I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness a few weeks ago (it opened earlier here, guys. *smug*). Don't worry, this post is spoiler-free. With all the secrecy surrounding the 'John Harrison' character, (though the secret, when it's revealed, is pretty much exactly what you expected it to be - and kinda only a meta-secret, really. The big reveal about what's going on is only an "oooh" moment to certain fans. Still, it made a great publicity point for the movie, so I can't blame them for doing it) I figured the only way to not be spoiled was to see it when it opened.
I had mixed impressions. As a spectacle and an emotional fun-ride, it was fantastic. Dark moments, funny moments, touching moments, scary moments, wonderful play with the previous canon, fantastic visuals and scope. But intellectually, I have some issues with John Harrison's plan. Or rather, the lack thereof.
In action movies, the bad guy is doing Bad Stuff before the good guy first learns about him. It's generally how the good guy learns about him. So, natch, Harrison does some Bad Things, and it's all good because at this point, he's just Generic Bad Guy That We're Gonna Stop, we're not thinking too hard about how his actions coalesce together, we're still kinda waiting for the real movie plot to reveal itself. And when it does, we kinda forget about figuring out how those original Bad Things worked together because we're too busy watching the rest of the movie. But when you think about it later, those early actions don't really make a coherent plan. They're basically just a series of events to culminate in the meet-cute between Harrison and Kirk, but Harrison's own motivations for them don't hold water. They're stupid decisions on his part when there were much, much smarter options.
Which would be fine if Harrison wasn't supposed to be a super-intelligent tactician-guy. Then it kinda falls apart. "Okay, so when you did this stuff, what was your plan? Really? That's a terrible plan! That's not even a plan, it's just plot that you knew in advance!" Kirk's plan in the throwaway opening sequence is more intelligent than his. It really irritates me that 'strategy' in sci fi movies (or other, but I rarely watch army or guns'n'girls flicks) so often seems like something a five-year-old could defeat. Not even just the 'space is a 2 dimensional ocean' thing, but "so, the grand plan is to, erm, attack him. With ships. He'll never see it coming." (no, that wasn't a spoiler).
Another thing that also irritated me was the treatment of the female characters, but Felicia Day says it far, far better than I would, so I'm just going to direct you to her post. Warning - very slight (but not major) spoilers in her post.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie. The performances are top notch, it's a fabulous, highly-entertaining ride. I'm just using it as a showcase for something that bugs me generally in films.
Monday, 20 May 2013
When it's always the same damn one.
I was really interested in the trailer for the new Tom Cruise movie Oblivion. Not that I'm particularly a Cruise fan, but the trailer screencap caught my attention enough to play the trailer, and the first few seconds of the trailer held my interest.
I was starting to get really excited about the movie, it seemed they were doing something new and interesting, another Minority Report level science fiction piece. It seemed a 'high concept' movie, but there was mystery about what exactly the concept was, and I was intrigued. And then around 1:35, they lost me.
They put the twist in the trailer. And while it's a "big" twist, it's a story that has been done far, far too often lately. They went high concept with a concept that's not fresh or new. It's a concept that doesn't even really need the sci fi world they've given it, and they don't seem to be doing anything new with it.
Monday, 18 February 2013
I've said (and read) countless times: you get one gimme. Your central premise is a given; the audience knows they have to accept that premise to even bother with your text, so you get it for free, you don't need to prove it.
Except... I just found an otherwise beautiful-looking sci fi film (trailer - I haven't seen the film itself) where I'm really not prepared to let them have the gimme. I want to - I really want to go with it, but I can't. And it's entirely to do with the way they've gone about it.
The film is Upside Down. The premise is that somewhere out there is a world that is actually two worlds orbiting each other close enough to jump between (presumably tidally locked with each other, as there's a physical bridge connecting them... I don't know whether they followed that through with those parts of the planets being in perpetual night, but anyway).
First problem is that this defies the established Roche limit, which is the range at which the conflicting gravitational forces would actually tear the celestial bodies apart. But okay, I'm still working with you, I can pretend the Roche limit magically doesn't exist, here.
But the premise continues into the notion that each world has its own gravity, and that each specific gravity continues to exert its force on objects of its own "type" even when they're on the other planet. That is, Planet A and Planet B 'pull' in opposite directions, but objects from Planet A are never affected by Planet B's pull, and vice versa. Also, A objects that are touching B objects for too long start to burn.
And at this point, you've lost me. Because I can accept that you're conveniently ignoring a not-too-well-known physics property (Roche limit). But this is not how gravity works. At all. It's not a passing error, or even a complete failure to understand a physics system that is, at least at the macro level, thoroughly researched - this is just people Making It Up And Calling It Science.
But it would have worked fine with any other explanation. It didn't need to be gravity. Pick another term. Make it some kind of mystical, technological or magical field. Make it a macguffin. The story is a basic "boy from the wrong side of the tracks makes good" so it does no harm whatsoever if you just tweak the worldbuilding explanation so that you don't look like you failed your high school science class. It's like telling people you have a dog, and then showing them something that quacks and looks like an aligator on fire. You then had to explain all the ways that it isn't a dog. Why call it a dog in the first place?
I want to like your movie. It looks very pretty, I love the notion of two connected planets with opposing fields, of 'falling' and jumping between worlds like that. But you make me feel like my brain cells might mutiny and self-destruct if I do.
