September 19, 2013

Once Upon a Time…

            …there was an aspiring writer.  And he lived in a beautiful world of wild dreams and deep denial…
            But let’s not talk about that guy.
            Last week I talked about basic linear structure.  This week I want to talk about narrative structure.  Narrative structure relates to—big surprise—my narrative.  It’s about how I’ve chosen to tell my particular story.  While events unfold in a linear fashion for the characters, how I decide to relay these events to my audience can change how the story’s received and interpreted (more on that in a bit).  So linear is how the characters experiences the story, narrative is how the reader experiences the story.
            One quick note before I dive in.  Within a story there might be a device or point of view, like a first person narrator, which gives the appearance of “telling” the story.  For the purposes of our discussion here, though, if I talk about the narration I’m talking about the writer.
            That being said…  here we go.
            In a large chunk of the stories any of us will encounter, the linear structure and narrative structure are going to be the same thing.  The story starts with Wakko on Monday, follows him to Tuesday, through Wednesday and Thursday, and concludes on Friday.  It’s simple and straightforward, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it.  My own book, 14, fits in this category.  It’s loaded with twists and reveals, but the linear structure parallels the narrative.
            There are also a fair number of stories, though, where the narrative doesn’t follow the timeline of the story.  Sometimes the writer does this with flashbacks, where a story is mostly linear with a few small divergences.  Other times, the story may be broken up into several sections and the reader needs to follow clues as to where these sections line up.  These are often called non-linear stories, or you may have heard it as non-linear storytelling (it was the hip new thing for a while there). 

           A great example of a non-linear story is Christopher Nolan’s early film Memento, where the story is actually told in reverse order, starting at the end and moving to the beginning.  My own Ex-Heroes series employs numerous flashbacks (although it’s worth mentioning that the flashbacks are all in linear order).  There was also a brilliant Marvel Comics miniseries by Roger Stern and John Byrne called The Lost Generation, which involved a time traveler moving back through history to see a forgotten superhero team, get wiped out as they saved the world, then moving forward (for the traveler) to see how the group formed and the origins of the heroes.  The issues were even numbered in reverse order.

