Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Nine Alcatraz Events

            Pop culture reference.  Sort of.  More of a portmanteau, really.
            Anyway, please bear with me.  This one’s a bit long, but I think it’s worth it.  And there are extra pictures.
            Some of you may remember a little show called LOST that aired a few years ago (yeah, we’re just a couple weeks away from years--plural).  I’ve mentioned it here a couple times because it completely redefined the one hour drama for television, and it also offered many brilliant lessons about executing mysteries and twists in a story.  It inspired thousands of writers, in film and in prose.
            It’s only natural that networks would want to duplicate the success of LOST.  Television is a business—it’s their job to be as successful as possible.  If X works, it’s only natural to try more X.
            Of course, it’s not quite that easy when we’re talking about storytelling.  Sometimes a story works, sometimes it doesn’t. The smallest tweak in structure, tone, or character can flip something from phenomenal to average or even trite.
            After watching another one of these would-be successors to the throne tread water for a few weeks, I though it might be time to address what a lot of these storytellers are doing wrong.  Not that any of them will ever see this or listen to me if they did.  But there’s something here that all of us should keep in mind, no matter which format our tale of eerie puzzles and mysterious strangers happen to be written in.
            So here are three shows that were all an attempt to cash in on the mystery/genre success of LOST
            The Nine followed the lives of the survivors of an extended bank hostage crisis.  When the police stormed the building after fifty-two hours, these eight hostages and one captor were the only ones still alive.  And despite having a huge impact on their lives, plus the lives of their family and friends, all of them are remarkably close-mouthed about what happened during those almost-three days.  Husbands, wives, and others are left wondering why these nine people are so changed, and why the only people they seem to be able to relate to anymore are each other.
            The Event was about three parallel plotlines.  One was the story of a resourceful young man whose fiancĂ© is kidnapped while they’re on a cruise and his ongoing attempts to find her.  One covered a newly-elected President who’s learned the US government has been holding extraterrestrials in an Alaskan prison for the past fifty years and has decided to open negotiations and release them.  The last thread is about the aliens themselves and the long-term secret plan they’ve been trying to carry out, even while imprisoned.
            Last but not least, we’ve got Alcatraz, which just finished airing a few weeks ago.  And I feel pretty confident when I say it finished airing, but I still might be proved wrong there.  It focused on San Francisco police detective Rebecca Madsen who gets pulled onto a special government task force.  It seems all the stories about America’s greatest prison being shut down fifty years ago aren’t exactly true.  All the prisoners weren’t transferred, they vanished.  And now they’re reappearing, one by one... and some of them seem to have missions.
            Seems like a decent array of shows, yes?  Now, here’s the really interesting thing.  All three of these shows failed for exactly the same reason.  They all had the same flaw.  Perhaps even more interesting is that the one that was the most blatant example of it, The Nine, was the first to air.  The others followed and still repeated the same mistake.  And to be honest, I see this mistake crop up in prose manuscripts a lot of the time, too.
            Allow me to explain
            The core idea of The Nine—the unconnected people who share the same mysterious experience—is interesting, but here’s the catch.  The narrative wasn’t about all their friends and family trying to figure out what happened to these folks during their two-plus-day captivity.  It was about the nine survivors.  They were the characters the show focused on as they approached the world with new attitudes and unknown motivations... yet still refused to talk about all those hours inside the bank.
            The Event also had a very interesting idea, but you probably spotted the same issue just in the synopsis.  Much of the ongoing plot circles around this secret alien mission, and the aliens are a third of the show’s cast.  Of course, if the aliens discuss their plans the mystery goes away, so they always speak in vague generalities rather than, y’know, talking about anything.  
            And then there’s Alcatraz.  Our big mystery is these time-shifting prisoners.  How and why are they doing it?  Since the show’s split between present and past, though, we see what our heroine doesn’t.  It’s evident early on in the run that the Warden’s behind it all, or contributing heavily at the least.  Not only that, it’s clear Rebecca’s new boss, Hauser, knows a lot more about it than he’s letting on.  Part of the show’s “mystery” is that he isn’t telling her things she needs to know in order to do her job.
            Everyone see the common link here?
            Consider this—is it a mystery what day my brother’s birthday falls on?  Sure, almost no one reading this knows the answer.  Some of you might even be surprised to hear that I have a brother.  But does that make this a mystery
            The problem with having a story that hinges on something like this is that there really isn’t a mystery.  A real mystery depends on the characters and the audience looking for an answer.  But when a story’s falling back on withheld information, the characters and the audience know right where the answer is.  They’re just being told to sit and wait for it to be revealed.  And since the characters are supposed to mirror the audience, this means everyone’s just getting frustrated.
            This is the real problem all these shows had.  They each had a couple other problems past that—every first season show does—but this was the crucial mistake they couldn’t get past.  All three of them are just cases of characters who are deliberately withholding information from either the character or the audience.
            Yeah, that’s right.  The audience (or the readers, depending on your situation).  My lovely lady made the observation once that any time the narrative of The Event shifted to the aliens, they always spoke like they thought the room they were in was bugged.  In a way, she was right.  There was someone listening to those conversations that wasn’t supposed to be—us.  The aliens can’t talk freely because we’d hear the answers to all the “mysteries” on the show, so instead their leaders had conversations like this...

