July 2, 2009 / 5 Comments

I… Have… The POWER!!!

As always, if you don’t get the title… your pop-culture kung fu is weak.

So, last summer a movie came out some of you may have seen called Hancock, written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan. Apparently the lead actor was in one or two other films, as well, and had a small fan following that helped a bit at the box office. I got to review it for the CS Weekly newsletter (sign up over there on the right—it’s free), and it’s what first got me thinking about this week’s topic. It came up again a few months ago over lunch with a friend of mine who’s written a few movies (and a television show I know at least one of you loved). And it’s something I had to think about a lot for my forthcoming book, Ex-Heroes.

And I thought it’d be worth bringing up here for two or three of you (almost a full quarter of the ranty blog’s readership).

When you’re playing in the genre realms, you should note there’s a very big difference between a story about a superhero and a story about someone who has superpowers. They’re not the same thing, and trying to cram one into the mold of the other will almost always cause problems.

If you think about it, stories about people with superhuman abilities have been around for thousands of years. Gilgamesh and Hercules both had superpowers. So did Anubis, Icarus, the Green Knight, and yes, even Jesus. In the classics there’s Matthew Maule, Dr. Jekyll, and even arguably the Count of Monte Cristo. There are lots of modern-day stories and films featuring people with superhuman abilities, too. The Dead Zone is about a person with superpowers. So are the Sixth Sense, Scanners, and Unbreakable. Heck, even Luke Skywalker has abilities far beyond those of mortal men (and Wookies).

However… are any of these characters superheroes?

Let’s look at a few side by side examples.

The X-Men comic books and films had characters who could control flames, read minds, and teleport. However, so did Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, Alexander Key’s Escape to Witch Mountain, and Steven Gould’s Jumper.

Spider-Man is a character who gets abilities when his DNA is mixed with an insect (okay, an arachnid) during a science experiment. But this is also what happens in both versions of The Fly. Spider-Man also has strength and agility far beyond that of normal men, just like John Carter of Mars in the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the Fantastic Four comics and films, Susan Richards nee Storm can turn invisible, but so could the Greek hero Perseus, Darien Fawkes in the Sci-Fi Channel series The Invisible Man, and John Griffin in its H.G. Wells namesake novel.

Batman is a guy who hides his identity, gears up, and goes out at night to fight crime in order to avenge the loss of his loved ones– just like Charles Bronson in Deathwish.

Now, if I had to nail down what the difference is, I would say that a super hero story is defined by a person who makes a conscious decision to publicly use their powers for the greater good (a wider, broader goal that does not involve them). They aren’t doing it to get even, to save someone close to them, or to show off. Most of them feel morally compelled to use their abilities this way, no matter how crappy it makes other aspects of their lives. Obvious as it may sound—superheroes act heroically.

This public nature also means they deal with public sentiment of one kind or another. Captain America is venerated as a historical figure. Superman is lauded in the press. Batman and Spider-Man receive mixed reviews. The X-Men are openly considered criminals (or were, last time I read their books—they may have Congressional Medals of Honor at this point).

I would also go so far as to say a costume is almost necessary, much in the same way a cowboy needs a hat and a horse. However, I’ll also toss out the proviso that the costume in and of itself does not make a story a superhero story, just as the hat and horse do not automatically make something a western.

The flipside of this is a super powers story. Someone who may have superhuman abilities, but all their motivation is usually personal, and their actions tend to be more behind-the-scenes. I listed a few examples of this above, side by side with their comic book counterparts. In The Dead Zone (the original book/ movie) Johnny is acting for the greater good, but he’s taking very secretive steps. In Jumper, David’s really just interested in saving himself and his girlfriend. Harry Potter is all about hiding your powers and staying apart from the world. And in Hancock, while he is acting publicly, the story itself is really all about his disconnect with humanity, not that he can fly and throw cars around. If you think about it, the story of Hancock works almost exactly the same if he’s just a powerless, homeless vigilante with amnesia.

Also on that flipside, superpowers stories involve street clothes. Even if someone has a “uniform” of some sort (John Constantine almost always dresses the same way) it tends to be boots, tee-shirts, and other things that wouldn’t look that out of place on a city street.

I also think a lot of this difference has to do with the setting for these stories. More often than not, a superpowers story has a very realistic setting. Aside from a very limited, few beings, there’s almost nothing to distinguish it from the real, day-to-day world we hear about each weeknight from Charlie Gibson and ABC News.

By contrast, look at the settings for some of our well-known superheroes. Spider-Man is a common sight swinging through his version of New York, a place where the Fantastic Four and Avengers have very public office buildings and the existence of aliens—several types of aliens– is a well-documented fact. Superman’s a known alien, too. Hellboy’s an actual demon (arguably the Antichrist) who’s gone straight and publicly works for the U.S. government.

