So let’s talk about cats and dogs and killing people.
Something I’ve brought up here once or thrice is saving the cat. It’s a screenwriting term, but I think it applies fairly well to all storytelling. Really simply put, it’s when a character does something simple that establishes they’re a good person. Or, at the least, a person we should be rooting for. It tends to come early in the story because saving the cat isn’t about changing our opinion of a character—it’s just about reinforcing it. If we thought they were pretty good… yeah, this just lets us know we had the right idea.
Not, the flipside of this is what I call patting the dog. I’ve talked about this before, too. This is when someone does an equally small, minor thing and it’s supposed to make us look at this character in a whole new light. Saving the cat is about reinforcing an opinion, patting the dog is about completely changing it. Because of this, patting the dog tends to come later in the story—we can’t have new thoughts about a character until we’ve had time to make old thoughts, right?
Now… I mention all that because I wanted to talk about killing supporting or background characters.
How many times in books or movies have we seen the person who stays behind to defuse the bomb? There’s no time and we’ve already admitted it’s next to impossible and everybody else is clear, but god damn it they can dothis. Or we know the wendigo is out there and it can mimic human speech and these are its prime hunting hours but god damn it what if that’s really a little kid in the woods? Or we’re sure the whole shelter’s been cleaned out and we can’t contain the fire any longer but god damn it Yakko’s heading back in to make sure we didn’t miss a cat in one of the cages…
And then, y’’know, they die. Doing something brave and noble. But also, like… really, really stupid.
When we see something like this, the storytellers are trying to up the stakes. They know it’s time for someone to die so the audience understands how real the danger/ threat is. But at the same time… I mean, we don’t want to kill one of our main characters, right? And it turns out we haven’t really developed any of our other characters past “Redhead #2” or “Soldier with Hat” so it won’t mean anything if they die.
What we’ve all probably tried once or twice is to make the way someone dies get the emotional response. So it’s not so much that we feel for them, it’s that the writer’s created a situation where we’d have an emotional response for anyone who died this way. This is really common in the torture porn subgenre, where it’s not so much about the character as it is what’s being done to the character. No matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done, you have to feel sorry for someone who gets that done to their… well, look, it’s uncomfortable just making this up.
And that’s what a lot of these fake “saving the cat” moments are trying to do. It’s not about creating a character who does something brave or noble or righteous—it’s about creating a situation where anyone would be brave or noble or righteous. If Thanos runs back into that burning building to make sure there weren’t any cats left behind, we’d still go “Wow… almost a complete monster, but at least he tried to save those hypothetical kittens. He didn’t deserve to die like that. Goddamn shame, that’s what it is.”
The big catch, of course, is that these situations still have to make logical sense with everything else going on in my story. Oh, and even a flat stereotype of a character has to behave in ways we understand human beings tend to behave. If “Soldier with Hat” suddenly starts disobeying direct orders, this isn’t a sudden burst of characterization—it’s just someone acting unnaturally. And if they’re doing this in an unnatural situation… well… I can’t be shocked if the whole thing comes across as fake.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with killing characters. I‘ve killed tons of people in my books. Main characters and supporting characters. I don’t know how many background folks who never got a name or more than a word or two of description.
But I have to be honest about the weight these deaths actually bring to my story. Killing “Soldier with Hat” shouldn’t seem inconsequential, but it also shouldn’t be the dramatic linchpin of an entire chapter. The wendigo getting Redhead #2 is bad, yeah, but we can’t pretend it’s as bad as if it got Phoebe. I can’t manipulate deaths into being important or make characters noble and brave after the fact.
If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you’ve probably caught on to my questionable Saturday viewing habits. Questionable in the sense of “why would someone keep doing this to themselves? And to their liver?”
I’ll sit down with some little toy soldiers to build, put on a movie with aliens or giant monsters or werewolves, and tweet out the occasional observation, critique, or scream of pain. It’s kinda fun, in a masochistic sort of way, and I’m a big believer that you can learn a lot from figuring out where bad things went wrong and how they could be fixed. And I’ve seen a lot of screenplays go wrong over the years. Some I worked on. Some I read for contests. And… some I watched while building little toy soldiers.
