On Writing Styles: The Architect vs. The Gardener

Men_w_BlueprintsAfter clearing the queue of freelance work, I’m back to focusing on my own work. In this case, a SciFi screenplay. The main reason I’m excited about this one is that I’m tackling this script unlike any other I’ve written.

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On Game of Thrones’ House of Black & White & Frustrating Mentors

HoBWSo Game of Thrones Season 5 has begun in earnest, we’re three episodes in. There’s lots going on, but the plot I want to focus on concerns Arya Stark and her ‘training’ at the House of Black and White. It’s just too bad the person training her is a terrible teacher. [Spoilers below.]

The Man Who Is Also Jaqen H’gar is now Arya’s mentor, the man has invited her into his home to look after her. He is responsible for her. So the fact that he gives her zero instruction in what the followers of the Nameless God do, how they do it, why, and so on, is doing absolutely nothing for his cause.

Deadly PoisonThere’s a fountain the size of a kiddie pool in the main room which Arya has been sweeping for days. Said pool is full of deadly poison. At no point is she told this, while she sweeps. Good thing she never gets thirsty, or needs a break and decides to wash her hands. The Nameless Ones may not like labels, but they will need a name to put on the form for OSHA compliance.

So let’s talk about the Nameless thing: I get it. It’s ego death. The sense of ‘I’ that they’re trying so hard to shake off. It’s no doubt intrinsically tied to their ability to become other people, when there’s no personality inside to get in the way.  It’s the reason nobody in the building talks in the first person.

Well. Nobody but Arya. Every time she speaks, she makes more ‘I’ statements, and a buzzer goes off in my head. “Bzzzzzzt! Nope. Stop talking in the first person. The Girl is failing the test the Girl was not told about.”

It’s a necessity of narrative pacing for a training process to take time. This is fact. What I don’t appreciate is how The Man Who Is Also Jaqen H’gar is deliberately hindering the girl’s progress, by offering her no instruction whatsoever. She doesn’t get it. She doesn’t know why she doesn’t get it. The one time she asks for instruction, she gets a look and more silence– from a girl barely older than she is.

When it comes to education– in anything– it’s necessary to cover four important cornerstones: What to do, How to do it, Why you’re doing it, and what will happen if you do it right. Let’s check ’em off:

  • What to do: The only thing Arya’s been told to do is sweep floors. She later discards her personal belongings (except for Needle); not because of instruction, but because she’s pointedly asks why she still has them.
  • How to do it: Nope. She’s been sweeping floors, with zero instruction.
  • Why you’re doing it: She hasn’t been told that this might be a good way to clear her head in mindless (easy) labor. She hasn’t been told much of anything.
  • What will happen if you do it right: Again, no. Arya isn’t told what will happen if she performs her work well. Instead, the Man leaves a door open, on the other side of which is a dead man, a girl, and a pair of sponges. No instruction whatsoever.

If The Man Who Is Also Jaqen H’gar had any kind of ego, he’d probably be feeling disappointed that Arya is getting frustrated. Said frustration is entirely his fault. He agreed to take her on, implicitly agreeing to show her his ways. He’s doing nothing of the kind. If and when this piss poor training regime actually works (it’s a fictional institution that’s been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years), The Girl Who Was Arya will be a different person.

In the meantime, she has a LOT of bumping into walls to look forward to: stumbling around a maze in the dark, with no map and no lantern. At this rate she will blunder onto what she’s supposed to be doing when it’s convenient for the plot, and only after she’s tried literally everything else.

I hate the Trickster Mentor, as a character. The person in this role has one job. So far, The Man Who Is Also Jaqen H’gar is doing a terrible job.

What do you think?

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Two Big Problems With Daredevil Episode Six

DD LogoFan reactions to Netflix’ new series, Daredevil, have been overwhelmingly strong. And rightly so, the series is terrific. That doesn’t make it perfect.  [Spoilers for episode six, below.]

