The New Archetypes: Part 4

Shane Hong Kong Premiere Booklet 1953 P1309907

I’ve been talking about how the modern storytelling of movies has given us archetypes that are also uniquely modern.  Modern they may be but they still tend to follow classic Hero journeys.  A Rogue Cop is still our good guy and must still defeat the bad guys.  The Nobody will travel on a journey of discovery and emerge changed in the third act, hopefully for the better.  But there is a modern archetype whose story arc goes backwards.

The Retiree.  The Retiree as his name implies is at the end of his career or no longer in the line of work.  Whatever this line of work was it was dangerous or illegal or both.  The Retiree has probably enjoyed great success in theline of work even if that success is simply measured by the fact that he’s still alive.  The Retiree in many cases probably never thought he’d make it this far but now that he has he wants to get out of the field.  Older, wiser, past his prime and fully aware of it he dreams of different life.  A safe, normal life where he can forget about his past and grow old like everyone else.  At this point one of two things happens.  Either The Retiree has ‘just one more job’ before he can realize his dream or his retirement is interrupted because he gets ‘pulled back in’.

We might as well get right to Shane since it’s one of the first, one of the best, and pretty much the template.  There were definitely men in the Old West who made their entire living with their gun.  They were just as definitey not somebody you would run into all over the place.  Most people had real jobs.  But in the mythic West of the movies the gunslinger becomes a man of adventure and danger.  He lives by the gun and dies by the gun.  He lives by a code and dies by that code too.  Shane gets a chance to live a normal life when he’s taken in by a farmer and his family.  He works on the farm as a hired hand and seems like he has a chance at happiness and a normal life. 

Of course it’s never that easy.  The nefarious ranchers hate the farmers and their plowed fields and fences.  Shane backs the farmer who’s courageous but not a fighter.  When the ranchers hire a gunslinger to enforce their will there’s only one way to beat him.  Shane must strap on his peacemaker and become a gunslinger again.  The template is repeated in plenty of movies.  Pale Rider, another Western, is pretty much the same story but so is Soldier a sci-fi flick with Kurt Russel.  You can substitute any job that’s not 9-5 and the story will work.  He could be a car thief (Gone in 60 Seconds), he could be a mountain rescuer (Cliffhanger), or he could even be a ping pong player (Balls of Fury).

There’s a couple of things that make this archetype modern.  One is the simple idea of retirement.  Heroes of ancient myth didn’t really retire.  They fought monsters and wars then they died and their death was usually a big part of their story.  They rarely got old.  Being a hero wasn’t really a job anyway which brings us to the second thing.  The modern idea that you can choose (or at least try to) who you are.  The fates of ancient heroes were set down before they were born.  The Retiree, whatever his life was until now, has a choice to be something different, something better.  Like The Assassin story a good Retiree story has redemption at it’s core.  Shane chose to face his fate as a gunslinger.  He gave up that life to protect it and that final sacrifice is usually the emotional punch in the best of these stories. 

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Books for the Writer

Continuing with many writers on one theme we’re each going to talk about a book that has influenced our writing.  Influence is fortunately a broad category.  It could be true inspiration such as wanting to capture the vivid savagery of R. E. Howard‘s ancient world tales or even ‘reverse’ inspiration.  Many writers can tell you the exact book that they put down and said ‘I can do better.’  It could be that how-to book that finally made sense or had the exercises you finally stuck with. 

I’m gonna split the difference with Stephen King‘s On Writing.  It’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ and it is that but it’s also a concise how-to.  I believe I’ve mentioned before how I had two distinct experiences reading this book.  The first time was before I started writing and it was the first half of the book (the memoir) that I focused on.  An interesting glimpse at the life of a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time.  The second half (the how-to) was quickly skimmed over.  After I had been writing for a while I picked it up again and it was exactly reversed.  I grew impatient with the anecdotes of college life and skipped to the meat of the matter–the craft of writing.  The book has three things going for it that you need in a ho- to book.  Honesty, applicability, and permission. 

