Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Technique (page 1 of 2)

Revise That Novel

Last year I wrote a post with a big list of things to do with your newly minted NaNoWriMo manuscript, including doing manuscript exchanges, finding beta readers, and hiring awesome editors. (See red-hot editorial deal below.)

post_it_note_wallThis year, I wanted to give a few really specific thoughts on getting from that 50K wordpile into a respectable second draft:

  1. Write down summaries of what your scenes are, like a storyboard or an outline. You can do this on the computer, on Scrivener, or on note cards. You can make a wall of post-it notes, which is fairly satisfying. Write down what is actually happening in each scene, even if that’s “Character A and Character B talk about feelings for 3,000 words and I don’t think it actually matters oh gosh.” Yes, this process is a pain. Yes, it is important.
  2. Was there pointless stuff that you put in to pad your word count? Identify it. Cut it out unless you know it’s flax you can spin into gold.
  3. Check in with your characters’ motivations: does what they are doing make sense? If you were to explain your plot to another person, what would be the first “why did Character A do that?” question they would ask? Would you have a decent answer?
  4. Check for plot holes. Imagine a compassionate, yet confused reader is asking you to explain how your story goes. Where would they have a hard time?
  5. I am all for making up personas for my internal editors. As much as we were ignoring our editors during November, we’re gonna need to pay attention to them now. But pay attention to which editorial voices are helpful and which ones are not. I have an editorial persona, “Anton,” who is exactly helpful; he’s the voice of the literary community that eschews genre fiction, that scoffs when I haven’t read the entire literary canon, that tells me writing a comic script without an artist is foolish and superheroes aren’t literature. So why do I even have conversations with Anton? Because he’s a persona who I can shove all those negative thoughts onto. I sit down for an editorial session, and instead of despairing about the fact that I wrote six issues of superhero comics, I can think of Anton, set him aside, and then do the work. In terms of POSITIVE editorial voices, I think of my real-life writing mentors: Susan Kim, Rachel Pollack, and Corinne Manning, among others. I think of friends who are good beta readers, even before I actually give my manuscript to them to beta-read.

And finally, I want to go ahead and repeat my deal from last year:

Yes, I would love to talk to you about your NaNo! Yes, I would love to talk anything from “how does plot go” to “where can I sell this” to “how do you sentence.” Yes, you.

Yes, I will charge you money. I am a freelance wordsmith, and stuff like this is how I buy groceries. My NaNo Winner Special is $16.67 for a half-hour manuscript consultation, $33.33 for a one-hour manuscript consultation, and $166.70 if you want me to read your entire manuscript first (and then chat for an hour). That is stupidly cheap; even the editors at a print-on-demand service charge $200 or more to read through and give you basic editorial feedback. I’m happy to meet with you via chat or Skype (or in person if I know you and you’re local), whichever feels more comfy. I also offer proofreading services and line-editing. Even if money is an issue, contact me; let’s talk.

NaNoWriMo 2014

It’s November in Seattle, which means a time of rain, darkness, and frantic novel-writing. Seriously, art is how people survive through the winter in the Pacific Northwest. Whether that’s writing, music, knitting, carving, or painting, art has gotten people through the dark of these short winter days for a long time. Last year I wrote down every time I did creative practice on a little slip of paper and put it in a jar, like picked root vegetables. I believe that done without expectation of quality or result, the practice of creating can be a great way to push back despair. Ironically, of course, the difficulty of creating at all, much less of letting go of the expectation of quality or result, is a great cause of despair. I always hope the two balance each other out.

credit: Chris Vlachos via Wikipedia

credit: Chris Vlachos via Wikipedia

This year I’m writing a comic script, although if the word count becomes too oppressive I’ve given myself permission to also write “in-world documents,” i.e. characters’ letters, journals, newspaper clippings, etc. First off, it turns out that since I am not Alan Moore, individual script pages don’t have that many words on them. So far I’ve averaged 150-300 words per page, which shakes out to 7ish pages of script per day, which is a decent amount of story. I figure I’ll get somewhere between six and twelve issues out of November, which isn’t actually my whole story. Interesting to feel out pacing in this new genre of speed-drafting. I feel like if other (fiction) NaNos have been running a marathon, this is like backpacking a long trail–different pacing, same idea.

Anyway, thankfully I have some really great gear to help me this year: Scrivener.

CorkboardIt’s a free program during the month of November for a NaNoWriMo trial, then 50% off if you win. In general it’s a pretty affordable program for what it does, which is a lot:

  • Scrivener lets me arrange my scenes on a virtual cork-board (or as an outline), with each scene displayed with a summary on an “index card.” This lets me outline my comics and then choose which scenes I want to write first.
  • Each page can contain marginal notes, or pictures, research links, or lists of themes.
  • There’s also a spot for character sketches and setting descriptions.
  • Actually writing in comic script format is easy. First of, there *is* a comic script format, which is at this point pretty huge. It’s the Anthony Johnson style, which I find approachable. I think it’d be possible to set your own style if you wanted to do a different format, but I haven’t yet gotten that far with the program. Regardless, it will save me hours of formatting in Microsoft Word, which is usually accompanied by screaming and/or slow brain death.

So that’s what I’m up to for NaNoWriMo. If you’re also doing NaNoWriMo, or if you just want some craft resources, I figured I’d ridiculously self-promote by reminding y’all of craft articles I’ve written that might be helpful.

Three-Act Structure

The Interrupter in Scenes

Fiction, How Does It Work (with lots of Kate Beaton cartoons to help explain stuff)

Writing from your characters’ POVs subjectively

Writing Dynamic Female Characters

A Nice Example of the Major Dramatic Question and Passover Question

Using Symbolic Props

and finally

Using Fraggle Rock as a Character Creation Model

 

And if you’re tired of hearing me yammer, go check out Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog, which is a treasure trove of great craft articles, including many specific to memoirists.

Happy Writing!

Damsels and demons and Dante, oh my

I wanted to talk about something Dante-adjacent today, as a brief distraction from the almost-complete Stock Photo Hell series.

So I was stuck at the airport on an ungodly long layover yesterday. And aside from Live-Tweeting some of my impressions of Paradise Lost (which I do over at @AnneBeanTweets under the hashtag #MiltonLiveTweet), I was reading a comic that had been sitting on my shelf for a while: Ten Grand, by J. Michael Straczynski.

TenGrand-tpbI picked the comic up for two reasons: one, I like J. Michael Straczynski, and I tend to read comics because of writers I like. Straczynski did Babylon 5, also tons of comics including Squadron Supreme, an epic superhero homage/parody that I’m in the middle of right now and really, really enjoying. I also picked up Ten Grand because of the art: Ben Templesmith does cool, atmospheric stuff that’s totally down my alley.

