Don’t Make Your Characters Dumber Than Your Audience

There should be a universal list of no-no’s that every writer (and editor) should be forced to go through when they have completed their work.  Amongst them, in fact maybe even atop this whole list, is that your main character should never become dumber than your audience.  Here’s what I mean:

I’m in the last 150 pages of a 2500 page fantasy trilogy.   I have some real pet peeves with this series (which I run into in a lot of fantasy novels) , but here’s what just happened.  Throughout this complex, intriguing, and very good story we have gotten very close to this character named Fitz.  He’s had to endure massive tragedy, massive pain and punishment, and massive discrimination.  He’s strong-willed, clever, and dedicated to his King most of all (who was overthrown by his scheming brother when the King went searching for a way to stop the raids from evil foreigners on their coasts).

Now, nearing the end of this epic story, Fitz and a small group of others have traveled out of their land to find the good King and help him overthrow his conniving brother.  For Fitz, this also would mean that his wife, a woman whom he loves more than anything but believes him to be dead, and his daughter whom he’s never seen will be safe and that he can return to them.  We are close to these people, and we want Fitz to get back there and finally have something good in his life.

Fitz holds The Skill (like Jedi mind tricks – only a few people hold this power and some are evil), though he was never trained in it.  There is a group who are from the conniving King, however, who have been very well trained in it.  They have been following Fitz and his group into the wilds, hoping to corrupt his mind and find a way to hurt him.  Fitz and his group members have realized that a very minuscule Skill-link has formed between Fitz and another character in his group, The Fool (he was the King’s fool – kind of a mysterious prophet).  They are all concerned that this link could be exploited by the king’s Skill users to get into Fitz’s mind without him knowing, or worse – they could take control of the Fool’s mind and get to Fitz.

Then the conniving king recently communicated to Fitz through one of his Skill users that I know where your wife and daughter are.  I will rape her, torture her, and then kill them both.  You can do nothing to stop me. As you can imagine, this is horrendous news for Fitz.  However, he quickly realizes that there is no way any of them know where she is.  So he simply must not allow them to know.

A few pages later, The Fool begins acting strangely.  He asks Fitz if he would be okay with him visiting his wife were Fitz to be killed.  Fitz responds that he’d rather his wife (remember, she thinks he’d dead) never know that he still lives because she’d be hurt he didn’t come to her.  But the Fool persists with his pressure and Fitz says, “Well I don’t even know where she is specifically.  Only that she’s near this town called Buck Cliffs.”  And suddenly the Fool freezes, collapses, and acts exaclty like the last two times evil King’s skill users tried to take control of him.

What does Fitz do?  He gets angry at the Fool for acting like an idiot.  Even when the rest of his group claims that they found the Fool laying on the ground having violent dreams.  They even say, “It’s as if he’s been Skilling using.”  What does Fitz do?  He gets concerned the Fool is sick.  Eventually the Fool wakes up and Fitz has a change of heart, telling the fool he does with him to visit his wife if he were to die.  “Why on earth would you be telling me that, Fitz?”  He doesn’t remember the conversation – only as if it were a remnant of a dying dream.  What does Fitz do?  He still assumes the Fool is sick.

So here I am.  150 pages left, and my main character has been deliberately made an idiot by the author.  Why wouldn’t they realize that the Fool is doing exactly what they’d warned themselves about for days and days on end?  They would realize it!  Instantly!  And if they couldn’t prove it, Fitz wouldn’t be able to hold himself back from using the Skill to try and kill those other guys or at least use people’s minds to try and warn his wife.  Oh I’m certain he’ll realize that the others have now found the approximate location of his wife.  But not for a while (and the book is nearly over).  And in the meantime, I don’t believe anything any longer.  I think a hell of a lot less of the characters I should care most about.


Published: October 9, 2010

The Double-Edged Sword of New Ideas

It’s funny how new ideas arrive.  I don’t get them a lot.  Maybe a couple of really good ideas every year, but definitely not more than that.  As a writer, though, we always have to be in search for those new ideas, and willing to open our minds to and chase nearly every idea that comes along.   We must test whether or not it actually is an idea worth really thinking about.

I read a lot.  Partially because I know I need to, but I actually love learning and gaining insight into other storytellers’ minds.  I read the news a lot, and try to keep up on scientific developments – particularly in Physics and Astronomy (I’m just very interested in those subjects).  Recently however, I’ve been reading a 2400 page fantasy trilogy which has been a drag.  As with many fantasy books the concepts are great, the characters are great, but the author gets so carried away with the minutia of the world that he or she forgets to tell a gripping story.   But this is where my mind has been for the last month or so, except for the 15 hour book-on-tape marathon I had in which I listened to The Elegant Universe (all about String theory).

So yesterday, I climb onto the orbital trainer at the gym, and start my daily exercise routine.  Within a few moments, no more than a minute, a new idea had spawned in my brain.  For the next 1/2 hour while I was on the machine, I followed that spark of an idea and saw where it led me.  The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.  There are strong elements of every boy’s childhood in there, but with a fantastic sci-fi thriller angle, all set in a great location which I’ve never seen in a film before.  And the kicker – I tend to think BIG – and this is an incredibly small, contained idea that could be made for just a few hundred thousand dollars – if the production team was right.

So I pitched it to Tess, just the concept, and she dug it.  It’s now been a full day, and I still think it’s got a lot of potential.  “Where’s that double-edged sword you mentioned?  Isn’t this a good thing?”

Well… here it is.  Writing is hard.  And writing from a brand new idea is very hard.  So while it’s great to have some cool new idea that I can actually <em>see </em>specific moments in my head that are thrilling, that’s all I’ve got.  Will it blossom into a full and interesting story?  It can.  Will the idea be worthy of the time commitment it’ll take to develop and write?  I could.  But will it?