            "We're going to have to do it."
            "You mean...?"
            "Yes.  Just as we discussed."
            "But what about--"
            "I've considered it.  I think the potential risk to our people is acceptable."
            "All the risks?"
            "Even back at the beginning, we knew something like this might happen.  We can't back out now because we don't like the options that have been forced on us."

            I know this sounds a bit silly, but... well, I’m not the one who was writing it.  You could see the same thing on The Nine, when the former hostages would either have conversations just like that with each other, or repeatedly tell their friends and loved ones they wouldn’t understand because “you weren’t there.”   And it happened on Alcatraz, too.  The Warden would constantly dodge questions or try to bury answers under pseudo-philosophic homilies.
            Let me give you an example of doing this sort of thing correctly.  One you’d heard of long before LOST.
            I’m sure most of you are familiar with Psycho, the Robert Bloch novel that was adapted into the famous Hitchcock film.  Even if you haven’t seen it (or the pointless shot-for-shot remake) you probably know the general plot, yes? 
            So... who’s the main character of Psycho?
            If you said Norman Bates, you’re wrong.  He doesn’t even show up until half an hour into the story.  The truth is, Psycho is almost an anthology of three different stories connected by the theft of a large sum of money and the motel where the supposed thief vanished.  Our main characters are—in their respective tales--the thief, the police detective, and the thief’s sister.
            Y’see, Timmy, this is why Norman’s secret is so powerful.  We’re never seeing it with him, we’re always seeing it through the other characters—the one’s the story’s actually focused on.  If Norman had been one of the main characters, the story would be required to focus a certain amount of attention on him—while at the same time trying not to let us see or learn anything about him.  Instead he’s relegated to a supporting role in the story, even though he’s the character we’re most interested in.
            The Nine, The Event, and Alcatraz (and more than a few other stories I’ve read) all tried to put the mystery front and center while also trying to keep it a secret.  They wanted us to be interested and invested in characters who didn’t want us to know anything about them. 
            And that just won’t work.
            Next time, I want to talk about my collection of zombies.  Sort of.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why Do We Like These Guys...?

