Compensatory Mechanisms

There are times I hate being a writer.  One of the things it does is set me at odds with normal (or really, abnormal but not writers)  human beings, and prevents the enjoyment of simple pleasures that involve story telling.

I used to think I was alone in this, but the last few Liberty cons have quite put paid to that idea, as I hear colleague after colleague say things like “I used to enjoy reading, but now I find myself analyzing it”  or “I loved movies but now I can see the mechanics and the effects.

In a way I am fortunate because I can still turn on the analytical brain most of the time.  It requires a bit of care, so if I’m writing sf/f I read something like romance or mystery and it works, provided there’s no point of contact with what I’m writing.

I can also watch British mystery because honestly I mostly do it while ironing or doing other house work, which means I’m giving it half a mind.

But sometimes the problem intrudes, even while I’m only watching with half a brain.

I’m not going to name the movie here, because it is well loved and people seem to think it was wonderful.  Because I’d read the reviews, my husband asked if I wanted to watch it with him.  I said sure, and sat down to watch it.

Fifteen minutes in, I got up and went to do the dishes, (I can still see the television from the kitchen.)  The movie made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to watch it.

I thought that it was the subject matter, and because I don’t like tense situations where a number of them might end in death without its being mentioned in the reviews.

And then our son who lives in the basement apartment (our contribution to keeping his educational expenses down) came up the stairs and said he really needed to go to sleep, and why were we blasting the sound at the highest possible level.

We hadn’t changed the sound settings from other movies, but when this happened, I realized that the movie was like three times the level of normal movies, AND it was relentlessly “horror movie” (which this wasn’t) music.  You know! The ominous music that plays before the ghost jumps out and eats your face.

At that point the writer brain kicked in.  My unease and inability to sit in front of the movie was due not to worry about the characters — the movie jumped from character to character, without really providing much reason why I should give a hang about any of them — but simply to the loud music creating unease and discomfort.

Once I analyzed the movie, it was a succession of not particularly interesting vignettes, most of them ending in the predictable way if you know it’s written by a leftist.  The REALLY LOUD ominous music masked this, though, and produced a counterfeit of emotions in the watcher, so that one not a trained writer, or perhaps a writer not paying enough attention will think the movie is ominous and wildly interesting.

So what does this have to do with writing?

There are ways to manipulate your readers’ emotions that have nothing to do with the plot/characters or how skillfully you developed both.  Make sure you know what they are and also that you’re using them consciously, because if you’re doing it subconsciously you might be doing it wrong and not achieve what you desire.

What do I mean by that?  There are reliable ways of manipulating people’s emotions.  If you want tears, a puppy or a child bravely trying to save adults will do it, or scenes of tenderness between an elderly couple, or… a ton of other things.

Kitchy?  Sure.  But no more so than ominous music to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. And sometimes, when you’re dealing with work you really don’t want to do (it happens.  Sometimes it’s not even the work.  It’s the work combined with you at that moment)  or have a slow part in a novel, you can make use of such obvious manipulation to get the reader to not realize that part is slow.

There are other things you can do.

For instance, you can while away an expository/revelatory part with an argument between characters.  You can have a minor scare/attack that doesn’t lead anywhere, but makes that part less boring.

One of the easiest ways to do this is comparing the moment/plot/incident to something historical that everyone knows and which will resonate with everyone.  This is getting harder in this age of historical ignorance, but it’s still not impossible.  You can tell the story of a siege that ended badly, for instance, then compare your character’s situation to it.  You can have your character whisper “puere se mueve” and therefore evoke Galileo and all the stuff we learned about him in school (most of it lies, btw.)

This is where you need to watch out.  Why, you say?  Because if you learn your craft by writing either fanfic or work for hire in a world not your own, you’re in a way turning that music to eleven. There is already a complete background there.  For instance, in Jane Austen fanfic (pride and prejudice to be exact) all you need to evoke angst among your readers is to have Mr. Darcy be married when he first appears in the story, thereby making his happy ever after with Lizzy impossible.  People will read to see how you’re going to “fix this.”

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all your writing.  You’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

A similar danger is your using something that tends to make people not realize you have a lack of plot, like, for instance a ton of sex.  A lot of romances use pages and pages (and pages) of sex to disguise the fact they have maybe enough plot for a short story.

This works, maybe, kind of to a point.  If what the reader is looking for is a red-hot romance bordering on porn, they’ll love this “one simple trick to retain interest.”

But if the genre isn’t usually that sex-soaked, if the sex you soak the book with is not only not vanilla, but a particular flavor people in general find odd — beet, or perhaps squid — it’s going to give you problems.  Sure, it might be your favorite way to while away a book — or an afternoon — but it might bomb with 99% of the population.

