What if your story is boring?

On July 3rd I laid out a series of pictures of my first draft. It’s a neat trick of allowing the mind to look over the landscape of notes, thus creating a mini-movie inside our minds.

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At the time I took those pictures I was in the final stages of the first draft of my second novel. The chapter outlines that I created were strong. I had a pretty solid beginning, middle and end.

Well…maybe not the end….but I had something. All I had to do was decide what direction to take.

Easy as pie, right?

Last week I sat down and got to work. First drafts are usually quick. I’m pretty sure all of you can agree a lot of it has to do with tossing everything against the wall. It’s a free and fun time to write.

Let’s be honest: It’s the only time we have where others aren’t involved.

My goal was to complete it in six weeks. Four if I was lucky. But after completing chapter one I knew I was in trouble.

The characters in book two have been floating around in my head for years. The only reason I held back was the plot. It was boring and I couldn’t find a way out.

It has to be fun

Dempsey’s Grill was fun. The plot was fun. The characters were fun and the way I see it, if the writer is having a good time so will the reader.

Not only was Dempsey fun but it keyed to my strength. Not once did I worry I was out of my league. I stayed within my comfort zone, never overstepping my boundaries. The characters knew what I was trying to do and they were willing to help.

Let’s face it, we all excel at what we do best which is why many of us do well when we write. But I ignored the red flags in book two. I decided to push though, positive that in the end everything would settle and find its way.

Book two came in two parts. While part one was a breeze it was part two where the bottom fell out and after a morning of writing I knew it was beyond repair.

Young Minds

Later that day my 14 and 16 year old daughters were having a snack before they went off to their gym class. Distraught over my dilemma I joined them and explained my troubles.

In typical teenage fashion they shrugged their shoulders and asked a very good question: Why are you making it boring?

Sadly, I didn’t have an answer. This was followed by a second question: Why do anything if it isn’t fun?

In that moment reality hit: I would have to scrap the entire outline. If I’m bored the reader will be bored. Why bother reading it?

So why did I invent a boring plot? Well, at the time I saw it as a challenge I didn’t see it as boring. It took me in a different direction, forced me to create something out of nothing but most of all….at least I thought….it took me out of my comfort zone. Which seemed like a good idea at the time.

Why do anything if it isn’t fun?

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Creating a novel should be fun. Yes, it’s hard work, but if it’s fun we don’t mind the sweat.

So this morning I took to the shredder and said goodbye to my outline. Yes, it was lots of hard work down the drain but this is the world we choose and sometimes it has to be done.

Tough love, they say.

Earlier today I sat down and asked myself a question: What would make me laugh? Then I turned it around and asked another question: What would make you laugh?

In the end it’s all about you, the reader, and that was my problem. I made book two all about me.

Now I’m starting over but I don’t mind. I’m already laughing and having fun. I can see the adventure, I know these characters well and I can feel the energy that was lacking before.

Book one

Boring is….well….boring and who wants that?  Now, on to book two.  

SPONTANEOUS FRIDAY

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My Favorite Birthday

Last week was my oldest daughter’s 16th birthday. Like me, she loves celebrating birthdays. We love holding the mystery package in our hands. That moment of curiosity and anticipation. The sound of ripped paper and finally, those precious few seconds before the mystery is revealed.

The other day I was thinking about birthday gifts and I asked myself did I have a favorite. At one time in my life did someone give me something that was perfect and unexpected?  

At first I thought it would be an impossible answer. There are certain times and certain gifts for every occasion. How could I pick just one?

But it didn’t take long for my mind to twist and turn the way it does when searching for clues and in a heartbeat my memory took me back to the summer of 1990.

I’ve mentioned my grandfather on a few occasions. His name came up when I did a piece about my cat, Morris. In my first post I compared writing a book to building a shop and I used his shop as an example.

His name was Joe. Iowa born and raised on a farm in South Dakota. He was an amateur boxer, spent time in the CC camp and worked in a steel mill for 40 years.

