Thursday, July 30, 2009

Geometry, Writing, and Astronomy

Oh, I know. Sounds like this one's going to ramble a bit. Stick with me, honest, it's brilliant.

No, seriously. Brilliant.

Okay, as we all learned in school, geometry tells us you need two points to define a line. A at this end, B at the other, giving us line AB. Now, as it happens, there's no difference between AB and defining the line the other way, which would be BA. It's the same line either way.

With me so far? Okay, just keep that image handy for a few minutes...

Now, what I really want to talk about here is plotting out your work. I think the easiest way to describe the plot of a story is to think of it like getting directions off MapQuest. It's going to tell you exactly how to get from A to B, with all the turns, stops, and sudden twists you're going to encounter along the way. The plot is also like those directions because you tend to get them before you actually go on your journey. Very few people run to MapQuest to check out the trip they just made, but many drivers (and writers) want the directions in hand before they start the journey.

Perhaps an even better way to put it would be this-- plot is when you tell the story without actually telling the story. For example, it takes 115 minutes to tell the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark (longer if I don't have a DVD player), but I can tell you the plot of Raiders in five or six minutes.

In screenwriting the plot is often created in an outline. If you're not familiar with Hollywood, it's a very
standard thing for producers to ask for an outline first. Not like the thing you learned in grade school, with I, II, C, D, 5, 6, and all that. A screenplay outline is a complete summary of the script, from the opening scene to that little tagged on bit at the end with Nick Fury swaggering out of the shadows. They can range anywhere from four to forty pages. For the movie Duplicity, writer-director Tony Gilroy told me his outline was close to sixty pages long.

Everyone with me so far? Seeing the link-ups?

Now, here's where it gets interesting...

I was chatting online with a novelist I know, and he brought up the point that he was stuck on his new book. I suggested skipping to the next bit, and he said he couldn't because he wouldn't know what the next bit was until he wrote this one.

Oscar-winning screenwriters Charlie Kaufmann and Ronald Harwood both loathe plots. As they see it, how can characters have any sort of organic flow if they're forced to stick to a rigid, pre-decided structure? Kaufman has gone so far as to say anyone who knows the ending before they start writing shouldn't even be considered a real writer. Harwood laments the fact that once you hand in your outline to a producer that is the story. It doesn't matter if you come up with a better character arc or a more satisfying ending-- you have to turn in what you told them you'd be turning in.

On the other side of this coin is Russell Davies, the screenwriter who brought back Doctor Who from oblivion. He frequently starts at the end (for episodes and whole seasons) and works his way backwards to figure out the best path to reach that end. I've heard a few mystery writers take this route as well (as does Lisa Simpson's hamster).

I find myself on the edge of this coin. Not a bad place to be, because I understand Stephen King hangs out here, too. I have ideas, and sometimes they're of a cool way to start a story, other times they're random scenes, and now and then it's just a great punchline for an ending. When I started jotting down thoughts for the book that would become Ex-Heroes, the first chapter I wrote out fully was actually near the middle of the book, "The Luckiest Girl in The World." This was followed by a bit near the start where two characters debate how strong Spider-Man was, and then most of a flashback that occurred between those two points. I had a few vague ideas where I wanted it to end (although I had no idea how), moments I wanted to see, character ideas, and so on. I think when I actively sat down to start writing it, I had maybe twenty-five pages of that sort of random stuff. And about 30% of it I never used as the story began to firm up.

Now, in the opening of his wonderful book The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke relates an apocryphal tale about Ludwig Wittgenstein--

(No, we're still on course. Honest. )

Apparently Wittgenstein was out for a walk one day-- or maybe he was at a party. It might've been a funeral, now that I think of it. Anyway, he definitely wasn't at home-- when he found himself in conversation with a young man who was shocked at just how ignorant and arrogant people must have been before the Renaissance to believe the Earth was the center of the universe. It was so painfully obvious to look up and see the orbits of the Earth and the Moon in relation to each other and the Sun. How could anyone possibly think the Sun revolved around the Earth?

