The secret truth about writing

When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?

What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted?

When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?

More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.

It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects. STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber? JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.

And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for absolutely nothing.

So what’s the problem?

College does you wrong

You won’t find the answers in college. Everybody teaches a tiny piece of writing, happy in their little silo, isolated from the rest of the world.

  • Journalism school teaches you writing to INFORM.
  • Rhetoric and speech classes teach you writing to PERSUADE, though hardly anyone studies rhetoric these days. They should.
  • Creative writing classes are supposed to teach you writing to ENTERTAIN, but how many college professors wrote entertaining bestsellers instead of obscure literary novels that went nowhere?

I have a degree in journalism from a great j-school, competed in speech and debate, took creative writing classes and won silly awards from not-so-silly organizations for editing, reporting, speaking and fiction.

None of that really taught me how to write or speak. You get thrown into the deep end of the pool, and you either sink or doggie-paddle. Doggie paddle isn’t good enough.

Your whole life up through college, people are required to read what you write. Your kindergarten teacher gave you a star, right? Your college professor had to read your term paper.

Out in the real world, nobody has to read our stuff. You have to persuade people to read your stuff. And hardly anyone gets an education in rhetoric and persuasion. So there’s a huge switch right there.

Oh, if you have a degree in journalism or creative writing, sure, you can write a lot better than the man on the street. Technically, your writing will be sound. These programs are good.

So tell me: why are so many smart, well-educated people with degrees in creative writing, English Literature or journalism driving 15-year-old Hondas or selling insurance?

Correct is not spectacular

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Pretty words and grammatically correct sentences don’t mean a thing.

Sure, you’d look like an idiot if you couldn’t string a sentence together. It’s just that correct grammar and well-built sentences are expected. It’s standard.

Think about literary novels. I’m not talking about really good books that aren’t easy to classify as thrillers or mysteries or romance. I’m talking about Serious Literature. If pretty sentences were the trick, then the people who write Serious Literature would be billionaires, not folks like J.K. Rowling, who is now RICHER THAN GOD.

Now, there’s some great stuff out there. I read literature and watch serious, literary movies. Yet some authors of Serious Literature, and makers of Serious Movies, take it as a badge of honor if their book or movie is hard on their audience (“the text is challenging”). It’s seen as wrong to have a happy, “Hollywood” ending, so the endings tend to be intensely dour.

Yes, you can do this right. But it’s easy to make it a tough experience for the reader or moviegoer. The topic also tends to be tough, since a lot of literary novels and movies feature angsty rich people having affairs and spending crazy amounts of money and still being unhappy about it all. Sometimes, to switch things up, literary novels feature miserable stories about grinding poverty or the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life.

Are the sentences pretty? Yeah. They’re gorgeous. Serious Literature can be poetry, and Serious Movies have amazing cinematography and acting, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Is it genius? Maybe. It looked great, and the acting was good. Do I want to see it again? No. You couldn’t pay me to sit through it.

The secret truth about writing is THIS ISN’T ABOUT PRETTY WORDS.

The trick is persuading people to read your stuff, watch the movie or listen to the speech when they have 5.9 million other things they could be reading, watching or doing.

Now, I love newspapers, novels, speeches and movies. But I’m not everybody, and I know a lot of folks who think like this instead: Why listen to some politician speak when you can watch the Packers beat the Bears? Why buy a novel when you can pretend to be a space marine and shoot aliens on the Playstation? Why read a newspaper story about a natural gas refinery blowing up in Texas when you can go to a Michael Bay movie and watch all sorts of stuff blow up in super slow motion while Megan Fox tries to emote in short-shorts and a tank top?

So if it’s not about pretty words, what’s the evil secret to writing?

The inverted pyramid MUST DIE

Big city newspapers love to do these monstrous investigative stories that start on Page One and jump inside for two or three more entire pages.

I’m an ex-reporter who still loves newspapers, and I can’t drag myself through these never-ending stories. Is the writing bad? No. Reporters spend serious time polishing the words on these pieces.

It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.

The inverted pyramid is great for short pieces and headlines, for telling people the most important thing first and the least important thing last. However: the inverted pyramid should be taken out and shot, because it’s a horrible blueprint for anything of length.

The inverted pyramid is like (a) having an amazing honeymoon on your first date, (b) kissing on your second date and (c) holding hands on your third date.

It gives you payoffs without setups, events out of order and people popping in and out of the story randomly. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey. Instead, it teleports the reader directly to the best part, then beams the reader all over the damn planet until you don’t care anymore. It’s not showing a gun in Act 1 that goes off in Act 3 — it’s just a gun going off in Act 1. You don’t know why.

I know the inverted pyramid inside and out. I’ve studied it, used it and abused it. It sucks like Electrolux and needs to be retired. It’s part of the reason why people are reading The Economist and blogs — because they’re going back to the roots of journalism, which was “somebody’s journal.”

That journal, those journalists, started out as first-person accounts. The reporter wrote exactly what they saw, felt, smelled, touched.

Early novels were disguised as journals.

First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.

The dog was yellow

When I worked as a reporter, I’d write 10 to 15 stories a week. Let’s say 500 stories a year. And yeah, I won awards, but if I’m publishing 500 freaking stories a year, 200 of them should be pretty good, 12 should be amazing and six should rock the house.

A while back, I wrote one freelance newspaper story the entire year, about a man losing his dog on top of a mountain, because that man was my friend. The dog, too. My friend — and a bunch of old mountaineers nicknamed the Silver Panther Rescue Squad — went back to that mountain and rescued his dog from a cliff, just off the summit.

That solo story won an award. I batted 1.000 that year, and not because I’d grown so much as a writer since my cub reporter days.

Oh, my sentences were a little prettier. Just not THAT much prettier.

It was because I took the inverted pyramid out back behind the barn and shot it between the eyes.

If I’d had written the story using what they’d taught me in journalism school, the headline would give away the ending — “Man rescues dog on top of mountain” and the lede (first sentence) would be something like this: “After four days of being stuck on a cliff without food or water, one lucky dog is happy to be back home with his owner.”

The story would only get less interesting from there. The last line of the story would be what editors could chop if they were short on space. That last line would be something like, “The dog was yellow.”

To hell with that. I wrote it like a story, because giving the ending away in the headline and first graf is CHEATING THE READER.

College types call this “narrative non-fiction,” which is an overly fancy way of saying storytelling.

Good storytelling is the hardest thing any writer does.

It’s also the most powerful, and the most fun you can legally have as a writer of any sort.

Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices

I don’t care if you’re (1) a speechwriter for a U.S. senator, (2) a romance novelist writing a novel about Men in Kilts and the Women Who Love Them or (3) a screenwriter sipping margaritas by a pool in Hollywood while you pen a movie about a zombie attack during a high school musical.

Storytelling and structure is the hard part.

The bodywork is not the most important part of the car. The engine under the hood is what makes the car go fast.

What they teach us — in college, in most books in writing and at writing conferences — is mostly bodywork.

