Young Men in Groups

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I noticed this a couple of weeks ago and I tried to put off a response until my interest in it fell away. It hasn’t. Therefore:

It started with this tweet from Chuck Wendig:

If you click on that and read the whole thread, skip the rest of this paragraph. But basically, there are a bunch of right wing Star Wars fans who have decided the movie series has to be one of the many fronts in the culture war, and they imagine they have the power to tank a movie’s box office through shitposting.

And then there’s the guys who think that targeted harassment against the women who star in these movies–harassment that causes them to shut down their social media–is some kind of victory for men. Especially if the women are not white women.

It reminds me of something I read a very long time ago and never forgot. It was so long ago that I’ve forgotten the source, but it stuck with me: it’s that the most dangerous people you are likely to meet on the street are young men traveling in groups.

As a writer of thriller/action/violence and such, I’ve spent a fair amount of time searching for good books on the subject. They’re surprisingly rare. (I can recommend (with affiliate links) two good ones, if you’re interested. One. Two.) But you can usually find a worthwhile nugget or two in any book.

The reason young men in groups are especially dangerous, according to this long-forgotten author, is that to the men in the group, the victim almost doesn’t matter. The victim is beside the point. The real reason the men in the group want to do violence is to impress the other members. They want to prove themselves. To push things a little farther.

In the book, the technique the author proposed to head off the confrontation was to look one member of the group in the eye–not the one directly in front of you, but one standing back a little–and say something like “You know this is wrong.” Basically, to shame them into breaking the cycle of competition so they would move on.

It seems to me that part (not all, but part) of what’s going on in these RW hate campaigns is a similar dynamic. It was certainly the case with GooberGate, where young men were competing to be the most outrageous shit head, and for all the notoriety that went with it. The victim didn’t matter to them except as a trophy to show off to their friends. What mattered was attention from others in your group.

And when you’re online, a victim can’t look someone in the eye and shame them. That has to happen in real life, because that online connection will never be as strong as the connection to their group.

For example, check out this article about an incel who left the online incel community. Is it body dimorphism for him to believe he’s too ugly to ever get a girlfriend? He looks like a perfectly normal guy, but maybe he doesn’t feel like one. He says he didn’t approve of violent talk in those incel communities, but he thought they were dark humor.

I’m glad to say that Mr. Former Incel had a chance to meet people in real life who looked him in the eye and made him realize he already knew it was wrong. Instead of chiding other incels who fantasized about violence, he walked away.

There will always be a certain percentage of any particular group of abusers who are psychopaths or sadists. They hurt people because they like it and they can’t be shamed into changing. But the people around them, who see that viciousness as a kind of strength, emulate them so they can feel strong, too. Those followers can be cut away, but it’s not easy. And I have no idea how it can be done in online spaces.

Verfremdungseffekt and the Modern Theseus: A Short(ish) Review of DAVE MADE A MAZE

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I came across this movie in an odd way. It was literally lying on the floor in the library; someone meant to check it out, but dropped it while browsing through graphic novels. I looked at the cover, read the back, then opened wikipedia to make sure the Rotten Tomatoes score was not below 40%. Then… sure. Why not?

Especially since my wife has a soft spot for artsy, oddball movies with interesting production design.

The premise is simple: Annie returns from a business trip to discover that her boyfriend, Dave, has built a shitty cardboard fort in their living room. And he’s inside it. And he won’t come out.

Well, he claims that he can’t come out. And he begs her not to mess with it, because it’s his latest project and he wants to finish it. And he doesn’t want her to come inside. He says it’s bigger on the inside, and he’s lost in a maze that he constructed. He doesn’t want her to get lost too. Or set off one of the booby traps he created. Or run into the minotaur that has somehow appeared.

Annie thinks Dave is having a full on breakdown. She invites one or two close friends to help draw him out, but of course a bunch of his jerk pals show up and take nothing about the situation seriously. They all push into the entrance of Dave’s little fort and discover that yeah, it’s bigger on the inside. Which means they spend the next hour and ten moving from room to room, hallway to hallway, inside a living cardboard maze built out of Dave’s frustration and self-loathing, while the minotaur and booby traps take them out one by one.

Let’s talk about the flaws first, and I have to start with the dialog. It’s rarely more than perfunctory, and the movie isn’t nearly as fun as it would have been with dialog that startled and entertained. Lackluster dialog is literally the only factor that keeps this from becoming an honest-to-god classic. If Dave’s motivation for creating the weirdo labyrinth that’s killing his friends is “I wanted to make something,” you don’t need him to say that a bunch of times. Have him say it once, and shoot it so that the audience knows that it matters.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that its the supporting cast who get most of the best lines. They get most of the personality, too.

