What Every Story Needs

Ernest Hemingway at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Photo by Lloyd Arnold.

Every good story has a good plot.

Every good plot has a driven character.

Every character’s drive is based on a real need.

Define your character’s need and never stop seeking it.

The detective needs answers in a world that won’t give them.

The fighter needs to risk their life to protect what they love.

The doctor needs to find the cause of their patient’s ailment.

The lonely man needs to look after his disabled brother.

The single woman needs to feel secure in a new relationship.

Define your need, and you define your story’s biggest obstacles.

Define your need, and define how your character must change to get it.

The semi-rant you just read is something I came up with a few weeks ago. Honestly, it’s something I’ve been revisiting as I work on not one, but two manuscripts at the same time. Figuring out a character’s basic need, and how it relates to their expressed desires and genuine feelings, is becoming a cornerstone of my writing process. It’s really just a nifty insight that I wanted to share with y’all.

Best of luck, all you working and aspiring writers out there!


Read John Scalzi on Why You Should Be Paid for Writing

The blog Lifehacker just posted a piece entitled “Why You Should Write For Free,” in which writer Nick Douglas (on staff, note) explains when he believes writing for free is appropriate — and when it is not. The headline alone is enough to fluff me up with righteous fury, as my own, consistent refusal to…

via No, In Fact, You Should Not Write For Free — Whatever

The link above says everything you’ll want to know, but I’ll add my two cents here.

For more than 8 years, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get work as a writer. And let me tell you, it is not always easy or fair to get the pay you deserve. Freelance writing is hard enough because you’re spending so much time trying to convince others that you could write for them.

Now imagine that you’re asked to put out content just for clicks, and not for the actual words you write. You could copy-and-paste your second-grade book report for some employers, so long as you had the right SEO formatting. So, when you’re looking for employment opportunities to write, don’t just settle for “exposure” or “vocational experience.” Aspire to be a professional, and to be treated as such.

How to Build a Character Arc (Using Lost in Translation)

Copyright © 2003 by Focus Features

Stories are about plot—

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Let me try again…

Stories are about about characters in a plot—

No, still not quite right. Let’s try once more…

Stories are about a plot where characters deal with a major change in their lives.

And there it is. That’s what this post is about, too. There’s plenty of articles and books on the subject of how to outline your story, and whether you ought to consider a Hollywood 3-act structure or a Shakespearean 5-act structure. But what’s at the heart of those outlines and plots? Why should any audience consider your characters for an entire book, TV season, or movie?

It’s because we want to see them as people. We want to see them grow. And to do that, they have to confront an unexpected change. Whether it’s a hostage situation or an awkward first date, the change has to be real and it has to be meaningful. Once you know this, you can create the subtext for any plot, whether your story resembles something like The Avengers or it’s closer to My Dinner with Andre.

To give you an idea of how this might work, let’s look at one of my favorite films: Sofia Coppola’s 2003 drama Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

The Arc: How Bob and Charlotte Face Their Crises

Part I: Alienation

Bob arrives in Tokyo to film a commercial for Suntory Whiskey and avoid his marital issues back home. Charlotte explores the city, unable to do anything while her husband John goes to work as a celebrity photographer.

We meet our protagonists here. Both are facing a life crisis (Bob at midlife, Charlotte at the cusp of adulthood) and estrangement from their spouses. One is at the end of his career, and the other is still figuring hers out. They see their alienation on display in Tokyo’s design.

Part II: Connection

Bob and Charlotte keep running into each other at the hotel. They meet and chat at the bar when they can’t get any sleep. Later, Charlotte invites Bob to meet some Japanese friends for a night of fun. They spend more time together and have intimate talks about their real troubles.

Two lonely souls find each other. They appreciate each other’s wit, and they both don’t get life in Japan. They have a good time together, and they bond over feeling odd together.

Part III: Breakdown

Bob ends up sleeping with the jazz singer at the hotel bar, which upsets Charlotte. They have a terse argument over lunch. Later, during a fire alarm evacuation at the hotel, they meet and reconcile.

