Sunday, June 30, 2013

Five Writing Lessons From World War Z

Well the last one seemed to go over well, so let's do it again! Once more, spoilers ahoy, so be wary.

1. People Need to Care About Your Characters

One of the biggest criticisms I keep seeing about World War Z is that there's a lack of humanity to the movie. And that's about right. Aside from a few minutes at the start of the movie, and some of the early zombie incidents, we really don't care about Brad Pitt's family. The daughters hold the emotional weight of baggage and Brad Pitt's wife isn't much better. (I don't remember his character's name... Oh wait, I think it's Jerry. Gerry? Screw it, he's Brad Pitt.)

We all know Brad's out to save the world, but the movie wants you to think he's in it just to keep his family safe. But it falls flat, even when his family gets kicked off a ship and onto zombie-infested land, because we all know the world's in danger and there's no risk that Brad will back out of his end. Sure he could go get eaten with them, but what sense does that make? None.

I'm not 100% sure how this could be fixed, at least without a lot of work. Promoting Brad Pitt's wife to another main character would be a good start. Put her and the family in danger! Make us worry about them! Crash the damn ship into a zombie-infested oil rig! Why not? If they're in immediate danger, Brad has a choice between saving the world long-term and saving his family short-term. It's tension. We need that.

As long as people are reading your work, you want them to think of your characters as family. A distant, dysfunctional family, perhaps, but people they care about all the same.

2. Embrace Verisimilitude

Dead bodies rot. Dead bodies don't heal. Dead bodies don't get super leaping powers. Dead bodies don't get Flash powers.

One of the things that made World War Z (the book) a success was that Max Brooks put a lot of thought into writing a realistic depiction of a zombie apocalypse. Yes he got a lot of things wrong regarding politics and the military, but you could tell he was making the effort!

World War Z (the movie) doesn't quite manage this. The zombie virus takes 12 seconds from initial infection to kill and turn a person, so how the hell does it manage a global spread? 28 Days Later already made it clear that this wouldn't work. And how do the zombies leap so high? How does the Zombie Wall of Flesh work? How can they smell diseased meat if they're already frigging corpses?

Your audience is going to be looking for an excuse to call bullshit on your writing. Don't give them the chance. Check your facts! Do your research! Write things that make sense.

3. Mind the Details

Regarding the previous point, there is one line in the movie that addresses the "12 second infection" issue, when a sailor on the U.S.S. Safe House says something like "5% of the infected don't show immediate symptoms". This is probably meant to explain how the infection spreads - some people don't turn right away.

Which would be fine, except Brad Pitt spends the entire movie working off the 12 second rule. He gets blood in his mouth and doesn't turn after 12 seconds? Must be fine! The Israeli woman who got bit didn't turn in 12 seconds? Must be fine! And Brad's in the damn room where this point is proven false, so he should  know better. But he pretends that he doesn't, and the movie goes right along with him. At no point is the 12 second rule violated, even though we expect it could be, even though we're dying for the scene where someone turns late and Brad Pitt's all like "Oh, crap".

If you establish a rule, follow the rule. If you establish an exception to the rule, show us an example of that exception so we know there's a reason for it. Don't leave your readers hanging!

4. Be Ready to Edit

Have you heard about the original ending for World War Z? No? Okay, go look. Good, you're back. Are you crying? Why are you crying? There's no crying in writing! Yeah that's a lie. Let's move on.

Assuming you didn't follow the link, the original ending for World War Z was ridiculously depressing, with Brad Pitt drafted into the Russian army and his wife forced to prostitute herself for their children. Because The Walking Dead wasn't depressing enough. Then test audiences saw the footage and committed suicide en masse, so they decided to change it into something a little more uplifting.

If your ending isn't working, change it! Same goes for your beginning. And your middle and your dialogue and your characters and your settings and anything else. Granted, at some point you've got to call it "good enough" and stop, but don't do that when you know something's wrong. Especially if your beta readers agree.

5. Collaboration is Hard

I mean sweet Lord have you read about the filming process for this thing? By the end Brad Pitt wasn't talking to the director. His hand-picked director. And J. Michael Straczynski's original script got thrown out until the movie was so far off the rails that it looked like a good option again. And Matthew Fox was almost completely cut out of the film.

The point I'm making is that collaboration is hard. And writing by yourself is hard already, so collaborating with someone else is like Ultra Mega Chicken hard. So if you have any illusions that teaming up with another writer is going to make things easier for you, well, think again.

(Does this even qualify as a writing lesson? Or is it just an excuse to link that article? Okay, fine, here's a bonus for you...)

