Showing posts with label Holmes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Holmes. Show all posts

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Limited Discussion

           I wanted to revisit something I blabbed on about a few years back.  I’ve kind of touched on it a few times since then, but I thought it would be good to just babble on about it more specifically.  So if you’ve been reading this for a while and you have a phenomenal memory... sorry.
            I see a lot of television shows that are getting rolled out and cancelled just as fast.  One thing that amazes me is how many of them don’t really seem like television ideas.  They’re cool ideas, yes, but many of them are very A-to-B sort of stories.  My characters have been presented with a single, overriding problem or conflict, and once they resolve it... well, that’s it.  Which is a great thing for a feature film or a single season, but very rarely works well with a long-running series.
            And I’d say that long string of cancellations kind of backs me up on that.
            Some story ideas are, as I just mentioned, pretty much straight line affairs.  There may be a few steps, but in the end it comes down to achieving a single goal.  There are also the broad ideas, the ones you tell people and they say, wow, that could go on forever.  In the past, I’ve referred to these, respectively, as limited and unlimited concepts.
            What do I mean by that?
            An unlimited concept generally has a very broad scope.  Sherlock Holmes uses deductive reasoning to solve mysteries.  Spider-Man and Batman fight crime to make up for the death of their loved ones.  Captain America and Superman fight to protect rights and ideals that they believe in.  Joe Ledger is a soldier turned cop turned super-agent working for the mysterious Mr. Church (or is it Mr. Deacon?).  The crew of the starship Enterprise explores the distant reaches of the galaxy.  Jack Reacher just wants to wander and see the country, but he’ll stop to help folks out sometimes.  Detective Kennex and his android partner, Dorian, investigate homicides in the future.
            A key thing to note.  When we talk about unlimited concepts, nine times out of ten we end up talking about the characters over the plot.  Sometimes it’s the setting, but usually it’s the characters.  An unlimited concept isn’t about a specific set of events, which is why it’s also sometimes also called an open story.
            A limited concept, as the name implies, can only go so far.  As I mentioned above, it’s an idea that has an end inherently built into the concept.  A road trip story is a classic limited concept—as I mentioned above, it’s A-to-B.  We’re trying to get (physically or metaphorically) from here to there.  The passengers of Oceanic flight 815 want to be rescued from their weird tropical island and the residents of Chester’s Mill want to be rescued from the big invisible dome over their town. Tom Jackman wants to find a way to control his dark half.  Mark Watney wants to find a way to survive on Mars for the years until a rescue mission comes.  The crew of the starship Voyager wants to make their way home from the other side of the galaxy.
            In all of these cases, the characters have very clear, straightforward goals.  Once that goal’s reached, the story is over.  It doesn’t mean everybody in Chester’s Mill lives happily ever after or the Voyager crew never goes into space again, but those are all different stories which don’t have to do with the premise I mentioned above.
            Why am I babbling about this?
            If I don’t understand what kind of an idea I have, it’s very easy for me to mess it up.  Trying to play one as the other almost never works.  By their very nature, these concepts are very true to themselves.
            For example...
            Several years back I was part of the staff for an online game.  One time while we were brainstorming new quests for the playerbase, someone suggested taking one of the old ruined castles at the fringes of the map and making it haunted.
            “Okay,” I said.  “And...?”
            “It’s a haunted castle.”
            “Right.  So what’s the quest?”
            “It’s.  Haunted.”
            An unlimited concept is almost never a story in and of itself.  It’s almost always lacking any sort of plot or narrative structure.  I need to add elements to make it work as a story (or a quest).  A fair number of “art” films tend to be unlimited concepts—they’ve got fantastic characters, beautifully rendered locations... but nothing else.  Nothing happens because unlimited concepts don’t contain a conflict or goal for the characters to strive for.
            On the other hand, a common thing I see people do with limited concepts is to keep pushing the goal away to extend the story (or series).  It’s an A-to-B, which means when I hit B the story is over.  So some folks will swerve around B for a while, maybe go back to A because they forgot a few things.  Somehow we end up at 4.2 (no idea how we got here), then we get close to B and veer off at the last minute...  If I’m doing a Los Angeles to Boston road trip, think how annoying it would be to start circling Boston but never actually get there.  Or I suddenly find out I need to be in San Diego instead.  That’s what it’s like when a limited concept artificially extends itself.
            It’s also cheap if I pile on the limited concepts, giving my characters a dozen or three goals that need to be achieved—either all at once or one after another (see above).  In my earlier days, before I had a better grasp of structure, I thought this was how you filled a book.  I still see lots of writers do it when they start out.
            The truth is, it’s very tough for either of these concepts to work alone.  An unlimited one almost never does, but that hasn’t cut down on the number of art films or “experimental” stories.  A limited one might squeak by as what’s often called a “plot driven” story.  Neither of these tends to be very satisfying.
            For a really great book or screenplay, I need both working together.  I need to put that fantastic character (the unlimited concept) and give them a solid goal they need to achieve (the limited concept).  As I’ve often said, my story won’t succeed without good characters, but they also need to do something and it needs to challenge them somehow
            If I don’t have good characters or I don’t have them doing anything... well...
            The math isn’t that hard.           
            Look through that document of story ideas.  Or the file folder.  Or the notebook.  If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve got at least one of those.  Figure out if your ideas are limited or unlimited.  Because then you can figure out what they need to become solid stories.
            Next time... well, there haven’t been many comments lately, so I’m guessing none of this stuff interests a lot of you.  So next week I’ll try to redeem myself
            Until then, go write.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Scary Observation

