Torn shirts, quiet looks, and push/pull – What Lost’s pilot teaches us about storytelling, part 2

Looking for part 1? It’s right here.

Time for more Lost. As with last time, there are [XX:XX] timestamps if you’re watching along with this breakdown. I should say this isn’t a recap just for the sake of summary, I’m looking specifically at the pilot for key moments in the story design – the moments where the audience is informed of something, the moments something is developed, the moments there’s something to pay attention to beyond just the “hey that human is attractive” or “hey that joke is funny.”

[05:45] We get a name for our protagonist, Jack. Normally a character gets named a little sooner, and its one of our first points of contact and connection with them. We learn their name, then we learn more about them. Here, that’s reversed, we’ve learned about the guy (his courage, his skills, his attitude) ahead of his name, so we keep the focus on HOW he is as a person, rather than WHO he is as a person. Also “Jack” is a really generic name, if you’re unsure of how a name can affect how we organize what we teach the reader/audience about our characters.

[06:08] I’m mentioning this beat because it will ultimately be levity, but here we see Jack in another medical situation, trying to save a woman from someone else’s poor attempts “to help.” Again, we’re at a new beat in the scene, and we’ve got one more opportunity to reveal character-nature to us without dialogue expressly saying “I’m a doctor, here’s some jargon to prove I’m a doctor.” Dialogue is always going to come up short against a character’s actions when it comes to revealing something about the character, which is why the two so often have to work in concert in order to affirm something to the audience.

[06:58] Big giant explosion! Now this is caused by a wing falling, so I’m not entirely sure what exploded, unless the wing was made out of dynamite and the beach was all nitroglycerin (it was a pretty big fireball), so I’m thinking this was a nice action-for-action’s-sake-because-television beat. It does show us more about Jack (he’s the hero) and the geography of the scene when he’s running back across the beach pre-explosion.

[07:34] So we’re in this slow-mo, and it’s also here that I’m aware of the credits in the lower third on the left. Slow motion allows us to see the scope of things, to see just how bad it is, and give us an unhurried look at what’s going on. It helps impregnate the visuals with emotion. It’s visual exposition. There’s a rule in storytelling that exposition helps train the reader to receive the story, and slow-mo here over the scene of fire and panic and people and wreckage helps give the idea of “Oh wow, this is a mess” a bit more personality and weight. I’d go one step further to say it even gives the scene more humanity, because we’re not seeing a lot of corpses or gore, we’re looking at the confused and scared survivors.

[08:06] Over this slow-mo we’ve had orchestral strings, not in-scene sound. Music will always help emphasize emotion, giving us a reminder to feel a certain thing (test this yourself – watch any jump scare in any horror movie with and without the sound on and see the differences). Here, as Jack wanders around the wrecked plane, we get this confluence of strings and the emotion of “I’ve been in a plane crash” coming together. What this teaches us is that in this story characters aren’t afraid to feel feelings, particularly the sort of feelings we often term as “bad” or “private” or that we otherwise feel the need to hide from other people for whatever reason. This not only gives us more access to the characters and makes them human (they have feelings like we have feelings), it also helps convey this show’s tone, or what part of the tone will be.

Tone is  a tricky and sometimes nebulous thing that people grapple with in writing. You do need a tone, and it does need to be consistent, no matter what genre or POV. It’s a layer of expectation setting; it’s how you want to tell your story via its emotional vocabulary. If your story is lacking a coherent presentation, you’re going to confuse the audience but they won’t be able to specify what exactly you did to make them dislike it. (Hint: It’s tone. Tone helps tie a lot together).

[08:14] Remember that joke from 2 minutes ago? The guy trying to help so Jack sends him to find pens? He’s back and the joke pays off. I’m bringing this up because this serves 2 purposes – the joke and the dramatic moment  are both resolved by the same actions. This is good – this means we have fewer working parts to resolve and it helps keep the audience/reader engaged because we’re lightening the emotional load. This is part of the push/pull I talk about – if you can end drama with a lighter note, you gain momentum. The “right” lighter note shouldn’t completely undo or wreck the drama, but it does keep us out of being constantly inundated with heavy emotions that take a lot of mental processing power. Sometimes, you gotta let the audience breathe a little. And no, this doesn’t mean the tone has changed, it’s that we’ve let a little pressure out of our Instant Pot. We’ve been pushed forward with heavy plane-crashy drama, now we’re being pulled out of it, just for a moment, so we can move forward.

[10:05] So we’re at this moment on the beach where Jack has appropriated a sewing kit and he’s going to attend to his wound. There’s a lot here I want to talk about. First, notice how he hangs up his jacket. It’s a small touch, it’s maybe a developmental after thought -he just wants to keep his jacket clean- but then take a look what he did with his bloody t-shirt. That got dumped in a pile in the sand. Now, okay, I know, he probably won’t put it back on, to keep the sand out of the wound, but (and here’s the what-if) what if he needed cloth? Some part of that shirt was cleaner than the wound site, right?

And here we get our first female character introduction, as she plays nurse/stitcher, taking Jack’s direction. The resuscitated lady was female too, but we really didn’t meet her, she was a scene-object so we could show off our character and set up a joke amid tension. Here we get a nicer moment between two people, our returning vodka bottle, and a needle and thread. See how this scene keeps us away from the up-close of the needle? That’s because the focus here isn’t on the wound, but the people. This reinforces the idea and the momentum that this is a story about people. It also tells us something about these characters – they’ll help each other, or at least these two people will.

[12:21] We’re back to our strings, and we’re given the broad montage of the sun setting and people’s initial shock wearing off. They’ve built fires, they’re gathering supplies, they’re going to do more than run around and panic. We’re shown all this stuff at a distance, to make the people feel a little small against the landscape and make their efforts (proportionally also small) feel small, but because we’re framing this story about the people being people, this montage hits the right notes for drama and because the montage is a series of shots, it gives us movement going forward.

And thanks to pneumonia, I’ve got to call part 2 here. We’ll pick up in part 3 next week.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, part 2 of many, step by step, the craft of writing, 0 comments

Explosions, tiny vodka bottles, and sand: What Lost’s pilot shows us about structure and timing, part 1

 

(photo credit: NY Observer)

With the news that Hulu acquired Lost, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs, I thought it would be interesting to crack open one of their pilots to see what we can find about story development and craft. I chose Lost because it’s a really meaty two-parter, and it’s got more moving parts narratively. Also, it’s easier to breakdown than a cartoon, because I can’t always translate sight gags or cartoon physics into text in a better way than just showing you the clip.

Let’s start with what Lost means to me. The first season in particular holds a very strange but unique place in my mind, as it was one of 4 shows (Rubicon, Rome, and Cosmos being the others) my father and I watched together. This didn’t happen very often, as we seldom agreed on entertainment and just about any discussion of a show devolved into an argument about how I was somehow wrong or a disappointment.

For whatever reason, Lost was different. I think it was the early commercials for it, but something made us both say, “Yeah, let’s give that a try” so we scheduled ourselves a weekly appointment to be civil to each other and watch the show. I have to tell you – I liked that. My dad is a lot of things, and some of those things I don’t agree with, but I did like the fact that we had this show. And the show’s first season was good for us too. It didn’t have all the later drama or time travel or weirdness, and it told a pretty interesting story about people in a strange place all sort of bound together. It was Robinson Crusoe with just enough “Oh that’s interesting” to keep us paying attention.

Later seasons didn’t hold us though. My dad checked out I think at the end of season 2, and I stopped just before the final season, reading about the ending and feeling like bailing out early was the right move if I wanted to preserve the memory of the first season with my dad.

So what I’m asking you to do is put aside all the stuff we know about the later seasons. Let’s just look at this like we’ve put the television on for the premiere, and we’re gonna cover both parts here. If you want to watch along with this post (which you totally should), I’ve timestamped paragraphs as we go.

NOTE: Given the sheer amount of narrative stuff there is to talk about here, I’m stopping this post at about the [05:00] mark of the show. And then we’ll do the next few blogposts to cover the rest of the two-part pilot.

[00:03] Yeah, I’m starting with the title. The title of any story is either going to convey information (Old Man and the Sea is about an old guy and the water), context (Star Wars is about a war among stars), or as in this case theme. Lost is about people who are, well, lost.

[00:15] Eye opening. Like we literally open the show on an eye opening. I’ve talked before about how the first character introduced in a story is who the audience is going to associate with and attach to until given someone else, and the intimacy here (I mean we’re all up in this dude’s face) gives us very little doubt as to who this character is to us – he’s our protagonist. With television being a visual medium, we don’t need to write paragraphs describing the state of him in any way greater than just what the camera means to show us – the eye – and if you want to keep up the idea that “the sentences and paragraphs are your camera“, then you’d probably want to avoid eating up that first page by talking about the weather or the trees if you want to prioritize the connection the audience has to our protagonist. We’re zoomed in, we connect, and we follow along.

