December 11, 2009 / 4 Comments

I Put The Poison In Both Cups

Easy geek reference up there for you.

So, this week’s little rant is sliding in under the wire. To be honest, I’ve been buried under a ton of last-minute stuff for work. Plus the holidays. Plus some family stuff. I can’t be expected to keep up on all of it.

Well, that’s not true. It’s a bit of a cop-out, really. If I’d managed my time a bit better a lot of this would’ve been done on time. There were even two or three times this week I remember thinking “I need to start working on this week’s ranty blog post.”

Cop-outs suck, don’t they? You’ve made an investment in some piece of writing and then wham! Out of nowhere the writer just does something lame. They’ll change the rules or deliberately ignore continuity and just try to bluff their way through. Epic stories that don’t deliver. Mysteries that aren’t explained. Ominous foreshadowing that never pays off. All of these are cop-outs.

The very first story I can ever remember telling had a cop-out ending. I was about eight years old, it was summer, and Mom had taken us to the beach even though I wasn’t feeling well. Somehow I ended up sitting with the father of my friend Todd, while everyone else played in the water, and I spent the time regaling him with the epic tale of G.I. Joe fighting off the Intruders.

For those of you born after 1980, G.I. Joe used to be just shy of a foot tall and had fuzzy hair. You could even shave him. He was also firmly grounded in the real-world military. When Star Wars shifted the toy paradigm to science fiction, GI Joe suddenly gained a bunch of new friends, like the superhero Bulletman and the cyborg Mike Power. And enemies called the Intruders which were a race of alien bodybuilder midgets who wore metal leotards… sort of…

Anyway, on with the story.

You see, the Intruders came down in asteroids. And they all crash-landed at GI Joe’s secret base. There were lots and lots and lots of them. In fact, there were a million of them. So GI Joe was shooting at them with his gun and he shot ten of them, and Mike Power was kicking with his bionic leg–

(Mike Power had one bionic leg. Just one. Even at the age of eight, I could see the gigantic flaws in this bit of cybernetic engineering.)

–and Bulletman used his ray to lift a bunch of them into the air and send them away. This pattern of violence was repeated enthusiastically twice or thrice before I declared all the Intruders defeated.

Not so, Todd’s father told me. A million is a lot.

I conceded this, and explained that the above mentioned pattern of gun-kick-ray happened again. So now they were all gone.

No, he said with a smile and a shake of his head, a million means there’s a lot more left.

I nodded, then said that Bulletman had used his ray to scoop up everyone who was left and send them away.

It seemed like a very solid ending at the time.

Granted, it’s easy to excuse an ending like that from an eight year old, but far too many adults use them, too. Except for poor spelling, there isn’t a much more glaring sign of poor writing than a plot thread that winds up with a cop-out. It shows the writer didn’t think things out, or just couldn’t be bothered to.

A few common types of cop-outs.

Changing the rules–While it completely fits the story it’s told in, the title reference of this little rant is a perfect example of changing the rules. In the midst of this serious contest of life and death, we find out it wasn’t a fair contest. We’ve been told within the story that X + Y = Z, but the writer suddenly announces X + Y can also equal Q. This usually comes about because the story has been written into a corner and the writer won’t take the time to go back and change things (when the ancient Greeks did this, they called their cop-out deus ex machina). As Billy Wilder once observed, a problem in your third act is really a problem in your first act.

Changing the rules is inconsistent and it breaks the flow. William Goldman used it for comedic effect in The Princess Bride, but it’s doomed to almost certain failure in anything except a comedy. Heck, thanks to Goldman it’s going to look pretty tired in a comedy, too…

The so-called twist–This is a more specific type of changing the rules. I’ve set out the rules for a good twist before, and they’re pretty simple for anyone to figure out. That’s why it’s so frustrating when a writer has Debbie pull off her wig and announce “Hah!! I’m really Larry’s second-cousin!!!” This is often followed by flipping through pages to figure out who Larry is and why his second cousin would have it in for everybody.

Usually a poor twist tries to solve one problem in the story at the expense of the story itself. A weak twist isn’t just a cop-out for a plot thread, it’s almost a guarantee the manuscript will end up in the large pile on the left.

No payoff –Few things are as annoying then to go through a story waiting to see the two enemies clash or to learn the answer to the mysterious puzzle that’s plagued out heroes… only to not get it. The enemy gets away. The mystery gets skirted over. It just leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Sometimes it’s not even a question that’s not answered, it’s just a payoff that never happens. When the climactic, world-altering final battle occurs off-camera and we just see the characters talking afterward about how amazing it was, that’s a cop-out.

Just plain weak– Sometimes when a writer uses a cop-out, they’re just choosing the path of least resistance. It’s quick and easy and wraps stuff up. Oh, he was dreaming and she was insane. Sometimes an ending can seem solid, but it’s still weak because of the promise of something bigger. A worldwide alien invasion is awesome. A worldwide invasion where the aliens can be defeated by tap water… not so much. Remember, a story can be weak by inclusion just as much as by omission.

