The Art of Violence

Next month I’ll be at Arisia in Boston for my second year selling books, but I’ll also participate in a panel entitled, Writing Swordfights, Knives, and Hand-to-Hand Combat (Saturday, 2:30 PM in Otis, FYI).

I’ve been getting into the mood a little through chatting with my writer friend Patrick Hodges as he works on a fantasy novel, offering advice on how to write fights that make sense — something a lot of writers can’t do because everything they know about violence they learned from movies and television.

Since I’m in that groove, I thought I’d offer some basic advice to writers who want to make their fictional violence more interesting and realistic — by which I mean adding some actual consequences to in-story violence. Hollywood Violence is as a rule arbitrary when it comes to the effects of violence on a character and portraying realistic consequences, so that’s what I’ll chat about today by listing five of my (least) favorite violence tropes.

Unconsciousness

This is probably the most commonly abused trope in fiction. Someone gets whacked in the head, they lose consciousness, wake up when it’s convenient to the plot, and maybe complain about a mild headache.

People lose consciousness from a blow to the head because their brain has impacted the brain pan, the part of the skull that houses said squishy gray mass. That isn’t a minor injury, folks. If you’re hit hard enough to completely lose consciousness, you’re waking up with a concussion at the very least (assuming you wake up at all).

Even a so-called knockout blow doesn’t necessarily knock a person out completely. Watch a boxing or MMA match when someone is “knocked out” and what you’ll see is a case of “the lights are on but no one’s home” — a moment of utter blankness in a person’s eyes rather than falling totally unconscious — and even then, chances are the recipient of the knockout punch has suffered a mild concussion.

A quick addendum: the “knockout punch” is also overdone in Hollywood. Joe Average can’t knock a person cold with a halfway solid right hook to the point of the chin.

Selectively lethal bullets

Fun fact: according to Dr. Vincent J.M. DiMaio, who wrote a book on the subject (Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques, SECOND EDITION (Practical Aspects of Criminal and Forensic Investigations)) 80 to 95 percent of gunshot victims survive.

However, if you’re a bad guy in an action movie, one bullet to the gut will kill you dead.

Conversely, if you’re a good guy, the same gut shot will hurt like hell and bleed a lot, but you’ll shrug it off in time. Good guys are also able to keep functioning quite well after being shot in the shoulder, in the meat of the thigh, or taking a graze to the skull. Movie and TV bullets somehow fail to shred muscles and tendons or fracture bones.

Oh, and the inevitable scene of someone digging a bullet out of a character whose been shot? In real life that’d kill the victim faster than the gunshot itself. Remember, Teddy Roosevelt got shot in the chest and gave a 90-minute speech before seeking medical attention and lived. His predecessor, William McKinley, was shot twice and died of sepsis in the hospital after doctors dug the bullets out but failed to properly clean the wounds.

bullet-holesWhich isn’t to say that the trope of a bullet passing “clean through” is any better, as evidenced by this handy chart of bullet entrance and exit wounds. Imagine a bullet going “clean through” a character’s shoulder, especially if the shooter is wielding your typical ridiculously large bad-ass handgun. That joint would be reduced to hamburger, so forget about powering through the pain to keep on fighting.

Instincts

Another common trope, most often used in a situation where a character with little to no practical fight training or experience needs to survive an encounter with someone who does have training and experience. The phrase “His instincts kicked in” usually leads into a moment when the character becomes suddenly proficient enough in martial arts to overcome his opponent.

Fight-or-flight instincts are real, but if you don’t have any fight training, following the fight instincts is more likely to get you killed than turn you into a fighting machine. If someone were to throw a punch at your face, your instinct would be to flinch away and maybe throw your hands up reflexively, not to execute a perfect block that sets you up for a counter attack. Those are an experienced fighter’s instincts, and he/she has cultivated those instincts through extensive training.

The Master Vs. The Prodigy

Another common scene: a character with some inherent, natural skill as a fighter mixes it up with a “master warrior” and prevails in the end — either through those convenient instincts kicking in, after landing a lucky game-changing blow, or after the master arrogantly lets his guard down.

Masters of a craft are masters because they’ve dedicated many long hours to perfecting their art. They are at the top of their game. For someone with far less training, skill, and experience to come in and win against them is not only unrealistic, it waters down the master character’s threat level. Imagine a talented high school basketball player taking on LeBron James or Michael Jordan in his prime in a game of one-on-one and winning. Would you buy it? Then don’t ask readers to buy it.

Breaking necks

Snapping an opponent’s neck is great in fiction, especially when a character is going for a “silent kill.” It’s brutal yet bloodless and pretty much anyone can do it simply by grasping the victim’s head and giving it a sharp twist.

Except, well, no. No to all of it.

It takes 1,000 to 1,250 foot pounds of torque to snap a neck. That’s what a large diesel truck engine generates. You’re fighting muscle and tendons and the spine itself to wrench the spinal column in the neck out of alignment and you can’t do that by just suddenly whipping someone’s head to one side.

