Thursday, March 24, 2011
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Okay, I used to own a bunch of the spin off toys. Almost all of them. Except for the blue Snaggletooth. And the Bespin Leia, who had a weird-looking tiny head.
The first trilogy did very well, as I mentioned. It made tons of money and inspired a whole generation of storytellers to pick up pen, pencil, or home video camera. There was a great piece I read years back about when John Williams created the new Star Wars orchestra for the prequel movies. There were half a dozen musicians in it who had been part of his original orchestra twenty years earlier. It also had about a dozen younger musicians, all of whom had gotten into classical music because they were inspired by Williams’s score from the original trilogy. And now they were all working on the prequels.
Ahhhh, the prequels.
The prequels were not quite as well-received. Oh, fans were in a frenzy at first. I know. I was there in the line at Toys R Us for the special midnight releases. After the first movie, though, that energy ebbed a bit. After the second movie it was leaking away. By the final film, the fan base was bleeding out, to turn a phrase. There were still some die-hards, but there were far more shrieking about how Lucas had “raped their childhood.”
So, what went wrong?
Well, you could point at a lot of things. Wooden dialogue. Bad direction. A gluttonous use of decent-but-not-great CGI. Any one of these can hurt a film, but I don’t think they’re killers on their own. I think the biggest mistake Lucas made with his prequel was the unavoidable one.
He told a story we already knew.
Let me pause at this point for a funny story...
Many years back I went home to New England to see my family. My mom and I decided to go take in a movie, and the big one at the time (no pun intended) was James Cameron’s Titanic. I hadn’t seen it, she hadn’t seen it, what the heck.
Well, we all know the story. Big ship. Bigger iceberg. We were maybe two-thirds through the film and there’s that awful bit when Leonardo’s working-class buddy grabs a life preserver and hurls himself out into the icy water. He’s paddling away from the cries and howls and there’s this ear-splitting crack. The cables are snapping on the smokestacks. One of the huge towers creaks, tilts, and swings down over the water. Nameless friend of Leo (oh, come on--none of you remember his name, either) looks up as the smokestack blots out the sky and comes crashing down on top of him.
The audience wailed. People were already blubbering and misty eyed, but when Leo’s buddy was killed, well, that was the breaking point. Audience members were sobbing and crying out to the screen.
In the midst of all this, my mom turns to me and says, in a very loud, clear voice...
“What did they think was going to happen? It’s the Titanic, for Christ’s sake!”
So here’s problem one. As I’ve mentioned before, you can’t have drama or conflict in a story if the outcome is never in doubt. When we know what’s going to happen, it’s very, very easy for a story to veer off into boredom, melodrama, or both.
Not only that, but when we’ve already seen chapters thirty through fifty, we don’t want to go back to chapters one through ten. That’s moving backwards. We want to be going forward. You may notice that with much of the recent coverage of the crises in Japan, no one’s going back to do a retrospective on the Tokugawa shogunate of the 17th century. It’s an important part of Japanese history. It has a fair degree to do with why thing are the way they are in Japan today. But we really don’t need to know it to understand why a trio of nuclear reactors are being stabilized with hoses and buckets.
Now, in all fairness, and with all deference to my mother, Cameron’s Titanic is not about the ship. It’s a story of, if you’ll pardon the phrase, two star-crossed lovers which uses the disaster as a backdrop. The Titanic is no different than the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues or the impending gang war between the Sharks and the Jets. Can we even call that a war? The impending dance-off between the Sharks and the Jets. These are the plot elements that let the reader know from the start just how doomed this relationship probably is.
See, that’s the catch. We all know what happens to the Titanic. It’s a historic fact. We don’t know what happens to Leo and Kate, though. Will they survive? Will they die together? Apart? Will she live to be a middle-class ninety-year-old and toss a diamond worth a billion dollars into the depths of the Arctic Ocean as a meaningless gesture to her spring break fling who died three-quarters of a century ago?
Probably not that last one, because that would just be silly.
It’s the rest of those questions that make the story worth telling. I’ve talked about the problem with god-like forces in a story, and history is one of the most powerful ones out there (unless you happen to be a Time Lord...). If I know for a fact that character A survives until chapter thirty, it’s very difficult to get worried when she’s threatened in chapter three.
Obi-Wan Kenobi. Anakin Skywalker. Padme. R2-D2 and C-3P0. Yoda. Palpantine. Chewbacca. Bail Organa. The fate of every one of these characters was well-established twenty years ago in the original trilogy. Lucas asked us to make an emotional investment in characters we were already emotionally invested in. He asked us to worry about the future of characters whose future we already knew.
To be honest... that’s just plain boring.
