Archive for category A Writer Reviews

Homework Assignment

Quick post just to put my money where my mouth is.  I’ve made a few tweets today talking about the protagonist and antagonist in The Prestige.  These came about because I’ve been exploring the Hollywood Formula as a way to add depth to my writing, and because I love the movie.  In part because it’s so challenging to figure out just who the protagonist and antagonist are.  I was discussing it with my wife last night, and I believe she’s gotten it exactly right, so we’ll likely be rewatching this weekend with an eye towards the theory, and to pick out who the relationship character is in this theory.

I’m going to put a break in here because, while shame on you if you haven’t seen it yet, the protagonist/antagonist theory involves a very big plot spoiler.

Read the rest of this entry »

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A Writer Reviews: A Christmas Story

In what year does A Christmas Story take place?  It’s a simple question, one that I thought I knew the answer for when my wife asked it last night during my annual review of a favorite film of mine.  I went online to quickly confirm I was right to discover that the question is widely debated with five answers directly supported by the movie.

1937.  The issue of Look Magazine that Ralphie sneaks the Red Ryder ad into was the December 21, 1937 edition.  However, this is two years before the film adaptation of Wizard of Oz came out.

1939.  It explains all the Wizard of Oz references, since that’s the year the movie came out.  It’s also directly supported by a calendar barely visible on the wall during one of the dinner scenes.  It’s turned to December with the 1st falling on a Friday.  That’s 1939.

1940.  The decoder pin that Ralphie gets from the Little Orphan Annie show is a model only given out in 1940.

1941.  The mother distracts the Old Man by pointing out a game between the Packers and Bears “this Sunday”.  The two teams played each other on a Sunday in December in 1941, and not again until 2011.  Their previous Sunday December meeting was 1933.

1946.  The Sox traded Bullfrog.  “Bullfrog” was Bill Dietrich, and the Sox never actually traded him, but they did release him in 1946, albeit in September.  Little Orphan Annie was long off the radio by this point.

So in what year does A Christmas Story take place?  It’s easy to call the above discrepancies continuity errors, and there are several legitimately anachronistic items in the movie.  It’s to be expected of a film put together on a $4 million budget that was never intended to be an enduring holiday classic.  I choose a more charitable view.  So let’s chalk it up to a form of everyone’s favorite narrative style, the unreliable narrator.

It’s not typically what we think as an unreliable narrator, but what narrator is more unreliable than someone trying to remember his childhood?  This movie is clearly the memories of several Christmases fused together, whether intentionally or accidentally, supplemented with other memories from Jean Shepherd’s essays, and all time shifted as Shepherd was born about a decade earlier than Ralphie would have been. Thus the movie takes place in no specific year, and makes a point of not listing a specific year.  Instead, it takes place in a childhood within an idealized world, where nothing that happens outside a young boy’s narrow perspective matters.  It’s this timelessness that allows it to still resonate, and that makes the “what year” question ultimately futile, and perhaps even counter-productive.

Memories are funny things.  They exaggerate, they blur together, they take on lives of their own.  We see all of this, everything is the heightened realism of childhood experiences.  The line to see Santa goes on forever, the weird kid at the end of it is…really damn weird.  There’s a grown-up earnestness to Ralphie that comes from being the younger version of the narrator.  It’s part of the charm of the movie, and what keeps people coming back to it, even if they have no nostalgic connection to the era.

Another example of unreliable narrator via cloudy memories?  How I Met Your Mother.  While there are points and episodes where the adult-Ted-relating-these-stories narrative falls down, there are those episodes where the writers have used this structure with great effect.  Ted’s brief fling with a girl only referred to as “Blah Blah” by the characters, as older Ted can’t remember her name.  Getting two stories of Lily being mad with Barney conflated, not remembering that one happened when she was pregnant and the other a year before.  Not being able to remember the exact year for the Goat Story.  This is all the unreliable narrator trying to pull memories out and getting them just not quite right.

We never remember things quite right, except for those people blessed (cursed?) eidetic memory or hyperthymesia.  Except, it seems, in stories.  Our fictional characters frequently remember the past clearly, lucidly, with no hiccups or faults of memory.  This isn’t the way the human brain works.  We are all unreliable narrators of our own past, typically because we paint ourselves with our own heroic tendencies or worst neuroses.  Always remember this.  Never forget this.  Especially with a first person narration.  Even if the story isn’t intended to have an unreliable narrator, in one way or another it still will.

