Things I Wish I Had Known in School

When I was in seventh grade, I had to write my first research paper.

Back then, we were only expected to write a summary — a restatement of facts in our own words.  Most of the paper should be citations.  Though our teachers didn’t put it this way, they really meant we shouldn’t put much original thought into it.  Just the facts, please; no opinions need apply.

We had to select at least 5 sources.  Back then, it consisted of books, magazines, newspapers, and similar reference materials.  There was no such thing as the Internet, and what little of it existed was difficult to access and poorly cataloged.

With our sources in hand, we had to write each idea, fact, figure, etc. that we might use on a separate index card.  Somehow, this was supposed to help us organize our thoughts — except that we were never instructed how.  Beyond turning them in on a milestone date, I had no clue what to do with them.

Which left me with a crap ton of useless index cards.  What was the point?  Maybe some people figured it out, but I sure didn’t.  And I’m not the only one — I asked my wife and she drew a blank, too.  She hated those pointless index cards just as much as I did, and no one in her class figured out what to do with them.

Now that I’ve taken the time to study how the greats organize their fiction, I found a useful parallel in Syd Field’s book Screenwriting.

Before writing a screenplay, Field writes a scene summary on an index card for each scene, tacking them to a bulletin board in the order he thinks is best.  This way, we can see a summary of the entire work before investing months or years writing it.

If something isn’t right, we can trash it.  Or we can rearrange the index cards to see how the story reads in a different order.  We can see the aerial view of the work before doing the heavy lifting.

See the connection?

For the research paper, lay those “pointless” index cards out in the order you want to discuss them.  You can see how they will read in a different order quickly and easily just by rearranging them (as we did with the scenes above).  This will give you a nice visual aid to write or revise your outline with, and will make citations quick and easy (because you color coded the cards, right?).

I use this technique in both fiction and nonfiction.  Let me take the time to explain, as well as plug some great free software.

In my religion and philosophy blog, I often have to answer comments or opposing blog posts.  I use a computerized index card program called Text Block Writer to do a variation of the technique described above in order to answer especially lengthy comments or blog posts.  That way, I can sort it a few different ways and see what makes the most impact (or sense).

My novel writing software of choice, yWriter, does the index card thing but without the corkboard texture and index card graphics (as you see in Scrivener).

And, of course, script writing software CeltX has a built-in index card feature to help write screenplays and comic book scripts, as well as novels (but I don’t really care much for the novel writing capability yet).

I wish that the power of the index card was something I had known all along instead of a recent discovery!  I probably would have become a much stronger writer more quickly.  But, at least I know now; and, through the magic of my blog, you dear reader can learn the lesson too.  Hopefully earlier in life than I did.

How Self-Delusion Lead to an Alien Invasion

I love a good villain.

I remember being disappointed that Loki was going to be the villain in The Avengers.  I was hoping for a more famous villain.  However, that was before I watched Thor and realized that Loki is badass.

In fact, I think that Loki is my new all-time favorite villain.

In How to Write for Comics, Loki’s co-creator Stan Lee noted that all supervillains must have a motive.  It isn’t enough for him to plant a giant bomb under the city “because I’m a supervillain!”  He has to have a reason to destroy the planet or subjugate it.  Loki, Lee recalls, has one of the basest motivations for his grandiose schemes of destruction.

Loki’s plans are on a grand scale.  He aims to destroy his father’s enemies, his true parentage, using the focused energy of the bifrost in Thor.  In The Avengers, he offers the Tesseract to Thanos for rule of the entire earth.  Subjugation and genocide are implied in his rule.

But why does he want to do these things?  Because he wants his father to see him as the superior heir.  That’s right: simple sibling rivalry is the motivation to obliterate a city in The Avengers.  While most brothers destroy treasured toys to sate their sibling rivalry, Loki blows up cities, kills 80 people in two days, and becomes a wanted war criminal — all to impress Odin!

And the worst part?  Odin states that he loves Loki as his own son; no need for the bloodletting and invasion of earth.  Or the genocide of the Frost Giants.  Loki’s murderous scheming is for nothing because Odin already thinks of him as Thor’s equal.

