Health Insurance and Legalese as Plot Conflicts

contract health insurance and legalese plot conflict

blah blah blah blah

As the year ends, and many of us are faced with choosing our insurance for the following  year, I am reminded of just how stupidly complicated and full of jargon the health insurance industry truly is. Last year, I spent several weeks explaining parts of it to a coworker (deductible, out-of-pocket max, etc.) because if you haven’t had any training in it, it really is like a different language – one that could have a major impact on your life. Or your character’s life – that’s why health insurance and legalese work as plot conflicts.

Complicating a Plot with Legalese

What Is Legalese?

I’m sure you’ve heard the term before, but just in case you haven’t, here’s an example we can all relate to: the terms & conditions that pop up on your computer that you can’t understand even if you try to read them (and that we all accept because it’s the only way to use the programs).

These contracts are written in what I like to call “Legalese,” a language designed to say as little as possible in the largest number of words (It’s almost as if, like Dickens, the authors are being paid by the word.). You see, being specific can cause legal responsibility (Anything but that!). To avoid that, brochures and agreements are deliberately vague about what they will offer (sorry, “may” offer) so that they can change it if they feel like it. They are, however, very specific when it involves repercussions for the other party (us).

To make matters worse, they also tend to pepper the paragraphs with large amounts of jargon, abbreviations, and uncommonly used words. Just in case your eyes weren’t already glazed over from the excessive amounts of passive voice, constant redefining (A.K.A. hedging) and awkward phrases:

  • “…either of which is referred to…”
  • “…prevent or unreasonably delay…”
  • “…does not constitute a grant or waiver of any rights…”
  • “…including but not limited to…”

Simultaneously confusing, boring, and annoying, right? That’s Legalese. It’s English designed to be unnecessarily difficult for the average person on the street.

Using Insurance, Tax, & Other Legalese as Plot Conflicts

Insurance policies, taxes, contracts – they all involve documents that are hard to negotiate without formal training. That leaves them open to several possibilities as far as plot conflicts:

  • Decisions & deadlines: If the character doesn’t have the knowledge to interpret for him/herself, then finding a way to figure it out and make a decision by the deadline could be a major task (or a coin flip, depending on how the character deals with pressure).
  • Deliberate trickery: The antagonist or protagonist uses his/her knowledge of Legalese to pull a fast one on someone else.
  • Loopholes/Oversights: Knowledge of the topic lets a character find a gap in the trap of the contract. On the other hand, ignorance of the topic could keep the character from finding it.
  • Mistakes/Typos: If you mis-spell a homophone or name (or anything else), and both parties sign it, then the typo is actually what they agreed to (whether they knew it or not). If the typo ends up being gibberish, no problem. If it ends up being the name of a competitor (who snuck into the office to arrange the “typo”), then, the main character is in big trouble. Or if the secretary accidentally switched the names of the employer and employee, the employee might luck out.
  • Legality: Even beyond Legalese, there might be legal hoops to jump through. It might have to be notarized, turned in by a specific date, signed in blue ink, or even typed in triplicate. More bureaucracy = added conflict.
  • Emotional Response: When something is important, but you can’t understand it, how do you feel? More importantly, how do you react? Angry outbursts? Tears? Drinking? Giving up? There are plenty of ways for characters to get themselves (or others) into trouble because of their reactions to the task.

For the most part, I would expect these types of issues to provide the conflict for a scene rather than the whole story. On the other hand, they could very well set off the chain of events that leads to the main problem. It’s the falling marble that knocks over hundreds of dominoes.

The best part is that since we all have to deal with the headache of health insurance or legalese at some point in our lives, reading about a character struggling with it creates instant empathy and a dash of realism.

I like plot conflicts that multitask, don’t you? It almost makes me feel slightly more cheerful about reading through all that legalese.

A Happy Thanksgiving Writing Prompt

Happy Thanksgiving Writing PromptIf you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, you probably aren’t used to people asking you what you’re thankful for every single November. If you do celebrate Thanksgiving, you’re probably sick of it. But if you step outside the holiday mentality (and put the mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and Black Friday ads down for a moment), I’m sure you can see how turning that question into a “Happy Thanksgiving Writing Prompt” could be useful.

No? Just me then.

