Writerly Tricks (Not) Found in The Avengers Movie

May 25, 2012

Join me in raising a stein to Joss Whedon, who’s been at this for a long time. I’ve been following his work since Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer… 13 years ago.
Joss Whedon
He rewrote the Avengers screenplay originally created by Zak Penn. I can’t think of a trickier story to tell than an origin story with a large ensemble of characters, who are already well known. What a minefield of clichés to avoid! But good old Joss; he did it.

What can we find in his script? Below, I’ll give you some things to watch for with your writer’s eye when you see it (or see it again).

Spoilers below… but come on, if I tell you that the good guys win, will that keep you from seeing it?

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First, I’m going to pick on Joss a little, just to get it out of the way. Because we have to talk about the villain.

The villain establishes the stakes of the story, and is a good gauge of a story’s intensity. The more powerful and compelling the villain, the more compelling the story.

The villain in The Avengers – Loki, god of mischief and Thor’s brother – isn’t very threatening. We never really believe that the Avengers will fail to kick his patootie. Because of that, the villain is the weakest point of this story.

Loki
Now, I think that was a tactical decision on Joss’s part. He’s got a lot of story he needs to tell, and it’s of a particular type: the first Avengers movie couldn’t be about the villain. It’s about the heroes. So Loki does a set of necessary jobs for the plot, and nothing more.

First, Loki provides motivation for the other characters to overcome their differences – the arc of the movie.

Second, Loki provides Joss with an ingredient he needs to do one of the things he’s great at: writing scenes with plenty of reversals and confrontational dialogue. Reversals occur when power shifts in a scene, and a character gains or loses the upper hand. Repeated reversals are called zigzagging – a set of successes and failures, sometimes in rapid succession. Loki is powerful, but not too powerful, so each Avenger gets to have nicely balanced, exciting scenes with him.

The Hulk
Loki gets his evil monologues interrupted. A lot. Most memorably by “the big guy.”

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Joss’s real strength as a screenwriter is the ability to walk in the shoes of his characters, and then write dialogue that is grimly or hilariously honest. Because each Avenger is so different, Joss’s ability to capture a point of view shines through. These perspectives come out in conflict, and there’s as much adversarial dialogue between the Avengers as real confrontation between the Avengers and Loki.

There are too many characters, and not enough screen time, for the complex inner conflicts Joss is also great at portraying. Contradictory inner motives are easier to reveal in a movie with fewer characters, a season of television (22 dramatic hours), or a novel (4-8 dramatic hours, or longer if you’re a slow reader like me).

As we speak, The Avengers is racing toward the billion-dollar mark. It’s great to see a guy kicked around for so long finally get his due. You’ve heard what his fans say: you can’t stop the signal.

Serenity


Weird is Better

November 14, 2010

Duh.

Here’s the “eccentricity” chunk of my “Writing Great Characters” talk at Write on the Sound 2010. As before, the audio’s a little shaky, so turn it up.

Sol Stein said it:

“Eccentricity is at the heart of strong characterization. The most effective characters have profound roots in human behavior. Their richest feelings may be similar to those held by many others. However, as characters their eccentricities dominate the reader’s first vision of them.

If you were to examine the surviving novels of the twentieth century, you would find that a majority of the most memorable characters in fiction are to some degree eccentric.”

(Watch that ‘thank you’ sign behind me. It’s the real star of this show.)


Do Readers Envy Your Characters?

October 8, 2010

Fiction can provide us with an intense vicarious experience. Readers identify with characters that they envy on a gut level, said Dwight Swain (author of Techniques of the Selling Writer).

I made just that point in my “Writing Great Characters” talk at the 2010 Write On The Sound Conference here in Washington State.

The trickiest thing about video is the audio, so you might have to turn it up.


