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.

The Harry Potter Novels, by Robert Galbraith

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[First, because just this morning I met someone who didn’t know: “Robert Galbraith” is the pen name JK Rowling uses for her private investigator novels.]

Hey, check out this tweet from more than a month ago, which is part of a longer thread that’s worth looking at. And by “longer” I mean it’s a handful of tweets that you can read in under a minute.

The real issue here is: “Backstories: are they interesting or fun?”

If you like private eye novels (and like Rowling, I do) the answer is obviously yes. They’re full of secrets and tragic pasts, and the denouement is dependent on uncovering every relevant truth. It’s a narrative about discovering a hidden narrative.

I mentioned before that I binged all the Harry Potter movies for my birthday; yesterday, I finished the last book.

Fantasy novels have long delved into the past to address the narrative present. How often do the characters in Lord of the Rings talk about Isildur, who died approximately 3,000 years before the events of the novels? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way) The Others are returning to Westeros after eight thousand years, blah blah blah. Both books touch on recent history, but it’s political history, not the stories of ordinary folks.

But the Harry Potter novels, like great detective novels, are about personal history, which is why so many of the characters are given space to explicate their past. Harry even takes time in the lull of a battle to delve into Snape’s memories. He hated Snape through seven books, but when the time came he had to stop and uncover the man’s secrets, he did. And of course, in the scene in King’s Cross, Dumbledore spills his own family tragedy for Harry’s edification.

I can understand why readers wouldn’t like it. Years ago, when Veronica Mars was getting all the buzz, a science fiction writer of some prestige decided to give it a try. She was horrified by the way Veronica dug into everyone’s lives. We even got to read a “Don’t kids these days…” rant about privacy.

But that misses the point. Rowling clearly has a love for personal history and personal tragedy. Yeah, the books changed as the series progressed, becoming more mature along with the readers, but the latter books’ digressions into characters’ secrets was already there in the stories of James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter in book three and the flashbacks to Hagrid’s expulsion and Myrtle’s death in book two.

Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that some of us out here love it and wish we could see more.

As a further note, having finished the books, I have to say that it’s ridiculous to think that Harry should have fallen in love with Hermione over Ginny. People, please.

Film Trailers out of SDCC

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A couple of years back, I told myself I wouldn’t watch trailers for movies I definitely planned to see. It made sense from a spoiler standpoint, but it couldn’t last.

Now that SDCC is passing, YouTube is awash with new film trailers, and they’re hard to resist. Let’s look at a few:

I’m not sure how I feel about this new Star Trek. I like the cast. A lot. But Trek still feels played out and CBS is using this to push their All Access online service. I’m not signing on for that, but I hope this is a solid show and I can catch up to it on library dvds.

The day that Marvel Studios realized that Chris Hemsworth could do comedy was the day that Marvel really started to pull away from the competition. His comic timing was the best thing about Age of Ultron, and I’m looking forward to this film more than most of the other in this post. Also: a good reminder to watch What We Do in the Shadows.

Not a movie, obviously, but I’ll be watching this when it premieres for three reasons: more Jessica Jones, please god do a better job with Danny Rand than in his own series, and the Foggy/Karen/Colleen/Misty/etc show. Unfortunately, it’s by Scott Buck, the guy who screwed the pooch with Iron Fist. We’ll see. (And IF has been renewed for a second season with a new showrunner, the guy from Sleepy Hollow. With luck, he’ll make a martial arts show.)

A new Fox show about mutants? I know very little about this, except that it looks like the budget was spent on cgi rather than interesting locations. But it has Amy Acker, so I’ll check it out.

Season 2 of Stranger Things? You don’t even have to show me a trailer, because I’m happy to show up for this. Still, the trailer makes it look fantastic.

I was wondering how Marvel would make The Inhumans work, and judging by this trailer, they haven’t.

A DC movie… with a sense of humor? The trailer makes this look like a solid superhero movie, but I’m still feeling stung by Suicide Squad. We’ll see.

