November 5, 2009 / 3 Comments

What’s My Motivation?

The answer to that question, according to Hitchcock, is your paycheck. He was talking about actors, but there’s a bit of truth in there for writers, too.

So, a while back a friend of mine asked me to look at a script he’d been working on. It was pretty darn solid, overall, but right in the beginning I noticed something that struck me as a bit odd. Our hero’s renovating a large home and has been told one area of the estate is off limits. Don’t go through that door. Well, as tends to happen in movies… guess what?

It was how it happened that got my attention, though, and not in a good way. Just a few pages later said character is slamming his shoulder against the door three or four times until it pops open and he can explore a bit. Which was odd, because up until now this guy had seemed like a straight-shooting model citizen. Now suddenly he’s breaking and entering just to satisfy a mild sense of curiosity.

Here’s another example (not from my friend’s script). Let’s say Bob is hanging out with a female friend, they decide to go out, and she heads off to her room to get changed. It says one thing about Bob if, when he heads to the bathroom, he happens to catch a glimpse of his friend naked through the door and has a momentary “Wow.” It says another thing if, as soon as she walks off, he casually finds the angle that lets him stare into her room. It’s a third thing altogether if he pulls out his cell phone to use the camera and take pictures. On the surface, the same thing is happening–Bob is seeing his friend with no clothes–but these are three very different scenes because of his intentions in each one (innocent, lecherous, and kinda creepy).

Y’see, Timmy, motivation is one of the keys to storytelling, because it’s one of the keys to great characters. It’s why everything happens, and why someone’s doing something affects how they do it. People can be motivated by greed, survival, anger, hatred, fear, duty, love, lust, zealotry– any number of things. Everything a character does has to come from some type of motivation. Everything. Unmotivated characters will just sit on the couch for 300 or so pages, and nobody’s interested in that. We all know people like that in real life. Why read about it? More to the point of this week’s little rant, it’s the writer’s job to make sure motivations make sense and are consistent for both the characters and their world. When they aren’t, that starts chipping away at suspension of disbelief.

Now, hands down, the biggest and most common problem is when the writer confuses their motivation with the character’s. The big battle can’t happen if Wakko doesn’t do this, so he does this. I need Yakko to say something so we can get to chapter seven, so Yakko says it. Granted, this is how all writing happens, but if you’ve already established that Wakko would have a strong aversion to doing that and Yakko would never say this, the reader’s going to wonder where these choices are coming from. Just because the writer has ultimate power over the characters does not automatically mean anything that gets written is “right” for the characters. Even when you’re behind the wheel, you have to drive certain ways in certain places. If you doubt this, try shifting into reverse next time you’re on the freeway.

Probably the most common place for this kind of motivational mistake is dialogue. The writer comes up with a funny or cool line and needs a character to say it. Any character. Someone has to say this cool line! Suddenly Father Mike is cracking sex jokes and Sister Hannah is cursing like a sailor. Still great lines, but would these people really use them? The need for explanation can also lead to unmotivated dialogue and make monosyllabic characters start lecturing like college professors. This is a two-fold problem, because not only does it weaken the suspension of disbelief, as mentioned above, it also breaks the flow of the story.

Motivation also becomes a problem when the writer is trying to hit certain benchmarks or requirements with their work. Gurus exhort people to hit this point by page nine, have this action by chapter ten, or make sure this happens X number of times before Y. Fledgling writers follow these rules as a rigid gospel, make their stories and characters twist unnaturally to meet them, and often the result is just a bunch of false drama. In Hollywood, where they refer to elaborate stunt or effects sequences as set pieces, it’s not unusual for producers to hand the screenwriter a laundry list of set pieces to fit into their script– or to write the script around. Robert Towne’s script for Mission Impossible II is, alas, an example of just such a thing. Throughout it, stuff just happens. No reason for it, it just happens because the director, producers, and star wanted it in the script. Don’t even get me started on Wanted.

In all fairness, some times those requirements are self-imposed. Like that cool line of dialogue I mentioned above, the writer comes up with something they just can’t let go of. Maybe it’s a certain action sequence, a clever homage, or some odd wish-fulfillment being expressed on the page. Regardless, it usually ends up with some unmotivated decisions, violence, or romantic encounters.