As the story goes, Wittgenstein wryly commented, "I agree, but I wonder what things would look like if the Sun was revolving around the Earth?"

The point being, of course, it would look exactly the same.

Y'see, Timmy, in storytelling it doesn't matter how you get from A to B. Because storytelling is about the end result-- the line-- not which point you started at. How the words got on the page is irrelevant. A reader isn't going to throw your manuscript down in disgust because you started at the end, or in the middle. They don't care if you used an outline, covered a wall with index cards or Post-Its, or just dove in on page one. They couldn't care less if it was plotted out, improvised page by page, or written by a million monkeys with a million typewriters. The only thing the reader cares about is the finished story.

So any school of thought that says you must write this way, in this order, can't be taken seriously. Anyone who makes a point of bringing up their method or process definitely shouldn't be taken seriously. Every writer has to find the method that works best for them. It all comes back to the golden rule-- what works for me probably won't work for you. And it definitely won't work for that guy.

That being said, next time I'd like to talk about my method and process.

Until then, go write. Do it any way you like, but write.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Don't Get Me Wrong

Several months back a friend of mine was celebrating her birthday in the usual way (with too much alcohol and far too much karaoke) and I got to catch up with a couple of friends I haven't seen in ages. Contrary to everything Castle has taught us, most working writers don't have tons of free time, and as such I'm lucky if I get out socially once every two months or so.

We were batting around random stories about the film industry and one of my friends made a comment about last year's WGA Strike (you may have heard about it). Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was Laura belting out Cake's "Short Skirt/ Long Jacket" up on stage, or maybe it was just a poorly-emphasized word. Needless to say, I heard an insult and I snapped back a sharp defense of the writers and the strike.

My friend threw up his hands. "Dude," said he, "you totally took that the wrong way. That is not what I meant." Yes, he actually said dude.

I looked back over his chosen words, realized the good-natured joke he'd tried to make, and shamefacedly bought the next round as an apology for verbally leaping at him.

The lesson here is twofold. One, always make sure you can afford to buy a round if you go out with friends. Two, if it's that easy to misinterpret someone's words in person, face to face, imagine how easy it is to do on the page.

Getting misunderstood is sort of the core flaw of all bad writing. I thought this character looked smart, you think he looks like an idiot. I consider this bit action-packed, you consider it to be chaotic. I felt like the message was clear, you found it to be a muddled mess. Part of this is an empathy issue, but often it's just a matter of clumsy writing.

Here are a few easy things to check on in your own work to make sure the reader is thinking the same thing you are. Or at least, what you want them to be thinking...

Spelling - I know, I know. I never give up on the spelling Probably because it's the most common problem I see. I'm not talking about random typos, but words people have just plain spelled wrong or used incorrectly. Know the difference between plane and plain, their and there, corporeal and corpulent. You don't want your mad scientist to unleash a deadly plaque upon the world, one that will cause mass history.

Alas, there is only one way to beat this. Shut off your spell-checker, pick up a dictionary, and learn how to spell all these words you're using. Sorry.

Grammar - The British comedian Benny Hill (best known in the US as that late-night guy with the awe-inspiring Hill's Angels) had a recurring skit about actors who muddled their lines because of an unpunctuated script. Usually they'd end up delivering such zingers as "What's that up in the road--a head?" or the beautiful woman who asks her partner "What is this thing called, love?" One of my personal favorites as of late was a dedication that read "This book is for my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

Commas, capitalization, verb-noun agreement-- none of these were made up because editors had nothing better to do one afternoon. They make sure a reader knows precisely what the writer means. Which is why the writer needs to know precisely how to use them. Remember, it doesn't matter if it makes sense to you. It needs to make sense to an absolute stranger looking at it for the first time.

