(Standard spoiler warning applies to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.)
I be feeling a bit nostalgic today, mates. So let’s talk about one of my favorite scenes in film history. It’s not a particularly spectacular scene by most standards, but it encapsulates a concept that’s executed so beautifully, it makes my crusty writer’s heart weep with joy.
And possibly with a teensy bit of drunkenness, because rum.
Behold, ye scalawags!
Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down what exactly makes a character so compelling. Jack Sparrow is undeniably one of the great, iconic characters in cinema, but why? Is it Johnny Depp’s inspired insanity? The clever dialogue? Just a really good costume?
No, from a writer’s perspective, I think the answer in this case is simple: Jack Sparrow is singularly memorable because he is singularly motivated. He may seem to rapidly change sides as the balance of power shifts, but really, everything he does throughout the film–without exaggeration, every single move he makes and line he speaks–is all designed to bring him closer to his goal of recovering the Black Pearl. Even his desire for revenge on Barbossa is secondary and incidental to getting his ship.
That’s the beauty of this scene on the beach. In case you can’t watch, here’s the relevant bit:
JACK: Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that’s what a ship needs but what a ship is… what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom.
Here, Jack’s given a moment to explain himself, to get to the underlying truth that really drives him. The Black Pearl is a tangible item rather unique to Jack, but the desire for freedom, that’s what Elizabeth, the sheltered rich girl with an adventurous heart, connects with. It’s what the audience connects with. It’s something primal, one of those lizard-brain truths that transcends circumstance to speak to a broader human experience. Those primal, basic motivations are hugely important in fiction, one of the reasons we tell stories and one of the things that make stories effective. Hell, it’s the reason that the damsel in distress keeps popping up even though we all know how problematic it is by now; the trope’s still bloody useful to writers, because what’s more primal than protecting someone you love?
This strong motivation also serves the structure of the script. Jack is an active character; his plots and counter-plots drive the story forward, lending urgency and tension even though he’s not, strictly speaking, the protagonist. True, most of his pivots are in reaction to the changing circumstances throughout the story, but crucially, he’s not purely reactionary: he walks into Port Royal with a plan, and that’s largely what he sticks to. He adapts as needed to get to the ultimate goal, but that goal never changes.
And, more importantly, it’s this trait that shows us why the sequels aren’t nearly as successful from a storytelling standpoint. In Dead Man’s Chest, Jack has his ship back and (somewhat contrivedly) lost the treasure at Isla de la Muerta, and thus doesn’t know what he wants anymore. They try to make it a plot point (his magic compass doesn’t work correctly because it’s motivated by his heart’s desire), but it doesn’t disguise or compensate for the fact that he’s a weaker character because of this development.
There’s a reason for that old cliche of actors asking about their motivation, and there’s a reason that the formula for a successful query or blurb boils down to “Who’s the hero, what do they want, what’s in their way.” The stuff that a character does simply doesn’t resonate with us as much as their reasons for doing it. People connect with a character they can relate to, no matter how fantastical and unfamiliar their circumstances.
If your story doesn’t have someone with a clear, strong motivation (and it doesn’t have to be the protagonist; this is a role frequently played by the villain, after all), perhaps you should dig a little deeper to see what makes them tick. Maybe get drunk on a deserted beach. Seems to help.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Doctor Who. Just… Doctor Who.)
Well, this is quite the little mini-theme of writing terms! First there was “show, don’t tell,” then “kill your darlings,” and today we have “lampshade hanging.” For those of you who don’t speak TV Tropes, this is when a writer handles something that strains plausibility by pointing out exactly how implausible it is. It doesn’t seem like it would work, but it can be quite effective for a certain type of story.
Doctor Who, the long-running sci-fi show about traveling to all the corners of time and space that look suspiciously like southern Britain, is rather that kind of story, though it might not seem that way from the outside. The lampshade, you see, is all about the writers making fun of themselves, so it is a device that by definition deals in the comic and the meta. It is therefore a staple of meta comedies like Archer and 30 Rock, but it also tends to pop up in other works, especially genre ones, that don’t take themselves too seriously. With its long history, savvy and devoted fans, and a sensibility that vacillates between goofy and terrifying, Doctor Who definitely falls into that second category. Hardly an episode goes by without some on-point observation being made, but a few characters over the years have really taken this trope and run with it–probably none more so than Rory Williams, who pretty much acted like this was his full-time job.
