Showing posts with label Raiders. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Raiders. Show all posts

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Flash!! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!

            Pop culture reference.
            You godless heathens.
            So, one thing I’ve heard from a fair number of writing gurus—both for books and screenwriting—is to never, ever use flashbacks.  Which seems a bit odd, because there are plenty of well-known novels and films that use them.  Yet folks keep saying it again and again. Don’t use flashbacks.  Don’t use flashbacks.
            The thing is, it’s actually quite easy to do great, fully functional flashbacks.  The kind that make your readers get a thrill rather than leave them scratching their heads.  It takes a basic understanding of story structure and a bit of thought, but that’s it.  They’re something I wanted to go over in that big structure series I keep promising to revisit, but... well, we’re all here now.
            So... flashbacks.
            And this is kind of big and sprawling, so I apologize now.  But it makes up for missing last week.
            For our purposes, the term flashback can cover a lot of things.  It can be an element within the story like a recalled memory, dream sequence, letter or journal entry.  Sometimes, like in my own Ex-Heroes series, it’s just part of the way the narrative has been structured.  Whatever the flashback is, however, it’s going to need to follow certain rules in order to work.
            When someone says a flashback doesn’t work, it’s almost always because it inherently has one of four major flaws (I say “almost” because there’s always some bold, daring folks who will find very unique ways to make something not work).  And it’s interesting to note that these four common flaws also pretty much define a successful flashback.  Once I understand the flaws, I’ll understand how to do fantastic flashbacks.
            So, first big helpful hint.  I cannot start a story with a flashback.  Never.  This is the first of those four flaws, and it’s a simple logic/labeling problem so it’s pretty easy to deal with.
            Why is starting with a flashback illogical?  By its very nature, a flashback implies we’re going to a point in time that’s before now.  This means we need a now before we can flash back to anything else.
            Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade does not begin with a flashback.  It begins in the “present” of 1912, when Indy’s just a teenage kid trying to stop a group of treasure hunters.  Again, this isn’t a flashback, it’s just a different setting.  The story then moves forward thirty years to a new setting where Indy is an adult and reclaiming that same bit of treasure for his museum.
            Calling this sort of thing a flashback (especially in a screenplay) is just going to get my story labeled on page one as something by a  rookie who doesn’t understand basic structure.  Personally, that’s not a first impression I want to make.
            All clear?
            Okay, moving on...
            Now, I can use a flashback anywhere in my narrative (except at the very start, as I just said), but this switch in the linear structure can’t affect the dramatic structure.  If I’m going to drop linear point D between R and S in my narrative, it has to keep the story moving forward.  D has to keep advancing the plot.  It also needs to keep building tension.  If it doesn’t, there was no point to this flashback.
            A lot of writers use flashbacks as infodumps.  The flashbacks are seen as a chance to show how Wakko met Phoebe, how Phoebe became a ninja, why Wakko hates snakes, and so on.  The mistaken belief is that if I do this in a flashback, I’m not affecting the structure of the present storyline because these events aren’t happening now—they’re happening in the past.   
            When I do this, I’m confusing linear structure with narrative structure.  This is the second major mistake.  As I mentioned above—and have mentioned before—the narrative needs to keep moving forward.  Just like a shark, if the story I’m writing (or reading) stops moving forward, it dies.
            So when I have a flashback, it has to keep moving the story forward.  It has to tell me something new and relevant.  It doesn’t matter where the events fall in the linear structure of the story, but wherever I’m using them they have to fit into the dramatic structure.
            For example...  here’s a flashback failure from a book I read last year.  Some names and situations have been changed to protect those I wanted to pummel senseless a third of the way into the book...
            A man’s family dies when they eat tainted meat (he’s off banging his mistress, so he survives—no guilt there).  The narrative then flashes back a few months and spends three chapters in the boardroom of the meat-packing company’s parent corporation.  They’ve just found out the meat is tainted.  Should they shut down the plant?  Announce the problem?  Should they do a recall?  Realistically, how much would they spend on lawsuits?  Maybe it’s better just to let it go and roll the dice.
            So the plot was put on hold for three chapters (three long, full chapters) so we could see the board reach a decision we already knew they made—to let the meat be sold.  One could make the argument that we find out their exact motivation in these chapters.  Thing is, their motivation is exactly what most of us would expect from a bunch of corporate executives.  In this tainted meat scenario, what’s the most likely reason the executives would decide not to issue a recall?  Money, of course.
            This flashback served no purpose at all.  It gave us a resolution we already knew, with a motivation nine out of ten people automatically assumed.  It did nothing except bring the narrative to a dead halt.  There’s a good argument to be made that it actually made the narrative go backwards.
            Now, the reverse of this problem is also an issue.  It’s the third one, as a matter of fact.  This is when the writer confuses the narrative story with the linear story.  This is very similar to a problem I’ve mentioned before, being clear on the first time something happens in a story.  When this problem arises with flashbacks, instead of destroying all possible tension, as mentioned above, it destroys logic.
            Let’s say I’m telling a murder mystery.  On page 75 of my story, the lead character has no idea who the murderer is.  Then, on page 125, I flash back two weeks to something that happened “off camera” earlier.  Here I reveal that my heroine learned the identity of the killer because of a clue she spotted near the mellonballer.
            In a rough, quick way, this makes sense.  On page 75 she doesn’t know.  On page 125 she does.  Except once I put these story elements in linear order... well, now they don’t make any sense.  While it makes sense that this is a new bit of information for the reader on page 125, it’s not new to my heroine.  She’s known all along.  Which makes her actions and dialogue for the last hundred pages complete nonsense.
            A quick story.  One I’ve told before...
            I worked on the really, really bad sequel to a fairly clever murder mystery film, one which was far more famous for Denise Richards making out with Neve Campbell in a pool then it was for its cleverness.  At the end of the original film, there are a series of flashbacks that show how the various characters were intertwined and involved, and also how the various twists were pulled off.  The film I worked on had these flashbacks at the end, too, but with one major difference...
            When you put these flashbacks in place within the linear story, they didn’t make a bit of sense.  Either they added absolutely nothing to the story or else suddenly people had conflicting motivations, plot points became bizarre twists, and once-clear twists became muddled nonsense.  The writers were simply seeing this as “new information” and not considering that, within the linear structure, it was all actually old information that needed to match up with the rest of the film.
            One of the best ways to test this is to take a narrative apart and put it back together in linear order.  Are motivations still clear?  Do plot twists still make sense?  That’s a good sign the flashback is solid.
            At least, solid in this respect.
            There’s one last way flashbacks tend to frustrate readers.  The fourth way.  By the very nature of a flashback being out of sequence, the readers or audience have effectively seen the future.  If my character is alive at story point S, flashing back to show her in a life threatening situation at D doesn’t really accomplish anything.
            For example...
            Let’s say I’m writing a story where Yakko and Dot are writing up their mission reports at Monster Slayer HQ after killing the Great Vampire.  And then they remember that they still owe a report on the mummy outbreak in Cairo.  So they start scribbling their report and I write a big dramatic flashback scene that ends the chapter with the two of them backed against a wall, outnumbered and surrounded by a dozen mummies and the avatar of a very pissed-off Egyptian god. 
            Thing is... there really isn’t any tension in this cliffhanger, is there?  Because the moment the reader pauses, even for an instant (like, say, at this chapter break), they’ll remember Yakko and Dot are sitting back at HQ writing up this report.  Alive and well.  No missing limbs or sensory organs.  Not even any notable scars.  Heck, we know they’ve gone on another mission since this one (killing the Great Vampire) and survived that one, too.  So in this case, the flashback actually hurts the story because it’s sucking all the tension out and killing forward momentum.
            While it wasn’t really a flashback (because, again, it wasn’t flashing back from anything), this was one of the huge flaws with the Star Wars prequels.  By peppering the story with characters whose future we already knew, Lucas effectively tied his own hands and sabotaged any attempt at tension.  He could threaten young Obi Wan Kenobi with all sorts of things, but at the end of the day we all know he survives to become old Ben Kenobi.  And old Ben had all his major limbs, all his fingers, both eyes...  He was in great shape.
            So, four basic rules.

