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Archive for the ‘Rules of the Writing Road’ Category

Groundhog Day

I just finished listening to an excellent podcast about one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day. It was part of The 20/20 Awards, a show on Kiro Radio in Seattle, WA that re-evaluates the Oscar nominees from twenty years ago. A neat concept to be sure.

Listen here: Episode 9 – GROUNDHOG DAY

I was struck by one of the commenters’ statements about target audiences and his point is worth repeating: Writers should NOT define the target audience for their work until it is complete. 

This sounds radical given today’s market-driven society but put into historical context makes perfect sense. Only recently has Hollywood sold out to the marketing bean counters. In years past (think Hitchcock or anything before the early ’80s), writers, directors, producers, and actors simply tried to make the best movie they could. Pixar does this now but everyone else tries to define their story in terms of target audience near the beginning of their creative process. On a side note, I suspect this has something to do with the change Brian McDonald noticed in movies released after about 1984. That was probably when Hollywood integrated marketing ideas into key positions in the movie creation process.

This is a mistake for several crucial reasons:

First, it takes the focus away from trying to craft the best story possible. Instead the creative process is restricted and pigeonholed by whatever the writer “thinks” their target audience wants.

  • Teen boys are only interested in muscular heroes, scantily clad girls, and exploding helicopters.
  • Older women only want romances set at the turn-of-the-century, during the civil war, or in Amish country.
  • The only Science Fiction stories that people watch involve zombies or vampires.

Secondly, can you see the stereotypes developing here? Everyone knows that stereotypes are to be avoided yet identifying a work’s target audience at the beginning of a project seems to encourage their use.

Thirdly and worse yet, if every writer is doing this then every story from every writer will start to sound the same. Isn’t a lack of originality already a problem in stories these days? You bet and defining the target audience too early encourages this practice too.

Fourthly, it seems to lead to bad idea generation. I’ve heard several different story ideas over the past several years about crossing Vampires with Zombies (but that’s usually as far as the ideas get):

Bob: Hey Joe! I’ve got a great idea! Since teenage girls love vampires and zombie movies are hot right now too, why not mix the two? We could make a fortune writing the next Twilight about Vambies! Or Zompires! Or both!!!
Joe: Awesome idea! We’ll get an Oscar for sure! And let’s add in werewolves! We can call them Werepires and maybe Werebies. Err… What would you call a werewolf half-breed?
Bob: It doesn’t matter. We’ll make a fortune!!!

Please note that these are roundly considered “bad” ideas but note where they originate. They come from thinking about the target audience at the beginning.

Finally, related to the problems of originality and stereotyping there is a sort of lowest-common-denominator dynamic at work. Instead of writers trying to best one another with better and better stories, the focus has shifted to who can wring the most money out of the public with the least amount of effort. It’s a race to the bottom. Such systems are unstable and short-lived. They tend to favor the worst in quality and always encourage the use of base motivators like fear, sex, and greed. We can do better.

Again, defining your target audience early is a flat-out bad idea. The great directors of the past were always trying to make the best movies they could. We should emulate them and not fall into the trap of trying to market a product that doesn’t yet exist. From now on, focus on writing the best story you can. If anyone asks, your Target Audience is Everyone. You can always redefine it later. Better yet, since most writers don’t possess marketing degrees, leave that decision for the marketing department to figure out.

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This post is a corollary to my previous post on character admissions. I’ve seen the following issue many times but most recently in DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots. It is a minor complaint in this particular film so if you haven’t seen it yet, do so before reading on. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of an excellent film because there are spoilers below.

Puss-in-Boots with Humpty

Humpty and Puss’ grew up together as friends. They were both mischievous in their younger years (pictured above) but Puss had an opportunity to turn his life around. Humpty later tricks Puss into helping him with one last job – robbing the local bank. When Puss discovers the deception, he whispers in his friend’s hearing:

‘You tricked me.’

