Archive for writing

writing, movies

More Star Wars Story Structure

In my last post, I talked about how the story goal was a problem for The Force Awakens, and that got me started thinking about the whole Star Wars series. It was a fun exercise, so I thought I’d share. I’m going to try to avoid totally giving away the endings, but I figure if you don’t know how the Star Wars movies end, then you probably don’t care.

I have absolutely no idea what the story goal for The Phantom Menace is supposed to be. Something about stopping a trade blockade? But that’s mostly offscreen for most of the movie. I think it might work best if you consider that Palpatine is the protagonist, and his goal is to be made chancellor. Everyone else is just running around being manipulated by him, thinking they’re doing one thing but it’s all part of his plan.

In Attack of the Clones, I think Obi-Wan is our protagonist, with his goal to track down who sent the bounty hunter, which leads him to learn about the clones. But still, I think Palpatine has his own plan to get emergency powers, which the rest of the movie is about, with him manipulating them into doing things that support him.

And that’s still going on in Revenge of the Sith, in which his goal is to take power and turn Anakin to the Dark Side.

I think the fact that the villain is driving the action of these movies may be part of why they’re not very satisfying. It’s not that much fun watching a master manipulator at work when the characters you’re supposed to like are being utter patsies and falling into all his traps. The tricky thing is that since these are prequels, the outcome was already decided. We know Palpatine has to win. The good guys can’t stop him. But there had to be better ways to go about structuring these stories to give the good guys more to do. My favorite part of the whole trilogy (aside from the truly epic lightsaber fight in the lava fields, which is even more impressive when you learn the actors trained hard to do most of it themselves) is the Obi-Wan plot of episode 2, where he actually has something to drive toward and has some success. Another thing that’s unsatisfying about this is that there isn’t really any room for character growth. I don’t feel like anyone truly learns anything or has real personal growth in this trilogy. As much as I like Obi-Wan in this, he’s a fairly static character. Anakin regresses. Palpatine doesn’t have a true protagonist arc, even as he’s driving the action. It’s not like he’s going through any kind of internal struggle.

As I mentioned previously, the goal in the original movie is to blow up the Death Star, with Luke as our clear protagonist.

The Empire Strikes Back is another villain-driven story. The only way I can make it work is to consider Darth Vader as the protagonist, and his story goal is to capture Luke so he can turn him to the Dark Side. The heroes don’t have the kinds of arcs that can drive a whole movie. Han and Leia just want to get their ship fixed so they can meet up with the fleet, and Luke wants to train to be a Jedi. Luke’s goal is more of a character goal than a story goal. Generally, a protagonist has to go through some kind of growth or change in order to carry out the story goal (like Luke learning to trust the Force before he can destroy the Death Star), but Vader fails here, so I guess he doesn’t go through that growth. But since it’s an evil goal, it may mean that since he didn’t pull off the evil goal, it meant he made the right choice and failed to be the villain he should have been.

In Return of the Jedi it gets pretty complicated. The big-picture goal is to blow up Death Star 2.0 while the Emperor’s on board, while the villains’ goal is to trap the Rebels and destroy the Rebel Alliance. But Luke has the secret goal to turn Darth Vader against the Emperor, while Darth Vader has the secret goal to turn Luke and gang up on the Emperor. All of these things are in opposition, and it’s zero-sum.

I was actually pretty disappointed in Return of the Jedi when it first came out, but I found myself liking it a lot more this time around, while I was less enthused about The Empire Strikes Back, which is considered by many to be the best of the films. I wonder how much of that is the dark=automatically good attitude.

I’ve already gone over the issues with The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi is a bit more focused, though it’s split into two plots that converge at the end. The Resistance wants to escape from the First Order, but there’s internal conflict because there are opposing factions within the Resistance who have different ideas for how they should go about this. Meanwhile, Rey’s side of the plot has her goal to recruit Luke to help the Resistance. Ultimately, this help is a big part of what allows the Resistance to escape. However, the protagonist isn’t all that clear. It’s Poe who learns the big lesson and undergoes a lot of change, though that doesn’t have much to do with whether they succeed or fail (he learns from the near-failure, but his learning the lesson doesn’t help them have success) and then there’s Luke realizing that he’s been wrong all along and finally taking action. I guess Rey learns not to be so afraid of the Force and to use it consciously when she lifts the rocks to allow the Resistance forces to escape through the tunnel.

