Thursday, February 24, 2011

Previously on SPLICED

If you don’t get this week’s title, don’t worry. No one does. One of those lost gems of animation.

Anyway, last week was all about linear structure, so this week I wanted to explain narrative structure. Linear structure is all about the characters, but narrative structure is about the audience, be they readers or listeners or movie-goers.

By the way...

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Try to remember that. It’s going to be important.

I mentioned last week that a story always needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, they don't always need to come in that order. Ex-Heroes and the upcoming Ex-Patriots each have almost a dozen major flashbacks to a period before the beginning of each respective novel. A Princess of Mars begins with the frame story of Edgar Rice Burroughs inheriting a manuscript from his recently-deceased uncle, John Carter, and the film Inception starts with the frame of a battered and ragged Cobb washing up on the shore of an old man’s private island. Clive Barker’s Sacrament dives into an extended flashback that dominates the middle of the book, as does the classic film Casablanca. Everyone remembers Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction for its wonderful non-linear story and he also loaded the Kill Bill movies with flashbacks. Heck, the film Memento actually runs its story backwards.

By the way, don’t get confused by my talk of linear structure and non-linear stories. You can still get french fries even though you’re not in France, and you still need linear structure even though you’re telling a non-linear story.

Now, there are some important things to remember with narrative structure.

First off, if narrative structure and linear structure aren’t going to match up in a story, there should be a real reason why the story’s being told that way. Is there no way this information could come out except in a flashback? Is there a purpose to cutting back and forth between past, present, and future? Is this structure advancing the story or bogging it down with unnecessary segues?

There was a passable Denzel Washington movie a while back called Fallen. In all fairness, it was a great movie that got dragged down because the lead actor kept doing a Denzel Washington impression through the whole thing. I’m about to spoil the ending, so if you haven’t seen it and have any interest... skip down a paragraph or two.

Fallen begins with Denzel in his death throes. He’s thrashing around in the snow and clawing the air. His voice over tells us (paraphrasing a bit)...

“Lemme tell you about the time I almost died. Actually let me start a little before that...”

At which point the film leaps back in time about a week to Detective Denzel attending the execution of a serial killer. A serial killer who, it turns out, is actually possessed by a demon. And by the end of the film, said demon has possessed Denzel. The frame sets up the audience for a twist-- it hasn’t been the detective narrating, and it wasn’t him dying. It’s the demon, trapped by the detective’s final act. Without the frame, there’s no twist.

In my book, Ex-Heroes, every third or fourth chapter is a flashback. This serves two purposes. One, since it’s already a shift in the narrative, it also let me shift the viewpoint to first person. It also lets me tell another aspect of the story. While the main plot of Ex-Heroes is about living in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, it’s also important to know how this all came about. So shifting into the past let me develop a few key characters and it let me see some important events through their eyes.

A bit more on that next week.

The narrative also has to be readable. That sounds kind of common-sense, I know, but one problem that crops up a lot is writers taking that non-linear inch and running a few miles with it. Since I can go a bit non-linear, I can push the envelope and go a little more, and then a little more, and then...

Remember that sentence up above I told you to remember? Do you know what it means? Well, it’s not a sentence, it’s just the alphabet out of order. But it kind of looks like a sentence, and I’m willing to bet a few of you spent a moment trying to decode it (is it backwards writing? Serbian? Roman numerals?) without much luck.

Y’see, Timmy, there comes a point when a writer has broken up the narrative with so many flashbacks, recollections, and frames-within-frames that they've just got gibberish. Oh, sure, if you spent twenty minutes or so studying that first example you would've all eventually figured out it was the alphabet. I don't doubt that at all. The same could be said about any number of non-linear books or screenplays. Given enough time, a spreadsheet program, and a bottle of rum, most of us can make sense of just about any story.

But no one wants to read a story like that. I don’t think any of you read this ongoing series of rants with the hope that someday you'll understand what I'm talking about. You read it because you want to understand something now, not for me to show off by giving you an incomprehensible puzzle of verbs and nouns to work out over the next week or so. So while it's okay to mix a story up a bit, at the end of the day your audience has to be able to follow the story. Flashbacks and frames are great, but, like so many things, need to be used responsibly and with moderation.