Another problem (one I’d normally be willing to forgive) is that Dave himself is the worst. He’s an “artist” who never finishes a project, and who lives, at least in part, off of his parents. He’s so frustrated, you guys, because he hasn’t amounted to anything, and he’s already thirty years old! Can you believe it? So old!

As a 52-year-old who didn’t sign a publishing deal until he was 42, and who might never sign another under my real name again, Dave sounded like a toddler crying over a dropped ice cream cone. Sure, I understand why that might make you unhappy, but this is petty compared to the shit that’s on the way, believe me.

Plus, he has Annie, who starts the movie nine-tenths done with Dave’s self-indulgent bullshit (and his awful friends) but falls in love with him all over again by the end. And is she hot? Suuuuuuper hot.

Despite those two flaws, I still enjoyed the hell out of this movie.

It’s the maze that’s the real star here, with its patchwork cardboard walls, weird rooms, and elaborate traps. The estrangement effect is in full swing, because the film never stops reminding you that it’s a film. Every room, effect, or plot twist makes you think “Wow, they’re knocking this out of the park” or “They put in a lot of work for that two-second shot” where “they” = “the filmmakers.” You never suspend disbelief or invest in the character’s emotional dilemma, and that’s okay.

And intentional. The tone is light and ironic. Even the deaths are played for laughs (and wow, did we laugh). Plus, three of Dave’s friends who are caught in the maze with him are a documentary film crew more concerned with documenting the situation than solving it. The movie keeps telling you you’re watching a movie and daring you to enjoy it nonetheless.

I’m trying not to spoil any of the stuff that makes this movie such a fucking delight. The less you know going in, the better. Dave Made a Maze may not be a great movie, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Randomness for 5/6

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1) Coming Clean: The Physics of Doing Laundry

2) D&D Creatures Created by a Neural Network are Weird.

3) Ask a Manager: I’m being mentored against my will by a dude who’s my peer.

4) How 50 Female Characters Were Described in their Screenplays.

5) Patterns among profitable moves budgeted between $3 and $10 million.

6) French Museum Discovers Half of its Collection are Fakes.

7) Vaccines Work: Here are the Facts. (a comic)

Yeah. Right: On the artificiality of narrative and the suspension of disbelief

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If you hate spoilers for movies, especially the new Avengers picture, don’t read farther.

My kid doesn’t like action movies.

He won’t overlook the artificial aspects of them to lose himself in the moment. In Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, when Tom Hardy jumped from a flaming truck just as it exploded and caught hold of another vehicle, my son blurted out “He’s dead.”

Now, did I need a teenager to point out that the death-defying stunts of an action movie are inherently artificial and overblown? I assure you that I did not. When I suggested that films are obviously full of fakey bullshit, from the way people speak to the way they look, he just shrugs. He hasn’t bought in to the sort of cinematic hyperbole you find in action films because he just doesn’t enjoy them. The stakes feel false to him because he hasn’t bought in.

Which brings me to Avengers: Infinity War. It’s an action movie where the heroes do *not* narrowly avoid death, even the ones with sequels that have already been greenlit. I’ve seen reactions online from folks who disengaged from the story the same way my son does when a hero comes through a massive gunfight without a scratch, and I’ve been thinking about why.

I suspect it’s because it’s new. Comic books have been killing off their IP… er, I mean, their characters and then bringing them back for years. The last time I looked at comics, Tony Stark had been physically killed, and currently survives as an AI. Bucky put on the Cap suit at one time, and so did Sam Wilson. But it’s always temporary. As a longtime comics reader, I went into the film wondering if they would kill off beloved characters in this style and I wasn’t surprised when they did.

In fact, I experienced the deaths of Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and Spider-man as a kind of relief. No way were those deaths going to be permanent, and the incredibly somber finale of A:IW was softened in a way that I welcomed. It pulled me out of the story a little, but I was okay with that. There are lots of movies that make a virtue out of artificiality.

I’ve also grown up with action movies that have grown more bombastic over the last four decades. We’ve gone from westerns and cop movies where the hero and villain shoot at each other once, then one clutches at their shirt and falls over, to ludicrous better mousetraps of explosions and falling buildings. For me, that has been a slow evolution in pushing the boundaries of the disbelief we’re willing to suspend, but my son has seen all these old movies in a jumble. He’s been thrown into the deep end of pirates of the caribbean and John Woo, and its too much too fast.

