Podcast

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Secrets of Story Podcast, Episode 2: The Easy Way!

Well, folks, it’s been a month since Episode 1, but life got in the way. We first recorded this on the night before the election, but we ran out of time and decided to meet again to finish it later. Then disaster struck. Afterwards, we decided to re-record it for a post-Trump world, and did so, but the dour Trump-themed version was too depressing, so then we decided to splice just the end of the later recording onto the first recording. So most of this episode is a relic of a happier world, before evil triumphed (and the end bit doesn’t acknowledge the new post-apocalyptic reality.)

You can stream it here, or, even better, subscribe to us on iTunes, then like us and review us!

At the end of this episode, we have a surprise for you, so I won’t spoil it here, but it involves a download, so here’s that link!

(Once again, the music is from FreeMusicArchive.com. It’s “Lucky Me” by Scott Holmes, with an Attribution/NonCommercial license.) 

14 comments:

Nick said...

Love it! Enjoyed this episode more than the first, as this one felt more 'to-the-point' (while still being delightfully informal).

Looking forward to more!

(and looking forward to partaking of the surprise download when I have a chance)

Emily said...

I found this really useful not as a discussion of why the "easy way" is good or bad phrasing but as an expansion of what the easy way should actually look like (and I am going to buy the book, but I'm still hoping for the Kindle version to come out...) - I think I have been guilty of, not necessarily making my protagonists passive, but trying to figure out ways for them to try to solve the problem that didn't challenge them too much, rather than figuring out ways that were really challenging but within the strategies and approaches that were already familiar to them.

Patrick said...

Fantastic! I live off of this type of condensed look forward. I took notes and I'm off to work on my Scifi story that's been shelved for I don't know how long.

Matt, I drank one of those Ben and Jerry's ice cream beers last weekend. I was expecting more from New Belgium. I wanted a great tasting beer made with creamy chocolate barley malts and aged in oak barrels to get the vanilla taste. Instead I got an overcharged milkshake with some beer in it. I think this belongs on another website.

That aside. An awesome podcast. I listened to the 14 points twice taking notes.

Later bros, Patrick (Yikes, I just noticed the time, a large timeline just jumped forward on me!)

Matt Bird said...

Glad you guys are liking it!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I'll second everyone else: this was a really good podcast.

For what it's worth, I interpreted the "easy way" as you did right from the jump, but James's point has merit. Maybe "easy way/hard way" could be renamed "default way/changed way" or "normal way/different way?" Both "default" and "normal" run the risk of being interpreted as "passive" too, but James's suggestion of "double down" doesn't seem right either. The character engages with the problem using the method he or she usually uses, and it doesn't work. That doesn't necessitate "doubling down" on the usual method.

BTW, I agree that sword metaphors are not a good idea. Composers loathe the placeholder music directors use when cutting a movie, the "temp track," because when it comes time for the composer to write new music, the director has the temp track so deeply ingrained that he often says "uh, music a lot like the temp track, please." In the same vein, vivid metaphors in advice stick as images, and thus can affect how the advice is interpreted, not always to the writer's advantage. "Do it the hard way" is vague enough to carry little baggage; "reforge the broken sword" is more likely to bring with it associations that may not be a good idea to introduce and may be hard to shake. (See also: Joseph Campbell and the bazillion too-literal invokings of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)

If James's script ever became a reality, would the tag line for the show be something akin to "You'll Laika It!" The dog's name is a bottomless resource for Dad Jokes.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

On the podcast, you mentioned commenting on the script in the comments, so here are Notes from Some Rando What Is on the Internet, a ramble in three comments:

OVERALL:
Parts of it worked, but the story didn’t leave a strong impression. It’s good enough that I’d be interested in reading a later draft, but it’s not so good that I’m jumping up and down to read one.

TONE:
The opening felt like a kids’ show. We meet Laika the happy, proud dog running for pride and glory. She has a tiny blue mouse buddy. They banter about the dog wanting to leave Earth. It’s charming. The tone shifts on page four, with a character moment rooted in peeing. Still, it was played for pathos more than comedy, so it was still roughly the same emotional tone: Laika the plucky, hopeful dog who tries so, so, so hard. Page five increases the pathos by showing the audience that Laika’s faith is wholly misplaced, that the humans don’t deserve her love and respect. By this point, the story feels pretty sad.

