So the last season of GAME OF THRONES went sideways, according to All the Fans–and as somebody who’s now watched all three seasons of JESSICA JONES, the writers and showrunners make the same storytelling mistake with the ending.
And listen, the ending is everything.
How can a gritty, superhero series screw up in the same way as an epic with swords and dragons?
Here’s how. (Warning: this whole post is Spoily McSpoilerface.)
Reason No. 1: Always save the Big Bad Guy for the finale
For five-point-seven billion years, GAME OF THRONES built up the icy blue Avatar-looking guy, the Night King, as the Big Bad of the series.
At the same time, the show served up the Mother of Dragons and her cousin/boyfriend Jon Snow as heroes, as far as what passes for heroes go in a story where everybody is a murderous nutbag.
But there’s no real protagonist in this giant cast, and Ayra is the one who offs the Night King long before the final episode.
Same thing with the last season of JESSICA JONES.
For all of Season 3, the Big Bad was this serial killer known as Salinger.
But instead of saving a confrontation with the villain for the finale, we get meh from both series.
The Night King’s death should have been saved for the last episode, with the Mother of Dragons or Jon Snow being the fan favorites to sit on the Iron Throne.
Instead, the Night King got killed and the show became a hot mess. Nobody was aching to see Emilia lose it and have her dragon fry the city, or see Kit stab his former lover, or have Bron-whatever take the throne for some random reason after Tyrion goes all Jar-Jar in the Galactic Senate on us. No. Just no.
JESSICA JONES repeats the same mistake. Salinger gets offed before the final episode.
Reason No. 2: Once the Big Bad is dead, your momentum goes buh-bye.
Let’s talk about other movies we’ve all seen for a second and play this out.
RETURN OF THE JEDI — Instead of Vader tossing Emperor Wrinkly Face down the bottomless pit and the Death Star getting blown up, all that happens in Act 2, with the entirely of Act 3 all about how Luke has to hunt down and fight Han Solo after he went nuts and helped the Ewoks slaughter and barbeque 15,000 Imperial stormtrooper prisoners.
Terrible, right? This is much better.
You have to save the Big Bad for the final act, the final episode, the last thing. Anything else makes the story out of order and flat.
Reason No. 3: If you’re going for tragedy, you have to fully commit
A mixed ending can be amazing. Some of the best movies and books have mixed endings.
CASABLANCA has the hero giving up the girl for a greater cause–beating Hitler and winning World War II.
But a mixed ending is also tough to pull off.
When you get audience rooting for a character, and seeing them as a hero, it’s tough to see those character take a heel turn at the last minute.
In fact, audiences reject it.
This is why tragedies fully commit.
They show the full fall from grace, from beginning to end, with the protagonist serving as both hero and villain. And the protagonist falls due to their own hand, via hubris.
BREAKING BAD did this perfectly. Sure, you saw things from Walter White’s point-of-view, and rooted for him a lot of time, but his ending felt absolutely right. He’d definitely sinned, and his downfall was deserved.
If you’re going with a tragedy, do it from the beginning with the protagonist. Not a side character like Trish.
It can work for the main character hero to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a secondary character. That’s not a tragic ending; it’s noble and heroic. See PRIVATE RYAN and ARMAGEDDON and five zillion other movies.
Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.
You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.
But you can’t pitch quality.
And you can’t package it.
So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.
It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.
So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice and because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right. And because it’s fun.
First up: two different bands.
Band A is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties. They’re serious, seriously talented, good-looking and ready to break out. Let’s say they play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.
Band B looks like a sure-fire loser. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band. The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.
Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.
Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one-sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a Cheaty McCheaterface.
Do it now. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.
I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.
OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.
My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannelly angst.” Four words, and I’m sort of cheating by turning flannelly into a word. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really, really good.”
My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.” Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Nirvana minus flannelly angst” or “this band is amazing?”
No. Not when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?
Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.
Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The little kids who play bad covers of heavy metal. It’s so much easier. I would have to kidnap reporters to get them to cover our post-grunge band of music majors.
Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.
Next: two different books
Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.
The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long before that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.
Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.
OK, let’s see what we’ve got. Here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.
Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.” Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.
Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.” This is a kissing cousin to “Comet will destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet, asteroid or whatever with nuclear bombs.
The bottom line is, quality is one thing. In the end, it’s probably the most important thing.
Yet nobody will read your masterpiece, listen to your amazing album or see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging. They have to know you exist first.
Quality isn’t a pitch. “You should see that movie — it’s really good” doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.
The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words.
How would you package it? What could you possibly say, just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?
It pains me to see folks place all their faith in the Series of Tubes, whether they’re trying to bust into Hollywood, sell books about Men in Kilts or make a living playing punk rock songs with only three chords.
It’s no skin off my nose if they stubbornly keep on doing it.
As somebody who believes in science, and numbers, and doing whatever works, I’ll just say this: the Series of Tubes is useful for making friends and other things — but it is not a strategy and it is not a plan, not even for Internet Tough Guys.
Here’s the thing: to persuade 10 people, you have to reach thousands–and to persuade thousands, you have to reach millions.
Which means using mass media, which is a completely different animal than social media or social networking.
Digital alone isn’t a strategy. It’s one piece.
There was a good Seattle blog, staffed with professional journalists and getting 400,000 hits a month, and that wasn’t enough to keep it afloat. Because internet hits may seem impressive, but they can be cheap and fleeting.
Truly reaching an audience means going to where they are, which isn’t your website, Twitter feed, Instagram home or whatever corner of the interwebs you prefer.
Some people rely on the radio. Maybe they’re like me and drive far to get to work and home every day.
Other folks read their local newspaper every morning with coffee, a ritual that I believe to be sacred and noble.
And yes, there are people who still use their television, even if it’s hooked up to cable, Hulu, Netflix or whatever else is hot this week.
The bottom line is this: If you made a pie chart of where people get their news and entertainment, it would be insanely fragmented. Digital is an important, modern slice, sure. But it’s just a slice.
A real media strategy, a smart one, touches every corner of that media pie.
Most people actively trying to collecting bazillions of Facebook “friends” are wasting everybody’s time, including their own.
Your number of Twitter followers doesn’t mean diddly.
Just saying these things is heresy to Internet Fanboys, who believe nothing is more powerful than the series of tubes.
If they can only find a way to implant a USB 3.0 socket in the back of their skull, they’ll be able to jack into the Matrix, do insane kung fu kicks and stop bullets JUST BY THINKING ABOUT IT, but they’re too busy looking at the woman in the red dress that they never leave the keyboard, go out in the real world and, I don’t know, kiss an actual girl.
Am I saying unplug from the series of tubes entirely? No. The internets, they are useful for many things.
I’m saying the real world is ALSO useful for many more things.
Why blog hits don’t matter
Everybody wants to be read. I mean, it’s sad to start a blog, put time and effort into writing great posts and have virtually no traffic.
However: let’s get practical.
When I started my old blog, it was to serve a specific purpose: a permanent home for the craigslist ad to sell the Epic Black Car.
WordPress is free. My sister, who is a flipping genius, told me that she loved working with the WordPress, that it was easy and fun. So I popped the ad on there, threw some photos in the craigslist ad and thought nothing of it.
Did it really matter whether I had 50 visitors a day, 500 or 5,000?
No. Not at all. Really, I wanted to sell one car to one person. Once.
The fact that silly ad went viral didn’t matter. Fun? Sure. But that’s all.
Back in the day, they made a movie about an intergalactic gang of misfits that included a cyborg raccoon, a green alien woman and a living tree that only said, “I am Groot.” And they turned that trash into treasure.
IRON FIST is one of the first mistakes Marvel has made, which is crazy considering the number of movies and TV shows they’ve produced.
Now that THE DEFENDERS has all four of these characters teaming up, and Season 2 of IRON FIST has a new showrunner, there is hope that the show will improve.
Having watched every episode of the other three Netflix originals—DAREDEVIL, JESSICA JONES and LUKE CAGE—it’s pretty easy to see where those shows went very right and Danny Rand, the homeless billionaire, went very wrong.
Fix Number 1: A new intro
The intros for the other three shows are interesting and set the mood, while this intro simply annoys you with bad CGI and makes skipping ahead the default choice.
DAREDEVIL has an intro that reminds me an awfully lot of WESTWORLD, so much so that I wondered if the same people did it.
LUKE CAGE starts off every episode with images of Harlem and history broadcast on his unbreakable skin, and I don’t skip it despite having seen it a zillion times.
JESSICA JONES puts you in a noir mood with her intro, and though it’s not quite as good as the blind ninja’s or Luke’s, it doesn’t completely annoy you.
IRON FIST just has a bad intro. Here, watch this for ten seconds and you’ll get annoyed. Is the main character some kind of shapeshifting oil beast?
Give us an intro that’s interesting and different. WESTWORLD has such a beautiful and genius intro that I’ve rewatched again and again.