I started this post not with a movie poster, as I typically do for Writer Reviews, but with a Dali painting.  Most of you probably recognize it, many likely by name: The Persistence of Memory.  It’s surrealist, certainly, but melting clocks is perhaps one of the best metaphors I’ve seen for how the human memory actually works.  Things distort, they blur together, they’re not quite right.  Remember that when your characters are remembering anything.

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A Writer Reviews: Black Death

You have, by all likelihood, never heard of this movie.  And that’s alright, neither had I.  It’s one of those direct-to-DVD releases that showed up in our Netflix recommendations and intrigued us for several reasons.  First was Netflix’s predictive score of 3.9 stars.  Second was appearance that it would be a rather brutal portrayal of plague-era England.  Third was Sean Bean.  And it delivered on everything we hoped for.  Crucifixions, fake witchcraft, nasty teeth, and Sean Bean dying.

This is not a spoiler.  Sean Bean always dies.  Hell, one of those clips is from this movie.  I’ll leave it unspoiled which one.  Hint: none of the ones with guns.

I’ll say this much for the Netflix predictive score, it was dead on.  3.9 is about right for this movie.  I was entertained throughout, but it’s not really going to stick with me.  However, I wanted to pull out one element of the movie and use it as a Writer Reviews subject: the denouement.

I’m sure we all had the denouement drilled into our heads in middle school; it’s all the parts of the story that happen after the climax.  It serves to wrap up the story, wrap up the characters, potentially provide a quick clean-up of a sub plot, and ideally serves to bookend the whole work with the opening.  They’re tough, and I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on them, as they’re one of the areas that I’m still unquestionably growing as a writer.  However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t know a flawed denouement when I see one.

And the denouement is where Black Death falls apart.

The movie ends with the protagonist returning home after all the horrors he has seen in the world, all the evil he’s unintentionally done, all the good he’s tried to do.  This is the standard ending for the heroic journey story.  He is accompanied by the only surviving member of the party (not Sean Bean) who proceeds to provide narration for an extended sequence where the protagonist seeks out revenge for what he has seen.  It’s a really dark sequence, and I typically approve when a movie feels it can Go There, but it fails on two very important fronts.

First: it’s too long.  This is a fault of many movies.  To pull some more mainstream examples of overly long denouements, let’s look at AI: Artificial Intelligence and Return of the King.  In AI, the climax of that movie is the robot boy David finally completing his quest to see the Blue Fairy and begging to be a real boy.  It’s a hell of an ending, too, if you choose to stop the movie at that moment.  The denouement is all that stuff that comes after, set 2000 years in the future and taking 20 minutes to unfold.  It shifts the story to a new location, introduces new concepts, and plays out almost as a short film tacked onto the end of the movie.  Return of the King is absolutely infamous for the length of the denouement, which features several false endings before finally drawing to a close with Samwise home again in the Shire.  Here I give a little more leeway, as the denouement is scaled to the trilogy rather than just the movie, but it still received plenty of criticism.

An overlong denouement has several effects.  For one, it makes the audience all squirmy when they really need to go pee, but that’s more a movie issue than a written issue.  More importantly it can dampen the emotional high of the climax by separating the audience from it, or worse invalidate the emotions of the climax completely.  It also serves as an imposition on the audience’s time and patience.  How much of either the author have to play with depends entirely on the investment they’ve secured from the audience.  It’s hard to keep going back and say “just one more thing,” and ultimately makes the story look poorly structured, like there was so much more to tell but the author got to the end of the main plot too quickly.

Second: it’s told from rumor and conjecture.  I am all for the unreliable narrator in fiction, so long as it’s done well.  In film, it’s so much harder than in written fiction.  Fight Club?  Brilliant use of the unreliable narrator in film.  Black Death?  Not so much.  The trick with the good use of an unreliable narrator is that he or she can’t know they’re unreliable.  It pulls the audience in and leaves them guessing.  The end narration in Black Death begins with the narrator admitting to no direct knowledge of the events as they unfurled.  At that point I’m done with the story, because the narrator has been removed from it without even an opportunity to wonder.

It also relies on narration in a movie largely devoid of it.  However, at least in this case the narration bookends the entire movie.  The denouement is not the place to start narration, though this is really more of a movie problem than a written work problem, as books rely on at least some form of narrator from the start.  However, the sudden narrator in a movie is akin to a book switching suddenly from third to first person in the last chapter.  Consider how jarring that would be as a reader.  Again, this was a flaw of AI.  It’s also the flaw of the original cut of Blade Runner.

