Thursday, June 26, 2014

Limited Discussion

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

Friday, June 20, 2014

Go Big or Go Extinct

             Pop culture reference.  Huge one.
            I wanted to mention something that ties back to last week’s rant.  It’s about how I choose to begin a story.  I almost included it then, but I figured it worked as a stand-alone, and I’m trying to get away from the posts where I just blab on and on.
            Unless I really need to.
            One piece of writing advice that people keep repeating is “start with action.”  It started cropping up in Hollywood as development people became more and more involved in shaping a story, mostly because it’s a very simple rule.  And from there it spread out to television, books, and other forms of storytelling.  I’m tempted to say this isn’t so much advice as a good solid rule.
            Now the catch (yeah there’s always a catch—if there wasn’t, I’d have nothing to write about on Thursdays) is that somewhere along the way a lot of people started pushing this rule when they didn’t really understand it.  Some folks hear “action” and immediately think explosions, ninjas, car chases, and giant monsters fighting giant robots.  So that’s what they tell people.
            Thing is, there are lots of issues if I’m going to start with Action (capital A).  One of the biggest is that I can’t start at big.  If I start at big, I’ve got nowhere to go.  Granted, the tension level in my stories should go up and down.  But if my first point is 9.5 out of ten, it means everything after this either has to be a huge drop or it can only squeak half a point higher.  Starting at 9.5 to 10  means every character arc, every bit of tension, every moment of action has pretty much topped out on page one.  There’s nowhere else to go.
            Also, let’s be honest... some stories just aren’t conducive to Action.  What kind of great action scene could I begin To Kill A Mockingbird with?  Or (500) Days of Summer?   The Notebook?  Heck, how many romantic comedies begin with a big action scene?  Action (still capital A) is great for... well, action tales and some genre stuff, but there’s tons of stories that this advice just will not work for.
            And because of that last issue, sometimes writers will force action into a story that doesn’t really need it.  Or shouldn’t have it.  But they’ve been told they need to start with action, so they come up with a way to cram it in.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I say starting with action should be considered a rule, I’m not talking about martial arts or gunfire or high speed bank robberies.  I just mean action in the classic definition of the word.  I need to start with something happening.  Because if  there isn’t something happening, what’s the point of this?
            For the record, this is why I usually shouldn’t begin with five pages of backstory or a random character moment.  I don’t want to hear about what happened before—that’s starting in reverse.  I want to begin with my story already on the move, heading forward.  As I’ve mentioned before, stories are like sharks.  If they’re not moving, they die.
            “Something happening” can mean anything.  Washing a car is action.  Cooking dinner is action.  Hurrying to make it to the meeting I’m late for is action.
            I mentioned last week that most Jack Reacher books begin with the main character in very subdued, quiet settings.  The show Orphan Black begins with a woman on a train and offending some people with her free use of profanity.  Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep starts with a little boy who refuses to use the bathroom.  Most episodes of Castle and Elementary begin with someone discovering a body, but rarely with the actual murder.
            One of my own books, Ex-Heroes, begins with a woman on guard duty watching a zombie walk into a wall.  Then another character shows up, they talk for a bit, and she goes back to watching the zombie.  That’s all of chapter one.   The sequel begins with a Fourth of July party.  The latest book begins with a girl talking to her therapist about her dreams.
            Want a better example?  A bigger one, perhaps...?
            Captain America: The Winter Soldier has pretty much been the smash hit of the year so far.  It’s a Marvel movie, it has a huge cast of established and new superhero characters.  It even (arguably) has a trio of giant killer robots.  It’s pretty much the definition of a summer action blockbuster.
            How does it begin?
            The Winter Soldier begins with two men doing laps around the National Mall in Washington.  That’s it.  Two guys out for their morning run.  One’s a bit faster than the other, but it’s not exactly a high-tension scene.  And that’s almost the first five minutes of the movie.
            But they’re doing something.  So it’s starting with action.
            Next time... well, I have limited ideas for next time.
            Until then, go do something.
            Maybe write.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

You Never Get A Second Chance...

