Podcast

Sunday, November 18, 2018

New Podcast Episode: The Jedi in Decline

I told you we’d be back a lot quicker this time! Well, we spiked an earlier episode about The Last Jedi, but James hijacks this one and finally gets the discussion he wanted.  We start out with my belief that most stories are based on problem solving, but then James brings up the hidden back half of the hero’s journey offered by Lord Raglan, and, of course, brings it all around to a certain recent movie.

And then he claims that you caused Trump by not liking Jar-Jar Binks. Depending on your political bent, you can feel happy or guilty about that!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: The Power and Peril of the “Put a Pin in It” Scene

As I said before, Arundhati Roy begins “The God of Small Things” by jumping all around, not landing at the book’s real 1969 timeline for 40 pages or so. As we jump around, the first scene with dialogue we get is Sophie’s funeral, which comes at the end of the 1969 timeline, not the beginning. After the funeral we see Ammu take her twins to the police station to half-heatedly try to save Velutha, but we have no idea what’s going on, and Roy doesn’t tell us (Partially because Rahel, our POV character, doesn’t understand, or wants to pretend that she doesn’t understand). The police send Ammu away, and she gets on a bus where she mysteriously says to her kids, “He’s dead, I’ve killed him.” Then we move forward again two weeks to when Estha is sent away, then we move ahead to adult-Rahel’s return, then back to Estha’s earlier adult life, etc.

The brief police station is a “put a pin in it” scene. “Remember this for later, reader, because it will finally make sense to you 300 pages from now.”

This scene could make us say “Ooh, what’s going on here with the police? Who did Ammu kill? I can’t wait to read the book and find out!” but it doesn’t really have that effect. If we had immediately jumped from Ammu saying “I’ve killed him” back to a week before, then we’d have the sense of “Good, now we’ll find out what she meant!”, but since we keep jumping forward, and then jumping around in the adult timeline for a while, we strain to keep our finger on that pin, occasionally asking ourselves, “Wait, what was going on at that police station? Will any of these events we’re seeing now make that clear?”

The trick with such scenes is to keep the reader from wondering, “Wait, was I supposed to understand that?” That’s always my problem with such scenes. Instead of thinking, “Ooh, I can’t wait to find out what was happening there!”, I always find myself thinking, “I’m so dumb for not understanding that scene. It should have been obvious to me how Ammu was killing a man in that last scene.”

How do you write such scenes so they’re clearly unclear? So that the reader will say, “Obviously I wasn’t supposed to understand that yet, and now I’m excited to later find out what was going on,” rather than “I think I was supposed to understand that, but I didn’t.” I would have appreciated a little more hand-holding. Roy could have said something like, “Rahel didn’t know what she meant, and it was only many years later she would put the events together and figure it out.” That would let us know that it wasn’t clear yet but it would be clear later.

Ultimately, Roy doesn’t seem particularly concerned with this question. This is literary fiction, and the reader is supposed to bring some hustle to the game. This is a wildly successful novel, by any measure, but nevertheless, if I’d been giving her notes, I would have begged for just a tiny bit more help, making it clear that it was unclear.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Capture the Logic of Childhood

The major question that hangs over “The God of Small Things”, the question that adult-Rahel seems to be trying to answer for herself, is why Sophie Mol and Velutha had to die, all those years earlier. One of the reasons is that seven year olds don’t make good decisions. The twins’ bad decisions contribute to Sophie’s accidental drowning, and then they are forced to accuse Velutha, who is beaten to death by the police. Now two people are dead, but the twins never really recover either, at least not by age 31.

In order to tell this story, Roy must intimately capture the faulty logic of seven year olds, and I can say, as the father of a seven year old daughter, and a former seven year old myself, that she does a great job.

We jump around a lot at first, but the first real scene we get is Sophie’s funeral (while Velutha is dying in police custody, but we don’t know that, and young Rahel only kind of knows it). Inside Rahel’s head, Roy captures her thoughts and musings:

  • She noticed that Sophie Mol was awake for her funeral. She showed Rahel Two Things.
  • Thing One was the newly painted high dome of the yellow church that Rahel hadn’t ever looked at from the inside. It was painted blue like the sky, with drifting clouds and tiny whizzing jet planes with white trails that crisscrossed in the clouds. It’s true (and must be said) that it would have been easier to notice these things lying in a coffin looking up than standing in the pews, hemmed in by sad hips and hymnbooks.
  • Rahel thought of the someone who had taken the trouble to go up there with cans of paint, white for the clouds, blue for the sky, silver for the jets, and brushes, and thinner. She imagined him up there, someone like Velutha, barebodied and shining, sitting on a plank, swinging from the scaffolding in the high dome of the church, painting silver jets in a blue church sky.
  • She thought of what would happen if the rope snapped. She imagined him dropping like a dark star out of the sky that he had made. Lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret
  • [later:]
  • When they lowered Sophie Mol’s coffin into the ground in the little cemetery behind the church, Rahel knew that she still wasn’t dead.
  • [later:]
  • Inside the earth Sophie Mol screamed, and shredded satin with her teeth. But you can’t hear screams through earth and stone.
  • Sophie Mol died because she couldn’t breathe.
  • Her funeral killed her.

Young Rahel imagines that someone like Velutha might have painting the ceiling, and then imagines him falling to his death, which shows her subconscious struggling with her vague realization of Velutha’s actual mortal peril. We see her convince herself that Sophie is killed by the funeral, not the drowning, which absolves Rahel of her guilt.

But here’s the great thing about this passage: It’s almost funny. The situation could not be more serious, but Roy’s voice (which is only slightly removed from Rahel’s voice, see below*) is so true-to-life that we can’t help but smile. Morbid seven year olds are amusing, in a Wednesday Addams sort of way.

We nervously laugh at this because it’s uncomfortably intimate. We remember what it was like to look at the world through young eyes, to let our imaginations run away with us, not in a “Reading Rainbow” sort of way, but in strange, dark ways. We never thought a book would remind us of those forgotten thoughts, retrace the path of that twisted logic. People cite this as their favorite book not because they love its dark subject matter, but because they feel Roy has been in their heads, and they find that strange intimacy intoxicating.

