Sunday, May 20, 2012

Crazy Stupid…Avengers?!

I’ve been told, though I never really thought about it much, that Hollywood movies typically follow a standard three act formula.  But then I noticed something odd.  The current big summer blockbusting movie, Marvel’s The Avengers shares the same plot structure as last year’s romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love.  (I’m married, I see the occasional romantic comedy.  Also, yes, that is the full title of the Avengers movie.  Probably to keep people from looking for Emma Peel.)

In act one, an event occurs.  The protagonists were happy, or at least complacent, doing whatever they normally do in their day-to-day lives – taking their wives out to dinner, solving the energy crisis, interrogating arms dealers, whatever.  But the event changes everything, tilts the world off its comfortable center, and at first no one knows how to respond.  The Avengers starts with action, gunfire, and very expensive special effects.  In Crazy Stupid Love, the catalytic event is a simple sentence: “I want a divorce.”

In act two, the characters get off to a rocky start dealing with whatever has shaken their world.  In the RomCom, Cal, played by Steve Carell, tries to reinvent himself as a swinging single guy.  In a nice counterpoint, the guy who coaches Cal on being single gets caught off guard by a potential long-term relationship and has to reinvent himself to deal with that.  In The Avengers, the heroes are called together but fail to reach their potential as a team. 

The important thing about act two is that the world has changed but the characters haven’t caught up.  Cal still has the mindset of a married man.  The would-be Avengers are still used to functioning as individuals.  As act two draws to a close, things get worse.  Cal’s early dating mistakes come back to haunt him and the super-heroes almost tear themselves apart with only the smallest effort on the part of the villains.

Act three turns it all around.  I don’t want to spoil either movie any more than I already have, but let me say this:  Act three is when the characters decide what they really value, who they really want to be, and what they are willing to do about it.  Armed with this newfound purpose, they go out and face the adversity created in act one.  Only this time, the audience knows that they have at least the potential to triumph.  Instead of feeling sorry for them or shaking our heads, now we are rooting for them.

There is also an epilogue, a dénouement, a bit at the end, which affirms the protagonist’s new position in the world and underscores his (or their) triumph.  Cal gives a graduation speech.  The Avengers get news coverage.

So a couple of points for all you writers out there.  First, I’m not accusing either film of being trite or formulaic.  The fact is, each movie is a fine example of its genre.  What is interesting is that the formula is genre independent.  It isn’t the only formula, or the only way to tell a tale, but give it its due – it works. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  There is a temptation to recoil at the concept of formula.  Formula, you might think, is the opposite of originality.  But if anything, the sheer astronomical differences between my two example films should illustrate how much room for creativity the formula allows.

It is also worth noting that, if done correctly, the act three protagonist is a different (and typically a better) person than he (or they) were in act one.

And finally, because this has been a long post, consider the formula as a tool.  Can you break your plot into acts?  Can you see where your protagonist is and how he our she is changing in each act?

As an experiment, I decided to break down the last movie I saw into a few simple sentences, trying to lay bare the structure.  It looked something like this:

One:  A group of college girls decide to pursue loser boyfriends.

Two:  The girls experience disappointment and heartbreak because their boyfriends are losers.

Three:  The girls send their boyfriends soap.

Epilogue:  Life is a musical.

Perhaps I need to try a different movie…

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Musical Precision

I thought I’d continue my series on what I’ve learned about writing from other media with a little song and dance.  I’m no musician, but I like to watch music being made.  Fingers moving like spiders over the fret board, hands rolling like the ocean over the ivories. Over the years I’ve seen a wide range of performances, both live and recorded.

I’ve noticed there is a sharp dividing line between the amateur and professional levels of performance.  It is possible to have a good performance and still not quite reach that level of great performance that the pros hit consistently.