You’re also not likely to actually kill the victim. People survive broken necks regularly and though they might end up paralyzed, they live, so even if you did manage to break someone’s neck and they don’t pass out from shock, you end up with someone who can’t move but is still very capable of screaming. So much for a silent kill.

Bonus topic: swords and swordplay

I’ve learned about swords and theatrical and historical swordplay from a variety of sources over the past twenty-something years, and I’m still learning things. The art of sword fighting is a staggeringly complex subject, which is perhaps why it’s so easy to screw up in fiction. Here are a bunch of quick-hit factoids regarding swords and sword fighting:

  • Swords are not heavy. Standard longswords weighed in the vicinity of two to three pounds because they needed to move quickly in order to be effective. So-called greatswords were more often ceremonial rather than practical battlefield weapons, Claymores ranged from five to six pounds but had very specific uses, and even then they were not the most practical of weapons because of their weight.
  • “Blood grooves” — the indentation sometimes found running along the length of a blade near the hilt — has nothing to do with blood. This feature, called a fuller, was intended to reduce the weight of the blade without compromising its strength.
  • Swords were sharp, but not sharp enough to cleave clean through plate armor. Penetrate it, perhaps, but taking a person’s arm off through steel plate isn’t plausible.
  • Parrying with the flat of the blade is a heated topic among historical sword fighting scholars. One general school of thought says parrying on the flat is the right way to do it because it spares the sharp edge from getting dinged up. The other points out that a length of steel a quarter-inch thick (the thickness of a blade taking a blow on the flat) taking a straight hit from another length of steel two inches thick (the width of the blade striking with the edge) can break the sword, and it’s better to have an intact sword with a nicked blade than a stump of a blade.
  • On a related note: a block is a move that stops an attack cold. A parry is a move that sets the defender up for a counterattack by redirecting or deflecting the attack.
  • The blade isn’t the only dangerous part of the sword. The pommel can be used to inflict blunt force trauma (the word “pummel” is derived from “pommel”) and a properly-designed crossguard can punch through armor, sevre as an impromptu war hammer, and can be used to snap an opponent’s weapon.

Adding To A Character

This Boston Globe piece about a controversial T-shirt got me to thinking a bit about my YA manuscript and how it caused a somewhat similar controversy. Go read the story then come on back.

Twice while reviewing my manuscript for typos, my sister-in-law implored me to abandon a rather small and mostly insignificant character trait for Carrie, the main character in Action Figures: her weak math skills. It’s a stereotype, she said.

Well, perhaps. I did some quick research, and it looks like there is no crystal-clear final word on the common belief that girls do worse in math than boys. A lot of stories and studies I found maintain that is indeed the case, many dispute it, others say it’s conditional on any number of factors (including, no kidding, whether the society in which the girl is raised is “sexist”).

I decided to keep it for two reasons, even though it may raise some hackles.

Carrie is presented as attractive, funny, personable, and, most importantly, intelligent, but a perfect heroine is neither easy to relate to nor much fun to read about (or write, for that matter). She has to have recognizable flaws to be interesting, relatable, and realistic, and her lackluster aptitude at math is one of them — and I dare say that because she is highly skilled at English, is computer literate, and generally a nimble thinker, sucking at math in this context will be more palatable than implying girls suck at math but, as the T-shirt suggests, rock the house when it comes to shopping and dancing.

Reason number two I’ll explain in a more roundabout way.

When Joss Whedon was working on The Avengers, he had the Hulk redesigned. In The Incredible Hulk, the Hulk himself was ripped like a serious bodybuilder, but in The Avengers, he was softer, less defined. Joss explained that by setting the Hulk’s physique at a perpetual 10 as in The Incredible Hulk, he had nowhere to go when he got angry; his physicality was static, whereas in The Avengers, when the Hulk got pissed, his massive muscles became suddenly more sharply defined, a visual cue that his anger (and, if you know the comics at all, his strength) was rising to dangerous levels.

It’s conventional narrative wisdom that a character in a story must undergo a transformation, end the experience different than how he or she began it, or what’s the point of telling the story? If Carrie was good at everything in school, she has one available direction: down. That would have been a legitimate option, but it’s also a legitimate option that she could be less than adept at something and improve, and I just happened to choose math as the subject (but — not to spoil anything — she does in fact boost her grades a little by the end of the book thanks to some knuckling down and studying hard. Stay in school, kids!).

And, really, there are other things going on with Carrie that are more significant, important, and interesting to read (and write) about than how she’s doing in her classes. It’s one small part of a larger whole, and I’m hoping readers don’t get so hung up on Carrie’s math skills that they miss the rest of the story.

Kill All Cliches! – Teen Edition

In an effort to get this blog a little more active again, I’m going to ramble on a bit about some cliches in writing that I think need to be eradicated.

