Writing Lessons from Angry Birds: Boomerang Bird

Like many of my peers,  I’m semi-addicted to Angry Birds. I used think of flinging birds and obliterating bad piggies as a mindless waste of time (we all need a little of that once in a while), but I can honestly say that playing Angry Birds has improved my writing—enough that I could write off the cost as a business expense if the Android versions weren’t free. Those cute little birds are very effective writing teachers. Seriously.

Angry Green BirdOne of my first Angry Birds Writing Reminders featured that Toucan-inspired guy to the left known as Boomerang Bird because of his interesting ability to double-back and hit things from behind.The first time I encountered Boomerang Bird, the spiffy introductory graphic told me what he could do, but without  revealing his deeper capabilities and nuances.

Boomerang’s behavior after tapping the screen is dependent on his exact speed and trajectory when you tap, and there are so many nuances that in the beginning he rarely did what I expected. With time and experience, I’ve gained some instinctive knowledge of exactly how to launch Boomerang bird and exactly when to tap to get the desired results. I also learned a few things the introductory graphics didn’t mention.

Which brings me to the writing lesson.

Know Your Characters

When I began writing fiction, my characters were so flat you could read right through them. I recall one critiquer who asked point-blank if I’d taken time to get to know my characters, asking a lot of obscure questions I couldn’t answer.  I thought she was nuts. After reflecting on the conversation and recalling the character development process I learned in the theater, I got the point. Since then, I’ve talked with many successful novelists about their character development process. Some journal, some do detailed character profiles, and others (myself included) use method acting principles to get inside characters’ heads and see what makes them tick. I’ve talked with successful novelists who spend months getting to know their characters before writing a single word of their manuscripts. Others just free-write and watch what happens, with the understanding that their first draft will be mostly dreck (which they normally are, anyway).

Whatever method works for you, do it with all the gusto you’ve got. The resulting character depth is like the difference between a plain, flat greeting card and a pop-up card with music and motion.

Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

I was stuck on one level of Angry Birds for weeks, so stuck I considered deleting the game and trying to forget the thrill of obliterating those bad little piggies. I simply couldn’t get that Boomerang at the top of the birdie lineup to turn around the way I wanted and hit that sweet spot.

Out of pure frustration, I launched Boomer straight into the leading side of the pile and watched in amazement while it all crashed, pummeling the pig population and producing three stars. In a flash of realization, I understood why I was having problems with one of my characters.

I’m writing a series with a couple of characters that have unique and unusual abilities. The easy way out as a writer is to let my characters use those special abilities, but after my Boomer Bird revelation, I rewrote a few pages and forced one to not use them. The entire dynamic of the inter-character relationships changed dramatically, and as I dug into the character I found that she was afraid to use her special ability in that situation. It made her vulnerable. Her best friend (my protagonist) picked up on that fear, but interpreted it as anger and rejection, adding even more tension to the friendship, along with layer upon layer of character depth.

Like real life, we don’t know what a character might be capable of until we corner them and force their hand. Take away a man’s job, a mother’s children, or a Pastor’s church and you’ll discover a whole range of hidden strengths, weaknesses, motivators and flaws. It’s those hidden things that make characters interesting. Next time you’re face-to-face with a bland, boring character, boot them out of their comfort zone and see what happens.

Just don’t be a piggie about it.


Reccommended: “On Writing” by Steven King

A few minutes ago, I closed the cover of a book. Big deal, right?

Not such an unusual thing to do, I suppose. As I writer, I’m a reader; the two are so tightly intertwined that they’re inseparable. I’ve got a big pile of books here waiting for me, some that I paid for, and some that I received as review copies. I’m horribly behind on that reading pile, because of late I’ve been abiding in the land of obsessive writing, doing a rewrite on a novel that I’ve been working on for what sometimes seems like forever.

I wanted to enter that novel in a contest. The entry consisted of the first fifteen pages (or less, my choice) and a single-page synopsis. The first fifteen pages were easy; I’ve had them for a long time. However, since the story changed somewhat with the rewrite, I couldn’t do the synopsis until I saw where the rewrite went. I still haven’t finished the rewrite, but I got far enough along to produce a reasonable single-page synopsis–though I know the story will probably end up a little different.

With that project finished (more or less) on time, and a day and a half before the contest closed, I took off with a wild haired idea I’ve been kicking around, and wrote the first chapter and a rough but plausible synopsis for another novel. I surprised myself with this one; it flowed freely and the result may be even better than my first entry.

Yes, I entered it. A ten page first chapter with a rough but plausible synopsis. And at the risk of sounding prideful and self-impressed, the second entry might have a better shot at winning than the first. Yaneverknow. 🙂

On Writing With those entries complete, I accepted the reward I’d promised myself earlier in the week: A couple of days of no writing, when I could read a good book and not feel guilty for taking time away from my projects. But, I was a bad boy–I bypassed several books that had been waiting longer to read the one most recently added to the queue: Stephen King’s On Writing. It might just be the most profitable bit of non-writing I’ve done in a long, long time.

I’ll admit that this is the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I’m just not into blood and horror. However, it was one of the best books on the craft of writing that I’ve read, and I’ve read a bunch. I like King’s no-baloney approach to the craft of writing, even if he’s given to vulgarity–and make no mistake about it, the book contains a measure of vulgarity, perhaps even a measure and a half. If you’re the kind who is easily offended by vulgar language, don’t even pick this book up, and if you do, please don’t blame me, You’ve been warned. I can deal with it; I work in a place where vulgar language is sometimes uttered, and I’ve learned to look beyond. That, and I grew up with it–my father could have out-vulgared ol’ Stevie without breaking a sweat.

Once you look past the language and a situation or two, this is a very honest book, a very real viewport into what made one of the most prolific writers of our times the writer he is. King provides some wonderful insights into his own creative process, and in more than one place stands firmly against some highly-regarded instruction I’ve received that, to me, never seemed quite right. Steven King and I write in much the same way, starting with situations, creating characters, and transcribing what they do on our mental stages. We’re not alone, by the way; some mof my favorite writers do the same thing.

King is a passionate advocate of writing for the sheer love of the creative process. He’s been fortunate to have made a few bucks in the process, but I sincerely believe he’d still write even if he’d never sold a single novel, just to feed his creative passions. I understand that on a level that defies verbiage. He also comes down rather hard on some of the things we tend to do to learn the craft; one of my favorite quotes from this book is:

“It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other pearls.”

I’ve invested a good deal of time and money on those seminars, and the best thing I learned at any of them is a sentiment expressed by Stephen King. The best way to learn writing is to write, write some more, and the write some more. Closely allied with that is a proven reality: great writers are great readers. I could almost feel the slap pf King’s hand when he said:

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Ouch. Makes me wish I’d spent less time obsessing over that rewrite and more time reading.

Bottom line: If you’re an aspiring writer and you can cope with some vulgar language, I’d recommend you read On Writing by Stephen King. If the vulgarity bothers you, I’d suggest developing a thicker skin. It’s one tool every writer needs to cope with criticism and rejection.

Now, speaking of tools, I’m going to go read a book.