It’s a credit to the show’s overall very high quality that its only real problems can be counted on one hand. That doesn’t make these nitpicks; far from it. They’re problems. A series (adaptation or otherwise) stands on tone, plot, and character. All three need to be strong if it’s going to be a success. Daredevil‘s tone has been consistently gritty, and grounded in reality. It works.  Nothing about that has changed, I just wanted to point that out before we got to the aspects that don’t.

The Kingpin Looks Uncomfortable, If Not Apologetic

daredevil_6Simply put, the Kingpin is ruthless. Born in Hell’s Kitchen, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps– from a low level mob enforcer, slowly working his way up the chain of command until he was in a position to simply take over.

Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk is doing a spectacular job of bringing him some humanity. He’s alone– success in his “field of work” has left him isolated, and he feels that deeply. It’s telling that our introduction to the Big Bad has him exploring his emotional side in an art gallery. It’s an incredibly brave choice.

Since that first cameo, we’ve seen different sides of the Kingpin’s character: Someone desperate for companionship, a leader who doesn’t like to micromanage, a cold tactician, and a brutal enforcer who will use his vast temper to literally crush a man’s skull.

Which makes it so jarring to watch the Kingpin look sorry, or awkward. His operations in Hell’s Kitchen haven’t gone perfectly (thanks to a certain man in black), and Fisk is uncomfortable with having to answer to his partners about the screw-up.

This is the crux of problem #1. The Kingpin doesn’t have partners. He has subordinates, temporary alliances. It’s odd and out-of-character to see Wilson Fisk operating with anyone, or having to justify his actions. He admits to his right hand man that he’s not looking forward to explaining things to Madame Gao. That is not the Kingpin.

I get that this can be the story of  Fisk’s rise to power, but part of what makes Fisk Fisk is his arrogance, his supreme confidence. That man can still have all the other aspects I mentioned above, they’re not mutually exclusive. Fisk can show hesitance to explain things to Vanessa on their date, wanting to keep her isolated from that side of him.  That works.  What doesn’t work is him looking uncomfortable or contrite while he’s alone with his employee, talking shop. This is where he’s supposed to be strongest.

And then there’s the second issue with episode six.

It Borrows Its Plot, Whole Cloth

daredevil-ep-106Concept: A vigilante crime fighter with no super-strength has made powerful enemies in his short career. These enemies own the police. Following a botched attempt at heroics, the vigilante is wounded and cornered in an abandoned warehouse. Heavily armed cops begin to swarm the building. The origins of this character have been famously written by Frank Miller.

Now: Did I just describe Daredevil, Episode Six, or Batman: Year One?

Unfortunately, it’s a trick question. The answer is both.

Frank Miller wrote Daredevil: Man Without Fear, considered one of the best renditions of Matt Murdock’s origin story. It’s gritty, realistic, and features him wearing an improvised black costume when he goes into action. It’s heavily influenced the Netflix series, which is fine. It’s a hell of a blueprint for a hero’s beginning.

Batman Y1Miller also wrote Batman: Year One, in which the Dark Knight is cornered in an abandoned building and pinned down by corrupt police, who get within a hair’s breadth of finishing off the vigilante for good.

Also known as exactly what fricking happened to Murdock in Episode Six.

Writers: Just because you’re borrowing from Miller’s origin story for your Netflix series does not mean you should feel comfortable stealing an entire beat of the plot from another franchise to do the same thing. It’s just… tacky.

I like Daredevil. It has a lot going for it. Every other aspect of its storytelling so far has been pretty damn great.  I just hope this is a one-off, a hiccup in an otherwise consistently great show.  I guess we’ll see.

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Breaking Down the Batman vs Superman Trailer– and Where Things Are Going Wrong

 The trailer for DC’s next picture, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, has leaked on grainy camera footage, as of today. There are several problems here, and they deserve a bit of attention, so lemme break it down for ya.

First off, this is not picking on the trailer itself. The trailer may be perfectly capturing the tone of the film to be released, in which case, the movie’s going to be bleak.