True to life, if you were tricked into committing a crime, the first thing out of your mouth would probably also be, ‘You tricked me!’ The problem is, that is the last time Puss ever utters those words.

Any normal person wrongly accused of a crime would repeat this truth to everyone they met – especially the authorities – until they listened. Characters should speak the truth. 

Yet Puss says this only once and only in the hearing of the one who betrayed him who already knew it. He never mentions it again. Not when confronted with the local authorities and not in front of his mother. Both of which happen multiple times.

Worse yet, at the end of the film Puss admits to being guilty for a crime he didn’t commit rather than utter those three simple words. Puss didn’t rob the bank. Humpty did and it was Humpty who got Puss to help under false pretenses.

Speaking precisely, the flaw being identified is a form of misunderstanding that occurs when a character fails to express their proper motivation. Puss being misunderstood is required for the plot of the film. Puss in Boots is fabulous otherwise. It is well-written and Humpty’s dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever experienced. DreamWorks really shines with their dialogue and especially their voicework.

The flaw is actually much more prominent in another genre of film: Romantic Comedies. I can’t remember a recent romcom that didn’t include this flaw and I confess I’ve quit watching them like so many movie goers. Misunderstandings are fine premises as stories go. They are certainly common enough and can be done correctly, but misunderstandings in real life are almost never based on one character in jeopardy failing to state the obvious truth when given the opportunity. Yet this limp-dish-rag variety of misunderstanding has become a staple of the romcom.

Bottom Line: Don’t write characters this way. Don’t even use such a motivation as a placeholder in your development process. This problem – the natural expression of a character’s motivation – is avoidable simply by removing the ability for the character to express it. So, suppress the truth. Put a gag in that character’s mouth for that scene, either physically or metaphorically. Write in a boisterous character that won’t let the truth be heard. Better yet, tie this boisterous character into the plot by giving them something to lose if the truth got out. Give them the motivation to prevent the truth coming out even if it is as simple as the guard in Puss in Boots swearing to bring him in if it’s the last thing he ever does.

Puss has no gag and nothing to lose by speaking the truth. In fact he has everything to gain and since Humpty has presumable already paid for his crime, nothing he says will harm his former friend. All of which is why this bit of Puss’ character falls flat. Admittedly, DreamWorks attempted to plug this hole in the final scene with a plea by Puss’ mother to not fight the guards before he had an opportunity to speak. But in all honesty he’d already had that opportunity multiple times and didn’t take any of them.

Remember, speak the truth or suppress it. Those are the only two acceptable options.

If you want to know more of the ills applicable to the romcom, as well as where they shine, I invite you to visit the Living the Romantic Comedy blog by Billy Mernit. If you haven’t seen Puss in Boots and are reading this, then do yourself a favor and cue up the movie on Netflix. Despite this flaw, it’s a very fun family-friendly movie with lessons about friendship, loyalty, and redemption.

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I have noticed a disturbing trend in my media of late. At least, it’s disturbing to me.

Maybe it’s the stories.

Maybe it’s the theme.

Maybe it’s writers who are too proud. Or directors afraid to offend. Or editors, producers, and publishers. But…

Characters aren’t admitting their guilt anymore.

I’m not talking about the villains. I’m talking about the heroes.

I’m of the old school in which a person who commits a crime or is guilty of some fault is expected to admit their guilt as proof of their change-of-heart and this must happen before their status with their community is restored. But I’m not seeing it play out like this anymore either in the movies I watch or the books I read.

This concept is the heart of the Christian conversion experience and has been a staple of media in western culture for centuries. Heroes typically change over the course of their stories so this concept is tailor-made for them. Usually, a bit of dialogue is all that is required because change can usually be shown. However, it seems the modern incarnations of our heroes are taking a lesson from the villains’ playbook and never admitting to anything anymore.

Maybe I’m not watching the right movies or reading the right books, but I think this is a trend nonetheless and I think a bad one.

