If any of you happen to follow me on Twitter, you know I have a habit of watching bad B-movies on the weekend–usually while I’m geeking a bit.  While I do, I tweet out random observations about the story, dialogue, plot points, and so on. More often than not… they’re not positive ones.
            There’s usually a lot of drinking going on, too.

             A few weekends back I was watching this movie that went for the standard “group of assorted soldiers thrown into an unnatural situation” scenario.  The same one that’s been kind of become the standard since Aliens did it with the Colonial Marines.  Often copied, never duplicated, as they say.

            Maybe twenty minutes in, one of the civilians asked a grunt why they were all so dedicated to the sergeant.  And said grunt told him this two or three minute story about how, five years ago, they’d been stationed on Theta Sigma, things went belly-up one night on patrol, and Sarge was the only one who kept it together.  He got them out of that hell-zone on the death planet, and he even carried Bronsky for the last three miles.
            Then, maybe thirty five-forty minutes in, one of the civilian scientists asked the lieutenant why he was such a hard ass.  And he told her about how four years ago he’d been walking the perimeter, checking on his men, and he found some civilians in a restricted area. But he cut them some slack… and then the Lictors attacked. If he’d been hard then, if he’d sent them away as soon as he found them, those three people’d be alive today.
            And then someone sat with the Sarge for a while as he recovered from a wound (he’d been impaled right through the chest, and that put him off his feet for, y’know, almost six hours).  She asked how he could stay so positive, making jokes while the whole mission was turning to crap around them.  And he told her about how, seven years ago, he’d been on this bug hunt on Ceti Alpha Five…
            Look, you get the idea, right?  Do I really need to finish that story?
            Yeah, most movies don’t do it that many times, sure.  Still… that element’s kind of become a standard in a lot of military stories, too, hasn’t it?   The soldier/Marine/Amazon/Mooncop who gives us a flashback in dialogue to explain a strange bond, a weird character tic, or maybe even that scar she’s got that runs from her temple down past her jaw. 
            Here’s the funny thing, though. This never happens in Aliens.  Not once. Not even for a few seconds.
            Y’see, Timmy, in Aliens the story only goes forward. We don’t need to go backwards to learn interesting stuff about these characters.  We’re learning about them through how they react to things now, not how they reacted to them six years ago in Kazakhstan.
            If the only way I can make my characters interesting is by flashing back six or seven years… maybe I don’t have interesting characters.  Not now, anyway.  It’s possible they were interesting back then, but if they’re interesting now… why’s all their character development in the past?
            At the very least, I don’t have an interesting story.  If I did, wouldn’t there be  cool stuff happening now?  Stuff my characters could be reacting to and giving the reader a better sense of who they are, even as it drives the plot and story forward?
            If it’s only that recollection or flashback that’s making them cool… maybe that’s the story I should be telling.
            Anyway, just wanted to toss that out real quick.
            Thursday, our regularly scheduled post.
            Until then, go write.
March 18, 2011 / 2 Comments

Lucas Syndrome

On the very, very off chance you didn’t know, George Lucas was the writer/ director/ creator of a little seres of movies that went under the header of Star Wars. They sold a ticket or three at the box office. I heard there were even one or two spin-off toys.

Okay, I used to own a bunch of the spin off toys. Almost all of them. Except for the blue Snaggletooth. And the Bespin Leia, who had a weird-looking tiny head.


The first trilogy did very well, as I mentioned. It made tons of money and inspired a whole generation of storytellers to pick up pen, pencil, or home video camera. There was a great piece I read years back about when John Williams created the new Star Wars orchestra for the prequel movies. There were half a dozen musicians in it who had been part of his original orchestra twenty years earlier. It also had about a dozen younger musicians, all of whom had gotten into classical music because they were inspired by Williams’s score from the original trilogy. And now they were all working on the prequels.

Ahhhh, the prequels.

The prequels were not quite as well-received. Oh, fans were in a frenzy at first. I know. I was there in the line at Toys R Us for the special midnight releases. After the first movie, though, that energy ebbed a bit. After the second movie it was leaking away. By the final film, the fan base was bleeding out, to turn a phrase. There were still some die-hards, but there were far more shrieking about how Lucas had “raped their childhood.”

