Category Archives: Writing

What’s My Motivation?

It is an old and tired cliché; an actor demanding of the director ‘what is their motivation?’ The actor is asking the wrong person, but sadly in filmmaking the screenwriter is too often shunted to the end of the production priority queue.

However all writers, screenplay and prose, should take this question seriously and ask it of themselves repeatedly. You see what the actor in the cliche is seeking is their character’s goal, usually one that is bound to the scene in question.

For a scene to be about something, someone has to want something and they need to either get it, or fail to get it. The consequences of that want and its outcome drives the action of following scenes and the story. If an actor is asking about their motivation then their character is likely lacking a clear goal and the scene may be nothing more than exposition.

If as a writer you find that it is difficult to write a scene, if it seems to lie lifeless on the page, perhaps you have neglected to give the character a need and something that is denying the fulfilling of their desire. Look at the scene, the characters, and ask the critical questions of storytelling.

 

What do they want?

What’s stopping them from having it?

How far will they go to get it?

 

Keep this in mind, know the answers cold, and your characters will drive the story forward.

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Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

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Of Girls, Bulls, and Artistic Intent

March of last year the sculpture “Fearless Girl” was installed on the streets of New York City standing defiantly before the now famous sculpture ‘Charging Bull.’ Greg Fallis at his blog has done a pretty goof job going over the histories of the two statues and how those histories interplay with the meaning intended for the pieces so that’s not going to be focus of my post.

Though when you get to the slipper subject of ‘meaning’ it is important to remember that the artist may intend one thing but the people who experience the art take away something utterly different or even diametrically opposed to the original intent. A case in point on that is the singer/songwriter Sting, his piece ‘Every Breath You Take’ and the scores upon scores of couple who have used it as their wedding songs.

Charging Bull‘s creator Arturo Di Modica has recently complained about the installation of Fearless Girl and expressed his desire that the statue be removed from it place before his own. Many of the fans of ‘Fearless Girl‘ have rejected his position and a common defense I have heard is that Art is often in conversation with previous pieces. This is true and since my background, and I suspect yours, is Science-Fiction let me use a well know example from that field as an example.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote the novel ‘Starship Troopers‘ and with that works explored the relationship between the common solider and his society. The book provoked a fiery conversation that continues to rage until this day. Sometime later author Joe Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War,‘ a novel also exploring the relationship between the common solider and his society. ‘The Forever War‘ makes radically different arguments and comes of very different conclusions. Both books are considered classics and both are terribly good reads. It is considered an accepted fact that Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War‘ in direct response to ‘Starship Troopers‘ a perfect example of art in communication with art. I would strongly urge people to read both books.

But you do not need to read both to see the value in either novel. Either can be read alone without the other and the experience is full and complete. This is not true of ‘Fearless Girl.’

Fearless Girl”s artistic expression is reliant on ‘Charging Bull‘, without the Bull she is not fearless for there is nothing to inspire fear. Further more The two are seen together changing the impression once is likely to form upon seeing ‘Charging Bull.‘ Returning to the example of ‘Starship Troopers‘ and ‘The Forever War,‘ it is as if instead of writing a new novel that could be read alone Haldeman has written six new end chapters to Heinlein’s novel and sent them out attached to the previous book. There’s nothing wrong and in fact much to respect in Haldeman’s response to Heinlein’s book but meaning is not the point. The point is there is a difference between answering an artwork with your own and changing another artist’s work. Placing Fearless Girl directly before the Charging Bull sculpture, and being utterly dependent on that earlier sculpture for context also changes the context of Charging Bull.

Di Modica has called for the removal of ‘Fearless Girl‘ feeling that in damages the artistic intent of his ‘Charging Bull.’ He is not without a point. In my opinion it is not relevant that ‘Fearless Girl‘ started life as advertising for a corporate product, intent and interpretation are different things and the powerful interpretation many hold for ‘Fearless Girl‘ is one that strikes many people to their very identity.

This is a problem with no easy solution. Leaving ‘Fearless Girl‘ clearly changes in common interpretation of ‘Charging Bull,’ but removing it creates its own host of negative impressions.

Personally I am torn without resolution, as an artist I am sympathetic to Di Modica’s point of view but the two statues together have an emotional punch that neither could achieve on their own.

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I suck at Proofing

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I think that I excel at constructing plots and stories. There are rarely holes in the plot, though they may be from time to time holes in how well I explain my plots. And when a beta reader finds a hole I can’t simply paper over it, I have to root it out and fix it so the plot is again whole and relatively seemly.

