(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.
(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.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Book of Life.)
A little while back, during one of those Twitter writer events I’m so fond of, the question was posed: “What does your main character fear most?” The responses were, well, a little disappointing, because so many people’s answers boiled down to “the bad guy.” Well, yeah. Presumably anyone would be afraid of some big scary monster or determined psychopath, but that doesn’t tell us anything about a character. A person’s worst fear is going to be something deeper.
The Book of Life tells the story of a bet between two gods of the underworld, centered on Manolo Sanchez, the pacifist young matador who’s never finished off a bull. When Manolo discovers that Xibalba cheated, he gets the dark god to agree to restore him to life if he can face one last challenge. And the task?
XIBALBA: Now, tell me, boy, what keeps you up at night? What eats at you from the inside? What, do tell, is your worst fear?
Then they’re all transported to a stadium where Manolo must defeat every bull who’s ever been killed by a Sanchez. The thousands of bulls merge into one giant motherfucker:
But Manolo does not fear the bull.
Manolo fears becoming the man who would kill a helpless creature. He fears his father’s disapproval and censure for not being a true bullfighter. But his biggest fear, the one that Xibalba sees in his heart, is that the two can never be reconciled, that he’ll be forced to choose between his family’s honor and his own, that he’ll lose something of himself no matter the outcome.
A titanic, flaming bull would be scary to anyone, but for Manolo, it holds a particular terror, one that is deep-seated, complex, and–above all–personal.
That’s why it’s not enough for him to merely slay the beast; he has to resolve that impossible choice. He takes a third option and sings the bull into submission, finding a way to defeat the monster while remaining true to himself, and earning the respect of his family in the process.
Monsters are not scary merely because of the physical threat they represent. They are scary because they reflect the darker parts of ourselves, the things we bury that we’re not willing to confront until they manifest in a form that can bite our tits off. The strongest and most effective external conflicts are the ones that mirror some internal conflict, where resolving one can help resolve the other.
So, with all this in mind, let’s ask it again: What does your main character truly fear? And do you make them face it?
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