So you need to be aware of what is essential to the story, and what is put in to get reader reaction, and also of how likely you are to get the reaction you expect.

Oh, you should also be aware that other writers will totally catch you cheating.  It’s okay.  We won’t tell if you won’t.




  1. Now I’m dying to know the name of the film.

    For me, I try to switch off the writer part of my brain when watching stories, but sometimes what is being done on screen either makes me go “that’s clever” or “saw that coming,” while in books it’s more “that’s a foreshadowing.”

    Really good stories sweep me away though. Those I just enjoy.

    1. And I want to know who wrote the score!

      You can tell it’s a ‘great’ movie if John Williams wrote the the score. The first three (chronologically) Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurrasic Park, Harry Potter (not all) . . . you see the theme here?

      I’ve got a theory that all movies are drek, those that get labled ‘great’ get it because they picked up our era’s Bach, Mozert, or Beethoven. Williams is one of the modern greats. Since I don’t watch many movies, I don’t know who the others are.

      1. Watch the original trailer for the original Star Wars and you’ll see how important the final score was. The trailer shows a pretty mediocre adventure tale. The final product is gorgeous despite its plot holes (like Leia not being more upset at her whole planet being destroyed, because of filming order and the fact that they changed that detail.) And the music is a huge part of that.

      2. IMHO, he’s not always a sign of a great movie. Cough, cough The Phantom Menace cough, cough. 🙂

        OTOH, he makes a good movie better, but some coal ain’t gonna be a diamond some day.

    2. There is nothing quite like the pleasure of being swept away by a good story, is there?

      I usually read books I enjoyed that much twice in a row: once for the pleasure of living in the story, and a second time for the different, but no lesser, pleasure of seeing how the author did it.

      1. I almost never re-read books immediately. One of the few exceptions of my adult life is in my list of “all-time favorites.”

    3. Harry Gregson Williams is one of my favorites.

      Also John Newton Howard, and specifically his score for the Village. The movie itself is ‘meh, okay, not bad’ with some gaping plot holes and somewhat worrying undertones. But the score is easily one of the most beautiful scores I’ve ever heard. It’s my go-to music come autumn.

        1. There is a Battlestar Galactica track whose name escapes me at the moment by Bear tgat I enjoy.

          The oddly named Budget Meeting by… Hans Zimmer? Is another favorite of mine.

          Yuki Kajiura, Yoko Kanno, and whoever did the OST for Nier:Automata are also very good listens.

          1. Oh, yeah–Budget Meeting is from the King Arthur soundtrack, right?

            That is an awesome soundtrack, but Budget Meeting is one of the best. (I have no idea why he named it that. It makes zero sense. All the track titles on that are a bit odd, but at least most of them have some relationship to the movie/plot…except for that one.)

              1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’m trying out Amazon’s music subscription service (’cause they offered it for 99 cents/month for four months), and will check it out!!

                  1. I actually rather like the movie, though I don’t recall the soundtrack making a huge impression on me.

                    It’s one of the few cases where I liked the movie better than the book. Largely because the book got really, *really* bizarre at the end.

  2. Ah yes, Writer Brain. Usually engages if the movie is really good or really bad. If really good, I put off analyzing it for a future viewing.

    1. I had a two-track thing going when I went with Sib and Sib-in-Law to see Black Panther. Part of me was counting off the Hero’s Journey beats. The rest of me was having fun at a comic-book movie.

  3. They keep trying to ruin British mystery, too. Poor Rowan Atkinson did a good job as Maigret, but I cannot stand the production style. It is like they are trying to minimalize the contribution of characters, while showing all their surrounding rooms and cityscapes as impossibly huge. Also, they keep slowing down the pace. It is Simenon! He wrote short pacey books! And mostly, I hate the angst music and the crappiness, when the set designers and costumers and actors have clearly worked their butts off. It is just as bad as that Durrells in Corfu series, which I think was directed by the same crup excuse for a director.

    Seriously, I hate these people. Quit ruining the good stuff.

    Amusingly, Mme. Maigret is now extremely goodlooking. I mean, sure the lookers need jobs too, but she is supposed to be very normal.

  4. My husband hates it when the Dragonette and I start talking movies. We aren’t writers (since that requires getting the damn thing out of my head and on paper), but we’re both avid readers, so we pay attention to story more than Hubby does. We’ll have long discussions about what was missing, what should have been done differently, and sometimes even the differing fan theories and whether they actually work (no, Anna and Elsa’s parents were not also Tarzan’s parents). My theater background also leads to me dissecting lighting choices, music, and costumes, and I happily drag the Dragonette right along with me.