A music teacher once explained to me that music works on the principle of creating expectations, which create tension in the listener, and then fulfilling them, which eases the tension and gives the listener a pleasurable relaxation.  If one were to play, for example, the first seven notes of a major scale, the listener knows exactly what the eighth note is supposed to be before it is played.  If you play them in rhythm, the listener also knows when the eighth note is supposed to be.

In the professional performance, the right note is always there, right when it is supposed to be, without hesitation. I’m not saying they never make mistakes – I have a recording of Pete Seegar, live in concert, saying, “Now I can’t remember the second verse,” but he says it without ever losing his place on the guitar and without losing the attention of his audience.

The last concert I was at had people dancing in the aisles. Most were hoppin’ and boppin’ and just havin’ fun as they should, but there was one lady I’d wager had professional dance training.  Her moves repeated exactly, starting and ending with the beat of the song every time, enacted without hesitation.

So if you’ve been following my blog at all, you know I’m going to apply this to writing.  The secret for musicians and dancers seems to be precision.  The right move, the right note, the right time.  And people wonder why writers spend so much time stressing over just the right word.

There are a lot of places for writers to get it right.  Keeping an interesting variation of long and short sentences.  Avoiding eye-glazing paragraphs that never end.  Little grace notes of metaphor and analogy.  Pacing that builds, leading to the inevitable climax the occurs at just ahead of the reader’s expectation.

There’s a rhythm, too.  In my last play, I wrote a line where one character hesitates before saying the name of another character (indicated, if you must know, by an ellipsis).  An actor asked me about the pause, whether it was connected to a previous scene where his character was corrected on the name.  I said no, it was more of a pause to marshal his argument.

What I didn’t say, what I couldn’t articulate with an actor there in my face, was that it was a pause for rhythm.  That it just plain sounded right.

And you know how professional performers do it, right?  How they get that level of precision, time after time?  How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.  It seems more ephemeral for writers somehow, but the more you do it, the more you know why you are placing this word here, that word there.

Here endeth the lesson.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Character Shorthand, or What I Learned Playing Video Games

In a novel, there are lots of ways to reveal information about a character.  The narrative can get inside a character’s head, show thoughts, emotions and reactions, and then switch to another point of view to show how others think of the character.  Movies have fewer tools – to truly get inside a character’s head requires a voice-0ver, which involves first-person narration, which is always more suspect than an omniscient narrative voice.

But movies have an additional tool: visuals. The written word can describe how a character looks, but a movie can present the visual down to the last detail and do it instantly.

So let’s narrow  it down further to one of the most constraining story-based media I can think of for presenting character, online video games.  Generally, each player creates a character to interact with other characters and the game environment.  There is no real backstory, the character can only take the standard actions allowed by the game, the tools for expressing emotion are awkward at best and interactive dialogue is frequently (although not inherently) limited to things like “Where are we going,” and “Hey! You got me killed!”

So what tools do you have to make your online character stand out? To make him or her a person and not just an icon? And, of course, can these tools be applied back to writing and other media?

There are three major things you have when creating a character for an online game.  First, there is usually some customizability in the character’s appearance.  Gender, apparent age, color, and, depending on the game, possibly species.  Second, there is usually some choice of occupation/role/abilities/archetype.  And finally, you get to name the character.

Is that enough?  Actually, it’s a lot. I’ve created a lot of these characters over the last few years (because I often find making ‘em as much fun as playing them) and I’ve found that the ones that I stick with are the ones where the three elements (appearance, role/archetype, and name) come together well so that you immediately get some feel for the character.

Let me give you some classic movie and TV examples.  Indiana Jones, adventuring archeologist, with his dusty leathers, hat, and whip.  Note the odd name, reminiscent of the pulp heroes of old.  How about James T. Kirk, starship captain, in his Starfleet uniform?  He shares with Indiana Jones the combination of a common name (James, Jones) and and unusual name (Indiana, Kirk).  And Kirk is such a short, sharp syllable. It’s a very strong name.  And there’s Luke Skywalker, who, despite being a farm boy, insists on wearing white.