            This week’s title isn’t so much a pop culture reference as a “good general advice” reference.  It works for real life, and for writing.
           (If this is the first time you’ve stumbled across the ranty blog, I try to have clever and referential titles.  I usually fail....)
            Anyway, I wanted to talk about first impressions.
            I read a book a while back that introduced one of the main characters while they were yelling at a server in a restaurant.  I mean actually yelling.  I’ll call said character Wakko (not his real name).  Something was wrong with Wakko’s lunch  order and Dot (the server) was apologizing and offering to go get it fixed.  But he wouldn’t let it go.  He just kept berating this woman over the food—something that really wasn’t even her responsibility—and she kept saying she’d get it fixed as soon as possible.  And we were inside this guy’s head, too, so we saw some of his rude thoughts and annoyance even after the server had walked away.  He just couldn’t grasp the idea that someone would’ve brought an imperfect order to him.
            Then his new food came, he ate lunch, and wandered off into the events that began the story.
            Thing is... I have to admit, I wondered why we were spending time with this guy. Was he going to be ironically killed off in that getting-to-know-the-victim way (which would be cool)?  Was he the villain?  When the lovely heroine first meets him and is immediately left a little weak in the knees, my only thought was “wow, you’re in for a shock...”
            First impressions matter.  In the real world and in fiction.  Maybe even more in fiction.
            This ties back to an idea I’ve mentioned once or thrice before.  You’ve probably heard it as three act structure, although that term gets misused and misunderstood quite often.  When we talk about three act structure in storytelling—any kind of storytelling—what we’re really saying is that every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  As a writer, I establish the norm, I introduce conflict into the norm, and then I resolve that conflict.  Three steps.
            Easy, right?
            Y’see, Timmy, when I first introduce a character, nine times out of ten I’m establishing the norm.  This is what said person is like most of the time, without the added pressure of that conflict I’m going to be introducing in a little bit.  These first impressions is where my character arcs are going to begin. 
            Silly and obvious as it may sound, this is why we generally meet protagonists doing good things (or at the very least, neutral things) and antagonists doing negative things.  Because if I start with someone yelling at a waiter, they’re a jerk.  That’s all there is to it.  Especially if I don’t know what led up to screaming fit. 
            And it’s tough to get past that first impression.  Not impossible, no, but if I go this way with my character then I’m choosing an uphill battle as my starting point.  If your first thoughts are that my character’s kind of a rude bastard or just a general ass or maybe a bit creepy in a bad way...  I’ll have to spend a lot of time getting past those perceptions.  And that’s time I can’t spend getting to, well, the plot.
            Run through a list of some of your favorite characters from books or movies and think about how we first meet them.  How often are the heroes and heroines doing essentially decent things?  Are the villains usually doing something bad or disturbing when you first see them?
            Consider Lee Child’s hero, Jack Reacher.  Most Reacher books begin with him in a very quiet, subdued setting.  He’ll be on a bus or sitting in a roadside diner.  Every now and then he’ll actually be in a real restaurant with servers who he usually tips well.  Because that’s the kind of guy he is.  Despite his intimidating appearance, he doesn’t go looking for trouble.  He doesn’t like problems.  He just wants to travel around and see the country.
            Granted, if you screw with Jack Reacher, you are in for a world of hurt.  He’s a huge, dangerous man who has no problem doing what he needs to do to survive.  People can talk about honor and fair play, but Reacher will do what it takes to win, and he’s very, very good at winning.  But that doesn’t come out until Child introduces some kind of conflict.
            Now, to be clear, there are a few ways I could structure my story so I first meet someone a bit further along their arc, and that might change things a bit.  It’s also possible I could have a real twist planned, and it turns out Dot is actually the little girl from the 1993 flashback, just with glasses now!  And you know she’s just flirting with those guys as part of her revenge plan...  It won’t end well for them
            Even then, I need to have a consistent beginning, middle, and end to his or her arc.  As I’ve mentioned before, these elements may be in a different narrative order but they still need to make linear sense.  If good people are going to go bad (or vice versa) I need to see a clear, believable chain of events.
            And I still need to introduce an interesting and semi-likable character.  Or, at the very least, not an unlikable one.  If my readers don’t want to follow a character, there’s a really good chance they’re just going to stop reading.  And then they’ll never see that cool twist I set up at the start.
            So think about those first impressions.  Because you really want to make the right one. 
            Next time, I wanted to talk about something big.
            Until then, go write.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Direct Pressure