As with our last book, it’s great to give your hero unique eyes. They should look at the world and see things only they would see. From the first page, even as an adult, Rahel has oddly overimaginative eyes. She looks at nature and sees human emotions where none exist. Nature’s clashes become petulant human squabbles. We then go back to when she was a kid and she cannot look at a corpse without bringing it to life: Sophie’s still alive, so that means she’s looking up at the ceiling, I wonder what she sees… Oh, she sees the newly painted ceiling… I wonder who painted it? Probably someone like Velutha? What if he fell? She can’t deal with the body on the coffin, but she’s happy to create one on the ground. And of course, one corpse will lead to the other in real life, but neither she nor we understand that at this point. This book rewards rereading!

* As I say above, this is all a great example of subjective 3rd person narration, which is one of the hardest ways to write. In the above paragraphs, despite the 3rd-person pronouns, we’re obviously entirely inside Rahel’s head, seeing only what she’s seeing, thinking what she’s thinking, feeling what she’s feeling. Roy will later take advantage of being in 3rd to show us scenes that Rahel doesn’t see …but crucially, they’re all scenes (like Estha’s molestation) that Rahel hears about or intuits later. They still fit under the umbrella of things grown-up-Rahel might put together to try to make sense of in modern day.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Help Us Get Our Feet on the Ground (Or Don’t, If That’s What You’d Prefer)

Last time we looked at the way Arundhati Roy accumulates reality from small, odd, vivid details, but once we piece it together “The God of Small Things” is actually a fairly plot-packed story: We get a riot, a molestation, an accidental drowning, and a police murder all happening in a weeklong-period.

So let’s talk about how authors get us to commit to a book in the first chapter, especially one where the narrator (1st or 3rd person) has some perspective on events. The traditional way to is to promise that a lot of juicy stuff is going to happen later on if you keep reading. And indeed, this books is well set-up to do that. We begin with an adult Rahel coming back to town in modern-day to reunite with her long-lost brother and deal with how the event that separated them and traumatized their lives. We will then spend most of the book reliving that eventful week.

I know how I would have written that first chapter: We meet our mysterious heroine as she gets off the train, we find out just a little bit about her, we see that she’s on a mission. She meets with someone from her past while looking for her silent brother, and obliquely references the riot, the molestation, the drowning, and the murder (Now our appetite is whetted for the shocking events to come). Then she finds her brother and tries to speak but the memories flood over her. Then we cut back to the day of the riot and we quickly get dialogue of 7-year-old Rahel in that time period. Now our two heroines (adult Rahel in 1993 and young Rahel in 1969) are established. From that point, Roy would be free to jump around to other points in time, such as the birth of the twins, the mother’s later death, Rahel’s own failed marriage, etc.

But Roy doesn’t do that. She’s all over the place and it’s hard to put your feet down anywhere for the first thirty pages or so. When I read the book, I read those thirty pages, realized I was totally lost, and decided I’d better go back and read them over again if I was going to continue. I did so, was glad I did, and then kept going until I was able to put my feet down around page 40 or so.  While this whole process was going on, I was loving the book, because of the sentences, but I was struggling with committing to the plot.

Roy does foreshadow the book’s momentous events in these opening chapters, but because I didn’t have a sense of whether they were going to happen in a timeline I was going to stick to, they didn’t whet my appetite very much. What I really wanted was dialogue. Dialogue tells me to put my feet down, but the first dialogue we get is at Sophie’s funeral, which actually comes at the end of the 1969 timeline, not the beginning, so that just discombobulated me further.

Here are four consecutive paragraphs that show how Roy is jumping around

  • In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
  • Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
  • She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
  • She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.

Now, obviously, this book was a huge award-winner and best seller, and Roy knows exactly what she’s doing.  She isn’t trying to do what I want her to do and failing, she’s doing what she intends to do and succeeding. To a certain degree, her style is emblematic of what is referred to (somewhat problematically) as post-colonial literature (Roy would probably dispute the “post” part). One of the most famous first sentences in literature is from what is perhaps the ultimate post-colonial book, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

  • Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Right there in the opening sentence, we have three time periods mixed up, and the reader will have a hard time getting his or her feet on the ground after that …and yet it’s very easy to fall in love with the book.

Such writing has its pleasures. Readers do enjoy being challenged. We can admire how such writing captures the feeling of being lost and overwhelmed by the modern world, and, as we make sense of it, we can gain tools to sift through and make sense of our own jumbled lives.

Post-colonial writers have literally had the ground yanked out from underneath their feet by invaders, and now that they have reclaimed their countries, they’re trying to find their footing again. But the ground isn’t letting them. It keeps shifting. When they describe their work in interviews, many of them say that their sense of identity, both personal and national, remains fractured. The style of post-colonial literature captures and grapples with that problem.

So the question is, should non-post-colonial writers emulate this style? These are, after all, best-selling and beloved books. But it’s a lot to ask of your reader, especially if it’s not a style that you are personally deeply committed to. Unless you feel that such a style is an essential expression of your theme, you might want to put the reader’s feet on the ground a little more firmly than Roy does, just with a few uses of grounding dialogue.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Abundance of Adjectives and Adverbs in “The God of Small Things”

You may have noticed that in each of my annotations I’ve praised opening sentences for having no adjectives or adverbs, and in our last post I was especially critical of two adjectives together that require a comma. Well let’s look at the opening sentence of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”:

  • May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month

The dreaded stumbling-block comma! Indeed this first chapter is an avalanche of adjectives, with sentences like this one to be found later:

  • She heard (on Sophie Mol’s behalf) the soft sounds of the red mud and the hard sounds of the orange laterite that spoiled the shining coffin polish.

Five adjectives in one sentence! But let’s go back and look at the rest of that opening paragraphs to figure out how Roy gets away with using so many adjectives without trying the reader’s patience:

  • The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

Ten more adjectives and, what’s worse, two adverbs! Yet it’s a glorious opening paragraph, is it not? So what is she doing?

  • First of all, it’s intriguingly odd how she imputes human emotions to nature: “Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously.” She’s not really describing what we would see, she’s generating a strange world we would never see if we didn’t see it through her eyes. Simply saying “bluebottles hum” wouldn’t do that job.
  • She’s using fresh adjectives of her own invention: We get the first of many portmanteaus with “dustgreen”. Later we’ll get “wetgreen” and “thunderdarkness”. When the mom passes away, Roy will point out that 31 is “a viable die-able age” (Roy knows she’s got a great, pithy phrase there, and so she reuses it four times in the book!)
  • Her adjectives create conflict: Black crows (death) gorge (a violent verb) on bright mangos (life).  “Dustgreen” is death and life in one word.  She’s not just painting a pretty tableau, she’s imbuing nature with life so that it can fight itself. Her adjectives clash.  

