Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Location, Location, Location

I like to have some sense where I’m going when I write but I also like to be open to discovery.  So I tend to have more general outlines than detailed ones. I did a preliminary outline the other day, but because I’m working on a movie instead of a play script, an interesting thing happened.

Instead of breaking down by plot points or significant events, the outline fell into place by locations.  I now have three major sections of the film, which take place in increasingly large and fanciful places.

My outline is far from complete, but it gives me some of the questions that I will need to answer.  In rough form, it looks something like this:

    A. Jon and Bard (Darrion?) in tavern
    B. Beastmen come to the Village, looking for the McGuffin, which Jon once had
    C. Fight against the beastmen
    D. Jon needs to go to the City, Darrion invites himself along
         a. Why does Jon go the City?  He had the McGuffin, but he left it in the City.
         b. If he leaves the Village, hopefully the beastmen will follow, leaving the village safe
         c. I think Darrion just goes along for the adventure
    A. Challenge entering the City – meet the surly guy (Bear?) – the “Little John” scene
    B. Meet the dwarves.  (Why dwarves? could and probably will be a whole ‘nother blog)
          a. Background info on the McGuffin, Jon’s past
           b. Need to take the McGuffin to the dwarven hold of Citadel Stone
    C. Challenge leaving the City – why is it hard to leave? 
    D. With the help of Bear and Tatters, escape the city (Tatters brought in for this purpose?)
        I have only vague ideas what happens here, but I can picture the set...

Note that I have inserted challenges/conflicts at certain points, even though I don’t yet know what exactly they are. There is a danger here that my challenges will feel contrived because, well, they are. I will need to tie them in to the ongoing plot or be willing to drop them. 

The beastmen, by the way, let me have orcs without having orcs.  In a D&D game they could be gnolls, bugbears, overly hairy hobgoblins, or other things.  But having them furry and animalistic is a good visual and keeps them from looking like anything in either the Lord of the Rings or previous D&D movies. And of course, the McGuffin will not be called that.


Note: Next Thursday is the first day of Norwescon, our largest local SF convention, so there might not be a blog for that day.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Adventurers have Parties!

In my last installment, I discussed the design of my hero, Jon Warder. So far, so good, but...

Action movies typically focus on a single hero, or, in the case of a buddy picture, two. Dungeons and Dragons, being a social game, favors adventuring parties. So do I write an ensemble movie or do I drop the D&D convention?

Actually, I get to be a Libra again here and chart a course between the two. When ensemble television shows come to the big screen, they often keep the team but focus on the leader. The Captain (either one) in the Star Trek movies. Mal, in Serenity. Even the real D&D movie had a lead character and a bunch of companions.

Jon Warder is my lead, no question. But he won’t go into adventure alone. Which means I need to make some more characters. Some will no doubt arise in the writing process, but I want to have some idea where I’m going.

I’d like to tell you that I went to the D&D source material for inspiration, planning out my ideal D&D party. But I didn’t. The first thing I decided was that I wanted to accumulate characters through the film, rather than trying to introduce them all at once.

I figure I can introduce one more in the village where the movie begins and the image comes to mind of a musician in the tavern. In D&D, the bard class is the jack-of-all-trades – a little bit of magic, some fighting skills, and a lot of knowledge and lore. Seems useful to me. For one thing, it allows me to have the font of necessary knowledge available without a full-blown Gandalf clone. I picture a slender and elegant man with an easy smile.

I need at least two other party members, met after we leave the village. Since Jon’s past is outside the village, at least one will be someone he already knows. I consider the cliche of encountering someone surly and difficult who turns out to be on the good guy’s side after all. I’m picturing something a bit like meeting Little John for the first time.

So I have Jon Warder, a bard, and a big surly guy. And so far I haven’t actually tapped into any of the characters I’ve made for my own gaming experiences – and I’ve been gaming since the early 1980s. So for fun, I’m going to toss in my very first D&D character, whose name is Tatters.

But she has to make some changes for the movie. The original was a half-elven magic-user/thief with an enchanted talking dagger. The movie version is going to be simplified to the core concept: she’s a street thief. I want the characters – or at least their roles and abilities -- to be quickly understood by the audience. So Tatters will be human, non-magical, and dangerously sneaky.

So far, my D&D party is entirely human, three-quarters male, and has only limited magic. I like that (at least, I like the limited magic part) – but I think I might have the bard turn out to be the half-elf – it suits the little-bit-of-everything concept I have for him.

It’s a start. I'm still pondering whether I need a love interest and whether that role will default to Tatters. And I have no idea what I’m doing for a villain.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It All Starts in a Tavern

For those who you haven’t read the previous post, go back and read it now. Then the rest of this will make sense.