Monday, 04 February 2013
I watched Looper with some friends an unspecified amount of time ago. They'd seen it before; I hadn't. They liked it; I didn't. They were of the opinion I should give it a break, and their reasoning largely boiled down to "because time travel never makes sense anyway". I was of the opinion that if you were going to leave giant gaping holes in your story and world logic, you shouldn't be driving the trucks through them yourself. At least try to avoid the ones that don't even make it to Fridge Logic before falling apart.
That's not to say people shouldn't enjoy the movie. I come to these things as a writer, and what annoys me may well make no difference to someone else, and there's no reason it should. There's my disclaimer, because apparently on the internet the default is to believe that someone else's opinion is attempting to invalidate your own.
My major beef isn't actually with the time travel. Oh, sure, I have big problems with how the movie by turns utilises and ignores its own theory of multi-chrono-causality, but it has problems that are far more basic. It's the story of Too Stupid To Live. Or, alternatively, of We Thought This Was Cool, So Screw That It Makes No Sense. (Psst: This is going to be spoilerific, so go watch it first if you're going to. The next few paragraphs contain no spoilers for peripherally-enhanced readers. Spoilers start after the cut.)
Thirty seconds of googling shows me I'm not the only person who found the basic premise wonky. Okay, you get one gimme: time travel is possible. And I'll go with the fairly plausible extension that it's highly illegal. No worries. As a bonus, I'll give you the idea that murder is near-impossible in the future thanks to handwavey mumbo-jumbo.
(I'm going to quietly mention here that crime tends to evolve with society. If murder is now near-impossible, mobsters will find other ways to get you out of the way. They'll find other crimes. There are more ways of silencing someone than just killing them. But that's a little out of scope for the movie - the movie is not about that future although (in my opinion) you should consider the ramifications of your premise-scaffolding before you build your house around it.)
But, to paraphrase another reviewer: if the mobs had access to time travel, the best they could think to do with it is a fragile and extremely risky assassination service? No power struggles, no assassinations, no nothing? Once you've got something that powerful, it really doesn't matter that it's illegal. It's like trying to outlaw invisibility or telepathy. You have the ultimate trump card. Unfortunately, so do a lot of other people, but time travel is such a heavyweight the rest of the boxers need not apply. Also, you can screw with causality all you want (according to this movie, anyway), so no worries. Go for it. Premise problem number one: the complexity of the solution eclipses the difficulty and severity of the problem it solves. You're using a nuke to kill ants. One at a time. Because you're an idiot. And you're surprised when it explodes in your face.
That aside, they honestly expected loopers to terminate themselves without a hitch? That is, frankly, an insane idea that exists purely because a writer fell in love with the shock value of "ooh, you have to assassinate yourself!" A mobster with any damn sense would realise the massive problem waiting on the end of that pole (it happens twice within a matter of days in the movie - it happens so often, they have set procedures for it -and nobody in the fictional world saw the issue?), and it's so easily thwarted with one minor tweak: they send your future self to another guy, and once he's been eliminated, your next target is a golden-brick man - that's your retirement. If the mob removes identifying marks before they send him back (or the method of death is changed to remove identifying features) then there's no way to find out who actually killed your future self anyway, preventing that little causality wiggle-hole. (And the movie can still work as-is with that setup). Yes, in theory that means you mathematically end up with one looper left over, but the original idea was an ongoing service - you bring in new loopers as old ones retire, because the mob doesn't suddenly need to stop killing people. And you already have people you've sent back there who can manage clean up.
Or hell - when you send your targets back, make sure they're unconscious.
Even more sensibly, as others have suggested, just build the drop points over a furnace. Subdue the targets, send them back, instant body disposal. No need for loopers and mucking about with causality (which is apparently dangerous, but evidently isn't from the amount of mucking about they do.) And the movie can - with some minor adjustments, because Young Joe's no longer a looper - still work with even this setup. But that's not as cool as being forced to eliminate yourself. And I take issue with the idea that 'cool' overrode 'makes any damn sense'. Because you could have made the original idea work. You could have come up with some nice, solid timetravel causality nonsense for why you had to be the one to kill yourself, provided you then also adhered to those laws for the rest of the movie. And then - problem eliminated. But no. So - premise problem number two: coolness overrode actually thinking about this for twenty seconds, AKA I was too lazy to make this idea actually work.
Monday, 14 January 2013
My mother sent me a link to what could be a breakthrough in the book-discovery mechanisms. I'll explain, then I'll give you the link, because the concept is fairly technical for anyone who doesn't already use the music-discovery programs.
One of the major problems for artists of all kinds is reaching their target audience - finding the people whose tastes happen to align with whatever they produce. This is the same everywhere - music, visual art, stories, games. We try all kinds of things, broad-spectrum broadcasts to try to reach everyone who might possibly be interested, with diminishing results. Books especially rely primarily on word-of-mouth, that phenomonal 'buzz' that a particular book gets that causes it to fly of the digital and physical shelves. We've tried, but we still can't bottle that.
Many start-ups have tried to cash in on it though. Even places like goodreads exist to help people find books. The main problem is, they all rely on people actually recommending them. They run off people, not the content itself. Without people, the service flounders, and then nobody joins, because nobody's using it, and it all just falls apart.