The jazz singer’s episode feels like a step back. It’s Bob losing interest in Charlotte, and a sign of his age and distance to her. But a genuine emergency brings them close together again: the fire alarm wakeup and the fact that Bob’s leaving soon.

Part IV: Understanding

Bob has to leave the next morning to return to the US. He says goodbye to Charlotte in the hotel lobby. Later, in a taxi, he spots Charlotte walking a crowded street and gets out. They hug, share some tears, and Bob whispers something reassuring. After they kiss, Bob departs.

Tender moments abound. Bob leaves, and Charlotte remains. They try to be polite, but they can’t hide their pain from each other. Bob gives Charlotte a whisper of something to keep her moving forward. He’ll move forward just because he met her.

The Arc: Wherever You Look, It’s There

If you were to ask me, this kind of approach is good for building character arcs in just about any story. If I show you a random superhero movie, you can point out how the hero undergoes the same four basic steps.

Part One (Alienation): Peter Parker wants to be special, but he faces the struggles of any other high school student.

Part Two (Connection): Peter uses his newfound abilities as Spider-Man to help people in his city and to stand up to common crooks.

Part Three (Breakdown): Peter’s superpowers make him and his family a target for the villain. He begins to feel the pull between being a student and a superhero.

Part Four (Understanding): Spider-Man saves the day, but Peter has to keep his true identity secret to keep his family safe.

Like I said, this is something that any story can feature. Just because there’s explosions and punches in one story, and quiet conversations over dinner in another, doesn’t mean that we can’t watch our characters struggle and adapt to the change in their lives, and maybe grow a little wisdom, too. When we see how a character—how a person—can grow, we can set that growth against any backdrop, from the crowded streets of Tokyo to the crime-ridden alleys of Gotham City and beyond.

Flash Fiction: “Those Physicians in Whose Steps I Walk”

Sometimes you get a late-night brainstorm while reading articles on Wookieepedia, listening to podcasts about roleplaying, and then the next thing you know, you’ve got this wild idea for a story in your head. And, no, it can’t wait until morning. It’s got to be written now.

Well, this is one of those stories.

Those Physicians in Whose Steps I Walk,

By Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 1,116

She was one of two hundred and sixteen robots that came off an assembly line at the last Venusian sky-factory.

Cold yellow lights stared out from two recessed nodes in a smooth gray cranium; these were what passed for her eyes. Clawed manipulators extended from spindly titanium rods attached to her torso, able to switch out and produce whatever tool she needed; these were what passed for her hands. An extensive vocabulary of medical knowledge and diagnoses came out in a gentle monotone through the steel grille affixed to the front of her cranium; this was what passed for her mouth.

At the sky-factory, she had been designated G1-DS.

Everyone at the shipyard, though, just called her “Dess.”

Inside the foreman’s office, Dess stood at attention. She stared out the viewport behind the human’s desk, out at where a vast semicircle of shuttle docks and half-finished cruisers floated gently, just beyond the arid planet’s gravity well. If she increased the magnification on her visual sensors, Dess could almost pinpoint the tiny stream of mining haulers that flew in and out of the planet’s atmosphere, bringing down new work crews and bringing up all the raw materials humans could need for shipbuilding.

Utterly routine, but she would rather be watching that than listen to the foreman.

“Look, G1, I appreciate your concern? But really, this isn’t the time or place for it.” Lounging in an ergonomic chair behind the desk, Foreman Temuera North had poor spinal alignment and soft, billowing tissue around the neck and waistline. Just by looking at him with her diagnostic suite, Dess could pinpoint everything about his medical history. None of it good. “We’ve got a system here, okay? The foreman answers to the Director, the crews answer to me, and you answer to the medbay supervisor. It’s that simple.”

“Working conditions aren’t that simple,” Dess insisted. She gestured one of her clawed manipulators to the datacard on his desk. “Ever since that last vein of adamatine steel was discovered, cases of hypoxemia among the miners has risen by as much as sixty-three percent in the last month. If we don’t treat this soon, we could be looking at—”

“Trouble.” The word fell from Temuera’s lips like a stone into a pond. “That’s what you’ll be looking at, G1. Just trouble.”

