The secret truth about writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the problem?

College does you wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correct is not spectacular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inverted pyramid MUST DIE

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

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

It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.

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

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

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

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

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

Early novels were disguised as journals.

First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.

The dog was yellow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good storytelling is the hardest thing any writer does.

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

Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices

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

Storytelling and structure is the hard part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.

Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t shout at your audience

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

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

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

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

Velocity and power

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

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

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

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

The bigger the trip, the better the story.

Little jumps don’t work.

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

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

Non-jumps don’t work, either.

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

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

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

Take the audience somewhere

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

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

Together to alone.

Democracy to dictatorship.

Life to death.

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

Alone to together.

Dictatorship to revolution and democracy.

Hopelessness to hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotion matters most

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

People want to FEEL something.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now

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

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

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

The first movie had a down beginning and up ending.

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

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

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

Let’s fix it. Right here, right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take things apart and put them back together

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

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

Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.

Circle the setups and payoffs.

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

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

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

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

Slaying sacred cows

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

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

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

It makes an awful sound.

I don’t want to hear that sound.

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

Writing doesn’t have to be painful.

It should be fast.

It should be fun.

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

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.

SILENT NIGHT by Chewbecca, just because we can

Not bad. Not bad at all.

If you haven’t seen it, check out their other videos, especially the ones where Batman and Superman are just in a cafe, drinking coffee and roasting each other. Beautiful.

Also: saw ROGUE ONE on opening night and will dissect it later, then open up giant veins of speculation on how Snoke is actually a royally pissed off Mace Windu and Rey is the granddaughter of Palpatine.

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

star trek vs star wars

star trek vs star wars

I say this out of love, and not just because both series are (a) sci-fi space operas (b) starring ensemble casts of heroes with (c) both series taken over and vastly improved by J.J. Abrams.

I say this because it’s true.

Spoiler alert: Most people know the Enterprise gets destroyed in the new STAR TREK BEYOND, and that it got half-destroyed in the first two reboot movies directed by Abrams.

If you look back, the Enterprise is getting half-destroyed or fully destroyed all the time now, and STAR TREK has turned into a reverse story of STAR WARS.

You can sum them up like this:

STAR TREK is about a team in a super-ship exploring and restoring order to the galaxy while enemies try to blow them up.

STAR WARS is about a team of rebels trying to blow up a super-ship the other team uses to restore order to the galaxy … by destroying planets.

It didn’t use to be like this.

When the Enterprise first went down for real in STAR TREK III, with no “Let’s Go Back in Time To Fix It” loophole that Picard later used 593 times, it was a big deal.

People wept. You just didn’t destroy the Enterprise. No.

Here’s the clip from STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK JUST GOT A LOT HARDER, SEEING HOW WE DON’T HAVE A FLIPPING SHIP ANYMORE

In the old days of original Shatner and Nimoy on television, they beamed down to adventures on planets full of styrofoam rocks and green alien women, or, for variety, green alien reptiles bent on killing Kirk.

The Enterprise was always their safe harbor, their home.

Sure, it got torpedoed by the Klingons once and a while, or threatened by some giant space monster, with Scottie always having to repair things in the engine room. But it never got fully destroyed forever and ever.

Why not? Partly because they had tiny models of the ship instead of CGI, and making it look damaged and dirty would be a big, expensive pain that wouldn’t look great anyway. It would probably look like somebody poked holes in a plastic model and painted some burn marks on it.

The bigger reason was you just did not destroy the beloved Enterprise.

After STAR TREK III, the Enterprise was no longer sacred, and they started blowing it up, or pretending to blow it up, all the freaking time.

What about STAR WARS?

Let’s go through all the STAR WARS movies, past, present and future, and yes, Disney will be making STAR WARS movies in the year 2058.

STAR WARS REBELS (winter 2016): A suicide mission to steal the blueprints to the Death Star so we can blow that sucker up.

STAR WARS: This friendly trash-can on wheels has those secret blueprints to make the Death Star go boom.

THE EMPIRE STIKES BACK: Oh, we are so hunting down those rebels who turned our beautiful Death Star into a space firecracker.

RETURN OF THE JEDI: Guess what, fools? We have a new, improved and fully operational Death Star, while you have some Ewoks.

THE FORCE AWAKENS: Plain lightsabers and Death Stars are boring. Check out this new red lightsaber with a crackling crossguard and our fancy Death Planet that’s so powerful, it eats a sun before turning planets to rubble.

Attack of the Fanboys

Serious fans may say this theory has to be bunk due to the existence of three prequel films which should never have existed.

In those three prequels, George Lucas somehow refrains from blowing up any Death Stars whatsoever.

I have a two-word rebuttal: Jar-Jar Binks.

Even gritting your teeth to look at the prequels shows you how STAR WARS without Death Stars is like Kirk and Spock without the Enterprise.

EPISODE 1, POD RACING, MIDI-CHLORIDIANS AND JAR-JAR: The bad guys have a donut-shaped space-ship that controls their droid army, and no, this isn’t a Death Star at all, except the heroes win in the end by using tiny fighters to make it go boom exactly like a Death Star. I think they even recycled some of the CGI from the special editions.