Common knowledge - One frustrating thing most of us have probably encountered (I know I have) is when a term comes up in a story that the characters all understand but we, the readers, don't. It could be a joke, a reference, or maybe even a key plot element. Point is, if the reader doesn't know what the writer's referring to, it's just a stumbling block that will knock them out of the story.

If you're using a term for a certain effect, make sure it's a term most people know so it can achieve that effect. If I'm told "she's as mean as a Catachan puffball," does that mean she's vicious or is it sarcasm? How many times can my characters refer mysteriously to "Omega" before the reader decides to fold laundry or make lunch? Before you answer, consider this-- we're barely twenty minutes into The Matrix when Morpheus begins to explain the mystery of what the Matrix is.

Sarcasm - We all know sarcasm. As mentioned above, it's when someone says one thing but means another-- sometimes the exact opposite. This can go wrong in real life, so on the page it can be a killer. It can be especially rough in screenplays, which are often so stripped-down that the reader has to make up a lot of the context on their own. If sarcasm is read wrong on the page, it can send the reader down a false path, and once they realize they're on a false path... well, there's that large pile on the left.

Be careful using sarcasm too soon in a story. Make sure the reader knows the characters before you risk confusing them.

Language barrier - I mentioned this a while back as a common script problem, but it happens in prose as well. Even when two countries have a shared language, there are colloquial terms that vary. Boot, bonnet, pasties, Macintosh, rubber-- all these words mean one thing in the UK and something very different in the US.

Know who your readers are and make sure you've adjusted your vocabulary appropriately. Through the wonders of social networks and message boards, most of us know at least one person in another country. If you know someone who's part of your target audience, ask them to take a look at your writing.

Double meanings – This one's kind of close to the language barrier. There are a lot of words and phrases that can mean one thing in one context, but something entirely different in another. Which means when there's not much context, they became dangerously vague. When my boss tells me she's got an opening that needs to be filled, is she hitting on me or asking if I know anyone who's not working? What if I see a couple birds twittering in a tree? Are they making noises or social networking? Is that antique ring something wicked (uber cool) or something wicked (pure evil)?

This ties back to vocabulary (which ties back to spelling). A writer has to know what a word means, and also what it could mean. If not, there will be more confusion. And that path leads to pain, suffering, and laundry.

So, there are six quick tips that might help achieve a bit more clarity in your writing. Or at least make sure it's muddled in all the right places.

Next time I'd like to talk about going from A to B. Or from B to A. You can go both ways, really. We don't judge here.

Until then, you need to go write. Clearly.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Challenge Round

Sorry for the slight delay. Stupid work with their stupid assignments that let me pay my stupid rent...


Speaking of things getting in the way, a common writing term is the obstacle. It's what stands between your characters and whatever it is they want. While opinions vary on the topic, in my opinion an obstacle is slightly different from a conflict because obstacles tend to be exterior, while it's very possible for conflicts to be interior. I prefer to use the term challenge, personally. I've found that thinking about "obstacles" tends to guide the mind solely onto physical impediments, like parts of an obstacle course. While this isn't technically wrong, it does tend to result in a lot of the same things.

There are tons of different things people can want, for a number of different reasons. They can want that foreign prisoner back in America. You can want to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. To get that alien implant out of their skull. Or to tell Phoebe O’Brien from sixth-period English you think she’s the most beautiful person you’ve ever known. These are all solid goals.

Likewise, there are even more things that can be between these characters and their goals.

A few tips on challenges...

A challenge must exist

Yeah, this sounds like a basic one, I know, but it’s surprising how often I see stuff where characters just stroll through a story with minimal effort. Looking for a clue to that mystery? There's one over there. Need a boyfriend or girlfriend? Not any more. Villain waaayyyyy outclasses you? Good thing they told you about their Achilles heel and then left it open and exposed. This sort of thing shows up in fiction and scripts far, far more than you'd like to believe.