Anyway, it’s a good movie for the sort of movie it is. I’m a fan of stories about superpowers, so it hits a sweet spot for me. At some point, I’ll have to watch it back-to-back with the recent Justice League film, to figure out why one made a “Villain collects plot coupons” plot work so well, while the other did it so poorly.

Also, in this movie, the heroes lose because they’re unwilling to sacrifice individuals for the greater good (although I wanted to tear my hair out when Dr. Strange bargained for Stark’s life) while the villains won because they’re willing to kill their own (not just with Thanos murdering his own daughter, but “We have blood to give). I hope that, when The Return of the Avengers comes out next year, the heroes succeed and the villains fail for those same qualities.

But I’m still interested, as a storyteller, in limits of our suspension of disbelief and in how we move those limits around.

Randomness for 1/23

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1) Things restaurant workers wish you knew about being a patron in a restaurant.

2) The Beautiful Science of Cream Hitting Coffee.

3) The 50 Best Good/Bad Movies.

4) The New Republic on JRR Tolkien, circa 1956.

5)

6) Police give out thumb drives infected with malware as cybersecurity prizes.

7)

“We’re not in a prophecy.” “Let the past die.” “I’m scared.” Three short reviews

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I think that, if I group my reviews together, I can keep them short. So I’m going to try that.

Bright

Everyone who creates a fantasy with a contemporary setting has two major issues they need to address. Okay, it’s more than two, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the biggest.

First, the stakes are bullshit.

Second, monsters are not effective stand-ins for victims of injustice.

The first is pretty straight forward, I think. In the normal course of things, I care as much about who becomes the next arch-duke of the sewer goblins as I do about whether some complete stranger I’ll never meet is going to wear a blue hat or a green one. It’s made up. It’s not connected to me. I just don’t care.

Worse, when fantasy has a contemporary setting, the plot is always about *preventing* some terrible event. If the heroes aren’t fighting like hell to keep a mcguffin out of the villain’s hands, they’re doing their best to break up a ritual. That makes the most dangerous consequence the characters are facing into a threat that’s never realized.

That’s why, when I was planning Child of Fire, I set it in a small town where the villain is the main source of jobs for the locals. Hammer Bay will die off if the heroes end the bad guy and they lose all those jobs. That’s a stake that people understand and care about. (Also, the ritual happened long before the story started.)

Bright, at least, avoids the shitty ritual climax, but it still trots out a bunch of folderol about a Dark Lord who will return if the villains can blah blah with the mcguffin. It never happens. I knew it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t care.

And do I really need to explain that second pitfall? You don’t illuminate human injustice by dehumanizing the victims of injustice. It’s even sketchy to do it to the perpetrators of injustice, although there are ways to make that work. But the victims? No. Just, no.

As for the movie itself, it’s not good. The end is dull. The beginning is unpleasant because of that second pitfall above. The middle is buoyed by a few interesting action scenes but too much of it is too dark.

The first time I heard Netflix was going to make a Will Smith movie about a cop with elves and orcs, I thought they meant Law & Order: Angmar. That would have been interesting. Once I heard they were going to set it in modern LA I knew it would be crap.

The Final Jedi

I’ve been calling this film by the wrong name on Twitter as a joke, and now it’s begun to feel more right than the right one.

Seeing it a second time was a smart choice on my part (pats self on back). Having the ending spoiled, and knowing who was going to succeed, and which elements that I was originally rooting for turned out to be terrible, made the intent of the film much more clear.

I wonder how many people, conditioned to cheer on the hotshot pilot and the bold plan, were prepared for the way that plot line turned. The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some viewers’ disappointment lay in that unexpected feeling of futility and dismay.

It still feels a little long, but I liked it much more a second time.

The Punisher

I’ve seen this show three times now, and I’m more impressed every time. It very much wants to be divorced from the MCU that it’s nominally a part of, and frankly, that weakens it. It’s hard to imagine these villains in this particular setting operating without trying to recruit superpowered people or acquire high-tech weapons. And frankly, that’s what I was hoping to see.

The show gave me something else: a military/spy thriller about a CIA coverup combined with a drama about veterans and PTSD. And it was beautifully shot and acted.

I’d suggest a few of the roles could have been cast better. The actress playing Medani has the worst accent of all the non-Americans playing New Yorkers, and the guy playing Billy isn’t physically frightening enough to match Bernthal’s Frank Castle. He looks more like a successful divorce lawyer than a
deadly killer.

What’s more, unlike most of these Netflix Marvel shows, the pacing is solid. Not breakneck but there are no episodes that feel like treading water.

Turns out, it’s a solid show, but not a Marvel show.