Ultimately, she will justify her non-leanness, her abundance of detail, with the book’s title. Who is the God of Small Things? It’s Roy herself. The whole idea is that tragedies can only be remembered as, and are perhaps best understood as, an accumulation of small things. Why does Sophie (and the book’s actual victim of injustice, Velutha) die? What is the one cause? There isn’t one, because there are hundreds of small things that added up to it.

This is a memory book (though the book is third-person and not entirely limited to Rahel’s firsthand memories). Rahel is trying to piece it all back together and sifting through portentous images and impressions that she accumulated that week, which she and Roy are now re-examining in great detail. Fine-grained descriptions are the whole point. Somewhere in these small things, there is a god who will tell us why these people had to die.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Cut Most of Your Adjectives and Adverbs

So I’ve got a problem: I was going to talk about how Arundhati Roy uses a lot of adjectives and adverbs, which goes against my advice, but then I realized I never actually gave that advice, because I couldn’t post the piece I wrote.

Last year, I was doing a lot of Storyteller’s Rulebook pieces based on examples from notes I’d given, but that was annoying, because I had to run them by the person I gave the notes to, to see if I could share their sentences. Well the author of these sentences asked me to hold off until the story was published. But now the story has been published (though the author has still asked not to be identified) so I’m free to post it, before I offer Roy as a counterpoint next time:

The original piece:

One of the biggest problems I see is the use of too many adjectives and adverbs. I’m certainly not the first editor to carp about this, but I’ll add my voice to the multitudes

Let’s look at a sentence from one of the authors I read: “The sky was a gray iron wall locked down thick and tight, the snow was swarming and swimming crazily around like it wanted in.” Now let’s cut “gray”, “thick and”, and “crazily.” “The sky was an iron wall locked down tight, the snow was swarming and swimming around like it wanted in.”

Never use two adjectives when one will do, and one will almost always do. One adjective usually implies the other, so the other is not needed. Iron implies gray, so you don’t need gray. Iron and tight, working together, imply thick, so cut thick. As for the adverb, “swarming and swimming” implies crazily, so cut crazily. Don’t bore us within a sentence by giving us the same information twice, first in verb form and then in adverb form.

Readers don’t want to luxuriate in your mellifluous sentences. They want to know what’s going on. They want to see it and feel it, then they want to move on to the next image as soon as possible. This is a good sentence, once the fat is trimmed out.

It doesn’t apply to this sentence, but one rule is that you should never use two adjectives that need a comma between them: Big blue ball doesn’t feel like it needs a comma between big and blue, so it’s fine. Cold, breezy day needs a comma, so you should probably cut one of the adjectives. Commas are speed-bumps, causing the reader to stumble and slowing down the reading process.

Here’s another sentence from that manuscript: “I stared at the blocks stupidly.” Adverbs almost always feel like apologies for failing to find an interesting verb, as if you’re saying, “I was staring, and I know that’s not very interesting, but what if I told you it was doing so stupidly?” Don’t apologize. Trust your verbs. Force us to be content with staring. It’s not possible to stare at blocks intelligently (unless the next line is, “and I spotted an important clue!”) Just cut the adverb, 90% of the time.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Annotation Project: The God of Small Things

Another bestselling novel from 1997!  I know what you’re thinking: “Um, isn’t this a big jump from Lee Child?” But is it? Both Jack Reacher and Rahel Ipa have amazing eyes that note many small things that others miss, which we’ll discuss more soon...  (Here’s the doc.)










Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Self Editing Advice from Novelist Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy is an award-winning YA novelist who wrote the excellent novels pictured above. His “Divided We Fall” trilogy was painfully prescient about our current moment. How did he get to be such a good writer? He has a skill that every writer needs: rigorous self-editing. I’m Facebook friends with Trent and he uses that forum to humorously beat himself up for things he finds as he self-edits his work, and I asked him if I could reprint some of those here. Here’s a few things we could all learn from Trent:

Avoid needless plot digressions:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! Nobody wants to read about the oh-so-brave explorers who go on a 3 page venture deep into a hole and back up for no reason. 

Avoid using the same word, even in different forms, in the same sentence:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! “These murderers had murdered members of his crew” Eh. Golly. No. Pound Sign: Worst Writer Ever

Don’t reuse descriptions:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! You can't keep describing every single fast action as happening “in seconds.” Pound Sign: WWE

Don’t describe things the hero wouldn’t notice, even in third person:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! Nobody swinging from a cable and crashing through a window into the Burj Khalifa to collide with a sofa is going to take the time to recognize that said sofa is “expensive-looking.” Pound Sign. Worst Writer Ever

Avoid unnecessary adverbs and similes:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot. It's just a hallway, even if it’s on a space ship. Nobody cares how they walk down it. Pound Sign: Worst Writer Ever.

Police yourself for phrases borrowed from other writers:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot, you can’t put “speed born of desperation” into a book. That “I've heard that phrase before” tingling in the back of your mind is right. Just Google it. Pound Sign. Worst Writer.

And, of course, like anyone trying to improve their behavior, sometimes Trent has to tell himself something twice, as these two separate posts attest:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot. People can say things. They can shout, yell, and maybe even exclaim, but unless it’s the king, nobody in this book is going to proclaim anything. Pound Sign: dialogue tags on steroids Pound Sign: WWE
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! It is almost never necessary to use “proclaimed” as a dialogue tag. If the words themselves don't convey a proclamation, the tag is never going to make up the difference!

Trent’s brand-new book is “Gamer Army” and it looks fantastic! Check it out right now…

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Podcast Episode 7: Expectations

Can it be? A seventh episode of the podcast? More than a year late? It is! And we have an eighth ready to go in three weeks! Enjoy!

(Fun fact: Soundcloud just removed the first two episodes and informed me that I have to pay twice as much now ($16 dollars a month unto eternity instead the current $8 a month) if I want them back.  This is insane, in a world in which YouTube hosts all the video you want for free forever.  Is there no better way to do this?)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

So Why Do David Remnick and Malcolm Gladwell Like Jack Reacher So Much?

A lot of you have been holding your nose as I’ve stunk up the place these last two weeks with an examination of Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel, “Killing Floor”. And I myself have had quite of few criticisms of it. Of course, I could counter that by focusing on how wildly financially successful the books are, but these books don’t just appeal to the teeming masses.