Now, I cannot speak to what is my greatest weakness when it comes to the actual prose. I am too close to the issue and someone else will have to supply that information, but I do not outside of the words in a row aspect of writing where I need to work the hardest for improvement.

Patience.

It is no surprise to those who know me that I am impatient. There has rarely been any great sting from a rejection slip. Usually the rejected piece is back off to another market within a day and not a tear has been shed. Rejection is part of the business and it never ever goes away.

However, waiting for six, eight, twelve months or more for an answer tends to drive me batty. Now those are very long wait times, but they are also beyond my control so my annoyance in those situations would count as a minor flaw at best. The sad truth is I get terribly impatient with things I control as well, and that’s a far greater flaw.

It is not at all unusual for me to clock a thousand words of prose in an hour. When a story is cooking to flows from my heated brain down and out my fingers and into the keyboard with speed and ease. The truth of the matter is that I couldn’t slow down that aspect of the process. It is what it is.

Where speeds works devilishly against me is the proofreading pass.

You cannot do a good lob of proofing and doing it at warp speeds. I rush the process and too many error survive. (As anyone who reads my blog is well aware of.) It is also one of the reasons why I know the self-pub route is not for me, I’d go to hit that ‘publish’ way too early.

I am trying to find a system that will help me in the proofing process. Right now I am proofing a manuscript, novel length, I wrote last year. I think the process I am going to have to use it page by page having my Mac read out the text. That forces me to go slow and listen to each word, making the mistakes pop out.

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The Rules of Story Telling

During the Season One Episode ‘Fiasco‘ of the internet show ‘TableTop’ John Rogers, screenwriter and show runner for the television program ‘Leverage,‘ laid out what he thought of as the three rules for story tell. To those three I am going to add one more that I think is critical.

Rule One: What do they want?

For you story to have a plot it must have a character who wants something. In a very simple plot driven story this can be a purely external goal without emotional weight for the character. Most James Bond adventures fall into this mold, he’s emotional need to stop someone from cornering the gold market is not the real driver of that need. It is his job and it is important but not in an individualistic manner. However he does want it, and that is the key thing here. Characters have to have goals, they have to have something that they need to achieve or we’re just spinning pointlessly wheels

Rule Two: Why can’t they have it?

If the character can simply achieves their goal without serious effort of resistance that is a fairly poor story. There must be forces that oppose the character and thwart their aims. This is why a character of unlimited power and abilities, such as Superman, so often comes off as dull and uninteresting, creating a force that can thwart him is nigh impossible forcing the writer to violate this rule. The greater the force that prevents the character from securing their goal then, in general, the greater the dramatic tension of the tale. However an opposing force that is so great that only the intervention of dues ex machina can resolve the plot in the character’s favor renders a story frustrating and unsatisfying. In a lot of works by novice writers there is a tendency to forget this rule and they often have their characters skipping from success to success. Make sure that the character has to fight and that there is a credible chance of losing to have tension and drama.

Rule Three: Why should I care?

This is usually expressed in a character being ‘likeable’ but more precisely it is a character being engaging. I would argue that Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is not a particularly likable character but he is very engaging. The issue of ‘why should we care’ is a critical one because if your are not engaged with that character you are not going to continue reading or watching. I think to be engaging a character needs to be relatable and understandable. They can very flawed, look at any Cohen brothers script, but if we can relate to their problems, their concerns, then we can care about this fate and if they get what they need.

To John’s three rules I would add one more that is vital to strong story telling;

Bob’s Rule Four: How far will they go to fulfill their need?

If they care so little that they expend little effort or take only small risks then we aren’t going to invest very much emotional energy in their plight. The further the character is will to go the more compelling the story can be. This also opens the door to greater transformation for the character. I tend to think the best stories are about characters that change in such a fundamental way that by the end of the tal they are capable of taking actions unthinkable by their earlier selves. Handled poorly this degrades into an ‘Afterschool Special’ story, ham-fisted and overly moralistic, done properly these are the most moving of stories.

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No Battle Plan …

So I had expected to be deep into writing my next novel by this point but I am still outlining the brute. Now I am very happy with the outlining so far. It’s a really detailed document pretty much taking the scene by scene through the entire narrative, but even doing the outline is not going according to plan.

