Posts Tagged ‘TV’

So, because I recently finished watching all twelve seasons of Buffy and Angel, I thought I’d try out Dollhouse. You know, the Joss Whedon show that everyone says is apparently terrible and stupid.

And I was shocked. It turns out that Dollhouse isn’t a bad show. It’s not Firefly or Buffy, not by a long shot, but it’s a well-written, well-acted present-day science fiction show with an interesting premise that is a world away from the predictable reality-show sludge that dominates the airwaves in these times.

So what gives? Is everything that geeks apparently know wrong? Is Final Fantasy VII really a terrible game? Is Avatar actually a good movie? Could it be that Piers Anthony is actually a really talented and original writer?

I don’t know what is right or what is wrong anymore. GOOD JOB, DOLLHOUSE.

~ Ian

Can’t sleep.

Browsing internet.

Come across this.

Smile.

I have a happy.

~ Ian

(Joss Whedon: “Ballad of Serenity”)

It’s been going through my head for the last week, so here’s the Nations of the World song by the Animaniacs:

THE EARWORM HAS BEEN PASSED ON TO YOU. I HAVE INFECTED YOU ALL.

~ Ian

I’ve finally had enough. I’m about ready to snap with rage and boiling anger. And why is this?

Three words.

In medias res.

If you don’t know what in medias res means, it’s Latin for in the middle of things, or something similar. It’s a storytelling technique that basically can be summed up as starting the story in the middle, rather than at the beginning, and having previous events revealed either in flashback or through the narrative of the story itself.

Now, if taken on the face of it, this is the most common storytelling technique in the world. All stories begin in the middle, rather than at “the beginning”.

I’ll give an example: Star Wars. The story begins in medias res, with a star destroyer hot on the tail of Princess Leia, a pitched space battle, action, tension, the droids getting escape-podded down to Tattooine, and finally ending up with the principal players all ready to set out on their galactic space-romp. It doesn’t start you off with the whole history of the Republic and the Empire, boring you with the details of Luke and Leia’s childhoods, until we finally get to the action. (Okay, I’ll admit it– when I say Star Wars, I’m discounting the prequels. Largely because A New Hope came first, but partially because the prequels are complete bullshit.)

Without in medias res, all books would be a trillion pages long. Every film or TV show would last as long as the universe.

So you see why it’s useful.

So why does it piss me off so much?

Well, simply put, because it’s terrible, lazy storytelling. Most of the time, when you see in medias res used, it’s on terrible third-string procedural dramas– say, when we see the grizzled veteran police detective get shot by a mysterious crime boss who nobody has ever seen before, and then suddenly there’s a cut to three days earlier, when he’s in the station tracking down a drug runner who’s terrorizing the denizens of South Ethnicville…

I can see why people use it. It’s a way to create tension in your story. When Detective Hugh McStubble gets shot, it’s meant to provoke a reaction in the audience: “Is he okay? What will happen to him? WHAT CHAIN OF EVENTS LED TO THIS OCCURRENCE?????”

Of course, it’s not real tension. It’s fake tension, and it supports the weight of the story about as well as a bungie cord made of bubble gum. It’s an easy device, true, but it’s still a device. You can’t artificially inject tension into a story by using hackneyed plot devices like in medias res and expect it to work as well as a good story well-told. A story isn’t a sequence of narrative tricks all strung together. It’s something that needs to feel natural. A Rube Goldberg device of tropes and plot devices isn’t a story. You know what is a story? A goddamn story.

It’s the same problem I have with TV Tropes. Let’s face it, that website is amusing, and also a huge waste of time. But I don’t like the fact that it seems to be teaching people that writers create stories by taking a bunch of tropes and putting them together. As if a story is some kind of recipe you have to follow, or some kind of chemical reaction as predictable as baking soda and vinegar. And I feel like a lot of the more terrible genre I’ve read lately seems to think that you need to follow some kind of recipe to make a successful story, whether you’re reading out of a cookbook entitled Lord of the Rings or The Great Gatsby. It’s the TV Tropes mentality, and unfortunately it seems to be taking hold everywhere.

