Friday, February 20, 2015

Genius from a Pizza Commercial – OR – Show, Don’t Tell

This post is about some writing advice. It does relate, I promise, just bear with me for a minute.

In the small town of Bloomington in southern Indiana, home of Indiana University, there are a shit-load of pizza places. I haven’t been back to that town in several years, but I can remember several off the top of my head: Pizza Express, Mother Bear’s, Crazy Aver’s, Bistro, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Uncle D’s, Buccetto’s, Rocket’s and CafĂ© Pizzeria. I got my degree in Economics there and I actually wrote a paper on the market for pizza in town. Needless to say, there were a lot of commercials on TV for the various pizza places. But I only remember the commercials for two of them: Mother Bear’s and Crazy Aver’s.

I remember the Mother Bear’s commercial because it was ridiculous. It had a grown man with stubble wearing fairy wings, a blonde wig, and a tutu. It was weird, but not terribly effective except for being memorable for its weirdness.

The commercial for Crazy Aver’s, however, was just fucking genius. The commercial was just dead silence with non-moving images of delicious pizza. The reason this is so brilliant was because TV is full of noises. When the TV goes silent, it grabs your attention. If you’re having a conversation, or if you are watching and nodding off, you turn back to look at the TV to make sure it didn't turn off. These commercials always played late at night. In a college town, that usually meant a drunk and/or high audience that was easily distracted.

So you turn to the TV to see why it has suddenly gone silent, and you see a picture of a delicious, melty-cheese, pepperoni covered culinary masterpiece. Your mouth starts watering. Another pizza appears, this one some kind of specialty with meat and vegetables. Another pizza appears, this one with a cold, sweating glass of soda next to it. Then the voice comes on: “Crazy Aver’s Pizza, Order now!” and the phone number appears on the TV.

Fucking. Brilliant.

I have no idea how many pizzas they sold me this way, but everyone I knew said the same thing. That commercial is genius. This doesn't even consider that this was probably the cheapest commercial to make in history.

Anyway, there are two writing-related points to this:

First, with regards to the opening line(s) of a story: You don’t have to make a lot of noise to grab attention. Your story doesn't have to open in the middle of an epic battle. You don’t need to curse like a sailor, or say something poetic, or paint beautiful word-imagery to hook someone. You just have to give them a reason to look. A few examples:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” – George Orwell, 1984

“The trick to walking around in someone else’s body is not getting caught.” – Rick Wayne, The MinusFaction

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

“Aliens suck at music.” – Rob Ried, Year Zero

They make you want to know what the fuck is going on, don’t they? I've noticed a lot of sci-fi novels drop you into a battle right at the beginning. Anything by Dan Brown is probably going to open with a grisly murder scene. A lot of classical literature will try to open with a lot of detail of the setting, or what the author wants to be a clever and memorable line, usually one that doesn’t really have a lot to do with the plot (This does not apply to Jane Austen, that woman was a genius). I'm not saying any of these books are bad, but you don't HAVE to start your story that way. The lines above, they hook you without trying to throw a lot of noise at you. They get your eyebrow raised and your eyes locked on the page.

The second bit of wisdom from this commercial is something you’ve heard a thousand times, “Show, don’t tell.” Aver's didn't have to tell me anything about their pizza. They just showed it to me and made my mouth water. This little nugget of wisdom is tough, because we are using words. Using words, by their very nature, is pretty much the definition of “tell”. Confusing? It was to me for a long time, until I figured it out by watching one of the greatest movies of all fucking time, Star Wars. It does a great job of showing a lot of information without having to tell you anything. Let’s novelize that scene:

As the men in faceless white armor examine the bodies of their recent kills, a heavy robotic breathing sounds from the blown-open doorway. Both stormtroopers immediately drop what they are doing and come to rigid attention. A tall figure, dressed all in black, face covered by a black mask, and figure shrouded by a black cape steps onto the ship. He looks down at the corpses littering the hallway. None are who he is looking for. He moves on, followed by his guard.

What did I just show you about Darth Vader? First, he’s important. The troopers came to attention. Second, he’s a cold bastard. He took just long enough to see that his prey wasn’t among the dead. Third, he’s scary looking. I didn't say he was scary looking, but the description, with a few choice adjectives (shrouded, repetition of “black”) pretty much ensures you know he’s scary looking. That paragraph is 82 words, and it advances the story while also conveying what I want you to know about Darth Vader. If I wrote the next few scenes out, you’d know Darth Vader is powerful, evil, and someone you do not fuck with. I wouldn't have to say any of that, because what he does, along with a few short descriptions, will get the point across.