Brave Logo
If you’ve already read my post on Pixar’s latest movie, then you may remember my complaint that neither Merida nor her mother ever fully apologizes for their behavior. Merida’s rebellious attitude goes unrecognized and unpunished. Her mother’s anti-social behavior too.

Why?

My best guess is that it’s a symptom of modern culture. Because in everyday life even our President, someone who I largely support, has not prosecuted the wall street professionals responsible for taking our economy to the brink of destruction. I applaud him for moving us forward and seeing us through some very difficult times, but part of me wants Justice. Accountability. Revenge too, if I’m being honest. And now that our most pressing issue  – the US economy – is being dealt with I’d like to see these troublemakers get their comeuppance but it hasn’t happened yet.

Personally, I have more respect for baseball players like Mark McGwire who admit their drug use – even if it is years after the fact – than those who continue to hide their faults. (Better late than never but also better early than late.) Of course the irony of modern culture is that all publicity is good publicity. The fact that we know certain names and not others has little to do with morality and lots more with what makes a story news-worthy.

As for me, I plan on having my characters admit their guilt if doing so is in keeping with their character. It is easy as a writer to avoid the hard conversations, but it is those types of conversations where honesty prevails that are most memorable and true to life.

The following statement was issued by Mark McGwire on January 11, 2010 admitting to steroid use during his career:

“Now that I have become the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, I have the chance to do something that I wish I was able to do five years ago.

“I never knew when, but I always knew this day would come. It’s time for me to talk about the past and to confirm what people have suspected. I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize. I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989/1990 off season and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again. I used them on occasion throughout the ’90s, including during the 1998 season.

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.

“During the mid-’90s, I went on the DL seven times and missed 228 games over five years. I experienced a lot of injuries, including a ribcage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a stress fracture of the left heel, and a torn right heel muscle. It was definitely a miserable bunch of years and I told myself that steroids could help me recover faster. I thought they would help me heal and prevent injuries, too.

“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn’t take any and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.

“Baseball is really different now — it’s been cleaned up. The commissioner and the players’ association implemented testing and they cracked down, and I’m glad they did.

“I’m grateful to the Cardinals for bringing me back to baseball. I want to say thank you to Cardinals owner Mr. DeWitt, to my GM, John Mozeliak, and to my manager, Tony La Russa. I can’t wait to put the uniform on again and to be back on the field in front of the great fans in Saint Louis. I’ve always appreciated their support and I intend to earn it again, this time as hitting coach. I’m going to pour myself into this job and do everything I can to help the Cardinals hitters become the best players for years to come.

“After all this time, I want to come clean. I was not in a position to do that five years ago in my congressional testimony, but now I feel an obligation to discuss this and to answer questions about it. I’ll do that, and then I just want to help my team.”

(Source: ESPN)

Note that McGwire didn’t issue this statement as a player. Nor did he admit to using drugs during a congressional hearing. He issued this statement after accepting a new position as hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. In other words, his conscience was bothering him and he admitted his guilt honestly from feelings of remorse. That’s why his fans believed him. That’s why he got a standing ovation prior to the Cardinals home opener on April 12, 2010 – four months after his admission.

His statement before the house committee on government reform is illuminating too:

Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve the problem. If a player answers ‘No,’ he simply will not be believed; if he answers ‘Yes,’ he risks public scorn and endless government investigations…My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself. I will say, however, that it remains a fact in this country that a man, any man, should be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty. (Source: CNN)

This is reality. Why aren’t we writing more material that includes scenes like this?

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My principal sends out a morning email each school day with information about events that will occur that day. My favorite part is the quote at the end. Today’s was:

Sports do not build character. They reveal it. – Heywood Hake Brown

It made sense but it also begged another question. What builds character?

I tried to brainstorm a list:

  • Personal hardships – like having to choose between buying food for your family and gasoline to drive to work?
  • Physical Pain – like from breaking a leg and then discovering which of your friends still want to hang out with you even though you can’t walk.
  • A living example – like that favorite teacher who understood you in that one moment when it really mattered and gave you a hug.