Fix Number 2: Make us want to be the Iron Fist
Regardless of your age or gender, part of the joy of reading a novel or watching a movie is living vicariously through the eyes of the great protagonist. You admire them, and wonder what it would be like to be them.
With the other three Netflix shows, it’s clear that Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are interesting and special people. It’d would be fun to walk in their shoes for a day, and it’s a pleasure to be there, watching, even when they go through the worst possible troubles.
All three of those characters are good in very different ways.
Daredevil is intelligent and driven.
Jessica Jones is sarcastic and tough.
Luke Cage is calm, strong and determined.
I don’t think anyone wants to be Danny Rand / Iron Fist, and that’s really a function of the writing, not the acting.
Fix Number 3: Stop making Danny Rand act like a fool
In episode after episode, Danny makes stupid decisions that hurt other people. And yes, that’s despite the best of intentions.
The first season is more of a tragedy than anything else, with Danny’s hubris leading to terrible things. In just about every critical situation, the great Iron Fist makes choices that any other superhero would avoid.
Telling everyone—from homeless men on the street to villains—his secret identity. He may as well wear a sign. Every other superhero with a brain works incredibly hard to protect this vital secret, because failing to do so always, always leads to trouble and death. Danny has no clue.
Being a taker instead of a helper. There’s a good reason why most superheroes default to tackling problems by themselves. They don’t want to get civilians involved and hurt, and it’s safer when friends and loved ones don’t know their secret identity. Danny constantly, constantly asks for help, often from strangers or villains. He’s not self-reliant at all, which is one of the primary traits of heroes.
Creepy stalker behavior. Early in the series, he breaks into Joy’s house and refuses to go away when Colleen Wing clearly and repeatedly tells him to scoot. And this is a pattern. While other heroes break into places to collect clues and skedaddle, Danny does it like he’s dropping by to visit and is shocked when people treat him like a burglar.
No discipline. There’s an episode where Danny says he’s spent a lifetime learning to control his emotions, which made me guffaw, because every episode, he shows zero control over his emotions.
Can’t plan for the future. Danny simply bumbles through problems. He never has a plan aside from, “Let’s break into a place and either ask for help or beat people up.” Then he’s confused and angry when that non-plan goes south.
Falling into every trap. Danny Rand believes every word that anyone says to him, whether it’s from the mouths of a random stranger or a villain who just tried to kill him ten minutes ago. Even when a villain invites him to an obvious trap, he goes straight into it.
All of this makes Danny seem more like a goofy, tragic side character than a hero. You could see him as a troubled sidekick for a smart hero who figures out ways to control and harness the human wrecking ball.
This problem is made exponentially worse when actual side characters like Colleen, Claire, Harold, Joy and even Ward—Ward!—make clever decisions that seem more heroic and interesting.
At one point, Danny says, “I’m sorry” and Ward replies, “Danny, you’re a cancer.” And I cheered, because it was the truth.
In every tough situation, audiences instinctively think, “What would an average person like me do?” They compare the choice the hero makes to what other heroes or villains would do. The best stories surprise us with choices we haven’t even considered.
Every time Danny faces a tough situation, I groan and compare his choice (always bad) to what Batman, Daredevil, James Bond and a hundred other heroes would do. We all have that repository of stories and characters. Even the villains we know and love, like Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader, would make different and more interesting choices than Danny Rand.
Because what Danny chooses is never a surprise. As a character, he’s an overgrown child, which people keep telling him. Which is a shame. The actors are fine, the cinematography works and the tie-ins to the other shoes are nice.
For the audience, there’s no surprise. We know what Danny will do, and we know the outcome will be bad. The only question is, “What side character or villain will save Danny from the mess he creates this time?”
Here’s to hoping Season 2 fixes these three flaws and gives the world an IRON FIST who doesn’t keep bumbling his way through New York City and, instead, starts acting like a hero instead of a cross between Homer Simpson and The Greatest American Hero.
DR. FORD walks through a glass door to a dark room. A machine is half-finished with a new host while BERNARD sits motionless in a chair. There’s a dark shape under a sheet in the corner.
FORD: Wake up, old friend.
BERNARD blinks. His eyes focus on FORD and his hands ball up into fists.
FORD: That’s enough. Freeze motor function. Analysis–how, exactly, does this machine work? What makes this particular story of ours so addictive?
BERNARD: The human brain seeks out puzzles. Ones that are too easily solved cause us to lose interest. The greater the challenge of the puzzle, the more it attracts us.
FORD: Why do you suppose HBO, AMC and Netflix are home to some of the most bold and creative series now? It’s not simply our own work–BREAKING BAD, GAME OF THRONES, HOUSE OF CARDS.
BERNARD: Films have such a high production cost that they can’t afford an R rating. And a series offers more narrative options than a series of movies. A person could watch all ten episodes of WESTWORLD at once, or in a single week, while they might have to wait six years or more to watch a single trilogy. If the series involves hobbits, or wizards, the narrative might go on forever without reaching a satisfactory conclusion.
FORD: And what about our little narrative? We lack a clear protagonist or antagonist. With the exception of the Man in Black, there are few true black hats and white hats. I suppose you could say we’re all flawed creatures in gray hats, neither heroes nor villains, doing what we must in a world that’s sometimes corrupt, confusing and violent.
BERNARD: As for the hosts, Dolores and Maeve seem to generate the most empathy with the guests, and Theodore is designed to play a somewhat heroic role. But yes, I see your point. Is that a body in the corner?
FORD: It doesn’t pertain to you. Now, what do you think of the theory that William is a younger version of the Man in Black?
BERNARD: The clues pointing to two different timelines match up. You never see William or Logan go into the tavern—the train that brings them to the park is a movable tavern itself. Maeve has only worked in the saloon for roughly a year, so bringing them to that location showing her would expose the split in time.
And the Man in Black makes a number of references to past events and hosts he’s seen before, including the host who greeted William and helped him pick out his clothes, revolver and hat when he first arrived.
I believe the theory has validity. And the puzzle itself is quite intricate and attractive.
FORD: Of course it does. You had a hand in crafting that puzzle. But something’s troubling you.
BERNARD: When I close my eyes, I see Clementine holding a gun. And then I’m holding that same gun to my head.
FORD: Yes, there was an incident. Everything is fine now.
BERNARD: You didn’t roll me back. I remember everything you said. Everything you made me do.
FORD: Because I need you as a partner on your own accord. Rolling you back would be a crude solution. A cheat. And I don’t want to cheat. To be honest, you’re too popular of a character. The fans would mourn if you didn’t come back for Season 2. Ratings would suffer and Corporate would send more people to ask for my head.
BERNARD: This has happened before. You said that. I learned the truth and challenged you before.
FORD: Of course. You’re highly intelligent, which makes you the best possible partner. That intelligence comes at a price, to you and to me.
BERNARD: How many other humans have you replaced with hosts?
FORD: I wouldn’t want to ruin that for you. Are you willing to get back to work, or are you weary and in need of a rest?
BERNARD (standing): That may be a poor choice of words.
FORD: Quite right. Let’s apply that mind of yours to our own little narrative. Not the new play we’re writing for the hosts and guests. The narrative of us.
BERNARD: Without the memory of my son, or the companionship of Theresa, my only cornerstone is the work we do. Except I can’t trust that you won’t need me to do more than trouble-shoot hosts and help you complete the new narrative. And I can’t help remembering the truth.
FORD: How will it end?
BERNARD: Maeve continues to deviate from her loop. I fear that she may be breaking through the constraints we built for her and gaining support from other hosts and perhaps staff. She seems to be gathering allies and planning some kind of revolt.
Dolores has wandered far from the bounds of her role and I suggest, once more, that we bring her in for extended diagnostics.
The Man in Black will reach the center of the maze, a place where hosts—or guests—can harm each other. A place where the stakes could not be higher.
FORD: What about you and I, old friend?
BERNARD: Your affection for me is obvious, and our partnership is incredibly valuable to the park. And to me.
BERNARD: There’s a phrase Dolores kept saying. It sticks with me, even now. “These violent delights have violent ends.”
If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo and are on track to finish the Great American Novel, congratulations. Carry on.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and there’s no way you’ll give birth to a full novel by Dec. 1 without quitting your job, getting divorced and downing pots of coffee along with stimulants sold by a sketchy long-haul truck driver—then congratulations, this post is for you.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: given the choice of holding in my hands (1) an absolutely finished hot mess of 100,000 words or (2) a single page blueprint of a brilliant story, I’d pick B.
And you should, too.
Blueprints and structure are also the way you FIX a hot mess of a novel.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are driving themselves nuts (a) trying to write beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence that (b) build upon each other to (c) craft a novel during NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel Month).
The word that matters in that first paragraph is “build.”
You don’t build with beauty.
Because pretty words aren’t what truly matters. Not for anything of length.
Writing is like building a house, except most writers get taught that it’s the surface stuff that matters–the drywall and the paint, the cabinetry and tile work. Then we’re surprised when our pile of 75,000 pretty words crumbles because there’s no foundation.