[00:20] A quick word here that the second shot we see we an establishing shot of the bamboo and flora of wherever we are. It’s shot from the eye’s perspective – we’re seeing what the eye sees, we’re the eye – so we’re reinforcing that relationship between the character and the audience. This is deliberate, and it’s going to reinforce the emotional, the what-are-we-supposed-to-feelness of the moment. In paragraph form, here’s where you get to go all hogwild about what’s around the character. Do up the weather, and the immediate visuals, all that. BUT no, you don’t get to move the focus away from answering the question: “If (the reader) was laying there in place of the character and didn’t move their head, what would they see or experience?” Not moving the head is the biggie here in what would be the writing of this. If we want to preserve the closeness of audience to character, we can’t move until the character does, and the camera’s only going to follow the character’s lead, not the other way around. That’s an important lesson, so let’s repeat it – you’re developing what the camera sees, so it’s important to figure out if the camera follows the character’s lead or if the character follows the camera.

Let’s go sidebar on this:

You’ll want some examples. The camera follows the character’s lead when a sentence contains an idea of what the character is doing, and then the next sentence continues to develop what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl walked across the cold floor. He tried not to step on any of the toys his daughter left out last night. (We get the picture of where and how Darryl is walking)

The character follows the camera when a subsequent sentence creates an opportunity rather than describe what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl was very proud of his acrobatics and was ready to silently cheer his good fortune with a fresh cup of whatever garbage coffee his girlfriend left in the apartment. The ringing phone stopped the celebration. (Here we develop Darryl’s feelings and even given him a little personal history, only to cut away from Darryl to draw focus to a ringing phone. With it ringing, it’s taking our attention and creating an opportunity for Darryl to do something – answer it.)

[01:25] Our unnamed protagonist has seen a dog and now stands up. This is important because now the camera moves back to establish context. We’re still invested in this character, so we no longer need to come back to his direct view (we’re not all up in his eye, seeing what he sees). We’re just about 90 seconds into the show, so if we’re saying X number of seconds is a paragraph, I figure we’re about 4-6 paragraphs in, and if we’re doing that publishing thing where the first page doesn’t start until the halfway point on the paper, then maybe we’ve turned the page in our paperback. This tracking isn’t as hard and fast like it is in screenwriting (1 page to 1 minute), but it’s worth having a clock in your head when you’re trying to figure out how long to spend on describing something before moving on.

[01:33] Hey look, a tiny vodka bottle.

[02:08] There’s a quick shot of a shoe hanging in a tree. This is an ‘establishing detail’ and we’re seeing it so that we know there’s a greater, stranger, somehow dangerous context to expect. Establishing details add or confirm context.

[02:26] Okay, there’s a weird camera move that I need to point out. The camera circles clockwise away from the protagonist, so that we keep the shot of the clear beach in frame. We juxtapose the empty beach with the woman screaming to set up some kind of incongruity between the two. The problem here is that our protagonist started on our right and is now on our left, turning left, so when the camera moved, he actually moved backwards and away from us – like circling a chair to try and chase the dog only to have the dog slip past you on the turn. This move doesn’t help us make all the incongruity more jarring, it just leads us to wonder “why did we stop seeing what the protagonist sees?”

[02:36] Oh, that’s why, the reveal of the plan crash and wreckage and people was supposed to be a big “Oooh” moment. Except let’s look at the distance between our MC and the scene, he takes maybe half a dozen steps and he’s clearly smaller than a plane crash, so the previous camera move tells us … did he not notice the plane crash because he didn’t turn left?

[03:23] Hey look, it’s that guy from Lord of the Rings standing way too close to a jet turbine.

[03:40] Big giant establishing shot of the plane crash. Also, I’m glad I paused it here because sweet Luther Vandross am I glad for the silence from Maggie Grace’s screaming. The importance of this shot is to highlight the physical hazards as well as the calamity of the scene. It’s dangerous, plane’s already a wreck, loads of people are hurt, and if that wing section comes off, people could be even more hurt. These are the stakes of the moment. We don’t really “know” any other characters and we don’t really have any framework for tying other ideas we have together, so we’re kept to this present moment where the plane crash is the biggest threat going.

[03:50] Now since the majority of writers tend to create stakes then want to create something smaller thereafter (to show that within this big deal there are a lot of little things going on, all cogs in some large danger machine), we cut to the guy pinned under part of the plane. He’s screaming for help, and before I get to the googling where I don’t think you’d be able to hear him over the sound of the turbine, but if we didn’t hear anything but the shrill whistle of a jet engine, the show would feel radically different, I need to point out the stacking stakes can work, and here’s an example.

Stacking stakes adds tension. There’s this plane crash and it’s a big deal but these localized elements of individual people and injuries help make the big thing feel even bigger without affecting the plane crash itself. They’re the effects of the crash but they’re the seeds of subsequent scenes and stories, causes that will later have their own effects. The plane crash is the first domino, even if it’s just a very big explodey domino.

[04:23] Ooh, a little blood.

[04:36] Our MC reveals some of his attitude and skills by dealing with the leg wound and then a pregnant girl, assigning her an aide, and getting her calmed down. If we’re on paper, I’m saying we’re at least 3 to 5 pages in, and we’re spending a lot of text showing context through sensory information – our MC looks overwhelmed, and were we there, we’d be overwhelmed, so we should convey overwhelmingness by taking about the sound and the sand and the screams and the blood and the whatever-else.

[05:06] The jet turbine explodes. Big huge moment, our protagonist tosses himself to shield the pregnant girl. This tells us a lot about his character.

So in the first 5 minutes what do we have? (not necessarily in this order)

  1. A male protagonist
    1. And we know he has
      1. Medical skills
      2. Courage
      3. Athleticism
  2. There’s a dog
  3. The guy from Lord of the Rings
  4. An Australian girl
    1. she’s pregnant
  5. Maggie Grace
    1. She’s screaming
  6. A plane crash
    1. A turbine
      1. It explodes!
  7. Lots of injured people
  8. Lots of people looking for other people
  9. A beach up against jungle
    1. Tropical
    2. Mountains in the distance

See you next week for more.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, structure, 1 comment

Set the Table, Clear the Table

I have a particular fascination with the title sequence for Chef’s Table and certain scenes in Downton Abbey: I like to watch how the silverware, glasses, and plates get arranged. It seems weird, but I find something very soothing in watching linen unfurl and different things finding “their” space on the table with a precise intention and deliberate effort.

Maybe this is because I very seldom keep things that organized for long. I make the bed, and then dump things onto it. I swear that this time I’m going to not pile things on the shelf next to the desk, and then about a day later, I’m rooting through a pile of notebooks trying to find the one I want.

This is frustrating for me, and probably ten times moreso for the people who’ve ever lived with me, cleaned up after or around me, or generally wanted me to live in a better way.

The point I’m making is that part of organization is understanding the two bookends of it. You have to set the table before you can eat the meal, and you have to clear the table so you prepare for the next meal.

Today we’re going to talk about setups and payoffs as structural elements in story.

What Is A Setup?

A setup is any piece of information that creates an opportunity to be acted upon later. That piece of information might be a single word (like “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane), or a scene (like the discovery of the clue in any police procedural) or anything in between. Setups can function for plots just as easily as they can for arcs or worldbuilding. They can go anywhere in storycraft, but they will always have some rules in order to be considered functional or satisfying.

A. The setup must be paid off using information known or discovered just prior to the moment of the payoff itself.
B. The purpose of the setup is to add information of merit to what’s already known or assumed to be known.
C. The setup never contradicts its own setting up without sacrificing credulity or tone.
D. The setup must have a payoff of at least equal scope or fit into a greater picture to be revealed.

Let’s go through these one at a time.

The setup must be paid off using information known or discovered just prior to the moment of the payoff itself. If you’re trying to figure out who stole the priceless diamond, you have all the story events you know prior to the moment you’re in currently (where you’re in the middle of figuring out who did it) to help you uncover the thief. You can’t count the act of you figuring it out as part of the solution itself, because the process of something is itself not the solution (yes, exceptions exist, but for the vast majority, we’re safe in saying this).

If that was a little abstract, try this: 4 is the answer to 2 + 2. Adding two and two together will give you four, but the answer to two plus two is not the phrase “two plus two.”

In our diamond example, you figuring it out is 2 + 2 and the thief is 4, we want to get to 4.

Why make that distinction? Because it tells us that payoffs don’t have to immediately follow the setup if we don’t want it to. So long as I at some point get to 4, I can take my sweet time getting through 2 + 2, because I have the entirety of the story to discover both 2s and that I have to add them together. Likewise, I’m not going to get my 4 without understanding that the 4 is the end result of the effort, and I can only reach that end through my being able to have all the pieces in front of me. (Note: Yes, I know this is subverted beautifully in Arrival, but that’s not always going to be the case in every story)

If I reach my conclusion in some other way that is only suddenly revealed AFTER I’m supposed to have done it (like if someone tells me the who the thief is well after I’ve been trying to figure it out), then the whole effort put in to figure it out is wasted. Why did you just spend 85000 words to figure out that Erin did it when you have Terry just breeze in and undercut all the tension at word 85001?

If you’re looking to satisfy an audience, then they have to be aware of the setup, see how it fits into context, and have it paid off with what’s already known. Don’t think you’re scoring “clever” points because the payoff is out of the ordinary that cheapens the audience’s efforts to pay attention.