I thought I spotted a pattern – that internal motivations built character while external reactions showed character – but that doesn’t quite work. All of the externals do reveal character but the internals are nebulous. It also seems these concepts are hard to separate. Where I see the building of character I almost always see a revealing too.

There’s something there but I can’t see it. What I can see is the answer to a long-standing mystery: Why is there evil in the world? For good. Because it reveals character. As we are tested, we reveal what’s inside so God tests us to reveal our character just as scripture states. Note that it is not because He doesn’t know what we are but because we don’t know ourselves.

So, how does this relate to writing? Revealing character is easy. Building character not so much.

(This suggests other questions like, “Does a writer need to build character in the first place?”  but that is a topic for another post. We can assume it’s a useful skill a little longer.)

So what builds character? The only thing I can think of that might exclusively build character as opposed to reveal it or involve some combination of the two is to watch another human be a good example. Humans imitate what we see others doing. We want to be like people we like. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but when we do imitate one another it’s evidence that character building has taken place.

Maybe that’s why there are so many father figures and mother figures in fiction. Even more heroes and mentors. As writers, we need our readers to identify with the protagonist and all protagonists need something to live for, some goal to obtain. So if readers get to observe the moment when the protagonist bonds with a likable hero or mentor figure, then readers will more likely bond with the protagonist.

Even more if the hero or mentor dies later.

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My recent post imitating the excellent Cockeyed Caravan blog garnered such a great response that I’ve decided to start my own series of writing rules. I’ve dubbed it Rules of the Writing Road since the Storyteller’s Rulebook was taken. 😉 I intend this to be a collection point for my insights into the craft of writing as I discover them.

Which brings me to today’s topic, the first topic of my Rules of the Writing Road.

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House, M.D. and Fringe have something in common. They both started out as excellent shows. House was a medical mystery drama starring a very unconventional doctor. Fringe was a near-future science fiction mystery show in the vein of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone.

I started watching them from the beginning and from the beginning I was hooked. I waited eagerly for each new episode to come out. Our Tivo was my best friend. And when a new episode did air I sat gratuitously glued to the one-eyed monster like a mesmerized lapdog consuming every magical moment.

Each episode of House and each episode of Fringe centered around a mystery. I *love* mysteries and while those unfolded I got plenty of character development and world exploration too. They were a joy to watch.

But something went wrong. After a few seasons, both shows changed their formula of building the episodes around a mystery and both shows fell flat for me.

You see, the problem is that viewers (including me) engage in an unspoken contract with writers. If I want mystery stories and the writers agree to provide them then I will watch. If-Then. Those mysteries were what hooked me and millions of other viewers on both shows. When the writers changed the formula they also broke the unwritten contract and I lost interest.

For me, House devolved from a medical mystery drama to a near-pure drama with only a weak medical mystery component. In some episodes there was no medical mystery, just the main characters working through some internal or relationship struggle. That’s not what I signed up for.

Fringe did the same though I don’t recall ever watching an episode that was completely devoid of all semblance of a mystery plot. Rather, Fringe’s mysteries were completely transformed. They began as discrete, tightly-constructed but loosely-connected mysteries and became a single, epic, interconnected mess. The show went from unraveling a single mystery per episode to consuming more than an entire season to partially explore one grand saga which never fully tied up all the loose ends. Again, I lost interest.

If it wasn’t already obvious, here is the rule: Keep your promises to the audience. How you get them is how you keep them as most marriage counselors know. Courting viewers is the same as courtship before a marriage. Just because you’re past the point of establishing the relationship doesn’t mean you can change the rules after the fact. Again, how you act during courtship is how you are expected to continue to act after marriage. When people make this mistake everyone suffers. Ratings fall, viewers tune out, shows get cancelled early, and writers lose their jobs.

So keep those promises.

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