Characters from the past: HINATA UKIYO

When I decided to try to build a self-publishing empire, my immediate idea was a series of novellas similar in style to the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring my own cast of comic-book-like superheroes. Creating that cast proved to be a bit of a challenge.

And then it hit me. I didn’t have to start fresh. I had already thought up a couple of characters that would fit the bill! All I have to do is retool them a little bit. Make them more “adult” than the twelve year old me would have made them.

So I thought some fun blog posts about Then and Now would be interesting as I gear up to release the first of this exciting series. Continue reading “Characters from the past: HINATA UKIYO”

Making the Stakes Personal

Most of the gatekeepers into entertainment and publishing can shut down every pitch with a single question: “Why should I care?”

You have a suave superspy who can keep his head in any situation put through the paces and escape death numerous times. That’s nice. Why should we follow him for 300 pages?

If he fails in his mission, capitalism in the West will be destroyed and the landscape of world finance turned on its end (GoldenEye). Or maybe humanity will be wiped off the planet by a sinister bioengineered plague (Moonraker). Or the United States will lose the space race to the Soviet Union (Dr. No).

None of those stakes are memorable, though. If I hadn’t included the name of the movie, would you have been able to figure out which Bond film I was talking about? Probably not. As big a 007 fan as I am, I couldn’t actually explain what was at stake in either The Living Daylights or Octopussy, films I’ve seen a half-dozen or more times each.

So how do we as writers make the stakes truly memorable? I can answer that by looking at two video games in the Final Fantasy series. Continue reading “Making the Stakes Personal”

5 Room Dungeon, Room 0: Theme

The Five Room Dungeon Model does for RPG Adventures what the Three Act Structure does for screenplays.  It gives your players five areas or phases of a single dungeon to explore and interact with.

Let’s briefly review the five rooms:

  1. Entrance/Guardian: a gatekeeper to stop undesirables from gaining entrance.
  2. Roleplay/Puzzle Challenge: a chance to use brain instead of brawn.
  3. Red Herring: a path that goes nowhere.
  4. Boss: the big baddie at the end of the dungeon.
  5. The Twist: suddenly, everything you know is wrong…

So where do we begin when designing this dungeon? Continue reading “5 Room Dungeon, Room 0: Theme”

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.

Soul Screamers: Awesome and Getting Better

Rachel Vincent’s Soul Screamers series started out awesome, and keeps getting better.  A recap, for those of you unfamiliar with it, with as few spoilers as possible: Continue reading “Soul Screamers: Awesome and Getting Better”

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 Cracked.com 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.

I Hate Topic Sentences

I read a lot on how to improve my writing skills., because I love to write and I want to be a professional writer.  I want to publish works of Christian philosophy, as well as mainstream fiction and screenplays.  I need to know how to improve my writing if I’m going to actually sell it.  Not that I’m bad; I think I’m pretty darn good.  I just want to be better!

I believe writing is part gift from God, part skill.  The gift that the Lord has given you can be built on and refined.  So, if writing skill was on a scale of 1 to 100 (with 100 being the best possible writer, and 1 being my brother-in-law Chris), and if God has blessed you in his eternal decree with a 22, then you are not stuck there.  You can develop to a 30.  Or a 45.  Or even a 79 or maybe even a 90!

It takes work.  It takes time.  And if you are willing (as I am) to invest some of both, then you can improve your writing skills as I have.

To that end, I read books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White or On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  And I read books specific to style, like Screenplay by Syd Field or (more recently) The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J. Madison Davis.

I’m also new to the idea of syndicating writing, which I’m doing with free e-zine articles on sites like GoArticles or ArticleBase.  That has increased traffic at Josiah Concept Ministries by quite a bit–when I started I had an Alexa traffic rating of around 7.8 million, which I built to 753,861 in a few months.  Quite an increase, going from an average of 20 hits per day to 100+ with regularity!

Since I’m new to that style of marketing, I subscribed to a free e-zine on how to write for e-zines.  Yes, I know that’s a bit like buying a DVD explaining how to hook up a DVD player, but it has worked quite well for me.

One thing that is common to the technical books on writing and the how-to e-zine in discussing paragraphs is that they should have a topic sentence that summarizes the paragraph, detail sentences that support the topic sentence, and a concluding sentence that restates the topic sentence.

Each and every paragraph.

Boring!

My paragraphs have a topics and supporting details, and each expands only a single point.  But, they don’t have a clear topic sentence, several details with transitions between (First, …; Second, …; Next ….; etc.), with a concluding sentence that restates the original topic sentence.  I try to keep my writing more flowing and interesting than that.

I think every writer does.

And, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, many of my paragraphs are one sentence.  I did that purposely in this post to highlight the absurdity of making every paragraph fit to the structure I described.  Moreover, single-sentence paragraphs work well with the style of writing that e-zines need — journalistic.  Most newspaper and magazine articles use one or two sentence paragraphs to keep the piece flowing quickly.  Often, there’s no need to expand something if a single sentence can cover it.

So, why do the how-to books and e-zines cover the “ideal paragraph” in a way few writers actually write?  Because that’s how an ideal paragraph is structured: introduction, detail expansion, wrap-up.  Or, beginning, middle, end.  Same way an article is structured!

You have to know the rules before you can try to break them.  That’s part of building the writing skill that God gave you.  So the how-tos teach you the rules.  Then, you (the writer) get to decide how (or if) to break them.

An example from fiction might do.  John Gardner’s first James Bond adventure, License Renewed, was a straight James Bond story.  It featured a villain, Anton Murik, who sought to cause a horrid disaster for his own gain.  There was a girl who knew too much, Mary Jane Mashkin, who slept with Bond and gave him the information he needed, later dying for it.  A sultry love interest, Lavender Peacock, who got to sleep with Bond next, finish out the story and have sex with him in the final scene.  A burly sidekick, Caber, who was immune to pain and Bond had to fight while the world begins to burn — which is high drama, since Caber had bested Bond in each of their last meetings.  And of course, two car chases, gadgets, the self-introduction “My name is Bond. James Bond,” and the ordering of a “vodka martini, shaken, not stirred” from a disinterested bartender.

Everything that happens in every 007 movie.

Gardner started changing things up in For Special Services, with the “Bond girl” being old friend Felix’s daughter (so Bond didn’t sleep with her, for fear of betraying his friend; unfortunately, the daughter had long dreamed of sex with Bond).  The villain was a female and the sidekick was originally thought to be the villain (which means The World is Not Enough was far behind the novels).

Gardner started with a straight 007 formula story, License Renewed, to learn the ropes before he started mixing things up in For Special Services.  That’s why how-to books and articles teach you the standard paragraph format first.  When you know the rules, then you can break them.