One thing I realized about cliches is that they can be surprisingly insidious. Sure, we all know the horror movie cliche of the fake-out scare — victim thinks something is lurking behind a curtain, in a closet, etc., jumps forward to confront what turns out to be a non-existent threat, breathes a sigh of relief, turns around — BOO! But there are cliches that are less obvious but just as commonplace, what you could alternately call “writer’s shorthand” or, less charitably, lazy writing.

Some of these came to mind while I was working on Action Figures, which is set amidst the world of teenagers, a setting that most adult writers have reduced to a list of tired cliches because A) they’re lazy and/or B) they’ve completely forgotten what high school was like.

In one scene the main character, Carrie, encounters in the lunch room a table full of jocks and cheerleaders — a bit of a cliche in and of itself, but one more based in reality than other tropes; people tend to sit with their friends, and in high school friendships often arise from shared interests, so it’s not unreasonable to have the sports-oriented kids sitting together.

The cliche kicks in with the portrayal of said table. In TV or movies, 99 times out of 100 all the guys at the table will be wearing their varsity jackets and all the girls will be in their cheerleader regalia. From a practical standpoint, this is the quickest and easiest way to tell the audience This person is a jock/cheerleader. It takes no dialog from any of the characters to get the point across. And yet, I HATE this trick because it is something I personally never witnessed as a high school student or in my years covering a local high school for my hometown newspaper, so I approached the scene with this bit of first-person perspective narrative:

I’m guessing that it’s a jock/cheerleader table based on the fact a couple of the guys are built like refrigerators. You see, unlike high schools as portrayed on TV, jocks and cheerleaders do not constantly wear their uniforms during the school day. I mean, come on.

Writers use similar shorthand for other stereotypes: the brainiacs wear glasses and carry lots of books, the geeks/nerds have zits and wear T-shirts emblazoned with super-hero logos, stoners have long hair and short attention spans, the outcasts wear black and have lots of piercings, etc, and yes, it gets the point across quickly, but it’s lazy writing nevertheless.

Another favorite of mine is the after-school job scene, which often involves: a McJob at a very gimmicky fast food restaurant; which requires the employees to wear embarrassing hats; and to greet invariably surly customers with forced cheer and a cheesy slogan; all the while suffering under the thumb of a tyrannical boss who views his job as far more important than it really is; who at one point will make the employee perform some nauseatingly humiliating task.

See, people? The job sucks! It’s sooooooooooooo terrible!

I think the American public knows that working at a fast-food joint blows, even if they themselves have never worked at one. Put a person behind the counter at McDonald’s or Burger King and that’s all you need to elicit sympathy or pity. The audience doesn’t need to be beaten over the head with it.

Reasons To Love ‘The Big Bang Theory’

This morning I came across an article on UGO.com entitled 11 Reasons Geeks Hate The Big Bang Theory, and I felt compelled to respond to a few of the accusations.

I came into the show late — as in, within the past few months, after it entered syndication — and I watch it religiously. It never fails to entertain me, in part because of its geekcentric world view. Being a geek, I can relate to the characters and I get all the jokes (that don’t have to do with advanced physics theory).

To be fair, UGO made some good points, but missed the mark on others. I’ll hit them in the order listed in the original article (be warned, some of these have nothing to do with the writing-related aspects of the show).

11 ) The Laugh Track

That’s a laugh track? Really? It’s a damn good one, because it sounds like an actual audience to me.

10 ) Losing Leslie and 3 ) Girls Are Weird

UGO laments the show’s poor treatment of the female characters; the site says the show regards them as sex objects, with the notable exception of Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert), a fellow scientist who was dropped from the cast after a few episodes because the writers “didn’t know how to write for her.”

My knee-jerk reaction is the show should have gotten better writers, but that’s unfair. The fact of the matter is, characters sometimes simply never click. They sound good in concept, but once the character starts talking on the page (so to speak), you realize that he or she just isn’t working like you thought he/she would.

That does not mean the character is bad. Sometimes it takes another writer to show everyone a character’s potential. An example in my own career is when I co-wrote the script for Pastimes‘ 2004 King Arthur Festival with my friend Amy (of Asperger Ninja). One of the characters in that show’s particular continuity was King Uriens, Morgan LeFey’s consort, and in previous shows, he was a very bland, flat, second-string villain. Paul, one of the producers, remarked to me how much he hated the character because he was so dull.

He was dull because he was never anything more than Morgan’s yes-man. The character agreed with Morgan constantly, spouted evil dialogue, got into fights with the heroes, and that’s it. Amy and I were able to make him interesting by writing him not as your basic Evil Goon but as Morgan’s husband and as the co-ruler of a kingdom. In this particular storyline, we added emotional conflict by creating friction between Uriens and Mordred, Morgan’s son with King Arthur — the son Uriens believed should have been his.

Most of the Big Bang Theory eps are written or co-written by show creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, and in the case of Leslie Winkle, they could have farmed her writing out to someone else who could have found the character’s center and given other writers material to work with.