I don’t care how pretty the car looks. If the engine is a mess — or is completely missing — your readers aren’t going for a ride. At all.

Storytelling and structure is why every Pixar movie has been a blockbuster. The other computer-animated movies look just as pretty. The folks at Pixar simply are ten times better at telling stories.

It’s why novelists who frankly are pedestrian, line by line, sell millions of books while brilliant literary novelists who write gorgeous sentences, every phrase a poem, starve in obscurity.

Clive Cussler may have an ugly bare frame, a glorified go-cart painted seven different shades of bondo. Next to the shining Lexus of a literary novel, his car looks horrible. However, Cussler has a honking V-8, while the Literary Lexus has a lawnmower engine put in backwards.

Cussler, John Grisham and Stephen King understand the structure of stories. They draw the blueprints. They spend most of their energy on the storytelling engine and a lot less time polishing the chrome.

And right there, with those three authors, you see three entirely different levels of writing ability:

  • Cussler is meh.
  • Grisham is workmanlike.
  • King is great. I’d read his Safeway shopping list, because he could make it epic.

Yet all three made it big despite the vast differences in writing skill, because all three mastered an entirely different skill: THEY KNOW HOW TO TELL A DAMN STORY.

Do I hate Cussler’s writing style? Yeah, it grates on me. Do I want to know what happens next? Yes.

Does Stephen the King sometimes ramble on too long and give you a 1,000-page novel when 400 would do? Yes. But we forgive him, because he is a God of Writing and Storytelling, and also because he looks kinda scary, like he might kill you if you pissed him off.

Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.

Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.

It’s not the intensity that matters — it’s the distance you travel

Think of any B-movie, and they all have the same flaw. The structure is bad. The storytelling is horrible.

You might say, hey, it’s a low-budget flick. That’s what you get. No. Indie movies with no budget can be great.

B-movies are bad because they’re built wrong. They’re full of repetition without a purpose.

Right now, you and I can write a better story than the script of TRANSFORMERS 2, which had an army of screenwriters who got paid — I kid you not — something like $4 million for a script about explosions and computer-generated robots born from a cartoon meant to sell toys to seven-year-old boys in the 1980s.

Here’s a short version of the script for TRANSFORMERS 2.

ACT 1:
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 2:
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS!

ACT 3:
Megan Fox has some dirt on her cheek
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS! Bad robots die, but they’ll be back for the sequel.

This also works, in a pinch, as the script for TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS 3.

Is it intense? Sure. Lots of running, lots of fighting, lots of explosions.

Yet it’s boring in the same way most martial arts films get boring, and I love those movies. Here’s the problem with them: Oh, look, it’s another fight. Man, it’s been almost three minutes since the last battle. Why is the hero fighting the blue ninjas? Three minutes ago, he was getting chased by a gang of fat shirtless dudes waving meat cleavers.

After an hour of this, you start praying for a training montage with the old wrinkled mentor who farts a lot and picks his nose and teaches the hero some secret fighting technique before the Big Bad Guy snaps the old man’s spine and kidnaps the old man’s daughter, who happens to be hot, and now the hero will go fight 4,082 different henchmen until he gets to the Big Bad Guy and battles him on a rooftop with rain and lightning going crazy. Yeah. You know I’m right.

B-movies have the same intensity throughout the movie. They crank it up to 11 and stay there.

If every scene in a movie — or every paragraph in a speech — has the intensity cranked up to 11, then you’re shouting at the audience. It becomes noise, and it makes for a flat ride. There’s no momentum, no velocity, no meaning.

Don’t shout at your audience

Most bad speeches have the same B-movie problem. People shout their way through them, confusing volume with passion.

The structure for 99 percent of speeches is also wrong. Listen to any random stump speech from that and there’s nothing holding it together. There’s no story being told, no setups and payoffs, no real structure. This is why the rare candidate who says something different gets hailed as a political rock star.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t a great speaker in a technical sense. He had a lot of verbal tics. What he was great at was telling a story from his days as an actor. He knew that audiences didn’t want to hear just about policies and programs. He made sure to talk about people, too.

Barack Obama was quite different. He also isn’t technically perfect; there are flaws in his delivery that you don’t notice because he and his speechwriters really care about the bones of a speech, about making sure the pieces fit together. They work on the engine first, THEN make it look pretty. Obama’s best speeches are structurally amazing. You can take them apart and see how the pieces intertwine. Or turn an Obama speech into an epic music video.

Velocity and power

No matter what you’re writing, what matters is the journey you take the audience on, the distance traveled. That’s what gives you velocity and power.

This is why tragedies have worked for 2,000 years.

You start UP, say with a wealthy, powerful man. You end DOWN after he falls from grace through hubris. There’s power and velocity there, because it’s a big fall from King of the World way on down to Hobo Begging for Change.

The opposite — Rags to Riches — works as a structure because it’s a big jump.

The bigger the trip, the better the story.

Little jumps don’t work.

This is why most literary novels about grinding poverty go nowhere, because a Rags to Riches story would be too happy-happy Hollywood, right? That sort of text is not challenging! So instead, things go from really bad to even more miserable.

Except that’s a bad structure, because it’s a small hop. It’s not a fall from the top to the bottom. It’s going from the gutter to a different, less desirable gutter, where the food scraps are inferior and the cardboard boxes aren’t as roomy.

Non-jumps don’t work, either.

If you’re a French existentialist director, the last frame of the movie is the hero being hit by a bus, not because he deserves it, but because life is random. There’s a reason why only college students trying to be hip take their dates to French existentialist movies. That reason is this: the movies stink. Give me something that will make me laugh, make me cry, scare me silly. Don’t give me “Life is random and pointless, so let’s have random and pointless things happen to characters for two hours.”

Tales of redemption are powerful because you’ve got the full a roller coaster: UP, DOWN and UP again.

Here’s an easy example: all six STAR WARS movies are really about Darth Vader’s redemption. Luke is only in the last three movies. Vader is in all six. He was good, then he turned bad, and in the end, he sacrificed his life to save his son and kill the real bad guy, the Emperor with Seriously Angry Wrinkles.

Take the audience somewhere

For any kind of writing, this is a law: Take your audience on a journey that actually goes somewhere.

If you’re going to have a down ending, you need an up beginning.

Together to alone.

Democracy to dictatorship.

Life to death.

If the ending is up, the beginning better be down.

Alone to together.

Dictatorship to revolution and democracy.

Hopelessness to hope.

Here’s a non-story example. I bet you’ve seen a lot of TV ads about drunk driving. A tough issue. The usual way people talk about drunk driving — or any problem — is wrong. You’re trying to persuade them to DO something. To take action. The typical way is to beat the audience over the head. “This is a problem. It’s bad. Really, really bad. I’m serious: the problem is bad. Just look at these numbers. Don’t let it happen to you.”

