Thursday, September 29, 2016

Artsy Character Redux

            I wanted to revisit a topic I discussed a while back. If you’ve been following the ranty blog for a while, this’ll probably seem familiar. And if not, well, I promise it’ll be as semi-informative as anything else I put up here...
            A few years ago, on one of the message boards I used to frequent, someone once accused me of being horribly biased against anything that’s “character driven” or lacks a plot.  I didn’t feel the need to address it there, but it did get me thinking.  Am I horribly biased?
            After wondering about it for a brief while, I realized... yes.  Yes I am.
            Horribly biased.
            Keep in mind what bias means.  We tend to think of it as something evil (especially during an election season) but all it means is someone has an automatic tendency to lean toward or away from something when it comes to judgment.  If I have the choice of watching a sitcom rerun or Agents of SHIELD, my personal bias is to watch Agents of SHIELD.  If one salad is made with spinach and one with kale, I’ll probably choose the spinach.  It doesn’t mean Agents of SHIELD beats every sitcom or that spinach is always better than kale—it’s just the way I roll.
            Unless the spinach is cooked, which is disgusting.
            By the same token, if I have the choice between a story where extensively-defined protagonists do absolutely nothing and a fun story with good characters and an arc... well, I’ll go with option B every time.
            So, yeah, I’m biased.  In fact, if you check the numbers, you’ll find most people are.  We like compelling characters, but we also want to see things happen.  Check out a list of bestselling books or films or plays.  How many of them involve people sitting on their butts for long periods of time?  How often do we look at a list of Academy award nominees and realize we haven’t seen 3/5 of them... if not more?
            The sad truth is, that kind of stuff just doesn’t sell.
            Please keep in mind before you leap to the comment section--I’m not the only one saying this.  People have been saying it for decades.  Probably centuries.  There’s a reason so much of Charles Dickens’ populist crap survived and most people can’t even name three of his contemporaries.  Stephen King has had a storytelling career for five decades now, but how many other authors followed him out of the 1970s?  People want to be entertained.  Silent film director Marshall Neilan humorously pointed out (about a hundred years ago) that there are two kinds of directors—the ones who make artistic movies and the ones whose movies make money.
            Are making money and popularity the only yardsticks of success?  Hell no, not by a long shot.  But they’re the common ones that most folks use.  If I tell you that I wrote a phenomenally successful book, you’re not thinking I made my dad proud, or impressed my tenth grade English teacher, or really touched three dedicated readers.  When I say “phenomenally successful” it means the book hit the New York Times bestseller list, sold a few million copies, and I’m writing this out for you next to my kidney-shaped pool while Jennifer Lawrence works a knot out of my shoulders.
            All that being said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with stories that focus more on character than on action.  There are a lot of character-driven stories that are just fantastic.  They’re vastly outnumbered by thebad ones, no question, but saying all such stories are bad would be just as lazy as the folks who dismiss all genre work as pedestrian and simplistic.  Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is far more a slice-of-life story than it is a courtroom drama.  Fiend is about drug addicts stumbling through a zombie apocalypse.  Contact is people studying and deciphering radio signals from the stars while figuring out what this discovery means for humanity.  The film (500) Days of Summer is far closer to a character study than a romantic comedy.  I’m sure anyone reading this can name three or four more.
            So, if I want to write something that leans far more on character then action, here are three tips for making it something people will still want to read.

1) Have compelling characters
            Somewhere along the line a lot of people got it in their heads that the only way a character can be interesting is if they’re seriously messed up.  This became the yardstick for “mature” fiction.  My character’s a drug-addicted, abuse-surviving, cancer-ridden, sexually-frustrated, self-loathing, dishonored soldier with a horrible case of Tourettes Syndrome currently working as a waiter at Denny’s.
            While such a person may have a great deal going on under the surface, you’ve got to wonder how my reader’s supposed to relate to such a character.  Or how they’re supposed to like them.  Even if this is some kind of redemption tale... how do I have somebody come back from going that far off track?
            If I’m going to make my story all about characters, I need to make it about characters my readers will actually like.  They don’t need to be perfect, by any means, but they also don’t have to be so flawed we wonder why they’re not in prison or an institution.  Someone facing an uphill battle is great, but someone facing a sheer cliff is just pointless.