In The Rise of Skywalker, the big-picture goal is to stop the First Order mega-fleet and deal with Palpatine once and for all. Rey’s our clear protagonist, as she has to face some tough truths about herself and finally open herself up to the Force in order to prevail, and she’s also helped by some groundwork she’s laid.

On the side stories, I think Han’s story goal in Solo is to free the woman he loves from what he sees as servitude, though things aren’t what he thinks. And Rogue One is about getting the information about the Death Star. That one has kind of a two-headed protagonist, with both Cassian and Jyn working together toward the same goal, in spite of having some conflict with each other. Basically, that movie is structured a lot like a romance, in spite of it not being romantic, and I think that may be a topic for another post because it’s an idea intriguing enough that I want to dig into it.

Incidentally, if you’re writing a story that’s not working, this is a good exercise to go through to spot plot problems. What is the story goal and who’s the protagonist? From there, you can figure out what the stakes and conflict are. This is also a good way to figure out what to focus on when writing a book blurb.


Robot Writers

One of the big topics in the writing world lately has been AI. There’s an AI program that supposedly can write as well as a human, given a prompt. And it’s already become a huge problem. Some science fiction magazines have had to close submissions because they were getting spammed with AI-written stories and couldn’t weed through all the submissions. Apparently, there are people who seem to think that selling short stories they don’t have to write is a get-rich-quick scheme. Give the AI some prompts, churn out a story in seconds, and then flood the publications with submissions, and something is sure to sell. It’s a quick and easy few hundred bucks made in minutes of work. Of course, that assumes that any of these stories sell, which they probably won’t, but there’s no loss to the submitter if they don’t, since they put no effort in. It’s the same principle as with spam e-mail. Might as well flood the world with it because it doesn’t cost anything more.

Except these AI submissions are pretty obvious and not that great, but the editors still have to go through all the submissions to find stories they might like. It’s hard to come up with a filter to screen out the spam that doesn’t discriminate against possible real authors who are just new and learning and don’t deserve a lifetime ban on submissions the way the people gaming the system do.

And, of course, there are already people “writing” novels with AI and publishing them on Amazon. A few minutes of work, then you’ve got a novel, and if it sells more than a few copies, you’ve still made a decent hourly wage. Even if most readers figure out it isn’t very good, it still increases the flood of books out there, making it harder to dig in and find the good ones.

I suspect that no matter how good AI gets at writing, AI-written fiction will never be that good because it comes down to the ideas. Just about any writer has had the experience of meeting someone who says they want to be a writer, but they don’t really want to write. What they have is a brilliant idea they want to share with a writer, have the writer write it, and they’ll split the profits. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a decent idea from these people. About 95 percent of them don’t actually have a story idea. They just think that their own lives are interesting enough to be a novel, so what they want is to write about themselves. I’m picturing all these AI-written books about boring men who’ve overcome some minor adversity.

What real writers know is that the idea is the easy part. Most of us come up with new ones every day. The trick is to figure out which of those ideas has what it takes to develop into a story and then to develop it so that it has enough substance to build a story around, and to do that, you have to write. Every time I’ve had an idea that feels totally complete, like I could just sit down and write the book, once I do start writing down everything I know about the story, I’m lucky if I get two pages. The idea is nothing without a lot of work. Feed that initial idea into a computer, and you’re not going to get any kind of decent result, especially since this is just a sophisticated auto-complete based on other people’s work. It merely guesses what word should come next based on all the input it’s received.

I think what a lot of the people using this tool want is to be published. They don’t really want to write. They just want a shortcut to the result.

Supposedly this tool does write good book descriptions, like what would go on the back of a paperback, but it can also be badly, hilariously wrong. I’ve seen one person describe it as more like having an enthusiastic intern who needs a lot of direction and supervision than like hiring a professional writer.


How Does it End?

I’m still working on plotting the ending to this book I’m working on. I struggle with endings. When I start out, I have a detailed outline of the beginning, and the ending of the outline is a vague “they beat the bad guys and live happily ever after.” I tell myself I’ll figure it out as I get closer to it, once I have a better sense of my characters and the story. Then I get there and I still don’t know, so there’s a lot of handwaving and chaos.