You don’t create stories– good stories– by following a recipe. You do it by telling the story well, and telling it in a way it hasn’t been told before.

Argh. This got kind of ranty. Forgive me, gentle readers. I’m tired and annoyed, and I wanted to get this ramble about in medias res off my chest. Believe me, it’s been brewing for a long time. I just needed to ramble about writing for a while, and all I could think of was taking potshots at a lazy, overused plot device.

Not that in medias res doesn’t deserve my rage. It does.

So.

Never use it.

~ Ian

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Buffy Season Eight comics. You have been warned. ~ Ian)

One thing that I did this summer was watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

All seven seasons, in its entirety.

Mostly because I’d seen episodes here and there, but never watched the whole thing all the way through. But when I did, then WOW. BtVS is a show that needs to be watched in its entirety to really get the whole scope of the thing. The growth of the characters is incredible. Buffy goes from a sixteen-year-old girl with not many concerns beyond parties, clothes, and boys to a woman who commands an army of Slayers. Willow goes from an awkward, shy teen to a cool college student with a werewolf boyfriend to a lesbian wicca to a world-destroying supervillain and finally to a woman at peace with herself and the world. Even minor characters, like Jonathan and Harmony, have their own character arcs. The whole series could be used as a textbook for writing long, sustained narratives where the world goes through real and fundamental change.

Because I’d watched all of Buffy, a friend lent me the Season Eight comics, because I wanted to read them. I’d been expecting for them to be collected in the trade paperback editions, because that’s what I’m used to. I’m the wait-for-the-trades guy. I don’t read comics monthly– I buy books and read a year’s worth of story in one big gulp.

I was wrong. These were the individual issues, kept in neat plastic sleeves. And there are differences between reading the comics in trade paperback form and reading them in monthly format.

Specifically, I’m talking about letter columns.

Now, in one issue (I think it was issue #12), Buffy has sex with another Slayer under her command. All Slayers are female in BtVS, for those of you who are completely unfamiliar with the mythos.

So, Buffy had gay sex.

This wasn’t a big deal for me. Yeah, Buffy had no inclination towards liking girls before. But it’s not too uncommon for women (especially young women) to be more flexible with their sexual orientation than men. And even so, sexual orientation isn’t a binary thing: it’s a continuum. I self-identify as straight, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been attracted to men before.

For the people in the letter column in the following issue, though, this was more of an issue.

No, scratch that. They lost all their shit.

“BUFFY WAS A ROLE MODEL FOR YOUNG WOMEN!!!!!!!!!!!” they screamed. “HOW COULD YOU TURN HER GAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! MY DAUGHTER LOVES BUFFY, AND NOW I CAN’T LET HER SEE THIS COMIC LEST SHE SUDDENLY BECOME A LESBIAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHY ARE YOU PROMOTING ALTERNATE LIFESTYLES???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

You know. Standard-issue homophobia.

This made me think for a moment. Mara, one of the main characters in The Lotus Imperiate, my current pet project, is a lesbian, in a relationship with another woman when the story starts. I realize that I’m walking a delicate balance while creating Mara. There’s a danger, when straight writers create gay characters, that they become too one-dimensional, with nothing more to their character than their sexual orientation. Furthermore, when straight guys write lesbian relationships, there’s the danger of making the relationship too eroticized– basically, creating straight-guy lesbian fantasies. Neither of which are things I want to do with Mara.

However, I hadn’t considered the perils of depicting gay characters– any gay characters– in fiction before. For some people, any whiff of gayness in their protagonists locks up their brain, making them think, “Nope! Not gonna read that!”

I thought about, when The Lotus Imperiate gets published, receiving angry letters from homophobic bigots. I thought of getting into horrible arguments with them. I thought about the fact that I’d be cutting off a whole section of my audience. At the very least, I’d never get blurbed by Orson Scott Card.