Why does Loki keep killing humans, genociding Frost Giants, and turning powerful superweapons over to death-obsessed demons when he’s been told that his father loves him as the equal he is trying to appear to be? Simple: powerful denial.  And writer Joss Whedon crafts three scenes in The Avengers to show this.

The first scene has Loki speaking to The Other through the scepter.  The Other tells Loki that his “ambition is small, and born of childish need.”  The Other hits pretty close to home here, since sibling rivalry is an extremely childish motive.  But Loki presses on.

The second scene is where Loki forces a crowd of people to kneel before him.  He says that, in the end, humans will always kneel.  A lone man rises, and says, “Not to men like you.”  Loki says there are no men like him.  Then the old man hits Loki with the terrible truth: “There are always men like you.”  As much as Loki thinks he’s unique, there are always despots who crave the subjugation of people.  Loki isn’t special, and this man has the gumption to say so.  Loki decides to kill this man, mainly for speaking the truth Loki denies.

The final scene is with Agent Coulson.  Coulson tells Loki, “You’re going to lose, you know.  It’s in your nature.”  What is Loki’s disadvantage?  “You lack conviction.”  Loki’s only true motive is to look better than Thor.  Beyond that, he doesn’t care.  He has nothing bigger or better to stand up for.  He only seeks to prove himself, but he doesn’t even need to do that.

Three times Loki is told something harshly true of himself and his motivations.  Three times Loki presses forward without accepting it.  Loki lives in a very powerful state of denial about who he is, and it is this denial that fuels his supervillain status.  Were he to accept that truth that he thinks small and has a childish need to prove himself, then deal with this reality, he could be a force for good.  Instead, he ignores the facts and rationalizes the obvious in service of the preconceived notion he must prove to Odin his the superior choice for Asgard’s throne.

How Do I Know Exactly What’s Going to Happen Next? This Movie Opened Yesterday!

There is a horrible truth to be discovered by people who study the underlying structure of their favorite books and movies.  This secret explains why my daughter’s two favorite movies are The Lion King and The Care Bears: Nutcracker.

Let’s break them both down.

In The Lion King, a young prince named Simba tries to lose has lost all memory of himself after a tragedy.  But then, with help from his friends he remembers himself.  Simba then returns to the kingdom he left long ago and faces down the false king.  Scar has run the formerly glorious kingdom of Pride Rock into the ground by forming an unholy alliance with the hyenas.  But Simba overcomes his uncle and is crowned king, restoring the kingdom to its previous prosperity.

In The Care Bears: Nutcracker, a young prince named Simba the Nutcracker tries to lose has lost all memory of himself after a tragedy due to an evil spell.  But then, with help from his friends he remembers himself breaks the spell.  Simba The Nutcracker then returns to the kingdom he left long ago and faces down the false king.  Scar The evil vizier has run the formerly glorious kingdom of Pride Rock Toyland into the ground by forming an unholy alliance with the hyenas rats.  But Simba the Nutcracker overcomes his uncle the evil vizier and is crowned king, restoring the kingdom to its previous prosperity.

Well that was interesting.

The next time you’re at the movies, if you swear you’ve seen a brand-new movie before, the stunning truth is that you probably have.  Various surveys of thousands of novels, short stories, and movies have turned up only 36 possible plots, depending on who you ask.  Some estimate 32, others go as high as 40.  But 34 to 36 plots are the most common results.

Does that hamper creativity?  Nope.  It frees creativity.  Plot isn’t the level that interacts with the audience; characters interact with the audience.  The Nutcracker and Simba are totally different characters — and not just in species.  While the Nutcracker is motivated by wanting to remember himself and is a natural leader, Simba is motivated by forgetting himself, running from his tragic past, and is a poor leader.  The Nutcracker is the perfect choice to restore Toyland to its former glory; Simba is the underdog who has to rise to the occasion when cleaning up Scar’s mess.