But the ending is so important. It’s said that the first page of a book sells that book, and the last page sells the next book. That doesn’t mean it has to be a cliffhanger, just that it should be so satisfying that it makes the reader want to repeat the experience with the author’s next book, whether it’s another book in that series or an entirely new book.

So, I got the bright idea to figure out what that last page should look like. What will the characters be doing at the very end? What will the new configuration be? If the beginning of the book is the “before” picture of the main character and the world, what is the “after” picture once the characters (and maybe the world) have changed?

And I realized I had no idea. I had a vague sense of what the characters will be like at the end, but not what they’re doing or how I’d show what they’d be like.

This week, I’ve been working on that, outlining a potential ending scene and then reverse engineering from there. What kind of story climax do I need to get to that ending? What would lead to that story climax happening? And so forth. That’s made me realize I’ve made some poor choices in the beginning. There’s a whole sequence I can cut because it doesn’t support the character arc (and even undermines it). And that’s going to move the midpoint of the story, which also needs to be changed.

It’s been a good week for doing this kind of work because it’s cool and cloudy, so I’ve been huddling on the sofa under the electric blanket with tea and a notebook and letting my mind play.


Doing It Wrong

I’ve reached the point in the book I’m working on where I need to figure out exactly how I’m going to end it. I know the final result, but how I get there and what the climactic scene looks like is kind of hazy. I was working on plotting it and struggling to put it all together when I got insight from an unlikely source: the trailer for season 3 of The Mandalorian.

It occurred to me that the story I’m writing is in some ways a lot like The Mandalorian. There’s a lot of “except for” and “but if instead” there, to the point that it’s not really like it at all, but the important thing for my purposes is that it centers on an isolated loner who takes responsibility for a vulnerable orphan. In all my outlines and character development, the fact that this guy is a loner is key, and his character arc is supposed to be him learning that he can’t go it alone and he’s stronger when he teams up with others.

And yet, very early in the story, when he gets stuck helping this young woman travel to a place that will be safe for her, his first thought is that she might be able to help him with the thing he needs to do. He then wants her to stick around. This is why it was so hard for me to plot the end. He completed his character growth arc in the first quarter of the book. That left me with no big turning point for the end.

Commence head banging on desk.

Oddly, I’d set up Chekhov’s entire arsenal to show that he was going to have a hard time working with someone else earlier in the book. We saw him have to take responsibility for someone else and immediately dump that individual with the first potential new home, which set up the way we expect him to act later. And then I forgot about it entirely. I did have some story reasons for taking the route I did, since there is some conflict and deception involved with him planning to get her to help but manipulating her into being the one to offer, but that’s not really what I want to do with this character. His character arc isn’t about him being manipulative. I’d have to change a lot more to set that up, and it would be a totally different story.

Fortunately, I know how to fix it, and it adds a lot more conflict along the way. Although this character is actually very little like the Mandalorian (not a bounty hunter who belongs to a strict warrior religion), I should put a picture of him on my desk to remind me that it’s supposed to take him some time to really warm up to this individual he feels responsible for, and even longer to figure out that this individual might have something to offer him instead of just being a burden. My Star Wars obsession seems to be good for my writing.

Now I’m going back and fixing the book so I can move forward in the right direction and maybe get a running start on writing the ending.


Remember the Conflict

I woke this morning with the horrible realization that yesterday’s writing had been all wrong. I wrote a scene that was supposed to have been the big emotional turning point in which a key piece of information was revealed to one of the characters. It was supposed to be so shocking that it changed the way she saw one of the other characters and made her question her dealings with him. In a previous draft of this book, I’d tried to put this revelation too early in the story, but it was a dramatic scene in which the villain tried to force this revelation by creating a situation that made the character do something that he then had to explain, and then the other character had to react. But since I’d put it too early, they didn’t have enough of a relationship established for it to have that big of an impact.

Moving it much later in the story had a different effect. They’d built up some trust, but that meant I wrote it as just a conversation, and the reaction was simply, “Oh, that explains a lot.” No real emotional impact, no shock. No decision point. I’d completely skipped the turning point scene.