The Whole ‘Superman Worshiped as a God’ Thing

Yeah, that’s not good. It makes sense for a motion picture to want to amp up the hero’s importance to the world he’s been saving (while letting thousands die and causing billions in property damage). But from the look of the trailer, we’ve skipped over important beats of that progression.   Will the picture start with people beginning to idolize Supes? Or will we fast-track to when they’ve already turned on him, bitterly, for failing to live up to their unrealistic expectations?

In the comics, Superman has had to deal with similar issues before. But he did so with a steady, level hand. This version of the Man of Steel appears to have no idea how to respond to mindless adulation. (Can you really blame him, though?) The only voice of reason in the throng sounds like Clark himself, modestly suggesting that Supes is just here to help. That voice is lost amidst blame, vilification, and the always popular burning-him-in-effigy.

Lex Luthor Sounds Like a Teenager

Nothing against Jesse Eisenberg’s acting talent, but he doesn’t sound imposing at all. There have been some great actors / voice actors who’ve loaned their pipes to the Bald, Bad Businessman. This is not the best first impression for the character.

Introducing Batman Here Is… Yeah

So we have footage of Ben Affleck, looking at his suit, then later, in the Power Suit modeled off the one used in The Dark Knight Returns.  There’s some purple prose about how good men can go bad when blah blah blah, reminding me of Harvey Dent’s heavy handed foreshadowing about “living long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

What is Bats’ motivation here? He’s retired. If anyone can understand what Superman will be trying to do, it’s the Dark Knight. In The Dark Knight Returns, Bats comes out of self-imposed retirement, then gets Superman’s attention (now answering directly to the President), they discuss things like gentlemen, then they have a knockdown brawl in the streets.  If Batman is putting on his old duds because he disapproves of how a hero he doesn’t know is doing things… why should the audience care?

I Have No Investment In This Superman

Superheroes are role models. They do the impossible, because they’re literally the only ones who can. We look up to them, to see how to be better. Even flawed heroes have their admirers.  This Superman has not only killed, but let thousands of innocent people die– something Superman should never, ever allow. A generation ago, Christopher Reeve broke time itself to save a single life, Lois Lane. He did the impossible. This version of Supes has done a weak job of disaster management. Thousands paid the price.

For that reason… I don’t care about this guy. He is a disappointment. He makes no active moves in the trailer, he reacts– if that.  He remains stationary, skybound, while humans react badly after misinterpreting what he’s tried to do.  DO SOMETHING, Supes. You’re the only one who will.

A friend asked me if I thought it was a bad trailer. I said no.  It’s certainly bleak, but if this is the tone of a disappointing film, then the trailer captures it neatly.

Time will tell.

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On Setting As Character

two-cathedrals-martin-sheenA friend of mine recently reminded me of the 2nd season finale of The West Wing: Two Cathedrals. After the death of a character close to the President, the funeral is held at the National Cathedral. I’ve never had a perfect appreciation of aesthetics– but this is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, inside and out.

The building itself, equal parts temple and monument, this pristine house of God: it was the perfect setting for the President to address his outrage and grief… so I stole it.  Continue reading

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Offenses Tantamount to Witchcraft in 1690s Salem Mass

Salem Witch Trials Martha Corey-LongfellowIt’s easy to look back on history and cast stones, and make light of things that were once quite serious. We can go further and imply all sorts of things like jealousy, outrage, stale puritanism, and good old-fashioned gynophobia against the parties no longer around to defend themselves. It’s naught but a gun barrel loaded with cheap shots, but it’s also exactly what I’m going to do right now, so please enjoy.

The following charges may or may not have been brought against the women of Salem, Massachusetts, some 320 years ago: Continue reading

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On The Why of Writing

WritingApologies in advance if this entry seems a bit dry, but it’s been on my mind of late.