I like the comic for several reasons. The aforementioned art is great, and they even bring in another artist (C.P. Smith) to illustrate a different area of reality. The themes are demonology and weird occult and supernatural noir, which I of course enjoy. The comic has been described as a combo of Hellblazer and Supernatural, and I find that accurate.

Unfortunately, the one glaring thing that rips me right out of the world is the same damn thing that I can’t stand about Supernatural: the damn dying damsels.

(Spoilers.) So the deal is this: Joe, our badass noir hero guy, used to have this lovely wife, Laura. Who he met when he was being all badass and her entire purpose in life was to apparently be a shining beacon of hope and continually suggest that perhaps he could stop killing people for a living. To him, she was/is everything, his entire reason for existence, etc. Yeah, she’s gone and died. They both did, actually. From a nasty demon blitz attack. But wait, there’s more! (And this is the only actually interesting-to-me bit.) Joe’s offered a deal by angels, he gets to be Heaven’s hit-man and die righteously, and after each (yeah, there are many) righteous death, he gets to see Laura for five minutes in Heaven. Otherwise he was just straight-up going to Hell. I find that conceit pretty interesting. His multiple lives and the wacky wacky afterlife hijinks are for sure the best part of the book.

Unfortunately, it further underscores Laura not really being a character or a person at all. I mean, perhaps no one has agency in Heaven…but what is she up to while he’s, like, living and stuff? Does she float around in a golden cloud sort of gently pining? Does she want him back? Does she want anything? (Again spoiler.) She’s snagged from Heaven by marauding Hell forces at some point, making her even more of a damsel in distress, even after death, gosh. Thing is, I’m not sure what she wanted even when she was alive, aside from wanting Joe to get out of the hitman business. I guess that means she wanted stability? Or her love to not be in constant danger? Seems like she’s failed to get either of those things, even in the afterlife. And the thing is, I don’t see her realizing that this continued association with her love Joe is making her life and afterlife miserable and either a) leaving him or b) using clever resources to fend off the forces of Hell and save his soul. Nope. She’s gonna do what she’s done for the entire story: nothing. Literally nothing. Because she’s a quest object and a damsel in distress and to some extent a manifestation of Joe’s anima. She’s not a well-rounded character.

tumblr_miwv3yeGsW1qj97xmo7_1280And I could handle that in one storyline if it wasn’t in a thousand damn storylines before this. I am over Perfect Girlfriend Saving Dark Man From Self characters. So deeply over them. Especially when they have literally nothing of their own going on. Without Joe, what would Laura have done with her life? Would she have existed? We don’t know! There’s not even a hint of her own personality.

How, then, did this tradition start? While I don’t have time today to really trace it back (although perhaps I shall someday. French medieval romances, I’m looking at you.), I want to talk about one specific piece of the puzzle. And that’s our buddy Dante.

So in all this talk of Inferno, I haven’t yet mentioned Beatrice. Beatrice is Dante’s great love, whom he deifies repeatedly in his poetry. She shows up in the Divine Comedy literally near the top of Mt. Purgatory in the Garden of Eden, and becomes his guide after Virgil leaves him. She guides him through most of Heaven, and is eventually replaced by St. Peter when things get too holy for even her. Dante also wrote a whole huge poem to her directly, called La Vita Nuova. It’s…creepy. This is one of the tamer bits:

In that book which is my memory,
On the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you,
Appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life’.”

-La Vita Nuova

 

Because here’s the thing. Dante had met the real actual person Beatrice Portinari…twice. Once at age nine, once at age eighteen. Both times they met at parties, briefly. And yet, he was so taken with her that in his head he built her into this savior figure, this perfect woman, this light of his life. He was the epitome of a courtly lover. The scholarly argument is that Dante’s figure of Beatrice in his writing is an allegorical character, and not to be taken as a literal pining over some woman he met twice. And that argument has some merit; for one, it acknowledges that Beatrice was never a real person in Dante’s mind and that fictional Beatrice isn’t a character who is expected to be three-dimensional. She’s a stand-in for the Divine Feminine, a cardboard cutout of a Perfect Lover.

literally one of two times this happened

literally one of two times this happened

I can’t help but think that a lot of these perfect heart-of-gold girlfriend characters are just Beatrices in disguise. For all the worshiping of Beatrice that Dante did, her existence in his writing mostly relates to him, to fictional Dante. She exists to be the light, life, feminine savior of Dante. And that’s what gets me about this sub-set of the damsel trope: these women literally have nothing else going on aside from trying to save their wayward partners. (TV Tropes suggests that Beatrice types may be Living Emotional Crutches.) Gross.

Anyway. That’s all to say that female characters are more interesting when they’re given desires, motivations, and some degree of actual, y’know, character.

For a noir comic book that has female characters with an actual character arc, check out:

The Last Days of American Crime by Rick Remender, Fatale by Ed Brubaker (best sendup of the femme fatale trope ever), and if you’d like to see an actual female noir detective, Stumptown by Greg Rucka.

For Great Justice, Pay Attention to Your World Building!

I’ll be honest. I started to write a What The Hell Do We Mean When We Say Strong Female Character post, but then I realized that I’d already written two of those. So I’m taking a different tack today. I want to talk about world building. Not the big, obvious, Just How Does “the Force” Work type of world building (seriously, though, midichlorians? that is some bullshit, Lucas.) …I want to talk about the more subtle type of world building that happens in every single fictional work, whether “genre” or not.

logo for A Prairie Home CompanionLet us consider first the long-running radio show A Prairie Home Companion. Its world building is fairly blatant. It is set in a fictional town, Lake Wobegon, MN, where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.” They say this every show, and it is apparent at least peripherally in the sketches and monologue stories that make up the show. This is a version of Minnesota that’s a little hyperbolic, a little wacko, a little locked in the undefinable past where the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon can kind of perk along Lutheranly and have some fairly specific personal growth that gently challenges but ultimately does not destroy the status quo of the town.

Let us apply this same world analysis to another radio show (or podcast, as we moderns call it), Welcome to Night Vale. night vale logoIn the world of Night Vale, incomprehensible eldritch horror is happening more or less constantly. The citizens of Night Vale take this more or less in stride, and one of the joys of the show is how normally the townsfolk react to abnormal events. Another key facet of Night Vale? Unlike real desert towns, say, in Arizona, Night Vale is totally chill with the subversive radio host, Cecil, being in a relationship with the male scientist from out of town, Carlos. Their relationship is not the whole point of the show, but it comes up pretty frequently in a *gasp* normal way. Night Vale citizens are cool with secret police and marauding monstrous librarians and calm, normal gay relationships. And in a media culture saturated by people who actually complain any time a queer relationship of any kind is mentioned, Welcome to Night Vale is a fresh breath of air.