At least I did figure it out before I wrote any further, so I can fix it, and I’ve figured out how to fix it. I think the new version will be much better even than what I had originally planned because there’s more trust to have been broken. Since I realized this so quickly rather than on a later draft, I guess I haven’t entirely forgotten how to write. I think I was just being conflict averse. There’s so much conflict and tension in the world right now that I want these characters to like each other and get along. But fiction needs conflict. It’s hard to have a story where absolutely nothing bad happens. Even a book that’s being called the cozy fantasy has some bad stuff happening and some conflict.

So now I’m writing an angsty bit, and there will probably be a lot of chocolate consumed while I work on it. And I will need to put sticky notes around my desk saying “remember conflict.”


Almost There

I should hit my target word count goal for the book I’ve been working on today, a week ahead of the deadline I set. Go, me!

However, since I’m revisiting a book I started writing last year, there’s a lot of junk left over from the previous attempt that’s still included in the word count. I’m still using bits and pieces of it in different places, so I haven’t moved it out of the manuscript file yet. When I do that, I’m sure I’ll lose at least 5,000 words.

And I’m nowhere near the end of the story. I may be a bit beyond the midpoint, but it’s hard to tell, especially with all that extra stuff around the beginning.

But I’m still going to take it as a win and celebrate as though I’ve reached a finish line when I hit that target today. And then I’ll reset the word count, delete the extraneous stuff that I know I won’t be using because I’ve long passed those parts of the story, and set a new word count and a new deadline for actually finishing the book.

That may happen after the holidays. I was planning to take a couple of weeks off after next Friday, but since I’m hitting the target early, I think I’m going to consider next week a light duty/admin period. If I have an idea for what to write and want to write, I may write some. Otherwise, I’ll catch up on promo stuff and admin stuff, watch some video lectures I’ve been stockpiling, and maybe actually do some Christmas decorating and shopping. And when I’m not doing that stuff, I may just read and relax. My brain is very tired. I think if I keep busy doing other things, it may figure out the rest of this story. Right now, I have a vague idea of what major things will happen, but I don’t yet have a clear picture of how it will look when it happens or what else needs to happen to get to those major events. It always comes to me just before I need to write it. And then I write it and then I realize what should have happened, and so I rewrite it.

But I’ve worked very hard this year, logging more writing hours than I’ve ever done before, and I haven’t taken a substantial break all year, so I’m not going to push myself for now. That’s what January is for.


Surprise and Satisfaction

While I’m learning writing lessons from Star Wars, the season finale of Andor got me started thinking about audience/reader satisfaction.

There’s a tricky balance between meeting expectations and being too predictable, giving the audience what they want to have happen but not what they expect to happen. For a hypothetical example, think of the typical heist movie. The crew outlines their elaborate plan for carrying out the heist, then the job is on. But if everything in the plan works and the crew succeeds, it would be boring. If it fails and they get caught, it would be disappointing (unless maybe the twist is that you’re supposed to be cheering for the people trying to catch the thieves). So the crew has to succeed, but not in the expected way. What usually happens is that something in the elaborate plan goes wrong and we get to see the crew improvise to pull off the job by the skin of their teeth. Or else it only looks like things are going wrong and it turns out this is a part of the plan we weren’t privy to, that they knew that person was going to double-cross them and planned for it, so they’re triple-crossing the person who double-crosses them.

Just about all stories hinge on that balance between surprise and expectation. If you give people exactly what they expect, they tend to be somewhat disappointed. If you give them something that’s worse than what they expect (worse in the sense of less interesting — things going worse for the characters may be better for the audience) they’re really disappointed. The ideal is to give them something even better than what they expected. Surprise isn’t always good. I think some writers these days, particularly in TV, place too high a value on surprising the audience, as though that’s the only thing that matters, but if the surprise comes out of nowhere and it doesn’t feel like events were building to that shocking twist, that can still be disappointed. You get rewatch/reread value out of things when you can go back and spot the clues that build toward the conclusion that you might not have noticed before. If there’s no setup at all, you may be surprised, but you’ll also be annoyed. As I said, it’s a delicate balance to get surprise in a satisfying way.

