About Mario

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Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mario Piumetti is a freelance writer of science fiction, horror, screenplays, and nonfiction. He has a bachelor's degree in English from California Lutheran University and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. An avid music lover, his work is heavily influenced by rock, punk, and metal. You can contact him at mario.piumetti.writer@gmail.com.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Essential Bits

It happened again: a story I was working on caved in.  Yeah, we've been down this road before, haven't we?  I know it.  You know it.  Your momma's Aunt Celeste knows it.  It sucks, yeah, but I've been down this road too many times to really let it have an effect on me.  I just suck it up and try figuring out what went wrong, hoping to not repeat the same mistakes next time.

To be perfectly frank, I think I might be taking the wrong advice from a most revered source: Stephen King.  I know some of you are probably thinking, "But the King can do no wrong!  Silence the Eye-talian!"  While I do think King can do little wrong, it's no impossible.

For a while, whenever I have a problem coming up with a story idea, I've tried King's trick of starting with a situation and letting things flower from there.  The logic behind it is that life is plotless, so fiction ought to be as well.  You can revise later for depth and meaning.

I can't work like that though.  A situation is a starting point, but I can't jump from that straight to the first draft.  The situational route - also called high concept by them movie folk - is something that reads like a headline (vampires invade a small town, alien probe passes through the Solar System, etc.).  King could probably write stories off of those headlines, and has; small-town vampires is 'Salem's Lot.  That's not enough for me.  For now, I don't like outline - time spent outlining is time not spent writing the fucking story - but I think there are some ground rules springing from that initial situation that could help me work within certain boundaries.


Just as theater needs a stage, stories need an arena in which to play out.  They can be as simple as a grocery store or as vast and elaborate as Middle Earth.  A room is just as room, and the one I'm thinking of has furniture here and there (mostly chairs), moving boxes galore, and a disco ball having from the ceiling.  It's a nice room, but it's not a story.  It's a snapshot.


Movies need actors, even really shitty and overpaid ones.  Stories need characters to act out the drama, voice the audience's concerns and emotions, and lash out against them.  Everyone's got their opinion of how to flesh out a character.  Some have elaborate biographies and detailed physical descriptions.  I dislike these because they give way more info than is needed.  I don't need the details on every skin mole, and it takes a lot of spontaneity if I know all their quirks beforehand.  I could (probably should, one day) get in deep on how to flesh out character, but for simplicity sake now, I group characters into three categories: main, secondary, and minor.  Minor characters are little more than background actors.  Secondary characters have more weight, but are made on the fly.  The main characters are the ones I have in mind when I sit down for the first draft.  They're they folks I want to write about.  Above all else, I need to know what they want, what they're hiding, and what their relationship is to the rest of the cast if any.  I need this for secondary characters as well.  It's a little foggier with them because they're so impromptu, but because they have the potential to turn into main characters in the telling of the story, it never hurts to cover my bases.  Those secrets, drives, and relationships are important for the next part...


Say what you want about Jar Jar Binks, but George Lucas was right about drama.  It's all conflict.  Whether it's wars of office politics, people fight not because any one is bad, but because their values and goals run contrary to others.  I firmly believe there's no such thing as an evil character.  Take a look at the first season of Breaking Bad, particularly the interactions between Walter White and his brother-in-law Hank.  There's a scene where the two talk about the legality of meth.  As a DEA agent, Hank has a very strong anti-drug stance.  We've all heard that drugs are bad and so we agree with him.  Walter is struggling to provide for his family and sees meth production as their big meal ticket.  We all know bills need to be paid, future need to be secured, and we agree with him for wanting that and trying to justify his actions.  On their own, each man is right, but the friction and conflict comes when they interact and there can only be one victor.

Personal Connection

This is the shakiest element of a good story.  It's the part where I ask, "Do I even care about any of this?"  And it' a question I've asked again and again in my time in the entertainment industry as a story analyst.  I've read stories with fresh premises, wonderful characters, and terrific conflict, and I've tried to be as objective in my critique as possible.  But what can sometimes work against a story is simply a matter of me not being a fan of a particular genre or lacking an interest in a particular topic.  I tell this to clients all the time: "This story is great.  It's not my thing, but it could still work."  That's fine because as an audience member I can't expect every storyteller to appeal to me.  But it takes very little time to read a story compared to the time that went into making it, so as a writer, I'd better be interested in and care about what I'm working on.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Limits of Research

When I was in grad school, Percival Everett visited for a Q & A session.  This happened years ago, and I've since forgotten nearly everything from that session, but I do remember asking when he knew he was done researching for a story.  His answer was, "You just know."

It was a little underwhelming at the time.  Recently, however, I've realized you really do simply sense when enough is enough.  I've had an idea for a novel in my head for the last year, and have been researching in earnest for the last few months.  I've done research projects in the past that produced great volumes of material with little actual progression.  We know that kind of research, the one where you think you're being productive but are actually just procrastinating.

I knew I didn't want to get into another quagmire, so I'd decided that research would be finished no matter what by New Year's Eve.  It was documentary screening too, each program usually lasting about an hour, so even though the list was long, I knew I had X number of hours that could be scheduled over Y number of days.  This could be done.

A couple of weeks ago, I knew I had to stop.  There are two things that'll tell you when you've reached the finish line.

First, are you bored?

I researched wars, natural disasters, you name it.  I even had a documentary series on my to-do list featuring interviews with the last World War I veterans.  I'm sure the material I had yet to screen was fascinating, but I was simply worn out.  If I wasn't doing my day job, I was at home screening.  My weekends were swallowed up doing this.  I was sacrificing my personal life, and professionally, I wasn't coming up with any new stories.

Second, do you have enough?

Each program I screened yielded two to five pages of notes.  Longer and more informative programs could be three times as productive.  Each piece alone doesn't seem like much, but then I looked at The Document and history was the largest section; somewhere in the neighborhood of 160 pages with about 120 interviews directly quoted.  If each page of notes translates to two pages of story, that's a novel right there purely on regurgitation.

I'm sure there will be follow-up research, ideas will pop up in my head and I'll have to go back and look at some topics a little more thoroughly.  But I at least sleep easy at night knowing most of the heavily lifting is done...and because I'm exhausted.