Recently (ie, the last few years), with the progression of digital music, services have sprung up to help people find music they may like based on what they already listen to. A bit like Amazon's "people who bought this also bought" except it doesn't rely on sales at all. It doesn't use user-interaction. Instead, it looks at the music itself - the tempo, the instruments, the melody signatures, the treble-vs-bass balance, a lot of other things that I can't think of, and it finds songs that are similar in those respects - by examining the digital files, not asking people. People are not involved. Which means you don't need user buy-in to get a good recommendation. Once you have a decent database of music for it to run on, it works just as well no matter how many users you have.
Someone has started doing this for books. It's called Booksai (Books AI). It has an algorithm to examine book content and find other content that is "similar". Now, I haven't looked at their algorithm. And I would argue that stories have an extra dimension of complexity that is absent from music - the level of semantic meaning to the text, which just isn't found in music at all. Individual notes do not, in themselves, mean anything. Individual words do. But this could be extroadinary, if they can pull it off. If they can nail the algorithm to do this well, that will mean a whole new paradigm in how we classify books, genre, and possibly even in how they're produced.
If you're interested, go ready here at Forbes.
Tuesday, 23 October 2012
I don't read anywhere near as much as I would like to. My pile of to-be-read books long since ceased being a pile; it grew so large that it now in fact outnumbers the books I own that I have read, and now they're all mixed in together in my bookshelves. I keep mental tabs on which ones I have read, it's easier. It also means I can rejoice all the more when new books come into my door, because the list of "things I have to read" doesn't actually get any bigger - I'm not tracking it anymore.
It's just hard to make time to do it. When I have spare time that isn't eaten up with housework or cooking, I'm working on writing. And then it's bedtime.
This is compounded by the fact that even when I do read, there isn't really anything to do with the experience afterwards. I don't really have 'book discussion' friends. I don't have a book club because I already do too many things.
One of my dearest friends found herself (and several other people she knows) in a similar position - would like to read more, but the lack of external motivation means it's so easy to sneak out of it. She suggested starting a virtual book club.
Now, this isn't a new idea - goodreads (and probably every other social-book-reviewing site) has a mechanism set up for exactly this, with thousands of groups already using it. But the notion of book clubs is something that, at least to my mind, belongs more to the previous generation than to mine. I was quite taken with it - discovering new books, and having an external reason to get around to reading the ones that I should, talking about them - but virtually, so there's no time-sensitivity. It's brilliant.
If only we could think of what to name it.
Monday, 22 October 2012
I happened to catch the first two episodes of Elementary last week. I'm a huge fan of BBC's Sherlock, and - especially in the light of the controversy surrounding the American adaptation - I was curious to see what they did with the detective on the other-other side of the pond*.
First, let me lay two fears to rest:it certainly isn't a rip-off of the BBC version (though whoever was in charge of the opening credits should, in my book, be sternly looked at for being so closely "inspired" by the BBC opening credits and font styling). the 'Joan Watson' thing, while obviously departing significantly from the original source, works. Lucy Liu gives her a fantastic depth rarely seen for female "sidekick" characters, and her interaction with Miller is pretty much the driving force of the show.
As for the rest, Miller's performance is slightly more, well, human than Cumberbatch's Holmes, which is neither a positive or negative thing for this particular character, but something that marks the tone and feel of the two shows apart at a fundamental level. Where the BBC's Sherlock is practically constructed out of a reserve and self-control that is so very British, Miller gives us a never-quite-know-if-he's-just-completely-lost-it genius who doesn't have it all together, doesn't always have a plan and certainly doesn't have it under control. It's classical orchestra vs rock'n'roll, and I can happily have both.
Miller and Liu are a delight to watch, which is a good thing as the actual plots of the crimes so far have been beyond banal. Even Castle, where the crimes are merely a minivan to drive the character interation and development, manages a better-constructed mystery. My partner and I regularly 'call' the outcomes of episodes of shows as we watch them (hazard of living with an author), and we found ourselves making calls for Elementary and dismissing them with "oh, no that's too obvious", or "no, that'd be too dull" only to find that - whoops - that's exactly where the Elementary plots trundled. Apparently nobody thinks to check the really obvious, in the world of Elementary. I'm not going to give examples to avoid spoilers - you'll know what I mean if you watch them.
But, that said - the character development and interaction is enough to make the show worth watching, and so far it's certainly what the show spends most of its time on. The fact that the crimes are lacking doesn't actually feel such a travesty, as it's clear they're not the focal point - they're there because without them it wouldn't be Sherlock Holmes, but we're not tuning in for them. So in broad terms, it works, and it's worth a look.
*Hey, I live in Australia. Everywhere is on the other side of a pond.
Tuesday, 16 October 2012
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I've been slowly mining through my towering To Read pile of writerly-oriented texts. The latest has been Ronald B. Tobias' 20 Master Plots (and how to build them). Which at the outset sounds like a fabulously boring book of plot cliches, but there's a little more to it than that.
Tobias spends the first quarter of the book examining how plot actually works. There's not much here that would be new to old hands, but Tobais does a good job of bringing a respected set of theories together in an accessible, entertaining way. It's certainly not a dry read, and a very good starting ground for someone new to plots - both writing and analysing.
Tobias gives a brief overview of each of his twenty plots, including the dramatic high and low points, and a checklist of gotchas and things to not for each particular pattern. It's a little briefer than perhaps would be satisfying, but at least it isn't padded out with fluff.
My main beef with this book is in fact the same problem I've had with practically every modern book written on plotting, ever. They start out talking about books, but then every single example (or near enough) uses movies instead.