David Remnick is one of America’s most elite literary minds. He’s been the editor of “The New Yorker” for 20 years, and he currently hosts “The New Yorker Radio Hour”. Their August 10th episode was about summer reads. This being the “New Yorker”, one of them of course recommends “Moby Dick”, but Remnick differs:

  • “When summer rolls around I tend to reach for something, well, sometimes, a little shorter, a little lighter, and with more fistfights. For years I’ve been devouring a series of books about an ex-military-cop named Jack Reacher. Huge, hard-nosed, a quiet stranger who wanders into town and finds trouble inevitably… This all-American tough guy is the creation of one Lee Child…Lee Child, it’s an absolute delight to have you here, you’ve made so many summers come alive for me.”

Later, Remnick calls Child “a great writer of thrillers.” And Remnick is not alone, his “New Yorker” colleague, and acclaimed author in his own rite, Malcolm Gladwell has written about “The Lawless Pleasures of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher Novels”.

How can they like these pulpy messes, hastily written without research, outlining or revision, filled with unintentionally comedic machismo? Well, mostly for the same reasons I do: Even these high-intellectuals appreciate Reacher’s inimitable voice. For his part Gladwell says:

  • “Action, in a Reacher book, is nearly always a secondary matter. We know going in that Reacher will kill the bad guy through some combination of tactical brilliance and brute force. The pleasure is in Reacher’s moment of introspection in the millisecond before the action occurs: his silent consideration of the variables of physics, geometry, and psychology that comprise a violent encounter…”

He later concludes: “I’ve read all twenty of Lee Child’s novels. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. But I can’t wait for the twenty-first.”

But there’s another thing going on here, too. These books offer the pleasures of macho reading without a lot of the drawbacks.

Reacher’s most obvious literary antecedent is Mickey Spillaine’s Mike Hammer, who was both the last of the great hard-boiled dicks and the first of a new generation of bullet-spitting, commie-hating, over-the-top manly men who sold to a much broader paperback-reading audience. Spillaine was a better writer than Child, and he has his literary defenders, but he began a trend of alienating liberal readers that most macho writers have kept with. Child, however, breaks with it.

Don’t get me wrong, Reacher is explicitly anti-Democrat. In the first book’s third paragraph, Reacher tells us, “I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a president I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time.” He’s not naming any names, but given that the book was written in 1996, it’s not hard to figure out who he’s talking about. He goes on to complain about said president cutting the military budget, and those cuts turn out to have emboldened the bad guys and triggered their plan (Remember when Democrats would actually cut military budgets? That was a long time ago!)

But even old-school liberal Democrats like Remnick and Gladwell like and identify with Reacher, in a way they could never identify with a bundle of hate like Hammer.

One of Reacher’s most salient qualities is that, unlike most macho paperback heroes, he’s humane. He has interest in and empathy for the downtrodden. He is, after all, first and foremost, a homeless man (albeit by choice). Here he is riding to the police station after being falsely arrested:

  • I was alone in the back of the car. A thick glass partition divided the space. The front doors were still open. Baker and Stevenson got in. Baker drove. Stevenson was twisted around keeping me under observation. Nobody talked. The backup car followed. The cars were new. Quiet and smooth riding. Clean and cool inside. No ingrained traces of desperate and pathetic people riding where I was riding.  
  • I looked out of the window. Georgia. I saw rich land. Heavy, damp red earth. Very long and straight rows of low-bushes in the fields. Peanuts, maybe. Belly crops, but valuable to the grower. Or to the owner. Did people own their land here? Or did giant corporations? I didn’t know.

When Remnick and Gladwell read these books at their beach houses, they’re not going to wince with embarrassment at Reacher’s politics or worldview. Reacher tucks payment and tip under his plate as he’s being arrested at a diner and he’s a gentleman with his love interest, whom he described in non-salacious ways.

Child, who is himself an anti-Thatcher guy, has created a hero that will appeal to everyone. He knows that his most hardcore audience will be truckers and other mostly-conservative men, but his work has reached millions more by combining Spillaine’s two-fisted red-meat appeal with his own BBC-bred humanism. He’s hit the sweet spot.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

How To Plot a Mystery: How to Get Your Hero Into and Out of Trouble

The hardest part of thriller writing is getting your hero into and out of trouble in compelling and believable ways. The easiest way to get your hero into trouble is to have him do something stupid. Blunder into danger. You see this in genre fiction all the time and readers hate it. We want to admire your hero. We want to feel that we’ve picked the right hero to handle this situation. Your hero can make mistakes, of course, but it’s always better if they’re not dumb mistakes.

We love to see our heroes fall into traps, but only if they’re clever traps.

“Killing Floor” accomplishes this just fine. Our heroes have a series of unexpected reversals throughout, but not because they do anything dumb. The biggest reversal happens on schedule around the ¾ point: Our heroes know that the local cops can’t be trusted, so they bring an FBI agent into the loop, but then, by bad luck, it turns out that the FBI guy is in league with the bad guys (as we discussed before, coincidences are more acceptable is they hurt the hero.) They show up to meet the fed in a motel room, only to discover all the bad guys waiting for them with guns.

But then we get to problem #2: How do the heroes get out of trouble?

At this point, in the book, Child has me where he wants me: I’m thinking, “Uh oh, how are my heroes ever going to get out of this one?? The good guys did everything right, but they made one mistake and now they’ve lost everything! The bad guys have all the cards!”

So now Child has several questions to answer. The most obvious is, “So why don’t the villains just kill the heroes straightaway?” Thankfully, he has a good answer for this: The bad guys falsely (but logically) assume that the good guys know where one of their missing confederates is. They intend to hold the good cop hostage while Child leads them to the missing man.

(Now we get to the first odd thing: It’s important that your hero get out of things cleverly, so Reacher should instantly say, “Yup, we’ve got him stashed away and I’ll take you to him.” Instead, Reacher says, somewhat idiotically, “I thought he was dead. I don’t have him.” But thankfully they don’t believe him and Reacher catches on that he should pretend he can lead them to the man.)

They send their man Picard and two gunmen off with Reacher. Now the odd decisions multiply. The two gunmen take their own car and Picard has Reacher drive his own car. Should they all get in one car so Picard can drive and the others can hold Reacher at gunpoint in the back? But fine, let’s go with it.

Then they stop for breakfast, which again, seems odd, as the bad guys are under a big deadline, and it gives Reacher a chance to pocket a knife, but fine I’ll go with it.

Reacher leads them far out of town until they run out of gas, refills it himself, punctures the tire with the knife and gets back in the car, and drives off: So far, so clever.