The purpose of the setup is to add information of merit to what’s already known or assumed to be known. “Information of merit” is information that makes a difference to the audience. It helps clarify what’s already known or it introduces information that will fit into context in the near future. It’s not just there to be there, and it’s not incidental. This helps to answer the question of ‘Why are you telling me this?’ and helps cement existing context into place. It doesn’t come out of left field, it doesn’t stick out against all the other context you’ve established, and the information gives us something new to add to what we already know.

Oh, you’re telling me that the Jess wishes John would moping about snow because she wants him to learn to appreciate things, it’s part of her nature and revealing that to an audience gives them insight into who she is and what their relationship is like. You’re not just telling me that because you wrote really zippy dialogue for each of them to say because every time you read it you laugh at your own snow pun. A setup that offers no additional insight or contribution to some element of story or the shading and coloring of other elements of story is something that can be flagged for removal.

Hold up. Pump the brakes. Let me make one thing super clear – this is NOT me saying that stories need to be streamlined anorexic skeletons that only have the barest of linear structures because all the other stuff is “skippable” or “junk” or “uninteresting” (insert your own bullshit word there). This is me saying that development must be purposeful. If it goes on the page, do something with it.

The setup never contradicts its own setting up without sacrificing credulity or tone. When you’re establishing something, let’s say you’re setting up that two characters had a previous relationship and one of them has carried regrets about it for years, that previous relationship’s existence cannot detract from the fact that you’re bringing it up. Again, development is purposeful, so if you’re going to connect the characters this way and include the regret aspect of it, if you want the regrets to mean something and carry some weight, the effect of the regret has to put some torque or strain on the character(s). If there are regrets, but they don’t have any weight, or if they never come up, are they really there in the first place, let alone do they matter?

Now if the credibility of the setup doesn’t matter, let’s say you’re writing comedy, you can toss this out the window. In something like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, there’s the garbage-can-in-the-jail moment where Ted says to remember to rig a garbage can and then we know he did because the garbage can falls on the guy. The character-in-peril moment is made into a joke because the setup (remember the garbage can) goes against what it’s setting up (we don’t see this have any impact on the story, we don’t see this create any paradox, we just see the end result of whammo, trash can).

The setup must have a payoff of at least equal scope or fit into a greater picture to be revealed. Think about a slot machine. You put in 1 token let’s say, and when you win, you never get anything smaller than 1 token back. You don’t “win” by putting in one, then getting one-third. The payoff and the setup have to be of at least the same scope or the payoff has to be greater than the setup in order to feel satisfying.

You’ve got the superspy fighting the villain on the rooftop as the bomb ticks down. The setup is that ticking clock, where the presumed failing outcome (what if the superspy loses) is that the bomb goes off and everyone dies. The payoff to the ticking clock has to be proportional to its existence. As you increase the scene’s tension (the clock is ticking), the urgency to not fail increases. If you set up this bomb with like a three day timer and the hero gets to fighting the villain with like 31 hours left, you’re suggesting that this fight is going to take 31 hours in order to have that “will it or won’t it go off” feel appropriately tense.

The reason why a payoff has to be at least as big as the setup is so that the audience can connect with it and then root for the payoff to end satisfactorily. Too small a payoff and the audience will wonder why we were supposed to care so much (and its related question, “Did I just waste my time?”). Too large a payoff and we’ll feel like we’re missing something.

Earning Your Payoffs

A payoff is any resolution of something set up. This is referred to in a lot of different ways: “closing the loop” “finding the pair/mate” “delivering on it”, but it all means the same thing – the tension or idea presented by the setup is concluded in a way that the audience can place it into context.

Like setups, there are also rules to follow:

A. The payoff has to follow the established rules of the world and situation it exists in
B. The payoff must be clear in at least one context or to one element of the story.
C. The payoff is always earned.
D. The payoff must be of at least equal scope to its corresponding setup.

The payoff has to follow the established rules of the world and situation it exists in. If you’ve set up that we need to find the corrupt politician’s emails that exist only on this one server kept in the secret basement of an Arby’s, then we’re going to deliver on that set up by dealing with the server in that Arby’s probably via hacking (since it makes sense relative to servers) and not via using an elaborate series of balloons and magic Vallhund (google it) smiles.

Payoffs serve two functions – to explain things that need explaining, and to create a context for the explained material alongside all the previously explained material. A payoff that comes out of the blue because it gets explained in incredulous ways is not satisfying. (See the post-patronus hippogriff scene in Azkaban, it remains a splinter under my skin).

The payoff must be clear in at least one context or to one element of the story. It’s not a payoff if it doesn’t resolve anything (it’s just another setup). Long form series are rife with them – The Sopranos have a guy wandering the Pine Barrens, Game of Thrones has giant dragon chains, Star Trek has Kirk’s eyeglasses. A lot of “media criticism” is made out of highlighting them, which is atrocious and teaches us nothing, because a thing’s existence isn’t the problem, it’s what is or isn’t done with the thing – the squandered potential of it.

A payoff can serve multiple setups, as in the case of plot or climax resolution where killing the badguy settles the questions: “what’s gonna happen to the badguy” and “will the good guys survive?” But not all payoffs need to be multipurpose as too often this can feel rushed or lumpy (that’s not a great word but I don’t know how else to describe the globular nature of things just mashed together into a knot of scene and story), which results in unsatisfying storytelling.

The payoff is always earned. The satisfaction of the payoff comes in knowing that the character(s) faced some kind of challenge or difficulty in getting it. While the payoff accomplishes something material to the story, it carries an emotional and psychological weight that we don’t need handed to us, because we enjoy the responsibility and sometimes challenge of going through the story to earn it along with the characters.  Delivering us the payoff tells the audience you either thought them too stupid to “get it” or that it doesn’t matter ultimately if they worked for it or not, so instead of being stupid, you don’t respect their effort.

The payoff must be of at least equal scope to its corresponding setup. As before, the parity between the two adds to the sense of value for them both.

Placing This In Story

There are two ways to handle setups and payoffs: you can deliver on them as-is/as-expected or subvert them. You’ve got to understand the utility of both to really know how to construct setups and payoffs that’ll best fit your story.

Delivering as-is means the audience gets the intended reward for the intended work at the intended time. The story where Bruce Willis kills a guy for selling his daughter an ugly hat in a linear A went to B went to C progression makes sure the audience feels a certain way at a specific time and the story is devoid of confusion and nuance because really it’s just the story of Willis shooting people to collect a paycheck. Expecting certain moments and certain feelings and getting them feels satisfying.  The majority of setups and payoffs are delivered as-is because they’re cumulative effect helps present the story in the way its meant.

Subverting the expectation means taking the as-is and altering it either in execution or delivery. Your big “Bruce Willis has been bald this entire time” twist suddenly colors the entire story and brings the tale of haberdashery and petulance to a satisfying conclusion but not because it was directly linear, but the twist helps frame the linear material into a different and deeper way.

Think of it this way: Subversion adds depth because it counts on the as-is to do its job.

This is why you can’t do a story that’s only twists, because then you have no stable base to build from (assuming you want to preserve tone and credulity). The most recent twist always takes the most spotlight, so if you stack three twists atop one another, you’d be reducing the impact of the first two.

Subversion works when you let one element become the frame or lens for all the other not-subverted pieces (egads! that’s his cousin!) or when the subverted payoff or setup helps focus attention on a different take on existing material (as in that’s his cousin, but instead of being creepy, it’s aromantic).

Whether this overall means you delay the payoff or present it in a way that’s not expected is up to you. Whether you present the setup without the elements you think we’re used to seeing (the damsel in distress is suddenly Chris Pine) or not is up to you.

But be deliberate. Plan this out. Don’t think that you’ve got to have a twist just because “it’ll sell” or “go over better.” Setups and payoffs help cement legacy content and establish story mythology and world building, this isn’t something to slapdash through.

Do you have a favorite twist? What was one that you tried and failed? How could you have rehabbed it and saved it? Tell me below in the comments.

 

Happy writing

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, by request, dissect writing, 1 comment

One More Vector On Character In Story

Let’s suppose we’re playing chess on a lovely morning at my favorite beach spot in the whole world and the scene is everything great that I love: we’ve got nice drinks, we’re comfortably dressed, it’s warm but not hot, the ocean is literally right the hell over there, and we have no care in the world except we’re playing chess.

You move first. Say you advance the queen’s pawn two spaces. I do the same on my side. You move a knight, and again I do the same. You move the queen, so I move my queen. How long do you think we can keep copying each other before we either have no choice but to stop dancing around the fact that chess is about trying to take each other’s king or that we’re just going to go around and around until one of us gets sick of the game and walks away?

There’s a mathematical answer to that, but it’s not important right now. What is important, in fact the whole point of the chess story is that how we approach our pieces and the moves we make affects the board. Not structurally, but contextually, because while the board’s always going to have that many squares and we’ll always have 2 rooks and we’ll always know that the pieces operate in specific ways, how we move them changes how the next thing in the game can go. You move a bishop and all of a sudden, I can find myself cut off from a third of the board. I put you in check and now instead of pressing me with a knight, you’re on the defensive.