Not persuasive. Not a good structure. It’s all down, isn’t it? Just as flat as a Michael Bay explosion-fest or a literary novel swimming in misery and angst. Sure, the ending should be down. It’s not a happy topic. Then the beginning better be up. And like Reagan, you should talk about real people instead of numbers. So let’s start talking about a real person:

At 7:15 a.m. last Thursday, eight-year-old Ashlyn hugged her daddy goodbye and got into the Subaru with her mom, Jane, to drive to school. Across town at 7 in the morning, Billy Wayne was getting out of the county jail. At ten in the morning, Ashlyn practiced singing the national anthem, which her third-grade class will sing at halftime during the high school homecoming game. Half a mile away, Billy Wayne stole a twenty from his baby mamma’s purse and drove down to the Qwik-E Mart to buy two six packs of Corona Light. At a quarter past 3, Jane picked up Ashlyn from school and they met Billy Wayne at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, when he blew threw a red light at fifty-six miles an hour and his Chevy pickup turned that Subaru into a pile of smoking metal. It was the fourth time Billy Wayne got arrested for driving drunk. People like Billy Wayne get second chance after second chance. Little Ashlyn and her mom won’t get a second chance. But we can change the law. We can lock up chronic drunk drivers.

That’s a far more moving than statistics. Even something tiny like this — it’s less than 200 words — needs structure, because that’s what gives it emotional heft and persuades people. Statistics can come in later.

Those words I just wrote are rough and raw. Not pretty at all. The thing is, they don’t need to be pretty. There’s an engine in there.

Is that plot? Sort of. Except if I’d looked up what specific plot fit this situation and tried to cram in inciting incidents and turning points and all that nonsense in there it would take hours to write instead of two minutes and make my head explode.

All I needed to know was the ending was down (death) and I wanted a big contrast (life) without giving it all away in the first sentence. So there’s tension in that single paragraph.

Emotion matters most

Cussler, Grisham and King understand that fun is OK, that people like a good story that makes them laugh and cry, to feel thrilled or scared out of their minds.

People want to FEEL something.

Misery is actually fine, if you start with misery and take people on a journey that ends in joy. Or if you do the reverse. What you can’t do is pile misery on top of misery for 100,000 words or two hours in a dark room where the popcorn costs $15 — or even two minutes at a podium.

And you can’t stack joy on top of joy.

Also, you want to run far, far away from the Invincible Hero problem, which explains why Batman (no powers) is beloved while people sorta kinda hate Superman (invincible) because it’s never a fair fight. No villain has a shot and you know Superman will win without paying a price.

The only books on writing worth anything, I learned from my genius screenwriter sister, were about screenwriting, because it’s all about storytelling and structure. There’s no way to hide bad structure with pretty words, not in a screenplay. It’s pared down to bare bones anyway. Setups and payoffs. Public stakes and private stakes. Emotion. Turning points. Revelations. Raising the stakes. Building to a climax.

Asking questions without answering them. Will they get together? Who’s the killer? Can the planet be saved from the aliens / comet / zombies?

Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now

Movies are the easiest to talk about because most people have seen them.

THE MATRIX was amazing. Both sequels were terrible. Why? Same writers and directors, same cast, same crew. Giant budget.

The sequels sucked like Electrolux because of structural problems. Story problems.

The first movie had a down beginning and up ending.

The last two movies were flat and boring, despite all the action and fights.

I didn’t care about the last scene of the last MATRIX movie because I wasn’t watching it with some fanboy who could explain to me why the Oracle made a deal with the Architect or whoever, with the deal being the robots take stupid pills and declare a truce after Neo dies killing Agent Smith, when any five-year-old would know that if they continued to fight for three seconds, they’d wipe out the rebel humans once and for all.

Maybe I’m too stupid to fully enjoy the ambiguity and philosophical BS involved. Or maybe the last movie sucked, and the fact that the first movie rocked, making the train wreck the second and third movies all the more painful.

Let’s fix it. Right here, right now.

Who’s the real villain in THE MATRIX? Not Agent Smith — he’s a henchman, a virus.

The real villain is whoever controls the robots while keeping humans as slaves and batteries.

Neo is alive in the beginning and dead in the end. It’s a big leap, a real journey. We can roll with that. His death simply has to mean something other than preserving a bad status quo and an endless war. What are the stakes? Freedom vs. slavery. Life vs. death. Humans are slaves in the beginning. A good ending — a true leap — would have all the humans be free.

Here’s our new ending: Neo sacrifices his life to free the humans and win the war, leading the humans as they finally beat the evil robot overlords and retake Earth.

This way, you’ll care about the last scene, and root for Neo to take out the Evil Robot Overlord in the Most Amazing Fight Scene Known to Man, because if he wins, humanity wins. If he loses, every human starves. We are wiped out.

The stakes are raised, aren’t they? Yeah. Can’t get any higher. Plus, I’d much rather have Neo fight something like the Borg Queen than endless clones of the same stupid henchman he’s been fighting since the first movie.

Take things apart and put them back together

You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car can wait until the V-8 under the hood can pur and roar. Focus on that storytelling engine.

Take something short — a newspaper story, your favorite movie, a column by Paul Krugman or George Will — and outline the structure, the bones.

Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.

Circle the setups and payoffs.

Is the beginning up or down? What about the ending?

Does the writer make it abstract, talking about ideas like freedom or justice — or are there real paper in there, with names and families?

You can learn from amazing writing and horrible writing. Mediocre writing is frustrating. To hell with it. Ignore that stuff.

Look for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Take apart the best to see how the author put it together to make it magic. Restructure the worst to make it work.

Slaying sacred cows

Maybe all this is sacrilege and rebellion. It could be that my pet theories are completely insane and that what you really should do is sign up for journalism school or get a master’s in creative writing or attend seminars about the correct use of semi-colons in headlines and how to write dialogue that sings.

Frankly, I don’t care what you do — follow your heart. Not selling anything here. What I do know is this: every day, I see writers, professional and aspiring, banging their head against the wall, spending hours and hours destroying a house while they’re building it, taking six days to write something that should take sixty minutes.

I see other friends of mine holding something it took them ten months to write, something they slaved over and just can’t fix with line editing because the bones of the story are broken, and they have to hold their baby over the round file and let all those pages, all that work, hit the bottom of that trash can.

It makes an awful sound.

I don’t want to hear that sound.

I don’t want my friends thinking they have to suffer when they write.

Writing doesn’t have to be painful.

It should be fast.

It should be fun.

And it should be magical, for the person banging on the keyboard and for the people who read it.

STAR TREK and STAR WARS are now opposite sides of the same repetitive story

star trek vs star wars

star trek vs star wars

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.)

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE proves that explosions are meh

x-men apocalypse

As a huge fan of action movies, hear me now and believe me later in the week: the Era of Epic Explosions is over.

Stick a fork it in.

It’s kaput. Done. Dead and buried.

X-MEN: OSCAR ISAAC WEARING 30 POUNDS OF MAKEUP is only the latest nail in the cinematic coffin, though it’s a nail that cost more than the domestic product of Paraguay.

Now, I liked the movie more than I expected after all those bad reviews. HOWEVER: the big action set pieces where the villain started destroying the world?

