FGCU and Writing an Underdog Story

Attila by filin ilia from FlickrI love it when the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament hits every March. Mainly because I love filling out brackets.  Generally speaking, I am quite awful at filling them out. I know nothing at all about college basketball and I tend to base my picks on a mixture of whether or not I like the mascot and how funny I think a team’s name is. But I make my choices, lock them in, and then get to watch my choices live and die as the games progress.

Last Friday night a school I had never heard of, Florida Gulf Coast University, beat a school I once applied to, Georgetown, in the first round of the tournament. FGCU was a number 15 seed, Georgetown was a number 2 seed. This was supposed to be a rout, a massacre, Georgetown was supposed to walk through the game, win, and  move on.

But FGCU won, and it was awesome. While watching the game on Friday night I found myself caught up in the story being played out. The underdog against the sure thing. The unknown versus the dominant. The tiny versus the giant. It’s a common story theme, and Friday night’s game played out as the best of stories (unless you’re a Georgetown fan) with this out-of-nowhere school shocking everyone and beating a  team that was a landslide favorite.

I always marvel, when something like that happens in real life, how difficult it is to pull that off in fiction, how hard it is to create a character, or group of characters, that really seem unable to win and then have them go on to victory.

It’s made doubly hard in fiction because the reader knows, in the back of their head, that the people you’ve been following for the whole book are probably going to win. Whatever the struggle, whatever the tale, unless you’re reading some dystopian nightmare story, odds are that the downtrodden good guys will triumph. Maybe they won’t win fully, and maybe not with every single piece of their story coming together, but somehow they will win; certainly they will overcome the obstacles in their way.

The reader already knows what’s going to happen. Watching FGCU play Georgetown, I knew in the back of my head that the outcome probably wouldn’t be interesting. That Georgetown would probably come back. And that made the surprise so much larger and the story so much better. Real life isn’t scripted, so I wasn’t primed to expect anything.

But how do you accomplish this in fiction?

How do you create real worry about the outcome?

As far as I can tell there are two main point to focus on: a well structured story to fit the conflict into, and mastery of craft during the actual conflict.

A good story can cause the reader to let go of the notion that what they’re reading is a construct. They can sink in and forget that someone else is in charge and treat the story as an account of actual events. Even if you’re writing about a space war 10,000 years from now or a love story 2,000 years ago, if the characters are engaging and the story is tightly told, then the reader will submit and the veil will be lowered and you can sneak surprises in that much easier.

And good technique? Forget about it. Good technique can make anything happen. I’ve read plenty of books which have contained one or two masterful scenes that have had me on board with what was going on entirely. Even if everything else is lousy, when a good scene comes along it reaches out and grabs a hold of you.

Knowing how to pace your beats? Knowing how to describe a room so that the reader can see, feel, hear, and smell it? Knowing how to get the reader’s adrenaline flowing with a villain being an asshole or a hero stumbling in a pain? Knowing how not to linger too long so that we start to disengage from the scene? You can craft real emotion with words if you take the time to write your scene correctly.

So how is real drama created?

It’s easy, just have an overall engaging tale written with flawless craftsmanship from scene to scene.

Oh.

Well no wonder it’s so freaking hard!

Reality Makes for Unrealistic Fiction

Guinness by tricky (rick harrison) from flickrThis past weekend was Saint Patrick’s’ Day. This is a day that isn’t really celebrated in Ireland, I’m told, but here in America it has become synonymous with wearing green and drinking Guinness and corned beef and drinking. It’s like a celebration of Irish stereotypes, which is fun because I like Guinness and corned beef. Man I really like corned beef.

Anyway, in New York it is an absolutely massive drinking day for those who partake. I actually was out at nine in the morning for a breakfast and beer buffet. Which was…interesting. I like going to bars and I like drinking, but it has occurred to me that maybe I like going to bars and the drinking is a secondary action that I also enjoy which follows from the first.

When I’m out, the drinking itself isn’t usually the absolute focus of all my mental prowess. On Saint Patrick’s Day, though, the streets are overrun with people for whom drinking is the primary goal. It’s like amateur hour all day long. I guess there are places that are more reigned in, though on Saint Patrick’s Day I’m not sure what that even means, but the places I wound up at were full of twenty year olds. Hell, there were definitely some seventeen-year-olds mixed in. So basically from nine o’clock on I was surrounded by kids who wanted to cram as much booze as possible into their pie holes as quickly as possible.

Usually when I go out, by the end of the night there are a few people at the bar who are obnoxious as shit; sometimes I’m one of them. You nod and you ignore it because it’s a small number of people in a large crowd and it goes with the territory and, again, sometimes the guy being ignored is you.

This weekend every bar was full of people like that by noon.

And, as always, some part of me was trying to figure out how I would go about capturing what I was seeing with words.

Basically I came up with nothing. Zero. No clue how to write anything I had seen.

By the next day I was forced to ponder the question: How often do scenes from reality exist that are simply unwritable?

