Genius Minus One

What does a sixty watt bulb feel like when it’s illuminating a hall closet?  It feels like the brightest bulb in the world.  It feels like the king of light, the vanquisher of darkness, the torch of brilliance… But what does it feel like suspended in front of one of those searchlights small town car dealerships believe will drag you into their lots of gently used Chevrolets?

It feels like a penis coming fresh out of a swimming pool in February.  It feels like a match trying to light a fart in a hurricane.  It feels like a moderately-to-minimally creative person listening to Max Landis throw off unused ideas like sparks from a steam engine revving so high it’s tearing itself apart.

Max was going all hyperkinetic on a Nerdist podcast when he just tossed out a couple of prime ideas that he was throwing away because he literally sells too much to actually be able to work on it all.  And my brain sort of melted down and then went to suck its thumb and cry in a corner.

The stuff he was throwing away wasn’t just genius, it was thinking outside the human condition.  Anyone trying to bang out a genre screenplay within the studio system is very much like Mrs. R.R. Forman going up against Mozart when it comes to dealing with this guy on one of his bad days.

Listening to him casually word vomit sheer, jaw dropping genius over the course of an interview really did make me creatively impotent for a few days.  The time would come, I would sit down at the keyboard, and his ideas for the best Bond movie ever and a stone cold stunner of an idea for a story told from Captain Hook’s point of view, would just shrink my balls down to ice cold peanuts.

It’s hard to type with ice cold peanuts between your legs.

But then I remembered a post from the legendary screenwriting blog of Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot.  The guys who created the Pirates of the Caribbean series and wrote the best Zorro movie ever made have an excellent series of posts about making it as a writer in Hollywood on their site  And one of the posts, if I remember correctly (yes, I’m too lazy to look it up) is called, “Crap Plus One.”

Basically, it takes down the notion of setting out to write something better than the terrible stuff you see up on the screen.  The conceit being that your goal should never be to write something slightly better than a Michael Bay movie, but should instead be to write the best thing you possibly can.

This post came back to me while I was covering myself in kerosene while looking for an ignition source (Goddammit why did I quit smoking?) and I realized that if I turned the idea around, I could go back to happily stretching the edges of my mediocre talent.

Do physicists give up their profession because they aren’t as smart as Einstein?  Do sex symbols give up their careers because they’re not as strapping as Brad Pitt?  Do the Kardashians abandon television because they have no discernable talent?  No and no and, unfortunately, no.

So now I’m going to go back to my mildly innovative take on a YA novel secure in the knowledge that, while it’s not Max Landis genius, it’s also not crap plus one. But it is the best I can do.

But before I go, I want to Maxwell you with a true silver hammer of an idea much in the same way Max did to me on that podcast: Peak oil has come and gone.  Oil as a lubricant is so rare it’s nearly impossible to get in large quantities.  Giant robots are limping around with frozen joints and are willing to do anything for a few hundred barrels of the stuff.  That’s right, it’s Transformers: Revenge of the WD40.



Self Inflicted Wounds

Last Friday, a friend and I were feeling a little masochistic and so decided to watch a double-feature of Oblivion and Last Stand.  I’m not going to say much about Last Stand because it’s just a really unremarkable film.  It’s so full chock full of 80s action film clichés that it should have been billed as a Shane Black tribute film rather than Arnold’s comeback movie, but other than that, it was as uninteresting to watch as a vice-presidential debate.

But Oblivion, on the other hand, should have been called The Idiot’s Guide To How Not To Make An Action Film.   Everything that is wrong with the modern big budget blockbuster summer tent pole movie was lackadaisically stuffed into this stupid waste of pixels.  Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel both suffered from the same sickness that killed Oblivion while The Avengers was only saved from the same fate by Joss Whedon’s wit and sense of humor. 

This is something that someone needs to whisper into the ears of powerful people in Hollywood:

The human brain is a pattern matching machine.

