April 26, 2012 / 3 Comments

The Nine Alcatraz Events

            Pop culture reference.  Sort of.  More of a portmanteau, really.

            Anyway, please bear with me.  This one’s a bit long, but I think it’s worth it.  And there are extra pictures.
            Some of you may remember a little show called LOST that aired a few years ago (yeah, we’re just a couple weeks away from years–plural).  I’ve mentioned it here a couple times because it completely redefined the one hour drama for television, and it also offered many brilliant lessons about executing mysteries and twists in a story.  It inspired thousands of writers, in film and in prose.
            It’s only natural that networks would want to duplicate the success of LOST.  Television is a business—it’s their job to be as successful as possible.  If X works, it’s only natural to try more X.
            Of course, it’s not quite that easy when we’re talking about storytelling.  Sometimes a story works, sometimes it doesn’t. The smallest tweak in structure, tone, or character can flip something from phenomenal to average or even trite.
            After watching another one of these would-be successors to the throne tread water for a few weeks, I though it might be time to address what a lot of these storytellers are doing wrong.  Not that any of them will ever see this or listen to me if they did.  But there’s something here that all of us should keep in mind, no matter which format our tale of eerie puzzles and mysterious strangers happen to be written in.
            So here are three shows that were all an attempt to cash in on the mystery/genre success of LOST
            The Ninefollowed the lives of the survivors of an extended bank hostage crisis.  When the police stormed the building after fifty-two hours, these eight hostages and one captor were the only ones still alive.  And despite having a huge impact on their lives, plus the lives of their family and friends, all of them are remarkably close-mouthed about what happened during those almost-three days.  Husbands, wives, and others are left wondering why these nine people are so changed, and why the only people they seem to be able to relate to anymore are each other.
            The Event was about three parallel plotlines.  One was the story of a resourceful young man whose fiancé is kidnapped while they’re on a cruise and his ongoing attempts to find her.  One covered a newly-elected President who’s learned the US government has been holding extraterrestrials in an Alaskan prison for the past fifty years and has decided to open negotiations and release them.  The last thread is about the aliens themselves and the long-term secret plan they’ve been trying to carry out, even while imprisoned.

            Last but not least, we’ve got Alcatraz, which just finished airing a few weeks ago.  And I feel pretty confident when I say it finished airing, but I still might be proved wrong there.  It focused on San Francisco police detective Rebecca Madsen who gets pulled onto a special government task force.  It seems all the stories about America’s greatest prison being shut down fifty years ago aren’t exactly true.  All the prisoners weren’t transferred, they vanished.  And now they’re reappearing, one by one… and some of them seem to have missions.

            Seems like a decent array of shows, yes?  Now, here’s the really interesting thing.  All three of these shows failed for exactly the same reason.  They all had the same flaw.  Perhaps even more interesting is that the one that was the most blatant example of it, The Nine, was the first to air.  The others followed and still repeated the same mistake.  And to be honest, I see this mistake crop up in prose manuscripts a lot of the time, too.
            Allow me to explain
            The core idea of The Nine—the unconnected people who share the same mysterious experience—is interesting, but here’s the catch.  The narrative wasn’t about all their friends and family trying to figure out what happened to these folks during their two-plus-day captivity.  It was about the nine survivors.  They were the characters the show focused on as they approached the world with new attitudes and unknown motivations… yet still refused to talk about all those hours inside the bank.
            The Event also had a very interesting idea, but you probably spotted the same issue just in the synopsis.  Much of the ongoing plot circles around this secret alien mission, and the aliens are a third of the show’s cast.  Of course, if the aliens discuss their plans the mystery goes away, so they always speak in vague generalities rather than, y’know, talking about anything.  
            And then there’s Alcatraz.  Our big mystery is these time-shifting prisoners.  How and why are they doing it?  Since the show’s split between present and past, though, we see what our heroine doesn’t.  It’s evident early on in the run that the Warden’s behind it all, or contributing heavily at the least.  Not only that, it’s clear Rebecca’s new boss, Hauser, knows a lot more about it than he’s letting on.  Part of the show’s “mystery” is that he isn’t telling her things she needs to know in order to do her job.
            Everyone see the common link here?
            Consider this—is it a mystery what day my brother’s birthday falls on?  Sure, almost no one reading this knows the answer.  Some of you might even be surprised to hear that I have a brother.  But does that make this a mystery
            The problem with having a story that hinges on something like this is that there really isn’t a mystery.  A real mystery depends on the characters and the audience looking for an answer.  But when a story’s falling back on withheld information, the characters and the audience know right where the answer is.  They’re just being told to sit and wait for it to be revealed.  And since the characters are supposed to mirror the audience, this means everyone’s just getting frustrated.
            This is the real problem all these shows had.  They each had a couple other problems past that—every first season show does—but this was the crucial mistake they couldn’t get past.  All three of them are just cases of characters who are deliberately withholding information from either the character or the audience.
            Yeah, that’s right.  The audience (or the readers, depending on your situation).  My lovely lady made the observation once that any time the narrative of The Event shifted to the aliens, they always spoke like they thought the room they were in was bugged.  In a way, she was right.  There was someone listening to those conversations that wasn’t supposed to be—us.  The aliens can’t talk freely because we’d hear the answers to all the “mysteries” on the show, so instead their leaders had conversations like this…