I’ve taken up a new position that has, so far, gone well. It has consumed almost my every waking hour, there have been several tests to prepare for, manuals to study, so on. It’s been good. (Stressful, but good.)  Continue reading

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On Change, and Recent Developments as a Struggling Writer

Casey FezThe job interview went well, today. I go in for round two of interviews, Weds. afternoon. If I *do* get this job– and I like my chances– it’s going to mean, well, changes.

For the past two years or so I’ve managed to make an honest-to-goodness living doing what I love: writing scripts, editing scripts, and working as a voice-over artist. It may not have been crazy abundant, but it’s always been enough to keep the lights on, the rent paid, and the fridge stocked. It was enough.

Now, with work being what it is, I don’t really have a choice but to find full-time ‘regular’ work.

What does that mean, exactly? It means that the work I’ve been doing is going to trickle down into whatever I can make time for, outside the office.

Let me be clear: I do not begrudge the notion of working a desk job. Or at least, I don’t mean to. This is where I am. This is what’s next. So it’s happening.

I could gnash my teeth, pull my hair, and drag my feet as I make my way into an office building. Or I could make the most of it.

Part of that means focusing of positives: like more money, financial security… and a reminder that the last kick-ass (personal) script I wrote was while I was working a full-time job.

My sister Tara pointed out that taking on this new job would mean not needing to do the kind of freelance gigs that spend my creative juices on other people’s projects. I love the work I do… but I haven’t managed to write anything of my own in several months. I haven’t had the time or the energy for it.

I could look back on the past two years and feel like I’ve lost something, or failed. That’s one way of looking at things. I prefer to see the past two years as a lesson, and an example– one I’m exceedingly grateful for. I’ve sold scripts. I’ve recorded audiobooks. I even managed to sneak in VO work as an educational cartoon pirate. So I’ve got that goin’ for me.

I don’t know what the future holds. But I do know I’m going to give it my best damn shot, whatever it is.

I have a lot to be grateful for. So I’m going to keep reminding myself of that… no matter how many times it takes to stick.

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I Feel Like A Damn Fraud

I have no idea what I'm doingI’ve been calling myself a writer, author, and / or screenwriter for a bit now. A friend and mentor instilled in me the view that you can’t really call yourself something until you’ve been paid to do it.

I have gotten my work published. I have sold screenplays. I have also been paid to edit the screenwriting work of others. And in this moment, this one right now, I can’t help feeling like a fraud.

I’ve read books, taken classes, studied the greats. Some days, most days, I feel like yeah, I might actually have a grip on writing– on making something good enough to be shared with others. Then there are times like right now, when I feel like every step I’ve taken to get this far has been a blind stumble in the dark.

I want to get better at my work, I want to be better at what I do, and there are times when it feels like I might be making headway. I’m supposed to be writing a black comedy, right now. The stakes involved– what this script could wind up doing for my career– has me stalled out almost completely. Some scenes of this little bastard have come together beautifully in my head. But there are entire swathes missing, and I know they’re missing, and I don’t know how to fill the gaps right now. (Wonderful word, swathes.)

DAMNATION. I’ve been told before that there are times for everybody when they feel unqualified, or that they don’t know what they’re doing. Okay. Welp, this is where I am right now. Angry at myself, confrontational with myself, and wondering what the hell I can do about it but keep pushing on. Of course we push on. Giving up isn’t an option.

I’m just annoyed and frustrated. And jealous. I recently discovered a writer named Mallory Ortberg, she’s fantastic. Her work is conversational, funny, and so damned sharp. Reading her work, I feel like Salieri– hearing Mozart for the first time. Bugger.

If I can see quality, if I can tell what makes something good, why is it hard to use that same compass and MAKE something? Where is this coming from? Fear of failure? Fear of success?

So yeah. I’m sitting here, feeling frustrated and antsy. I haven’t posted anything here in a few days so I wanted to rectify that. So welcome to this delightful chapter of things. BUGGER.

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So This Happened

Exchange 01

That’s not too weird, is it? I don’t know from weird, all the time.

Exchange02

That… that escalated quickly. But we love your work, Ms. Ortberg!

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