Category Archives: Wednesday

Letting Moments Breathe

Over the years on this blog I’ve said some things I later came to second guess. It’s not so much that I lack confidence but I’m not a person who rejects evidence against my opinion just to soothe my ego (profound as that ego may be). I’ve long felt that writers need to be able to admit when they’re wrong so that they can take criticism and learn from their mistakes. So every once in a while, I have to question previously held opinions and see if maybe they were wrong. Sometimes, I review the opinion with the new evidence, find that the original opinion was right, and move on with my life, and other times I find that I missed something and needed to revise my stance.

One of the opinions that I’ve had to review in the last year was my stance on the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters. For those who have been long time readers you may know that when the first cast photos were released I wrote that the direction of the film was probably for the best. I argued that Ghostbusters 2 (an “okay” movie) had shown that following the same characters again was probably a bad idea, that no one really wanted to make the third, and that no one was really serious about wanting to see a third either. In my estimation, at the time, a fresh start with a new direction was the way you could revitalize the franchise and that what I was seeing was an effort to breathe new life into an old property. But, over the course of the next year I started to hear things from behind the scenes that made me wonder if I’d missed something.

It got worse as the film released and I came to see the reviews. Though critics were generally positive towards it, the positive reviews were lukewarm. Time and again, I saw positive reviews that said the movie was average – “good” but not “great”. One article I read even stated that being average was a good thing, possibly even better than being a smash hit, because it paved the way for women to make more “okay” movies. Suddenly, thanks to information I’d learned over the year and the arrival of the reviews, I started to have a sinking feeling.

Some of the reviewers were a little nervous too

People I knew who were enthusiastic for the film started to lose interest and it just kind of fell off the radar. While some people were still excited about it, the reviews, the box office, and the general energy after release were clear: this wasn’t quite the big deal it should have been. So, I have to admit, I didn’t watch it right away. But now, two years after writing that post and a year after the film hit theaters, I have actually seen it and I have finally come to a conclusion:

The cast was good, but the script might have needed another look… Continue reading Letting Moments Breathe

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Psychic Powered Plot Problems

Throughout speculative fiction of all genres, be it fantasy or sci-fi, we have certain tropes that are universal. There’s generally an ancient forgotten civilization, a more war-like race, some benevolent watcher species, and a species or individual with some sort of supernatural power. These supernatural powers have a variety of manifestations and uses, but some of the most common across all genres are powers of the mind. The ability to hypnotize, read minds, or see into the future are in almost all branches of these genres and will likely be there until the future they claimed to see finally comes to pass.

Cheerful as that may be

And why wouldn’t they be? The concept is fascinating on so many levels. We’ve even tried to see if it was possible in the real world, and found that it probably wasn’t (at least on this world). People still insist that they can do it though, often using cold reading techniques and research to try to fake the talent, and continue to keep the ability right on our collective minds. For every story where someone claims to be able to speak to the dead there are at least  a dozen or so real world people who are claiming to do exactly that. And as a result these concepts are an inexorable part of our culture and will be for some time to come (maybe even forever).

But on a writing level, there are problems presented with such powers, problems which often result in a whole other set of tropes that are used as a compromise. It wouldn’t take very much effort to find episodes of shows where the psychic cast member has somehow been stripped of their powers or are somehow nullified. The entire point of Minority Report, both the movie and the original story, was whether or not these perceptions should be trusted. And almost every one of the X-Men movies has found a way to completely remove Professor X’s powers from the equation.

So the question becomes: why do creators who give these characters powers feel compelled to get rid of them at the same time? Continue reading Psychic Powered Plot Problems

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Passionate Discussion

Over the years I’ve often been a proponent of making sure that your story comes before your message. Though you should always include part of yourself, you should do your best to actually avoid ever putting your own opinions ahead of the quality of your work. Emphasizing your opinions too much can overwhelm the material and make it difficult for people to really get invested in the narrative – serving to diminish both. After all, if people don’t care about your story they certainly won’t care about the themes behind it.