All that said, UGO totally overlooked Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon’s (Jim Parsons) girlfriend, who is very much not an object of lust for the male cast members. Amy started off as She-Sheldon but has since evolved into a very well-realized and layered character — perhaps the best in the cast.

9 ) Endless References and 8 ) Messed-up References

UGO compares the show to Family Guy in terms of its ham-fisted use of pop-culture references, and yeah, the refs can fly fast and furious on Big Bang, but they feel less disruptive than the Family Guy references, which are clumsy, abrupt non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the story. Big Bang is not as slick, subtle, and sly as, say, Futurama (which UGO rightly credits as the best when it comes to pop-culture references), but the show uses them to better effect than Family Guy.

As for the gripe that the show gets its geek references wrong, well, UGO’s example — that a player cannot in fact loot allies’ bodies in World of Warcraft, despite the show’s assertion — only bothers the hardcore players who know better. It bothers them in the same way it bothers neurologists when a character gets knocked out cold for several hours and wakes up with nothing worse than a headache, or the way it bothers cops when an action movie police officer — well, does just about anything.

There are countless instances when a movie or TV show gets wrong some technical detail, but the flub goes unnoticed by all except those in the know. Any good writer should know enough to do their research so they don’t get the facts wrong, but sometimes writers don’t exercise due diligence, and other times they ignore reality to move the story forward, hoping the general public won’t know any better. The Big Bang Theory is not committing a crime that Hollywood hasn’t committed before and won’t commit again.

PS: reductio ad absurdum is indeed, despite UGO’s claim to the contrary, a logical fallacy; it’s just not the one Sheldon describes. I’d call that irony, but UGO might point out that I’d be using “irony” incorrectly.

7 ) Other Geek Shows Are Better

Yes, and others are worse. That’s just a lame argument. Moving on…

6 ) Evil Wil Wheaton

UGO remarks that Wesley Crusher was the worst part of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You know why fans hated Wesley? Because he was getting to do what all the fanboys wanted to do: be on the Enterprise having adventures. The character had problems, but it was mostly jealousy on the fans’ part that led to Wesley’s low standing in the Star Trek universe.

But that’s beside the more important point UGO makes, that the “evil Wil Wheaton” character has shown up too often and is losing his punch with each appearance. Wait, what? Wil’s made three appearances on the show, that’s three appearances in five seasons and 100 episodes. That’s hardly a glut of Wheaton.

5 ) Sheldonmania

UGO writes:

There’s a common tendency in many sitcoms to abandon their original premise when one character becomes more popular than the others. Probably the best example is Family Matters, which eventually just became a showcase for the antics of Steve Urkel. In the case of The Big Bang Theory, that character is Sheldon Cooper, the Aspergers-esque theoretical physicist.

I’m not sure what they mean by the show’s original premise being abandoned. The show is about the lives of four geeky friends. Yes, the Leonard-Penny dynamic was a major point in the show’s early seasons and remains a recurring theme, but to act like that was always meant to be the main point is not accurate. Leonard and Sheldon are the anchor characters, and always have been.

Besides, there’s a difference between a wholesale character takeover, like the Urkel-ization of Family Matters, and writers finding their footing writing for characters. Sheldon’s quirks were definitely less pronounced in the very early episodes, but the character as we know it was there.

4 ) Bazinga

Character catch-phrases are always going to be hokey and contrived, but Bazinga abuse is far less egregious than, say, anything ever uttered by any given character in any given sitcom during the 1970s or 1980s. It’s hardly in the same class as “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

2 ) It’s Not Us

UGO writes:

At the end of the day, the biggest geek gripe against The Big Bang Theory is that we know plenty of geeks who would be better protagonists for a TV show. Most scientists we know are the absolute opposite of the stereotype on the show — when you’re super-smart, you spend your time working on world-changing projects, not visiting the comic book store every Wednesday. The real geek is too busy subtitling anime or modding Skyrim to keep a job like that. If they wanted to show the actual world of geekdom, they need to lose the high-paying science jobs and focus on dudes writing articles for Internet magazines.

So, the problem with the characters is that they have real and respectable jobs and DON’T spend obscene amounts of time on their geeky hobbies? Seriously, guys?

One of the things I love about the show is that the characters are, undeniably, geeks, but they are not the typical Hollywood interpretation of geeks as lonely, zit-faced, Coke-bottle-glasses-wearing sexless losers who live in their parents’ basement and spend all the money they earn from their McJob on action figures and comic books. Except for Howard (Simon Helberg), the guys all live on their own — real apartments and everything. They have and have had relationships, real and purely sexual.

UGO’s insistence that a “real geek” is too busy indulging in their hobbies to hold down a day job — at least, one that is not an extension of their leisure-time activities — is not just untrue, it’s insulting. You know that episode in which Leonard and Sheldon have a heated debate over exactly how Superman’s powers work? Yeah, I’ve had that conversation. You know what I do for a living? I’m a reporter, and my work and my social life are two totally different worlds.