Big shrug. Didn’t care.

Here’s why explosions were once movie magic and now make people sneakily check Twitter on their magical phones.

1) In the old days, big explosions meant big budgets and big stars

Way back, only the biggest productions could afford to blow things up.

Those same movies also had the best directors, best actors and biggest budgets.

Meanwhile, B movies had incredibly cheesy explosions and effects that looked like Ed, president of the AV club, cooked them up on his Macintosh during a long weekend fueled by two-liter bottles of Orange Crush and two over-sized bags of Cheeto’s, which should be spelled Cheetoh’s but isn’t. Not sure why.

This is why the following compilation of great movie explosions skews toward old action movies. Because they actually blew things up, using real explosives, instead of spending millions of dollars on fake pixels.

2) Explosions were rare and therefore precious

In the Golden Age of Things Going Boom in the Movies, directors and producers had much smaller budgets, which meant you couldn’t have things explode on screen every two minutes.

You had to (a) find an abandoned building that fit your script, (b) file permits with the city for permission to blow it up and (c) hire professional people to blow them up on time and on schedule, while cameras rolled.

If the things went wrong, you were out millions of dollars and needed to find a new abandoned building.

Therefore, action movies of yore couldn’t go overboard with fire, smoke and debris. They had to use explosions when it mattered most.

This was a good thing, for movie budgets and for people sitting in dark rooms while they munched on overpriced kernels of exploded corn.

3) Today, everybody can afford special effects and explosions

It was epic when Bruce Willis sent the office chair down the elevator shaft in DIE HARD.

And I be you can remember the first time you saw the Death Star explode in STAR WARS. (The second and third times, not so much.)

Directors making movies today grew up watching those cool, big-budget movies with amazing explosions. Even if they’re working on a cheesy TV show, now they can afford to blow up anything they want, as big as they want.

So yeah, they do it.

All. The. Time.

It goes deeper: people making fan movies or YouTube parodies have the technology to blow up New York City, the West Coast or the entire solar system, if they’re truly ambitious. Check out the insanely detailed fan-made movies about Star Wars with excellent lightsaber effects. Amazing.

With giant budgets and armies of CGI people, it’s insanely easy these days to spice up a bad scene with explosions. Except it’s used so often, it’s a cliché.

Michael Bay has created an entire career out of blowing things up in slow motion. Here’s a montage:

4) Easy CGI means explosions aren’t believable

Audiences today grew up watching real explosions in action movies. We know what they look like.

Even big movies with big budgets struggle to get CGI right.

When you know it’s fake, you don’t care.

5) We’re numb to ka-booms by now, and we know the villain will lose

It’s a staple of every action movie, comic-book movie or thriller that (a) the Bad Guy Wants to Destroy the World and (b) the Bad Guy Gets to Start Blowing Up the World because (c) it wouldn’t be any fun if the audience didn’t get to see six blocks of Manhattan get demolished for the 2,874th time.

The old rule of storytelling was to always, always raise the stakes. If saving your wife and daughter from terrorists was good, then saving an entire city from a stolen nuclear warhead was better and stopping a villain from destroying Earth had to be the ultimate.

Except we expect this now. We’re numb to it.

And audiences know how it ends. The villain never, ever gets to truly destroy Gotham, New York City or the Earth.

The dice are loaded. The villain is going to lose.

Which means there’s zero suspense.

Oh, we’ll get a little look at the Big Bad Guy stomping on a few blocks, or a glimpse of how his doomsday device will flatten New Zealand, but no, the villain never gets to actually win.

So as I sat there watching the X-Men head off to stop Apocalypse from destroying civilization, what should have been the most exciting part of the movie had zero thrills whatsoever.

Because you knew the villain would lose. No question.

This is part of the reason why CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR worked so well. The story is smaller and the stakes are lower. The villain isn’t trying to destroy the third rock from the sun. He’s simply trying to get revenge by turning the Avengers against each other. Yet you care far more about CIVIL WAR than BATMAN VS SUPES or X-MEN: COME SEE WOLVERINE FOR TWO MINUTES. And the reason why is simple: audience will always, always care more about living, breathing characters than bits of concrete and rebar.

TL;DR: Blowing up things isn’t shocking or thrilling anymore, not when it’s CGI pixel nonsense. Also: Villains with evil plans to destroy Gotham, D.C. or Earth never get to actually do it, so stop making that the plot of every action thriller and comic book movie.

Bonus video: Expectation vs reality – action movies

Top 3 reasons why the new, extended trailer for AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON rocks so hard

1) It’s funny, and not in a forced way, like a Saturday Night Live skit that repeats the same joke seventeen times.

The actors seem natural and relaxed.

2) The director lets this scene play out.

Today, that’s rare, with directors eager to bust out the CGI and blow up more stuff that only exists as pixels on giant servers.

Josh Whedon figures he has enough excitement packed into the movie and gives us a long, funny breather. Which is wonderful, because not rushing the payoff for this scene makes is far more powerful.

3) That payoff is amazing, and a completely different emotion than how the scene started.

Ultron showing up like this is not only a surprise, but a shock, and his lines are simply perfect. Unsettling and dark and wonderful.

Well done, Josh the Whedon, well done. A far better trailer than the usual Michael Bay explosion-fest that’s required of every big-budget action movie.

 

Top 11 posts about the Big Screen and Such, Because Top 10 Lists are Common and therefore Boring:

The Red Pen of Doom dissects every Batman movie IN HISTORY

Top 5 reasons EDGE OF TOMORROW works — and why it redeems Tom the Cruise

THE WOLVERINE proves Writing Law #1 – Less is More

Seattle superheroes challenged by supervillain Rex Velvet

Hollywood: Sidekicks do NOT need their own stupid sidekicks

Seven movie clichés that must be NUKED FROM ORBIT

MAN OF STEEL and the Invincible Hero Problem

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: Why it works

Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings

THE AVENGERS + THE BREAKFAST CLUB = AWESOMESAUCE

Like Godzilla in Tokyo, PACIFIC RIM smashes all expectations

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.
Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

Like Godzilla in Tokyo, PACIFIC RIM smashes all expectations

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Summer means big, dumb summer movies, typically involving (a) cops and convicts shooting each other and making things explode, (b) cartoons from the ’80s being turned into $253 million wastes of good CGI and (c) members of AARP like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone trying to prove they can still hang with the young Jason Stathams of the world.

However: There are some big, dumb summer movies that rise above the mediocre pack of Michael Bay wannabes and G.I. Joe retreads.

PACIFIC RIM is a beautiful B-movie. It’s not gonna win a single Oscar and it doesn’t try for that. What it aims for is simple, pure entertainment, and it does that job well.

Here’s the trailer.

The director of PACIFIC RIM is Guillermo del Toro, who directed HELLBOY and THE HOBBIT — basically, the man can direct anything he wants. He’s a movie-making muffin of stud who did PAN’S LABYRINTH, which is literary, beautiful and one of the most unique movies you’ll ever see.