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He didn’t have a lot of regrets but his biggest was not being a part of World War 2.

As a boy he and his brothers stole moonshine from bootleggers. When he grew his hobby advanced to Saturday night bar fights.

When grandma came along she put an end to that.

The summer of 1990 marked the eighth anniversary of his retirement. But even in retirement he was independent, hardworking and lived by his own set of rules.

In June of that summer I came home from college. Little did I know I was about to receive the best birthday gift ever.

He wasn’t the type to ask for advice but that summer he did. An old log buried deep beneath his garden had been a thorn in his side since I was a boy. To my surprise he wanted my opinion on ways to remove it. For reasons I couldn’t understand it had to be removed that summer and he wanted my help.

We took endless trips to the hardware store as I figured out ways to remove the log. I remember being surprised at his patience. He was always the teacher but this time I was on my own.

We worked on the log in the morning and sometimes at night. It never occurred to me that I was doing most of the work.

During the day I worked at a friend’s restaurant and in the evening, if we weren’t working on the log, we would relax on the deck as I told him about my day.

When my birthday arrived I was taken to my favorite restaurant. I couldn’t believe he remembered I had such a place. To my luck and surprise it was all you can eat crab leg night and believe me, I ate them all.

We watched baseball in the evening and not once did he fall asleep. He wanted to know the stories of the teams along with my favorites when I was a kid.

By late summer, covered in sweat, on a hot Northern Washington afternoon the last of the log was removed. I’m pretty sure I imitated Rocky as he celebrated on the steps in Philadelphia. I do remember standing where the log once laid happy with our achievement as dirt and sweat covered my face.

It was around this time that I noticed he was losing weight. A summer cold, he explained, that took away his appetite. But he promised he was feeling better.

In a blink of an eye summer was over. On the morning that I left for college he was up before me. As I packed my bags into my car he said the most unusual thing:

“Great summer, kid. I’ll miss you.”

His words were followed by a hug and a tearful goodbye. Things he had never done before.

Five weeks later he died.

Sympathy was not his thing and the lung cancer that was killing him would have to wait until summer was over.

For years I was angry that he never told me but I knew deep down it wasn’t his style.

If I had known we never would have played pool in our competitive way. Canadian wrestling and the 4th of July rodeo would have taken a back seat.

And the log? I may have said why bother.

Looking back to my favorite birthdays I now see it was an easy answer. It was the summer of 1990.

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Happy Friday Everyone!!!!  

Synopsis and Queries and other headaches

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I am positive that there is one person in this world who has mastered the art of writing a query and a synopsis. This person, I am predicting, wrote a really good book and, with the same amount of effect it takes to butter bread, completed their query and synopsis with ease.

Because of this they are able to turn the heads of agents and publishers. Their really good book has more offers than they ever dreamed and it’s all due to their excellent query and synopsis.

 

They wrote it all by themselves!

I do not imagine this person wearing any kind of cape or any other super hero attire. I see them as average looking with normal clothes and maybe a bit out of shape.

I’m positive they live in a nice normal town. Location: Anywhere, Planet Earth.

They are unaware they possesses such an amazing gift and I doubt they ever will. As far as they are concerned every writer has the ability to create a top notch query and synopsis with ease.

I have never met this person but I am convinced they exist. But until I meet them, and learn their secrets, my days of trying to write my very own query and synopsis are over.

To save time, space and achy writer fingers I’m going to call the synopsis and query the Syn-Que.

I agree, it is cool!

 

I hate Syn-Que’s

Hate You

I have learned the hard way that the Syn-Que is a necessary evil. Necessary because it has to sell and tell. Evil because of their ability to cause the worst kinds of headaches.

The query is all about selling. Not only our book but us, the writer. It has to sparkle. It must be exciting and it must cause the agent or publisher to put on the breaks and ask – Who is this person?

The synopsis is a bit easier. In two pages, sometimes three, we tell them our story from start to finish. Not easy but easier. There is a difference.

 

I suck at it!

