Friday, August 19, 2011

Stop Me If You've Heard This One...

My apologies for not posting anything last week and being late this week. To be honest, I was so wrapped up in the new draft of this book I forgot what day it was. Soon the fall season will start back up and I’ll be able to tell where we are in the week by episodes of Fringe and Castle.

Anyway, there was a suggestion for a topic and it got me thinking about something funny...

A joke is a great diagram for a story, because all good stories have a setup and a punchline. Not in the sense of evoking laughter, but in the sense of that one beat near the end that strikes a chord and gives you a little rush. In jokes and stories, you have a setup and a payoff. For example...

A nun, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says “What is this, a joke?”

It’s very short, but it does the job. It’s just setup, payoff, done. That first sentence is the setup. To be exact, it’s a type of setup we’ve all heard a dozen or more times, which is what makes the second sentence (the payoff) funny. Adding in other elements would just slow the story—the joke—and probably detract from the punchline.

Now, let’s take this a step further. Has someone ever told you a longer joke, maybe one that took a minute or three to tell? If they knew how to tell it, odds are you chuckled a couple times during the setup, yes?

In this case it’s not just the A-B of that first joke. We’ve got A-B-C-D and then the payoff of E at the end (E is for end, after all). There’s enough space to work with for B and C to be a bit funny themselves and get that extra chuckle before the punchline.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind, though. B and C are still serving the greater payoff of E—the greater good, if you will. They aren’t filler or random asides. Even though they get a laugh of their own, they’re necessary steps on the way to the punchline.

This is a lot like your standard short story. Most of them really just have one big payoff and that’s it. Think of some of the collected stories in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot or most of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales by Arthur Conan Doyle. The characters set out to accomplish goal A and by the end of the story they’ve done it. Or, in a few rare cases— “Evidence” and “A Scandal in Bohemia” come to mind—they admit they haven’t.

Even though they’re two hours long, most feature-length scripts tend to have more in common with short stories than books. In fact, if you talk to lots of screenwriters, they’ll tell you it’s always easier to adapt a short story than a novel. Most of us have read a short story and thought it would be fun to see more of him or learn about her backstory and maybe get a better sense of what happened there. That’s the stuff which is great to expand on in a screenplay. If you look at most films, you’ll see that they’re still a pretty straight line from A to E (or maybe up to J with the expansion). You may have heard some guru-types calling this the through-line. It’s how you make way through a story (or a joke) without any odd segues.

Look at the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. There’s one main story—catch the Black Pearl, stop Barbossa—which is made up of two side-by-side stories (arguably three). Despite this, though, each one of these elements has a very simple and clean A-B-C-D story. Will just wants to rescue Elizabeth, and all of his scenes reflect that. Jack just wants to reclaim the Black Pearl and sail free, and all his scenes reflect that.

Also, as I mentioned above, adding in unnecessary clutter would just slow the story—either the individual element or the film as a whole—so there isn’t any. Will never has a segue where he rescues puppies from a burning building or decides he needs to learn karate to rescue Elizabeth. Jack seems very scattered at first, but as the movie goes on it becomes clear how sharp and how focused he really is. Every scene in the film, no matter which thread it's part of, is leading us to the same big payoff.

Let’s go another order of magnitude bigger and consider novels. The average novel’s going to be six or eight times the word count of most screenplays. It’s where the writer’s got time and space to go all out. We’ve now got A through Z. Maybe it’s even looping around to something like A through AF or something. The writer has a little more space to wander down those paths or maybe take the scenic route to their destination.

Good analogy, that one. Remember that when you take the scenic route, as a writer, you still need to get where you’re going. When you go down a random road for no reason it doesn’t matter how pretty the foliage is at this time of year. If there was no purpose to it you weren’t on the scenic route—you were lost. It’s cool that you enjoyed being lost and you got some nice pictures, but not everyone’s going to feel that way. A lot of folks are just going to see four hours of driving time they lost.

So even in a book, with all that extra space for plot and characters, you need to be aiming for that big punchline. Each of those smaller elements that got a chuckle are expected to get a full laugh on their own now, but they’re also still expected to serve the greater good. Remember, you don’t want to drop 4-5-6 in the middle of H-I-J-K-L.

Here’s another tip. Have you ever heard the term “episodic” used to describe something. Yes, television, of course, but there’s a reason for that. When something is episodic, the setups and payoffs come one after another. A is the setup for B, C is the setup for D, E is the setup for F, and so on. Think of older videogames where you’d move from one level to the next. New problem, solved, next problem. You rarely got a sense of the big story because nothing carried over. That’s what episodic writing does--it presents challenges that are immediately dealt with, so the story feels more like individual episodes than a coherent whole. To use our joke analogy, it’s the difference between a two hour stand-up routine and a two hour comedy movie.

If your story involves multiple setups and payoffs, take a second look at where they fall. Make sure they’re spread out, and make sure they’re all leading somewhere. Hopefully the same somewhere.

Finally, here’s a little exercise for you. Yep, there’s homework. I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve had to listen to someone who didn’t know how to tell a joke. So ask yourself—what did they do wrong? Was it their pacing? Did they give away the punchline to soon? ‘Cause the real trick to telling a good joke is being able to tell a good story. If you don’t know why they did it wrong... are you sure you aren’t?

Next week, why you should never carry just a screwdriver.

Unless you’re the Doctor, of course...

Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Simpsons Did It!

A pop culture reference that’s so spot-on it’s not even funny.

Okay, it’s a little funny...

(General Disarray, go get the minions before they get lost...)

