Movies, books, and even video games all spring from writers’ heads. Hopefully the story will engage you, and will be worth the time spent. In practice, this is often not the case. In those cases, the translation from writer’s head to story clearly went wrong.
The building blocks
At the base of every story are scenes, be it the paragraphs in books or the levels or quests in a video game. So, how do you write those building blocks?
When I start writing a scene, I always start with a picture in my head. I picture the characters in the scene in my head, and the scenery. In my head the characters are in a certain place, and they have a certain mood. I picture what the goals of the characters are and where I want the scene to go. Then I start writing.
This works like launching a pinball into a pinball machine. You can set it up a certain way, but once the ball is underway you’re never quite sure where it will end up. Often, characters will do more or less what I want — I know them very well — but sometimes they don’t want to do what I want them to.
I know I make it sound like my characters live apart from me, which I know is false. However, they do have a mind of their own. Even if you don’t write, you probably know this process. Have you ever had a conversation stuck in your mind? A daydream of talking to that person you had a crush on? That upcoming meeting playing out in your head ahead of time over and over? The mechanism is the same. You set the stage, but what happens is not a conscious decision. It plays out like a computer program, using your brain as its operating system.
Quality of scenes
The quality of this process depends on a few factors.
The first is the part of the iceberg of information out of sight. When I constructs a character, or a location, it lives in my head. I might have a picture of what I feel each character looks like with the notes on my computer. I sometimes draw out the layout of the location. There’s all kinds of extra documents in my writing projects with extra background information. All of that is not directly visible, but like a bumper in a pinball machine, it influences where the ball will go.
The second important thing is the story structure. A story has a certain build-up and climax. Every scene builds on the previous one. A character will start a scene with a certain mood, in a certain place, and trying to achieve a certain goal. Those things carry over from scene to scene. You can’t start with the climax, because there’s another iceberg of foreshadowing and build-up out of sight that fuels it.
Thirdly, there needs to be conflict and characters need to be different. You can’t have a story with a group of characters that are basically the same. That’s extremely boring.
What if a writer messes up
You can mess up this process. Continuity errors and small mistakes are a given, but a writer can mess up worse.
Sock puppeting is a risk, when the writer doesn’t let their characters speak, but just puts their own words into the characters’ mouths. Usually, this is when a writer feels they need to promote their view on things, even if they are terrible. They shouldn’t. If you want to sprout your opinion, write a blog — I do.
When the characters act out of sorts, you also run the risk of Melodrama. Writer’s want climactic and epic scenes, but that doesn’t mean the characters can act that out sincerely. I once sat in a restaurant in Italy when a woman a table over started to loudly proclaim the olive oil on her salad was sooo good over and over. I almost asked her to get a room with it. She wasn’t selling her true emotion, she came across as wanting to be the center of attention. That’s what you don’t want in a scene.
Regarding those climactic parts of a story. Sometimes writers have incredibly cool characters and scenes in their heads, but they are unable to translate the context of those characters properly to paper. This can lead to melodrama, as described above, or to Marty Stus/Mary Sues, or to characters which are said to be interesting, but not shown to be.
Basically, the wrong thing from the writer’s head ended up in the story. Like static on a radio line — or like we say in Covid times: robot voice on your Zoom call.
I need to do a special mention of TV and movies, because there are two people in the mix there. There’s the writer writing the script, and the actor playing a character. It sometimes happens that the writing takes a turn for the worse, but of course, the actors don’t change.
Lucifer season 2 is a prominent example of this. The characters turn into parodies of themselves, but the actors are still the same. I truly wonder if the actors got a gag response to sprouting all the rubbish they were forced to say.
So on the one hand actors can pave over some of the differences in style from different writers, but one the other, the cracks will start to show.
Translating a story from a writer’s head is a complicated process, which can go badly if the picture in the writer’s head is imperfect, or the process of getting it out is.
And now you know why certain TV shows and books might give you the eerie feeling something is terrib