Archive for category Plot Thoughts

Convince Me

I was listening to This American Life, curious about the rare retraction they’ve issued surrounding Mike Daisey’s semi-fictionalized portrayal of a trip he made to Apple manufacturing plants in China.  This is not about that.  This is about a song that played at the very end.  It’s perhaps damning of Mr. Daisey, but the lyrics spoke to me at a different level.  The song is by Val Emmich with harmonies by Allie Moss, and it’s called Convince Me:

It’s not necessarily a song about writing the fantastic.  But it applies.  We are asking our audiences to join us on rides through the wonderful and bizarre, all these things that are so vastly different from life around them.  Whether that’s riding dragons, visiting Mars, pasts that never were, or futures that may not be, one thing stands firm in all of it:  “If you really do believe these ridiculous things / Come on convince me.”

That’s all.

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Mixing Weirds

I trust Joss Whedon.  In multiple ways.  I trust him to tell an interesting and compelling story.  I trust him to create fantastic characters.  I trust him to crush my heart if I should care about any of those characters, typically by stabbing them through the chest with an exploding gun or giant bolt.  God damn you, Joss Whedon.

Wait.  That’s not what I was going to say.  I trust Joss Whedon.  Which is a damn good thing, because few other directors could make me optimistic about the upcoming Avengers movie.  It’s a movie I was otherwise anxious about, entirely because of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  I’m aware this is an odd connection to make, somehow holding a George Lucas movie against a Marvel release nearly a half decade later.  So why do I make the Crystal Skull/Avengers connection?  Because both of them mix weirds.

The two entries in the Indiana Jones franchise most people gravitate towards are the first and the third movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade.  Both of these feature dashing college professor Colonel Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr., Ph.D. (seriously, that’s apparently his full name) globe-trotting while looking for Judeo-Christian artifacts, first the Ark of the Covenant then the Holy Grail.  Odd side note, my college anthropology professor actually praised the movies as the best portrayal of archaeology in the movies, because Indy actually has to do research and get his hands dirty in the process of treasure hunting.  The movies present the Ark and the Grail as physical items containing the power of the God of Abraham, or at least the power of Nazi melting special effects.  We, as an audience, accept that Indy lives in such a fictionalized version of our own world, they create a fantasy where the power of God channels through holy physical artifacts.

Then there’s Crystal Skull, which abandons Christian based fantasy and instead goes running around the jungles of South America on the heels of what turns out to be aliens.  Um.  Spoiler alert.

Now, are ancient aliens who guided the machinations of pre-Columbian man any more fantastic than the literal power of God?  No.  However, it’s a very different sort of fantastic, a change in the source of the weird within the stories.  In the end, the movie would fit the themes of Raiders and Crusade if Indy was stopping post-WWII Nazis who fled to South America with the Spear of Longinus.  Alright, yes, apparently he did the Longinus thing in one of the comic books, but that’s not to say that he couldn’t have done so in the fourth movie, let the comic book be damned.  It’s much more the kind of thing that the audience is used to Indy chasing down.  It’s the same reason Temple of Doom, while many find it a lot of fun, just doesn’t quite fit with the other two.

Alright, look, there is more wrong with Crystal Skull than the changing of the weird.  There’s Mutt.  There’s everything getting handed to Indy that he has to work for in other movies.  There’s the fridge.  There’s the damned Tarzan scene that I’ve tried my damnedest to forget.  There’s…look, it just wasn’t that good of a movie, alright?  But this isn’t about why it was a bad movie, it’s why it set off my misgivings about the Avengers movie.

Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor.  Those are the four primary members set up for the Avengers movie, and while there are other main characters, they’re the four who got their own lead-up movies.  When looking at the four, one is clearly not like the other.  Captain America gets his power from an injection, and becomes powerful through science.  Ditto for the Hulk, though he ends up a little more emo about his power.  Iron Man doesn’t get injected with anything, but he is capable of building an insanely powerful exoskeleton powered by an element that doesn’t exist, so again we’re talking about science and technology.

And they’re joined by the literal Norse god of thunder.

