A Simple List

Author JD Cowan provides a simple list of steps that movie, television, comic book, and novel writers can take to avoid ticking him--and other civilized men--off.
These four points are literally (in the actual sense of the word) all you need to do to get me to nod along and consume your story without it giving me a stomach ache. It's not hard or baffling to comprehend. I'm actually a very easy person to please and my standards are not all that high. I am a proud fan of Samurai Pizza Cats after all.
All I ask, aside from general technical competence, are four very simple things.
Doesn't seem unreasonable. Let's take a look at the list.
1. Do not spit in my face
General rule. Whatever you're writing, you're writing for a general audience. You are not writing for a niche audience, even if it is a niche genre.
Now before my fellow authors come in here screaming that I'm wrong and that you can't sell to "everyone"--you are misunderstanding my point. I'm saying you're writing for the general fan of whatever your story's genre is. The general audience. You are writing for all erotic romance fans and not just furries. You are writing for all Star Trek fans and not just Voyager fans. You are writing for all free verse poetry fans and not those who dislike poetry. You are not writing for a subset of that particular audience but for all of them.
This means I don't expect characters to stop the story in mid-tale to tell me my religion is for idiots or that folks with certain political opinions should be euthanized. The immersion is broken. Even if I agree with whatever opinion it is, it doesn't matter. You are stopping the story in order to talk down to me. You are calling me stupid.
In short: Write to market. That means not only knowing what your audience likes. It especially means not insulting them. JD is correct in saying that if you can't manage not to purposefully piss on your core audience, you shouldn't be writing professionally.
2. Do not burn down your own universe
Your story has metaphysics and a way the world works. It is given to the audience from the word go. This means you are giving them expectations that you are obligated to fulfill. You owe them a complete story.
This means you can not introduce a new origin for a previously nonexistent race in your fantasy series that overwrites an important anecdote your side character gave in a previous story. The former is obviously of more import than the latter on a narrative level, but in terms of audience investment it is the latter that trumps it. The audience comes first. You are clearly shoehorning in new material at the expense of a character and story they were already invested in. You are insulting me by thinking I will not notice your idiotic sleight of hand.
In every story, the author makes several implicit promises to the reader. Break those promises at your peril.
This also applies to characters. Execution is everything, and I can get behind tragedy and irony when that is the point of the story, but a character should never willingly undo the reason he started his "quest" at the story's start later on in the tale.
Amen! Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is indeed everything. Don't believe us? Ask Jim Butcher what he did with the lost Roman legion and Pokemon.
3. Do not make the main hero weak
Modern heroes are weak. It's not entirely by design despite what you might think.
The obsession with shades of grey in morality has diluted both the power of heroes and villains, but especially heroism. I'm not against morally grey characters, but your protagonist has to be someone I can root for. He cannot be "just as bad, if you think about it" as the villain just because you want to feel clever as a writer.
The insidious attitude that not only are there no heroes; there's no such thing as heroism is rampant in American pop culture. The point of fiction is escapism. If you won't give the reader something to dream about and aspire to, GTFO.
4. Do not make the main villain weak
Modern villains are also weak. This is actually entirely by design.
Look at stories like Wicked or Maleficent. What did these tales do? They destroyed the source material in an attempt to reform the villain and make them seem like a victim and the hero like the bad guy.
Now this might seem very clever and creative, but it's shallow. Simply swapping white hats and black hats is hackery. It's weak. There's nothing at all to it, and there's nothing actually being created. This is subversive storytelling at its most vile.
Seconded. Morally relativistic deconstructions like this might generate buzz, but in the end they're just gimmicks with no lasting substance. 

It's Storytelling 101. The protagonist wants something. The antagonist places obstacles in the way of the protagonist getting what he wants. If we don't root for the protagonist, there's no dramatic tension, which fuels the conflict that is the story's engine.

Now, you can have an antagonist who's not a villain. Countless romances use the "two attractive guys competing for the same girl" plot, wherein both suitors are morally upright gentlemen. But the most deeply resonant and memorable stories feature morally upright heroes vying against villains with hearts as black as coal. The fact that the hero isn't just getting what he wants, but thwarting objective evil in the process, lends unmatched pathos and weight to the conflict.

