Plot Ninja – story structure made easy

My library contains Every Book on Writing Known to Man or Woman–journalism, speechwriting, fiction, rhetoric, grammar, speechy journalism, ficitonal rhetoric, whatever–and honestly, they’re mostly good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

I’m only half kidding. 

The secret to all writing is structure and editing, and the absolute best in the world at structure are these magical creatures called screenwriters.

This is why I hope readers of this silly blog watch the video above (yeah, you skipped it? watch the thing) and check out my sister’s new course, Plot Ninja.

Don’t do it because she’s my sister, or because she’s brilliant and funny.

Do it because writers of any sort need to steal everything they can from screenwriters.

Because all those different writing books in my library, and yours, are a lot like instruction manuals for plumbing, electrical wiring, drywall, cabinetry and painting. Yeah, that stuff is really important–but not at first.

Here’s the thing: writing anything is like building a house: sure, you can throw together a little shed made of two-by-fours and drywall, and it might hold up for bit, but try to build a house like that and it’ll fall down after the first rain.

None of it matters without a strong foundation and framing, and the only way to get that right is with strong blueprints.

Who actually knows the secrets of story blueprints?

Screenwriters.

Nobody is better. It’s not even close.

Not because they’re the most talented writers. Not because some of them get paid bazillions of dollars.

It’s because screenwriters focus, relentlessly, on the only thing you see in screenplays: the blueprints of a story.

Nobody else teaches the bones of storytelling like screenwriters.

Listen, I have a journalism degree and wrote thousands of newspaper stories. Have a background in rhetoric and have written thousands and thousands of speeches, then I write thrillers for fun. Somebody taught me the structures for journalism, speechwriting and fiction, right? Not in the way you think. A journalism degree with teach you the inverted pyramid and a lot about headlines and ethics and how to put together a newspaper or magazine. Structure and blueprints? Not really.

Same with speechwriting and fiction. You tend to get a lot more instruction about the fit and finish than the blueprints and foundation. 

I find that backward, so when I teach folks, I always start with blueprints and foundations. Tools you can use for whatever you write.

And all the best stuff I’ve learned about strong blueprints came from screenwriting and Pam.

Get the whole toolbox, not a single template

You’ll see a lot of people saying, “Here’s how to write X or Y” and yeah, it’s one way to do it. 

Screenwriters have the whole toolbox and use it.

They don’t say, “This is the only way” unless they’re hawking the hero’s journey, which is not the only story in town. There are all kinds of stories: comedies and tragedies, dramas and melodramas, tales of transformation and redemption. 

Screenwriters have picked up every tool in the box and know all the ways of putting together stories.

And you can build them in all kinds of different ways. In fact, you have to. Try to plot a comedy in the same way as a drama, or a horror story, and it’ll flop.

Those hammers and drills and blueprints are useful for anything you write, whether it’s stories in newspapers and magazines or 200,000-word epics about an evil talking cat and his buddy, the seeing eye dog who’s seen too much, and what happens when they decide to go on a crime spree.

So I’ll try to post more of Pam’s videos about screenwriting every Wednesday, because they’re funny and useful.

And I hope you get as much out of them as I have.

Note: No, I’m not writing about that evil talking cat, his seeing eye dog and their crime spree, though it does sound like fun. 

The careful genius of COBRA KAI’s season 2

The last season of GAME OF THRONES went out in a fiery train wreck packed with dragons and stupidity–but here we have the opposite, a low-budget show on Netflix about dueling karate dojos.

Roughly 28 gazillion people are watching COBRA KAI, and they’re loving it. Shockingly, the critics are all over it, too.

Because unlike the Season that Must Not Be Named that Did the Night King and Mother of Dragons Wrong Wrong Wrong, the writing and plotting of COBRA KAI is carefully and horrifically good. (Warning: spoilers spoilers spoilers.)

Building on Season 1

In the first season, it’s really the story of Johnny’s redemption. He rises from the depths and finds a purpose again, and truly tries to reform Cobra Kai to give kids like Miguel some help. Not that Johnny becomes a complete goodie-goodie. 

By comparison, Daniel struggles, and its a bit of a rich jerk. But he’s not a complete villain, either.

I kid you not, the series feels a bit like BREAKING BAD in that most major characters aren’t heroes or villains. They’re beautiful shades of gray.

Season 2 doesn’t try to continue the character arcs in the same direction, which would have been the easy narrative choice.

The showrunners and writers went bigger. They raised the stakes and added twists, reversals and revelations throughout the season that changed everything around again.

This season, Daniel is the underdog and Cobra Kai is the big, dominant dojo, the winners of the All-Valley Tournament.

Except it gets more interesting than that.

Setups, payoffs and echoes

Though the show is funny, it’s not a comedy. 

Comedies poke fun at an institution–sitcoms go after marriage and family and suburban life, MASH took on the military, THE OFFICE hit corporate bureaucracy–and in a comedy, heroes can’t succeed except by accident.

COBRA KAI is a drama, with things happening for a reason. You could argue the last season of GOT was a melodrama, with things just kinda happening and fans immediately asking each other on Twitter and Reddit why why WHY?

For every payoff, there’s a setup. And the biggest scenes feature echoes of previous scenes.

A genius ending that sets up Season 3

There’s a lot packed into the final few episodes, and what the showrunners and writers did here is fun to take apart.

The beginning of the final episode has a sweet call-back to the original movie, playing Cruel Summer on the first day of school, then you get a slowed-down, sad version of the song at the end of the episode. Beautiful. How many rock songs can rock the xylophones? NOT MANY.