When the tire eventually flattens on the highway, Reacher does another thing clever: It’s been well established before that Reacher has a box full of counterfeit hundreds in the trunk, so Reacher causes a distraction by cutting it open and letting the hundreds spray over the highway. That’s great.

Then something crazy happens: Reacher suddenly has his big-ass gun in his hand and shoots Picard dead!

What?? Reacher had his gun on him this whole time?? They never searched him?? It’s the most jaw-dropping moment in a jaw-dropping book, and not in a good way.

I went back and reread it for this blog post to see if I could figure it out.  On second readthrough it still made no sense.  But on a third reread  I scanned back through the book to find the last previous mention of the gun. Sure enough, I found a mention 50 pages before of putting the gun in his coat, and then I found a mention 10 pages after that of putting the coat in the trunk. So I guess it makes sense, but there’s two big problems here:

  • The first is that they never searched Reacher for a gun, which would have reminded us to wonder, “Oh yeah, what did happen to Reacher’s gun?”
  • Second, when Reacher finds himself at the trunk, Child never tells us that he finds the gun in the trunk! He just says that Reacher shoots Picard without mentioning where this gun came from!

Child needed to say that they searched Reacher in the motel room and found no gun and then he needed to do one of two things:

  • Either make it clear right then that the gun was waiting for him in the trunk, and then have everything from that point be a conscious series of events to get that gun back (but then that would have called attention to the fact that it made no sense to take Reacher’s car. Maybe have Reacher cleverly trick him into taking his car.)
  • Or Child could let us forget about the gun, but then reveal when he opens the trunk: “But there was one thing Picard didn’t know: That morning I’d put my gun in my coat, then I put my coat in the trunk, and it’d been waiting for me there the whole time. I picked it up, but to be safe, I needed a distraction, so I cut open the box…”

Instead, Child just gives the impression that Reacher could have whipped out a gun at any point, and it’s a laugh-out-loud moment. He’s really starting to convince me that he’s telling the truth when he says he didn’t revise the book!

The moments where your hero gets into and out of trouble are very tricky. Your reader is watching you like a hawk to see if they believe it, each way. You have to make it clear how the villain cleverly gets the jump on the hero and how the hero even more cleverly gets the jump on the villain. You have to play fair. After carefully rereading, I see that Child did have the elements he needed, but he just needed to revise so we could keep track of the gun, so that it didn’t seem to magically appear.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: News You Can Use in "Killing Floor"

We mentioned last time that readers of Lee Child’s books admire Jack Reacher’s eyes, wishing we could see the world the way he sees it (although one commenter with more “threatening someone with a shotgun” experience than I pointed out it wasn’t the best advice), but let’s look at more examples of this.

I’ve talked before about the three kinds of jargon we like to find in a story:

  • Colorful but incomprehensible jargon that’s never explained: Reacher unleashes a blizzard of gun calibers, but we just take his word on it.
  • Nitty-gritty details about this world that they do explain: In this book, we learn a lot about counterfeiting.
  • The best of all, inside tips about this world that are also applicable to the life of the viewer: This book is full of this stuff. For example…

First and foremost the first chapter is a manual on “how to get arrested”. The most important advice here, of course, is don’t say a word, even when asked innocuous questions, even when asked to confirm you understand your rights. We also get very workaday details, such as that it’s hard to get your thumbprint to fit into the space on the form.

But the rest of the book has a torrent of advice about all sorts of things, often ludicrously macho advice. Here’s my favorite:

  • Then I cheated. Instead of counting three I headbutted him full in the face. Came off the back foot with a thrust up the legs and whipped my head forward and smashed it into his nose. It was beautifully done. The forehead is a perfect arch in all planes and very strong. The skull at the front is very thick. I have a ridge up there like concrete. The human head is very heavy. All kinds of neck muscles and back muscles balance it. It’s like getting hit in the face with a bowling ball. It’s always a surprise. People expect punching or kicking. A headbutt is always unexpected. It comes out of the blue.

I hope you’re writing this down. Absurdly, I read that and said, “Hell yeah, that’s what I’d do! It’s a perfect arch!” (Note: I am only tall enough to headbutt Bruno Mars).

Readers eat this shit up. I know I do.

And the crazy thing, as evidenced by my commenter, is that this might all be bullshit. The author is a tweedy English guy who’s never been in the police or the military or prison, never lived in America, and probably never been in a fight! But most readers (millions of them, anyway) don’t care. As with everything else in life, do it with confidence and people will believe you.

Next time: The thing I said I would get to next time last time.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Big Motivation Hole (And Big Coincidence) in “Killing Floor”

Lee Child insists that he doesn’t research, doesn’t outline, and doesn’t revise. He just sits down and writes, and the most he ever deletes is seven words, which he finds painful to do because “it’s inefficient.” He is, almost certainly, lying. Writers are strongly encouraged to lie about such things by their publishers. It creates the impression that the voice of the muses flows through the author’s pen directly onto the page, perfect and immutable. The reader is communing with the heavens. This is not a product that someone has clumsily constructed at great effort, tweaked and calibrated to manipulate our emotions.

But at times, Child’s claim is somewhat convincing, because “Killing Floor” sure could have used more revision than it got. This was Child’s first novel, and he seems to have fallen into a classic beginner’s trap: The motivation hole. We begin with a neat set-up. Jack Reacher is a former MP who decided to drop off the grid and become a hobo. His only living relative is a brother he hasn’t seen in years, but the last time her heard from him, his brother mentioned that he’d passed through a town in Georgia and heard some rumors about a Depression-era blues guitarist they both like. One day Reacher is on a greyhound bus that passes a few miles away from the town and impulsive gets off and walks into town. But an unidentified corpse is found nearby and the cops decide that the drifter must be the killer. And then we’re off to the races.

This is a neat set up for a book: A falsely-accused drifter in a small town has to clear his name. We haven’t seen that a lot before. It’s more compelling than just a cop on the job. And it’s fun to root for a homeless guy for once.

But then we run into the motivation hole, because after about 100 pages, Reacher has convinced the local detective Finlay he couldn’t have done it (the bus driver alibied him). Normally, at this point, our hero could have decided to keep helping with the murder because he’s intrigued, or out of civic duty, and maybe that was the original plan, but Child, to his credit, seems to have listened to his hero, who told him that he didn’t really care. Reacher was free to go, and he was inclined to do so, so the book was over without the crime being solved.