I had a set idea about the end of act four and hour it leads into act five where everything comes together for the ending and then today a new idea slithered into my head.

It’s very different but follows so naturally from the earlier scenes and characters that there is no way to ignore it. Luckily for me it does not blow up the ending and in fact I think make the whole novel much stronger. However I really want to test drive it, kick the tires, and make sure this thing is in shape before I commit to utilizing it. That means it si time for a get away from everyone I know, lose my self in a crowd, and think for a number of hours.

Normally this would call for a Sunday trip to Universal Studios Hollywood but I have one of those planned for next month and it will be me and two friends being crazy and silly together, not plotting out novels. I don’t want to take off for a Sunday two months in a row, missing my walks and lunches with my sweetie-wife so something else will have to be done.

This time it will be the San Diego Zoo Safari, formerly the Wild Animal Park. It’s MUCH larger that the zoo located in the center of the city but it is only about 30 minutes away. The plan is to take Tuesday off from work and spend most of the day in the North County looking at animals, getting in a lot of walking, and making sure this idea is as solid as it looks.

Wish me luck.

 

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Critique: Passengers (2016)

This is not a movie review but a critique where I give you my opinion on specific elements of the film and story. In this case I will be discussing what did not work for me and why. Unlike a review spoilers will abound and if you want to remain unspoiled stop reading now.

Synopsis:

Passengers is an SF movie about an extravagantly luxurious colony ship en route from Earth to the colony of Homeworld II. The ship travels at about half the speed of light and the journey is expected to take over a hundred years. because of this the crew and passengers are in cold sleep, the lives suspended between life and death for all but the final four months of the trip. The ship encounters that tired trope of SF movies, a meteor storm and in damaged. Cascading failures results in a passenger, Jim Preston, being awakened from cold sleep. He discovers there are more than 90 years until they reach Homeworld II and there is no way for him to return to hibernation. Jim will spend his life alone on the ship, never reaching the new world. After little more than a year, his will breaks and he awakens another passenger, Aurora Lane, a beautiful writer and lies to her telling her that her cold sleep pod malfunctioned as his did. They get to know each other, they fall into a romantic/sexual relationship, and then of course the lie is exposed. Of course she reacts angrily and they live separate lives, time-sharing the android bartender for company. A third person awakens, a ship’s crew member. He discovers some of the information about the nature of the ships damage and malfunctions, passes to them the access to the secured areas and then dies from his faulty awakening. Together Jim and Aurora discover the precise damage and what is required to fix the ship. Jim is nearly killed but Aurora saves him. Jim discovers that with the Crew Chief’s access he can put Aurora back into hibernation using the ship’s ONLY autodoc. She refuses and stays with him. Ninety years later he crew awakens to discover the ship changed and the record Aurora left behind as both have died of old age.

 

This film has a number of glaring problems and failures in execution. Unlike the movie I watched the night before, Get Out, Passengers becomes worse the more I consider it. Of course let’s get the monstrous sin out of the way first; Jim waking Aurora is an evil act. Perhaps you can understand his motivations, driven to near madness by isolation is a powerful thing, but understanding and excusing are two radically different things. Jim kidnapped Aurora from her life and forced her to live his. He did this to satisfy his needs and his desires. Some have called her eventual reaction to him ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and I can’t argue with that. I am sure the writers think of it as love, but it’s hard to buy that when she has no choice and no options.

Next up on the great fail parade is the nature of the two characters. Jim is going to Homeworld II because he is a mechanic and no one Earth fixes anything anymore. He is going to fulfill his professional need to build things, and there he will help build a new world, a new society. Aurora is also going to fulfill a professional need. She is searching for the story that will allow her to outshine her father a great and award winning writer as well. He plans were to go, spend a year there and return, half slept through more than two hundred years for the chance at this great tale.

On the surface these characters seem to be treated very much alike, but they are not. With Aurora we get little video messages from her friends she has kept spelling out that what she really needs is not a great jump professionally, but someone to fill the hole in her heart. To be a complete person she must find love, but Jim has no such lacking or hole in his heart. Going there to build is enough. This is a classic bit of bad writing when approaching female characters. Their needs are too often about finding emotional completeness, and they find that in a man.

Another failure in executing her character is that Aurora has no agency in her storyline. I don’t mean that Jim forces her into the situation, but after she is awake and supposedly a full character she has no decision points, no action of hers material advances her story or her plot line. Her only meaningful decisions are about Jim and accepting him back or not. Everything about who she is gets reduced to her call on him. It’s crap writing for any character and especially for female characters.

