Welcome to the age of the meta-story

There’s a disturbing trend in Hollywood where studio execs would rather greenlight movies based on board games and toys from the ’80s than original ideas.

Yet I’m not overly worried about getting swamped with a sea of sequels to BATTLESHIP or RAMPAGE.

The deeper, more enduring trend in books, movies and video games? Meta-stories.

STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Batman Arkham games, WESTWORLD, GAME OF THRONES–they best series are true meta stories.

Notice I didn’t list some big franchises, like the STAR TREK reboot, the DC non-universe and the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: TOM CRUISE DOES ALL HIS OWN STUNTS movies. They don’t fall in the same category.

So what’s a meta-story?

A book or movie can have sequels with the same hero (or group of heroes and sidekicks) without being a meta-story. Think of 99 percent of most shows on HBO, Netflix or this thing I called “network television.” They’re episodic. Sure, it’s the same universe and same characters. The stories being told, though, are separate and distinct.

This is why you can binge-watch LAW AND ORDER: PICK A SERIES, ANY SERIES, WE HAVE LOTS and it doesn’t matter if they skip around seasons and whatnot.

This is also why you can take all 20-some of the Reacher novels by Lee Child (my fav) and read them in any order. Because yes, Reacher is in every one of them, but otherwise, they aren’t really that connected. Separate stories each time. Different villains, different themes, different locations.

Meta-story is the difference between Marvel owning a license to print money while DC, with better characters (they have Batman, for God’s sake) struggles and reshoots and just can’t get it going.

Building the beast

It’s simple, really. Forget about the hero.

Yes, the hero is what people focus on, typically. That’s the star of the show, right?

Meta-stories often don’t have a singular hero. Think about Marvel–there are dozens of heroes.

The acid test, the way to see whether a series of books and movies is episodic or a meta-story, is to look at the villain(s).

Is it Villain-of-the-Week or does the series feature One Big Baddie?

HARRY POTTER is all about Voldemort, who’s winning the whole time until Harry literally dies and comes back to beat him.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS has a fellowship of heroes–not a singular hero–facing off against One Big Baddie who happens to be a big glowing eye.

Marvel was brilliant in planting Infinity Stones in every movie and having Thanos lurking in the background the whole time as the One Big Baddie, a villain so good they’ve managed to do what, 20-some movies as part of this arc? Amazing.

 

You get the idea.

If you’re writing a series, just remember this: Villains rule, heroes drool.

Battle of the Hollywood Franchises, Week 1— GAME OF THRONES vs THE WALKING DEAD vs WESTWORLD

Right now, you can fire up your phone, computer, 4k television or seven other things with screens to binge upon amazing movies and television shows that make the classics of the ’70s and ’80s look like high school art projects.

The list of viewing choices is incredible: WESTWORLD, a Marvel superhero movie every time you sneeze, THE WALKING DEAD, a new STAR WARS movie once a year, GAME OF THRONES, BREAKING BAD, BROADCHURCH and the SHERLOCK series starring Khan/Dr. Strange and his hobbit friend.

It’s an embarrassment of quality. And meta-story is the key reason why.

Because it’s not just the quality of special effects, sets and acting at work here. It’s how well that meta-story is told that affects whether you (a) stay up until 3 a.m. binging the entire series or (b) keep flipping through shows and movies before you give up and watch YouTube clips of animals being bros.

I can’t remember any TV shows or movies back in the day that told a fully story, start to finish, with a concrete end to the series, except for the original three STAR WARS movies. (Note: the prequels are dead to me.)

Back in the ‘80s, the shows I watched and loved had the same hero and sidekicks and a Villain of the Week, unless it was a sitcom.

A-TEAM, REMINGTON STEELE, AIRWOLF – all these shows you could watch in any order, unlike the meta-stories of today, where if you miss 15 minutes, you might get lost.

It seemed pretty clear that showrunners back then were content to keep making new seasons until the ratings went south.

