Why ANNA violates three laws of action movies

I come to praise ANNA, not bury it.

My love for Luc Besson movies is strong. THE TRANSPORTER is beautiful and completely rewatchable, THE FIFTH ELEMENT is creatively wild, and pretty much anything he does is worth checking out.

ANNA is another action movie with KGB spies, the CIA, John-Wick style gun fu and a lot to recommend it. You should fire up the interwebs and watch it when you’ve plumbed the depths of Netflix.

Yet there are laws for action movies, laws carved into our brains and souls by the sweat and blood of Action Movie Gods, and woe unto those writers and directors who willingly break these laws.

ANNA is good.

Unbreaking these laws could have made it great, and there’s always hope for a Special Edition Director’s Cut or whatever.

THE FIRST LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: SAVE THE BEST FOR THE CLIMAX

The exact genre doesn’t matter. Gunslinging westerns, martial arts films, spy thrillers, and Let’s Catch The Genius Serial Killer films all need to do one thing: escalate.

This rule actually applies to every movie and novel. Start strong, but end stronger.

It’s just easier to see and quantify with action movies, because you can do things like count bodies.

What do you want to avoid? The opposite, which would be starting out with your absolute best action scene, then a middling one, and finally an appetizer–or no action scene at all.

That’s basically what ANNA does. There’s a beautiful fight scene in a restaurant that happens early. You’re going to google the thing, so here it is:

Crazy good, right? It makes you expect something even bigger and better at the end.

Except you don’t get that. The climax kinda switches to pure spy thriller instead of action movie, giving the audience get triple-crosses and disguises and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE kinda stuff.

And it feels like a let-down. You’re cheering for our heroine to do the restaurant thing again on the bad guys, except everybody is basically bad and double-crossing each other.

THE SECOND LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: STICK TO ONE TIMELINE

When was the last time you saw a flashback that worked in a movie or book?

They don’t work. I hate them with the fire of a thousand burning suns.

Bad action movies give us a couple flashbacks of the Dead Mentor training the hero and imparting wisdom, right before being killed by gangsters or the villain. Good thrillers avoid flashbacks entirely.

ANNA gives us flashbacks and flashforwards out the wazoo, and it kills the story. Because really what they’re doing is going back to give the audience setups after they just watched the payoffs. It’s not surprising or fun–it’s a lazy way to patch holes in a story. “Hey, here’s three months earlier, which will explain why that just happened.”

No. Just no.

Keep it linear. One timeline, straight through.

THE THIRD LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: GIVE US A VILLAIN

Whatever you think of Tom Cruise, the last MISSION IMPOSSIBLE gave us a great, great bad guy: Superman/The Witcher.

Sure, there was an overt baddie, but he was a puppet of Superman/The Witcher, who was pulling all the strings. And since thrillers are about betrayal, especially spy thrillers, this was a great twist.

ANNA doesn’t give us a villain. There’s no final faceoff and beautiful fight. She slips away.

I’d argue that the most villainous character is Helen Mirren’s, who you can see in the trailer for a bit.

She does all sorts of Very Bad Things, and deserves to get completely Restauranted–but instead, Anna helps her take control of the entire KGB.

So yeah, not a very satisfying ending. Bad guys kinda win while the hero disappears.

VERDICT

Hey, this thing is still fun and completely watchable. Well worth firing up, and there’s nothing wrong with the actors. The lead actor does an amazing job–put her in more movies.

It simply could be much, much better with some structural tweaks. Save the best for last, Luc!

The problems with PICARD

star wars vs star trek

Listen: I adore Patrick Stewart, who’s a brilliant actor and a beautiful human being.

And I’d pay cash money to watch P-Stew (a) go grocery shopping, (b) walk his dog, or (c) drink a few pints and talk smack with his best friend, Gandalf the Grey.

HOWEVER: We’re talking serious business here, a new STAR TREK series on the televisions, and these things are so rare and beautiful that five got announced while I made some fresh coffee. But a Trek series with Captain Picard? That’s special.

So yeah, I watched the entire series, start to finish, as a public service.