Arrival was amazing, so I have high hopes for this. Too bad no one thought to cast a few people of color, but maybe it’ll do okay at the box office anyway.

My son really went for this book, but I haven’t read it. Spielberg is usually good even when the material is iffy, but I don’t really get a sense of what this film’s about, and I’m not excited by it.

An earlier trailer for Bright made it seem like they were going to address police brutality against marginalized people by making the marginalized people into orcs. That’s a deeply stupid idea. Despite the fact that the film looks terrible, I’m sure there will come a day when I’ve had a few bourbons and start watching it. Sad, I know.

This isn’t a new trailer from SDCC, but hey, Black Lightning! There’s no way I’ll be missing this one, for the first few episodes, at least.

There were more, obviously, but they were for shows I don’t watch or have never been tempted to watch. I’ll take a hard pass on Death Note, for example.

Harry Potter Turns 20

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Today’s the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in a series that turned an awful lot of young people into readers. Of course, it came out with a different name in the U.S. the next year.

I didn’t encounter it until much later in the year, when NPR began to cover it. I grabbed a copy at the library, read the first book, and didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
Not for me.

A lot of books other people love are not for me, and it’s usually because I’m itching for something specific. There’s no point in picking up Fellowship of the Ring when I really want to read Conan. For example.

But the popularity of the books kept growing, and people talked about them more and more online. What’s more, writers were seeing Rowling’s popularity and thinking I want that, too. Lots of online writing talk shifted from “How to write fiction” to “How to write fiction for young adults.”

It was everywhere.

What really stuck with me, though, was the weird advice people were giving. Most common was that YA writers should not waste time at the beginning of a book because young readers don’t have patience to wade through a bunch of boring text. Get that plot moving! They want the story to be exciting!

And my first thought was: I’m not a young person but I hate boring text, too! Why are people talking about adult readers as though we’re okay with dull shit?

At some point, a bookstore across town went out of business, and bussed over there to see what they had on offer. What I found were hardbacks of the first four in the series at half-price. I was a little leery, but half-off! And by that time it was a cultural phenomenon, and I figured I’d try to work out why.

Besides, they keep the plot moving!

With the second attempt, I was feeling less fussy and enjoyed myself much more. I bought the books as they came out and mostly enjoyed them; with the last volume, I took an internet vacation to avoid the gleeful spoilers that people were throwing around for book 6.

Some time later, my son saw a theatrical trailer for one of the movies, and said: “I want to see that.”

“You haven’t read the books yet,” I answered, starting a tradition that kept up until Surly Teenagehood.

In fact, we read the books as part of family read-aloud time. The second time through, hearing them spoken, I was amazed by how funny they were. For the first four books, anyway. Some parts had my son and me rolling on the floor, literally. With book five, they turned more serious, but we enjoyed them just as much.

All seven hardbacks still sit on a shelf in the back hall. I don’t reread often, and I don’t collect books, but I like having all of them in hardback.

By some strange coincidence, Sunday will be my (not) birthday–my real birthday already passed, but I’ll celebrate on this convenient date–and many months ago I decided to make my usual B-day movie marathon a Harry Potter fest. The library dvds are sitting on the shelf beside me. And as flawed as the books may be, they have a charm that the movies lack.
Still, the films are pretty uneven in terms of quality, and therefore instructive.

They’re also, when you watch them end to end, 19 hours and forty minutes long. If you assume that each of the eight films has ten minutes of credits at the end, that 18 hours and 20 minutes. Factor in bathroom breaks, meal times, pizza ordering, 2 am coffee brewing, and a previously scheduled afternoon role-playing session, I just might be staying up 23 straight hours to wait for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to get his ass kicked.

And I’m feeling sort of ambivalent about it.

I’m sure I will enjoy the films more than I remember, because I’m more forgiving when I re-watch. Plus: carb cheat day.

Anyway, today I salute J.K. Rowling for her accomplishment. Few writers will ever have as much impact on the culture as she has.

But I don’t know what house I’d be sorted into and I never will.