Do I really want to bring all that chaos down on me? I thought. Can I handle that kind of pressure?

That’s when I realized something. Something that I think is the root of good art.

If you fail to give your audience a strong emotional reaction– any reaction– you have failed as an artist.

It doesn’t matter what those emotions are. It could be love, it could be hate, it could be anger or grief or joy. Whatever the reaction is, you succeed as an artist if you stimulate your audience’s emotions.

And speaking honestly as a writer and a creator, I’d rather have a thousand people buy my book and either feel warm ecstatic love or blood-spitting hatred for it than have a million people buy it and feel generally okay about it. Because even if my book sells a million copies, it won’t do me any good unless there are some people who care about the world and the story I’ve created.

Go ahead, artists. Piss people off. Make them squirm. Make them feel.

Just don’t bore them.

~ Ian

Ingredients:

1 copy of Green Day’s American Idiot on CD

1 copy of SSX3 for PlayStation 2

1 one-volume copy of Lord of the Rings

the whole series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus

1 combination CD player/clock radio

1 TV

1 PlayStation 2

1 DVD player

1 bedroom

1 person

 

Directions: Insert the American Idiot CD into the CD player. Listen to the whole thing. Following this, insert SSX3 into the PlayStation 2. Freeride the whole mountain, from The Throne at the top of Peak 3 to Metro City Breakdown at the bottom of Peak 1. Make sure to take all the secret paths and shortcuts, like the hidden run on Ruthless Ridge and the subway railslide and teleporters on Metro City. Change to the DVD player. Watch four or five episodes of Monty Python. Get out the copy of Lord of the Rings, and read a few chapters.

Repeat as necessary.

~ Ian

If you didn’t already know, I’m a little bit of a geek.

And if you’re a certain kind of geek, then the phrases “Michael Moorcock” and “Doctor Who” will send a bit of a tingle down your spine.

I am that kind of geek.

At first I was a little worried about the quality of this book. I mean, media tie-in fiction is rarely good. And I hadn’t read any Doctor Who novels. But this book was written by Michael Moorcock. A man who has been writing for more than fifty years, who has cheerfully danced between fantasy and sf and realism, spanning traditions from pulp to postmodernism. He’s also the creator of the Multiverse, a massive universal construct that’s enough of an umbrella to contain all his fiction (and, possibly, all fiction ever written). It kind of boggles my mind to think that the Elric stories are fundamentally contained within the same massive framework as the Colonel Pyat quartet. And there are very few books as completely different as the Elric books and the Pyat quartet.

So I took a step into this book, where the worlds of Moorcockian multiverse and Whovian time-travel antics collide.

I was pleasantly surprised.

This book probably won’t be one of Moorcock’s enduring creations. It’s at best a somewhat-pulpish adventure using characters created by TV writers. But, hey: you know you’re not getting Mother London when you crack the book open and read its full title: Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles: Or, Pirates of the Second Aether!!

So, no: it’s not “literate chewer”.

But it is fun.

This is one of the few Moorcock novels that I’ve read that I’d describe as a “romp”. It’s pure fun from start to finish, and there are a few unexpected surprises. For example, I’d expected that it would blend the Multiverse with the Whoniverse, and it did– pretty seamlessly. What I didn’t expect was the extent to which it read like a Wodehouse novel. Seriously: there’s a character who is completely unironically named Bingo.

DW:TCotT:OPotSA!! has a lot of inside jokes for the Moorcockian aficionado. For example, the MacGuffin that the heroes are searching for is called “The Arrow of Law”, a name that any true Moorcock scholar should be able to recognize. There is a space-pirate captain named “Captain Cornelius”. And early on in the book, it’s revealed that the Doctor used to publish a fanzine going by the name of Novae Terrae (which was the name that Moorcock’s 1960s magazine, New Worlds, went under when it was a fanzine in the forties).