Rory’s observational skills are on display from his very first appearance, and are actually what catches the Doctor’s attention, since Rory’s the only one who figured out what’s really weird about the whole alien invasion situation. While Amy gets immediately swept up into the Doctor’s world, Rory stays firmly and intentionally grounded in reality, which makes him quite effective as an audience surrogate. Indeed, Rory (at least, early on, before the centurion business) is probably a pretty good representation of what the average sci-fi fan would be like as a companion, and the Doctor finds his genre-savviness quite annoying since–another lampshade–he keeps his companions around so they can be impressed at how clever he is. Rory’s everyman qualities show off one benefit of lampshade hanging: He finds his situation just as implausible as anyone would in his situation, so it keeps the show grounded even as it starts to strain credulity.
For instance, there’s the little fact that Rory just keeps dying. Hell, he manages to die three times in a single episode. This is not the kind of thing that someone would just shrug off, and so Rory doesn’t. His reactions run the gamut from sardonic annoyance (“We’re dead. Again.”) to his confession to the Doctor that he’s still haunted by the memories of his centuries as an Auton. It helps inspire confidence in the audience that it’s not just a passing gag, but that the writers have a plan and are working it into the story.
Really, it’s the way that a lampshade lets the writer communicate directly with the audience that makes it so effective. For instance, there’s Rory’s response when Amy asks if he can ride a motorbike he’s just stolen:
RORY: I expect so. It’s been that sort of day.
The thing with breaking rules or engaging in lazy writing habits on purpose is that it can be difficult for the audience to know that it’s on purpose and that you’re not just bad at this. A line like Rory’s helps clue the audience in to your intentions. The subtext is, “Yes, this might merit more explanation, but we’re not going to waste the time on it. This is just the kind of story we’re in, so let’s move on and get to the good stuff.” Calling attention to it helps the audience trust that the writer knows what they’re doing, and lets the audience know that the writer trusts them to have spotted the pattern. And it wraps the whole thing in a joke, because the Rule of Funny trumps all.
So, in essence, hanging a lampshade takes a moment that could be a major pothole in the storytelling experience and turns it into an opportunity for us all to have a laugh and congratulate ourselves on being very clever. All around, a good tool to have in your arsenal.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Avengers.)
Last time we talked a bit about common soundbites of writing advice that run the risk of being smurfed into meaninglessness. Let’s continue on in that vein, shall we? Today’s frequently used, frequently misunderstood phrase is “Kill your darlings.”
Unlike phrases such as “show, don’t tell” or “strong female character,” the problem here isn’t that people are using the same term to discuss similar-but-not-identical concepts. This one is pretty straightforward: No matter how much you like a sentence/paragraph/scene/character/subplot/waheyhey, if it’s causing other issues in the story, it probably needs to be changed or removed. It’s about keeping the big picture in mind and steeling yourself for tough editorial decisions. It is not about liking a sentence/paragraph/scene/character/subplot/waheyhey so much that you suspect something might be wrong with it, and it is not about cutting material for the sake of cutting material.
So, as is my wont, let’s see this one in action.
Remember the blonde waitress who’s so prominently featured in the third act of The Avengers (and in the image at the top of this page)? She definitely set my English major spidey senses tingling, and I figured that she was going to be a recurring character, perhaps a love interest for Cap. She didn’t show up in Winter Soldier, so perhaps there was a scheduling conflict, they decided to take it in a different direction, or they just plain forgot that they’d set her up. (The latter is what I’m pretty sure happened to most of the events of The Incredible Hulk, as a side note.) But as it turns out, her bigger role was in The Avengers itself, but most of it ended up on the cutting room floor.
Here she is meeting Steve in the first act:
And they filmed quite a bit of footage with her for the climactic battle sequence:
None of this footage is bad, and some of it clearly made it pretty far in the process: multiple angles are edited together, and there’s score and even preliminary special effects in some places. The first scene gives Cap’s character some additional depth (and shows off his art skills!), and the second gives us a recognizable face to represent the bystanders and remind us all of what’s at stake. It’s not purely extraneous, so why isn’t it in there?