            Now, there’s more to narrative structure than just wanting to switch around my story elements so I can look all cutting-edge.  If I’ve chosen to jump around a bit (or a lot) in my narrative, there’s a few things I have to keep in mind.  Be warned, we’re moving into an area that requires a little more skill and practice.
            First off, putting things in a new narrative order can’t change the linear logic of my story.  As I mentioned above, the week goes Monday through Friday, and this is true even if the first thing I do is tell you what happened on Thursday.  Monday was still three days earlier, and the characters and events in my story have to reflect that.  I can’t start my book with everyone on Thursday baffled who the murderer is, then roll the story back to Monday were everyone witnesses the killing and sees the murderer.  If they knew then, why don’t they know now?  There’s no logic to it (barring a case of mass amnesia).  If I have Phoebe act surprised that she owns a cat on Friday and then have the narrative jump to her finding the cat in an alley on Tuesday, I’m going to look like an idiot while my linear structure collapses. 
            These are very broad, simplistic examples, yes, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this problem crop up.  Writers want to switch stuff up, but ignore the fact that the logic of their story collapses when the narrative elements are put in linear order.  This is an easy one to fix, it just requires a little time and work.  And sometimes a bit of rewriting.
            The other big issue with having narrative and linear structures so far apart is that people need to be able to follow my plot.  I can have tons of fancy word choices and beautiful language in my story, but readers are still going to put it down if they can’t figure out what’s going on. 
            For example…
            Think about when a little kid tells you a story about Iron Man and Batman and Snuffleupagus and there’s a moon base and they had a spaceship that Iron Man made before they fought the werewolf and the werewolf hates only getting to go out on Halloween so he decided when he was a little kid because only Snuffleupagus liked him and the rest of the time he has to get shaved because it’s too hot so he decided to go to the Moon so he could be a werewolf all the time and no one would make fun of him cause he didn’t know there were aliens on the moon but Batman saw the wolfman spaceship and tried to stop it and asked Iron Man to help and they fought the werewolf and Batman knew the werewolf when they were kids before he was Batman so he decided to help him move to the moon because they broke his spaceship but Iron Man had another spaceship he built after the Avengers movie and it looks like a big Iron Man and the werewolf had promised Snuffleupagus when they were little that he could come and so they got him out of the broken ship and you kind of tune it out and start mentally skimming.  I mean, you just skimmed a lot of that, right?  It jumps around so much that after a point it just becomes noise.
            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with chopping up my narrative too much is that people are automatically going to try to put it in linear order.  As I mentioned last week, we all do this almost automatically because it’s how our brains are set up.  The harder the narrative makes it for someone to reorganize the linear story, the less likely it is they’ll be able to follow it.  Which means the more likely it is that they’ll put it down.
            I talked about the idea of a detective at a crime scene last week.  If you’ve read a few mystery stories—or watched a few crime shows—you know a standard part of the mystery formula is the hero going through the events of the story and putting them in linear order for the other characters and the audience.  And how many are there? Eight or nine, usually?  Call it ten elements that are out of order and  the writer’s admitting it might be kind of tough to keep up at this point.
            There was a movie that came out about eight or nine years ago (I’ll be polite and not name it) that was a non-linear mess.  I don’t think there were two scenes in it that followed each other.  So we’re talking about well over a hundred scenes that were all scrambled and out of order.  Maybe as many as two hundred.  The actors were fantastic, but the story was impossible to keep up with.  It didn’t help that certain events repeated in the story.  Again, to be polite and protect the innocent, let’s say one of the characters was in a serious car crash and then was in another serious car crash two years later.  The audience was getting random scenes of burning cars, ambulances, emergency surgeries, recovery, and physical therapy… from two car crashes.  So we’re left trying to figure out which car crash the character was experiencing/recovering from at various points–once it was clear there’d been two car crashes–and then figuring where this scene fit in relation to all the other scenes.  The audience had to spend their time trying to decipher the movie rather than watching it.
            So non-linear structure can be overdone and become a detriment if I’m not careful.  This can be really hard to spot and fix, because it’s going to depend a lot on my ability to put myself in the reader’s shoes.  Since I know the whole linear story from the moment I sit down, the narrative is always going to make a lot more sense to me, even though for someone coming in cold it might be an illogical pile.  This is one of those times where I need to be harsh and honest with myself, because if I don’t my story’s going to be incomprehensible.
            That’s narrative structure in a nutshell.  Maybe more of a coconut-shell.  However I decide to tell my story, it still needs to have a linear structure, it still needs to be logical, and it still needs to be understandable. 
            Next time, I want to explain how linear structure and narrative structure combine via dramatic structure to tell a good story.
            Until then… go write.
September 12, 2013

Structural Engineering 101

            The first chapter is titled “Zefram Cochrane.”
            Geek reference.
            Well, for a couple months now I’ve promised that I’d blather on about structure.  I’ve actually got a bit of time now, so let’s do it.  I’ll warn you all right up front, this is probably going to be spread over two or three posts because it’s a big topic.  I also may be using terms a bit loosely and in ways your MFA professor may not approve of.  But I’ll do my best to make it easy to understand, despite that.
            When we’re talking about structure in stories, it really means the same thing it does when we’re talking about architecture or biochemistry or auto engineering.  It’s the underlying framework that helps us figure out how things go together.  Different structures work for different projects, so just because something worked when we were building One World Trade Center doesn’t mean we should use it when we’re building a house.  Or a motorcycle.
            Now, there are three types of structure in stories, and they all interact and work with each other.  Just like a house or a skyscraper, if two elements are strong and one is weak, a story won’t be able to support itself. So it’s important to have a good grasp of all three and understand how they work.
            First up, the one we’re going to deal with this week, is linear structure.  Simply put, the linear structure of a story is the chronological timeline the characters experience.  There’s a Russian literary term for this called fabula. I’ll prattle on more about this in just a bit.
            Next isnarrative structure.  This is the manner and order my story is told in.  Put another way, it’s the way my audience experiences the story.  A flashback is part of the narrative structure, as are prologues, epilogues, and “ten years later…”  Again, if you studied (or over-studied) this sort of stuff in college, you professor may have used the term syuzhet.  I’ll talk more about this one next week.
            Last but not least, there’s dramatic structure.  This is the way linear and narrative structures work together to form a coherent, enjoyable story.  Dramatic structure is why tension builds, why mysteries intrigue us, and why twists and reveals surprise us.  I’ll talk a little more about this on the 26th, if all goes well.
            For now, though… linear structure.
            As I mentioned a few moments ago, linear structure is the order your characters experience the story in.   Another term you may have heard for this is continuity, or maybe cause and effect.  Day comes before night, which leads to another day.  People start young and then get old (Benjamin Button and Doctor Who excepted).  Turning a key in the ignition starts my car.  Or, sometimes, sets off a bomb.
            Now… check out this list

            Yakko dies peacefully in his sleep.
            Yakko celebrates his fifth birthday.
            Yakko gets married.
            Yakko is born.
            Yakko witnesses the birth of his grandchild.