Alright.  One of the flaws.

So what are the hallmarks of a good denouement?  Largely they’re successful when they don’t feel like a denouement.  I’m always disappointed when I can step out of a movie or a story and say “aha, I’m in the denouement now” on first consumption.  It’s the same sensation that started the Writer Reviews series when I talked about finding the act breaks in my first viewing of Thor.  This probably doesn’t apply to everyone, but I cannot really dissect a piece of media I’m enjoying it on my first trip through.  If I can, it means I’m not engaged with the story in some way.  And disengagement of the reader/viewer is a problem in any work of fiction.

Be aware of your denouements.  Keep them sort, keep them on task, keep them to the point, and don’t go changing the style of story in them.

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Hey. Hey Apple. Apple. Hey.

A little secret: I stopped watching Once Upon a Time.  So I don’t know whether they’ve continued the Honey Crisp/Red Delicious screw up.  What I do know is I’m still getting Google hits every Monday morning for some variation of “once upon a time honeycrisp apple.”  What I also know is that apples have shown up on another genre television show, a show that’s been frustrating the hell out of me, even as I give it more chances than I think it really deserves.

Yup.  The apples have gone 85 million years back in time to appear on Terra Nova.

This time it had nothing to do with the variety of apples used, but rather an apple blight and a CGI beetle that loves eating apple blight.  It was tangential to the primary plot of the show, but worked something like this.  Step one: blighted trees, ruined crop.  Step two: release beetles.  Step three: beautiful trees, bounteous crop.  All in the course of less than a week.

Blight really doesn’t work that way.  It destroy entire yields of crops, it kills trees.  No amount of magic CGI beetle is going to surgically remove just the infected bits of an apple and leave beautiful fruit behind for everyone to enjoy and bake into pies to feed to young children who never got to have an apple pie back home because the future was just that miserable!  Deep breath.  This seems like such a little nit to pick, but it leads up to my new rule for genre television:

Judge shows by their use of apples.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Once Upon a Time: Couldn’t be bothered to properly source the right kinds of apples for scenes.  Terra Nova: misunderstands just how devastating a blight is to a crop and paints it as a reversible thing.  American Horror Story: when Zachery Quinto is raging out about gala apples, by god, they’re gala effing apples.

And which of those three shows is the strongest?  Easily American Horror Story.

So now I’m going to be on the lookout for apples in other genre shows, just to see if the pattern holds up.  And it does make sense as a pattern, because this really has nothing to do with apples and everything to do with just paying attention to the little details.  Because those are often just as important as the big ones.

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A Writer Reviews: Them Apples

I love Honeycrisp apples.  And really, who wouldn’t?  They were scientifically created by the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities to be the perfect apple for eating raw.  They’re crisp, they’re sweet, they’re juicy, they really are the best thing that you can grab out of the grocery store produce aisle and just sink your teeth right into.  Except they’ll probably want you to pay for the apple first.

But this is A Writer Reviews, not Eat This.  So why am I talking about Honeycrisp apples?  Well, first I want you to see a picture of a Honeycrisp.

Honeycrisp photo released under the Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 3.0 license by wikipedia user Jonathunder.

Aw man, that looks good, doesn’t it?  They get that great two-toned skin similar to a gala apple that makes them visually distinct.  I show you that picture to show you another picture.  These are the kinds of apples that Once Upon a Time has been using for the Evil Queen.

Red Delicious photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 by wikipedia user Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.

That’s a Red Delicious apple, the apple that put Washington State on the map as an apple producer, and that still makes up most of the crop in the state.  Not as good for eating raw, great for cooking.  It has an iconic look to it, somewhat tall with very distinct bumps on the bottom, and a uniform red coloration throughout.  Every apple we’ve seen thus far on Once Upon a Time has clearly been a red delicious.  However, this week’s episode made a point of calling them Honeycrisps.  Several times.  It expounded on the ability of the Honeycrisp to grow in harsher northern climates.  Which is true, it’s what they were partially bred for.  A character talks about tending a Honeycrisp tree since she was a child.  Which is unlikely for the age of the actress, since they were only recently released, but since she’s also the Evil Queen I can forgive her a lie on this matter.  But to go out of the way to pick one very specific type of apple and then show another?  I can’t understand that.

