Monthly Archives: June 2016

Learn How to Keep Characters in Motion With Robert Downey Sr.

In the following video clip from the Criterion Collection, film director and screenwriter Robert Downey Sr. – better known to you as “wait, there’s a Robert Downey Sr.?” – claims to “only know one thing about screenwriting.”

Keep your characters in a hurry. That’s a lesson by no means restricted to the art of the script writing. It’s solid advice for plotting regardless the medium. Note how Downey specifies that it could be “psychological.” Not all plots star Dwayne Johnson. It doesn’t need Space Hitler or sharknados. But there should be a sense of urgency at some level. I’m reminded of James Scott Bell’s fantastic book Plot & Structure, in which he describes various types of death a character can face: physical, psychological, professional. This is your character’s last chance to have a career, to save her marriage, to sober up, etc. If it’s just another day in the life, who cares?

In Vladislav Todorov’s wonderful thriller Zift, we meet our protagonist as he’s being released from jail. We soon learn his objective: to reclaim the hidden treasure he’d been jailed for stealing. Todorov ups the stakes considerably when his lead character is captured by Communist authorities and injected with a lethal poison. Soon he will be dead. Poof. Urgency. Now he has only one night to complete his objective, and the result is a page-turner that’s hard to put down. Why? Because the character is in a hurry.

But urgency doesn’t just apply to genre fiction full of secret agents and hidden gold. Atticus Lish, in his much-lauded literary debut Preparation For The Next Life, creates urgency within the scope of a love story between a troubled Iraq veteran and an illegal immigrant from China. We can’t help feeling that this is Brad Skinner’s last shot at returning to a normal life after his harrowing experience overseas. Likewise, Zou Lei feels the constant presence of immigration authorities bearing down on her. They have to figure out something, soon, in order to save themselves and each other.

You can have lulls in action, sure. Your characters can huff Carménère corks and endure heroic feats of artistic suffering and crowd surf to avant-garde Beatles cover bands in Tbilisi. But the best fiction keeps a specter lurking in the shadows between paragraphs. What are your characters in a hurry to do? Looking back at my earlier fiction, before I started getting published, I see that oftentimes my stories didn’t have an answer to that important question. Now, as I try to continue my success, I strive to keep my characters in motion, even when they’re standing still.

The Ambitious Experiment

When I was in high school my friends and I formed a garage band called The Ambitious Experiment. Well, “band” is a matter of definition. We bypassed the whole “making music” part and split before cutting our first single. We could barely play our instruments, we had opinions on minimalist sculpture (Tony Smith FTW) and our bassist had a fantastic mustache. That’s some serious street cred, pre-destining oneself for failure. But we tried. I mean, I guess. The point is… well, I’m not sure what the point is. Would you like to see a picture of a pipe-smoking Walrus named Tricheo who likes to be referred to as “The Judge?” Yes? Good. We understand one another. Click here.

Today I am engaged in a new ambitious experiment – a brave, semi-quixotic adventure into the world of publishing. This blog and website will function as part of my all-important “web presence” needed to succeed as a serious writer person. I’ll share cat pictures, advice for others attempting to get published in print, drawings of cats, photos of cats, videos of cats, and updates on the status of my adventure. The difference between this experiment and my decade-old dud is that this time I’m not giving up. See, I have a plan. It looks something like this:

1. Start a blog

2. Start a blog war

3. ?????

4. Use newfound celebrity status to get out of speeding tickets, meet Snoop Lion, etc.

If you have opinions on books, bourbon, craft beer, the (early) films of Wong Kar-wai, linguistic relativity, optimality theory (actually just go away) and/or the use of “and/or” in contemporary blogging, please proceed to leave a series of increasingly arsenic-laced comments so that we may jumpstart the war and use it to our mutual pageview inflation.

If you would like to read a steady stream of cries for attention thinly veiled as self-deprecating humor, you can always follow me on Twitter. Expect more general awesomeness in this space in the near future. I’m off to down another gallon of coffee and nervously check my inbox for the hundredth time this minute.