Be an efficient storyteller

The problem with stories nowadays…

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Episode Review – Girls, Girls, Girls

Yeah Thanksgiving has put me behind and I’m trying to catch up.  I was all set to blog a review with this episode and tonight’s but…

Ok confession time: When the time came to watch my shows, I was clicking on the Flash more and more with a bit of dread in regards to Supernatural.  And you know what?  That’s a really horrible place to be with what was once one of your favorite shows.  Yet… slowly but surely this season has been turning around, until I actually caught up on SPN first!  And didn’t regret it!

I mean had this episode been in one of the Kripke 5, it would have been very mediocre to below average, but after the ATROCITY of season 9?  It’s practically 5 star!  Part of me is starting to seriously wonder if the show runners are reading this blog because they’re actually showing signs of improvement and fixing previously listed issues!

A few quick things before I turn this into a writing tips rant.

  • New character, Rowena.  She was… a character in multiple meanings!  She was a bit camp, but entertaining.  She demonstrated competence and being a threat without showing herself to be some overpowered Mary Sue villain like this was a cheap knock-off of Dragonball Z (yes that is part of what I think ended Abaddon as a written character).
  • Sam and Dean are behaving like… human beings!  They’re smiling!  They’re socializing!  And you know what?  That moment of Dean saying, “I’m going to die” (however it was phrased) had more punch BECAUSE we had seen greater emotional range from him earlier.
  • While there are still a few holes in the angel deal, things were at least advanced and canon REMEMBERED (nobody was more shocked than me).  Now we have an actual moral discussion, a plot to examine.  I mean imagine if they freed Metatron’s vessel from him, just the implications of that, the story possibilities!

Still, you know what thrilled me most?  What caused me a near heart attack? (besides high blood pressure and unhealthy living)  They did a GOOD retcon!

What is a retcon?

Now, I’ve had some discussion with other fans (names withheld because I literally cannot remember them at the moment) over the issue of retcons in SPN, most often why I was so angry at the ones in S9 but accepted so many others elsewhere in the series. This episode gives a wonderful example but first, we have to establish what it takes for a retcon to work, and to be good.

  1. It cannot outright contradict previously established “facts” about the work. (i.e. If an line or character suddenly claimed that Sam was the older brother and Dean the younger.)
  2. It cannot contradict previously established “facts” about the work by implication. (i.e. If there was a comic or novel that said John Winchester was a part of an elite military hunter group in Vietnam.)
  3. It should harmonize any contradictions between previously established “facts”.
  4. BONUS: It should make new story possibilities, not break them.

Now, one minor issue the show has had was that witches seemed to have some inconsistency.  What’s the retcon in this episode?  That there’s (at least) 3 types of witches: demon based, natural born, and trained.  Perfect!  1) This information does not contradict anything we’ve seen in any other episode involving witches. 2) The implications of this revelation do not create plot holes in any previous witch episode. 3) The issue with some witches seeming different from others is ACTUALLY RESOLVED!  Bonus round: New storylines to examine!  Like what if a natural born witch was to make a demon deal?  Would they become super-witch or less powerful?  Do psychics in the SPN world fit within the natural-born section or are they different?  Do all natural witches have that “spark” which Leviathans can’t replicate?  Can naturals be an angel vessel or is that an unresolvable contradiction?  PERFECT SCORE!

Yes those questions aren’t answered, but the point is that they don’t have to be.  The important, relevant plot and world-building questions were answered and these others can later be used to examine and expand future stories.  Perfect!  Well done!

Another example?  The anti-demon hex bag.  That Sam was able to find it online was possibly a huge plot hole by implication.  Oh but they retconned that perfectly too!  “Single person used it.” “Questionable reliability.”  Yes, that’s how you do that.  See it doesn’t require much, just a line or two, some tweaked word choices and you can make it all fit.  Well done everyone!

Here’s hoping the episode that concluded five minutes ago doesn’t dash all my goodwill and anger me.

So now what do I do?

So apparently I have a reader!  (I know, nobody’s more shocked than me.)  After pitching a pretty kickass idea they say:

And really, that’s about all I got. All I have so far is the setting and not really an idea for what to do with it in terms of plot/character arcs for my three main protagonists.

Whoa, asking me for help?  Well if I was pretend to be a writer…

So first question you always have to ask yourself is: what medium do I want this to go on?  Long or short form?  Long form would be like an ongoing TV series or comic book or short story series or 12+ novels.  You don’t need to have a plot or character arc ready, just start writing situations out and let the world breathe and have fun.  “I want to ask Suzie to the dance but she might learn my secret!”  “Hey let’s try out that new coffee shop that just opened!”  Monsters of the week!  Don’t be afraid to invent a situation and run with it no matter how silly or mundane it might be, the key is to try and tell the story in a way that it can ONLY happen in your world, not any other (even if they’re very similar).  After a few runs you should hopefully have figured enough out about the world and your characters that a proper plot & character arc will jump out and be so obvious you’ll wonder how you didn’t see it before.