EPISODE 2, ATTACK OF THE CLONES: Palpatine starts a fake war to become emperor and command all kinds of Star Destroyers and Stormtroopers, and he’s especially interested in stealing the old Sith blueprints for Tie Fighters and some moon-sized space station that happens to destroy planets.

EPISODE 3, DARTH VADER FINALLY ARRIVES BUT SOMEHOW DOES NOT KILL JAR-JAR: What in the big finish, when Anakin Skywalker becomes Vader and joining the Emperor on a Star Destroyer? They’re watching something out in space, I forget what. Let’s pull up the clip.

The Expanded Universe or whatever

There’s also a ton of STAR WARS video games, cartoons and novels with other variations on the Death Star idea, each one more powerful than the last.

I’ve heard (haven’t read all this stuff) in some of these novels and such, the emperor comes back as a clone, Luke Skywalker turns Sith … and there’s eventually a super-ship that destroy entire solar systems, plus other Death Star-like objects that do other amazingly destructive things that make the first few Death Stars look wussy.

This explosion fest is perfectly understandable and perfectly boring

Here’s the thing: I get why STAR TREK and STAR WARS keep returning to this idea. It’s a quick MacGuffin, an easy way to raise the stakes.

This is the same reason why thrillers and James Bond movies keep returning to the cliché of stolen nuclear warheads. Pretty hard to top that.

The first time they made the Death Star go boom, the entire theater went nuts. I still remember it.

And the first time they actually killed the Enterprise while Kirk and his crew watched from the planet, people did cry. Didn’t make that up.

In this latest STAR TREK movie, nobody cried when the Enterprise went down. We’d seen it so many times before: they’re going to trash the Enterprise so bad it needs a year of repairs or completely wreck it. No shock.

You simply can’t go to this well every movie, especially in an age where audiences are so used to CGI destruction that it only generates yawns.

Remember the latest X-MEN movie? Nobody cared as the bad guys started to wipe out civilization, because we all knew it was pixels. We only paid $25 for Imax tickets and popcorn for the characters and actors we love.

Hollywood is doing us wrong

At the end of this new movie, STAR TREK BEYOND, there’s a time-lapse scene of the new Enterprise getting built in a shipyard, then launching into space. Now, this was a fun movie, good, not great. That ending scene, however, was a huge story mistake.

Destroying and rebuilding the Enterprise should be your final card to play, the biggest possible thing that could happen.

The writers and director could have generated a lot of suspense by not showing that scene at all. They could have made us wonder about what happens next.

All through Act 1 of the next movie, show the crew scattered, Kirk at a desk job in Federation buried in paperwork, Spock back on New Vulcan, Bones bored out of his mind working in a hospital, Scottie fixing the engines of a transport ship and Uhura translating Klingon for some boring bureaucrats.

You could show how they missed each other, and how breaking apart the team is costing them personally, and how it’s hurting the Federation as a whole as the B team out in space gets pummeled by the Borg and every planet is about to get assimilated.

It would’ve been a big emotional payoff to bring them back together on a new Enterprise they actually had to fight to get built in Act 2 before they beat the bad guys in Act 3.

Give us real emotion about real characters

In the end, these movies and stories shouldn’t be, and aren’t, about a super-ship–Enterprise or Death Star–that keeps getting blown up and rebuilt, bigger and better.

Audiences today are used to special effects and explosions. We’re numb to it.

These movies work best when they focus on the characters we care about, people who aren’t CGI and can’t get rebuilt with a few clicks of a mouse.

This isn’t hard, since STAR WARS and STAR TREK have some of the most beloved characters onscreen today.

Also: it would save you a lot of money, Hollywood execs. Getting actors you’re already paying to act is a lot cheaper, and faster, than spending 2 months rendering that giant space battle where the Enterprise launches photon torpedoes into the exhaust port of Death Star Version 6. (Actually, film footage suggests the opposite. Sorry, Kirk.)

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE proves that explosions are meh

x-men apocalypse

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

Stick a fork it in.

It’s kaput. Done. Dead and buried.

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

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

Big shrug. Didn’t care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Explosions were rare and therefore precious

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

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

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

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

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

3) Today, everybody can afford special effects and explosions

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

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

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

So yeah, they do it.

All. The. Time.

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

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

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

4) Easy CGI means explosions aren’t believable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which means there’s zero suspense.

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

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

Because you knew the villain would lose. No question.

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

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

Bonus video: Expectation vs reality – action movies

Video

Watch the beatiful visual echoes in both STAR WARS trilogies

George the Lucas may stink at dialogue. And all humans with a microgram of taste hated the first two prequels.

HOWEVER: The man is a genius when it comes to visuals. I love how this fan stitched together all the imagery that echoes through both trilogies.

Beautifully done, good sir. Give us more.

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”

Top 6 reasons why Batman must DIE!

Bruce Wayne and the Batman may or may not die in BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT.

(Google that and the volume of fanboy speculation will make your head implode).

But he’ll die soon enough. It’s guaranteed.

So will Superman, Spock, Wolverine, Captain America, Sherlock Holmes and 93 other major fictional characters you know and love.