If the store the prop department goes to doesn’t have Honeycrisp apples, they you go to the farmer’s market or the off ramp in Valencia and you buy a bag from Pedro.  Where’s the effort?

Sorry, that’s not me getting into random racial profiling, but rather it’s from another show that featured very specific species of apples this week, American Horror Story.  In a great scene, Zachery Quinto, playing a ghostly house stager (fantastic sentence to type) wants Granny Smith apples for a bobbing station, but series star Dylan McDermott bought Galas.  And, by god, those are Gala apples floating in the basin.

In the case of a television show, this is a prop department issue.  The prop department for American Horror Story is clearly a little more up on its apple varieties than the prop department of Once Upon a Time.  Or cares a little more.  Or realizes if a character is going to get mad about a variety of apples, it better as hell be that variety of apples.  If you think I’m being harsh and pedantic on Once Upon a Time (“I think you’re over-reacting.”  “Because I’m the only one who actually gives a shit?”), well, I am.  But I’m also not the only person who noticed that they clearly were not using the new darling of the apple world, and instead using mealy cooking apples.  But it’s still a prop department issue, not a writing room issue, so why am I even bringing it up?

As writers on the page, rather than writers for the screen, we are our own prop departments.  And we are writing for an audience that is going to include harsh and pedantic people, because that’s who people are.  So we have to do what we can to ensure that the props we put in stories are accurate, especially if we’re being precise about their nature.  If there’s a bowl of gala apples on a table and a character examines their green skin, that’s a prop error.  If Dirty Harry is running around shooting his .44 Magnum, he better fire either five shots or six, because if there’s a seventh, that’s a prop error.  Anytime a real world object is mentioned by name, it better work and look the right way or include an explanation of why it doesn’t.

People will notice these things.  People will call bullshit.  And it will pull people out of the stories.

What’s the solution?  There are two.  Less specificity and more research.  The former works where specificity isn’t essential to the plot, but be careful not to turn it into a cheat.  Sure we’re not going to know the make and model of every gun being shot at our hero as she escapes the death trap set up to finally kill her, especially if we’re in third person limited or first person perspective.  But we’ll probably know what her gun is, even if it’s a fictional one, just so that the rules of the weapon can be internally consistent.  So when specificity is called for, it’s time to do enough research to make sure the details are right.

So get your apples right.  And while you’re at it, go out and try a Honeycrisp if you haven’t.  Me?  I’ve actually got a bottle of Honeycrisp hard cider at home I’ve been meaning to break open.

Honeycrisp photo released under the Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 3.0 license by wikipedia user Jonathunder.
Red Delicious photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 by wikipedia user Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.

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A Writer Reviews: Cowboys & Aliens

I finally got a chance to see Cowboys & Aliens thanks to dollar night at the local cinema and drafthouse.  I can say three definitive things about the movies.  It did contain cowboys.  It did contain aliens.  And I was glad I only paid a dollar to see it.  I’m not sure where it all went wrong.  It had writers I trust, a direct I trust, actors I trust, but the whole thing just failed to come together in any way shape or form.  I suspect it needed a little more western and a little less science fiction.  In the end it was an alien invasion movie that just happened to take place during the Wild West without really getting enough into the setting.  It was Independence Day with a general store instead of the White House and horses instead of fighter jets.

But this is Writer Reviews, so it’s time to look at this from a writing perspective.  So lets look at the use of tropes and cliches within fiction.

There were three notable alien species tropes going on within Cowboys & Aliens that tend to distract me from stories.  Two were being followed, to the movie’s detriment, and one was being ignored, to its benefit.

Trope one: How’d they build that?  Science fiction abounds with belligerent alien races.  Pure killing machine death creatures that show up on their spaceships with no intention but utter destruction.  Which is fine, every story needs a villain, and evil alien species is one of the go to antagonists of SF.  However, there are species that I can buy as being space faring warriors, and there are species that don’t feel like they should have advanced nearly so far technologically.  The latter is who showed up to kick butt in Cowboys & Aliens.  Granted, in a movie it’s hard to explore the aliens, especially with the entire movie told from the human perspective.  However, other movies have managed.  Independence Day did this in the short scene with Brent Spiner being used as a meat puppet by a capture invader.  Other movies choose to ignore it for pure action purposes.  I have a harder time buying the Predators1 as having advanced to the point of space faring without completely destroying themselves.  To be frank, I’ve always had a hard time with the Klingons in that respect.  Humanity seems to be about as internally hostile as a species can get without embarking on complete self destruction.  We hope.