There are a lot of reasons for our characters to be moping around:

A giant brawl in school happens after Miguel’s new bad-girl girlfriend, Tory, hijacks the school PA system to say she knows what Sam (Daniel’s daughter) did–kissed Miguel at a party–and is coming for her.

Everybody fights everybody, tying up a lot of relationships. Hawks gets surprisingly beaten by his old friend Demetri, Tory cheats while fighting Sam, sending her to the hospital for cuts, while Robby fights Miguel, who gets kicked over a stairwell and is in the hospital with spinal injuries.

All of that leads to the apparent end of the romance between Johnny and Carmen (Miguel’s mother) and a “no more karate” edict from Daniel’s wife as they’re in the hospital room with their daughter.

It gets worse for Johnny, who loses control of his dojo to Kreese, after (a) giving Kreese a second-chance and (b) kicking him out of the dojo.

In a great scene that echoes imagery early in the season, he chucks his cell phone and the keys to the muscle car he repainted into a black-and-yellow Cobra theme. Giving up on his old life, right? Then the camera cuts to the cell phone in the sand, showing that his old flame (and Daniel’s former girlfriend) responded to his friend request. 

Guesses on Season 3

I don’t believe the writers will truly let Johnny and Daniel give up on karate forever. But I doubt they make a return to it in the first episode or two.

Five bucks says Kreese’s new, purely evil Cobra Kai will force them to come back to teaching–and though I’m not counting on it, I could see the end of Season 3 featuring a real truce, if not a partnership, between Johnny and Daniel to team up and beat Kreese for the sake of their kids and the community. 

Then again, they’ve surprised us episode after episode.

VERDICT

If you haven’t watched Season 2 yet, binge watch that sucker. 

If you haven’t watched Season 1, watch that first.

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.

But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:

Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds “to let it all percolate.”

Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.

Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).

Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited. 

Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.

Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?

Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.

Backward is bad

Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)

It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”

Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.

Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.

Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.

Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.

Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.

Reversing course

Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.

Start there.

Before you invest hours, days,  weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.

Begin with the shortest and most important words.

The  logline (or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”

The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”

Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.

Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.

And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.

Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.

Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.

You’re going to notice a few things.

First, the hero doesn’t matter.

Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.

Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”

See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.

Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.

A new way to write

Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.

New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.

One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.

New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.

Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.

New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.

Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.

So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her  (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea. 

If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.

If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.

If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).

And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.

I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.

Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.

Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.

New Step 4) Research only what you need.

New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS. 

You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.

I did that on purpose.

Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.

The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.

Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.

Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.

Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.

Make those four words count.

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

reading, books, types of stories

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

You’ve been done wrong, bamboozled, hornswoggled 

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day. These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager fanboys there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.

You can set a novel or movie a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.

Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?

They don’t really teach us structure or storytelling

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.

Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.

Writing dialogue

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Welcome to the age of the meta-story

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s a meta-story?

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

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

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

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

Building the beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You get the idea.

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

Honor your muse

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

How to format your screenplay’s title page

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Here’s why THE MEG works

The surprise hit of the summer? THE MEG, starring Jason Statham.

Here’s why this movie works, even if you know the ending. (Spoiler: I don’t need to tell you the ending. Come on.)

1) Monster in the House is a powerful and primal story

THE MEG isn’t a horror movie, actually.

In a true horror movie, the hero is actually the monster, who’s punishing society for its sins. That’s why the monster in horror movies is the star who keeps returning for the sequels.

Cineplexes around the world are littered with the corpses of horror movies that forgot this rule and let the monster lose. It doesn’t work. That’s now how the story is structured.

Monster in the House is the phrase screenwriter Blake Synder gave to stories like THE MEG, JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION.

The setup: There’s a monster in an enclosed place and either you kill it or it kills you.

Nothing could be more simple or powerful. This story hits us right in the caveman feels.

And it’s a story that’ll always work.

2) Jason Statham sells tickets

There are actors like Gary Oldman who can disappear into their roles.

Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson never disappear. Neither does Chris Pratt, whether he’s saving the galaxy or saving dinosaurs.

You could send a film crew to follow Statham, Johnson or Pratt around as they did their grocery shopping at Safeway and it would still be entertaining.

Statham has a particular brand of charm and is especially believable when he does action scenes. You don’t think there’s a stunt double or CGI making it happen.

That’s box office gold.

3) Movies like THE MEG help us conquer our fears

Horror movies tell us no, humans don’t win and don’t deserve to win. The monster kills everybody, punishing society for their sins, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The message of horror movies is, “Don’t commit whatever sin we’re highlighting in this story.”

Movies like THE MEG give us the opposite message: Even if there’s a seemingly unstoppable monster out there, that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear.

We can beat that monster–or any other monster–if we’re brave and clever and work together.

Why does MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT work so well?

I’m no fan of Tom Cruise, so it takes a lot to (a) part with hard currency to to watch a Cruise film and (b) publicly admit how much that film rocks.

He did it with EDGE OF TOMORROW, one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. I could watch that thing every day, and the more you dislike Cruise, the better the movie actually works.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Cruise did the impossible again with MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT.

Why is this movie so good when the last Bond movie bored me to bits, despite my utter fandom for Daniel the Craig?

(1) Practical stunts beat the snot out of CGI nonsense

Yes, CGI is expensive, and it can create amazing spectacles.

Yet we’re used to it. The wow factor is gone.

When I see a hero take on a CGI monster, it doesn’t scare me at all.

Practical stunts, where real people do really dangerous things, still impress people. And this movie is packed with them.

(2) Surprises on top of surprises

Thrillers are about betrayals, secrets, revelations and surprises.

Action scenes are only a bonus, dessert after the starters and main.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT gives the audience action scenes where the action is simply a setup for a betrayal, revelation or surprise. It’s a great way to move the story forward.