For God’s sake, throw out every copy of Save the Cat and start putting some unexpected beats in your stories.  When even non-film buffs can predict what’s going to happen in the next scene, you’ve created a pattern in the global moviegoer consciousness.  And don’t give me that crap about fulfilling expectations.  Recognizing a pattern is the least rewarding experience a person can have in a movie theater.  People delight in having their expectations jostled.  The Shyamalam twist?  Worked the first time.  After that, people started watching the movie specifically to spot the twist ending.  If Hollywood can’t break free of their Mad-Libs storytelling based on the creative infection that is Save the Cat, then studios are doomed to continue losing big money on big flops.

If you haven’t heard of it: Save the Cat is a book on how to write screenplays that puts page numbers to actual beats.  It has become the lingua franca of moviemaking in Hollywood which goes a long way toward explaining why every damn movie looks the same now.

Spielberg and the other guy, what’s his name, Lucas, came out recently and predicted a box office implosion was coming.  Their assertion was that with too many studios making big budget movies, the audience would get tired of them and stay away in droves.  I don’t think that’s the problem.  Had Into Darkness and Man of Steel and RIPD and Lone Ranger been good movies or, more specifically, if they had differed from one another in story rather than just set design, I would have happily paid to see all of them.

People don’t stay home and stream it on Netflix because it’s cheaper.  This is AMERICA.  We will pay any amount of money to be entertained.  We stay home because we don’t think the movie is worth the risk.  And lately, that has never been more true. 

I’ve seen one good blockbuster this summer, came out of the theater with a smile one time, and that was Pacific Rim.  Even though that movie is a Cat based film like all the others, it fulfilled a dream of mine that formed when I saw the trailer for Mothra at the drive-in as a child: to see giant robots fight giant monsters and not know that it was just guys in rubber suits.  Clearly, not everyone felt that way – although, predictably, they’re digging it pretty hard in Asia.

Here’s the thing about special effects: They can only enhance storytelling, not replace it.  And if someone doesn’t find that cat and put a bullet in its head very soon, we are going to see a tsunami of red ink gush out of Hollywood in the very near future.

And, lastly, what happened to Tom Cruise?  When did he lose his ability to summon drama and just start reciting lines?  In Oblivion, he looked tired to the point of weariness and acted like someone doing an impression of Tom Cruise running lines.  I don’t generally watch his movies so I’m not sure if this has been going on for a long time or if he just had the flu while shooting Oblivion, but he might want to check in with a mental health… oh, that’s right.

Show And Tell

Remember the beginning of Alien when all you saw was the Nostromo floating in space and then a wall of text started crawling up the screen explaining what year it was and what the crew of the Nostromo was doing and how corporations had taken over the Earth and how… No?  You don’t remember that?  You know why?  It wasn’t there.  Instead, you as a viewer were allowed to glean all that back story over time on your own and in your own way. 

Science fiction has always had a love hate relationship with back story.  Early SF writers felt compelled to explain exactly how the human race had reached this particular moment in time before launching into the story.  This is called establishing the world and it makes total sense to do it because otherwise your reader is going to be wondering just what the hell is going on rather than following your story.  This is true of any type of fiction.  Whether it’s the story of gay son coming out to his parents or a mutant son escaping his larval phase and then eating his family, it just seems to be a more obvious problem in science fiction and fantasy because the world you’re establishing is often very different from the real one.

There are two ways to establish back story: Show and Tell.  For years SF novels opened with pages of back story that would TELL you everything you needed to know about the world the story was going to take place in.  The problem with this method is that it’s highly artificial, it’s boring, and it treats the readers like they have oatmeal for brains.   There’s even a hilarious send up of this in Galaxy Quest when one of the aliens, I forget which one, tries to do a back story brain dump onto Tim Allen’s drunk, hung over captain:

“Following the Great Nebula Burst, our people were one people but then came the Zactor Migration and then the Melosian Shift and a dark period of discontent spread through the land.  Fighting among Treeb sects and Largoths… ah, the foolishness!”*

When I’m searching for a new book to read, the first thing I do is read the first several pages on the hunt for this kind of a starchy, over dry exposition.  If it’s there, the book goes back on the virtual shelf.