So these aliens?  They clearly possess technology, but I got no sense through the movie that they were the ones actually behind the technology.

Trope two: Everyone loves humans.  This trope involves some spoilers, so if you still intend to watch the movie, perhaps skip down to Trope Three.  Throughout the movie Olivia Wilde’s character is making doe eyes at Daniel Craig.  Which is fine when we think she’s human, he is the ruggedly handsome protagonist in a western, all the ladies are supposed to fall in love with him.  However it’s revealed near the midpoint of the movie that she is, in fact, an alien.  And that the body she is using is one she constructed so as to walk amongst humanity.  Who makes doe eyes and Daniel Craig and even gives him a passionate good-bye kiss before going off to die nobly and thus ensure that none of the human characters gets a shot at that kind of sacrifice.

What?  I said this trope had spoilers.

Anyway.  We don’t know what Olivia Wilde’s species typically looks like.  But we can suspect they look sufficiently non-human if she had to take the form she did to walk amongst us.  Yet her desires still apparently conform to not just a human, but a Western (etymological, not genre) ideal of attractiveness.  This is a pervasive trope in Science Fiction, and even crops up in the hallmarks of the genre.  Star Trek has it.  Star Wars has it.  I don’t buy it.

Trope three: Invincible aliens.  Shoot them, stab them, blow them up, and they just keep coming, man.  It’s a bug hunt!  This is where I’ll give the movie some credit.  Throw a spear at the aliens, especially since they don’t tend to wear much by the way of clothing, and it’ll strike some major organs.  Shoot them with arrows and they’ll bleed.  Get them close up with a gun and they’ll die.  Any time it’s humans vs something else, there’s a tendency to make that something else invincible save for one fatal weakness.  This is used to replace tension in a lot of movies.  The heroes shoot it and shoot it and it won’t die.  They have to figure out the weak spot.

I’ll give you a hint.  In most of those cases the “weak spot” is the writing.

Using invincibility as a point of dramatic tension is a cheat, because it’s not actually tension.  It’s just toying.  The tension still needs to be internal to the humans, something within their dynamic.  A goal they’re looking to achieve other than not getting killed by the invincible boogie man set to chase them down.  Invincibility can be used, but I’ve seen it used badly (every single monster movie on Syfy) more often than I’ve seen it used well.  Cowboys & Aliens went for a spot I’d call “tough but fair” with the aliens.  It takes a little more to kill them, but they can be killed by such things as massive blood loss or damage to internal organs.  Ya know, the same things that can kill every single species on earth.  The tension wasn’t force through the creatures being unkillable, it came through the enemy-of-my-enemy army that humanity put together, through the attempts to save captured loved ones.  It was one of the few things the movie actually did decently well, largely carried on the shoulders of Harrison Ford’s character who possessed every bit of complexity in the entire movie.

I’m spitting out “tropes” here like it’s a bad word.  Like tropes are a bad thing.  As a universal, they’re not.  Oh sure, some are almost never used well, but there are exceptions to every rule.  As writers, we have to be aware of the tropes we’ve introduced into our stories, and determine whether they’re being used effectively or whether the trope is being used in place of something like tension or characterization.  There’s times, there’s places, there’s uses, and there’s abuses.  So practice safe troping out there.

1. I’ve been taken to task for the Predators.  I do like the theory that the ones we see are the rednecks of the species.  As my wife puts it, “everyone else is really embarrassed that Cletus shot another human and expects them to serve it at Thanksgiving.”  That’s different, that’s individuals, and I certainly couldn’t build the car I drive around in.  But there are certain examples of entire species who clearly don’t feel like they should have gotten to the space faring stage in development.


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A Writer Reviews: What Remains vs The Naked Now

If I am to criticize a show for what I feel it is doing wrong, I suppose it is only fair that I applaud when it corrects course.  And so I am here to applaud last night’s episode of Terra Nova, which did something I’ve never seen a show do before: use amnesia to further characters.  But first, because I’m a fan of when things go wrong, I’m going to look at a show that went horribly wrong with a similar plot device.

I’m going to look at Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Specifically a first season episode called The Naked Now.  This is an infamously bad episode, nestled firmly in that rocky first half of a first season that included vaguely African civilizations used to recreate the Ponn Farr duel from the original series, and Wesley Crusher at his most annoying.  The Naked Now was the first episode after the pilot, and if you don’t recognize the name, most fans of the show will recognize it from one scene.  It’s the episode where Data is “fully functional.”