This isn't a total loss - movies use plots, too, after all. And the necessary simplification of story for a movie makes the plot formula and function much easier to discern and therefore analyse, so they're good tools for teaching people what plots look like and how to recognise them, see their patterns.
But that's also rather missing the point - books have a lot more room, and you have to fill that room. Your hero can't just eat lunch for forty pages because you needed to kill time (and page count) before he can defuse the bomb. When we're looking at plot patterns like Maturation, Adventure, Underdog, Rescue - these are not mutually exclusive in a book. And I don't mean just sub-plots - smaller stories that slot in alongside the main plot, supporting and emphasising aspects of it. Most movies, for example, have a 'love' subplot going on somewhere.
No, I mean most books - at least, most books with any meat to them - have multiple plot-patterns (whatever you want to call them) happening to the character at the same time, using the same story. You can't really do that with a movie - there's just not enough room for all the nuance. But by teaching book-plots using movie-examples, you're teaching writers to simplify their plots. To constrain them, and prune out the nuance and complexities, because they don't fit the pattern.
I know there are fewer movies than books, and it's generally a better bet that people will have seen a movie than read a book. But you know what? "Real" writers - that is, writers who are trying to learn about this stuff - should not be adverse to tracking down an example book and reading it in order to understand the point being made in an instructive book. Nobody can deliver creative understanding into your head through any medium anyway - the best it can do is point the way for you to figure it out for yourself.
So. My review turned into a rant. If you're relatively new to plotting, I'd recommend this book - it's a lot more accessible and readable than most plotting books out there, to be honest. It has a good examination of how a plot actually works and what's going on, and the patterns Tobias describes are well-handled. Just treat them as options to think about, rather than a set of reductive restrictions on what you can do.
Monday, 10 September 2012
I had other plans for this post, but they're not going to happen this week, now. Largely because I saw a movie last night that was masquarading as science fiction, but with grievious logical problems. For example:
We have the technology to create something that can take humans through the centre of the earth unscathed - through molten nickel-iron that is (at our best guess) roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun, and under immense pressure (that's why it's that hot), far greater than any submarine vessel withstands. But we can't clean up the atmosphere or the poisoned land, create an immunity or vaccine for whatever is making it uninhabitable, or build habitable floating platforms out in the sea which presumably weren't bombed into oblivion, or, apparently, create any viable form of transport technology except through the earth. Even though it's clearly established that the lack of habitable living space is our most pressing issue. Technology can't solve it, even though we're capable of much greater technological feats. It can only be resolved through war. Even though that's a stupid resolution, because it can only be temporary at best (you'll run out of space again). Because we're just that stupid a species.
I know this is only a movie, and therefore I'm supposed to cut them some slack apparently (most ridiculous excuse ever - if an author had nonsense like that, we'd ream them a new one, but because movies spend millions on the same issue we're supposed to not care), but I'm just appalled at how little these creations think through their statements and their worldbuilding. It's not that hard to flesh out your scenario to make the above make sense - just spend a little more than five minutes coming up with your scenario. But they just don't. Because, I suppose, they don't have to - people will still go watch the movie. They may pan the lack of sense, but they'll still pay their cash.
And it drives me up the wall when people pull out the "but it's just science fiction" argument. No. Science fiction is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Science fiction is still supposed to make sense. To follow logic. Pulling crap like this and saying you can get away with it because it's science fiction is what gives science fiction a bad name to those who're outside our genre.
I'll admit I've become oversensitised to logical issues in my own work, largely through the efforts of a member of my writing group who has a great knack for spotting the Fridge Logic. But this has really started to annoy me in movies and in books.
There's an invading force coming to kill everyone. We know this. We also know the exact means through which they'll get here, because it's the only way to get here, and we know they're coming now. Should we actually do something to sabotage their means of getting here so they can't kill us all? Because we have the means to do that. It would be very easy. Just some dynamite here and there. If we don't have any dynamite, then some welding gear to decouble the struts here and here, and we're all good. No, let's all just mill around in panic and make announcements to go to non-existent "safe zones", when it's already established that if it were possible for anyone to be living there, we'd have filled them up already, and we're on a bloody island, because this is what's left of Australia, and there aren't any bloody landmasses around for people to escape to. Yes. That's what people do when you threaten them with imminent war.
Seriously, is thinking your plot and your world premise through just so much to ask?
Tuesday, 28 August 2012
I'll admit, I haven't read it. No, not even to see what all the fuss is about (which is, I think, the primary reason James is raking in a million a week at the moment.) I've read bits and pieces shared by others. Like the fact that her opening paragraph contains a 6-line sentence about the protagonist's hair as she gets ready to go somewhere. (The opening paragraph. Is about hair.) That 70% of the book is either Mr Grey cocking his head, or Ms Steele chewing her lip. That the prose includes gems such as "and I made a noise like a sick goat that was about to have sex."
I read the Twilight books to make sure I knew what I was sneering at. I tried to read the DaVinci Code and couldn't get through it, so decided I'd not talk about it. I really can't bring myself to read these, and I suspect once the Dan Brown effect has vanished, so will the books. So I will try to keep my mouth shut.
But a cousin of mine who works as a hospital nurse had one heart-blazing comment to make, that I'm going to paraphrase because I can't find it exactly but I think it needs to be out there (if it hasn't been said elsewhere already). It contains spoilers about the ending (but honestly with this sort of book if you couldn't see it coming there's no help for you). It's along the lines of this:
The problem isn't that it's fantasy and escapism - it's fiction, it's allowed to be that. It's supposed to be that. The problem is that the book's ending is pure fantasy, of the the-world-doesn't-work-that-way variety, and it's a dangerous fantasy. It's a fantasy too many women tell themseves. The one where the guy who beats you half to death can change - where you can change him, make him better. Make him understand and stop hurting you.