What You’re Thankful for: A Happy Thanksgiving Writing Prompt

I’ve been looking back at old articles like “Quick Questions for Fixing Character Behavior,” “Acting Out: Character Motivation and Behavior,” and “Who’s Driving This Plot?” because I was sure I already talked about what the character wants (it’s pretty central to most plots). I still can’t quite believe I skipped it totally, but while all those characterization articles dance around the topic, none of them confronts it directly.

So here’s a little intro…

What Characters Want

What a character wants shows you what the character values: peace in the household, rowdy parties, expensive jewelry, fine coffee, time to read, or a special thimble (you never know…). What a character values can direct motivation as well as build characterization.

What Characters Want to Have (But Don’t – Yet)

What a character wants to have is the character’s desires and goals – the things, people, or experiences that motivate that character (If you think about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, this idea goes well with the Thanksgiving holiday.).

For some books, the kindling of this desire to achieve a specific goal acts as the inciting incident. For other books, the object of desire is lost and has to be recovered.

“Etc., etc., etc.”

What Characters Want to Keep

These are things, status, relationships, and so on that the character already has and values. In Thanksgiving parlance, it’s what the character is thankful for (whether or not the character actually thinks about it in concrete terms). It’s also, very commonly, stuff a character will fight to keep.

Turning What the Character Is Thankful for into a Writing Prompt

There are infinite ways to turn what a character wants into a writing prompt (seriously, that’s all stories – ever.). For this case, the focus will be 1. using a character’s desire for something to drive the plot and 2. using what the character values to determine character actions throughout the story.

  1. Make up a character / Pick a character you already have.
  2. List what the character is thankful for (what he/she/it already has).
  3. List what the character wants but doesn’t have yet.
  4. Prioritize the lists by importance. What can the character let go? What would the character kill for? What would the character die for?
  5. Pick one of the more important items on the list and make it the goal of the plot (Getting it back, achieving it, protecting it, etc.).
  6. Use the list of values to judge the options the character is given as you write/plot: Not only whether the action will help the character reach those goals but also whether someone who values those goals/people/relationships would take that action under those circumstances.

Although more formalized or ritualized than regular writing habits, this writing prompt process provides the basics of brainstorming both plot and characterization. So if you’re having trouble linking those two together, this could be a handy exercise.

And who knows? Maybe, all those “What Are You Thankful For?” homework assignments will come in handy after all because of my great writing prompt. (Or maybe not… I’m gonna go with not.)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

When Realism Attempts Backfire

wrong level of realism

Like robots, if something’s close to real but off, it’s more disturbing than imagery that doesn’t try to be that close (like animation).

We want our stories to feel real. We try to research enough to get the big details right, and sometimes, we try go further. We try to salt the entire story with traditions and jargon and research that makes it seem even more real. And there’s nothing wrong with that – except when we’re writing about something we know nothing about. When we try to write about a skill set, place, or culture that we know very little about, detailed realism attempts backfire. Big time.

Writing about Skill Sets You Know Nothing About

Take hacking for example. It’s pretty common to have an elite hacker as a character in a mystery or action story. Someone with the skill set to break through stuff with high levels of security (like banks or governments). It’s a seriously popular trope for authors and screenwriters to use. But how much does the average writer really know about hacking?

Not a lot.

As a matter of fact, I’d hazard to guess that the majority of authors don’t know any more about hacking than they’ve learned from your basic action film. Which is seriously not a lot. And it’s probably not that realistic. Eddie Izzard’s computer encore puts it better than I could:

“Breaking into the Pentagon computer… Double-click on ‘Yes.’ Oh, password protected. 20 billion possible chances… uh, ‘Jeff.'”

Yeah. That’s about the impression most of us have of elite hacking.

Maybe, it’s just me, but I feel like if everything you’ve learned about a skill came from a fiction movie, then you probably shouldn’t try to write extreme realism about that subject. If you want to try, you’re welcome to. Just don’t expect it to be easy. That’s an immerse-yourself-in-the-research type of challenge because you almost have to learn to code before the jargon makes sense to you (in fact, you may actually have to learn to code before the jargon begins to make sense to you).

Personally, the only way I’d be willing to chance that level of realism is if I had an actual hacker (or more than 1) to talk to and check with to make sure that I was being accurate. Talking to a person who knows and can explain it to you is the most efficient research for that level of realism after doing it yourself (IMHO).