There’s an old D&D notion about adventures always starting in taverns. The player characters are all sitting around, doing what they do, and the mysterious figure enters the bar, looking to hire adventurers to rescue a fair maiden or maybe just dropping hints about lost treasure. And the characters all jump at the opportunity because (a) they are heroes and (b) everything sounds better when you’ve been drinking.

Really, it’s just a handy shortcut to get the team assembled and off to the mission.

My D&D movie will not start that way.

But it has to start somewhere and the temptation to start in a tavern, just for the in-joke, is too great to resist. (Well, not really – if it turns out I need to establish more background before the tavern scene than I will drop the in-joke like a rock, but for the time being, it’s as good a jumping off point as any.)

My thought is this: Epic stories often start in small places, allowing the hero to venture out into a broader world. So my hero is in the tavern when trouble rides in to town and things go from there. But I don’t think I want the inexperienced farmboy hero. It’s a classic role and it works, but we’ve all seen it – Luke Sykwalker, Eragon,... I want my hero to be competent from the beginning. More Aragorn, less Frodo. So if the broader world is where adventure happens and the small village is a simpler, more innocent place, then it stands to reason that my hero must not be from the village.

So now I not only have a competent hero, I have one that needs a backstory. This is a man from Somewhere Else.

And whatever trouble comes to town has to engage him. This gives me two ideas. The first is that he’s the local lawman. He’s the guy with the sword that knows how to keep the farmers safe. I like it – it gives him a role, a job to do, a reason to get involved. And no one will be surprised that he knows how fight.

The second idea is that if trouble is coming to our innocent village, it could have something to do with our hero’s mysterious past. After weighing these two options back and forth, trying to decide which to use, I finally decide in my typical Libra fashion that there is no reason I can’t do both.

My lead character, who I’m currently calling Jon Warder, is the city guardian/local lawman for a small farming community. He’s a retired soldier with considerable experience in combat. And something dangerous from his past is coming to town...

That’s a lot of mileage from the simple notion that it would be funny to start in a tavern.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

April so soon?

In my last installment, I noted that I have plans for this blog in April. Well, April's coming early. See the thing is, my creative inspiration takes long vacations without inviting me and then comes back and acts all impatient. Muses -- can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

Here's the deal: The folks that bring you Nanowrimo, the 50,000 word novel writing challenge each November, also do a scriptwriting challenge each April called Script Frenzy. I've written play scripts before, including full length productions, but I've never written a movie script.

I've often noted that I could write a better Dungeons & Dragons movie than the one that hit the theaters. I mean really, who couldn't? Have you seen the D&D movie? (To be fair, I have not seen the original script and don't know how much it changed once it left the writer's hands. Hollywood tends to change scripts after casting instead of casting to scripts, from what I understand.)

So I'm going to put my money (or in this case, my blog) where my mouth is. I've already signed up with the Nanowrimo folks for the Script Frenzy challenge.

What I'm going to write isn't quite exactly a Dungeons & Dragons movie for two reasons -- (1) While I don't have any illusions that this script, which will undoubtedly require a Hollywood-size budget, will ever get produced, I remain aware that I have no right to the brand/trademark/intellectual property, and (2) being a real D&D movie would require the use of iconic D&D material, which I don't need to mess with. If it makes you feel better, pretend my master villain is a mind-flayer.

This blog will follow my progress and discuss the reasons behind the writing choices I make. I've been blogging about intentional writing -- here's my chance to show it in the works.

And even though I haven't started writing the script ('cause it's not yet April,) I have started making choices -- character names, character types, locations... Since I've started the work, it's time to start the blog.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Secrets and Lies

Stories often feature surprises -- unforeseen events, betrayals, characters who are not what they seem... At the very basic level, there are two types of surprises: things that catch the story's characters off-guard and things that actually surprise the reader. There is also a bit of a sliding scale, from things that are foreshadowed so that someone who is paying attention will be less surprised to events that are so out of left-field that no one sees them coming.

How you chose to handle such things changes the flavor of your story and even, possibly, the world in which it is set. A few examples...

In The Lord of the Rings the point is made that a servant of the enemy might appear fair, but would somehow feel foul. Grima Wormtounge may have seduced the ear of Theodan, but his evil is not in question to the reader (or many in Theodan's court, for that matter). But then Middle-Earth is the sort of place where good and evil are almost tangible forces. It's the sort of world where the armies of darkness are defeated at dawn, as if the sun itself rose to oppose them. So while a character may be briefly deceived, the attentive reader rarely is.

In Shakespeare's Othello, on the other hand, Iago appears perfectly trustworthy and upright -- as long as Othello is in the room. But in Shakespeare, one of the theatrical devices is that characters reveal their inner thoughts in solliloquies and in speeches to their allies and accomplices. This convention allows Shakespeare to show Iago's villainy clearly to the audience without him having to ooze slime blatantly when lying to the Moor.