There needs to be some sort of challenge between your characters and their goals. If there isn't, they would've accomplished these goals already. If I want a soda, I go and get one from the fridge-- that's it. Hardly the stuff great stories are made from, because there's no challenge. If I want to drink my soda from a Faberge egg while Phoebe massages my feet... that'll require a bit more effort on my part.

A challenge needs a reason to be confronted

If your characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it. A real reason. Nobody sneaks or fights their way onto an enemy base just for the heck of it. They're not here because there wasn't anything else to do on Thursday night, but because millions of lives depend on the information this prisoner has and the enemy is torturing it out of him. You don't tell Phoebe she's beautiful for the heck of it, you tell her because you've wanted to for months and never worked up the nerve and now your parents are moving and you've only got two weeks of school left to let her know how you feel.

A big trick here is to make sure this reason is really there. It may be obvious in your head why the characters are going to undertake this challenge, but is it that clear on paper? This also holds for less physical things like Phoebe-confrontation, where the audience needs to understand why talking to her is such a big deal for this character.

A challenge has to be daunting

That base has over a hundred armed guards, attack dogs, barbed wire, starlight-scope cameras, and a minefield along the north perimeter. And if you think that sounds rough, Phoebe always has two or three friends with her, which means you’ll have to figure out a way to get her away from them, but they’re still going to know what you’re talking to her about. Characters should never want to deal with a challenge, because let's be honest-- we'd all love it if more things were just handed to us. That enemy agent. The alien brain implant. Phoebe's heart (emotionally speaking).

Much as a challenge needs to exist, it needs to be something that gives the character (and the audience) pause, or else it isn't really a challenge. Even John Carter, greatest swordsman on two worlds, would occasionally look at the odds he was facing and say "Oh...crap."

Well, he was always a bit more eloquent than that, but you get the point.

A challenge cannot be impossible

If you’ve ever watched a boxing match, or any sporting event, you’ve probably noticed they're evenly matched. NFL teams don't take on pee-wee football teams. Rarely do you see someone like Vin Diesel beating on a person with a Woody Allen-esque physique. Well, not outside of high school, anyway...

The most boring stories tend to be the ones where the protagonists have no chance whatsoever of meeting the challenge. If you've ever watched a horror movie where the killer is merciless, unstoppable, and inescapable... well, that gets pretty dull after the second or third kill, doesn't it? One of the reasons Jason Voorhees was always terrifying is that he never ran, he just sort of... marched (well, in the original films, anyway). You always had this sense that someone should be able to get away from Jason. Maybe if they could go a little faster...

The other risk to be wary here is if the challenge is completely impossible and your protagonist pulls it off anyway, it can look unbelievable and knock your audience out of the story.

A challenge needs a reason to exist

A combination of the first two points. If you've ever seen Galaxy Quest, you probably remember the mashing hallway which--as Sigourney Weaver loudly points out-- serves no purpose whatsoever. We can probably all think of a book or movie where, for no reason at all, an obstacle just popped out of nowhere. Or perhaps it was there all along, but you couldn't figure out why if your life depended on it. That's false drama, and it just weakens writing.

Challenges have a purpose. They're characters in their own right, or maybe obstacles other characters have (for one reason or another) set in your protagonist's way. One of Phoebe's friends can't be a queen bitch just because the writer needs a bitchy character to thwart our love struck hero. Why would Phoebe hang around with someone like that? Think about why they're doing this, and if you don't have a real reason, stop for a couple minutes and re-think this particular challenge.

A challenge should be unexpected

This one’s not ironclad, but I’d still lean heavily towards it. If your characters are prepared, well-equipped, well-rested, and waiting for conflict, it’s not quite the same as when its sprung on them and they have to make do. It’s really cool to see the guys deal with sneaking onto the base, but it’s even cooler when they get there and what the #&$%!! Are those motion sensors? Why didn’t we know about those? Okay, everyone stay calm, here’s what we’re going to do...