Chess is a great metaphor for storytelling because it is itself a story. The pieces are characters, their actions and goals and possibilities map to storycraft incredibly well. And like in chess, we need to see the whole board, and see the relationship between moves made, moves happening at the time, and moves in the future, along with whatever possibly responses they’ll get.

Today we’re going to look at characters by looking at the whole board. It’s time to dive into some character typing.

Everyone’s Got A Type, Right?

Character typing is the name for how we label characters both individually and collectively. Yes this is how we get ‘protagonist’, ‘antagonist’, ‘love interest’, but also ‘crazy cat lady’, ‘hyper sensitive complaint monkey’, or ‘dudebro’. That term “typecasting” comes out of this idea – that the same actor often gets put into the same role or type from one project to the next.

Let’s look at our chessboard. Whenever we label anything, we use that name, that word, as a way to distinguish it from the other material around it. On the chessboards we call pawns “pawns” because they’re not called “queens.” Each distinct kind piece has its own name, even if the population of them varies on that side of the board. Yes, we have more pawns than we do kings, and that gives the impression that the king is more rare and special.

Coming back to storycraft, this is the benefit of rarity – we don’t call every character operating on one side of the conflict “the protagonist” because, well, some just end up being pawns not kings. This is where big giant ensemble casts where there’s some forced egalitarian structure in place (bonus points if this was a learned-in-school-bullshit thing about power structures), because storytelling is meritocratic – the utility of the piece and how it acts in concert and reference to the other pieces in play makes it important as part of the greater strategy to succeed at the conflict of the story.

But before we can talk utility, we have to talk about both sides of the board, the big picture. See how each king has a pawn in front of it? We’d call those pawns “corresponding.” In story term’s this is where the same role is fulfilled on each side of the conflict. In Disney fare, this is making sure both the good guys and badguys have a sarcastic character, or in a soap opera that each side has the passive aggressive mother-in-law that I’m sure someone will “Yass queen” over (what does that mean, anyway? Can anyone explain it?).

Corresponding Characters

Simplest terms: What’s on one side exists in equal measure on the other side, and their utility or capacity to function in the story is equal too. In chess, both sides get pawns, and it’s agreed upon in advance and understood that all pawns are going to operate in the same way. In a story, the nerdy sidekicks stay in their expected ranges of actions and functions. When all of a sudden you give the nerdy sidekick the chance to be the badass, the moment in the story feels out of place – often played for comedy or played for tension. When we deviate from that norm, we get an heightened emotional response.

Here comes the first red flag with corresponding characters. You can pretty quickly bloat the story structure. Look how many pawns we have on the chessboard. If we do that in a story, that’s a lot of moving parts with a lot of overlap, because we don’t need the same number of characters on both sides to tell a complete story. Are we really gaining anything substantial if you add two more snarky best friends to your rom-com? A lot of these characters can get merged/collapsed into each other to make the amalgam character stronger for both the story and the audience’s benefit.

Don’t believe me – Tell me about Johnny’s Kobra Kai buddies in The Karate Kid. Yeah, I know that one kid who looks like Mark Hamill who is way down for putting Daniel-san in a bodybag, but can you tell me about the other ones? Yeah, there are other ones.

 

 

Yeah, I do think he looks like Mark Hamill a little.

Corresponding characters work better in tighter stories with smaller casts, where there’s less necessity of having all the corresponding pairs face-off. It’s because of their utility to story that they become important – they set up what other characters do and it doesn’t matter if there’s one across the field from them, they do what they do for their side and then they get out of the way. It’s worth challenging yourself to see if you actually need equity between sides in the story. The metaphoric scales don’t have to (And shouldn’t often) balance nearly as much or as often as you think they might.

Maybe you’re asking, “So what about in comics and movies where you have two characters that are sort of the same but not exactly the same, do they correspond?

No, they’re the next thing we’re going to talk about.

Reflected Characters

Flash and Anti-Flash. Green Lantern and Sinestro. Rockford and Marcus Hayes.

Reflected characters are pairings where the members of the pairs aren’t exactly the same, but even given their changes, they’ve got the same utility. Looking back to our chessboard, we’ve got two bishops per side, but one can only move along white squares and the other black, though both move along the diagonal.

Reflected characters are built to be complimentary but not necessarily to the degree where they cancel each other out. It’s part of their inherent tension that they exist for the other to have something to bounce off of, and it gives the audience something to have an emotional connection to and a stake in. If this character controls water, and this other one controls fire, who’s gonna get the upper hand in a certain situation? Guess they’ll have to read and find out.

The downside and potential hazard of reflected characters is nullification, where they do cancel each other out in terms of story utility and scene consequences. Okay, Fire Lady meets Water Lady, and neither gets the upper hand, so what, they just sort of circle each other a few times and then walk away, or worse, they’re going to go back and forth until some other character steps in and actually does something in the scene?

Did you really think this wasn’t getting used?

How is that going to give the audience something to care about, especially if their possible confrontation gets a lot of hype in advance?

The solution for reflected characters is in the context and the situation where they clash. Yes, in blank space, the two will cancel each other out (and I know I’ve framed this as superheroes, but this is also true for two lawyers or two siblings or two rival chicken farmers or whatever), but characters don’t live in blank spaces. The world around them reacts and encourages them to react and because each character (no matter how reflected) is their own character with a different moral code, skill set, belief structure, or fear and goal, the world around them and their choices provides them opportunities so that they don’t end up like that chess match at the beginning of the blogpost where we’re just copying each other and not really playing one another.

Two more to go, but we can put away the chessboard.

Analogues

Analogous characters are pairings of characters and tropes or other representations that share similar backgrounds or thematic material. Analogues work best when you know the tropes and the templates that founded the particulars of the character in question. What do I mean?

Philip Marlowe, Jim Rockford, Matlock, Black Panther, Rocky … they’re all noble heroes in a world often sloped or staged against them. If you understand the formulae in and around the noble hero, you can essentially hot-swap the hero and the hero’s story around to create an overall different but somehow familiar story. This combined familiarity-difference helps the audience relate to the new material by having existing material as a home base.

A word of caution here- don’t fall down the I-need-to-know-everything-about-the-trope-before-I-can-write-it-hole. The INTKEATTBICWI hole is huge and jagged and it’s a fast track to paralyzing production. You don’t need to know everything up front, and you don’t even need everything by the time you’re done. Just like writing is a process of stratification, so too is developing and researching the ideas that will inform what goes on those pages. Research enough to give you a starting point, then start writing and let what you’ve written along with what you already know to let you know what to research and write next. Keep your story on track and your research relevant, and you’ll run into fewer instances of getting stuck.

Analogues work great when you put the focus on the story being told, not who’s in the story. This isn’t to say the characters are disposable, but good analogue use means that any and all characters are machine-crafted to fit into a larger puzzle that deserves focus, no matter how cool they are as a singular component. And because they’re rooted in tropes, you never have to go too far to see what boundaries or functionality a character is supposed to have. The Barfly is always going to supply information to the Detective more than they’d make threats (that’s the Goon’s job), and the Wise Mentor is always going to have more experience than any Fish Out Of Water (because then they wouldn’t be very wise, nor would the fish be out of water).

Knowing these things give us a box to operate in, and whenever we’re lost, a set of basal instructions for how a  character is going to default as well as how we can subvert expectation within and around the trope to add a little spark to a flat moment in development.

Okay, last one.

Variants

We know these. These are the Spocks-with-Goatees, the alternate universe versions of the bookworm who’s a party girl, the version of the hero twisted by tragedy.

A variant the same hero with some moderate to significant changes due to changes in backstory. In our version, the character made that left at Albuquerque, but the variant sees them going right. Or we take the character and go a bit farther out on the limb, but whatever, we can pass it off as something cool and special that can swim in some what-if waters for our story.

 

Yes, sometimes this does go too far.

 

The advantage of offering a variant within a story or series goes beyond the character being cooler or different (in hacky cases, this basically makes you a new character you can do-over, but I think we’re all trying to be better than that), because it drives to the audience how important choices and outcomes were. Yes, at the time it was a big emotional deal for the character, and we can later underscore that by calling it back by showing the variant what-could-have-happened if they didn’t make that choice.

This is Jimmy Stewart having never been born. Or Michael Caine being visited by 3 Muppets. It’s fun when it has a purpose, but it can often go beyond fan service and just sort of drag everything to a halt just so it can get its few moments of attention. Also, it’s worth pointing out that depending on build-up, the actual thing will often fall short compared to how it could have been.

I love you, but there’s a lot that could have gone differently. At some point I think we should deconstruct you …

 

Conclusion

So why bring this all up? Because seeing the whole chessboard, seeing the big picture and being about to discuss the components as though they’re distinct and parts of a whole is a critical skill. It comes up when you’re interviewed or when you’re talking to an editor or agent about the story. Seeing the parts and understanding its flow means you’re able to participate in its betterment in a greater way than just looking at text for proper grammar and punctuation.

Add this stuff to your writer’s toolbox, and next week, we’ll add some more.