For the longest time I tried to write my own. None of them were any good. I rambled, I missed the point but my personal favorite was the time I forgot and added a description that I had deleted.

That was a fun one.

I had friends who tried to help me. Their intentions were good. Check that, great. Our endless rounds of rewrites were well….endless. I remember banging my head against the wall causing the nastiest of dizzy spells.

I’m not sure if the dizzy spells or common sense took over, whatever it was a moment of clarity bulldozed my frustration and confusion.

Writing a Syn-Que is hard if you’re the one who wrote the story. When you think about it, of course it’s going to be hard. We create the characters, the storyline, and the backstories. We know every fiber of this deep and rich novel that we created but now we are expected to grab certain pieces and forget the rest.

Asking the author to highlight key events is right up there with writing your own obituary. Where do you start? What do you include? Who do you leave out? Sorry Aunt Jane.

My answer to this problem was simple: Hand it over to my editor.

 

A simple solution

Solution

She knew the story just as much as I but it wasn’t her story and that’s the difference.

   My editor cared about it and was invested. She was also being paid to care and invest. Unlike me she did not have the emotional bond that a writer carries with their stories. There was no guilt or panic when it came to what should or shouldn’t be included.

It didn’t take long for her to present a winning query and an equally winning synopsis. They were so good that I tested the query to a handful of agents at the Portland, Oregon Writer’s Conference. I walked away with positive reviews.

Could I have achieved similar success had I wrote it? I doubt it.

So here’s a thought: If you have struggled like me maybe it’s time to put on the breaks and ask yourself if the wrong person is writing it.

Take a long hard look at your beta readers, critique partners, writer groups or your editor. They are a gold mind but most of all they are not emotionally invested in your book.

Nobody ever said it was up to us to write the Syn-Que so maybe now is the time to look elsewhere.

Happy Writer 2

 

SPONTANEOUS FRIDAY

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To Bucket List or Not to Bucket List

We live in a world of bucket lists. At least I do. I think the reason many of us do is to avoid as many regrets as possible when our final day arrives.

Years ago my big regret was travel. Being from the Northwest I travelled all over the west coast. From Alaska to the southern tip of Baja. I saw it all. But when it came to traveling east Utah was my limit.

Thankfully all that changed by way of a ten day trip to the deep south. A year later I added New England to the list.

This morning, however, my bucket list traveled to another direction –

 

The Anti-Bucket List

Yes, I had no idea one existed either.

It all started when my pesky cat, Flash, thought it was a great idea to plop a dead snake on my lap. After a few choice words along with the removal of the dead snake, I decided to create my very own Anti-Bucket List.

By the way – This is Flash:

Flash

 

Don’t let the photo fool you. He has a sick sense of humor.

 

How to Create the Anti-Bucket List

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To start with let’s get the dead snake out of the way. In fact let’s broaden the scope and say anything dead on my lap is a bad thing.

Following close behind I’d have to say being stuck in a spider’s web is right up there. In other words, me trapped like the guy in the movie The Fly. Google the ending and you’ll know what I’m talking about.   

Spider webs and dead things are easy but, I asked myself, what about the true annoyance of life. Things that my OCD and other mind controlling stuff would easily place on the list.

 

Little Annoyances Big Problems

  • The first would be a cluttered work area that never gets clean. Think of a bad dream running over and over in a vicious cycle.

 

  • Another thought would be a work area deep inside a cold, dark concrete cave. The old Kingdome in Seattle comes to mind. Trust me, I spent many summer days watching terrible baseball while trapped inside that ugly concrete bubble.

 

  • Moving further down the list, how about my favorite pens permanently replaced by cheap knockoffs. For all of you writers, you know what I mean. We love our favorite pens.

 

  • American football becoming illegal. With all the head injuries this may one day be true.

 

  • Spending months on an outline full of chapters I hate or eating peas every night and never getting the taste out of my mouth. I’m not sure which ones worse?

 

  • Becoming a Panster – No! Not again!

 

  • Spending my entire time and money at a writer’s conference pitching to agents. Please stop me!!!

