Character vs Plot

Plot is not Story.  Plot is a tool that can help you with your story.  It might help quite a bit.  But it might not.  It might even hurt.  Who remembers learning all the ‘versus’ categories in school?  The Most Dangerous Game…Man vs Man.  The Old Man and the Sea…Man vs Nature.  The Lady or the Tiger…Man vs Doors?  Whatever.  I’m still not sure what those categories were supposed to teach us about literature. What about The Call of the Wild? I might ask the main character’s a freakin dog.  Ummm…my teacher might reply…It’s still Man vs Nature, the dog really stands for man.  Yeah, I might have said back, but every step the dog makes takes him closer and closer to nature, not versus nature.  Then my teacher might ignore me because she might have to admit that the versus categories, even broader than plot categories, are pretty much meaningless and have no effect whatsoever in how good the story is.

Plot is neither good nor bad it’s just a tool.  Learn it quickly and move on to something better, more fun, and more interesting.  Your characters.  If you can write a good character, plot will become meaningless.  People remember the characters, not the plot.  Ask someone what Raiders of the Lost Ark is about.  They might say it’s an Adventure Plot.  They might say it’s an Underdog Plot, or a Quest plot, or even Man vs. Man.  But more likely it will be some version of this–“This dude, Indiana Jones, is a professor of archaeology.  He wears a fedora and leather jacket and carries a whip and he looks for lost artifacts and he’s trying to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazi’s do.  Oh yeah it takes place in the ’30’s.  So, you know, there’s Nazis.”  It’s about this guy, it’s about these two young girls, it’s about a freakin sled dog.  Always the character first and what happens to them or what they do second.  Something to think about.

Bravo Sierra

Bravo Sierra.  B.S.  The old stiersheissen.  Malarkey or Blarney.  Whatever you call it, it’s an art but also a gift.  Most of us know someone who just seems to have a silver tongue.  He can talk his way into clubs or out of traffic tickets.  For some reason people believe whatever he says even when it can’t possibly be true.  If his audience doesn’t seem to be buying it you may watch, amazed, as he shovels it faster and thicker until they do buy it.

Many people don’t like the bullshit artist and wish to avoid that label themselves.  Someone who wants to write fiction though should get over that and embrace it, indeed cultivate it.  Your story doesn’t have to bear much of a resemblance to real life.  In fact it probably shouldn’t.  Liberate yourself from the confining ‘truth’ of real life and you’re free to do some pretty fun stuff in your work.

Pretty obvious if you’re writing a fantasy.  We recognize easily enough that Harry Potter goes to school in Britain (real life) but horcruxes, potions class, and dementors are pure invention (B.S.).  What if you’re writing about a real person or real events though?  I know a fella who’s working on a manuscript about a man who grew up on a ranch in Arizona in the late nineteenth century.  It’s a real person who became a law man and forest ranger and this fella is writing from a diary.  The problem is that the way things actually happened (real life) might not work from a standpoint of Story.  This writer comes from a history background and can’t quite bring himself to rewrite dialog or fill in blanks in the action. 

I believe that you have to give yourself permission to tell a Story.  Story and History aren’t always the same and you have to decide which one you’re writing.  Braveheart, Patton, Tombstone, Serpico, Deadwood, Glory…all based on real people and real events, but not real life.  Story.  It’s a paradox of storytelling that the truths they reaveal come from the inventions of fiction.  So don’t be afraid to throw a little B.S. in there if you have to.  It’s a gift and it would be a crime not to use it.

How we’ll watch the Watchmen – making the comics fit on screen

I’ve been a deep fan of Alan Moore’s graphic novel for twenty years now, but I’m torn on the upcoming film version.  It was written to be a comic, and it works brilliantly in that format.  It doesn’t need to be a movie. Yet part of me would love to see these images move and breathe.  I looped the spectacular trailer that came out a dozen times, both amazed and terrified.  It looks great as the music video that trailer is, but can it work as a film narrative?  If anything it would seem to make a better mini-series than a movie, but a movie is what we are getting.  So I decided to break out my well-worn copy of the Watchmen and take a look.

WARNING – I suppose there are spoilers below, but this is a 20 year old comic.  I think the statute of limitations has run out, but if you want to be surprised, then go away.

Let’s start with the length… twelve issues in a two hour movie would average out to 10 minutes an issue.  In traditional 2 minute scenes, that’s 5 scenes out of every issue.  Ouch.  Not a good start.

We know some time will be saved across the whole story by the removal of the Black Freighter Pirate comic subplot/story. Zack Snyder has confirmed this may appear on a simultaneous release on DVD but will not be on the big screen.

Issue One – Death of the Comedian and character introductions.  Not a lot to shave out of this one – we have a bunch of very interesting people to meet and the inciting incident of the story to cover – Rorschach’s investigation.  I think we may see less of the Minutemen in the movie, including Hollis Mason and Dan’s relationship. I also think we’ll see much of Rorschach’s extraneous violence as he extorts the underworld left out. It’s character material, but eats up those precious minutes.  I’d say we would need all 10 minutes for this issue.