Hack Your Brain, Bypass Writing Blocks

September 30, 2010

SMOKE is a game to engage your creative mind about your character by playing with metaphors. This is great for steering around creative blocks by skipping logical thought entirely. Some of your answers will be silly, but that’s okay, because some won’t. And some might give you the insight you were looking for.

Presented by Peter Elbow in Writing With Power, possibly adapted from John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist. (Although I learned it from Bruce Holland Rogers.)

1) If your character were a color, what color would he/she be? (WAS a color, not the character’s favorite color)

2) If your character were an animal, what animal would he/she be?

3) If your character were a piece of technology, what piece of technology would he/she be?

4) If your character were a mode of transportation, what mode of transportation would he/she be?

5) If your character were a food, what food would he/she be?

6) If your character were physically constructed out of a particular material or substance, what substance would he/she be made of?

7) If your character were a type of weather, what type of weather would he/she be?

(You can make up more questions like these on your own. There’s no limit.)


Let the Character Fit the Crime

March 7, 2010

Some writers dream up characters and write stories about them.

Other writers dream up crimes and seek characters to commit them.

By “crime” I mean the idea for the story, the situation, the plot, the high concept, the story problem. In science fiction, it’s sometimes called the gimmick (but I don’t think that’s fair).

I’m in that second group. The first impulse of a story for me is usually some weird answer to a “What if?” question. And sometimes, it’s just a good “What if?” question with no clear answer. To get the answer, I write the story.

For example:

1) What if a big creepy shark attacked a New England resort community?

2) Maybe you love alternate history stories. What if someone could travel to parallel realities and see how history, and his or her own life, could have worked out differently? (This is the premise of the novel I just finished. In other words, Sliders… only good.)

3) Let’s try a romance. What if a woman fell in love with a billionaire?

So fix your story idea in your mind, and ask, “Who would be most hurt by this?” Imagine a character who would be the most emotionally affected by the situation you want to write about.

Go ahead and twist the knife. We writers are all about pain. (And readers like it that way. They want to read about people at the end of their rope. Otherwise, why bother?)

Got it? That’s your character.

So how about this:


1) Who would be most freaked out by that shark? The sheriff, of course — someone charged with the responsibility of keeping the islanders safe. Someone who moved there from New York, specifically to escape violence and bloodshed. His children came too… and they love the beach. To top it off, he’s afraid of water.

For the islanders, the shark is scary. For Sheriff Brody, the shark is a nightmare.

2) For my reality-hopping novel, I created a character whose parents died young, leaving him with a younger brother and sister to care for. He desires a woman who is just out of his reach. He feels unfairly shackled by fate, and the chance to see other worlds where he could live his dreams — instead of feeling tortured by them — is irresistible to him.

Yet, he loves his family. His connection to them makes him unable to forget his origins, and drives his internal conflict. Soon enough, he’d sacrifice anything to get back to his home.


3) The key to romance is to have two characters fall in love… and then come up with as many obstacles as you can to keep them apart. So how can we torture this nice lady? If the man is rich, then perhaps she’s poor, visibly poor, painfully poor. Of course, she’s in a position to see him every day, so her agony is perpetual. Perhaps she cleans his office (or perhaps she’s a lowly prostitute, or perhaps she’s tasked with planning his wedding to another woman — ouch! Are you seeing how big-shot screenwriters use this technique?).

Maybe she’s one of his employees, and she’s downsized. Now she’s cut off from him. To me, that one sounds like the catalyst, the event that sets the story in motion.

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We read fiction to be entertained, and to get wisdom. Writers can satisfy both of these needs by showing characters who are used up, burnt out, up against the wall, out of options — in other words, people who are so wounded by their problem that they’ll do something profound in order to solve it.

Hurt your characters. A lot. That might mean choosing characters who will be hurt the most.


Vader vs. Voldemort

February 11, 2010

“Let’s be bad guys.”

Or at least let’s talk about bad guys. Villains, I mean.

The antagonist.

Film critic Roger Ebert says, “Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.”