            “We’re going to have to do it.”
            “You mean…?”
            “Yes.  Just as we discussed.”
            “But what about–“
            “I’ve considered it.  I think the potential risk to our people is acceptable.”
            “All the risks?”
            “Even back at the beginning, we knew something like this might happen.  We can’t back out now because we don’t like the options that have been forced on us.”

            I know this sounds a bit silly, but… well, I’m not the one who was writing it.  You could see the same thing on The Nine, when the former hostages would either have conversations just like that with each other, or repeatedly tell their friends and loved ones they wouldn’t understand because “you weren’t there.”   And it happened on Alcatraz, too.  The Warden would constantly dodge questions or try to bury answers under pseudo-philosophic homilies.
            Let me give you an example of doing this sort of thing correctly.  One you’d heard of long before LOST.
            I’m sure most of you are familiar with Psycho, the Robert Bloch novel that was adapted into the famous Hitchcock film.  Even if you haven’t seen it (or the pointless shot-for-shot remake) you probably know the general plot, yes? 
            So… who’s the main character of Psycho?
            If you said Norman Bates, you’re wrong.  He doesn’t even show up until half an hour into the story.  The truth is, Psycho is almost an anthology of three different stories connected by the theft of a large sum of money and the motel where the supposed thief vanished.  Our main characters are—in their respective tales–the thief, the police detective, and the thief’s sister.
            Y’see, Timmy, this is why Norman’s secret is so powerful.  We’re never seeing it with him, we’re always seeing it through the other characters—the one’s the story’s actually focused on.  If Norman had been one of the main characters, the story would be required to focus a certain amount of attention on him—while at the same time trying not to let us see or learn anything about him.  Instead he’s relegated to a supporting role in the story, even though he’s the character we’re most interested in.
            The Nine, The Event, and Alcatraz (and more than a few other stories I’ve read) all tried to put the mystery front and center while also trying to keep it a secret.  They wanted us to be interested and invested in characters who didn’t want us to know anything about them. 
            And that just won’t work.
            Next time, I want to talk about my collection of zombies.  Sort of.
            Until then, go write.
January 26, 2012 / 2 Comments

Feels Like The First Time

            Okay, first off, a bit of shameless self-promotion that also pushes my street cred, as the kids say.  Amazon Studios is developing a film with the working title of Original Soldiers.  It’s a sci-fi tale about human soldiers leaping into action when America’s droid army is shut down by an opponent.  I’m one of five folks (well, four folks and a writing team) who were hired by Amazon to expand my simple pitch off their logline into a full treatment.