In modern stories, a betraying character often gives no more clue to the reader than they do to the protaganist. The writer, while hopefully playing fair, wants to take the reader off-guard when the coat turns. This style portrays a world that is more realistic (relatively speaking) and dangerous, compared to worlds where the forces of darkness always feel foul.

Interesting how what is essentially a plotting and presentation decision changes the feel of the setting, isn't it?

And a quick teaser before I take my leave: I'm planning to do something a little different with this blog in April. After all, I wouldn't want things to get dull. Stay tuned for more details.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Storytelling and Storytelling

Several years ago, I was teaching classes on storytelling (the actual performing for a live audience version, not storytelling as a hip term for writing). One of the points I kept coming back to in those classes was doing things intentionally. I was trying to convey the value of making conscious decisions about the performance. You have to stand still, walk around, or sit down, for example, so you might as well think about which one works with the performance instead of just doing one at random.

So, moving to the other form of storytelling -- crafting the written word to tell a tale to readers -- is the advice still good? Well, yes and no. The difference here is that the work is done before the audience sees it, which gives you a luxury that live performance does not. When the manuscript is done, it needs to have intention and reason behind it. You need to be able to look at a given scene and know why that scene is necessary, what it adds to your plot, what it says about your characters.

But how you reach that point is up to you. Some authors write with detailed outlines. Some discover the story as they write it, finishing the work just to see how it ends. Either way, here is a bit of wisdom for you: When the words are flowing and the writing is coming easy, don't stop to analyze and edit. Get the words down on paper first.

When performing on stage, every word and every gesture is a commitment. There is no rewind button. The audience is watching and it remembers. But when you are writing, you can always go back and rewrite (or delete) later -- your audience only sees the finished product.

The desired end result is the same: You want a story that is well crafted and well presented. And the best way to reach that goal is to think about what you are doing and make the decisions that serve your story.

Note: There will be no blog entry next Thursday.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Originality Blues

Pop quiz: I thinking of a school. It's a special school, a training center for young people with special gifts that set them apart from the mundane world. What school am I thinking of? You have ten seconds. Go.

Now for the scoring. Did you say Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters? Camp Half Blood? Redhurst Academy? The Isle of Roke? The Invisible College? Something else entirely? Doesn't matter. Give yourself two points. Did you know that the phrase "Devil take the hindmost" comes from an old folktale about a school for magicians?

The reason I ask the question, I mean aside from the chance to show off my geek lore, is to demonstrate that there is no one answer. It has been argued that there are no new ideas, no new plots, no new stories. I'm not sure I agree.

But I am fairly certain that it doesn't matter. How you present an idea, how you tell a story -- these things can make all the difference. Does it matter if your special people are magic, mutant, psychic or bionic? Of course it does! But what really matters is how well you tell their stories. Whether you make us care about them and the challenges they face.

So don't worry too much about whether your core idea is shiny and new. Worry instead about what you can do with it. Where it can take you. And the funny thing is, this is true even if you do have a truly new idea. An idea by itself is not a story. You still have to do the work.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Characters Die

Death is one of those inevitable facts of life. If no one ever died in novels or movies or anything, it would seem unreal. Authors are assassins and gods, making that awesome, terrible choice of who lives and who dies. In my experience, character death in stories falls into two broad camps.

The first is the death that is necessary. For whatever reason, the plot or theme of the piece requires it. The death of Bruce Wayne's parents is central to the whole mythology surrounding Batman. In the classic heroic quest pattern Joseph Campbell calls the Hero's Journey, the mentor figure must die (or, at least, be abruptly removed from the hero's life). Otherwise, the mentor, being wiser and more skilled, would resolve the quest himself and the hero would not be challenged.

The other type of death is the type that just happens. Because death happens. Because if you live long enough, someone you know will die. This is a little harder to do in fiction, where we know that all the pieces have been put into place by an author. We have the understanding that every event in the story is a deliberate choice.

But just because the death is not a necessary event in terms of the plot (i.e., the story would have advanced just fine without it) doesn't mean it has no impact. Perhaps it illustrates the danger of a situation. Some situations (war comes to mind) are never entered into without cost and would not be believable if no price were paid.

In a gentler example, follow a protagonist through enough of his or her life, and the loss of a parent or loved one is an experience that should just naturally occur. Just as, over time, weddings and job interviews and love scenes will occur. These common but significant experiences give our lives a certain weight.

In stories, unlike life, death is just another thing. Just another possibility in the author's magic bag of tricks. But like everything in that terrible, wonderful bag, the author should reflect on how and why to use it.