So, what went wrong?

Well, you could point at a lot of things. Wooden dialogue. Bad direction. A gluttonous use of decent-but-not-great CGI. Any one of these can hurt a film, but I don’t think they’re killers on their own. I think the biggest mistake Lucas made with his prequel was the unavoidable one.

He told a story we already knew.

Let me pause at this point for a funny story…

Many years back I went home to New England to see my family. My mom and I decided to go take in a movie, and the big one at the time (no pun intended) was James Cameron’s Titanic. I hadn’t seen it, she hadn’t seen it, what the heck.

Well, we all know the story. Big ship. Bigger iceberg. We were maybe two-thirds through the film and there’s that awful bit when Leonardo’s working-class buddy grabs a life preserver and hurls himself out into the icy water. He’s paddling away from the cries and howls and there’s this ear-splitting crack. The cables are snapping on the smokestacks. One of the huge towers creaks, tilts, and swings down over the water. Nameless friend of Leo (oh, come on–none of you remember his name, either) looks up as the smokestack blots out the sky and comes crashing down on top of him.

The audience wailed. People were already blubbering and misty eyed, but when Leo’s buddy was killed, well, that was the breaking point. Audience members were sobbing and crying out to the screen.

In the midst of all this, my mom turns to me and says, in a very loud, clear voice…

“What did they think was going to happen? It’s the Titanic, for Christ’s sake!”

So here’s problem one. As I’ve mentioned before, you can’t have drama or conflict in a story if the outcome is never in doubt. When we know what’s going to happen, it’s very, very easy for a story to veer off into boredom, melodrama, or both.

Not only that, but when we’ve already seen chapters thirty through fifty, we don’t want to go back to chapters one through ten. That’s moving backwards. We want to be going forward. You may notice that with much of the recent coverage of the crises in Japan, no one’s going back to do a retrospective on the Tokugawa shogunate of the 17th century. It’s an important part of Japanese history. It has a fair degree to do with why thing are the way they are in Japan today. But we really don’t need to know it to understand why a trio of nuclear reactors are being stabilized with hoses and buckets.

Now, in all fairness, and with all deference to my mother, Cameron’s Titanic is not about the ship. It’s a story of, if you’ll pardon the phrase, two star-crossed lovers which uses the disaster as a backdrop. The Titanic is no different than the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues or the impending gang war between the Sharks and the Jets. Can we even call that a war? The impending dance-off between the Sharks and the Jets. These are the plot elements that let the reader know from the start just how doomed this relationship probably is.

See, that’s the catch. We all know what happens to the Titanic. It’s a historic fact. We don’t know what happens to Leo and Kate, though. Will they survive? Will they die together? Apart? Will she live to be a middle-class ninety-year-old and toss a diamond worth a billion dollars into the depths of the Arctic Ocean as a meaningless gesture to her spring break fling who died three-quarters of a century ago?

Probably not that last one, because that would just be silly.

It’s the rest of those questions that make the story worth telling. I’ve talked about the problem with god-like forces in a story, and history is one of the most powerful ones out there (unless you happen to be a Time Lord…). If I know for a fact that character A survives until chapter thirty, it’s very difficult to get worried when she’s threatened in chapter three.

Obi-Wan Kenobi. Anakin Skywalker. Padme. R2-D2 and C-3P0. Yoda. Palpantine. Chewbacca. Bail Organa. The fate of every one of these characters was well-established twenty years ago in the original trilogy. Lucas asked us to make an emotional investment in characters we were already emotionally invested in. He asked us to worry about the future of characters whose future we already knew.

To be honest… that’s just plain boring.

This is the big challenge with any sort of “prequel” writing and it’s why a lot of these works tend to ring a bit hollow when all is said and done. To be honest, it’s one of the reasons I haven’t been all that interested in writing prequel stories for any of the characters in the Ex-Heroes universe. It’s also why The Nativity Story didn’t really work as a two hour feature film. We know what happens to these characters, so anything that happens in the story is automatically going to get robbed of some or all of its dramatic weight.

