May 6, 2011 / 3 Comments

This IS Ceti Alpha Five!

If you get that title reference, you probably feel an equal mix of pride and shame. Just like I do for coming up with it.

For those of you who don’t get it, it’s from a sci fi movie where the characters suddenly discover they aren’t on the planet they thought they were. They (and the audience) had gone along assuming they were on planet A, only to discover they were on planet B instead. It’s a mistake that costs them dearly—they end up getting little parasitic worms stuck in their ears.

Silly as it may sound, a key part of storytelling is knowing the world your story is set in. I can tell the story of a noble knight on a quest to find the Holy Grail, but depending on the world I set it in, he can be a glorious hero (The Once and Future King) or a deranged madman (The Fisher King). We’d all frown if one of the Bourne books had him stopping an alien invasion and we’d shake our heads if Jack Reacher took on a cult of Satanists that had summoned an actual demon.

One of the biggest ways writers mess this up is to take too long to establish what kind of world they’re in. For example, they’re doing a spoof-comedy, but the first thirty pages have been completely straight. Or (on the flipside) they do establish the world and much later in the narrative try to switch that world to something else. I’ll blab on about that in a minute.

For now, consider the movie Predator. The original, with Governor Arnold, Governor Jesse, Secretary of Defense Carl Weathers, and screenwriter Shane Black.

Predator begins with the team landing in Central America and getting briefed on their mission. They head into the jungle, locate the crashed plane, find the enemy camp, and have an awesome gunfight. Then Arnold discovers that Carl set them up and dumped them in the meat grinder. They head back out for the rendezvous… and that’s when they discover there’s something else in the jungle.

We’re, what… half an hour into the film at this point?

Except… that’s not how Predator begins. If you think back, the movie actually begins with an alien spaceship flying past Earth and launching off a small shuttle/ drop pod. We’re told in the first minute of the film that this is, ultimately, a sci-fi story. We may get distracted for a bit by the hail of bullets, but when the title alien shows up it isn’t a surprise… just a bit creepy.

On the other hand, one recent book I read was 100% set in the real world. Everything about it was realistic. The basic idea was two people who had found the last notebook of a dead research scientist who claimed (in his notes) to have discovered a cure for cancer. The cure for cancer. The entire book was about them trying to figure out what the heck they had while half a dozen pharmaceutical companies chased them—all wanting the notebook one way or another. Well, in the end they escape big pharma, sell the notebook to a group of researchers for a couple million dollars, and cancer is cured across the globe.

Yep. We cured cancer everywhere in the last seven pages. Go us.

I also once saw a script that started out as a dramatic comedy sort of thing. Young woman, single mother, trying to make the best of life even though she keeps getting knocked down… we’ve all seen it a few dozen times. That was the first forty odd pages. Then, on page 44, if memory serves (almost 3/4 of an hour into the movie, mind you), we discover that the old man she just helped cross the street is actually the Easter Bunny, who decides to reward the woman with a wish for her random act of Christian charity.

That’s right. A key point in this story is that the Easter Bunny spends his downtime walking among us disguised as an octogenarian. And the Easter Bunny is all about Christian charity because… well, the brown of the chocolate and the brown of the wood of the cross… or something…

Like any other disruption in the flow of a story, it’s very jarring when a story is set up in one world and then veers off into another one. It’s like discovering that one of your main characters has actually been insane all along. It forces the reader to re-examine what’s come before, and not in a good way. In fact, more often than not, these sudden shifts in tone and world force a story into pure comedy. Again, not in a good way.

Consider this. There’s a classic Saturday Night Live skit which claims to be the famous “lost reel” of It’s A Wonderful Life. In this, just as everyone’s sitting around singing and rejoicing, Uncle Billy remembers that he misplaced the money in the newspaper Mr. Potter took. It only takes a few moments for this realization to turn the celebrating friends and family into an ugly mob, and they march to Potter’s house, give the man a mass beating, and burn his home to the ground. The End. The Simpsons did something similar with a lost final reel of Casablanca. Here Ilsa parachutes out of Laszlo’s plane to be with Rick, saving him from (and killing) Adolph Hitler in the process. The happy couple is married shortly afterwards. The End…?