Why will Batman and other great characters die when Jar Jar Binks is apparently invincible?

Because of reasons.

Let’s get into the guts of why this works while still Bothering you, and the answers will involve dead poets, the suspension of disbelief, the quarterly earnings reports of corporations and The Three Movies = Reboot Rule of Superheroes. Continue reading “Top 6 reasons why Batman must DIE!”

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.

The Greatest Synopsis that Ever Lived

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Dear Agent Sir or Madam,

This is a follow-up to my querying letter about a million-word fictional novel trilogy. You can read that letter anywhere on the planet by firing up AOL and clicking on this World Wide Web thingy here: The Mother of All Query Letters.

Maybe you haven’t gotten to reading it yet, seeing how you’re busy selling my trilogy to Warner Brothers for one million dollars (I figure a dollar a word is fair). My niece Daisy has a library card and her nose in all kinds of books, not just Twilight, and when I told her about my fictional novel, she said I need to send every agent and editor in Manhattan a synopsis.

Now, “synopsis” sounded Latin and possibly dirty to me, so I asked whether that word involved sins, and Daisy said, “That’s a good way to look at it. List all the sins you commit in that book of yours.”

So here’s my list of the sinful things happening in each book of the trilogy, with each novel coming in at 333,333 and 1/3rd words apiece.

Book 1: I KNOW WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED, DARTH SAREK OF VULCAN

A grave-digger falls into a grave and hits his skull on a fat hunk of rock, then wakes up on an alien planet to find he’s six inches taller and half-ninja, half-Jedi, half-Vulcan.

First off, he’s bound for alien slavery on a pirate ship, and I believe slavery to be a sin, despite what Uncle Will says about the War of Northern Aggression.

Second, he kills bushels of aliens, and killing is a sin, though he does it to win his freedom from slavery, so I figure those sins cancel each other out.

Third, our hero does have relations outside of marriage with an alien princess or three, plus an android on a planet run by robots and an evil super-magneto computer made by Bill Gates himself after he bought up an entire Best Buy and started soldering stuff together.

Book 2: LOST IN SPACE AND TIME WITH A GREEN LASER SWORD AND A PURPLE ALIEN PRINCESS

The robot king and his super computer can plug you in, like that Matrix or that Tron video game they had at the 7-Eleven on third street until some pansy replaced it with Ms. Pac Man.

The robot king makes our hero think he’s waking up in that grave, and that nothing in the first book really happened, kinda like that season of Dallas before J.R. got shot and such, and let me tell you, I’d shoot that man myself with my grandpa’s Colt and proudly do whatever time a judge handed down with the bang of his mighty gavel.

Back to the story. After learning kung fu and how to bend more spoons than Yuri Geller, the hero busts out of the fake holodeck world of the robots and uses his laser sword to cut Bill Gates and his super-magneto computer clean in half. Murder is a sin, but he says his prayers and gets forgiveness from his maker while the aliens rejoice in their freedom and put him in charge of their army of spaceships and purple alien princesses.

Book 3: MASTER OF OUTER SPACE,INNER PEACE AND DESTROYER OF SUNS

There’s peace in the galaxy with the hero running things, so he studies his Jedi and his Vulcan to learn the secrets of immortality, raises generation after generation of his young ones with the purple alien princess who’s his queen, and teaches the purple alien army how to be kung fu ninjas — but a new threat arises.

See, suns are alive. That’s right — they’re born, they live, they evolve and they die, with new baby suns arising from the dusts of their supernova. And they see themselves as gods, seeing how they create all the elements in the universe and provide all the heat and light and such. They’re mad as tarnation and they’re not gonna take it one second longer.

I see this third book as a tale of redemption, seeing how the hero starts out committing all kinds of sins in books one and two. Now he’s married and living right, unlike my second cousin Nellie, who’s on her fourth divorce and odds are she’ll hit number seven before we wheel her into the Willapa Valley Nursing Home.

Back to this book: Our hero flies right up to the face of the biggest, maddest, meanest sun and finds a way to communicate, but the solar gods are hell-bent on war and destruction, and they start frying alien planets like eggs on a hot grill with a fine sheet of lard already melted on top.

As a last act of sacrifice at the age of 984, the hero mind-melds with the suns and hypnotizes them into calmness by bringing them into his memories and dreams, which lands himself into a coma for a spell until I figure out the next trilogy of 1 million words, which I figure has to involve the only thing bigger, badder and more amazing than killer suns: black holes with father issues not even Dr. Phil can solve.

So, that’s a full-on synopsis of the first trilogy, with book one attached as an encrypted WordStar document and also available on 5.25″ floppies. Though like I said in that querying letter, I’m running out of those floppies, so make it snappy.

Sincerely,

Sensei George Lucas King

P.S. This is my new pen name, guaranteeing my trilogy sits smack dab next to all those books by Stephen King while appealing to fans of Star Wars and all those kung fu movies, which I figure covers just about every man still breathing, then you got the alien princess love story thing for the women. To write me checks, you’ll need my full legal name, though I’d prefer cash on account of some trouble with the IRS that started in 1997.