Writing about Places You’ve Never Been

That sounds pretty hard to do from the get-go. That is, IF all the nitty gritty details of the place are vital to your plot. If the location plays a very small role in the story, doesn’t need such minute details, or plays more of a passing role (you only need a few vital details but not much more), then it’s not an insurmountable task (actually, it’s pretty normal).

Of course, if the location isn’t that important, then why not move it? (Mostly being a smart aleck)

No, I don’t want to say that you can only write stories set in places you’ve been. That’s like saying that you can only write about things you’ve experienced personally (and you all know how I feel about that – if not, click the link).

My argument is that if you don’t know about a place well enough to know what’s realistic for that place, and you don’t want to research it deeply enough to have 100% (at least 98%) accurate details, then go for believable realism. Go for the level of realism used in most movies and books. Don’t try to make it super realistic.

Or, if the story really demands the extra realism, get off your butt and do the needed research/talk to someone who knows/hire someone to research for you.

Writing about a Culture You Don’t Know Well

Ok, there’s not much point in going into detail with this. You already got the recurring theme of either do the research or don’t go for gritty research. There’s not a lot to add with this topic (or any other area of setting that might require research). Except, oh, yeah, there is one thing:

Doing this one wrong can make people think you’re a bigot.

It’s a delicate balance. If you go for serious realism, and you’re wrong in the wrong way, it can very easily be taken as prejudice. Yes, a lot of things can be taken as prejudice, especially nowadays when we are so politically correct, and people are ready and eager to point out offenses online. Even gritty realism that is accurate can cause an outcry.

But if you don’t bother to do the research, you don’t have it to back you up. “I was too lazy to research” isn’t much of a defense.

Write the Level of Realism You’re Willing to Work for

That’s the final message.

Few people experience more than 1, maybe 2 careers and a handful of places. And even vacationing doesn’t give someone the same depth of knowledge as living somewhere. The same for visiting a job or researching it instead of actually working it.

You can’t know everything, and you don’t have to.

I know some crowds really push realism – let’s face it, not all types of writing get the same amount of respect. But trying to write at a level of realism beyond what you know (by experience, research, or both) isn’t going to impress anyone. Especially not the people who tout realism.

That’s when realism attempts backfire. And when that happens, nobody likes the result. Not even the author (especially not the author).

I’d rather write something people like – something I like. Wouldn’t you?

 

The Either Or Mentality as a Plot Device

Yes No Either or Mentality Plot Device

Good. Bad. Black. White.

From the typical image of your future as a fork in the road to dating options or even politics (Sorry. Too soon.), humans have a very strong tendency to lock themselves into an either or mindset. Either I can do this, or I can do that. While that’s generally a habit I’d recommend avoiding in real life (when possible), its popularity means that using the either or mentality as a plot device can add conflict and realism in one fell swoop.

Adding Conflict & Realism with the Either Or Mentality

Provide Two Obvious Options

The trick to adding conflict realistically with the either or mindset is to make sure that there are only two obvious options. If there’s a glaringly obvious third choice that Ricky isn’t even thinking about, then it’s hard to empathize when Ricky’s agonizing over the other two options.

Of course, when you’re used to thinking outside the box (or outside the either or mindset), then narrowing the options down to 2 may seem like a gargantuan task. And you may not be wrong. Trying to direct someone’s focus through writing is a bit of a crap shoot at any time.

But, don’t worry, the other tactics will help.

Characterization, Characterization, Characterization

Make the character’s point of view and voice strong, and the character’s focus will pull the reader’s focus along like a spotlight on a stage. Especially in a limited voice or first person where we only know what the character knows – and occasionally not all of that.

That means that the two options you’re focusing on have to be the only ones the character’s aware of. Even a half-mentioned possibility 4 chapters back can detract from that, so you have to make sure that any hints about an additional option have to be fragmented enough that the reader can forgive the character for not putting it together until the last minute. Or after it’s too late.

Pacing & Sense of Urgency

It’s a bit startling to realize that over a year in on this writing blog, and I haven’t talked about pacing or sense of urgency before (I’ll have to fix that.). But since both titles are pretty literal, I’m confident any of you who aren’t already familiar with them will catch on pretty quickly (in fact, you probably already have).

In short, the tactics that give a sense of urgency are what make you feel like the problem is important and needs to be solved now. Pacing is how quickly the scene moves, and it plays a big role in creating a sense of urgency.