 

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in by request, character stuff, revisiting an idea, 0 comments

Plot Triangles and Circles

This all started because as I was cleaning up the office, I found a portable hard drive with a copy of Trapped In The Closet on it. Say what you like about how absurd the story and the videos are, but there’s a plot there. As for whether or not it’s a “good” plot we can debate, but I’m going to tell you that I’m gonna side with the guy who made remix of Ignition fresh and hot out his kitchen more often than not – it’s entertaining while being vaguely in the ballpark of coherent, which is what we ask out of a plot.

The original draft of this post was a rundown of the Trapped In The Closet beat structure, but over time I started seeing that it wouldn’t do any good to bring up the midget and being deep in the streets without first making sure we’e talking the same language in plot.

What Is A Plot?

A plot is a series of events and actions that occur in an order that help resolve a question, conflict or challenge. If that conflict has to do with character, it’s a character plot. If it has to do with the main crux of the story, it’s called story plot.

All Plot Has A Structure

Plot ideally escalates and resolves according to divisions in stories we recognize as Acts. And in school, we most often see two different kind of Act structures: 3-Act and 5-Act.

Got this straight out of a textbook

 

Notice any similarities?

Look at both of these, they each deal with what’s called the Triangle or in some cases the Mountain, where the middle of the story is filled with the plot’s escalation, climax and resolution. The degree to which we delineate the start, rise, and resolution helps determine if we’re talking 3 or 5 Acts, but there’s no real way past the Triangle, or is there?

Here Comes the Circle

There’s this thing called the monomyth, the hero’s journey, Campbell’s structure … it’s all the same thing. It’s the progression of a hero through their story. It can be represented as a circle.

There’s a prettier version in color, but I like this version too.

The Triangle is gone. So are the clear markers about where the Acts start and end.  It’s a visual representation of progress more than it’s a sense of scale (the triangle has a high point that’s the tallest thing in the image, so that must correlate to the climax).

So Which Is Better?

Stop that. Stop thinking one is better, or that if you use one or the other you’re making some kind of profound statement as to what sort of writer you are, or how literary or whatever tilted bullshit is circulating in the writing media you consume. There is no better. They each have their uses. Each has situations where one will produce a more linear plot with fewer creative difficulties, so at best you can say one is situationally better than another, but no, there’s no Plot Thunderdome or Quickening to determine the best kind of plot.

And if you’re asking, yes there are other models of plot, and the one I teach clients will be up on Patreon starting this week.

These are just tools, and tools are only as potent as the person using them, no matter what they’re using them for.

I’ve set all this out so that we can get on the same page. This is going to be our common language for what we’re talking about today.

Plot Fuel, Plot Momentum, Plot Roadblocks

If you’ve ever said or thought, “I suck at plotting.” I will tell you that you don’t. You think you do, but that’s because you’re defining plot like it’s built out of something other than the rest of the storystuff – decisions and intention.

What you choose based on what you intend is the fuel that drives plot. All plots. Characters. Stories. Series. All of it.

Let’s nip the “my characters don’t follow my plot” idea in the bud – You made your characters. You made the plot. You make all the decisions as to what happens or what doesn’t happen. If one train of thought isn’t working out, you have the full ability to change part(s) of it until it does work out. Being uncomfortable with the responsibility for your creation is something you should come to terms with before proceeding down any creative path.

Intentions (like “I intend to tell a story about A meeting B and then doing X” or “This is a story about one woman’s struggle to find an identity as a beekeeper and office drone.”) help frame decisions, and as the story progresses you approach the subsequent with questions of “And therefore what” “And then” “Which leads to what happening and why?

These questions help build momentum in the story, because they lead you to make more new decisions in an orderly fashion rather than spraying thought shrapnel all over the place.

What does that look like? This:

Character realizes they’re trapped in a stifling job and their real passion is beekeeping.”
And then…
They try for weeks to get fired from their job, only to be promoted again and again for being ‘outside the box.'”
Therefore…
Her rival at work discovers her plan to get fired and tries to reveal it to the company
Which leads to what happening and why?
During the big merger talks, everything is exposed and…

What these questions do is help develop momentum because the later actions build off the earlier ones. It’s not a quick jamming together of disparate things that sound individually cool under the idea that if individually they’re cool, so collectively they must be double-extra-cool. You can prove this false by looking at movies that jam in extra villains hoping that more badguys make for more opportunities for awesome to happen, like in the Batman movies pre-Nolan, or comparing the plot development of the Star Wars prequels to the OG trilogy.

What you’re looking for is sequential, because that’s how you build momentum.

But now we have to talk about a roadblock.

No, not that guy.

I’m talking about the manufactured obstacles you put in the way of the story, without thinking they’re obstacles. The ideas that seem like they’d work or be cool or contribute to a better overall story.

This is the “I could have a character who…” or “What if this also happened while this other thing was happening…” additions that can come across like impulse additions or things that got included because they’re supposed to “help a book sell”

These might be great ideas when thought of as a bubble or a passing thought while you’re putting lunch in your face, but as with anything developmental, you have to ask how does this new thing work with the existing, and is it really worth it to tear apart what I’ve already got, just to add something that either doesn’t need a payoff or needs a payoff that profoundly impacts what I’ve got and where I wanted to go in first place.

I’ll offer two examples, one more serious than the other, so you can see what I mean.

Serious example: Add a love interest for Charlie Bucket into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

There isn’t a romantic subplot in the movie. And while it may sound interesting to suddenly take one of the contestant kids and make them fall in love with our protagonist Charlie, so that ultimately when it’s time for this love interest to be proven unworthy of winning (which is the heart of the movie), we feel some extra level of sting when they meets their candy-themed demise. It sounds like this should be really compelling. It would let you write scenes with dialogue, and you’d get a look at what Charlie is feeling and you could maybe even talk about loss and grief once the love interest goes out but Charlie soldiers on. Sounds like a great idea.

Until you look at what the story is built on and see that adding something no matter how cool it might be to stretch your writing chops ultimately would involve really tough third act resolution. What if the love interest makes it to the end of the story? Are they still in the contest? Would they co-win? Wouldn’t that mean you’d have to make the secondary character a primary one to justify the story’s logic? Is it ultimately important for the story about childhood kindness, empathy and goodness to have to grapple with substantial emotional topics beyond the fact that a kid just watched another kid turn into a blueberry or fall down a hole or shrink and be taken away to be stretched? Aside from being a thing for the writer to write, what would that contribute to the story’s greatest plot-message?

Less serious example: What if in addition to blowing up the Death Star, Luke also has to overcome a fear of podracing?

One of the big traps people find themselves in is thinking that their plot isn’t enough, that their characters aren’t doing enough and that every element from small to large has to tie together. Now this gets a little tricky, because people read that and think I’m somehow writing a permission slip to have wild plot holes and loose ends. I’m not. I’m saying that you don’t need to tie every element back to some other part of itself or its package like some plot Ouroboros in order for the predominant plot to make “better” sense or fit “nicer” into the big picture of all the stories and ideas you’re presenting.

In the podracign example, trying to tie a thematic nod to a series element (podracing) to the rather focused narrative (blow up the Death Star) can result in slowing down pacing and making any additions (like a new podracing scene) feel like it’s unnecessary — because it would be. To add a bell or whistle when the story stands on its own won’t help make the story better, just different.

 

The point I’m making will all this — no matter what method you use to plot, no matter what that plot shakes out to be, every element in it, has to, in some positive way, contribute to the story’s completion or its depth. Depth isn’t meant in a pretentious way, I mean it in a “this has to add something that can connect to other material in a substantial way, that enriches existing material in some may other than cosmetics or fan service.”

 

I absolutely have more to say about plotting, so look for more next week. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus in plot development, plot stuff, 0 comments

The Slow Road To Branagh: Murder on the Orient Express

It’s just after 10am, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The movie theater is packed, and I’m sitting in the second seat of the second row. The theater is quiet and dim, everything set for the show to start.

And then the projector kicks off. More accurately, it reboots, and after a few minutes and some apologies from a teenager, the movie starts.

I’ve got all my narrative tools laid out in front of me. I’m ready to get to work.

Today’s movie:

and here we go.

1 hour and 57 minutes later, I’m back in my car, recording my initial impressions.

I will tell you that I came in ready to eviscerate and destroy, and instead I left the theater feeling okay. Not bloodthirsty. Not disappointed. Not feeling like I wasted the $6 (thanks early morning prices). Just … okay.

Let’s get the particulars out of the way. Murder on the Orient Express is a 2017 film directed by (and starring) Kenneth Branagh, written by Michael Green (yes the guy from Logan and Blade Runner 2049), based on the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie. And yes, you should go read the novel at some point.

It is not a perfect movie. It is not the transcendent experience of the year, but it’s not awful either. It sits right in the middle of middlesburg, doing its best to be a workable movie that doesn’t warrant a lot of vitriol the way a DC movie would.

In fact, it doesn’t warrant a whole rewrite. It’s got some issues that I’ll point out so that you can take some practical advice into your own work, but it’s not in need of a full-on overhaul. I wanted it to be, I even had an idea in mind (which will probably end up on Patreon), but this movie doesn’t scream for it.

The best metaphor I can draw for this movie is this:

It’s pretty but hollow, and once you bite into it, you realize how far you are from the good stuff on the other side.