Here’s the deal: it’s a hot, hot mess.

Let’s start with the ending

You don’t need to know the entire plot. Going right to the end explains a lot of why PICARD went south.

For the entire series, we’re told there’s a secret society of Evil Romulan Spies who want to kill artificial life forms like Data, who’s already dead. Bear with me here. Data secretly had twin daughters, and the Evil Romulans killed one because they believed she’d kill all life forms by summoning the Angry Robot Monsters From Another Dimension or whatever.

In the last episode, we learn THE VILLAINS WERE RIGHT, because Data’s daughter and her android friends do build a beacon and summon the Angry Robot Monsters, who start bringing their 1987-style graphics robot tentacles through the portal until Picard convinces She-Data to shut it down.

 

So…we spend all these episodes fighting the Romulans who turned out to be completely right.

As a special bonus, there are about a half-dozen deus ex machinas and stupid plot holes in the same final episode. A partial list:

  • She-Data’s twin may have died in the first episode, but look, there’s another android on the robot planet clearly played by the same actress, but she’s not exactly her twin, though she is evil, and kills to get her way and start summoning the Tentacle Robot Gods.
  • Riker is totally retired and hanging out with Troi, so when Picard stupidly takes on the entire Romulan Bad Guy fleet of warships with a ship he’s never flown before, Riker magically re-enlists in Star Fleet and shows up with 5,000 identical starships to scare off the Romulans, who I want to remind you WERE RIGHT THE ENTIRE TIME.
  • Picard is dying from some brain disease, so when he does sacrifice himself by flying up there to fight, it doesn’t totally hit you in the feels because he’s dying anyway, and yeah, that stinks–but after he dies, and hangs out with Data in the Matrix, boom, they stick his mind and soul into a robot body that looks exactly like him, so no big deal, bring on Season 2!

If you’re going to kill a character everybody loves, and make them feel, you have to do it forever–or make the resurrection very, very hard. STAR TREK 2: THE WRATH OF KHAN killed Spock and made us all cry, then spent an entire move searching for Spock and bringing him back, making us cry more. You don’t get to do the old death switcheroo in, like, five minutes.

There are other stupid aspects of the finale that I won’t even get into.

The finale just feels sloppy, especially the static shots of a giant fleet of identical Romulan ships standing off against a giant fleet of identical Star Fleet vessels, like the director just told the CGI boys to hit cut-and-paste five hundred times.

STAR WARS knows how to do a space battle the right way.

 

STAR TREK, STAR WARS or LORD OF THE RINGS?

Half of the episodes, it feels like they’re trying to be Star Wars, with a big fight in a casino full of weird-looking cantina aliens and dusty, desert locations.

There’s are three common ingredients in every STAR TREK series, good or bad: a captain, a ship, and a crew.

These ingredients are incredibly weak in PICARD, where he’s not a captain, but a passenger. The ship is hired, and the crew is half holographic for some reason, with the actor playing the man who owns the ship also playing the ship’s medic, engineer and a bunch of other parts to show off how many accents he can do. It’s confusing and weird, and this scruffy captain’s ship is far too gigantic and squeaky clean. What STAR WARS got right is the Millenium Falcon is a dirty piece of junk, and Han Solo is always broke and in debt.

Other times, I swear the writers were dropping acid and binge-watching LORD OF THE RINGS. On a Romulan refugee world, Picard picks up some kind of elf-samurai Romulan man, I kid you not. It does not work.

Who’s on first?

Even though I’m not a Trekkie, or Trekker, or whatever the right name is today, I’ve seen enough movies and TV shows to know a Klingon from a Vulcan from a Romulan. For decades, Vulcans have had a specific style of dressing, speaking, and acting. Same with Klingons, those short guys with the big ears who love money.

Not in PICARD, where I can’t tell the Vulcans from the Romulans, who are all over the place. Some have deep forehead ridges, kinda like Klingons, while others look like elves and still other Romulans are shaggy hair dreamboats who sorta look like tall hobbits. And don’t start with the accents and speaking styles. Some of the Romulans had posh British accents and others talked like gangsters from LA–they were just all over the place. It kept throwing me off.