2)Have something happen
            This is probably my biggest complaint with 99% of such stories that I read.  Nothing happens.  The week this story covers is the same week a few million other people have had.  Heck, it’s indistinguishable from the same week these characters have had fifty-two times a year.  Mundane.  Average. Unspectacular.  There’s nothing special or noteworthy about it in any way.
            Now, nobody has to fight off a killer AI android for a story to be interesting.  They don’t need to rob a bank or save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis or steal the Declaration of Independence.  But they need to do something.  If the characters don’t have a reason to aim a little higher while we’re watching them, then we’re seeing static characters.

3) Have an arc
            Once you’ve got a compelling character and you’ve got something happening, you’ve got to have an arc.  By its very nature, an arc implies we end somewhere else.  Arcs that end in the same place are called circles, and there’s a reason you haven’t heard of well-structured character circles.  You’ve heard of people running in circles, though, haven’t you.  And that’s never a good thing, is it?
            The whole point of a story is to get from A to B.  People grow and change.  If there’s only going to be A, that’s just a plot point.  Plot points can be fascinating, but they also tend to sit on the page if they’re all alone with nothing backing them up.  Just as something needs to happen in the observed life of my character, something needs to change. 

            And that’s it.  Seriously.  It’s really that simple. Three tips to writing a character-driven story that will still make audiences cheer. 
            Because cheering audiences pay better.
            Next time...
            Well, I’ve got an idea for next time, but I guess we’ll see if I get to it or not.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Re- Formatting

            Not so much a pop culture reference as a tech reference.  Came up with that title and then remembered working with my first computer when I was... nine?  I remember having to format floppy discs before you could use them.  Anyone else remember that?
            Very sorry I missed last week.  Deadline crunch. Which I’m still in, really, but I didn’t want to miss two solid weeks in a row.
            Anyway...
            I was rewatching some episodes of an old show recently, and it struck me that it had a major format problem.  And as I mulled on it, it struck me I’ve seen this problem a few times before. Sometimes firsthand, happening right in front of me.
            I want to point out something... well, I’d say it’s obvious, but I don’t think it always is. I think it’s been muddled by a lot of would-be gurus and experts spreading bad information.  And since that’s what led to the ranty blog in the first place, well...
            Anyway, let me throw some wisdom at you.

            Novels are not comic books.
            Comic books are not television scripts.
            Television scripts are not movie scripts.
            Movie scripts are not stage plays.
            Stage plays are not novels.