To sum up: the book was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it. Not enough to say that I loved it, per se, but it amused me, and that’s often a noble enough goal when telling a story.

Final Score: three out of five fifteen-centimeter TARDISes

~ Ian

WHAT TIME IS IT

OH SNAP

IT’S

CREATIVE

WRITING

WEDNESDAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY

I’m in a hurry today, so I don’t have much time to do a lengthy blog post. In the meantime, though, here’s a poem that I wrote about geekery, and being a geek (mainly to practice working with evocative imagery, but still).

Happy Wednesday, wherever you are.

~ Ian

Geekery

In my head there are…

Albino princes with vampire swords, black and rune-carved

Moving catlike through worlds of burgundy and topaz and dark green

Cimmerian warriors, mightily-thewed

And tentacled terrors rising up

From the deeps of the Pacific

Bringing darkness from their house at great R’lyeh.

And there are blondes in graveyards, waiting for nightfall

And square-jawed space cowboys piloting ships named after insects

Saying, “You can’t take the sky from me”

As they pull their sixguns and fire

And lab-coated supervillians

Who just can’t get a break

Pining for the redhead down at the corner laundromat.

And then there are knights and wizards and dragons and imps

And Swords-of-the-Morning and Mountains-That-Ride

And dark riders, thundering down a green country road,

Black towers silhouetted against the baleful sky

A small bright star poking through the clouds,

Light and high beauty beyond reach.

And did I tell you about the millions of people

The bat-people and cat-people and arachnid-boys

The glorious gods riding down Midwestern highways

And dwarves and kender, space marines and scientists

Sky-pirates in their airships patrolling the heavens

And magical schoolgirls, and cyborg policewomen,

Alchemist brothers, questing for their lost bodies.

And there are fair princesses and fat plumbers,

Crazed computers and test subjects,

And beautiful women in suits of power armor

Flying their gunships across the starlit sky.

Oh, the people that live inside my head.

And have you ever wondered about all the places

The planets and realms and galaxies and cities

The bright flags that fly from the battlements

Of the White City, the Dyson Spheres and generation starships

And glorious skyscrapers, art-deco and gleaming

At the edge of the ocean, sunrise kindling them

To towers of fire.

In my head I hold a million people,

A million worlds and a million stories.

An entire multiverse lies within my mind.

And that is why, though the world is gray and dreary,

And I am bound by mundane and pale flesh

To sorry reality, I still keep going

Because to stop going would be to lose these worlds

The future, the past, the never-there-was and the never-could-be

Fading like fog on the ocean in morning.

And that is why

You will never bring me down.

It’s probably no surprise to many that I love Firefly.

Yes, the series has its weak points. Yes, there are worldbuilding inconsistencies and nonsensical retcons and meaningless character deaths (mostly in Serenity, which is a movie I love, despite its flaws). In fact, quite a few people I know despise Firefly.

To which I ask them: why?

Firefly is/was/will forever be a beautiful show– definitely one of the high points of science fiction in the early 21st century. Not because of the acting, or the set design, or the SFX, or the writing, or anything else. (Admittedly, all of those things are great.)

It’s because Firefly, both in its individual episodes and as a (semi-)whole series, is simply one of the best stories ever.

I love Firefly so much that I’m even willing to make a fool of myself on the internet for it.

Observe:

You know… this is probably the first picture of myself that I've put up on Axolotl Ceviche. Huh. First time for everything.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say: everything I need to know about writing, I learned from Firefly.

Let’s step into the TARDIS for a moment and go back to 2003.

I was eleven. The Iraq War was just beginning. The top song was “In Da Club” by 50 Cent (for reasons which I cannot fathom).

I had just begun my first novel.

And I’ll go right ahead and say it: it sucked. It sucked major ass.

