Creating a strong antagonist in a crime novel can be the key to the success or failure of your story. I’m a firm believer that “the bad guy” has to be as smart or, preferrably, smarter than my hero…and someone whose personality and actions will highlight all the weaknesses and conflicts that make my hero who he is.
I also make sure my “bad guy” is more than just a bad guy…he’s someone with his own agenda, his own demons, his own needs, someone who has more going on in his life than whatever criminal act he is engaged in (or that he has already committed). And that’s very important. Rarely is anyone just pure evil for evil’s sake…except in cartoons, Batman episodes, or James Bond movies.
I always try to look at the story from the bad guy’s point of view and ask myself what he’d be doing if he was the hero of the story…and if my protagonist was, in his view, the “bad guy.” I have to invest as much thought in my bad guy as do in my hero if the story is going to work.
You can learn a lot about making bad guys rich characters by watching THE SOPRANOS, a show that’s ostensibly all about the bad guys. Sure, they killed people, but they also had mortgages to pay, worried about their kids, read the morning paper, had all the responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and anxieties that “good guys” have. They didn’t wake up each day and ask themselves “what evil can I do today…mwa-ha-ha.”
I learned to make my bad guys fully-rounded characters, with lives and goals of their own, from watching COLUMBO…and later working for Stephen J. Cannell…and reading Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.
On COLUMBO, we spent the first half-hour of each episode watching the bad guys, getting into their lives, understanding why they had to kill. But what ultimately made COLUMBO such a pleasure was that he was always outmatched by the bad guys…and beat them anyway. The smarter the bad guys were, the smarter he had to be to beat them. Or, to put it another way, the best bad guys brought out the best in Columbo.
It was Steve Cannell, one of my mentors, who taught me to always ask myself “What is the bad guy doing?” “What does the bad guy want?” “What is the bad guy thinking about?” in every scene where the bad guy wasn’t on screen. The bad guy always had to be doing something, not sitting around waiting for the detective to catch him or simply throwing obstacles in the detective’s way.
Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry (in his westerns) made their “villains” as likeable, layered and interesting as their heroes…in fact, some times they were even more compelling. Leonard and McMurtry excelled at creating likeable, funny, believable psychopaths and killers.
The bottom line: having a strong antagonist makes your hero stronger and your story better.
My writing ritual is simple. I do my best writing from 8 pm-2 am…and I usually start my day at 10 or 11 am by rewriting what i did the day before. When that is done, I start writing “the new stuff.” I repeat that process until the book is done.
I’m a big believer that writing is rewriting…and that it’s always easier to rewrite crap than it is to fill an empty page…
Get. Something. On. The. Page.
That is my writing mantra.
But that often means that what I end up with at the end of the day is terrible or just the broad strokes of what I am going for. I know I will go back, sharpen the dialogue and color between the lines, adding the character or details left out in my eagerness get something down. Or it can go the other way…I’ve written endless reams of exposition and dialogue that I need to trim with an ax. Ten pages of blather becomes three pages of tight, lean writing. If what I’ve written doesn’t further the plot and reveal character then it has to go. I am also very aware the beat of my story, the pace…it’s almost like tapping my foot to music. If i lose that beat, cuts or revisions need to be made to move things along.
I typically go through the pages with an eye toward cutting all the exposition that I possibly can,all the unnecessary details that slow the pace, and taking whatever clever lines I come across in prose seeing if I can put them into my characters’ mouths instead. I strike out any cliche phrases, which were left as place-holders for actual writing that I’d do in the revisions.
I will often rewrite a scene four, five or six times before a book is finished. So when I complete my first draft, it’s pretty close to done. Anything I do at that point, before turning it in, is more about tweaking and polishing.
PS – I should also mention that I always work from an outline, I never just wing it. I need to know where I am going so that when I’m writing I’m concentrating on writing, not plotting. My plot may change (and often does) as I write, and when that happens, I revise my outline. That is a continual process. I usually finish my outline, which I call a living outline, about a week before I finish the book.