I got to interview Bruce Joel Rubin, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, a while back. During our talk, he made the keen observation that stories, especially film stories, are experienced through the gut, not through the mind. The moment your audience has to go into their head to understand a story--you've lost them. It shatters the flow and brings them out of experiencing the story and into, on some level, analyzing it. So the last thing you want is so many non-linear elements that the reader has to stop for each one and figure out how it relates to the last twenty or thirty.

And really, this is what I’m going to talk about next week. Linear and narrative structure need to work together, not fight each other.

So, until then, go write something.

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, February 10, 2011

The Rules of Love

When was the last time you read something that was going along great and then, out of nowhere, two of the characters started professing their mad love for each other? We jump to the last few pages and suddenly Wakko and Phoebe are getting married. It makes people roll their eyes while reading books and it makes movie audiences laugh. Nothing sinks a story faster than a fake, pasted-on love interest, because nobody likes to see love being toyed with.

On the flipside, everyone loves a good romance. Yeah, even the tough guys. Because we all love the idea that there’s someone out there who’s an absolute, 100% perfect match for us. Even more so, we love the idea that we could meet this person while escaping government agents who’ve mistaken us for a team of ruthless assassins or fighting zombie pirates cursed by Aztec gold. Because, hey... think of the stories you could tell your friends about how the two of you met.

And that’s what we all want, right? To have a better story to tell.

So, here are some simple rules to help you avoid bad relationships. On paper, of course. I’m not offering anyone dating advice with my past track record...

The First Rule of Love -- You can’t have real emotions without real people. And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways. I’m not saying rational ways, because love is one of the most irrational things most of us will ever encounter in our lives. If your characters are real, though, they’re going to have needs, desires, plans, and tastes. And it’ll stand out if they’re making choices that go against all those traits. Is that backstabbing, career-minded office bitch really going to see something she likes in the guy who details her car? Will a European billionaire really find himself fascinated with an inner-city waitress? What the heck are a Peace Corps volunteer and a professional mercenary going to talk about?

Yeah, opposites attract. They even have a lot of fun together. But if we’re talking about real emotions, they’re going to have a lot in common. The mean-girl cheerleader isn’t going to make a move on the scrawny honor student kid unless she needs a book report done or maybe some help with her science fair project.

Then again, maybe she’s a closet sci-fi/ action fan who desperately wants to talk to someone about last night’s episode of Chuck. Dirty secrets can make a character real, too. Could be that she’s a lot smarter than she lets on, but she’s scared of not being popular. Or perhaps she was the ugly duckling until her second year of puberty and used to be friends with a lot of the AV club kids.

Even then, how far and how fast they take things should be consistent. Some folks live for the moment. Others like to wait and plan. People can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward. Some people are tearing clothes off half an hour after they meet, for others the huge moment might be holding hands on the third date. If your characters are real, their reactions should be, too.

The Second Rule of Love -- People get together because they want to get together, not because other people think they should be together. If you’ve ever been in a situation where friends are offering advice and pushing you to say something, you know the real result is it makes you want to get away from the object of your potential affection. Nobody likes feeling forced into something, and we don’t like to see other people forced into things. That’s just human nature.

Now, for the record, “other people” includes the writer. Characters need their own motivations. They can’t just do things for the convenience of the story. If you’ve based your whole story around the computer geek and the cheerleader hooking up at a frat party, then you need a real reason for them to get together (see above).

And no, the reason can’t be “because they need to battle the ninja overlord as a couple in chapter eleven.” Nor should it be “we want the actress topless in act three.” If you’ve ever started a relationship for reasons like that... well, you’re probably single right now, aren’t you?

The Third Rule of Love -- As silly as it sounds, don’t confuse sex with love. There are lots of times where it might be completely acceptable for two characters to have sex. It’s fun. It’s a stress-reliever. It lets you not think about other things. Heck, it can even keep you warm. Again, we’re all mature adults here (well except for you) and I’m willing to bet most of us have had sex with someone we weren’t madly in love with at the time or at any point later.

Sex doesn’t always translate to a relationship in stories any more than in the real world, though. If two characters fall into bed (or onto a couch, or against a wall, or into the back seat of a car...), make sure you’re clear what it means for both of them. Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced.

The Fourth Rule of Love-- This is the tough one, because Hollywood development has tried to teach us otherwise. How often have you watched a movie where you can immediately spot “the love interest” as soon as he/ she is introduced? Doesn’t matter what kind of film it is, it’s easy to pick out him or her from the first time we see them.

