I posted a link to last week’s rant over on my Facebook fan page, and somebody asked a question about it.  And I started answering there, but then I realized it’d be better over here. And then (as I was scrawling my response in the comment section) I realized it’d work even better as a quickie Tuesday post.
            So… the question.
            I’m curious how you view Alex Rogan’s arc in “The Last Starfighter”. It seems to violate your rule about chosen ones not getting invested in the other world. As a character arc, it was pretty believable to me, 
            A fair point.  I tried to make this clear, but I can see where it might not be.  Two points from Ravenclaw for that one.
            Okay, I hate that I have to refer to this but…
            In his various musings on story, Joseph Campbell has a step—“rejecting the call.” At first glance it seems like it’s a rebuttal of my “not getting invested” point, but it’s not. Y’see, rejecting the call happens much earlier in the plot. In The Matrix, for example, it’s Neo refusing to trust Morpheus when they first talk on the phone (and getting arrested). In The Force Awakens, it’s Rey insisting she can’t leave Jakku and has to stay behind. And here, in The Last Starfighter, it’s Alex learning about aliens, the KoDan Armada, the head-crushing bad guy, and saying “nope, nope, nope—take me home!”
            But really, how long does that refusal last?  In any of these cases? Alex is home for all of… what, an hour?  Two?—before he realizes he has to go back.
            One of the thing about investment is that it takes time. In-story it takes even more time.  When a plot dives head-first into action on page one, it doesn’t mean much because we don’t know who these people are. And how often do we roll our eyes when a story tries to convince us of “love at first sight”…?
            When someone refuses to get invested and walks away, that happens later in the story.  In the particularly bad movie that sparked that rant, the chosen one walked away over an hour into the movie.  Within the movie, weeks had passed, weeks of people training this guy as the chosen one.
            In a way, this is a lot like the difference between saving the cat and patting the dog.  The isolated acts themselves look very much the same, but they’re different because of when they happen in my story and what they’re trying to accomplish.  Refusing the call is a character thing.  It’s a believable response to being shown a bigger world, or a bigger destiny, and it helps ground our suddenly-overwhelmed protagonist and make them more believable.
            But refusing to be invested is just a cheap attempt to build tension.  It undercuts any character growth that’s happened and makes the reader/audience question if this character can really be trusted. Which really sucks if the character is my long-heralded chosen one protagonist.
            In short, it makes my story worse.
            Next time, character stuff. For real.
            And, hey—two weeks from today I’ll be at Borderlands in San Francisco with my brand-shiny-new second hardcover, Paradox Bound. Give ‘em a call, reserve a copy, and come say “hi!”
            Until then, go write.
September 7, 2017 / 1 Comment

I Choo-Choo-Choose You!