Sorry for all the time off. Holidays, work, all that.

Where did we leave off...?

Oh, that was it. Writing.

So, Clive Barker once noted (in the beginning of Weaveworld) that stories can only ever have an arbitrary beginning. We may chose, as storytellers, to pick up the threads at a given point, but all the elements had a history long before then. Our characters had childhoods and went to school (or maybe were grown in a lab and computer-educated). The locations had previous tenants. The objects passed through dozens of hands before they got to the ones we’re focused on. No story ever truly begins right where we start telling it.

In a similar way, very few stories end at the point we stop telling them. The Hardy Boys grow up and possibly die, as do Nancy Drew, the Three Musketeers, Hannibal Lecter, and Sherlock Holmes. John Carter of Mars doesn’t, but that’s a story all in itself. That house is still up on Haunted Hill, there’s at least two videotapes floating around of that girl in the well, and the Lost Ark is just tucked away in a warehouse somewhere (in Arizona, if you believe that last movie).

The point that I’m getting to (in my all-too-often rambling way) is that this observation relates to horror, and types of horror. And you could probably apply it to other types of stories as well.

Consider the Japanese horror story (sometimes called J-horror or Ju-On horror). It’s been noted by many folks that in a Japanese horror movie... you’re pretty much just screwed. There’s no way out, no escape, no way to avoid it. That hunchbacked, gray-skinned little girl or boy is going to crawl out of something, somewhere and kill you. Horribly. There is nothing you can do, no ancient rite or exorcism or magic crystal that will save you. In Japan, once you step in the haunted house you’re as good as dead. And the moral lesson there is... well, don’t go in haunted houses.

In American horror, however, you can get away. Go ahead and step into the old house. Spend the night. Have sex there as a teenager, with multiple partners. Smoke some weed and get drunk. Heck, pee in the corner and desecrate those Native American remains you found in the closet. In the United States, there’s almost always a priest or rabbi or librarian or somebody who knows what happened there and what needs to be done to stop it. And in the end, they’ll save you, probably halting the unspeakable evil from the dawn of time while they do.

Simply put, Japanese horror takes place in the middle of the bigger story. These are the folks who die gruesome deaths so, years later, the Americans can come along and solve the problem at the end of the story. The Americans look back at the awful things that happened to the Japanese, don’t repeat the same mistakes (well, most of them don’t), and then bring the ancient (or relatively old) evil to an end.

So, fascinating as these ruminations are, I’m sure some of you are wondering... What’s the point of all this film-school level hypothesizing?

The point is simply this. If you know where your story fits in the bigger framework—the bigger story—it’s much easier to work out what does and doesn’t need to happen in it. It’s simpler to figure out rough character arcs or general motivations, and you’ve got a better idea of what kind of ending you should be aiming at.

Now, I’d never suggest plotting all this out. It does work for some people, I don’t happen to be one of them. Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t. However, just knowing the general area you’re aiming for—the specific kind of story you’re trying to write—is a huge step in the right direction. It keeps you from flailing around and wasting time with that Jesuit priest, or retrieving that exorcism book, or even doing major character development on someone who... well, who’s just screwed because they had the bad luck of stepping into that haunted house. Probably while having sex and wearing a red shirt or something equally dumb...

There’s nothing wrong with just sitting down and starting to write. Heck, several times here I’ve encouraged it. But when you do, in the back of your mind, just try to keep track of what happened before the events you’re telling, and what may happen after them. It can only make things stronger.