So I’ve often talked about the need to present the discussion as a natural part of the narrative. Reeling back your message to allow the discussion to be had on its own will generally present a better result with a more invested audience. And, as a natural result of putting yourself into your work, the message you intended to put out there will usually shine through on its own. By being fair, not forcing the audience to see it your way, and giving them a view into the topic of discussion that lets them get there on their own, you’ll have people who not only receive your message but feel good about getting there. Essentially, if you present an issue in a fair manner and demonstrate why you feel the way you do, either people will agree with your assessment or you’ll have given them something to think about.

But there’s a risk in approaching subjects a little too neutral. While you always want to avoid “soap boxing”, both to ensure the audience is receptive and to ensure a stronger narrative, you don’t want to remove yourself entirely. It’s a tricky balancing act, one that many people stumble on, but an important one none the less. Because when you do remove yourself from the equation and try to approach a subject completely neutral you’ll rarely get the result you desire…. Continue reading Passionate Discussion

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Fantastic Lineages

Within fictional worlds filled with fantastic or alien civilizations, there’s a tendency for these other civilizations to be marked with very specific personality traits. Sometimes these traits even translate across similar races in both genres. Elves and Vulcans both come across as cold and detached but are actually fighting back something a bit more primitive. In places where there is more than one kind of “elf”, each of them will represent opposing philosophies that have somehow physically altered them. Orcs and Orc-like races across both fantasy and sci-fi settings are usually savage brutes with a penchant for violence. And you’re always going to find at least one race that is devoted to the accumulation of wealth – some more blatantly than others.

And from a certain vantage this comes across as disingenuous or even lazy. People aren’t so uniform and those things that are universal between us all aren’t so instantly identifiable. The human race has a great potential for savagery if left to our own devices. The accumulation of wealth can easily overwhelm some of us, but the rest of us are likely to see that person in a negative light. And, of course, as self-assured some of us can possibly be, the kind of people who approach the sort of arrogance or detachment you find in several fantasy races would just be considered assholes in the real world.

But to each of these, we have to remember to keep in mind (especially for writers): these characters aren’t human, and that can make all the difference. Continue reading Fantastic Lineages

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Star Trek: Diversity

After months of delays, backstage rumors, sudden loss of its show-runner and so many unnerving little announcements coming out of the production of Star Trek: Discovery, the people finally got to see something better than that awful half-rendered ship from the comic con footage. And, though the recent trailer appeared months after the show was supposed to air, we finally have something about the production that looks promising. Showing slick visuals, a somewhat interesting set up, and a version of the ship that didn’t look like ass – it was pretty good. Though the involvement of the Klingons seems to confirm some theories that people were bandying about nearly a year ago, at least now there was something to discuss.

And of course the jackasses came out of the woodwork.

In an effort to fight back what they call the “white genocide”, a vocal minority (ironic) jumped at the chance to decry the cast of characters. There were too many women, too many minorities, and not nearly enough straight white men for them. Clearly, by their assessment, social justice was out to ruin Star Trek by forcing diversity onto its cast and crew. And the rest of us only had one question to ask:

What Star Trek have these assholes been watching? Continue reading Star Trek: Diversity

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Spinoffs And Gaidens

Creating good follow ups to a franchise can be an incredible challenge. As I covered before, the very act of making prequels and sequels is filled with pitfalls around the very idea of resolutions. A bad prequel or sequel can either prove to have no resolution or will derail the resolution of an entry that came before. But some prequels and sequels, often the most successful, are those which can stand solely on their own and find resolution from within. In fact, some of these prequels and sequels could be seen as spin-offs due to their detached nature. But, in actuality, these stories that exist between a prequel/sequel and a side-story tend to fall into something a little different than simply a spin-off, entering the domain of something the Japanese would refer to as a “gaiden”.