Once you can tell them apart, I think one of the immediate problems with pushing a superpowers story into a superhero mold is the silliness factor. When someone puts on a costume in a real world setting, it suddenly feels like the writer isn’t taking things seriously. Check out a little indie film called Sidekick. It has a few flaws, but once the hero pulls on a costume in the third act (in the middle of rescuing his would-be girlfriend from a mentally unbalanced kidnapper) the audience just can’t forgive it. What would people have thought if the film version of Firestarter ended with little Drew Barrymore pulling on red tights and a cape to go fight evil as Firegirl or some such?

(Please keep in mind before answering, we’re talking about a nine-year old Drew Barrymore in spandex, not grown-up Drew. Perverts.)

You get similar issues going the other way. While the problems Peter Parker deals with because of his powers are interesting, when someone picks up the latest Amazing Spider-Man they want to see him pull on the webbed suit and fight the Lizard. Too much melodrama in street clothes with Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson just starts to get dull (as Marvel’s sales figures over the past few years can attest to). There’s a reason the folks who read the daily Spidey strips in the newspaper also tended to skip Mark Trail and Mary Worth. People who read superhero stories aren’t looking for stark realism.

As a fun aside, some of you may remember an experiment Marvel tried years back called the New Universe. They were comics about real people in the real world who developed superpowers and reacted… well, realistically. Many of them tried to hide their new abilities, several tried to get rid of them, and more than a few were corrupted by these powers. The whole line sold horribly (so much so that I became a regular contributor to one of the letter columns with no effort) and was cancelled after barely two years—the end of which involved several attempts to turn the characters into true superheroes.

I’ve also noticed that superpowers stories tend to brush over the origin with a simple “this is the way it is,” sort of explanation. In both Jumper and the Harry Potter books, we’re just told that this is the way the world has always been. Some folks get the teleport gene. Some can do magic (why some can and some can’t is never explained, but it also seems to be genetic in J.K.’s books, too). Also superpowers stories, if they have to give an origin, tend to lean toward the hard sciences, making it as believable as possible.

With superheroes, though, the origin is almost a standard. A writer can also get away with somewhat sillier, non-scientific origin stories. The Flash was struck by lightning. More than a few characters have gotten superpowers from blood transfusions (including one of my own). Radiation is a common source of superhuman abilities, too, despite what we learned in seventh grade science. Remember how the Hulk got his powers? No, not the recent version—the original version. Mild-mannered Bruce Banner was near the prototype gamma bomb when it was detonated and received a massive dose of radiation. Yes, a mere 45 years ago, Stan Lee wrote a story where someone got their powers by standing next to a nuclear bomb when it went off. Yet here we are today and that is still the accepted origin of the Incredible Hulk (although they’ve oh-so-casually moved him a bit further from ground zero).

One last, related note– the abilities in superpowers stories tend to be a bit more plausible and limited. Jean Gray of the X-Men can alter matter on a molecular level with her telekinetic abilities, but Tony and Tia Castaway need the mental crutch of a harmonica just to move around a hat rack with a raincoat on it. In fact, the only two superpower stories I can think of where someone has overwhelming powers would be the film Dark City and Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven.

Wow, have I rattled on about this or what? I’m sure you’ve all got other stuff you need to go do. Like writing stuff.

Next time… well, next time I think we finally need to talk about some of these issues with your mother.

But until then, go write.

February 8, 2009

Go With the Flow

Wow, this is overdue, isn’t it? I blame my editor, who for some reason I can’t fathom refuses to process my invoices until I’ve turned in my assignments. And I also blame my landlord, who is so insistent about getting rent every month.

No, that’s not fair. My landlord’s a pretty cool guy.

So, anyway, have you ever read a book you just can’t put down? One where you start reading just after lunch and suddenly realize it’s two in the morning? I actually sat down to read the script for the new Witch Mountain movie last week and found myself completely engrossed. Almost missed a meeting because I was so into it.

There’s a term some gurus like to toss around called flow. I first heard it used by a woman named Drusilla Campbell, writing coach and self-proclaimed Simpsons addict. Put at its simplest, flow is the readability of your writing. It’s the way every line, paragraph, and chapter rolls into the next and carries you along for the ride. It means your writing is smooth, slick, and slides better than Bruce Springsteen at halftime. Readers can’t help but keep reading because it’s actually easier to keep reading than to put the book down. A friend of mine calls them “beach books”—the ones that are great to occupy your mind when you’re sitting on your towel between dips, because you also don’t care if they get a bit wet or sandy.