In real life, you don't get that happy ending. In real life, Ana winds up in hospital, or dead. In real life, you can't change that person; the only thing you can do is walk away. That's hard enough to do as it is without the seductive whisper of escapism saying maybe-just-maybe he's different, you're different, just this one time it can work.
My cousin has seen too many women in recovery wards who believed that. Who go home believing it, and come back still believing it.
That's not to say novelists should censor themselves. But we should be aware of what messages and hopes - false or otherwise - we're giving to our readers.
Monday, 09 July 2012
Although apparently they spent three years developing two separate programs to make her hair. One that controlled the movement of 150,000 individual curls, and another that mapped them to her body movements. That's a lot of effort for hair - for one character's hair. That's pixar for you, I guess.
It was not the story I expected. From the trailers and general marketing, I'd understood it as a coming-of-age, women-are-capable-too kind of story, a gender-switched How To Train Your Dragon. While it has elements of that, Brave is very much the story of the relationship between a mother and daughter, and how that relationship does (and must) change. There's enough humour that the men (who may find it more difficult to relate with the central theme - a mother/daughter relationship is rather different to a mother/son) were kept well-enough entertained (the antics of the MC's three younger siblings are hilarious) and the relationship between the MC and her mother (it is somewhat telling that I can't actually remember her name, other than I know it starts with 'M' and it's not Matilda) was human and genuine.
I've read reviews that Brave is far more a kid's story than normal Pixar movies, but I disagree. Children will enjoy it, certainly, but I think there's a lot here for adults, too - there's real heart, hurt and horror going on behind the silliness, and it's well-worth a look.
Monday, 02 July 2012
I finally got around to watching In Time, the sci-fi flick about a society where the time you have left to live is measured out in seconds on your wrist and acts as your currency. The premise was (and still is) intriguing, in that dammit-I-wish-I'd-thought-of-that way, which is the primary reason I wanted to see it. However, I agree with the reviewers who question the notion of how anyone - especially the poor - allowed this in the first place.
If you spend your last cent in the real world, you don't instantly die. You might go hungry for a while, you might resort to dumpster-diving, stealing food, or other tactics, but you're still breathing. If you have the right skills and location, you can even live outside our currency system entirely. However, in this one, if you're broke, you're dead. There's no way around it, no recourse, no way to live 'off the grid' or avoid taking part in the system. You can't opt-out. And most of the people wake up in the morning with little more than a day's worth of time on their wrist, and a lot of that to be used by even further by eating or taking a bus to work - they have to work to be able to wake up the next morning. While of course, the rich are immortal.
You can't just make more time, because it's a way of measuring the available resources to keep everyone fed, etc. (Although interestingly, if you die of any other means (eg a bullet) with time still on the clock, that time is lost and can't be retrieved by anyone. Which is rather like instantly immolating someone's bank accounts when they die - it must play merry hell with the stock exchange) There is a limited amount of time in the system, and it's naturally hoarded by the rich, while the poor die in the streets. But apparently when the poor people agreed to this, they didn't think about that. They didn't think through the fact that they were, in fact, removing options - the options that had served them in the past, of making do without money, of living outside the system. The audience is vaguely waved toward the idea that everyone agreed because it meant that anyone could achieve immortality. Not everyone, but anyone.
Apparently no one in that world is remotely genre-savvy.
I find that setup hard to take largely because research shows most people tend to be more adverse to risk than they are eager for reward. Yes, people are easily led, but surely there's enough discourse in the world that the obvious counterargument would have risen. And nor do the poor take steps to set up their own system outside the time-currency, to help themselves get by a little easier - a defacto currency because the real one is too precious. But that's not actually what I want to discuss. What I do want to discuss involves heavy spoilers. But (as other reviewers also mentioned) while the premise of the film is intriguing, the plot couldn't be any more fill-in-the-blank if it tried. So while i'm spoiling things here, if you walk into that show with half a brain, I'm really not spoiling much. But if you have severe spoiler-allergy, you have been warned.
The chief antagonist - at least from the point of the one running around getting in the hero's way all the time - is a Timekeeper (policeman essentially in charge of making sure the poor stay poor so the rich stay immortal) named Leon. We're given a lot of really interesting tidbits about Leon - he knew our hero's father (who, coincidentally, died on a very similar quest to the hero) and he understands the plight of those in the ghetto intimately. There are a couple of great moments that give the antagonist the potential for an arc, just like the hero's, and it's set up to be an interesting stand-off when the hero really works out what he's doing.
Contrast with the movie Serenity (spoilers for that also imminent, but it's been out for years so it's your own fault). The antagonist has his own separate and complete arc, from loyalty and belief in what he's doing to disillusionment and realisation of the truth about who he serves. Leon is set up for this, too - not just set-up, but most of the way through it by the movie's climax. We're given everything but the final play. The hero keeps acting in ways that look like they would make Leon question what he's doing - and Cillian Murphy's enigmatic performance keeps us wondering if in fact it is happening under the surface. Leon is in a position where he obviously can't show sympathy for the hero, but we're lead to believe both from his actions and other characters reactions to both him and the events that this is the way his arc is going.