A word simply meaning “side story” or “tale” in Japanese, the gaiden is a supplementary anecdote or event to another work. Technically, by definition, all spin-offs are gaidens and all gaidens are spin-offs, but the differences lie mostly in the approach. In fact, the gaiden is so prevalent in Japanese culture that it’s responsible for bolstering several branches of their entertainment industry from “light novels” to “radio dramas” (which they amazingly still have over there). And, though you’ve likely never heard the term before, you’ll recognize most of the earmarks. In fact, when you become familiar with the approach to a “gaiden”, you start to realize something:

Most of the best spin-offs are gaidens… Continue reading Spinoffs And Gaidens

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What Most Rejections Really Mean

Rejection, it sucks. If you’re here, you’ve probably followed this link from somewhere on Twitter or Facebook where writers share tips, advice or pep-talks and, unfortunately, that probably means you know the fear of the rejection letter.

Though, hey, at least you’re not Jim Lee

It’s easy for us to think, because we got that letter, that it closes the door on our chances. Even if it’s just the opinion of one person, that opinion is devastating because it holds the weight of someone who, at the very least, has control over your career for however long it may be in front of them. And, with an opinion of that weight, it’s hard not to take it personally. But there’s something that people need to understand about rejections, something that’s hard to grasp:

If you’re ready, they rarely have anything to do with you. Continue reading What Most Rejections Really Mean

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Prequels, Sequels, And Resolutions

We live in a world today where having a “franchise” is incredibly important for writers of every kind. Films are the most visible of this, especially in a post-Avengers world, but it’s also long been true of other forms as well. Writing a film that removes all possibility of a sequel or spin-off of some sort is generally a good way to get executives meddling in your work. Having a television series that couldn’t somehow generate a spin-off or be part of a “universe” is gradually becoming taboo. Comic books and video games are expected to be part of a long running series, sometimes to the detriment of both. And, even as an author of novels, someone who manages to land a book deal is signed for more than one book of the same series. In fact, one could argue that even if you only make stand alone projects, if they keep getting money – you are the franchise.

But that leads to the inevitable problem of prequels and sequels struggling to succeed. It’s well known that making a good sequel can be pretty difficult and making a good prequel is thought at times to be nearly impossible. More than once I’ve heard other writers and critics talk about how a good prequel is something that just can’t be done. And sequels, though recognized to be capable of being good, are generally approached with great caution. Yet, it’s impossible to ignore that some series of books and similar projects wouldn’t have been quite as good as a single stand-alone entry. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and many others just wouldn’t have been the same without multiple entries building their lore. Though, a word to some, this doesn’t mean you divide a stand alone book into multiple films.

Still, despite these successes, you would be much harder pressed to find a prequel that everyone can agree is somewhat good. In fact, I’ve had prolonged conversations with people who insisted that prequels not only fail but tend to ruin or cheapen the thing they were a prequel to. Frankly, with Star Wars showing us how much prequels can be utterly loathed, you couldn’t blame someone for that idea. And yet, many who hated the Star Wars prequels have had to admit that they were pretty fond of… a Star Wars prequel.

So the question comes, just what exactly divides good prequels and sequels from the bad? When the topic comes up people tend to have a laundry list of things that a prequel or sequel needs to be “good”. However, the items on those lists are usually things you need for any story to be good anyway. So why would it be that it’s easier to write a stand alone than it is to write good sequels and prequels, and just how did the ones that pulled it off manage to do so?

In my opinion, it boils down to one thing: resolutions. Continue reading Prequels, Sequels, And Resolutions

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Peculiar Inspiration: Writers And Acting

As I’ve often said before, I tend to approach the world as a bit of a classroom. Everything you read, watch, take part in, or experience is something that can inspire your writing and make you a stronger storyteller. Your life experiences are easy enough to explain, they form the well you draw from to inform your characters and stories. What you read or watch is just as easy, giving you a look into the viewpoints of others and seeing what the rest of your genre might be like. But for some things it can be hard to quantify the benefits to writers. These I’ve come to call “peculiar inspirations”. “Peculiar inspirations” are things that seemed like common sense to me, only to later find out that they weren’t much common sense at all.