Faster pacing combined with a strong sense of urgency can pull the reader through the scene too quickly to second guess the number of options. If characterization is a spotlight pulling your attention, pacing and sense of urgency put that spotlight in front of a racing rollercoaster, yanking you through so fast you don’t dare look away from the light for fear you’ll miss something.

The ticking clock of the decision’s deadline combined with the importance of the decision are part of what rouses people’s emotions to lock them into the either or mentality in the first place, so keeping that sense of urgency will help you with the characterization and add realism, as well.

After all, making a choice between two options isn’t much of a plot conflict if the decision isn’t important or on a time limit.

Outside Forces

Another way to narrow down the options to two is to put outside forces into play. In this scenario, when given a choice of A or B, the character desperately tries C, D, E, F, etc. but is foiled at every turn.

An unexpected storm wipes out one way of escape, someone misunderstands the instructions or panics and does exactly what they weren’t supposed to do (like put down the portcullis and jam it, locking everyone inside the dangerously haunted castle), the enemy already foresaw that plan and took steps to prevent it, and so on.

The outside forces can be forces of nature, supernatural forces, societal pressure, acts of enemy aggression – basically anything you can think of from the list of character vs. ___ . The hard part is to orchestrate it all so that it doesn’t feel contrived. That takes quite a bit of work, and smart enemies and plotting against your characters can definitely help.

If you put these techniques together, odds are good you can lock your character into an either or mentality without having readers raise too much of a stink. Of course, then you have to figure out how to get the character out of it again, but that’s a problem for later.

For now, you’re ready to get started. What either or mentality will you use to derail your character’s plans?

5 Most Overlooked Resources for Worldbuilding Research

When you’re worldbuilding, you want to make the world you’re creating feel both realistic and new. That means you need elements that feel familiar and elements that are unexpected (especially if your story is fantasy or science fiction). Research is useful for the new aspects and absolutely vital for giving an impression of realism. Besides the library and the internet in general (the automatic first thoughts of research), here are 5 resources for worldbuilding research that too many people overlook.

5 Research Resources for Worldbuilding That Writers Overlook (But Shouldn’t)

5. Fiction Novels

No, I am not suggesting you use fiction novels as your primary resource for worldbuilding research; however, looking at multiple novels of the same genre with the same basic setting can be very good for learning what the most common interpretation of that time period is. You don’t necessarily have to follow it, but it is helpful to understand what the average reader is going to be using as baseline (the actual or believable problem).

4. Art

If you’re looking for clothing, weaponry, furniture, architecture, or social norms, art can be pretty revealing, especially of older periods before abstract art became popularized. You can look it up online or support your local art museums and have an enjoyable outing while you do your research. Win-win, right?

3. Plays

Plays written during the time period you’re researching give clues for dialogue, important social changes (news), clothing, weaponry, and humor. Reading them is definitely handy. If you can go see one, however, you will get a much better impression of the story and flow. You may even find yourself inspired by the creative energy generated by live theatre (I would honestly be surprised if you weren’t.).

2. Reenactors/Hobby Historians

Reenactments are attempts to accurately portray a historic event or location. You’ll most commonly see them at famous battle fields, historic locations (forts, castles, etc.), and history-themed festivals, and the place and time they focus on is dependent on the historic event or location in question (the American Civil War, Colonial America, the Old West, the English Renaissance, etc.).

Reenactors are the people who dress up in the historic costumes and, generally, do everything they can to make the reenactment historically accurate. That includes cooking with cast iron on a camp fire, chasing each other with flint-lock rifles, spinning wool, making soap, and more. They have already done tons of research into the everyday lives of their characters, and they did it for fun.

Their enthusiasm for their topic makes them willing, even eager to share it. Believe me, if you ask a reenactor about his/her area of expertise, you will get all the information you need!

1. First-Hand Accounts

Diaries/Journals/Memoirs

Technically, these fall under library research, but I thought they were worth a subheading under first-hand accounts simply because they may not come up in a search for books about a certain time period – because the subject isn’t that period, it’s a person who just happened to live in that period. They may not even be in the same section of the library as the other books about that time (unless they’re first-hand accounts of a war or something).