(3) Ruthless editing

This movie clocks in at two hours and 28 minutes. It doesn’t feel half that long.

How did the director and editor pull that off?

They ruthlessly cut the boring parts. Putting together a list of Scenes that Are Always Boring would require an entire post, though it would include Two Characters Talking as One Character Drives and my favorite, the Hero Types on a Computer.

The shorter, easier list is Scenes that Are Always Exciting, and that world champions on that list are (a) chases and (b) fights.

So if you make a movie that’s 90 percent chases and fights, with betrayals and surprises after every chase or fight, yeah, it’s going to be fast and fun. The trick is to avoid repetition. As a big fan of cheesy ’80s action movies, including everything Jackie Chan, Arnold and Jean Claude Van Damme ever made, I testify to the fact that most action movies believe, deep in their explosive souls, that the only way to mix things up for your audience is to multiply the number of bad guys facing our hero until the climax, when the producer has to bus in hundreds of extras and run the costume shop 24/7 to stitch up enough Expendable Bad Guy coveralls so they hero can wade through them all on his way to the Big Bad Guy.

That’s not to say there aren’t cliches and silly tropes in this movie. I pray to whichever gods that are listening, please, please stop Hollywood writers and directors from ever using stolen nuclear warheads as a plot device. I beg you. And the revelation that Clark Kent with a Beard is actually a bad guy came way too early for me.

But the nuclear MacGuffin in this movie doesn’t really matter. What puts us in those theater seats are the chases, fights and stunts, which are all spectacular. Well done, Tom the Cruise–now give us a sequel to EDGE OF TOMORROW.

Four reasons why COBRA KAI completely obliterates THE KARATE KID

Unless you live in an ice cave, you’ve seen THE KARATE KID—and by that I mean the classic from the ‘80s, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan which had the same title, and sort of the same plot, except it was set in China, was about kung fu instead of karate … and was just an achy breaky big mistakey of a movie.

COBRA KAI isn’t just another cheesy remake or TV spin-off.

It’s actually better than the original movie.

Let’s say that again: COBRA KAI is better.

Here’s why:

1) A dark, gritty treat for adults

Go back and rewatch the original movie, even for five minutes. Daniel LaRusso is the good guy and Johnny Lawrence and his buddies are the bad guys. There are no shades of gray.

What makes the film work is this isn’t a traditional action movie where the hero is tough and sexy from the first minute of the movie and doesn’t really change or grow by the time the movie ends. The only thing that changes is the pile of dead bodies created by the traditional action hero in the process of saving the world.

ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are the rare exceptions where the hero is a loser in the beginning, a total underdog. The joy in both films comes from their struggle and sacrifice to climb up from that gutter.

COBRA KAI isn’t simple. It’s dark, gritty and complicated, and that’s what makes it great.

2) It’s much, much funnier

Sure, there are cute moments in the film, and some jokes that’ll make you laugh.

COBRA KAI, though, will make you snort milk through your nose.

3) Even minor characters shine

THE KARATE KID doesn’t give minor characters much to chew on. They’re part of the scenery. Pop quiz: can you name any of Johnny’s gang? I can’t. Interchangeable thugs.

 

COBRA KAI fleshes out as many characters as possible, and it does this with efficiency and grace.

4) Crossing character arcs, as rare and beautiful as a triple rainbow

In most movies or novels, the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows. The mentor, the love interest, the villain—everybody else typically stays the same. They serve as catalysts and examples (good or bad) but they don’t change.

Back in THE KARATE KID, Daniel definitely suffers, sacrifices and grows through the catalyst of Mr. Miyagi’s teaching, but Mr. Miyagi doesn’t go from nasty curmedgeon to sweetie pie. Same thing with the evil sensei who runs the Cobra Kai dojo in the movie: he’s bad in the beginning and bad in the end.

COBRA KAI tries something bold and amazing with multiple crossing character arcs. They’re juggling chainsaws here, and they pull it off.

Season One shows us the redemption of Johnny Lawrence as he moves from bad to good. You root for the man.

His protégé Miguel actually moves from good to bad, and it hurts you to see a good kid turned into a jerk. In the final episode, Miguel winning the tournament should be a moment of triumph. It’s what Johnny wanted and worked for—yet it’s ashes in his mouth. And the writers know they don’t need dialogue to do this. It’s all there in Johnny’s face and it slays you. Miguel gets what he wanted, too, and finds out he cares less about the championship and more about the girl that got away.

There’s a similar contrasting journey with Daniel LaRusso, a fallen hero turned villain, using his power and money to torment his old high school karate rival.

It’s only through teaching Robbie, Johnny’s son, that Daniel finds his balance again and returns to acting like a hero.

Robbie has the opposite journey, suffering and sacrificing to move from bad to good through his new relationship with Daniel and the LaRusso’s.

The writers and showrunners went further by giving minor characters real, meaningful arcs. The best example is Hawk finding his confidence, then taking it too far and becoming a villain, while bad girl Moon finds redemption by ditching the mean cool kids to hang out with Hawk and the dorks.

Finally, it’s a nice tough that the big bully at the start of season one, Kylar, falls from Big Man on Campus to loser after being beat down in the cafeteria by Miguel, his previous victim.

The only other show I can remember with this many deep, crossing arcs for major and minor characters alike is BREAKING BAD, a tragedy where Walter White is the hero and the villain, going from good to bad while meth cook Jesse climbs up from the gutter to redemption.

VERDICT: Put a gun to my head and I would have never expected the folks behind HOT TUB TIME MACHINE to pull off an amazing series like this. The structure of episode one is strong, supple and fascinating. Just a thing of beauty. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot. Here is episode one, which you can watch for free.