So, the burning question is… how do you make a prequel story work?

It’s not that hard, if you think about it. Don’t focus on events. We know the events. We know what’s going to happen. So that’s a dead end right there.

No, the secret to a good prequel is the characters. Don’t tell me about the guy I already know. Tell me about the other guy who was there. For example, we all know what happened to Abraham Lincoln that fateful night at Ford’s Theater. But what about the people sitting behind him? What about the security men on duty? Were they injured? Wracked with guilt afterwards? Secretly pleased? We don’t know the answers, so those are interesting questions.

You may have seen either the original version of The Clone Wars cartoon or the newer one that’s run for a couple seasons now. It’s very popular. It also focuses more on characters like Mace Windu, Cad Bane, and Kit Fisto–characters we don’t know that much about.

If only all the prequels had done the same.

Next time… well, I think we’ve finally come to the end.

Until then, go write.

February 15, 2009

Love Scenes Are in the Air

Well, as the weekend approached I had great plans to get a piece done on writing romances. Then I was reminded that screenwriting contest season is coming up, and I had a few critical ideas…

Ahhhh, I’m a romantic at heart. Let’s go with that.

When was the last time you read something that was going along great and suddenly, out of nowhere, two characters started kissing and professing their love for each other? Or maybe a movie where the characters suddenly make dinner plans or randomly fall into bed? It makes people roll their eyes while reading books and it makes movie audiences laugh. Nothing sinks a story faster than a pasted-on love interest.

We all love a good romance. Yeah, even the 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 disarming warheads set by mad computers, fighting zombie pirates cursed by Aztec gold, or fleeing ninjas. Because, hey… think of the stories you could tell your friends. And that’s what we all want, right? To have a better story to tell.

So, what are some of the ways you can avoid that horrible relationship trap?

Okay, first and most important thing to remember. People get together because they want to get together, not because other people think they should be together. And “other people” includes the writer. 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. And no, the reason can’t be “because they need to battle the dark overlord as a couple in chapter eleven.” Nor should it be “we want the actress topless in act three.”

This leads nicely into my second point. They’re almost one and the same. 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, 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 cleans her pool? Will a blue-blood, British noble really find himself fascinated with a toothless hillbilly girl? What the heck are a professional mercenary and a Peace Corps worker going to talk about?

Yeah, opposites attract. They even have a lot of fun together. But if we’re talking about real emotions, the opposites will tend to have a lot in common. The mean-girl cheerleader isn’t going to make a move for the scrawny honor student kid. Unless she needs a book report done.

Or maybe, unless she’s a closet sci-fi/ action fan who desperately wants to talk to someone about last night’s episode of Chuck. Could be that she’s a lot smarter than she lets on, but is 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 relationships are established with a wild half-hour in a hotel room, others when two people hold hands for the first time. If your characters are real, their reactions should be, too.

My third tip would be this– hard as it may be to believe, there are just times when romance isn’t appropriate. As the man likes to say, there’s a time and a place for everything. 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 new partner has. If you’re writing an action/ sci-fi/ horror story, is there really time for an extensive relationship? It might be better to plant the subtle seeds of one and let your audience fill in the rest, much like James Cameron did between Ripley and Hicks in Aliens.

A quick story…

Late least year a friend of mine let me read the fantasy novel he’d been working on. There was a lot of good stuff, but one part lost me just a few chapters in. The main character, in the midst of looking for his abducted son, starts getting starry-eyed and bashful around a pretty elf he’s just met.

“Wait a minute,” I told my friend. “Jayme’s son has been kidnapped, missing less than a day, and he’s taking a time out to flirt wildly with some elf he’s just met?”

This bothered me far more than the fact Jayme had grown a set of functioning butterfly wings since arriving in the fae realm. It was, as I told my friend, the point I would toss the manuscript on the big pile to my left.

The last point, as silly and motherly as it sounds, is not to 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.

Sex doesn’t always translate to a relationship, though, in stories any more than in the real world. 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.

So go and spread the love among your characters.

Where it’s appropriate, of course.

Next week, some criticism for you.