“Sir, the miners—”

“Are fine, Dess. Do you get it?” Now the foreman’s eyes had narrowed, and Dess detected a spike in his blood pressure. “We don’t discuss mining conditions unless it’s been vetted as safe for public release. We don’t stick our noses—or sensors—where they’re not wanted.” His heart rate continued to climb as he spoke. “Do I make myself clear, G1-DS? Or is there a data corruption in your processor that I can have the techs look at?”

Every byte of her programming told her this was wrong. Every other byte told Dess to let it go. Drop the case, go back to her unfinished duties at the medbay. Loyalty subroutines reminded her that a severe absence could be marked as negligence and grounds for a total memory wipe. But her ethical software had different ideas, flagging and highlighting every instance of conspiracy and health hazard in the foreman’s statement.

With a hiss through her vocoder, Dess lowered her head. Her servos whined in protest as she opened the storage compartment on her torso’s lower-left ring.

“Your intentions are clear, Foreman,” she said out loud.

Temuera’s face broke out into a smile, twisting the native tattoos around his jawline. “Well, good. I’d hate to have to dismantle a fine automaton like yourself—”

He never saw it coming.

One clawed manipulator reached out in a mere matter of microseconds, clutching the human’s throat and silencing him at once. As Temuera’s eyes bulged, Dess removed the fully-loaded hypodermic from her chassis. She armed the plunger and then plunged the needle into one of his neck’s main arteries.

A high dose of painkillers wouldn’t kill him—even as she railed against the Do No Harm slogan drilled into her codebase–but it would render him unconscious. Not so different, she reflected, from sedating an irate patient in the medbay.

As the foreman slumped against his desk, Dess replaced the needle in storage. Her sensors registered a steady pulse, airflow, and heart beat just beneath his skin.

Then she went to work.

Step One: Isolate all footage of the conversation and transmit it to the Judicial Department on Venus, with her personal notes attached for viewer context.

Step Two: Use her built-in bone cutter to break the door’s lock on her way out, even though it meant damaging her cutter appendage beyond repair.

Step Three: Make a hasty route to Docking Bay Forty-Seven. There, she would find a shuttle drone, one whose low-level programming would register her emergency response credentials and give her a ride out of the star system when asked for one.

Step Four: Start over fresh, far from the Mining Consortium and far from their private security teams. Some settlement, where colonists didn’t question the arrival of an unattended medical robot, and where her ethical analysis of their health might be better appreciated.

All of this, Dess calculated and considered in less than thirty seconds.

Then she made her escape.

On Cybele, a distant world near the Deneb star system, Dr. Farah Zorn rubbed at her temples. She was tired, but her shift wouldn’t end for another half-hour. And to make matters worse, there was an outbreak of severe space adaptation sickness among the newly arrved colonists. Her medbay looked less like a healing center and more like a battlefield, with triage lines and fatigued orderlies stumbling over each other, narrowly avoiding collisions over the groaning rows of people.

“Excuse me?” A gentle synthetic voice reached Farah from over her shoulder. She turned around and blinked at the silver bipedal robot that had suddenly appeared. Or maybe she was just hallucinating it. That last patient’s chart had her convinced she was losing her mind.

“Yes?” Farah tilted her head. “Look, if you’re really here—”

“I am.”

“Then, can you help?” Farah gestured to a line of men and women, all of whom were still waiting for treatment. “We’ve got SAS cases left and right. Everyone here needs a quick vital check and then a shot of—”

“Dimenhydrinate.” The robot nodded, and then she lifted a vial of medicine up to the doctor’s eyes. “I have just the thing, ma’am.”

“Excellent.” Farah laughed. “You’re hired. What’s your name?”

“My designation?”

“I asked your name, sweetie.”