            These are five random events from a life.  Now, despite the fact that I started the list with Yakko’s death, we all inherently understand this is not the first event in his life.  In fact, I’m betting most of you reading this can put that list in linear order in just a few seconds.  That’s because linear order is the most natural structure for all of us—it’s the one we experience all the time, every day.
            This is also why linear structure is so important.  Most of us are experts on it.  We’ll notice when effect comes before cause, even if we’re getting them out of order like I just gave them to you.  A good way to think of linear structure, as I mentioned above, is a timeline.  When you see detectives breaking down the clues of a crime, them may discover them out of order, but it doesn’t change the order they actually happened in.  If I’m writing a story—even if I’m telling the story in a non-linear fashion—there still needs to be a linear structure. 
            A good way to test the linear structure of my story (a method I’ve mentioned before) is to pull everything apart and then arrange all the flashbacks, flash-forwards, recollections, frames, and so on in chronological order.  They should still make logical sense like this, even if they’ve lost some of their dramatic weight this way (again, more on this later).  If my story elements don’t work like this (if cause doesn’t come before effect, or if the same thing is happening multiple times), I’ve done something wrong.
             Which brings us to time travel.
            Time travel stories depend a lot on linear structure.  If I don’t have a clear then and now, before and after, then time travel means nothing.  I need to be able to see that linear structure so I can see how my traveler’s timeline moves back and forth along the world’s.
            Check out this little diagram.  Here’s a pair of timelines featuring two characters from Doctor Who—the Doctor himself and his friend, Jack Harkness.  There’s kind of a big spoiler in here (or not, depending on which fan theories you subscribe to) which I’ll try to avoid, but if it makes things too confusing just say so.
            Jack’s life is pretty straightforward, for our purposes here.  A is when young Jack first meets the Ninth Doctor and decides to travel with him for a while.  B is when he later encounters the Tenth Doctor, and C is when they briefly meet again to stop the Daleks.  They meet again (D) much, much later in Jack’s life.  And E is when Jack finally dies at the ripe old age of about five billion or so (no, seriously).  All in all, this personal timeline isn’t much different than the one I showed for Yakko up above.
            Now… look at the Doctor’s timeline.  This the linear structure of the show because we (the audience) are following the Doctor around.  He travels in time a lot, so he actually meets Jack in kind of an odd order.  But it’s still a logical order for the Doctor—he’s still living on his own timeline A-B-C-D-E, just like Jack.  A and B are the Ninth Doctor, C through E are the Tenth.
            In fact, this linear order creates a big twist for the Doctor (and the viewers, since we’re following him).  He doesn’t realize the person he first meets at D is the same person he later meets at A (as I mentioned, a lot of time passes for Jack).  But this isn’t a twist for Jack because he’s following his own linear story.  That’s why he can address the (somewhat confused) Doctor as “my old friend.” 
            Make sense?
            Y’see, Timmy, no matter what order I tell things in, the characters are experiencing the story in linear order.  If halfway through my book one of my character flashes back to what happened a week ago, this isn’t new information for him or her—it happened a week ago.  So all of their actions and reactions up until the flashback should take that into account.
            It sounds pretty straightforward and it really is.  Linear structure is going to be the easiest of the three forms I blab about over the next few weeks because overall it’s logical and objective.  But, alas, people still mess it up all the time.  And the mistakes are usually because of narrative structure.
            But we’ll talk about that next week.

            Until then, go write.
April 12, 2013

Flash!! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!

            Pop culture reference.