There is oh so much that can be criticized about that episode.  If I were writing a full review of it, I’d scarcely know where to start.  But if I’m talking Terra Nova, I’m talking characters, so I’m going to stick to that.  This was a new show, fresh of an ambitious pilot meant to relaunch a franchise to television.  In doing so, it chose to pull a familiar plot line from the original series, The Naked Time, and I can’t fault it for doing so in order to create continuity.  What I can fault it for was the decision to take the second episode of a new series, when viewers don’t yet know the characters, and choose to make them all act out of character.  As the sort of contagious drunkenness moves through the crew one by one, they lose their inhibitions and become entirely different people than they will be for the rest of the series.

This is not characterization.  This is the exact opposite.  It’s something that requires a well established baseline so we, the viewers, can sit down and say “aha, Picard wouldn’t act like that!  He must be infected!”  But we don’t know these things.  The show wasted what was its first chance to establish characters for the crew, many of whom got only brief introductions in the pilot.  Instead, we’re left with a confusing mish-mash and a disturbing mental image of android/human sexual relations.

When I saw the trailers for last night’s Terra Nova episode, I worried the show was going in a similar direction.  These ads promised a virus that was wiping out the memories of the settlers, one-by-one.  While it’s not a highly contagious virus simulating drunkenness, amnesia is still a plot device that causes a character to act against type and against previous characterization.  It is also, to be blunt, a weak plot device often better deployed in sitcoms as they run out of steam and are desperate for stories.

Color me surprised, therefore, when the show found a unique twist on amnesia by having characters not forget who they are.  Instead the virus only allows them to remember who they were, rolling their brains back roughly twenty years.  This allowed the show a way to fill in the characters of Commander Taylor, Elisabeth, and Malcolm Wallace, introduced last week.  Through the retrograde memory the viewers got a chance to see their pasts in a way that didn’t require flashing back to the rather expensive dystopian future shown in the pilot.  Jim also got a chance to interact with Malcolm, and briefly the new girlfriend and boyfriend of his son and daughter.  The character played against some of the archetypal problems highlighted previous, and actually became a character in the process.  Specifically, it feels like he’s turning into Jack Carter from Eureka, but that’s a far better choice than the Jim Shannon from the first three hours of Terra Nova.

Characters, then.  They need to exist.  And I mean that more than “you must have characters,” I mean that in the sense that characters need to feel like real people.  Like you could meet them on the street.  This is what Terra Nova finally felt like it was doing last night.  If characters are going to act inconsistently for plot purposes, there needs to be an established baseline of what consistent is.  That was the trap of The Naked Now, and that was the trap that What Remains came nowhere near.  This is important in serialized television, it’s important in novels, it’s important in short stories.  I’m hoping Terra Nova is on the right path now with actually characterizing their characters.

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A Writers Reviews: Terra Nova

I typically use this feature to talk about movies, but I wanted to do something different today and look at one of the new television shows I’ve caught this season.  I want to talk about Terra Nova.

First, I’ve been enjoying this show.  It’s hard not to.  The opening scenes in the Blade Runner meets Soylent Green future were fantastically bleak.  The dinosaur effects are the best effects I’ve seen in a television series.  Yes, they’ve gotten some crap for the effect quality, but that’s making a comparison between huge budget movies, and big budget television series.  It’s differences of scale.

But that’s not what I want to talk about, because special effects don’t really have much to do with the writing craft.  I want to talk about the one thing I feel is missing from Terra Nova.  The one thing that could make the show better.

The show needs characters.

Oh certainly there are humans there on the screen.  They walk around, they talk to each other, they drive the plot.  But the show doesn’t have characters.  It has archetypes.  And that’s a problem I’ve seen in short stories and novels, it’s a problem I’ve seen in my writing.  And it’s a tough problem.

Look.  Archetypes are great.  They exist for a reason.  But much like their close relatives, clichés, they have their places, their uses, but must be properly handled.  Let’s look at the family at the heart of Terra Nova, since it’s marketed as a family drama that just happens to include dinosaurs.  It has Jim, the dad who’ll do anything for his kids.  Elisabeth, the mom who just wants the family to be a family.  Josh, the protective older brother.  Maddy, the brainiac sister.  And Zoe, the youngest daughter who I can’t even adequately describe as anything other than “the youngest daughter.”  Which is a shame because her mere existence is the catalyst for the entire series.