The kids and Care Bears are eager to help the Nutcracker.  Only Nala encourages Simba to recapture himself; Timon and Pumbaa want nothing to do with the problems at Pride Rock.  The kids and Care Bears actively encourage Nutcracker to battle the vizier to restore the kingdom, while Timon and Pumbaa teach Simba to forget his problems and wile away the hours relaxing.

On the plot level, the two stories are absolutely identical.  But, when we layer in the characters, tone, and spectacle the stories part ways and wind up light years apart.

So, aspiring authors, if you watch a movie and think “Gee, I could have done that movie so much better,” go ahead and do it.  It’s been done 1000 times before, and will be done 1000 more times before Christ returns.

Horrid Results of Unexplored Consequences

In Screenplay, Syd Field remarked that a typical newbie screenwriter comes to his class with an idea for a screenplay.  Then, Field tries to hash out the idea with the student to turn it into a screenplay.

A lot of these guys have a tragic ending in mind where everyone dies.

Stop!  Isn’t that how it normally happens in real life?  Circumstances pile against people, who proceed anyway.  Circumstances get worse.  They propel forward.  Then, everything blows up and tragedy strikes, and many people never recover from it.

The precise reason why so many memoirs paint the opposite picture is that the opposite is rare, and inspiring.

Let’s face it, in real life, people sometimes die, lose the farm, go bankrupt, or spend the rest of their lives in unfulfilling careers.  That’s the order of things.

So, it’s only natural for a beginning screenwriter, drawing on real life, to want to end a movie tragically.  Because when circumstances such as what we see in movies pile up the way they do in Act II of most movies, tragedy is the near-inevitable result.  That’s what the newbie screenwriter sees, and art (after all) imitates life.

And didn’t Shakespeare write a lot of tragedies?

But, Field always cautions his young screenwriters against tragic endings.  Hollywood doesn’t like the endings where the underdog guy loses the girl to the alpha male she liked better anyway, the main character’s tragic flaw leads to his death, and the star-crossed lovers kill themselves.

Exceptions exist.  Movies like Se7en are rare, though.

Overall, Hollywood loves its happy endings.  Even when the unhappy ending makes a lot more sense, they still find a way to make it happy.

Russel Crowe died at the end of Gladiator.  He was fatally wounded prior to the final combat scene, so that’s pretty much the only possible result.  All he could hope to do was take the treacherous emperor with him (which he does).  But the sadness of his death is minimized by showing him in heaven with his wife.

I’m a theist, and a Christian apologist.  Followers of my other blog know that.  So I’m not theologically convinced that happened (given the fact that, as a Roman, Crowe’s character denied the True God of the universe), but I believe that it could be the outcome of his death.  I’m not debating that.

What I’m saying is that scenes like that make an unhappy ending more palatable.  Rather than explore the pain and suffering his passing causes the characters in the film, the audience gets to see that he’s happy now, and so we (the audience) should leave the theater with a smile.

And fluffy bunnies hop in the sunlit meadow, over grass too green to be real.  Colorful flowers dot the landscape, perfuming the area with their subtle but pleasing aroma.

No, Hollywood, it doesn’t always work out in the end.

But they would like you to think so, to the point that wrote about how major disasters are sometimes overlooked in movies as minor plot points, when they are absolutely anything but.

The episode I saw of Criminal Minds was an example of horrid, unseen consequences left out to make you think that everything worked out in the end.

Three girls — all best friends — were kidnapped and placed in a dungeon with no food.  They lasted five days, so I’m assuming that the perpetrator gave them water.  Anyway, he told them that two of them would live, and one of them would die.  The twist was that they had to choose among themselves the one that would die.

And choose they did.

Then, the perpetrator dropped two hammers into the cell.  The girls had to do the deed.  While the two who had decided to kill the third debated their ability to actually go through with this new twist, the fated girl picked up a hammer and killed one of the other girls — the one that had marked her for death.

She admitted to the police everything that happened, and absolved her surviving friend of having anything to do with the death.