            Pop culture reference. Just a decade or two old.
            Hey, speaking of pop culture, if you’ve lived on the Earth at any point this century, you’ve probably heard of a type of narrative called a chosen one story. They’ve been around in books and movies for, well, many decades, but over the past ten years or so this particular sub-genre has become kinda popular.
            On the off chance you haven’t been on Earth that long (in which case you have a spectacular story of your own to tell), a chosen one story is about a regular—often less-than-regular, somewhat sub-average and  outcast—person who comes to find out they have a grand destiny. Sometimes they’ve been prophesied, other times they just happen to fill a long-unfilled void.  King Arthur was a chosen one, as was Perseus.  On the more modern side , there’s also Neo, Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Percy Jackson, Beatrice Prior… just to name a few.
            Seriously, just a few.  This has become a ridiculously common thread in books and movies.  Most of them tend to lean toward fantasy and young adult.  Not all, but enough that it’s worth mentioning. 
            And a lot of them, to be blunt, aren’t that good. Oh, there were some amazing ones up front, but as more and more writers dove at this popular sub-genre, we ended up getting more and more folks who… well, just didn’t get it. Nowadays, you’ll see a lot of agents and editors on their homepages or on Twitter, all more or less begging writers not to send them any chosen one stories.
            During a recent bout of Saturday geekery, I stumbled across a chosen one movie.  It had a lot of problems, and almost all of them circled around the idea that our main character was supposed to be some sort of chosen one. I say supposed to because… well, he was kinda awful at it.  On a bunch of levels.
            Let’s talk about a couple of them.
            So, some ways in which my chosen one might kinda suck…
–A chosen one who doesn’t do anything
            This is an issue for any main character, but it tends to really stand out with a chosen one.  I’ve seen far too many of these stories (including that recent one) where the chosen one is the least active character—in any sense. The entire supporting cast is doing all the work, making all the decisions, sharing all the information and my chosen one is doing… nothing.
            I’ve mentioned this sort of thing before. If I can swap out a character for a dufflebag full of towels and nothing would change in my story… maybe I don’t need that character. If all they are is something to hand off, protect, give orders to… I probably need to develop them more.  And have them be a little more active.
–A chosen one who doesn’t do anything anyone else couldn’t do
            This is kinda-sorta related to the last one.  I’ve seen more than a couple chosen ones who, when all’s said and done, just aren’t all that special.  It’s like if I said Jeff was the chosen one because he can mix drinks.  Are we living in some horrible mixerless dystopia? Are there no more shot glasses so nobody can measure anything? 
            You laugh, sure, but I’ve seen chosen ones who are “special” for far less then that.
            If my chosen one just needs to put a key in a lock, pick up a stone, or flip a few switches… my readers are going to wonder why nobody else could’ve done this.  If they need to read a page from a book, have blonde hair, steal a coin, or enter a password… there really isn’t anything that special about them.  These are all things anyone can do.  If someone’s been chosen for a great destiny, my readers (or audience) are going to expect that it’s, well… great.  Definitely not mediocre or mundane.
–A chosen one whose “gift” is ridiculously specific to the threat they face
            Okay, this is a tricky one.  Sometimes, in an attempt to make things more believable by having them very toned down, a storyteller end up with a chosen one who has an extremely specific gift or ability. For example, if Dot has a complete immunity to radiation in the 395-405 nanometer wavelengths… which happens to be the exact frequency of the laser weapons used by the alien battle robots.  Or maybe the evil dictator is famous for killing his enemies with a specific variant of cyanide… a specific variant that Yakko’s completely resistant to after a bizarre childhood accident.
            I know, these sound kinda ridiculous.  But this sort of thing crops up again and again.  The writer gives the chosen one a very narrow-focus ability, and that narrow range is exactly what the protagonist needs.
            In a way, it’s kind of like when characters suddenly, for no reason, start preparing for a crisis that doesn’t exist.  And now, when a crisis does suddenly happen two months later… Phew, good thing my character spent those two months stockpiling food, weapons, ammunition, batteries, medical supplies, solar cells…
            When I do this, I’ve removed all sense of a challenge and also damaged the willing suspension of disbelief.  Yeah, it would’ve been hard to believe that Yakko is immune to all poisons, but not as hard as it is to believe he happens to be immune to the very specific one he needs to be. It doesn’t feel like destiny, it feels like I created a flimsy coincidence to get myself out of a corner.
            Look at it this way.  If the threat didn’t exist, would this gift make our chosen one special in any way?  Or would it seem like a really weird character trait I added on for no reason?          
–A chosen one who doesn’t become invested in this other world  
            This is a biggie.  It’s rare, but I want to talk about it because it can kill a whole story.  I mean, bang, dead, tossed across the room.
            Most chosen one tales involve the idea of another world or society existing alongside our main one, often in complete secrecy.  Wizarding worlds, cabals of rebel freedom fighters, supernatural beings, and secret conspiracies are all fairly common    Our chosen one often serves as a bridge between these two worlds, both for other characters and for my readers.  And they’re usually the chosen one because they’re either going to save that world or, alternately, bring it down and save ours.
            Another key aspect of these stories is there’s almost always a moment of doubt. Some point where Yakko doesn’t believe he’s the chosen one, or maybe Phoebe just doesn’t believe in him anymore.  It’s when my protagonist suddenly realizes they could just walk away from all this.
            But they don’t.
            The Oracle told Neo he wasn’t the One.  The various ministers, and even Voldemort, give Harry a bunch of chances to just walk away and stop fighting.  How many times did Katniss toy with the idea of just running away to live in the woods?
            And yet… none of them did.
            In the especially bad chosen one story I saw recently, the protagonist was destined to stop a cruel, murderous overlord. But then a few things went wrong. And the love interest said “Maybe you’re not the chosen one after all,” and someone else said “You should just go.”
            So he did.  The chosen one just left and went back to his old life.  Started pulling the nine-to-five again as if nothing had happened.  Never looked back once until the others came looking for him again.
            Does that sound like a hero anyone’s going to root for?
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the key things here is that my character needs to care about this struggle past how it involves them. They need to care about the crisis and the people involved in it. Really, their role as the chosen one needs to be secondary.

            And that’s that.  Four ways my chosen one might not be the best choice for a character.