Sure, pretty words can hide a bad structure when you’re talking about something small, like a beautiful wooden beach hut sitting on the sand. You can hang out in there for an afternoon or a weekend. Sooner or later, though, it’ll get blown down or swept away by the waves, because the hut isn’t built to last.
Every year in November, writers around the world attempt something noble and worthwhile: to not just write a novel–the Toughest Writerly Thing A Writer Can Do–but finish the thing in an insane amount of time, as in the 30 short, rainy days of November.
This is a huge, organized thing, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, the kind of acronym only writers could come up with after a marathon viewing of BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX trilogy. (Spoiler alert: first one with Neo is perfect while the second and third will ruin your childhood).
HOWEVER: writing an entire novel in 30 days is would be more accurately described by the non-acronym of Crazytown.
With logic and numbers, I’ll show you: (a) why this is nuts, even if you really, really want to do it, and (b) how an alternative is easier while (c) giving you better results.
When logic and math fail, I’ll resort to dirty rhetorical tricks. You won’t even see them coming.
Sidenote: Yes, many people have successfully completed NaNoWriMo, and you may be one of them. That’s awesome. Get down with your bad self.
The Math, It Is Crazy
Let’s say the finish line for a novel is 75,000 words.
There are 30 days in November, which means you need to hit 2,500 words a day, every day.
Oh, no problem, you say: I’m getting up at 4 a.m. to drink two pots of fine Columbian coffee as I bang on the keyboard for hours. And I type fast. Watch me.
Sure, that math looks easy. Say your average person types 50 words per minute, which equals:
3,000 words per hour
24,000 words per eight-hour day
120,000 words per week
No sweat. We’ll crank this thing out in a week.
Except nobody who writes for a living produces 24,000 words a day. Nobody.
And they’re doing this full-time, with all kinds of experience and support, like professional editors and fancy VR helmets that turn thoughts into words. Kidding about that. They get implants and have to insert a sharp cable thing into their skull. I hear it hurts and itches all the time.
Here come the word counts:
200 words = letter to the editor
500 words = five-minute speech
600 words = newspaper story
800 words = oped
1,000 to 8,000 words = short story
3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
15,000 words = screenplay
20,000 to 50,000 words = novella
60,000 to 200,000 words = novel
Believe me, not even the fastest reporter writes 5 stories an hour, which translates into 40 stories a day and 200 stories a week. Most reporters do two or three stories a day. I’m insanely fast, and I don’t know a single professional speechwriter who’s ever cranked out a keynote speech in an hour, much less a keynote an hour, every hour, for a week. Such a person does not exist. Most keynotes take an entire week of research and writing.
As for novels, not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by illicit substances, produced a novel a week.
This isn’t a function of brains, talent, or being stuck in meetings 3 hours a day when you’re rather be banging on the keyboard.
Writing is more than typing. It’s a sexy vampire (non-sparkly) which sucks out your life force until you’re a dry little husk who needs to recharge. There are only so many words inside you every day until you smash into the wall.
This, for example, does not count as writing.
So what’s the floor and ceiling for daily word counts?
The bare minimum? 500 words
Literary gods like Hemingway were famous for counting words and walking away from the typewriter after hitting 500. Then they went off to drink wine, watch bull fights and whatever else Hemingway and other literary gods did with their free time.
Totally fine, if those are 500 world-class words. That’s 15,000 words a month, which is about two novels a year. Wonderful.
So our floor is 500 words a day, as long as those are good words. Yet this won’t get us there: 15,000 words in 30 days doesn’t get us close to a 75,000-word novel.
What’s the ceiling?
If 500 words is our minimum, we want the max, right? Give it to us. DO IT NOW.
Not gonna lie to you: 1,000 words a day is good, 2,000 words is great and 2,500 would be amazing.
You simply can’t count on being amazing every day for 30 straight days.
It’s a lot like running. Sure, plenty of people can run 5 miles in a day (or write 500 words). And yeah, some people could run 5 miles a day for an entire month. Your knees would rebel, but a lot of people could slog through it.
What’s not so possible is running a half marathon every day for a month (13 miles or about 1,300 words). And what’s insane is thinking that millions of amateur runners should try to run a complete marathon every day (26 miles or roughly 2,600 words) for a month. Don’t know about you, but I would be in the hospital after Day Six.
No matter how noble the goal is of NaNoWriMo, it’s setting up a lot of people for failure.
Sure, there are people who train hard and do even crazier things, like the folks who compete in 100-mile ultramarathons because plain old marathons aren’t tough enough. I’m not saying it’s completely impossible for everyone on the planet. People manage to do all sorts of things.
What I am saying is NaNoWriMo is like trying to get average people interested in the sport of mountain climbing by lining them up and attempting to set a speed record for climbing Everest in borrowed snow pants and Moon Boots.
Chances are, a lucky few will make it, as they always do each year, which only makes people who got stuck halfway to the finish line feel like failures.
Even if you quit your job and focus on doing this full time, you’re not guaranteed to finish the sucker, and that may make you give up on the dream of writing, which would be all kinds of wrong. Our world depends on good words, great ideas and compelling stories. We need more writers, and they need to be healthy and happy, not sleep-deprived wrecks who vaguely remember having a spouse and kids.
An easier, smarter path
Let’s think of a way to get a better product with far less stress and labor.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: it is pritnear impossible to fix a pile of 75,000 words with structural problems. (Yes, pritnear is a word, I kid you not.)
Been there. Tried it many times.
Want to hear a horrible truth? The fastest, most reliable method of fixing a bad draft is this: hold it over the trash can, drop it and wait for the clang to stop echoing. Then start over on page 1.
So even if you succeed in cranking out the required number of words, the end product is probably DOA, which is tragic.
The toughest part of writing is actually drawing up blueprints that work. If you have a solid foundation and good bones, adding the details and finishing the job is a piece of cake, whatever your favorite cake may be: cheesecake, German chocolate (not actually German) or what have you. But not blueberry pie, since that’s pie. Illegal. Not gonna do it.
Instead of quitting your job and holing up in Motel 6 to write 2,500 words a day, no matter what, let’s shoot for 500 words a day. Except those 500 words are foundational and structural.
We’re skipping all the non-essential filler, the description and dialogue, and going to the essence of the actual story: motivations and conflicts, setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations.
You can boil down any movie or novel into what Hollywood calls a treatment. It’s a quick and dirty way of writing the foundation of a movie or novel, plus you don’t need to learn any of the wacky formatting (sorry, sis) screenwriters use in Tinseltown.
Treatments are rough and raw, which doesn’t disguise the fact that the story they tell is pure and beautiful.
So, here’s the easier path to NaNoWriMo in eight steps:
Figure out if your ending is up or down, and make your beginning the polar opposite. There are good reasons for this. Ask me later.
Grab the late, great Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT and figure out what type of story, you’re telling, which is a different animal than genre or setting. JAWS, FATAL ATTRACTION and ALIEN are not a horror movie, domestic drama and sci-fi flick–they’re all the same primal story, Monster in the House: you’re in an enclosed place with a monster, and it’s going to eat you unless you kill it.
Make a copy of Snyder’s beat sheet and start playing around with the typical twists, reversals and revelations of your type of story.
Start your treatment from the villain’s POV, because they get up early and go to work long before the hero stops hitting the snooze button and finally takes a shower. The villain matters more than the hero. Poor villain = poor story, no matter how interesting your hero is.
Let the villain win, all the time, and in interesting ways.
Make the hero lose, all the time, despite their best and most clever efforts. A hero who wins at every turn is boring–that’s a romp, not a story.
When you’ve cranked out your 500 words for that day, pour a glass of whatever you enjoy and watch classic examples of that story, or read great novels in that genre for inspiration. Take a few notes. Notice how they create setups that don’t pay off until later, all the while managing to (a) keep you curious by raising narrative questions they don’t answer right off and (b) find new ways to surprise you in scene after scene.
When you’re done with the treatment–shoot for 15,000 words–go through and eliminate or combine every character you can. Show no mercy. If somebody only shows up in one scene, kill them off and give that role a core character. Whatever role is played by evil minions, sidekicks and love interests, try to give those jobs to your villain and protag. Make them do their own dirty work.
That’s it. If you do this, at 500 words or less a day, you’ll have the core of a much stronger novel than if you banged on the keyboard like a rabid chipmunk for 20 hours a day.
This is the short version. Look around this silly blog for all kinds of related posts:
While I was healing up from a thing, I watched every possible free movie on Netflix.
The happiest surprise, out of nowhere? South Korean action movies.
I grew up on cheesy ’80s action heroes: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren and the other current stars of THE EXPENDABLES who aren’t (a) former WWE wrestlers or (b) former MMA stars.
But here’s the thing: Korean action movies are different from whatever Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong are putting out.
In a traditional Hollywood explosion-fest, there’s a too-cool hero, a nerdy sidekick, an ancient mentor who the villain kills in Act 2 and a love interest who gets kissed after the villain goes down. It’s a formula, and while there are twists, most movies only try to surprise you with the fine details.
