JESSICA JONES repeats the same storytelling mistake as GAME OF THRONES

So the last season of GAME OF THRONES went sideways, according to All the Fans–and as somebody who’s now watched all three seasons of JESSICA JONES, the writers and showrunners make the same storytelling mistake with the ending.

And listen, the ending is everything.

How can a gritty, superhero series screw up in the same way as an epic with swords and dragons? 

Here’s how. (Warning: this whole post is Spoily McSpoilerface.)

Reason No. 1: Always save the Big Bad Guy for the finale

For five-point-seven billion years, GAME OF THRONES built up the icy blue Avatar-looking guy, the Night King, as the Big Bad of the series.

At the same time, the show served up the Mother of Dragons and her cousin/boyfriend Jon Snow as heroes, as far as what passes for heroes go in a story where everybody is a murderous nutbag.

But there’s no real protagonist in this giant cast, and Ayra is the one who offs the Night King long before the final episode.

Same thing with the last season of JESSICA JONES.

For all of Season 3, the Big Bad was this serial killer known as Salinger.

But instead of saving a confrontation with the villain for the finale, we get meh from both series.

The Night King’s death should have been saved for the last episode, with the Mother of Dragons or Jon Snow being the fan favorites to sit on the Iron Throne.

Instead, the Night King got killed and the show became a hot mess. Nobody was aching to see Emilia lose it and have her dragon fry the city, or see Kit stab his former lover, or have Bron-whatever take the throne for some random reason after Tyrion goes all Jar-Jar in the Galactic Senate on us. No. Just no.

JESSICA JONES repeats the same mistake. Salinger gets offed before the final episode.

Reason No. 2: Once the Big Bad is dead, your momentum goes buh-bye.

Let’s talk about other movies we’ve all seen for a second and play this out.

RETURN OF THE JEDI — Instead of Vader tossing Emperor Wrinkly Face down the bottomless pit and the Death Star getting blown up, all that happens in Act 2, with the entirely of Act 3 all about how Luke has to hunt down and fight Han Solo after he went nuts and helped the Ewoks slaughter and barbeque 15,000 Imperial stormtrooper prisoners.

Terrible, right? This is much better.

You have to save the Big Bad for the final act, the final episode, the last thing. Anything else makes the story out of order and flat.

Reason No. 3: If you’re going for tragedy, you have to fully commit

A mixed ending can be amazing. Some of the best movies and books have mixed endings.

CASABLANCA has the hero giving up the girl for a greater cause–beating Hitler and winning World War II.

But a mixed ending is also tough to pull off. 

When you get audience rooting for a character, and seeing them as a hero, it’s tough to see those character take a heel turn at the last minute.

In fact, audiences reject it. 

This is why tragedies fully commit.

They show the full fall from grace, from beginning to end, with the protagonist serving as both hero and villain. And the protagonist falls due to their own hand, via hubris.

BREAKING BAD did this perfectly. Sure, you saw things from Walter White’s point-of-view, and rooted for him a lot of time, but his ending felt absolutely right. He’d definitely sinned, and his downfall was deserved.

If you’re going with a tragedy, do it from the beginning with the protagonist. Not a side character like Trish.

It can work for the main character hero to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a secondary character. That’s not a tragic ending; it’s noble and heroic. See PRIVATE RYAN and ARMAGEDDON and five zillion other movies.

 

The Red Pen of Doom destroys A SHORE THING by Snooki

Listen: the first page of a book shares something in common with the first moments of a song, the first five minutes of a movie, the first date, the first dance, the first steps of your first-born child.

It should be magic.

Raw and beautiful. Powerful and pure.

So on this silly blog, I pay particular attention to the first page of novels. Because you can bet Grandpa’s farm and every cow in sight that a brilliant page one foreshadows a good book, while a terrible collection of clichés and drivel on the first page will not suddenly improve by page 302 to make us laugh, cry and change our life forever.

The first page matters. Behold:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

Today, we take on A SHORE THING, allegedly written by Snooki, though we all know she didn’t actually write it.

A professional ghostwriter did the boring “typing of words” part. Snooki did the hard work of cashing the check.