Character Development

If you’re not familiar with Hercule Poirot, you should go track down the David Suchet version that ran on PBS and A&E for 13 years. It’s the definitive Poirot. In a nutshell, Poirot is the Belgian Sherlock Holmes, the prim and exactingly fastidious deductive machine, brought in to solve crimes and discover criminals.

Branagh takes the prim and fastidious part as more than the window dressing and puts it front and center. Whether you want to term this compulsive or OCD is up to you, but Branagh’s Poirot is a package of quirks wearing what can best be described as a gray barbershop broom strapped to his face.

It’s really hard to present a well-formed character when you put attention on the quirks, even when you play them for levity (as Branagh does with eggs in the movie’s opening) or sincerity (as Branagh mumbles about a relationship just before the crime’s introduction to the story), because quirks aren’t enough to compose an idea. They’re window dressing, elements that highlight or torque other elements, and Branagh’s playing a biped with some really nice quirks in a really nice suit for nearly two hours.

This lack of depth persists to the other characters as well, since they’re played for utility over individuation (more on that in a second), and it almost doesn’t matter that you’ve got Johnny Depp as the dead guy or hey-that’s-Rey-from Star-Wars-in-a-cute-hat, because we’re meant to look at them well ahead of feeling anything for them.

Don’t worry though, Branagh will just come along and tell you how to feel, and the camerawork will reinforce that. Look at the pretty things, look how they look at each other in their lookingness.

Good visuals (which would be paragraphs and pages of description in text, see other blogpost), aren’t the same thing as humanizing the characters or showing motivations or giving the reader a permission slip or open door to care about them. It’s all just nice things to look at while time passes in our theater seat.

Additionally, time on screen (that is, time spent talking about a thing in text) is not the same as building connection with the reader/audience either. Just because you put a thing front and center, and Branagh puts himself so often literally front and center of so many shots that it’s hard not to conclude that ego drove this production, doesn’t mean that I care more about it.

If I knew what to do with the thing I’m shown so often, if I’ve got a context, or the opportunity to follow an arc beyond just one that addresses a plot, then I’ll care about it. You have to get to the Why (as in Why does _____ (doing whatever they’re doing) matter right here and right now to this character and other characters around them) in the story and not just the How or the What. Context is the reader’s passport to your world, and it’s hella tough to build context when the best bullet in your gun is “look how pretty everything and everyone is.”

Plot and Pacing

Without spoiling anything huge, the plot is this –

a) someone is killed on a train
b) detective figures out who did it
c) killer gets what’s coming to them

Johnny Depp is the victim here, and that’s as much of a spoiler as I’m willing to give you, because you should go read the novel for the rest of the story and its ending. I say Johnny Depp and not the character’s name deliberately, because he’s very clearly just being Johnny-Depp-as-a-1920s-crime-guy who’s waiting for his cue to cash his paycheck. He gets killed and Poirot has to figure out who did it.

The story hinges on the idea that every other character we meet in the story could be a suspect, and that this places a premium on the Belgian’s deductive faculties to solve the case.

Let’s talk about mystery construction for a minute, because you need the theory that sits under this story.

[LET’S ALL GO TO THE SIDEBAR]

Mysteries thrive on potential. The potential victim, the potential killer, the potential method and motive … it’s the unknown that drives not only the protagonist to solve the case, but also the audience to join in solving it or care about it being solved.

When you have multiple suspects, each should have a compelling and separate reason for their potential involvement in the crime. Having characters relate to each other ahead of their relationship to the crime does not give them additional potential to have done it. (This is called distinction of motivation, it’s also the same thing that makes characters in any ensemble join together to do plot in a story.)

Example: You decide you’ve had enough of your neighbor’s shenanigans. You create this elaborate plan to do them in, and you realize that you need my specific help. I’m not the patsy you’ll blame for the crime, I’m the future-accomplice. You’ve got two different roads to take for telling this story –

  1. You can lean on our relationship (yours and mine) to compel me to help you with the neighbor’s demise
  2. You can trust my relationship with the neighbor to compel me to help you do the deed.

Going with #1 puts the focus on how we relate to each other, and in turn dictates how the audience relates to us, individually and as a murder-partnership. Going with #2 makes you and I two individuals with similar goals, and our pre-existing relationship matters less than our post-murder relationship.

In every mystery, a premium is placed on the relationships. In the absence of defining the relationships and how they influence action, you put distance between the What (what’s happening) the Why (see above) and the How (how should an audience feel), which all conspires to keep the audience from really getting invested in the story.

[SIDEBAR OVER]

In order to flesh out the distinction of motivations, or focus on suspects and their relationships, you have to make sure in-story time is appropriately parceled out. Every possible suspect needs relatively equal time so that we can draw a conclusion of “Yes they could have done it just as much as the other person” over the course of what it mostly the second act.

The film doesn’t develop enough things equally, preferring instead to stay a more shallow course and provide enough details so we can distinguish Penelope Cruz’s character from Daisy Ridley’s but not the emotional cores of each woman that would compel them to care to act in a murderous way, even after plot revelations tell us (more on that in a minute) they have a reason.

With uneven development, you get uneven pacing. And in the face of uneven pacing, a lot of stories fall back on showing the less important things – in this case, we go right back to “look how pretty everything is.”

Show and Tell as Story Engine

The old adage is: “If you want a character to be thought of as smart, have them do more telling to other characters and the audience than showing.”

Detectives in particular make use of telling as part of the criminal revelation, which is usually the third act moment(s) where the killer or badguy gets pointed out just prior to story conclusion.

Where this goes a little wonky is that what’s being told is really being shown, just shown verbally, often through a monologue or some kind of narrated flashback. This way, it’s being told to the other characters, and both shown-and-told to the audience.

Poirot stories make their bones in this reveal, and they’re the story equivalent of flipping to the back of the textbook for the answers to see if what you got is the actual solution.

This system really works when the majority (if not the only) telling you get is in that third act, when all the pieces are finally put together by the only character who can really do all the assembling, and the audience is encouraged to mentally participate. (Note: Ellery Queen, a TV show from the 70s, took this to actually break the 4th wall and talk to the audience to ask them if they’ve figured it out).

Branagh’s Poirot spends the majority of the film telling us all different kinds of things in hasty little burbles, so that by the time we get to the big reveal and story resolution, we’re all sort of tired because over and over again we’ve been reminded of something we hadn’t forgotten – that Poirot is quirky and smart and there’s a crime and he’ll solve it, and oh by the way isn’t all this stuff and people really pretty.

Too much telling robs the audience of their ability to participate. It reinforces passivity, and doesn’t necessarily convey “look how smart the character is”, because the relationship where people would feel invested in the character’s smartness is too one-sided.

And because the audience is pushed to passivity, they can (and I’m so sorry I’ve harped on this a lot in these nearly two thousand words) see how pretty everything and everyone is and somehow derive satisfaction that the period costumes and setting look awesome.

So where does the rewrite live? Not in the plot, but in its broadcast to the audience. Here’s the quick outline

IN THE PRESENT:
A. Murder

IN THE PAST:
B. Show train, set up time frame
C. (cut to past) Intro detective on previous case
D. Intro reason to get detective on train
E. Intro other characters
F. Start train, prompt motive development

IN THE PRESENT:
G. Crime is discovered
H. Detective has compelling not-convenient reason to investigate
I. Detective investigates

IN THE PAST:
J. Clues discovered so far prompt detective to have certain train of thought or theory

IN THE PRESENT:
K. Progression of investigation changes relationships between characters
L. -insert any red herrings or distractions here –
M. Repeat of (I) and (J) as needed
N. Detective deduces solution.

IN THE PAST:
O. Murder is shown based on sum of (J) through (N)

IN THE PRESENT:
P.  Detective gathers all suspects
Q. Detective reveals what happened
R. Guilty party receives justice

That’s the crude back-of-the-napkin outline. With something as simple as shuffling the order of ideas around, you create something more gripping for the audience. Yes, of course, scrambling the order means you’d need to film segues and connective tissue, but it would all drive us to plot and resolution, which is where mystery is supposed to live.

In all, not a bad movie, and certainly deserving of all the praise and interest in its visuals. I just wish it was less Easter candy and more narrative candy bar.

Thanks for reading. Happy writing.

 

PS I love doing narrative breakdowns on movies, so if you want to see more of them, let me know

PPS If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix this week, I can strongly recommend Jim + Andy. Here’s the trailer.  It’s the EPK footage about Carrey’s performance/living as Andy Kaufman, and it’s amazing. I’m not even the largest Kaufman fan, but I’m a Carrey fan, and I was really moved and affected by this show. Go check it out. 

Posted by johnadamus in dissect writing, movie review, movies that make me think things, 0 comments

Thinking of a Scene In Paragraphs

(yes, this blogpost is going up ahead of Tuesday morning, but that’s because Tuesday is a travel day for me, and I won’t have internet access for 15+ hours of it)

Last week I did a tweetstorm about treating sentences like cameras.  Today on the blog I want to go into more detail about that, and show you want it actually looks like.

Yes, I understand that our particular writing styles and choices are going to be (and should be) different, but I’m hoping the point comes through to you all the same. I believe very strongly in the idea that you have a responsibility to put the clearest broadcast of your art into the mind of the other person and that no matter what your art is, it will be filtered and affected by not only your biases and experiences as a creator, but by the biases and experiences of the audience. The best way to pierce this chain mail of expectation and perception is through clearly getting the idea out and across.