I mean at one point someone threw up on the bar. Right on the bar. They disappeared, the vomit was cleaned up, and then the offender reappeared to get his credit card back like nobody would notice him.

At one bar the bathroom was filled with a bunch of teenage guys smoking cigarettes. They didn’t want to step outside to smoke because it was cold so they sat there smoking in the bathroom. They were too cool for the rules. They were shit-faced. They felt like they owned the bar, and the bathroom, and constantly tried to throw their weight around in ways that only teenagers can. For them it was a huge deal to be in a bar. They didn’t belong there, so every fucking thing they did was reeking of extraneous bad-assery.

I just wanted to use the bathroom.

At one point, one of the guys leaving the bathroom looked me up and down and then called me “four eyes.”

I actually got called “four eyes.”

I still don’t know what to make of that.

That’s the stupidest insult ever. I’m fucking floored that kids even still know it, and of course to toss that at someone at a bar is like…I mean Jesus I thought I was going to get challenged to a dance-off next or something. Apparently I had teleported to the set of Grease.

How do you write that? I couldn’t possibly work that into a work of fiction. The underage drinking? Okay. The attitude of all the underage drinkers? Sure. Some dude calling a guy wearing glasses “four eyes?”

There’s no way to pull that off unless the glasses wearer has three friends around, and they all take the rest of the scene to wonder what the hell was up with the guy who used the insult from the 1940’s. There is no way to use this very real scene without it becoming a major focal point of the characters nearby. It’s just too impossible an event.

But this was my Saturday! It happened! I was there. It should be writable!

And yet…no.

Reality isn’t stranger than fiction, it’s just really bad at writing it.

Journaling as an Author

Hand Writing by djking from FlickrIf you Google journaling, as I just did because auto-correct insists it is not a word, you come up with tons of sites discussing how much journaling can help your inner peace.

How, exactly, it helps one’s inner peace is a little up in the air. I only skimmed the search results, but I’m not sure I found anything I’d deem too scientific. There’s also a lot of different definitions for what journaling even is. Is it a photograph of your day in words? Is it a page of rambling? Is it a structured rendering of your conscious thoughts on paper?

I guess these are all true, but when I talk about journaling, I’m talking about the middle example. The page of rambling.

When I decide to journal I open a blank page in a notebook, put my pen to paper, and I write non-stop until the page is full. My handwriting is atrocious and what I create is basically illegible, but that’s okay. I never intend to reread it anyway.

No, the key concept is forcing myself through an entire, college-lined sheet of paper.

It’s weird. The times that I perform best at writing are the times when I’m not thinking about it at all. Most of my best ideas, if not all, have come about when I’m nowhere near my keyboard. My best ideas often come when I’m cooking, or walking, or in the shower. I’ll be doing something else and then *KAPLOOOF* I’ll suddenly know exactly how to work out a tricky plot point.

The problem is, how do you seek these moments actively? How do you get those ideas lurking in the back of your head to come out? If you try to focus on them they hide even deeper. And it isn’t very practical to stand in the shower for hours on end, hoping for a breakthrough.

Well it may not be a perfect answer, but sitting down and forcing out a page of freehand writing seems to capture those thoughts, or at least clumsy replicas of them.

I’ll start by writing about the problems I can’t resolve in my current project, and then my plans for the weekend get mashed in and a bill I need to pay get written about, after all I can’t stop my pen. And then back to the problem and then I debate how I write the letter Q and then back to the problem and then I’m writing a possible solution to the problem only it’s pretty stupid but what if I took that first part of the solution and tied it in to that scene I didn’t really like from earlier…and so on and so on. For an entire page.

My hand hurts like hell when I’m done but my brain feels clearer. Sometimes I come up with very real answers to the questions I’m forcing myself to think about, but that’s rare. What does always happen, though, is that I come away with some directions I can head off in when I next sit down to write.

It’s a strange mix of absurd pressure and complete freedom. The pen has to keep moving, but I’m never going to read what I’m writing so my thoughts feel that it’s safe to come tumbling out.

Now I’ve had bouts of journaling where I’ve accomplished absolutely nothing. But that’s because, like most things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Some effort has to be made to address your current problems, but after that it’s just a free for all.

Too often I hear authors worrying about proper outlining ,or structuring, or knowing exactly where everything is going to go before writing. But what if you’re trying to outline something and you don’t have all the pieces?

Maybe take the opposite approach and let your pen go completely nuts for one whole page. You’d be surprised how many somethings you can produce out of nothing.

Watching Empire Strikes Back with My Nieces

The Empire Will Strike Back - in a just moment by Kalexanderson from FlickrOver the weekend I trekked out to my sister’s place for a movie night. It was a big deal. For the first time ever, my two nieces were going to watch The Empire Strikes Back.

It’s difficult to convey exactly what this movie means to me. I might go so far as to say it’s impossible to get that across. Either it has the same niche in your life that it does in mine, or you’ll never get it.