And I don’t see any reason not to name and describe characters in writing with the same degree of care. For a literary example, consider Miles Vorkosigan, created by Lois McMaster Bujold. He's got a great name (and on his planet, names beginning with Vor are significant,) a great visual and role (he's a dwarf soldier/aristocrat) and he wears a wide degree of uniforms, all chosen carefully for the occasion. There's a lot to him, even before you get inside his head.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Theme Repetition, or A Rant about Chris Claremont

One piece of advice I often hear given to writers is: Read. Read lots. Read lots of things. So I thought it might be fun to spend the next post or two reflecting on the various odd media that I ingest and what I might learn from them. Today I would like to reflect on how an author uses personal themes and tropes.

I am currently reading, among other things, a Pulitzer prize winning novel and a series of comic books. So let’s talk about the comic books.  I am currently reading X-Men Forever and boy howdy, has someone let Chris Claremont off his leash.

Perhaps I had better explain that.  Chris Claremont was (quite deservedly) one of the rising stars of the American superhero comics industry in the late seventies and early eighties. He wrote a lot of titles, including a small, floundering book called the X-Men, which he (along with artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne) elevated to the status of Marvel’s flagship title.

Along the way he explored some themes and ideas that were just beginning to show up in the genre – the potentially corrupting influence of great power,  heroes and villains switching sides, heroes having to fight other heroes (not in the silly misunderstandings already common in the genre but in deadly earnest), heroes being transformed and having to readjust to who they are now, heroic sacrifices and unexpected character deaths, strange and unexpected turns in the heroes’ love lives, and a  focus on the female characters becoming increasingly more powerful.

Flash forward to 2009.  Claremont has long since left the X-Men for other titles, and even taken a break from comics to pen a few novels. Wherever he’s worked, he’s continued to explore the ideas he helped pioneer back in the X-Men.  And then someone has a great idea – let’s publish a comic series showing what the X-Men would have been if Claremont had never left the book. Pick right up where he left off.

And now we get to the part about writing: it’s not wrong to work with certain themes, motifs, ideas and all, but they can become a trap. You see, X-Men Forever has a slight problem: it’s all Claremont’s established themes and ideas, all the the time.  Heroes and villains switching sides? Got five of ‘em.  Transformations? At least three. Unexpected character deaths? Start right up in the second issue. Heroes fighting heroes in deadly earnest?  All the bloody time.  And all the rest, too.

Authors naturally write about what interests them.  We like to explore themes and use plot tricks we think are entertaining. And if we are lucky enough to be well established and have a fan following (which, let’s be fair, describes Claremont but not me) it is likely due, at least in part, because our readers like the paths we choose to explore.

I have, over the years, noticed repeating ideas in my work. I have several romantic pieces based on the idea that true love is a crock and you don’t get a happy ending unless you work for it.  My novels all touch on the responsibility of power and the consequences of its misuse.

So how do we know when to stop?  When are we approaching an idea from a new perspective or when are we just repeating ourselves? I wish I knew.  But I suspect we start by acknowledging the problem.

Tune in next time when I explore what I’ve observed about character development from playing online games.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Creative Imagination

I’ve been thinking about imagination, about the creative process. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my inner dream life has changed a bit over the years. 

When  I was a child, as the Good Book says, I spoke and I thought as a child.  My daydreams and flights of fancy were very direct.  When I was small, I was the hero of my stories.  In my mind, I rode off on quests, sailed among the stars, rescued the obligatory kids from the burning building (notice how its never adults in the burning building?), and fought the villains personally.

Now, more often than not, I’m not the hero – I’m the narrator.  I think about how I would tell, write, or otherwise present the tale even as it is unfolding in my imagination.  How would I present this in dialogue for a play? What narrative voice would I use for a novel? And for my fellow nerds out there, how would I run this as a game?

It’s true – the story is still interesting, even if I envision it in page layouts.

