The Fiction of Reality

By Matthew Lowes

image

Photograph by Matthew Lowes

As writers of fiction we are always trying to project some sense of reality into our stories. We praise the vivid setting when it feels as if we’ve been there. We thrill at events when we can see them happening. And we love the character who seems to walk off the page, fully fleshed, and yes, real. But how does it happen?

The irony is that actual people experience their lives through a variety of thoughts that start to look a lot like fiction. We are, along with everyone around us, constantly telling ourselves who we are, what we’re like, what type of person we are, what we believe, where we come from, the kind of world we live in, and on and on and on. And very little of it has anything to do with what’s really happening right now. We are creating these self-fictions out of the perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and memories that arise in consciousness moment to moment.

Since this is happening in the minds of people all the time, seeing the operation of these self-fictions and understanding how they create conflict could be a great insight into creating fiction that seems real. In short, good fiction must contain the self-fictions of the characters within it. In other words, it must contain characters who have fictional views on the fictional world they inhabit. These views lie at the heart of all internal conflict, and one might say all possible conflicts.

Let’s look closer at what self-fictions are, how they form, and how they come into conflict with each other, with the self-fictions of other people, and with reality itself. A self-fiction is a story you tell yourself about yourself and/or the world. “I am a writer,” is a self-fiction. “I am a good writer”; “I am a bad writer”; “I am a lazy writer”; “I spent 20 years honing the craft of writing only to find out it’s not enough.” These are all self-fictions, and I think you can see, especially if you are a writer, that they are all self-fictions a single person could have. You can probably also see how these thoughts, if believed, will conflict with each other and with various happenings in that person’s life.

I am an American, a Mexican, a Muslim, or a Buddhist; I am a faithful husband, a loving wife, an angry person, a damaged person. Birth is a blessing; life is suffering; death is a bummer. The world is a beautiful place full of good people; the world is a nasty place full of selfish people; the world is made of stuff guided by physical laws; the world is an illusion; the world is God’s creation. And on and on and on. There are enough examples to fill an entire universe. Even something as ordinary as a tree can be a self-fiction. And in most cases, what people experience as reality may simply be a projection of these self-fictions in consciousness.

Such a situation is created through a repetition of thoughts. Every time a thought arises it may become a self-fiction if the mind grasps hold and believes it. The more it repeats the more grasping occurs, and the more real and binding its contents will seem. At this point the self-fiction takes root in the person, and it will continue to seem real and binding even if present experience or new thoughts come into conflict with it. Because all things change, and new experiences and thoughts always arise, conflict with these self-fictions is inevitable. Even the most seemingly accurate and objective self-fiction cannot be right at all times, in all places, and in all situations.

This is all pretty abstract though, so let’s create a more elaborate example. A man and a woman fall madly in love. The man thinks, he could never love anyone more than he loves her. They are made for each other, two people sharing the same love, the same life, the same being. Eventually he asks her to marry him. She says “yes!” and a whole new level of love opens up to them based on the depth, the sincerity, and the promise of this commitment. Of course, he has moments of doubt. Can he really be satisfied with this one person for the rest of his life? Why did she get so angry about the wedding cake? What if she turns out to be like her domineering her mother? They are just little thoughts in conflict with the established self-fiction of their relationship. But, he says to himself, they are in love and love perseveres. Marriage is for life and he is the kind of guy that can stick with someone through thick and thin. So the wedding happens and they start their life together.

Maybe you can see how this goes already, even without the details. While so far they have been sharing a wonderfully pleasant self-fiction, each has other self-fictions. She envisions a house in the suburbs, three children, and traveling the world. He envisions life in the city, no children, and a romance without end. Or whatever. The point being, things change. They argue about moving. She get pregnant but miscarries. His father dies. The stock market crashes. She gets a job that keeps her traveling all the time. A thousand other stories interact with their lives and every one starts to seem in conflict with the others and especially with the one in which they are in love. He starts to think about other women, but he could never have an affair. He’s not that type of person. Only he keeps thinking about it. Maybe if the situation came up … hell, maybe he is that type of person. Maybe everybody is! Maybe that’s just the kind of world it is. And one day, he find himself in a hotel bar with a woman he works with, and in that moment ….