That’s it.  I can’t give any better description of the family members after three hours of television. Yes, there’s still 10 hours left to the season, but characterization isn’t something that should wait.  It isn’t something that should take a back seat to plot.  It’s something that should be integrated into the plot.  Character development spurs plots, plots dictate growth.  The two should not exist separated from each other, one should not take its turn and the other wait.

Let’s look at this week’s episode (second or third episode, depending on how you count).  Tiny pterodactyls attack the compound.  Elisabeth meets an old flame in the compound, Jim discovers the flame is who put her in for inclusion with the project.  The kids have to shelter together during an attack.  This is all plot, and this is great.  Some of it is single episode plot, some of it feels like it could be the start of a longer drama within the show.  But through it all, the people on the screen staunchly refuse to be characters.

There’s no conflict within Elisabeth about the discovery of her old flame, about the implication that he brought her back in time in hopes that her husband wouldn’t or couldn’t also come.  Jim reacts, but only within his “must protect family” archetype.   Josh takes on the protective role when it’s forced upon him during the attack, but there’s been no conflict between him and his sisters that would make this an actual growth moment.

The one brief exception of archetypes not becoming characters came in the form of the compound’s leader, Commander Taylor.  His archetype is the gruff military alpha male (a part Stephen Lang is well suited for), but he’s given a moment against archetype when it turns out he’s also been acting as surrogate father for a teenage girl whose parents disappeared.  That’s a good bit of actual characterization, having a character play against the archetype that’s been set up for him.

I was talking to someone about the show and mentioned that it was a shame that the show’s biggest asset, it’s cinematic style, will probably be its downfall when it came time to make a cancel-or-renew decision.  And it’s great that the show is more cinematic than the typical television fare, but that I’m seeing that as the main asset of the show is somewhat damning.  The show is going to quickly need characters, because I’m already getting frustrated by archetypes.  And that’s something that I’m going to look for more and more in my stories, ensuring that I’m not just casting archetypes in place of characters because it’s quicker and easier that way.

Archetypes are a starting point for characters, just like clichés can be a starting point for plots.  But they don’t stand on their own.  They need to be tweaked, modified, and crafted until they’ve gone from being two dimensional to three.

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A Writer Re-Reviews: Thor (and Captain America)

Yes, I know, I’ve already done a review of Thor.  However after viewing it again last night, I wanted to revisit my earlier review and look more into  the actual failing of the film by looking at another movie that succeeded.  There are a number of examples I could choose from, but let’s stay within the comic book genre, even within the Avengers lead-up films, and pick Captain America: The First Avenger.

What am I looking at in both films?  The traditional three-act structure of a movie.  And I want to specifically talk about how it’s typically used in the superhero origin story movie, which both of these movies are, and how both deviated from that structure.

In most super hero origin movies, the acts are as follows:

  • Act One: Establish the person behind the hero.
  • Act Break: Person gets super powers.
  • Act Two: Person learns how to use powers.  Villain origin story.
  • Act Break: Villain directly threatens hero.
  • Act Three: Hero works to defeat villain.

This certainly isn’t every superhero origin, but just to go back to the first Avengers movie to see how it’s done cookie cutter (but well).  In Iron Man, Act One focuses on the background of Tony Stark and his time in captivity, Act Two is after he emerges from the caves and works to improve his suit and life for down trodden middle easterners while Obadiah Stane gets his own suit put together, Act Three is the big showdown.  It’s a standard formula that both Thor and Captain America tweak.  In one it worked, in the other it didn’t.

So how did the three act structure fail Thor?  The big tweak to the structure is the flipping of the traditional first and second acts.  Act One focuses on Thor having all his powers in Asgard and Jotunheim.  Act Two focuses on him trying to be just a brawny dude on earth, learning to be a hero and not just someone with a bunch of awesome powers.  The problem here is that it means his entire character arc happens not over the course of the entire film but over the course of only the middle act.  This is where the film falls apart, by giving too little time to too important of a part of the story.  It also means that the Asgard section feels padded in order to get to the right time code for the break into Act Two.