Some interesting things happened in the transition as I moved from hero to storyteller.  Character diversity for one thing.  Not being the lead allows for characters who don’t have to be me.  Multiple characters, characters with different points of view, characters that don’t have to agree with one another.

And structure: while I am not likely to daydream a full and complete novel, I can extend beyond a single scene, knowing the moment currently in my head is the set up or foreshadowing of a pay off that would occur in a later scene.

And failure: since the hero is no longer an avatar of me personally, it is a little easier to give him (or her, now) failings and incomplete resolutions and less immediate goals.

I don’t know if this is a unique pathology, or if all creative artists take a similar journey, or even if everyone, simply because of our familiarity with stories, follows this sort of path as they grow.  Perhaps, as we grow, we incorporate the lessons we learn into our stories – new ideas like the growing awareness of others as thinking and feeling people in their own right or the knowledge that life isn’t all successes and happy endings.

Or maybe it’s just me.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Something Everybody Wants

In my last installment, we considered a plot structure in which a character desires more than one thing, seeks more than one goal.  It’s a handy trick that not only provides character depth, but also almost guarantees conflict.

It occurred to me later that it might be worth looking at the trick in reverse – what happens when multiple characters all want the same thing?  The potential for conflict is obvious…

There’s a classic American comedy film directed by Stanley Kramer called It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  The movie revolves around about a dozen characters who are all given a hint as to the hidden location of $350,000 in stolen cash.  (It’s a 1963 movie – that was a lot of money back then.) Do the characters cooperate and agree to split the money?  Of course not.

When everybody wants something at the expense of someone else, conflict is inevitable.  The prize doesn’t have to be cash – it can be love, recognition, a scholarship, a place in the sun. The point is, our hero isn’t the only one striving for the prize. The question becomes not just what does your character want, but what will he or she be willing to compete for?  And how  far will he or she go to get it?

The rule of this type of story is this – only one wins the prize.  You can’t split a gold medal and your audience will feel cheated if you try.

But if we, as writers, can make our readers care about more than one of the characters seeking the goal, if we can make it uncertain who is going to finally win, if we can sympathize with the losers as well as the victors – well, that sounds like a darn good story to me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Everybody Wants Something.

There is a classic bit of writer's advice you will probably run into if you spend any amount of time looking for that sort of advice -- the story starts with somebody wanting something.

It can be anything, as long as somebody seriously wants it. It can be as simple as a desire to restore honor to the family name or as terrifying and difficult as trying to impress a pretty girl.

It's a basic recipe. The character's desires help define the character. The character's actions to achieve the desire move the plot along. The obstacles to that desire create conflict. Overcoming conflict provides resolution. Character + Conflict + Resolution = Story.

I was recently reminded of an interesting variation on the recipe. I was watching Joss Whedon's short musical Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. It's a nicely structured little story. But it starts with a clever twist to the recipe above. It starts with a character who wants two somethings.

This simple variation opens up a wealth of possibilities. The two desires can conflict, to start with. Maybe coming closer to one goal moves the other further away. Or maybe a great opportunity to achieve the second goal arrives right in the middle of delicately timed preparations for the first goal. These conflicts force the character to constantly choose which desire to pursue. It becomes a much greater task to achieve both.

This variation also makes the outcome less predictable. The most common resolution of the classic recipe is that the character gets what he or she wants. But when the character wants more than one thing, then our hero can both win and lose. Or both goals can be achieved. Or the resolution can ultimately turn on the making of a choice as the protagonist learns what he or she really needs.

It can be argued that almost all fiction writing is formulaic. Who cares, as long as the story is good? And writers will keep playing with the formula. What comes to your mind if I say the character wants five things? That's a good start on a nested quest -- kill the ogre to get the magic sword to face the dragon to rescue the princess to save the kingdom... But it would also make a good farce. The guy who inherits a million if he gets married before the end of the month but he is juggling five girlfriends, none of which will marry him if they find out about the other women in his life...

So, you want to start a story? Tell me what your character wants.