So if you run into a block, try looking up books about people who lived in the time you’re researching. It may take a bit more effort to pick the information you need out of the story of the person’s life, but you also generally find information you didn’t know to look for.

People Who Lived It

Last, but most definitely not least, people who lived it are my number 1 research resource for worldbuilding that I think writers too frequently overlook. And, yes, I know it’s not possible for all time periods. When it is, however, do not let it slip by, or you will regret it.

For example, I’m working on a YA fantasy novel called Wind Town, which is set on a farm in rural America in the mid 1900s. When I was a few chapters in, I ran into some stumbling blocks in my research. I could find general information about what farming and language was like, but I wasn’t finding the specific details I needed for the story.

That’s when I had an epiphany: my grandparents grew up on a farm in the U.S. in almost exactly the same time period as the story was taking place.By talking to them, I was able to get first-hand accounts of living conditions, language, and more. They were (and continue to be) the absolutely best resource I could want for that story.

Well, those are my 5 most overlooked resources for worldbuilding research. Did any of them surprise you? Are there any I overlooked?

So Long as Ignorance and Misery Remain on Earth: A Victor Hugo Quote

victor hugo quote les miserable preface so long as there shall exist by reason of law and custom so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth books like this cannot be useless Em T. WytteThis Victor Hugo quote from the preface of Les Miserables is one of my favorite quotes of all time. The meaning, word choices, and rhythm – the way it builds – it has a power that sticks with you. It’s stuck with me since the very first time I read it.

Here is the full text in case it was too hard to read in the image:

SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

It hits you, doesn’t it?

This quote has been in my head a lot recently (I don’t know why…) as well as the themes of the book and the political situation(s) that led up to it. Like the quote from the preface, the novel makes a strong commentary on the need for political and social change at the time, and Victor Hugo wrote it while in exile as well as other political tracts. Those tracts influenced many of the surrounding countries to change some of their policies, showing once again that books can change the world.

On the other hand, the lasting popularity of the books along with its musical and movie adaptations (this Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables being my personal favorite – other than the book) shows that those same themes continue to speak to people despite the 154 years since it was first published. Which means that many of those problems are still here: big, bad, and breathing down our necks. Or hideous, hateful, and hiding – too often, unfortunately, in plain sight or behind the cloak of harmlessness.

It’s reminding me of the question of ethics in writing: Do writers have a moral obligation to society?

I’m still waiting for an answer. And while my mind likes to ponder through a plethora of options, it also is uncannily good at coming up with new questions like “Do writers have a responsibility to write works that challenge social conventions that they feel are wrong?

Many writers have certainly done so: “The Hangman” comes to mind. And “The Lottery.” Oliver TwistThe Jungle. I could go on for hours – probably because many writers’ greatest strength is writing, so it’s a natural way for them to respond to something they feel is wrong.

But what about the idea of responsibility? Wanting to is one thing (and that’s great), but do we have a responsibility? That seems like a loaded question, one linked to an age-old gray area: does inaction mean shared guilt?

Terrifying thought, right?

Of course, my brain isn’t satisfied with leaving it there. It immediately throws another question at me: are books and articles still as powerful as they once were, or has the advent of television and the internet diluted their strength?

That question didn’t even occur to me earlier. Too many people agreed that books could change the world. On the other hand, most of the books on those lists are from before the internet. Or email. Or smart phones. In fact, many of them changed the world in a time when opinion was more commonly spread by word of mouth than anything else.

Today, people are bombarded by messages. Anyone can post anything online for other people to read. There’s no guaranteed quality, accuracy, or even that the author is who he or she claims to be (let alone if a quote is misattributed). People can see hundreds of written messages or articles in one day or two whereas before they might not see hundreds of written messages in their lifetimes.

Does that mean that a single article or novel will have a lower chance of having a big impact even if it’s just as well written as all the famous ones listed as changing the world? Are important stories being buried beneath the roar of the masses?

I truly believe in the power of writing, and the messages that can be conveyed through a story. As the Victor Hugo quote says, “books like this will not be useless.” But simply being useful doesn’t mean that it will actually be used.

Mad Lib Theater with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jimmy Fallon: Genius

Jimmy Fallon and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Mad Lib Theatre is geniusI don’t know about you, but growing up, Mad Libs were one of my favorite school games. Maybe that’s why I like making my own Mad Lib-style versions of famous works (Like Romeo & Juliet Performed by an Actor with Malapropism Problems, Malapropism & Robert Frost, and Malapropisms in Wonderland), but then, of course, I love words – so I like most word games.