The crew Chief is nothing more that Chief Exposition. he is awakened to grant access to Jim and Aurora, explain the situation, and then die getting his ‘mentor’ archetype out of the way for the third act. It’s lazy, blatant, and boring.

There are also the plot holes in the story.

There are no faculties for putting someone into hibernation/cold sleep aboard the ship, but there is a crew to run her at the destination. Did they not need a crew to launcher her? They only need it to bring her into orbit? Also there are no provisions for the crew to awaken during malfunctions? No regular awakenings to inspect the ship for function and damage? This is a terribly designed mission and I would not step aboard for that flight.

Passengers is a failed film that looks good and competently acted, but at its heart it is stupid and immoral.

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Tell, Don’t Show

Wait Bob, isn’t that backwards? Nope, that’s exactly the advices I want to speak about today.

Beginning writers are told, it’s really hammered into their head, Show do not tell. A lot of the time this is really good advice. It takes skill, time, and patience to slow down and show the reader the character, the world, and the important details of the story. Many times if you are a novice at fiction writing you are so energized by the ideas and characters cascading through your head that you do not take that requisite time in crafting scenes and rush to tell the grand glorious tale. In those case the advices, Show, don’t tell is spot on.

But there are other cases, where writers slow down the pacing of otherwise wonderful stories to show every detail of the character’s life and each tiny action in the scene. Here they need to skip the show and just tell us.

So what the yardstick to measure if you show or tell?

Of course there is no one answer, but for me the default is what is the drama of scene? If there are no stakes, no drama, then skip writing it out as a scene and just tell the reader in narrative what happened.

For Example:

 

Bill enjoyed his usual Sunday Brunch. He stopped over at the cafe, consumed his favorite breakfast at a leisurely pace, savoring the late morning decadence Stepping outside, the cool autumn air brushing his hair across his face, the sky blackened with the arrival of the invader’s massive starships.

 

Where is the drama in that bit? Right there at the end when alien invaders arrive. That last sentence will transition from telling into showing as we follow Bill and his now very unusual day. Everything that happened before is set-up and while it can be expanded a bit to illustrate character there is little there we have to experience directly. I could write pages about that brunch. Where he sat, how the smells, sounds and light of the dinner created an atmosphere, his banter with the waiter, even loving descriptions of the food itself, but there is no drama in any of that. A little bit for flavor and mood is great but too much and the reader’s desire, if they possess any left, is to skip ahead to where ‘something happens.’

In many ways this ends up at Elmore Leonard’s advice to writers: “Cut out the parts that people skip.”

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CRS – Chronic Rewriting Syndrome

This is not to be confused with the prevalent and related issue of Terminal Rewriting Syndrome(TRS). Those afflicted with TRS rework their prose and poetry, revising, rewriting, and refusing to consider a piece complete until they have wring all life from whatever art that had nearly crafted.

Chronic Rewriting Syndrome, while related, displays itself in different symptomology. Patients afflicted with CRS suffer distress when encountering writing that varies from their own style. Their minds instantly edit and rewrite the prose and product of others, wishing it to conform to their own standards. Afflicted persons can often be heard mumbling out their preferred lines while viewing television and feature film presentations.

There is currently no cure or treatment to alleviate the symptoms.

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Writing Advice you may be Missing

Anyone who reads my postings knows that I love film. Movie have been a part of my life as long as I can literally remember. The advent of home media, first VHS/Betamax, then DVD and Blu-rays has been heaven for the cinephile in me but it has also become a boon to my writing.

A common piece bonus material included in DVS and Blu-ray’s is the commentary track. Here writers, directors, producers, and actors will record a liver running commentary as they watch the film. Sometimes these are funny and filled with behind the antics, or peeks into how the magic of movies works. Those sort of commentary track are fun and I enjoy them, but there are commentary track where the writers and directors will spend the two or so hours talking about the story. What made them want to tell it, what it means to them, and how that approached the challenges.

If you are a writer and you are not listening to these you should. Heavens knows everyone looks at writing and stories from a different point of view, but seeing those points of views can illuminate your own, expand your vistas for crafting a story. These are lectures from professionals and all you need to do is block out a couple of hours – or more in the case of Peter Jackson and his endless Lord or the Rings running times – and soak in the teachings.

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