Permission is what a lot of writers (especially just starting out) are looking for.  Of course you really need it from yourself but if hearing it from a successful writer helps, what’s the harm?  On Writing gives that permission to write literally and once given, treats you like a writer.  I don’t think I needed or got permission to write from the book but that tone of writer-to-writer conversation let me think of myself as a writer.  That’s not a small step and I believe it let me open up and improve. 

The importance of honesty in a writer should be self evident and King doesn’t pull any punches here.  He’s a working writer and let’s you know what that really entails and if it doesn’t sound like your bag well, now you know. 

Applicability is probably the most important or at least the most gratifying.  Here’s stuff you can actually use.  This book doesn’t come off as theoretical or philosophical (even though there’s plenty of that there).  The tone is more conversational, the master craftsman expounding to the apprentice over a couple of beers say. 

He doesn’t just say ‘avoid the passive voice’, he tells you what it is.  Gives plenty of examples, actual writing examples.  Tells you in colorful language why it’s so dreadful .  Tells you why a writer might fall into the trap and how to avoid it.  And that’s how it goes really. 

King uses the analogy of a tool-box and I love it.  It shows that this is a craft but also a job and it’s the tools you gather and learn to use that influence your style.  If you have more hammers than precision screwdrivers you’re limited in what you can do.  I’ve tried hard to increase my mastery of the tools I have and increase the range of tools available.  Of course he also talks about developing the craftsman’s skill of choosing the right tool for the job.  After all sometimes what you need is in fact a hammer. 

Working environment, idea generation, editing and revision, submission and dealing with the spouse…it’s pretty much all covered in detail.  Quite a bit of the examples are writing King did for the book and so are in King’s style but it’s not about hisstyle.  He also uses authors as diverse as Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy for instruction.  In other words it’s about learning the craft of writing to find your own style.  At least that’s what I got out of it.  It’s a slim volume and a quick read and yet packed with information.  For me not just a must read but a must own.

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Open Up.

The irony here is I have no good opening for this post.  I’ve been thinking about this one for a couple of days and realized a few things.  One is that outside of screenplays, where the first ten pages are of vital importance, the writers I hang out with and I haven’t talked much about the process of crafting our openings.  Close on that was the realization that I don’t really have a full grasp of my process for openings.  So bear with me if this is less how-to and more theory but I do have some thoughts and tips.

  First of all, don’t worry about it, at least at first.  If you come up with a killer first line that’s great.  Even better if it flows seamlessly into an eyeball bursting opening.  That will probably come later though after your first draft is complete.  It’s hard enough to get started on a new piece without the added pressure of a strong opening. 

If I stare at the screen for more than a few seconds I just start with stage direction.  That’s also usually the weakest opening so you’re probably going to change it.  I went through a bunch of my old stuff (just the first few lines) and found this gem–“The black Jag slid smoothly into the parking space marked Caleb Sinclair.”  Blech.  The rest of the paragraph (keep in mind this is the first paragraph) is all Caleb getting out of his car.  It’s a short little story from one of our word exercises and it’s actually pretty decent.  But that opening would be the first to get the cleaver. 

Direction is fine if it serves as a hook.  The first line from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series–“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”  That’s better.  Still telling us something is happening but it’s not shoe leather.  In one line we have a protagonist, antagonist, and setting.  But more importantly the reader has questions.  Who is the man in black and why is he running?  Who is the gunslinger and why is he chasing?  You have to keep reading to find out.  Nobody gives a damn about why the black Jag is parking and we know who’s in there because I told you. (Seriously, that’s weak.) 

So that’s another goal.  Try to create more questions than you answer.  Think of your opening like a movie trailer.  You have to set the tone and give just enough away that they want the rest.  Give too much away and they think there’s no reason to keep reading, they have it figured out already.  If it helps think of your reader as unwilling to go on and you have to trick him.