            Sorry there wasn’t a post last week.  I got the galley proofs for my new book, 14 (available in June from Permuted Press), and I spent about six days going over them line by line.
            There’s a weird trend in advertising lately.  Have you noticed that most of the people we’re supposed to be rooting for in commercials are kind of... well,  jerks?  They’re rude.  They’re smug.  They do obnoxious things that are supposed to be cute.
            Of course, unlikable characters are nothing new on television or in books.  There are hundreds of characters who are jerks to an almost criminal degree, but we still like them.  You can trace it back for decades.  Centuries, even.
            Let me give you a few examples.
            Presented for your approval is one Homer J. Simpson.  He’s an alcoholic.  He’s rock-stupid.  He’s self-centered.  He subjects his kids to physical and emotional abuse.  He’s lazy to the point that he’s endangered countless lives in his hometown of Springfield, and a fair amount while traveling abroad, too.
           Here’s another one.  Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother.  Barney’s rude, misogynistic, very manipulative, and openly cruel sometimes.  When you consider the political climate these days, it’s worth noting that Barney is also a one-percenter who’s gleefully acknowledged eliminating jobs to increase profits at the multi-national corporation he works for.
            And, lest you think I’m not taking this seriously with all the sitcom references, let’s also add in Doctor Hannibal Lecter (the version from the novels, to be clear).   He’s a monster.  No two ways about it.  He’s a murderer who’s killed people in some truly horrific ways.  He’s tortured people.  And there’s his defining trait, of course... cannibalism.
            How could anyone possibly like any of these characters?  Heck, how is it that people end up rooting for them?  We laugh when Homer throttles his son, we cheer when Barney abandons the woman he just slept with, and we approve when we realize Lecter’s tracked down the asylum director who treated him like an animal for years.  Is there something wrong with all of us?
            Not really.  If we look at all of these folks, there’s certain key traits they all share that make for great characters.  More to the point, theses are traits that are almost always missing from characters that frustrate and annoy readers and/or audience members.
            First and foremost is honesty.  One of the main things we love about these characters is that they’re all true to themselves.  They know who they are and they see no need to hide it.  Nobody likes a hypocrite or someone who keeps switching sides.  It’s why we all grind our teeth over politicians who say one thing on Tuesday and then say the complete opposite on their next campaign stop.
            If Barney was constantly telling us what a sweet, caring guy he was we’d find him slimy at best, reprehensible at worst.  Part of what makes his womanizing acceptable—to us and his friends—is that he doesn’t deny it in any way.  He has no problem admitting what he does and even admits it may hurt some women ... but he’s not there to deal with it, so what’s the big deal?  Homer’s almost gleeful about his alcoholism and has frequently fought the idea of trying to learn anything new.  Lecter doesn’t see any moral difference between eating a person and eating an animal, so he has no problem discussing the appetizers he set out for his unexpected guests.
            One mistake I see a lot of writers make is when their characters are telling us one thing but showing us another.  Yakko says he’s taking time off and trying to get his head together, but really he’s out cruising and screwing around every day.  Dot tells us she’s loyal to her husband but sleeps with three different guys from her office.  Wakko insists that he follows the rules to the letter, but we catch him cheating a dozen times during the game.  There are times this type of thing can work, but this kind of dishonesty can turn a reader against a character very quickly if it’s not handled right. 
            A similar problem is when writers think ambivalence is a character trait.  They have characters who are constantly unsure or second-guessing themselves or their actions.  That kind of self-doubt can work in small doses, but it gets annoying real quick.
            The second thing that makes us like these horrible folks is that, despite all their unlikable characteristics, each of them tends to be a pretty decent person at the core.  Often in each of their respective stories, we’ll see these characters do something or make a gesture that doesn’t really benefit them, but it gives us a glimpse of who they really are when they’re not trying to score points or keep up appearances.  There’s an old saying you might’ve heard that sums this up well--someone who’s nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.  In screenwriting this sort of thing is sometimes known as the “saving the cat” (thanks, Blake Snyder), and it makes us—the audience—like these characters a little more.
            When Homer gives up his dream job at Globex to make his family happy, it’s showing us that he really does try to be the best father and husband that he can.  When Barney flies cross-country to tell Lily she needs to wise up and get back together with Marshall, it lets us see what’s really important to him.  If you’ve read any of the books by Thomas Harris, it’s pretty clear that Hannibal Lecter, despite some of his more gruesome dietary preferences, is kind of a classy guy.  He’s polite.  He’s generous.  He appreciates fine art and fine music.  He has a very good relationship with his orderly, Barney, born out of professional courtesy for one another.  Just because he sometimes does awful things to people doesn’t mean he’s needlessly cruel.  In fact Lecter never kills randomly or without purpose, and there’s a fair list of people in the books he doesn’t kill who he easily could have.
            Even if you’ve only seen the films, you may remember that one of his defining traits very early on is that he despises rudeness.  Lecter makes for kind of an interesting twist on saving the cat.  When his hallmate, Miggs, is exceptionally “discourteous” to Agent Clarice Starling, Lecter kills him for it.  After the good doctor escapes, Starling’s confident he won’t come after her because “he would consider it rude.”  If he was just a cannibal, Lecter would be no different than Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It’s this underlying decency that elevates him above a schlock-paperback slasher.
            I see this get messed up a lot in books and scripts.  The writer presents an unlikable character or characters that I’m clearly supposed to like on some level, but I’m never actually given a reason to like them.   A lot of horror stories fail because of this.  If I don’t like a character on some level...why would I care what happens to them?
            That bit a moment ago with Miggs brings me to my third and final point...wish fulfillment.  While these characters are doing unlikable things, they’re all doing things that—on one level or another—we all wish we could do.  It would be awesome to goof off at work and drink every night and never get punished for it.  We’d love to sleep around and have no emotional fallout from either our partners or ourselves.  And, much as we’d like to deny it, there are times we’d all really like to see obnoxious idiots dead for the things they’ve done to us and to the people we like.  Preferably dead in a really horrible way.  The condescending doctor.  That jackass supervisor at work.  The guy in the insane asylum who throws bodily fluids. 
            A lot of times I see people trying to do the unlikable-but-likeable thing, and the real problem is that they’ve made a character who... well, just isn’t likeable.  There’s almost no way to put a positive spin on someone who stomps puppies to death or molests schoolchildren.  Personally, I find it really hard to get behind a bigot.  There are times that even saving a whole cat shelter can’t make up for a character’s unlikable traits because too many lines have been crossed.
            Yeah, I know the cannibalism thing is a little beyond what any of us want to do, but here’s an interesting point—you barely ever see Lecter’s eating habits in the books.  We hear about them, but in the first three books there’s only one incident where we actually see Lecter eat part of a human being (and it’s at the end of the third book in the series).  So it’s a character trait that’s inexcusable, but it’s also carefully kept at arm’s length.
            And that’s some of the reasons why so many of us can’t help but like the bad boys and girls.     
            Next time, I'd like to talk about a trio of failed television shows and why they failed.  There’s a good storytelling lesson in it for all of us.  Honest.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Capital Idea