With the introduction of humans we get a serious scene. These guys are under inhuman pressure and are terrified. So far we’re set up for a tragedy. The dog is going to be sacrificed by people unworthy of her; the scientists are prisoners of a totalitarian dictator’s idiocies and likely to be tortured to death. Though the talking animals and blue mouse complicate this mood.

Then comes a strong tonal shift with the arrival of Arkady the cockroach and a weird political-satire scene that delivers exposition. It’s not a bad idea, though the scene felt unnecessary. Does Laika need to be told about her impending doom and go along with it? If you cut that whole scene, what’s lost? She’s already demonstrated commitment to the cause, so her choice to eat the bug rather than run away is repeating the message. The Communist Cockroach idea is kinda fun but it felt a little tired. Making the communist firebrand also the only truth-teller is an amusing choice. The cockroach is consistently right, though he’s also annoying. The tone is no lighter than it was before, but it’s gained a little wit.

Then comes THE BIG SHIFT. Page twelve. Iron belly. Prosthetic butt. The tragic tone flies out the window and we’re into over-the-top farce. Then Laika’s launch and early orbits whiplash back to tragedy.

From the point that Blue Mouse pulls out his wee gadget through the end, the story is a close riff on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Laika is Arthur, Blue Mouse is Ford (and his “futuristic little tool” is the “electronic thumb”), aliens destroy the Earth for stupid reasons, a perfect replacement copy is made, secretly super-intelligent space mice are critical to the plot, starships that shimmer in and out of view, silly jibberish alien names, and wackiness ensuing. That said, it wasn’t completely an Adams riff. James cited “Rick and Morty” as the desired model, and I could see it with the alien babies, Blue Mouse being a “planetary hitman,” and the Soviet scenes, particularly the zombie.

(cont'd)

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Part two:

CHARACTERS:
It’s a first draft of a wacky comedy, so it’s not too surprising that the characters are stock. Their relationships played out as expected too. The draft was focused on constructing a coherent story. Getting a more interesting relationship between Laika and Blue Mouse should be a focus of the next draft.

Character motivations need a little more to them. Laika just wants to be a good dog and go into space, then she wants to go home, then she wants to have space adventures. Those are all fine but they don’t go deep enough into her psychology. Why does she want to go into space? Because it’s proof she’s a Good Dog? Why does she want that proof so badly? Does that need for validation matter later? Dig just a little deeper to get at the why behind the why.

Blue Mouse’s motivations are standard “cartoon misanthrope with a soft spot,” which works well enough, though a little more digging couldn’t hurt. Not backstory, but thinking about the psychology of an alien responsible for planet-scale genocide many times over. Wouldn’t Mouse be terrified of ever letting himself feel for the victims, because then he’d realize the scope of what he’s done in the past? There’s a reason why Rick Sanchez is perpetually drunk.

Maybe Laika is constrained by her need for external validation, which is terrible because deep down she’s a great dog regardless of what others think and risks everything for a prize she doesn’t really need. Maybe Blue Mouse lives in terror of ever letting himself feel anything because once the surface cracks, he’ll drown in unimaginable guilt. So Laika wants Blue Mouse to love her as a Good Dog and Blue Mouse wants to not love anything because that leads to a fate worse than death: an emotional awakening. But he can’t get rid of her – he needs the steady distraction Laika provides. Thus he doles out lip-service praise that she recognizes as hollow to keep her around. Each is trying to get what they need from the other, only getting a sliver of it, and dimly aware that for the other to supply more than that sliver would come at a horrible cost. Blue Mouse can’t open his heart to Laika without destroying himself, and Laika can’t stop trying to get him to open his heart because that would be proof to herself that she was a Bad Dog and unworthy of love. Something like that.

(cont'd)

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Part three:

STRUCTURE:
The structure is shockingly sound for a three-day first draft. Damn. Not to say that it won’t need to be torn down and rebuilt in later drafts – it probably will – but it’s a solid structure in terms of callbacks and establishing a world. My first drafts aren’t anywhere near this level of structure.