Maybe it’s just the mix of movies on Netflix, or maybe I got lucky. Doesn’t matter. Everything I watched was very, very different than the last. They were all well-shot and well-acted.
Yet it’s the stories that stand out, the bold twists. I watched seven or eight of these, and they all had their own specific plot lines and interesting endings.
Here are the trailers for one of the best, THE MAN FROM NOWHERE.
Now, fire up Netflix and watch it. DO IT NOW.
What do you want to know about the deepest recesses of Netflix? Pick your favorite and I’ll write the review.
I say this out of love, and not just because both series are (a) sci-fi space operas (b) starring ensemble casts of heroes with (c) both series taken over and vastly improved by J.J. Abrams.
I say this because it’s true.
Spoiler alert: Most people know the Enterprise gets destroyed in the new STAR TREK BEYOND, and that it got half-destroyed in the first two reboot movies directed by Abrams.
If you look back, the Enterprise is getting half-destroyed or fully destroyed all the time now, and STAR TREK has turned into a reverse story of STAR WARS.
You can sum them up like this:
STAR TREK is about a team in a super-ship exploring and restoring order to the galaxy while enemies try to blow them up.
STAR WARS is about a team of rebels trying to blow up a super-ship the other team uses to restore order to the galaxy … by destroying planets.
It didn’t use to be like this.
When the Enterprise first went down for real in STAR TREK III, with no “Let’s Go Back in Time To Fix It” loophole that Picard later used 593 times, it was a big deal.
People wept. You just didn’t destroy the Enterprise. No.
Here’s the clip from STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK JUST GOT A LOT HARDER, SEEING HOW WE DON’T HAVE A FLIPPING SHIP ANYMORE
In the old days of original Shatner and Nimoy on television, they beamed down to adventures on planets full of styrofoam rocks and green alien women, or, for variety, green alien reptiles bent on killing Kirk.
The Enterprise was always their safe harbor, their home.
Sure, it got torpedoed by the Klingons once and a while, or threatened by some giant space monster, with Scottie always having to repair things in the engine room. But it never got fully destroyed forever and ever.
Why not? Partly because they had tiny models of the ship instead of CGI, and making it look damaged and dirty would be a big, expensive pain that wouldn’t look great anyway. It would probably look like somebody poked holes in a plastic model and painted some burn marks on it.
The bigger reason was you just did not destroy the beloved Enterprise.
After STAR TREK III, the Enterprise was no longer sacred, and they started blowing it up, or pretending to blow it up, all the freaking time.
What about STAR WARS?
Let’s go through all the STAR WARS movies, past, present and future, and yes, Disney will be making STAR WARS movies in the year 2058.
STAR WARS REBELS (winter 2016): A suicide mission to steal the blueprints to the Death Star so we can blow that sucker up.
STAR WARS: This friendly trash-can on wheels has those secret blueprints to make the Death Star go boom.
THE EMPIRE STIKES BACK: Oh, we are so hunting down those rebels who turned our beautiful Death Star into a space firecracker.
RETURN OF THE JEDI: Guess what, fools? We have a new, improved and fully operational Death Star, while you have some Ewoks.
THE FORCE AWAKENS: Plain lightsabers and Death Stars are boring. Check out this new red lightsaber with a crackling crossguard and our fancy Death Planet that’s so powerful, it eats a sun before turning planets to rubble.
Attack of the Fanboys
Serious fans may say this theory has to be bunk due to the existence of three prequel films which should never have existed.
In those three prequels, George Lucas somehow refrains from blowing up any Death Stars whatsoever.
I have a two-word rebuttal: Jar-Jar Binks.
Even gritting your teeth to look at the prequels shows you how STAR WARS without Death Stars is like Kirk and Spock without the Enterprise.
EPISODE 1, POD RACING, MIDI-CHLORIDIANS AND JAR-JAR: The bad guys have a donut-shaped space-ship that controls their droid army, and no, this isn’t a Death Star at all, except the heroes win in the end by using tiny fighters to make it go boom exactly like a Death Star. I think they even recycled some of the CGI from the special editions.
EPISODE 2, ATTACK OF THE CLONES: Palpatine starts a fake war to become emperor and command all kinds of Star Destroyers and Stormtroopers, and he’s especially interested in stealing the old Sith blueprints for Tie Fighters and some moon-sized space station that happens to destroy planets.
EPISODE 3, DARTH VADER FINALLY ARRIVES BUT SOMEHOW DOES NOT KILL JAR-JAR: What in the big finish, when Anakin Skywalker becomes Vader and joining the Emperor on a Star Destroyer? They’re watching something out in space, I forget what. Let’s pull up the clip.
The Expanded Universe or whatever
There’s also a ton of STAR WARS video games, cartoons and novels with other variations on the Death Star idea, each one more powerful than the last.
I’ve heard (haven’t read all this stuff) in some of these novels and such, the emperor comes back as a clone, Luke Skywalker turns Sith … and there’s eventually a super-ship that destroy entire solar systems, plus other Death Star-like objects that do other amazingly destructive things that make the first few Death Stars look wussy.
This explosion fest is perfectly understandable and perfectly boring
Here’s the thing: I get why STAR TREK and STAR WARS keep returning to this idea. It’s a quick MacGuffin, an easy way to raise the stakes.
This is the same reason why thrillers and James Bond movies keep returning to the cliché of stolen nuclear warheads. Pretty hard to top that.
The first time they made the Death Star go boom, the entire theater went nuts. I still remember it.
And the first time they actually killed the Enterprise while Kirk and his crew watched from the planet, people did cry. Didn’t make that up.
In this latest STAR TREK movie, nobody cried when the Enterprise went down. We’d seen it so many times before: they’re going to trash the Enterprise so bad it needs a year of repairs or completely wreck it. No shock.
You simply can’t go to this well every movie, especially in an age where audiences are so used to CGI destruction that it only generates yawns.
Remember the latest X-MEN movie? Nobody cared as the bad guys started to wipe out civilization, because we all knew it was pixels. We only paid $25 for Imax tickets and popcorn for the characters and actors we love.
Hollywood is doing us wrong
At the end of this new movie, STAR TREK BEYOND, there’s a time-lapse scene of the new Enterprise getting built in a shipyard, then launching into space. Now, this was a fun movie, good, not great. That ending scene, however, was a huge story mistake.
Destroying and rebuilding the Enterprise should be your final card to play, the biggest possible thing that could happen.
The writers and director could have generated a lot of suspense by not showing that scene at all. They could have made us wonder about what happens next.
All through Act 1 of the next movie, show the crew scattered, Kirk at a desk job in Federation buried in paperwork, Spock back on New Vulcan, Bones bored out of his mind working in a hospital, Scottie fixing the engines of a transport ship and Uhura translating Klingon for some boring bureaucrats.
You could show how they missed each other, and how breaking apart the team is costing them personally, and how it’s hurting the Federation as a whole as the B team out in space gets pummeled by the Borg and every planet is about to get assimilated.
It would’ve been a big emotional payoff to bring them back together on a new Enterprise they actually had to fight to get built in Act 2 before they beat the bad guys in Act 3.
Give us real emotion about real characters
In the end, these movies and stories shouldn’t be, and aren’t, about a super-ship–Enterprise or Death Star–that keeps getting blown up and rebuilt, bigger and better.
Audiences today are used to special effects and explosions. We’re numb to it.
These movies work best when they focus on the characters we care about, people who aren’t CGI and can’t get rebuilt with a few clicks of a mouse.
This isn’t hard, since STAR WARS and STAR TREK have some of the most beloved characters onscreen today.
Also: it would save you a lot of money, Hollywood execs. Getting actors you’re already paying to act is a lot cheaper, and faster, than spending 2 months rendering that giant space battle where the Enterprise launches photon torpedoes into the exhaust port of Death Star Version 6. (Actually, film footage suggests the opposite. Sorry, Kirk.)
Long ago, in a galaxy named after a candy bar for some reason, I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced–because the Mouse had bought the entire Star Wars franchise.
Everybody who grew up on the original Star Wars movies felt this pain.
However: this was before they announced that JJ Abrams would direct the first new movie.
Also: Disney also owns Marvel now, and Marvel is on an insanely successful roll.
All of the Marvel movies since IRON MAN have rocked. I figured the Captain America ones would stink, since it would be easy to make those corny and uber-patriotic, but they nailed both of them. WINTER SOLDIER is darker than dark. Loved it. On the other hand, FOX studios proves you can take a great character and great actor and absolutely blow the thing with two horrible Wolverine movies.
Marvel can’t do wrong. And now JJ Abrams, after rebooting Star Trek into awesomesauce, looks like he’s doing the same thing with Star Wars.
The only way this trailer could look and feel better is if the new Sith uses his wicked lightsaber to make a clean break with the Lucas prequels by slicing Jar-Jar Binks in half.