            As I said, should be obvious, right?
            Thing is, each of those storytelling formats is unique unto itself.  Seriously. I can rattle off at least half a dozen inherent differences between any of them.
            We always hear people complain about changes when something is adapted from a book into a movie, but the simple fact is things have to change.  I cannot tell a story in a screenplay the same way I’d tell it in a book.  And I can’t tell a story in a motion picture script the same way it’d be told in an episodic television script.
            Let me give you some examples.
            Based off my own experience—as a crew person, a contest reader, and a screenwriter--I’d guess that 99.9% of all film, television, and stage work is done from the audience point of view.  The only parts that aren’t are the very limited POV shots that sometimes crop up in horror movies or thrillers(usually outside windows, inside closets, or across parking lots) and the rare experimental film like Hardcore Henry that was funded entirely by the powerful carsickness/nausea lobby.
            Contrast that with a book, where the author, with full control, can shift to any point of view they want. I can make the reader see, hear, and experience everything through one character’s senses, knowledge, and memories... and then shift to a different character.  There’s no real way to do that on film.
            However... a book is, for a lack of a better term, a one-source format.  I have to write things out.  There’s no way for the reader to know George has blond-brown hair without me putting “George has blond-brown hair” down on the page.  I might be able to get a little subtle with it, maybe pull some literary sleight-of-hand, but at the end of the day all I can do is put words on the page.  That’s it.  I can’t slip in some details in the background, because everything in a book is presented in the foreground—right there in front of my reader on the page.
            If I’m writing for television, I also need to be aware of the very specific format that most television writing requires.  Episodic shows are usually done with a four or five act structure (not to be confused with three act structure, which is kinda-sorta something else) which requires my story to have a series of mini-cliffhangers where the commercial breaks will be.  If it’s a show with an arc, it also needs to address that a week’s passed since the last episode, and some story points may need to be repeated or re-addressed to cut down on audience confusion.
            Of course, if I’m writing for, say HBO or Netflix, then that doesn’t apply and I have a bit more freedom, structure-wise.  These episodes are almost more like mini-movies.  Except that now I need to be clear people may be binging these stories, watching them back-to-back-to-back, and take that into account.
            Stage writing is also unique because it’s happening right in front of us. There’s an inherent storytelling conceit that we’ll accept these actors don’t see us.  Or that they’re not actually in a forest.  Or they can’t hear that guy behind the tree bellowing his lines out to the back of the theater. This is a different kind of storytelling mechanic, and that’ll be reflected in my writing.
            And none of these are like comic books. Comics are this fantastic medium where we can have an active, flowing story that’s being told completely through static images.  So my comic script has to reflect this. Each panel has to be a single moment, and it has to be the right moment to convey the most impact and information while still flowing smoothly into the next moment I choose to continue the narrative.
            You’re wondering why I’m talking about all this, yes?
            These days it’s not uncommon for a story—or a storyteller—to jump mediums. As I mentioned above, we’ve all seen a ton of books and comics adapted for the movies.  I know several novelists and screenwriters who’ve worked in comics.  I’ve worked with theater directors and playwrights on film projects.
            Thing is, a story can’t go directly from one format to another.  The devices and mechanisms I use here won’t always work here.  Usually won’t, in fact. And I need to be able to make those adjustments.  A really common mistake I’ve seen is when people just yank a story from one format to another with no changes.  Or when they start using the conventions of one format in another
            That show I mentioned up at the top?  In one episode it had three reveals. Thing is, each one was essentially revealing the same thing.  But the filmmakers had assumed since Yakko was the main character for that scene, and Dot was the central figure in that scene, and Wakko was the focus of the final scene... well, they could do the dramatic, big music reveal for each of them.  Alas, it just doesn’t work that way, because—as I mentioned above—we can focus on different characters but it’s all really audience POV.  So the second time around it was more eye-rolling than dramatic and the third time was... well, laughable.
            Last year I had a chance to be in an X-Files anthology.  Truth is, though, the main spine of my short story actually came from a spec script I’d written for an old TV show called The Chronicle.  And I had to make adjustments for that.  Most notably, all those mini-cliffhangers in the story had to be smoothed out.  Some things had to be described much more than they were in the script, because now all those details actually had to be on the page.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I want to shift a story from one format to another, I better understand the conventions and limitations of each one.  And if I want to write in a different format. I need to learn that format as well as I know my current one.  I can’t just go in assuming it won’t matter, or that I’ll be the exception who gets to slide.
            So know what you’re writing.  And how you’re writing.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about some artsy character stuff.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