Justice League (no spoilers)

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Okay. I wasn’t going to see it until next week, but reviews said it was sorta good, so I caught a 7pm sneak tonight.

The theater was mostly empty, a very bad sign.

The movie itself was “pretty good for superhero movies” if that’s any kind of rating that matters. They finally got the heroes right. The villains were still cgi ciphers for a supers plot, with three macguffins that have to be gathered and joined to end the world, etc etc. The parademons were effectively animated but Steppenwolf was an empty shell.

Still, this is the first time I genuinely liked Cavill as Superman. He’s always looked the part, but I never really felt he was playing the Superman I grew up with. Affleck was terrific as Batman, and the others were excellent. Gadot especially. I’m glad they skipped the origin stories and I’m glad they cast charismatic people.

As action movies go, it was exciting, if a bit repetitive. Next time I hope they mix things up more.

Honestly, I can’t decide if this is the power of low expectations, or if I just had fun. Now I’m honestly looking forward to movies for these individual heroes.

Anyway, it’s a quarter after 11 at night and I’ve got a pint of black coffee beside me. THE PUNISHER starts in 45 minutes, and I’ll be sitting up to binge it.

Blade Runner 2049: Beautiful and Sad and WTF? Come on, Guys

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In my attempt to return my online activity to spaces I control, I’m going to be dropping reviews here, too. To start, Blade Runner 2049.

First of all, it’s a beautiful movie. And it’s a sad one, too. That’s not a spoiler; it’s obvious from the first few minutes that this shit will turn tragic.

Also, it’s part of the Staring School of filmmaking. Nowadays, when filmmakers want to signal that their movie is Capital A Art, they show lingering shots of the actors staring at something without speaking. It’s meant to suggest that there’s a lot of emotions churning around on the inside, but hey, they’re underplaying it.

I’m honestly getting a bit bored with the Staring School. Imagine a film where eloquent people expressed their feelings in compelling ways! I’d love to watch that.

Another problem is the way the film treats women. Does it seem even remotely likely that every hologram advertisement in the future will feature a fully or semi naked woman? Not one dude at all? What happened in the future to remove the cigarette-holding cowboys and the models with washboard ads and half-buttoned pants? It just doesn’t make sense.

And it’s clear the film won’t be a financial success, although I’m certain it’ll turn a profit over the long run. I saw a matinee on the day it was released and, flaws aside, I loved it. On Sunday, my son asked me to take him, so we went.

He loved it. (The Staring School is one of his favorite things.) But as we left the crowd of friends in front of us were complaining about how boring it was. “Nothing happened!” they said, which I guess is code for no chases, no big action set pieces, and a lot of looking at things with no expression.

Which is fine, if that’s what they like, but honestly, I wasn’t bored for any part of the 2+ hour run time. If they’d been smart, they would have cast more non-white actors in major roles, which boosts ticket sales. Yet another missed opportunity.

So, a flawed movie, but also a beautiful and sad one, and I really liked it.

Randomness for 10/2

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1.

2. How to control Alexa and Google Home through commands that are inaudible to the human ear.

3. A domino run in kaleidoscope: Beautiful. Video.

4. A Quick Beginner’s Guide to Drawing.

5.

6. Roald Dahl’s publisher threatened to drop him for being a jerk.

7. Why is it so hard to judge a screenplay from the movie that’s made from it?

For God’s Sake, Don’t Talk in the Elevator: The Social Media Pitch

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[Added later: This post has been included on Joshua Palmatier’s blog round up of posts about creating pitches. If you want to read more (after you finish mine, ‘natch) check it out.]

The elevator is a terrible place for an elevator pitch.

The idea behind an elevator pitch was that maybe someday Earnest Hopeful, young production assistant at Big Wig studios, might unexpectedly find himself alone in an elevator with Mr. Big Wig himself! How could he best describe his movie idea so that Mr. Big Wig falls in love with it, gives it the green light, and casts William Powell and Veronica Lake to star. Earnest has to be prepared! His pitch has to be shorter than the elevator ride but compelling enough that Mr. Big Wig invites young Earnest to get off at his floor.

But that’s not why we need an elevator pitch. In my entire life, I’ve never had reason to talk to a stranger on an elevator unless I couldn’t reach the button for the floor I wanted.

No, elevator pitches are supposed to be for the writer, and for social media.

For a long time, elevator pitches were mixed up with the idea of the “log line”. Log lines were the short descriptions of TV shows or movies that appeared beneath the listings in the TV Guide. But, if you went online during the late nineties hoping to find advice that would make you a pro, creating a log line for your story was commonplace advice. In that context, the log line was:

[Protagonist] struggles to [goal] in order to [what’s at stake] to prevent [terrible price of failure].