As usual, this is true for novels, too. And if you think your book or screenplay doesn’t need an antagonist… just hold on, I’ll get back to you in a minute.

To understand bad guys, we’ll start with good guys.

Here are a few writer’s tools I’ve talked about before, used to make protagonists effective:

Eccentricity: memorable characters are not ordinary.

Envy: readers most love the characters that they wish they could be.

Yin-Yang Complexity: realistic characters have traits that are contradictory, making the character a paradox. (After all, you’re a paradox… aren’t you?)

Save the Cat: a scene that shows the reader that — despite moral ambiguity on the surface — this character has a moral center that makes him or her worth following.

So… can these tools make an antagonist interesting, too?

Some can. Let’s see which.

Eccentricity

It’s difficult to think of a great villain that’s not eccentric, although it may be only their villainy that makes them so. Hans Gruber, in Die Hard, doesn’t seem wildly eccentric… and yet he is. His eccentricity lies in the brilliant plot he hatched to rob Nakatomi Tower.

Some antagonists have their eccentricity bound up with the fantasy world they inhabit. Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort is the focal point of all the supernatural aspects of Harry Potter’s life.

(Plus, he’s like a snake dude. Come on.)

Likewise, the land of Middle-Earth is extraordinary to the reader, but Sauron is extraordinary to the characters in Middle-Earth.

So eccentricity for villains gets a big yes.

Envy

(This is a trait in the reader, not the character. Although villains can be driven by envy too.)

Do we envy a good villain?

Of course! It may be their raw physical power, or moxy, or charm, or sangfroide in the midst of panic and carnage. Smart writers make their villains intriguing by having them do and say things we wish we could do or say. Robert McKee channels the thoughts of the audience watching Silence of the Lambs: “If I were a cannibalistic psychopath, I’d want to be just like Lecter.”

So envy gets a yes, for bad guys like Hannibal Lecter, Hans Gruber, and maybe for Darth Vader, too. (You know you want a lightsaber.  And can think of someone you’d like to strangle at range.)

But wait… Sauron? And who envies Voldemort? Nobody — that guy is gross.

So there’s a split on Envy. Some antagonists yes, some no.

Yin-Yang complexity

This one splits, too. Some antagonists exhibit paradox, like Hannibal Lecter (the polite cannibal) and Hans Gruber (the charming terrorist. And one of my favorite villains, Rene Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is charming as well. Lots of writers make their antagonists more compelling by balancing their nastiness with charm.


Darth Vader’s Yin-Yang flip in Star Wars comes when he kneels before a hologram of the Emporer. Before that scene, Vader is simply a faceless tyrant, a bully. But when we hear him say, “Yes, my master,” we a new side of him. This contradiction (vicious tyrant vs. obedient servant) is just the beginning of Darth Vader’s complexity, which explodes when he says those immortal words to Luke, and his complexity becomes vicious tyrant vs. obedient servant vs. compassionate father.

What about Voldemort? Does he have a paradox? A flip-side? No. (You could maybe argue that his flipside is cowardice, since his fear of his own death motivates all his actions… but I don’t buy it.)

Nor Sauron.

They are just plain evil. And off stage most of the time, serving as forces rather than characters.

So not all antagonists have Yin-Yang natures, but I think this sort of complexity makes more compelling, more memorable villains.

(To pay off the title, I’m saying that Vader kicks Voldemort’s keister in the compelling-villain competition.)

Save the Cat

This one’s easy — bad guys don’t do it. Ever. If they do, they become good guys.


Jayne Cobb is not a villain (though he lies, cheats and steals, and serves as a sort-of antagonist for Malcolm Reynolds) because he’s always Saving the Cat… usually by blasting away at mooks who threaten the crew of Serenity.

Jayne’s violence makes him good, and his guilt makes him complex. (Wow.)