Years ago, while a friend was in school for screenwriting, I mentioned to her how I thought it would be a good idea if writing programs would have their students take an acting class as well. I’d taken two years of speech and drama myself in high school and another friend had a mandatory class as part of her animation program. And, while I can’t say how well it helps animators, I can say for a fact that my writing after that class made great advancements. In fact, while it may not make sense to everyone, that drama class actually worked as a turning point in my life. Though I’ve learned a lot since that day, that class turned out to be the time my writing started to resemble something “professional”. Of course I would suggest someone else do the same thing.

My friend’s reaction made it seem like I told her every writer should learn how to fly a plane.

Her argument, and arguments I’ve heard from others, is that writers and actors fill different roles and need to know different things. The two people fill very different roles within the industry and have to have very different skill-sets in order to be considered good at what they do. And this is entirely true, the skill-sets required to be a good actor are not exactly the same as the skill-sets required to be a good writer. But I never actually suggested that writers needed to be good actors, nor that an actor would be a good writer. Rather, what I suggested, and took a while to explain, is that in the process of trying to act, even for a bit, you learn something that is difficult for humans to grasp on a fundamental level: putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Continue reading Peculiar Inspiration: Writers And Acting

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World Building: Fictional Faiths

Building a world is more than just the broad strokes. Every bit of finer detail gives a new layer of depth to your work that makes it feel more like a real, breathing world for your audience. It’s not that you want to bog people down in these details, but it’s good to have them available for when you can pepper them in without getting in the way of your story.  And this is particularly true when you’re creating a world with more than just your run of the mill humans. If you’re including sentient creatures that don’t exist in our world, they need to feel like a real race.

A key aspect of making them feel real  is establishing a culture for these creatures. Maybe they have their own kinds of music, their own foods, their traditions and rituals. Each of these is the sort of thing you’d expect to learn about another group of people in passing and learning it in passing about fictional characters can totally make them feel less fictional.

But this leads into some weird questions when you come to matters like faith. Religion, while not absolutely necessary, is part of the human condition. Even when you don’t actually believe in it, you’re still in part defined by the fact that you don’t believe in the same things other people do. It’s almost impossible to get through life without it coming up at some point, so it would be just as impossible for your characters to go on forever without it coming up in their lives. Perhaps it’s not something addressed in a specific story, but it still shapes a world view.

And this is the sort of thing you see handled quite well in some of the better speculative fiction. Alien races inevitably have an alien religion and those beliefs end up influencing their actions even when it’s not at the forefront. Even in a retcon it comes to make sense of things that previously would have seemed one dimensional. Why do the Klingons have such a war-like nature? Because they believe that where you end up in the afterlife depends on how much you lived like their warrior prophet Kahless who is essentially the violent Klingon version of King Arthur elevated to a messiah figure.

He even left a shiny sword

However, when the creatures in question are a little closer to home, like in a fantasy setting, the idea of these religions often becomes something of an afterthought. Because they’re from Earth it’s assumed they believe in one of the common Earth-born religions even if that doesn’t entirely make sense. As a result we often have three approaches taken towards these creatures. The first is to simply assign them whatever is the most popular religion of their time and location, regardless of levels of interaction with humans. The second is to give them the faith prevalent in the mythology of their origin. And the third, when people want to buck this trend, is to apply what I prefer to call the “triangle philosophy” based on the adage, “if triangles had a god, he would have three sides”.

In the end, following these approaches without careful consideration can be half-assed because if you’ve followed this blog you’ll know sometimes those triangles might really be squares… Continue reading World Building: Fictional Faiths

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