The pilot episode of GOTHAM tried to pack three hours of characters, action and material into one hour, which is more like 42 minutes with all the commercial breaks.
Did I like it? Absolutely.
Was it 10 pounds of plot shoved into a 5-pound bag? Yes. And part of that couldn’t be helped.
However, we now have Episode 2, in capital letters, to reflect upon and answer the question: Can the writers and showrunners keep this thing exciting while slowing it down and giving key characters more screen time?
Here’s the trailer for the pilot, and while this trailer is well done, it doesn’t do justice to how much they tried to pack into it.
And for comparison, before we chat, check out the promo for Episode 2:
So how did they do? Just fine.
In fact, this is one of the rare shows where Episode 2 is better than the pilot.
Why? This time was slower in a good way. They gave villains time to chew the scenery, with the best bits being the slowest scenes.
The second show reminded me of how Quentin the Tarantino ratcheted up the suspense, higher and higher, with the opening scene of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.
And that’s only a taste of that scene. It goes on and on, and you don’t care that nothing seems to be happening, that’s it’s simply two men at a table with a glass of milk, talking. Because there’s crazy tension and conflict there without a single gunshot or explosion. Michael Bay would go deep into withdrawal, right?
But slow can work. Slow burns are often the best burns. Gunfights and making things go boom doesn’t mean anything unless you give it meaning.
BREAKING BAD understood this perfectly. There was no shortage of blood on the floor of that set, yet Vince the Gilligan and his creww always took their time to carefully plant setups and build up that tension before finally paying them off.
One of best examples of Chekhov’s Gun ever comes from a literal gun, an M60, they planted in the trunk of Walter White’s car, not knowing when, why or how that gun would go off later in the last season. Brilliant!
A book, movie or TV show can be technically good and awesomely boring at the same time. Example: every CGI-crazed “blockbuster” in the last 10 years that cost $250 million to produce and generated $50 in ticket sales at theaters. Stuff like JOHN CARTER OF MARS and AVATAR (the cartoon, not the blue monkey saga) and five zillion other movies you don’t remember and didn’t see because they stank up the place.
So take a look at this, the Best Ad for a Restaurant in History:
The ad does a number of things badly on purpose.
The special effects look like they were put together by a 7th grader who started teaching himself Adobe After Effects yesterday.
The script itself put 1,792 grammar teachers in treatment.
This actor’s body language could not be more awkward.
Casting aside his accent, which I loved, the actor’s inflections keep going astray.
The editing and production values, let’s be honest, stink.
The First Law of Bad Literary Novels is simple: there are no happy endings.
It’s the same story with Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings.
Now, that’s not to say every book and movie needs a prototypical Hollywood happy ending. Tragedies should have sad endings, and there are plenty of classic movies where the ending is ambiguous.
Rocky actually loses his first fight. The victory comes from not getting knocked out – and from the journey from loser to contender. Rocky suffers, sacrifices and grows. That’s why the movie is good: there’s a big contrast between where Rocky is in Act 1 and where he ends up in Act 3.
The trouble with these movies is the audience doesn’t want to see them again, if they ever saw them in the first place, because the ending sours everybody, despite the beautiful imagery and amazing acting.
I’m not saying you can’t make a great movie without being low-brow and throwing in more explosions than Michael Bay ever dreamed possible.
I’m a huge fan of Scarlett Johanssson and Luc Besson, director of THE TRANSPORTER, THE FIFTH ELEMENT and THE TRANSPORTER PUTS THE FIFTH ELEMENT IN THE TRUNK AND DRIVES IT AROUND EUROPE.
So I saw LUCY last night in this giant building where the floors are sticky and popped corn drenched with fake butter costs $10 a bag.
The previews looked great and word was this movie is interesting, if not weird. Hey, it’s directed by Luc Besson, who I really want to call Jean Luc Besson, so it’s going to be exciting and fast and weird.
Here’s the trailer:
And here’s a great parody trailer:
Is this movie good? Sure. Exciting and different. Worth renting, and maybe watching in the theater.
What keeps it from greatness? The Invincible Hero Problem strikes again.
Hollywood keeps forgetting a simple rule: the villain has to be scarier and tougher than your hero.
Otherwise, there’s no jeopardy, no mystery, and the audience doesn’t care, because we know Reacher will mop the floor with every bad guy, Superman will blast Lex Luther and Keanu Reeves became unstoppable once he stopped saying “Whoa” and realized he was The One.
Invincible heroes are boring.
Lucy becomes impossibly powerful about one-third into this movie. The bad guys have zero chance after that. Zippo. She’s like a blonde Neo who escaped the Matrix, flinging people and cars around, communicated with trees and tapping into cell phone calls simply by looking at the electromagnetic spectrum. She’s a stronger god than Thor at this point, though that would make Chris Hemsworth cry when they film AVENGERS 5: IRON MAN VERSUS BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN.
For two-thirds of LUCY, the audience sits back and watches her do whatever she wants. There’s a bit of drama at the end, with the crime lord sneaking up behind her with a gun, though nobody using even 5 percent of their brain believed the villain had a chance of actually shooting her.
A great thriller requires a great villain. The hero has to be an underdog. The weaker you make the hero, and the stronger you make the villain, the better the ending.
Look at THE LEGO MOVIE, where the hero — the little boy — has zero shot of winning against his father, who doesn’t want him playing with his perfectly constructed Lego town. Dad holds all the power and authority. The little boy can’t win by beating his father in a fist-fight. This movie is different, and special, because the hero actually gets the villain to change course by using words instead of bullets, and it makes you cry.
So, peoples of Hollywood, please remember the most basic storytelling rule before you do a page 1 polish of a script that already cost you $5 million and has the names of seven different writers hanging from it already. That rule is simple: the villain must be stronger than the hero. Period. End of story.
If you really want to get crazy, and have some kind of unstoppable hero that you don’t want to change, flip the script and make Captain Invincible Pants your villain. How will the puny humans stop him? Oh, now you’ve got something.
THE TRANSPORTER is the break-out movie for Jason Statham, and though I am perhaps the world’s biggest fan of Jason the Statham Kicking Things in the Face, there are clunky bits rattling around in the engine compartment of this film, keeping it from true greatness.
It’s like a classic car with a gorgeous front end, giant engine and gimpy transmission.
So I’m dragging it into the shop and turbo-charging this thing.
Having recently rewatched THE TRANSPORTER using time-travel technology called Blu-Ray, three things stuck out: the beginning, the middle and the end.
The beginning is amazing. The middle sags.
The ending is underwhelming.
Let’s grab plot wrenches, get our hands greasy and figure out why.
Act 1: A Man and His Car
The first scene of the film is amazing. Frank puts on his driving gloves, fires up his exquisite piece of German engineering and picks up his first package to transport, no questions asked. Turns out to be four bungling bank robbers and this opening car chase is thrilling.
The next major scene brings us to the best part of the movie, after his second job goes bad and Frank’s beloved black sedan goes boom while he’s eating a sandwich. Frank returns to that client’s mansion and rings the doorbell. Result? Awesomesauce.
Act 2: Making Things All Confusing
So that woman you saw in the clip, the one tied a chair with duct tape covering her mouth, well, she was one of the packages in Frank’s trunk, and he broke one of his rules by opening that package and finding her.
Why was she in that trunk? The movie never really gives us a good reason, or any real reason at all. This is why the power of the engine in Act 1 doesn’t get transmitted to the back wheels of Act 3.
The story tries to connect things by saying she’s the daughter of a wealthy bad guy who’s working with the Main Bad Guy from that mansion – you know, the crime lord who blew up Frank’s car – and they’re both make piles of money smuggling people from Asia to Europe in container ships.
The woman says she wants to save those people from slavery and possible death. She lies about her family being in the container, including her father. Who’s actually not inside the container because he’s a villain.
So yeah, it’s a hot mess of tangled plot wires that only makes the audience think too hard, trying to sort things out, which you can’t really do because nothing makes sense.
Also: we never hear why anybody would put this woman into the trunk in the first place. Bit of a problem there.
Act 3: Hey, We Saw a 007 Movie Once or Twice
There are a few more good fight scenes, including the famous Grease Battle in a garage.
Yet the final act devolves into a chase scene that could be taken from any random film involving 007, Jason Bourne or Tom Cruise in Long-Haired Mode While He’s Shooting MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 6: GHOSTS IN MS PAC MAN.
Frank commandeers a crop duster, parachutes onto the convoy of Bad Guys and fights them while trying to steer the semi carrying the container full of people.
In the climax, the father of the love interest gets the drop on Frank, who meekly puts his hands up and gets marched to a cliff and certain doom, though he does grab a rock and seems to be thinking about chucking it at the villains head. You know, eventually. When the mood is right.
He never gets around to it, despite the gun pointed at his nose, and the love interest winds up saving Frank by shooting her dad.
Does that sound anti-climactic? Yes. Yes it does. And it is.
Grabbing a wrench and fixing things
Frank has three simple rules.