The villain shouldn't be weak in the sense of being a pushover, either. In actuality, he should be stronger and more dangerous than the hero--at least at first.
Now look at that list and pair it with what Hollywood and traditional publishing is pushing out and tell me who are accomplishing these simple points that have been the bread and butter of stories since cave paintings were thought up. You won't find much.

The Force Awakens vs. The Last Jedi
5-day revenues
TFA: $325,438,146
TLJ: $261,820,146
-19.6  percent

Day 5 revenue per screen
TFA: $9,038/screen
TLJ: $4,786/screen
-47.1 percent

Day 6: $16,900,000 (-65.6% from Day 6 TFA)
$3,993 per screen (-67% from Day 6 TFA)

For a work of fiction that's not designed to insult you, check out JD's new novel Grey Cat Blues.

JD Cowan - Grey Cat Blues


  1. MegaBusterShepard here....

    4. This is why Dr. Doom is objectively better as a villain than Magneto. Now I can understand the motivations of both men. However they have continuously watered down Magneto to an anti hero rather than a straight up villain. Doom is still for the most part evil, unlike Magneto he still has the edge that puts him a cut above the rest.

    1. Doom stands out from the rest of the Marvel pack because if you ask him, he won't tell you he's the Marvel universe's greatest villain. He'll tell you he's the Marvel universe's greatest _hero_. And he's got the ability to back it up. If his moral compass weren't so warped, Doom would be Reed Richards, Tony Stark, and Stephen Strange rolled into one super badass.

      The problem is, Doom's idea of saving the world is dominating it to save it from itself.

      This is why both of Fox's film depictions of Doom thoroughly disappointed me. It's a crime that the closest this great character has gotten to a proper screen adaptation is the Roger Corman version.

    2. Yes, I like Magneto as a bad guy, but certain writers (mostly post-Claremont) had an obsession with trying to make him "multifaceted" at the expense of the threat of a man who could crush your skull with a snap of his fingers.

      Someone like that needs to exude menace, not make you pity him.

      He used to be one of Marvel's greatest villains, but now he's just grey goo.

    3. This is why both of Fox's film depictions of Doom thoroughly disappointed me. It's a crime that the closest this great character has gotten to a proper screen adaptation is the Roger Corman version.

      This is also why Marvel cancelled the FF and has yet to bring them back. Richards and von Doom are both "Big Men with Screwdrivers", but unlike the Campbellian tropes forward, both get into the rocketship pilot chair, cast themselves into the Negative Zone, battle demons for the souls of their loved ones, and the like. Both protagonist and antagonist would be at home in "The Ship of Ishar" or "The Moon Pool" as the leads. SJWs not only can't handle a nuclear family book like the Fantastic Four, but they can't handle a true villain like Doom. Good and Evil don't process in the SJW mind.

      Someone like that needs to exude menace, not make you pity him.

      He used to be one of Marvel's greatest villains, but now he's just grey goo.

      Kind of like the writers themselves in Current Year Marvel employ. Cowards all.

  2. Brian and JD
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
    Thanks for the list.
    Would it be possible after Christmas to provide a good and bad example of execution? As well as one for deconstruction?

    Thanks again and Merry Christmas!

    1. It just might be.

      Merry Christmas!

    2. Brian,

      Thanks. Learning good and bad techniques will be very helpful.

  3. I agree with what you guys are saying about Dr. Doom, but when did Roger Corman do Doom?
    (That didn't come out right)

    1. The famously cringeworthy 90s F4 movie that you can only find on bootleg VHS. Still the best F4 movie.

    2. "Still the best F4 movie."

      Best revenge against Disney/Marvel EVAR!

  4. Great post.

    I only posted mine because it's the same basic list I've been wanting to see since I was a kid. Hollywood and many other sources of entertainment have been failing more and more every year to supply decent entertainment.

    I don't expect that to change any time soon.