This can go on and on, but it’s just playing various self-fictions against each other. It’s all self-fictions, all the way down. And the more the self-fictions conflict with each other and the situation itself, the more real and interesting the characters and situations seem. That’s because anybody with a modicum of experience knows intuitively that’s exactly what it’s like. That’s exactly what happens. And if the conflict increases enough, some kind of crisis will occur, and things will change. Some self-fictions will crumble, and others take over. And perhaps, if in an instant one sees through it all, the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards. Then what?

If you look at things this way, maybe you can consciously manipulate the self-fictions underlying your writing. That may mean both the self-fictions of your characters, as well as your own. In fiction, as in real life, these self-fictions can be obvious or incredibly subtle and deceptive. Every protagonist is a conglomeration of self-fictions that will come into conflict with each other and the world. Every villain has a conflict generating mass of self-fictions guiding their actions. Every POV character presents the setting and events of a story through the lenses of their own self-fictions.

In fact, if one gets right down to it, there may be little difference between real life self-fictions and fictional self-fictions in the mind of a reader, since real life self-fictions are themselves imaginary in some sense. Which means fictional places, characters, and events may seem real by being, in actuality, just as real as the self-fictions through which the human mind usually perceives reality. Indeed, every aspect of fiction can be examined and manipulated as a projection of self-fictions in conflict, precisely because this real life function of the mind may be what fundamentally makes fiction possible, present, interesting, and hopefully entertaining.

How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

Cover_BullsLabyrinth_Text_AllCentaur

How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

-End-

Finding Your Voice Through The Chatter

writers-voice

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

What is Voice, and how does it inform your creative life?

Is it just the sound emanating from your throat as your words bounce along your vocal cords? Or is it the tape loop of non-stop chatter playing in your brain? The chatter more commonly known as your monkey brain, since it generally swings from one topic to the next—yes, that paragraph is perfect for the beginning chapter—to just a few minutes later—what were you thinking, no one will read past this paragraph if you start the story there. And with all the noise of your monkey brain how do you even begin to find your—Voice?

Voice—such a small word for such a large topic when discussing creativity. Because ultimately we creative folk would love it if the world at large wanted, no not just wanted, but craved to read the stories we’ve written. Stories created by our own uniquely filtered—Voice.

The monkey brain I discussed earlier, has reminded me on more than one occasion of the old saying—Everything has already been written, every story already told.   If that is true, why do I continue to write? Why, because eventually my monkey brain swings back and reminds me of those unique filters only my, Voice can create..

  • My time in history, I am a witness and recorder of this moment. No one else will live it, see it or record it in the same way, as I will. It is filtered through my life experiences, my traditions, beliefs and feelings and even if I’m not writing current day fiction, those filters still apply when I delve into past history.
  • The old adage—write what you know—well, I know about being a mother to eight children—seven of them girls. Combine that fact, with growing up in a matriarchal family and you will understand why most of my stories center around the relationships of mothers and daughters.
  • My own rhythm. In music, you can have three different people sing or compose the exact same song; however, when you hear it, it will sound different with each new player or singer. This is also true in writing. There is a cadence to each individual’s writing, their own rhythm, as they string words together to paint a picture in the readers mind. My writing has the slow rhythm of the Deep South of Louisiana since that is where I grew up. Another writer growing up in a large city would more than likely have a different cadence to their stories.

I’ve spoken to many writers and painters over the years and I often hear, “When I found my Voice, everything fell into place.” Unfortunately we live in a mainstream educational society, which might attempt to silence your distinctive Voice before it is ever fully developed or heard. They may cover it with grammatical rules and years of societal norms of what your writing should or should not be. Some have even been encouraged to pursue other careers by well meaning scholars, because their writing was too radical, too outside the box. Please never let your Voice be silenced in this manner.

I encourage you to continually seek out your own exclusive Voice. But remember, just as we evolve and change through time, so might your Voice. So listen to it closely and when your monkey brain intrudes, enjoy swinging from vine to vine. Because it can take you to many amazing places, if you just sit still and let your Voice shine through all its chatter.

Unknown

Lying Fallow, Going Wild and Writing in the Nude

By Cynthia Ray

Last week in her post, Liz talked about her literary compost pile. It is summer, after all, so I was inspired to continue with the gardening theme. The principles of fallowness and wildness can be applied to our creative lives.

fallow quote

Before the advent of chemical fertilizers, farmers would rotate crops to balance the nutrients in the soil, leaving some fields fallow for a season. Leaving fields fallow meant that nothing was planted there for the entire growing season. This allowed the soil to rebuild itself, and rest. This thousands of year old process continues to this day in many parts of the world, because it works.