            Wanted to toss out a quick tip for the screenwriters here.  Prose folks, there’s something here for you, too, but I’m focusing this on scripts.
            As someone who read many screenplays for several contests (and lives with someone who’s read even more), I think I can safely say that one thing that drives readers nuts is the mis-use or over-use of capitalization in a screenplay.  A lot of people use them like exclamation points, and a good chunk of those people really over-use their exclamation points.  It’s hard on the eyes and it often makes the script confusing.
            So here’s a simple rule of thumb my lovely lady and I came up with over dinner the other night while discussing her latest headache.  This isn’t the end-all, be-all of when to use capitals, but it’s a great guideline.
            When you use capitals in a script (except for naming), it should be for the things that cannot change.  Think of it as the key plot points.  Not details, not stuff that’s extremely dramatic or packs an impact—save the capitals for the relevant stuff that matters.
            Now, I can sense a response from a few folks already.  It’s all relevant, right?  That’s the whole point of a screenplay, to trim down and edit away anything that doesn’t matter.  So how can I say only capitalize what matters?
            Things that matter, in this sense, are things that the script would fall apart without.  These are things that are so interwoven into the structure of my story that it would involve a sizeable rewrite to change one of them.  For example...

--In The Shawshank Redemption, it’s important that we know Andy Dufrense has Red get him A ROCK HAMMER during those first years he’s in prison, but it’s not important that the first chess piece we see him make is a rook, or that the first one the warden throws is a pawn. 

--In Robocop, Clarence blows off Murphy’s HAND with a shotgun.  Then the gang members shoot Murphy five or six times each, but the one that matters is when Clarence ends it by shooting him RIGHT IN THE HEAD.  Where all the other bullets land isn’t important, just that there’s a lot of them.

--In Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie it’s vital that Peter Parker is wearing a BUTTON DOWN SHIRT at Thanksgiving, because this is how Norman sees the cut on his arm and realizes Peter is Spider-Man.  But it doesn’t matter what kind of pants Peter’s wearing, or if Harry’s in a coat or just sleeves.

--In The Matrix, we need to know the stunning blonde in one of Neo’s first training runs is in a revealing RED DRESS as opposed to everyone else wearing nothing but BLACK and WHITE.  It’s key that she stands out and it’s essentially her name (the woman in the red dress).  She’s addressed as such several times.  Mouse even has a centerfold of her.

            Just to be clear, none of these examples are from the actual scripts (I have no idea which chess pieces are used where in Shawshank), but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn they were all capitalized just this way.  And if you’ve seen these movies, you should be able to see why these things were capitalized at this point in the script.  And why some of the other objects, actions, and clothes in those scenes weren’t.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about some people I really shouldn’t like.  You probably shouldn’t, either.
            Until then, go write.