But maybe you’re aiming more for a short form like a limited run TV or comic book series, a single novel or trilogy.  What then?  You can’t just mess around on meaningless stuff!  (Well don’t be afraid to run a short story or two – who knows if you get popular enough you might be able to release them as tie-in material in the future.)  Well forget the whole “3 types of stories [man vs ___]” deal, ultimately every story (setting aside experimental bullshit) revolves around 1 factor: Change.  You have a setting and all that, great!  That’s how the story world is today.  What could be different about it tomorrow?  It doesn’t mean it will be different, just what could be.  It’s the same with characters.  You know who they are today, who could they be tomorrow?  I think once you start asking yourself that question, the rest of it starts falling into place:

  • This change, would it be for the better or worse?
  • Would the antagonist(s) want to bring about or prevent this change?
  • Would the protagonist(s) want to bring about or prevent this change?
  • How are outside groups (if any) involved?
  • Does the change happen or not?
  • Any particular reason the change (or attempt) happened now and not before?  Later?
  • Why this protagonist or this antagonist?

The other key to remember is to always answer the questions within the logic of the story itself – don’t let your meta knowledge as author/creator infect it.  “It just can/can’t” should almost never be answer given to questions.  Sure, you the author may know that you can’t cross the streams, but how or why would the characters know?  Can they try it out?  Maybe that’s where you get your antagonist, somebody that just wants to see what happens if you do something and the protagonists have to prevent a total protonic reversal.

Hopefully these question will get you over that writer’s block and entice the muses to visit your dreams.

Moment of Brilliance – the Bay line

Once in awhile one finds something said by someone else that so encapsulates a thought you were trying to express, you can’t help but give the author major kudos.

From the always awesome Furious D we have the new term, “The Bay Line”.  What is it?

The Bay Line is named after director and explosives enthusiast Michael Bay. It’s the line where a filmmaker goes from insulting the audience’s intelligence to insulting their existence. Bay’s films only insult the audience’s intelligence, not their existence, in fact, he goes out of his way to praise their existence. The audience forgives him his stupidities, and sits back to enjoy the visceral experience of robots beating the living shit out of each other while good looking people try to emote.

They’ll let you insult their intelligence as long as you give them lowbrow laughs or big explosions, but insult their existence, and the audience will punish you, even if they don’t consciously know that they are doing it.

It was this moment when it finally hit me why I hated the Happening and Avatar (H&A) so very much.  They weren’t just insultingly stupid to our brains, they were insultingly stupid to our very existence.  Glancing at scenes from the movies again, it’s hard not to see them as subtly declaring to the audience that “you should also suffer/die as the characters are”. Avatar sort of survived by being very pretty and offering something of an “experience”, but will that hold up for the sequels?

And yet, do not horror movies contradict this lesson?  I’m not a big horror aficionado, but from scanning the plot synopsis of many of them, we notice several “outs” they give which H&A do not follow.

  1. We are generally not supposed to root for the antagonist/villain.  Well sometimes we might do so unintentionally, there’s even probably some paper to be written about “protagonist creep” in horror settings, but at their core: horror movies are about something inhuman to be fought. (yes often there are movies where the killer/whatever is human, but usually in them there is a subtext that the antagonist has given up any right to call itself human)   In H&A, we have the non-humans portrayed as just innocent victims defending themselves.  Sure once in awhile there will be an inhuman opponent that is mentioned as “misunderstood” but this is usually a small part of the movie (that could nearly be cut out without damaging the story) whereas H&A have this misunderstanding as very central aspects of the story.
  2. The movies usually have some effort to make a distinction clear between all humans vs a subset.  There’s often side characters, or maybe even one or two main characters which are portrayed as decent human beings.  While we might be seeing Jason Vorheeves killing off a lot of unlikable partying assholes NOW, there’s signs that we don’t have much to worry about him going off on a rampage to kill all humans.  In the Happening, the closest we have to likable characters/protagonists only survive by dumb luck, seemingly implying that all humans should be killed.  In Avatar, the only humans which prove themselves worthy of not being killed/expelled/whatever, are the ones that “abandon” their humanity to become something else and live somewhere else.
  3. Somewhat related to the above, horror movies also give the audience some satisfaction in that they can think “well I wouldn’t do that” while watching the victims be selfish/stupid/whatever-gets-them-killed.  Again, in H&A – there’s no sign that the audience – were they in those situations – could do anything differently to save themselves. (well… Avatar really hits the gray area)

So today we’ve all learned that, when writing or creating any kind of art, it’s probably best to make sure you’re not insulting the people you’re asking to give you money for your art. 😉

But then this is “writing talk” so leave examples, counter-examples (how do Zombie movies impact this?), and more in the comments.