            1) A flashback needs to flash back from somewhere.
            2) It needs to work within the dramatic structure.
            3) It needs to work within the linear structure.
            4) It can’t create tension that undermines the present.

            Now, I’m going to suggest a movie to demonstrate a fantastic series of flashbacks, and you may laugh a bit. Resident Evil.  Yep, it’s corny fun and the series has degenerated into near-nonsense that just showcases Milla Jovovich’s figure, but—credit where credit is due—the first film has a fairly tight story and uses flashbacks very, very well.  There are three major flashbacks (each one a slightly more detailed account of a past event as Alice’s memories come back), and they’re a perfect fit for those four rules I just mentioned. Go grab it from Netflix and check it out.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about some events from last week...
            No, wait... next time I wanted to talk about good genre stories.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

His But Looks Like an Asterisk

             Bonus points if you get that reference...
            Something quick for you.  I’m trying to finish some rewrites.
            I’ve mentioned conflict once or thrice.  Usually I prefer the term challenge, which has also shown up here a few times.  Challenges are what make a story.  When my character deals with problems, obstacles, and unexpected twists, that’s what makes him or her interesting and keeps the audience engaged
            Yeah, there are a few character-heavy stories out there that manage to have no challenges at all and still be interesting.  Believe me when I say that they are very, very few and far between.  Much, much rarer than some of our college writing instructors and chosen gurus would have us believe.
            And really, at the end of the day, readers want to see challenges.  They want to read about characters who are doing something active—physically, emotionally, spiritually.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, characters who never face any sort of challenge are boring as hell.
            And that hundredth time is a coin toss.
            So here’s a simple test to see if my story has any kind of challenge in it.
"Who knows?  In a thousand years, even
you may be worth  something!
            Back when I was talking about expanding ideas, I mentioned that I should be using a lot of conjunctions when I explain my plot to someone.  If you look back at the example I gave (the first half of Raiders of the Lost Ark) you’ll notice that but accounted for almost half the conjunctions I used.  This is because but represents conflicts and setbacks.  Indy finds the Ark of the Covenant, but Belloq and the Nazis steal it out from under him.  I would’ve had a great time at the party, but my ex was there.   Congress says they want to accomplish a lot, but the House and Senate never agree on anything.
            Take your novel, screenplay, or short story.  Try to summarize it one page.  This isn’t a sales-pitch summary like you’d find on the inside flap of the dust jacket or on the back of the DVD.  Write up an honest summary from beginning to end with all the beats and plot points.  Don’t hold back, include as much as you can, but keep it at one page.
            Now let’s take a look at it.  How many times did you end up using but as a conjunction?  You can count however if it shows up, and maybe though, as well.
            If I can summarize my whole story without using the word but, I have a problem.  Because but is where my challenges are.  No but means no conflicts, and no conflicts means my characters aren’t doing anything worthwhile.
            And that means they’re boring as hell.
            Hopefully you see my point.  But I’m sure some folks won’t.
            Next time... hmmmm, not really sure what I’ll do next time.  Open to suggestions as always.  If none appear... well, I’m sure I’ll think of something really interesting.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, December 7, 2012

That’s Crossing The Line!