I’m not saying that to be snooty. I’m saying that because for me, this movie came out at exactly the right time. My big brother was a teenager when the original came out. We had just brought a brand new technological marvel known as the VCR into our home. And HBO had moved from an eight hour broadcast day to running around the clock, showing a new array of popular movies.

That was the landing pad that the original Star Wars movies had access to.

My brother’s influence, the ability to watch movies at home at your leisure, and the ability to record a movie off of the TV? It was a powerful combination. I can still remember the HBO logo presentation from that era vividly because it was at the beginning of our recording of Star Wars, and I watched that recording an uncountable number of times.

In fact, watching Star Wars was so ingrained in my gray matter that I have memories of seeing the actors perform their stunts on my family’s television and thinking, “You know it’s really impressive. No matter how many times I put this movie on, they always manage to make the same shots when they fire at the Stormtroopers, and they fly the exact same way in their ships, and Luke and Leia always swing across that broken bridge in the Death Star and never miss.”

In other words, I didn’t even realize what a movie was by the time I had watched this movie enough to have parts of it memorized.

(note: I have absolutely no idea what the hell I thought I was watching, like if I thought the actors were miniaturized in my family’s TV or what…I just know that I have memories of thinking those thoughts)

Getting to share these movies with my nieces was a powerful thing. And with Empire being my favorite of the trilogy, well it was an exciting night all around. I mean, my nine-year-old (9YO) and six-year-old (6YO) nieces found out who Luke Skywalker’s father was last Saturday.

That’s mind blowing.

This information was entirely new to almost half the viewing audience. How often does that situation arise? When Vader delivered his devastating news to Luke I got the chills. My brother-in-law gasped dramatically at 6YO. My sister poked 9YO asking, “Can you believe it?! Darth Vader is Luke’s father!”

9YO nodded and said that she had already sort of guessed that.

Which is hilarious on a whole other level.

Included with all this nostalgia, though, were a few interesting things going on from the perspective of a storyteller.

9YO was fidgeting most of the movie. She kept looking for more popcorn in other people’s bowls, she would randomly shift positions on the couch in very dramatic ways, and occasionally she would opt to play with her feet rather than look at the screen.

This was trying.

I’ve explained the overall love the adults in the room had for Empire. Plus we were well aware of how monumental a moment we wanted this viewing to be. The girls were watching Empire for freak’s sake.

And one of them was fidgety.

Was she bored? Was she unable to follow the plot? Or was she just acting like a nine-year-old?

And did any of that even matter?

I mean, as I just said, my early viewings of these movies were so over my head that I didn’t even know that I was watching a movie. And I still loved them. So how much needed to be getting across to 9YO for her to really share in the moment? Again, I didn’t even understand the concept of a movie and my early viewings are looked back on with fondness. How much of any story do we actually take in when we first hear it?

Then there is the notion that trying to make sure that 9YO was paying attention had a downside: she would try to pay too much attention. Her questions became less and less about keeping up with the general plot, and more and more about details that didn’t matter. “Why does that guy have headphones? Why is Chewbacca yelling? Where did Luke just fall to?”

They weren’t bad questions by any means, but they weren’t  integral questions either. She was so concerned about understanding each scene that she would ask questions before the movie even had a chance to answer them.

Now I don’t mean to say she didn’t enjoy herself, or that we stressed her out to a crazy extent. This is all me looking back on this and pondering. But the fact is, you really aren’t supposed to understand everything you’re seeing in a movie as you’re seeing it. An awful lot of the time, while taking in a story, you sit there confused. Scenes introduce elements that aren’t explained yet. Characters have discussions hinting at back stories that you don’t know. Emotions are expressed, giving whiffs of conflict that you aren’t familiar with.

It’s really pretty amazing if you stop to think about it.

C-3PO wanders away from the group in Cloud City and gets blown up for no reason by people we don’t see. Yoda hides who he really is and acts like a crazy person when he first contacts Luke. Han flies into an asteroid field while everyone on the Falcon is screaming at him not to.

Almost every scene in a movie does it’s best to confuse the audience, and then later it unravels that confusion.

Later, Chewbacca replays C-3PO’s memory and we learn that C-3PO had stumbled onto where the Imperial Troops were hiding and they blasted him. Later, we come to realize that Yoda was testing Luke’s patience and feeling him out before introducing himself. Later, we watch Han maneuver the Falcon through the asteroids while the lesser Imperial pilots fail and crash one by one.

And that’s how good stories are told.

I get worried a lot that I’m not getting across enough story, that the details I’m putting in are overwhelming, or that my readers won’t like the fact that I’m teasing them with information.

But it turns out that’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. The whole object is to snag your reader on hooks. They’ll roll right along with it as long as you take them off of that hook at some later point in a satisfactory manner.

Until then?

Well it turns out you can skewer them any way you want to.

Hehehe…

Happy hunting.