No, seriously. That’s how they “ended” Casablanca, with the ellipse and the question mark. Which, as Bart points out, leaves them open for a sequel.

So just by (hypothetically) shifting the tone/world of the endings, both of these classic, award-winning films become absurdist comedies.

Now here’s a key thing to remember. You can still have a fantastic story set in the real world provided the events of your story don’t change the world. If I wage a secret battle against lizard men from the center of the Earth and at the end of my story no one knows the war happened, then the world hasn’t changed, has it?

Perfect example—Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not only does this story involve a Nazi plot to seize arcane objects across the globe, it has reputable archeologist Henry “Indiana” Jones finding hardcore evidence that God is real. Think about the repercussions that information would have. If someone went public in the 1930s with absolute, undeniable proof of God’s existence, what kind of world would we be living in today? What kind of story would you be telling?

Which is why that evidence never goes public. We’re left with the distinct impression no more than a dozen people know what Dr. Jones recovered from that island, and that he’s been well-paid not to talk about it. And the Ark… well, we all know what happens to the Ark, don’t we?

I really, really hate to use this analogy, but it is perfect. If you want to set an amazing story in the real world, you need to use conspiracy theory logic. Yep, the same reasoning used by the birthers, moon-landing deniers, and “9-11 was staged” folks is what makes for a good fiction story. How sad is that?

By conspiracy-theory logic, the lack of evidence for X is the proof that X is true. Any facts that disprove X are manufactured by the powers that be, thus further proving X is true. And if you stumble across a few coincidences that imply X is true, well, that of course is solid proof that X is true.

Y’see, Timmy, by this chain of reasoning, the untouched real world is undeniable proof the imaginary world of your story is true. Only the BPRD knows what really happened to Adolph Hitler after the Occult Wars, so it’s understandable that most of us only know the publicized version of events. There are a dozen enchantments that keep the magical world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley separate from the real world, thus the fact that no Muggle has ever seen Hogwarts pushes the idea that the stories about it are true. Only a worthy mortal can lift the hammer of Thor (bonus points if you remember its name—offer not good after Friday), but we all know we’re not 100% worthy so we accept that we’ve never had the chance to lift it. The fantasy world doesn’t change the real world, so that fantasy world is more believable.

So do amazing things in amazing worlds. Just make sure no one finds out about it.

Next time, I wanted to rant a bit about sounding like a professional.

Until then, go write.

August 20, 2010 / 5 Comments

Chefs Do That

Every now and then I get to do some really cool stuff for my job at Creative Screenwriting. Part of this is pitching ideas for articles or interviews and the little thrill when someone says yes to a wilder one. What’s really cool, though, is when you pitch a complete long-shot idea and the screenwriter said idea centers around says “sure, let’s grab a coffee or something.”