            I’ve been asked about a dozen times lately to take part in “The Next Big Thing.”  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of a self-promotional blog tour that a lot of authors are passing around.  I passed on it because that’s not the kind of thing I use this page for.  Oh, sure, I’ll mention it if I have a new release or maybe if something of mine goes on sale, but I don't want to go much further than that.  This page is more about hints and instruction than anything else.
            And I suck at self-promotion.
            But that’s all a bit besides the point.  I didn’t want to blather on about crossing that line this week.  I wanted to talk about crossing lines.
            Some people think a genre story has to be pure.  A horror story should be nothing but suspense and scares and gore.  Every moment of a drama should be serious and weighty.  Comedies should be non-stop laughs—there shouldn’t be a moment where something inherently funny isn’t happening on the page or the screen..
            The thing is, those "pure" stories are all boring as hell.  The horror ones stop being scary.  The drama becomes melodrama.  The comedy becomes painful. 
            The reason for this is a lack of variety.  An idea I’ve mentioned before is that the tension levels in a story should rise as the story progresses.  It’s great to begin my story with the action dialed up to nine, but it doesn’t really leave me anywhere to go.  If my novel or screenplay has everything dialed up to nine, what I’ve really got is a monotone story.
            Likewise, if every point on my story graph is the same point—say unspeakable horror or maybe uber-cool action—then what I now have is a homogenous script.  Flipping pages is like cutting into a block of cheese.  Every part is just like every other part.  Case in point...
            unspeakable horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Unspeakable Horror
            Even when I’m escalating things, getting the same point over and over and over again becomes silly pretty quick. 
            Consider most of the good stories you’ve read or seen.  There’s a lot of comedy in Jaws.  Ernie Cline’s cyber-fantasy tale Ready Player One has some moments of serious suspense.  Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wonderful love story in it.  Dan Abnett’s sci-fi action novel Embedded has a pretty enthusiastic sex scene.  Ghostbusters actually gets a bit scary at points.  The characters in the new Hobbit movie break out into song.  Twice.
            That being said, I don’t think any of us would call Jaws a comedy, and Embedded is hardly a porno.  Raiders has that love story and a couple really good laughs, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call it a romantic comedy.  And The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is definitely not a musical.  We all realize that little dips and swings into what would qualify as another genre doesn’t invalidate a story.
            If anything, they usually strengthen it.
            The secret to all storytelling is characters, and the best characters are going to act like real people.  They’ll tell jokes at the wrong time.  Some of them will think about love and sex when they should be paying attention in board meetings, and others will fret about those board meetings at moments they should be thinking about love and sex.  A few of them might even be stressed about scratching the paint on Dad’s car when they should really be worried about the axe murderer lumbering up behind them.  
            One of the most dramatic moments in The Empire Strikes Back is when they're about to test the carbon-freezing on Han Solo.  For all intents, he's walking to his execution.  He knows it, his friends know it, we know it.  Even if he survives-- he's gone.  Leia knows this and finally admits her true feelings... and Han responds with a wiseass comment.  We all giggle and then there’s a horrible blast of steam as Han’s turned into a piece of collectible wall art.
            Y’see, Timmy, if my stories and characters lack this kind of range they’re going to come across as very flat and tedious.  If I can’t have a moment of laughter, a bit of flirting, or a non-sequitor distracted thought, my characters are going to feel like puppets rather than people.  Much like a chef uses a few different flavors to bring out the main tastes of a meal, a writer wants to sprinkle in a few moments that step out of the genre to make the characters and the material much more powerful.
            So don’t be scared to stretch a toe over those lines now and then.
            I know I said I was going to talk about structure, but that’s kind of a huge set of post so I think I might save it until the new year and take a bit of stress out of my holidays.  So next time, I’m  probably just going to say something quick about heroes.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fleshing Things Out

            That’s right.  Taking requests and playing the hits you ask for.
            Probably one of the most common thing writers hear is people asking about turning ideas into stories.  “Oh, I’ve got a really great idea, I just need someone to help me turn it into a book.”  I get messages like this four or five times a year.  When it’s from friends, I try to be really polite and explain why it doesn’t make much sense for me to help with their idea when I’ve already got far too many of my own to work on.  When it’s someone I don’t even know...
          I usually just ignore those messages. 
          Still, the unspoken question there is a valid one.  How do you go from clever idea to full-fledged book or screenplay?  How does a writer go from “bugs in amber have dinosaur DNA in their bellies” to Jurassic Park?
            Let’s talk about that.
            Now, as usual, nothing I’m about to say is a hard-fast rule.  A lot of it comes from a talk I had a few Christmases back with writer/director Shane Black (best known for Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the upcoming Iron Man 3, and a string of really awful dirty jokes in the movie Predator).  He had a few thoughts on how to assemble a story that I thought were very insightful, and I’m going to use his general framework to address this week’s topic.
            Having said that, just to make things less confusing, from here on in I’ll be referring to our collection of words as “a novel.”  It’ll be clear why as we move on.  Depending on what you want to write, feel free to swap “novel” out for screenplay, short story, epic poem, or whatever. 
            If I’ve got an idea for a novel, I want to look at it in terms of plot and story.  Can it expand into a full plot?  Does it lend itself to a strong story?
            Let’s go over each of these terms.
            Okay, first we need to understand what the plot is.  If I’m writing a book, the plot is what’s going to be on the back cover.  If I’m writing a screenplay, it’s going to be what they put on the back of the DVD.  Simply put, the plot is the chain of events that make up the novel.  It’s what makes readers need to turn the page so they can find out what happens next.
            It’s important to remember that one idea does not make a plot.  “There’s a haunted castle,” is not a plot.  “My partner is a robot,” is not a plot.  “I want to go to the prom with a cheerleader/ quarterback,” is not a plot.  A lone idea is just a plot point, and basic geometry tells us we need multiple points to make something worth looking at.  That something being a novel (or screenplay, epic poem, etc.).
            If I’m describing a plot, I’m going to use a lot of conjunctions.  I’ll be using and, but, and or to string all those plot points together.  Take a look at this example...

            Indiana Jones is an adventurer who finds ancient treasures and he’s a professor of archaeology at a university.  The government hires him to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis, but the Nazis have a head start.  Indy goes to find his old mentor, but finds out that Abner has died and his daughter has a grudge against Indy.  The Nazis show up and Indy and Marion fight them off.  They travel to Cairo and meet Indy’s old partner, Sallah, but learn the Nazis already have their excavation well under way.  The Nazis try to have Indy killed in the marketplace and he fights them off again, but Marion is killed when the getaway truck explodes.  Indy and Sallah get the medallion deciphered but it turns out there are two parts to the inscription and the Nazis only have half of it.