 

  • Follow the advice of every critic and trying to please all of them.

 

  • Give in to Netflix every time the mood strikes.

 

  • Wave the curfew on my soon to be sixteen year old daughter.

 

  • Give the neighborhood’s semi-wild cat a hug. I still have the scars.

 

  • No pizza for life.

 

  • And finally – No carbs ever!

 

Let’s face it, some things we should never do and some places we should never go. But at the same time we should all be allowed to enjoy life’s rewards…..

…….in Moderation of course.

So there you have it, my very own Anti-Bucket List. I have a feeling it’s going to grow.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat Pizza.

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Happy Friday Everyone!!!

The First Page

First Page

Guilt

You and I are guilty of many things. We eat the last doughnut. We skip to the end of books and movies. We forget to water  mom’s favorites plant when she’s out of town and sometimes we’re guilty of asking a co-worker when they’re due when all they did was eat one to many pizzas.

It is true, not everyone is guilty of such things and for those of you who have never experienced such drama I applaud you.

But there is one thing we all have in common.

We all judge books by their cover 

I am a sucker for old book stores. Give me an old building crammed full of books, a creaky floor and walls in dire need of a paint job and I’m hooked.

Thankfully Eugene, Oregon is full of books and old buildings. The town is also full of people like me in search of the perfect story.

I am a sucker for dazzling book covers and equally dazzling openings. I have no doubt the greatest book I have yet to read is hiding in a nearby bookstore wrapped in a lifeless book jacket along with a poorly written first page.

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The Ever Important First Page

It is not fair to the author that there are so many people like me. All of us should look beyond the cover and the first page. A book is a relationship between reader and writer and like all relationships time and patience is a necessity.

But life isn’t fair is it and that is why a writer needs to be at the top of their game on that very first page.

A writer needs to concentrate on the one thing they can control: Their writing. In that first page they need to grab the reader and hold them just long enough to capture their curiosity.

As a reader walking around a book store we’ve all been there. An opening line catches our attention. We turn the book over and read the back. We hesitate and hold it a little longer. We walk around looking for something better and if it doesn’t happen, we buy it.

If you listen closely you can almost hear the author celebrating.

Last Sunday morning I played a little game. I grabbed random books off my shelf to see what exactly it was that caught my eye. I’ll have to be honest, some were a mystery. How they made their way to my shelf I’ll never know, but the ones I’ve included below were a no-brainer.  

Below is a list of some of the books I picked. I included the author, title and the first line or paragraph. I also added my two-cents to it all.

Check it out:

Stephen King – IT: The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end, began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

This read like a first person account…..so far as I can tell…which immediately caught my eye. The word terror and paper boat caught my curiosity. But the biggest one of all was at the very beginning….if it ever did end….I had to know.

 Stephen King – The Gunslinger – The Dark Tower 1: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

I’ll be honest, I am not a fan of the Gunslinger series but aside from that this is the best opening line I have ever read. One sentence. One comma break. The entire story is told. Incredibly hard to do but the master did it.

M.K. Martin – Survivor’s Club: Subject 12 had forgotten her name. She’d forgotten her boyfriend and her dog, her parents, her friends, school. The only thing she remembered was that horrible day.

There was no first name, just Subject 12. Why? She forgot her life. Why? The final three words sold me…..that horrible day. Perfect!

Lawrence Sanders – McNally’s Puzzle: She slapped my face.

It made me laugh and I don’t know why. I didn’t know if this was a comedy a drama or what. Those four words drew me in. I wanted to know more.

Keven Wilson – The Family Fang: Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief.

It seemed backwards to me. Shouldn’t the children be full of mischief? What exactly were the parents calling art and why were their kids embarrassed?

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold such nonsense.

I did not want to do Harry Potter. I didn’t buy the series, my kids did. But there it was, within reach so I looked at it and I’ll be damned, JK hooked me. It was so real and honest. This was the Dursley’s voice. I could feel the uncomfortable tone in their voice and I had to know why. What strange and mysterious event happened to them?