How to raise the stakes

There are always public stakes and private stakes.

Public stakes: If the villain wins, so what? How does that affect the public at large–you, me and the good people of Cleveland?

Private stakes: If the villain wins, how does that affect individuals, typically the main characters in the story?

Bad stories are often bad because they’re out of balance, entirely focused on private stakes (soap opera) or public stakes (disaster movie with cardboard characters).

Character problems and what to do about them

So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Award and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing.

Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing.

And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Bonus story of Pam & Guy: As a kid, I didn’t talk except to whisper to Pam, one year older, and she’d act as my interpreter and diplomat. When hungry, I’d stand in front of the fridge until Pam showed up to open it, then I’d point at food and she’d get it. Totally relied on her. And little three-year-old me must have planned for the worst, an apocalyptic world without Pam, because I remember finding petrified carrots under my pillow, stashed away in case of emergency.

Sweep the leg, Johnny! The genius of COBRA KAI

For good reasons, THE KARATE KID is a classic movie—not just in terms of the perfect casting. To be clear, we’re talking about the ‘80s original starring Ralph Macchio, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan set in China with kung fu instead of karate… and yes, that begs the question, WHY????

Structurally, the classic movie runs circles above your typical action blockbuster where Tom Cruise, Dwayne Johnson or Charlize Theron play a hero who’s tough, sexy and amazing the first second you see them on screen…and that hero doesn’t suffer or change one flipping bit after two hours of mayhem and blood.

THE KARATE KID gave us real characters with actual character arcs. Daniel Larusso is a loser in Act 1 and keeps getting his butt kicked by the gang from the Cobra Kai dojo. He’s a skinny underdog. And if you really watch, the real villain isn’t blonde tormentor Johnny, but his evil sensei.

So it was a fun surprise to learn about a new series, COBRA KAI, catching up with Johnny 34 years after that kick to the face in the All Valley Karate Tournament.

I watched the first episode before seeing the trailer, and it’s fun to see things from Johnny’s point of view. You don’t get a glimpse of Daniel Larusso until the end, where his eternally young mug pops up on in a TV commercial for the Larusso chain of auto dealerships. Seeing this makes Johnny trash his old tube-style television.

It’s a great scene, making me smile to think, “Hey, they got Ralph Macchio to do a cool cameo on this series. It’s like like Walter White showing up to buy a Cinnabon from Saul.”

Except if you watch the second episode (also free on YouTube), or check out the trailer, it becomes clear that Ralph Macchio isn’t popping in to shoot a few seconds of cameo goodness, just for old times.

Ralph is co-starring in this thing. I KID YOU NOT.

And he is glorious.

Here’s the series trailer:

The first episode is a slow burn. Yet those early setups are worth the payoff.

What’s interesting, in terms of the writing, is how complicated and gritty they’re going with this. Even though Johnny is the villain again, he’s sympathetic. You feel for him and understand his motivations. I kept rooting for the whole time. Daniel Larusso’s life couldn’t be more different, with money, a beautiful wife and a giant house–yet he’s not presented as perfect, either.

Making these two characters complicated and deeper than you expect is a smart choice.

This entire series feels like an extension of the old Funny of Die video that made fun of Ralph’s ageless looks and scandal-free history. His family on this series feels a lot like the wife and family in this fake mockumentary. (Warning: this clip contains some bad words, if you avoid that sort of thing, and it will also make you snort milk from your nose.)

VERDICT: If you watched THE KARATE KID and have a pulse, check this thing out. DO IT NOW.

Top 7 ways SUICIDE SQUAD went epically wrong—and could have gone right

suicide squad cast

Marvel and DC have taken comic books for kids and turned them into an unstoppable machine, designed to entertain the masses while making massive profits.

When all the pieces fit together, it’s memorable and magical.

When they don’t, as in SUICIDE SQUAD, everybody notices. (Warning: this is packed full of spoilers.)

It’s like making chocolate chip cookies: Marvel and DC have well-known, well-liked ingredients that people have loved consuming for decades.

Mix it up, put them in the oven and serve them warm and hot. People are going to eat them. It’s not rocket science.

HOWEVER: your average person has eaten a lot of chocolate chip cookies, and seen a ton of these comic-book movies. They’ll know, right away, if Marvel burns the whole batch or DC forgets to add any chocolate chips at all.

Continue reading “Top 7 ways SUICIDE SQUAD went epically wrong—and could have gone right”

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.)

7 secret ingredients to cook up a Bad Superhero Blockbuster

We live in the Golden Age of comic book movies, with Marvel and DC pumping them out as faster than you can swipe your VISA for $14 tickets to IMAX 3D and $9 bags of popcorn.

Here’s the secret recipe for mediocre superhero movies and its two sequels, each of which will costs at least $250 bazillion to make and $150 gazillion to market, and no, those insanely high numbers are not why you have to pay so much for tickets and kernels of dried corn that have been exploded. That’s a coincidence.

Note: I strongly deny the theory that this post is suggesting movie studios spend more than 1 percent of the budget on the actual story, because diverting that amount of money would eliminate the CGI budget for the skyscraper that explodes and falls down in the middle of the seventh fight scene, the one in that city that sort of looks like Vancouver, B.C. after the villain kidnaps the love interest and has a creepy dinner with her in his lair, but not the explode-y fight scene where the villain crashes the mayor’s birthday party to announce his plans for doomsday.

Secret Ingredient #1: A hero is born, which means Mom and Dad better have life insurance

Sorry, moms and dads of the world: if your son or daughter is destined to put on a mask and cape to fight evil, there’s a price to pay. Which means you’ve got to go.

