A Few Things Great Screenplays Don’t Do

So I went to the movies last week. And I like both Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams, so hooray, alien movie, right?

Yeah, no.

First of all, if you want to drive away a substantial amount of your audience, lying to the audience through the entire story is a great idea. Wait, actually no, that’s a terrible idea. Don’t lie to your audience. Don’t lie to the reader. My God, people, why is this so hard? Don’t lie to the reader!

I was watching the story unfold, and it was pretty all right until we hit Problem #1: The Great Info Dump.

The aliens arrive. The government is flustered. We MEET THE ALIENS! OH BOY!

All is great, good music, tension is great. yadda yadda.

But then.



The entire crux of the film is “How can we communicate with these aliens?”

That is the whole point of the film. Right when we get to the cusp of HOW WILL THEY DO IT? They gave us . . . an info dump. They slipped right over the conundrum into a magical future land, where by the miracle of ENDLESS, AROUND THE CLOCK WORK that lasted maybe what? two weeks? three weeks? the humans have assembled a working vocabulary for apparently hundreds of alien words. Now communication is possible, and even easy! Ha ha! Because MATH, and COMPUTERS.

Yes, I’m annoyed.

This brings us to Problem #2: Modern Humans Can’t Sex.

(Insert cry of inarticulate rage.)

Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams start to bond over Hard Work, and Symbolic Nakedness (sorry people, but that’s what it was when they both stripped their hazmat suits off). They go sit on a truck in front of the big alien ship, and Jeremy Renner (who, I’m sure, is not actually this awkward in real life) AWKWARDLY FLIRTS. And Amy Adams, in the manner of an old and world-weary sage, gently smiles at his clumsy boy-flirts.


I’m sorry, but this is just . . . I just . . .


BIGGEST PROBLEM OF ALL, #3: The Big Fat Lie, also known as the Shady Plot Device.

So we’ve been rooting all through the film for Amy Adams to find happiness with Jeremy Renner, right? Because she’s all broken in pieces by the asshole who abandoned her and the cute baby who grew up and then died.

We all hate the asshole, right?

The bond that the story has built with the audience is predicated on our mutual ire against The Abandoning Dude.

Fully one third of the script is given over to building up and reinforcing our dislike of this extremely absent dud of a man, who has apparently left Amy Adams for shallow and immature reasons. We all hate the dude.

Cue the last five minutes of the film.

Oh, wait!

The dude wasn’t absent! He was . . . only partially absent! (Because the filmmakers lied to us, by eliding the apparently very involved and present father figure.) And actually, the filmmakers would now like us to please like the abandoning asshole, because SURPRISE! That asshole is Jeremy Renner!

But life is hard! And people get divorced! And we made you feel sorry for the kid with cancer! And anyway, now that Amy Adams knows how upset Jeremy Renner is about their baby dying, she will tell him anyway, because— *crickets*


When the last few minutes of the film rolled out, and the screen went dark, a person in the theatre audibly said, “That’s stupid.”


Your readers are people. If you lie to people, they will avoid you.


Some Effortless Cheats That Offer Amazing Payoff In Your Novel

Every idea can be expressed through an image, and every image has a natural and organic connection to several other images.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. As a seed image, you think of that neighbor kid who lived around the block when you were nine years old; you take the kid, and you turn him into an alien ranger who rides solo through the galaxy in his tired blue space jalopy.

Let’s say, for the sake of experiment, that you’ve made an outline that shows the alien ranger discovering a hidden moon full of treasure, and then using it to buy a brand new model ZZ spaceship and a pair of venomous tiger beasts.

Now, you sit down and try to decide how you will describe the old blue jalopy. You may stare at the screen, and feel overwhelmed.

But here is what you will do:

Start with that neighbor kid that you’re basing your alien ranger on. Picture to yourself his messy hair, and the stinky way that he had of wrinkling up his nose when he talked to you.

Imagining the picture of this kid will bring one or two additional images into your mind, by the power of association. Let us say that you think of old pieces of orange peel, and the smell of fertilizer. It does not matter if these associations make sense to you; what matters is that they are a prime connection to the first image.