How to fix this dumpster fire

Hey, you’ve got Patrick Stewart, who I’d say is the best captain ever to put on the uniform. Absolutely beloved.

He doesn’t sneak around like a common criminal. That’s not his style.

Give him a ship–but make it a relic, obsolete, something Star Fleet was going to junk. Make his crew total newbies from the Academy, cadets who are on the edge of dropping out, and he’s only getting them on the promise that he’ll get them coached up and passing their exams after a little shakedown cruise.

Those are the three crucial ingredients to any STAR TREK series: a captain, a ship, and a crew.

After you have those three things in a way that makes sense, it’s a lot easier to fix the plot holes and random stupidity.

Exactly why THE MANDALORIAN crushes all three STAR WARS prequels

Listen, the short and Cheaty McCheatypants answer to this question is simple: Baby Yoda is TOTES ADORBS.

Yet the real answer goes a lot deeper than that, and there are lessons here in terms of story and structure. As somebody who grew up watching the original trilogy and hating the prequels, it gives me joy to see THE MANDALORIAN doing everything the opposite of the silly prequels.

Warning: this post is full of spoilers. I mean, completely packed with them, like chocolate chips in a gooey cookie. 

Reason No. 1: Sparse, Memorable Dialogue versus The Worst Dialogue in the History of Cinema

The Mandalorian doesn’t talk much, and The Child (Baby Yoda) doesn’t talk at all. And mostly, they don’t need to, with a lot of storytelling done through visuals.

But when there is dialogue, it’s interesting and memorable. Two simple phrases are already being spread around IRL: “I have spoken” and “This is the way.”

In the three sequels, the dialogue is wooden, long and terrible. Nobody in the office is riffing off “I hate sand” unless they’re making fun of the sequels.

Reason No. 2: Gritty and Real versus CGI Fakeness

You can’t immediately tell what’s CGI and what’s a practical effect in THE MANDALORIAN, and they’re clearly leaning hard on practical effects and settings that are real, gritty and dirty.

Mando’s cape is torn. He’s always getting muddy, dusty or shot up.

In the sequels, everything is CGI’d to death. It feels too clean, too perfect, too fake.

Reason No. 3: Atmosphere versus Spectacle

Sure, there are giant battles and amazing special effects in the sequels. George Lucas put all his special effects people to serious work. 

THE MANDALORIAN is about atmosphere, mood and characters that you care about–which makes the action smaller in scale and far more important to the audience. 

Reason No. 4: Natural Humor versus Forced Dad Jokes

I love how there’s a lot of physical humor in the new series, along with unexpected surprises like the Jawas, who are a real problem after scrapping Mando’s ship but also a great bit of comic relief. You need that when Mando is basically the Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) in all those spaghetti westerns.

The humor reminds me a lot of what we saw in the first few Indiana Jones movies, and in the original trilogy. 

In the sequels, what passed for humor were essentially flat lines of dialogue–dad jokes–and the physical humor we got were things like Jar-Jar Binks being incredibly clumsy. No. Just no.

Reason No. 4: Making Us Care and Want More versus Telling Us Too Much and Expecting Us to Care

Exposition is ammunition. We hear just enough about Mando through dialogue from other characters and from his actions.

That taste, and the mystery about him, makes us want to know more.

In the sequels, we got lectures about senate politics and midi-chloridians. It was not pretty. 

Reason No. 5: Real Surprises versus We Know Exactly What Will Happen

There are constant surprises in THE MANDALORIAN, but each payoff has setups that make sense. 

In the sequels, we knew where the story would wind up, even when the setups weren’t really there, and there weren’t a ton of surprises on the way there. Nobody really suffered or changed except Anakin and Padme; all the other characters were flat. Obi-Wan and the Emporer didn’t really change from the first movie to the last. Neither did anybody else.