Issue Two – Comedian’s funeral and recollection of his mourners. Packed with seemingly casual recollections that turn out to be major issues later. Blake’s relationship with Sally is one aspect of the Crimebusters that can’t be left out. Manhattan in Vietnam with Blake was in the trailer, but could be shrunk. Same with Dan and Blake’s Keene riot patrols.  But he can’t leave out Blake’s visit to Moloch. I also hope they keep the Pagliacci joke – personal favorite.  Again, going to need a full 10 mins for this one.

Issue Three – Manhattan leaves Earth, Dan and Laurie reconnect.  Finally we have an issue where material can be cut out. Doc still has to flee to Mars, but there’s a lot of side story with the street vendor and that crazy doomsday sign carrier that can shrink way down.  Should be able to make up time here.

Issue Four – Doc’s reminiscence on Mars. I love this issue, the texture, the ideas of how Doc views time, and the insight into this fascinating character. But really this would be very hard to convey on the screen in depth, and doesn’t move the story forward. It’s mostly backstory. I think this issue will get cut heavily.

Issue Five – Rorschach captured, Dan is frustrated, Veidt’s assassination attempt. A few major plot points, but I think they can compress in a bit.  I think this issue will show a number of factual plot points and spare the depth.  Again with the street vendor – I think his story will also be greatly reduced in the movie, along with the Pirate ship story and the comic-reading kid.  This will probably clock in around the full 10 mins.

Issue Six – What kind of dork does every issue like this?  Me.  Now this issue, while backstory, is to me the heart of the series.  Not only is Rorschach scrawling his own design on the morally blank face of Armageddon, but so is the entire rest of the cast. Every one of them had their own conception of the world broken, and reformed it in their own image. Moral choice in the face of anarchy.  This is also a black, bleak issue, and the kidnapping details are going to really turn people away of not done well.  This issue will likely eat up more than it’s 10 minutes, and claim some of the ground given up by a few previous issues.

Issue Seven – Dan and Laurie, and some info on the Institute. Dan and Laurie are the emotional heart to this tale, so I expect their relationship to get some coverage.  Just not sure how much.  I think Snyder will have to forsake some character work for plot, and this is where we may see that hit.  Easily take the full 10 mins, and maybe more.

Issue Eight – Jailbreak. I think the jailbreak will get time, as will Rorschach’s escapade’s inside the jail. We will need to see the people working on the island, too.  Again, I expect Hollis to get sidelined, and his death seems like a likely item to cut.  Lots of action here, and since we’ve already seen Nightowl doing a Spartan slow-mo kick in the trailer, I think this will get the full treatment.  Full 10 minutes on this one, plus some.

Issue Nine – Revelations on Mars. This would be gorgeous on the screen, and has Laurie big character revelation.  This one will eat up time, especially if we get the full tour of Mars. I wonder if Snyder will try to keep all the bloodstained-smiley logo references, including the crash on the Argyre Planitia.  I also wonder if we’ll see a lot of voiceover from Laurie to tie her story together.  This issue just can’t shrink that much.  Going to be more than 10 minutes.

Issue Ten – Rorschach and Nightowl close in on Veidt. Lots of small bits of information here, like the delivery of the journal and more Pirate story. I think this will be compressed to mainly show the investigation and the fate of the people working on the island.  Can make up some time here.

Issue Eleven – A button is pushed, Veidt’s backstory and the big reveal.  I think we’ll see reference back to the Crimebuster’s meeting and tidbits on Veidt, but not all the details.  His own decision to scrawl his morality on the world.  But the pacing here I think can be cut down to the 10 minutes.

Issue Twelve – Downtown Exposition City.  One worry I have with this adaptation overall is the need for voiceover.  In a movie you normally want to Show, not Tell. With the crazy way Moore plays with time and intercut threads, I think a voiceover will almost be necessary.  Then the wrap up, hopefully with Seymour and his fateful selection.  This will be the bulk of the third act and push well more than 10 minutes – maybe 15+.

Could this clock in as a 2 1/2 hour movie like Dark Knight?  May not be a choice to preserve both the story and the characters.  But even giving another 2-3 mins per issue may not be enough.  I think we’re looking at a very long movie (which studios and theaters hate) or the cutting knife will go deep.

All of this said, I’m still going to see it the day it opens. As a fan I like to ponder topics like this, but am also willing to let movies prove themselves. For fun Google up fan rants about Lord of the Rings before it opened, or Daniel Craig as James Bond.  I have my concerns, but wish Snyder and Co. nothing but the best in making this work.

The 21 Steps – Telling stories in Google Maps

Saw an amazing little write-up on Cool Hunting about a story that is told online using Google Maps as part of the medium:

The 21 Steps” is a fast-paced, finely-tuned thriller that uses Google Maps to take the reader through the story’s events. Written by British purveyor of spy thrillers, Charles Cumming, the story is told through Google’s information bubbles with brief statements and images that take the reader from the streets of London to Edinburgh, Scotland with plenty of action and mini-cliffhangers along the way.

I’ve tried my hand at stage work, screenplays/movie, and straight prose. Each has their own advantages and limitations, but it still comes down to telling a story. If you are not making something engaging for your target (viewer, reader, or listener), then you’re going to fail. The tools you use to relate the story are very important, but secondary.

I try different styles to help me improve as a storyteller. My novel writing has helped my screenplays, and vice versa. I have no idea yet how this will fare as a medium, but I’m excited to see someone trying something new and look forward to playing with it and see what I can learn.