Now you have the image of the neighbor kid, the hardened wrinkle of shrunken orange peels, and the nagging odor of earthy fertilizer.

You start with the first image:

Argon was sitting in the deep bucket seat of his rusted-out blue spaceship; (so far we have used the image of the neighbor kid) the interior of Argon’s ship was dusty, and had that particular flavor of age and neglect that comes to a vehicle when it is no longer worth the trouble of repairing. (Now we have drawn on the image of the dried orange peel.) Argon had thought, occasionally, of stripping the blue ship down, and of repairing it, and polishing it into respectability, but the metal panels on the outside were so eaten away with rust, and fitted so poorly against the body of the ship, that he told himself it was not worth the trouble. He had thought, also, of taking the ship to one of the sleazy dealers that dotted the outer rims of the known galaxy, and of trading in his jalopy and a few years of his life to put a down payment on a better ship, but, Argon had reminded himself, he only had one life, and the blue jalopy still ran, kind of. Argon had remembered then what that man in the Waroo quadrant had said to him, about the life-draining machines in these dealerships being fixed against the customer.

“You think you’ll be trading a few years of your life for a square deal,” the man, Ixxus, had said to Argon over a pat of steaming worm gatz. “But you don’t know what is really going on in those life-sucking pods. I heard they’re set up to put tracers in your blood, and when you leave the dealer’s lot, the dealer sells the code for the trace to the marauders from the Blood Spiral. Those marauders will hunt you down, and sell you piecemeal, to the cannibal systems. It happened to my brother-in-law. He went to one of those lots, and put down five years for a new Y Chantz cruiser, and do you know where my brother-in-law is now?”

Argon had stared with expressionless eyes at Ixxus, who dipped his fingers into the worm gatz, and paused with the steaming mash held up in the air.

“He’s vanished,” Ixxus had said wisely, and then sucked the earthy, fermented gatz of worms from his fingers.

There; we have now used the neighbor child, an old orange peel, and the smell of fertilizer to build a coherent chain of events and images. Following the links from the boy to the peel, and from the peel to the fertilizer, has given us a secondary character, a set of dangerous marauding villains, a system of cannibal species, and a technology that apparently allows people to make large purchases by giving up years of time in exchange for material goods.

The story feels authentic, and unstudied. The reader is drawn into the organic sensations caused by the linked images. I, as the writer, did very little work, and you, as the reader, now have firmly planted in your heads a set of concrete and memorable images.

Start with one image. Plant that image in your novel, and follow the natural links from that first image towards the next image, and the next. Doing this will make your writing taste good and feel real to the reader.

A Couple Of Techniques For Writers That Are So Easy, It Feels Like Cheating

Pretend that your emotions and energy are money.

Now pretend that you have “bills” that you have to pay, such as going to work, spending the time to buy groceries, cleaning your house, and sleeping.

Make a budget for your emotion/energy matrix.

Like, for example, I clean my bathroom every week. So cleaning the bathroom is something that is on my radar near the end of the week, and I save enough energy/life to get that done.

Now, a lot of us go through life spraying out energy and emotion willy nilly, like one of those strange money-blowing boxes that banks put outside to get new customers to sign up. Anyone and anything that passes you by can snatch up all of your money (in this case, your time and energy).

If you make a budget of your emotions and energy, and set aside of piece of yourself to work on your writing, you will not feel so spent and angry.

So here you are:

1.How much time do you already spend thinking about your novel? Write down a number. Now take half of that number, and spend that many minutes typing your novel every day. Note: do not spend this time staring at the screen; spend this time with your fingers tapping usefully on the keyboard.

2. Imagine yourself making a wonderful red box of glowing hot metal. The box is made of metal, and the metal is so hot that anything touching against the metal burns up in acrid smoke almost instantly. Now, every time through the day that you hear yourself thinking to yourself, “Gee, if I was not such a wastrel, I would have finished my novel by now,” put that thought, like a twist of old newspaper, into your hot box, and watch it burst into satisfying flame. See how many negative thoughts you can burn by the end of the day.