            See what I mean?  Lots of points, and I’ve barely written out half the movie.   It’s also worth re-noting then none of those ideas on its own is a novel.  It’s when they start joining up that we get something that interests us. 
            This is where a lot of people mess up the whole idea of “expanding an idea into a novel.”  Y’see, Timmy, an idea doesn’t expand.  The plot expands as more ideas are added into it.  It’s impossible to expand “Indy and Sallah get the medallion deciphered” without adding a new element to the mix.  Seriously, try it.  Any attempt is just going to be some artificial wordplay and padding until I bring “it turns out there are two parts to the inscription” into it.
            It’s also worth noting another key thing.   For most good novels, the plot is the attempt to do something.  Not necessarily succeeding at something, mind you, but attempting to do it.  Beat the Nazis, save the girl, beat the system, save the clock tower, and so on.  Plot is active.  In that little summary up above, ten of the eighteen points are characters physically doing things. 
            Listing these points out can also be a hint that my story is getting a little thin on plot.  If I’m really stretching to come up with individual points, or falling back on a lot of inactive, internal points, that could mean my novel is veering into more of an artsy-character range.  If a lot of my points don’t really tie back to the main thrust of the novel, that’s another good sign.  There’s nothing wrong with that, provided I knock the character stuff out of the park.  Which brings us to our next point.
            Now, if plot is what goes on around the characters, the story is what goes on inside the characters.  Plot is big and external.  Story is small and intimate and internal.  It’s the personal stuff that explains why the characters are interested in the plot.  And if it’s why the characters are interested, it’s also why the reader is interested.  Plot makes us need to turn the page, but story makes us want to turn the page because we’ve come to like these characters. 
            A great example of plot vs. story is Silence of the Lambs.  The plot is the search for a missing girl, and some of the desperate decisions and deals the FBI will make to find her.  The story is about Clarice Starling trying to make up for what she sees as an awful failure in her childhood, and how much of her life is shaped by the need to balance that failure.
            I’ve said a few times here that characters are key to a successful novel, and that’s because without good characters you can’t have a lot of story.  I can have a ton of plot, but not much else.
            Now, because of this, developing an idea into a novel is a little tougher from the story side, because it involves developing characters.  How the characters react to the idea depends on who they are and how this idea interacts with their personality and history.  Which means they need to have personalities and histories.  And a lot of this can just come down to asking and answering questions that relate back to that original idea.
            Let’s go with the one I mentioned up at the top—my partner is a robot.  Let’s say my character is Bob.  Did Bob know this partnership was coming or did it get sprung on him?  Does he like being partnered with a robot?  Does he like robots in general?  What kind of partnership do they have?  Is Bob the junior or senior partner?  Why?  Do they work well together?  Does Bob have weaknesses the robot will compensate for (or vice versa)?    
            The answers to all of these questions expand the story.  Odds are that some of the answers will lead to more questions, too.  And more questions means the plot is expanding.
            As above, this can also be a hint that my novel is a little weak on the story side of things.  If I just give quick, inconsistent answers to these sort of questions, my characters are going to end up pretty flat.  Character arcs are a big part of the story, so if my character never changes in any noticeable way, it probably means my novel is emphasizing plot over everything else.  There’s nothing wrong with that—there are plenty of fantastic plot-driven  books and movies—but it does mean I need to have a really solid, engaging plot.
            It’s important to notice that story is why so many novels can use the same plot but still be very different.  Alan Moore’s Watchmen has the exact same plot as the classic Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear," but they have different stories.  The same with Never Let Me Go and The Island.  While the basic idea is the same, the character tweaks make each of these into unique stories.
            Consider this—how much does the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark change if I just do a gender swap on Indy?  Start way back with her relationship with Ravenwood’s underage son.  Would this still cause a falling out between the two professors?  How would the son view this past relationship?  And in the late 1930s, what would it be like for a female professor?  The male students hitting on her in class is a very different image, and would the government men be as enthusiastic when they learn Dr. Jones is a woman?  Our basic plot wouldn’t need to change too much, but all these story elements become very different.
            So when you’re looking to take an idea all the way to a full blown novel—or screenplay, epic poem, opera, or whatever it is you write—start with the basics.  Consider your idea as part of a larger plot.  Think of how it could fit into a character’s story.
            This week was kind of long and rambling, so next week I might just do something quick.  Whatever pops into my head.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Was A Very Driven Boy Scout

Not pop culture. Crap joke. Blame Eddie Izzard.

I’m sorry this is a bit late. I wanted to have it done for Thursday, but then... y’know, then I just couldn’t find a compelling reason to work on it.

Speaking of which...

I read a book a few weeks ago where the main antagonist is an ex-con. While he was in prison he found a niche market, learned about computers, and set up a nice little business for himself involving convicts still inside. It’s nothing great, but it’s completely legal, ethical, and he’s pulling in close to a grand a week for fifteen or twenty hours of work. He often ponders the fact that if he’d know it was so easy to make money legitimately, he never would’ve ended up in prison.

Which is especially confusing because at the start of the book he’s working as a one-man Brute Squad and committing murder to neaten up “any possible loose ends” for the big man who’s pulling all the strings. Much later in the book (after more brutality and further explanation of how great his niche business is doing) the antagonist finally explains that he feels he owes a debt of honor to this person he’s working for. That man pulled a few strings to help get him out of prison, after all, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to end up back in prison.

Those last italics are mine. They’re not from the ex-con who’s got a completely legitimate business pulling in a grand a week for twenty hours of work and is murdering people on the side. A guy who, it’s also been established, has no real loyalty to anyone but himself. And his business, which he’s thinking he may expand.

Sooooooo... it wasn’t really clear why this guy was doing any of the stuff we saw him doing. In fact, as the book went on his actions became less and less plausible. Especially when he kidnapped a woman so he could blackmail her husband and then suddenly decided to rape her.

Definitely the action of an ex-con determined not to go back to prison.

One of the most common things that makes a character unbelievable is when they have no motivation for their actions. We’ve all seen it. The guy who decides to pick a fight over something petty in the middle of a crisis. The person in charge who continues to ignore someone with key information. The spouse who’s just a jerk. The ninja who attacks for no reason.

Y’see, Timmy, nothing knocks a reader out of a story faster than people just randomly doing stuff. There’s a simple reason for this. In the real world, when people do things for no reason, they’re usually considered to be insane. Not an interesting insane, either, but the “lame motivational excuse” insane. If I run into a burning house to save a baby or a dog, I’m going to be considered a hero whether I make it out or not. If I run into the flaming house just because it’s there, I’m going to be considered an idiot.