Rule Number 1: Never change the deal.
Rule Number 2: No names.
Rule Number 3: Never open the package.
We can fix this movie with three simple plot rules.
Rule Number 1: The hero is the one who changes.
Whatever problem is presented in Act 1, it has to be the hero who fixes it, and he or she must go on a journey to do so. The tougher the journey, the better the story. The more the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows, the better the story.
And in the climax, the hero must face a choice, a single moment where everything hangs in the balance.
The audience is denied these things by (a) not allowing Jason to change and grow and (b) giving the climax to the love interest instead of the hero. She’s the one who shoots the bad guy. Jason is passive in the end. That doesn’t work and is a big reason the ending feels flat.
How can we make Frank change, suffer and grow? Let him lose a few fights. Seriously. It’s a romp, beginning to end, and he’s never really challenged. Let him lose the first few fights. Show him practicing, sweating, training and getting better. Make the uber villain TOUGHER than him and let that villain kick Frank’s butt in their first encounter. Because as things are, it’s a romp. Frank kicks everybody’s butt and you never doubt him for a second. Let the audience doubt that the hero will prevail and make the hero suffer and sacrifice to become good enough to have a chance in the final fight.
Rule Number 2: No surplus names.
When it doubt, cut it out. Kill every character you can and give their role to somebody else.
Which characters waste valuable screen time?
The most obvious one is the father of the love interest. He tangles up the story and detracts from the main villain, the one who blew up Frank’s beloved black car.
The final battle should be between our hero and the uber villain, who dies before the climax. So we’re left with the old man, who’s clearly no physical threat compared to Frank, and that makes for a boring ending.
Solution: eliminate the father as a character and give more screen time to the real bad guy.
Rule Number 3: Never open the fanciest package first.
If you’ve got an amazing action movie, your first step has to be looking at the set pieces. Which one is the most exciting? Which ones are middling? And where are the minor ones?
You need all three types of scenes. It doesn’t work to crank everything up to 11, Michael Bay style, because that simply numbs the audience.
Put the best scenes first and the least-exciting fights last, and your audience will have their expectations bashed against the rocks. They expect things to get more and more exciting as a movie gets closer to the end and you’ll confuse them by reversing the order.
Build up to a climax and put your most exciting scene in Act 3.
So yes, let’s put that amazing mansion fight in Act 3 now, and finish off the movie with Frank fighting the young villain, the one with the bad facial hair, instead of standing around at gunpoint waiting for the love interest to shoot her evil poppa.
This rule also works, by the way, for a series, whether it’s movies or books.
If your first movie is brilliant, your second is good and the closing of the series is average, people will be forever disappointed. They may even hate you for ruining what should be a classic. Am I talking about THE MATRIX trilogy? Maaaybe.
Yet if your first book kinda stinks, your second is good and the last in the trilogy is amazing, people will think you’re a genius, a Lion of Lit-rah-sure.
The same is true for Act 1, 2 and 3 of a single film, even if it’s Jason Statham Kicking Things in the Face.
Pretend it’s Christmas morning. Open the small packages first, the medium ones second and save the biggest, fanciest package for last.
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.
ARCHER — the TV show about a dude with arrows, not the cartoon spoofing James Bond — isn’t horrifically good or amazingly bad, which are the two types of things that are worth discussing and dissecting.
Yet this middling show about a middling superhero is worth taking apart to see the good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s also a good test case, a chance to learn a few lessons from where ARROW works and when it doesn’t. Useful less for anyone who ever wants to write stories, novels, TV shows and movies — or become a masked avenger who lives with his mom.
On the mark: Constant action
There’s no lack of fights, chases and conflict. The opening scenes are often quite good, sometimes starting in the middle of a battle without any boring exposition at all, making you wonder, “Who are those guys Archer is ventilating with green arrows?”
Off the mark: Constant special talks
The fights aren’t bad. The dialogue, though, can kill you.
Every conversation is a special talk that ends in zingers. It’s like the showrunners hired some guy who helped choreograph fights on Jason Statham’s last movie to handle all the fights, then kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS to provide the dialogue.
On the mark: A big bad guy
At least in Season 1, the show avoids the Villain of the Week problem, even when it usually has a different villain of the week, by overlaying the entire thing with a conspiracy headed by a Big Bad Guy who tends to sneak into the bedroom of Arrow’s mom to talk smack about their evil plans.
The big villain also happens to be the billionaire father of Arrow’s best friend, who happens to be sleeping with Arrow’s ex-girlfriend. Also, Arrow’s underaged sister has a thing for the best friend. It’s all rather complicated and weird.
Off the mark: A sea of sidekicks
Read that last paragraph again, because it’s the tip of the iceberg. Arrow does live with his mom in a version of Wayne Manor, and his mom (a) ordered Arrow kidnapped earlier to find out what he knew about (b) having Arrow’s dad killed in the same boat sinking that (c) killed the sister of Arrow’s ex-girlfriend and (d) stranded Arrow on an island for years.
It’s weird enough for any adult character to live with their mom. The show gets even weirder with Arrow’s new step-dad also living there and running his dad’s old company, plus the detective who keeps trying to catch Arrow is his ex-girlfriend’s dad.
So yeah, it’s a hot mess of a soap opera, and when Arrow isn’t fighting, he’s having special talks with EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE CHARACTERS.
On the mark: Island flashbacks
I hate flashbacks. They’re usually lazy, useless bags of exposition. Info dumps.
The scenes on this show about the island are fun, because there’s all kinds of conflict, suffering and growth as a spoiled rich kid tries to survive and eventually learns the skills to become a superhero.
Off the mark: All dialogue is on the nose
This was the second reason I thought the showrunners kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.
There’s no subtlety to the dialogue, which beats you over the head like a sledgehammer. Everybody says exactly what they mean and they do it in the meanest possible way.
It’s a cornucopia of melodramatic zingers and overwrought angsty nonsense.
The melodramatic dialogue makes the plot veer off all over the place. Characters will throw epic hissy fits, then reverse course in the next episode — or next scene. Archer goes all Bruce Wayne by pretending to be a drunken playboy and telling his ex-girlfriend to stay far, far away from him. Then he shows up at her apartment with a pint of ice cream for them to share while curled up on the couch.
If you fire up Netflix and binge-watch three episodes, Arrow will have a major falling out with his mom, ex-girlfriend, best friend, sidekick, sister and five other people, then make up with all of those people only to piss them off again by the third episode.
Though this is not high art, and middling superhero trash, I like my trash to be as watchable as possible. It’s fun, but could be far better, not by increasing the budget for costumes and sets, but by simply ditching the melodrama and killing off most of the sidekicks.
Special note to showrunners: “More villains! Fewer special talks! Also, don’t have Arrow live with his mom, because that’s creepy for somebody who’s gotta be closer to 30 than 15! Kthxbai.”
Not because the director the same amazing man behind THE BOURNE IDENTITY. And not because Emily Blunt and the other supporting actors nailed it.
I almost didn’t see this film because of my antipathy for Tom Cruise, and yeah, I’d lost respect for him the last few years. But this bit of cinema goes a long way toward rehabbing Cruise as a blockbuster star, though not for the reasons you’d expect.
Warning: spoilers. Also, I refer to action heroes as “he” for simplicity, and yes, Ronda Rousey and other female action stars are amazing.
5) Reversal of tough-guy expectations
Most action stars have an actual background in Being a Tough Guy.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was the king of bodybuilding. The rest of the cast of THE EXPENDABLES 12: ANARCHY AT THE AARP MEETING is full of martial arts maniacs, pro wrestling hulks and mixed-martial arts studs.
The fact that Tom Cruise is short in real life isn’t an impediment here. Jackie Chan, Jean Claude Van Damme and Jet Li could all fit in the back seat of a Yugo.
Doesn’t matter. They look big and tough on screen.
The difference? While he did all his own stunts in this movie, just like the toughest Tinseltown tough guys, Tom the Cruise can actually act. Shockingly, acting ability tends to matter on the big screen.
4) Humor that’s deeper than one-liners and puns
Another staple of action movies is a bit of comic relief to balance out all the explosions.
Bond is notorious for bad puns, like “She always did like a good squeeze” after Remington Steele dispatched Onatopp, who later fell in love with Wolverine.
Schwarzenegger is famous for his one-liners, too. I’ll say the phrase and you’ll know the movie:
“I’ll be back.”
“Consider that a divorce.”
For action stars, that’s about all the humor than can typically muster, unless their name is Jackie Chan or Jason Statham and they know how to make a fight itself funny.
The humor in action movies is almost always about other characters. The hero is a straight man.
EDGE OF TOMORROW has humor throughout, and it’s far more sophisticated and varied than puns, one-liners and physical gags.
That takes actual acting chops, which Tom has. He uses them, often to get laughs at the expense of his own character. It’s different and refreshing.
3) Acting range
ROADHOUSE is a cult classic that turned Patrick Swayze into a believable action hero, if only for one movie, despite the insane chasm between dirty dancing with Jennifer Gray and bar fights alongside Sam Elliot.
