Saturday, July 28, 2012

Don't Be Predictable!

The first episode of The X-Files I ever saw was called “Deep Throat.” It was a rerun of what turned out to be the second episode, and it was the one that got me hooked. Why? Because it “got” me. And by “got” I mean to say that it surprised me.

See, usually, I can watch any TV show, whether I've seen it before and am familiar with the characters or not, and there will come a point where I will say aloud what's going to happen next. “Well, they'll find him dead,” I might say. Or, “and she's listening to the conversation from the next room,” and suchlike.

I don't know if it's just that I've been reading and watching TV so long that it's ingrained in me, or it was all the writing and scriptwriting classes I took at university. But regardless, I find this extremely disappointing. When I read a novel, or especially when I'm watching TV, I get very annoyed at this. (The one exception is if I'm watching something because it's so bad it's good, but that's not what I'm talking about here.)

Every show has less-well-done episodes, though, so I'm willing to overlook the occasional predictability if I like the show enough or it has some redeeming quality, like great characters or actors, for instance.

The point is that I want to be “got.” I look forward to any show (or novel), where the writer has also realized that we as the reader/audience have probably got enough brains to see the big act-ending revelation coming since the previous act, or even the teaser, and changed it up a bit to surprise us. Or better yet, to use our expectations as a red-herring and switch things around so we never see it coming.

Since I hate when I know what's coming, be it TV script or novel, I am trying the best I can to avoid the predictability in my own writing that would drive me nuts if I were the reader/viewer.

There are certain cliche's you can see right off, and therefore are to be avoided (unless you are into particularly complex use of red-herrings that can be pulled off by skilled writers under limited circumstances). I'll use TV shows as an example, because there are so many more novels out there it's harder to find an example that most people are familiar with. Think about how many times you have watched a detective show and you know pretty early on that the spouse was the murderer. Then think of a well-written show – take Law & Order as an example – when they start out suspecting the spouse, and then find information that would appear to exonerate said spouse, only to eventually poke holes in the seemingly exculpatory evidence, and we're back to the spouse as perpetrator at the end. That's not easy to do, but when done well it can surprise even the most jaded viewer. I'm not saying, “don't try this at home.” I'm just saying you should pretty damn sure of your writing skills.

Then there's one that applies to TV only: the biggest-name guest star did it. Again, taking Law & Order (in this case, “Special Victims Unit”) as an example. In an episode called “Scourge,” we all know that Richard Thomas did it. The only reason this could work is that the story was not about whodunnit, but why he did it.

Let's get back to that episode of The X-Files. What “got” me there were my expectations of the ending, based on the stereotypes I've been so used to seeing since I can remember. To set it up for anyone who hasn't watched the series (and if you haven't, get to NetFlix, ASAP!), Mulder, the Believer (in things paranormal, conspiracies, and FBI cases generally disregarded as nonsense, i.e. the cases dubbed “X-Files”) goes after evidence, though for our purposes, the “of what” isn't really important. Scully, the Skeptic (with a capital “S”), out of fear for their jobs as well as loyalty to the partner she'd been saddled with, goes after him. Mulder is being held in a top-secret facility, where she goes to retrieve him, finding him beat up and drugged. A hostage exchange takes place, and they're in the car. Now, the first time I saw this, all I could think was that they'd never get out of this place. Someone would surely stop them, and Mulder would have to pull it together and become Hero Guy (see any episode of Star Trek [the original series], in which Kirk, through his willpower alone, had overcome any number of obstacles that had taken out lesser men – and of course a mere woman could not overcome such things as alien spores, the temptation of dictatorial power, and mind-control, just to name the things that come to mind at the moment).

Remember, this was the second episode of The X-Files, and not only had the characters not been established yet, but in my umpteen years of watching television, studying television, and writing scripts, this is the way it should have happened. The woman rarely, if ever, rescued the man. I hated that, but that was the way it had always been, with rare exceptions (none of which I can think of at the moment).

So what “got” me enough to hook me on watching the series? Well, they got away. Not because Mulder was somehow superhuman in his will to survive and continue his Cause. Not because of his strength, but because of Scully's. Seeing this tiny woman come riding in and saving the day, not to mention the guy, was fantastic. It was at this point that I realized that, though Mulder was easy enough on the eyes and adorable in a wounded-puppy-dog-face way, it was clear from this that it would be Scully, the scientist (geek!) who would probably be the heavy-lifter in this partnership.

Yep, they “got” me. I never saw that coming.

When I'm plotting out a project, I generally know how it ends. But what I think about when I'm doing so is that I don't want my reader or viewer to know, as well. I think of Mulder and Scully, and all the twists that Law & Order takes. And then I think, “what would I, as a reader or viewer, think was going to happen next?” And whatever that is, I avoid it like Christmas Eve sales and 5:00 traffic.

Suggested viewing:

Firefly: “Our Mrs. Reynolds”
Picket Fences: “The Dancing Bandit”

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Yes, it's been longer than usual for an update. But to be fair, for a good portion of that time, my blog was down. It got pulled as, “spam,” by the Powers That Be. So instead of checking it first, deciding whether or not it actually was spam, and then deciding if they should take it down, naturally that process was reversed: guilty until proven innocent.

At any rate, I've been having a blast on Twitter in the meantime. (I'm still trying to get a, “follow me on Twitter” gadget onto this blog, but the only one I found seems to be broken.) I've been reading tweets from celebs and from my home town, from other writers, and from people who just seem interesting.

But the most useful thing I've found on Twitter thus far has definitely been what is known as a “#writingsprint.” For the uninitiated (something I was a mere few weeks ago, so I'll slow down and explain), that pound-sign on Twitter is called a hashtag, and it allows you to key in on words or expressions of particular interest.

When you sign up for Twitter, it asks you to follow something like a minimum of 15 people, just so you get a sufficient number of tweets that interest you. I guess it “noticed” that I was following writers, and one of the recommendations it made for me to follow was Jane Espenson, a writer-producer currently working on Once Upon a Time. I recognized her name due to a mutual acquaintance and also the fact that I have admired her writing for years. You'd probably know her work if you've ever seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, or Caprica, and a bunch of other stuff I never even realized she wrote for (including two of my all-time favorite series, the brilliant Nowhere Man and Firefly).

After watching and seeing how Twitter worked for a bit, I jumped right on in. I saw Jane doing something she called a “#writingsprint” one day, explained as an hour of writing time during which you concentrate on writing only: no phone calls, no tweets, no Facebook or Google Plus . . . no distractions. I liked the idea, and though her #writingsprints always seem to come around too late in my day (I am a nightowl trying desperately not to be) for me to take part, I haven't let that stop me. Following Jane's example, I've started doing my own #writingsprints. I found a few other writers who have joined me, and we write together. Er, well, together, separately . . . just at the same time. But that doesn't matter. It's not even like a contest, it's just a good motivator to know there are others somewhere out there working on their own WiPs, just like me.

Since I've started this habit, I don't know how much writing I've gotten done, but I know I've been writing pretty regularly. I'm trying a new schedule to see how it works. But just the idea that there are people out there who are looking for me, to see if I'm writing, somehow gets me going, regardless of when I do my writing.

I have absolutely no idea if Jane (@JaneEspenson) was the originator of the #writingsprint, or if it's been around for as long as Twitter has had writers. But in my case, I will give Jane the credit, since she initiated the first one I saw. So thank you, Jane! You may not know it, but you've really helped keep the words flowing!


P.S. If you want to join a #writingsprint, follow me: @AnikoTevvit and it won't be long 'til you see one coming up!