People need a reason to do things. Real reasons. Reasons that jibe with their background and their personality and with basic rules of behavior. That’s why you’ve heard of people motivating horses with a carrot on a stick but not with a t-bone steak on a stick. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s completely understandable that Belloq wants to open the Ark before taking it to Germany, and believable that the Nazi officers would feel uncomfortable about performing a “Jewish ceremony.” This fits with Belloq’s smarmy background and it makes sense—historically, even-- that Colonel Dietrich would be a bit by disturbed by what needs to be done to open the Ark.

So here’s a challenge for you—try to picture that scene reversed. Can you imagine if, at that point in the film, Dietrich is insistent on performing the ceremony and Belloq is saying “no, no, I really think we should just take it to der Fuhrer and let him deal with it”...? It wouldn’t make any sense, would it?

In the book I’m working on right now, a very major motive for many of the characters is curiosity. So is fear. And, after a certain point, survival. I’m not saying that everyone in the book acts rationally, mind you, but their actions fit who they are and what they believe they’re going to accomplish.

Now, sometimes the story needs people to act a certain way. It’s been plotted out and now the characters need to do this so that can happen a bit later. What some writers don’t seem to get is that this doesn’t make a character’s actions more believable or forgivable.

In the example I gave above, the reader’s given two contradictory sets of information about the ex-con. On one hand we’ve got a man determined to stay on the straight and narrow with all the motivation he needs to do it—good character building stuff. However, almost all we see him do in the book is commit acts of murder, kidnapping, blackmail, and even one breaking and entering. All this advances the plot, yes, and at a breakneck pace, but it does this by making the character less and less believable. And that really made him less and less of a threat. To be honest, I realized at one point I was actually picturing him as a cartoon. In my mind, the book had turned into a sort of high-tech thriller version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit because the only way to rationalize this nonsensical character was to turn him into something completely absurd.

Here’s one other good point worth noting. The reader has to be able to relate to the character’s motives. This is especially important for stories set in radically different cultures (Japan, for example, or India under the caste system) or perhaps in entirely fictitious ones (Barsoom, Diagon Alley, or the grim darkness of the future). While the characters might have very true and proper motivations within the context of their tale, those motivations still need to be interpreted by the chosen audience. It’s common to hit this wall in stories where the writer knows their chosen setting too well or maybe had to build their amazing world from the ground up.

People’s motivations tend to be simple. If you’ve ever seen a procedural show, they often talk about the common motives for murder. Love, money, revenge—they’re very basic ideas. The unspoken motive for the cast of these shows is justice, or perhaps closure. In Raiders, Belloq is looking for glory and maybe a bit of power (I think it’s safe to say he was secretly hoping he’d get all the benefits of that “hotline to God”).

Look at the characters in one of your stories. Follow them for a few pages. Can you explain their actions with one or two simple words? Are they words that most people will know? Do these words relate to the character and not your outline?

Then you’ve probably got some very driven characters.

Next week, a few tips from Esmund Harmsworth about mysteries—many of which can be applied to writing as a whole.

For now, hopefully you feel motivated to go write.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

This IS Ceti Alpha Five!

If you get that title reference, you probably feel an equal mix of pride and shame. Just like I do for coming up with it.

For those of you who don’t get it, it’s from a sci fi movie where the characters suddenly discover they aren’t on the planet they thought they were. They (and the audience) had gone along assuming they were on planet A, only to discover they were on planet B instead. It’s a mistake that costs them dearly—they end up getting little parasitic worms stuck in their ears.

Silly as it may sound, a key part of storytelling is knowing the world your story is set in. I can tell the story of a noble knight on a quest to find the Holy Grail, but depending on the world I set it in, he can be a glorious hero (The Once and Future King) or a deranged madman (The Fisher King). We’d all frown if one of the Bourne books had him stopping an alien invasion and we’d shake our heads if Jack Reacher took on a cult of Satanists that had summoned an actual demon.

One of the biggest ways writers mess this up is to take too long to establish what kind of world they’re in. For example, they’re doing a spoof-comedy, but the first thirty pages have been completely straight. Or (on the flipside) they do establish the world and much later in the narrative try to switch that world to something else. I’ll blab on about that in a minute.

For now, consider the movie Predator. The original, with Governor Arnold, Governor Jesse, Secretary of Defense Carl Weathers, and screenwriter Shane Black.

Predator begins with the team landing in Central America and getting briefed on their mission. They head into the jungle, locate the crashed plane, find the enemy camp, and have an awesome gunfight. Then Arnold discovers that Carl set them up and dumped them in the meat grinder. They head back out for the rendezvous... and that’s when they discover there’s something else in the jungle.

We’re, what... half an hour into the film at this point?

Except... that’s not how Predator begins. If you think back, the movie actually begins with an alien spaceship flying past Earth and launching off a small shuttle/ drop pod. We’re told in the first minute of the film that this is, ultimately, a sci-fi story. We may get distracted for a bit by the hail of bullets, but when the title alien shows up it isn’t a surprise... just a bit creepy.

On the other hand, one recent book I read was 100% set in the real world. Everything about it was realistic. The basic idea was two people who had found the last notebook of a dead research scientist who claimed (in his notes) to have discovered a cure for cancer. The cure for cancer. The entire book was about them trying to figure out what the heck they had while half a dozen pharmaceutical companies chased them—all wanting the notebook one way or another. Well, in the end they escape big pharma, sell the notebook to a group of researchers for a couple million dollars, and cancer is cured across the globe.

Yep. We cured cancer everywhere in the last seven pages. Go us.

I also once saw a script that started out as a dramatic comedy sort of thing. Young woman, single mother, trying to make the best of life even though she keeps getting knocked down... we’ve all seen it a few dozen times. That was the first forty odd pages. Then, on page 44, if memory serves (almost 3/4 of an hour into the movie, mind you), we discover that the old man she just helped cross the street is actually the Easter Bunny, who decides to reward the woman with a wish for her random act of Christian charity.