This is the big challenge with any sort of “prequel” writing and it’s why a lot of these works tend to ring a bit hollow when all is said and done. To be honest, it’s one of the reasons I haven’t been all that interested in writing prequel stories for any of the characters in the Ex-Heroes universe. It’s also why The Nativity Story didn’t really work as a two hour feature film. We know what happens to these characters, so anything that happens in the story is automatically going to get robbed of some or all of its dramatic weight.
So, the burning question is... how do you make a prequel story work?
It’s not that hard, if you think about it. Don’t focus on events. We know the events. We know what’s going to happen. So that’s a dead end right there.
No, the secret to a good prequel is the characters. Don’t tell me about the guy I already know. Tell me about the other guy who was there. For example, we all know what happened to Abraham Lincoln that fateful night at Ford’s Theater. But what about the people sitting behind him? What about the security men on duty? Were they injured? Wracked with guilt afterwards? Secretly pleased? We don’t know the answers, so those are interesting questions.
You may have seen either the original version of The Clone Wars cartoon or the newer one that’s run for a couple seasons now. It’s very popular. It also focuses more on characters like Mace Windu, Cad Bane, and Kit Fisto--characters we don’t know that much about.
If only all the prequels had done the same.
Next time... well, I think we’ve finally come to the end.
Until then, go write.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
I figured I was about do to talk abut spelling, as I due every sex months or so. It’s on of those things that needs to get hammered home again ant again, because no mater how many tines I say it, their is still this huge grope of people who incest that smelling doesn’t really effect how an editor vies you’re writing. Either that or they fill back on the hole “language evolves” defense.
Now, sum of you may bee giggling or filling a bite smug rite about now. After all, hear I am gong on about you’re bad spilling habits and halt of these wards are spelled wrong. Except, you seen, they aren’t. Not won singlet thin is spilled wrong inn these too paragraphs.
Which is the point I’m trying to make.
Y’see, Timmy, spellcheckers are idiots. Forget Watson or Deep Blue, your spellcheck program can be outwitted by my three-week old nephew banging on the keyboard with his little palms. Anyone depending on their spellchecker to save them from mistakes like the thirty-five in those first two paragraphs is doomed to a lot of rejection letters.
Yup, thirty-five. Count ‘em up. Keep counting until you find them all.
Of course, this doesn’t address the real problem. A lot of people don’t just have crappy spelling, they’ve got crappy vocabularies, too. When the idiot spellcheck suggests a word, these folks blindly accept it because they don’t really know which word they wanted in the first place. Which, if you think about it, is a bit like two homeless guys giving each other advice on the stock market.
So, let’s have a pop quiz. Pencils out, grab that spare Netflix envelope off the television, and let’s begin.
vicious or viscous -- One of these words applies to wolverines.
cords or chords - One of these words deals with electronics.
sheer or shear -- One of these words means see-through.
very or vary - One of these words means to change.
yore or your - One of these words applies to the past.
peak, peek, or pique -- One of these words means the top.
discrete or discreet -- One of these words applies to manners.
it’s or its – One (and only one) of these words is possessive.
corporeal or corpulent - One of these words means solid.
their, there, or they’re - One of these words is also a possessive.
trusty or trustee - One of these words is a person’s title.
canon or cannon -- One of these is a big gun.
reign, rein, or rain – One of these words deals with emperors.
compliment or complement – One of these words means that things work well together.
So, got all your answers? Are you ready to grade this little test?
Well, here’s the catch. You’ll notice I never said what you were supposed to do. If you managed to pick the right words, that’s only part of the quiz.
You need to know all the words, what they mean, and how to use them correctly. Every single one of them. Knowing one out of three or even half of them doesn’t cut it because every one of those words is going to breeze past your spell check program without a problem-- no matter which word you meant to write.
Bonus questions. Which one of the above words is a verb that means to cut? Which one’s an adjective that means thick? How about the musical noun? Which one of those words is best applied to a pile of books?
None of these should be hard questions. Seriously. These aren’t obscure words.
As I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of people who will try to convince everyone that the words you use and how you spell them does not matter in real writing. Spelling is all arbitrary, anyway, right? Such pedestrian things should be the very least of your worries.
There also a lot of people who fall back on the “language evolves,” excuse, as I brought up at the start. Modern English is not the same as Middle English or Old English. They also like to bring up Shakespeare as an example of someone who made up words that are now in common use today. Going with today’s theme of knowing what words mean, let me point out that ignorance is not a synonym for evolution.
Now, there are also lots and lots of people who have never been published, produced, or made the first cut in a writing contest. By an astonishing coincidence, a very large percentage of this group is made up of members of those first two groups.
What are the odds of that, I wonder...?
Y’see, Timmy, I know what all those words up there mean. Each and every one of them. So do most editors. Which means we will know when they’re used incorrectly, and each one’s another check mark in the “this writer doesn’t know what they’re doing” column.