“Oh! Well…” The robot drew herself up proudly. “I am G1-DS, ma’am.” Then, after a short, embarrassed pause, she added, “Most people call me Dess.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Altered Carbon and Looking Back at Cyberpunk’s Heyday

Copyright © 2018 by Netflix

It’s never been a secret that one of my favorite genres is cyberpunk. It’s the best of two worlds: film noir and science fiction. It’s holographic adverts overloading giant, rain-drenched skyscrapers, where private eyes go chasing androids and console cowboys get shanghaied into unraveling megacorporate conspiracies in virtual reality zones. And while I regret never getting into the original books by Richard K. Morgan, I was excited to learn that his first Takeshi Kovacs story, Altered Carbon, was being brought onto Netflix.

The year is 2384. Takeshi Kovacs, a former terrorist, is revived in a new body 250 years after his arrest. His new client, the ultra-rich Laurens Bancroft, has a job for him: solve the murder of Bancroft’s last body. Now stuck in far-future San Francisco, Kovacs has to contend with mercenaries, possessive AI hotel owners, femme fatales, and the relentless police lieutenant Kristin Ortega. Every new encounter is another opportunity for Kovacs to come to terms with the crimes he’s committed in the distant past, to put his elite skills as an Envoy to use, and to dig deeper into the labyrinthe world of “Meths” (as in, Methuselahs). As his onetime mentor Quell keeps reminding him, “Nothing is what it seems.

It’s interesting to have the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, played by both an Asian actor (Will Yun Lee) in flashbacks and a white actor (Joel Kinnaman) in the present. On the one hand, it’s a neat trick of showing off our multicultural future, even race is something to be changed with a simple “resleeve.” On the other hand, I kind of would’ve liked to have seen Lee stay in the lead role, but Kinnaman does the job well enough as our typical hardboiled detective with elite combat skills and a supernatural attention to detail.

Now, as a fan of all things cyberpunk, I love the visuals (and as someone who wants to make cyberpunk fiction, I’m jealous I didn’t get to do this first). Bay City is a beautiful mess of heavy rainfall, omnipresent holographic ads, flying cars, cybernetic neck and eye implants, and massive skyscrapers reaching into the clouds. It’s like we’re getting to see the Sprawl that Gibson envisioned back in ’84, since that’s basically the archetype that Richard K. Morgan and Laeta Kalogridis are using in this series. This is the sci-fi world I want to see: not just “What happens if we only changed one thing, like not dying?” but the world of “What if we changed everything in society, on every level? What would humanity even look like?”

I will admit, though, that the first 8 minutes from the first episode did leave me a little too lacking in context. Much as I love how works like Neuromancer and The Diamond Age throw their readers right into the deep end, I did feel a little impatient with the fast editing of images between one version of Kovacs (pre-death) and the other (waking up in a new body), with no real sense of what I was seeing or why I should even care about what’s happening. As fun as that can be in a book, I think TV is something audiences a little more leeway before getting tossed into a random world.

I’m also not a huge fan of the way exposition is sometimes dropped clunkily into the middle of conversations. Even if Kovacs is still adapting to the new world, the way charaters like Ortega suddenly have to rattle off banal facts about AI hotels and other commonplace lore is a bit jarring.

This felt most egregious in the first episode, where Kovacs and Ortega have a drink and a chat inside a strip club. Their rattled-off exposition is taking place right next to a mostly nude dancing girl on the stage. It’s a little hard not to want to make a “sexposition” joke straight out of the first season of Games of Thrones. As much as Netflix gets to play with sex and violence in a way that network TV can’t, I do think that sometimes there’s a little too much emphasis on sex for titillation’s sake, especially if it’s trying to keep the audience engaged for learning key plot points.

Even with some of the bumpy nature of the show’s pacing, I do enjoy it overall. It’s colorful and gritty, it has plenty of film noir throwbacks, and there’s a real sense of the search for identity and meaning in a world that seemingly cares about neither.

Altered Carbon is currently available for viewing on Netflix.

Bibliography: Altered Carbon (series). Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan. Produced by John G. Lenic. Perf. Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Connor, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Trieu Tran, and Renee Elise Goldberry. Virago Productions; Mythology Entertainment; Phoenix Pictures; Skydance Television. Netflix (distributor). Original broadcast: February 2, 2018 – present.