A small bonus of the unexpected challenge is that it often gives your characters a chance to look clever. When they beat the unexpected challenge (even by the skin of their teeth) it makes them all the more likeable.

A challenge needs a resolution

If we see the set up, we have to see it resolved somehow. As Chekhov once said, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it fire in act three. The squad needs to make it onto that base or die trying or at least they have to decide they can’t make it and that prisoner isn't worth it. Once we, as writers, present a challenge to the audience it can’t be forgotten or ignored. We can't spend the first quarter of our story pining for Phoebe and then never, ever address those feelings again.

Next week might be a bit tight again, as I'm heading into deadlines. But if all goes well, I'll be here on time on Thursday. Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather be working on this than some of the assignment I have.

Actually, that's what I wanted to talk about next week. Not getting me wrong.

Until then, get some writing of your own done.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tell Me About Your Childhood

Has anyone else noticed that it’s only considered “telling” with the pop psychology folks if you write horror? If you write scary stuff, it must be because something awful happened to you as a child. Absolutely no one wonders if young Ray Bradbury met Martians, if Tom Clancy was a spy kid, or if ten year old Dan Brown got chased by a secret society. Write about zombies or serial killers, though, and the immediate assumption is that on your eight birthday you witnessed Uncle Bob killing his wife with a chainsaw while wearing a Santa Clown suit.

Go figure.

In past rants here, I’ve talked about how important believability can be and also offered a few tips about crafting believable characters. A lot of this, though, can all get thrown under one blanket term. We call it empathy.

The idea of empathy has been around for a while in one form or another, and it’s something that gets a lot of study from psychologists and sociologists. There are tons of more specific definitions, but simply put, it’s that unconscious connection we have with the people around us. If you’ve ever realized this is not the crowd to tell that joke in, that’s empathy. It’s how you know when your friend needs a hug, a stiff drink, or maybe just to be left alone. It’s also how you can sense he’s not interested, she’s waiting to pounce, and that other guy... well, we should all just keep clear of that other guy.

For writers, empathy is probably the most important skill you can have. It’s going to be very hard to be successful without it. It’s what lets us craft characters that act like real people instead of puppets, because it’s how we know when something seems natural and/ or unnatural for a real person to do. Empathy is also what lets us predict how the audience is going to react. Are they going to be excited? Screaming? Howling with laughter?

An example...

Let’s say I wanted to make you cringe a bit while you read this post. I could try typing bunnies a few dozen times, but except for one or two of you who were emotionally scarred in your youth, it’s not going to produce the desired result. Even when the imagery catches you off-guard, it’s still FLUFFY BUNNIES!!!! unlikely this mental image will make you wince or shudder for a moment. Trying to make you cringe that way just shows a lack of connection to my audience and how they’re going to react.

On the other hand, if I was to mention one of those women with the long, curving, dragon-lady fingernails and watching her pluck out someone’s eyeball like an olive from a jar... that might affect you. And if I told you she took a potato peeler to that eye while it was still attached by that long string of nerves, and sliced off thin slivers of eyeball one after another for almost half an hour before it finally burst... Heck, that gets to me, and I’m the guy who made it up.

Not only that, but I also knew the bit about the bunnies would make you chuckle. Or at least smile a bit.

A story...

Back when I was at UMass, I was stealing a friend’s computer in the afternoons to type out page after page of my college novel, which went under the working title of The Trinity. The villain was a bit of a headcase who thought God loved bloodshed and fear, so his master plan was to use shaped demolition charges to tip over the Empire State Building during business hours. Thousands die in the tower. Thousands die under it when it falls. And probably a few more die in the ensuing panic and chaos that would spread throughout the tri-state area. Keep in mind, I was writing this in the early ‘90s.

Well, said friend—we’ll call him Alpha-- read my notes and listened to my idea and said “That’s silly.”

“What? What part?”

“His plan. People wouldn’t act like that.”

“Of course they would.”