  5. I’d just finished reading Dwight Swain and we were watching Hunger Games on TV. What’shername decides to take her sister’s place in the games. I shriek: “Look, look! That’s the decision! That means the beginning is over.” No one but me cared.

  6. Yeah, my daughter and I keep dissecting movies and series episodes for plot. It’s at least a good way to get good out of a bad movie, assuming that we were suckers enough to get dragged into watching it.
    Want to know what I think was one of the most tightly plotted movies ever? Adventures in Babysitting. Every element in that movie – even the most apparently throw-away element – was there for a reason relevant to the plot. Everything from the little girl’s roller-skates and fixation with Thor, to the story of the hook-handed bandit, and the copy of Playboy magazine with the centerfold who looked like the heroine. It all tied together at the end, like one of those intricate 3-d wooden puzzles where all the pieces slid perfectly together.
    When I grow up, I hope to be able to plot like that.

    1. That movie is an amazing and awesome classic. And I’d never considered the plot before–just that the movie is a ton of fun, and hilarious to boot. But you’re right: that is one HELL of a tightly plotted story!

  7. Evil Rob and I do some similar things with plays. When we saw The Lion King (traveling version), my critiques basically boiled down to “they didn’t push it far enough.” The best parts of the show were the ones designed for the stage; the more African-savannah influence there was, the better it came off. The Disney parts paled by comparison, especially a second-act new song that was the worst of teenaged angst. And the final fight scene choreography drove me bonkers—part of it was that they seemed to be phoning it in that night, but a large part of it was that it was ballet-inspired, and if you’ve ever seen various forms of, say, South African dance, you know that it’s more warlike, and would be a better directorial choice.

    This doesn’t always apply. But I’ve seen some stellar choices (like Cats, of all shows, made into something amazing by simply changing the setting to The Victoria Grove Institute for the Mentally Infirm), and I’ve seen a lot of mediocre stuff, and for the latter, analysis is sometimes the only way to get through it.

    1. Wow. I’ve seen Cats twice on stage, but both times it was the bog-standard junkyard. Having it be in a mental institution…that’s freakin’ brilliant. And it would totally transform the work!!

      1. It actually makes sense that way. And the staging was absolutely brilliant too. FWIW, it’s a high school that put it on, though one whose director thinks that “good for high school” is an insult, and often far surpasses the traditional theater level. (And dang, they have a far better budget than *we* ever got to play with. Private school, big donors.)

        1. Hell, the best and most entertaining version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I ever saw was when I was in high school, and it was put on by my high school’s drama group.

          Come to think of it, I liked their production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella better than any other version too.

          And sure, it was an insanely wealthy high school (full of largely very wealthy kids), and so the production budgets for the plays were probably very, very good…but all the same, this was a high school production, and they were absolutely fantastic.

          (If any of y’all have ever read Mercedes Lackey’s Jinx High that was actually set at my high school: Jenks High School, in Jenks, Oklahoma. Many of the students are from very wealthy–or at least very, very upper middle class–families, and the school campus was nicer than that of the university I later attended.)

  8. I once ruined a D&D campaign by accurately predicting the plot-caused death of a particular NPC, and it so threw off the newbie DM that he didn’t have any more sessions after that.

    Apparently he didn’t realize how hard he was foreshadowing it.


      1. You’re already hated and reviled by all the “best” people, Sarah. Why not live down to their expectations, really go for the gusto! ~:D bwaha!

        Was it Black Panther? Because I squirmed all the way through that thing.

          1. Tora Tora Tora? Battle of Britain? Guns of Navarone? The Right Stuff?

            Rogue One? [Bwhaha!]

              1. Is it okay if I say PEARL HARBOR!!!! and run away really fast? [running away laughing]

                That was a dumb movie. Tora Tora Tora was -so- much better. Don’t carp me, bro.

          2. I think I know the one. The trailer confused the heck out of me until I recognized when it was set, because it was surrounded by SF trailers at the movie I watched, so my mind was in “alternate universe?” mode.

          1. I think it is the one that my family members asked me to leave the room, because my grumbling and popcorn throwing due to massive historical omissions and other “minor flaws” were distracting everyone else.

  9. I think musicians may have it even worse than writers. I can put up with a lot of amateur mistakes if the overall story is good, and I’ll forgive just about anything if I love characters and they’re handled right. But I’ve watched professional musicians leave the room if they hear an amateur playing (who sounds just fine to me).

