Q.: How many screenwriters does it take to change a light bulb?
1st draft: Hero changes light bulb.
2nd draft: Villain changes light bulb.
3rd draft: Hero stops villain from changing light bulb. Villain falls to death.
4th draft: Lose the light bulb.
5th draft: Light bulb back in. Fluorescent instead of tungsten.
6th draft: Villain breaks bulb, uses it to kill hero’s mentor.
7th draft: Fluorescent not working. Back to tungsten.
8th draft: Hero forces villain to eat light bulb.
9th draft: Hero laments loss of light bulb. Doesn’t change it.
10th draft: Hero changes light bulb.
In our continuing quest to revisit a classic, or even a curiosity from the past and see how relevant it is, we continue with The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. Originally published in newspaper installments from 1881 until 1906. You might be surprised how current many of the entries are.
For example, here are definitions for Alien, Alliance, Ambidextrous, Ambition, and Amnesty. The Old definitions are Bierce’s. The New definitions are mine or somebody else contemporary. The new definitions can also be simply examples of The Devil’s Dictionary definitions. From time to time, just as it was originally published, we will come back to The Devil’s Dictionary, for a look at it then and how it applies today. Click on Devil’s Dictionary in the tags below to bring up the other entries.
ALIEN, n. An American sovereign in his probationary state.
ALLIANCE, n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.
AMBIDEXTROUS, adj. Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.
AMBITION, n. An overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.
AMNESTY, n. The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.
(ILLEGAL) ALIEN, n. An un-American scofflaw unable to achieve a probationary state of any sort, at least as seen by some radical conservative elements. For them ALIEN is always preceded by ILLEGAL. This distinguishes him from the American scofflaw, who with enough money and AMBITION can form at least one ALLIANCE in which he can pick the pockets of friends and foes alike.
ALLIANCE, n. In National and International politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third. However, as a grouped entity they often find a way to plunder others. The NRA plus the GOP being one fine example of how two groups manage to plunder a third, even to the point of death.
AMBITION, n. An overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead. (Nothing much new need be added to this.)
AMNESTY, n. The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish or who have enough money to acquire amnesty as one acquires a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card in Monopoly. In other words, it would be too “expensive” to ignore the offer.
One day, Bantam publisher Irwyn Applebaum summoned me into his office and asked, “How do you respond when I say, ‘Tom Robbins’?” Without even thinking, I said, “one of the great prose stylists of his generation.” He said, “That’s what I thought. I want you to go out to Seattle and meet him. You might become his editor.” (Spoiler Alert: I did, and I did.
WHY DOESN’T MY PLOT WORK?
by BRUCE HALE and MICHAEL STEARNS
Getting perspective on your own writing is tougher than two-year-old Halloween caramels. You squint at the story, mull it over, and suspect something isn’t working, but it’s hard to say what, exactly.
At a recent conference, my friend and former editor, Michael Stearns, offered up one of the best cures I’ve seen for this problem. His series of diagnostic questions can help you turn your plot from wimpy to wicked-strong.
Reprinted with his permission, here’s an excerpt from Michael’s list of questions, together with my explanations.
1. Do you have something pulling the character forward?
Every character needs a powerful goal or desire. Make sure it’s compelling enough to believably motivate them.
2. Do you have something pushing the character from behind?
Add a meddlesome mom, a pursuing villain, an obnoxious rival — someone who applies pressure.
3. Have you remembered clocks?
This refers to a deadline that must be met, or else. Think of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, who must drive his time machine
past the clock tower at the right moment, or remain stuck in the past.
4. Have you made the character lie — to others and to us?
Everybody lies. And whether it’s a big lie or a little one, the truth wants to come out. This energy helps invigorate your plot.
5. Do you know your character’s motives inside and out?
Often, plots bog down when you lose sight of why your hero wants to do something. Unmotivated action rings false.
6. Does all the above apply to even minor characters?
The villain, the best friend, even the bit players have a reason for doing what they do. And when you get clear on that reason, their actions will be make more sense.
7. Have you buried the ends of chapters?
Don’t immediately resolve the issue or question that gets raised near the chapter’s end. Resolve it in the next chapter — or better yet, the chapter after that. Your readers will curse you while they keep on reading.
8. Have you been as mean as possible to your characters?
We’re talking about Job mean, Sophie’s Choice mean, evil-punk-the-reader-will-hate-you-forever mean. Don’t just give your hero grief, give her the worst day imaginable.
9. Do you always go for the extreme?
What keeps readers reading is high-stakes action. In the words of Spinal Tap, dial it up to 11. The higher the stakes, the better the book.
Michael Stearns is an agent and partner of Upstart Crow Literary Agency. You can visit his website at: http://clicks.aweber.com/y/ct/?l=O8uEK&m=IsxyiV6D9FLsQz&b=7cPIzxf9UuUk28zsEYoWSw
Bruce Hale began his career as a writer while living in Tokyo, and continued it when he moved to Hawaii in 1983. Before entering the world of children’s books, he worked as a magazine editor, surveyor, corporate lackey, gardener, actor, and deejay.
Bruce has written and illustrated over 25 books for kids. His Underwhere series includes Prince of Underwhere and Pirates of Underwhere. His Chet Gecko Mysteries series includes: The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse, The Big Nap, The Malted Falcon, Hiss Me Deadly, and others. More at http://www.brucehale.com/