I’ll keep this vague enough to avoid spoilers, but I was thinking about this in the lead-up to the Andor finale because the situation was being set up to be an obvious trap for Our Hero. The bad guys wanted to capture him and thought he would go to this particular event to honor his mother. The good guys wanted to take him out because he knew too much and were also lying in wait for him at this event. I thought it would be funny if he made a wise choice and figured the best way to honor his mother was to do something different and he didn’t show up to walk into the obvious trap while everyone else was there. But I figured that would be a disappointing outcome, since we’ve been looking for that showdown. You don’t want a major clash between most of the forces in the story while your protagonist is off somewhere else, in no real danger. On the other hand, it would also be disappointing if Our Hero walked into an obvious trap and only managed to miraculously escape because of his plot armor. The writers needed to find a way for him to be present at the big confrontation between all the forces without him being a complete idiot. He needed to do something interesting in this scenario and be involved in the big confrontation without getting caught or killed, and in a way that we believe he shouldn’t have been caught or killed (that doesn’t rely on everyone else being idiots in out-of-character ways). Ideally, this should be something that builds from the characters’ personal arcs, so that this outcome feels inevitable, and yet still isn’t entirely predictable.

I won’t say how, but I think they did manage to find something that I considered very satisfying.

As a writer, I often struggle with this because I like coming up with smart plans for the characters and I like them making smart choices — not walking into those obvious traps — but that can make for boring outcomes. I have to remember to let circumstances or other people’s choices mess up those perfect plans so that my heroes can be smart and still struggle. At the same time, you have to play fair and have the things that mess up the plan not come completely out of the blue. The possibility for those problems has to be set up. You can get away with a little more in making things worse for your characters with random coincidences, but you still have to be careful about making even the bad stuff make some kind of sense. You need to come up with challenges that reflect the cosmic lessons the characters are supposed to be learning in this story.

It’s also an issue when readers are anticipating a certain outcome to all the story threads that are being woven together. They’ll be disappointed if the thing they’re looking forward to seeing doesn’t happen, but they’ll also be disappointed if it does happen exactly the way they expected it to. Writers have to think of all the things readers might expect and find ways to throw in surprises. Every so often, you may give a few really clever readers exactly what they anticipated, but it’s only because they’ve solved the puzzle, and you have to really nail the execution for them to still enjoy seeing their predictions turn out to be correct.

I’ve heard the advice to make a list of things that could happen and strike out the first ten or so, since that’s what most people will think of first. Or you could take those things people will think of first and put a twist on them so that they happen, but in a different way. I usually end up changing my planned final confrontation once I get there. It’s still what the story was driving toward, but I try to switch things up a little by changing the setting or who’s involved. If I’ve changed my own plans, maybe the readers won’t see it coming in an obvious way.

And I guess if I’m getting all these deep writing thoughts from watching Star Wars stuff, that means watching Star Wars counts as work, right?

writing, movies

Saving the Cat

I’ve started a rewatch of the Star Wars saga, going in internal timeline order, since some of the recent series have put things in a new context (I’m only including live-action shows and movies in this because there’s so much of the animation that it would take me years, and I recently finished watching Clone Wars). I’m on the prequels now, and I figured out a valuable writing lesson from watching Attack of the Clones last weekend that I actually used in my own writing because it made me realize what I needed to do in the scene I was working on.

I normally fast-forward through the Anakin and Padme scenes when I watch this movie because that part is painful while the rest of the movie can be a lot of fun. I made myself watch the whole movie this time, and I think Hayden Christensen gets a lot of unfair criticism for his performance. He actually does a good job portraying the character as he’s written. The problem is that his character seems to be in a totally different movie from everyone else, particularly Padme. They’re all reacting to a different person than we actually see, and I think that has a lot to do with it all being so unconvincing. He’s this seething volcano of arrogance and adolescent rage, someone who hates the universe the way it is and thinks he could fix it if he could force everyone to do what he wants, but everyone’s acting like he’s this great guy who’s just a little cocky.