Another common mistake, on the flipside, is to give the motivations for every single thing that happens, including characters or actions that… well, that just aren’t all that important. Odds are I don’t need to know that the woman at the bus stop ran away from home at age thirteen or that the long-haired waiter doubles as a male stripper to pay for med school. As I’ve mentioned before, if it doesn’t have a direct effect on the story being told, don’t waste time with it. It may feel luxurious and literary, but more likely it’s clumsy and confusing.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying these characters and actions shouldn’t have a motivation. Everything in your story needs a motivation, but the reader doesn’t need to know it all. They just need to see the consistent results of it. At no point in Casablanca is it ever brought up or discussed why Rick suddenly decides to be generous to the young couple trying to win money for an exit visa. People comment that he did it and it’s very out of character, but why he did it is never mentioned. Does it need to be? No, of course not. Anyone paying attention to the film can explain why Rick has this sudden turn of heart.

Now, there is another school of though in writing that unmotivated action is the best. Life is random after all. Much as we don’t like to think about it, people often suffer setbacks that have no deliberate machinations behind them. They get dealthly ill. They’re involved in fatal car accidents. In the real world, stories don’t always get happy endings and neither do people. Things get left unresolved and mysteries go unexplained. So doing this in your work can only make your writing more realistic and believable, yes?

No.

I’m calling shenanigans on this one, and on every professor, critic, indie filmmaker, and self-proclaimed guru who pushes this viewpoint. If you take this approach in your writing it isn’t artistic– its lazy. Things like that happen in the real world, but we’re talking about fiction. Nothing on the page is coming from the randomness of the universe, it’s all coming directly out of the writer’s mind. It’s a created world, and as the writer it’s your job to resolve the issues you’ve created. To have readers invest their time and emotions in a character which the writer then kills off just for the heck of it is cheap. When doing so leaves conflicts unresolved, it’s a cop-out. It’s the kind of pretentious excuse made by people who don’t actually want to put any real effort into their work.

Nobody here wants to be that kind of writer, right?

Good.

Next week, before we get further into the sparkly holiday season, I want to talk about some stuff that really sucks. No, seriously.

Until then, hopefully this has motivated you to go write.

October 22, 2009 / 3 Comments

Nudity in Casablanca

Right off, before I forget, check out Live to Write Another Day over there in the right-hand column. It’s the blog of a friend of mine where she offers tips, suggestions, and recipes for folks trying to survive the life of a starving writer. I only make such a blatant plug because she asked me to contribute a recipe and let me put up some photos from my trip to Egypt. So go learn how to make koshari, save yourselves a few bucks, and look cultured doing it.