PACIFIC RIM works because it goes big without getting ridiculous, and entertains without trying too hard. It’s the rare kind of movie where you leave the theater and wouldn’t mind seeing the thing again tomorrow, or even today. There’s so much to see and marvel at, and it’s a testament to Guillermo del Toro skill at storytelling.

So go see the thing. I bet you it’s two hour shorter and five times as entertaining as any random Michael Bay explosion-fest.

Bonus clips below. Enjoy.

An epic supercut of Godzilla smashing things.

Featurette about the monsters in PACIFIC RIM

Featurette about the humans and their giant robots 

Writers: can you do it in FOUR WORDS?

That’s the acid test for every writer: four words.

If somebody in line with you for the Largest Latte Known to Man asks what you’re working on, can you explain it in four words?

How about eight words?

Because if you can’t, you’re not really done.

What if I told you ... how to get to Sesame Street?

And I don’t care that you’ve spent the last seven years locked away in a French monastery, slaving away 25 hours a day, eight days a week to perfect (a) The Great American Novel, Even Though It Was Written in France, (b) the movie script that will turn Hollywood on its ear and stop it from spending $250 million apiece on Michael Bay explosion-fests involving robots that transform into cars or whatever  or (c) a punk-rock masterpiece with song after song with lyrics so beautiful, and rebelliously ugly, that anyone who listens to it quits working for The Man and buys an electric Fender so they can learn the only three chords you need to know to become AN INSANE ROCK GOD.

So let’s get down to it. If you haven’t already, read these posts to get all educated and such, even though it is technically cheating — because today, there is a quiz.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

THE MOTHER OF ALL LOGLINE QUIZZES

Loglines, which, if you weren’t paying attention, are short little summaries of movies and books and such.

There are two ways to score this quiz, the first involving length and the second quality.

Four words or less gets you an A, five words is a B and so forth.

Quality is subject, but even if your logline is insanely brilliant, anything over eight words gets a big fat F, and F that glows in the dark and follows you around for a week like a bad cold or a moldy metaphor, which is like a simile, but different.

Sidenote: If you are a Literary Muffin of Stud, go ahead and share your brilliant answers in the comments. Then we’ll talk smack.

Sidenote on the side of that sidenote: If you are a shy lurker, as 99.9 percent of writers are, print this and scribble your answers, then share your brilliant answers somewhere, with somebody. Because it’s time you stopped being a shy lurker writer type. YOUR HEAD WILL NOT EXPLODE. Maybe you’ll even make a friend over the Series of Tubes and such, fall in love, get married and move to a former dairy farm in Vermont or whatever. These things have happened.

Quiz Part 1) Write a logline for your favorite movie, but turn the villain into the hero without changing the story.

Example

STAR WARS:  Wise ruler fights to stop murderous rebels, who keep blowing up invaluable public property.

Shot the length rule to bits there. Let’s shorten it to five words.

STAR WARS: Wrinkled leader battles murderous rebels.

There we go. I like it. Could have nailed four words if we smited “wrinkled,” but I don’t care.

Bonus, because we hit five words and give ourselves an A++ and such: Palpatine’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.

Quiz Part 2) Take your current project — movie, novel, performance art piece involving a dance number that expresses your feelings about unemployment — and write a logline making fun of it.

Go ahead. Have at it.

It’s more fun than you’d expect.

Quiz Part 3) Write five fresh loglines by twisting or rewriting stupid books and movies that had promise, then took all that promise and blew it to pieces with The 12-gauge of Utter Stupidity.

Examples

MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: Man wins war against robot enslavers.

Six words. It’s a better plot, because not Keanu “Whoah” Reeves doesn’t sacrifice his life to play virus cleaner for the robots, therefore protecting the status quo and ensuring a cycle of endless war and nuttiness. His death actually changes things with this logline. But six words is still too long.

MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: Man frees mankind from robots.

Five words. Too many “mans” in there. Where’s Trinity and such? But it’s better.

ONE SHOT: Tom Cruise is a foot too short to play Reacher.

Yes, I am a bad man. The trailer still looks awful. Couldn’t they find some short actors to play the thugs who Tom Cruise beats up? It looks like junior high bullies hassling a second-grader for his lunch money.

ONE DAY: Man meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back.

That’s the standard plot for every romantic comedy ever, but it’s also 1,398 times better than the actual plot of ONE DAY where man meets girl, man loses girl, man loses girl again, man finally marries girl, girl gets RANDOMLY PANCAKED BY A TRUCK, man is sad, roll credits.

TRANSFORMERS 3: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON OR WHATEVER: Magic robots leave Earth, because why would magic robots need our lame technology and such anyway? Also, Megan Fox buys a pair of pants.

I’m cheating again, though it is fun. Alright, TRANSFORMERS 3: Robot war obliterates Earth.

Much better. Also, it’s right up the alley of Michael Bay, who loves nothing more than blowing up stuff anyway.

What made SKYFALL so insanely great?

Yes, the cinematography was beautiful. Just watch the trailer, which is packed with great shot after great shot.

But that’s not why.

Also: cinematography is just a fancy word for “hiring the right dude to actually work the camera and stage amazing shots, because the director is really the Big Boss of the film and not the guy behind the camera, though papers of news will confuse you about this by talking about the man behind the camera when they talk about directors.”

Also-also: the dialogue and writing was much, much better than your typical Bond film. But that’s not what made SKYFALL so excellent that it may be the first Bond film in the history of modern civilization to get nominated for Oscars.

So what truly made SKYFALL so good?

Story.

Story is the reason that Michael Bay can waste $250 million apiece on movie after movie about robots that change into cars or whatever, movies that only 12-year-old boys really enjoy watching.

Story is the reason THE KING’S SPEECH — made for about $20 million — crushes any Michael Bay explosion-fest known to man.

As a big fan of cheesy action movies, I appreciate ones that embrace their cheesiness. They make it more fun. When you start taking a movie about robots from outer space too seriously, it shows on the screen and stops being fun.

SKYFALL rocks so hard because it takes something else seriously: story.

Just for comparison, I watched a typical 007 movie from the Roger Moore era: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

Here’s the trailer for that piece of cinematic trash:

SKYFALL and this Roger Moore thing have the same ingredients: (a) suave spy for the British Secret Service who (b) can’t walk down the street without tripping over 27 beautiful women, half of whom are (c) trying to kill him because they work for (e) some insane villain with pet sharks and a secret lair inside a volcano. There will be (f) glorious gadgets and (g) amazing chase scenes and (h) witty one-liners.

That formula means nothing if you — the audience and the director and the actors — don’t care about the characters.

Bond has typically been made of cardboard. Oh, he’s got the tuxedo and the charm and the gadgets. He gets the girls. But what makes him tick? Does he ever suffer and sacrifice and change?

Roger Moore never really suffered or sacrificed or changed.

Daniel the Craig definitely suffered and sacrificed in CASINO ROYALE. And he bumped that way, way up in SKYFALL.