My point here is that it is possible to use the “what is normal in my fictional world” level of world building for great justice. It’s easiest in “genre” fiction, I think, because often the world is supposed to be connected to reality than in literary realism. Star Trek, for example, began airing in 1963 during the Cold War. It showed a hopeful future where there could be a black woman, an Asian man, an alien, a Russian man, and an American man who liked punching people all in the same room getting along and working together.

Cast of Star Trek: The Original Series

“Without Star Trek, people would still think there are no black people in the future.” -Whoopi Goldberg

The 1952 western film High Noon, which you should all go watch immediately if you haven’t seen it, was a classic piece of genre fiction that had justice-filled world building. Most Westerns at the time were about a sort of fictional “good old days” where the men were spit and shot things and had showdowns, the women wore corsets and did a lot of screaming, and people of color were two-dimensional villains. High Noon turned that world on its ear. High Noon almost passes the Bechdel Test, certainly passes the Mako Mori test, and passes the Sexy Lamp test with ease. Its lead male character ends up running away and being sneaky rather than having a direct showdown. There is a female Mexican character who not only has power in the town, but is a dynamic character with, like, actual characterization and everything. The world of High Noon is not the “good old days.” (Of course, that meant it got crap reviews, but that’s another story.)

Katy Jurado and Grace Kelly in High Noon

Katy Jurado and Grace Kelly in High Noon

If course, not all fictional worlds work for great justice. Take the hit TV show Supernatural, for example. I have watched four seasons of it, enough to notice that the world building has some rules to it that I find personally odious. Some aspects of its world building are really cool, i.e. all the American legends and a Bizarro World version of Biblical cryptids are real and running around and killing people. Other aspects? Not so much. There is rarely a woman on the show who a) is not evil, b) gets any amount of screen time, or c) does not die. I mean, the evil women get screen time, but then they die. You could fill out a sexist tropes bingo card ten minutes into the show. (People who watch more Supernatural than I do talk about it, with spoilers, here.) To be fair, Lord of the Rings (which I like a great deal) also has a pretty problematic world, e.g. the taller, prettier, and whiter you are then the more everyone wants to be you. As a creator, I think you have an onus to at least be aware of the signals your world building is sending.

Also, in case it’s not screamingly obvious, the vast majority of media we consume, particularly on film, is set in a world completely disconnected from reality. It’s a world where everyone has really cool jobs: doctors, lawyers, crime scene investigators. It’s a world where problems take, at most, two hours to solve, and oftentimes can be resolved in twenty minutes. It’s a world where there are mostly white men anywhere, including in crowds. It’s a world where two women having a conversation about something other than a man is rare, two people of color having a conversation about something other than a white person even more so. In case y’all forgot, that’s not reality. People have shitty jobs. Life doesn’t have nice story arcs. Half the human population is female. Fiction is not reality. But fiction is important. Telling stories helps us make sense of our lives; it gives us the catharsis we need to deal with our weird, sometimes shitty, sometimes confusing reality. And if you are telling stories, you get a choice. Do you want to tell your story in a world where women are always svelte in sexy outfits, and black people are thugs, and the random Asian chick knows kung fu? Or do you want to tell stories for great justice?

A caveat: Not all stories need to imagine a world in which the Patriarchy is over or people have solved global warming or whatnot. Stories can be awesome and cathartic and important and still have problematic aspects or be set in a world of darkness and injustice. My plea is simply this: be aware of the more subtle aspects of your world-building. Notice who you’re writing in and writing out. Many of the male authors who get pinned down and told “You! You write good female characters! How?!” say something like, “I consider women human” and move on with their lives. Point is, they’re writing stories without the assumption that the default character setting is “male.” And personally, I’d like to imagine a world where stories that involve a more balanced cross-section of America air on American television. Where movies about women are not automatically deemed “chick flicks.” Where Miles Morales and Kamala Khan don’t have to be a big freakin’ deal. And you know what? I think the more we tell the stories we’d like to see, the more we’ll get that world.

The Power of Interruption

(Or, Anne watches Firefly really strategically.)

A writing mentor of mine, Seattle writer of fiction and drama Jack Remick, wrote an article  (which you can and should read on his blog) about the power of an intruder in a scene. Watch TV, he suggested, and track the interruptions. Look for a scene between two people that’s interrupted by a third, either because a third person walks in, a phone rings, or some other interruption by people. There will be one of three reactions to the intruder:

1. They’ll be accepted by the group: Hail fellow, well met!

2. They’ll be repelled by the group: Friend or foe? What is your quest?

3. They’ll be expelled by the group: Get outta here! And the horse you rode in on!

 

I decided to try it out with Firefly, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western. Specifically, I watched Episode Three: Bushwhacked.

If you’re not familiar with the show, you can take a crash course in characters here, but honestly, this summary doesn’t require you to know about the ongoing plot or characters.

“Bushwhacked”

normal_Firefly03_simoninara

Simon and Inara are watching the rest of the crew play a game in the cargo hold below. They talking about River, what happened to her, how she’s doing.

Interruption:  The ship’s proximity alarm, which prompts the game crew to interrupt Simon and Inara’s conversation.  Kaylee invites Simon to join them (accepts him).

Inciting incident of episode: They discover an abandoned “ghost ship.”

Expository group conversation.  Mal is being swayed by Jayne and Book—Jayne wants to leave and/or loot, Book wants to look for survivors. Decision is made to check out the ship.

normal_Firefly03_simonjayne
Jayne and Simon argue over whether Simon should go with the away team. Simon talks about his fear of space suits. No interruption, Jayne’s just a snarky asshole and leaves. Nevertheless, it’s a de facto repelling of Simon from the away team.

Mal and Zoe are looking at the spaceship. Some things are a little sketchy, suspense-building. No interruption, just:

Smash cut to River freaking out. She is comforted by Simon.  Interruption: Jayne, who tells Simon he’s needed on the other ship (“Hey, grab your med kid; let’s hoof it”) and he better suit up. Simon accepts Jayne, and that interaction breaks off the conversation and prompts Simon to put on a spacesuit and go to the other ship.

normal_Firefly03_maljayneSimon interrupts the operation in progress. Mal repels Simon (“Hi. Um, what are you doing here and what’s with the suit?”), then accepts him into the group. (“As long as you’re here, might as well lend a hand.”)

Various bits of plot-moving group dialogue between crew members; River goes to the ship.

Simon and Kaylee are talking in the ship. Kaylee realizes it’s not a mechanical failure that offed the ship. Builds suspense. No interruption.