6. Clarity is Important

Hey, do you remember the moment in World War Z where for exactly five seconds, a freaking German Shepherd was part of the wave of zombies building a tower to attack Israel? No? You think I'm full of shit, huh? Well fine, prove me wrong.

I am willing to bet that you can't. I am willing to bet that after viewing the movie five times, you can't pick out enough detail in the zombie tower to tell me if there's a dog in there or not. And that's a problem.

In movies, clear visuals are important. The tidal waves of zombies that appear throughout World War Z are a lot less scary when all you're looking at is a blurry mass of flesh. In the Transformers movies, the robot fights are a lot less awesome when you can't tell who's doing what because the moving pieces are too intricate to pick apart.

In books, clear language is important. If you write a fight scene and the reader can't figure out where anybody is, the reader won't be happy. If your hero gives a motivational speech that makes no sense and it's not played for comedy, the reader won't be happy. If the reader can't imagine what your main character looks like because all your descriptions of him contradict each other and basic anatomy, the reader won't be happy. And that's bad.

You can make your audience work to understand your plot, your characters' motivations, and the secret histories that led to the state of your world. Do not make them work to understand the words on the page.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Five Writing Lessons from Oz the Great and Powerful

So Oz the Great and Powerful is out on Blu-ray, or coming out on Blu-ray, or... something, I wasn't really paying attention to the commercials. The point is they got me thinking about the movie again. I saw it in theaters and thought it was okay. Not great, and not quite "good", as in I'd recommend people go see it. More like good enough that I wasn't pissed I'd seen it, but not quite good enough that I was satisfied.

I thought it should have been better! It absolutely should have been better. And it wasn't that the actors were bad (they all did a fine job) or that the CGI was awful (with the exception of the Wicked Witch - seriously, she looks a thousand times better in shadowy silhouette). So it had to be something about the story, right?

I think it was. And with my help, you might just avoid making the same mistakes.

1. Either have a twist or don't.

I'm going to spoil the movie right here just to get it out of the way, so either go watch the movie first or decide you don't care before you keep reading. Either way. Okay? Good.

Last warning.

Theodora the Good, a.k.a. Mila Kunis, is transformed into the Wicked Witch of the West halfway through the movie. Now there are two ways you can handle that. One is to treat it as a fait accompli: make it clear what's going to happen to Theodora, give you some hope it won't, then stab the audience in the heart when it happens anyway. The other is to keep it very secret that that's where Theodora is headed, and shock the audience when it happens.

Both methods have merits, but Oz botched it. They tried to take the second option, and played Theodora as a straight good witch right up until her transformation. At the same time Evanora, her sister, was played up as evil and had a bunch of flying monkeys and it was totally obvious she'd be the Wicked Witch. So it should have been a surprise how things turned out, right?

The problem was every freaking promotional image and trailer made it flipping obvious that Theodora was the Wicked Witch! I mean there are three trailers where Evanora and the WWotW are standing next to each other - guess it's not Evanora! And there were magazines that identified Theodora as the Wicked Witch in their freaking captions! And even if you avoided all that crap, Theodora's shadow turns into the WWotW right in the opening credits! Fuck!

Look, twists are great, but they don't work if you spoil them in the trailer. The movie would have worked a lot better if they'd just been up front about Theodora's identity and left us to wonder how she went bad. If you know you can't pull off a surprise, you can still create a lot of tension in a story by making us guess how the characters get to the ending.

Speaking of Theodora:

2. Let characters develop their own damn selves.

Ultimately Theodora becomes the Wicked Witch because she's tricked into becoming evil. Like Hayden Christensen.

Killing babies will totally save my hot wife, right?
When we meet Theodora she's almost painfully innocent, something the womanizing "wizard" Oz is quick to take advantage of. Then Theodora starts talking marriage and queening it up with him and Oz runs away on his quest, leaving her alone with Evanora, who plays on Theodora's vulnerability to convince her that Oz betrayed her. Then she talks Theodora into eating a magic apple (ho ho) to take the pain away, and WHAM!! Wicked Witch.

(I should note for clarity's sake that in Oz, being "wicked' is exactly the same as being on the Dark Side. Not a stronger witch, but the magic comes easier and looks cooler.)

Now, can you point out the thing that Theodora did wrong? No, you can't, because there isn't anything. Sometimes I think Sam Raimi has a thing for disproportionate retribution: Did you read the words wrong? WHAM, undead army! Refuse an old woman a fourth extension on her mortgage? WHAM, death by gypsy curse! Is your name Peter Parker? WHAM, misery misery supervillain dead girlfriend misery! (Okay that one isn't Raimi's fault.)

