Oblique Strategies For Authors, By Stephen Blackmoore

Today’s guest post is by esteemed urban fantasy slash crime writer, Stephen Blackmoore, who wrote the whip-cracking Dead Things last year (one of my favorites), and who will actually be carrying the Gods & Monsters mantled, continuing the series put forth in my own Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits. Stephen is here today — well, he’s here because he has incriminating photos and this is what it takes. SHUT UP DON’T JUDGE ME.

Back in the Seventies musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt came up with this thing called Oblique Strategies that was designed to help artists when they get blocked. It was a deck of cards containing a phrase or a word on each designed to help inspire the user to look at a problem in a slightly different way. Feeling stuck? Grab a card. See what it does for you. Maybe it does nothing. Maybe it unlocks the whole problem. If it doesn’t work, grab another. The point is that it give you something to help guide your problem solving.

The cards themselves are hard to come by these days, but you can see what was on them over at this site, which has an ever increasing list of these little phrases. Cryptic ones like “Honour thy error as a hidden intention” and “Use an old idea”. Things that you might need to unpack a little to really get a feel for what they’re trying to say.

Most times Oblique Strategies is a little too oblique for me. “Disconnect From Desire” or “Cascades” has never really done much for me. Possibly because the deck is really aimed at musicians. Or, more likely, I just need something a little more concrete because I’m an idiot.

What has worked, though, has been reminders. Things I always try to remember, but inevitably forget when I get stuck. Sometimes it’s a couple of words. Sometimes it’s a whole sentence. It’s still reads like bumper sticker advice, but the important thing is context. I know what I mean by them.

I started compiling these little phrases a while ago and I’m up to 15 at the moment. It’s a handy cheat sheet of my blind spots. At least the ones I know about. And remembering them helps me move forward when I get stuck.

So, here are my own oblique strategies. I’ve added context so you know where my brain is when I look at them, but this isn’t advice. This is just what works for me and has to do with my particular weaknesses. Maybe they’ll help you, maybe they won’t.

***

When in doubt, shoot the protagonist.

Sometimes you just gotta do it.

“But” and “Therefore”, not “And”.

Couple years ago Matt Stone and Trey Parker talked to a bunch of NYU and made an excellent point. “And” is fucking boring. This happens AND this happens AND this happens. Instead, try This happens, BUT this other thing gets in the way, THEREFORE these are the consequences. Easy to forget.

A straight line is the most boring way to get there.

Shit needs to happen between the plot points.

Own worst enemy

Fucking over a character is fine. Having them fuck themselves is better.

There are no darlings.

Words, sentences, scenes, chapters, characters, punctuation. Everything is on equal footing. If it’s in the way out it goes.

Zoom in.

I get caught up in the shape of the story rather than all of the moving parts a lot.

Watch the players, not the ball

And on the other hand, there are times where I get too caught up in the details.

A long time between monsters.

Read this. It’s educational. It’s a story about scheduling issues for The Thing that allowed John Carpenter to pull together a rough cut of the film between studio and location shooting. It didn’t work. Lots of problems. No one character driving the story, overly-bloated scenes. But the one thing that stuck with me was this. “He said the movie came to life for the first time during The Kennel, then lapsed into passivity until the next effects scene which was then the Norris transformation. And for a film that was trying to lay down its’ marker as a state of the art monster movie that, I remember John saying, was “a long time between monsters””

Burn it all down

A plot point, a character, somebody’s car, the whole fucking book. Also occasionally good life advice.

Go back to the beginning.

If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I took a wrong turn somewhere and need to backtrack.

Jump to the end.

And sometimes I just need to remind myself where I’m going.

Check the wall for Chekhov’s gun

I hide shit I can use all the time. A long lost cousin, a dead hobo, a treasure map. But I can’t shoot the rifle on the wall if I don’t remember I put it there.

Sometimes walking across the room is just walking across the fucking room.

I can spend HOURS on scenes that turn into “He left.”

Only an idiot would do this.

I don’t want my characters to be too stupid. Kind of stupid, because we’re all kind of stupid, but not so stupid that they won’t call the cops, or that they’ll go into the basement alone.

Motive motive motive

But if they are going into the basement alone, they better have a fucking good reason to do it.

How about you? Got any of your own?

50 comments

  • Really? Really.

    Would a real person do this? Who cares–it’s fiction. Would THIS character do this?

