Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Physics of a Great Story

In the world of Physics, there are two concepts that I absolutely love: Tension and Torsion.

According to

Tension: mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement.

Torsion: the act of twisting.

That said, the application of these concepts to writing are stunning. Too many times a plot is either predictable (I’m looking at you, Hollywood RomComs!) or lacks enough punch to make a reader/viewer really care about the outcome. Nothing is worse that getting to the end of a book or movie and going, “meh.”

Enter Physics.

Tension: You know there is something dark/embarrassing/alien in the MC’s past, but the author won’t just come out and tell you, dangit! Instead, he/she drops hints along the way, enticing and teasing you with snippets that reveal iotas of data when you hunger for the whole thing. Or perhaps the MC and romantic interest dance around one another, wanting to say how they feel, but never coming out with a “hey, you know I love you, right?” Cause, come on, where’s the fun in that? Thanks to tension, the plot becomes tighter, more engrossing, and the stakes keep rising.

And you don’t want to put the book down.   

Then there’s the torsion. You’re plugging away happily within the plot, enjoying the rising tension and then BOOM! The author drops a bomb on you with no warning. The police station is attacked, the romantic interest is the murderer, the Dread Pirate Roberts is Wesley, etc. Torsion within a story catches you off guard and makes you wonder what else the author has in store.

And you don’t want to put the book down.   

There are certainly many other Physics concepts that you can apply to writing (Force, Velocity, Entropy, etc), but the Two T’s may be the most powerful and effective ones out there.*

*You were right, Professor: I WOULD use my knowledge of Physics in the real

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Light in the Darkness

This Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, arguably the worst attack on US soil in history. The media has already spent countless hours replaying footage of that day, sharing stories of survivors, and asking the nation, “Where were you?”
Me? I was on a bridge in San Diego, paying a toll. The tollbooth lady turned to me and said, “You sure you want to go in today? A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”

It was just after 5 am on a Tuesday morning. 

What I didn’t know was that “a plane” wasn’t a little Cessna like I thought, but a passenger jet carrying travelers and fully loaded with fuel. Nor did I, or anyone for that matter, realize that the impact would lead to the destruction of an iconic building. Or that minutes later, the second tower would suffer a similar fate. Or that a third plane would slam into the Pentagon. And another fall from the sky into a Pennsylvania field because heroes on board sacrificed themselves to save thousands of lives.

But as unprepared as I was for the events of that day, September 12th caught me completely off guard. It was late morning and traffic over the bridge was terrible. The local base was on high alert and every car was being rigorously inspected. The ensuing backup created a parking lot out of the streets and cars sat for hours in the same spot. With A/C blasting, I waited in a suburban street and tried to deal with the shock from the previous day as well as the fear of what was to come in the near future. I had no idea a friend would never be found in the wreckage of the Pentagon or that many more would be lost over the course of the ensuing war.

What I did know was that everything had changed. The world was suddenly dark.

There was a tap on the window which pulled me back to reality.

A woman, maybe in her late thirties, stood outside my car with a case of water bottles. I rolled down the window and she handed one to me.

“You look thirsty,” she said. I thanked her and she replied, “Anytime. I just, needed to do something, you know? Anyway, stay cool.” Then she walked to the next car and tapped on the window.

Later that day, another image struck me. The skyline of San Diego was covered with American flags. The rooftop of every skyscraper and house in sight was flying the Stars and Stripes. Driving into the city, you couldn’t help but be moved by our flag silently flapping in the California breeze.

Of all the photos, reports, and media footage that came out of 9/11, those two events are the clearest in my mind. They are also, without a doubt, fundamental proof of who we are at our core. This nation is not without its issues and things have certainly been tough of late, but we know how to recover.

In times of horror, when blood, fire, and fear fill our hearts, we don’t become sensationalized attention-seekers, zealous peaceniks, or bloodthirsty war hounds. We become a nation of solitary figures who walk the streets with bottles of water because strangers might be thirsty. We become unnamed CEOs or never-thanked temps who ensure that a flag is flying on top of our building because it is a symbol of hope and courage. We become a family, willing to set aside squabbles because our hearts and souls are united in the love of country and one another despite all our differences.