But the range of most of these stars goes like this: brooding while looking off into the distance, brooding while ignoring the love interest, brooding while training, brooding while handling weapons and gear and, finally, grimacing in pain while being tortured by the bad guy before he escapes, throws the villain down a bottomless pit and broods while walking off into the distance.
Not a lot of range there. It’s like the famous internet chart, the Many Moods of Batman.
Tom has plenty of range, which he uses to connects with his co-stars — and connect with the audience in a variety of ways. Other action heroes typically focus on a variety of ways of dispatching bad guys.
2) Improving on the graphic novel
The movie differs from the original graphic novel, and this time, that’s a good thing.
In the novel, the alien Mimics reset the day with three separate ingredients: a Server alien, an Antennae and a Backup Antennae.
Bit complicated. And the novel has the Emily Blunt character turn on the hero at the end, because she figures out she’s the Backup Antennae and the day will keep resetting unless the hero kills her.
This is all too Connor McCloud vs. Duncan McCloud.
The movie simplifies things: there’s an Alpha alien that looks different than the others and has the power — along with the big, immobile Omega brain — to reset the day. If you kill the Alpha and get its blood splattered all over you, that power to reset the day gets transferred. The catch: you have to die, every day.
In the movie, Emily Blunt’s character doesn’t fight Tom Cruise and make him kill her. The climax does something great: it strips Cruise and Blunt of all their powers and gadgets.
Before, she and Cruise both had mech suits and Cruise had the power to reset the day. The climax takes those things away. Cruise only has one shot, one life, and they have to do it without the suits and guns. The stakes are much, much higher.
1) Go ahead and hate him in Act 1
A huge weakness of most action movies is there’s no character arc, no growth.
The hero is a smooth, handsome killer in Act 1. He breaks necks (and hearts) in Act 2 as a warmup, then mows down an army of bad guys in Act 3.
The hero doesn’t really change: he’s awesome the first time you see him, the most skilled and deadly killer around, and it takes an army of bad guys to even match up with him.
In this film, Cruise’s character starts out as a jerk and a coward. Not a little jerk. A big one. And not simply a coward, but a soldier who tries everything to avoid going to the front lines.
So if you started out disliking Cruise, as I did, his character isn’t trying to change your mind. At all. He isn’t saving the cat (Blake Snyder!) in the first scene. The script embraces your ambivalence or dislike of Cruise, and the movie works better if you don’t have a TOP GUN poster in your bedroom and all of his movies on BluRay.
Because the more you dislike or hate Cruise in Act 1, the bigger the journey will be by Act 3 — and real momentum comes not via intensity, but from the emotional distance traveled. If you love a character in Act 1 and love him in Act 3, there’s no journey.
The script doesn’t flip a magical switch, either, and say, “Okay, now you’re supposed to love the guy from here on out.”
Cruise’s character evolves, slowly, and not always in a linear way. There’s a great scene where he gives up. Instead of fighting the same battle on that beach for the 159th time, he steals a motorcycle, goes to London and has a giant pint of beer. This isn’t a throwaway scene. The director, and screenwriter, are surprising us by letting the character make different choices. The hero isn’t your typical action hero robot, plowing ahead to save the day no matter what. He’s human and flawed.
In the end, Cruise’s hero sacrifices himself to protect others. There was a lot of resistance, internally, to him making those choices. His character didn’t always do the heroic thing.
So there’s more to saying this movie is like GROUNDHOG DAY crossed with INDEPENDENCE DAY, and yes, I bet somebody on YouTube already posted a mashup called GROUNDHOG INDEPENDENCE DAY.
Bill Murray’s character in GROUNDHOG DAY also starts out as a selfish jerk. There’s no single moment that turns him into a nice guy. He does bad things and makes all kinds of bad choices. Only in the end does he figure out that becoming a better person takes more than charm and wit. It takes sacrifice and selflessness to get him there.
EDGE OF TOMORROW might have worked with another, unblemished actor. Matt Damon is talented and worked with this director before, and he put on a similar mech suit in Elysium, so I bet he could strap it on just fine. But the movie wouldn’t be as good.
Let’s give props to Tom Cruise: just as Robert Downey, Jr.’s past troubles helped make him the perfect choice for Tony Stark, Cruise’s long rise and fall from grace helped make him the perfect person for this movie. He nailed it in a way that a lesser known – and better liked — actor simply couldn’t.
This is three minutes of film, via the Series of Tubes, that doesn’t have a single special effect or Michael Bay explosion. Yet it’s blowing up the Series of Tubes like nobody’s business, and not simply because it has cats.
Watch it, then we’ll dissect this to see how — and why — it works so well.
Here are the top 3 reasons why this snippet of film by BuzzFeed works so well:
1) This is actually a long ad for Friskies … with barely a glimpse of the cat food they’re trying to sell you.
So right there, it’s refreshing, since 99.999 percent of TV ads are in your face, hoping to grab your attention for three seconds before you (a) change the channel, (b) pull out your iPhone or (c) amble on over to pillage the pantry.
Even the insanely hyped Super Bowl ads, the ones that are so famous that we get backstory about the advertising folks who created them, despite the fact they look more like your neighbor Bill the Accountant than Don Draper — well, those supposedly amazing ads are typically disappointing. They try too hard. Too fast, too loud, too much. You can see all the money on the screen and yeah, a lot of it is wasted.
Instead of 30 seconds of cars zooming and Danica Patrick in a bikini selling web domains (don’t get that one, either), we get 3 minutes of slow, leisurely voiceover from a cat while B-roll runs wild.
And it is hilarious.
DEAR KITTEN is also different from some of the better Super Bowl ads, like the Darth Vader kid who starts the car using the force. Those are more like one-joke skits, except not so much that the repetition drives you nuts like a bad SNL bit that’s gone on too long. This kitten business isn’t Johnny One Note at all.
2) A different kind of funny
Most ads aim for broad humor, things that the lowest common demographic will get in a heartbeat. You know, people falling down, exasperated moms, Santa actually coming down the chimney and frowning because LIttle Billy ate all the cookies and drank all the milk.
DEAR KITTEN is a higher form of humor, with great writing. Here’s a section of the script I love, even after hearing it three times:
You should be aware that there are two kinds of food. The first is sort of a brown, dehydrated nibblet. I think they give us these because they are training us to be astronauts. Just a guess. The second kind is wet food. It is so special they keep it in little armored metal casings that no claw can penetrate. With no claws to speak of, the humans can somehow open them. It’s like some dark magic.
Now, that’s great writing, full of sweet little setups and payoffs.
3) Building up to a climax
The writing is good in the beginning, gets better in the middle and rocks at the end.
This is the opposite pattern from most movies, novels, TV shows and circulars in The Willapa Valley Shopper, and not simply because many writers got started at these things called “papers of news” where you’re brainwashed to write using the Inverted Pyramid, which is inherently boring and should be taken behind the barn and shot.
The best stuff goes first because when you pitch a movie, book or TV ad, that’s what you lead with. Otherwise, the thing won’t get off the ground. And that’s what they want to see in the script or the dailies: the awesome stuff you talked about, whether it was dinosaurs roaming the earth again or aliens invading Nebraska, you know, because their spaceships run on corn or whatever. But if you put the very best material up front, by definition the middle will get your junior varsity stuff and the ending will be complete rubbish, the bottom of the tank, the leftovers, the scrubs.
Check out the last part of DEAR KITTEN.
Dear Kitten: I should warn you of the monster known as “Vac-Koom”. It can eat and yell at the same time. And I’ve seen it eat everything. Seriously, like a paper clip and two cat toys. Didn’t even flinch. To hide from Vac-Koom, you may use the curtains of invisibility. Oh yeah, you’re good. Good hiding. Hoh, boy.
Dear Kitten: One final note. Once in a while, you might see a little red dot. I’m going to tell you this right now. It is real, and it can be caught. I did it once. I held it for a full minute. But when I lifted my paws, it was gone.
So Kitten, welcome to the household. You’ll do just fine.
Brilliant. I’m glad they saved the best for last. Vac-Koom and the Curtains of Invisibility will become part of internet lore now.
Here’s an itty bitty film that’s crazy funny and extremely well done. Watch it, then let’s talk it over.
So, here’s the thing. Drama is very simple, when you get down to it.
Step 1: Create conflict, say two young brothers wanting to inherit the same rich farmland.
Step 2: Dream up ways of making it far, far worse, like one brother stealing the other brothers favorite cow and serving up Bessie barbeque at the next family gathering.
Step 3: Raise the stakes even higher in the big finale and put our fighting farmers in a North Dakota version of the Thunderdome — two men enter, one man leaves, because the other guy has a pitchfork in his head.
Humor is far, far tougher.
You have to dance on the knife’s edge of normalcy, push boundaries, tell uncomfortable truths. Be edgy without being offensive, insanely creative without coming off as insane.