That’s right. A key point in this story is that the Easter Bunny spends his downtime walking among us disguised as an octogenarian. And the Easter Bunny is all about Christian charity because... well, the brown of the chocolate and the brown of the wood of the cross... or something...

Like any other disruption in the flow of a story, it’s very jarring when a story is set up in one world and then veers off into another one. It’s like discovering that one of your main characters has actually been insane all along. It forces the reader to re-examine what’s come before, and not in a good way. In fact, more often than not, these sudden shifts in tone and world force a story into pure comedy. Again, not in a good way.

Consider this. There’s a classic Saturday Night Live skit which claims to be the famous “lost reel” of It’s A Wonderful Life. In this, just as everyone’s sitting around singing and rejoicing, Uncle Billy remembers that he misplaced the money in the newspaper Mr. Potter took. It only takes a few moments for this realization to turn the celebrating friends and family into an ugly mob, and they march to Potter’s house, give the man a mass beating, and burn his home to the ground. The End. The Simpsons did something similar with a lost final reel of Casablanca. Here Ilsa parachutes out of Laszlo’s plane to be with Rick, saving him from (and killing) Adolph Hitler in the process. The happy couple is married shortly afterwards. The End...?

No, seriously. That’s how they “ended” Casablanca, with the ellipse and the question mark. Which, as Bart points out, leaves them open for a sequel.

So just by (hypothetically) shifting the tone/world of the endings, both of these classic, award-winning films become absurdist comedies.

Now here’s a key thing to remember. You can still have a fantastic story set in the real world provided the events of your story don’t change the world. If I wage a secret battle against lizard men from the center of the Earth and at the end of my story no one knows the war happened, then the world hasn’t changed, has it?

Perfect example—Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not only does this story involve a Nazi plot to seize arcane objects across the globe, it has reputable archeologist Henry “Indiana” Jones finding hardcore evidence that God is real. Think about the repercussions that information would have. If someone went public in the 1930s with absolute, undeniable proof of God’s existence, what kind of world would we be living in today? What kind of story would you be telling?

Which is why that evidence never goes public. We’re left with the distinct impression no more than a dozen people know what Dr. Jones recovered from that island, and that he’s been well-paid not to talk about it. And the Ark... well, we all know what happens to the Ark, don’t we?

I really, really hate to use this analogy, but it is perfect. If you want to set an amazing story in the real world, you need to use conspiracy theory logic. Yep, the same reasoning used by the birthers, moon-landing deniers, and “9-11 was staged” folks is what makes for a good fiction story. How sad is that?

By conspiracy-theory logic, the lack of evidence for X is the proof that X is true. Any facts that disprove X are manufactured by the powers that be, thus further proving X is true. And if you stumble across a few coincidences that imply X is true, well, that of course is solid proof that X is true.

Y’see, Timmy, by this chain of reasoning, the untouched real world is undeniable proof the imaginary world of your story is true. Only the BPRD knows what really happened to Adolph Hitler after the Occult Wars, so it’s understandable that most of us only know the publicized version of events. There are a dozen enchantments that keep the magical world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley separate from the real world, thus the fact that no Muggle has ever seen Hogwarts pushes the idea that the stories about it are true. Only a worthy mortal can lift the hammer of Thor (bonus points if you remember its name—offer not good after Friday), but we all know we’re not 100% worthy so we accept that we’ve never had the chance to lift it. The fantasy world doesn’t change the real world, so that fantasy world is more believable.

So do amazing things in amazing worlds. Just make sure no one finds out about it.

Next time, I wanted to rant a bit about sounding like a professional.

Until then, go write.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is...

Hopefully you know the answer to that one. It’s kind of relevant.

Structure is how a story is put together. It's the underlying shape and order that everything else hangs on. I know that sounds obvious, but every now and then you need to point out the obvious stuff. If you don't have structure, all you have is a pile. Even something as amazing as the Guggenheim follows a lot of the basics of building construction.

Which is a great example. Much like the physical architecture of buildings, there are certain rules a writer needs to follow with the structure of their story. A very skilled person can bend or tweak these rules to accomplish a clever effect, but ignoring the rules often means the story (or building) will just collapse. At the least, it’ll end up so ugly and misshapen nobody will want anything to do with it.

As I have in the past, I may use a few terms here in slightly different ways than they get used in other places. I’m mostly doing it to keep things as clear as possible, so try to think of the ideas and concepts I’m tossing about more than the label I slap on them for this little rant.

There are two types of story structure I want to blather on about. One is linear structure. The other is narrative structure. They're two separate things. If the writer is doing things correctly, they tie together in the same smooth, effortless way character and dialogue tie together.

First up is linear structure. This is how the characters in a story perceive events. Unless you’re writing a story from the point of view of Doctor Manhattan, your characters are going to experience the story in a linear fashion. Morning will be followed by afternoon, then evening. Thursday comes before Friday, which is the start of the weekend. People begin life young and then grow old. Another good way to think of linear structure is continuity. A before B. Cause before effect.

The other half is narrative structure. This is how your audience experiences the story, and it can come in a number of forms--many of which we’ll deal with next week. I just wanted you to have both terms in your forebrain right now.

So, a term some of you may have heard before is three-act structure. It gets tossed around in screenwriting a lot, but it shows up in most forms of storytelling and showmanship. Despite attempts to define it as something much more rigid and page-dependent, three act structure really just means that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning happens first, then the middle, then the end.

Again... every now and then you have to point out the obvious stuff.

Now, it’s key to note they may not always come in that order, but they do always need to be there. We’re going to get into that in a little bit (again, probably next week). For now, the key thing to remember is that even if these events are presented to the reader out of order, the characters are still experiencing them in order.

One easy way you can check a non-linear story is to cut it up and put the bits in chronological order, like a timetable. This is the order the characters and the world are experiencing the story (as opposed to the reader). Does effect still follow cause? Are the actions and dialogue still motivated? If everything’s right, there should be a clear chain of continuity. If it starts to get fuzzy or questionable, that's not a good sign.

Now, I’m sure the question some of you are asking is “why?” Since so many tales involve flashbacks and frames and non-linear storytelling, why does a linear structure matter? It should only matter in straightforward stories like 24, right?