They kept going until the network ended the money train, which was reflected in the sudden demise of most TV shows where loose ends tended to stay loose.

So where are the new giants of meta-storytelling doing it right, and where are they tripping up?

Week 1—GAME OF THRONES vs THE WALKING DEAD vs WESTWORLD

All three of these are sprawling adventures with ensemble casts and no clear hero or villain.

But they are true meta stories. There’s nothing episodic about either show. Things constantly change and both are building up to a climax versus the old model of “petering out when they cancel us.”

A big strength for all three? Constant surprises. Anybody might die in any episode, except for Rick Grimes, who never dies for some reason, while Westworld reserves the resurrect any character as a robot and Game of Thrones can’t part with Captain Good Hair Who Lives Among the Snow.

All three series are full of deadly betrayal and high stakes. There are no cartoonish white hats and black hats. Each character tends to be a little good and a lot of bad.

You also don’t have to find a new job if your big star, the hero, decides to leave the series to try movies, or gets drunk and slams his Rolls Royce into the side of a cliff.

HOWEVER: The lack of bedrock heroes and villains can make the audience confused and scared off from getting attached to characters they like, seeing how at any minute they could get stabbed in the back, nom-nom-nommed by a zombie or shot by the Man in Black.

This sort of story also has problems with villains, because they tend to die off and need to get replaced.

GAME OF THRONES and THE WALKING DEAD have the advantage of known their destination, since the original authors mapped out the story in printed form using these things I like to call “words” placed inside these archaic, beautiful things they call “books.”

WESTWORLD will have to find its own way to the climax, since it’s based on a single movie from the ’70s. However: Season 1 was a brilliant start.

Verdict: GAME OF THRONES is the odds-on champion here, with a huge audience and a definite climax in the cards. THE WALKING DEAD feels a bit too uneven and small scale at times. How can they top Negan?

WESTWORLD is the hipster choice of these three, the one that feels most like a movie. Each episode shot and scored beautifully. It’s just harder to see where it goes after Season 1. But if they can pull it off, WESTWORLD will live forever as a classic.

Next week: D.C. versus Marvel, also known as ‘D.C. just can’t win’

Week 3—STAR WARS vs STAR TREK

Week 4—JAMES BOND vs JASON BOURNE

Week 5—HOUSE OF CARDS vs BREAKING BAD

Week 6—HARRY POTTER vs LORD OF THE RINGS

8 reasons why blockbusters are meta-stories instead of Villain of the Week

Name something popular, anything at all, and chances are it’s a series instead of a One Hit Wonder.

This is about why that is, despite a serious quality handicap, and how your favorite series either does it wrong, does it halfway or flat-out nails it.

There are two basic types of series: evergreen and meta-stories.

Evergreen

This includes sitcoms, mysteries, and other shows where things don’t really change … except for the villain or problem, which constantly changes, until the movie series runs out of steam, the novelist gets sick of it or studio execs at NBC look at the dying ratings and pull the plug.

The advantage of an evergreen story is the audience can fire up Netflix and watch any random episode without being lost. You can , buy any of Lee Child’s series at Barnes & Noble and enjoy Reacher beating people up for 325 pages without needing to know anything about the other books.

Star Trek, in all its forms (original, TNG, Voyager) was an evergreen series.

HOWEVER: the best string of movies was a meta-story about Spock, with Spock sacrificing his life to save the Enterprise and crew (Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Corinthian Leather), then Kirk and crew sacrificing to bring Spock’s newborn body back from Planet Crazytown (Star Trek 3: We Stole This Sweet Klingon Warbird) and finally Spock is back with us and directing the movie, which was smart {Star Trek 4: Save the Whales), except it lead to a future movie where Shatner directed, which turned out to be an Achy Breaky Big Mistakey.