Over all this time, I’ve seen definite patterns emerge. The same mistakes happening again and again and again. It was part of what made me start this whole ranty blog way back when in the distant before-time.
And screenwriting is a form of storytelling, which means some of these mistakes—maybe even all of them—are universal. I might not have any interest in writing movie scripts, sure. Not everyone does. But these issues can show up in books, short stories, comics… all sorts of storytelling formats.
So maybe they’re worth checking out.
Anyway, here are my top ten B-movie mistakes, updated a bit since the last time I write them out. Some of it may seem generally familiar. Some of it… well, I’ve found new ways to look at some problems over the past three years.
10) Bad directing
Let’s just get this one out of the way, because it’s the easiest one. It’s also the most universal one. This’ll be a horrible blow to anyone who likes auteur theory, but while there are some phenomenal directors out there, the simple truth is there’s also a lot who have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. None. Yeah, even some directors you’ve heard of. They have no concept of narrative, continuity, pacing… anything.
This is a killer because ultimately, the director’s the one interpreting the story on the page into a visual story on the screen. Even if they didn’t write the script, the best story can be ruined by a bad storyteller.How often have we seen a book or movie that had a really cool idea or an interesting character and it was just… wasted?
Because of this—random true fact—whenever you see a horrible story on screen, it’s always the fault of the director and producers. Never the screenwriter. The only reason scripts get shot is because the director and producers insist on shooting them. If it was a great script and they butchered it—that’s their fault. If it was a bad script and they decided to shoot it anyway—that’s also their fault.
9) Showing the wrong thing
This kinda falls under bad directing, but I’ve seen it enough times that it really deserves it own number. Sometimes a story keeps pushing X in our face when we really want to see Y. Or Z. Sometimes the story calls for Y to be the center of focus, but we still keep putting X on camera. And sometimes there’s no need to see X at all—we understand it through dialogue and acting and other bits of context—but we show X anyway.
A lot of this is a general failure of empathy—the filmmakers aren’t thinking about how the movie’s going to be seen. I’ve also talked a couple times about subtlety, using the scalpel vs. the sledgehammer, and that’s a big part of this, too. Sometimes there’s a reason we’re seeing a lot of nudity or a swirling vortex of gore, but all too often… it’s just because the storyteller doesn’t know what else to show us.
8) Bad action
Pretty sure we can all think of an example of this. The almost slow-motion fight scenes that feel like they filmed the rehearsal. The medium-speed chase that drags on waaaaaay too long. The pointless shoot-out that clearly wasn’t thought through since everyone’s standing out in the open.
Action gets seen as filler a lot of the time, and it doesn’t help that a lot of gurus teach it that way. “Hit page 23—you need an action beat! Hit page 42—another action beat!” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with action, but bad action is particularly bad in the visual storytelling format of movies. Unnecessary action isn’t much better.
Think of scale, too. It’s always better to have a small, well-done action scene than a sprawling, poorly-executed one. We can relate to two people fighting so much better that two gangs of sixty people each slamming together. Especially when it’s supposed to be two gangs of sixty members each but there are maybe eight people on screen. Moving in slow motion.
7) Too Much Stuff
Remember when we were young and there was that one kid (we all knew this kid) who got so excited to be Dungeon Master? And he made that awesome dungeon with five liches and a dozen displacer beasts and twenty gold dragons and thirty platinum dragons and fifty minotaurs all wearing +3 plate armor and using +5 flaming axes and a hundred zombies and Demogorgon and half the Egyptian gods and…
I think we’ve all played that game, right? Let’s be honest… maybe some of us were that kid?
Some B-movies get like that.The filmmakers have too many ideas—way more than their budget or schedule allows—and they try to stick everything into the story.Every cool idea from every other cool story, sure to be just as cool here, right? Truth is, they almost never are.All these extra ideas just end up being under-developed distractions at best.
6) Killing the wrong people
There’s always going to be collateral damage in certain types of stories. Thing is, by nature of being collateral damage, the story doesn’t focus on these people and their deaths don’t really register.And they shouldn’t. That’s what collateral means after all—they’re secondary. Not as important. But in the tight, compressed nature of a movie, we need these deaths to be important. They need to serve a purpose in the story, hopefully on more than one level.