It took me a while to understand why this book sucked, but I didn’t realize it until years later:

My main characters didn’t have any agency. They were led around the world map on a generic fantasy quest. The plot had a rhythm as unchanging as the seasons: they would walk some, and then FIGHT; walk some, and then FIGHT; walk, fight; walk, fight; walkfightwalkfightwaaaaaaaaagh.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it: my characters were led around the world by the plot. The PLOT was all I had in mind when I wrote my first novel, and I neglected everything else. Like many newbie writers, I had confused “plot” with “story”.

Now, I’ll admit: plot is important. It’s the engine that drives the whole story. But it’s not everything. You can’t drive from New York to Los Angeles with just an engine. You need a chassis, wheels, a fuel tank, a way to steer, a way to go faster and stop, seats, cupholders, a good navigation system, all of those.

The plot is the engine, but the car is made of story.

There are so many other things that make up a story than plot. Worldbuilding. Dramatic tension. Backstory. Humor.

And, maybe most importantly…

Characters.

Because my characters were being led around by the plot, they didn’t have any agency. They never had a point when they had to make a choice– instead, they simply did what the plot said they had to do.

This is because I had failed to appreciate the first rule of good writing…

COMMANDMENT THE FIRST: THY CHARACTERS SHALL DRIVE THE PLOT, AND THE PLOT SHALL NOT DRIVE THY CHARACTERS.

I don’t think I really understood that, though, until I saw Firefly. In “Serenity” (the pilot episode, not the movie), Mal makes crucial decisions that influence the plot from that point forward. When the Alliance commands him to give up Simon and River, he has to make a choice between getting paid a reward and Kaylee’s life. Later on, his decision to land on Whitefall and do business with Patience, a woman he has a not-so-good history with, forces the crew of Serenity into three completely separate but interlocking climaxes. And that final moment of the episode, where Simon and Dobson the Fed are in a standoff, it’s Mal who steps onto the ship, pulls his gun, and in one lightning-fast movement, shoots Dobson in the head.

Or, look at other episodes: in “Shindig”, everything is going fine until Mal’s hubris and his semi-unrequited passion for Inara lead him to assault her date, putting him directly into the main plot of the episode (Mal gets into a swordfight!). Or when he throws Niska’s henchman into the engine of Serenity in “The Train Job”, leading straight into the events of “War Stories” (and indirectly to “Objects in Space”). Hell, it’s not just Mal who gets to make important choices– just look at Jayne’s role in “Ariel” and “Jaynestown”, or Zoe’s in “War Stories”, or Inara’s in “Trash”, or Simon’s in “Safe”.

In all these cases, one thing is clear: it’s the characters’ choices that matter. It’s not the plot pulling the trigger at the end of “Serenity”– it’s Mal. The characters’ choices mean something in the world of Firefly, and that’s what makes their stories so interesting. Because they make a difference. Because, through their actions, they influence the plot and the world.

Of course, there’s also the fact that we care about the characters in Firefly. Which brings me to rule two:

COMMANDMENT THE SECOND: THOU SHALT MAKE CHARACTERS WORTH CARING ABOUT.

When I wrote my first novel, all the characters fell into the same basic roles as any other crappy Tolkien ripoff: The Reluctant Orphan With A Destiny. The Powerful Wizard Who Has Nothing Better To Do Than Mentor The Reluctant Orphan. The Annoying Sidekick. The Tough Girl With A Heart Of Gold. The Wise Dwarf Warrior. The Angry Dwarf Warrior. The Warriors Who Follow The Hero Around For Some Reason, I Guess. The Beautiful Warrior Elf Chick. The Douchebag King, Symbol Of The Oppressive Old Order. The Nubile Princess, Symbol Of Budding Female Sexuality. The EVIL BAD GUY OF EVILLY EVIL, Symbol Of DARKITY DARK-DARKNESS.

You don’t care about these people. Do you know why? Because they’re not people. They’re archetypes. You already know all about them. You’ve seen them a million times before.