You will be shocked to learn her fellow castmates also got publishing deals, with Jwoww and The Situation also getting checks from publishers to put their infamous names on book-like substances.

Many trees gave their lives to give their words life.

I will pour one out for those trees tonight.

Here’s the text of page one, with edits and comments in red:

A SHORE THING

Life was hard. But a pouf? That should be easy. (Whoa, starting out a novel with a three-word cliché is a bold, bold move. Risky. And it doesn’t pay off here. Because anybody who says “life is hard” and follows that with an extended riff on the difficulties of Big Hair doesn’t actually have a hard life at all.)

Giovanna “Gia” Spumanti was a hair-raising pro. She’d been banging out poufs since age eleven, or as soon as her fingers were long enough to hold a bottle of Deluxe Aqua Net. (Maybe this is intentional, but the innuendo in the first two sentences of this graf is more juvenile than clever.) After ten years of trial and error to find the right combination of spray, twisting, and shine serum, Gia could add four inches to her overall height—which as five feet flat, she could use. Gia’s pouf defied the laws of gravity. It was her crowning glory. (“Crowning glory”–oh, how punny. Please riff on that more in the next sentence.) Although she’d love to wear an actual crown (here we go, as the prophecy foretold) of rhinestone tiara whenever she left the house, it just wasn’t practical. It could fly off on the dance floor and take out an eye. The pouf, however, wasn’t going anywhere (but up). (Wait: seriously? This is like one of those bad SNL skits with one joke they repeat for 10 minutes.)

Tonight, humidity was a bitch. Her thick black mane refused to cooperate. Gia brushed it out to start over—again—feeling discouraged. Her first night out in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, she wanted to present the best version of herself. Hundreds of guys would get a look at her, and she’d be searching among them for her near future fling(s). (I read a ton of fiction, and non-fiction, and this is the weirdest use of parantheticals I’ve seen in forever. Doesn’t work. Also, protags should be likable, and this graf of backstory just makes the reader see the protag as completely self-absorbed.) After the year she had back home in Brooklyn—landing and losing a couple of jobs and boyfriends—she deserved the sexiest summer ever.

Gia hoisted the front section of her hair, holding it high over her head with one hand.

COMMENTS

I binge-watched the first season of JERSEY SHORE while visiting my sister in H’wood, so I know enough to be dangerous about Snooki, The Situation and the entire sordid thing.

And no, this novel meant to be lit-RAH-sure.

However: Entertaining trash should still be entertaining, and well-done. This first page is neither.

In this sort of story, sure, you’re going to get a lot of interior monologue, including self-centered nonsense like this.

A full page about hair, though, is a bit much even if you put it in the middle of this kind of novel.

Dedicating the entire opening page to hair and backstory, plus backstory about the hair? My God. 

Here’s the lesson I take from this hot mess: life is hard, and what’s even harder is turning a reality show villain into a fictional hero.

Because that’s what the stars of JERSEY SHORE are: comic villains absolutely swimming in a sea of nasty hubris.

Every comedy targets an institution.

Your average sitcom pokes fun at families, marriage, kids and suburban life.

M*A*S*H* attacks the military and war.

FRIENDS put the bull’s eye on young singles.

The producers of JERSEY SHORE knew Snooki, The Situation and the rest of the gang were comic villains. They’re only fun to watch to see what kind of trouble happens, and every piece of trouble is far from random. Nobody gets hit by a bus while they’re using a crosswalk. Every episode is all about chaos and craziness that comes straight from the hubris of cast members.

Who will get drunk and start a bar fight?

Who’s so desperate tonight that they’ll hook up with anything and everything?

Which member of the cast is such a self-absorbed dipstick that they’ll get on the phone and try to order a pizza or a cab and give his last name as “Situation” and first name as “The”?

I haven’t read the rest of A SHORE THING and never will.

The feeling I get, though, is this is meant to be a comic romp, with the Snooki character, Gia, set up as the protag. That we’re supposed to laugh with her instead of laughing at her.

Sorry. Comedy doesn’t work like that.

VERDICT: Kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit.

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.