Just doing nothing can be incredibly valuable. Have you ever tried to do nothing? No TV, no book, no writing, just sitting and doing nothing? It’s an under-utilized non-activity. It is not even trying to be “mindful”. It is just being.   How long can you do nothing? Fallowness, for me also meant taking a break from plowing the same old fields over and over again. I had to give up some non-productive, obsessive habits that depleted my creativity and time.

Giving up my habit of editing my manuscript before I had even got to the end of the first page, stopping at the first paragraph and going back over every word. I forced myself to just leave it be, and keep writing.   Not an easy task but a freeing one. It also meant for me to take more breaks, walk in the woods, dig in the yard and then come back to my project renewed.   Tearing myself away from a computer screen and immersing myself in nature is how I re-charge and give my brain a break.

wildflowers

Another version of this ‘leave it be’ approach requires letting a portion of your yard or garden go to seed, creating a non-domesticated space. This small wild area enables natural ecosystems to develop, attracting butterflies, birds and other creatures to abide there.  It can replenish and rejuvenate the soil/soul.

Letting ourselves be non-domesticated for a while, allows the wild to show its face. How could I be a bit wild? I experimented with writing in the nude. I thought it would be a way to symbollicaly drop pretense, and get to the heart of things. Later, I found out that this is not uncommon. A web search turned up several authors that used the technique:

  • When Victor Hugo, the famous author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, ran into a writer’s block, he concocted a unique scheme to force himself to write: he had his servant take all of his clothes away for the day and leave his own nude self with only pen and paper, so he’d have nothing to do but sit down and write.
  • DH Lawrence [who wrote the controversial (and censored) erotic book Lady Chatterley’s Lover, liked to climb mulberry trees, in the nude, before coming down to write.
  • Ernest Hemingway did not only write A Farewell to Arms, he also said farewell to clothes! Hemingway wrote nude, standing up, with his typewriter about waist level.
  • Benjamin Franklin also liked to take “air baths,” where he sit around naked in a cold room for an hour or so while he wrote.
  • Mystery writer Agatha Christie liked to write anywhere, including in the bathtub!

So drop those habits along with your clothes, sit around and do nothing for awhile and enjoy the rest of the summer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Creative Compost File – or Where do You Get Your Ideas?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

One of the most valuable items at my desk is in my file drawer. It is a folder entitled “Creative Compost.” This is my gold mine and it is thick with odds and ends.

When I’m doing my daily ten-minute keep-the-pen-moving practice exercises, and I happen onto something tasty, at the end of the ten minute exercise, I rewrite the good idea, or the good passage, and slip it into the compost file. When I have an unusual dream, or meet someone with a great name, or hear a story that could evolve into wonderful fiction, or encounter someone with a distinctive speech pattern, I waste no time in writing it down and putting it into my compost file. A song lyric. A weird news item. The intriguing juxtaposition of words. A spiritual concept presented by a friend. Any number of things that captivate, confound or amuse me find a home in that file.

compost

Do I ever refer to it? No. Just like I never refer to the coffee grounds, once they’re thrown into the garden compost pile in my back yard. I just leave them there to work.

And work they do.

I have come to believe that it is the act of cutting the item out, or writing it down and putting it into the compost file that cements it in my mind. Just like the elusive dream that evaporates before noon unless I relate it to someone or write it down, so does the Great Idea unless I actively do something with it. Or like the discarded banana peel—it isn’t much all by itself. But throw it onto the soil, rich with micro-organisms, the roots of a nearby rosebush to encourage the decomposition, and hungry worms to digest it properly, and voila! That old banana peel becomes something worthwhile.

And so it is with the bits and pieces within my file folder. It adds to the fertility of the mind. It combines its nutrients with others in the mental digestive process. Just like the backyard stuff, good stories stem from a combination of nutrients. It is the blending of character, setting, and conflict. What comes out of the compost pile is pure gold for the garden and what comes out of the compost file is pure gold for my writing.

I went through my compost file about two years ago for the first time in maybe ten years, because it had become so thick it was taking over my file drawer, and discovered that I had used probably eighty percent of the things in it. I cleaned it out and began again.

That was a simple act of turning the compost. I’ll do it a little more often now, but not too often. Some of those ideas are kind of woody and fibrous and need time to break down and blend in.

So I just keep on adding to that file and keep my trust in the process.