Looking at characters from Firefly, though…

Well, let’s just take one. The Hero of Canton, the Man They Call Jayne.

Looking at Jayne Cobb for the first time, we assume he falls into the Brutal Tough Guy role. But he really doesn’t. He is tough, and not very bright. He has a slightly sadistic streak, as is evidenced by the way he tortures Dobson in the pilot. He’s greedy, too– as is evidenced by his attempt to sell Simon and River out to the Alliance in “Ariel”. And he loves weapons– mostly guns and knives.

But this isn’t all there is to the Man They Call Jayne. He has relationships with the other characters. He looks to Mal as a leader, even as sort of a big brother figure. Mal is the only one Jayne goes to for advice on heroism at the end of “Jaynestown”, at a point when Jayne seems to be at his lowest. And Jayne even wants to be like Mal– in the Serenity graphic novels, it’s revealed that Jayne wants to someday be the captain of his own ship. He cultivates an adversarial relationship with Simon, and seems to be a little afraid of River. He lifts weights with Shepherd Book in the later episodes– a bit of an odd relationship, there, between the preacher and the thug. And there are even hints that he has a bit of a thing for Kaylee.

We know that Jayne has a softer side, too. He names his guns– witness his lady-friend “Vera”. He corresponds with, and receives gifts from, his mother– apparently even sending money home to her. He lusts after women, even if he never kisses them on the mouth. He even has fears. Jayne is terrified of Reavers, and the mere mention of their name is enough to send him into a panic. (While this primarily serves a story purpose– if the biggest, baddest dude on Serenity is afraid of Reavers, well then, they must be terrifying!– the fact that he believes in Reavers is an indication as to his cultural background, since it’s shown that Simon, from the big cities of the Core, doesn’t believe in them at first.)

Like I said. You can’t sum Jayne Cobb up with just a pithy, short sentence. He’s not just a bloodthirsty thug; he’s Jayne Cobb. He’s not an archetype; he’s a character.

People care about characters. They don’t care about archetypes.

COMMANDMENT THE THIRD: READERS CARE NOT ABOUT THOSE WITH NOTHING TO GAIN.

SIMON

(smiles)

Are you always this sentimental?

MAL

Had a good day.

SIMON
You had the Alliance on you, criminals
and savages… half the people on the
ship have been shot or wounded
including yourself, and you’re
harboring known fugitives.

Mal looks out at the black sky.

MAL

We’re still flying.

SIMON

That’s not much.

Mal answers, almost to himself:

MAL

It’s enough.

People want characters they like to succeed. That’s a plain truth.

But what does that really mean?

I think that it isn’t actually about success. I think people want their favorite characters’ successes to mean something. They want their characters to profit somehow– either monetarily, or spiritually, or romantically, or simply by somehow having changed their lives for the better.

And do you know what? It’s hard to do that when your characters already have everything.

I didn’t know this when I started writing. To be fair, most newbie fantasy and sf writers don’t. They assume that their story must be about kings and archmages, starship captains and space emperors.

But kings and starship captains already have everything. If they lose the fight they’re in, then yeah, they lose a lot. But if they win, then they don’t get any noticeably richer. They’re already rich. They don’t gain more power– they’re already in command.

The crew of Serenity aren’t like that. They don’t have power– they’re nobodies. They have nearly nothing. They just scrape by on whatever jobs they can do, never really getting any richer, doing what they can to survive.

And you know what? This makes them more interesting.

We don’t just want Mal, Zoe, Jayne, Simon, River, and the rest to succeed. We care deeply about the outcome.

This is because people with nothing to lose are more interesting than people with nothing to gain.

I could go on forever about story theory and how Firefly is awesome, but I’m sure that this post is going on for way too long. I have a few geeky posts coming up in the future, about Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and other things, so keep watching this space. Happy Thursday, and I’ll see you later.

Love,

~ Ian

P.S. This selection of dialogue from Firefly is ©Twentieth Century Fox. Just letting you know. ~ Ian