    My hardest thing is writing stupid responses to problems but that makes the best fiction. It must not ride the edge and fall into blah-dom.

    (Love your list–I’m making cards. Also, have you heard of Story Forge cards? A writing buddy had them at a retreat. They are fun and have shaken up several stories.)

  • I think I’ve done at least one of each of the strategies you’ve suggested. From shooting the protagonist, to burning down the whole story – especially in the middle of the whole damned book – and started over again in the middle to see what the other characters do with him, I’ve probably done it all… and it’s been fun, humiliating and frustrating at some point or another, but fun to write as well!

    I’m up to the last few chapters of ‘Fry Nelson: Bounty Hunter’ – Book 4 and I’m looking forward to finishing it. This is because I have yet to edit any of the books… they are still raw, deliciously just-written from the heart and have yet to be fleshed out with all the right sights and sounds and feelings of everything they need to give them the oomph they need to be published. :D

    And….. I’m really looking forward to doing that. :D

  • Good list. Thanks.

    The only one I can offer — though it’s for the very different beast of screenwriting, which is thus far the only long form of writing I’ve had any success completing — would be something like Keep It Tight. Which could of course be used in a variety of ways (some not even euphemistic), but as far as screenwriting goes, would be a good reminder to myself to keep the description stripped down as much as possible. It easily gets way too verbose for a form that’s supposed to be brief and punchy, so I have to go back through the rough draft and boil it all down to the bare minimum.

    Having said that, I’ve tried my hand at a few novels and have shelved each of them part way in due to waning interest or getting stuck or otherwise being too crow-like and just getting distracted by the sparkle of a shiny new idea (an ages-long problem of mine I’m constantly fighting against in order to finish what I start). I suspect your prompts may very well help in getting the flow going in any or all of those books. If so, due props will be coming your way.

    • YES. I love getting inside my characters’ heads but I’ve learned the hard way that with screenplays there’s no internal, only external. I use the “Keep It Tight” as a reminder to either cut out the internal stuff or find a way to show it on the screen.

  • My personal mantra when revising my work: Excision for Concision. Or, the great multitude of extra words that you have there you probably do not really need. ;) It helps me to remember to look for unnecessary words and get rid of them, which makes for a cleaner, snappier piece with better flow.

    Speak Out: Nothing lets you know that something doesn’t sound right better than reading it aloud. Especially with dialogue. If you trip over it, the reader likely will too.

    Don’t Sweat the Minutiae: If I do something later and realize that it screws something up earlier, I don’t go back and fix it. That breaks my momentum. Instead, I leave myself a note there to fix it in revisions. I also don’t worry over a bit of description that’s slowing me down. I leave a note and move on. I can go back and fix it all in revisions, but I can’t edit a page that’s blank because I worried too much about the small stuff, got hung up, and never finished.

  • Very handy stuff. The mention of the cards made me think of something I just heard about called story cubes (http://www.storycubes.com/) which are similar but use dice. Never tried them but they look like a similar concept and they even have a game attached. I think I need to burn the headers from this post onto a wooden plaque and hang it above my desk!

  • I remember when I was stuck plot-wise on my first book and my husband said, “Your characters have secrets. Throw a journalist in there. They always fuck things up.” And boy, did she ever.

    • Lol — as a former journalist, I appreciate the positive and negative aspects of this advice. I think I feel another mini-poster coming on (I change them as needed) …

    • Ooh, a journalist is a good one. My first book needed even more help than that. I had it finished, but it lacked a character to anchor it to reality. It needed… a psychiatrist! And lo, the book within the book. (Now everyone who reads it needs a psychiatrist, too.)

  • A few months back I wrestled with a particular aspect of my WIP. I pulled out what was troubling me, wrote an unrelated short story with a similar theme, and the concepts I’d struggled with gelled. Took a few weeks, but it felt more productive than spinning around in a revision loop.

    Sold the short, too, which is always nice.

  • YOU’RE KIND OF A WEIRDO – make sure there are more than a handful of people that would find this interesting.

    WHY DIDN’T THE PROTAGONIST(S) DO THAT? – Just because people get swept along in events sometimes is no reason to let that happen to your character. Or as a friend put it “your protagonist isn’t doing much protaging.”

  • Great list! Thanks.

    I frequently use “More Monsters!” as a rallying cry when things have gotten too easy for my protagonist and I need to throw more trouble at her.

  • “I can’t edit a page that’s blank because I worried too much about the small stuff, got hung up, and never finished” – authordjdavis

    this, right here, is a great one.