Y’see, Timmy, love doesn’t always fit in a story. There are times romance just isn’t going to happen. Someone could be starving, terrified, or in a blind fury fighting for their life. At moments like these, it’s not terribly realistic they’d be noticing what pretty eyes their companion has. When Archer does it, he gets shot in the foot. If you’re writing an action/ horror/ sci-fi/ heist story, is there really time for an extensive relationship?

Or maybe it’s just not appropriate for the characters. There’s a show on television right now about a man on the run who’s hanging out with a group of criminals while he tries to clear his name. One of said criminals is a wide-eyed blonde who happens to be a gymnast/contortionist. No, seriously. So he’s spending a good chunk of his time lamenting the fact that he’s separated from his loving wife and son... and a fair amount of time having awkward, physical moments with the blonde gymnast. One of these plot threads really doesn’t need to be there, and all it’s doing is eating up pages that could be used on good threads.

So there are the rules. Now go forth and spread the love.

Where it’s appropriate, of course.

Next week, I wanted to talk about structure. Which is kind of a big topic, so it may take a few weeks.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who is Keyser Sose?

Why am I using that famous question as the title?

No reason.

So, a while back, someone I was working with asked if I’d be willing to look over a script he’d been working on with a friend. I said sure, because I hadn’t yet learned to be wary of such situations. And then spent a few days figuring out what I could politely say about said script...

Almost two-thirds of the script was other movies. Quotes from other movies. Visual references to other movies. Deliberate parallel scenes from other movies. Discussions about other movies. And what was left--the original material-- wasn’t much.

Let me tell you another little story.

I was reading a script for one contest where the main character was named Sam Spade. He worked in a diner where their specialty chicken sandwich was called the Black Bird. One of his regulars was named Archer. There’s a waitress named Brigid, and the cook was named Wilmer. Then one day a guy named Cairo wanders in. He works for a fellow named Gutman.

These are the names of pretty much every character in The Maltese Falcon, by the way. If you didn’t know that, hang your head in shame and go rearrange your Netflix queue. How are you going to write anything new if you don’t know the classics?

Anyway, I’m getting away from the point.

What was the point, you ask?

Well, that’s a good question. What was the point of all these names and moments and interactions? If someone’s characters are going to do nothing but talk about movies and they’ve written their script to shamelessly copy movies, what do you think it’s about?

That’s right. It’s about a lost dog.

And that other one. With all those Maltese Falcon references, there’s got to be a lost treasure or a mystery or something going on, right?

Nope. It was a slice-of-life story about this person’s dreams and that person’s aspirations and desperate sex in the storeroom and driving home at night with the music loud. That’s it.

Soooooo... what’s up with all those references?

Personally, I blame Kevin Smith.

Ever since those guys in Clerks had a long debate about the contractors who built the Death Star, dropping references into stories and dialogue has become a standard. Oh, people did it before him but he started doing it in movies and made it very widespread. Smith still does it. Stephen King does it. I do it.

( how I lump myself in with the big guys? Not egotistical at all...)

The catch, of course, is that these writers have a reason for doing this. When Dante and Randall get in an argument about the Star Wars trilogy, we’re learning more about them than we are about the movies. When Milla Jovovich’s confused character in Resident Evil goes down into an unbelievable underground world, is it that shocking to discover she’s named Alice?

And let’s not forget that sometimes the reference is just there to drive home similarities or contrasts. In my own books, the Mighty Dragon’s real name is George Bailey. Remember the poor sap in Office Space who’s named Michael Bolton but loathes that musician’s songs?

Y’see, Timmy, once you start throwing out lots of familiar names and sequences, people are going to start looking for patterns. That’s what a good audience does. And there needs to be one. Each of these odd names or references is going to knock a reader out of the story for a moment or two, and if you don’t have any sort of payoff for that disruption... well, it’s not going to go over well.

Not only that, if you don’t acknowledge the oddness of everyone who enters this diner having the same name as a Maltese Falcon character, your readers are just going to get annoyed. If you acknowledge it but don’t have a real, in-story reason why all of them have these names, that’s going to be seriously annoying.

No, sorry, it’s not acceptable just because your three best friends said it was really cool and it wasn’t disruptive.

If you’re going to do something clever in your story, awesome. As long as there’s a real reason for doing it.

Speaking of doing it... next week’s going to be pretty close to Valentine’s Day. I thought I’d ramble on about the rules of love. Yep, there are rules. If only I’d known them in high school. Or college.

Until then, go write.