I do have friends who apparently eat, sleep, and breathe their geeky fun. I call them “the minority.” Most of my friends are teachers, scientists, lawyers, artists, techies of every variety, writers, medical professionals — jobs that utilize their intellects but are utterly unrelated to their funtime, like performing at renaissance faires, getting together for weekly Dungeons & Dragons games, hitting the comic shop en masse on Free Comic Book Day, holding Lord of the Rings movie marathons…right now I know of several people playing Skyrim and Skyward Sword until their eyeballs dry out.

To act like they’re the exception is to perpetuate a stereotype — which, I guess, is only worth complaining about when the show is stereotyping women. Sorry, UGO, but you’re WAY off-base on this one; the Big Bang gang are closer to “real geeks” than you think.

1 ) The Theme Song

That’s UGO’s number one gripe? For Christ’s sake…

Spoiler Theater: Scream 4

The original Scream was a case of a movie being the right tonic delivered at the right time.

Released in 1996, Scream hit theaters as the slasher genre was reaching its nadir. The Friday the 13th franchise had hit its lowest point three years earlier with Jason Goes to Hell, the Halloween franchise came to a stumbling conclusion two years previous with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and two years earlier horror maven Wes Craven had what proved to be his final outing with Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

The slasher genre had been, pun intended, done to death by the time screenwriter Kevin Williamson came out of nowhere with his love letter/satirical critique of the horror films of his youth, a movie that embraced the genre’s well-worn and overly familiar tropes while simultaneously playing them against a jaded audience’s expectations. It was familiar but fresh, and Scream still boasts once of the best opening sequences of any movie, horror or otherwise.

In retrospect, Scream should have been a fond farewell for a sub-genre of horror that — like Schwarzeneggarian action films with their cartoonish violence, paper-thin characters, and witty kill lines — had overstayed its welcome. The day of scantily-clad teenagers getting massacred by unstoppable serial killers armed with an array of gardening tools was over.

What we got instead was a brief revival of sorts, wherein many of the same formulas and cliches remained in full effect, but were now ironic and self-referential. Even Scream fell into the trap, spawning two strained and progressively less effective sequels.

Fast forward through the 2000s, which heralded the arrival of “torture porn,” a sub-genre steeped in brutal and protracted violence against, in most instances, unlikable characters who spiral uncontrollably toward pessimistic endings; and then the remake explosion, when every classic horror movie was re-imagined as something slicker, bloodier, darker, louder, more cynical, and less fun.

The horror films of the past decade (not counting the handful of impressive low-budget first-person POV thrillers that have spawned their own sub-genre) are the thematic foundation of Scream 4, itself a re-invention of the original that tries — and fails — to be as relevant now as the first film was at its time.

WARNING! SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!

Ten years have passed since the events of Scream 3, both in real time and in movie time. Heroine/survivor Sidney (Neve Campbell) has returned to her hometown, the site of the original murders, in time for the tenth anniversary of the original, as part of a promotional tour for her newly published biography.

Long story short, Ghostface resurfaces to hack his way through the cast, and Sidney and her fellow survivors from the first trilogy, Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers-Riler (Courteney Cox) must uncover the killer’s true identity to save their own lives, and the lives of the cast of secondary characters — a group of teens who bear some striking resemblances to the original characters.

Therein lies the movie’s problem: everything is familiar — too familiar for its own good.

Structurally, Scream 4 closely mirrors that of Scream — a fact that is pointed out by the characters after they realize the killer is “remaking” the original murders for the remake generation. In fact, the characters spend a great deal of time pointing out all the similarities, and how things might be skewed to reflect modern horror film sensibilities, and in doing so they rob the entire movie of any surprises.

Scream worked because it got the audience to look in one direction so they wouldn’t see the curve ball coming from the other direction — and the audience didn’t need to be reminded at every turn how the game was supposed to be played because they already knew, intimately and instinctively. Scream 4 didn’t work because it told us (repeatedly) how things happened in the past and how they were likely to happen differently in the present, then did exactly what it said it would do, all while echoing the first film — right down to the conceit of two characters swapping off the Ghostface identity to throw everyone off.

The final twist, that Sidney’s own cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) is the mastermind behind the new murders, lacks any serious punch because the audience has been so thoroughly coached to expect the unexpected (and it doesn’t help that Jill’s motive is lame: she resented growing up in her survivor cousin’s shadow, so she decided to stage a new massacre and cast herself as the sole survivor, this assuring wordwide fame in the age of Internet-born insta-fame).

Maybe the movie was a doomed effort because the “new rules of horror” are not as clear-cut and/or ingrained in movie audiences as the old rules were. Classic slasher movies had The Sin Factor (virtuous characters live, everyone else is fodder) and The I’ll Be Right Back Death Sentence (anyone who says “I’ll be right back”, won’t), among others, but nowadays, the only thing audiences can take for granted are that the protagonists are going to be brutalized and that there is an excellent chance that none of them will make it out alive.