 

The disadvantage of an evergreen series is huge: it inevitably grows stale. Also, the lead actor will always be tempted to cash out and bail for the movies. And often, the ratings or sales simply tank, making studio exec or publishers pull the plug, ending the series with a whimper. Continue reading “8 reasons why blockbusters are meta-stories instead of Villain of the Week”

Barnes and Noble, tear down these walls

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Readers and writers need each other, and we won’t connect when there are thick, artificial walls and book covers so filled with testosterone – or estrogen – that you may as well nail up signs that say “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” or “RUN AWAY, MEN, FOR YOU ARE UNWELCOME.”

I don’t want fiction so segmented that it becomes little fiefdoms, or ghettos, with this section for men, this one for women, little kids here, gay literature over there, big kids there, lesbians here, left-handed straight white guys here and right-handed women who are into quilting and cats in this corner. I read whatever Dan Savage and David Sedaris write, though I’d never have found them if you hidden them in a gay and lesbian corner, which is a bit too near a closet.

Good writing is good writing, period.

Here’s a brief plot summary for a novel. Read it and tell me where it belongs in Barnes and Noble.

Hank is an investigator who solves murders. But he can’t stop a new serial killer, at least not officially. Because that killer is going after the employees of his wife, a prominent businesswoman. This is a case Hank can’t touch and can’t ignore. The killer knows it — and he’s getting ever closer.

All too easy, right? This is pure mystery/thriller. You put it next to Lee Child and James Patterson.

Nope. It’s a romance novel. Some stores might get wild and put it in Romantic Suspense. This is BETRAYAL IN DEATH by J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts. All I did was change the genders of the protag and love interest.

The initials Nora Roberts put in her pen name also tell us something. Why do female authors, even crazy famous and insanely successful ones like Nora Roberts and J.K. Rowling, have to hide behind initials?

You could say J.K. Rowling went with initials long before she got famous, out of fear a female author wouldn’t be taken as seriously writing an epic fantasy novel. I blame J.R.R. Tolkien for this trend. (Sidenote: George R.R. Martin, you’re a copycat, but I love you.)

Yet after J.K. Rowling earned enough money to buy her own planet and staff it with Brad Pitt clones, she wrote a non-Harry Potter book … using the pen name Robert Galbraith.

So even the world’s richest author, who just happens to be female, still seems to feel there’s a bias against female authors.

As a writer, a reader and a man, I think that’s sincerely screwed up.

My wife has the World’s Largest Collection of Novels, including 5.92 metric tons of Deep Literature, fantasy, romantic suspense, non-fiction, plain old romance, sci-fi — basically everything. I wrote this post after comparing the backs of her romantic suspense collection to the blurbs on the back covers of my Ginormous Horde of Mysteries and Thrillers and saying hey, these are ALL THE SAME THING.

(Related post: Why every man MUST read a romance — and every woman read a thriller)

Let’s look at two more plot summaries, one for a book that turned into a movie and another for a movie.

A poor and passionate young man falls in love with a rich young woman and gives her a sense of freedom. They soon are separated by their social differences.

Has to be a romance. Even if I switched genders, there’s no other subplot involving a presidential race or a stolen nuclear bomb. Nothing but a love story, straight up.

Nope. Didn’t switch genders or touch this summary at all. Pulled it right from the IMDB page for THE NOTEBOOK by Nicholas Sparks, who says he doesn’t write romances or even love stories. He writes literature, and his stuff belongs next to Hemingway. (Not making that up. Go ahead and google it.) And yeah, they don’t shelve his books in the romance section, because “Duh, he’s a man.”

I’ve met a ton of romance authors from this silly blog, and whether they write historical things involving men in kilts, romantic suspense or wild stuff involving Shapeshifting Dolphin-Men and the Women Who Love Them, they are united behind one core belief: a burning hatred for Nicholas Sparks. (Related post: The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK)

One last shot, this time a movie:

Vanessa is beautiful, rich — and haunted by the deaths of her parents and her lover, who died during Vanessa’s secret crusade against the criminal empires tearing at the city. Now a recluse, Vanessa is jolted when a charming burglar steals her mother’s pearls while a new villain threatens the entire city. Should she open her heart up to the handsome new member of her board of directors, or should she risk everything by trusting the cunning thief in a risky battle to save the city?