Shane Black came to national attention as Hawkins, the bespectacled, dirty-joke-spewing soldier in Predator who comes to a quick and messy end. What most people probably don’t know is that his role in the iconic movie was an off-the-table part of his deal (so the story goes) for Lethal Weapon, the screenplay he wrote that made him one of the darlings of the late ‘80s spec script boom. Since then he’s also written The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (which he also directed). More to the point, I got to chat with him back at Christmas and we talked for a while about writing and storytelling. And Santa Claus fighting Satan. Anyway, he brought up a very interesting angle on storytelling that I’d like to expand on and share with you all.
As fair warning, some of these terms may not be used exactly as you’re used to them. Try not to think of it in terms of “this means this” but rather the ideas and concepts behind this little sub-rant. For example, to avoid confusion, I’m going to be using the word tale a lot in these next few paragraphs.
Any tale can be thought of in terms of plot, story, and theme. These three elements are really what make up every tale you’ve ever heard. Every now and then you may stumble across one that doesn’t have one of these elements, and nine times out of ten that tale is flawed because of it.
The first of these, the plot, is what’s going on within your particular tale. It’s the elements you’ll usually see on the back of a book or the DVD case. If you’re a screenwriter, it’s usually the idea you pitch. If you’re a novelist, it’s that quick summary in your query letter.
–The plot of Star Wars (no subtitle, never was) is Luke and Han trying to rescue Princess Leia and destroy the Empire’s super weapon, the Death Star.
–The plot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is Scott trying to defeat seven super-powered exes so he can be with his dream girl, Ramona.
–The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is a man trying to take revenge on the people who destroyed his life decades ago.
–The plot of The Long Kiss Goodnight is a presumed-dead agent trying to stop a murderous conspiracy concocted by her former employers.
–The plot of IT is six friends coming together again after years to try to defeat a monster that lives under their home town.
–The plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark is Indy is trying to find the Ark before the Nazis do and get it safely back to America.
You may have caught something there. For most good stories, the plot is the attempt to do something. Pull off a heist, get a date, beat the bad guys. This is the action (of one type or another) that makes the reader need to turn to the next page.
Some indie films don’t have a plot. They’ve taken the idea of a character-driven tale to the extreme and tend to just meander. They’re slice-of life tales where beautifully-rendered people don’t really do anything. There is a certain appeal to this, on some levels, but in the end it’s a very niche audience.
The flipside of plot is the story. Story is what’s going on within your characters. It’s the personal stuff that explains why they’re interested in the plot and really why the reader is interested in the plot. Story is why Never Let Me Go is different than The Island, because they’re taking what’s essentially the same plot and approaching it with two very different stories.
–The story of Scott Pilgrim is about becoming more mature in order to shape a lasting relationship.
–The story of Rick Blaine (Casablanca) is about the resurgence of the man he used to be a long time ago and the causes he used to fight for.
–The story of Samantha Kaine (The Long Kiss Goodnight) is figuring out who she is; an amnesiac, single-mom schoolteacher or a ruthless assassin who created the identity of Samantha as a hiding place she could sink into and “retire”
–The story of Edmund Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo) is about letting go of the past and accepting what he has in the present.
–The story of Indiana Jones is about reconnecting with a past love and learning to believe in something bigger than himself.
You may notice here that while the story and plot are often complementary, they don’t always tie directly to each other. Story is the character arc and the reasons behind that arc. Plot makes us need to turn the page, but story makes us want to turn the page.
A lot of stuff in the action genre is light on story. If there are enough explosions, karate chops, and gunshots the audience may not notice that the characters never really change or develop in any way. Which is fine for your supporting folks, but not so good for your protagonists.
Last but not least is the theme. Theme covers everything, and it applies to both the plot and the story. A tale’s theme can be something broad and simple. The theme of Raiders, for example, is just “good ultimately triumphs over evil (even if good gets the crap kicked out of it first).” That’s a common theme that covers a lot of tales. “You can’t beat the system,” is another common theme that shows up in a lot of dystopian tales like 1984, as does its close cousin “might makes right.” A theme can also be much more specific, like “unrestricted greed caused the financial crisis” or “the Bush Doctrine endangered more American lives than it ever saved.” As a theme gets more specific, though, a writer has to be careful it doesn’t just become an overriding message.
When a tale is lacking one of the previous elements, it’s usually doesn’t have much of a theme, either. Tales without a theme, even one of the simple ones above, tend to wander or be inconsistent. It’s kind of like going out for a drive–you may get somewhere, but it wasn’t in your mind when you set out… and it probably wasn’t the most efficient way to get there…
Next time around, I’d like to talk about triplines, deadfalls, punji pits, and other dangerous assumptions people make about writing.
Until then, go write.
April 15, 2010 / 2 Comments

How To Get Away With It

Not really pop culture, but it seemed relevant considering the day. My other option was “This Serves No Purpose!!!” from Galaxy Quest. That’s pop culture and it’s a perfect example of what I wanted to prattle on about.