(Guess which one of these new rules was utterly ignored? That’s right: once again, Sidney, Dewey, and Gale all survive.)

Nevertheless, the concept might have worked had Williamson and Craven approached the story with a lighter touch and not felt compelled to telegraph their every move. Or, to give you an appropriate contextual metaphor: they took a chainsaw to the audience’s head when they should have slit their throats with a scalpel.

Stand Up, Comics

Ahoy-hoy! Spoilers abound in this post, so proceed at your own risk.

Years ago, during my ill-advised and ultimately unsuccessful time at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art — an excellent institution, by the way — one of my instructors compared writing for comics to writing for sitcoms, in that the characters are constantly undergoing false growth.

One of the major tenets of fiction is that the characters should come out of the story differently than how they went in. They should learn from and be changed by their experiences, but sitcoms and comics alike defy this principle constantly. Classic sitcoms would in any given episode present the illusion that a character had grown and changed, when in fact nothing had changed — so much so that when a similar situation rolled along later, characters apparently suffered amnesia…

FONZIE: Yo, Cunningham, I’m sacred I’m losing my cool.

(FONZIE illustrates this by striking the jukebox. Nothing happens.)

FONZIE: See? Nothing! …amundo.

RICHIE: Gee whiz, Fonz, what are you going to do?

(POTSIE enters.)

POTSIE: Hey guys! I won some free tickets to the circus! Who wants to go? They have clowns and tightrope walkers and a cage filled with man-eating lions…

FONZIE: That’s it! Potsie, you’re a genius!

RICHIE: What are you going to do, Fonzie?

FONZIE: I’m going to prove to everyone I’ve still got it by jumping my motorcycle over the lions’ cage!

RICHIE: But Fonz, you kind of did that already.

FONZIE: What are you talkin’ about, Cunningham?

RICHIE: The time we were at the beach and you jumped a shark on water-skis?

POTSIE: Oh, yeah, that was cool! A little silly, but…

RICHIE: And there was the time you jumped a bunch of cars in the parking lot.

FONZIE: When did I do that?

RICHIE: Long time ago, back when Mr. Miyagi owned Arnold’s.

FONZIE: Who?

POTSIE: Hey, whatever happened to Arnold? Or your brother Chuck for that matter?

RICHIE: My what who?

FONZIE: Ayyyyyyy!

(Audience applauds.)

For younger readers: See, there was once a show called Happy Days, and it starred the guy who directed The DaVinci Code the guy who played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development

Point is, The Fonz was always losing and regaining his cool, Ricky was constantly letting Lucy perform at the club to disastrous results, Homer continues to overlook Lisa…the characters’ core remains constant and never changes. Even when something earth-shaking occurs like a marriage or a pregnancy or a death, the characters do not change. Their behaviors, quirks, flaws, they’re all firmly in place.

Sitcoms have since grown up a little, abandoning compartmentalized and extremely short-term character arcs for series-wide continuity and, yes, character growth. It’s usual incremental and almost invisible, but look closely and you’ll see it.

Comic books have yet to follow suit, which is ironic considering how, during the 1990s, the media was glutted with stories about how comic books have grown up (biff pow zok).

While classic sitcoms effectively hit the reset button with the start of each new episode, comics play the long con: a title will present a storyline that changes everything you know about (insert character here)! and then, after some time, backtracks to re-embrace the status quo.

Superman? Died, reborn; powers became energy based, got old powers back; revealed identity to and married Lois Lane, Clark Kent is single and Lois thinks Superman is a totally different guy.

Batman? Had his back broken by Bane, handled mantle of Batman to Azrael who later lost it to Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, got better and took it all back; got killed by Darkseid, Dick Grayson becomes Batman (again), Bruce Wayne returns from the dead and becomes Batman again.

Spider-Man? Got an alien black suit, went back to classic red-and-blue suit; Green Goblin dies in a fight, turns out he never really died; discovered he was a close, discovered no, he was the real Peter Parker all along; marries Mary Jane, never married Mary Jane.

Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Flash, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Phoenix, just to name a scant few, they’ve all died and/or given up their costumed identity to a successor and then returned.

The problem here is multi-leveled. Readers love these institutional characters just as they are and lose their shit whenever a major change is made. Couple that with the fact creative teams on corporate-owned characters — which said corporations want to keep recognizable to the masses and therefore marketable — are always looking to put their own fingerprints on a title, it’s inevitable characters will return to the status quo, no matter what kind of crazy crap happens to them.

The most unfortunate drawback of this is that there is an invisible, unspoken safety net beneath every story, giving readers a subconscious reassurance that in the end, everything and everyone will be okay and, given time, it will all go back to normal. As a lifelong comics fan, I just roll my eyes when I read mainstream news stories announcing that “Marvel Comics will kill off the Human Torch in an upcoming issue of The Fantastic Four” or the industry publications tease “A major change is coming for Superman” because I know damn well that in a year or two, all the changes will be undone.