            So, between that and Ex-Communication, things might slow down a bit in the month of February.  Just letting you all know now.
            Oh, and check it out.  You can still pick up The Junkie Quatrain.  It’s very cheap for your Kindle or Kindle app of choice.  Just saying…
            I’d like to begin this week, if you don’t mind, with a personal question or two.  You don’t have to answer them, but I want you to keep the answers in mind.
            Your current significant other—girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband—do you remember the first time you saw them naked?
            Not just the date or time, mind you.  Do you remember how you felt when you saw them like that?  What thoughts were going through your mind?  What emotions?  What your pulse and breathing were like?
            Follow up question—do you remember the most recent time you saw them naked?  How did you feel then?  What thoughts were going through your mind?
            Next question—do you remember your first day at your current job?  Do you remember looking at things, meeting people, learning the ropes?  Can you recall any thoughts that went through your mind?
            Follow up question—what was today like at your current job?  What did you think about?  Who did you see?
            Some of you may have picked up on the point I’m trying to make here.  There’s a big difference between the first time something happens and the fiftieth or hundredth or five-hundredth.  My first day on a film set was exciting as hell, but at the six year mark even the days with naked women on set were pretty dull, and at twelve years I was generally known as one of the cynical people on any given set.
            Now, I make that point so I can make this one…
            One mistake I see a lot in stories and screenplays is when writers can’t make the distinction between the first time your readers or audience are seeing something and the first time the characters are seeing it.  Characters go to work, have dinner with family, or teleport to their secret lair and express confusion or wide-eyed amazement at these things.  It knocks a reader out of the story because it’s immediately apparent this is something the characters should be familiar with.
            It sounds silly to say it so blatantly, but if I’ve been living in New England my whole life, a brutally cold winter shouldn’t come as a real shock.  If I’ve worked for Discorp for over a decade, their business practices shouldn’t catch me off guard.  If I’ve been with Phoebe for eight or nine years, the odds are we’ve seen each other many, many times and had many, many conversations about many, many things.
            The thing is, many storytellers become focused on the fact that this is the first time the readers have seen Wakko in action or me and Phoebe together.  So these folks tweak dialogue and reactions to play to the audience, rather than the genuine responses of the characters.  It seems correct from a mechanical point of view, but once you really study the moments this sort of thing falls apart.
            Here’s an example of doing it right that ties back to my opening questions–Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  When the film begins, the title characters have been married for several years and… well, things are getting a bit stale between them.  They’ve had all their conversations.  This is why Mr. Smith doesn’t really react much when Mrs. Smith—played by Angelina Jolie—is walking around their bedroom in her underwear.
            Let me repeat that last bit—Angelina Jolie is walking around their bedroom in her underwear.
           While this would be an absolutely amazing moment for about half of the folks reading this, Mr. Smith barely notices it.  He’s been seeing her in her underwear for years, after all.  It may be the first time all of us have seen her dressed (or undressed) like that, but for him this is just like every other day.
            This is closely related to another problem I’ve brought up once or thrice before, the dreaded  “As you know…”  When one of my characters says “as you know,” they’re admitting right up front that they and the person (or people) they’re speaking to already know the facts that are about to be spoken.  It’s clumsy, it’s wasted space, and it’s unnatural because it sounds like these folks are having a conversation for the first time when common sense tells us this has to have come up a dozen times before.  My girlfriend and I have been together for over seven years now, so we don’t need to talk about when our birthdays or anniversaries are.  I helped my best friend move into his house, so I don’t need to ask him where he keeps the rum or how to get to the bathroom.  My dad’s been an expert in his field for decades, so I don’t think he’d be stunned to learn working on reactors involves potential exposure to radiation.
            This is why the ignorant stranger is a great story device.  When I’ve got a character who’s new to the world of the story it gives me someone who can experience things for the first time while my other characters can be well-established sources of knowledge.  Yeah, I know where the rum’s kept in the house, but Yakko doesn’t, so my readers will accept it if Yakko and I talk about where to find the booze or the bathroom.
            Another great example if this is—
            Men In Black .For James Edwards, the police officer who becomes Agent J, the MIB is an intergalactic wonderland of non-stop discovery.  He’s the ignorant stranger.  Alien life forms, alien customs, alien technology—it’s all new to him.  But consider Agent K.  Everything that excites or stuns J makes him yawn.  Invading battle fleets, extraterrestial assassins, talking dogs, rocket cars, a warp-drive powered superball… these things all bore the hellout of him.  In fact, as the story progresses it becomes clear that K is at a disadvantage because he’s become so jaded by the world he lives in.
            One of the worst things I can do as a writer is confuse the first time the audience sees something with the first time the characters do.  It’ll come across as false and it’s one of those clumsy mistakes that’s hard to recover from.  So just remember… the first time for you might not be the first time for me.  And it’s almost definitely not the first time for him.
            Next week, as we’re close to opening day for a lot of the big screenplay contests, I thought I’d talk about a lot of common screenplay mistakes I’ve seen.
            Until then, go write.
July 1, 2011 / 3 Comments