            So very late.  So very, very sorry.  Thanks for your patience.
            By the way, just hold that there and press.  If you don’t, it’s going to keep oozing.
            Hey, speaking of medicine...
            A friend of mine is a med student and she’s joked with me a couple times about the television show House.  Believe it or not, House was a very unrealistic view of medicine.  But it was unrealistic on a level most folks don’t consider.  On the show, tests that would take days were often run in hours.  Treatments showed results in minutes instead of days.  Even his revival rate was amazing.  Said friend told me the odds of actually reviving someone who crashes in the real world—well, they’re not good.  CPR saves lives, but nowhere near as many as you’d like to think.  But on House they pulled it off at least every other episode.
            There’s a concept you may have heard of (or some variation of) that we’ll call compressed storytelling.  Very simply put, it’s the idea that we can skim over a lot of time and events without it affecting our story.  As the name implies, certain events are compressed so I can spend more time with others. 
            Most short-form stories—movies, episodic television, and short stories—are usually compressed to some degree or another.  Alfred Hitchcock—director, storyteller, partner of the Three Investigators—once said that drama is real life with all the boring parts cut out.  That’s also a good way to sum up compressed storytelling.
            Compressing the story often builds tension and knocks the stakes up a bit.  Silly as it may sound, compressing the story builds pressure.  If my villain plants a bomb in the city that’s going to go off in two months, that’s not a lot of pressure on the hero.  If it’s going to explode in twenty minutes... that’s a bit more urgent.  Likewise, if my hero (or heroine) has eight semesters to tell Phoebe his true feelings for her, he’s got a while to think about it.  If she leaves in two weeks for a year abroad with Steve Carlsburg (man, that guy’s such a jerk)... well, our protagonist needs to get his or her act together now..           
           Now, the flipside of this is decompressed storytelling.  It’s the idea that I should take my time and include everything.  And I mean everything.  Every single detail and nuance and fact, whether they’re relevant to the story I’m telling or not.  If we’re going to believe Hitchcock (and the man did know a few things about storytelling), this is when we add all the boring parts back in.  Supposedly also in the name of drama.
            Y’see, Timmy, decompressing the story takes the pressure off my characters.  If they have time to sit in a diner talking about the movie they saw last week or their intense feelings about Miracle Whip, there really can’t be anything else urgent going on in their life.  Yeah, good characters might have an occasional conversational segue, but it’s the difference between randomly commenting that I don’t like ketchup and telling the half hour story about the scarring childhood event that made sure I never touched the stuff again.
           Here’s an even better example.  I could tell you that I woke up this morning and sat down to write this week’s post (a few days late)... 
            Or I could tell you that I woke up, rolled over, folded my pillow in half, and went back to sleep for ten minutes.  Then my girlfriend got up and I looked at the clock and realized I really needed to get up because I have a deadline coming up, but first I tried to remember some bits of a dream I had.  Then I wandered into the bathroom, did my morning business, so to speak (we’ll skip over details there for the sake of politeness), washed my hands, dried them on the tan towel that doesn’t match the rest of the bathroom because I could only get one in the correct color, and then spent a minute playing with my hair.   I’m thinking about trying a new style, something like the brushed-forward cut Jonny Lee Miller has on Elementary.  We’ve got similar hairlines, so I think it could work for me. 
            Anyway, then it was off to the kitchen for my morning yogurt drink and a bit of grumbling at the fridge when I realized I drank the last of the Diet Pepsi last night.  Which is clearly the fridge’s fault and not mine.  I checked Facebook and Tumblr and even Google+, even though I’m honestly thinking of dumping G+ and going back to MySpace, just so I feel like I’m getting a better use of my time.  It just doesn’t get the response that either Facebook or Tumblr does.  My friend Bo put it in a good way, that Google+ just never hit that critical mass where a site really takes off.