In mainstream comics there are no stakes, there is no character growth, there is no such thing as a permanent condition. In other words: mainstream comics are dull and predictable.

There are exceptions all around, but they are few and far between in mainstream comics’ major players. Dick Grayson assumed the Nightwing identity in 1984 and never looked back. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman got married in 1965 and have remained husband and wife. Gwen Stacy? Still dead.

Both Marvel and DC are more willing to muck about with secondary and tertiary characters, but the  closest either of them have come to throwing all the conventional rules out the window is Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel line, where no one is safe. The Ultimate Universe has introduced — and killed off, permanently — its versions of Daredevil, Doctors Doom, Octopus, and Strange, Magneto, Spider-Man, and Wolverine — and even then, a few of these characters have made a return of sorts as others have assumed their identities.

If mainstream comics is going to continue to play it safe, they should at least abandon all pretenses that any given issue will offer readers something so monumental that it “will shake the Marvel/DC Universe to its very foundation,” because it won’t. Any comic reader worth his salt knows that.

Personally, I’d love to see Marvel and DC truly shake things up by throwing all the time-honored cliches out the window. Make death a permanent thing, for the big guns all the way down to the minor supporting characters so that it has meaning again. Let the characters develop and change, organically and realistically. Let their actions have permanent consequences, for themselves and the people and world around them.

I know that none of this will ever come to pass, but the thought that a storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League of America could sucker-punch me with as much fearlessness and ferocity as a single issue of The Walking Dead or move me emotionally like the finest issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — that comics could once again be as thrilling as they were when I was a kid — makes me tingle.

Scarily Bad Writing

Today is Halloween, my favorite holiday, so I suppose it’s appropriate I write about writing in horror movies.

Thanks to the miracle of streaming video, I now have access to a wealth of bad movies — my standard background noise when I write — and it never ceases to amaze me just how bottomless the pit of no-budget dreck is. There are many shortcomings to criticize here, everything from the acting and direction to the lighting and sound, but I’ll of course focus on the shoddy foundation of the script.

I go into this admitting that a successful horror movie relies more heavily on the quality of the production than of the script than other genres. My favorite scary movie of all time, Halloween, would not have been as great had it not been for John Carpenter’s skill at building suspense (and composing one of the eeriest, moodiest scores ever), and those are the kinds of things you just can’t write into a screenplay.

Horror classics like The Exorcist and modern greats like The Mist were very much dependent on quality stories to work as well as they did, but thoughtful horror I think tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

However, that’s no excuse for scriptwriters of low- and no-budget horror fare to fall down on the job so completely and with such regularity. I’ve picked up on a number of typical behaviors of Z-grade would-be horror auteurs in the scriptwriting phase, which I share now for your amusement as much as for your enlightenment.

MIKE’S TOP FIVE MISTAKES IN LOW-BUDGET HORROR SCRIPTS

1) Shamelessly rip off another, more successful movie

An easy target would be Paranormal Entity, a knock-off of Paranormal Activity from the nation’s foremost producer of low-budget mockbusters, The Asylum. But I’m going to pick on Methodic, a blatant rip-off of Halloween — which I picked up on even before I learned that the writer/director, Chris R. Notarile, originally wrote a script for a Halloween re-boot pitch. After Rob Zombie got the green light to do his version, Notarile made some changes to his script and filmed it as Methodic.

It’s impossible to watch the film without constantly thinking of the original. That’s a huge distraction, and an important element of successful horror is to keep the audience engrossed in the story. You can’t do that if your viewers are conducting an ongoing compare-and-contrast to a superior product.

2) Make every character completely unlikable

Rise of the Scarecrows is one of the most atrocious things I’ve ever watched, and that’s because every single character is vile, reprehensible, and completely unsympathetic. As the viewer, I wanted every single one of them to die and die horribly; I had no one to root for, and the conventional school of thought is that the audience wants the most likable characters to not just survive, but to defeat the threat. You can’t do that if every ostensible protagonist is an asshole.

George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead almost fails for that reason. The most sympathetic character in the film is Bub the zombie; there are maybe three human characters who are at all likable, and everyone else is repugnant, pathetic, annoying as hell, or such a non-entity it’s impossible to muster any feelings for them at all.

Yet many a former critic of the film has retracted their previous negative opinions and come to understand that these particular characters are people under the most relentlessly stressful situation imaginable, so of course they’re hair-triggered basket cases who spend most of their time screaming at each other. It makes sense.

And yet, Romero still had the presence of mind to give the audience a few truly sympathetic characters. He knew that without someone to root for, the movie would be intolerable.

It’s worth noting that some hardcore horror fans always root for the killer, and I wonder if some writers cater to this idea and intentionally craft a full menu of victims to be lined up and slaughtered for the audience’s entertainment, but frankly, that shtick gets really tired really fast.

3) Load the script with F-bombs

I am a big fan of profanity. I like it, I use it liberally in my speech and in my writing, and when used well it can be very effective — especially the word “fuck,” which is still a shocking word to more delicate sensibilities.