Superheroes with dead parents are incredibly common, for these good reasons.

Here are those reasons: (a) any villain with a brain in their noggin could simply kidnap mom and dad whenever they wanted something, forcing (b) every movie or comic book starring a superhero with actual parents to spend precious time explaining exactly how mom and dad are hiding and surviving, (c) dead parents are an easy way for writers to give their superhero their motivation to fight crime and evil and (d) how else would you get Superman to fight Batman except by leveraging his human step-mom?

The list of superheroes with dead parents is so long I don’t even have to start, but I will: Batman, Superman (his real parents, not Martha), Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther—you get the picture.

Secret Ingredient #2: Our hero is a total loser

This is a necessary step to the first movie, which tells the hero’s origin story.

You have to show how lame the hero is before he gets his powers. The bigger the contrast, the better the story.

Peter Parker is a nerdy little high school kid who gets bullied.

Steve Rogers is so small and scrawny, they won’t even accept him as a volunteer to fight in World War II.

Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy who invents and sells weapons when he’s not busy trying to poison his liver and catch every STD known to man.

Finally, here’s an example that shows how going halfway doesn’t work AT ALL.

Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) is a billionaire playboy who’s totally not a copy of Batman, and though Arrow’s rich father is dead, his mom is still alive, and living with him (?) and his kid sister (??) in the same mansion, even though he’s a grown man. Yeah, that’s the setup. It is as soap-opera-ish and stinky as you could imagine.

Secret Ingredient #3: Power up

A superhero needs talents and powers, whether they come from (a) a science experiment gone wrong (Spiderman, Hulk), (b) a science experiment gone right (Captain America, Ant Man), (c) years of training and (Black Widow, Falcon, Arrow) or (d) being a playboy billionaire genius who invents his own suit and arsenal of gadgets (Batman, Iron Man and a dozen other copycats not named Arrow).

Then there are weird powers that we do not, cannot and will not accept, like gills to breathe underwater combined with the ability to get whales to act like underwater taxis whenever Batman and his buddies in the Justice League don’t feel like using in the Batsub or Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.

Secret Ingredient #4: An old mentor who eventually MUST DIE

Sorry. It’s a thing.

The same clause in Sean Bean’s contract that requires him to die in every role is included for any actor playing the mentor to our superhero.

This is also necessary, because eventually (a) the screenwriters will write themselves into a corner and need the ultimate motivation for the hero to go beserk or the aging actor playing the mentor will (b) get sick of being a glorified sidekick and do other roles or (c) demand insane amounts of money to be in the sequels.

Before he dies, the mentor needs to be wise, charming, helpful and funny.

This is almost always a male role, whether we’re talking about a hero or heroine. Sorry. That’s how the Bad Superhero Blockbuster rolls.

Our old and grizzled mentor also needs to own many hats, because he’ll be wearing them all: sidekick, martial arts trainer, tech support and father figure.

But his death serves another purpose, because it opens up the way for five different sidekicks to pick up those hats, dust them off and put them on in the sequels.

Secret Ingredient #5: A dash of young love

Didn’t expect this in a movie with capes and explosions, did you? But it always happens.

Captain America had Agent Carter and now her niece.

Iron Man has Pepper Potts when they can afford Gwyneth Paltrow.

Thor has Princess Leia’s mom.

Batman has Rachel, or he did for a while, though I’ve always said it’s a lot like Harry Potter winding up with his best friend’s sister instead of Hermione: wrong, wrong, wrong. Batman should be forever linked to Catwoman, who rocks.

The new Wonder Woman will have Captain Kirk, which is pretty cool. Great actor. Good choice.

Arrow has–actually, I don’t really care about Arrow’s paramour, and don’t even make me think about what Aquaman does on Friday nights.

Back to our recipe: Preferably, this relationship should (a) start as early as possible, maybe even childhood, and (b) it should be a love triangle, with the third person also a friend from childhood.

That third person, ideally, should be our next ingredient.

Secret Ingredient #6: A delicious nemesis

Not a villain.

No, a villain is common and boring.

A nemesis last. He or she endures.

But this takes time. Like fine wine and good whiskey, a nemesis must ferment. Because they start out good before turning sour.

The hero and nemesis were once friends, if not best friends. Maybe they both wanted the same girl, the same achievements, the same powers and status.

A true nemesis is the flip side of the hero, showing what happens if you take the path less travelled.

Or you could take the easy way out and cast an aging Hollywood has-been as the villain, somebody who used to be box office gold. Give them a terrible foreign accent, a little backstory and let them chew up the scenery until the hero punches them into oblivion and locks them inside a chamber that gets flooded with radiation from the superweapon our big baddie intended to use to nuke LA.

Also: a quick, Cheaty McCheatypants way of creating your nemesis is to give him or her the same powers or power source as the hero.

This so lazy and bad, it rarely happens except for Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, Thor, Man of Steel, Batman Begins, Arrow and fifteen other movies and TV shows I won’t look up right now.

It’s not enough for your villain or nemesis to steal every bar of gold from Fort Knox or crown himself Lord of Canada after unleashing his army of mind-controlled badgers with steel-tipped claws and industrial lasers strapped to their heads.

To be a truly clichéd superhero movie, the villain must threaten to destroy planet Earth, or at least nuke Gotham or Metropolis, which is the same thing for DC movies.

You can blow things up however you like, though nuclear warheads were only used as a plot device in every other Bond movie, spy film and TV show since 1953.