So, with that in mind, get back to writing.

And for God’s sake, do not step in that haunted house...

Monday, October 6, 2008

G I G O

Some of you engineering types (there may be one or two out there glancing at this) may recognize this little rant’s title. It’s an old, simple rule—Garbage In, Garbage Out.

This rule has been around for centuries in dozens of different forms. You get what you pay for. You are what you eat. People have known for ages that what you put into something has a direct result on what comes out.

And yet, so few people follow this rule. Many admit it’s true, but think it doesn’t apply to them. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen film producers “save” money by hiring untrained, bottom of the barrel crew members, then get upset because these people are doing untrained, bottom of the barrel work. Worse, then they have the gall to be surprised when it results in a bottom of the barrel film.

GIGO.

Closer to our end of things, I’m stunned how many people who call themselves writers all but brag about the fact that they rarely read-- or don’t read at all. I saw one fellow online proudly announce “Real writers don’t have time to read.”

Truth is, real writers have time for almost nothing except reading.

You have to read. You must have input. There is no other way to be a writer. If you don’t take it in, how can you expect to put it out? If you want to be a writer and have to make the choice between a night out with friends, watching the killer NBC Monday night line up, taking in the new Quentin Tarantino flick, or getting caught up on the next Gaunt’s Ghosts book by Dan Abnett, there shouldn’t really be a choice at all.

Your whole body needs to hunger for words.

The sentences of John Steinbeck should be the best steak you’ve ever had, the phrasing of Ray Bradbury like a fine wine. Finish it off with a little King or Gaiman for dessert, and maybe some McCarthy as an aperitif. Classic stories by Burroughs, Lovecraft, or Dickens should be that rare vintage you’ve pulled from the cellar for a special occasion, to be savored on the palate for their unique taste, never to be made again.

Are you looking more at screenwriting? Consider the classic, subtle wordplay of Casablanca or The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, please). Study the damned clever structure of Scott Frank’s Dead Again or Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Find some scripts by Shane Black (screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and see how much fun they are to read.

Now, there’s another important reason you need to keep reading. No one’s interested in what’s already out there. So your book idea about a little boy discovering he’s a sorcerer is neat, but J.K. Rowling beat you to it. Sorry. Television show about a lawyer getting visions from God? Done. Funny and action-packed film about a millionaire inventor who builds an armored battlesuit to fight injustice? Man, you just don’t get out much, do you...?

You need to read because you need to stay abreast of what’s out there, what people are looking for, and where your work lines up with current trends. A few more examples...

Behold my cool new idea for a series of linked stories about thinking robots. They dream, paint, and run for office. But they can never go bad or run amok, because their neutronic brains are hardwired with three rules that govern all their thoughts actions. I call these Pete’s Three Rules for Why Robots can Never Go Bad or Run Amok.

Behold my cool new idea for a feature film, about a computer programmer who comes to realize everything he knows is essentially a giant video game he’s trapped in. It turns out that in the real world humans are slaves to machines, and some people are actually just other programs interacting with the game. But a group of rebels have found our hero, and teach him how to hack into the game like they do. I call this one Trapped in Evil Marioland! Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.

Behold my cool new idea for a novel. It’s about an art historian who discovers secret messages left behind by a Renaissance artist, and finds himself in conflict with the group trying to protect those secrets. I call it The Cipher of Michelangelo.

What? All been done you say? Are you sure? I thought they were pretty original... I guess I should’ve read more stuff...

Okay, what about a film where a little kid discovers the girl next door is a vampire? Two friends decide to make a porno movie? A has-been wrestler takes a last chance in the ring despite a heart condition? What about a remake of Omega Man?

Wait, wait... books! An unjustly imprisoned man escapes, takes on a new identity, and swears revenge on the people who framed him? An interdimensional cowboy assembles a team to travel to a dark tower that’s destroying the universe? Two friends in the ‘40s create a wildly popular comic-book character? A meek governess falls in love with her employer, but finds out his crazy wife is held prisoner up in the attic of their secluded home? Dracula squares off against Sherlock Holmes? A young man is sworn to vengeance by the ghost of his recently-deceased father?

Nope. All been done. Every one of them.

This doesn’t mean you can’t try to tell those stories, too. But there better not be any overlap, and yours better knock the ball out of the park. If not, though... don’t be surprised when your manuscript ends up in that large pile on the left and not the small one on the right.

So get off the internet and get back to writing.

Or, at the very least, go read something.