(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 The Pericles Commission. I know I slap this disclaimer on everything just in case, but this one is definitely more spoilery than usual.)
Of the many virtues we writers possess (she said with great humility), the one most intrinsically tied to our profession is empathy. After all, the Collins Dictionary definition of the word, “the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings,” doubles rather handily as the job description of a writer. It’s expected and even desirable that we put a little of ourselves into our characters as we explore their headspace because it helps flesh them out into real people. The danger, though, is when we put in so much of ourselves that it overrides what’s natural for the character. This is a particular issue for writers of historical fiction, since there’s independent evidence of what “natural” would be.
Morality, you see, is largely a social construct. Things are usually considered immoral when they endanger the survival and stability of the group (although most people don’t approach the subject from such stark sociological terms). As the needs of the group change over time, so do its morals. Throughout history, people have engaged in practices that, while we would find them anywhere from iffy to downright deplorable today, at the time were viewed neutrally or even positively. So the question becomes, how can you faithfully and sympathetically write a character whose concept of decency and justice is so different from your own? Disappointingly, many writers simply don’t. (Though as the examples on that page show, films tend to fall into this trap much more often.) This is why I found it so refreshing to read The Pericles Commission.
The novel is a fictionalized investigation of a real murder that took place in ancient Athens at the dawn of modern democracy. Nicolaos is appointed to solve the crime before the delicate balance between the aristocratic Council of the Areopagus and the people’s assembly, the Ecclesia, can boil over. Nico is sympathetic to the democratic cause, which makes his perspective accessible to our modern one (especially given how classical ideals were baked into the founding of the U.S.). However, the democracy he’s defending is not our modern one, and never pretends to be. All citizens are given the right to vote, but women and slaves are not considered full citizens.
And every single character is okay with this, even the women and slaves.
Well, not okay okay. Nicolaos is very much not happy with the way the elders wish to handle Euterpe’s household after Ephialtes’ death, and he seems rather appalled when he learns that the murder victim had been willing to leave his illegitimate daughter to die of exposure simply because she was inconveniently a female. He also shows quite a bit of sympathy for the struggles of slaves Pythax and Achilles. But while he sympathizes with the difficulties arising from their oppression, he’s not exactly looking to eliminate that oppression. He’s a reformer, certainly, but just moving power out of the hands of a wealthy few is considered pretty radical. If he started questioning the morality of holding slaves or of using women as mere connective tissue between men of power, everyone would start looking at him like he was from another planet, women and slaves included.
So what makes this work? First, Nico’s personal principles are very clear: he values truthfulness and transparency, and craves the ability to choose his own destiny. This helps him identify with the non-citizen characters, since he’s also being forced into a role he doesn’t want (specifically, his father’s career). Indeed, Nico treats everyone with dignity, regardless of their station. He sees them as individuals–and more importantly, the author treats them as individuals, letting the marginalized speak for themselves rather than filtering their plight through the eyes of an “enlightened” (read: modernized) hero. Nico shows concern for the welfare of his friends who get screwed by the system, even as he works to save that same system. But I think the thing that really sells it in this case is that Nico himself gets caught up in the system when he’s put on trial for the very murders he was investigating and gets royally screwed just when he thought he’d made it through. It emphasizes that Athens is a huge, terrifying machine and that no one is truly safe from it, citizen or otherwise. We understand that Nico is doing the best he can, and is trying to weigh his own sense of morality against the greater good. That’s something a modern audience can relate to even if they find the social structure of the ancient city-state to be completely alien.
Writing a vastly different perspective is one of the most difficult things a writer can do, but it’s also one of the most important. Fiction and film are powerful tools for understanding our history, and that means confronting its unpleasantness. After all, we can’t really appreciate how far we’ve come in adjusting our social attitudes if we pretend that they haven’t changed.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Die Hard.)
Spare a thought for the poor goon, will you? After all, the bad guy can’t do all that heavy lifting himself, and the good guy can’t go straight to the top and sort shit out off the bat or we wouldn’t have much of a story. Like an impressive skyscraper, it all comes down to the support structure; an organization is only as good as its people. Sure, the baddie can throw wave after wave of anonymous masked bastards at the problem, but that’s not very engaging for the audience. So speaking of impressive skyscrapers, let’s take a look at Die Hard.
Yup, in addition to being indisputably the greatest Christmas movie of all time, it’s also widely considered to have a nearly perfect structure. I’ve gotta fill a whole month of topics, you knew it was going to come up. Hans Gruber’s flunkies aren’t fully-fledged characters, true, but they’re far from faceless bullet fodder.
For starters, all twelve “terrorists” have names, which is uncommon. Usually beyond the Dragon and a couple of important henches, the rest of the crew usually ends up credited as “Soldier #5.” True, they’re not really given backstories or motivations to go with the names, but it helps make their interactions amongst each other feel realistic. It doesn’t so much matter if I remember which one Marco is, just that they’re worried McClane might have gotten him.
Speaking of interactions, special mention goes to Karl and Tony, the very blond brothers. You get a hint of their personalities and relationship in the brief scene where Karl takes a chainsaw to the phone lines Tony is trying to patch. But their biggest significance to the plot comes when McClane kills Tony and taunts the terrorists with his corpse, and Karl loses his shit. His dogged pursuit of McClane isn’t because of sadism or orders from Gruber, it’s because this is the bastard who killed his little brother and he wants to make him pay. It’s not enough to make us root for him or anything, but it makes him human.
The movie’s filled with little humanizing details like that, from the dude who nabs a candy bar during a standoff to the guy who pours Ellis a soda during his failed negotiation attempt. The director’s commitment to realism was such that he used extra-loud blanks that permanently deafened his star, and that realism carries through in the depiction of the bad guys. Even though you don’t know their histories or their personal goals, they feel like real people, which makes them more interesting foes for McClane. There’s more tension in him trying to evade a cunning, desperate individual than there would be if it were some dumbass blindly following orders.
Die Hard skillfully balances a lot of different characters, but I think the restraint shows best in the goons. There’s just enough personality and humanity to give them some depth and intrigue without stealing screentime and sympathy from the good guys. That’s not an easy trick to accomplish, and it adds quite a lot to the movie’s core. Hans Gruber just wouldn’t be the same without his gang.