But back to the business at hand…
While I’m sure several of you saw this title and immediately started scrolling for the Ingrid Bergman pictures, I’m afraid this week’s topic is a bit more subtle than that. Plus, I’m still figuring out how to post pictures.
So, what better way to discuss subtlety than to once again fall back on the world of Star Trek for an example.
The original series and Next Generation each had similar first season episodes that were linked between the two shows. You may not know them by title, but even a casual viewer would remember the stories. The Enterprise crew(s) is infected with a virus that loosens inhibitions leading to constant displays of laziness, lust, and even savagery. You may recall a shirtless Sulu with a fencing foil, or perhaps Tasha Yar in some bizarre casual wear trying to seduce Data. The original series did the story about two months in. Next Generation did their version the second week they were on the air. These episodes were “The Naked Time” and “The Naked Now.”
All well and good, you’re saying, but this is not the nudity I tuned in to see.
Y’see, Timmy, in both of these cases, the point of the story was to give us a better glimpse at who all these characters were beneath our first impressions. What were they really like at the core. Were they lonely? Repressed? Hiding awful secrets? Those first impressions are very important, don’t get me wrong, but we all know what catches our attention is the stuff underneath. A quick glimpse of bare skin is always far more fascinating than the most elaborate and inspiring outerwear.
So, since I’ve already established the nudity I’m speaking of is metaphorical, not literal (and actually watched the hit counter go down now that I’ve clarified it), what does this have to do with Casablanca? Well, Casablanca is a very famous film which is not chronological. On the off chance you haven’t seen it (in which case you should have another window open to your Netflix queue right now) there’s a very large flashback smack in the middle. The story rolls back the clock several years to Paris, just as the Germans were invading, and it’s immediately striking to the audience what a different character Rick is at this point. He’s laughing, charismatic, generous–the complete opposite of the man we’ve come to know in the first hour of the movie. We get to find out what happened between him and Elsa to make him become that man, and we realize the kind of person he could’ve been if things had gone a different way. It’s probably one of the most memorable flashbacks in cinematic history.
The only reason this sequence has that kind of dramatic weight, however, is because it’s not at the beginning of the story. There’s a reason it’s in the middle. It’s so we can meet Rick the bitter, sullen drunk and so he and Elsa can have all those subtle looks and sharp words. If we already knew why he was like that, about the relationship between them, or how she had crushed his heart, it would’ve changed everything.
One mistake I see quite often, in books and scripts, though, is that aspiring writers try to front-load their characters. I learn everything there is to learn about Wakko in the first seven paragraphs after he’s been introduced, or his first five minutes on screen, so there’s nothing to learn later. Which means Wakko is only going to have a surface-interest for most people for the rest of the story. To fall back on the nudity metaphor, it’s hard to be titillated an hour in when we got to see everything right up front. What excites us and gets us anxious is waiting for it. To put it even crasser, sometimes putting out on the first date leads to something, but more often than not it doesn’t.
Part of the reason this approach fails is it goes against our instincts as people. Throughout our lives we’ve all met people, but we rarely learn everything about them all at once. I’m sure most of us have had one or two of those “and we talked for six or seven hours” conversations, but even those are stretched out across time and they also don’t cover everything. More to the point, we’ve also had that uncomfortable situation where someone we’ve just met starts telling us way too much information about themselves. In real life and in fiction, getting all sorts of information right at the start just feels unnatural.
Here’s another great example. One or two of you may have seen a little movie called Pitch Black. There’s an early scene when the mass- murderer named Riddick is handcuffed to a pole in the crashed ship and escapes in a… well, it’s a very memorable way. Especially because of the sounds. I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but needless to say it establishes–without a single line of dialogue–how very determined Riddick can be once he sets his mind to something. His character is solidly defined in that one scene. Everyone who’s seen it knows exactly which moment I’m talking about, it’s that perfect.
However, it isn’t his only defining scene. There’s one much later on, a quieter moment when he explains his religious views to another survivor of the crash. This time around, there are hints that Riddick wasn’t always so kick-ass and vicious, and that as low as he may seem now, he’s actually dragged himself up in the world. If this tiny bit of backstory had come out when Riddick was introduced, it would’ve been melodramatic at best, and at worst would’ve gotten the script tossed in that big pile on the left. It’s more powerful later because we’ve come to known the character one way and are now being shown there’s even more to him. The first bit makes us like the character (for one reason or another) but it’s the second bit that helps make him memorable.
I’m going to end this with two observations made by friends of mine about other forms of art. First is Dave, who was an incredibly skilled painter I knew in high school. This guy could’ve been doing book covers at age seventeen, and as it turns out he was a big fan of doing the Boris Vallejo-type paintings, the ones with bronzed women in chainmail bikinis that make Xena’s outfits look like a parka. When I asked him why he didn’t just do nudes, he smirked and said “Nudity isn’t sexy. It’s what you don’t see that gets you turned on.”
The second observation was from Brad, who was my boss on a long-ago martial arts show called Vanishing Son, the first television series I ever worked on. We were on set one day talking about a recent X-Files episode and a beautiful lighting-camera trick they’d pulled to get around standards and practices, allowing them to show a brutal murder on screen. I lamented the fact that we never did anything as clever, even though our show was loaded with such potential moments.
“It’s because all we do here is porn,” sighed Brad. “Doesn’t matter what kind of show it is. Porn is when you show everything. That’s all anyone here knows how to do.”
So, mull on that until next week.
Speaking of which, next week is Halloween! Or close enough, yes? A good time to talk about some scary stuff.
Until then, go write.
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.

So, Booboo, this week’s title has two references. One’s pop culture, of course, but the other one hearkens way, way back to an article I read in Writer’s Digest when I was in my first year of college. This was when we were between sessions of the Continental Congress.