Mando is really an anti-hero. He does his job as a bounty hunter brutally and efficiently, including capturing The Child, and his decision to go back and save CUTE BABY YODA from the stormtroopers is not quick or easy. In fact, how they do it is rather neat, and done completely through visuals when he makes that decision. Beautiful.

Other characters also make surprising choices that do make sense, like the Jawas agreeing to trade The Egg for all of Mando’s ship parts. A less skilled writer would have had Mando hunt down the Jawas in their sandcrawler and shoot his way to those parts. 

Verdict

The acid test for me is, “Would I watch this again?”

If you want to get completely serious, expand on that scale with, “How much would you have to PAY ME to watch this again” compared to “How much would I willingly PAY to see this again, whether it’s in a theater or on a magic smartphone?”

I’ve already watched all three episodes again. Did not get tired of them at all, and would happily watch all three again tomorrow. They’re fun and interesting. 

The three sequels? You’d have to pay me to watch even one of them again. 

Well done, Jon F., Deborah Chow, Pedro Pascal, Nick Nolte (what?!!), Carl Weathers (yes!) and everybody else involved in this show. You’ve restored my faith in Star Wars. 

Plot Ninja – story structure made easy

My library contains Every Book on Writing Known to Man or Woman–journalism, speechwriting, fiction, rhetoric, grammar, speechy journalism, ficitonal rhetoric, whatever–and honestly, they’re mostly good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

I’m only half kidding. 

The secret to all writing is structure and editing, and the absolute best in the world at structure are these magical creatures called screenwriters.

This is why I hope readers of this silly blog watch the video above (yeah, you skipped it? watch the thing) and check out my sister’s new course, Plot Ninja.

Don’t do it because she’s my sister, or because she’s brilliant and funny.

Do it because writers of any sort need to steal everything they can from screenwriters.

Because all those different writing books in my library, and yours, are a lot like instruction manuals for plumbing, electrical wiring, drywall, cabinetry and painting. Yeah, that stuff is really important–but not at first.

Here’s the thing: writing anything is like building a house: sure, you can throw together a little shed made of two-by-fours and drywall, and it might hold up for bit, but try to build a house like that and it’ll fall down after the first rain.

None of it matters without a strong foundation and framing, and the only way to get that right is with strong blueprints.

Who actually knows the secrets of story blueprints?

Screenwriters.

Nobody is better. It’s not even close.

Not because they’re the most talented writers. Not because some of them get paid bazillions of dollars.

It’s because screenwriters focus, relentlessly, on the only thing you see in screenplays: the blueprints of a story.

Nobody else teaches the bones of storytelling like screenwriters.

Listen, I have a journalism degree and wrote thousands of newspaper stories. Have a background in rhetoric and have written thousands and thousands of speeches, then I write thrillers for fun. Somebody taught me the structures for journalism, speechwriting and fiction, right? Not in the way you think. A journalism degree with teach you the inverted pyramid and a lot about headlines and ethics and how to put together a newspaper or magazine. Structure and blueprints? Not really.

Same with speechwriting and fiction. You tend to get a lot more instruction about the fit and finish than the blueprints and foundation. 

I find that backward, so when I teach folks, I always start with blueprints and foundations. Tools you can use for whatever you write.

And all the best stuff I’ve learned about strong blueprints came from screenwriting and Pam.

Get the whole toolbox, not a single template

You’ll see a lot of people saying, “Here’s how to write X or Y” and yeah, it’s one way to do it. 

Screenwriters have the whole toolbox and use it.

They don’t say, “This is the only way” unless they’re hawking the hero’s journey, which is not the only story in town. There are all kinds of stories: comedies and tragedies, dramas and melodramas, tales of transformation and redemption. 

Screenwriters have picked up every tool in the box and know all the ways of putting together stories.

And you can build them in all kinds of different ways. In fact, you have to. Try to plot a comedy in the same way as a drama, or a horror story, and it’ll flop.

Those hammers and drills and blueprints are useful for anything you write, whether it’s stories in newspapers and magazines or 200,000-word epics about an evil talking cat and his buddy, the seeing eye dog who’s seen too much, and what happens when they decide to go on a crime spree.