Don’t confuse clarity for simplicity or brevity. You don’t need to be simple or brief to be clear. And don’t mistake this for an argument about having more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, because it isn’t. Show and tell work together as concepts to help deliver the art into the person’s head. But that’s for another tweetstorm and another blogpost.

While today I’m using a scene from a movie, for your own work, I want you to picture it as visually and completely in your head, as if you’ve paused it and like some bad CSI CG scenes, you can fully walk around and through it.

To start off today, we need a scene. Let’s go grab a screenshot from whatever I’m watching on Netflix.

We’re gonna use this one. I like this scene.

This is a moment in Rogue One that I particularly like, though I chose it for the combination of dialogue, numerous things in the frame to describe, and its staging.

To get you thinking like a camera, here’s how I teach it.

  1. Make an inventory of things (not characters) you want to definitely write about in the scene.
  2. Make a list of all the characters you want to write about in the scene.
  3. Make a list of actions that happen in the scene, paying attention to both who does what, but also the order in which these actions happen.
  4. Make a list of stakes, goals, and things risked in the scene
  5. Make a list of all expectations each character in the scene.
  6. Write the scene.

Now if that sounds like I’m asking a lot of you for simple paragraphs, I don’t mean it to. But for those of you who have never done it like this, or you’re looking for a better road map so that you can better at it, I’m purposefully breaking the list out so you see how these things weave together to build something narratively sound.

Inventory of non-character things

This is objects in the scene that aren’t people. These can be the things held by people, but they’re also things like what’s in the background or furniture or the ground. Just so that there’s no confusion about my handwriting, here’s what that inventory would look like typed out.

Not a complete list, but it works for the example

Remember, these notes are just for me as the writer. No one’s going to check them out, and really I’m writing them down to keep myself on track as to what I definitely want to say either as components of a sentence or as a sentence entire.

No, the order I write this list in doesn’t matter, and no, the order I write them in doesn’t translate into the order I’ll write about them in the text. I’m just making a list, stop overthinking it.

List the characters

Again, just a list, no special order or attention. The paragraphs and the choices I make about how to write it will dictate where I put attention. Right now, I’m just corralling all the possible beings I could talk about.

I’m sure each trooper has a name, but this is my example. You go do your own.

It’s worth pointing out here that you can do this list before the item list. The order isn’t super critical, so long as by the time you get to the writing, you’ve got all the components organized. I tend to do the item list first, because I tend to skip over things in early drafts and don’t like having the “why did I leave this out” conversation with myself during later drafts.

Some of you are thinking, “Is it just a list of names?” and no, it doesn’t have to be. It can be whatever character associated information you need or want, but since this particular example scene happens well into the movie, let’s assume I’ve already covered the physical descriptions and traits elsewhere.

If this were the intro-to-the-characters scene (and you can argue that this moment in Rogue One is, but you’ve previously seen Chirrut one scene prior), then I’d attach to each item in the list a descriptor or two so that I can establish the details about the characters when they come up.

List the actions

Now that we have all the physical objects of the scene listed, we can figure out what’s going on with them. In a scene, nothing happens without affecting the time and space around it, and nothing happens that doesn’t somewhere have a documentable reaction.

I’ll break that down. If you’re going to have a character do something, the world around him and the characters around him will react in some way, even if that reaction is “nothing changes because of what’s happened.”

For instance, if the Hulk throws a building at you, presumably you’d be crushed by the building and the space where the building was would no longer have a building in it.

Actions are about what happens and what results because of the things that happen

I tend to write this inventory in the order I want the events to happen in the scene. This is the first time I start making decisions about the structure, since the later items on the six-part list will cover things like tone and atmosphere.

What this does not mean is that the first things listed will naturally take more focus or line-space than the later things. In every paragraph in a scene there’s at least one key piece of information that you want to get across to the reader. In this case it’s the Chirrut dialogue and the fact he just straight walks out among them.

The second item “no one shoots him” is a reaction to something else that happens in the scene. Reactions are actions too, so don’t exclude them. I’m sure someone will say they should go on their own list, and yes, I can see how that helps, but action and reaction will likely end up being their own blogpost, so for now, let’s stay on what we’re doing.

Stakes, goals, and things risked

For the next two items on the list, we have to get past the physical objects of the scene and look at the emotions and psychology of the moment. No one walks into a scene without having a goal and risking something to get that goal. No one gets out of a scene without some element(s) of the scene affecting them. Characters take their past forward, every time.

Every character or group of characters has a goal.

I know expectations are the next thing on the list, but don’t include the expectations into this list. Goals are objective, expectations aren’t. A goal of “I want a sandwich” is impacted by the expectation that I have the means to make a sandwich. Actions are bred more from expectations than goals, since they’re more immediate and more variable.

So why don’t expectations go first in our list? Because stakes are derived based on the situation and goal(s) colliding, which means expectations are the character’s assessment of how likely the goal is based on the situation.

What we choose as the goal is part of the overall character arc, since no arc is introduced and resolved in a single scene or beat. And yes, every character has a goal, even if they go unstated at a particular point in the story.

Expectations

Expectations are subjective because they’re the factor in character development where the skills and perceived risks come into play. I might be a fantastic golfer (skill) but I’m not sure I could play my best when my clubs are made of snakes (perceived risk), so my expectation might be that I won’t win the championship in this snake golf tournament.

Here in my Rogue One example, I’m going to make a clear decision as to what the scene is about based on what expectations I list and which ones I don’t.

Expectations shape actions because they’re the fluid influencers to achieve fixed goals

Write the Scene

Armed with all these pieces, we can write a scene.

The smoke and dust had barely settled when his voice filled the post-explosion silence. 

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me. And I fear nothing.”

Odd, thought Stormtrooper C, that this blind man, this blind fool, could just walk into this moment, his moment, and start yapping. So he watched. 

Chirrut moved in a balletic way, The soft footfalls and the crunch of gravel and sand underscored the sort of grace that stood against the explosion. There were still the smells of burning concrete and flesh. But Chirrut seemed to not notice. Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on. 

And no one seemed to fire on him. It would make sense to, to flood the air with blaster fire and turn this blind fool into swiss cheese. But no one did. Not C with all his bravado. Not B with her itchy trigger finger. Not A with their eagerness to please. 

There was just this guy, standing there, talking at them.

It’s not a great moment when I write it out. It’s an example, and I could do a lot more visually with it. I could frame the explosion while slowing down time. I could take more space to talk about C and B and A individually.

There are loads of choices to make, and that’s one thing I want you to remember – the decisions you make matter.

Practice this. Watch things. Pause it and try to describe it in whatever way you’d rewrite it.

 

Happy writing

 

Posted by johnadamus in character stuff, check this out, step by step, storycraft, structure, the craft of writing, 1 comment

Vacation’s Over, Back to Work

The vacation is over. I don’t have an annoying slide show to make you suffer through. I don’t have kitschy mugs bought last minute at the airport gift shop for you.

What I do have is a nice blog post about what’s happening from here on out to all things Writer Next Door.

I’m rescheduling and refocusing based on what I learned on my break. It was a good break, I’m glad I took it, and it taught me a lot about myself and what I put around me while I do what I do. The short version of what I learned can be found here.

Tweetstorms
Tweetstorms will happen Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The list of topics will be posted on Sunday (usually in the evenings). They’ll still happen around 9am ET, give or take. As always, appointments and life can get in the way, and if that’s the case, they’ll just happen later in the day.

Blogposts
Blogposts will go up on Tuesdays. There will be some posts that will be just text, some just audio, and some videos.

Patreon
Patreon gets its dose of content on Thursday, unless there’s a specific reason (like a convention or a time-sensitive reason I can’t think of as an example). That’s effective as of this coming Thursday (11/9).

Facebook
It’s for friends and family, and I have spent a lot of time excising the negative and the disruptive out of it.

Instagram
I will be using this more, but mostly for not-work stuff, unless excitement clearly dictates I show cool shit off. It’ll be used regularly.

Twitter
Overall, you’re not going to see the changes I’ve made to Twitter. Like Facebook, there was a culling and a real examination of who and what I wanted broadcasting at me, but for the most part I’m not going to suddenly stop being me on the platform that feels the most me.

Google+
I know I need to use it more, and I will. Yes the UI continues to be clownshoes, but I think there’s gold still left to mine. No, I don’t know why the blogposts aren’t being publicly shared. I’m setting aside a whole day this week to figure it out.

Discord
Wha? There’s a Discord server? There is! Patreon patrons and clients should be getting their invites soon (I’m doing it in batches), and it’s going to be a point of communication that’s going to focus and organize some of the new stuff you’ll see on the blog and in the business.

WNDo (yes call it ‘window’, I have been)
Super excited to tell you that the first classes of WNDo (Writer Next Door online) are in the can, and while there will be a more formal announcement about WNDo and signing up and all that, the short pitch is this:

I’m teaching a class that’s going to help you make your art. From writer’s block to character development to querying, we’re going to work together to help you make your awesome happen.