Tough one. Might flip a coin here. Here’s the trailer for this movie, and yeah, all I really did was switch genders and leave out a description of the Batcave.

You might argue these are isolated cases, and that romantic suspense is a very different genre from romance, seeing how the love story is far stronger than what typically passes for a love interest in mysteries and thrillers written by male authors.

That argument is weaker than a half-cup of Folger’s Instant Decaf.

Lee Child is the kings of thrillers today. Every one of his novels has a love interest, typically the biggest character aside from the hero, a strong woman with a badge and a gun who (1) is crucial to helping Reacher beat the bad guys or (2) gets kidnapped along with Reacher, so it’s just the two of them against the idiots who made the fatal mistake of breaking our hero’s folding toothbrush.

Want to get more literary and old school? Take away the relationships and love scenes from the Easy Rawlins books and you’d cut them by two-thirds, making Walter Mosley cry. From reading every book in this series, I can say the heart of it isn’t really solving mysteries or racism back in the day, but the bromance between Easy Rawlins and his deadly best friend, Mouse.

The villains get far less attention. The latest Easy Rawlins novel has a villain showing up in the climax that I barely knew existed, and that was fine, because the real point was connecting Easy with all his friends and family one more time, especially Mouse.

You could argue all those books are written by men, and these other books, well, they’re written by women.  And sure, there are women who’ve always written thrillers or mysteries and their work has always gotten shelved in the neighborhood of Lee Child and James Patterson. But not many.

The reverse is also true. There are men writing regular genre love stories novels … but hardly any use their own name, or even initials. They’re using female names.

Online, these walls fall away. Books don’t have to get shelved in only one place – you can tag them in all kinds of categories. However, I’m one of those people who likes to go to actual Stores of Books, and hold them in my hand, and buy them using pieces of paper decorated with dead presidents. Call me crazy.

There is a benefit to a few walls. There’s no point in throwing everything together and making people search for books alphabetically.

I’m saying it’s possible to go too far in the other direction, and to miss out on broader readership by making tinier and tinier niche markets, year after year, with only a few books by big-name authors marketed to everybody. Keep this up and we’ll have one tiny shelf labeled MAINSTREAM and it’ll all be authors who’ve figured out they’re so big now, they don’t even have to write the novels, because they can put their name in big letters, the co-author in little print and let the checks come in the mail. Hey, it’s not a bad gig, if you can get it, and these authors worked hard. James Patterson is a master of co-writing a zillion books and you can tell he works hard with co-authors so each book is in his signature style.

What’s crazy is how far this trend has gone, seeing how an author being dead isn’t a barrier anymore. Books by Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum will keep haunting prime real estate of bookstores as long as lesser names are willing to cash the lesser checks.

It’s like Hollywood sequels made long after the original director and star died. Even if the book or movie is great — and Eric van Lustbader is a far better writer than Ludlum — it still feels weird. All those Tom Clancy books that Tom Clancy never wrote will, for years and years, take up a crazy amount of prime real estate at book stores. And that’s what I’m really talking about here: real estate at book stores, which is getting so Balkanized, the Balkans are going to sue for copyright infringement.

Break the mold, then set it on fire

“We’ve always done it this way” is a bad strategy. If you study breakout hits in any medium, they don’t stick to the mold. They pick that mold up, break it and set it on fire.

The first Harry Potter book was clearly aimed at kids. Look at the cover. And sure, 12-year-old boys buy books, and they see a lot of movies, and yes, Michael Bay has made 6.2 bazillion dollars with endless TRANSFORMER movies based on this demographic alone. Yet it wasn’t just 12-year-old boys who bought all those Harry Potter books.

People actually pay more attention to something out of the ordinary, as long as you don’t try to keep it caged up in its own little demographic closet.