    And yes to the emotional tricks, or buttons, or whatever; you have to use them correctly, so that the audience doesn’t see it. And it needs to tie in with the story. I am a complete sap, I’ve cried at long distance phone commercials. But I’ve remained completely dry-eyed at tear-jerker movies because I could see the strings, and they weren’t set up right; instead it was more, Oh, we need a deep moment here, let’s kill a completely random deer.

    On the ones that don’t work – I do have fun thinking about What went wrong? and How would I fix this? (Along with, What were people thinking?) I’ve actually considered having fellow writer friends over, showing the non-quite-there movie (current favorite candidate is Frozen) and then inviting general discussion.

    1. That may be a perfect pitch thing. As if you’re off, it gives me a headache. I’m not sure what the ratio of pros with perfect pitch to those without is, but since it may be enabled by starting music very young (or learning a tonal language), and many pros do start very young, I’d guess it above average incident in the general population. If UC Berkeley’s still working on the matter of perfect pitch, they probably have that number.

      1. I have a decent sense of pitch, and while amateur musicians are grating, it’s people who should be professional that drive me nuts. (I’ve had to sing in far too many situations with total amateurs to be truly bothered by it any more. But someone who is supposed to be a singer going a third of a tone flat? Oh no.)

  10. I am not shy to say I re-watched The Last Jedi the other day.

    Now, when I saw it in the theater, I was disgusted. So many pointless plot elements, so many CGI fails (arching ballistic pathways for space weapons) and of course the inevitable Leftist anti-Capitalist undercurrent running through the writing.

    Watching it on Netflix, and already knowing the annoying bits, I found the smaller screen more forgiving to the movie. I could let go of all the grown-up stuff and watch it as a kid’s fantasy movie. So as a fantasy on TV (for free, be it noted, because Netflix) it was okay. As a science fiction movie at the theater, not okay.

    As another episode in the mythos of the Jedi, its a massive failure because of all the writing issues. One of which is the thing Dave was mentioning yesterday in the Mr. Character thread, there’s too many characters to follow. We’re given no reason to particularly care about any of them. Even Rey, who’s supposed to be following the Hero’s Path, by the end there’s really nothing going on. She gets in a couple of fights, yells at Luke Skywalker a few times, and flies off with the corporal’s guard that’s the sole remainder of the Resistance.

    But, treated as a kid’s flick on the television, all that seems to be ignorable. I didn’t pay twenty bucks either, so that doesn’t hurt.

    In support of Sarah’s main theme though, most of the writing in movies and TV shows these days is -horrible-. Awful. They rely entirely on the music, the cinematography, the beautiful actors and the costuming. The -story- part is crap.

    One of the worst offenders lately for me, British cop shows. Watching Midsomer Murders, because a dweller at Chez Phantom is a mystery fan, I’m continually struck by how disgustingly thin the characters are. The wife of the murder victim just found out and she’s shocked stupid, but in the same scene she’s making plans with a side-character to do something later after the cops leave.

    What? Are you kidding me?

    She’s not even the bad guy. They just needed her at the pub later, so that’s how they wrote it in. LAZY!

    The mystery shows and police shows are -stuffed- with this type of thing, making them virtually unwatchable unless part of the fun is throwing popcorn at the screen and yelling “Oh, what now?!!”

    Interestingly, this never happens when I watch anime. I merely accept the tropes and silly characters, they don’t take away from the fun of the show. Even Korean dramas, all the stock stuff they always do is okay to watch. It isn’t -cringey-, its just that thing they always do.

    1. I actually really like The Last Jedi, but then I watch and enjoy Doctor Who, which is notorious for bizarre plot holes and physical impossibilities. It feels right, which is more than the prequels ever did.

      1. I haven’t watched Dr. Who since the Tennant years, but they are master button pushers (at least, it works for me) – so much gossamer, smoke and mirrors, and when you really push, there’s not really anything there, and yet they still made me cry!

        1. Peter Capaldi’s run as the Twelfth Doctor is sooooo worth watching. Even though it has some enormous stinkers in regards to ridiculous plot holes. (I enjoyed the Robin Hood one because of the Doctor and Robin snarking at each other, but the over plot of the episode sucked hugely. And then there was the ‘capitalism is evil’ one ::rolls eyes::)

          (And while Matt Smith might not be everyone’s cup of tea as Eleven…his run had some of the absolute best-written episodes of Who.)

          But yeah. I can’t help but love Doctor Who overall, even though they have some really awful writers from time to time.

          1. I started rewatching the new versions and suddenly realized how depressing the whole thing is. Everyone dies and the Doctor just goes on and on.

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