And there you have it. I’d put more, but, as I mentioned before, I have a lot of work to do still.

Plus, I’m really Larry’s third cousin.

Still open to suggestions as we head into the holidays. If not, next time I’ll end up blathering about women I’ve dated or something.

Until then, go write. At least your Christmas cards.

August 27, 2009 / 2 Comments

Getting in on the Action

Well, since not one of you voted last week, I got to seize power again and decide what to rant about this week with no input or opinions. Viva Democracy! The system works!

So, speaking of things working, action can mean a bunch of things. It can be Yakko finally getting a backbone and standing up to his abusive boss. It can be Wakko fighting off cyborg ninjas from the future. It can be Dot running from a serial killer deep in the forest one night because she was doing naughty things at summer camp.

We all want to do cool action, because it’s fun and it’s memorable and it makes producers think “this would look great on the big screen– give that writer a quarter-million dollars!” But most of us have probably read a book or three with painful action descriptions, and any script reader can tell you about the dozens they dropped because the action scenes were sleep-inducing at best.

Probably the most common problem I see with action is a desire to put in all the action. Every single instant of it. Every gunshot, every punch, each flail of the legs as someone tries to climb up a cliff, and all the individual roars of an angry dinosaur.

Thing is, too much detail slows action down. It can be the most amazing bit of kung fu fighting ever, but each time the writer pauses to describe the harsh open-palm strike which is blocked with a swift overhand block which rolls over the wrist and into a hold to create an opening for two quick punches, one to the face, one to the… man, that should be half a second of fighting, but it’s two lines here. That is one slooow, overwritten fight.

Putting in all the action also tends to get messy from a vocabulary point of view. Bad enough the writer is putting in all seventy punches, but they also know that seeing “punch” seventy times on the page is going to get dull. So suddenly the combatants are punching, hitting, striking, whamming, banging, thrusting, pounding, blasting… It starts feeling needlessly complex, and yes, you should also notice that it starts sounding vaguely pornographic as well.

Now, compare all that to this…

Their hands were a blur of strikes, blocks, and counterstrikes.

I didn’t give as much information, but I did convey a much faster, intense scene, and with far fewer words. Fewer words means a faster read, which means a faster fight.

In my mind, action is a lot like character descriptions. You want to give broad strokes and only use fine details when absolutely necessary. Let the reader fill in a lot of it– because odds are they will anyway.

Action, by it’s very nature, is usually fast, so use this as a rule of thumb. If something is only taking a few moments to happen in your story, it should only take a few moments to read. If there’s an important detail that will matter later in the story, sure, add it in. But otherwise, keep it clean and simple.

Another key note… it has to be possible for the reader to visualize the action. One screenplay I read a while back had gladiatorial games where one man was pitted against three hundred. It actually said that in the script– “Now he fights 300 men with just his sword.” This was going on in the background, for the record.

Gigantic action scenes involving a hundred thousand people are cool, but they’re hard for someone to keep in their mind. That’s why such huge battles tend to concentrate on smaller, individual conflicts. In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, thousands fight at Helm’s Deep, but we’re mostly concerned with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. When Dan Abnett writes about the Tanith First and Only on a battlefront, he tends to focus on Gaunt, Mkoll, or Rawne, not on the regiment as a whole. Saving Private Ryan is about World War Two, but it’s mainly about this one small unit of soldiers.

Visualizing can also be a common knowledge problem. It’s cool that the author knows all the Japanese names for every kick, punch, strike, and block from each of fifteen fighting styles… but does the reader know them? Do they need to? From an audience point of view, it there a huge difference between a hail of bullets from an M-16 and the spray of lead from an AK-47? Anything that makes your readers pause to consider what’s going on is slowing down the action and it’s breaking the flow of your writing. Especially watch for this in genre material, where writers can be making up completely unique weapons and fighting styles. It’s great that Nimwadda is a Zonbovac master with his gwerttig, but it’s a lot easier to visualize if I’m told he’s a world champion axe-fighter… even if it’s a special goblin axe.

A special note for screenwriters. A lot of action stuff gets redone on set, for a variety of reasons. Time is one. Money’s another. Plus, let’s face it… most stunt coordinators have a better idea how to set up a cool-looking fight on screen than most writers do. That’s their job, after all. They’re also keenly aware of what’s possible– and what’s safe— for the stunt teams and actors to do. I heard a funny story from the live action Spawn movie, about the petulant writer/ director who was angry a stuntman wouldn’t do one stunt sequence he’d blocked out… because it almost certainly would kill the stuntman.

In a screenplay, worry about setting the mood and tone of an action sequence more than a shot-by-shot description of the sequence itself. The swordfights in The Princess Bride have a very different tone than the ones in Highlander. The slugfests in Rocky are not like the ones in Hellboy. Skim over the action itself, just make it clear what kind of fight it is, which way it’s going, and who wins.

As an example, let’s look at the lobby battle in The Matrix. Neo steps through the metal detector wearing a hundred guns he borrowed from his grandfather’s arsenal and then it’s mass carnage. From the moment we see Neo’s boots coming out of the revolving door to the moment he and Trinity step into the elevator is almost precisely three minutes, fifteen seconds of bullets, karate, acrobatics, and aggressive redecorating.