But in the final confrontation, the matter's taken entirely out of their of their hands. It's a deus ex machina, made all the more ridiculous because Leon was way too damn smart to let things go down that way. What happens?
Leon runs out of time. Due to the inherent dangers of their job, TimeKeepers never carry much time on their wrists - it's all stored in the dispatch, and they get regular transfers on request for their time. Leon is low on time, and is about to request his daily allotment when he notices the hero and gives chase instead. And he forgets to replenish his time. He's been doing this job for fifty years, he knows he's low on time, and he just forgets. And so instead of a moment that could have answered his arc, have closed it one way or another by giving him a choice in the outcome; instead of the hero vanquishing him, killing him, getting him onside, something that would have given him a purpose in the hero's story instead of just being a plot-delay-mechanism; instead of any active action by any of the characters, it's "Universe Say Bad Man Die Now."
And everything we were working towards in the past two hours falls apart.
It's utterly meaningless (worse, it also undermines key characterisation and world-building - everyone who lives day-to-day like Timekeepers are always hyper-aware of how much time they have. The notion of him just forgetting is stupid.). That simple action renders entire storylines meaningless, because neither the antagonist nor the protagonist have anything to do with how the ending plays out. And it could have been fixed so easily. Even if you wanted to kill Leon, even if you wanted him to time out - make it his choice. Or the hero's. Somebody's choice.
Important moments in a story should never be left down to luck or coincidence*, especially toward the end. Character arcs are about internal journeys, and these are shown through how characters react and act. If a character cannot make a choice, they cannot show us where they are in their journey. The further along we are in the journey, the more important it is to see the change, to see the choice. If you hide it, then the character essentially hasn't gone on a journey at all. Which means neither have we, the reader/audience.
Not all antagonists need to have arcs. But if you're going to create one, you need to pay as much attention to it as you would to your hero's, because it will reflect on and affect your hero's. It's the supporting harmony, the undercurrent. And leaving a hole will leave a very obvious dead spot in your story.
*You get some leeway if it's the first plot point, inciting incident, or if the luck or coincidence is actually getting the character into more trouble, not out of it.
Monday, 11 June 2012
I've been on a bit of a book-pilgrimage, essentially trying to find the Holy Grail of plot and structure. This definitely isn't it. Something startling happens: the 120 story beats every writer needs to know (Todd Klick) is essentially a book version of that essay your year 11 English teacher made you write about the meaning behind the author's choice of vehicle colours for some dull-as-buckets literary text you never read. It suffers from the same malady that plagues all high school literature essays, in fact: the human mind can see patterns and connections in anything when it wants to, regardless of the actual relevance of the discovery.
Klick creates his slick one-liner beats and proceeds to force his selected movies to it, at times clearly taking an overly literal interpretation of the beat-name to achieve it, and at others straining at the edges of the concept or theme to slot them in. If Sam Schmam dodges a playfully-tossed potato in minute 106, that apparently is just as important as Neo dodging bullets. It's the focussing illusion: you're looking for a duck in every beat, even though sometimes the duck just happened to be flying in the background. Even if it's a completely non-meaningful duck, apparently it counts as one of Klick's beats.
Not all movie-examples Klick uses fit the beats,either (Star Wars has a number of missing moments) and the book ends at 120 minutes, leaving several movie analyses unfinished (great help to us there, then. He claims to have created up to 180 beats, but he'll only put 120 in the book, even though several movies aren't finished by beat 120. Thanks for that.) And I found myself all raising an eyebrow so frequently at the way he stretched a definition or concept so a film fit that my face was actually aching by about halfway through the book.
(Edit: Whoops. Not sure what happened here, folks. I think Joomla burped when I was saving the article. All fixed, now.)
But that isn't even the real problem, here.
Klick makes no attempt to look at the underlying meaning or cause behind these beats - what is it that makes 'the dodge' such a common trope in minute 106? What is it evoking in the audience, what is it trying to achieve? What is its purpose? Not one word on this, perhaps the most crucial aspect of any kind of plot analysis. The result is a colour-by-numbers guide that allows for superficial analysis of a script (do I have a dodge on page 106? Oh good.) but no understanding of why this particular order of beats is (apparently) so magical.
Klick doesn't even bother to mention how aspects like character arc, throughline, premise might interact with these beats (it's one thing to state you expect your reader already knows them. It's quite another to pretend that they're not relevant to story structure at all). End result: you could follow this book word-for-word and still produce a garbled mess of a story. It's a nice gimmick, the 120 follow-the-numbers beats. But it's useless without a deeper understanding of and connection to the underlying arcs that it's supposed to be exposing, and may even hinder a writer looking to understand how plot and structure service a story.
Don't buy this book. It's promising an easy way out, and there isn't one. Or if there is, Klick certainly hasn't found it.
Monday, 13 February 2012
I watched the pilot and second episode of the new sci-fi offering Terra Nova the other day. For the uninitiated: our world is royally screwed and barely habitable about a hundred (ish) year from now. Technology has surprisingly only-sort-of come to our rescue, in the guise of a "crack in time" that allows us to send people and objects 85 million years into an alternate past (note the key word "alternate" there - it's code for "now we can make up whatever the hell we want, and put Jurassic and Triassic creatures in the Cretaceous period. Woot!". It's a very special form of Handwavium.) So we recruit the best and brightest to send on a one-way trip back to live with dinosaurs in the hope that it''ll inexplicably help those stuck back on Pollutions R Us.