I’ve talked about the awful habit of introducing characters for no purpose except to kill them.We meet Phoebe, get three or four minutes of backstory and bamshe’s dead without moving the plot forward an inch. Because Phoebe wasn’t really part of the plot, she was just there to wear a bikini top and let the FX crew show off their new blood fountain.
The only thing worse than this is when it’s time for the ultimate sacrifice… and my hero doesn’t make it. A minor character steps forward to throw the final switch or recite the last words. And the “hero” sits back and watches as someone else saves the day.
5) Wasting Time
This one’s the flipside of point #7. I just mentioned that in the limited space of a movie script, everything needs to serve a purpose. If that touching backstory linking two characters doesn’t affect the plot or story somehow, it’s just five minutes of filler I could’ve spent on something else… like the plot or the story. If these shouted arguments don’t somehow reveal something key to the progress of the movie… they may just be a lot of wasted time.
One of the most common time-wasters in B-movies is the unconnected opening. It’s when the first five or ten minutes focus on a group of characters we’ll never see again, usually never even reference again, and who have no effect on the rest of the plot. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these openings that couldn’t be cut, and I’d guess 83% of the time the whole movie would be stronger—on many levels—without it.
4) Not knowing what genre my story is
I’ve mentioned a few times that I worked on a B-level sex-revenge-thriller-sequel where the director thought he was making a noir mystery. I’ve seen horror films done as sci-fi and fantasy movies that were done as horror films, and vice versa.Heck, I’ve written stories where I’d planned it as one thing, and realized halfway through it was something very different.
I’ve talked about genre a lot over the past few weeks, so I won’t go into it much more here. To sum up quick if you don’t want to hit the link, all genres have certain expectations when it comes to tone, pacing, and even structure.If I’ve got a story in one genre that I’m telling with the expectations of another, there’s going to be a clash. And that clash probably won’t help my storytelling.
3) Plot Zombies
All credit to A. Lee Martinez, creator of this wonderful term. Sometimes, characters do things that are unnatural for them just to further the plot. The brave person becomes cowardly. The timid person does something wild and unpredictable. People argue and storm off for no reason. Well, so one of them can get murdered by the monster after going for a calming nighttime swim in the lake, but past that… no reason.
Plot zombies just stumble around a movie, doing whatever the story calls for. They don’t have any personality or agency, and really, one plot zombie’s pretty much the same as any other plot zombie. If I have an inspiring speech or an act of wild abandon or a last minute moment of brilliance, and there’s no reason I can’t swap all the characters around in it… it means I’ve got plot zombies.
So many movies have painfully bad dialogue. Pointless arguments. Annoying characters. Awful technobabble.And sometimes—too much of the time—it’s just bad.It’s lines that sound like they went back and forth through Google translate and then the actor’s seeing them for the first time on a teleprompter while they’re filming.
Personally, bad dialogue drives me nuts, because it means the storytellers have no idea what human beings sound like. It’s a massive failure of empathy, and that empathy almost always shows up elsewhere. I’ve never, ever seen a story with bad dialogue that excelled everywhere else. It just doesn’t happen.
1) Who am I rooting for?
This is still the number one killer in America. This is what brings so many B-movies—so many STORIES—to a gear-grinding halt.
So many movies have absolutely no likable characters. Everyone’s self-centered, obnoxious, stupid, or arrogant… or a combination of these traits. They’re all awful, sometimes disgusting people. All of them. The bad guys and the good guys.People start dying and I’m always glad, no matter who they are.
If I’m expected to sit here and watch this for ninety minute, I need a reason to follow someone besides “they’re the main character.”I need to like watching their story play out. I need to be able to identify with some aspect of their personality. The movie needs to have someone I actually care about. ‘Cause if it doesn’t. I won’t care if they win or lose. And if I don’t care about that… well… I’m not goingto be sitting here for ninety minutes
And that’s my personal, current top ten B-movie mistakes.
(PST) with Krull, followed by the Keanu Reeves Constantineat , and finishing up the day with Resident Evil at . It’s going to be fun and maybe a little informative. Plus there’ll be a couple other folks chiming in with the #KrullKon2020 hashtag, and even a few giveaways.