The romance really feels out of sync. It seems like every romantic moment is preceded by a scene of him being kind of scary, or at least creepy. Padme hears him having a hissy fit about how he’s the greatest Jedi ever and how unappreciated he is, and she has to ask him to stop staring at her because he’s making her uncomfortable, then she calls him out for mansplaining her home planet to her — and that’s what leads up to their first kiss. Since I usually skip these parts, I’d forgotten what happened, and based on her behavior leading up to that moment, when he started touching her and leaned in for the kiss, I expected her to flinch away and tell him to back off, so the kiss came as a shock. Later, the scene of them romping in the meadow and rolling around on the ground, giggling, comes after the conversation in which he talks about a dictatorship being a good idea, something she actually seems to find alarming since it goes against everything she believes. So why is she getting all romantic with him immediately afterward? And then before she declares her love for him, she hears him go on yet another rant about being better than everyone else and admitting that he slaughtered all the sandpeople, including the children.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that not only were there a lot of reasons why she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him, but they also didn’t bother to give any reasons why she would. During their whole side of the story, we don’t see him do anything kind or heroic. There’s the chase through the city scene at the beginning, but she didn’t see that, and then there’s the battle after she declares her love. But during the middle of the movie, when she’s supposedly falling in love with him, he doesn’t actually do anything. He’s there as a bodyguard for her, but he never has to save her. They don’t have an adventure together where they have to work as a team — even when they’re in that factory, they’re off on their own, not working together. She doesn’t see him help anyone else.

The funny thing is, George Lucas has managed to make this sort of thing work before. I also rewatched Willow last weekend (to prepare for the launch of the series). That story has an even higher hurdle for the “why?” since it’s an enemies-to-lovers story, but you can see why she fell in love with this guy (the actors were falling in love in real life and ended up married, so there is something of an unfair advantage since they had crazy chemistry, but I think the script still supports it). First, we saw the way her mother constantly criticized and berated her, so when the guy starts spouting poetry at her and praising her, we can see it get to her (he was under a love spell at the time, but she didn’t learn that until later). It may have been the first kind words she’d ever heard. Later, we see her react to him being loyal to and protective of Willow and the baby. Still later, we see her impressed by his swordsmanship and bravery, the fact that he’s singlehandedly taking on her army in order to protect Willow and the baby.

In screenwriting, there’s a term, “save the cat,” which basically means a moment in a story when you make the audience like a character by having that character “save the cat” — they have a moment when they do something kind or heroic without receiving any benefit from it. That’s particularly useful when introducing a character who might be edgy or problematic if the story isn’t going to show them being heroic or good for a while, but you want the audience to like them. For instance, in the animated Disney Aladdin, Aladdin is introduced as a thief, stealing bread and then running from the guards. Along the way, he sees a starving child and hands over the bread he stole for himself. That’s a save the cat moment.

But I think the save the cat can be more than just for the audience. It can be a way of making a character like another character. There’s an example of this in another Star Wars film. Early in Rogue One, Jyn Erso is kind of being a brat. She’s being forced to do something she really doesn’t want to do, and she’s got an attitude about it. Cassian Andor is having to babysit this brat on a mission he’s not crazy about, and he’s tired of her attitude. Then they get caught in the crossfire when a group of rebels attacks some Imperials. She spots a small child who’s out in the open, in danger, and she jumps out of her hiding place to whisk the child to safety and return her to her mother. It works as a “save the cat” for the audience because we see that there’s a kind heart underneath the attitude, and I think it affects the way Cassian sees her. They get along a bit better after that point. In Willow, there’s not really one particular save the cat moment, but the fact that this brash swordsman is willing to risk it all to protect the small, weak, and helpless has a similar effect.

And that’s what we needed some of in Attack of the Clones. Lucas may have gone too far in showing Anakin’s downward spiral starting so soon. Maybe he could have held off with the ranting and slaughter of children until after Anakin was already married to Padme, or maybe it should have been in secret and she didn’t know about it. But at the very least, Anakin needed to save a few cats. He needed to whisk a child from danger, use the Force to levitate a kitten out of a tree or stop something from falling on someone. We needed to see that he had a good heart underneath the attitude and the rage. And we never did see that. The audience does see him saving Obi-Wan a time or two, but Padme doesn’t see him doing or being good in the whole time between their reunion for the first time since she met him as a child and the time she declares her love for him.