Another way to define flow is in the negative light. A story that makes you stumble a lot doesn’t flow well at all. Clumsy, wooden dialogue and poor characterization doesn’t work either. Whenever a reader pauses to scratch their head or roll their eyes, that’s another bump in the road. If you’ve ever tried a book and just couldn’t get into it, odds are the flow sucked. You’d read, trip over a page or two, and put it back down.

A story…

Many years back I arranged a weekend away with the woman I was dating. It was off-season, so we got a little cabin up in Big Bear, California, for a decent price. Balcony with a view, fireplace, king size bed, and jacuzzi right there in the main room. What more could a couple of healthy kids in their mid-twenties ask for, right? We spent the day wandering through town, hitting a few used book stores, and I ended up finding a copy of The Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

It’s not a great book, by any means. The story is a bit clumsy, the characters are stereotypes, and there are a few plot holes you could fit a small car into. However, it does have fantastic flow. You couldn’t ask for a quicker read. There’s nothing here but action and story, and the pace builds beautifully as the narrative cuts back and forth between different groups of survivors trying to avoid the monster. I started reading it at a little cafe and picked it up again back at the cabin. As the evening progressed, my girlfriend put her own book down and announced she was going to fill up the big bathtub and maybe open that complimentary bottle of wine that came with the room. I told her I wanted to read a little more, but I’d probably be in soon.

Yes, that’s right. I had a very pretty, very naked Italian girl not-so-subtly asking me to join her in the jacuzzi with a bottle of wine and my response was “Hang on– just let me finish this chapter…”

That is writing you can’t put down.

Clive Cussler, author of Raise the Titanic and Sahara among other novels, once talked about his “potato chip chapters” in an interview. He makes a point of always writing short chapters with compelling endings so people feel the need to read “just one more.” His books may never win the Nobel or a Pulitzer, but he’s also published about thirty more of them than all of us here put together and people are always asking for more.

Now, for the record, I don’t believe flow is something you can easily work on and develop in your writing. It’s one of those X-factors, where you can manipulate each of the variables but still not affect the final outcome. For example, in Goju-ryu, one of the original three forms of karate developed in Okinawa, there’s a kata called senchin (no, trust me, this is another one of those brilliant metaphors). The instructors would teach all the moves to the white belt novices with the vague hope that by the time they became black belts, they’d have a vague understanding of how all the moves go together and could start to work on the form itself. The Okinawan masters understood that working on parts doesn’t help you master the whole. One day, it just all clicks.

So, a few things you can do to help the flow of a story. The different parts of the form, if you will.

Be interesting. Easiest way in the world to keep readers from getting bored—don’t be boring. If you’re telling a story, get to the story. If it’s a murder mystery, give me a body. If it’s sci fi, show me something amazing. If it’s a love story, show me passion on some level.

Be honest. People don’t give long speeches about love, honor, or duty in real life (unless you just got inaugurated). Most of us stopped with the silly, mushy, giggly, fluttering eyelids in ninth grade. And it takes a lot for someone to stay angry for days, let alone years. Fake emotion comes from fake people. Fake people are boring.

Watch your word choice. If you’re picking obscure, awkward, or overly-long words just to show off your vocabulary and create flowery descriptions, there’s a good chance you’re disrupting the flow of your writing. It’s really cool that you can picture what a glabrous Caucasian male with atramentous works of muted ink inlaid in his flesh looks like, but it’s much faster, smoother, and just as visual to tell us he’s a bald man with black tattoos.

Watch your dialogue. You can get away with one character who talks like a robot. Maybe another who keeps slipping into a foreign language. Possibly one more who uses all those obscure, overly-long words I was just talking about. Too much stylized, unnatural, or just plain bad dialogue brings things to a grinding halt, though. People should talk like people, cats should talk like cats, and heavily armored mutants from Skaros should talk like… well, you get the point.

Have characters act in character. Drusilla once commented that when the nun viciously kills a gardener, that’s also when most people remember that laundry they have to fold. Doctors who constantly break medical protocol, sharpshooters who can’t hit when they’re aiming at the main character, and geniuses who miss obvious clues. They’re the people who get books and screenplays tossed in the big left-hand pile.

Take it seriously. Everyone makes a joke now and then to break the tension, but things need to carry the correct amount of gravity in your writing. Rape, death, and unrequited love should not be things you casually bring up and then toss aside. If you’re kicking puppies, slaughtering camp counselors, or unleashing deadly plagues, these acts should be getting a very specific emotional response. When the reader thinks you’re not taking the events in your book seriously, well… why should they?

Again, tweaking these things does not guarantee that your writing will now have beautiful, compelling flow. But if you keep at it and continue to work on them, one day it’ll all just click.

Hey, it took over three years before my sensei would call what I was doing senchin.

Next week I wanted to talk a bit about love for the holiday weekend, but I’m not sure I’ll have a rant formulated by then. I may just have to be critical about things.

Until then, go write.