Alas, taxes are a certainty…

Speaking of taxing something, a while back I mentioned the problem of false drama. It’s when random stuff happens between your characters for no reason. Dot suddenly hates Wakko. Out of nowhere, Yakko is smitten with Phoebe. For motives we can’t understand, Wakko has decided to start arguing with the ninjas. Likewise, I’ve rambled on about motivated action and motivations in general. Stuff don’t “just happen” in a story because there’s a guiding force behind it all–the writer. Even acts of God in a story need to have a purpose.

Things also can’t happen just to fuel the story. That’s the difference between a character’s motivation and the writer’s. Anything in a story that isn’t natural or organic breaks the flow, and one of the worst things a writer can do is give the reader time to sit and think about how ridiculous something in a story is. It taxes their patience and strains suspension of disbelief.

With that being said, sometimes we just need a coincidence or an irrational act. It’s the curse of being a writer. Wakko needs to argue with those ninjas.

Now, I recently got to talk to some of the writers from LOST and an interesting term came up. Every now and then, by nature of their show, the story requires them to put in an odd coincidence or have a character make a very unusual choice. One way they solve this, according to Eddy Kitsis, is by “hanging a lantern on it.”

As the name implies, hanging a lantern on something means drawing attention to it. Not as the writer, but within the story. It’s when something odd or unlikey happens and the characters themselves comment on the oddness or unlikelihood of this.

On LOST, when Sun needs a pregnancy test, she and Kate find one in Sawyer’s stash of scavenged medication and toiletries. And while they’re waiting for the result, they both wonder what kind of person would bring a pregnancy test on an airplane. Really, isn’t that just a bit ridiculous?

In my book, Ex-Heroes, we’re told early on that the Mighty Dragon’s real name is George Bailey. Yes, George Bailey just like in It’s A Wonderful Life. He tells us this himself in a first-person chapter. And then he immediately points out how cruel his parents were and also that he owns the movie and has watched it several times.

So, why does this little trick work?

When the characters themselves immediately acknowledge a choice or action is unusual or ridiculous, it takes the edge off that element for the audience. We can’t forgive the million-to-one coincidence that everyone takes in stride, but we can if the people involve recognize those odds and comment on the unlikeliness of it.

What we wouldn’t forgive is the bizarre coincidence of someone flying with a one-use, specific item like a pregnancy test and everyone ignoring that coincidence. Good characters mirror their audience to some degree, so if the reader thinks this is a bit ridiculous, the characters probably should, too.

Look at Casablanca. It’s got a classic lantern moment. When the film begins, Rick has tried to vanish. He’s gone to another city, in another country, on another continent to escape his previous life, and a few years later the woman who tore out his heart comes walking through the door of his new place. Think about it–the odds of this are astronomical. But we never even consider the odds because Rick himself broods over them in a drunken stupor. “Of all the gin joints in all the world… why did she have to walk into mine?” We accept it because he’s sitting here acknowledging his miserable luck.

Now, does hanging a lantern make a story’s lucky coincidence totally acceptable? Well, not always. What it will do, though, is push back the suspension of disbelief a few notches. By acknowledging this convenient bit of plot or character within the story, the writer’s showing that their characters aren’t stupid, which taxes the reader’s patience. It’s also acknowledging that the reader isn’t stupid, because they just get angry when a writer does that.

So if the coincidence is a small one (say, two guys with the same name also have girlfriends with the same name) and you make a point of commenting on the oddness of it, we as the readers will probably accept it without question. If it’s one of those “you’ve got to be &*%#!ng kidding me!!” type of coincidences… well, you might be able to get it down to a raised eyebrow and a slight eye roll.

It’s also worth keeping in mind, this doesn’t mean you can include dozens and dozens of bizarre coincidences in your screenplay or manuscript and get away with pointing out each one. Like most magic tricks, it’s something you can only do once or thrice before people start to catch on to what you’re really doing. And once they see what you’re doing the illusion’s shattered on a bunch of levels.

Next time around, I’d like to prattle on about that old chestnut, writing what you know, and why fighter pilots don’t always make good writers.

Until then, go write.

April 9, 2010 / 4 Comments


Running a little late this week. I blame it on my landlord, who insists I have rent money every month. He’s very capitalist that way.