Wrong again, Timmy.

As I mentioned above, linear structure is how the characters experience the story. And as I’ve said many, many times, characters are key. If they’re not grounded in a linear structure, they end up tripping over themselves. They know things they shouldn’t know yet or bear the scars of events that haven’t happened. Once it starts with characters, these flaws and oddities ripple out into the plot and there’s a notable lack of continuity. Suddenly effect is coming before cause, and B comes before A, with D between them.

A quick note for genre fans. Time travel stories get called on continuity a lot. Not in the altering history sense, just in the who-knows-what-when sense. Just remember that time travel isn’t going to affect a character’s personal linear timeline. My day four can be your day one. In the handy diagram here (developed with a $25,000,000 grant from NASA), you can see that our time traveler (in blue) has a coherent, linear story--even though it seems at odds with the story of the mundane non-time traveler (in black) who also has a linear story (no one said time travel was easy). One of the best things I can suggest for this is the third season of Doctor Who. It deals with this idea in the first episode and in two different arcs that span the entire season. Plus it’s really fun and Freema Agyeman is gorgeous, so win-win all around.

My novel, Ex-Heroes, has almost a dozen major flashbacks in it to a period before the beginning of the novel. But if you were to rip all of those chapters out and rearrange them in chronological order (go ahead, buy an extra copy just to tear it up), you’d see that the story still makes sense. The heroes appear. The zombies appear. Society collapses. The heroes try to salvage what they can and rebuild society (which is where the book begins). A new threat appears. The story itself is linear, even though it’s presented in a non-linear way.

On the flipside, I once worked on the straight-to-DVD sequel to a very popular murder mystery/ Hitchcock-style thriller (which was, in all fairness, mostly popular because Denise Richards and Neve Campbell get topless and make out in a pool). When you took many of the “hidden scenes” at the end of the sequel and put them in order, the story actually made less sense than it did without them. This film, needless to say, had horrible linear structure. The writers were just throwing down “cool” moments with no regard to where and how they actually fit into the story.

One more general note for you. When you look at the linear structure of a story, it should be very straightforward. A-B-C-D-E- and so on. If you’re looking over this and suddenly hit 4-5-6 somewhere... well, there’s a reason that looks odd there. It’s falling outside the scope of the plot. An example I’ve used before is the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Doctor Jones gives a speech about Masada to the two government agents. Don’t remember that scene? Yeah, well, that’s because it has nothing to do with the story so they didn’t put it in the movie. Linear structure is a great place to see if there are extra things hanging on a story that don’t need to be there.

So that’s linear structure in a somewhat large nutshell. Next time I’ll babble on about narrative structure and, if I’m doing it right, this will all start to make sense.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chefs Do That

Every now and then I get to do some really cool stuff for my job at Creative Screenwriting. Part of this is pitching ideas for articles or interviews and the little thrill when someone says yes to a wilder one. What’s really cool, though, is when you pitch a complete long-shot idea and the screenwriter said idea centers around says “sure, let’s grab a coffee or something.”

Shane Black came to national attention as Hawkins, the bespectacled, dirty-joke-spewing soldier in Predator who comes to a quick and messy end. What most people probably don’t know is that his role in the iconic movie was an off-the-table part of his deal (so the story goes) for Lethal Weapon, the screenplay he wrote that made him one of the darlings of the late ‘80s spec script boom. Since then he’s also written The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (which he also directed). More to the point, I got to chat with him back at Christmas and we talked for a while about writing and storytelling. And Santa Claus fighting Satan. Anyway, he brought up a very interesting angle on storytelling that I’d like to expand on and share with you all.

As fair warning, some of these terms may not be used exactly as you’re used to them. Try not to think of it in terms of “this means this” but rather the ideas and concepts behind this little sub-rant. For example, to avoid confusion, I’m going to be using the word tale a lot in these next few paragraphs.

Any tale can be thought of in terms of plot, story, and theme. These three elements are really what make up every tale you’ve ever heard. Every now and then you may stumble across one that doesn’t have one of these elements, and nine times out of ten that tale is flawed because of it.

The first of these, the plot, is what’s going on within your particular tale. It’s the elements you’ll usually see on the back of a book or the DVD case. If you’re a screenwriter, it’s usually the idea you pitch. If you’re a novelist, it’s that quick summary in your query letter.

--The plot of Star Wars (no subtitle, never was) is Luke and Han trying to rescue Princess Leia and destroy the Empire’s super weapon, the Death Star.

--The plot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is Scott trying to defeat seven super-powered exes so he can be with his dream girl, Ramona.

--The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is a man trying to take revenge on the people who destroyed his life decades ago.

--The plot of The Long Kiss Goodnight is a presumed-dead agent trying to stop a murderous conspiracy concocted by her former employers.

--The plot of IT is six friends coming together again after years to try to defeat a monster that lives under their home town.

--The plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark is Indy is trying to find the Ark before the Nazis do and get it safely back to America.

You may have caught something there. For most good stories, the plot is the attempt to do something. Pull off a heist, get a date, beat the bad guys. This is the action (of one type or another) that makes the reader need to turn to the next page.

Some indie films don’t have a plot. They’ve taken the idea of a character-driven tale to the extreme and tend to just meander. They’re slice-of life tales where beautifully-rendered people don’t really do anything. There is a certain appeal to this, on some levels, but in the end it’s a very niche audience.

The flipside of plot is the story. Story is what’s going on within your characters. It’s the personal stuff that explains why they’re interested in the plot and really why the reader is interested in the plot. Story is why Never Let Me Go is different than The Island, because they’re taking what’s essentially the same plot and approaching it with two very different stories.

--The story of Scott Pilgrim is about becoming more mature in order to shape a lasting relationship.

--The story of Rick Blaine (Casablanca) is about the resurgence of the man he used to be a long time ago and the causes he used to fight for.
--The story of Samantha Kaine (The Long Kiss Goodnight) is figuring out who she is; an amnesiac, single-mom schoolteacher or a ruthless assassin who created the identity of Samantha as a hiding place she could sink into and “retire”

--The story of Edmund Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo) is about letting go of the past and accepting what he has in the present.