Well, it’s already a pretty dense movie, and you can’t have everything. Cap’s extended introduction kind of kills the pacing of the “getting the gang together” portion of the movie, and there’s just not time to explore his individual arc here. It’s an ensemble film, so they take advantage of having all the characters in one place to show how they interact. Specifically with Steve, the focus is on his relationship with Tony, which is going to be a hugely important part of Civil War. His solo story about adjusting to the modern world gets shifted over to his solo movie, where it’s a better fit.
As for why the second batch of scenes got cut? I don’t know if you guys noticed this, but the Battle of New York is fucking long. It’s thirty-four goddamn minutes from when Iron Man first arrives to when Loki asks for his drink. Just keeping track of all our heroes as they kick ass takes quite enough, let alone following around some random chick as she just tries not to get killed. She’s given just enough screentime that we recognize her when she gives her interview at the end, but more than that would just bog down a sequence that’s already pushing its luck.
The filmmaking process is extremely segmented when it comes time to the actual filming: scenes are shot out of order by a crew that frequently hasn’t read any of the script, and rewrites are usually happening continually. It’s pretty much impossible to get a feel for what the actual movie is going to look like until you get to the editing room and can take a more holistic look. Even if you’re writing fiction and working from start to finish, it can be hard from the trenches to have any concept of the work as a whole. That’s why revision is so vital, but it means that you’ll often have ideas you’ve put a lot of work into that end up getting nixed. “Kill your darlings” just tells you to suck it up and do what needs to be done. On the plus side, technology–DVD extras, YouTube, author websites, social media, and so on–gives you an alternate way to showcase those ideas without bogging down the story, so at least your darlings don’t have to die unmourned.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Emperor’s New Groove.)
If you spend any amount of time reading writing advice, you’re going to encounter certain phrases a lot. Such phrases tend to be pithy and memorable, but it doesn’t take long to realize that, well, we don’t seem to be talking about quite the same thing.
Take “show, don’t tell.” It’s an exhortation to better description. Unless, of course, it’s meant to encourage you to focus on action instead of description. Or to focus on subtext. And then there are the situations where you should ignore the rule completely. So you can see where this gets confusing to a beginner.
One major version of this rule, or perhaps a corollary to it, is the “show/tell mismatch“: You can’t tell us one thing about the story but then show us something completely different. If you tell us your main character is the greatest assassin in the world but show us someone who’s constantly getting snuck up on and has the self-preservation instinct of a lemming on the Disney backlot, the reader is going to have a hard time taking you seriously. (Yes, that’s a real example, and no, I’m not naming and shaming. It knows what it did.) Basically, the action has to match the narration.
Except, you know, when it doesn’t. Yes, any rule can be broken, as long as it’s broken for a specific reason.
The Emperor’s New Groove starts with a flash-forward prologue, although it’s mercifully brief and is necessary to establish that Kuzco isn’t providing his voice-over from after the story is all wrapped up, but from right in the middle, which is rather unusual. The voice-over continues throughout the setup, as Kuzco protests that he’s a purely innocent victim. Meanwhile, the scenes he’s narrating show clearly that Kuzco is a total dick and brought this all on himself. The narration emphatically contradicts the action, so it’s a violation of the rule, right?
But we’re dealing with two different types of information here (which is probably why this rule can get so confusing). As far as the events that took place are concerned, yes, this is show/tell mismatch. But that mismatch shows something critically important to Kuzco’s character: he’s not just a dick, he’s an oblivious dick. He honestly and genuinely does not understand the consequences of his actions. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong because he has no working definition of that concept. And in case you didn’t catch that in Act I, near the end of Act II there’s this very meta moment (because it is a very meta movie):
VOICE-OVER KUZCO: So, this is where you came in. See, just like I said, I’m the victim here. I didn’t do anything and they ruined my life and took everything I had.
ON-SCREEN KUZCO: Hey, give it a rest up there, will you?