Super science, super science, super science, Norse god.  It’s two different weirds, and the movie mixes them together.  Is it any weirder to have the Norse gods directly intervening in the lives of 21st century humans than it is for an industrialist to assemble a mechsuit in a cave in the middle east?  Not at all.  Is it a very different weird?  Absolutely.  Yes, I know, the Norse “gods” in the movies are actually aliens who have technology so thoroughly advanced that it is indistinguishable from science in the pure application of Clarke’s third law.  They’re still Thor, Odin, and Loki living in Asgard, fighting the frost giants of Jötunheimr.  They are the Norse gods.

I have a problem with mixed weirds.  I’m not sure why.  I suspect it has something to do with being asked to suspend my disbelief, then being asked to suspend it in an entirely different way.  It takes a lot of what I’ve heard called “author points.”  Though in this case I suppose it’s filmmaker points.  Maybe that’s why I’m okay with The Avengers, Joss Whedon has a lot of filmmaker points in my book, whereas what points George Lucas had, he lost with the Star Wars prequels.  And man, those have their own problems that I may write about in the near future, especially with the re-release.  But that would involve rewatching them to solidify my thoughts.

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In Defense of Writing Fan Fiction

This is one of those topics I consider writing about every few months, but never pull the trigger.  I’m not sure why.  It always feels like I’m walking into something whenever I talk about fan fiction, and I do know there’s a lot of voices both for and against the practice.  I can’t in good conscience come out against fan fiction, because that would make me a hypocrite.  The first completed stories I wrote were fan fiction.  No, you may not see any of it.  I’d actually be rather surprised if I could even find it any more, and no that is not being issued as a challenge.  What value is there in fan fiction?  Is there any value?  And how does one move from writing about established characters and settings to original ones?

The first question to ask is: why are you writing fan fiction?  Are you just writing it to be part of that community?  To show off your ideas for what could happen to your favorite characters?  Well, that’s great and fine.  I once said in a blog post that writing isn’t like other art in that people don’t tend to do it just for themselves.  That’s not entirely true when it comes to fan fiction.  Some authors are writing it just for their own sense of gratification.  Others share their work through online sites, forums, or trades, which is fantastic.  There’s a wonderfully supportive online community for fan fiction.  There’s always a writer willing to try something just a little new and different, a reader willing to read, and community member willing to comment.  I still remember those days, though I was writing before fanfiction.com became a thing, and I remember the friendliness and support in the community.  Hell, even when I got into meta-fiction built around mocking other fan fiction, targets typically had senses of humor about what they’d written and were supportive of my derivative efforts.

If you want to be part of that, that’s great.  I have nothing I can say but good luck and have some damn fun.

Is there a weird underbelly to fan fiction?  The people who give it a bad name?  Certainly.  I’m not talking about those people, because I suspect you aren’t one of them.  Because I think the best of people that way.  You’re not the person attending a copyright panel at a convention and asking how to protect your fan fiction work from being stolen by the original author behind the world.  Though if you are, don’t be that person.  Please.  There is good within the fan fiction community, but that’s the quickest way to give it a black eye.

Are you writing fan fiction with the dream of being a tie-in novelist?  I can’t go into this.  My impression from panels is that it isn’t the way to go, that tie-in novelists need to be established first.  And that being a tie-in novelist isn’t nearly the fun and games it may appear to be.

Are you writing fan fiction to become a better writer in general?  Aha, here is the meat.  This is where I think there is some tangible benefit to fan fiction writing.  There are freedoms when it comes to writing fan fiction that are helpful to the new writer, but can become seductive.  First, so much of the work has already been done for you, things that can be taken as a given.  The writer is a fan, the readers are fans, so everyone is on the same page.  “Riker walked into Ten Forward.”  Fans of the show know who Riker is, know what he looks like, know his personality and swagger.  They know what Ten Forward looks like, the people likely to be in there, the placement of the bar and tables, the windows.  This is character, setting, and even world building wrapped up in paper with a nice bow and delivered to the fan fiction writer.

You know what?  That’s fantastic.  It means that someone getting into writing can focus just on plot, plot, plot.  Get to know that one word, get to love it, and learn how to tell compelling stories.  At some point all the world building, character development, dialogue, and description will break down if there’s not a central plot.