And next time here, I thought I’d talk a bit about editing this new book.
I finished up the A2Q last week, and for a brief moment I had no idea what I would blather on about this time. Seriously, a complete blank. There’s just so much crap going on in the world right now (as I talked about a few weeks ago) and I was stressing a bit over my own manuscript that I’m working on right now (the non-werewolf one).
So I thought I might talk a little bit about that. The stress and the non-werewolf manuscript. Because maybe you’re stressing about the same thing. Or something closely related. Probably not the fact that your work in progress doesn’t have any werewolves. That’s a much bigger problem you’ll have to deal with on your own.
My new book opens in a bar. The first three chapters are set there (granted, I write kinda short chapters compared to most people). And as I’m heading toward the end of this draft and getting ready to loop around for another look, I’m kinda dreading those chapters.
I mean… is a bar even normal anymore? It was when I started this, but now it feels a little weird. What’s going to be “normal” when my agent and editor see this in a month or two? Do these dozen or so bar patrons—does the whole vibe of the bar—come across differently now? Should they be wearing masks? Should the bartender have gloves? And what does it mean if I write them not wearing masks of gloves. How will people see the book? Hell, how will people see me? I mean, for some idiot reason wearing/not wearing a mask during a pandemic has become a political statement.
How much of the real world should I be incorporating into my writing? I mean, a lot of really smart people are saying things can’t go back to the way they were. Do readers and editors want to see the world that is? The world that was? Should I be incorporating masks and social distancing and hell is the romance angle in this totally stupid now? Can two people have a casual meet-cute in a world where most people don’t go anywhere casually? Are people still hooking up in the plague years, or is this scene going to come across as less sexy and more incredibly risky?
If you’re having these kinda thoughts well… join the club. It makes sense, after all. It shows you have a good level of empathy, that you’re thinking about these things and how they’ll be seen by other people.
But thinking about them doesn’t answer the big question. What should we do? How should we—or should we—be altering things in our work to match the world better?
I think what we’re all experiencing right now is a kind of common problem, it’s just rare for all of us to be going through it at the same time, and on this scale. We’re trying to write for the future. We’re trying to guess what readers and agents and editors are going to want to see in nine or ten months.
To some extent, this is always an issue. There are people who find themselves writing political thrillers during major elections. Folks have written books about cutting-edge technology that’s obsolete by the time anyone gets to read it. If you’re a Lee Child fan, you may have heard the story of how a change in the way currency was designed and printed made the entire twist of his first Jack Reacher novel, The Killing Floor, completely impossible. I wrote a book about the American Dream in late 2015/early 2016, and by the time it came out parts of it looked almost foolishly optimistic. These things happen. The world keeps progressing.
Hell, even more hardcore genre books can have this problem. How many sci-fi books and movies are set in a future that we’ve already reached and passed? 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel 2010? Back to the Future? Thundarr the Barbarian? A ton of Star Trek? All of these stories involved “future” events and well… we know those futures didn’t happen.
Y’see Timmy, we can’t predict the future. Even the relatively near future. And our readers and editors know this. Things will always happen that might make some part of my book obsolete or impossible. If it doesn’t happen in the process of writing it, it’ll definitely happen at some point. It’s inevitable.
My point is… don’t worry about it right now. Take a breath. The world’s in a very weird place and nobody has any idea what it’s going to be like a year from now. Absolutely no one. So for this book, just do what feels right. And a year from now we can all worry about what things are like a year from now.
I will toss out two small addendums to this.
First, the easy one. If this really gnaws at you, maybe you could incorporate some “current” elements at a lesser level. I mean, here in southern California (probably in most cities)it wasn’t exactly rare to see people wearing masks, especially during flu season or some outbreak. Heck, if you’ve been at an airport any time in the past few years, I’m sure you’ve seen people wearing them there. So it’s not like it would be unnatural to mention masks on a few people, or someone keeping that one alligator-length away from other folks.
Addendum the second. I’ve mentioned once or thrice there are some writers who seriously excel at pumping out really fast, very topical books. It’s a really specific type of market and you need to be a very specific type of writer to do well in it.
