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.)

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.

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.)

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

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

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

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

Evergreen

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

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

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

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

 

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

Many Bothans died to bring us this teaser for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS teaser

Long ago, in a galaxy named after a candy bar for some reason, I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced–because the Mouse had bought the entire Star Wars franchise.

Everybody who grew up on the original Star Wars movies felt this pain.

I prepared myself for Disney princesses with cute neon pink lightsabers, then endless straight-to-video sequels and prequels that would make STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE look like THE GODFATHER. (Related: Why new STAR WARS movies by Disney are an achy breaky big mistakey)

However: this was before they announced that JJ Abrams would direct the first new movie.

Also: Disney also owns Marvel now, and Marvel is on an insanely successful roll.

 

All of the Marvel movies since IRON MAN have rocked. I figured the Captain America ones would stink, since it would be easy to make those corny and uber-patriotic, but they nailed both of them. WINTER SOLDIER is darker than dark. Loved it. On the other hand, FOX studios proves you can take a great character and great actor and absolutely blow the thing with two horrible Wolverine movies.

Marvel can’t do wrong. And now JJ Abrams, after rebooting Star Trek into awesomesauce, looks like he’s doing the same thing with Star Wars.

The only way this trailer could look and feel better is if the new Sith uses his wicked lightsaber to make a clean break with the Lucas prequels by slicing Jar-Jar Binks in half.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: Why it works

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

There are fanboys who quibble with director J.J. Abrams for making a fun summer movie instead of a serious Star Trek film, as if we’re talking about Shakespeare here instead of Klingons and Khan and photon torpedoes.

These grumpy critics complain about too much action and “fun” and not enough hard science and long conversations about dilithium crystals or whatever.

I say, get over yourselves.

I also say this: J.J. Abrams and his writers are clearly having fun, and it shows. It showed in the first STAR TREK and it shows in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.

As a speaker, or an actor, you want to feel the emotion you want the audience to feel. When you watch a Christopher Nolan film, whether it’s about Batman or Guy Pearce not being able to remember who killed his wife, the feeling is quite different: serious and somber and haunted.

Emotions matter. Audiences want to feel something, and in the summer — when Hollywood isn’t trying to win Oscars with Serious Films with Very Serious Actors looking Seriously Sad while they wear period costumes from the 1940s or 1840s — people sitting in those theater seats are paying good money to have fun.

So if you want a slow, somber STAR TREK film about science and all that, fire up STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and wake me up when it’s over, because that thing should be sold as a sleep aid.

We’re here to dissect STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and say why it works, as a story. It works wonderfully because J.J. Abrams and his writers care about setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations, Easter Eggs and echoes.

I want to talk about the setups and payoffs, because they’re fundamental, and J.J. Abrams and his people get them right.

Warning: this thing is chock full of spoilers. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen the movie.

Setups and payoffs

If you care anything about storytelling, hey, the setups and payoffs in this film are gorgeous.

Everything ties into everything else. There are no orphaned payoffs, no setups that lead nowhere.

In fact, most setups pay off at least three different times.

Two key examples:

The first time we see Benedict Cumberpatch as Khan, he’s (1) offering to heal a Starfleet officer’s daughter, and he does it with a sample of his own blood. That blood later (2) resurrects a tribble after Bones injects it with some of those same blood cells and (3) brings back to life a certain somebody who (4) saves the Enterprise and crew by entering a radioactive chamber to restart the warp core and such, which echoes (5) some other famous scene in STAR TREK II: CORINTHIAN LEATHER DOES NOT REALLY EXIST, BUT RICARDO MONTALBAN IS STILL AWESOME.

The 72 long-range photon torpedoes loaded onto the Enterprise are an even better setup that pays off at least 10 times.

Ready? Khan escaping to a Klingon planet causes (1) Admiral Marcus to give Kirk the experimental, long-range torpdoes, which (2) make Scotty resign because he’s not allowed to scan the experimental torpedoes, meaning they might take the Enterprise out of warp and blow them up, while (3) the torpedoes let Carol Marcus sneak aboard the Enterprise as a science officer in the first place leading to (4) the revelation that Carol is the daughter of Admiral Marcus, (5) Scotty resigning makes him loose on Earth and free to go investigate what evil thing Admiral Marcus is building out at sector 24-11-whatever, (6) Sulu’s threat about surrender or get torpedoed makes Khan surrender because (7) the torpedoes contain his frozen crew of fellow super-humans, which causes him to (8) team up with Kirk to sneak aboard the ship of Admiral Marcus who’s busy shooting holes in the Enterprise until (9) Carol bargains with her father not to destroy the Enterprise because she’s on it, so he simply beams her aboard his scary dreadnaught until (10) Khan takes it over and demands that Spock lower the shields on the Enterprise so he can beam this torpedoes and crew over, which Spock does since (10) he and Bones already removed the frozen crew and set those 72 torpedoes to explode.

I’m probably forgetting three other payoffs from that one setup involving the best MacGuffin in my memory.

Most films or novels have trouble making their lone plot device make any kind of story sense. J.J. Abrams and his writers don’t have any trouble at all. They tie every major plot point together, and every character, with one thing. Brilliant.

Bonus clip: Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in their best scene.

Possible script for STAR WARS VII by J.J. Abrams

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

First of all, J.J. Abrams should direct everything.

Not just STAR TREK and the new STAR WARS: EPISODE XVIII-whatever, but every film for one entire year. You’ll say, “That’s not possible — J.J. can’t direct every film made during a calendar year.”

Sure he can. We can clone ourselves an army of J. J. Abrams, or download his brain into that Big Blue supercomputer thing IBM built just to beat Ken Jennings in a game of Jeopardy. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY.

And here’s a brilliant take on how the first new STAR WARS film should go. Now that Disney owns Marvel and Star Wars, I hope studio executives take notes.

PSY, Klingon Style

Now, this is amusing and all. The impressive thing isn’t that they copied the dancing and shots from Gangnam Style by Psy, or that the costumes from Star Trek are pretty good.

What shocked me was this dude is singing the entire song in KLINGON, which is apparently a real language that you can study and speak. There’s a Klingon Language Institute and such. Other Trekkies / Trekkers / Star Trek nerds may even understand you.

Also: I remember in the documentary TREKKIES, fans in full Klingon getup go to a McDonald’s or whatever and try to order a Big Mac and fries in Klingon, and the man behind the counter doesn’t bat an eyelash.

If you haven’t seen the original, check out the first post about Psy and his crazy music video.