This is the double-edged sword of a new idea.  It’s a spark, but nothing more.  Taking it from a spark to a complete, satisfying story full of lifelike characters, twists and turns, and hopefully interesting new ideas… well… that is very hard.   And these sparks are dangerous.  Potentially very dangerous.   Here I am now with at least 4 other scripts at some stage of completion, which can all develop into great scripts, and I am drawn to write something new before finishing those.

As Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio say, “Your premise will make or break your script.”  That’s wonderful advice, but equally important is having the dedication and fortitude to actually finish what you start.  We are not writing ideas, and we are not writing premises.  We are writing complete, compelling, and satisfying stories!

Published: October 2, 2010

Write Movies Finalists – 25th International Writing Competition

Moving on up…

Terra Incognita made Finalist at the competition.  They actually have made some of their past winning scripts.  Good competition to participate in.  At least we now have an idea that our script can compete with international ideas.  Global market value, baby! International Writing Competition #25

We received nearly 1000 screenplays, books, plays, short stories and articles from the following countries: USA, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Belgium, India, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, Greece, Nigeria, Georgia, Mexico, Japan, South Africa and The Cameroon.

The list can be seen at: CLICK HERE

Published: September 28, 2010

Terra Incognita – how the script came to be.

I should start out by saying “Terra Incognita” is a passion project.  Ironically, it’s not your typical, “I-have-a-personal-drama-story-I-have-to-tell” passion project.  It was my guilty pleasure of loving old time action-adventure high-concept fantasy films.

Anyone who knows me would classify me as a history nut.  For a time I thought I was going to make historical documentaries and even spent a good 5 years studying archaeology in pursuit of it.  But the narrative bug wouldn’t leave me alone, so I returned to the world of stories clearly influenced by my old field of study.

Terra Incognita was originally going to be my Thesis script from USC’s graduate program.  We wrote the synopsis, but something didn’t click.  We chose instead to develop something smaller scale, something new graduates could tackle in the Indie Market and raise funds for (A Touch of Magic). But high concept (and big budget) movies are in my blood, so I wrote it anyways.

LOTR aragorn's ring of barahir3

Adventurous, Awesome and God’s Gift to Women = Men like Aragorn

It is inspired by the memory of Men.  You know the type.  They burly, danger-seeking, tough as nails salty men who just don’t seem to exist any more.  It’s also inspired by the actual events of the discovery of Easter Island.  In fact, the original title was Rapa Nui: Land’s End – but man does that title suck.  I vaguely mentioned to Zack Luna, a Sales Rep from Kathy Morgan, Int’l that I was consider changing it to Terra Incognita – he said “now that, I can sell”.  I knew he was on to something.  A Good Title = a possible read.  All any aspiring writer could hope for, right?

Terra Incognita, for the uninitiated, is the mythical southern land mass the Old World believed existed in the unexplored areas of the world.  It was supposed to balance out the globe and be home to all the legendary creatures of mythology (hey, they have to live somewhere, right?).  Old nautical maps have it scribbled in the corners.  Or as wikipedia calls it:

An urban legend claims that cartographers labelled such regions with “Here be dragons“. Although cartographers did claim that fantastic beasts (including large serpents) existed in remote corners of the world and depicted such as decoration on their maps, only one known surviving map, the Lenox Globe, in the collection of the New York Public Library,[1] actually says “Here be dragons” (using the Latin form “HIC SVNT DRACONES”).[2] However, ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers did use the phrase HIC SVNT LEONES (Here are lions) when denoting unknown territories on maps.

Alternatively, ‘terra incognita’ may also refer to the hypothesized continent Terra Australis Incognita (“The unknown land of the South”), as seen in the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum map by Abraham Ortelius (1570). 


Dating from ca. 1510, is the second or third oldest known terrestrial globe. It is housed by the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library.

The old school adventurers truly believed in its existence.  They scoured the globe looking for it.

What if they found something?

That is what inspired “Terra Incognita”.  The “what if”.  And the ability to say something about the ecological ruin of Easter Island.  It really is a lesson for our entire planet about resource conservation.


Tongariki Moai Heads – the largest carvings of the ancient world made with stone tools.


The script has done better in competitions than I could EVER have expected.  We just heard back today that we are FINALISTS in the 25th International Writing Competition</a>.  We are travelling to Austin in October to meet with panelists at the Austin FF Conference.

I’ll be blogging about that experience soon!  Thanks for reading.

Published: September 28, 2010

Why is Writing the Red Headed Step Child?


I’ll admit, I’m in new territory submitting my script in lieu of my finished films to competitions.  And as my feature action/adventure tale of swashbuckler hero-types ACTUALLY progresses in the competitions, I’m amazed at the perceived insignificance of it.  I truly think writers get the short end of the stick.

Yes – there are 100s of competitions out there that really don’t mean squat to an aspiring filmmaker.  The same is true of writing comps or film festivals.  However, there are a few that honestly open doors for new talent.  Here are the top 5 competitions my research has determined to mean anything.

#1 Nicholl’s Fellowship – Ran by the academy and open only to non-professional writers (you can’t earn your living writing to win this fellowship).  Even quarterfinalists get industry attention.  HOWEVER – they got 6404 script entries this year.  Wow.



#2 Austin Film Festival – 17 years and still running. This competition runs simultaneously with their large Screenwriting Conference.


The Sundance Writing Lab is pretty awesome, but so very very rare to get an invite.  Don’t waste your money on the $65-75 entry fees at the other “pro” competitions.  If you want Hollywood to come to you, my money is on Nicholl.

Published: September 20, 2010