Sidenote: A big reason that A QUANTUM OF SOLACE stank up the joint was the Hollywood writer’s strike meant the writing and story was thrown together by the director and Craig, on set. Not a recipe for success. 

The more brilliant move by Sam Mendes and his writers was to give serious character arcs not just to Bond, but to the traditional supporting cast at MI-6, the characters who are usually just pieces of scenery.

In the old Bond movies, M was just a boss behind the desk and Moneypenny was a pretty secretary that flirted with Bond as he hung up his coat and went in for his next assignment.

In SKYFALL, Moneypenny is an amazing driver who shoots somebody you don’t expect. She’s actually important to the plot.

Even a minor character played by Ralph Fiennes goes from bureaucrat and enemy to courageous ally. He gets a story arc.

And this time, M is absolutely crucial to the plot.

Crucial to Bond, who suffers quite a lot because of a decision she made: “Take the bloody shot.” Crucial to the villain, Silva, who suffered just as much, if not more, because of M.

Finally, M is crucial to the film’s story itself. You could argue that it’s her film.

Sam Mendes gives us a movie that’s not just chase scenes and gadgets and Bond girls — he makes us care about the characters. He takes us on a journey with them, with each of them forever changed.

And that’s the power of story.

Danish commercial makes Michael Bay look like an AMATEUR

Epic slow-motion. Soaring music. Stunned reaction shots — this commercial from Denmark has it all, and they do it better than Michael Bay without even resorting to 593 explosions.

Think of what they could have done with an explosion or seven.

Stretch your editing muscles

Proofing for boo-boos is easy. Line editing is tougher.

Structural editing is the toughest.

So let’s play around with a little flash fiction from Joey’s contest and see what we can do, first with a standard edit job, then with a different kind of big-picture spitballing.

Original flash fiction entry by Mayumi – 196 words

Stone stairs and the blood of Landstanders foolish enough to raise arms against him disappear beneath Fin’s boots, as every step takes him closer to the top of this tall, windowed tower, and to the girl trapped within.

“Wavewalker!” a guard warns, but he’s silenced by metal tines already streaked red; it’s the same for his partner beside. And up Fin runs, never stopping. His muscles ache, his lungs burn, but the door is just ahead, and suddenly he’s crying her name as his spear splinters the heavy wood:

“Cauda!”

He’s barely broken through when she rushes up, arms thrown around him. And though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifts to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim. “You came.”

Time is short – more Landstanders are surely already racing to reclaim their princess prize – but still he cups her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kisses her, for fear it will be the last thing he ever does.

He draws back at the taste of tears.

“There’s no way out,” she whispers.

The spear creaks in his fist. “There’s always a way.”

# # #

Comments:

Of all the entries, this one had the most action, which is probably why I liked it. Other stories mostly hinted at action to come, or actions in the past.

Edits: switched to past tense instead of present, fixed various things.

Edited version – 178 words

Blood on the stone stairs disappeared beneath Fin’s boots, every step taking him closer to the top of the tower and the girl trapped within.

A guard’s shout was cut off by a blade already streaked with red. And up Fin ran, never stopping. His muscles ached, his lungs burned, but the door was just ahead, and he cried her name as he spear splintered the heavy wood.

“Cauda!”

He’d barely broken through when she rushed to throw her arms around him. Though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifted to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim.

“You came,” she said.

Time was short – more soldiers were surely racing to reclaim their princess prize – but he cupped her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kissed her despite the fear it would be the last thing he ever did.

Fin drew back at the taste of her tears.

“There’s no way out,” she whispered.

The spear creaked in his fist.

“There is always a way.”

# # #

So, a typical editing job. Nothing fancy.

I’m more interested in the guts of a piece — short story or stump speech, HBO series or Hollywood blockbuster. What’s the structure, the setups and payoffs? How do things change?

So here’s another flash fiction entry. No line editing here. Let’s look at the bones and spitball some options.

# # #

I’ll never forgot that old, mossy stone porch. Johnny and I used to lie there after the dances, enjoying the smooth coldness of the stone against our sweaty skin, and talk about what we would do with a building like this if it were our home.

“First off,” he would say, “I’d kick all these damned people out!”

He used to love to make me laugh. I thought I couldn’t live without him. We were both 17, and it seemed like the perfect life lay before us. Everything in the world was perfect, if only for a moment.

That, was of course, before the booze took hold of him.

It’s hard to believe, only a few short years later, here I stand looking at that porch, with its glorious white columns, standing tall and proud, with the fadings of Johnny’s fists on my face. Oh how life changes so cruelly.

He will wake up soon, in the E.R., and wonder how he got there. He will yell and call out my name. The nurses will not know that “Jenny” means Jessica, because they will not know that in his drunken confusion he often mistakes his mistress for his wife.

# # #

Nice. I like it. There is a difference between the beginning (Love Story by Taylor Swift) and the end (Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks).

How can we pump up the story without adding Michael Bay explosions, robots fighting and Megan Fox randomly running around in short-shorts?

Most of this piece is either remembering the past or predicting the future. So my first crazy idea is to make it all present tense, because there’s instantly more tension if it’s all happening now.

Let’s strip away the pretty words and look at the bones. Boil it all the way down. Right now, the original gets down to something like, “Wife plans revenge on cheaty McCheater.”

How can we change the structure to something happening now, and make it so memorable that it gets down to a sentence that makes your jaw drop. So, let’s spitball here. (Note: theese are not the words, but story / structure / outline.)

# # #

Jessica loves Johnny SOOOO much that she wants to marry him. They’re on a picnic at this amazing stone tower. It’s romantic, and yeah, she actually bought him a gold band and might ask him tonight, if it feels right. It’s a modern world. She wants to be married, and to him. And he seems super polite and nervous today, like he maybe is thinking the same thing. Her entire life could change tonight. It’s beautiful and perfect.

She’s decided to ask him. Why not? But he beats her to the punch. “Jessica, can we talk about us?”

She says, sort of quietly, “I’d like us to be forever.” But he’s starts talking about some new job, in some other city, and some girl named Jenny who he sort of slept with.

So when he stands up to awkwardly hug her goodbye, she sort of pushes him off the tower.

# # #

Now that can boil down to “You would not BELIEVE what happened last night” headline: Woman pushes cheating lover to his doom — on night she hoped to get engaged

Why critique groups MUST DIE

Every writer gets the notion — from college, from movies, from the Series of Tubes — that they should be in a critique group.

This notion is seven separate types of wrong.

It’s time for critique groups to go the way of the rotary phone — to make way for something better, faster and stronger.

Peoples of the interwebs: critique groups are obsolete

A critique group is useful for certain things:

(a) university professors who want students to break into groups and leave him alone for the next 45 minutes,

(b) writers who really, really like to read their work aloud,

(c) literary snobs who like to say silly pretentious things about the work of others, and

(d) happy writers who like to socialize with fellow writers and talk smack about the craft while drinking bourbon.