To keep him there, Child pulls out the world’s biggest coincidence: before Reacher can leave town, the corpse is identified as his brother. True, his brother had told him about the town, but it’s sheer coincidence that Reacher showed up an hour after his brother was killed, especially because, as far as Reacher knew, his brother had just passed through once, months ago.

Obviously, this gives Reacher the secondary motivation he needs to get through the rest of the book: revenge, resulting in a far more clich├ęd book.

But how do we deal with that massive coincidence? Child simply has Reacher marvel over it for a minute:

  • I leaned up against his warm metal flank and thought.
  • The United States is a giant country. Millions of square miles. Best part of three hundred million people. I hadn’t seen Joe for seven years, and he hadn’t seen me, but we’d ended up in exactly the same tiny spot, eight hours apart. I’d walked within fifty yards of where his body had been lying. That was one hell of a big coincidence. It was almost unbelievable. So Finlay was doing me a big favor by treating it like a coincidence. He should be trying to tear my alibi apart. Maybe he already was. Maybe he was already on the phone to Tampa, checking again.
  • But he wouldn’t find anything, because it was a coincidence. No point going over and over it. I was only in Margrave because of a crazy last-minute whim. If I’d taken a minute longer looking at the guy’s map, the bus would have been past the cloverleaf and I’d have forgotten all about Margrave. I’d have gone on up to Atlanta and never known anything about Joe. It might have taken another seven years before the news caught up with me. So there was no point getting all stirred up about the coincidence. The only thing I had to do was to decide what the hell I was going to do about it.

Got that, reader? “No point going over and over it.” “No point getting all stirred up about the coincidence.” We’re moving on.

Now John August has a rule of coincidences which states that you can get away with one big coincidence in each story as long as it hurts the hero instead of helping him. And this seems to fit at first: The victim being Reacher’s brother makes no sense in the current narrative, but it makes perfect sense if Reacher came to town to kill his estranged brother. So he should be back in the detective’s crosshairs.

But he’s not. The detective just accepts the coincidence. Moving on. It’s absurd.

This fits what I said last time: Novel readers love voice, and its close cousin, character. At this point, we love Reacher, and we’ll go anywhere with him, even into absurdity. We’re glad he didn’t stick around out of civic duty, because this is a fully-realized character who wouldn’t do that, so we accept the coincidence so that the book can keep going.

Don’t get me wrong: We’re annoyed, and we wish Child had revised to avoid creating a motivation hole that could only be patched by a big coincidence. We’re a little alienated by that, but ultimately, we go with it, because we like this guy and we like this case and we want to see how he kicks everybody’s ass (and shoots a lot of them in the head.)

Next time: Another thing that should have been revised!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Why Do They Only Want Fifteen Pages?


When I work with authors, one of their greatest frustrations is that potential agents and publishers, and even some contests, only want to read the first 5-15 pages. Authors ask, “How am I supposed to establish my big plot in 15 pages? How are I supposed to introduce all my appealing characters? Maybe I can cram the first 100 pages down into those 15 pages to maximize their value…”

But of course that’s the last thing the gatekeepers want. If they care about your plot, they’ll additionally ask you for a one-page summary of the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, theyd prefer the plot kick off strongly in those first 15 pages, and maybe get to plot point #2 as a cliffhanger on page 15, but the last thing they want to do is have to digest 6 plot points crammed in to those 15 pages. And they’ll be glad to discover later that you’ve got lots of appealing characters, but they don’t want to meet a lot of them in those 15 pages.

No, the real thing they’re looking for is the hardest part of writing: voice. If you’re writing in third person, they’ll give you a few pages to establish this, because voice is more subtle in third person, but if it’s first person, forget it: they might just read your first page before they give up.

Tweedy English BBC director James Grant (soon to adopt the pen name Lee Child) got fired at age 39 and sat down at a computer to see if he could write a book. He claims that he didn’t outline or revise. Supposedly, he just started typing and composed a first paragraph:

  • I WAS ARRESTED IN ENO’S DINER. AT TWELVE O’CLOCK. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

That’s exactly what they’re looking for before they request your full manuscript. A distinctive, intriguing voice. Distinctive syntax. A rhythm and pace. Of course, it helps that (as with Beloved’s first page) we get more right away: a situation, threat, and setting. We know where we are and what we’re reading about. All in three lines.

Further down the page, we get something even better:

  • The guy with the revolver stayed at the door. He went into a crouch and pointed the weapon two-handed. At my head. The guy with the shotgun approached close. These were fit lean boys. Neat and tidy. Textbook moves. The revolver at the door could cover the room with a degree of accuracy. The shotgun up close could splatter me all over the window. The other way around would be a mistake.

The hero not only has a unique voice, he’s got unique eyes. He’s got a distinctive way of looking at the world. He sees things we wouldn’t see, and we feel privileged to have an opportunity to look through his eyes. He’s also got idiosyncratic opinions: He wants the guys arresting him to do a good job. That’s manly and appealing.

We don’t know anything about his backstory yet, and we won’t find out more in the first 15 pages, but, more importantly, we can tell that he does have a backstory, and we’re intrigued by it. We want to know more about this guy, but we don’t want him to spill it all right away. We’re content to be intrigued. It’s fun to be intrigued.

I suspect that it only took Child one paragraph to sell this book, or one page at the most.

This is one reason why writers should be writing all the time, even if they’re working on a crappy plot that’s crashing and burning. Novelists are not really in the plot-writing business, they’re in the sentence writing business. Readers want good sentences, so agents and publishers want good sentences. Readers would rather read a lame plot made up of good sentences than a great plot made up of lame sentences.  No matter what you’re writing (even blog posts), you’re writing sentences. You’re choosing words. You’re playing around with rhythm and voice.

 Your voice is your brand. That’s all they’re judging in those 15 pages.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Annotation Project: Killing Floor

Let’s do our first Annotation Project in a while. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are comically macho, but they’re big fun and massive bestsellers. He’s living every aspiring author’s dream: Start at 40, get a big hit with your first book, crank out one a year every year starring that same beloved hero until you’re ready to retire. Let’s figure out how to do that.  You can download a Word version of these notes here.  (I promise our next book will be more literary!)

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: The Peril of Bad Scenework in Justice League

So I finally got around to seeing Justice League, which is nowhere near as bad as Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but still terrible. I don’t talk a lot about “how not to” examples on this blog, but I thought we might pause to look some terrible scenework.