Because that totally makes sense.
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Over the weekend my partner and I saw the last Harry Potter film. We watched it in 3D (which I hate, because it just gives me a headache with the occasional "hey, that thing is floating" moment, but the 2D screenings were all sold out. Hah.) which I must say is used very subtly in the film (so subtly, in fact, it doesn't add a damn thing to the proceedings and might as well not be there.) You're certainly not missing anything by watching in 2D, but the 3D is at least not used as a gimmick anymore.
I was interested to see my partner's response compared to mine: he hasn't read the books, missed some of the films and his memory isn't geared to remembering the minutae of detail necessary to connect Part 1 and Part 2. After asking for the cliffnotes of what happened in the preceeding three movies, we entered the theatre. And from here there will probably be SPOILERS, because my discussion rather depends on you knowing what I'm talking about. If you have somehow managed to avoid all knowledge of what happens at the end of the series and care about retaining that precious ignorance, by all means go read something else. Here.
Wednesday, 20 July 2011
Still moving. Argh. You know how they tell you not to put too many books in a box, because it makes it too heavy to lift? That you should spread your books out between the boxes and put other things in there? Yeah. That doesn't work when 80% of what you own is, in fact, books. Sigh.
I've stopped boxing my books and started piling them instead. I've emptied two bookshelves (one of which was mostly DVDs - they HAVE been boxed, they fit so neatly in, I couldn't resist!), and I have six thigh-high piles of books. I have another three bookshelves to go, all of which are packed at least two books deep. Then I'm getting those sturdy cloth supermarket bags, and putting them in those. Or I will, when I have bookshelves at the other end to put the books in.
I may have a slight book obsession.
In book-related news, there's a review of Google's new e-reader that I mentioned last week, which addresses one of my concerns at least - it is multiplatform, but doesn't make it easy for you.
And, in the face of all those who say we'll suffocate under an avalanche of Kindle Crap, The Pauper's Book Club is a site that helps you find books within a certain price bracket and a certain category (eg 'High Fantasy'). Presumably they're amazon affiliates. The site's beautifully designed and they claim not to censor for content, but to "censor for crap" - that is, remove the books that should really have been publishing with a shredder. Will keep an eye on them.
Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Okay, this isn't a writing exercise so much as a thinking one. But it's valuable:
I've been re-reading my favourite book in the world: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Partly because I want something I know I can disappear into when I'm on breaks between moving, and partly because it's been years since I last read it, and I haven't ready my copy of The Year Of The Flood yet. As they're sort-of connected, it seemed like a good excuse.
I first read O&C when I was nineteen, with a small collection of other books on loan from a friend. I'm not entirely sure why I fell in love with it so much. On re-reading it, to be frank, it's not really living up to my memory of its incredibleness. But that doesn't diminish its place in my heart.
It was, I think, the first "adult" science fiction (sorry, Margaret) I'd ever read; the first what-if that had real thought and meaning behind it, and was about more than Defeating The Evil Empire. It was the first book I'd read where the future wasn't generic space formula and TechnologyAwesome, where the characters were more than a line-drawing, and the story arc couldn't be plotted with crayons. My first foray into future dystopia, human fallability and hubris, and speculative fiction with subtext.
It was also being read in contrast to some of the dreariest literary fiction I've ever had inflicted on me, thanks to my literature-worshipping creative writing classes at university. That probably had something to do with it. But I when I realised that Atwood was doing what my professors were talking about, and discussing themes and ideas that my professors were pointing to in more traditional literary works, I was floored.
I'd discovered speculative literature.
I suspect that's why this book remains so important to me. Not because the book itself beats out any other book in the universe (though, as Matthew Riley stated on the First Tuesday Book Club last week, Atwood can pretty much write whatever she likes) but because I saw the possibility of doing what I really wanted to do - discuss things that were important to me whilst playing with the what-if and the fantastic. And that's why I love this book.
So the thinking part of this exercise: what's your favourite book? If you can, I suggest re-reading it. Look at it critically - does it, on its own merit, deserve your adulation? If not, what it is about that book that puts it above all others? Is it really only about the book itself, or is that book a symbol of another time, a meaning, a decision or discovery in your life? What makes it so special to you?
Monday, 18 July 2011
I'm currently reading Richard Curtis' How To Be Your Own Literary Agent, partially because I'm curious about how the system really works on the inside, but mostly because I need to figure out exactly how the minutae of contracts, royalties and rights work for the second part of SubTracker.
In short: it's an awesome resource. You can stop reading this right now if you go buy it. Yes, it's a little outdated regarding e-publishing and self-publishing (the last update was 2003, cut him some slack for not being prescient) but the areas where that shows are not areas where he's saying anything important to the core of the book - ie royalties, contracts and rights. Even if you're planning to self-publish, you should read this book to understand how the rest of the industry works.
The more I've read various blogs over the past few years, the more it has amazed me just how many authors get along without actually understanding their contracts. They leave all that to their agents or their publishers. This is their business, their livelihood, and they're just trusting other people won't screw them over, when screwing them over is pretty much in the agents and publishers' best interests.
These people do not work for your benefit, they work for their own. And if that benefit means quietly pocketing your money, or not telling you things you need to know, then they may well do that, even if it ends up tanking your career. If you can't understand your own contract or your own royalty statement, how are you going to protect yourself? This is the real world: you have to look after yourself, no one is going to do it for you.