--The story of Indiana Jones is about reconnecting with a past love and learning to believe in something bigger than himself.

You may notice here that while the story and plot are often complementary, they don’t always tie directly to each other. Story is the character arc and the reasons behind that arc. Plot makes us need to turn the page, but story makes us want to turn the page.

A lot of stuff in the action genre is light on story. If there are enough explosions, karate chops, and gunshots the audience may not notice that the characters never really change or develop in any way. Which is fine for your supporting folks, but not so good for your protagonists.

Last but not least is the theme. Theme covers everything, and it applies to both the plot and the story. A tale’s theme can be something broad and simple. The theme of Raiders, for example, is just “good ultimately triumphs over evil (even if good gets the crap kicked out of it first).” That’s a common theme that covers a lot of tales. “You can’t beat the system,” is another common theme that shows up in a lot of dystopian tales like 1984, as does its close cousin “might makes right.” A theme can also be much more specific, like “unrestricted greed caused the financial crisis” or “the Bush Doctrine endangered more American lives than it ever saved.” As a theme gets more specific, though, a writer has to be careful it doesn’t just become an overriding message.

When a tale is lacking one of the previous elements, it’s usually doesn’t have much of a theme, either. Tales without a theme, even one of the simple ones above, tend to wander or be inconsistent. It’s kind of like going out for a drive--you may get somewhere, but it wasn’t in your mind when you set out... and it probably wasn’t the most efficient way to get there...

Next time around, I’d like to talk about triplines, deadfalls, punji pits, and other dangerous assumptions people make about writing.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nothing Up My Sleeve...


Looks like I gotta get another hat...

Anyway, back in the day, when there just weren’t as many stories to be told, there was a very common structure to Greek stage plays. Essentially, the characters screwed up. A lot. They’d fail at tasks and get themselves in way over their heads. Just when all seemed lost, the stagehands would lower in “the gods,” one or more actors on a mechanical cloud, and the gods would use their omnipotent magical powers to take care of everything. No harm, no foul. Everybody wins.

If you didn’t already know, the name of this mechanical cloud was the deus ex machina (god from a machine). The term is still used today, although it doesn’t have the lofty implications it used to. It’s when a solution to a problem drops out of the sky.

Or, in this case, drops out of the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan.

With the cinematic success of Lord of the Rings and the overall success of Harry Potter, fantasy is a hot genre again. Mix in a little softcore horror like Twilight and a lot of folks are probably tempted to write in that sexy-dark-mystic sort of style. Even a lot of people who’ve never had any interest in this sort of story before. Which is a shame because a writer really needs to be familiar in whatever genre they decide to write in.

A common problem beginning writers make--especially genre writers-- is to fall back on magic to solve their problems. Characters get into a load of trouble, back themselves into a corner, square off against nigh-impossible odds, but are saved at the last moment as they all lay hands on the sacred orb. It doesn’t matter how world-spanning or universe-threatening the problem is, when the pure-of-heart grab that big emerald sphere it’s all going to go away and make life so much better for the good people.

For the record, it’s not just mystic orbs. The offenders also include--

--magic wands

--mystic swords

--enchanted rings, necklaces, or bracelets

--tiger-repelling rocks

--artifact X which must be returned to/ retrieved from the temple of Y

Now, before any other genre writers reading this start feeling smug, let me remind you of Clarke’s Law. You’ve probably heard some variation on it before. Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. A writer may call it the Technotron 9000 and explain it harnesses neutrinos to bend quantum fields, but for all intents and purposes it’s just another mystic orb.

This all goes back to something I’ve ranted about many times before. No one wants to read about a problem that solves itself. They want to read about characters who solve problems, preferably the characters they’ve been following for most of your manuscript. Lord of the Rings does not end with god-like mystic flames destroying the one true ring when the heroes reach the end of their journey. No, it ends with one character all-but driven mad from the burden of carrying it and another one who was driven mad by the ring accidentally destroying it because of his obsession to possess it again. Likewise, Harry Potter never beats his final challenge with magic but just through his sheer determination to do the right thing.

Y’see, Timmy, in good stories the sacred orb of Shen’nikarruan isn’t a solution, it’s just a MacGuffin. For those not familiar with the term, Alfred Hitchcock coined it to describe things that motivate plot and story without actually interacting with them. The Maltese Falcon (in the book and movie of the same name) is a classic MacGuffin. It’s what motivates almost every character in the story, but the legendary statue itself never even appears.

Now, as I often point out, this isn’t to say a magical plot device will never work. If you think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark has God step out of a box at the last minute to kick some Nazi ass (and save Indy and Marion). Take a moment, however, and think of how many other things in that movie have to work perfectly in order for that ending to work. It’s a level of storytelling most of us--myself included--never have a prayer of reaching.

Which actually brings me to a potentially touchy angle, but one I feel obliged to point out. So if you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading now...

There is a nice little niche market of faith-based films these days, and a few well-paying contests as well. In these stories, it’s completely acceptable to have prayers answered and problems solved by divine intervention. Heck, it’s almost expected in some of these markets. The Lord steps in to cure diseases, cast out evil spirits, and sometimes even make a personal appearance. At the very least, he’ll send down one of the archangels to help that nice woman who couldn’t pay her mortgage to the evil capitalist developer.

The thing is, despite the previous example of Raiders, “God saves the day” really isn’t an acceptable conclusion to a story. In those niche markets it’s fantastic, but for every other audience it’s just as much a cop-out as the magic orb or the Technotron 9000. The characters aren’t solving problems or doing anything active. In fact, they tend to be innately passive while they wait for the big guy to solve things for them. Which makes sense, because these faith-based stories usually aren’t about the characters, they’re about a religious message the writers are trying to get across.

Again, nothing wrong with having magic, uber-technology, or even divine intervention. But this isn’t ancient Greece. These days, it has to be about character first.

(I had no idea how I was going to end this, and then the archangel Beleth pointed out that I could just bring it back around to the opening idea...)

Next time, I’m going to drop names and prattle on about the time I talked with Hawkins from Predator about storytelling. Yeah, the skinny guy with the glasses. Him.

Until then, go write something.