The original version of this movie was made by BvS:DoJ writer/director Zach Snyder, and then it was taken away from him (supposedly he left due to a family emergency, but many reports claim he’d already been forced off the project) and massively rewritten/reshot by Joss Whedon. Everybody liked Whedon’s The Avengers, so the hope was that he would purge Snyder’s darkness, lighten it up, add some jokes, and save the franchise. He did the first three, but not the fourth. From everything I’ve heard, Snyder’s version would have been even worse (Cyborg causes his mom’s death and then dies gruesomely at the end, for instance), but the scenes that are understood to be Whedon’s are pretty terrible, and worse than the remaining Snyder scenes.

To be fair, Whedon had to work incredibly fast and all of the actors were busy doing other things. Gal Gadot was off promoting Wonder Woman and had to be added to many reshot scenes using green screen later. Jason Momoa was shooting his own Aquaman movie. Henry Cavill was famously shooting the latest Mission: Impossible movie and not allowed to shave his mustache to play Superman. So it’s a miracle anything coherent was produced.

Let’s look at three bad scenes, all of which are rumored to be Whedon scenes: Lois Lane’s sit-and-talk with Martha (“Martha!”) Kent,

Bruce Wayne’s walk-and-talk with Diana Prince,

and Aquaman’s stand-and-talk with Mera.

These scenes break all my rules for scenework, and they show how my tips can be useful. Most importantly:

  • There is no reblocking (Bruce and Diana walk parallel to each other, but that doesn’t count)
  • There is no touching in any of the three scenes.
  • There are no objects exchanged (Lois does give Martha [“Martha!”] a coffee cup before they sit down, but then the scene really begins)

Each of these scenes would have been helped immensely by literal push and pull between the characters, preferably with one significant touch. Each would have been far more dynamic if the plot point they were discussing was represented by an object that changed hands.

Worst of all is that, according to the scale I describe here, they’re all level-one “listen and accept” scenes. The first two are bland and placid, while the Aquaman scene is more volatile, but there’s still not any convincing going on. They don’t like each other, but Mera tells Aquaman what he needs to do and Aquaman agrees. In none of them does either party try to force or cajole or trick or seduce the other into doing anything, and nobody is being clever.

Now let’s look at a better scene. This one had reshot inserts by Whedon to interject jokes, but it’s mostly Snyder. Bruce Wayne meets with Barry Allen to try to recruit him for the team.

Bruce actually wants something and is determined to get it. And how does he do that? First Bruce forces Barry to accept a photo of himself showing him using his powers, then Bruce cleverly throws a bat-thingie at Barry to see if he’ll grab it out of the air, and by doing so Barry visibly admits his powers and tacitly accepts his place on the new team. That’s good, basic meat-and-potatoes scenework. It’s not an Oscar clip, but it’s a thousand times more engaging than the other three scenes.

Based on what we’ve seen in other projects, Whedon has more storytelling talent in his pinkie than Snyder has all over, so it’s pretty obvious that Whedon (who took a re-write credit but no re-directing credit) was just spackling in the cracks here. Snyder turned in an unwatchable three hour cut, WB cut all the awfulness out until it was an incomprehensible 90 minutes, and then Whedon had to shoot 30 more minutes to tie everything together with spit and baling wire, even though he couldn’t get all the actors in the same room. So he made it easier on himself by shooting listless unambitious scenes.

The result was a big flop that killed the franchise. The movie technically made a profit but it tanked its company’s stock, which is far worst than losing money.  Aquaman and another Wonder Woman are in the can, but The Flash and Cyborg seem to be cancelled and Affleck and Cavill were let go. Supposedly, WB executives rushed the reshoots so that they didn’t lose their year-end bonuses. Hope they invested the money.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: Act Breaks in Modern Network Sitcoms

35 years separate the earliest and latest sitcom we’ve looked at, “Cheers” and “The Good Place”. Both are NBC Thursday night sitcoms featuring Ted Danson, but a lot has changed in that time.

Every early “Cheers” episode had a teaser, opening credits, commercial, Act 1, commercial at the midpoint, and Act 2. I think in later years they may have added another commercial at the end with a tag after it. These days, all network TV has a lot more commercial breaks, which means a lot more acts. This is for three reasons:

  • Shows are shorter to allow for more ads (22 minutes instead of 26)
  • Advertisers realized they didn’t want to be the middle ad of a five-ad break, so each commercial break has gotten shorter.
  • Networks now like to have no ads between shows to keep you watching the next one, which just makes sense.

The result is that a half hour now has as many commercial breaks (4) as an hour used to have, and when you write a half-hour spec pilot intended for network, you’re supposed to indicate those four act breaks in your script (and a fifth act break at the end, of course).

(Of course, you might say, “That’s super-annoying, I’m not going to do that, I’ll just say that my sitcom is for Netflix or HBO and include no commercial breaks, but if you do, know that the person reading your script will expect it to meet the content expectations of those networks. If it’s obviously a tradition sitcom without breaks, they’ll call foul.)

I don’t have a copy of the “Good Place” pilot taped off TV, but let’s look at where the act breaks seem to have been:

  • 1st act out at 3:17: Eleanor is invited out to see heaven. ”Did I have a purse? No, I’m dead. Right. Okay.” Cut to the brief opening credits.

A commercial would traditionally go here, but I wonder if it really did. One tricky thing about this pilot is that the twist is such of big part of it, both because it makes the show a lot more interesting, and because the main character seems sort of bland before we find out she’s an imposter. I wouldn’t be surprised if, on first airing, they skipped this break. But still, if you were writing the pilot, this would count as a break, and it’s just interesting enough to provide one.

  • 2nd act out at 9:36:  Eleanor hits Chidi with the news that she doesn’t belong there. “There’s been a big mistake, I’m not supposed to be here.” “Wait, what?”

This is the closest thing to a midpoint break, but storywise it’s more like a late ¼ point break, in that this is where the concept is really established, the plot begins, and the character becomes interesting. This is a great twist and a great break.

  • 3rd act out at 17:03: Eleanor gets fed up with trying to behave at Tahani’s party. “I just have to go upstairs and steal a bunch of gold stuff.”

This is close to the ¾ point, but it’s more like a late midpoint break. Having Eleanor try to fit into this world is officially a disaster, so the easy way (bluffing it) won’t work.

  • 4th act out at 20:38: Chidi makes Eleanor see that her badness is causing the world to fall apart. “Eleanor, this is all happening because of you.” “Ah, fork me.”

At this point, the acts are getting very short, which is typical of modern shows. They cram most of the ads into the second half. This one provides a literal spiritual crisis, so it’s a good final ad break.