I bring it up because I guarantee you these folks have already written the lockdown murder mystery novel, the “have to venture out during quarantine” novel, the “falling in love over Zoom” novel, the “lost soul finds new purpose handmaking masks” novel, the “unfeeling businessman learns the real meaning of life after a beloved person dies of covid-19” novel, and probably far to many “brave reporter uncovers the real conspiracy behind the lockdowns” novels. Wow, that was a hell of a run on sentence. If Ray Porter narrated my blog, he would smack me upside the head for that one.
My point is, unless I’ve already finished it, I should probably hold off on something that ties directly to current events. There’s a really good chance a lot of writers already beat me to it (in the sense that their novel’s already done). Which means there’s a really good chance agents and editors are already swamped with these brilliant, high-concept ideas that I just thought up off the top of my head and all of you could immediately picture. Even if I go the self pub-route, odds are these other writers have already sewn up that market. Or bled it dry. Maybe both. Whichever of those works best for you.
But my big point still stands. For now, try not to worry too much about this. Make sure your book works overall, that all the big beats work before fretting over small details. Even if some aspect of the world means my book is now 100% impossible, it can still be looked at as a story of the world that was, and it’ll still need to be the best book I can make it.
Anyway… that’s my semi-inspirational, reassuring ramble for this week. Hopefully it helped a few of you. It actually calmed be a bit just writing it out.
Next time… I don’t know. After three months working on the A2Q, I feel a little lost. Is there a particular topic anyone would like me to address and blather on about? Something from the A2Q I could clarify? Just a random question that’s been bugging you? Let me know down below.
And if nobody has anything… well, I’m sure I’ll come up with something exciting.
Welllllll… guess there’s no putting this off, is there? In the end, this is where every story leads in the long run. I’ve crafted a fantastic character with some wonderful nuances and habits, and a detailed backstory. It’s a character every reader can picture in their minds and relate to on a personal level.
And it’s time to slit their throat. Or watch them die from an awful disease. Maybe even have a zombie horde devour them.
Killing characters in a story is a delicate thing.I don’t mean this in some artsy, poetic way.I mean it more in a “stitch up that major artery up before he bleeds out” way. It’s something that has to be done just right for it to work. And just like stitching up an artery, if I’m only going to do a quick, half-assed job with it… I mean, why even bother?
Here’s a couple of loose guidelines for killing someone…
First off, if I’m going to kill a character… well, I need a character, right?A real character.I can’t expect there to be a lot of emotional impact from the death of a paper-thin stereotype.I mean, killing paper-thin stereotypes is cool if I just want to drive a body count, but it’s not going to drive a plot and it’s not going to motivate anyone on a personal level.It’s not going to affect the reader, either.I can’t create Phoebe on page fifty, kill her on page fifty-one, and think it’s going to have any emotional weight—with the other characters or my readers.
Second, this death needs to drive my plot forward.That’s what good story elements do, right?They keep the narrative moving—not necessarily upward or into positive place, but forward.Killing a character who’s well-developed but has no connection at all to the plot doesn’t really do anything.
We’ve probably all seen storytellers who create unconnected charactersjust to kill them off a few pages later. The plot’s heading into act two and we pause to meet Phoebe.She’s thirty-three, blond, likes to wear combat boots with everything from jeans to her little black dress to her bikini on the way to the beach.She’s been seeing a great guy for a couple of months now and she really think there’s a good chance she’s going to get a promotion (and a raise) at her job with OH, she’s dead.The zombies got her.Now let’s go back to the plot for a few chapters before I take a moment to introduce you to Wakko.He’s a college dropout who went to work for the park service.He’s also been seeing a great guy for a couple of months now (not the same one as Phoebe) and he’s been thinking it may be time to give him a key so they OH, the zombies got Wakko, too.
This kind of thing works once.Maybe twice.But it gets old fast because we all understand these people, as columnist Rob Bricken once put it, are just collateral damage. The characters don’t really do much and their deaths don’t actually accomplish anything in the story. They’re just narrative window dressing to make things look more serious instead of… y’know, actually making things more serious.