One of the big worries with creativity is wondering if you really are being creative. Is that clever new idea of yours something you came up with all on your own, or is it something you unwittingly borrowed from someone else? Maybe you skimmed over the back copy of a paperback in your local neighborhood bookstore or read a few spoiler-filled reviews on Amazon and your brain just filed it away. Worse yet, what if your clever story gets out there and then you discover five other people already had similar ideas. Now you just look like some hack plagiarist.

I’ve been involved in a bunch of discussions about stuff like this in the past few weeks. Has anyone crossed X with Y before? Have you ever seen this element used in that genre? What about that plot but in this setting?

The answer to all of these, alas, is yes.

Some guru-types like to drawl on about how there are only seven stories (or nine, or thirteen, depending on who’s selling what this week). While I think this is an oversimplification, it does point out an obvious truth. Most stories have things in common with other stories. That’s just the way of it. The same type of characters show up. The same situations arise. The same relationships form.

Here’s a random observation for you. When was the last time you met someone who didn’t remind you of someone else? Think about it for a minute. When we were little everything was new and fresh but as we got older we started to see patterns and similarities. A guy I met at a birthday party last weekend reminded me of a guy who lived across the hall from me in college. When I first met her, I thought my girlfriend looked a lot like one of my next-door neighbors. A production assistant I used to work with looks kind of like a sound mixer I know in San Diego. Another one reminded me of my cousin Chrissie crossed with a bit of Angelina Jolie (a very good mix, I have to say).

But those are all first impressions. As I delve deeper, I start to see the uniqueness of each person. The better I got to know them, the more Leo, Colleen, Russ, and Sarah became individuals and those superficial similarities dropped away.

Still, those initial generalities can be a bit bothersome. If there’s something else out there that’s similar to your work, should you worry about it?

Probably not.

Submitted for your approval is The Dueling Machine. It’s a 1969 sci-fi novel by multiple-Hugo-award winner Ben Bova. In the far, far future, a brilliant scientist has created a machine to help reduce hostility. It’s “a combination of electroencephalograph and autocomputer” which lets two or more people connect their minds through the machine and interact in an imaginary dream world that they create inside the machine. The story comes about when someone is killed during one of these “simulated” duels—is it possible that dying in the imaginary world could make someone die in the real world?

Hopefully this premise sounds a bit familiar to you. It should because it’s a big chunk of the plot to The Matrix movies. And The 13th Floor. Also the Lawnmower Man films. Plus there’s a few books like Cybernetic Samurai and Snow Crash and Giant’s Star. And that television show VR5 that was on for a while. And about a hundred Star Trek episodes where people get trapped on the now-deadly holodeck, because the holodeck safety systems are apparently made of cobwebs and wet tissue paper. Heck, you’ve all probably got a dozen more at your fingertips, don’t you?

For the record, there are also dozens of books and movies and television shows featuring vampires in space (one’s actually called The Space Vampires—it was the basis for the movie LifeForce). And zombies in the old west. And new takes on time travel, space travel, politics, Jekyll and Hyde, all that stuff.

Now, this doesn’t mean that most stories copy other stories. We all draw from a lot of the same sources, so our thoughts are going to follow a lot of the same paths. But even on those paths we’re all going to march to the beat of our own drummer, so to speak. We’re also going to dress differently, bring different things with us, ask different people to come along, and we’re all probably heading down that given path for different reasons.

Y’see, Timmy, we put our own stamp on everything we do. If I did a modern version of Dracula and you did a modern version of Dracula, neither of us would end up writing Salem’s Lot, which was Stephen King’s modern version of Dracula. You might stick with Europe, but I’m probably going to set mine in southern California. We’d have our own ideas and notions and way of looking at it, just like Mr. King did.

Now, there’s a downside to this apprehension, too, and it’s kind of similar to the people who won’t write anything because they’re too busy learning how to write. Sometimes we—yes we—get so caught up in worrying if something is original that we grind to a halt trying to prove it isn’t. This desperate need to avoid being a copycat brings things to a dead halt.

True story —I was working on a book a few years back (right before I was inspired to start Ex-Heroes, in fact) called Mouth. As I was typing away, I suddenly came up with the coolest way to explain teleportation ever. I mean, this was Stephen Hawking-level brilliant. It was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, sheer elegance in its simplicity. I typed up a quick scene where Character A explained it this way to Character B, read through it, and realized it was even cleverer than that.

Too clever, in fact, for a guy like me to come up with it. It was too clean. Too perfect.

In a panic, I wracked my brain trying to figure out where I’d heard it before. Because I must’ve seen this somewhere. Online? In a comic book? All I was reading at the time was Amazing Spider-Man and that was all packed full of “Civil War” nonsense. Maybe a television show? What had we gotten from Netflix in the past few months?

I asked my girlfriend to read it. I figured she might recall whatever this source was, because I kept drawing a blank. She went through the chapter, got to the questionable explanation, and loved it. When I asked her where she’d seen it before, she couldn’t remember ever seeing it. After I pressed her for a bit and she re-read it again, she admitted it was vaguely like the explanation of “tessering” in Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, but only in that it took what was plainly a very complex idea and boiled it down to an extremely simple explanation.

In other words, it was all mine. But I wasted a week worrying over whether or not I’d copied it.

Do a quick look at your chosen field. Make sure no one’s done something exactly like your idea. Then just write. Your own style and vocabulary and characters will give it a flavor all its own.

Like the Buddha says, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Next time, if I don’t get any suggestions, I may have to fall back on spelling.

Until then, like I just said, go write.