And finally a genuine how-to tip.  Going over some old stuff showed me a bunch of weak first draft openings.  Some of the second draft ones could be a little stronger too.  But I did notice one technique crop up rather frequently that always seemed to work well.  A single line of unattributed dialog.  It doesn’t seem to matter what’s being said because you automatically wonder who said it and what the heck they’re talking about.  Pow!  Instant engagement and they’re hooked for at least the next line or two.  Make ’em count. 

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Six short stories about a “gasket”

Gaskets: # o ring # fiber washer # paper gaske...

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As part of our tinkering with this blog and the content, we’re next going to be each doing a short piece derived from the word “gasket”.  The word was Finn’s suggestion, so we’re running with it!

This exercise is something we do in our writing group to keep us writing when we hit slumps. The word just has to inspire an idea, and may not show up in the final work itself.  Sometimes there is poetry, sometimes a dialog exercise, or sometimes just a really bad pun (Shockingly: not usually from me!).   We’ve posted a few of these in the past, but never all of us posting from the same word.

We would love your feedback on the ideas we come up with over the next two weeks, and how they differ.

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Fighting your fears to build good ideas

Figure 20 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...

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This past week and next we’re all writing about some aspect of ideas on this blog, and I’m going to take my shot at three fears that I face around ideas.

My ideas aren’t very original!

This might be the most common fear based on discussions I have with other writers. I have an idea, but… well, it doesn’t really get me excited. It’s an idea, sure, but it isn’t anything that exciting. I’m pretty sure others have thought of this before me, and in all likelihood they were smarter and better writers than me so could do more with it.

What I’ve learned is that I’m often way too critical of my initial ideas, but even when they really aren’t that great they frequently lead to something that is. So I will dutifully write them down in my notebook, sometimes with a shrug, and come back to them later. My best screenplay came from a random, silly idea that I wrote down and slowly grew and nurtured.  Take all the ideas you get as gifts – there may be more to them after you unwrap them.

People will laugh at my ideas!

Orangutan in Aalborg Zoo, Denmark

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This happens to me. A lot.  But I come up with silly ideas and have a tendency (perhaps quite under-restrained) to share them quite broadly. In most cases I have a thick skin about it, but sometimes I care about an idea so much, I get hesitant to share it for fear of the reaction it might create. What if my mental Emperor has no clothes?  So the ideas I end up sharing the least are the ones I like the most. Pretty brilliant, eh?

I’m also not unique in this wonderful problem. Nearly every I’ve ever spoken with at length tells me, at some point, of this idea they have they really like but don’t know what to do with, that they’re not ready to share, and they will tell me about at some point when they have polished it up a bit. I rarely ever get that polished version.  Maybe it is only in the Misery Loves Company category, but it helps me to know that others struggle with this, too.

Getting around this fear requires some trust. What helped me is connecting with some fellow writers who will be supportive of what I’m trying to do without shining me on.  If my brilliant idea sucks, I still want to hear that, but I also need ideas how to make it better, stronger, faster.  I have the technology, so how can I rebuild it?  Knowing that others are there to help makes a huge difference.

My ideas will stop coming!

I used to do short-form comedic improv, and I’d often wonder where my ideas were coming from. I had no time to “think” about what I would say; I’d just react.  Often nothing of note would come from my mouth, but other times something downright brilliant would emerge and I’d be as stunned as everybody else. Of all the ancient Gods and spirits, I probably understand best why people believed in the Muses. How can these ideas just appear in our heads?  From whence do they come? And… oh God… what if they stop?!?

To combat this one… I’ve got nothing. I don’t believe any supernatural woo-woo is giving me ideas, but neither do I know any scientific process. What if there is one super-tired neuron in my brain that mutated so badly it puts out weird signals that the rest of the brain can barely understand?  What if that neuron has only two minutes left before it burns out?  Other than meaning I better wrap up this post quickly, there is nothing I can do about it.  I face my bouts of writer’s block or stuckness when they came, but just keep plowing along and hoping that neuron is eating right and getting plenty of rest.

Keep at it

In the end, coming up with good ideas is a process.  Sometimes you have to build them from scraps, sometimes you need others’ help, and sometimes you just plow through. You just have to keep at it, and don’t let your fears get in your way.

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