            Speaking of which, next time I may talk about characters a little more.
            Oh, and this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse.  Noon to three at Dark Delicaices in Burbank. Stop by and see how eloquent I sound when I have to talk about this stuff on the fly.
            Until then… go write.
August 4, 2011 / 4 Comments

Simpsons Did It!

A pop culture reference that’s so spot-on it’s not even funny.

Okay, it’s a little funny…

(General Disarray, go get the minions before they get lost…)

One of the big worries with creativity is wondering if you really are being creative. Is that clever new idea of yours something you came up with all on your own, or is it something you unwittingly borrowed from someone else? Maybe you skimmed over the back copy of a paperback in your local neighborhood bookstore or read a few spoiler-filled reviews on Amazon and your brain just filed it away. Worse yet, what if your clever story gets out there and then you discover five other people already had similar ideas. Now you just look like some hack plagiarist.

I’ve been involved in a bunch of discussions about stuff like this in the past few weeks. Has anyone crossed X with Y before? Have you ever seen this element used in that genre? What about that plot but in this setting?

The answer to all of these, alas, is yes.

Some guru-types like to drawl on about how there are only seven stories (or nine, or thirteen, depending on who’s selling what this week). While I think this is an oversimplification, it does point out an obvious truth. Most stories have things in common with other stories. That’s just the way of it. The same type of characters show up. The same situations arise. The same relationships form.

Here’s a random observation for you. When was the last time you met someone who didn’t remind you of someone else? Think about it for a minute. When we were little everything was new and fresh but as we got older we started to see patterns and similarities. A guy I met at a birthday party last weekend reminded me of a guy who lived across the hall from me in college. When I first met her, I thought my girlfriend looked a lot like one of my next-door neighbors. A production assistant I used to work with looks kind of like a sound mixer I know in San Diego. Another one reminded me of my cousin Chrissie crossed with a bit of Angelina Jolie (a very good mix, I have to say).

But those are all first impressions. As I delve deeper, I start to see the uniqueness of each person. The better I got to know them, the more Leo, Colleen, Russ, and Sarah became individuals and those superficial similarities dropped away.

Still, those initial generalities can be a bit bothersome. If there’s something else out there that’s similar to your work, should you worry about it?

Probably not.

Submitted for your approval is The Dueling Machine. It’s a 1969 sci-fi novel by multiple-Hugo-award winner Ben Bova. In the far, far future, a brilliant scientist has created a machine to help reduce hostility. It’s “a combination of electroencephalograph and autocomputer” which lets two or more people connect their minds through the machine and interact in an imaginary dream world that they create inside the machine. The story comes about when someone is killed during one of these “simulated” duels—is it possible that dying in the imaginary world could make someone die in the real world?

Hopefully this premise sounds a bit familiar to you. It should because it’s a big chunk of the plot to The Matrix movies. And The 13th Floor. Also the Lawnmower Man films. Plus there’s a few books like Cybernetic Samurai and Snow Crash and Giant’s Star. And that television show VR5 that was on for a while. And about a hundred Star Trek episodes where people get trapped on the now-deadly holodeck, because the holodeck safety systems are apparently made of cobwebs and wet tissue paper. Heck, you’ve all probably got a dozen more at your fingertips, don’t you?

For the record, there are also dozens of books and movies and television shows featuring vampires in space (one’s actually called The Space Vampires—it was the basis for the movie LifeForce). And zombies in the old west. And new takes on time travel, space travel, politics, Jekyll and Hyde, all that stuff.

Now, this doesn’t mean that most stories copy other stories. We all draw from a lot of the same sources, so our thoughts are going to follow a lot of the same paths. But even on those paths we’re all going to march to the beat of our own drummer, so to speak. We’re also going to dress differently, bring different things with us, ask different people to come along, and we’re all probably heading down that given path for different reasons.

Y’see, Timmy, we put our own stamp on everything we do. If I did a modern version of Dracula and you did a modern version of Dracula, neither of us would end up writing Salem’s Lot, which was Stephen King’s modern version of Dracula. You might stick with Europe, but I’m probably going to set mine in southern California. We’d have our own ideas and notions and way of looking at it, just like Mr. King did.

Now, there’s a downside to this apprehension, too, and it’s kind of similar to the people who won’t write anything because they’re too busy learning how to write. Sometimes we—yes we—get so caught up in worrying if something is original that we grind to a halt trying to prove it isn’t. This desperate need to avoid being a copycat brings things to a dead halt.