  • …”I can spend HOURS on scenes that turn into ‘He left.'”

    Sooo glad to hear it’s not just ME!
    And though it should make me mad when this happens, it actually usually is an enormous relief.

  • SHUT UP AND LET SOMEONE ELSE TALK FOR A CHANGE — I need to lock narrative up in the shed and go sit on the porch where the characters are talking.
    BREAK OUT THE BUBBLY — when in doubt, write a bar scene. Let some of my characters get loose, let some gossip come out, let some tempers flare, let some sexual tension escalate. I may use the scene or I may toss it, but Friday night adult beverages almost always shake things loose.

  • STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

    Force two people with no planned plot connection to spend time together. Bonus points if they become super best friends or bitter enemies as a result.

  • The one that I try to remember is: Plot problems are always character problems. If I don’t know what should happen or how it should happen it’s almost always because I don’t know the characters well enough.

    Also: I’m smarter when I’m writing. I’m most likely to solve the problem or come up with great ideas in the process of writing. Thinking about writing when I’m not doing it is a distant second best.

  • Here’s a few more I’ve come up with to add to that after 16 published books.

    WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER
    People’s weaknesses will get them into trouble over and over again. But it’s their strength that will save them in the end. Finding that piece of backstory to motivate character can make all the difference and twist the story in a totally different direction when you know the character’s weaknesses and strengths and WHY they have them.

    TELL THE TRUTH
    Often a character is hiding something. Why? What impact can it have when the truth comes out? Who will it impact most and what will they do as a result?

    RULE OF THREE
    When plotting I try to make sure that if something is a major story element it shows up three different ways in the story before the payoff. It’s a slow build, always increasingly hard on the character, but I know something’s missing when I don’t adhere to the rule of three. It’s a natural story-telling element (beginning, middle, end / maiden, mother, crone/ father, son, holy ghost/ good, bad, middle-of-the-road). This also applies to each scene. If it isn’t doing at least three things (such as building character, moving plot forward, revealing twist) then why have it?

    GO DEEPER
    As writers one of the natural tendencies is for us to glom on to the flight or fight reactions. We go for fear or anger. But if you want to write deeper, you have to go to deeper, less immediate reactions–things that will eat at a character’s gut and turn them inside out. Things like guilt, sorrow, pain, trust, devotion, hope, jealousy, desire. Find those reactions in a character and you reveal something about them.

  • Love the Oblique Strategies. I have the app on my phone and we used it in my band every so often. Some of them are quite strange. But I think that’s the secret. Less of a daily habit and more of an ‘In case of emergency, pull cord’.
    “Oblique”, for our purposes, means “odd” or “askew”. If you use them every time, you’ll end up with MC Esher’s stairs. Which, oh never mind. That would be fucking awesome. But confusing.

    Here’s my favorite that I must turn to time and again: “Gardening, not architecture.” My interpretation is that we’re growing something more than we’re building it. Further extrapolated along those lines, “don’t pull up the plant to see how the roots are doing.” Sometimes your characters need a few more days underground, in the steer manure, reaching down, getting stronger before they can break through and see the light.

  • Chuck, I don’t even read books about zombies, fantasy, urban or otherwise….however, your site is beyond genre…love it! Helps writers! Stimulates thought! A+

  • I needed to hear ‘Jump to the End’ right now. Duh. I did that earlier in my story, but forgot that I did that. Thanks for the list, enjoyed reading it.

  • Okay, here we go then…

    DON’T MAKE IT ROCKET SCIENCE, BABY!
    As both a sci-fi writer and an ex-software technician for an avionics company, sometimes I need to remind myself that my poor reader doesn’t necessarily have to know EXACTLY how my complicated thingamajig works. She aint gonna be using it – and she sure as heck aint gonna be bug-testing it – so I really DON’T need to justify exactly how it actually COULD theoretically work for real with reams of technical explanation that NOBODY ELSE REALLY CARES ABOUT ANYWAY…

    THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!!!
    An unfortunate writing quirk of mine I’m trying very hard to beat into submission; basically describing characters’ actions/reactions in so much detail the result plays like a scene from ‘Thunderbirds,’ with all of them bobbing their heads and waving their limbs about wildly like the little puppets. You know the kind of thing: “Bob nodded and smiled as Jane walked across the room, tossing her hair and waving her hand dismissively. As he got up he raised his hand to his mouth and coughed, frowning as Jane turned and batted her eyelashes with a giggle…”

    LITTLE BITES WILL STILL CONSUME THE CAKE
    For those times when I’m sitting there writing and I start thinking stuff like “Oh jeez, have I only written half a page? I’m NEVER going to get this finished – it’s too hard, it’s taking too long, it’s probably not even worth the effort…” etc., etc. Even if I don’t have much to show for my efforts at the end of a session, if I keep on doing them they’ll all add up in the long run.

