone with a sarcastic sense of humor who is smarter than everyone else in the room at work can get away with being a jerk.

Last night’s Fear the Walking Dead opens with junkie Nick, who wakes up in an abandoned church after sleeping off a high. Everyone else is dead. He wanders around, looking at the remains of last night’s party, calling for his girlfriend. He finds her eating someone’s face. He takes off running, and ends up getting hit by a car.

This was a strong beginning, designed to pull in fans of the Walking Dead and, at the same time, emphasize what was different. The parent show began with hero Rick Grimes waking up in an abandoned hospital and finding the world overrun by zombies. Nick also wakes up, but instead of a completely different world, it’s the same traffic-filled Los Angeles.

The bigger difference, of course, is while Rick was in a coma due to injuries sustained in his line of work as a police officer, Nick was sleeping off a drug high. Immediately, the audience is primed to dislike him (except maybe for the junkies in the audience). Yes, he was in jeopardy, but his own actions put him there, which makes him unsympathetic. Nick comes across as weak and stupid, and as a result, everyone who cares for him – his parents and sister drop everything to be with him – comes across that way, too.

It would have been better to let Nick die when the car hit him, mumbling about people getting their faces eaten. My Twitter feed was filled with people wishing for Nick and his whole family to get eaten by zombies. This is not the way to build viewer and reader loyalty.

Rule #2: Your audience/readers should never be ahead of your characters.

Another reason people were calling for zombie deaths is because, as fans of the parent show, they knew what was in store, and they were anxious to get to it. While Carly Simon and Heinz ketchup are great fans of anticipation, there’s only so much of it people can take before they need to get to the good stuff. Because the Walking Dead began with Rick waking up after society had collapsed, viewers did not get a front row seat to how that all went down, and everyone knows how much we like to watch the world get destroyed. But 90 minutes of watching Nick’s mother and stepfather fret about their junkie son while waiting for the panic to start was too much.

A few months ago I read a mystery manuscript told from three points of view. Protagonist A was trying to find out what the reader already knew, thanks to Protagonist B. It was incredibly dull. Fear the Walking Dead put us in that same position. We know about zombies; we know society will collapse; we even know that anyone who dies will come back as a brain-muncher – not just those who are killed by zombies. Yes, we want to see how society collapses, but we don’t want to wait too long. And not with people we don’t care about.

Hitchcock had a saying about the difference between suspense and surprise; suspense is knowing the bomb is under the table, and surprise is not knowing before it goes off. While Hitchcock preferred the former – at least in the quote – the best work have a mixture of suspense and surprise. Imagine an entire 90 minutes of waiting for the bomb under the table to go off. Hitchcock himself talks about 15 minutes, but today’s reader/viewer would probably get bored after three.

I hope Fear the Walking Dead gets better, and I’ll give the show a few more episodes before giving up. But most writers do not have a built-in fan base that will excuse these errors and keep reading. If you want your readers to care about your characters and wonder what’s going to happen to them, don’t make these mistakes.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Participation Trophies: Sometimes Just Showing Up is Worth a Medal

For some reason, there’s been a lot of writing published in the past few weeks about the horribleness of participation trophies. Some NFL superstar threw out the ones his sons got. The right has been raging about them for years, saying they give kids a sense of entitlement; a belief that everything should be handed to them. Research has shown that the more successful, white, conservative and male a person is, the more likely they are to disparage these trophies. Only winners deserve recognition.

In my book KEEPING SCORE (of course I'm going to link to its Amazon page!), I wrote a scene about trophies. It felt pretty true-to-life to me:

Since it was the last game of the season, Franco passed out trophies and said encouraging things about each player. The parents stood behind them and took pictures. David and I flanked Chloe.

"Why do they get trophies?" Chloe whispered to me, but not quietly enough. Scott shot her a dirty look. "They didn't win a championship or anything."

“That’s just how it is these days,” I admitted. “Everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.”
Franco passed a trophy to Matthew.

"And Matthew … who never gives up, is always trying, no matter what."
Matthew beamed, too young to understand the phrase "back-handed compliment." But Scott and Jennifer sure did.

"For Sam,” Franco said, “I am saving the best for last." The trophy he pulled out was bigger than the rest. "I am proud to say that Sam has allowed the fewest goals of all the keepers in the league for this age group."

Franco handed the trophy to Sam, whose eyes were as big as soccer balls. I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures. Then Chloe did the same thing.

Jennifer put her arm around Laura and whispered something, looking at me the entire time.

Matthew is happy to get his trophy, happy to have his effort recognized even though it didn’t result in a championship. His parents, who would prefer that their son struggled less and accomplished more, are embarrassed by the acknowledgement and envious of the mother of the child who got a “real” trophy.

Matthew is not the hero of my book. He’s a child who is pushed to play by hugely competitive parents. He wants to play, he wants to be better than he is, and he’s embarrassed to be on a successful baseball team he’s not really good enough to belong to. But his parents cart him around to private lessons and coaching, and by the end of the book, he becomes a much better player. And while Sam is more athletic than Matthew, he has his own set of demons to battle, and twice asks to quit baseball entirely. How he (and his mother) overcome those demons and continue to play are the most important plot points in my book.

So what does this have to do with participation trophies? Although Cooperstown Dreams Park hands out rings to every ball player who shows up, participation trophies are not big in the world of travel sports.