And then, the final scenes depict the FBI agents arresting the perpetrator, who was on a personal crusade against the girls’ families.  Apparently, they all wronged him in the past and he said that he knew those girls were no different than their parents and would show their true colors.  He knew they’d back stab a best friend if it meant surviving.

Chilling.  He’ll probably be tried for kidnapping, false imprisonment, depraved indifference, and facilitating a murder.  It’s doubtful he’ll see sunshine anytime soon.

But what about the girl who killed her friend?

It wasn’t self-defense.  She was in no danger.  She killed her friend before her friend killed her.  Her friend wasn’t armed at the time.  In fact, her two friends were contemplating not killing the other girl.

Hollywood won’t explore this one for one reason: it’s murder, plain and simple, and that girl should go to jail for at least 15 to 30 years — if not life in prison.  Since police procedurals strive to get both the police side of things right, and the legal side of things right, they would be doing truth a disservice if they let the girl off scot-free.  That would never happen in real life.

Though the prosecutor would most likely plead her down to voluntary manslaughter, she absolutely cannot get out of this without seeing the inside of a prison cell for around a decade.

The episode talked about her full-ride scholarship and bright future several times.  Yeah.  That’s all in the toilet right now.

The only legal defense to murder is self-defense, and to argue that you have to be in imminent danger and the force of the weapons must be equal.  If your victim is unarmed, debating whether to pick up a hammer and kill you, that is not going to cut it.

Another example of Hollywood focusing on the little bunnies and obscuring the horrendous consequences.

Importance of Visuals in Film

When writing a novel, the writers can emphasize character traits by internal dialogue.  But in film, that option doesn’t exist.  Traits that define a character must be established visually.  The visuals should help the audience feel what the character feels, the same way well-chosen words in a novel help the reader experience emotions right with the character.

In an emotionally charged episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (“Magnificat”), Doreen Whitlock is trapped in a post-partum depression of her husband’s design.  The only way out (in her mind) is to kill herself and all of her children.  She fails, leaving her and her oldest alive after a car bomb.

The key to understanding her motive is to feel the same pain that she felt.  Namely, we need to see her isolation and desperation.  How did the audience see this?

The teaser sequence was deliberately constructed to show the audience Doreen’s increasingly claustrophobic life.  In nearly every shot, despite the fact that other people are nearby, the camera stays tight on Doreen.  Whenever she interacts with someone, the shot is wide while the other person speaks or acts, but for Doreen’s actions or reactions the camera zooms in tight on her face.  Whenever Doreen does or says anything, other people are deliberately excluded from the shot.

At one point, she stares into space for a long time.  Then, when the shot switches to her POV, we see a perfectly-kept yard save for an upturned chair.  Doreen’s attention seems to focus on that chair, and she becomes obviously emotional.  The effect is compounded because her son has just handed her a clearly sub-par homework assignment.  A previous scene established that her husband is a no-nonsense perfectionist, so we can deduce that he won’t appreciate either the chair or the failed schoolwork.

In another shot, Doreen walks with a vacant stare into the cul-de-sac in which her house is situated.  We are first shown a long, empty street.  Then, the camera circles Doreen and shows us that every other house on the block is empty.  A screen door, weather-beaten from disuse, clatters against a nearby house.  The background noise from her kids is nearly inaudible, and the only other evident sound is the wind and distant birds.

This teaser is a great example of how film can show us visually what novels explain with emotive words.  In the two scenes I outlined, we are shown that Doreen is under the thumb of an oppressive perfectionist and she feels isolated and lonely.  In the overall sequence, the purpose of excluding others from shots with Doreen is to emphasize the isolation, emotion, and desperation she feels.

If filmmakers explain everything in dialogue, the show gets cheesy quickly.  I think a good rule for film is “Never tell the audience what you can show them.”  Could Dick Wolf and company have told us, through dialogue, that Doreen Whitlock was isolated, lonely, and desperately seeking a way out?  Maybe.  But I doubt it would have been as effective as the close-ups excluding other characters and the empty street visual.  These helped us feel Doreen’s loneliness in a way dialogue never could.