  • Ending at 22:50:  Eleanor demands that Chidi join her conspiracy. “My soul is in your hands, soulmate. What’s it gonna be?” “Oh, stomachache.”

Ideally, the plot engine (what the hero will do every week) would be established at the midpoint at the latest, but in this case, as we’ve discussed, it’s not until the final moment, or presumably just after the final moment, when Chidi agrees to tutor her.

So that’s how to do network ad breaks these days. Each one has to be interesting enough to keep us from changing channels, which is hard to do four times, but these qualify. Schur had a dozen seasons of network TV under his belt at this point and he was an old master at the ad break business.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Unsustainability of “The Good Place”

I don’t want to talk about it much, for fear of ruining this amazing first season for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but suffice it to say that the season finale (episode 13) ends with a twist that completely blows up the concept of “The Good Place”. Season 2 is an entirely different show which also ends with a finale that blows everything up, and season 3 began last week, starting over from scratch. It certainly seems impossible that this show will last for 125 episodes like “Parks and Recreation” did.

Why do this? Schur seems to be tired of stretching things out for “six seasons and a movie” on his previous shows and now he’s ready to just blow his wad on a jaw-dropping, mind-bending thrill ride, one with no interest in creating familiar comforts, week after week and year after year. And the result is certainly amazing to watch.

The show’s biggest twist arrived at the end of episode 13, but there were little twist-cliffhangers at the end of every episode, which is part of what made it so bingeable. Many of these twists seemed juicy enough to sustain multiple episodes, but Schur and his writers wrung each of them dry one episode at a time, almost willfully. The show never had romance foremost on its mind, though of course that’s a classic slow-burn show sustainer, but this show had one episode (ep 10, iirc) where it quickly tried out and dismissed every possible pairing, then moved on. (Some would be revisited in season 2, and I got the feeling they wished they hadn’t already dismissed them in season 1)

But the second season, while great, is not as great as the first, which begs the question, could they have sustained the original premise if they had wanted to? Could Eleanor’s quest to prove she belonged in heaven by becoming a better person every week have gone on for a syndication-friendly 100 episodes? How many different ways are there to try to be a better person? For that matter, could the mystery of how she got there have unspooled much more slowly?

Maybe? The number one strength that used to be prized in sitcom writers was the ability to create the illusion of growth and change without ever upsetting the status quo. If the show had stuck with its original premise, it could have easily gotten dreadful, or perhaps it could have gotten richer as it progressed far more gradually. We’ll never know.

Let’s look at more checklist boxes this show doesn’t check:
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
No, it’s not really a strong plot engine.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Just the opposite.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
No, it does seem resolvable: It’s better (but harder) to become better than to be yourself.
These would have had to be tweaked. There would have to be a more episodic plot engine, where Eleanor, could, perhaps, have interacted with one new arrival in every episode. Eleanor’s flaw would have needed more of an upside: The others in heaven would have had to find her cynicism more charming (like Hawkeye on “MASH”). The thematic dilemma (be yourself or be a better person) would have had to be tilted less heavily to one side, which is to say that she can’t have been so resolutely awful and irredeemable in her previous life. We would have to think “Maybe she should just be herself”, which is something we never think on the actual show.

I came up with this checklist on the assumption that every show needs to last for at least 100 episodes to be syndicatable and make its money back, which was the old rule. But the rules are changing. I have no idea how much money this show made from Netflix binges, but maybe that money gave it a reason to be less like weekly comfort food and more of an intentionally unsatiating binge fest. Maybe Bell and Danson didn’t want to sign 7 year contracts, so the show never intended to last very long?

So should this change how you write pilots? That’s up to you. Do you want to show that you can create a classically satisfying and sustainable show, or that you’re here to do something new, even if that means burning it all down?

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: Head-Heart-Gut in “The Good Place”

It’s been a while since we talked about head-heart-gut polarization. To review, in some stories every character is three-dimensional, and that can work well, but it’s not the only way to tell a great, sophisticated story. Just as often, if not more often, the three main characters are polarized so that one is all-head, one is all-heart, and one is all-gut. (Sometimes this only applies to the three sidekicks and the main character is three dimensional.) In other stories, with bigger casts, some of these body parts are split up further. Sometimes, if you have three gut characters, they can be dived into spleen, stomach and groin.

The “Good Place” pilot has only three main characters and it’s a great example of classic head-heart-gut polarization. Eleanor is all gut: Hungry, horny, raunchy, selfish, insulting, etc. Chidi is all-head: An ethics professor, he overexplains and overthinks everything. Michael is (or seems to be at this point in the show) all-heart: a glowing, angelic, open-hearted lover of life and the world, bestowing care and affection wherever he goes.

This creates classic comedy and significant meaning as well. We see ourselves in all three, and different parts of our own 3-dimensional personalities identify humorously and painfully with each of the three in turn, thinking “Yes, I can go to that extreme sometimes and it’s so embarrassing when I do!”

Any polarized story is ultimately about how we need to integrate ourselves to evolve, and each of these three end up going on (or seeming to go on) a season-long quest to discover their missing elements. Eleanor tries to learn to be a smarter, more compassionate person. Chidi tries to learn to trust his gut and fall in love. (It’s telling that dealing with Eleanor gives Chidi a stomachache, as she reminds him of his missing organ.) Michael explores what it means to be human, especially in dealing with Eleanor, the first non-angelic human he’s had to deal with.

This show will soon expand to become a six-member ensemble, and it’s interesting to see where the new ones end up:

  • Janet is clearly a second head: an actual repository of all knowledge, unable to understand human emotion. Why isn’t she too similar to Chidi? Because her serenity is so different from his neurosis.
  • When Jason is revealed, he will clearly be a second gut. He will become stomach/groin, and Eleanor will become more spleen/groin. He’ll have some heart to him, too, though.
  • But where does that leave Tahani? Her main character note is “snooty”, which usually lines up with head (Think Fraiser or Winchester), but she’s not a therapist, doctor, or intellectual. She’s sort of a fake-heart, as her background is revealed to be an effective but smugly-self-satisfied philanthropist. Ultimately, she doesn’t fit well into this dynamic. What do you think? Where would you put Tahani?

“The Good Place” is a deep and sophisticated show. Like “Star Trek”, it’s a journey into inner space (and inner conflict) as much as to other worlds. By embodying our three-part personalities in three extremes, each episode re-creates our inner debate as we deal with ethical dilemmas in our own lives.