I hope you enjoyed this, now go write something!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Choose! Choose the form of the Destructor! - OR - On Writing a Good Ending

The title is a Ghostbusters reference. If you don't get it, shame on you.

For the last ten days I've been writing a story for The Writers Arena. The idea for this site is that two writers, one representing the Arena (I think just the four site admins?) and one challenger (in this instance, ME) receive a prompt and have ten days to write a story for that prompt. The readers get to vote on their favorite. Then there are two judges who each pick a winner, and the readers vote makes the tie-breaker. This week I think I'm facing off against Joseph Devon, who wrote my favorite Writer's Arena piece so far, "Self-Reflection". I stumbled on to this back in October when I came down with a serious case of procrastination from working on my novel (which is up to 85,000 words, go me). There are new stories almost every week, and they are all very creative and fun to read. My story prompt was:

"Water is life. For thousands of years civilization has clustered along seashores, followed rivers, and huddled around lakes. Water dominates the surface of our planet. It provides us with food and transportation, and of course it quenches our thirst…
Go down to the water, find what dark things may lurk there, and tell us their tale."

So I have to write a story about some kind of body of water. Awesome. Spending the last 17 years in the land-locked Midwest is finally going to pay off! But seriously, this was really hard. I’ve seen the ocean maybe a dozen times in my life, the only river nearby is a joke, and there just aren’t any good lakes around. Water is not my forte.

So what did I do? I procrastinated and hoped an idea would come to me. I stuck Fellowship of the Ring in the blu-ray player, and closed my laptop. Fortunately for me, I picked the right movie. There is a scene near the end of the film where the fellowship (sans-Gandalf) is riding on boats down a river, and they come to a pair of absolutely massive statues as the river passes through a gorge.
Bingo. That image was my inspiration.

So now all I needed was a story. One thing about my writing is that it is heavily influenced by whatever I happen to be reading at the moment. It makes my writing kind of eclectic, but also versatile. I recently finished reading  John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series, which is a militaryscience fiction/zombie apocalypse mashup (and it’s fucking awesome). And so my mind immediately jumped to some kind of military story.

So I came up with a pretty good outline for a story and got to writing. I finished the story at about 3000 words, and it sucked. Hard.

I re-read it to try and figure out what sucked about it. Most of it was actually pretty good, it was just a terrible ending. Not bad writing, just a bad ending. Like, worse than The Sopranos ending. So I saved it as ‘draft 1’ in case I couldn’t come up with anything better by the deadline, and started thinking of a better ending. It wasn’t working well. For three days I couldn’t come up with an even slightly better alternative. Sunday night came and I only had two days to finish, and I had to work 12-hour shifts at my day-job, so I was pretty much out of time. I sat in front of my computer, and came up with nothing.
Tuesday came, the deadline was mere hours away, and all I had done was polished up a garbage ending so that it was a nice, shiny garbage ending. In desperation, I turned to the internet, hoping to find some inspiration to save my story. I turned on a podcast I had recently discovered, Mur Lafferty’s “I Should Be Writing,” and the very first thing she said was exactly what I needed.

She said she took a workshop that said if you are stuck on an ending, just write out ten endings. Five will come quickly, three will be harder, and by the last two, they are going to be very difficult to write. One of those last two should probably be your ending.

So I opened up my word processor and started just writing (summaries) of endings. I got the one I had down, and another slightly better one, and then I was stuck. There really wasn’t anywhere else the story could go. Except, I realized, that was exactly the problem. My main character didn’t have any choice in how the ending played out. She was pretty much an active spectator. Nothing she did for the last thousand words effected the ending at all.

And so I thought about my main character. Was she going to just sit and let events roll out, or was she going to take charge? Well, obviously she would take charge. She’s an army officer, after all. And would she choose to go with the flow and let things play out the way they were? Fuck no she wouldn’t. She would fight it. And that is exactly what she does. She fights the inevitable until the inevitable backs the fuck down, and in the process single-handedly saved my ending.

The point I’m trying to get across is that your character needs to have a choice. Without being able to effect the story, your character is really just a prop, and nobody wants to read a story about a prop.

If you want to see how this ended up, go read my story at The Writer’s Arena, and then read Joseph’s, because it’s surely awesome, and then vote for your favorite. Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed it.