HUMOR:
Once James determines the tone he wants, the humor can be adjusted to fit. Right now the humor style swings around. A Soviet official’s prosthetic butt that doubles as a vodka dispenser is “Family Guy”-style vulgarity; the Russian Zombie controlled by Khrushchev like a video game is “Rick and Morty”-style grotesquery; the alien race holding “tests” for stupid reasons is Douglas Adams-style absurdity. These aren’t wildly far apart, but they don’t quite hang together well. A unifying sensibility is needed. The draft lacks the dark heart of “Rick and Morty” or the sense of the absurd central to Douglas Adams.

There isn’t a comic scene until Arkady arrives on page eight, and there isn’t what I’d consider a full-bore joke until the “iron tummy/butt prosthesis” scene on page twelve. (Granted, this is debatable, but in my opinion, Laika and Blue Mouse’s banter early on doesn’t qualify as comic.) The last part of the story was full-on comedy. A rapid-fire style isn’t necessary, but inserting wit earlier strikes me as important to set the tone and to add to the entertainment value.

The evil aliens as babies really, really didn’t work for me. The aliens being absurd makes sense, but “angry babies” feels clichéd in the manner of a foul-mouthed old woman. It’s a reversal of expectation, but it’s so directly opposite of “evil alien” that it feels like a minor cliché itself. I recommend trying a few other ironic setups and see what strikes sparks. Getting that right will take trial and error.

It’s unfair to call this out in a first draft, but the dialogue lacks, to quote Stephen Colbert, “zazz.” Wacky comedies with Nintendo-Soviet zombies and butt-vodka demand snappy dialogue. Matt claims that good dialogue is filled with “tricks and traps,” and though I never liked that phrase as it suggests rapid-fire screwball comedy to me, the idea of a more playful and meaningful dialogue is important. Reversals, clever phrasings, all that sort of fun stuff. Again, first drafts rarely have it, but later revisions need it.

Internet Rando out

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Sorry, forgot one last thing: the nature of the story creates a killer problem. Laika isn't in control of her story until very late. She wants to be a cosmonaut but doesn't choose to be one. Which, I guess, is the point of the bug-eating scene, but still, it doesn't feel like a choice. We know that Laika couldn't escape or avoid a space shot even if she wanted to. She doesn't really make a choice until she agrees to participate in the tests, which feels like a false choice because it's "compete or die." Not until she finds out what Blue Mouse's deal is does she make a moral choice, and that's on page 46.

Also, re-reading it, I see that you do play up the "Laika wants to be a Good Dog so much that it puts her in bad circumstances," when she gets excited about the aliens' tests. Okay, cool, but her neediness should be played up earlier. A good flaw for a cartoon dog.

It seems like Blue Mouse is the real protagonist. He makes the choices, he influences outcomes. Laika is mostly along for the ride and to influence Blue Mouse. Is there a way to make Laika more of a protagonist? Or should it be left as Blue Mouse's story?

Maybe you could give Arkady's rousing speech to Laika or Blue Mouse? Maybe Laika is the Communist True Believer or Blue Mouse parrots the rhetoric to manipulate the other dogs? Bringing the bug back was clever but it takes a significant action away from Laika and Blue Mouse.

James Kennedy said...

Wow, Harvey, these are great notes! Thank you for reading this first draft so seriously and taking the time to engage it with such care and acuity. Most helpfully for me, you've given me big insights about these characters that it would've taken me a long time to figure out on my own (if ever!). As for tone, I wonder if all the tone-jolts you mention can be harmonized into some new tone that takes all the sub-tones into account (maybe by signaling that these other tones are possible earlier in the script?). "Rick and Morty" has some major tone-jolts (I'm thinking about the "Meseeks and Destroy" episode, in which Morty fends off the rapist King Jelly Bean in the bathroom) and yet they seem to pull it off... indeed, one of the things I like about "Rick and Morty" and "Hitch-hikers Guide" is their ability to swing tone so radically, and they make that inconsistency of tone into a strength, indeed the very source of much of the comedy. Maybe Matt can write a post about it: how to deliberately mess with tone, and use the dissonance for artistic ends? In any case, wonderful notes, thank you!

Glen said...

Easy Way: Trying to solve a problem based on your preconceptions and refusing to admit that they are wrong?

It’s easier to stay in the comfort zone with what we know (even if it’s wrong) than to really look at ourselves and change.

Take Edmund Exley in L.A. Confidential, at the start of Act 2:

• He leads the Night Owl investigation even though he has no experience for the job.
• He’s grassed up most of his colleagues, they all hate him, and they are looking for any opportunity to see him fail.
• He thinks he can succeed by using non-violent detective methods in an extremely violent police force and city.
• He also thinks that he can solve the Night Owl case by himself.