So how do you lay in the requisite back story without losing your readers?  Why, I’m glad you asked.  Here are three ways:

1. Don’t Do It – Or at least realize that you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do.  If I remember correctly (I don’t have the movie anywhere at hand, which I find surprising given who I am), Alien opens with the Nostromo waking up and then the crew coming out of hyper-sleep.  You understand it’s a space ship.  You understand they’re the crew and waking up from hyper-sleep is really rough.  And gradually we learn who they are to each other.  And then, when Brett and Parker start arguing their shares are too small, you realize it’s damn blue collar vessel.  It’s a working ship.  Eventually, over time, you learn everything you need to know and the parts they don’t tell you your brain fills in on its own which makes it even more real to you.

2. Show Don’t Tell – Suppose Brett were to wake up and stretch and say, “Wow, we’ve been in these Hyper-Sleep tubes, which is what these things are, for seventy-two days, which is a really long time, and that has a draining effect so that you end up feeling kind of hung over.  Which I do.”  MOVIE RUINED.  Get your popcorn and go home.  Just SHOW the effects of hyper-sleep.  Does it really matter exactly how many years or months the crew was asleep?  That depends on your story. If you can honestly answer, “Yes, the fact that they were in hyper-sleep for exactly six months is important because that’s how long it takes the alien to gestate,” then go right ahead and have someone say it’s been six months.  But if not, if it’s not critical, cut it.  It sounds as unnatural as a man saying, “Hello, Margaret, my wife.  We’ve been married for 16 years.”  And, yes, I have seen that exact line in more than one script.

3. Fold It In – In Aliens, how do we know that evil corporations run the world?  Is it when Carter Burke introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I work for the evil corporations that have taken over the world”?  No, because he doesn’t do that.  He makes a joke, saying, “I work for the company but other than that I’m an okay guy.”  It’s just an inkling but it’s enough for that moment in the film.  Later, we’ll see the company hold what looks a lot like an official inquest, something that free people would expect to be run by the government, and at that point we’ll understand everything we need to about the evil corporations.

That’s just three of many ways you can deal with back story without resorting to the Zactor Migration option – which you should treat like the nuclear option.  There are many more, but the one thing I want to suggest to up and coming writers is to take six months to a year and seriously study and work at screenwriting.  Yes, I said screenwriting.  Even if you aren’t interested in becoming a screenwriter, take six months and go all out because screenwriting is the Marine Corps boot camp of writing.

I’m not talking about complex storytelling like the Hero’s Journey, or colliding subplots or the nine act structure.  Rather, I’m talking about just learning the nuts and bolts of telling a story visually.  In a novel, you can say anything anywhere at any time.  “He limps because of a piece of shrapnel that remains in his knee from a terrible war wound that he received when he saw action in Afghanistan.”  Okay, yes, that’s a bad sentence and an obvious case of back story, but I’m using it here as an illustration: If you write that line in a screenplay, no one will read it.  Why?  Because you can’t put that on the screen.  You can put action on the screen: He walks with a limp.  You can put dialog on the screen: “This?  Oh, yeah, a little trouble in Afghanistan.”  But if you want to expose that back story, it has to come from the mouth of a character and the moment you start typing a line like this: “Oh, this?  My limp?  It’s shrapnel from an IED that exploded near my Humvee when I was fighting the war in Afghanistan as a soldier of the United States Army…” What you should hear in your mind is: “…then came the Zactor Migration…”

And you should immediately hit the Big Red Button.


*Thanks to SUBZIN for having this quote.  Unbelievably, it was the only place I could find it.