Learning to use pre-built characters is also a first step towards creating and using your own characters.  Working on what makes them tick, keeping their motivations internally consistent.  There are exercises in character dynamics, exercises in character interactions, exercises in character voice.  All are lessons to be gained from fan fiction, all are lessons any writer will need to learn.

I said that things like setting, characters, and world building can be taken as a given.  That doesn’t mean should.  Use pre-built locations to gradually ramp up your descriptive skills.  Yes, we know what Ten-Forward looks like, but what makes it different this particular day?  What’s the atmosphere in there?  This is how to learn the telling detail.  And Riker “walked” in?  No.  Perhaps he swaggered in, since he is Riker after all.  Or he staggers, saunters, strolls, strides.  All of these are ways to walk into a room, but all have slightly different connotations about the character, his personality, and even his body language.  Telling details and more powerful verbs are both subtle but powerful tools, and both can be learned through fan fiction.

The other trick is evolving, and knowing when to move on from fan fiction.  If your plan is to write for a commercial market, eventually you’ll need to throw off the crutches altogether, wean yourself from the teat, and write your own characters and settings.  There’s no need to go cold turkey.  Just like a smoker with nicotine patches, there are ways to step down dependencies on precreated worlds and characters.  Create a new character and have them interact with established characters.  Then do it again, but not make the character a Mary Sue or Gary Stu.  Create a new environment and have established characters interacting with it.  Then take your new character, take your new setting, remove all the established stuff, and send them out into the great unknown with a sack lunch and those stories you’ve learned to tell by playing with other people’s toys.  The biggest danger is getting too comfortable.  Always do one thing in your story that makes you just a little uncomfortable as a writer, it’s the only way to grow.

So is it possible to break into the industry entirely writing with characters and worlds already on television?  Yes.  It’s called spec scripts.  But that’s not exactly fan fiction, and probably a subject for another day.

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High Stakes Game!

I watch the crappy movies that Syfy channel runs on Saturdays.  Oh, not every Saturday, but they’re a fantastic way to turn my brain off and get some writing done, because if I stop paying attention for half an hour, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything.  It’s also where I get a certain amount of fodder for my Writer Reviews file.  Today’s not going to be an official Writer Reviews post, but I would like to look at one of the Syfy movies that ran, oh, about a month ago.  I wish I could remember the title, but they all end up blurring together and, with the exception of Asylum releases, tend not to have overly evocative titles to begin with.

The plot of the movie concerned an antimatter storm churning in the earth’s atmosphere, rapidly increasing in size and threatening a city in, let’s say, Texas.  Yes, this is about the long term impact these movies have on me.  Eventually the movie hit the point where stakes had to be introduced.  Typically in this type of movie the stakes are the very planet itself.  Standard stakes in a natural disaster movie.  In this case, however, the astrophysicist working with the military determined that the storm wouldn’t just stop when the earth was destroyed, but that it would accelerate and destroy the entire universe!

At this point, I lost any connection I may have had with the movie.  The idea that some mistake at some nuclear power plant somewhere on earth could destroy the entire universe just doesn’t sit with me.  Largely because the universe is so old and massive that if something so localized could destroy the whole of it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to this point.  Logic dictates that the universe simply can not be that fragile.  It’s a complete failure in setting the stakes for the movie, and left me feeling less tension, not more.

And that’s really the goal of stakes.  They define what can be lost through failure.  When properly deployed, they determine the audience’s emotional investment and attachment with the story, and the amount of tension in the story.  But this doesn’t mean that higher stakes will result in more investment and tension.  Stakes have to be appropriate to the story in question.  I don’t buy a movie-of-the-week disaster story with end of the universe stakes.  I wouldn’t buy a period love story with even city-wide destruction stakes.  Gone With the Wind not withstanding.  The stakes have to be appropriate to the story in question.

This is all a round about way to talk about American Horror Story.  I love this show.  Love this show.  It’s probably one of my two or three absolute favorite shows on television right now, right up with Hell on Wheels and just outpacing Fringe and Castle.  I’ve talked about all four on this blog in the past, but I’m revisiting American Horror Story because this week’s episode established the stakes for the rest of the season.