Jayne in kitchen establishing shot. Builds suspense further.

Mal and Zoe bust open a locked compartment (cargo hold). They find valuable goods. Zoe is troubled that the settlers didn’t take it with them. Interruption: River, standing in the doorway, looking up at the corpses of the settlers. River: repelled/expelled. (“Get her outa here.”)

River looks up at corpses hung on the ceiling.

River spots where the crew went: hung up by Reavers. *shudder*

Mal and Jayne talking on radio; Mal giving instructions. Interruption: the survivor, who attacks Jayne. Mal and the other crew come to Jayne’s aid and find the survivor. Survivor: repelled, then sort of accepted(?), as Mal punches him out and they take him to sick bay.

Simon and Mal are caring for the survivor. Mal suspects the guy’s a danger. (“Dope him. Just do it.”) Group conversation about the survivor.  (“That ship was hit by Reavers.”) Sort of another conversational triangle between Mal/Jayne/Book: Book says that the slaughter was done by men, Jayne thinks it can’t be Reavers because Reavers don’t leave survivors.

 

 

normal_Firefly03_simon

“I’ve dealt with bodies; they don’t worry me.”

 

Simon and Book volunteer to go to the ship; this time Jayne, rather than Simon, is afraid to go. (“I ain’t goin’ over there with those bodies, no ruttin’ way. Not if Reavers messed with ‘em.”) Nice symmetry!

Group expository convo re: the booby trap attached to the ship.

Various action sequences of folks doing their tasks, cutting back and forth between Kaylee disarming the trap, the survivor going nutso (and River totally distance-grokking that), and Jayne/Simon/Book getting the cargo. Everyone returns at the same time. It seems like everything’s wrapped up, but…

 

 

An alarm goes off, mirroring the one in the beginning of the episode. (This is the midpoint of the episode.) This time, it’s an alliance ship. So, whole crew is interrupted by Alliance, who repel them.

Alliance commander and officer are interrupted by another officer who reports that there’s a Firefly class ship with two fugitives.

Commander and his officer turn to hear a third person tell them about the fugitives.

Mal prepares the crew for the Alliance to board the ship. Simon and Mal argue; Simon thinks Mal is going to turn him and River over to the alliance. They are interrupted by Book: “Don’t be a fool, son. Do as the man says.”

normal_Firefly03_bookinterrupts

Alliance Commander is grilling Mal about the fugitives. They are interrupted by an officer with news of the crazed survivor (presumably, he whispers to the Commander).

River looks out at the stars.Cut to a bunch of interviews with Commander and various crew members, which intercuts with and ramps up into soldiers searching Serenity for River and Simon, who are in spacesuits, hiding outside. All of these actions show character-building: how River stares delighted into the stars; how Simon turns away.

Mal and Commander in final interview. Arguing over what to do with the ship, talking about Mal’s Independents connection. No giving ground either way. Commander tries to accuse Mal of attacking the ghost ship. Mal realizes that the survivor is Reaver-izing.

Cut to the survivor going nuts, hurting the doctors.

 

normal_Firefly03_malinterviewBack to the interview.  Mal and Commander talk about Reavers, Mal trying to convince him that he needs to be worried about the survivor. Commander calls in a guard to “Escort Sergeant Reynolds to the brig.”

River and Simon are back in the ship. River is nervous; Simon is assured.

Mal being taken away. Interruption: call for guards/lockdown because of Reaver.

River and Simon, cont. Interruption: Reaver guy, who’s messing around in the kitchen. Even though they don’t cross paths, in effect, River freaks out ‘cause she senses the Reaver.

 

 

Mal and Alliance Commander on Serenity. Lots of intercutting between these two group as the alliance folk search out the Reaver and Simon/River trying to sense danger and hide. On the cusp of the two groups finding each other, BIG interruption by the Reaver, whom Mal firmly expels, i.e. strangles with his handcuffs, saving the Commander’s life.

Yep. Mal just pulled a crazed guy with self-inflicted face wounds off him and snapped his neck. Like y'do.

Yep. Mal just pulled a crazed guy with self-inflicted face wounds off him and snapped his neck. Like y’do.

Cut to denouement (“You saved his gorram life and he still takes the cargo”), which lasts less than 30 seconds.

normal_Firefly03_denoemont

 

It’s not every single scene, but I can definitely see how the intruder is at play in these scenes. It seems to me that a lot of the intercutting in this episode helped ramp up the tension as well. A few times in the episode (once when they’re disarming the trap, one when they’re searching the ghost ship, and once when the Alliance is searching the ship with Mal and River/Simon are there) a bunch of stuff is all happening at the same time and we need intercutting both for clarity and for suspense building.

***

What did you think? How does an intruder in the scene work? Have you used that trick in your NaNo? (If not, try having the awkwardest possible person intrude in on a scene where two characters are sort of spinning their wheels at each other and the plot doesn’t seem to be moving.)

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

 

 

PS: Screen caps from www.whedon.grande-caps.net. Thanks!

Storytelling, Video Games, and the Shape of Narrative

I’m going to espouse a controversial opinion: Video games can be another genre of creative writing and a great vehicle for story.

If you’re a gamer, you’re going, “Yeah. Duh. Why is that controversial?”

Let me explain:

Let’s consider the current “genres” of writing to be fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction (including personal essay and memoir), and dramatic writing (including stage plays, screenwriting, and comics). Of those, story arc is applicable to all in some form or another; however, some genres like poetry rely less heavily on story arc, and it is essential to other genres like screenwriting.

Story-Arc-Diagram-w-Subplots

Take a movie, for example, arguably one of the closest genres to video games, at least in appearance. What drives a screenplay forward is a combination of things: a character wanting stuff, trying really hard to get it, and having people/stuff get in their way; a “ticking clock,” or sense of time and urgency, what Susan Kim calls “the tyranny of chronology”; and a reason why all this is happening now, including some catalyst that sets things in motion.

BraidlogoOne argument against video games as a storytelling vessel is that the time factor isn’t the same as in, say, film. And I don’t think it is, not in the same way. But it is still important; it just functions differently. The only place time can be really controlled is in cut scenes or sort of rolling platformer situations where if you die, you can try again. I’d say some games (notably Braid) have some unique takes on time and video game death. Perhaps the argument is that the ability to try again after death lowers the stakes. And I think it does, for the player. That’s why anyone ever invented “hardcore mode.” However, I think the stakes for the character are still there. Videogames are certainly a very different modality of dramatic writing. The “tyranny of chronology” is expressed differently, but it’s still there: you know when you’ve gotten to a cut scene that is a fixed point in “story time,” a point from which you cannot return.