How many checks do you think you’ll get before your manuscript ends up in that big pile on the left?
Stop asking your computer to write. Go buy a dictionary. Use it.
Next time, as I have a few times before, I’d like to look at one of the seminal influences of my childhood and where--in my opinion--it went horribly wrong. Even though I somehow managed to turn out okay.
Well, more or less.
Until then, go right.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Is it just me or does Starfleet build really shoddy warp cores? "Oh my God, Ensign Lefler spilled her coffee! We have an imminent warp core breach..."
Anyway, I’ve blathered on about linear structure and then about narrative structure. Now I want to talk about how they interact and tie together. It isn’t really that complicated an idea, but I’m going to use a few examples to make things extra-clear.
As I mentioned before, narrative structure and linear structure are two very different things. The narrative structure is the story the audience is experiencing while the linear structure is what the characters are experiencing. Today I’d like to talk about how they work together, but to do that I need to talk about a third part, and that’s dramatic structure.
Dramatic structure stands a bit off from the other two. It’s an inherent quality of the story that comes about when the linear and narrative work together correctly. Probably the best way to look at it is that this story needs to be told this way to have the impact the storyteller was going for.
Spoilers, by the way, but if you don’t know this one by now... c’mon, seriously.
The Sixth Sense is the story of Bruce Willis, the ghost of a child psychologist who’s helping a little boy come to terms with the fact that he can see ghosts.
Hmmmm... Well that’s kind of lame when you tell it like that, isn’t it? Sound like some kind of Hallmark/ Lifetime/ Afterschool Special sort of story. And to be blunt, it is. If The Sixth Sense was structured that way, telling you everything up front, it would be a very different story, even with all the same events and dialogue.
In fact, that’s probably the best way to look at it. Dramatic structure is why spoilers are cool in a story, but kind of lame when your friends blurt them out or you read them on websites (sorry, AICN). It’s why a lot of screenwriters and directors don’t like to talk too much about some story elements ahead of time, and why they get frustrated with publicists who do.
So... that being said, what I’d like to do now is show you a graph. I don’t really believe in graphs and charts and page counts when it comes to storytelling. I do believe they can make a handy visual aide now and then, though.
This one cost IBM seven-point-six million dollars. It’s the real reason they built Watson. The whole Jeopardy thing was just a fortunate side-effect.
On this chart, the horizontal axis is the narrative. It’s the book from page one to page five hundred, or the movie from opening shot to closing credits. The vertical line is, to coin a phrase, tension. It can represent kickass action scenes or romantic conflicts or scariness or just tension built from suspense.
Very, very simply put, this is dramatic structure. Going from the norm to the extreme. Starting at calm and relaxed only to end at DefCon5. Even if it’s just an emotional/ spiritual DefCon5.
A good story is a series of waves or peaks on this chart. Each one represents a different challenge your characters encounter. The high points are triumphs and peaks of action. The low points are setbacks they suffer between, or perhaps because of, each success.
This first chart is an average day in anyone’s life. To be honest, it’s my life. You can pick out me getting woken up out of a dream by my cats. There I am on the treadmill. That’s where I discovered we were out of Diet Pepsi and the Britta filter was empty. For a good chunk of it I’m sitting here at my desk writing. There’s watching Chuck and making dinner with my lovely lady and catching the end of that Castle two-parter with the dirty bomb. As you can see, nothing horrible, but nothing life-changing, either.
For the record, everyday life is dull. This may have come up here before. It’s boring because we all see it every day. No matter how perfectly or beautifully or eloquently that everyday life is copied to paper or movie screen, it’s still boring. The chart proves it. Ordinary life is pretty darn close to a straight line.
Now, here’s something else important to keep in mind. If your characters never suffer any setbacks (and you’d be amazed how many stories and scripts I’ve seen with this problem) you don’t have waves, you have another line. Likewise, if your story is nothing but an ongoing string of defeats and failures (which tends to go with “artistic” writing), that’s just another straight line, too. And let’s face it, lines are flat and boring. It’s the same thing as having nothing but “cool” dialogue. It gets monotonous fast.
This brings me to the next part of good dramatic structure. As the story progresses, those waves and peaks should be getting taller, every one a little more than the last. They are, in fact, building on each other, just like a good story should. Likewise, the troughs between them should get deeper and deeper. The height of the waves is a good measure of the tension level the characters are facing. The troughs are the level of failure or setback they’re encountering.
Going back to our very expensive graph, there’s a reason dramatic structure works this way. If my story’s waves are always five up and five down, they cancel each other out. The all winning/ all losing lines are boring, yes, but you really don’t want that line to be at zero. Each victory should lift the hero (and the reader) a little higher and a little further, just as each setback should send them reeling a bit harder.