The pope says rubber man’s baby means the end of the world.  Part of why I love the show is getting to write sentence’s like that.

The stakes of the show have been very clear through the first seven episodes.  It’s about a family, and the question was always whether something was going to happen to make one of them snap and kill everyone else.  That’s the history of the house, it creates death.  That’s to be expected, the standard stakes in a haunted house story are the occupants of the house.  Their sanity, their lives, their relationships, all of them are on the line as the shit starts going down.  We’re even conditioned to expect the worst in this show, because even if they end up dead they might still come back next season.  Most stars of shows are safe because they’re the marquee names, but once ghosts are in play, all bets are off.

But now the pope says rubber man’s baby means the end of the world.  It’s such a sudden and jarring amplification of the stakes at play that it threw me out of the episode.  Oh, not the show.  Certainly not the show.  It’s still fantastically campy and wonderful and toeing every line that it can toe without being on HBO instead of FX.  Perhaps this is why the show disappointed me so much with the new stakes being set so late in the season, it’s an odd bait and switch.  That said, this is a show about being campy in every way possible short of buying a tent and a propane lantern, so I’ll be staying with it even as it dives off the deep end, because I suspect it’ll be a fun trip.  But that doesn’t make it appropriate in all circumstances.  Remember that horror and comedy are flip sides of the same coin, and exaggeration in either can work well if guided by the right writers.  I’m firmly of two minds about this, and thus will adopt a wait-and-see approach.  It does do, however, leave fewer directions to go with the already green lit second season.

That’s the problem with stakes in any kind of serial, whether a TV series, a series of movies, or a series of books.  It’s always easier to increase stakes than it is to decrease.  It’s not impossible to decrease stakes.  Please don’t say I ever said that.  It’s just harder to move in that direction, and takes a very deft hand.

Be aware of the stakes you’re setting in your story, ask yourself if you’re pushing them too far.  Ramp them back if need be.  There are fantastic stories out there that have very small stakes, largely because the smaller the stakes the more personally they’ll play on each character, so the richer each character can be.  If you’re feeling the need to increase the stakes, ask why, make sure that the stakes work in the scale of the story.  It’s certainly possible to create a story with universe saving stakes, but it needs to be universe scaled.

The fate of the world depends on it.

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Burn it. Burn it with fire.

This statement might put me on some sort of future arsonist watch list, but there are a lot of problems that could be solved by copious amounts of fire.  The management of this blog absolutely does not recommend nor endorse solving any real world problems with copious amounts of fire, excepting those problems that can be solved through the completely legal application of copious amounts of fire, such a hot dogs needing to be warmed or bonfires needing to be started.

Alright, that should have me in the clear.

I’m pulling this idea largely from my wife, who has seen far more horror movies than I have.  There are frequently points in those movies where the problems being faced by the protagonists could be very easily solved by the application of fire.  This could be because a largely wooden house is trying to kill you.  This could be because the monsters are in an isolated area with lots of trees around.  Just watch horror movies, and think to yourself at what point the problem could be caused if the good guys would just rub some sticks together then walk away just quickly enough to outpace the fire line.  It’s a non-trivial percentage.  Even when it’s not fire, it may be some other simple solution that the characters are overlooking in the moment.

As a writer, this can be a problem.  Because viewers and readers pay attention to such things, and consider such options.  Or, if this isn’t something all readers and viewers do, and something just my wife and I do…perhaps I should be placed on a future arsonist watch list.  That’s not the point.  The point is: there is a potentially extreme but easily accomplished solution to a problem, there needs to be a reason why it won’t work.  There needs to be a reason not to just burn everything down to the ground and let the fire brigade sort through the ashes at the end.

Recent show that did this well?  Fringe.  During their October 7th episode “Alone in the World” (available on Hulu at the time of writing this post) the team is faced with a lethal subterranean fungal growth.  The solution?  Copious amounts of fire!  It was the first idea anyone on the team suggested, the first that they thought to try, high fives were exchanged on our sofa watching the episode because it’s great to see someone go for the simple solution.  However, it turned out the fungal growth was psychically linked to a young boy who would also be killed by this apocalypse of burning.  Another solution was needed, but fire was suggested, attempted, and found to not work.