So what role does storytelling have in video games? The PAX panel, “Is Storytelling the Most Important Thing in Video Games?” addressed just that. While I didn’t attend, here’s a summary. One of the points that the panelists seemed to be making was that video games have a ton of subgenres, and storytelling is vital to some and more or less irrelevant to others. However, one point seemed particularly resonant to me: that storytelling is why we care about playing a game in the first place. It’s what gives us a personal stake in the game. From the Penny Arcade panel:

“What players who value story want [is] to be at the intersection of agency and meaning,” noted Cameron Harris [a freelance editor and story consultant]. From her perspective, these gamers want their actions to have meaning. They desire to be important and change the world they’re experiencing. What they really want is for the game to say “you exist” and “you matter”.

Few other genres dare try to put the viewer/consumer/player in the experience of the protagonist. Frankly, few other players have the tools. And therefore I think narrative structure is going to look different than other genres have, in a large part because of the element of player choice. Consider Mass Effect, for example. Player choice determines Shepard’s moral compass and at minimum Shepard’s B-storylines. And if Aristotle, in Poetics, spoke of the necessity of catharsis, I can think of no better catharsis than being a hero for an hour, stepping into the shoes of someone and being able to make vital, important choices.

419073-mass-effect-2-windows-screenshot-the-dialogue-system-once

An interesting thought about the possible shape of story in video games is “Shandification,” as in the wandering narrative of Tristram Shandy, a term coined by the author of this video:

“The setting becomes the story, and vice versa.”

Sadly, I see pathetically few conversations about this stuff. Either I’m talking to fiction and screen writers, who often pooh-pooh video games as a legit vehicle for story, or I’m hanging out with gamers, who are so (understandably) defensive about anyone who might consider games illegitimate story vehicles that they don’t actually talk about the craft. My hope is that the ubiquitous “we,” as in both the literary community and the gaming community, can have some serious, coherent conversations about craft and storytelling in video games.

 

Thoughts? How the heck do stakes, story, and arc work in video games? Tell us, precioussss.

Three Act Structure Quick and Dirty

So, one Sunday afternoon I get a serious text message along the “I need to talk” lines from a friend. I give him a call, and he’s in a world of confusion and uncertainty and is feeling really weird because he’s halfway through the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and doesn’t know what to think of it. I go on a long rant about how Objectivism is, in my estimation, a crock of shit, and Ayn Rand’s highly masturbatory novel makes being selfish and clever attractive and puts down other things like feelings, service, or giving a shit about anyone other than yourself. I also tell the story of how Rand’s lover left her for a young blonde dumb thing and she about exploded ’cause it didn’t make sense in her Objectivist worldview.

…My point here is that I am the person my friends call when they have literature quandaries. I have become the Ayn Rand Crisis Line, among other things.

Like yesterday, out with brunch with friends, one of them asks, “Can you explain three-act structure to me?”

I did, and then we got into the age-old discussion of “Are all movies screamingly formulaic, and is that bad?”

“What about The Big Lebowski?” my partner pointed out. “The Coen Brothers specifically made that movie about nothing.”

“It totally has three-act structure, though.”

“No way.”

Way, my friend. Way.

Three-Act Structure, the Over Brunch Version

The structure of most western film is based on myth. Check out the Hero’s Journey, check out Aristotle’s Poetics, check out a traditional screenplay beat sheet…they all add up to three-act structure.

Act I, which is the first quarter of the movie, establishes the hero’s world and then has something go terribly wrong in it so that they are plunged into bizarro-world, i.e. Act II. In the Wizard of Oz, Act I is in Kansas. In Star Wars Episode IV, Act I in on Tatooine with whiny Luke the moisture farmer (And with Princess Leia captured up in space).

Act II plunges the hero into bizarro-world. Dorothy goes to Oz. Luke’s Aunt and Uncle are dead and he has no choice but to move forward and go with Obi-Wan. Smack in the middle of Act II is the midpoint, where the hero’s mettle gets tested, but the overall dramatic question of the story does not get answered. Luke rescues Princess Leia at the midpoint of Star Wars: The question of her fate is temporarily answered, but the larger issue of Evil Warlord in a Planet-Sized Death Star is not. Dorothy gets to Oz and talks to the Wizard, and it turns out that all her problems are not solved and she now has to go confront the Wicked Witch of the West.

Act III, the last quarter of the film, is about somehow bringing the world of Act I and bizarro-world of Act II together. Sometimes this looks like going home, or bring peace to the galaxy, or getting the lovers together at last. During Act III, the major dramatic question of the work will be answered and the big bad will be defeated or at least there will be some kind of showdown. Exactly how these elements play out depend on genre. In Star Wars, Luke blows up the Death Star, ending (for now) Vader’s reign of terror. In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch of the West and is able to return to Kansas. In Requiem for a Dream, on the other hand, there is no clear antagonist that is defeated, but there is a sense of resolution. Each character is forced to deal with the consequences of their drug use, and their commonalities are highlighted for the viewer, giving us more of a sense of resolution than the characters do internally.

Aristotle calls Act I “Thesis,” Act II “Antithesis,” and Act III “Synthesis.”

The Big Lebowski‘s Structure

So what about The Big Lebowski?

130304124242-big-lebowski-story-top

Since it’s been a hot second since I’ve seen the film, I turned to this excellent article about the structure. Below is one part paraphrased from that article, one part me matching up the film to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.

1. Opening Image: Western-style scrub and titles.

2. Theme Stated (minute 2): “Sometimes there’s a man–I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero–but sometimes there’s a man, and I’m talkin’ about The Dude here, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”

3. Set-up: We see the Dude in the grocery store, wearing a bathrobe and writing a check for 69 cents for cream. We hear the rambling Western narrator talk about how lazy he is. This is all within the first five minutes; pretty dang efficient characterization.

4. Catalyst/Inciting Incident: Thugs attack The Dude in his home and pee on his rug. The rug (“It really tied the room together!”) will be the main external motivation for the first bit of the movie.

5. The Debate: The Dude literally debates with his friends at the bowling alley whether or not to go after the other Lebowski and demand recompense for his rug. (“I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude!”) I think that Walter and Donny both embody aspects of the Dude’s struggle, if not his personality. They are such delightfully opposing characters.

6. Break into Act Two/The Decision to Move Forward: The Dude decides to go see Lebowski pretty quickly (“They peed on my fucking rug.”) Furthermore, he steals a dang rug, setting up the continued interaction with Lebowski.

7. B-Story: Bunny is the B-story, I think. Specifically, Bunny’s been kidnapped and the Dude and Co’s attempts to get her back/figure out what happened/abscond with her ransom money is the main external motivation for the rest of the film.