Writers need to be careful with this stuff, or they’ll end up with a villain who’s more compelling than the hero. All protagonists must want something, and go after it. All antagonists must want something, and go after it. Antagonists, like protagonists, benefit if their writers use the tools of Eccentricity, Envy and Yin-Yang.


But “the primary characteristic of the villain,” says Dwight Swain, “is ruthlessness.”

Now, what about skipping the antagonist altogether?

Go ahead.

The adversity your main character faces might be a mountain, a machine, a ticking clock, a screwed-up society, or a thousand other things. It need not be personified. You might not be writing that kind of story. I’ve written stories with villains and without.

SF writer Ben Bova even says that villains are unrealistic. “There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.”

I don’t buy it. I think Bova is arguing against crappy villains, not all villains. Keep your tools in mind, and you can write cool villains — compelling antagonists who set up shop in the audience’s psyche and never leave.

(I left out some great villains. Norman Bates. HAL-9000. Moriarty. Have you got a favorite villain? Tell me in a comment.)


Books That Give Writers an Edge

December 2, 2009

Mckee_Story
I have a short stack of books by my desk that are dog-eared, highlighted, and full of Post-It notes for bookmarks. It’s my “how-to-write” stack.

Stein on Writing is there, and Making Shapely Fiction, and McKee’s Story (which keeps coming up on Novel Dog. My copy has 12 Post-Its and two bookmarks).

But I’ve been thinking about the books that have taught me about writing — or at least, helped me to write — that are not “how-to-write” books.

Can a book on pottery teach you something about writing?

How about a book on improvisational theater?

If you think I’m going to mention Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat
again, you’re right. Screenwriters know things about narrative structure that we novelists need to learn. McKee’s book is a screenwriting book, too.

But there are a few more that have inspired me and taught me good stuff, and since you won’t find them in the WRITING section, I’ll share them here.

Steven Johnson wrote a book about the increasing complexity found in television shows and video games, called Everything Bad is Good for You. He ties this increasing complexity to the Flynn Effect, which is the increase in average I.Q. scores over the past few decades.

Whatever. But his study of the relationship networks of television characters put a nice light bulb over my head. He also writes about television dialogue. Modern TV viewers, he says, are perfectly comfortable when the dialogue makes no sense at all.

Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson

“The dialogue on shows like The West Wing and ER… rushes by, the words accelerating in sync with the high-speed tracking shots that glide through the corridors and operating rooms… The truly remarkable thing about the dialogue is not purely a matter of speed; it’s the willingness to immerse the audience in information that most viewers won’t understand….

“You don’t need to know what it means when the surgeons start shouting about OPCAB and saphenous veins as they perform a bypass on ER; the arcana is there to create the illusion that you are watching real doctors.”

I’ve adopted arcana as my term for dialogue that is over the reader’s head, and there to help the reader suspend disbelief. You can find this sort of dialogue in any police procedural or spy thriller. (A different type is in hard SF or elaborate high fantasy, where the author gets to make the arcana up. Fun, but not easy!)

Johnson quotes a snip from an ER script (Crichton again, baby) to make his point. Play along with me here, and count up the words you don’t know:

KERRY: Sixteen-year-old, unconcious, history of villiari treesure.
CARTER: Glucyna coma?
KERRY: Looks like it.
MR. MAKOMI: She was doing fine until six months ago.
CARTER: What medication is she on?
MR. MAKOMI: Emphrasylim, tobramysim, vitamins A, D, and K.
LUCY: The skin’s jaundiced.
KERRY: Same with sclera, does her breath smell sweet?
CARTER: Peder permadicis?
KERRY: Yeah.
LUCY: What’s that?

By the way… arcana, done badly, is called technobabble.

Another book I’ve blogged about is Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about success, and it’s a short brain-hop from there to “writing success.” The kicker in that book was the ten-thousand-hour rule, which might seem like a long time to you, but sounds just right to me. That’s the time you dedicate to careful study of a subject in order to become a master at it.

Writing included.