The Art of the Overwritten First Draft

IMG_6383By Lisa Alber

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m the master of writing bloated first drafts. I like to tell myself that it’s all for a larger cause. There’s a saying attributed to everyone from Ray Bradbury to Robert Heinlein to Elmore Leonard that it takes a million written words to become a competent writer. If this is true, then I must have hit the magic number by now.

And so …

I’m here to tell you that you, too, can become a competent writer just like me!

Want to hit your million words toward competency? Yeah? Then do what I do! Write morbidly obese first drafts. Savor all those words marching their way across the page toward your mastery. Delight in the fact that whereas other writers underwrite their first drafts, by the time you complete yours you will have so much to work with you won’t know where to begin. Imagine the thrill of deleting whole paragraphs, pages, and sometimes scenes!

It’s fun. Join me! Enjoy the thrill of puffy, self-indulgent, sometimes melodramatic drafting!
IMG_6381To help you on your quest toward the magic million, I give you my tips and tricks for overwriting your first drafts:

  1. Do it like a kindergartner: Don’t just show when you can show and tell. That’s right, go ahead and let the character expound on his plan for trapping the bad guy before you have him actually do it. Never mind that this spoils the suspense, bring it on!
  2. Don’t use one sentence to describe how a character feels when you can have her endlessly obsess about how everything bad in her life comes down to her mother. When in doubt, over-analyze!
  3. Do hit the reader over the head with the same point about your character’s traumatized past in 50 different ways, with each way more eloquent and poetic and beautiful than the last.
  4. Do add extraneous subplots that go nowhere but showcase your wondrous talent for “quiet moments.”
  5. Don’t forget long-winded metaphors triggered by weather. Ripping winds and lashing rains are especially useful for sinking into the descriptive abyss.
  6. Do use every moment in every scene to show everything. Don’t let a chance slip past when you can expand a simplIMG_6382e narrative statement into a full-blow Moment. Yes, capitalized.
  7. Don’t forget to have your characters over-react, thus inciting pages and pages of scrumptious dialog.
  8. Do use the same delicious words over and over on the same page. Words such as “scrabbled” and “molten” are fun — make them bleed on the page!
  9. Throw a party! It’s never too late to invite more characters into the story even when they don’t forward the plot. I bet they’re the ones with the wittiest one-liners!
  10. Last but not least, do it like I do and blindly feel your way through the plot, digging into those false starts and trying-to-find-themselves scenes. Munge on, my friends, munge on!

Stay tuned, next time I’ll be bringing you “Self-Tortured Revision for Dummies,” in which you too can detest everything about your so-called competency as you polish a 500-page white beast from hell into submission.

P.S. Afterthought: I forgot to mention, Do include dopey redundancies such as, “She picked up the vase with her hands …” You know, as opposed to picking it up with her feet.

What I Learned About Plot by Watching Orphan Black

by Christina Lay

This post is a direct rip-off of Liz Engstrom’s post about the characters in Downton Abbey. But it’s also true I’ve been having this conversation with myself for a while now, an internal discussion inspired by my love/hate relationship with this near future SF TV series. I watched the first three seasons over the course of a few months and a couple times when I turned off my Kindle, I thought I wouldn’t be going back, but I couldn’t resist. Naturally as a writer when I experience both exasperation and fascination, I have to question what’s going on and how the writers have managed to piss me off and hook me in at the same time.

If you haven’t watched the show, this is a British series about clones. Yes, clones. The big secret revealed in the first episode is that the main character, Sarah Manning, is a clone. She meets several of her “sisters”, along the way, all with wildly different personalities, all played by the absolutely amazing Tatiana Maslany.

468551-orphan-black-orphan-black

Sarah, stuck between a hard place and another hard place, as usual.

We have Sarah, the street-tough Brit with a heart of gold, Beth the cop who’s identity she steals in the first show, Alison the suburban soccer mom, Cosima the nerdy scientist, Helena the psychopathic Ukrainian nut job, Rachel the evil director of an evil corporation, and so on. The best character in the series, in my opinion, is Sarah’s brother Felix, the smart-alec gay artist who is Sarah’s rock, although she constantly ignores his sensible warnings.

All great fodder for a wild SF thriller. So how did this series hook me?