V.O. KUZCO: What? I’m just telling them what happened.
O.S. KUZCO: Who are you kidding, pal? They saw the whole thing, they know what happened.
Kuzco has to call out his own delusions before he can move past them, and the narration serves as a rather literal vehicle for doing that. His voice-over may be masquerading as the omniscient impartial guide, especially when he narrates scenes he wasn’t there for, but Voice-Over Kuzco is a character, one that’s biased as hell. Contrasting how he sees the world with how the world actually is tells us quite a bit about the arc his character will take.
Rules in writing tend to be nuanced, Pirates’ Code sort of things. It’s good to know the basics, but it’s more important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and if the rule helps you get there.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Gravity. This post is revised and expanded from my original review/rant.)
It’s always a weird feeling to dislike a beloved prestige film. I have to wonder what everyone else saw in it that I didn’t, and sometimes it’s hard to even pin down the problem that I have with it. Of course, with Gravity, I didn’t just dislike it, I despised it, and I know exactly why. Part of it might just be my being a misanthropic jerk, but I have science to back me up. And I’m not talking about the film’s horrible excuse for astrophysics, either.
The film starts out on a space walk where George Clooney’s commander is a genial chatterbox, there’s a redshirt who’s just thrilled to be there, and Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone is slightly ill and completely wooden, no hints of a personality at all. Then shit goes bananas, right then and there. Everyone’s instantly thrown into mortal danger, which okay, but I don’t know who any of these assholes even are and thus have no vested interest in what happens to them. Yeah, people die. It happens. Oh, some people inside the shuttle died? Might have been heartbreaking if I knew they existed before that second.
Like I said, I’m probably kind of a bitch to think this, and I won’t deny that. But see, there’s this concept called Dunbar’s number, also colloquially known as the monkeysphere. It posits that there’s a limit on how many people you can actually conceive of as people before your brain starts looking for other ways to label them, and there’s quite a lot of research to back it up. You know the saying, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”? That’s the monkeysphere. Your brain is not physically capable of scaling empathy without cutting corners, because your brain is a lazy son of a bitch.
This might not be the case for people who don’t consume as much media, but heavy readers–like, for instance, agents, editors, reviewers, and everyone else who’s critical to the creation and success of a novel–get introduced to a lot of characters in their lives. Since that’s not exactly the same as a close, personal relationship with a non-fictional person, it doesn’t quite tax the brain in the same way as defined under Dunbar, but there’s still an upper bound. That means that the characters in a new work all start outside the monkeysphere, and something has to bring them inside.
This is why three-act structure exists. You don’t have to hew to it exactly, but it’s common because it’s effective, because it lines up with how our brains work and respond to things. One of the major established beats is the inciting incident, the moment where everything changes. But see, you can’t recognize change if you don’t know the original state. That’s why experiments need control groups and baseline data, and that’s why you have to be extremely careful about opening with the inciting incident. Even in novels where it does work (The Nightmare Dilemma springs to mind), that moment doesn’t happen on the very first page, so there’s been some time to introduce the character and the world, to start cracking the shell of the monkeysphere.
Now, movies will try to get around this by trading on your familiarity with an actor so they don’t have to work as hard to create a connection to the character. That’s clearly what Gravity is going for when it gives only a cursory introduction to its characters, that we’ll be rooting enough for Sandra Bullock that we don’t notice that Ryan Stone is pretty much a non-entity and only the object of our concern because protagonist. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I had that kind of connection with Ms. Bullock, which might not have been a problem were this not a castaway movie where 100% of the tension is based on concern for her survival. Combined with the repetitive tedium of the dangerous setpieces (Hey, we escaped the destruction of one space station! Let’s celebrate by escaping the destruction of a second one!), by the end I was actively rooting for her to die.
(The character, not the actress. Despite the title of this post, I’m sure Sandra Bullock is a lovely person and I wish her no ill will, and please don’t sue me.)
It’s tempting to just dive in and get to the good stuff, but give us a glimpse of normal before you throw us into chaos. Remember that your audience is going to be filled with jaded misanthropes like me, and you have to put in the work to make us care. “Because protagonist” is not sufficient.