8. Fun and Games/Overcoming Smaller Obstacles: (“Smokey, this is not ‘Nam, this is bowling.”) Walter has more struggles here that The Dude. The Dude just floats along until the whole deliver the ransom for Bunny thing starts. The Dude actually just passively figures out that Bunny probably kidnapped herself; it’s Walter that has the chutzpah to act on it.

8.5. Approach to the Inmost Cave: Walter replaces the ransom money with his dirty underwear.

9. The Mid-Point/False High: The Dude and Walter do a botched hand-off; the Dude’s car gets stolen. Maude Lebowski contacts the Dude, and tells him she ordered his rug stolen. She reveals Bunny’s pornography career. The Big Lebowski confronts The Dude, who tells him that Bunny kidnapped herself. Bunny’s severed toe shows up.

10. Bad Guys Close In/Sudden Defeat: Nihilists! With weasels! The Dude’s car is recovered, all fucked-up. The Dude thinks he has a clue in the form of the homework found in his car, but when he and his posse track down the kid, Walter goes nuts and smashes what he thinks is the kid’s car. It’s not.

11. All Is Lost/Death Moment: I’m thinking this is either the moment of car smashing or the weird dream sequence where The Dude surrenders to Maude Lebowski. I like the car smashing as death sequence, though. (“THIS IS WHAT YOU GET WHEN YOU FUCK A STRANGER IN THE ASS!”)

12. The Mourning Period/Dark Night of the Soul (The character is given an easy out which they decide not to take.): The Dude and Walter are on the outs; The Dude goes and visits Maude Lebowski and learns that the Big Lebowski is not a real millionaire, and that Bunny is a big McGuffin (red herring).

13. Break into Act Three/A Plan is Formed: The Dude and Walter confront Big Lebowski (who seems to turn up when the act changes) about the missing money. Lebowski turns out to also be a McGuffin, more or less.

14. The Finale:

a. A New Plan: Walk away. Go back to bowling.

b. Stuff goes wrong: The Nihilists show up, looking for trouble.

c. A New New Plan: Confront the Nihilists!

d. Final Showdown: The Dude, Walter, and Donny beat up the Nihilists once and for all. Well, by that I mean Walter beats up the nihilist. The Dude sort of swings his bowling ball bag around a little, and Donny dies of a heart attack, unrelated to the activity.

e. Resolution: The Dude and Walter manage Donny’s death.

15. Closing Image (traditionally an inverse of the opening image): The Dude in the bowling alley, abiding. The Stranger comes in as a direct narrator once more.

So ARE All Movies Screamingly Formulaic, and Is That Bad?

Film structure usually gets even more specific than the three-act structure. Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat!, has outlined an extremely specific beat sheet that many fiction writers will cringe at because it is incredibly specific, down to someone saying the theme within the first twelve minutes, and a symbolic or literal death moment at minute 75.

While I think many fiction writers go “eugh” at the idea of a story that’s so closely structured, I think poets might actually get it. Because they deal with forms. I haven’t heard a lot of poets complaining about the existence of a sestina or a ghazal. But then, poets have the choice to ignore all form if they so choose. And to an extent, screenwriters do not.

I don’t think screenplay structure is necessarily formulaic, although I think we’re culturally hardwired to respond well to the above structure. Robert McKee, in his excellent book Story, says that “Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.” He outlines micro-principles of what makes stories tick rather than giving out a beat sheet that is supposed to apply to all film ever. Even within a very traditional structure, like the Snyder beat sheet, it’s possible to have a conversation with the form, such as the Big Lebowski, above. The hero does pretty much nothing during the climax; there are characters that have nothing to do with the plot that are nonetheless our favorites. (“Nobody fucks with the Jesus.”) I personally have to problem with form. For one thing, the more I know about form, the easier it is to mess with it.

Oblivion: Written by Real Human Writers

This is Part One of a review/craft breakdown of the movie Oblivion. Happily, Part One is pretty much spoiler-free; nothing you wouldn’t see in the previews.

Oblivion movie poster

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, 2013

So, after seeing a whole lot of films that seemed to be written by either a team of trained monkeys with typewriters or the vast and terrible Hollywood Machine, boy was Oblivion a lovely breath of fresh air. (Apparently others disagree, but lo, I will break it down yo why this film is good.)

The film wasn’t really on my radar; I tend to roll my eyes whenever Tom Cruise is in anything. And the irony of Tom Cruise’s  Scientologist ass in a film that involves hostile alien takeover was not lost on me. Thetans eat your heart out. Cruise aside, though (and seriously, I *almost* forgot it was him), I am a huge sucker for dystopian stories. So Oblivion is right up my alley. Also, the whole damn score is by M83, orchestrated by the guy who worked with Daft Punk on the TRON: Legacy soundtrack. Also, the movie would be worth seeing in theaters for the visuals alone.

But a lot of movies have rad soundtracks and pretty visuals. I mean, that was true of TRON: Legacy,  Joseph Kosinski’s first go at film directing. But this movie had so much more going on.

So, what this movie has that so many do not:

  1. Careful and strategic worldbuilding (which actually could have been slightly *more* careful at the end, but hey. It still outclassed many sci-fi releases of the past decade)
  2. Here’s the kicker: Really well-designed, active characters that all had clear motivations upon which they acted.
  3. Kicker No. 2: A clear “ticking clock” in every scene that drove the plot forward.
  4. Nice use of symbolic props.

So many films tend to forget these, particularly number two. Seriously. It is oddly difficult to write active characters, even when you’re trying. It’s so much easier to throw big scary monsters at your characters and see how they’ll REACT.

So, let me break down the beginning, non-spoilery bit so you can see what I’m talking about.

We begin by meeting two characters:

Jack Harper and Victoria, or “Vic” Olsen. They live in a ivory tower of a fancy house on top of a giant pole that lands them well above lightning-filled doom clouds.

Jack and Vic's house

Thus.

Jack Harper is a mechanic. He explains his job in voice-over: He fixes the drones that repair the machines that suck up the ocean that powers the getaway vehicle (a giant tetrahedron craft called The Tet) that has all remaining humanity on it and will shortly be bound for Titan (Saturn’s moon) since Earth is wrecked (radiation, hostile aliens called Scavs) after the big ol’ war where the alien invasion force blew up the moon then invaded. (Worldbuilding, anyone?) But day-to-day, he fixes drones.

Jack fixes a drone.

Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise.