Anyway, pop culture reference in the title, but only the old people will get it..
Speaking of getting it, want to hear the absolute silliest thing I ever read online? It’s not a dirty joke or anything like that. This was in a defiant post someone made on a movie-predictions board I used to visit on a regular basis. Essentially, this one misogynist gent– who took great pains to tell everyone (frequently) that he was a writer– was explaining why he’d never read one of several classic books that were getting the adaptation treatment that season. I think one of them may have been the second Narnia book. There was another one, too, but I can’t remember what it was.
Anyway–the reason he’d never read any of them?
REAL writers don’t have time to read.”
No, seriously. That’s what he said. With the capitals and the italics. I can’t really blame it on him, though. I keep seeing or hearing variations on this once a month or so. Just heard it recently at a housewarming party.
Now, I write full time. Eight hours a day or more, five or six days a week. It is how I make my living. So far this year I’ve already done a dozen articles for the magazine and another half dozen or so for the weekly newsletter. Plus I’m poking at a short story for an anthology, a sequel for Ex-Heroes (shameless plug–order your copy over there on the right), and scribbling notes for another book idea that’s been poking at me. Jabbing, really.
Keeping all that in mind… I’ve already read well over a dozen books this year.
We’re barely into April and I’ve already read sixteen books–more than one a week. I’ve read classic novels like Dracula and shiny-new ones like Under The Dome. I read The Terror by Dan Simmons and then followed it up with an actual history of the Franklin expedition. I’ve read books on ancient Egyptian history and early 20th century spiritualism. I’ve read an end-of-the-world story by Dave Dunwoody that was really fun and another one by Dean Koontz that really wasn’t.
Plus I have to read a lot for work. Screenplays for Alice in Wonderland, Nightmare on Elm Street, Season of the Witch, and several other films. Heck, I read a couple scripts for films I’m not even covering.
I love reading. There’s nothing like getting caught up in a great storytelling experience. It’s like eating a good meal. It relaxes me and gets my mind spinning.
Y’see, Timmy, you can’t make something out of nothing. A physicist needs to study what’s been done in order to develop new theories. A film director has to study the work of previous directors. Writers need to read.
Look at it this way. Bodybuilders need to take in protein to create new muscle. If they continue to do all those strenuous exercises without taking anything in, it actually becomes more detrimental than beneficial. They burn up calories, their muscles wither, and very quickly it starts to affect their performance. Suddenly they can’t lift as much or go for as long. In the end, not taking in material will ruin their chances of being a successful bodybuilder.
In a like manner, a smart bodybuilder knows what to take in. They know eating nothing but steak is just as bad as eating nothing but Twinkies. There are times to eat steamed broccoli and lean turkey breast, but there are also times you need a cheeseburger. No, seriously. I used to train with a professional weightlifter and bodybuilder who made a point of eating a huge fast-food cheeseburger after every competition. In the days before he’d work his body fat down to dangerous levels, but once the competition was over it was important to replenish those levels as quickly as possible to stay healthy. He knew there was a time he had to eat fatty junk food in order to be a success.
So when you read, read everything you can. Don’t just limit yourself to your chosen genre or format. Break up all that horror with some satire or sci-fi. If you’re writing romantic comedy scripts, pause to check out a drama or two, and vice-versa. And don’t forget to mix a little bit of not-so-fantastic stuff in there, too.
It’s also worth mentioning that while the classics are great, make sure you’re staying current. Dickens is fantastic, but make sure you’ve got a vague idea what Dan Brown and Stephen King are doing. Casablanca and Chinatown are fantastic scripts, but the first draft of Wanted was a heckuva lot better than the movie and that’s what sold it. No one’s saying the classics aren’t good, but if you’re reading the ranty blog I’m guessing you want to sell something in the near future, not a few decades in the past.
Next week, how a lantern can let you get away with almost anything. Honest. You’re going to love it. Plus I’m going to get to name-drop a lot, and that’s always fun.
Until then go write. And read a bit, too.