What gives you enough pop to make the third rock from the sun go bye-bye? Here are your choices: (a) an bio-engineered super virus, (b) alien invaders, (c) an army of killer robots / sharks / zombies or (d) manipulating or mind-controlling a hero so the other heroes have to fight them, especially if the hero is somebody unstoppable like Superman.

Secret ingredient #7: Clean up the kitchen and start prepping for sequels

To be a truly Bad Superhero Movie, you must follow the recipe exactly. To the letter.

That means Movie #2 has two villains, two sidekicks and two love interests.

It also costs twice as much. Batman Returns, Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight all follow this formula.

Movie # 3 has three villains and three sidekicks. The number of love interests is your choice. Spiderman 3 and The Dark Knight Rises are good examples. We’re not even going to talk about the Batman movies starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

The budget for Movie # 3 is also triple the original.

Despite all the big name stars and big budget for explosions, the story is a mess and entire thing collapses under its own weight, with the only hope of bringing it back being a reboot with a new actor and director.

Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

The First Law of Bad Literary Novels is simple: there are no happy endings.

It’s the same story with Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings.

Now, that’s not to say every book and movie needs a prototypical Hollywood happy ending. Tragedies should have sad endings, and there are plenty of classic movies where the ending is ambiguous.

Rocky actually loses his first fight. The victory comes from not getting knocked out – and from the journey from loser to contender. Rocky suffers, sacrifices and grows. That’s why the movie is good: there’s a big contrast between where Rocky is in Act 1 and where he ends up in Act 3.

The trouble with these movies is the audience doesn’t want to see them again, if they ever saw them in the first place, because the ending sours everybody, despite the beautiful imagery and amazing acting.

I’m not saying you can’t make a great movie without being low-brow and throwing in more explosions than Michael Bay ever dreamed possible.

Continue reading “Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings”

The trouble with LUCY by director Luc Besson

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

I’m a huge fan of Scarlett Johanssson and Luc Besson, director of THE TRANSPORTER, THE FIFTH ELEMENT and THE TRANSPORTER PUTS THE FIFTH ELEMENT IN THE TRUNK AND DRIVES IT AROUND EUROPE.

So I saw LUCY last night in this giant building where the floors are sticky and popped corn drenched with fake butter costs $10 a bag.

The previews looked great and word was this movie is interesting, if not weird. Hey, it’s directed by Luc Besson, who I really want to call Jean Luc Besson, so it’s going to be exciting and fast and weird.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s a great parody trailer:

Is this movie good? Sure. Exciting and different. Worth renting, and maybe watching in the theater.

What keeps it from greatness? The Invincible Hero Problem strikes again.

Hollywood keeps forgetting a simple rule: the villain has to be scarier and tougher than your hero.

Otherwise, there’s no jeopardy, no mystery, and the audience doesn’t care, because we know Reacher will mop the floor with every bad guy, Superman will blast Lex Luther and Keanu Reeves became unstoppable once he stopped saying “Whoa” and realized he was The One.

Invincible heroes are boring.

Lucy becomes impossibly powerful about one-third into this movie. The bad guys have zero chance after that. Zippo. She’s like a blonde Neo who escaped the Matrix, flinging people and cars around, communicated with trees and tapping into cell phone calls simply by looking at the electromagnetic spectrum. She’s a stronger god than Thor at this point, though that would make Chris Hemsworth cry when they film AVENGERS 5: IRON MAN VERSUS BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN.

For two-thirds of LUCY, the audience sits back and watches her do whatever she wants. There’s a bit of drama at the end, with the crime lord sneaking up behind her with a gun, though nobody using even 5 percent of their brain believed the villain had a chance of actually shooting her.

A great thriller requires a great villain. The hero has to be an underdog. The weaker you make the hero, and the stronger you make the villain, the better the ending.

Look at THE LEGO MOVIE, where the hero — the little boy — has zero shot of winning against his father, who doesn’t want him playing with his perfectly constructed Lego town. Dad holds all the power and authority. The little boy can’t win by beating his father in a fist-fight. This movie is different, and special, because the hero actually gets the villain to change course by using words instead of bullets, and it makes you cry.

So, peoples of Hollywood, please remember the most basic storytelling rule before you do a page 1 polish of a script that already cost you $5 million and has the names of seven different writers hanging from it already. That rule is simple: the villain must be stronger than the hero. Period. End of story.

If you really want to get crazy, and have some kind of unstoppable hero that you don’t want to change, flip the script and make Captain Invincible Pants your villain. How will the puny humans stop him? Oh, now you’ve got something.

IT’S GOOD TO BE IN LOVE by Frou Frou conceals writing truths

music video meme sound of music

You know the singer from Frou Frou better under the name Imogen Heap, famous for the song HIDE AND SEEK.

Whatever name she sings under, this song here is not only good, but interesting for writers of all stripes, whether you write mysteries involving British grandmothers and talking cats, movies starring transforming robots from Planet Michael Bay or pop songs for Frankenstein bands put together by Simon Cowell.

Watch and listen, then we’ll dissect the lyrics and notice something useful.

Here are the lyrics, with notes in red.

IT’S GOOD TO BE IN LOVE

I don’t know where to start
Say I’m tired or throw a party
These cucumber eyes are lying the more that i smile about it
And all of my clothes feel like somebody’s old throwaways
I don’t like it

All this is interior monologue. She’s saying what she’s thinking and feeling, and while she’s seriously bummed, it’s all truthful.

It’s good to be in love
It really does suit you
Just like everything
I’m happy you’re in love
‘Cause every color goes where you do

The verses above are straight dialogue, spoken to her lost love. Every word is a HUGE PACK OF LIES.

Hollywood screenwriters say this is real dialogue, because nobody says what they truly mean, especially when they’re hurt.