Why do we want our children to play sports? Are we all hoping to raise kids who earn huge college scholarships and then hit the pros? It rarely happens. Do we only want our kids to play if they are MVP of their team, if their team wins championships? Is it for the love of the sport? Most parents would probably say no, even if they are secretly dreaming otherwise. The “right answer” is that we want our children to play sports to keep them out of trouble, to help girls develop confidence in their bodies, and to foster individual accomplishments and a sense of responsibility.

Whether our kids are superstars or second stringers, though, early participation in sports can establish exercise as a lifelong habit. Kids who run during soccer practice become teenagers who run after baseball practice who become managers who run before work or on the weekends. Pushing their bodies, living in their bodies, people who play sports starting at a young age will become adults who are stronger and healthier than those who did not. It’s not about winning. It’s about living.

And this is where those participation trophies come into play. Because if the goal is to create a lifelong habit of exercise, of challenging one’s body, of developing a sense of responsibility, it’s not the MVPs of the team who need to be convinced. Those kids -- to whom athletics comes easy, who lead their teams to championship games and are always the first to be picked for gym class teams – need no participation trophies. Even without the medals they earn, they will play for the love of the sport, for how well their bodies listen to their commands, for how good it feels just to move.

It’s the kids who suck who need the encouragement.

I say this with no mean intent. I was a kid who sucked and am now an adult who hates exercise but forces herself to do it. I spent my grade school years in a neighborhood with active children, who raced each other at the bus stop every morning and played pick-up baseball in the backyard on weekends. Our gym teacher was obsessed with fitness levels and constantly tested us against each other. I was well aware that I sucked.

But I liked it. I liked running, even though I was the slowest kid on the block. I loved to ride my bike. I loved gymnastics, even though I was always put in the lowest group. I was even game to try softball, which my mother loved.

But I was the worst kid on the team. I did not get a participation trophy. I got bullied. I was told that I was “the best player on the other team.” I was picked last during gym class. Even the gym teacher rolled her eyes when I refused to run on a dusty, slippery sidewalk, and called me “out” when I took two bases on two separate overthrows.

I learned to hate sports. Hate my body. Hate running. Hate moving. Would a participation trophy change all that? No. Would the attitude that all kids should be encouraged to play, no matter how good they are, have helped? Definitely. Kids who are not natural athletes can get better, but it will not happen in an environment of “only winners count.” It will not happen with people who scorn the participation trophy. Because people who scorn that trophy were probably not children who stood knock-kneed at home plate “like a dog begging for a walk.”

The courage it takes for a non-athletic child to play sports should be rewarded, not ridiculed. Some of these children grow into teenagers who become masters of their own bodies and the sports they love. And even if they don’t, developing a sports habit will serve them for the rest of their lives.

I did not develop the sports habit, and it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood and married to a man who did play into his high school years that I forced myself off my butt and into the gym. But I still hate it. My biggest regret, though, isn’t that I grit my teeth every time I set the hour on the treadmill. It’s that when my son was learning to hit, throw, and field a baseball, I wasn’t good enough or confident enough to help him. (There’s a scene in KEEPING SCORE where my protagonist, Shannon, buys herself catching gear and then catches her son’s bullpen. Writing it was a kind of wish fulfillment for me.)

Perhaps the time of “everyone gets a trophy” has passed. But something still needs to be done to recognize the child who shows up even though he or she has no natural talent or ability. Who comes to practice and tries his hardest even though he’s the worst on the team. Who makes an effort with nothing to show for it.

Sometimes just showing up really is worth a medal.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Today’s Plots Need Today’s Technology

There are several web sites that detail how the plots of popular movies and books would not work at all today because of technology. Everyone has a cell phone and takes it everywhere. Almost everyone is on Facebook, or can be found thanks to Google and other search engines. No one talks on landlines anymore, and juicy conversations can no longer be overheard by quietly picking up an extension. Love letters can’t be intercepted; nor answering machine messages tampered with.

Of course, technology also gives us all new plot possibilities and complications. There’s revenge porn, caller ID, Facestalking, Photoshopping, group texts, etc. Last week I watched a high school romcom called The Duff, which had major plot points that could not have happened a just a few years ago. (I thought this a good thing, as romcoms more than any other genre are supposed to be a statement about modern life and love.)

On the minus side, technology has a way of dating our work more than any other kind of detail. Any book that mentions a character’s MySpace account (unless ironically) or Blackberry places its action in a very specific year. If the book is supposed to be present day, these details pull the reader out of the book and makes them think not about the characters but about this dead technology. A writer’s best solution to this issue is to avoid using trademarked names and technologies. Use “smart phone” rather than “iPhone,” and have characters communicate online with LifeLink or LightSpeed.

One trend I’ve noticed in unpublished manuscripts is writers setting their books in the early to mid 1990s solely to avoid more recent technology that would have made their plots obsolete. A woman looking for her college boyfriend can’t rely on Google or Facebook during that time period. But when nothing else about the story says 1993, it’s obvious that the time period is being used only to avoid the technology that would resolve the plot in a matter of paragraphs.

Any time a story is set in a time period other than present day, there needs to be a strong reason for it. A book that spans twenty years would naturally start twenty years in the past, for example. A character journeying to Obama’s first inauguration would be living in 2009. But most of these manuscripts I’m reading do not have these strong reasons for placing the story in the past.

Writers, if you’re setting your story in 1994 so that your main character does not have access to email or a cell phone, consider stronger ways to tell your story and put it in the present day. If you want to write historical fiction, that great. 1992 isn’t really history unless you’re writing about the first Bush/Clinton presidential race. Plots that can’t work if people have cell phones or Facebook pages are no longer going to resonate with today’s readers. It’s 2015. Embrace all the goodies we have today, and figure out a way to make your story work with them.