            You godless heathens.
            So, one thing I’ve heard from a fair number of writing gurus—both for books and screenwriting—is to never, ever use flashbacks.  Which seems a bit odd, because there are plenty of well-known novels and films that use them.  Yet folks keep saying it again and again. Don’t use flashbacks.  Don’t use flashbacks.
            The thing is, it’s actually quite easy to do great, fully functional flashbacks.  The kind that make your readers get a thrill rather than leave them scratching their heads.  It takes a basic understanding of story structure and a bit of thought, but that’s it.  They’re something I wanted to go over in that big structure series I keep promising to revisit, but… well, we’re all here now.
            So… flashbacks.
            And this is kind of big and sprawling, so I apologize now.  But it makes up for missing last week.
            For our purposes, the term flashback can cover a lot of things.  It can be an element within the story like a recalled memory, dream sequence, letter or journal entry.  Sometimes, like in my own Ex-Heroesseries, it’s just part of the way the narrative has been structured.  Whatever the flashback is, however, it’s going to need to follow certain rules in order to work.
            When someone says a flashback doesn’t work, it’s almost always because it inherently has one of four major flaws (I say “almost” because there’s always some bold, daring folks who will find very unique ways to make something not work).  And it’s interesting to note that these four common flaws also pretty much define a successful flashback.  Once I understand the flaws, I’ll understand how to do fantastic flashbacks.
            So, first big helpful hint.  I cannot start a story with a flashback.  Never.  This is the first of those four flaws, and it’s a simple logic/labeling problem so it’s pretty easy to deal with.
            Why is starting with a flashback illogical?  By its very nature, a flashback implies we’re going to a point in time that’s before now.  This means we need a now before we can flash back to anything else.
            Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade does not begin with a flashback.  It begins in the “present” of 1912, when Indy’s just a teenage kid trying to stop a group of treasure hunters.  Again, this isn’t a flashback, it’s just a different setting.  The story then moves forward thirty years to a new setting where Indy is an adult and reclaiming that same bit of treasure for his museum.
            Calling this sort of thing a flashback (especially in a screenplay) is just going to get my story labeled on page one as something by a  rookie who doesn’t understand basic structure.  Personally, that’s not a first impression I want to make.
            All clear?
            Okay, moving on…
            Now, I can use a flashback anywhere in my narrative (except at the very start, as I just said), but this switch in the linear structure can’t affect the dramatic structure.  If I’m going to drop linear point D between R and S in my narrative, it has to keep the story moving forward.  D has to keep advancing the plot.  It also needs to keep building tension.  If it doesn’t, there was no point to this flashback.
            A lot of writers use flashbacks as infodumps.  The flashbacks are seen as a chance to show how Wakko met Phoebe, how Phoebe became a ninja, why Wakko hates snakes, and so on.  The mistaken belief is that if I do this in a flashback, I’m not affecting the structure of the present storyline because these events aren’t happening now—they’re happening in the past.   
            When I do this, I’m confusing linear structure with narrative structure.  This is the second major mistake.  As I mentioned above—and have mentioned before—the narrative needs to keep moving forward.  Just like a shark, if the story I’m writing (or reading) stops moving forward, it dies.
            So when I have a flashback, it has to keep moving the story forward.  It has to tell me something new and relevant.  It doesn’t matter where the events fall in the linear structure of the story, but wherever I’m using them they have to fit into the dramatic structure.
            For example…  here’s a flashback failure from a book I read last year.  Some names and situations have been changed to protect those I wanted to pummel senseless a third of the way into the book…
            A man’s family dies when they eat tainted meat (he’s off banging his mistress, so he survives—no guilt there).  The narrative then flashes back a few months and spends three chapters in the boardroom of the meat-packing company’s parent corporation.  They’ve just found out the meat is tainted.  Should they shut down the plant?  Announce the problem?  Should they do a recall?  Realistically, how much would they spend on lawsuits?  Maybe it’s better just to let it go and roll the dice.
            So the plot was put on hold for three chapters (three long, full chapters) so we could see the board reach a decision we already knew they made—to let the meat be sold.  One could make the argument that we find out their exact motivation in these chapters.  Thing is, their motivation is exactly what most of us would expect from a bunch of corporate executives.  In this tainted meat scenario, what’s the most likely reason the executives would decide not to issue a recall?  Money, of course.
            This flashback served no purpose at all.  It gave us a resolution we already knew, with a motivation nine out of ten people automatically assumed.  It did nothing except bring the narrative to a dead halt.  There’s a good argument to be made that it actually made the narrative go backwards.