So how did the three act structure get massaged to work better for Captain America?  Well, it’s right there in the Act Two bullet point.  Typically within a three act structure, Act Two introduces the secondary characters within a movie.  In the superhero origin movie, those secondary characters tend to include the villain of the piece.  Captain America instead presents the villain fully formed, from the beginning.  He’s given little bits of back story, but not an entire origin in the way of Green Goblin in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  By treating him as an established character, by having him exist before the Captain, it does several things at once.  First, it gives the character action in Act One, breaking up the typically slow alter ego introduction section of an origin movie.  Second, it gives the Captain some focus to his actions after getting his super powers, instead of having him just show off his powers in ways that ultimately won’t connect to the main plot.  Third, it frees up time in Act Two for more plot development, and for more of what we want to see out of a super hero movie: ass kicking.

Now.  I’m not going to sit here and try to pretend that Captain America is some awesome paradigm of film.  It’s not going to to be nominated for Adapted Screenplay.  All I’m saying is that we have two Marvel movies that played with the traditional presentation of three acts within the super hero origin story.  And that’s great.  With the sheer number of super heroes being optioned into films, something needs to be done to keep the films from looking and feeling like the same script adapted for a different power set.  But with experimentation comes successes and failures, and that’s what came out of the 2011 Marvel releases.

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A Writer Reviews: Insidious

I don’t typically go in for the haunted house possession movies, just not really my thing.  But this weekend I ended up watching Insidious as part of an I-pick, she-picks double feature with my wife.  (My pick: The Illusionist, the animated one not the Edward Norton one, brilliant but depressing.)

Through the first act of the movie I actually quite liked it.  Mostly because it obeyed one of my big musts for a horror movie: it trusted itself to be scary.  It didn’t resort to the cheep scares, the visceral equivalent of fart jokes in a comedy, but kept things going mostly through tone and dread, which is where horror actually lives.  Yes, it’s my old go to distinction between scares and horror that I know I’ve touched on before.

But in its strength early on also lies its weakness as the story progresses.  And it’s something that writers need to be aware of in all their works, but especially in works of horror: tone.  Horror is one of only two genres (the other being comedy) that I would probably define by its tone rather than its content.  It’s also why those two genres tend to cross all other genres, and even each other at times.  It’s how Alien can be a horror movie set on a space ship, or Galaxy Quest can be a comedy set on a space ship.  The space ships make the movies science fiction because of content, but the chosen tone makes them horror or comedy.

It’s also worth bringing up my other big horror cliche, that it and comedy are really two sides of the same coin.  Both are about crossing lines, it’s just a question of which lines are crossed.  Gene Weingarten has a fantastic theory that humor is the natural human defense mechanism against the existential terror of the world around us.  Babies laughing during a game of peak-a-boo are laughing in relief after the horror of watching their parent disappear right in front of them.  It’s a terror-then-release thing, and one of the reasons that humans seek out frightening experiences for the rushes of first the fear and then the release.

Getting back to Insidious, tone awareness ends up being the problem with the movie.

Dark comedy is fantastic, and there is plenty of room for the humorous within a horror story.  But that needs to be set in the tone early on, and not be something that emerges as the movie continues.  If lighter tone doesn’t show up until Act Two of a story, it’s not dark comedy, it’s a failure of tone.  And that happened in Insidious when the two spirit detectives showed up and started using a View Master to track down spirits hiding in the house.  It was a moment that took both my wife and I out of the flow of the movie and start asking just what the intended tone was.  When eventually the main spirit guide shows up, she puts on a gas mask that, while used to very creepy effect in Doctor Who, just didn’t work in the movie.

The tone problem continued into the real dramatic high of the movie, when the father astral projects into the spirit realm and encounters all the evil souls looking for an empty body to possess.  Perhaps one of the problems is that concept works better on paper than it does on film, because unfortunately for each spirit that was introduced there was something unquestionably silly about them.  The murderess who looked like a 50s mannequin.  The demon with translucent skin just a little too eager to lick peoples’ faces.  The big bad demon of the whole thing, the flame-faced demon who just had greasepaint on his face rather than, as I expected, something more akin to Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider.  The old lady that looked like an 18-year old in a Halloween old lady costume.  These probably weren’t entirely in the script, they were in the art department, the make-up, the directing, but they were real issues with the tone.  And it’s why I wonder if the story would translate better on paper, as there’s little chance that a reader who comes across a phrase like “the demon’s face was a veil of fire” would imagine a creature like a poorly made-up clown or Darth Maul wannabe.

For the movie it made for a disappointing last 50 minutes after a strong opening 30.  For a writer looking for a lesson, it’s this: beware of your tone in horror.  If you want campy, do campy, but do it from the beginning.  Don’t let it show up too late in the story, or else you’ve set the table for readers just to pull out the tablecloth from under them.

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