True story —I was working on a book a few years back (right before I was inspired to start Ex-Heroes, in fact) called Mouth. As I was typing away, I suddenly came up with the coolest way to explain teleportation ever. I mean, this was Stephen Hawking-level brilliant. It was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, sheer elegance in its simplicity. I typed up a quick scene where Character A explained it this way to Character B, read through it, and realized it was even cleverer than that.

Too clever, in fact, for a guy like me to come up with it. It was too clean. Too perfect.

In a panic, I wracked my brain trying to figure out where I’d heard it before. Because I must’ve seen this somewhere. Online? In a comic book? All I was reading at the time was Amazing Spider-Man and that was all packed full of “Civil War” nonsense. Maybe a television show? What had we gotten from Netflix in the past few months?

I asked my girlfriend to read it. I figured she might recall whatever this source was, because I kept drawing a blank. She went through the chapter, got to the questionable explanation, and loved it. When I asked her where she’d seen it before, she couldn’t remember ever seeing it. After I pressed her for a bit and she re-read it again, she admitted it was vaguely like the explanation of “tessering” in Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, but only in that it took what was plainly a very complex idea and boiled it down to an extremely simple explanation.

In other words, it was all mine. But I wasted a week worrying over whether or not I’d copied it.

Do a quick look at your chosen field. Make sure no one’s done something exactly like your idea. Then just write. Your own style and vocabulary and characters will give it a flavor all its own.

Like the Buddha says, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Next time, if I don’t get any suggestions, I may have to fall back on spelling.

Until then, like I just said, go write.

January 27, 2011 / 3 Comments

On Your Mark… Get Set…

Hey! It’s contest season again, isn’t it?

Technically it’s always contest season, yeah, but it’s the start of the year and a couple of the big ones are opening their doors for new submissions. So, as I often do at this time of year, I was going to offer a few insights into things that make all those contest readers want to put a gun in their mouth.

Well, that’s probably a bit extreme. There are some really awful scripts out there, but you can rest assured none of them are going to drive a reader to suicide. Murder, maybe, but not suicide.

Now, as I’ve said many times before, none of these mistakes are sure-fire ways to lose. But they’re all things that make readers roll their eyes and reach for the Captain Morgans, which means it just got that much harder to impress those readers. So keep that in mind before you fill out an entry form and maybe give your masterpiece one more good look. I mean, really look at it

Spelling — Yeah, I’m harping on this again. There’ll probably be a whole post coming up sometime in the near future.

Because it matters, that’s why.

Over the course of a few years I wrote two different contest columns for Creative Screenwriting, interviewed dozens of contest directors, and asked each of them about tips for aspiring entrants. Across the board, the first thing most of them said was spelling and grammar.

Now, a random typo doesn’t mean you blew it. We all make mistakes, and readers know that, too. If they go through and find a their on page 42 when it should be there, they’re going to cluck their tongues but keep reading. If there’s a typo on every page, though… Heck, there were a few screenplays I looked at where I wasn’t even thirty pages in and I’d lost track of how many there were.

Whenever you hand off a manuscript you’re trying to convince the reader that you’re a real writer. Someone who can do more with words than just sign their name, scribble a shopping list, or send a txt mssg (ROFL LOL STFU). The absolute, bare-bones basic tools of writing – any writing– are vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. Which means you need to master them, not your spellchecker. If you establish early on that you can’t handle the basics, why would a reader look any farther?

Apostrophe S — You could argue this goes under spelling, but speaking as someone who’s read a thousand or so scripts by aspiring screenwriters, I can say it’s in a class by itself. Messing up an apostrophe S stands out like a flare to anyone who knows how to use it. As I said above, we all make mistakes now and then, but it’s painfully obvious when a writer’s just throwing down random apostrophes and getting a few right by sheer chance.

Knowing the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a contraction is past basic—it’s a fundamental part of the English language. Stop writing, go get a grammar book–even a fun one like Eats Shoots & Leaves (look at the carousel down below)–and actually read it. Promise yourself that as of this moment there will be no more guessing or wild stabs in the dark.

Logic holes — A friend of mine called me once, laughing in hysterics. He was reading for a contest and was halfway through a sci-fi script where human colonists were struggling with the affects of a war that had taken place 200 years earlier. The enemy had released a bio-weapon that wiped out pre-pubescents, so every generation of colonists had lost all their children for the past two centuries.

Give it a second. You’ll start laughing, too.