So while working on a plot, it’s essential to be aware of any simple solutions to complex problems presented in the piece, and it’s good to have a reason why they just won’t work.  Because someone reading the book, someone watching the show or movie, they’re going to come up with that simple solution.  And they’re going to be irate with either the characters or the work as a whole when it’s not at least suggested and dismissed as untenable.

Because sometimes, you really can just burn it with fire.

Fire picture released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by Wikipedia editor Fir0002.

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A Writer Reviews: Hell on Wheels

If you could live in any period in history, what would it be?  Whenever I see that question asked, I’m shocked that more people don’t answer “right now,” for the simple reason that most of history, to put it bluntly, sucked.  Yes, people have idealized versions of historic periods.  The SCA adores the middle ages.  Steampunks adore the Victorian Era.  American politicians adore the 1950s.  But in each of those instances, the world that’s been remembered, the world that’s been idealized, the world that people are waxing so philosophical about was a dirty, ugly place filled with disease and death.

Not to mention dirty, ugly people.

As a society we’re certainly not perfect.  There’s still a lot of inequity between races, genders, religions (and lack thereof), sexuality, and any number of other elements that we can use to define who is different within the United States.  That said, we’re at a point in our history where the country is as inclusive as it’s ever been.  There are periods in our own history where the modern view of “racist” was the contemporary view of “normal.”  Such as, to pick an example at random, the post Civil War era.

Enter Hell on Wheels, AMC’s new drama surrounding the building of the Union Pacific half of the Transcontinental Railroad.

I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns, so I’m a bad one to discuss their history, but Hell on Wheel strikes me as a more modern breed of Western that I don’t remember existing before Unforgiven, a realm also inhabited by the remake of True Grit.  It’s a West full of grit, smoke, racism, bodily functions, and general suck.  And it’s a West that, in its presentation, feels more real than the more idealized frontier presented in what earlier Westerns I’m familiar with.

The writing lesson I’m getting at?  There are times it pays to be true to the source era.

Oh certainly there are times that it doesn’t.  Presenting an idealized past has long been a part of the Hollywood cannon, and has a certain place in lighter fair or children’s movies.  But the willingness of the fiction consuming audience to go swimming in a grittier and all together more realistic version of these previously spit-polished ages is as high as ever.

Hell on Wheels lands firmly in the shadow of the Civil War and the earliest phases of Asian immigration into California.  These were tough times for the country.  There were still tensions between those who fought on either side of the war.  There were the demographics of suddenly freed slaves and suddenly slaveless holders at odds with each other, and at the same time a suddenly expanded working class looking to earn a living.  There was a casual and almost expected racism to the age amongst landed whites of not just the south, but the north as well.  There was a renewed push into Native territory as the nation sought to better unite East and West while working through the challenges of reintegrating North and South.

Hell on Wheels is shying away from very little of this, and is better for it.  It paints a world of hard men who live, use, and move along.  One of the closing shots of the first episode is the filth left by the traveling city following the railroad builders, an indictment of an era of consumption, the repercussions are often ignored in the crafting of the Western.  It’s images like that, bits of the world left uncommented on by the “locals,” as it is where they live after all, but glaring to the modern eye.  It’s one of those places where the visual medium will always have its advantages over those of us working in print, brief and powerful images that can be a second of airtime.  We get them back in other ways, though.

For all the grit and horrible, my wife has even argued that it could go just a little farther.  That it pulled a punch by having its main character be a former slave owner and Confederate officer, but one who freed his slaves a few months before the war began.  One who fought for pride, rather than prejudice.  It would be a harder line to walk, it would be a harder character to like, and it would make the budding…well, friendship is the wrong word for the protagonist’s relationship with the primary freedman character.  Perhaps alliance?  It would make the budding alliance more complex.  But on the positive side, it would make it more complex, and complexity is the source of drama and plot.