How long is it in the script?

About half a page. Ten lines.

Neo and Trinity walk in, he guns down the guards. More guards come, they’re gunned down, and our two heroes continue on their way, cool as ice. That’s it.

However, it’s still okay to note key elements of a sequence. In The Princess Bride, we need to know that Inigo and the Man in Black both switch hands during their swordfight, but we don’t need to know which steps their blades clash on as they work their way up the staircase. Watch a couple films with elaborate action sequences, like Equilibrium, Brotherhood of the Wolf, or even (dare I say it) Attack of the Clones. There are long stretches of action, but what stands out? What catches your eye? Remember the “hallway of death” in Equilibrium? We remember the auto-loaders in Cleric’s sleeves, his roll onto the “weeble” clips, and him kicking up the rifle near the end. There’s a lot more to the scene than that, but that’s all you’d need to focus on.

So that’s where the action is, if you’ll pardon the pun. And if you won’t, well… you should’ve voted when you had the chance.

Next week, we bring on the bad guys and talk about why John Saxon never got to play a good screen villain, but Alan Rickman did.

Until then, take action. And go write.

November 27, 2007 / 1 Comment

Finding your Legal Pad

About a year ago I was lucky enough to end up with a new laptop. Not that there’s anything wrong with my loyal desktop, but I was heading off on a four week business trip to the frozen north and I needed something more portable with wireless capability. It’s far from the most stunning or powerful model on the market, and the battery only lasts about two hours a shot (less with music), but I can easily say it’s almost tripled my productivity. I write these columns on it, I pounded out the majority of a screenplay to meet a contest deadline, and started poking at my second novel for the first time (in all honesty) in about a year.

In fact, I barely do any creative writing at all on my desktop these days. Sure it gets second drafts and polishes, but it’s become much more of a “social” machine now. A place for e’mail, Dawn of War, and Cities of M’Dhoria. Although it’s been only a dozen months or so since I got the laptop, this small evolutionary step only really stood out when I was thinking about this month’s column, where I really wanted to talk about legal pads.

No, trust me. This is all going somewhere.

One of the biggest causes of writer’s block for all of us, in my mind, is simple fear. Fear that the words that are about to flow down and out through our fingertips, dance across the keyboard, and appear on that screen are going to be anything less than Oscar/ Emmy/ Nobel-prize-winning gold. That they are not going to be worth writing down. So we pause, we stall, we overthink, and eventually, whether consciously or not, we’ve put off writing for another day.

Thus, the legal pad.

Many years back, when I was in college and mammoths were crossing the land bridge into North America, there was a sidebar article in Writer’s Digest defending the use of blue ink and legal pads as a valid “method” of writing because it frees the writer up creatively. It was so ridiculously simple and true, it’s stuck with me for almost twenty years, and now I’m sharing it with you.

A legal pad is about the lowest form of paper there is. Seriously. That’s why lawyers use them (zing!). They’re cheap, disposable, bright yellow, and absolutely no one is ever going to accept a screenplay written on one. Absolutely. No. One.

What a relief.

That means whatever we do on that legal pad is not going to be seen. We can rest assured going in that it doesn’t need to be gold. In fact, it can be crap. Complete crap. No need to worry about spelling or grammar or fact-checking. We are off the hook and utterly free to scribble out three or four nonsensical, utterly inaccurate pages of crap every day in that horrible handwriting that baffles our parents, friends, and loved ones. A legal pad is a safe place. We can scrawl out anything at all without care or concern. Most importantly, without fear.

Write down that new screenplay. Write out Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon or The Princess Bride from memory. Write a list of college friends or family pets or people you’ve slept with or people you want to sleep with. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing as long as you are writing. All you need to do is put pen to paper and write.

Because that’s what it’s all about. Getting the words flowing down and out into the world. Any words. Once you’ve got momentum, it’s easy enough to slip off onto that new script, and before you know it you’re two or three pages closer to another Oscar statue on your mantle. Or at least a few more bucks in your bank account.

This is what all of us, as writers, need to do. Find a place or a format where, bizarre as it sounds, the content doesn’t matter. A legal pad. A laptop. A placemat. A PDA. A way that we can just write, just put out anything we can that fills up that bright yellow page. Without worry of censure or criticism of any type.

This little Gateway laptop has become my legal pad. I can sit here and stab away at this odd-shaped, compacted keyboard and not worry about the quality of my output. I know absolutely no one’s ever going to see what’s on it (except maybe my girlfriend leaning over the couch to peek, or my cat sprawled across the keyboard). So I can whip out the first draft of this column while watching The Batman/Superman Movie (Kevin Conroy is the one, true animated Batman) and not feel at all guilty about some of the references and examples I toss out, since I know they will never, ever see print. They probably won’t even make it to an editor’s desk to be red-lined.

Find your legal pad. Write on it every single day. Anything at all, because the important thing is to write.

And to read next month’s column.