The problem is that many amateur writers rely on gratuitous profanity as a shortcut to inject their work with edginess and attitude, or because they think that’s how real people talk. I’ve known some people who rattle of fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck like a machine gun, but they aren’t that common, so it’s not only annoying to have an entire cast cursing like Marines, it’s unrealistic. Clunky dialog is a staple of bad horror, but relentless carpet F-bombing is a sure-fire way to draw the audience’s attention to weak dialog.

On that note…

4 ) Use this line at least once:

VICTIM (reacting to off-screen noise): Hello? Who’s there? Is someone out there? [CHARACTER] is that you? C’mon guys, you’re scaring me! This isn’t funny anymore!

Seriously, do you know how many times I’ve heard that line in a slasher film? It needs to be retired. Now.

5) End on a VERY down note

One big problem I have with modern horror, whether a studio-backed job or a no-budget backyard production, is how dark and nihilistic they tend to be. I’m not just talking about straight-up torture porn, but a lot of fright flicks are dedicated to bringing each and every character to a terrible, terrible end, and even when someone survives the experience, the writers and directors apparently can’t resist one last fuck-you to the audience by whipping out the last-minute surprise that makes it clear that no one got a happy ending.

Now, the downbeat ending can be done very well. The aforementioned The Mist is a great example of an effective down-note ending. You see it coming and when it happens you’re not surprised, but it’s still a huge emotional gut-punch — and that’s why it works. The main characters has suffered and fought to survive, and along the way you come to care about them (see rule #2), so when they meet with a terrible fate, it’s a more powerful experience.

Horror films from the 1970s and early 1980s often tempered a downbeat ending by injecting a shred of uncertainty or hope, or ended on a positive note tainted by a whiff of uncertainty: the original versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, the original Halloween and Friday the 13th, they all ended on mixed notes to great effect.

George Lucas in love (with rewriting Star Wars)

Over the past few weeks, the Internet has been a-buzz over the latest round of changes George Lucas is making to his Star Wars saga, particularly the original trilogy. Most of the changes are further updates to the special effects, continuing a trend Lucas began with the “special edition” re-releases of the first three films.

And then, there is the “Noooooooooooooooo!”

Y’know, this thing right here, from Return of the Jedi:

Why do people hate this addition? Based on what I’ve read, mostly because it’s so damned cheesy — which it is. The anguished “Noooooooooooo!” is one of the worst dialog cliches in writing. Granted, it fits the general tone of the Star Wars films, which (sorry, fanboys) are inherently kind of cheesy, but that’s the kind of line that cannot be taken seriously by audiences anymore…much like the most famous line of the trilogy, “No…I am your father!”

Interestingly, the complaint I’ve seen from a number of writerly types, such as comedian/actor/writer Simon Pegg, who offered this Twitterific analysis:

Always loved Vader’s wordless self sacrifice. Another shitty, clueless, revision like Greedo and young Anakin’s ghost. What a fucking shame.

Pegg gets it. He understands that a scene can have great emotional power without dialog — and is sometimes more powerful for the lack of it. Adding the “Nooooooo!” in this case, because the line is so hackneyed, is totally counter-productive; any remotely savvy viewer is going to hear that and laugh his ass off (or, like me, roll his eyes).

I would like to say that George Lucas is not a true writer because of this…and his use of the same “Nooooooo!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin rises as Vader and learns that Padme has died…and the fact that he cannot simply walk away from his creation and stop tinkering with it (an important trait for any artist to possess, in my opinion)…but I have seen evidence that he grasps the more subtle aspects of telling a story.

That evidence is contained within the first hugely controversial change Lucas made to his movies: having Han Solo shoot Greedo in self-defense instead of just gunning him down.

“Han shot first!” purists cry, but I understand exactly why Lucas altered that moment in the original Star Wars: it was a gentle but significant tweaking of Han Solo’s character based on some old-school writing theory about the good guys being very good and the bad guys being very bad.

There really weren’t any gray-area characters in Star Wars; everyone was a hero or a villain, period, and they behaved in clearly heroic or villainous ways. Han Solo was definitely a more roguish type of hero with some flexible morals, but he was still a good guy, and Lucas decided upon reflection that yeah, Greedo might be sitting there with a gun pointed at him, but shooting him without real provocation diminished Han Solo’s heroism.

Shoot first, and very deliberately? Han Solo comes across as cold-blooded. Shoot in response to someone shooting at him? Justifiable self-defense. It’s a fine line, and Lucas understood, with the benefit of hindsight, that he’d crossed it when he decided that Han would shoot first.

That all said, I think Lucas is poised to start doing serious damage to his movies if he doesn’t leave them the hell alone from now on. Sprucing up the special effects is one thing, but if he keeps fiddling with the story, he’ll eventually wear away at the rough edges that exist in even the most polished of artistic creations and render the Star Wars Trilogy bland, sterile, and worst of all, no fun anymore.