The Mighty MacGuffin

If you’re a writer, you’ll need to use a MacGuffin now and then–and a MacGuffin generator is particularly important now, with upwards of a million writers cranking away every year on NaNoWriMo.

This is not a plot device. We’re talking about an item–and it doesn’t even have to really exist, or be seen–the hero and villain are fighting to obtain. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for using MacGuffins in his films. If the hero is on a quest, he needs to be questing for something. Really, it doesn’t matter what. It’s the journey that matters. Hitchcock has a nice way of getting into the topic.

You can see how movies and novels often revolve around a MacGuffin.

Indiana Jones always needs an item to find and fight over: an ark or a cup and so forth.

Spy movies need a microfilm containing the real names and identities of every undercover agent employed by the CIA, GRU or MI-6, with the good guys and bad guys both willing to do whatever it takes to find and destroy that MacGuffin, which the hero happens to pick up by accident in the luggage carousel at O’Hare.

Sci-fi novels need some kind of techno-babble MacGuffin, like a repulsive helix inverter, which can tweak your DNA or whatever and create an army of alien super soldiers.

Fantasy movies need a magical ring that turns you invisible but does nothing about your big hairy feet or the fact you’re the size of a smurf, or maybe an Enchanted Vorpal Sword of Infinite Sharpness that can lop off the head of the invincible Dragon of Instant Fiery Death that killed your father, uncle, grandfather, second cousin, first wife, baby sister and favorite horse.

Generator Number 1

Here’s a spiffy MacGuffin generator by Jordan McCollum.

Use it. Then visit her blog and show her some love. That’s how this thing works. Pay it forward.

Generator Number 2

Technically, this isn’t a generator. You don’t hit refresh on the browser to come up with another MacGuffin.

It’s more accurate to call this the Mother Lode of MacGuffins, with the entire history of the idea–plus with a massive list of the different flavors of MacGuffins with links that dive into each one. This site is a thing of beauty. 

What is your favorite MacGuffin of all time? And which film, TV show or novel wins the prize for Silliest MacGuffin of All Time? (Note: It’s cheating to go with Star Trek, where every other movie or episode involves dilithium crystal nonsense and the warp core.)

The Red Pen of Doom sends LIKE A FOX ON THE RUN into hyperspace

This isn’t my usual thing–it’s not the first page of a Classic Novel professors decided in some secret meeting, probably in a Best Western outside Cleveland, they’d force all of us to write term papers on. And it’s not a bestseller which absolutely stinks.

It’s a random book I saw on the Twitters.

I did read out the first page of the prologue, and the first chapter. The cover and synopsis are more fun to play with, though.

Let’s check out the cover, then the synopsis / back page text, and we’ll chat.

The cover

like a fox on the run novel

The synopsis

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.

In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where Man has conquered the heavens, while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life … for the right price. Where hot rod rockets and redneck “spacers” rule the skies.

Tiger Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century. Now, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He makes a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, legal and otherwise.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Tiger and newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.

Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.

Edits and notes

The cover: Hey, I like it, especially given this looks like an indie book on a low budget. Does the job for a sci-fi novel just fine. Thumbs up.

The synopsis: This is what got me to write a post. You had me at “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers.”

Here’s a shot at the synopsis to pump up the wild stuff and slay boring bits:

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.

In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where

Hotrod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Man has Yet conquering the heavens made man  while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on Earth, his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to lifefor the right price. Where

Tiger (If your love interest is a fox-woman, don’t make your hero’s first name Tiger–confusing, and no, you can’t call him Tiger and reveal in Act 3 that he’s a genetically engineered tiger thing) Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush,  when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century.but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He making a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned. legal and otherwise.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Thomas Tiger and his newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.

Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.

Edited synopsis as straight text

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure.

Hot-rod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Yet conquering the heavens made man obsolete on Earth, where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life–for the right price. 

Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, making a living doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll kill anyone who stands in their way. Thomas and his newfound companion find themselves on the run from deadly, high-tech bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? 

#

Feels faster and smoother. Mostly, it’s a matter of killing words. Could we have killed even more words? Maybe. Always worth trying, though I was working hard to edit with a light touch. Itchy Pencil is a real disease. There is no known cure.

The other bit I wanted to delete is everything dealing with his old flame, which felt like the B plot. You don’t see her on the cover, and there are no high-tech Boba Fett types chasing her around the galaxy. The fox girl as the A plot, though fox girl NEEDS A NAME if she’s so important to the story, and that name better not be something like Fox Amber Harrison, or I will throw the book clear across the room.