  • Great acting. For a writer, this can translate into great character development and dialogue. In other words, how convincingly we portray our characters on the page.
  • The characters are working toward a solution, finding answers, taking the bull by the horns, etc. They aren’t sitting back waiting to be victimized. Being clones is out of their control, but they never stop fighting back against the Evil Corp that would destroy them.
  • Constant, exciting forward motion of the plot. This can easily be overdone but Orphan Black manages it well, alternating the life-or-death situations with down time for deepening relationships between the characters— just a breather right before they get shoved off the next cliff.
  • Good guys win more of the battles. This is a big one for me. I have a low tolerance for grim, unrelenting BADNESS just for the sake of being grim and bad. While the “war” continues to expand, with more bigger and badder bad guys always crawling out of the woodwork, the immediate LOD situations Sarah finds herself in are usually resolved in a satisfying, aren’t we all relieved she survived/escaped/rescued the kitten etc. sort of way.
  • Plenty of humor and a sense that the writers are aware there is a ridiculous side to this story.
  • Not overdoing the Next Worst Thing. There’s a rule in writing that states in order to keep the conflict and tension building, you should ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character and then make it so. Again, easily overdone. I for one get tired of brutality and misery pretty darn quick. Orphan Black definitely has a dark edge and bad things happen, but the hook for me is that although the ‘worst thing’ often looms as a threat, it usually doesn’t happen. This is a big relief to me as a viewer.

So how did this series piss me off?

  • Relentless stupid character syndrome. Making bad decisions over and over. True, these decisions are often what forwards the plot, but I really wanted Sarah to get smarter. There is only so often you can throw yourself against Evil Corp with no plan other than to wave a gun around, get caught, get saved and then do it all over again.
  • Overuse of the Big Coincidence. To the point of eye-rolling and mockery. And it wasn’t even new coincidences, but the same old one used in nearly every episode; no matter how far Sarah runs or how well the characters hide themselves, the bad guys show up like five minutes later with absolutely no explanation of how they ended up there. And don’t even get me started on the pencil to the eyeball moment.
  • Well-meaning bystanders as sacrificial victims. I mentioned above that one of the things I liked about the series was that our heroines tend not to die. Orphan Black gets around this pesky issue and retains its hard edge by pretty much murdering any minor character who decides to help Sarah. This irritates me. I think this is a matter of tone. On one hand, OB is a fun, humorous, somewhat ridiculous thriller, but on the other, it goes for the brutal dystopian view of an Evil Corp run world where bad guys can indiscriminately blow away cops and bartenders with no fear of reprisal. Maybe as writers we can have it both ways, but we have to be much more sparing with our use of senseless violence if we want to keep the viewer/reader who is attracted by a lighter touch.
  • Overuse of theme music. Helena, the psycho sister, comes with her own sound track. Whenever she’s about to do something wacked, the music becomes what I can only describe as techno noise-to-hack-and slash-to. Perhaps it’s off the Serial Killers’ playlist. As a writer, this would take the form of waaaay overdone foreshadowing. In OB, it actually worked the first few times, but then it became comical. You don’t want to rob your wildly flawed villain/heroine of her impact by making her cartoonish. Again it almost seemed as if the writers weren’t sure if they wanted to be funny or scary.
OrphanBlack-Character-Helena-970x545

Cue theme music

Conclusions:

  • Plot is ultimately character-driven. Anything can happen that’s out of the characters’ control: flood, famine, cloning. How the characters respond is what really matters. You can get away with almost anything if you create characters who are interesting, engaging, and yes, likable. I firmly believe you need at least one character to root for in order to keep the readers interest up past the initial “isn’t this interesting” phase of a book or series.
  • Allow your characters to Learn From Their Mistakes and to behave differently. While Sarah gets a little bit softer, she keeps doing the same exact dumb things and endangering everyone around her. There are plenty of new dumb mistakes for characters to make, so why keep rehashing the same old ones?
  • If you’re going to bring in characters simply to give the bad guys someone expendable to kill, do so sparingly. Overuse reduces impact and pisses me off.
  • If you’re writing a thriller, keep it thrilling. Not a lot of introspection going on in OB, but it works because exciting stuff keeps happening, the characters respond in new and inventive ways (unless they’re Sarah), and there is very little time to worry about all the glaring errors in logic.

Ultimately, I stopped watching. To be honest, it was the abuse of the innocents that finally killed it for me. I’m sure some day I’ll get over it and watch Season 4 and whatever comes next, but for the moment, the errors overwhelmed the genius. Perhaps the main lesson to learn is don’t become so enthralled with your inventiveness that you forget to mind the basics.