So I’ll try to post more of Pam’s videos about screenwriting every Wednesday, because they’re funny and useful.

And I hope you get as much out of them as I have.

Note: No, I’m not writing about that evil talking cat, his seeing eye dog and their crime spree, though it does sound like fun. 

The careful genius of COBRA KAI’s season 2

The last season of GAME OF THRONES went out in a fiery train wreck packed with dragons and stupidity–but here we have the opposite, a low-budget show on Netflix about dueling karate dojos.

Roughly 28 gazillion people are watching COBRA KAI, and they’re loving it. Shockingly, the critics are all over it, too.

Because unlike the Season that Must Not Be Named that Did the Night King and Mother of Dragons Wrong Wrong Wrong, the writing and plotting of COBRA KAI is carefully and horrifically good. (Warning: spoilers spoilers spoilers.)

Building on Season 1

In the first season, it’s really the story of Johnny’s redemption. He rises from the depths and finds a purpose again, and truly tries to reform Cobra Kai to give kids like Miguel some help. Not that Johnny becomes a complete goodie-goodie. 

By comparison, Daniel struggles, and its a bit of a rich jerk. But he’s not a complete villain, either.

I kid you not, the series feels a bit like BREAKING BAD in that most major characters aren’t heroes or villains. They’re beautiful shades of gray.

Season 2 doesn’t try to continue the character arcs in the same direction, which would have been the easy narrative choice.

The showrunners and writers went bigger. They raised the stakes and added twists, reversals and revelations throughout the season that changed everything around again.

This season, Daniel is the underdog and Cobra Kai is the big, dominant dojo, the winners of the All-Valley Tournament.

Except it gets more interesting than that.

Setups, payoffs and echoes

Though the show is funny, it’s not a comedy. 

Comedies poke fun at an institution–sitcoms go after marriage and family and suburban life, MASH took on the military, THE OFFICE hit corporate bureaucracy–and in a comedy, heroes can’t succeed except by accident.

COBRA KAI is a drama, with things happening for a reason. You could argue the last season of GOT was a melodrama, with things just kinda happening and fans immediately asking each other on Twitter and Reddit why why WHY?

For every payoff, there’s a setup. And the biggest scenes feature echoes of previous scenes.

A genius ending that sets up Season 3

There’s a lot packed into the final few episodes, and what the showrunners and writers did here is fun to take apart.

The beginning of the final episode has a sweet call-back to the original movie, playing Cruel Summer on the first day of school, then you get a slowed-down, sad version of the song at the end of the episode. Beautiful. How many rock songs can rock the xylophones? NOT MANY.

There are a lot of reasons for our characters to be moping around:

A giant brawl in school happens after Miguel’s new bad-girl girlfriend, Tory, hijacks the school PA system to say she knows what Sam (Daniel’s daughter) did–kissed Miguel at a party–and is coming for her.

Everybody fights everybody, tying up a lot of relationships. Hawks gets surprisingly beaten by his old friend Demetri, Tory cheats while fighting Sam, sending her to the hospital for cuts, while Robby fights Miguel, who gets kicked over a stairwell and is in the hospital with spinal injuries.

All of that leads to the apparent end of the romance between Johnny and Carmen (Miguel’s mother) and a “no more karate” edict from Daniel’s wife as they’re in the hospital room with their daughter.

It gets worse for Johnny, who loses control of his dojo to Kreese, after (a) giving Kreese a second-chance and (b) kicking him out of the dojo.

In a great scene that echoes imagery early in the season, he chucks his cell phone and the keys to the muscle car he repainted into a black-and-yellow Cobra theme. Giving up on his old life, right? Then the camera cuts to the cell phone in the sand, showing that his old flame (and Daniel’s former girlfriend) responded to his friend request. 

Guesses on Season 3

I don’t believe the writers will truly let Johnny and Daniel give up on karate forever. But I doubt they make a return to it in the first episode or two.

Five bucks says Kreese’s new, purely evil Cobra Kai will force them to come back to teaching–and though I’m not counting on it, I could see the end of Season 3 featuring a real truce, if not a partnership, between Johnny and Daniel to team up and beat Kreese for the sake of their kids and the community. 