Vic is Jack’s controller. She stays up in the tower. She’s a line between Mission Control on the Tet and Jack; she literally watches his back for Scavs and other hazards while he does his job. She’s pretty frigging anxious to get out. At the beginning of the movie, she can’t stop thinking about how it’s two more weeks, and then they’ll go up to the Tet and be whisked off to Titan with everyone else. She’s doing her damnedest to hold it together for just two more weeks, and trying to get Jack to do the same. (Ticking clock, anyone?)

Vic at her control desk.

Victoria “Vic” Olsen, played by Andrea Riseborough.

Jack and Vic are in charge of a limited section of territory in between radiation zones. Hint: It’s New York. The only other things we know about Jack and Vic: They’ve had a mandatory “memory wipe” so that they cannot reveal secrets should they be captured by hostile aliens. Jack has memories of Old Earth and a woman he doesn’t know.

Vic is actively trying to get out; she’s ready to go and is doing everything she can to survive these last two weeks to Titan. Jack is trying to preserve the memories of Old Earth as much as he can before they leave. He’s also curious. And, as with any good story, today is the day something different happens.

  • Major Dramatic Question: Will Jack solve the mystery of what happened to his world and who this woman is? (Will Jack be able to preserve his world?)
  • Passover Question: Why is tonight different than any other night….? Well…”An object has come down in Sector 17″ is all I’ll say.

Apparently Kosinski got Tom Cruise to sign on based on the little Oblivion comic/ashcan book, and then spent a year working on the script. And to my mind, it shows! Michael Arndt, of screenwriter for Little Miss Sunshine, was among the writing team.

Other cast members include Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, That One Guy From Game of Thrones, and Xena’s Friggin’ Stunt Double.

Okay, now go see it already! Next post will be filled with Spoilery, spoilery spoilers. I plan on tracking the character motivations and symbolic props throughout the whole thing in a delightfully anal-retentive way.

 

 

 

Fiction for Poets

So, I was at a poetry class the other day (poetry! I know! It totally happened to me!) and someone there said, “I want to write fiction. How do you start?”

What a damn good question that I don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about.

To my fiction brain, poetry seems to just kind of happen to you, which I realize is a gross oversimplification of poetic craft. Perhaps one must be more calculated going into fiction…which is also a gross oversimplification. Let me try to expand.

Poe and Verne are bestest bros.

With comics by Kate Beaton to help me explain the finer points of craft!

The seeds of fiction can be pretty dang spontaneous. Sometimes fiction starts when characters speak to you; you have a voice or a person that you can’t get out of your head. (Poets go for ecstatic mania, fiction writer for obsessive schizophrenia? Something like that.) Sometimes fiction starts when you hear someone tell a funky anecdote and you go “ohh, there’s a short story there.” Sometimes fiction starts when you have a topic or a place you know you need to write about: Russian mail-order brides, or the Isle of Skye, or the family farm in Texas. Sometimes the seeds of fiction start from a compelling what-if question: What if I had been telekinetic in high school? What if there really IS a global conspiracy to keep the American government under the control of corporations? What if we could share dreams, literally, when sleeping? What if Jesus had been reborn as a gay Mexican boy?

I find freewriting an important place to let that stuff out. Subconscious dribble turns into stories. Sometimes exercises turn into stories. Italo Calvino called the Tarot “a machine for generating stories,” and I often play with Tarot cards while freewriting…but that is another post, to be told another time.

Today, I want to talk about what happens after you have that initial moment of recognition: “Ohh, that’s a story.”

Say you just heard your friend talking about how her mother sent her newspaper clippings about women who got raped or attacked in the mail all through college. No letter. No note. Just these creepy stories. That story instinct buzzes inside you at this, and you want to do something about it, but you’re not sure what.

First: Ditch reality.

A rookie mistake I’ve both committed and seen other folks commit, especially when writing fiction set in this world with nothing supernatural happening: justifying mediocre choices because, the author cries indignantly, “That’s the way it really happened!” This isn’t reality. It’s fiction. What happens in reality doesn’t necessarily make good fiction, and the catharsis of fiction rarely extends to reality. So, give these characters some space to not be your friend and her mom, but to spring from those seeds.

pride and prejudice and monster trucks

Okay, so maybe not like this…

 

Second: What do your characters want?

In our pretend story, we’ve got two main characters so far: mom and daughter. Exploring what they WANT is gonna be fuel for your story. Does the daughter want independence? Maybe she’s annoyed by her mother’s persistent article-sending and does reckless stuff to compensate. Does she want safety? Maybe her mother’s articles secretly terrify her and therefore she is afraid to talk to people or do much of anything. What does mom want? Is she lonely/does she want her daughter back in the house? Does she want safety for her child? Is she afraid her daughter will get raped because of some past trauma in her own life? Is she just really controlling, and if so, why does she want control so bad?

Character want is more obvious, quite frankly, in longer fiction than in shorter fiction. You can track the wants of characters in Pride and Prejudice or The Master and Margarita or Anne of Green Gables pretty well–each novel has a several characters who all WANT something. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy wants Elizabeth. Elizabeth wants Darcy, but also wants independence within her family structure. In The Master and Margarita, Berlioz wants to prove his secular reality to the world; Satan wants to expose people’s selfish idiocy, and Margarita wants love and revenge against those who’ve wronged her lover. (The narrator actually has a direct discussion about what Margarita wants, and says, “Evidently, however, she spoke the truth in saying that she wanted the Master, not the Gothic house, not a private garden, and not money. She loved him. She spoke the truth.”) In Anne of Green Gables, Anne wants a rich, romantic life that lives up to her imagination.

In terms of dramatic structure, distilling your character’s wants can lead you to find something called the Major Dramatic Question. The question that, when it is answered (or decisively not answered,) the story is over. Will Anne find her way? Will The Master and Margarita be happily re-united? Will Satan be foiled? Will Elizabeth and Darcy get married?

Third: What does that want LOOK LIKE?

sleeeeeeves, Marilla!

So, props. I was used to props from theater; you don’t have a prop on stage unless it’s doing something in the scene, and it’s extra bonus points if the prop can be symbolic or hold visual weight: Yorick’s skull, anyone?

Props also apply in fiction: not so symbolically blatant as film or practically chosen as theater, but hey. Oftentimes there are things or people that represent what a character wants.

Take Elizabeth Bennett, for example. She wants independence within her big ol’ family. What does that look like? Marrying Mr. Darcy. Darcy becomes a symbol of Elizabeth’s wants, and a nicely mutable one considering all the times he’s got a giant stick up his ass and Lizzie’s re-calculating if he is the answer to all her problems or not.

Margarita has a prophetic dream in which she sees herself flying over the landscape to a shack where her lover resides; that’s why she’s so eager to use the magic ointment she’s offered to go flying and meet…well, Satan, but it was a nice try. The ointment is tied right into Margarita’s desires, and is a nice concrete object. The dream helps her actions make sense and help us believe she’s acting rationally.