Understanding contracts is not astrophysics - it's just careful consideration of phrasing and word choice. We're writers, for heaven's sake, this should not be on our forbidden list. Yes, it's legalese and utterly dry and boring, but it can be understood after some practise, just like shakespeare. And you don't lose points for having an IP lawyer (not a regular flavour one - IP is a special area and requires specialist knowledge) help you out with understanding (or negotiating) - if the result is that you understand the piece of paper you're supposed to sign, that's a win.
Ditto on your royalty statements and your rights. They're not hard, they just need some thinking. And Curtis' book makes that thinking a lot easier. Go read or buy, before you start sending stuff out.
Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Disclaimer: this post involves colloquial expressions of excrement. Persons adverse to such four letter combinations may be advised to return next week.
Yesterday's post on alpha readers was inspired by a conversation I had with a writer-friend of mine. I had just finished proofing some poetry and prose that she was sending off to a competition, and in the midst of some disappointment, she said:"Everything I write, it's brilliant, and then I give it to you and it's a piece of shit."
I can relate to that. I had a scriptwriting teacher in university who would start each workshop session with everyone repeating the mantra "My work is a piece of shit, my work is a piece of shit" in tones reserved for reverential supplication. After that, no one was allowed to mention how bad they felt their work was. We'd all already said it; yours wasn't allowed to be worse than anyone else's. Luckily, that particular class was pretty cluey to the practise of fishing for writerly compliments by protesting the tragic terribleness of the work. That sort of thing didn't fly, though it was fun to see a few hopefuls trying. That wonderful teacher simply looked at them, and asked"Well, if you think it's so irredeemable, why are we wasting our time on it?"
Nobody else dared fish again in that class. It was refreshingly honest.
Tuesday, 03 May 2011
This one's a writing exercise that doesn't involve much actual writing, at least from your point of view. But it's an important skill to develop.
Alpha readers are people who read your incomplete, unpolished not-working-yet drafts, and make suggestions. They're a special kind of reader - the kind who can see past the use of cliches and the dodgy bit where you've used the same sentence structure four times in a row and the fact that 'inflammable' doesn't mean what you think it does. They're people who can ignore the fact that what you're trying to do might not be their type of story, and might not be how they would have done it. Not everyone needs them, but they're invaluable to those who do.
You will need: a sense of tact and diplomacy, a friend who has some rough drafts they will permit you to read, said rough drafts, a box to put your ego in for a moment.
First, put your ego in the box, and leave it outside the door. It has no place here: this is not about you. (Other than the fact that you'll be learning how to see past the surface of writing to the bones underneath, and what the writer is trying to do.) Nobody cares how you would have written this, or if you don't like space giraffes. All that goes in the box outside.
Take the piece away from your friend. Having them staring at you while you read it will totally distract you from what you're trying to do. Gently send them on their way for about thrice the time you think it will take to read it.
Next, read the piece. Do not have a pen in your hand. Do not correct typos, spelling mistakes, grammar gaffes, word confusion or undulating sentence structure. That's not your job right now.
Think. Hard. What is the piece about? What are the main conflicts, resolutions, character alterations - what, in short, is going on in this story. If this is a novel, it's going to take you a while. It's probably a good idea to tackle it chapter-by-chapter. Write them down. If you have a particularly ascerbic natural tone or you tend to think in a sarcastic manner, it's probably best to plan time to rewrite this stuff later.
Now think even further - look at what you've just noted down, and your gut feel of the story - what do you think the writer was trying to do? Nevermind if they achieved it, or if you don't like it or don't agree with it, what were they trying to do? What did they want to bring across? This is a tricky step - it's the crucial skill of the alpha reader, one that takes some practice, hard thought, and a complete lack of ego.
Some people here like to talk to the writer, and see if what they think they're trying to do marries with what the writer thinks they're trying to do. Personally, I prefer to only talk at the end. Sometimes the writer might think they're trying to do one thing, when they're really trying to do another, or may not yet know, or may not want to talk about things that way. It's up to you.
Now, armed with your knowledge of the structure and intention of the story (as you see it) read the story again. What is and isn't working for their intention? What's missing? What's undermining it? What is working really well (it's equally important to tell them what they need to keep as it is what they need to lose). Remember, your ego is still in the box - this is not about how you would write it. This is about making a story that does what they want it to do.
Make notes on this. If necessary, rewrite things into a tactful response. You'll need to give them all the notes - the conflicts and arcs (because they may not see them, or may think there are some there that haven't actually come through), your views on the intention, your notes on how to strengthen that intention. Keep a copy of these notes.
Hand them to your friend, and scamper to safety while they read it. Be prepared to have a conversation where they explain with anger and dispair that that wasn't what they intended at all, and you completely read it wrong, and it works fine just the way it is! Don't judge them too harshly - when we ask for feedback, every one of us secretly wants to be told that our baby is absolutely perfect and shouldn't be touched, even if we know that's a load of pants.
You may find at a later date they come back to you with questions, hoping for a discussion to illuminate some finer points. Refer to your copy of the notes to refresh, and have that discussion. You may need to rethink your suggestions if your reading of their intention was actually inaccurate (if it's that out of whack, though, then there are big problems with the story - generally that the author is trying to trick themselves, or put too many things in).
That's the job of the alpha reader - not to judge or rewrite, but try to help the writer achieve what they want to with a story.
Monday, 02 May 2011