            Now, the reverse of this problem is also an issue.  It’s the third one, as a matter of fact.  This is when the writer confuses the narrative story with the linear story.  This is very similar to a problem I’ve mentioned before, being clear on the first time something happens in a story.  When this problem arises with flashbacks, instead of destroying all possible tension, as mentioned above, it destroys logic.
            Let’s say I’m telling a murder mystery.  On page 75 of my story, the lead character has no idea who the murderer is.  Then, on page 125, I flash back two weeks to something that happened “off camera” earlier.  Here I reveal that my heroine learned the identity of the killer because of a clue she spotted near the mellonballer.
            In a rough, quick way, this makes sense.  On page 75 she doesn’t know.  On page 125 she does.  Except once I put these story elements in linear order… well, now they don’t make any sense.  While it makes sense that this is a new bit of information for the reader on page 125, it’s not new to my heroine.  She’s known all along.  Which makes her actions and dialogue for the last hundred pages complete nonsense.
            A quick story.  One I’ve told before…
            I worked on the really, really bad sequel to a fairly clever murder mystery film, one which was far more famous for Denise Richards making out with Neve Campbell in a pool then it was for its cleverness.  At the end of the original film, there are a series of flashbacks that show how the various characters were intertwined and involved, and also how the various twists were pulled off.  The film I worked on had these flashbacks at the end, too, but with one major difference…
            When you put these flashbacks in place within the linear story, they didn’t make a bit of sense.  Either they added absolutely nothing to the story or else suddenly people had conflicting motivations, plot points became bizarre twists, and once-clear twists became muddled nonsense.  The writers were simply seeing this as “new information” and not considering that, within the linear structure, it was all actually old information that needed to match up with the rest of the film.
            One of the best ways to test this is to take a narrative apart and put it back together in linear order.  Are motivations still clear?  Do plot twists still make sense?  That’s a good sign the flashback is solid.
            At least, solid in this respect.
            There’s one last way flashbacks tend to frustrate readers.  The fourth way.  By the very nature of a flashback being out of sequence, the readers or audience have effectively seen the future.  If my character is alive at story point S, flashing back to show her in a life threatening situation at D doesn’t really accomplish anything.
            For example…
            Let’s say I’m writing a story where Yakko and Dot are writing up their mission reports at Monster Slayer HQ after killing the Great Vampire.  And then they remember that they still owe a report on the mummy outbreak in Cairo.  So they start scribbling their report and I write a big dramatic flashback scene that ends the chapter with the two of them backed against a wall, outnumbered and surrounded by a dozen mummies and the avatar of a very pissed-off Egyptian god. 
            Thing is… there really isn’t any tension in this cliffhanger, is there?  Because the moment the reader pauses, even for an instant (like, say, at this chapter break), they’ll remember Yakko and Dot are sitting back at HQ writing up this report.  Alive and well.  No missing limbs or sensory organs.  Not even any notable scars.  Heck, we know they’ve gone on another mission since this one (killing the Great Vampire) and survived that one, too.  So in this case, the flashback actually hurts the story because it’s sucking all the tension out and killing forward momentum.
            While it wasn’t really a flashback (because, again, it wasn’t flashing back fromanything), this was one of the huge flaws with the Star Wars prequels.  By peppering the story with characters whose future we already knew, Lucas effectively tied his own hands and sabotaged any attempt at tension.  He could threaten young Obi Wan Kenobi with all sorts of things, but at the end of the day we all know he survives to become old Ben Kenobi.  And old Ben had all his major limbs, all his fingers, both eyes…  He was in great shape.
            So, four basic rules.
            1) A flashback needs to flash back from somewhere.
            2) It needs to work within the dramatic structure.
            3) It needs to work within the linear structure.
            4) It can’t create tension that undermines the present.
            Now, I’m going to suggest a movie to demonstrate a fantastic series of flashbacks, and you may laugh a bit. Resident Evil.  Yep, it’s corny fun and the series has degenerated into near-nonsense that just showcases Milla Jovovich’s figure, but—credit where credit is due—the first film has a fairly tight story and uses flashbacks very, very well.  There are three major flashbacks (each one a slightly more detailed account of a past event as Alice’s memories come back), and they’re a perfect fit for those four rules I just mentioned. Go grab it from Netflix and check it out.
            Next time, I’d like to talk to you about some events from last week…
            No, wait… next time I wanted to talk about good genre stories.
            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.