I think the cliché of a setting becoming a character is overused, and often misused.  I’ve said it before, settings are not characters, and the setting is not a character in Hell on Wheels.  It is a rich environment that helps make all the other characters seem all that more real.  As all settings in dramas should be.  They should inform the character, define them, and make them who they are.  So while the setting is never really a character, neither are the characters without a setting.  By injecting more reality into the setting, the writer is injecting more reality into the characters.  It’s knowing just how much grit the characters need in a story that should dictate just how much grit must be afforded to the world around them.

For those who have missed the show so far, the pilot is available on AMC’s website until November 30th.  Give it a watch.  Stick around for Colm Meaney’s fantastic speech at the end of the episode.  If nothing else in the pilot had hooked me, that would have.  It starts at 44:35, and is a fantastic monograph on the villain in fiction, and reminds us that every character needs to be the start of his or her own story.  More of that in a future Writer Reviews, I’m sure.

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Cast of Characters

David MitchellSee the gentleman to the right?  His name is David Mitchell.  He’s a British actor and comedian who I’ve become familiar with due to his participation in that most British of television phenomenons, the prime time panel show.  Particularly through his involvement as a regulars on QI and a team captain on Would I Lie to you.  What can I say, I’m a fan of British comedy, and there’s a lot of these shows that’ll never get broadcast in the US for one reason or another hiding on Youtube.

So why do I have a picture of David Mitchell on my blog about writing, and why am I babbling about BBC panel shows?  Well, the latter is just because I’m a fan of them and this is my blog after all.  The first question is more to the point of this post.  I have a picture of David Mitchell because I realized he’s a character in Nickajack, the novel I’m currently outlining.  Oh, not the actual David Mitchell.  That would just be silly.  But rather the persona that he adopts during the panel shows, the version of himself that he puts out there for the UK and the world to see.  His mannerisms, his defensiveness, his delivery, his occasional dismissiveness.  Little bits and pieces of that are going to end up floating around the brain of an 1870s mechanical construct named, simply, No. 3.

Casting my characters is a trick that I picked up when working on a spec television pilot.  It’s probably a natural extension of writing for the screen, but is less obvious in writing for the page.  Casting characters allowed me to see them in more depth.  Allowed me to impart mannerisms better than just having the characters as raw constructs in my head.  Since I’ve started using this trick, I’ve seen and heard of other writers doing the same, often to very positive effect in the writing process.

And it’s fantastically cheap and easy to do.  As a writer for the page, rather than for the screen, there’s no worry about the budget for actors, no need to worry about availability and scheduling, no need to worry about an actor turning down a role because they simply feel it’s crap.  Or that they don’t want to do that kind of story.  Or that they’re dead.  Or that you’re casting the 30-year old version of a now 78-year old actor (I’ve done this).  It’s the kind of casting call that any Hollywood studio would kill to do.

You can also conduct horrible experiments, chopping stars up and gluing the pieces back together.  Something that would get you quite properly arrested in real life, but will create that much more dynamism in a character.  Take the demeanor of one actor, the delivery of another, the cadence of a third, mix them up, add a little of your own flavor, and it’ll come out on the far end unrecognizable as being inspired by a single real-world source.

This is not without peril.  When writing the pilot, I initially miscast the main character in my head.  And just as a poorly cast lead can drag down a movie, this bit of “miscasting” seriously dragged down the narrative of the story.  It took backing out of the written draft, recasting the character entirely, and starting nearly from scratch before he became an actual character and not just lines of dialogue floating around the pages.  It didn’t matter that the newly “cast” actor would never work television, he had the right presence to inform and build the character.

So play around with your characters.  Think about who you want them to be.  This can be especially helpful for a character who just won’t quite come together.  Think of who you imagine playing them, then write around that idea.  It’s not going to work for every character in every story, but it has gotten me out of several jams with characters who I otherwise wasn’t quite feeling.

David Mitchell photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Attribution: Pinkboy at en.wikipedia

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The Problem with Zombies

Even in their first major movie appearance, it was about the people, not the zombies.The problem with zombies is that they always want to eat your brains.