Then again, they’ve surprised us episode after episode.

VERDICT

If you haven’t watched Season 2 yet, binge watch that sucker. 

If you haven’t watched Season 1, watch that first.

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.

But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:

Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds “to let it all percolate.”

Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.

Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).

Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited. 

Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.

Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?

Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.

Backward is bad

Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)

It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”

Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.

Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.

Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.

Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.

Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.

Reversing course

Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.

Start there.

Before you invest hours, days,  weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.

Begin with the shortest and most important words.

The  logline (or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”

The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”

Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.

Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.

And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.

Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.

Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.

You’re going to notice a few things.

First, the hero doesn’t matter.

Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.

Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”

See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.

Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.

A new way to write

Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.

New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.

One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.

New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.

Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.

New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.

Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.

So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her  (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea. 

If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.

If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.

If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).

And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.

I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.

Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.

Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.

New Step 4) Research only what you need.

New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS. 

You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.

I did that on purpose.

Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.

The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.

Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.

Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.

Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.

Make those four words count.

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day.

These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager little fanboys that there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story, per se.

You can set a story a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add elves and dragons and trolls. It’s still the same story, just in a different setting.

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they are all the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you. Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which do have silly titles and a cover that always features a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He is not pompous. He is not arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, go buy his book. DO IT NOW.

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

reading, books, types of stories

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

You’ve been done wrong, bamboozled, hornswoggled 

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day. These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager fanboys there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.

You can set a novel or movie a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.

Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?

They don’t really teach us structure or storytelling

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.

Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.

Writing dialogue

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Welcome to the age of the meta-story

There’s a disturbing trend in Hollywood where studio execs would rather greenlight movies based on board games and toys from the ’80s than original ideas.

Yet I’m not overly worried about getting swamped with a sea of sequels to BATTLESHIP or RAMPAGE.

The deeper, more enduring trend in books, movies and video games? Meta-stories.

STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Batman Arkham games, WESTWORLD, GAME OF THRONES–they best series are true meta stories.

Notice I didn’t list some big franchises, like the STAR TREK reboot, the DC non-universe and the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: TOM CRUISE DOES ALL HIS OWN STUNTS movies. They don’t fall in the same category.

So what’s a meta-story?

A book or movie can have sequels with the same hero (or group of heroes and sidekicks) without being a meta-story. Think of 99 percent of most shows on HBO, Netflix or this thing I called “network television.” They’re episodic. Sure, it’s the same universe and same characters. The stories being told, though, are separate and distinct.

This is why you can binge-watch LAW AND ORDER: PICK A SERIES, ANY SERIES, WE HAVE LOTS and it doesn’t matter if they skip around seasons and whatnot.

This is also why you can take all 20-some of the Reacher novels by Lee Child (my fav) and read them in any order. Because yes, Reacher is in every one of them, but otherwise, they aren’t really that connected. Separate stories each time. Different villains, different themes, different locations.

Meta-story is the difference between Marvel owning a license to print money while DC, with better characters (they have Batman, for God’s sake) struggles and reshoots and just can’t get it going.

Building the beast

It’s simple, really. Forget about the hero.

Yes, the hero is what people focus on, typically. That’s the star of the show, right?

Meta-stories often don’t have a singular hero. Think about Marvel–there are dozens of heroes.

The acid test, the way to see whether a series of books and movies is episodic or a meta-story, is to look at the villain(s).

Is it Villain-of-the-Week or does the series feature One Big Baddie?

HARRY POTTER is all about Voldemort, who’s winning the whole time until Harry literally dies and comes back to beat him.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS has a fellowship of heroes–not a singular hero–facing off against One Big Baddie who happens to be a big glowing eye.

Marvel was brilliant in planting Infinity Stones in every movie and having Thanos lurking in the background the whole time as the One Big Baddie, a villain so good they’ve managed to do what, 20-some movies as part of this arc? Amazing.

 

You get the idea.

If you’re writing a series, just remember this: Villains rule, heroes drool.