You’ve probably heard of “movie logic,” a term which also applies to television and even prose. It’s when the writer bends the laws of common sense to solve an issue or a problem. As long as you don’t look at it too close, movie logic can usually get skimmed over and carry you to the next scene or paragraph.

The flipside of this is a complete lack of logic, which makes readers call their friends to share the joke. A lack of logic knocks the reader out of the story, which means it breaks the flow of the story. And that gets scripts put in the big pile on the left.

Fortune Cookie Talk — Also sometimes called Confucius-speak by another friend of mine. This is when a screenwriter tries to cut down their page count by cutting all the articles, “small” words, and transitional bits from their script. I think there’s also a misguided belief that this gives their writing more “punch.”

Neo walks streets. Man pulls gun. Neo dodges. Drives kick into man’s chest. Man out cold. Neo is One.

Trust me, there are only two things this leads to. One is annoyance as the story slowly edges into unreadable. Two is laughter. Not the good kind of laughter. The “all the kids die every generation for 200 years” kind of laughter.

The Squashed Script Sometimes the writer refuses to make any more cuts (for conscious reasons or sheer denial) and ends up with a 170-or-so page script. So they change the font size or the margins or the line spacing and crush the script down into an acceptable number of pages. After all, going from 12 to 9 point Courier can shrink a 170 page script down to 130 pages. That’s a fine length for a script, right?

This is annoying on a bunch of levels. First and foremost, if any writer is manipulating their script like this, it means they know their script is unacceptably long and they’re making no real effort to fix the problem. Second, it shows that the writer is assuming the readers won’t realize what’s going on (and why), which is kind of arrogant if you think about it.

Believe me, readers love arrogant writers who assume they’re idiots. It makes the job soooo much easier.

(not in a good way, in case the sarcasm wasn’t showing…)

Reality is What You Make It More often than not, either the title or final page of this screenplay assures the reader that this tale is, in fact, based on the true accounts of me/ my best friend/ my brother/ my parents/ my grandparents/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These are tales of cancer, disease, genocide, military struggles, marital struggles, crises of faith, and various other conflicts of this world we live in. Alas, sometimes they’re also about struggling writers searching for someone to recognize their genius. Often, the fact this is all true is stressed to give a certain validity and gravitas to the screenplay.

Thing is, it doesn’t matter if the story is true or not. Nobody cares. They just care if it’s a good story and it’s well-told. And in that respect, a tale of an orphaned cancer survivor in Rwanda needs to stand up against the story of a black-ops secret agent who teams up with prehistoric lizard men from Atlantis to save the world from a zombie apocalypse. Whether or not its true is irrelevant. In the end, you’re telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t. Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.

Frankenanite — A large percentage of genre scripts involve nanites which somehow go rogue and endanger mankind. Don’t know what a nanite is? No problem–a couple of these writers don’t either. If you’re writing a genre screenplay about nanites (or something indistinguishable from nanites like genetically-altered bacteria or something) think carefully. If I had to pick the ten most overused plot devices, these little guys would be in the top three.

Epic — Avoid the word epic. The only time the word epic should appear in your script is if someone in the script is telling a very overblown story. It’s a word for critics, publicists, and producers. Screenwriters can use it in interviews, but not in their writing.

Orbs — No orbs. You would not believe how much this word is overused. People throw it in everywhere because they think it’s better than pedestrian words like round or sphere. Much like mellonballer is guaranteed to get you a Nicholl Fellowship, using the word orb to describe eyes, mystical stones, the sun, or pretty much anything else will make the reader shake their head and pour themselves a second drink. Then they will pour a third drink onto your script and set fire to it.

To Be Continued — You get one script to impress someone with. One. Nobody wins anything with the first of an epic trilogy (see above). That one manuscript has to stand on its own. Ending a screenplay – especially a contest entry screenplay- with “to be continued” hammers home the fact that this is an incomplete tale. It tells the reader you had no idea how to end this story in 120 pages.

Remember, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Highlander were not written as trilogies. Despite everything you may have heard, neither was Star Wars. Every one of these films was conceived of, written, and shot as a lone entity. They had to stand alone and succeed alone. If they had to do it that way, don’t think for a minute that your story won’t have to.

And there you have it. Ten ways you can make a reader sigh and shake their head in disdain. Which really means this is ten ways you can avoid getting the head shake, and that means your manuscript is that much closer to dodging the big pile on the left and ending up in the right pile.

Next time… well, I’m not sure what I’m going to rant about next time. But there will be a point to it, I assure you.

Until then, go write.