Wait.  No.  That’s not what I was going to talk about at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about zombies lately.  Likely this is due to some Twitter conversations I’ve gotten into mixed with the second season of Walking Dead spiced with just a dash of feeling rather like the walking dead myself due to my annual late fall head blah.  That’s why, over in Unleaded yesterday, I talked about just what makes Zombies popular right now.  And why here I want to talk about the biggest problem that exists with zombies.

It has nothing to do with them being an unstoppable horde, that there’s always ten more to replace the one you just killed.  It has nothing to do with the nasty skin issues that come with being a reanimated corpse.  It doesn’t even have to do with the issues that arise when one continues to eat after biological functions have shut down your digestive tract.  Though that’s somewhat nasty to consider.  No, zombies boil down to one problem:

They’re boring.

Yup.  I said it.  Zombies are boring.  That’s not to say they aren’t scary.  That’s not to say they can’t appear in an entertaining bit of fiction.  But take an individual zombie and try to force anything interesting out of it and you just can’t.  By definition they have no personality.  They have no quirks.  They have nothing that differentiates them from the crowd, save for the occasional loved-one-turned-zombie that shows up in the stories.  But even then, they’re not interesting for who they are, they’re interesting for who they were.

Great title I saw on a fake kids’ book: That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore.

Alright, so if you’re willing to follow me this far down my rabbit hole the question comes up: then why do we find zombie stories entertaining.  The answer is that, while zombies are boring, people are not.  And people put into a situation that we can hardly imagine are even more interesting.  That’s why zombie stories can’t be about the walking dead, they have to be about the still living.  Oh sure, there’s the occasional attempt to change the paradigm around.  Any number of short stories written from a zombie perspective.  There’s even the movie Fido, which is more about a zombie than most movies.  But most readers, most viewers, even if they’re seeking out zombie fiction don’t actually want fiction about zombies, they want fiction about people dealing with zombies.

Boring zombies, really interesting zombie survivors.Enter the Walking Dead.  Enter a show named after zombies, is really the first television show primarily about zombies, especially the first show to have its zombies be zombies (if I’m still in this mood next week I’ll talk about the Borg and Reavers), but at the same time it can tell more compelling and better crafted stories in episodes that feature almost none of the titular walking dead.  Because it’s not telling stories about zombies, it’s telling stories about the tensions that arise when a group of people who would have nothing to do with each other are forced together by horrendous situations and told to survive.  It’s about who would go how far.

It’s really a variation of a life raft story, a deserted island story, any of a number of genres that look to create unlikely groupings of people.

And where does that leave zombies?  It puts them in interesting company.  They are the ocean, or the island.  They are not a character, they are a setting.  And as with any good setting, they will dictate how people react, they will even directly affect how the characters behave, but the setting is never the beginning, end, and everything of a story.  Even Lost was ultimately about the people, even as the island’s prominence grew.  At the end, the characters all have to be distinct, and be reacting to the setting in a way that fits.

And there it is, in a nutshell.  Settings are not characters.  Oh, sure, you’ll see reviews about a novel that talk about the location as a character, but that’s just shorthand for a robustness in world building.  In the end characters are characters, settings are settings, and while the two influence each other, dictate to each other, there is a wall drawn between them.

So go forth with your zombie worlds.  Just remember that, as much fun as the zombies might be to write, they are not your characters.  So don’t neglect the living.  That’s who interests people.  We are the living, make the stories about us.

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Estate Sale Stories

Today my wife and I decided to take the day off and just…have a day off.  It’s fantastic.  And because we’re us, we decided we were going to hit some estate sales, see all the best stuff that’s already been bought by antique dealers when we typically show up to sales on Saturday and Sunday.  In the end three sales netted us one book (a world history written by HG Wells) and two stories.

House one.

My wife is calling this the “creepy house”.  It was a good half hour drive, but we were drawn there by the idea of an estate on a 40 acre plot of land, especially with several pictures on the estate sale website showing bookshelves bowing under the weight of their loads.  It was clear when we drove up that the house, nestled in among the battlefields of Manassas, was old.  I don’t know exactly when the house was built, there was no one there conducting tours of the place, but it easily dated to the 1800s.  I doubt it was there when the Civil War was being fought, but I don’t think it came much later.