There is much to be learned from the events of September 11, 2001 and there are certainly arguments about the course our country has followed over the past decade. But while many may think that we are a nation that is divided, one filled with individuals incapable of listening to or understanding each other, I know better. I have seen the true nature of our country.

It is a light in the darkness and it gives me hope.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Mathematics of Crazy

Without getting into details, this morning I had a nice, heaping dose of the crazies plopped into my lap. I take the bus into the office which means that at any given time, I’m enroute to or leaving the city with 75 of my closest friends. Give credit to the transit authority and the riders because in all the years of travel, this is the first incident worth remembering.

The episode involved someone who, in all likelihood, was merely hung over/still drunk. Even so, the subject matter and volume of his “self-conversation” were above the comfort threshold for most of us sitting nearby. There were some odd threats to no one in particular as well as a couple comments that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. About 10 minutes into our 30 minute ride, the woman next to me leaned over and asked, “Should we be concerned?” I said I was still debating and we continued to the next stop without issue.

When we arrived, the man hauled his guitar case, tote bag, and Red Bull off the bus. My seat-neighbor mentioned her concern to the bus driver who, in turn, told a nearby transit supervisor. The super went to talk with the individual and the bus continued on its route.  

Now, I’ll admit to being more paranoid/cautious than the average person and in all likelihood, there was no real need for concern. It was likely just a guy who had a few too many the night before and was up early to visit our fair city. He was just doing so in a creepy manner*.

Which got me thinking about the Mathematics of Crazy. That is, what is the likelihood that someone on your bus/train/deep-sea research vessel commissioned by SEALs to recover nukes really has gone off the deep end? If they are carving a KABAR into their forearm, chances are pretty good. Sadly, the signs aren’t always that obvious.  

To determine the Crazy Quotient, which is 100% based on my recent personal experience, I offer this equation:

Given 4 years working in this particular city at 5 days a week on a bus with 75 people each way, the total number of travelers comes out to 156,000. If you subtract 15% (totally made this number up) for holidays, days I drive into the city, etc, that equates to 132,600 normal people I've ridden with for every 1 who was possibly not. Going a step further, that means there’s a .000000754-ish% chance that in the next 4 years, the person behind me will be coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs. 

I can easily accept this, especially in a city as wacked out as this one.

Besides, what’s not to say that next time, it's you or me that is the .000000754-ish percentile on the bus?

*”creepy” being veeeeery subjective, BTW.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Storming the Brain

Shiny new ideas are the bestest, most wonderful things in the world. There are few things that can compare to that “ah ha!” moment when something coalesces in your mind. Inspiration can strike almost anywhere and the excitement over building a new story is intoxicating.

But sometimes it isn’t easy to transition from The Big Shiny Basic Concept to a well-designed outline. Maybe your epiphany was so huge that it included world-building items, ready-made tension, and stakes so enormous that you simply cannot get them onto paper fast enough.

Or, if you’re like me, it was just single a character or scene and everything else is a fuzzy haze. It’s those times when I stare at the page and think, “Crud.”

When that happens, the best thing I can do is simply mull over an idea for a while. It takes time for an idea to take shape and my “time” is either the hour commute to the office or a nice, long jog. Whichever flavor I’m rolling with, I intentionally keep the radio off and just let my mind wander over ideas or characters. I’ll ask questions like, “Why would X do this?”, “What would motivate Y to act that way?”, or “What if Z was a tetrahedron instead?” Sometimes nothing happens, but occasionally this quiet mulling leads to The Other Big Epiphany.

That’s not to say that brainstorming is easy or that you shouldn’t knuckle down and write your story. It takes a lot of effort to transition from a vague idea to 500 or 100k words and nothing beats the actual art of writing. But sometimes silencing the world, closing the door to distractions, and letting the mind fill in the holes is exactly what the doctor ordered.

How about you? How do you brainstorm?