His position at this point can’t be classed as easy, but Exley is a long way from admitting that he needs Bud White and violence is sometimes necessary to get the job done. He takes the easy option and holds to his false beliefs.

Maybe the problem (misconception) with the term ‘easy way, hard way’ is that it refers to the internal character choices as oppose to external plot?

Jonathan Auxier said...

I haven't fully tested this idea, but it seems like "bad philosophy" vs "new philosophy" might be more accurate. OR, perhaps the shift is from the hero trying to change their situation to trying to change themselves?

Ana said...

The phrase "The Easy Way" immediately made sense to me when I bought the book. And if I somehow could have confused the two completely different meanings of the words "easy" and "passive," the passages of explanation in the book would have made it more than clear.

What did give me the giggles was that while James was doing his best to provide a more accurate and appropriate way to convey what he felt "The Easy Way" did not, things only became more and more convoluted! lol

You guys are great and the podcast is crazy (emphasis: CRAZY) fun. And the book? I've suggested it in every writing group I'm a part of.

p.s.
Matt, any chance your pilot checklist will make it to book form, too? There are very, VERY few in-depth resources for novelists when it comes to series writing, so we usually have to glean what we can from what's available to tv writers. And you you feel the world doesn't need another book on tv pilot writing, a book that's basically "What Novelists Can Learn From Television Storytelling" would fill a pretty huge gap.

HINT, HINT... :-)

Anthony M. Briggs, Jr. said...

Matt, Matt, Matt. I'm sorry to say I'm disappointed. I've thought for some time now that the ultimate podcast would be one with you and Lou Anders, as you two have consistently been, for YEARS, the most illuminating guests that pop up on other people's podcasts. So when I stumbled on your new podcast I hit couldn't hit subscribe fast enough. I listened to the first two episodes yesterday. Already I don't remember what the first one was about. No problem, I thought, he's just getting in the seat, revving the engine. Second one should be good.

It wasn't.

You spent the entire time engaging in witty banter about whether the word 'easy' was the best word for a well known concept! This is not a 'secret' nor a 'secrets of story' topic. Maybe more of a 'secrets of writing pithy writing guides' topic. You called it easy way/hard way, James called it inherited sword forged sword, KM Weiland calls it 'the lie the hero believes' in her podcast... this is all well known and all the same thing, an MC's flawed perspective at the beginning contrasted against an awaked perspective at the end. You didn't say anything new about the concept, just debated over your efficiency of your delivery of it.

:(

There are three or four podcasts that you were a guest in that I listen to repeatedly. The breakdown you did about Terminator 2 was off the chain. No one, on any writer's podcast, was giving analysis like that. Your discussion about irony, your discussion about subtext, these were serious contributions to the thought process of this writer. Maybe you being a co-host set my expectations too high. But a half-an-hour of 'let's come up with a pithy way to say this' is not, in my opinion, tapping your potential.

I don't know your co-host, James. I took a look at his book. He sounds articulate and knowledgeable and the positive reviews for his book paint him as an imaginative, skilled writer. I seriously think the two of you can put together an impactful podcast for writers. My biggest suggestion (and hope) is that you focus on topics that writers of novels/screenplays would benefit from. I can tell you right now I don't have 2 hours to listen to a reading of a screen-play James wrote based on your throw-away idea, hoping to sift out some nuggets somewhere in there.

Of course, I can't say what you guys should be. If that's the kind of podcast you want to set up, by all means go for it. But if you want to target the writer like me, aspiring but not yet professional, trying to study the craft, but without a lot of free time to do so due to full time work that pays the bills and family duties - this style won't appeal to me. You're veering more toward the I Should Be Writing and Adventures in SciFi publishing style of rambling.

Consider the style of Writing Excuses, KM Weiland, and even the Odyssey excerpts. All relatively short, focused on digging in to one topic. Narrative Breakdown was a departure from this in going a bit longer, but it was still generally focused on digging in deep to a single topic with a wide variety of examples in the discussion. Those are impactful podcasts and they meet the demand of the little-time aspiring writing.

I'll check back in for episode 4 and see which direction you're going. Either way, good luck to you guys!

- Anthony