As an adult, Mad Libs are the type of somewhat-safe-yet-funny icebreaker games that businesses or family-friendly gatherings can use. The kind that the “cool” coworkers snicker at. Let’s face it, word games don’t get as much respect as say, I don’t know, sports.

Unless you’re Jimmy Fallon and Benedict Cumberbatch.

They took the Mad Lib idea and made it into an acting improv exercise (ok, yes, they had cue cards, but still…). Basically, the Mad Lib became the script for the scene. They made Mad Lib Theater – which is hilarious, by the way!

From watching them fill it out to watching them act it out, this clip has plenty of funny moments. I gotta say, it’s given me an even greater appreciation for these two. You have to watch it (srsly) – although, warning, the audio is a bit NSFW (depending on your work), so you may want to wear your headphones.

Mad Lib Theater

How awesome is that? Like many golden comedy moments, the best part of it is watching the two of them try to keep a straight face while saying completely ridiculous things. And ridiculous things are practically guaranteed with you put a creative wordsmith and a Mad Lib together.

Experienced Mad Libbers know that random, unrelated answers make for the best results, and there is no doubt that Benedict Cumberbatch is an experienced Mad Libber. Either that or drunk (It’s amazing how similar the creative mind and the drunken mind can appear to the uninitiated.).

Come to think of it, I wonder if anyone’s turned Mad Libs into a drinking game…

Of course, they have. And, of course, they’re available on amazon. I wonder if this came before or after CAH… (And what’s next… The adult version of MasterMind? No, don’t tell me.).

But I digress…

Long story short: Mad Libs are still awesome (“cool” coworkers aside), Jimmy Fallon and Benedict Cumberbatch found a new way to make Mad Libs even more awesome (Huzzah!), and we should 1. Watch and enjoy their Mad Lib Theater and 2. Follow their example and come up with new and creative ways to use Mad Libs.

Lay on, ____________ !
                  a name

The First Annual twytte NaNoWriMo Challenge

twytte nanowrimo challenge

Prepare yourself.

Hi! Em T. Wytte here, affectionately called twytte by… well, mostly by me. Anyway, I would like to formally invite you to the first annual twytte NaNoWriMo Challenge!

Dun dun dunnnnn!

The twytte NaNoWriMo Challenge

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will NOT be to write an entire novel in a month. Nope. This is not your typical NaNoWriMo challenge.

If you want to write an entire novel in a month, you’re certainly welcome to. Personally, especially since I have a full-time job outside of novel writing, writing a whole novel in a month sounds exhausting and, for me, not the best idea. When I try to rush something, I generally end up making so many mistakes that it takes me twice as long as it would have at the normal speed (and that goes for anything, not just writing).

And what’s more important? To write a good novel or to write one quickly?

That’s why the twytte NaNoWriMo Challenge will follow the heart of the usual challenge but not the typical rules.

The Challenge

To write for an hour minimum every single day for the rest of November (for starters)*. Since I didn’t get this posted on day 1, that’s only 28 days! (You can write an hour daily for 28 days, right?)

*For this challenge, time and effort are more important than word count.

The Goal

To set up a healthy writing habit that will (I hope) continue well after November and to encourage you to write more in general. Or possibly start/finish a project you’ve been putting off.

How to Compete

Other than writing for an hour every day, there are only three things you need to do to compete:

  1. Comment with your name and/or blog title.
  2. Track how many days you write for at least an hour (The goal is 28). 
  3. Post your final score in the comments.

Putting your name and/or blog title in the comments is solely to make it more of a competition/challenge and to give you some extra motivation to stick with it (such as the feeling of being watched and judged if you don’t). Feel free to tell us a little about your project, too.

Once the month is over, post your final score (be honest!) and any comments, lessons, or advice you learned from the experience.

The Prize

Not only will you make progress on your writing (That’s the whole point of NaNoWriMo.), but you will also set up a habit that lets you keep making excellent progress on your writing. That’s an even bigger prize! Writing every day is the best way to finish a novel (especially a first novel), so keep it up! Believe me, once you fall off the wagon of writing daily, it’s hard to get back on.