This is going to be a bit vague at first, so please forgive me.

The man contributing the article was a writer on a sitcom, and his boss had tossed one of his scripts back at him with the words “You have to earn the right to use the bear suit.” When the baffled writer asked for an explanation, he was told this story. I believe it was a Honeymooners episode in the original telling, but I’m not sure so I’m going to substitute in characters from another sitcom as I tell it to you. Trust me, it won’t make a difference…

So, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot decide they’re going to go camping up in the mountains. But Dot’s been a bit uppity lately so Yakko and Wakko come up with an idea. They get a grizzly bear suit and stash it in the car. When they get up there, Yakko will sneak away and put the costume on, then “attack” the campsite. Wakko will play along, Dot will get a good scare and get her comeuppance. Loads of fun.

Well, they get up to the campsite and Yakko heads into the woods with the costume, but he gets lost and can’t find his way back. Meanwhile, a real grizzly ends up wandering into camp and rummaging around. Dot is petrified and Wakko decides to have some fun with “Yakko” by making it seem like the bear is–

Look, do I really need to explain this any further? You’ve all seen this story at least a hundred times, yes? It was such a well-received gag everybody copied it. And continued to copy it. And they’re still doing it today.

The bear suit is a tired gag. It’s a cliché. It’s something we’ve all seen again and again and again and again, in books, comics, television shows, and movies. The two identical characters that confuse people. The funny new catchphrase or non-sequitor reference. The insane villain. The character who gets amnesia or loses their superpowers. All of these are things people have seen so many times they’ve gone past yawning and just roll their eyes.

Oftentimes, the bear suit is the path of least resistance. It’s the easiest way to deal with a need or problem in the writer’s story and the quickest way to create an obstacle. And a lot of people tend to jump at the first solution they can find, rather than look for the best solution.

And that’s really the problem. Since so many people jump at the bear suit, it’s common. It’s dull. Editors and producers have seen it a hundred times this month alone. If they’re going through your work and they find that dusty old thing laying around, your manuscript instantly goes into the big pile on the left.

Let’s try a little exercise. Here are three pretty standard plot devices.

–Two high schoolers get left alone in their palatial home when their parents go away for a week.

–Six teenagers head off into the woods to restore the old summer camp by the lake.

–A man completely focused on his career has to spend a long weekend with a flighty blonde who loves animals.

You probably got an immediate idea off each one. If your first thoughts were throw a wild party, get picked off by a serial killer, and fall in love, don’t feel too bad. What matters is where you go from there. Toss out that first thought and come up with another one. Then toss that one and come up with a third. Toss it again and scribble down a fourth.

Y’see, Timmy, this is one of those complicated points of writing where it’s hard to give a guideline. Often, when you’re writing, you want to go with your gut. You want your words to be honest and not have a lot of analysis and formulae and overthinking behind them.

At the same time, however, you want to be careful about going with your first thoughts, because odds are they’re a lot of other people’s first thoughts, too. This is also why serious writers have to read a lot, and why serious screenwriters need to see a lot of movies. If you don’t know what’s out there, you might already have the bear suit on and not even know it. Heck, yours may be completely moth-eaten and you think it’s going to scare someone in the woods.

Now, here’s the catch. As I mentioned above, you can earn the right to use the bear suit. If you’ve already got a solid track record, if everything around it is gold (or at least well-polished silver), every now and then you can get away with using the old gag. Christopher Priest used one of the most tired ideas in literature for the ending of The Prestige, but did it so well it still blew people away. Stephen King took the tired idea of the Indian burial ground and then took it past the first or second idea to very creepy and popular third idea.

Again though– that’s the exception, not the rule. If you want to do this writing thing for real, your first decision can’t be to reach for the bear suit.

Next week, I’m finally going to do a Michael Jackson memorial pop culture reference. I would’ve done one sooner but, well… I didn’t care that much.

Oh, and if you’ve got a few dollars to spare, I have been gently jabbed by mine editor to shamelessly remind you all Cthulhu Unbound 2 is now for sale. Check out the Amazon link over there on the side, pick it up, and feel free to mock my contribution to it.

And even if you buy it, shipping means you’ll still have time to go write this week.

So get to it.

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