Tori Carrington – Dirty Laundry: One of the great things about being a private dick – aside from saying those words and presuming to lay ownership to something possessed only by men – is that it gets you out of going to Sunday Mass.

I’m sure some people would have found this offensive. I’m not one of those people. This is one of my favorites. It was so good I was afraid to put it down. I just knew the other people in the aisle would grab it.

Robert McCammon – Boy’s Life: I want to tell you some important things before we start our journey.

I knew this story was about an eleven year old told in his words. The important things he had to tell me drew me in.

Tim Dorsey – The Stingray Shuffle: Uh-oh. Lenny slipped me LSD. That can be the only exception.  

Clearly something happened and it wasn’t good. Obviously it was Lenny’s fault. Or was it? The main question for me – What happened during the LSD trip?

 So there you have it. Put everything you have in that first page. It could be the difference between a dusty shelf in a bookstore or a reader’s home.

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SPONTANEOUS FRIDAY

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Young and Dumb

A long time ago when I was a kid I liked people just like me. If you were loud and obnoxious and just a little rude you belonged in my circle. But if you were none of those you did not exist. The world included me and my kind and nothing more.

Yes, I was young and dumb, but one day it all came to a crashing end.

 

Moving Objects

I was working at a restaurant full of people just like me. We were loud, obnoxious and for reasons I’ll never understand – Employed.

I had been there for almost a year. I remember faces coming and going. Those who were in my cycle I missed when they let but those who were not I barely noticed.

For many they were nothing more than moving objects. Their lives non-existent. Their names a mystery.

One evening while on a break I announced with my usual excitement that a movie was coming to town that I wished to see. Figuring my circle of friends would join me I began making plans for an evening of fun.

To my dismay all of them said no.

How could they, I asked. Clearly we were all the same. Not only did we eat the same food, laugh at the same jokes and work at the same place, we obviously liked the same movies.

 

Quiet and Polite

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Grumbling and mumbling I began to face the reality that I would be going at it alone. The mere thought of doing anything alone was shocking and saddening. But the movie had to be seen. I was told it was a classic and the experts were never wrong.

Without warning a soft voice appeared to my right. She was about my age or maybe a little younger. I was pretty sure we worked together for a long time or did she just start? Do I know you, I wondered. You look familiar.

She was quiet and polite and sort of invisible. Another one of those moving objects I told you about. I glanced at her name tag and remembered we worked the same shift.

We saw one another 30 hours a week but for the life of me I had no clue who she was.

 

The Unexpected Date

Overhearing my complaints she too was counting the days for the movie’s arrival. She confessed she was going alone and suggested we go together.

Guessing we’d have nothing to talk about but at the same time not wanting a solo trip I agreed.

Looking back the movie was forgettable but the company was not.

Thanking her for coming along I suggested we treat ourselves for a quick pie and coke at a nearby restaurant. I figured our conversation would be just as quick.

Three hours later I paid the bill.

 

The Amazing Evening

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This quiet and polite person who I saw, foolishly, as an object was funny, curious, and smarter than I’ll ever be. I realized than it was I who was the object not her and a dumb one at that.

It wasn’t long before I began to question the circle I was a part of. Thoughts begin to surface – Is there more to life than what I know?

Her father was a minister. Her mother a teacher. I was not the religious type nor all that interested in advanced education. Keep in mind I knew all the answers. Why would advance education apply to me?

But as our friendship grew so did my interest in other things.

 

Branching Out

How many others like her are out there, I wondered. Could it be that the quietest person in the room is the most amazing person I’ll ever meet?

I can still remember the thrill just thinking about that.

I started branching out. I learned religion, farming, planting trees, hanging out with people who were nothing like me. At one point I learned the proper way of handling baby chickens. Trust me, there’s a system.

And my circle? Let’s just say it crumbled.  

I cannot remember the movie we saw or the others that followed but I do remember the lessons I learned.