“No they wouldn’t,” said Alpha with a dismissive grin.

“You think if the Empire State Building fell over and thousands of people died in Manhattan in the space of an hour, it wouldn’t cause massive panic and terror?”

“Oh, for a little bit. Maybe an hour or two. But then everyone would calm down.”

Needless to say, I was briefly tempted to hunt down Alpha’s phone number one September ten years later. Just to say “Told you!”

Another story, this one from the flipside...

One of the very first films I prop mastered was a little train wreck called Special Delivery. The basic idea was kind of clever, but the first time writer/ director/ producer/ actor simply had no empathy—for his characters, his audience, or his cast and crew (a friend got fired off the show and I was actually jealous of her). One of the gags the writer/ director would not let go of involved the stepmother’s yappy little dog. He had a “hilarious” scene scripted at the end of the film when the two pre-pubescent sons would hook the dog’s leash up to the garage door opener. This way when stepmom came home and opened the garage the little yappy dog would get hanged right in front of her.

Now several of us tried to explain this was not a funny gag at all, and many alternatives were proposed. But the director shrugged everyone off. He was convinced this would be the funniest thing ever, seeing the little animal kicking and flailing as it was strangled. “It’s so annoying,” he’d say with a grin. “How could people not find that funny?”

How indeed...

In my own experience, I think empathy tends to fail us most often as writers when the plot takes priority. If we know by the end of this scene or chapter Yakko and Wakko must get out of this room or need to discuss everything they know about Dot, sometimes we focus on that goal rather than on the characters. Getting from A to B becomes more important than how we get from A to B. And suddenly, the characters aren’t acting naturally anymore. They’ve stiffened up and the audience can’t relate to them. I see this happen a lot in screenplays and short stories, two forms that force writers to be as fast and economical as possible.

The other empathy problem I see is writers who just don’t know anything about the world. Not in that Googling hard facts way, but in the sense that the writer seems to be writing wholly from conjecture rather than experience. Now, the overwhelming majority of us have no idea what it’s like to gaze upon an Elder God, travel in hyperspace, or dismember a body (except for you, reader #9), so it’s understandable that these things need to be products of our imagination.

However, most of us have been shouted at by a superior of some kind. We’ve gotten a first kiss from someone special. We’ve had heated arguments. We’ve been scared, driven cars, waited in line, made love, had a good meal, and gotten frustrated with paperwork. Often more than once. These are the things that can’t just be imagined or looked up on the internet (remember Steve Carrell talking about the “big bag of sand” in 40 Year Old Virgin?). Your audience will sense that something is off. They won’t feel the connection because the writer didn’t feel it. More so, the writer didn’t even realize they didn’t feel it, which is also apparent in these situations. And that’s a failure of empathy.

Now, to a point, you can develop and improve empathy. You can even have fun doing it. Talk to people. Friends and family members and strangers. Not online or on the phone, but real people in front of you. Go out to bars and parks and restaurants. Talk about work, relationships, sporting events, kids, tell some jokes—anything and everything. Listen to them. Watch how they react, how they move, what they do with their eyes. And then try to put yourself in their shoes. Why does this person think this or do that? It’s just what you should be doing with characters and your audience, so try to do it with people right in front of you. Try watching groups of people, too. Friends at parties. People in line at the supermarket. Crowds at big events. How do they react? How many go against the crowd? How many follow blindly?

Simply put, go connect with people. Because the better you can connect in the real world, the better you can connect through your writing.

Next week, I’ll have a little challenge for all of you reading this.

Until then, go out and have a drink.

And then go write.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I... Have... The POWER!!!

As always, if you don’t get the title... your pop-culture kung fu is weak.