Theodora is innocent and naive and trusts her sister and that's why she gets turned evil. It's... I'm going to say it, it's lazy writing! And it wouldn't have taken much to correct. Just have her confront Oz, fly off the handle, try to cast a spell that goes wrong, disfigures her, and drives her insane, and you're all set. It could have been done in maybe five minutes of screen time.

A character should not become irredeemably evil because they were tricked into it. Allow characters their own agency.

3. Give villains a believable motivation.

That's Theodora's problem. Evanora's got a different one. See, she's wicked from the get go, because... I don't know. Nobody knows. She's just bad.

Now, yes, there are people who are just bad for no reason in real life, but in fiction everything happens for a reason. Sometimes that reason is for no reason except to fuck with the reader/viewer, but the author at least have a reason. In Oz there's never any reason given for Evanora to be bad.

And there are plenty of reasons for her not to be bad, starting with the fact that being wicked instantly turns you into a hideous hag! And it's pretty clear at the end of the movie that you don't get any significant power boost from becoming a Sith, er ah Wicked Witch. So what the hell was Evanora thinking? We don't know. And that's a problem.

Remember that everyone is the hero of their own story - even complete monsters.

4. Heroes are allowed to hurt people.

Back on Theodora again, sort of. I mentioned that Oz seduces her, right? Well that's because he's a womanizer, a flim-flam man, a con artist... a humbug.

Unfortunately Oz is also the protagonist of this movie. Now in The Wizard of Oz, Oz isn't all that good. He's a big flaming head that demands near-impossible tasks and tries to welch when they're completed. At his best he manages to B.S. the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion into accepting gifts of nothing and thinking they're awesome.

But because he's the protagonist this time, we need to root for Oz, which is why I think the relationship between him and Theodora never got resolved. See, there should have been a point where Oz had to admit to Theodora that he didn't love her, that he'd taken advantage of a naive girl because really, he's not that good a person. It would have helped justify Theodora's turn to wickedness, and it would have been honest.

Instead, Evanora tricks Theodora into thinking Oz doesn't love her. And that's true, yes! But because they never have that confrontation we never got proper closure on the issue. Oz gets to convince himself, if he wants, that he's not responsible for what happened to Theodora, because he's not responsible for what happened to Theodora. He could have been truly and honestly in love with her and the same damn thing would have happened.

Heroes are not perfect. Heroes can hurt people, sometimes badly. What they can't do is fail to confront that fact when it happens.

5. Good is not dumb.

Now for something Oz did right. For most of the movie the good people of Oz treat Oz like he's the second coming - or, properly, the Wizard they've been waiting for to save all their asses. Now it's pretty damn obvious that Oz isn't a proper wizard, but for the most part the... Ozians? Ozlings? Pass it off as jitters or misunderstandings and continue with the hero worship.

The good people of Oz are simple. Glinda is not.

She's unquestionably good. She cares for the people of the Oz sincerely and wholeheartedly, and does everything she can to help them. She also sees through Oz in approximately a millisecond and refuses to buy into any of his bullshit. She'll use it, though - she needs to get Theodora and Evanora separated, and Oz is the man with the skill at trickery to make it happen. But even her methods of manipulating Oz mostly rely on convincing him (or shaming him) into becoming a better person. It's really not a surprise at the end when Glinda puts aside any pretense of pacifism and goes toe-to-toe with Evanora.

Glinda's practically the defining Goody Two Shoes, but that doesn't make her dumb or weak. The same holds for your characters.

I hope all that made sense. If you've seen the movie (or even if you haven't) and want to chime in, feel free.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Kontactr Sucks (for Gmail)

Hi all,

I've been using Kontactr for my blog's contact form. It was easy to set up, it looks nice, and it does send me email, but it usually comes in this format:

Hi my name is Bobn nlI'm contacting you to say I loved your post on fruit batsn nlI thought your tip to feed them pineapple from a fork was really insightfuln nlIf you could get in touch with me I'd like to discuss a projectn nl to genetically engineer super fruitbatmenn nlPlease respond post hasten nl Many thanks Bobn nl.

If you can read that more power to you. I'm not sure if it's Kontactr or Gmail that's giving me trouble, but if you have any suggestions for a better contact form solution please let me know. Comments preferred, because, well. :-)

Not much else to say. I've been listening to old episodes of Writing Excuses trying to jog something loose in my brain and speed up work on The Next Great Epic Fantasy Novel, Draft Two. I've also been playing around with a personal novel wiki, because I ran headfirst into a lack of worldbuilding in chapter three and decided Scrivener wasn't up to my noting requirements. More on that later, if I don't get locked into formatting tweaks.