Deep story goodness for writers via The Mother of All Cheat Sheets

kiss-the-librarian-spike

If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo and are on track to finish the Great American Novel, congratulations. Carry on.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and there’s no way you’ll give birth to a full novel by Dec. 1 without quitting your job, getting divorced and downing pots of coffee along with stimulants sold by a sketchy long-haul truck driverthen congratulations, this post is for you.

Click with your mousity mouse to read Part1—Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier (big thanks to WordPress for featuring this post on their front page)

Click here to read Part 2— Why first drafts are always flawed and how to fix them

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: given the choice of holding in my  hands (1) an absolutely finished hot mess of 100,000 words or (2) a single page blueprint of a brilliant story, I’d pick B.

Every time.

And you should, too.

Blueprints and structure are also the way you FIX a hot mess of a novel.

You sure don’t fix a train wreck with spell check and diligent proofing.
Continue reading “Deep story goodness for writers via The Mother of All Cheat Sheets”

Giving THE TRANSPORTER a tune-up

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

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.

Why ARCHER’s arrows are hit and miss

Cast of ARROW tv show

Cast of ARROW tv show

ARCHER — the TV show about a dude with arrows, not the cartoon spoofing James Bond — isn’t horrifically good or amazingly bad, which are the two types of things that are worth discussing and dissecting.

Yet this middling show about a middling superhero is worth taking apart to see the good, the bad and the ugly.

It’s also a good test case, a chance to learn a few lessons from where ARROW works and when it doesn’t. Useful less for anyone who ever wants to write stories, novels, TV shows and movies — or become a masked avenger who lives with his mom.

On the mark: Constant action
There’s no lack of fights, chases and conflict. The opening scenes are often quite good, sometimes starting in the middle of a battle without any boring exposition at all, making you wonder, “Who are those guys Archer is ventilating with green arrows?”

Off the mark: Constant special talks
The fights aren’t bad. The dialogue, though, can kill you.

Every conversation is a special talk that ends in zingers. It’s like the showrunners hired some guy who helped choreograph fights on Jason Statham’s last movie to handle all the fights, then kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS to provide the dialogue.

On the mark: A big bad guy
At least in Season 1, the show avoids the Villain of the Week problem, even when it usually has a different villain of the week, by overlaying the entire thing with a conspiracy headed by a Big Bad Guy who tends to sneak into the bedroom of Arrow’s mom to talk smack about their evil plans.

The big villain also happens to be the billionaire father of Arrow’s best friend, who happens to be sleeping with Arrow’s ex-girlfriend. Also, Arrow’s underaged sister has a thing for the best friend. It’s all rather complicated and weird.

Off the mark: A sea of sidekicks
Read that last paragraph again, because it’s the tip of the iceberg. Arrow does live with his mom in a version of Wayne Manor, and his mom (a) ordered Arrow kidnapped earlier to find out what he knew about (b) having Arrow’s dad killed in the same boat sinking that (c) killed the sister of Arrow’s ex-girlfriend and (d) stranded Arrow on an island for years.

It’s weird enough for any adult character to live with their mom. The show gets even weirder with Arrow’s new step-dad also living there and running his dad’s old company, plus the detective who keeps trying to catch Arrow is his ex-girlfriend’s dad.

So yeah, it’s a hot mess of a soap opera, and when Arrow isn’t fighting, he’s having special talks with EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE CHARACTERS.

On the mark: Island flashbacks
I hate flashbacks. They’re usually lazy, useless bags of exposition. Info dumps.

The scenes on this show about the island are fun, because there’s all kinds of conflict, suffering and growth as a spoiled rich kid tries to survive and eventually learns the skills to become a superhero.

Off the mark: All dialogue is on the nose
This was the second reason I thought the showrunners kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.

There’s no subtlety to the dialogue, which beats you over the head like a sledgehammer. Everybody says exactly what they mean and they do it in the meanest possible way.

It’s a cornucopia of melodramatic zingers and overwrought angsty nonsense.

The melodramatic dialogue makes the plot veer off all over the place. Characters will throw epic hissy fits, then reverse course in the next episode — or next scene. Archer goes all Bruce Wayne by pretending to be a drunken playboy and telling his ex-girlfriend to stay far, far away from him. Then he shows up at her apartment with a pint of ice cream for them to share while curled up on the couch.

If you fire up Netflix and binge-watch three episodes, Arrow will have a major falling out with his mom, ex-girlfriend, best friend, sidekick, sister and five other people, then make up with all of those people only to piss them off again by the third episode.

Final verdict
Though this is not high art, and middling superhero trash, I like my trash to be as watchable as possible. It’s fun, but could be far better, not by increasing the budget for costumes and sets, but by simply ditching the melodrama and killing off most of the sidekicks.

Special note to showrunners: “More villains! Fewer special talks! Also, don’t have Arrow live with his mom, because that’s creepy for somebody who’s gotta be closer to 30 than 15! Kthxbai.”

007 villains: Getting rid of incompetent henchmen

Bond villains need all kinds of minions, right?

Somebody has to feed the sharks, build the secret lairs, hide in hotel closets to attack 007 and all that.

HOWEVER: You can’t just fire a henchmen, not when they know all your secrets. That wouldn’t do at all. And you need to send a message about accountability to the remaining employees of your secret shebang.