That One Over... No, THAT One, There

            Kind of a goofy title.  Hopefully it’ll make sense in a few minutes.
            Hey, did you know today is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek?  Yep, the original series premiered fifty years ago today (tonight, really).  "The Man Trap," the one with the salt vampire.
            May we always boldly go where no one has gone before...
            Anyway...
            If you follow me on Twitter, you know I often spend my weekends watching a half-dozen or so B- or openly awful movies while working on toy soldiers or tanks or something. And I often tweet out little bits of advice when I see a storytelling screw up that should’ve been easily avoided. They’re more frustrating in film, because it means someone had the screenplay sitting right there in front of them before this messed-up scene was put on film. And yet... they still put it on film.
            And sometimes the screw-ups are so bad, so overwhelming, that all I can do is drink...
            A recent awful film I saw hit on a really big problem I’ve seen a few people wrestle with. To be honest, I wrestled with it on my oft-mentioned book, The Suffering Map.  And when I realized what I’d been doing, not only did I feel like an idiot, but I realized that book might be salvageable someday after all.
            With a certain amount of rewrites.
            What am I talking about?
             A few weeks back I was watching a movie that was probably going for the idea of a goofy, somewhat inept hero with much more capable friends. Think of Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China or even, to a lesser extent, Shaun in Shaun of the Dead.  Alas, that’s a very tricky balance to pull off, and this writer/director didn’t have the skill or experience to do it.
            Instead, the “hero” came across as kind of sleazy (almost stalkery) and completely useless.  I mean, seriously, this guy barely worked as bait for the monsters.
            Meanwhile, the cute bartender (who liked him because... well, it was in the script, I guess) is well-trained with firearms, has a plan, stays calm under pressure... and keeps getting regulated to reaction shots and wide shots of the supporting character.  Except for one or two scenes, she’s almost a background character.
            And then, at the end, the hero sweeps her off her feet.  After the world’s been saved by someone else.  No, a third person altogether, not either one of them.
            That movie killed half a bottle of rum.  One of the big bottles.
            Anyway...
            Example two.
            In my early drafts of The Suffering Map, my main character, Rob, pretty much dominated the book.  There were some good supporting characters in Sondra, Miguel, Levi Gulliver and his ravens, and my villain, Bareback (a shameless Cenobite rip-off in those first three or four drafts), but Rob was easily 70-75% of the book.
            When I finally made a serious revision, one of the big changes was giving more time to Sondra. Really, the story involved her almost as much as Rob, and she had her own arc that I’d all but skimmed over because... well, he was my main character, right?
            By the next big revision (the last one) the novel was pretty much split clean between them.  But it still wasn’t quite right, and—as I’ve mentioned before—it was rejected a few times.  It was around this time that I finally trunked it.  Well, cyber-trunked it.
            Y’see, Timmy, both of these stories suffered from the same problem—not being aware of who should be the main character.  They’re not focusing on the heroic, active person—the person who’s actually making choices and doing things. And learning from those choices and changing because of them. What I came to realize was that Rob shouldn’t be the main character of The Suffering Map—Sondra should be.  She was more active, she was more interesting, and she had a serious arc.  Really, the book was her story.  Which I knew, but I was so stuck in the headspace of it being Rob’s story that I didn’t recognize the actual hero.
            The bad movie did the same thing.  It only took a few moments of mental re-plotting to see how much stronger and more entertaining the film would be if it had been focused on the bartender.  She was smart, clever, willing to take charge... all the stuff we want and need in a main character.
            Granted, it’s always possible to bend or break those rules, but—as I mentioned above—it’s not an easy thing to do, and probably not something to attempt without a lot of serious experience.
            I also think it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room.  In both of these examples, the better lead, the one shunted to the side, was a woman.  This isn’t always going to be the case, but I also didn’t want to gloss over it. 
            For me, it came down to The Suffering Map being my first all-out serious attempt at a novel.  I was worried I didn’t have the skill to pull off a female lead, and at the time I was right. But as I kept rewriting it over the years, and Sondra became a better character, I developed those skills. Alas, as I mentioned above, it still took me a while to get past the idea of “Rob is the main character.”
            In the bad movie... well, I don’t know what they were thinking.  I wasn’t there.  It’s possible, as I mentioned above, they went for a goofy hero with better sidekicks and really messed up the balance.  Or maybe they just planned on her as a love interest, put in a lot of character traits thinking it’d be cool to have a love interest who wasn’t just window dressing, and couldn’t register the fact that they’d made this supporting character into a far better protagonist than their lead. We’ll never know.  All I can say is that it was far from the movie’s only problem, and no one should ever watch it without a serious amount of alcohol on standby.
            But back to out topic...
            If I’m doing a story with a good-sized cast of characters, it may be worth taking a moment to look at the story from a few different points of view.  Maybe that clever thing I’m trying to do with my main character isn’t working.  Maybe she’s the main character.  Or that guy.  Or that person in the coat over there.  My goal as a writer should be to tell the most interesting story possible, and sometimes... that might not be the story I started with.
            Next time, I’d like to blather on a bit about where you’ve decided to write.
            Until then... go write.