If I’m going to kill a character and have it mean something, it needs to have an actual affect on my story.It should up the stakes, or be a new challenge for my characters as far as succeeding at one of their goals. If the big goal is to distribute the zombie cure that Dr. Carmichael designed, and we’re just waiting for her to arrive because she’s the only one who knows the formula, well suddenly it’s a big “oh CRAP” moment when we realize she’s Dr. Phoebe Carmichael who wears combat boots with everything. What are we going to do now??
Now, this leads into a Second-Point-One or maybe a little outline sub-A. It’s a very specific version of this we all want to watch out for. You may have heard of fridging. On the off chance you haven’t, it comes from an awful Green Lantern comic twenty-five years back where GL’s girlfriend was killed and stuffed in a refrigerator for him to find later. When we talk about someone getting fridged, it’s usually a woman, often a less-developed supporting character, who suffer a violent, horrific, and sometimes abusive end for no purpose except to be an inciting incident for the hero.And maybe to let said hero get in some grief-filled, character-building monologues. Her death is all about him.
Don’t freak out. Not every female death is automatically a fridging. But it’s a good term to know and keep in mind if I’m going to fall back on the whole describe-and-die device, because it can slip into fridging very easily.
Third is that this death needs to fit in my story structurally.I’ve mentioned before, the dramatic structure of a story needs to be a series of ups and downs.There need to be slowly increasing challenges, which require greater efforts for my characters to overcome, and help build tension.If I’m going to kill someone off, their death needs to fit within this general structure.
To go back to the example I just gave, if Phoebe’s the only one who knows the formula for the zombie cure, this could be horrible. In a good way. I’ve just dropped a huge, last-minute challenge between my characters and saving the day.
But if we got Phoebe to the bio-lab on page fifteen and the zombies pounced on page sixteen… that’s not going to come across as much of a challenge. We’ve got the whole book to figure it out, after all.It’s definitely not going to have the same impact as her dying on page 300, because tension rises as my story progresses. I need to think about how much impact I want this death to have and where that means it needs to happen in my plot. Which is going to affect how I structure things. And why, yes, it is a juggling act, thanks for noticing.
Now, all of that being said…
Some writers claim killing characters is no big deal.They almost brag about randomly ending lives in their stories. These folks have no qualms about killing characters because it tells their readers that nobody’s safe! Anything could happen! This is how real life works, which means it’s how art works!
I personally find this to be a really counterproductive and stupid approach.
For a couple of reasons.
One is that we’re not talking about real life, we’re talking about fiction. Real life is chaotic and structureless and, yeah, people often die for no reasons at extremely inconvenient times. But in the stories I’m writing… I’m God. Every single thing that happens in my story is my choice.My decision.It’s part of my divine plan.And if it isn’t part of my divine plan… well, why’s it in my story?
Which brings me to point two.I just mentioned the juggling act a minute ago. If my characters are dying at random, that means their death isn’t advance any element of the story, which means my story doesn’t have any sort of dramatic structure to it. I mean, how can it have a structure if I’m just doing things randomly?
Plus, if I’m ninety pages in and Phoebe, my main character, is randomly tackled by zombies and maybe joins the hungry dead… well, what happens now? Seriously. Did the story just end? Is Dot the main character now? If Dot’s the main character for pages 90 through 445… well, why did I spend those first ninety pages with Phoebe? Maybe I should’ve just started with Dot?
And that’s my third point.Odds are a random, unstructured death just means failure.One way or another, Phoebe’s blown it big time—even if it’s not her fault. She died with her boots on but failed to reach her goals (she had goals because she was a real character, right…). Which means my readers just spent a hundred pages investing in someone who didn’t win.On any level.We’ve been identifying with a loser with crap luck (she must have crap luck—she just got randomly killed by zombies, right?).
I don’t know about any of you, but that isn’t going to make me happy.
A good death (if there is such a thing) is going to have real characters. Their death is going to help drive the plot and create challenges.And it’s going to happen at a point in the narrative that makes structural sense.If I’ve got two out of three of those, I’m probably in good shape.One out of three… maybe not so much.
And if I honestly don’t know if I’ve hit two or three of those points… well, maybe I should hold off on setting those zombies loose.