I love TV and I have a secret addiction (okay, not so secret if you are reading this blog) to TV reference books and books about individual, often obscure TV shows. Here are reviews of two recent books that fit the bill.
MR. NOVAK: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter (Bear Manor Media) Chuck Harter’s MR. NOVAK is a terrific book on the making of a short-lived, little-known (because it’s hardly been rerun), but widely-acclaimed (in its time) TV series that starred James Franciscus as a teacher and Dean Jagger as his principal. MR. NOVAK followed the successful DR. KILDARE template, a series made by the same studio and developed by E. Jack Neuman, the writer/creator of this series, and it was undoubtedly an inspiration for the much-more sucessful ROOM 222, which came along years later. Harter’s book benefits enormously from his extensive research and numerous interviews with the key players of the show, both behind the camera and in front of it (some interviews were conducted personally, others gleaned from press reports and other sources). In many ways, MR. NOVAK is a story of opportunity lost — the series was a critical and popular hit in its first season, but then was sabotaged by financial and creative studio and network meddling in the second season, which included a misguided change in the writing and the loss of key cast members. You don’t have to be a fan of MR. NOVAK to enjoy this book — in fact, I’ve never seen a single frame of the program. But I found the book fascinating anyway. The book comes with a detailed episode guide and two great bonus features — E. Jack Neuman’s “bible” for writers on the series and the synopsis of a two-part cross-over episode with DR. KILDARE about VD that was nixed at the last second by skittish NBC (the synopsis is inexplicably titled “a novelization” by Harter, which it most certainly is not). There are a lot of valuable lessons that current TV professionals — writers, producers, and executives — could learn from reading this detailed examination/appreciation/history/post-mortem of what could have been a landmark series in TV history if not for its death from self-inflicted wounds.
Note: This is a minor quibble, but two errors jumped out at me. In discussing the post-NOVAK career of James Franciscus, Harter says that LONGSTREET ran for two seasons and that HUNTER, an episionage series co-starring Linda Evans, ran for 13 episodes on SyFy. In fact, LONGSTREET only ran for one season and HUNTER aired on CBS for eight episodes (13 were shot, five never aired) in 1977…decades before SyFy channel even existed.
But the MOWs, as they were called, were more than just the TV equivalent of “grindhouse”/ “exploitation” movies. They were also a vivid reflection of our society at the time. Sadly, these often terrific movies are very hard to find, rarely showing up either on DVD or in syndication, and are very underappreciated. And that’s a shame, because as editor (and Made for TV Mayhem blogger) Amanda Reyes notes, “the seventies are considered the heyday of the made for television movie…the phenomenon of the television movie, while fairly well known, still struggles for recognition and remains one of the most overlooked mediums.” MOWs were also, as she observes, “a welcoming place for classic actors hoping to make a fast buck” and for “TV actors to break the mold of a long-running series in which they were often trapped.” Those of us of a certain age still remember the delight of seeing wholesome Andy Griffith become a baddie in the classic MOW Pray for the Wildcats or the spectacle of a faded big screen star like Bette Davis in the awful Madame Sin
Are You in the House Alone? is essentially a collection of hit-or-miss essays leading into a large section of reviews of some of the most memorable TV movies. The best essays are those focusing on the heyday of MOWs, the 1970s, and some of the thematic issues they tackled. The essays on “World War III in Television Movies” and “The Plight of the Small Screen Superhero” feel more like blogposts that the authors didn’t bother to flesh out for the book. And the section on mini-series (this is a book about TV movies, isn’t it?) and the TV films of Wes Craven read like filler.
Perhaps the best portion of this 338-page paperback is devoted to movie reviews, even if some of the choices are rather perplexing. I can see why Reyes included reviews of MOWs that were failed pilots for TV series (like Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, Baffled, or Men of the Dragon), but I don’t get why include they also included a few that became series (like the MOW pilots for HAWAII FIVE-O, COLUMBO and HARRY O)? I would have preferred to see reviews of more obscure, unjustly forgotten MOWs. My other quibble with the reviews is that they all list the director and principal cast — but not the screenwriter. That strikes me as a major oversight (though, in some cases, the screenwriter was mentioned in the course of the review).