So, last summer a movie came out some of you may have seen called Hancock, written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan. Apparently the lead actor was in one or two other films, as well, and had a small fan following that helped a bit at the box office. I got to review it for the CS Weekly newsletter (sign up over there on the right—it’s free), and it’s what first got me thinking about this week’s topic. It came up again a few months ago over lunch with a friend of mine who’s written a few movies (and a television show I know at least one of you loved). And it’s something I had to think about a lot for my forthcoming book, Ex-Heroes.

And I thought it’d be worth bringing up here for two or three of you (almost a full quarter of the ranty blog’s readership).

When you’re playing in the genre realms, you should note there’s a very big difference between a story about a superhero and a story about someone who has superpowers. They’re not the same thing, and trying to cram one into the mold of the other will almost always cause problems.

If you think about it, stories about people with superhuman abilities have been around for thousands of years. Gilgamesh and Hercules both had superpowers. So did Anubis, Icarus, the Green Knight, and yes, even Jesus. In the classics there’s Matthew Maule, Dr. Jekyll, and even arguably the Count of Monte Cristo. There are lots of modern-day stories and films featuring people with superhuman abilities, too. The Dead Zone is about a person with superpowers. So are the Sixth Sense, Scanners, and Unbreakable. Heck, even Luke Skywalker has abilities far beyond those of mortal men (and Wookies).

However... are any of these characters superheroes?

Let’s look at a few side by side examples.

The X-Men comic books and films had characters who could control flames, read minds, and teleport. However, so did Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, Alexander Key’s Escape to Witch Mountain, and Steven Gould’s Jumper.

Spider-Man is a character who gets abilities when his DNA is mixed with an insect (okay, an arachnid) during a science experiment. But this is also what happens in both versions of The Fly. Spider-Man also has strength and agility far beyond that of normal men, just like John Carter of Mars in the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the Fantastic Four comics and films, Susan Richards nee Storm can turn invisible, but so could the Greek hero Perseus, Darien Fawkes in the Sci-Fi Channel series The Invisible Man, and John Griffin in its H.G. Wells namesake novel.

Batman is a guy who hides his identity, gears up, and goes out at night to fight crime in order to avenge the loss of his loved ones-- just like Charles Bronson in Deathwish.

Now, if I had to nail down what the difference is, I would say that a super hero story is defined by a person who makes a conscious decision to publicly use their powers for the greater good (a wider, broader goal that does not involve them). They aren’t doing it to get even, to save someone close to them, or to show off. Most of them feel morally compelled to use their abilities this way, no matter how crappy it makes other aspects of their lives. Obvious as it may sound—superheroes act heroically.

This public nature also means they deal with public sentiment of one kind or another. Captain America is venerated as a historical figure. Superman is lauded in the press. Batman and Spider-Man receive mixed reviews. The X-Men are openly considered criminals (or were, last time I read their books—they may have Congressional Medals of Honor at this point).

I would also go so far as to say a costume is almost necessary, much in the same way a cowboy needs a hat and a horse. However, I’ll also toss out the proviso that the costume in and of itself does not make a story a superhero story, just as the hat and horse do not automatically make something a western.

The flipside of this is a super powers story. Someone who may have superhuman abilities, but all their motivation is usually personal, and their actions tend to be more behind-the-scenes. I listed a few examples of this above, side by side with their comic book counterparts. In The Dead Zone (the original book/ movie) Johnny is acting for the greater good, but he's taking very secretive steps. In Jumper, David's really just interested in saving himself and his girlfriend. Harry Potter is all about hiding your powers and staying apart from the world. And in Hancock, while he is acting publicly, the story itself is really all about his disconnect with humanity, not that he can fly and throw cars around. If you think about it, the story of Hancock works almost exactly the same if he's just a powerless, homeless vigilante with amnesia.

Also on that flipside, superpowers stories involve street clothes. Even if someone has a “uniform” of some sort (John Constantine almost always dresses the same way) it tends to be boots, tee-shirts, and other things that wouldn’t look that out of place on a city street.