How do you spot bad dialogue? Look for people saying exactly what they mean and feel.

I’m adoring you
It’s all good
You’re so beautiful
I’m black and blue all over
You’re breaking my flow
How could you know what I’m saying about it
When all of my clothes feel like somebody’s old throwaways
I don’t like it

Oh, this is beautiful. She switches right back to interior monologue, and the truth, tweaking and twisting the first verses. Well played. It’s like a good action movie or thriller novel, with alternating chapters: one from the hero’s POV, one from the villains, back and forth.

It’s good to be in love
It really does suit you
Just like everything
I’m happy you’re in love
‘Cause every color goes where you do

Back to the chorus and straight dialogue. You could argue this is what she’s saying to her lost love and what she’s trying to convince herself of, but either way, there’s tremendous tension here between the inner monologue and the spoken dialogue. Love it.

I feel so powerless
I’ve got to stop it somehow
Oh come on what can i do?
Why’s it happening
How’s it happening without me
Why’s it happening
How’s it happening that he feels it without me

More truth from inner monologue, with the stakes raised.

It’s good to be in love
It really does suit you
Just like everything
I’m happy you’re in love
‘Cause every color goes where you do

Back to the chorus. Is the tension resolved? No. Not at all. And the song is better, and perfectly balanced, because of that.

Giving THE TRANSPORTER a tune-up

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THE TRANSPORTER is the break-out movie for Jason Statham, and though I am perhaps the world’s biggest fan of Jason the Statham Kicking Things in the Face, there are clunky bits rattling around in the engine compartment of this film, keeping it from true greatness.

It’s like a classic car with a gorgeous front end, giant engine and gimpy transmission.

So I’m dragging it into the shop and turbo-charging this thing.

Having recently rewatched THE TRANSPORTER using time-travel technology called Blu-Ray, three things stuck out: the beginning, the middle and the end.

The beginning is amazing. The middle sags.

The ending is underwhelming.

Let’s grab plot wrenches, get our hands greasy and figure out why.

Act 1: A Man and His Car

The first scene of the film is amazing. Frank puts on his driving gloves, fires up his exquisite piece of German engineering and picks up his first package to transport, no questions asked. Turns out to be four bungling bank robbers and this opening car chase is thrilling.

The next major scene brings us to the best part of the movie, after his second job goes bad and Frank’s beloved black sedan goes boom while he’s eating a sandwich. Frank returns to that client’s mansion and rings the doorbell. Result? Awesomesauce.

Act 2: Making Things All Confusing

So that woman you saw in the clip, the one tied a chair with duct tape covering her mouth, well, she was one of the packages in Frank’s trunk, and he broke one of his rules by opening that package and finding her.

Why was she in that trunk? The movie never really gives us a good reason, or any real reason at all. This is why the power of the engine in Act 1 doesn’t get transmitted to the back wheels of Act 3.

The story tries to connect things by saying she’s the daughter of a wealthy bad guy who’s working with the Main Bad Guy from that mansion – you know, the crime lord who blew up Frank’s car – and they’re both make piles of money smuggling people from Asia to Europe in container ships.

The woman says she wants to save those people from slavery and possible death. She lies about her family being in the container, including her father. Who’s actually not inside the container because he’s a villain.

So yeah, it’s a hot mess of tangled plot wires that only makes the audience think too hard, trying to sort things out, which you can’t really do because nothing makes sense.

Also: we never hear why anybody would put this woman into the trunk in the first place. Bit of a problem there.

Act 3: Hey, We Saw a 007 Movie Once or Twice

There are a few more good fight scenes, including the famous Grease Battle in a garage.

Yet the final act devolves into a chase scene that could be taken from any random film involving 007, Jason Bourne or Tom Cruise in Long-Haired Mode While He’s Shooting MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 6: GHOSTS IN MS PAC MAN.

Frank commandeers a crop duster, parachutes onto the convoy of Bad Guys and fights them while trying to steer the semi carrying the container full of people.

In the climax, the father of the love interest gets the drop on Frank, who meekly puts his hands up and gets marched to a cliff and certain doom, though he does grab a rock and seems to be thinking about chucking it at the villains head. You know, eventually. When the mood is right.

He never gets around to it, despite the gun pointed at his nose, and the love interest winds up saving Frank by shooting her dad.

Does that sound anti-climactic? Yes. Yes it does. And it is.

Grabbing a wrench and fixing things

Frank has three simple rules.

Rule Number 1: Never change the deal.

Rule Number 2: No names.

Rule Number 3: Never open the package.

We can fix this movie with three simple plot rules.

Rule Number 1: The hero is the one who changes.

Whatever problem is presented in Act 1, it has to be the hero who fixes it, and he or she must go on a journey to do so. The tougher the journey, the better the story. The more the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows, the better the story.

And in the climax, the hero must face a choice, a single moment where everything hangs in the balance.

The audience is denied these things by (a) not allowing Jason to change and grow and (b) giving the climax to the love interest instead of the hero. She’s the one who shoots the bad guy. Jason is passive in the end. That doesn’t work and is a big reason the ending feels flat.

How can we make Frank change, suffer and grow? Let him lose a few fights. Seriously. It’s a romp, beginning to end, and he’s never really challenged. Let him lose the first few fights. Show him practicing, sweating, training and getting better. Make the uber villain TOUGHER than him and let that villain kick Frank’s butt in their first encounter. Because as things are, it’s a romp. Frank kicks everybody’s butt and you never doubt him for a second. Let the audience doubt that the hero will prevail and make the hero suffer and sacrifice to become good enough to have a chance in the final fight.

Rule Number 2: No surplus names.