That said, this book was a giddy delight (a feeling clearly shared by many of the authors towards the movies), thought-provoking….and a welcome bit of nostalgia. It had the same effect on me as hearing Burt Bacharach’s ABC Movie of the Week theme has on Reyes… “it brings back more than just the movies…it brings back a time, a place and a moment when your television set turned into a bonafide movie theater and anything was possible.”
I like praise as much as anybody else, but I also get twisted enjoyment sometimes out of reading reviews that trash my books. Here are some of my favorite one-star reviews of my work:
Quite possibly the worst book I have ever read. Skimmed through it so to save my brain cells from the most tabloid trash movie script effort of writing. My desperate need for a book still does not justify me actually turning the pages. Read the comics, you will be much better off and not have my need to flay myself for reading such trash.
Anytime it takes me four days to read a book is a sign it’s not going good.
This is such juvenile junk! The author of this trash has a sick, degraded mind.
this book is not something you can read to your mom or grandmom. The sexual references, while not too graphic, are still too embarrassing to be read aloud.
The only book I have deleted from my Kindle. Only gave it one star because there was no lower rating
This could have been a pretty good book except the author had to ruin it with the “f” word dozens of times & even used God’s name in vein a few times. Shame on you!!!!
Depressing to know the author is so widely read.
He’s about as funny as an uninvited guest standing in a corner with a lampshade over his head.
Terrible read. Dialogue was among silliest ever possibly strung together in one book. Looking forward to read the sequel soon.
This could have been a pretty good story line but the writer needs more imagination and a whole lot more English lessons. If I could give it less than one star I would. If he cleans up his act and works a little harder he may get to be a good writer but for now it’s a “don’t bother”
Mind-numbingly bad. We read books to entertain and stimulate our brains. This written by the numbers drivel will put it to sleep, induce a coma and flush all rational thought from your mind forever. Read at your own risk. You’ve been warned.
While Lee Child, Micheal Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh will never win Nobel Prizes, trash like this shows what good and articulate craftsmen they are.
Shame on you Lee Goldberg. I am done with anything with your name on it .
The first of many TRUE FICTION videos and trailers have hit the web (I shared some behind-the-scenes photos from the shoot a few weeks back). I really love this “movie style” trailer for the book:
And in this one, I personally invite you to read the book:
I can’t wait for the other videos to come out. They include short interviews and some embarrassing photos from my dark, mysterious past. They will be all over the web but I will be sure to share them here with you, too. I’ll also be sharing photos from my book tour, which begins April 14 at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego.
I have a huge collection of TV series boxed set DVDs. I am particularly fascinated by short-lived TV series… bombs like FUTURE COP, CHOPPER ONE, CORONET BLUE, THE OREGON TRAIL, THE MAGICIAN, THE YOUNG LAWYERS, and SPENCERS PILOTS are just a few of the failed series in my collection. Here are a few recent additions:
RAVEN: The Complete Series – This show is very much an artifact of its time and is heavily influenced by previous TV hits written, created & produced by Stephen J. Cannell (ROCKFORD, A-TEAM etc) and Glen A. Larson (MAGNUM PI, SWITCH)…which is no surprise, since RAVEN writer/creator Frank Lupo worked for them both for many years. Jeffrey Meek was a white ninja looking for his lost son and helping people in trouble in Hawaii. He was aided in his search, and his do-goodery, by his Army buddy “Ski,” played by Lee Majors. RAVEN is pure, escapist fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously (in fact, its much better than I remembered it). Majors pretty much stole the show from Meek, which wasn’t too hard. Meek was likeable, and a talented martial artist, but didn’t have much charisma. Nobody would mistake him for the next Tom Selleck, James Garner, or even Lee Majors (in his glory days). Even so, I’m surprised the series didn’t last longer…perhaps it was a matter of timing, hitting the scene just as this style of television was becoming dated and stale (at least for the time being). This was Meek’s second attempt at TV stardom (having previously starred in the short-lived latenight series THE EXILE) and would have one more failed shot (MORTAL COMBAT) before the networks gave up on him as a series lead. The kitschy main title sequence and Christopher Franke’s theme truly capture the flavor of the show.