There you go. Two pro-tips. Bonus points if you save enough energy for a five minute nap after your typing time.

Some Suggestions For Lazy Writers

When you are staring down at your document at 6:07 AM, and berating yourself softly, do this:

Take a deep breath.

Make sure your cursor is in the right place (at the end of the current document).

Imagine what you would like to be writing about, if only you were better at writing already, and had explained everything so the reader would get it, and if only you had all the time in the world to explain this cool thing you want to write.

Have you got a clear picture of the thing that you can’t write about, but would like to?

Now close your eyes.

And let your fingertips fill in that picture.

It doesn’t matter if you explain it perfectly the first time. It doesn’t matter if you can’t tell the reader everything all at once.

Just start in one corner of that scintillating scene, and describe one part of it. Then, maybe the part next to it. And so on, ad infinitum.

And . . . go.

A Few Things Every Serious Author Needs To Know

Everyone is lying to you, and everyone, in their hearts, is pretty much the same.

Well, that last part is not true. There are good people, and bad people, but today we are talking about the good people, and the good people, in their hearts, are all pretty much the same.

They have the same longings, and desires. They have the same needs, and the same fears.

You can reach the good people by recognizing, and writing down, the good inside of yourself.

So how are these other people lying to you, the author?

Well, know first that the bad people are the ones who do the most talking. So we start out with the assumption that most people who are talking with a lot of confidence about things might be morally unreliable.

Then, know that all the good people try to do their best, and they lie to hide their embarrassment.

So when people tell you “Always do this!”, or “Never do that!”, realize that they might be speaking out of a desire to harm you, or they might be lying to protect their own sense of themselves, i.e., trying to save themselves embarrassment.

Many people don’t write very much, and they still call themselves authors. Many more people don’t edit very much, but they will tell you that they do.

A lot of people will tell you how to make money, and say that they have a career, when really they made $300 from their writing last month, and it was a good month. But they will talk about projections and marketing as though they were a Really Big Deal.

I made about $100 last month, on some titles that aren’t linked to my name. Right now I’m finishing a very long series, and I plan to start releasing the series in December of this year.

I don’t know how to make very much money online yet, with writing books. I know how to make a little money sporadically, and I know that it’s possible to make more than I make now.

But know, when you feel downtrodden or embarrassed, that there are a whole lot more people who feel just like you do than you think there are.

And don’t believe all the things you read online.

Combining Unlikely Characters: A Way To Spark Story

The chubby and food-loving Sancho Panza, in combination with the spindly and absurd Don Quixote, make an intriguing pair. The whole two books of Don Quixote are, in essence, a situational comedy of these two men going about and interacting with various types in the countryside.

Throwing two dichotomous characters (or three) together into a stressful situation, or bonding them through some unlikely chance (a joint inheritance! a sudden ambush! a newly-discovered common enemy! an irrational love of all things chintz!) creates the opportunity for you, the author, to make an impelling draw on the reader’s curiosity.

If the villain and the ingenue genuinely fall into sympathy with each other, we want to know WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

This also creates the potential for incredible comedy. If, for example, the young lady is frequently in the company with the villain (you know, because they are the only ones who were touched by the Alien God Grazza, and therefore must work together to protect the planet), and the young lady has a previous attachment to the young hero, how does the young hero react to this situation? Is he outraged? Does the hero become best friends with the villain? Does the hero change into a villain as well, or does the influence of the ingenue reform the character of the villain?

Exploit unlikely types; the reader is familiar with common types, and will be impelled, almost against their will, to find out more about your story. Because, after all, HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY RESOLVE THIS PAIRING? OR CREATE A COHERENT STORY?


When you’ve created an urgent NEED TO KNOW in your reader, you’ve entered the realm of word-of-mouth and potentially large sales.

Make a list of character types. Now choose the two types who are the worst possible, and least workable pairing. And, go. Bonus credit if you can make them fall in love with each other.