Because of this, you shouldn’t have two peaks which are the same height, especially not right next to each other. If this challenge is equal to that challenge, then the writer hasn’t built anything up in the pages between them. When you see two peaks that carry the same emotional/ action/ suspense/ horror weight, you should stop and think. One of them either doesn’t need to be there or it needs to be lessened/ increased a bit. Again, when things are the same, it’s monotonous.
It’s also worth mentioning that these all need to be valid challenges. A writer can’t fabricate an unmotivated conflict or three just so the character has a challenge. Pirate attacks are cool. Pirates who attack out of nowhere just to create an action sequence are not, no matter how much the writer tries to convince readers the attack is a vital, integral part of the story. This is a common flaw you can spot in a lot of old pulp writing, because the format required multiple cliffhangers, each at a regimented spot in the story. The story would be going along and suddenly the hero or heroine would encounters a wild animal or a booby trap or find him/herself at gunpoint. There was no logic to it, it just had to happen because we’re on page 42.
So, keeping all of this in mind, I’m going to go for the big one... This is the one would-be writers mess up all the time. It’s not going to be easy, but hey... if it was, everyone’d be doing it.
Dramatic structure always wins in the end. No matter what the linear structure of your story is, no matter which narrative structure you’re using, the dramatic structure of a story should always be escalating. You can have setbacks, but all the motion has to be forward and the net gain has to be positive (positive meaning building on itself, not necessarily happy and cheerful). As I’ve said many, many times before, telling the story has to be a writer’s first priority. The narrative structure must match the dramatic structure.
You may have caught up above, the linear structure doesn’t have to follow this pattern of escalation. In fact, it’s very powerful when it doesn’t. Well, when it doesn’t and you’re doing everything else right... Linear structure can start huge and then decline for the rest of the story. It can have a high point in the middle or the biggest low right in the beginning.
Let’s use The Sixth Sense again so I don’t have to spoil anything else. Bruce Willis’s death is a major emotional moment. If we were to plot it out, it’d be pretty high on our chart. It also comes very early in the linear structure. However, it’s revealed very late in the narrative structure. So his death comes at the correct point in the dramatic structure and fits the above pattern.
With me so far?
How about this. Let me be arrogant and use my own book. Ex-Heroes has nine major flashbacks in it, each one a full chapter long. However, each one follows the same dramatic structure. The flashbacks are increasing in tension even as the present day “Now” plot is increasing in tension.
See, here’s the rough linear structure of Ex-Heroes. It begins with the rise of the heroes, followed by the rise of the zombies. About halfway through, you can see the peak of the outbreak where humanity falls and Stealth and St. George found the Mount. The narrative begins on page one of the book and around L on the graph. Once you look at these two sections (past and present) at the same time, with all the flashbacks happening where they do in the story, you see that the entire narrative fits the dramatic structure. I told a story with the linear structure I needed for the narrative structure I wanted to use, which gave me a solid dramatic structure.
Let’s take a look at another chart. Yeah, IBM paid all that money, we should keep using them. This one’s where things go wrong, though.
It’s that exact same linear A through T story from up above, but now I’ve decided to tell it with a flash-forward near the beginning and a flashback just before the big climax. Look carefully-- it’s all the same points, just in a new order.
See, in this example, all the structures are fighting each other. This is a story where the linear structure already matched the dramatic structure, so this new narrative structure doesn’t work. The dramatic structure’s broken, and this usually means the writer has broken the story’s flow. And we all know that’s bad.
When you look at it like this, it’s easy to see why too many frames and flashbacks start to make a jumbled mess of things when they get overused. Suppose my linear structure is that standard A though T again, which means my dramatic structure is, too. Look what happens when randomly rearrange these story points into something like our now-classic Mnbv Cxzlkjhgf Dsapoiuy Trewq order. The dramatic waves become a jagged, roller-coaster mess of different highs and lows that’s impossible to keep track of.
To be more specific, the whole thing becomes static.
And static’s just another word for noise we all ignore.
Y’see, Timmy, this is why so many would-be gurus take the easy route and say never to use flashbacks or any other narrative devices. Far too many writers will throw in a flashback (or two or three or five or...) that explains something in the story but doesn’t fit the dramatic structure. The fact gets out, but the story grinds to a halt in the process. Heck, sometimes you don’t even get a vital fact, just a bunch of random over-description that’s supposed to pass as character stuff. So gurus and other “experts” will tell you to avoid frames and flashbacks because it’s easier to say “don’t” then to explain how to use them correctly.
Which, hopefully, I just did. For free, no less. Even with all those high-end graphs.
Next time... well, after all this, I need to relax a bit. I’ll probably just harp on spelling again or something like that.
Until then, go write.