MOST WANTED: The Complete Series – I had to buy this. I am a sucker for any series Quinn Martin produced, especially the really obscure ones (I can’t wait for A MAN CALLED SLOANE, CARIBE, BERT D’ANGELO: SUPERSTAR, and BANYON to come to DVD. How pathetic does that make me?). Robert Stack didn’t show a lot of range on television. He played the leader of an elite crime fighting force in three series (THE UNTOUCHABLES, MOST WANTED, and STRIKE FORCE) and a crime reporter in another (THE NAME OF THE GAME). MOST WANTED, which aired on ABC in 1975, is easily the worst of Stack’s four TV series and assembly-line Quinn Martin fare — in fact, the police station set is identical to the one in THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. By far the best thing about the show is Lalo Schifrin’s terrific theme…and the most interesting aspect of the show is how the main title sequence changed between the one used for first two episodes and the one used for the rest of the short-lived series — the action sequences in the first one were replaced by shots of Stack awkwardly attempting to smile. Still, as bad as the show is creatively (and perhaps explicitly because of it), I enjoyed the set, which says a lot, given how technically awful the transfers are. I realize CBS isn’t going to spend the money to digitally remaster prints for a set like this, which appeals to a very narrow niche of customers. That said, I wish the studio would still put a little effort into it and find prints that weren’t run through sand paper before being transferred. The image clarity, color levels, and sound quality are wildly uneven/inconsistent from one episode to another. It’s as if they just slapped this together in an afternoon. The studio could have taken more care and produced a quality product.
THE MASTER: The Complete Series – For some reason, I had fond memories of this show…which is why I bought the set. What was I thinking!? The show itself is absolutely awful by just about every measure. Lee Van Cleef doesn’t even bother to act, seemingly reading lines off some distant cue card and repeating the words as if English was his second, or perhaps third, language and doesn’t understand what he is saying. The scripts are terrible. The direction is perfunctory. The martial arts sequences are poorly staged and edited…it’s laughably obvious when Van Cleef steps out and the stunt man steps in. Bill Conti’s music is a rehash of his FOR YOUR EYES ONLY score. It’s easy to see why this show bombed. Oh, I forgot to mention the concept. Van Cleef is a white ninja searching for his long lost daughter. He is aided in his do-goodery by Max (Timothy Van Patten), wise cracking kid tooling around the country in what look like Scooby Doo’s van. The DVD set itself is exceptionally well-produced with pristine picture and sound.
LUCAN: The Complete Series – I didn’t buy this set because I was LUCAN fan (though I did fondly remember composer Fred Karlin’s theme, which was only used in the pilot and first episode. I had it on a cassette tape). It’s one of those wonderfully awful, totally deriviative series from the 1970s that inexplicably fascinate me. LUCAN only lasted for 13 sporadically aired episodes and, to my knowledge, has never been rerun. The pilot starred Kevin Brophy as a man who was raised by wolves…and ends with him setting off to wander the country in search of his parents and, spirtually, himself. Sort of ROUTE 66 meets TARZAN…and is every bit as awful as it sounds. That quickly changed…the concept, that is…and the show became steadily worse throughout its short run. In fact, the most memorable thing about the show was how often the format changed. After the second episode, there’s a new theme by JJ Johnson and now authorities, concerned Lucan might “revert to wolf,” have hired a bounty hunter to track him down and imprison him. And four episodes later, the concept changed again...now the bounty hunter had inexplicably become a cop and Lucan was being pursued for a murder he didn’t commit. It became a poor man’s THE FUGITIVE with a touch of THE INCREDIBLE HULK thrown in (THE PHOENIX, HOT PURSUIT, STARMAN and a dozen other short-lived series of the 70s and 80s also had the same, basic premise and were just as awful).