The official winner(s) will be whoever skipped the fewest days. One or more participants may also be chosen to be featured in an interview on Words & Deeds (particularly if you have an interesting project, useful advice, etc.).

Everybody ready? Ok. Let’s do it.

Ready? Set! Write!

 

Stupidity Takes the Fright out of Horror

A: Did he really? B: [Groans] C: It hurts to watch!

Is it just me, or is it true? Stupidity takes the fright out of horror.

Take your generic horror story: an Average Joe, presumed to be relatively intelligent, finds himself (or herself) in the middle of some awful and very probably supernatural danger. Average Joe must then find a solution and/or fight through the situation to either defeat it or simply survive.

Throughout the story, most authors rely on 2 basic tactics for frightening the reader:

  1. Surprise: An example would be a shock shot like a monster jumping out at the characters or someone turning around and finding the axe murderer right there. It’s harder to do in books because you can’t control the speed of the read, but I think sudden/unexpected twists count.
  2. Psych: This is where the author plays with your mind, usually by leaving something unexplained or un-named. Wondering exactly what is out in the darkness to get you, what happened to the characters who disappeared, or how to possibly fight the thing. With a little suspension of disbelief, you can even find yourself imagining the antagonist existing in the real world (like a girl coming out of your television or a ghost in your kitchen…).

So where does the stupidity come in? Well, think about the horror stereotypes that people love to make fun of:

  • Going down into a dark basement
  • Entering the woods alone to look for it (whatever it is)
  • Splitting up
  • Talking so loudly you can’t hear them sneak up on you
  • Turning your back on the stranger who appears suddenly to help you in this isolated place where no one lives (or letting him/her in your house)

Oh, there are more. Personally, I enjoy Eddie Izzard’s description of characters and plots in B horror films:

The problem with those stereotypically foolish actions is that it makes it harder to empathize with the characters, and it makes it harder to suspend your disbelief.

For example, let’s say that Average Joe seems to be going out of his way to get himself killed by whatever it is that’s out there. He goes into the woods alone to find it (taking a thimble with him) but is narrowly saved by a stranger passing by who distracts the killer and dies in A.J.’s place. A.J. then becomes lost in the woods and only finds his way back due to the help of a clever agent who has been hunting the killer for years. They stop for shelter at a nearby farmhouse, and against the agent’s advice, A.J. follows the owner down into the dark basement to check the breaker. He’s saved only because the killer slips on the cat. After a long struggle to reunite with his friends and be sure they’re safe, A.J. immediately convinces everyone to split up to find the guy and, again, lives only because of some freak accident or because someone else saves him.

Really, A.J.? Is that the best you can do?

When the main character(s) continually makes decisions that are contrary to all common sense, you almost start rooting against them. People start yelling things at the movie screen like, “Oh, just kill him already!” (And, believe me, they are not talking about the axe murderer.) Either that or it gets funny: “Ten says he follows the guy into the basement… Ha! Pay up!”

If the character has to act stupid repeatedly in order to be put in danger, then you need to go back to the plotting board. Unless you’re deliberately going for comedy rather than fright, come up with a better solution. A series of stupid choices is going to take all the scare out of your story – at least all of the mental kind. You might get away with some shock shots, but it’s definitely not going to be as scary as it could be.

Because the scariest stories are the ones where you can’t find a loophole. The ones where the main characters are smart, brave, and talented and do everything in their power to defeat whatever it is.

And they still get outsmarted.

That’s what freaks you out. When you feel smarter than the characters, when there’s an obvious flaw in what they’re trying to do, it makes you feel more secure. You wouldn’t fall for that. Therefore, you don’t need to be afraid. When you can’t think of anything better, oh, that’ll send that chills down your spine. That’s when the idea slips into your psyche like a delay-release acid (and, no, I don’t mean the drug).

The only time your characters can be stupid without thinning suspension of disbelief is if they’re caught up and making instant decisions. If they have time to talk it through for the benefit of the audience, they can make very minor errors (like things people could easily overlook normally) but not big ones. For really big oversights, they have to be either pretty dumb already or in a panic and making decisions before they can calm down enough to string together an intelligible sentence.

In other words, it has to be justified and believable characterization. You can’t just throw any stupid action in there to put them in danger. It has to be believable if you want scare anybody – otherwise, stupidity takes the fright out of horror and makes it funny.

IMHO, anyway.