What say you–how else could we give the synopsis of “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” a boost into orbit?

Tiny film teaches us big honking writing tricks

writing meme spiderman dear diary

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.

Why the classic movie DUNE is a hot mess

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

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.

Oh my.

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.

Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that's horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we'll talk. Kthxbai.
Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that’s horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we’ll talk. Kthxbai.

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 MacLachlanPatrick StewartSting 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.

Top 10 evil tips for authors, actors and artists

So, you’re a creative type — a writer of epic literary novels, an actor schlepping tables in Hollywood or a great artist in a black turtleneck who paints canvasses black because that’s HOW YOU FEEL about global hegemony.

How can you bust through and make it?

Oh, I’ve written all sorts of silly posts about free ink and airtime, and have sent my minions to start work on the Mother of All Evil Media Plans, as a special thing for my peoples.

But all that free ink and airtime stuff is somewhat Serious, and requires Work — while you are in a Hurry.

Who has time for all that sweaty work nonsense?

Here are my Top 10 Evil Tips for Authors, Actors and Artists.

 

10) Learn to love Top Ramen.

As a creative type, you must properly suffer. True art does not come from being content. No.

The first step in suffering is living on a food budget of $25 a week. As a former reporter, I have done this. Unless you’re a Trustafarian, you also did this during college.

Nobody can eat on $25 a week without a heavy reliance on Top Ramen, which comes in the following flavors: beef, chicken, fishy shrimp something-something, salty, picante beef-whatever and extra-salty with a hint of I-don’t-know.

Also good and cheap: zucchini, which they damn near give away, and tofu.

 

9) Travel the world on the cheap and document your brilliance.

Nobody will take you seriously as a writer, actor or artist if the only foreign country you’ve visited is Canada, which DOES NOT COUNT. Neither does Google Earth, wise guy.

But how can a person with a weekly food budget of $25 see the world?

First, you must hitchhike across the country.

Are you on the East Coast? Get to San Francisco. Those living on the West Coast must sneak onto freight trains and ride the rails to NYC.

All you folks living on the farm in Iowa, growing corn and having long conversations about Hemingway with Bessie the Cow, well, you can flip a coin: SF or NYC.

Once you get to a real metropolis, visit all the free museums you can to soak up some culture. Then get on a tramp steamer that’ll take you to Amsterdam / Africa / Australia or some other foreign land that starts with A.

Stuff your backpack with Top Ramen — you’re gonna need it. Learn to eat it dry, like popcorn. Also, your clothes are not “used” and “bought from Goodwill for $2 a pop.” They are “vintage” and “rare” and “unique.”

While you travel, fill a Moleskin notebook with deep, thoughtful scribbles. Do this all the time: in your apartment, during smoke breaks at your job waiting tables at Applebees, on the tramp steamer heading for Amsterdam — just scribble away.

Great artists can say pithy things about anything, whether it’s the social dynamics of cooks vs. wait staff at soulless suburban restaurant chains or sunset from the deck of a cargo ship carrying iPods to India.

 

8) Take photos of your life, and your journeys, with a cheap camera.

Did your mom give you a fancy Nikon D3100 for your birthday? Sell it.

You’re a struggling artist, and nobody struggles when they’re using a camera that’s worth more than their car.

Find a camera that fits your lifestyle, something retro and vintage and cheap that uses this thing we call “film.” Will you have trouble finding places that still develop film? Yes. But a true artist will make their own darkroom and develop their own photos using Lysol and bleach or whatever as fixing agents.

Your photos are NOT blurry and out of focus. They are SAYING something about life that crisp, clear, corporate photos don’t have the courage to say.

 

7) Start out with a bang.

Now that you’ve suffered, traveled the country and world and documented it all with words (“text”) and photos (“images”), you need to make your first real move.

Don’t do the usual thing of starting a blog, writing for a small magazine or acting in community theater.

You need to make a splash. To say something insanely bold, even if you don’t believe a word of it. To do what has never been done before.

Write a novel using only the letters on the left side of the keyboard. Putting a toilet on the wall of a gallery is boring — stick a PortaPotty with a real person inside up there. Do a one-act play reinventing Hamlet in a darkened theater where the actors are all wearing black ninja outfits while they speak German.

 

6) Find a patron and marry well.

Now that you did something insane, find a bored, rich person who was entertained by it.

Write a memoir about their life — or paint their portrait using six different types of soil from the farm in Nebraska where they grew up. Whatever it takes to stop eating Top Ramen.