In Anne of Green Gables, Anne freaks right out about puffed sleeves on a dress: a nice, concrete metaphor for that rich romantic life she so desires.

In our hypothetical story, those newspaper clippings are a GREAT prop to play with. Perhaps the mother comes to visit the daughter, who’s hiding out in her dorm room with, like, every article posted on the wall by her bed, and Mom realizes how much she’s freaking out her child. Perhaps the daughter’s final act of rebellion is to NOT open the letter and toss it out or burn it with a cigarette she’s smoking at a sketchy frat party.

Fourth: Why NOW?

Jane Austen Fanfic

Here’s how *not* to do it!

So, that roar of ignition for your story: the moment it begins. In dramatic structure, it’s sometimes called the Passover Question, as in: Why is this night different than any other night? Why is this moment different? There has to be a tipping point that gets things started.

In Pride and Prejudice, the story starts when Bingley moves into Netherfield Park (and the Bennetts hear about it, prompting the daughter-hocking to begin in earnest). In The Master and Margarita, the story begins when Satan, that old catalyst, comes to town. In Anne of Green Gables, the story starts on the day when Anne comes to live with Marilla in Green Gables.

In our story, perhaps it’s the day Mom is finally coming to visit, and the daughter has to hide signs of the lesbian relationship she’s been having with her roommate. Or Mom’s visiting her daughter at college for the first time, and we’ve been following the story from Mom’s POV, and she has aforementioned “oh crap I’m making my daughter a completely paranoid shut-in” moment. Or it’s the night the daughter goes out for the first time and something traumatic does or doesn’t happen. Or it’s the night the daughter is actually attacked at a sketchy frat party and either she gets raped or dissuades her attackers. Maybe she fights off potential rapists and then goes home and rips up all the articles her mom keeps sending. There are all kinds of different stories to choose from here.

 

Jane Austen comics

Also, this happens.

 

A final thought: In the same way that I must read more poetry if I want to write poems (and make it specific: watch videos of slam and/or go to slams if I want to write slam poetry), if you want to write fiction you must read it. Want to write short stories? Read short stories. Want to capture the aesthetic of Russian literature? Read Russian literature. Want to retell fairy tales? Read a lot of freakin’ fairy tales. Read what you want to make, and steal its tricks. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Subjective, Objective

Since I am neck deep in revisions right now, I figured I would write about a specific chunk of craft:

Subjectivity.

What is it?

It’s a way of getting into a character’s head in so that the audience can see, not objective reality (whatever that is), but the reality that the character lives in.

This exists in all genres. As a only occasional poet, I’d argue that poetry can easily be the most subjective of the genres, but then poetry is only sometimes concerned with story, and more often concerned with what my brilliant poet friend Shae calls recreating a specific vibratory, emotional experience for the reader. Getting on a wavelength together, if you will. Being in each other’s heads.

Fiction can also be quite subjective, especially when it has close psychic distance or an intimiate voice. To me, though, the most interesting experiences in subjectivity come in film. Film is supposedly an objective genre: the unfeeling camera’s eye. Of course, as early as Georges Melies folks were messing with the objectivity of the camera’s eye. Still, subjectivity requires a finesse of effects in film.

movie poster from Rashomon

In an obvious way, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a classic of subjective film. The audience gets the same story three ways from three different characters; what seems like a simple story is not so simple. It’s a mystery and a whodunnit, and the audience’s concept of who is innocent or guilty changes several times during the film.

Men in Black: Trebeck and Ventura

Alex Trebeck and Jesse Ventura guest star as Men in Black in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”

In a silly way, the X-Files Episodes “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “Bad Blood” both involve characters recounting the same events in different ways. I think “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is an episode that any writer should watch because it is about a writer trying to gather some kind of objective truth out of a mess of subjective accounts from people. It also dances an interesting dance between the supposedly objective intro before the credits and the subjective accounts from everyone involved.

 

Scully's version of the Sheriff

In “Bad Blood,” even the characters change depending on who’s telling the story. Luke Wilson’s small-town cop character in handsome and intelligent in Scully’s version; in Mulder’s version he’s Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, complete with buck teeth (“He had a slight overbite!” Mulder declared when Scully calls him on it.) and lines like, “Y’all must be the gov’ment people!”

At the end of that episode, though, they go back to the town and we get an “objective” view of the situation.

Mulder's version of the Sheriff

 

X-Files is interesting to me in general in terms of subjectivity and objectivity because we the viewers get to see the aliens, lake monsters, fluke men (guhhh), and even vampires in ways that Scully and Mulder don’t. We have seen like five or ten times the aliens that Mulder has. That being said, so much of the filming is done in from someone’s perspective as part of a recounting that objective truth is difficult to determine. I’ve watched the whole show, and frankly I’m still not sure the single truth of what actually happened to Mulder’s sister. (I know, they supposedly explained it. But that was hard to swallow for me considering the large amount of subjective data we get throughout the show. I mean, is Alex Trebeck also a Man in Black?)

On a less immediately obvious level, Black Swan is an incredibly subjective film. Black Swan is a movie that relies on the audience believing in Nina’s subjective world. We have to believe that what she sees is true. Otherwise, it’s a movie about a crazed ballerina slowly acting more and more paranoid until she breaks a mirror, stabs herself, and then dances Swan Lake.

Even little scenes in Black Swan are subjective. When Nina is learning how to do the Black Swan’s 32 pirouettes or whatnot, we see both her in the camera and we have a moment of the camera becoming her, and swooping around in circle after circle so that the audience can feel the disorientation that she does.

With each physical transformation or moment that she sees the double, we see reality as she does, a flash of the Double and then a flash of her own reflection helping us to see her scattered mind.

Nina and her reflection do not match.

Subjectivity is also necessary in films like Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas…otherwise it’s about some questionable men in Hawaiian shirts trashing the living hell out of a hotel room. If they’re tripping balls, we the audience had best be tripping balls with them so that we understand the stakes they’re feeling in the story.

Johnny Depp in a distorted camera lens

The lens subtly distorts the image here; the narrator and camera are both unreliable. And this isn’t even the part with the living wallpaper.

So, my little April Fools, I have  an exercise for you, just for funsies:

Take a story of yours, or a folktale, or a story you know really well, and rewrite it two ways: As objectively as possible, and then as subjectively as possible. What information might only make sense in one of your character’s heads, and how can you let us in? (Bonus points if you storyboard this out, for those of you who’ll touch film or comics with a ten foot pole.)

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! by John Scieszka & Lane Smith is a good example of the “fairy tale” version of this prompt.

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