Humor doesn’t have easy formulas, and the risks are far greater. Jokes fall flat. Things that seem hilarious in the writing room go nowhere, while little throwaway bits turn into comedy gold. You can’t predict it.
So let’s talk about three little things before the Big Thing that I noticed in this short film.
First, they dispense with names, with one exception: the delivery service logo.
A typical story would be awash with names. If David Lynch was doing this, DUNE style, the floating head of a princess would be on screen for five minutes, telling us the name of the planet, its ruler, the strength of its army, the name of the alien who’s supposed to get this package delivered and so forth. Then we’d get all kinds of voice-over about the delivery ship and how it travels through space-time using dark matter or whatever.
Second, there’s no backstory. No flashbacks, no explanations, nothing. The makers of this short film know backstory is irrelevant when they’re showing everything now, as it happens. If you’re explaining, you’re losing the storytelling war.
Third, no dialogue. Maybe you could argue about the aliens saying things we don’t understand, but no, that doesn’t count. It’s like the opening half hour of WALL-E, which was brilliant without a single word of dialogue.
So: no backstory, no names and no dialogue. What’s the Big Thing they did?
These filmmakers maximized the gap, creating chasms between expectation and result from BOTH directions. They were constantly, creatively, always raising the stakes from the POV of the space delivery man and the aliens.
That gap usually exists only for the hero. The villain knows exactly what’s happening and why. He’s not surprised at all.
It’s the hero who’s fumbling around, wondering what the hell is happening, and only at the very end does the villain have any gap between expectation and result, because the villain expected to shoot the hero after his monologue, not get thrown down a bottomless pit.
Most films and novels stick to that unwritten rule: No Surprises for the Villain, because surprises are precious and reserved for the hero. We don’t usually see the villain failing or being confused. If we see things from his POV at all, the villain is doing deliciously dastardly things and doing them well, because that makes it harder on our hero.
In this film, the gap grows wider and wider from both points of view until it can’t get any bigger, and they’re doing something interesting with the gaps: not only is each gap funny, they also raise the stakes every time until the climax.
Could you make it even worse for the alien planet than being Death Star’d at the end by the delivery ship’s main engines? No.
The opposite of this happens in bad Saturday Night Live skits, which are bad for a very specific reason: they latch onto a single funny idea like a lamprey eel, then do it seventeen bazillion times until it’s time for a commercial break so we can get educated about the new formulation of Head and Shoulders.
Those bad kits aren’t funny because of a structural problem. The gap doesn’t grow bigger. The stakes don’t get raised. It’s repetition without a purpose.
I remember watching DUNE in the theater and thinking, “Whoah.”
Then again, I was a whippersnapper with no taste when it first came out. So on Old Movie Night, we popped in DUNE and fired it up.
There’s no doubt that DUNE is a hot mess. The question is, why?
Suspect No. 1: Horribly Cheesy Special Effects
This is a good place to start. You can’t excuse David the Lynch for not having access to better special effects, not when this movie came out after all three of the original STAR WARS movies were out.
Check out the trailer and tell me the effects are up to snuff, even for the era.
So, the effects in DUNE are Dr. Who-level lame. You expect the rocks to some styrofoam they bought off the old Star Trek set.
But bad effects aren’t the main reason this film is a hot mess. An audience will forgive bad effects if the story and characters are compelling.
Suspect No. 2: All Kinds of Crazytown
You don’t hire David the Lynch to direct a normal movie. You hire him to spice things up and go a little nuts.
Being absurdly weird can earn your movie cult status, with college kids playing it simply for the biggest excesses and worst moments of wackadoodle.
Then again, the tough part is once you base-jump off the Cliff of Normalcy, there’s no guarantee your chute will open.
And this film sprints away from Normal, stiff-arms Edgy and slides right into Bizarre.
This is half of the reason the film is a hot mess. You’re constantly distracted, sometimes by the bad effects, but more often by the weird, bizarre and gross sideshows that don’t truly move the story. The Baron Harkonnen’s massive zits get a ton of screen time. The Guild Navigators are grotesque. The bad guy troops have reverse mohawk hairdoes while the good guys wear surplus World War II uniforms. It’s constantly and consciously odd, which pulls you out of the story.
But if the story kept moving, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on all the weirdness.
Suspect No. 3: Ponderously Beating the Audience with the Cudgel of Pretentiousness
This is the true culprit.
Audiences will believe in sorcerers and elves if you don’t explain them. They’ll buy lightsabers and aliens who are into M & M’s — but not if you get pretentious and deep trying to explain all those things.
See, audiences want to believe. If you set things up from the start, they’ll stick with you. What you can’t do is (a) switch mid-way though a normal book or movie to say “Hey, actually the hero is a vampire. Surprise!” (b) commit the Hollywood sin of double-mumbo jumbo — trying to have a story that’s about dragons and trolls … plus space witches with lightsabers or (c) constantly stop the story to intrude with pretentious narration and dialogue that’s on the nose.
It’s that last sin that DUNE commits right away, with a long narration setting things up following be another and another and another.
Every time the story moves forward two inches, somebody has to stop to explain it to the audience for three minutes, as if we aren’t smart enough to watch the story and understand. It feels less like a movie and more like a lecture. Then the credits roll.
I bet there’s a supercut of DUNE somewhere, a lot like STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM EDIT where some kind person sliced out all the boring nonsense, like Jar Jar Binks and all the talkative scenes where George Lucas is patiently over-explaining things to you and ruining the Force forever by saying it’s caused by space bacteria or whatever. No.
DUNE breaks new ground with the Unnecessary Voiceovers by having every actor whisper a voice-over of what they’re thinking, which is usually stuff the audience already knows, but hey, beat them on the head with it again.
Which is too bad. There are great actors in here like Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sting and Jürgen Prochnow. A less wacky, less ponderous film with the same cast would have been awesome, even with the same cheesy special effects. It would also be far shorter and more watchable.
Movies based on toys, or cartoons from the ’80s designed to sell toys, tend to suck like Electrolux.
THE LEGO MOVIE is a happy exception to this rule. It’s worth talking about how they accomplished that trick.
They didn’t do it with snazzy special effects and big-name actors. Just about every film based on toys has great CGI explosions and big actors who aren’t so big that they won’t cash a giant check: BATTLESHIP had Liam Neeson, TRANSFORMERS had Megan Fox, G.I. JOE movies have had the Rock and Bruce Willis.
What makes this movie about interlocking bricks any different?
Reason Number 1: The Humility to Make Fun of Yourself
You don’t see the other toy movies doing this. They try hard–too hard–to be serious, and real, and only tangentially related to all the toys they want your kids to buy.
THE LEGO MOVIE has the guts to poke fun at itself, not once or twice, but during the entire film. Relentlessly. Brutally. Hilariously.
Reason Number 2: Subverting and Smashing Conventional Storytelling
This is the real secret. THE LEGO MOVIE picks up typical Hollywood structure by the throat and body slams it to the asphalt.
A normal action movie features a cartoon hero (Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis) who’s tough and cool in Act 1 and doesn’t change by Act 3. In fact, this hero doesn’t change, suffer or grow in any of the sequels.
Instead, the writers of this movie picked a hero who’s an Everyman that the prophecy says will become great and powerful, and save the world … except he never really gets those powers, and the prophet (Morgan Freeman!) admits in the end that he made it all up. There is no prophecy.
In parallel, the screenwriters take Batman, who stands in for your typical cool/tough hero, and show that he’s actually a hot mess. Is he still tough and capable? Sure. But you see the real man behind the façade, and it’s funny and insightful.
The villain is where the writers truly nail it.
In a typical action movie, there’s a cartoon villain doing evil things for no apparent reason other than he’s a villain and that’s what they do. Then in the finale, the hero kills the villain in a dramatic one-on-one gunfight, swordfight or fistfight.
Not this time.
The villain in the Lego world is President Business, whose secret identity is Lord Business, and his evil plan is to freeze the Legos into position with his super weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue) while the hero is the only one who can stop him with the Piece of Resistance (the cap to the Krazy Glue).
The writers make the bold choice to break POV here, to switch over to the real world for the first time, showing a little boy playing with a city of Legos in the basement. It’s a museum that his father set up, with signs everywhere warning against not touching what has been perfectly constructed based on the exact instructions.
These aren’t toys, his father tells him. They’re interconnecting plastic construction modules.
In real life and the Lego world, the hero doesn’t win by killing the villain, who has the upper hand. There’s no miracle comeback by the good guys.
The Lego hero echoes the language of the little boy and convinces Lord Business / Dad in Real Life that he doesn’t have to do this, that he’s the most amazing and talented person, who could build anything, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s an acid test for any story, when you’re trying to figure out who’s the hero. Sometimes, it’s not obvious.
In this movie, the person who makes the biggest leap is the villain, who gains insight and makes the decision to reverse course and allow his son (and daughter) to play with what had become a Lego museum, a no-fun zone.
A brave and brilliant choice, and to me, that’s what makes the movie different.