The Blog
You’ll see some cosmetic and structural changes over the next month or so as I tweak the theme and fix up some pages that are languishing or are no longer needed.

The Business
Yep, changes here too.

In the super near future I’ll be rolling out 2 new services and a newsletter. There will be some pages going in, some getting facelifts, and some general shuffling of menus to make it easier for both you and I to get around the site.

*

I want to wrap this post up with the 3 promises I’m making to you. It’s important you know what’s up and how this is gonna go from here on out.

i. There’s no bullshit here. I’m me, and you’re you, and we don’t have to agree (this isn’t a cult, I have no Kool-aid for you), but there’s always going to be respect and absolute equality here. We can be as different as Twix Bars and dish towels, but we’re going to be cool and respectful.

ii. I will always believe in you. You deserve love and success and joy and to have your art out in the world. I do not know the path your art will take to get you that success, but I will damned sure do everything in my power to help you find your dream, chase it down, and be the best you you can be.

iii. Honesty and responsibility win at all times. I am gonna be me, sound like me, say what I say, and work how I work. I’m going to own my mistakes, express myself without artifice, and do what I say I’m going to do. When in doubt, being honest about the state of things and being responsible for myself will be the operating directive.

Let’s go make awesome stuff today. Let’s tell your story.

 

Posted by johnadamus, 0 comments

I’m taking a break

It’s been a while since I blogged last, and I apologize for that. It got away from me, and you deserve better, and it deserves better. Here is what’s going on.

By the time you read this, I’ll be offline, mostly. I’m taking the remainder of October off of social media, barring a few standing commitments to check in with family, I will return to tweeting, Facebookery, and this blog on November 7 (Tuesday).

I will still be available via Twitter DMs, emails, texts, and phone calls during this hiatus.

There are two reasons for this, and I’d like to outline them below.

Mental Health
Of late, the climates of several circles where I call myself a member or participant have changed substantially, and not for the better. There’s a great deal of pettiness, viciousness, and negativity both thrown and absorbed by a lot of people. Its effect on me is not just that it impacts potential work, but that it impacts me. The stress and anxiety amplifies to a somewhat paralytic level and every relationship: professional, personal, and otherwise suffers when that happens. I have a responsibility to myself before all else to be the best me I can be, and while I cannot control how you perceive me, I can control how I perceive myself. I need the space and firebreak between myself and virtual world.

There’s Work To Do
I’ve reached a conclusion that if I don’t start producing tangible materials for the new WNDo plans, they’ll remain ephemeral. And I can spend all day talking about how great they’ll be, or I can spend the hours a day working on them. These projects ideally will support not just my income, but my future business plans, so they deserve more than my talk. It’s time to put in the work and make them happen.

 

To recap:

Twitter DMs only and no tweetstorms until November 7. Tweetstorms and regular tweeting will resume November 7 at 9am ET. 

No Facebook beyond existing commitments. Facebook will resume at some point on November 7. 

No Instagram until November 7. I bet you didn’t even know I was on Instagram. 

I will be available via email, Twitter DM, text, and phone call.

There will be a blogpost going up on November 7 to indicate my return to social media, and if all goes according to plan, I’ll be doing with new material in hand.

In the interim, here is a brief list of media I recommend you consume:

This book.
Chuck Wendig’s new book on storytelling.
Absolutely everything Chainsawsuit produces, here and here.
This video.
This other video.
This book.
This book too.
This book.
This show.
Everything here.

So, until we speak next. Don’t you dare fucking give up, don’t let the assholes keep you down, and happy writing.

 

-john

Posted by johnadamus in announcement, 0 comments

The Indiana Accords

I started drafting this post in the car during the twelve hours I spent hauling myself and a car full of stuff from Indiana post-GenCon to New Jersey, so if it’s a bit incoherent, it’s because I drafted it out loud in 45-minute chunks throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania.

As I’m told repeatedly, you can’t manufacture moments, you can’t force or make them happen, they’re a confluence of circumstance and things lining up with some coincidence. And every time I hear it, as you’d expect, I think that might be the third most-maddening thing someone can say to me, because what’s basically being said is that you can’t control a moment, and lacking control is one of those things that doesn’t go so well for me. I like control, I like order, and I like being charge of me and what I do.

So of course I love moments, and I chase them, because whatever’s uncontrollable and just out of reach is always the most desired thing.

I spent much of GenCon on a sly pursuit of moments. I wanted there to be little crystallized pockets of experience with specific people. To go to a meal with this or that person. To hug that person. To tell this other person I had missed them. To have, just between the two of us these little bubbles where nothing else mattered.

Now go contrast that with how badly I wanted to speak to rooms with 100+ people and make them all laugh and nod and walk out of the room thinking and feeling and energized.

This is the duality I think a lot of people struggle with, and my own struggle with it transcends the specific knowledge of writing craft of story development. It should, frankly, be bigger than what I know about query letters or marketing or dialogue, because life is more than the total of what you know, it’s the expression of what you know in way(s) that build(s) a bridge between you and the next person.

GenCon this year was about building a whole lotta bridges and moving away from demanding there be a-moment-or-else-right-now-goddammit.

See, there was this woman in the audience on Friday at my last panel of the convention,  I remember exactly where she sat: a row back from the front, on the the interior aisle. She wore a green dress, had dark hair, and kept her hands in her lap a lot. I don’t say any of this in a creepy way, I’m saying this because this woman changed the trajectory of my weekend, my plans, and my entire outlook on what I do.

It was a panel on setting goals and not giving up, and it had okay attendance for a Friday afternoon panel. Of course I would have liked to see more people in the room, but it’s okay, the people who were there were the ones meant to be there. And there was this woman. I cannot for the life of me remember her name, I’m not even sure she said her name, but I remember she was a seamstress, a costumer, and she was nervous.

Now I don’t know if she was nervous because she was asking a question of three people on a stage who had microphones or if she was just nervous in general, but she sticks out so sharply in mind. Now I’m going to paraphrase our interaction:

Her: I’m a costumer, and what do I do when I get discouraged about what I’m doing? I know the flaws in my work, and how do I keep going and doing this this when I know it’s  going to be tough and have problems?

Me: Tell me what you love about costuming.

And it was right there, everything turned. It was like a light switch flicked on her soul and she wasn’t this nervous person who sat quietly and timidly, she was this person who loved a thing and was excited about a thing and it mattered to her.

Her: I love that I can make a dress, an outfit, something out of nothing, and it’s really good and I love doing it, I love how it looks, and the work that goes into it because it’s fun and it makes me happy.

Me: Remember that every time you feel like it’s too hard. Can you do that for me?

Her: Yes. Thank you so much.

There was something about this reaction, this conversation, that wiggled its way into my brain and it took a long time the rest of the weekend to sort itself out. It wasn’t a bad thing, it was a great thing, the best of things, and I couldn’t stop seeing in my head.

The look she had on her face when she described how costuming made her feel. The eye contact when she said she could remember that. The way I asked her if she could do that for me.

Boom.

Moment.

See, up until that point, all the panels I was on were there to give information ahead of ego stroke. Yes, I’ll cop to it, I love the sound of my own voice, yes I love the fact that people come up and thank me. I love attention and I love the fact that I’m smart and good at a thing. And I know that this is not the healthiest space to constantly be submerged in for four days. I don’t want to be “on” for a whole weekend because it makes me an insufferable asshole who doesn’t relax and who is generally unbearable to be around. I’m conscious of that, and I wanted to avoid doing that.

But in the absence of that, I was feeling really lost. And when I feel lost, I try to focus on things that make me feel grateful, and things that make me feel like I still matter, because of course I need to ride the pendulum swing from it’s-all-about-me to I-don’t-matter-at-all and back again.

I look at the people who inspire me: here, here, and here (for starters) and one of the dominant feelings I take away is that they’re aware of the bigger audience, but they’re not talking to the group telling us that blessed are the cheesemakers, they’re speaking to each person one-on-one.

One-on-one, even when there’s this group.

One-on-one, just like the costumer and her question.

One-on-one, just like how a moment …

Boom.

Again.

The moments I felt best were not the moments where the whole room laughed or the whole room looked up at me. Those were nice, but they couldn’t touch the moments where a single person came up and said something nice.

Going forward, I’m committing myself to putting the one-on-one ahead of the group.

I’ll panel the hell out of everything every chance I get because I’m comfortable when I’m talking and teaching and encouraging, but I want anyone who comes in the door to feel like it’s just me and them.

I’ll put out videos and audio where the priority is one-on-one because that’s where the good connectivity and truly helping someone lives. Me talking to and with you. Not at you. Not over you.

And I’ll coach and edit with this same conversation, this same discourse in mind, because as a client, it’s me and you, riding to the end.

Because when I say I believe in you, I believe in YOU. You, person reading this. You, person wondering if they should get something edited. You, person who isn’t sure if coaching will help them. You, right there.

Let’s talk. Let’s work. Let’s get better and grow good things and expand and throw light out against the dark and be happy and make great stuff. Let’s be awesome.

Don’t you dare give up.

Happy creating.

Posted by johnadamus in amazing experience, gencon, get help if you need it, happy creating, post GenCon post, pretty cool realization, 0 comments