It’s not true that men only want to read books, written by men, about young, perfect tough guys who are 6’4 billionaires. Who’s the most popular character on GAME OF THRONES, among men and women and whoever? This guy. BECAUSE HE’S AWESOME.

Peter Dinklage dancing, game of thrones, out-takes, funny

On paper, Peter Dinklage should get nowhere in Hollywood, while all the tall, young actors with chiseled abs should skyrocket into fame every time they’re cast into the latest action movie that costs $300 million and still bombs. Dinklage, Brian Cranston and the rest of the cast of Breaking Bad prove that actors don’t just have to look like Abercrombie and Fitch models to make it. Acting skills kinda matter.

Mike from Breaking Bad is an old man, but he’s far tougher, and more interesting to watch, than 99 percent of the perfect 20-something actors who get asked to carry movies like TRANSFORMERS 15: OPTIMUS PRIME GETS AN OIL CHANGE.

Find a wrecking ball

These days, publishers and booksellers are doing plenty of other demolition work. Every time a novel becomes a hit movie, teams of carpenters show up at Barnes and Noble to create a new section for this new genre that isn’t really new:

  • Young Adult Fantasy (HARRY POTTER clones)
  • Young Adult Fantasy Romance (Hey, TWILIGHT made a bazillion dollars, why not us?)
  • Young Adult Dystopian Craziness (HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT)

Next month, it’ll be Young Adult Zombie Dystopian Coming of Age Stories in Stick Figure Graphic Novel Form, (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID meets WORLD WAR Z)

Blake Snyder was onto something with his SAVE THE CAT books, where he smashed the myth that story and genre is about setting (westerns are in the Old West! Sci-fi happens in space!). Doesn’t matter whether your protag with a badge and gun wears pants or a skirt –  it’s a mystery/thriller.

Snyder broke down story into what happens and why, and how the story works. In the old, stupid model, JAWS is a horror movie, FATAL ATTRACTION is a domestic drama and ALIEN is a sci-fi film. Wrong. That’s looking at the setting instead of the story.

All three of those movies are a primitive, visceral version of the story he calls Monster in the House, which is one of the oldest tales ever. There’s a monster in the house, and either you kill the monster or it kills you.

Eating you is optional. Villain’s choice.

So this is my not-so-plaintive cry, which is different than a plaintiff’s cry, because I’m not suing anybody: I don’t care whether the story was written by a man or a woman, whether the protag is a man or a woman, straight or gay, short or tall, young or old. I don’t give a rip whether the story is set in 18th century London, present-day Seattle or a space station orbiting the seventh moon of Jupiter.

All I care about is whether the story is any damned good.

Thrill me, surprise me, make me laugh.

Bust the locks on some of these literary cages. Unshackle authors and readers from the obsolete expectation that demographics is destiny.

Set books free.

GAME OF THRONES as a cheesy ’80s TV show

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Now, having only seen bits of GAME OF THRONES doesn’t stop me from loving this video, and wishing they could make an entire episode like this.

Nailed it, didn’t they?

For comparison, here’s the most epic ’80s synthethizer music intro ever, from AIRWOLF:

Let’s chat for a second about why GoT is such a huge hit. It’s not like he invented something brand new, and no, J.R. Tolkien didn’t, either. He borrowed from Nordic myths.

GoT seems to have become huge not despite the fact that major and beloved characters might die at any time, but because of that fact.

It’s completely unlike your typical TV series, which is based on one or two major stars and a cast of bit players. The stars never die, though if a major star leaves the show to give Hollywood a shot, the series often goes kaput.

Think of STAR TREK except Kirk dies in the third episode and Spock gets eaten by a salt-monster on some desert planet in episode five, leaving Bones in charge until the Klingons destroy the Federation in episode seven. Crazy, right? But you’d watch it.

As a special bonus: here are all kinds of intros to crazy ’80s TV shows. Enjoy.