Sidenote: Yes, your particular critique group is wonderful, and you couldn’t live without it. No worries. I’m not driving to your house with the Anti-Critique Group Secret Police to disband it or anything. Also, your critique group’s amazing bylaws and secret handshakes mitigate all the typical disadvantages of plain old boring critique groups that are not nearly as awesome. 

Reason No. 1: Critique groups take far too much time

During college, sure, you’ve got time to sit in a group, read chapters aloud and debate what Susie really meant by having the protagonist drink a bottle of ketchup in Chapter 2.

Once you graduate from college, get a job, get married, buy a house and have little pookies, THERE IS NO TIME for this type of nonsense. Do I have three hours to drive to somebody’s house, listen to chapters read aloud, then talk about what I remember of those words and drive home? No. I have ten flipping minutes to write silly blog posts.

People who write for monies, full time, do not gather around a table to read their text aloud while fellow writers and editors listen carefully and ponder the words. It does not happen.

Reason No. 2: Editing as a group is dangerous and slow

Anything written by a committee will stink up the joint, right? Writing is a solitary act.

Editing is, too. You write a thing, then you give it to an editor.

Typically, there are different levels of editing: at a newspaper, you ship your text to the city editor, who gives it the first whack and focuses on the big picture. Later, the draft goes to the copy desk for a different type of editing, more of a polish and proofing.

Also, editing is best done on a keyboard, or with a red pen. Not out loud in a social group, where peer pressure and weird dynamics can screw up a draft in two seconds flat.

Reason No. 3: Critique groups can’t handle most things we write today

Short stories and novels. That’s what critique groups are really built to handle.

And they do a bad job on novels. Why? Because reading a novel in tiny chunks every week will (a) take forever and (b) turn the focus onto pretty words rather than structure and story. You need to see the entire airplane before you can say, with authority, whether it’ll fly or not. Peeking at tiny pieces of it all year doesn’t work.

Traditional critique groups are bullocks when it comes to editing blog posts, speeches, opeds, screenplays, newspaper stories, magazine features, obituaries and haikus. That’s right, haikus. YOU CAN’T HANDLE THEM.

Reason No. 4: Because I say so

That’s it.

I could put some bullets beneath here, if you want to make it official. Here you go:

  • Because
  • I
  • Say
  • So.

Let’s invent something new

Now, there is a place for some kind of thing that’s LIKE a critique group, except better, faster and stronger.

Everybody needs an editor. And the more important a thing is, the more you should hire a professional editor who actually does this stuff for a living. But for a whole bunch of things that we write — including silly blog posts — hiring a pro would be a waste of money and time.

So let’s invent a new Writing Monster that’s better, faster and stronger.

Better

The Writing Monster should be flexible, able to handle the editing of any kind of writing, whether it’s a little blog post, a speech, a short story or a screenplay.

It should also expose people to new ideas and new ways of looking at writing, and inspire us to rip the pages out of stupid pretentious books.

And it should expose us to different types of writers and editors, not just fellow writers who have the same exact skills and writerly prejudices.

Faster

The Writer Monster Thing should use this thing we call the Series of Tubes and travel at the speed of light rather than the Speed of Steve’s Subaru as you carpool to Jane’s house for the critique group and hope that she didn’t make that bean salad again.

Stronger

The Writing Monster should be strong and resilient, living in the cloud and forging connections with writers and editors anywhere, like the Borg’s hive mind collective.

BTW: Resistance is futile.

The Writing Monster will NOT die because Steve moved to Idaho or Jane discovered that she hates Tyler’s novel and, to be honest, his stinking guts.

Also, the Writing Monster will focus more on short, important things like concepts, pitches and structure. Things that take up less than a page. (Kristen the Lamb is onto something with her Concept Critique Group idea.)

The alternative is spending every week for the next year dissecting Steve’s 125,000-word epic about vampire elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs and Jane’s memoir about growing up on a potato farm in Idaho.

Evil storytelling tricks NO ONE SHOULD KNOW

I don’t care what you’re writing: whether it’s spy thrillers, speeches, newspaper stories or romances about men in kilts, the only thing that matters to the reader is the journey you take them on.

How far – and how fast – is that ride? Where does it start and where does it end?

The roller coaster you take readers on is far, far more important than how pretty you’ve painted things with words.

Oh, there are people who write so beautifully that they can make a trip to Safeway sound more interesting than the latest Michael Bay explosion of robots and cleavage. And yes, there are people who are bestsellers despite the wordsmithing skills of a middling sixth-grader whose main hobby is eating paste.

Those bestsellers are millionaires because story – structure, really — beats pretty words.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t considered the Great Communicator because of his verbal skills. Go back and listen to his Berlin Wall speech, considered a great one. He’s got all sorts of verbal tics and delivery problems. He wasn’t that smooth of a speaker. Reagan’s genius was in being a great storyteller.

The same thing is true of great reporters. It’s not the quality of the prose that makes us hand out Pulitzers and buy Bob Woodward’s books. What he’s truly good at is getting people to give him juicy things to write about, so he can tell a great story, with twists and turns and shockers.

Bad writing is all bad in the same way.

People want a thrilling ride? The Michael Bay School of Storytelling says OK, let’s blow their minds with the most intense story ever. Except when everything is dialed up to 11, the audience goes numb.

Here’s the script for every TRANSFORMER movie ever made. Act 1: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 2: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 3: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions!

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You see the same problems with bad action movies starring Chuck Norris, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. If it’s exciting to watch the hero take on five bad guys on top of a roof, then it must be twice as awesome to have him dismember 10 thugs with a chainsaw in Act 2 and three times as cool to torch 20 thugs with a flamethrower in Act 3. Except it’s not.

It’s not much different with the typical Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel, which starts out wallowing in misery and angst in Act 1, moves on to more misery and angst in Act 2 and ends with, just for variety, an extra dose of misery and angst for Act 3.

Technically, the insanely rich hero does go on a journey. He goes to the country club. He goes to dinner. He goes to a polo game where he sneaks a rendezvous with his mistress, who he secretly despises.

The other kind of Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel features a noble poor person, who suffers even more than the rich schmuck, and yes, he also technically goes on a journey, though going from one cardboard box in a bad section of Skid Row three blocks down to a rattier cardboard box WITH HOLES IN IT in an even sketchier part of Skid Row isn’t much of a trip for the audience.

A story like this isn’t a thrilling roller coaster. It’s a slow slog on the Train of Misery.

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This is why tragedies work. Inherently, they are a fast and exciting ride, because you start at the very top, with a king or president or otherwise Important Person Who Has It All.

Then, because they can’t resist temptation, or otherwise succumb to hubris and stupidity, they plummet from the top to the bottom. Not that they don’t fight back. They try. They pull out of the slide a couple times, and you think they might make it until their inner demons get the best of them.

That is exciting. You’re letting the audience peek into a different, secret world – the Land of the Rich and Famous – and bringing one of the exalted few down to earth. Who doesn’t want to watch that, or read that?

Reporters make a living doing this. Greek playwrights were doing it 2.94 bazillion years ago. Novelists and screenwriters are still doing tragedies, and will be doing them until the sun turns into a red giant and fries the earth.