A rich patron is great and all, but their loyalty is not guaranteed. Who’s to say they won’t start giving scads of money to the next hot painter or writer? The money spigot could be shut down at any moment. You can’t count on them paying the rent every month. Marry them if you can. If you can’t, find a pediatrician, dentist, torts attorney or business executive who does something boring and needs a creative type to balance things out, to provide a little spark and adventure and culture in their life. Also, to pay all your bills.

As a great artist, you’re not worried about making sure this person is “the one.” It’s expected that you’ll have five or six marriages and an insanely complicated love life. What matters is that (a) the gossip rags print your name right and (b) the bills get paid.

 

5) Make sure your ways are mysterious.

Other people write using Word, on a computer. Their successful habits include writing at least 500 words before breakfast and separating writing / creating from editing / polishing.

Those things put the B in Boring, and you are anything but boring.

Compose everything on an Underwood typewriter while (a) blindfolded, (b) drunk and (c) smoking unfiltered cigarettes from Morocco.

Paint your masterpieces while hanging from gravity boots and listening to Black Sabbath.

Your methods must be inscrutable.

 

4) Take up an appropriately impressive sport.

Hang gliding is not quite epic enough. Ultimate Fighting would have been great 10 years ago, but it’s too mainstream now for you.

Fencing is interesting and harkens back to the good old days, you know, when men who felt insulted grabbed a rapier or a pistol and tried to kill the other man.

Knife fights against rival artists would be perfect. Make sure you win, which means you should probably cheat somehow. Ideally, you’ll win a fight against your nemesis but get a wicked facial scar and maybe even lose an eye, so you can spend the rest of your life wearing a black eyepatch.

 

3) Lie like a rug.

The truth is boring and bourgeoise, isn’t it? You’re above that.

If three different people ask you the same question, give three different answers. Bonus points for making each new answer more outrageous and epic than the last.

Did you once get lazy and not mow your lawn for a month? Well, that’s not what you TELL anybody. You tell a reporter that any moral person should have objections to wielding a gasoline-powered instrument of death on defenseless vegetation, that only a heartless fool would decimate the habitat of millions of insects and birds. Then the next time somebody asks about it, you say that plants and insects aren’t truly conscious and you burned your lawn with a flamethrower as a demonstration of the existentialist absurdity of life.

Have you been faithfully married to the same person for 21 years? Oh, don’t tell anybody that. It is so suburban. Say you live in a free-love commune with seven other authors, artists and actors, and that you all sleep on a trampoline covered in fleece blankets.

 

2) Be obscure, difficult and deep.

Nothing says “loser” like being nice, direct and clear.

Give quotes and speeches so convoluted that you don’t even understand what you said. Abuse your underlings. Contradict yourself in the same sentence.

Wear sunglasses at all time while chain-smoking Gallouise Blondes in non-smoking areas, and don’t leave when asked. Don’t even leave when the police show up, because getting arrested is like having $100,000 in free press. You’re not a real celebrity until you’ve got a decent collection of mug shots on TMZ.

If you tell somebody you love them in the morning, you can’t say the same thing that night, now, can you? You hate them. Then the next morning, you love them again. Celebrate this new development by going on a five-day road trip where you sleep during the day at cheap motels and drive at night, taking photos only of different rest-stop signs.

 

1) Fake your death.

Nothing boosts sales like dying. The tricky part will be coming BACK without ruining everything.

Maybe you were having a knife fight on a tramp steamer heading to Zanzibar when a rogue wave swept you overboard, and it took you six months to cross the Sahara and catch another boat back to the states.

Do this right and maybe you can finally afford to divorce Pediatrician No. 4.

Steampunk goodness

If you love books, you know that steampunk is a genre.

If you’re pretentious, you know three different ways of pronouncing “genre” and scoff — pish-posh! — at lowbrows who pronounce it incorrectly.

If you’re literary agent Cherry Weiner, you know that there are different branches of steampunk (cowboy, gaslight, etc), because YOU INVENTED IT and are too cool for school.

This is an interesting and worthy genre, and all good fun. I believe it is far, far superior to the over-used genres known as “sparkly vampire YA nonsense trying to ride the coattails of TWILIGHT” and “angry elves with lightsabers riding into battle against dinosaurs in spaceships” and yes, those two things basically exist.

As a man who’s only fashion instincts are “three piece suits” and “nothing that makes you look like a doofus,” I appreciate this little video of steampunk clothing, especially the line, “I want YOU for the dirigible corps!” Well done. More more MORE.