One Time Only

If at first you don’t succeed… destroy all evidence you ever made the attempt.

No, no, don’t do that…

A few years back I was working on a film set where we were staging a bank robbery. The director… well, let’s be polite and say he wasn’t quite as knowledgeable as he thought he was.

We ended up doing a big dolly track move that encompassed the whole scene. Then we did a series of tighter moves. Then we did a wide master of the scene and got all the coverage. Then we did a reverse master of the scene and started doing coverage on that. Then came all the reaction shots for everyone in the bank. And by this time, the crew was starting to grumble, because every one of us knew what was going wrong.

As it turned out, my department had an intern, and he was still watching all this with complete newbie glee. As the day (and the bank robbery) wore on and on, he asked me what everyone was getting so grumpy about. After all, weren’t these all cool shots? I agreed they were, but pointed out that at least half of them were a waste of time. When he asked why, I came up with this way to explain it.

“When all this gets cut together,” I told him, pointing at one of our extras “you can only use one shot of them robbing that bank teller. You can break it up a bit, but not much because it’s happening so fast. At the end of the day, you can only rob teller number five once, so filming nine different versions of her getting robbed is a waste of time. If this guy knew what he was doing, he’d just get the shots he was going to use and that’d be it.”

The intern took those words to heart, and two or three more times during that project he’d give me a nod on days when scenes were just dragging and say “You can only rob teller number five once.”

The point of the story being, I know at least one person has gotten something useful out of my rambling.

No, wait, sorry, the point is that when you’re telling a story you can’t do the same thing again and again and expect it to have the same weight.

There’s an idea in literary theory (sorry, I do have to go there now and then) which says you can only experience a story for the first time once. After that first time, your brain can’t help but restructure your view of the story to see it with more experienced eyes. If you’ve ever read a mystery novel for a second time, or maybe rewatched films like The Sixth Sense, Dead Again, or The Prestige, you know it’s a very different experience when you go through these stories a second time. Or a third time. But you can never, ever get that first time again. Even something like The Empire Strikes Back changes between the first and second exposure to the material.

This is why we all hate spoilers, because the innocence, so to speak, of that first experience is being taken away from us and we can never get it back. To be honest, this is also one of the problems I have with the “film school” approach to movies. A lot of these folks get taught to study and dissect films rather than to watch them, so the first time with the story is lost on these people. They never see the movie the way it was intended to be seen—they just jump straight to the second viewing. Which seems counterproductive when you want to learn how to do something. It’s like going to cooking school and never bothering to taste anything.

Anyway… I digress. But not by much.

There’s another aspect to doing the same thing more than once, and this is the idea of noise. A few times before I’ve brought up Damon Knight and his wonderful observation about facts. A fact we don’t know is information, but a fact we already know is noise. This is true even if we just learned the fact ten or fifteen pages earlier.

An example…

I read a book a while back where one piece of information was “revealed” four times. Essentially, character A discovered a mysterious South American temple that shouldn’t exist. Then A was killed and B found his notes, so B discovered the temple. B quickly related the story to C and then C explained the whole thing to D, so now D learned about the temple. And D… well D was pretty high-ranking, so he went to the President and told the whole Cabinet about the temple. And every single time people would have incredulous reactions and then the reader got the explanation of what the temple represented and who built and how we know it’s ten thousand years old and what we think it is.

Every. Single. Time.