The characters I’m working with aren’t nearly that problematic, but I did have a situation in which I needed to get one character to trust another character quickly, even though she met him in difficult circumstances, and after thinking about these movies it struck me that she needed to see him doing an act of kindness that showed a gentler, softer side to him. And from there, I knew what my next scene needed to be.

writing, TV, movies

Epic Overkill

A couple of weekends ago, I rewatched the Hobbit trilogy. It’s weird that it takes longer to watch the movies than to read the book they’re based on. They took a fairly simple book that was written to read to a kid at bedtime and turned it into a bloated epic. It’s pretty obvious the parts in the movies that came directly from the book. They tend to have a warmth and wit and are on a “human” scale (using the term loosely for this story). It made me think about epic vs. intimate in fiction. I think sometimes when writers or filmmakers go overboard in trying to make things exciting by making them epic, it comes back around to being dull. I kept checking the clock while watching these movies, and usually during the biggest, most “epic” scenes.

I think a lot of that comes down to something I’ve heard said about the news, that two lives lost is a tragedy, and two thousand is a statistic. Seeing one character we care about in a reasonable amount of peril against a foe they have a chance of fighting against can be gripping, but seeing thousands of faceless CGI characters we’ve never “met” in a massive battle is boring.

I had a similar problem with the overkill in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There were so many cases when our heroes would be overwhelmed by swarms of orcs, and those scenes got kind of ridiculous. It was hard to believe that they could survive those odds without major plot armor. The scene would end up being the hero fighting about six stuntman orcs while dozens of CGI orcs swarmed around. I guess all the bonus extraneous orcs were meant to make the scene exciting, but it had the opposite effect on me. If they’d kept it to the few stuntman orcs, it would have made for a more engaging scene.

I think one way that the Rings of Power series worked for me was that the fights all had reasonable odds. It wasn’t a mass of CGI characters. It was mostly characters we knew fighting a realistic size opponent. We saw more of the one-on-one fighting in a way that seemed like either side had a chance of winning, without the need for plot armor and with skills that fit what we knew about the characters.

I’m in no danger of going too epic because that kind of mass battle doesn’t really interest me, but looking at things this way made me more aware of what interests me. I’m far more engaged by character interactions than I am by battles, and if you want me really engaged, make me care about the people. A few weeks ago, I had to pace the living room during an episode of Andor (to switch franchises) because I was so anxious about what would happen to the characters in a big heist/fight scene. I cared about those people, and the focus was on the characters we knew instead of them trying to make everything massive (it turned out that they actually had some other plans, but COVID restrictions meant they couldn’t do a big crowd scene, and so they wrote around their limitations in a way that made the story work better).

If you make me care, you don’t need all the epic bells and whistles to engage me. The makers of The Hobbit movies wasted a lot of money on CGI when they had strong enough characters (and actors) to keep us involved with something on a smaller scale.


A New Start

I started work on a new book yesterday. Well, re-started. Or re-re-started. I first started writing this book about thirty years ago, then nearly ten years after that finally finished a draft. It never really worked and it got shelved after a few rejections. I took it out to play with a couple of times over the years because I could never quite forget it. Then last year I realized I was Doing It Wrong all that time and figured out how to fix it, but then found some other problems and shelved it again.

I took it out again to look at this summer and realized that part of the problem was that it was woefully underdeveloped. I hadn’t really figured out the settings and some of the characters. I’ve spent the past few months doing development work, and the more work I did, the more obvious how blank it was. I’m kind of embarrassed. But once I started really developing, it all clicked into place and became so vivid.

Along the way, I “recast” one of the main characters. I’d always seen him as a particular physical type, but lately I had a totally different image of him pop into my head. I resisted it because I knew the character the way he was, and this version was entirely different physically. But then the more I thought about it, the more right the new version seemed. It fits his character so much better, and the moment I made that change in my head, the character came to life for me in a way he never has before. I felt like I knew him so much better.

The scene I wrote yesterday is a totally new one, starting the story in a different place, and it was amazing how much easier it was to write and how much more interesting it all was when I had the details in place.

I’m doing double duty this week, drafting this book while also doing the final proofread on the next mystery. When I feel like I’ve run out of words, I switch over to the mystery and read a chapter out loud, then when my voice gets tired, I switch back to this book and write a little more. But I’m afraid everything else is going to fall by the wayside this week while I try to get all this done.