I also think a lot of this difference has to do with the setting for these stories. More often than not, a superpowers story has a very realistic setting. Aside from a very limited, few beings, there’s almost nothing to distinguish it from the real, day-to-day world we hear about each weeknight from Charlie Gibson and ABC News.

By contrast, look at the settings for some of our well-known superheroes. Spider-Man is a common sight swinging through his version of New York, a place where the Fantastic Four and Avengers have very public office buildings and the existence of aliens—several types of aliens-- is a well-documented fact. Superman’s a known alien, too. Hellboy’s an actual demon (arguably the Antichrist) who’s gone straight and publicly works for the U.S. government.

Once you can tell them apart, I think one of the immediate problems with pushing a superpowers story into a superhero mold is the silliness factor. When someone puts on a costume in a real world setting, it suddenly feels like the writer isn’t taking things seriously. Check out a little indie film called Sidekick. It has a few flaws, but once the hero pulls on a costume in the third act (in the middle of rescuing his would-be girlfriend from a mentally unbalanced kidnapper) the audience just can’t forgive it. What would people have thought if the film version of Firestarter ended with little Drew Barrymore pulling on red tights and a cape to go fight evil as Firegirl or some such?

(Please keep in mind before answering, we’re talking about a nine-year old Drew Barrymore in spandex, not grown-up Drew. Perverts.)

You get similar issues going the other way. While the problems Peter Parker deals with because of his powers are interesting, when someone picks up the latest Amazing Spider-Man they want to see him pull on the webbed suit and fight the Lizard. Too much melodrama in street clothes with Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson just starts to get dull (as Marvel’s sales figures over the past few years can attest to). There’s a reason the folks who read the daily Spidey strips in the newspaper also tended to skip Mark Trail and Mary Worth. People who read superhero stories aren’t looking for stark realism.

As a fun aside, some of you may remember an experiment Marvel tried years back called the New Universe. They were comics about real people in the real world who developed superpowers and reacted... well, realistically. Many of them tried to hide their new abilities, several tried to get rid of them, and more than a few were corrupted by these powers. The whole line sold horribly (so much so that I became a regular contributor to one of the letter columns with no effort) and was cancelled after barely two years—the end of which involved several attempts to turn the characters into true superheroes.

I’ve also noticed that superpowers stories tend to brush over the origin with a simple “this is the way it is,” sort of explanation. In both Jumper and the Harry Potter books, we’re just told that this is the way the world has always been. Some folks get the teleport gene. Some can do magic (why some can and some can’t is never explained, but it also seems to be genetic in J.K.’s books, too). Also superpowers stories, if they have to give an origin, tend to lean toward the hard sciences, making it as believable as possible.

With superheroes, though, the origin is almost a standard. A writer can also get away with somewhat sillier, non-scientific origin stories. The Flash was struck by lightning. More than a few characters have gotten superpowers from blood transfusions (including one of my own). Radiation is a common source of superhuman abilities, too, despite what we learned in seventh grade science. Remember how the Hulk got his powers? No, not the recent version—the original version. Mild-mannered Bruce Banner was near the prototype gamma bomb when it was detonated and received a massive dose of radiation. Yes, a mere 45 years ago, Stan Lee wrote a story where someone got their powers by standing next to a nuclear bomb when it went off. Yet here we are today and that is still the accepted origin of the Incredible Hulk (although they’ve oh-so-casually moved him a bit further from ground zero).

One last, related note-- the abilities in superpowers stories tend to be a bit more plausible and limited. Jean Gray of the X-Men can alter matter on a molecular level with her telekinetic abilities, but Tony and Tia Castaway need the mental crutch of a harmonica just to move around a hat rack with a raincoat on it. In fact, the only two superpower stories I can think of where someone has overwhelming powers would be the film Dark City and Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven.

Wow, have I rattled on about this or what? I’m sure you’ve all got other stuff you need to go do. Like writing stuff.

Next time... well, next time I think we finally need to talk about some of these issues with your mother.

But until then, go write.