Or something like that. It was always a little different each time, but the basic Mad Libs of the thing are in that line above.

The point of a log line was to show beginning writers where their story could be found. It was about [Protagonist], not a million side characters. [Protagonist] was in pursuit of [goal] because [what’s at stake] was so important. They didn’t laze around mom’s basement, feeling sorry for themselves. And so on. It’s a fine way to highlight the important parts of a certain kind of story (essentially: stories that are like movies or tv shows, which is where these ideas come from) but it didn’t apply to every sort of fiction.

Eventually, this Mad Libs-ed log line idea merged with the elevator pitch to become the most basic way a writer could describe a story. It told you where to go with the story. It told you what mattered. It was extremely limited and limiting.

But it’s a tool, and all tools are limited. When we teach writing, it’s much easier to gas on about basic story construction than what most new writers really need: the skills and judgement needed to organize sentences and paragraphs in an enjoyable way. That’s what I really needed to study but that shit is hard to teach in a 300-word blog post or message board thread, so instead the internet filled up with “How to make your protagonist compelling” and Freytag’s Pyramid.

So, has an elevator pitch/log line ever been useful to me before I wrote a first draft? Yeah, actually, in short fiction. The format has helped me keep the story from spinning out into an unpublishable length.

For novels, which are a complex, sometimes digressive form, no. Not ever.

After the book is started, I’ve found some use for these pitches/log lines. Has the plot started to wander? Have the characters motivations become jumbled? Does this one particular scene seem to be going nowhere? That’s a good time to remind myself what, specifically, each character wants and what’s in their way. When I’m blocked in something as small as a few lines of dialog, filling in those blanks can help point the way forward.

But really, the elevator pitch is the social media pitch. It’s the short description that fits inside a tweet (oh for the luxury of a five-story elevator ride) that piques readers’ interest. It may not sell the book, but it might get readers to download the sample. I didn’t have one for the Twenty Palaces books, but I did for The Great Way: “An epic fantasy trilogy about a sentient curse that destroys an empire.”

At one point a reader asked me if I hadn’t gotten that wrong: shouldn’t elevator pitches focus on the character? Who’s the story about? What are they trying to do? This reader was focussing on all the log line essentials: Shouldn’t I fill out that Mad Lib? I responded by saying that a pitch should highlight what’s most unique and compelling about a book. If that’s the lead character and their goal, awesome. Going that route is easy enough, and it can be effective. If, instead, what’s unique and compelling is an apocalyptic tone and a weird antagonist, then some other format has to be created. The Mad Lib of a log line is a fine tool to start with when organizing a pitch, but it’s a poor fit for a lot of books. Sometimes the work has to be done without that tool.

For example, the pitch for A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark was: “It’s a pacifist urban fantasy with a hero who’s a cross between Auntie Mame and Gandalf.” Nowhere does that define her goal (which is to solve a murder) or what awful thing will happen if she fails (because she doesn’t know at first and it’s supposed to be a fun surprise) but it does highlight what I think is unique and compelling about that book.

Currently, my agent is shopping One Man, a fantasy/crime thriller, and I’ll have to create a social media pitch for it. That means I take a sheet of scrap paper and list elements that I think are fun/unusual/exciting. Not all of them will make the cut, but lists gives me something concrete to work with. Should I focus on the protagonist, a former golden boy responsible for the deaths of those nearest to him, who now bears unknown magic? The setting, a city built within the skeletons of two “dead” gods (both killed while fucking)? The plot’s macguffin, a piece of forbidden healing magic that might lead to civil war?

Nah. For me, the most unusual and interesting aspect is the stakes. The protagonist isn’t trying to destroy a magic ring, or defeat an evil army, or slay a sorcerer-king. He wants to rescue an orphaned little girl that no one else in the whole world cares about. They’re small, personal stakes for a book filled with fighting, magic, and impending war, but that’s what makes it interesting to me. Will readers feel that same way? It’s impossible to know. Fantasy readers like their stakes to be big. Epic, even. Will pitching the stakes in One Man push people away from a book they might love if they read it?

I haven’t worked that out. But then, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

That’s my take on so-called elevator pitches. Once in a long while, they’re useful during the writing process, but they’ve become necessary after the books comes out to help attract readers. Start with a log line, if you want, and make a list of unique and compelling elements that you believe will intrigue readers. And good luck. None of this is easy.

But please don’t talk on elevators.