When it doubt, cut it out. Kill every character you can and give their role to somebody else.

Which characters waste valuable screen time?

The most obvious one is the father of the love interest. He tangles up the story and detracts from the main villain, the one who blew up Frank’s beloved black car.

The final battle should be between our hero and the uber villain, who dies before the climax. So we’re left with the old man, who’s clearly no physical threat compared to Frank, and that makes for a boring ending.

Solution: eliminate the father as a character and give more screen time to the real bad guy.

Rule Number 3: Never open the fanciest package first.

If you’ve got an amazing action movie, your first step has to be looking at the set pieces. Which one is the most exciting? Which ones are middling? And where are the minor ones?

You need all three types of scenes. It doesn’t work to crank everything up to 11, Michael Bay style, because that simply numbs the audience.

Put the best scenes first and the least-exciting fights last, and your audience will have their expectations bashed against the rocks. They expect things to get more and more exciting as a movie gets closer to the end and you’ll confuse them by reversing the order.

Build up to a climax and put your most exciting scene in Act 3.

So yes, let’s put that amazing mansion fight in Act 3 now, and finish off the movie with Frank fighting the young villain, the one with the bad facial hair, instead of standing around at gunpoint waiting for the love interest to shoot her evil poppa.

This rule also works, by the way, for a series, whether it’s movies or books.

If your first movie is brilliant, your second is good and the closing of the series is average, people will be forever disappointed. They may even hate you for ruining what should be a classic. Am I talking about THE MATRIX trilogy? Maaaybe.

Yet if your first book kinda stinks, your second is good and the last in the trilogy is amazing, people will think you’re a genius, a Lion of Lit-rah-sure.

The same is true for Act 1, 2 and 3 of a single film, even if it’s Jason Statham Kicking Things in the Face.

Pretend it’s Christmas morning. Open the small packages first, the medium ones second and save the biggest, fanciest package for last.

GAME OF THRONES as a cheesy ’80s TV show

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game of thrones

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

Nailed it, didn’t they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Billy Squire wrecks his career with ROCK ME TONITE

music video meme sound of music

If you don’t remember Billy the Squire, probably because you weren’t born yet, he was kind of a big deal for a while. A rising star.

Then this video came out and smooshed him faster than you can say Milli Vanilli.

And yes, he started out by getting creative with the spelling of “tonight,” because that’s the revolutionary rebelliousness of a true rock star, though he didn’t go as far as Prince, who uses an entirely different alphabet.

Let’s ask ourselves, for the sake of history: Why was this music video so deadly?

It’s not the music. This isn’t some 11-minute long art film with a soundtrack that some rock star thought would be a killer idea. And yeah, that happens. Somebody gets famous and they think every idea that pops into their head is brilliant.

Close your eyes and listen to the song. It’s not terrible. A decent rocker with nothing to really complain about.

The lyrics aren’t inspired, but they aren’t completely insipid, either. Let’s go with banal.

Here’s the problem: people didn’t have their eyes closed. If this song simply hit the radio, Billy might have kept on rising up and making scads of money.

The visuals are simply awful.

Billy oozes uncool out of every pore. If there’s matter and anti-matter, there’s cool and uncool. Billy does not come off as cool in this video. He doesn’t seem like a cocky, confident rock star. It feels like he’s trying too hard, and failing.

There aren’t that many rock stars who look good dancing. The smart ones keep it low key. Billy Idol doesn’t dance — he pouts and pumps his fist. Bruce Springsteen never really dances. Bono, Sting, even Mick Jagger doesn’t really dance. He does a funky chicken and that’s about it.

Billy the Squire kept trying aerobic instructor moves, which did not look good on film.

When his band finally showed up, I kept swearing they cloned Billy, or shot multiple takes with him playing all the instruments. Every band member but one dude had the same outfit and over-permed hair. IT WAS CONFUSING, and not in a good way.

So all in all, this is an epic train wreck of a video.

Also: Bonus points to whoever digs up what happens to Billy Squire.

MISSING YOU by John Waite teaches us all about subtext

music video meme sound of music

Here’s a classic song with a video that proves singers should sing, and actors should act.

What’s not to love here?

John Waite‘s hair is pure ’80s gold, with feathery blow-dry action in the front and a sneaky pseudo-mullet in the back. It’s a Don Johnson-punk mullet. Plus he rocks the standard One Dangly Earring look that every lead singer was required to have for about two years.

HOWEVER: What’s most interesting to me is how the lyrics clash with the video.

The lyrics avoid being “on the nose,” which is Hollywood screenwriter slang for people saying, or singing, exactly what they mean. Nobody in real life does that. It’s not realistic, not good for a story and not fun for the audience.

People avoid coming out and saying directly what they truly feel.

A hero doesn’t say, “Hey, I’m really scared, and I don’t want to die, so maybe you could drop that gun and let me handcuff you, seeing how I don’t want to get shot or get stuck with piles of paperwork if I shoot you first.” He says, “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?”

A villain doesn’t say, “Being locked up in this dark basement next to low-level lunatics is beyond boring, and I would rather stick needles in my eye than communicate with these beasts, but pretty young FBI agents are something I never get to see, so I hope you stick around and talk to me for hours, Special Agent.” He says, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

So while the acting and the visuals in the video are completely on the nose, with zero ambiguity or subtlety, the lyrics are great and full of subtext.

John Waite misses his girlfriend / lover / wife, but he doesn’t say, “Hey baby, I miss you a lot, and I’m a wreck, and I wish you’d come back.”

He sings, “I ain’t missing you” and follows that up with “I ain’t missing you at all” and seven other variations of the same thing.

But we know he’s lying.

And that’s what makes this song a classic.