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The reverse story, Underdog, is so simple and well-known that I won’t make a silly chart for it, because I have faith in you.

I believe, deep in my soul, that you have seen ROCKY once or twice, and watched THE KARATE KID many times, because that movie still rocks to this day despite the lame remake starring Will Smith’s kid, which didn’t involve karate at all, because IT WAS IN CHINA and was about kung fu, not karate. Though I do love Jackie Chan.

Unlike the Bad Action Movie, the hero in an Underdog plot doesn’t start out as some insanely skilled and handsome muffin of stud who, if armed with a folding toothbrush, can take on 43 bad guys. Driving tanks.

Rocky starts out as a washed up boxer, a loser. Ralph Macchio starts out as a skinny kid who gets his butt kicked by local bullies 25 hours a day.

Rocky and Ralph go on real journeys, from rock bottom to the top. Ralph goes from getting beat up by the bullies to beating the leader of the bullies in an honorable way, and having his foe shake his hand. He gains their respect. He suffers and sacrifices in order to change and grow. Also, Mr. Miyagi is the Man.

ROCKY has a more interesting plot, and the script won a freaking Oscar because of it. I kid you not: Sylvester Stallone, Mr. B Movie, started out by winning an Oscar for screenwriting. That is the only thing in the world he has in common with Matt Damon.

The end of Rocky isn’t your typical action movie, which features the hero (a) impaling the Villain of the Week, (b) throwing the Villain of the Week into a bottomless pit or (c) watching the Villain of the Week get impaled after he falls down the bottomless pit.

Rocky ends without a victory at all. He doesn’t beat Apollo Creed, despite all his sweat and blood.

He battles Apollo to basically a draw, and for him, that’s a huge moral victory. He has grown. He has changed. And when he gets the girl, it’s not perfunctory movie nonsense, the typical, “Oh yeah, it’s the end, so the hero needs to kiss the girl after he says some clever one-liner.” You care about this schlub getting the girl, even if you didn’t care one bit for TANGO AND CASH.

Sidenote: I did enjoy DEMOLITION MAN, mostly because Sandra Bullock was awesomesauce, Wesley Snipes was believably insane and they made it so after the apocalypse or whatever, every restaurant was Taco Bell.

To whoever wrote that script, I salute you.

The lesson here: no matter what you write, figure out the ending, and that determines the beginning.

If you have a down ending, you need an up beginning. Otherwise, you’re not taking the audience on any kind of ride.

If you have an up ending, you better have a down beginning. The lower, the better.

ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are minor examples.

Let’s go big. The billion-dollar stories follow this formula: STAR WARS, the Harry Potter movies and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the three biggest stories on this planet, spanning many movies, countless spin-off books and enough merchandise to sink the continent of Australia.

George Lucas and J.K. Rowling have more money than God — end of debate.

All three of those stories start down. Way down. The evil emperor is gaining power. Harry Potter is an orphan because Voldemort killed his parents, and now he’s coming for Harry the Potter — and meanwhile, this big glowing eye on top of a volcano controls all sorts of trolls and scary dudes in hoods who ride black horses of the apocalypse. Our only hope is a tiny man with hairy bare feet and a magic ring whose mighty magic power seems to only turn him invisible and really grumpy.

Sidenote: while in Maui, I read the preface to the introduction to the liner notes for LORD OF THE RINGS, and around page 83, after the index of Elvish words and an anthropological study of Hobbit culture, I was still waiting for the actual story to begin. I did not throw the book across the room, because there were no men in kilts in it that I could detect, but I did lay it down gently and look hard for a hollowed-out pineapple full of alcohols.

Now, I’m not saying all stories are either comedies (up ending) or tragedies (down ending). That’s simplifying things way too much.

For example, dramas and sitcoms are the most common things on TV, right? And they are completely the opposite of what you expect, when you drill down into the story structure of dramas and sitcoms.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: dramas are not tragedies. Dramas end up.

LAW AND ORDER is probably the most famous drama, since at least five cable channels play nothing other than reruns of LAW AND ORDER, LAW AND ORDER: CSI, LAW AND ORDER: LA, LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, LAW AND ORDER: SOME FIELD IN NEBRASKA and, best of all, LAW AND ORDER: BRITAIN, which I threw in here at the end as a sneaky segue allowing me to play The Best Video On the Planet.

Yes, dramas are about horrible things like murder and rape and war.

Except what they’re really about are heroic people who swim in the muck and chaos caused by idiots and greed. Dramas really say, “Despite how bad things are, there are people who’ll try to make things right.”

That doesn’t mean they succeed every time. About one out of twenty times, LAW AND ORDER lets the bad guy get away with it, and yes, it seems like one out of three times, but if you’re reading this, you’re a writer, and bad at math, and you’re not going to go back and watch all 4,398 episodes to do a tally. So I could make stuff up all day.

Comedies don’t always have down endings, per se – but they are NOT happy.

Comedies are about how absurd, hopeless and screwed up things are.

Specifically, comedies target an institution.

  • Sitcoms usually go after marriage and family life, usually middle-class suburban families.
  • M*A*S*H was an indictment of war.
  • ANIMAL HOUSE lampooned frats and college life.

Comedies have mixed endings. It’s OK for the hero to get what he’s after – but only in an absurd way. His best efforts to achieve his goal always backfire. Things don’t happen like they should. It’s screwball.

The other kind of mixed ending is ironic. The hero gets what he wants, but decides he doesn’t truly want it. He finds the king’s treasure after slaying the dragon and decides he doesn’t want all that money, that he’d rather go back home and be a simple farmer. That sort of thing. ROCKY is a bit of an ironic ending. He doesn’t win the fight. He wins other things: self-respect, a future, a girlfriend. Then in the sequels it gets all conventional and boring, though Mister T, for a brief moment in time, before he sold out and joined the A-Team, was a scary, scary man.

Bonus material for story nerds and intellectual types

There is another type of ending, Random Nonsense, which is more common in indie films with subtitles. Think black and white. Think French existentialism.

Here’s an example: the hero is a downtrodden detective, investigating a killer far smarter than he will ever be. His only son hates him, his boss wants to fire him and wife just left him, though he starts up a flirtatious thing with a girl who works at his local café. Just as he starts catching some breaks – he’s walking the café girl home from their first date when he spots the killer running from an alley, the scene of his latest crime – he’s hit by a drunk driver. The End.

Random Nonsense has a message, too, just like tragedies are about hubris, dramas are about the human spirit overcoming adversity and comedies are about how absurd life is. Random Nonsense is trying to make a point about existentialism and chaos, that we don’t really control events. Things just happen.

This may make for deep conversations in your Philosophy 301 class, and you may feel all intellectual talking about what the movie really meant at 3 a.m. at Denny’s while you eat sides of fries and drink bottomless cups of coffee while smoking cigarettes bummed from your roommate, the sociology major. Sociology!

But it makes for a terrible story. There’s no roller coaster. That’s why the audience for these kinds of stories fits on a postage stamp.