    SCREW THE DIET – SOMETIMES CHOCOLATE JUST WORKS.
    Pretty self-explanatory really… ;^)

  • Watch tv. See how how your favorite program works through the episode, even if it’s spongebob. You can take what you see and twist it until it fits. Then go feed your cockwaffle, it will be hungry.

  • I’ve always wished there was an ‘Oblique Strategies for Writers’ App out there; suppose this is as close as it gets for now. Thanks for the ideas, guys and gals. Keep ‘em coming IMHO!

    For now I think I’m going to compile some of these suggestions into a flashcard app along with whatever else comes to mind.

    Here’s what I got so far:

    CUT THE STRINGS, GEPPETTO
    Character-driven shenanigans, not force-fed Riverdance moves. *bleh*

    IGNORE THE PLANT FOR NOW
    Great, you found that gun you planted three-bajillion edits ago. But now that it’s found, don’t premature ejaculate the load–err, bullet.

    THINK LIKE BUELLER
    Have one of your unfleshed (secondary) characters behave like Ferris Bueller and see what happens to the dynamic of the scene. Or *insert_Fav_TV/MOVIE/LITERARY/LADY.OF.THE.NIGHT_persona here*. Think like Gary Busey if you dare.

    DOES THAT ORANGUTAN REALLY FIT *THERE?*
    Square peg, round hole deal. Are you forcing a plot, Mr. Storyweaver? Or–OR–you really have an orangutan in the story, and now you are second-guessing the suit-wearing sidekick. OYa, and Wikipedia “ping pong show” to get this OBLIQUE reference. I thank my friends in uniform for this alleged nugget.

    COME LATE, PULL OUT EARLY
    Need you PERV more? It’s all about SCENE.

    Cheers!

  • When I was doing NaNo, and had a goal of 2000 words a day, I’d often get stuck around word 300. (Or 50.) So, it was basically a case of FUCK ALL THIS — MAKE THE WORD COUNT.

    So, I’d have them sit down and chat with a lovely beverage.

    Or watch late night TV with infomercials.

    Or go to bed and have a dream.

    Or send someone out.

    Or have someone new enter the scene.

    Very little of it was actually anything that would make it into the final book, but it almost always led to something that could be of use. (-: And I almost always made my word-count (until the end, which seemed to come about word 45,500, and then nothing but epilogues could save me).

  • If you’re writing a series, make up new cards based on lines from the first book. Then figure out what they mean. Then use them to keep the sequels in line:

    “Sometimes snot comes in handy.”

    “What’s the Statute of Limitations on Crotchless Panties?”

    “Most of the differences between universes are down to typos.”

    “Frack the Prime Directive. I’m cold and this isn’t my universe.”

  • I love the Oblique Strategies decks! I got two a couple of years ago. Don’t know if they still sell them. Google-Fu yields nothing. I use them all the time in my music and when I teach yoga.

    I guess my addition to this would be what Annie LamOtt says:

    WRITE SHIT

    This is the very sentence that allowed me to resume writing after years of a hiatus. Once you embrace this you can begin the journey freely.

  • I was stuck in my current scene. I only got as far as ‘shoot the protagonist.’ An arrow flew out of the woods and now she’s off.

    Usually I just throw her off a cliff. This is a good change of pace. Thanks!

  • I read a recap of the TV show Scandal and the reviewer said something like, “They write like they have no fear of next week.” I try to remember that: “Write like you have no fear of the next page.”

  • My favourite at the moment:

    Make the protag uncomfortable.

    Not angry, not ecstatic, not despairing, just… uncomfortable. Discomfort is an oft-forgotten state, but it’s surprisingly powerful when done well, especially in more downbeat/realistic fiction. I’m thinking like Kazuo Ishiguro discomfort. A feeling that’s there in your gut, but hard to pin down. I’ve found it useful to remind myself that not everything has to be dramatic, and that it is legit to simply let your characters feel slightly off about something.

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