I always keep The Gift of Fear in the back of my mind, should I ever need to invent a character who is a stalker or an assassin. Its author, Gavin de Becker, is a security expert who studies the predictability of violent behavior, and his book is about real stalkers and assassins.



Likewise, Sam Gosling’s Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You is handy for describing the home or office of your character, since Gosling is a Ph.D. psychologist who digs through other people’s things for a living, looking for reliable trends.

Next is the inspiration for this post. I had written about adversarial dialogue, and W. Jacob Gardner (an animator on Monsters vs. Aliens) left a comment saying, in essence, “Oh, you mean like in Keith Johnstone’s Impro?”

Er, yes.

And actually, I’ve read that book. If you thought I was kidding about improvisational theater, you’re wrong. (I was kidding about pottery.)

Johnstone teaches acting. He was trying to get his students to master ad-libbing realistic dialogue, and finally told them, “Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s.” The result:

“The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic,’ and actors seemed marvelously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless.’ It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming.”

Status is Johnstone’s word for the secret behind the motive of every character in a scene. Each seeks to raise, or lower, or maintain his or her status via dialogue, in an effort to maintain self-perception and expected social order. Realistic characters do this, because you and I and all humans do it.

If you, as a writer, screw with this, you can get amazing results, because all audiences are passionately interested in the relative status of characters. It’s wired into us, Johnstone says.

He goes very deep into revealing human nature through acting — some of his stage experiments will melt your brain — and the rest of the book is about the psychology of imagination, among other things. Improv actors make stuff up on the fly, and need to be deeply in touch with their creative powers. That sort of thing is good for writers too, so the book is more useful than you’d think.

Last is a doozy: The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss. This is the book that taught me how to slay the time-management dragon, after years (and years!) of deep seething rage at not having enough time to write.

It’s too much to explain here, so I’ll tease you with the relevant chapter titles — then I’ll tell you which part helped me the most.

Chapter 5: The End of Time Management: Illusions and Italians
Chapter 6: The Low-Information Diet: Cultivating Selective Ignorance
Chapter 7: Interrupting Interruption and the Art of Refusal

The real dynamite for me was in Chapter 5. I’ve tried to explain it to friends, and they haven’t believed me. Here goes.

Ever heard of Pareto’s Principle? (Vilfredo Pareto is the Italian mentioned in Chapter 5’s title.)

It’s also called the 80/20 Rule, and it says that 80% of your success actually comes from 20% of your tasks. The discipline doesn’t matter (like the 10,000-Hour Rule) — all that matters is you face the hard reality that most of your tasks are not moving you toward your goal very quickly. And the 80/20 is arbitrary… it could be 95/5, or 99/1.

It works backwards, too. 80% of your stress comes from 20% of your stressors.

Once you face this reality (and you’re clear on what your goals actually are), you’re ready to put your schedule under the microscope. This is Step One. Find tasks that aren’t working, and ruthlessly strike them. Stop doing them. Do less!

I tell you, I loved that part. Notice that this requires no creativity at all.

Later, you can phase in new tasks. But for now, don’t bother. If you do it right, you should be able to drop about 80% of your tasks (!) and lose only 20% of your success (which is still a grade of B- in my book).

The second phase of Ferriss’s plan is an application of Parkinson’s Law. That is, “a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.” If you have a week for a project, it will take a week… even if you could have done an equal job in an intense three hours, and get results that are, in the end, just as good.

This is a natural part of human psychology. It’s not your fault. But you can put it to your advantage by forcing yourself to do week-long projects in three hours. This is Step Two.

Step One and Step Two can be combined into a self-perpetuating feedback loop, in which you

strike tasks in order to move deadlines up (that’s Step One) and

move deadlines up in order to strike tasks (that’s Step Two).

Fine, don’t believe me. See if I care.

Here’s a fancy-pants video from Ferriss on Chapters 5, 6, and 7.