Y’see, Timmy, that information is powerful the first time we hear it. Like so many things that get repeated, though, it loses power every time. In this case, it’s not just losing power, it’s taking a rapid plunge from information to noise.

Plus, it’s taken a huge emotional hit. Finding out that the pyramid strongly implied, if not proved, a pre-human civilization was amazing… the first time. The second time it was something we already knew, even if it was new to this particular character. The third time it was annoying. By the fourth time, personally, I was skimming.

Here’s an easier example, and one we’ve all probably dealt with at some point or another. Have you ever had someone tell a joke (or what they thought was a joke) and then they repeated the punchline when no one laughed? Maybe they repeated it two or three times. Perhaps they went after people one on one (“Hey, Timmy, did you hear when Mike said he wasn’t putting in enough hours and I said ‘That’s what she said’..”). In these situations, as the joke was repeated again and again, we all just got more and more annoyed, didn’t we?

Now, anytime a writer has a fair-sized cast of characters and an even slightly challenging plot, they’re going to have to deal with this issue. You can’t have everybody walking around together experiencing every single thing at the same time. Which means there are going to be points when A and B know something C and D don’t. The trick is coming up with ways to share that information without having the story come to a grinding halt while characters discuss things the reader already knows.

I bring this up not just because of the head-banging nature of that book I referenced above, or because of scarring memories of the bank robbery. Y’see, this is something I’m dealing with right now. In my current project I’m juggling a large cast who are investigating a mystery separately, but keep coming together to compare notes. I know my mystery, but the roadblock is getting past awkward infodump scenes without neglecting this character or that one. I mean, Debbie’s reaction to what they found in the sub-basement is just as valid as Pash’s, isn’t it? She just had the bad luck of having to work that day so she couldn’t go exploring and had to get that information second hand.

You get one chance for your big reveal and that’s it. One. You can’t keep revealing it again and again and expect that reveal to have the same emotional weight. It’s also not going to draw the audience in, because it’s gone from being a surprise to being… well, just another fact.

And if you’re not careful, repetitive facts can get dry and boring really quick.

Next week, I’d like to tell you about the time I sat around for hours watching the most inefficient bank robbery ever.

No, actually, next time I’d like to describe something you’ve probably never seen before.

Until then, go write.

April 14, 2011


For those who never played it, Jenga involves making a tower out of long wooden blocks. Then multiple players take turns sliding the blocks out without toppling the tower. Eventually, though, someone will pull out one block too many and it begins to sway. It might stabilize. It might not. In the next turn or two that tower’s going to come crashing down into a pile of wooden blocks.

More on that in a minute…

I’ve mentioned the idea of withheld information once or thrice before, and it struck me that I’ve never quite explained what it is and why it should be avoided

So, hey… no time like the present.

Withheld information is when the writer or characters hold back facts from the audience for no other reason than to drive the plot forward. It’s the clumsy, unskilled version of mystery and suspense. I usually see it employed by novice writers who don’t have a mystery but are trying to create the illusion of one.

If you think of it in terms of Jenga, withheld information is when you know the next block is going to make the tower collapse… so you pass your turn to Wakko. Who in turn passes his turn to Phoebe. Who passes it to Yakko. Who passes it back to you. Yes, the game is still going on, but it’s only continuing because it’s stopped moving forward. And has become very boring in the process.

Like Jenga, information in a story can hit a certain tipping point. There comes a time when you have to tell the reader everything because it’s foolish not to. I can have the mystery, I can have the characters discover the answer… and then I need to let the audience know the answer.

At some time or another, most of us have been in a position where we have a vested interest in not answering a given question. Or taking as long to answer it as possible. A few such questions are….

“How old are you?”

“Do these jeans make me look fat?”

“Are you claiming this as a deduction?”

“Did you eat the last piece of cheesecake?”

“Is that lipstick on your collar?”

Now, by the same token, there are questions that should take no time at all to answer. When life and limb are at stake–or when nothing at all is at stake–nobody beats around the bush. These are the times you have to seriously wonder why someone isn’t answering a question–and they’d better have a damn good reason for not answering. I loved LOST. Absolutely loved it. But it did suffer when Ben became a regular part of the cast because we all knew that he knew stuff he wasn’t telling us. While there were still lots of cool mysteries on the island… well, there were also lots of things where it was just Ben sitting there with his lips pressed together in that creepy flat line.