            Then my girlfriend and I debated when we should go to the grocery store, because I needed Diet Pepsi and we also needed cat litter. But we were hoping the new Star Trek: Attack Wing ships will come out today because we love the game and we want that Borg tactical cube.  If we were going out later for that, it’d be much more time-efficient to do all our shopping at once.  But we didn’t know if the ships were definitely coming out today or not, which would also affect dinner plans because if we went over to Game Empire we’d probably grab a slice of pizza at Mamas and Papas and call that dinner.
            Then there was a minor panic attack after an email with my editor.  Turns out I had that deadline wrong and I was really freaking out before he calmed me down and assured me I could work for another two ort three weeks and it wouldn’t change a thing on his end.  So I took a few deep breaths, made a joke about how this just feeds into my drinking problem, poured myself a drink, and then sat down to write today’s ranty blog.
            Which, as a reminder after all that, is about how I don’t need to include every single detail and nuance and fact.
            And, man, I did not have time for all that.  I’m on a deadline...
            In my experience, some writers fall back on decompressed storytelling when they don’t actually have much story to tell.  I can’t make my novel lean and tight because if I did it’d only be three chapters long.  So I fill it up with segues and character moments and drawn out descriptions. 
            The common excuse for this is that I’m being “literary.”  I’m raising the bar and writing at a higher level than the rest of you.  All you people who keep skimming over those character moments and beautiful details and exquisite language in favor of things like “plot” and “action”... you’re the ones responsible for the dumbing down of America.
            I think a lot of this mindset is a function of something I’ve mentioned before—the very special episode syndrome.  If you’re not familiar with it, the very special episode is when a series does something a bit out of character.  Sitcoms do a serious story about abuse or racism.  Dramas do an all-musical episode.  Superhero comics spend an issue dwelling on the nature of mental health and suicide.  These decompressed stories tend to get a lot of notice and praise because they’re daring to push the envelope a bit and do something that radically contrasts their usual material.  I’m sure anyone reading this can come up with dozens of examples of such things.
            Something to take note of, though, is part of the reason the very special episode works is because of that contrast.  When we see a story where Spider-Man deals with one of his regular foes going kind of crazy and eventually killing himself, it has a lot more punch than if we read about a similar story in a psychiatric textbook.  Its rareness makes it special.  It’d be interesting to see what James Bond or Freddy Krueger do when they’ve got an absolutely free day, but it’s also going to wear pretty thin by the end of the first act.
            This is the big mistake I think people make with VSE (my new abbreviation), and it’s something else I’ve talked about before.  It’s when I look at the rare exception and assume that’s the rule.  It’s when I think the one aberration is what we should all be following.  If one story about Spider-Man dealing with mental health does well, we should do five!  Or ten!  Hell, why would we do anything except mental health issues? 
            This is why the last four seasons of Scrubs were all about people dying from cancer and drug overdoses, by the way...
            Now, as I often say, there is a place for both of these things.  I am a very big proponent of the idea that if you want to succeed in this business (the business of selling stories for money), then less is more.  But to automatically declare either method “wrong” is... well, just wrong. 
            If everything I’m writing is all one or all the other, though... maybe I should stop for a moment and reconsider.  Do I actually have a story and plot?  Are my characters dynamic and trying to resolve a conflict?  Or am I using decompressed storytelling to hide the lack of these things behind a lot of flowery language and drawn out, irrelevant dialogue?
            Are my characters fleshed out?  Is my setting well established?  Or am I skimming past plot points as fast as I can so nobody will notice I don’t have these things?
            Maybe it’s time to adjust the pressure a bit.
            Speaking of which, next time, there’s an idea I’d like to impress upon you...
            Until then, go write.