We kept in touch throughout the years. The last I saw of her was just before I moved away. Looking back she had a lot to do with the way I am today.

Amazing how one person can change things especially when they were once viewed as nothing more than an object.

Was I really that young?

As for you, my favorite reader, the next time you’re out at a gathering search for the quietest person in the room. Don’t be surprised if they are secretly the life of the party.

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Happy Friday Everyone!!!

What We Learn by Watching Movies

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Have you ever watched a movie and asked why it was so good or in some cases why it was so lousy?

Every now and then I’ll catch myself asking these questions. Most of the time I’ll do it because I cared about the plot or the characters. This is true for the ones I didn’t like.

Last week I dug out a movie I hadn’t seen in years. The movie was Splash. A 1984 comedy/romance staring some new guy named Tom Hanks.

Splash 4

I was in the mood to watch an oldie but goodie and after watching it I started to remember just how good it was.

The 1980’s had a handful of classics – Amadeus, Platoon and Driving Miss Daisy – but comedies were slim pickings. Sure, there were some great ones but in most cases the writers tried too hard for laughs. The storyline was weak or the casting was wrong.

But Splash was different. It could have been a disaster, instead it was one of the best movies of the decade. At least I thought it was.

Curious as to why I thought it succeeded I broke it down and gave the movie a closer look.

I’m glad I did.

The writers created a wonderful balance between comedy and drama. One seemed to feed off the other. They were a team. Not once did I feel one needed the spotlight more than the other.

Tom Hanks played the lonely hearts brother. A responsible business owner going through a recent breakup. The other brother, played by John Candy, was the comedy portion of the team. He was immature, careless and had no boundaries.

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The writers could have messed this up. They could have gone over the top, forced the story line with punchlines, creating phony scenes and empty characters. Instead they took their time. We got to know the brothers by watching how they handled good or bad situations. We understood through their dialog and interactions who they were. Nothing was forced.

 Daryl Hannah played Tom Hanks love interest.

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She was part mermaid part human. It would have been easy and tempting to focus on the mermaid’s side of the story. The writers could have given us endless backstory or side characters in her underwater world. Instead, they focused on the moment. It was as though they were telling the audience to come up with their own answers.

For me this is why I liked her. The mystery drew me in. Where, if I were told everything, I might have become less interested.

At first she struggled to interact with humans but as the story unfolded we learned she was a quick learner. It was never explained and it didn’t matter. The writers challenged us to figure it out.

As I thought about it a lot of it had to do with Tom Hank’s character. We were struggling right alone with him and because we liked him and we wanted him to succeed, we were fine being confused and searching for clues just like him.

Eugene Levy, one of my favorites, played the antagonist. Or so we thought. His goal was to expose the mermaid’s true identity but grew frustrated when nobody believed him.

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At first Levy’s comedy approach turned his character into a clown. This could have been a deal breaker but the writers were one step ahead of us. As with John Candy’s character, the writers could have gone too far. They could have turned the viewer off and slowed the pace. Instead, they turned Levy’s character from the antagonist to one of the heroes.

As a viewer the writers did two things that turned this movie into a success:

  • When the mermaid was exposed and taken into captivity John Candy’s character grew. He realized in that moment how happy his brother was with her in his life and understood what really matter.
  • Levy’s character experienced the same thing. He saw the hurt that he created and took responsibility. Immediately the audience went from hating him to caring about him. We now had four heroes instead of two.

I will stop here just in case some of you have never seen the movie. Check it out sometime and when you do use it as a learning tool like I did.

Splash succeeded by concentrating on the characters first, plot second. The writers went below the surface and tugged at our hearts. By doing so we were allowed to see their faults. We saw tiny bits of ourselves which gave us more reason to care.

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Every now and then I’ll watch a movie that works. Splash doesn’t work for everyone but for those like me it not only worked but taught me as well.

Someday when you have time to kill do what I did and find one of your favorites. But this time, instead of watching it break it down and discover why it worked for you. What did it teach you as a writer that you didn’t know before?

The results may surprise you.  

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