Podcast

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?