The house was originally u-shaped, but the old patio was filled in decades ago.  Not well.  All the walls still felt like exterior walls, even still had exterior windows in them.  My wife, as I’ve been writing this, has been trying to find the house of Zillow, which claims a construction date of 1942.  Bullshit, says I.  My bet is that’s the date of the fill-in.

But this isn’t about real estate, this is about stories.  I wasn’t really looking for the story in this house, but my wife couldn’t stop talking about it after we left.  She was struck by the peeling wall paper.  By the questionable quality of the addition.  Just by the fact that the house was located at the back of a massive field, down about a half mile of gravel driveway.  I also didn’t see the unicorns filling the house.  Not until they were pointed out to me.  Then, yes, there were unicorns everywhere.  I don’t think there was a room without them.  The master bedroom included a little make-up alcove.

What really spoke to my wife were the two children’s rooms.  The rooms clearly decorated for young girls.  The rooms where the estate sale runners decided to display the medical equipment.  Probably equipment used by the owners of the house, the same owners who needed the chair lift on the stairs.  Who lived at the end of this half mile driveway off an out of the way road miles from the closest…anything.  And yet were subsisting, even though some horribly brutal weather the last two winters.  In a house that felt untouched for the past sixty years, save that chair lift.

This was the story my wife walked away from the day with.  I just walked away with a book that was someone’s Christmas present 75 years ago.  That in itself felt a little weird

House two.

This was the story that fascinated me.  It was located in the heart of Vienna, one of the swankier parts of Northern Virginia.  And the house certainly fit.  It was a recently built three story mansion.  All the stair cases were sixteen stairs long to allow for massive ceilings, even in the basement.  There were the wet bars.  Plural.  One in the kitchen, one in an entertaining room off the kitchen, and a third in the basement pool room.

This was my dream house.

Everything about the house smelled new, the scent of cutting carpet and drywall dust.

And yet, there was an estate sale going on.  I know there’s any number of reasons to have an estate sale.  Downsizing, moving, a divorce, it doesn’t mean that someone has necessarily died.  And in this house, the modern day mansion with the huge room of Christmas decorations and an interior where nothing looked older than 20 years, I hope that the purpose of the sale had nothing to do with tragedy.  But my brain couldn’t help churning through what might have happened in this house.  What might lead such new construction with clearly young occupants (my guess based on the weight room in the basement) to end up going to estate sale?

I don’t have an answer.  Or, at least, I don’t have an answer yet.  But there’s certainly a story that could be set in this shocking new house at the end of the swanky driveway.

The lesson in the end of this?  Get out.  Look around.  Estate sales can be one place to get a story idea, or at least a setting for a story.  Both of these houses will likely work their way into our stories.  What we get out of each were story details that may not have occurred to us on our own.  Settings that we wouldn’t have thought existed.  All it cost us was a few hours in the morning, and $3 for that book.

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Better Living Through Cliches

Because occasionally we can all use a little advice in our lives, and what better place to turn than cliches?  Today we look at the all too common situation where some seriously messed up shit is going on, but you just don’t know what.

In this situation, there’s a clear order of who to ask.  First, look for any children available, the younger the better.  This can include teenagers, but only if everyone else available is at least 30.  Ideally, you want someone roughly half the age of the second youngest person.  If no one falls under this age suggestion, move on.

So people are still dying off one by one and there’s no children available.  That’s when it’s time to turn to the person wearing glasses.  No matter how insane their suggestions sound, they are likely correct.  Trust them more and more as they can cite specific examples similar to what’s happening.

Do not trust this man.

But what if you don’t have any children or clear nerds available?  That’s where you look for the oldest African American gentleman you can find.  Don’t immediately ask them advice, though.  First determine whether or not he is Tony Todd.  If so, he’s likely the personification of death and should be avoided.  Otherwise, ask away and trust everything they say.  Afterall, horror movies have shown us how unlikely it is for any African American man to make it past the age of 30, clearly any who have reached an advanced age must know anything there is to know.

If none of these people are available…

…well, you’re probably screwed.

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