There’s a sci-fi show on right now that suffers from this. I won’t name names, but a third of the show is the government trying to figure out what a group of humanoid aliens are up to, a third of it is one lone character trying to find out the alien secrets that are keeping him from his girlfriend, and one third of the show is the aliens themselves. And the aliens tend to talk in very vague, general terms, like they think every room and car they’re in is loaded with listening devices.

You can probably see how the writers have put themselves in a corner. If the aliens talk freely, it kills the mystery for the other two-thirds of the show. If they don’t, a third of the show becomes obtuse for no reason except to keep the other two-thirds going.

Now, there is a point when the pendulum swings even farther. Sometimes the information has been revealed, but people keep acting and insisting it hasn’t. So the audience is left drumming their fingers while they wait for the characters to learn something that’s already known.

I read a book recently that suffered from this twice-over. First, much like my own Ex-Heroes, it switched styles and viewpoints now and then. Every second or third chapter was done in epistolary form, a series of 16th century letters between a spy and his master, encoded with an elaborate, almost unbreakable cipher. Sounds kind of interesting, yes?

Thing is, most of the other chapters were about a search for the key that would let the modern-day characters read those letters. They’d go on and on about how important it was to decode them and learn the secrets contained within, etcetera, etcetera. So the motivation for a big chunk of the plot–maybe a third to half of the book–was deciphering some letters that had already been deciphered for the audience.

In the same book, though (twice-over, remember), one of the characters also had a secret. I felt there were a few too many clues, but overall it was passably hidden (I guessed it a third of the way in). At the halfway point, two different characters (solving different halves of the secret) came together and realized their halves met to form a whole. I felt clever. The characters didn’t realize what they’d discovered. The “secret” went on and on and was finally “revealed” in one of the final chapters.

In other words, for most of the book the reader is waiting for the characters to catch up.

To keep up our Jenga metaphor, this is when the tower has collapsed but your host is insisting you keep playing. So everyone’s sitting there picking up little wooden blocks off of the tabletop and telling themselves it’s a fun game of skill.

Now, I’d also like to point out that there are times when the audience does know things the characters don’t. That’s where we get suspense, and suspense is great… if it’s real suspense. Y’see, Timmy, one of the keys of suspense is that the characters don’t know they’re lacking this information, but it’s very important they learn it. Life-threateningly important. In suspense the stakes are high and they’re almost always personal. It may not be my life that’s in danger, but maybe the life of my girlfriend, my brother and his family, or even my cats. It’s tough to have good suspense without high stakes that matter to me. And the thing about high stakes is that they eventually have to pay off.

Hitchcock spoke of the bomb under the table (or was it under a chair? Or under the car…?). Wakko doesn’t know it’s there. The audience does. We can see the countdown timer and we know Wakko’s life is in danger. But if the bomb never goes off or Wakko never finds it, that bomb is just as frustrating as the pile of wooden blocks.

So, to recap, here are three great story elements that are not withheld information.

A mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware that a piece of information has been hidden from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. At it’s simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

Suspense is when there’s an important piece of information the audience knows and the characters don’t. The key here is that the characters don’t know that they need to know this vital fact. The bomb under the table. Wandering off with the murderer. These are common suspense situations.

A twist is when a piece of information is revealed that your characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them. They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story. When a twist appears, it comes from out of nowhere and changes a lot of perceptions for the characters and the audience. We’ve all made the natural assumption that Luke Skywalker’s father is dead, so when we learn that Vader is his father, it’s a bombshell that alters our view of everything.

If you’re trying to use one of these devices, make sure you’re using them correctly. Don’t just withhold information from your audience. Your characters should be just as smart and clever as your audience, and if they aren’t talking, make sure there’s a real reason why.

Next time, a wonderful story about Harrison Ford and a bellboy.

Until then go… you know. Do that thing. The thing we were just talking about. That.