There was an outbreak on Twitter this morning of quotes around the classic, classic film, Heavy Metal, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. But the outbreak had me thinking about an important issue, which is writing comedy.
Almost all comedy emerges from a disputation of power. In the classic man vs. man or man vs. nature, for example, comedy emerges when a man tries and fails to overcome a problem because of overreach fueled by arrogance and ignorance. A classic example is, to use television, from Seinfeld when Kramer tried to adapt his bathtub for better waterflow in defiance of his landlord’s requirement to reduce water use; he lacked understanding of the problem and arrogantly assumed he knew how to fix it; the resulting flood of his entire apartment was consequently funny. Other classic sources of comedy come from the Upstairs/Downstairs mould of television, where the powerful are never torn down, but are routinely shown up as incompetent and undeserving of their status by their cleverer underlings. Even The Argument Sketch from Monty Python is all about the two characters attempting to powerplay each other, each cleverly looking for a way to either needle or deflect the other’s jibe, to put the other man “under.”
Which is why there’s a moment in Heavy Metal‘s “Lincoln F. Sternn” segment that once seemed funny, but now dies like a landed fish. The scene is supposed to be comic. Sternn is on trial for being a very bad man, and his list of achievements is impressive. ”Lincoln Sternn, you stand here accused of 12 counts of murder in the first degree, 14 counts of armed theft of Federation property, 22 counts of piracy in high space, 18 counts of fraud, 37 counts of rape, and one moving violation.” The prosecutor pauses after every count to let it sink in. The “camera” (Heavy Metal is animated) looks over the bored judge, the restless jury, the steely-eyed prosecutor. When the prosecutor reads the rape charge, the camera focuses on Sternn… whose smile broadens knowingly.
That used to be considered humor. It’s funy, because, see, we all know that, while, legally, rape is, like, a bad thing, Sternn is such a manly man that, well, he was just putting women in their proper place in the power structure, and it’s not like he killed them or anything, he was just doing what a man does.
The women in that scene aren’t human beings; they’re merely pawns.
Once you live in a world where men and women are equals, it stops being funny. Instead, it comes across as horrifying, and Sternn’s consequential escape from justice (as well as the murder of his henchman) loses all comic impetus. Then again, so does getting away with murder.
2013Plot, Theme… Premise?
A lot of folks recently had a big hate-on for Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, and some of the anger is fully justified. Snyder was a screenwriter, and the BS2, as it’s called, is a pure, formulaic layout of a script’s emotional highs and lows. It’s such a reliable formula that every blockbuster recently has been written to it. Hit the Slate link for the details, and one you memorize it you start to see just how every movie is written to it, “Mad-Libs” style.
I don’t write for the screen. So, as a words-on-paper pantser (someone who just sits down an writes, to hell with an outline or formula) , mostly, I don’t advocate or think much of Snyder’s formula. There is, however, one thing that he illuminated for me that I’ve been thinking much more about recently as I write.
Deliver on your premise.
The theme, if you even bother to think of one, is a pithy, one-sentence notion of the philosophical push behind the story: “Love conquers all,” “Simple is better than complicated,” “Beauty fades, but brains are for life.” The plot is what happens, the pace of scenes, the rise and fall of emotional beats you want the audience to feel as they read your story.
Premise is something else entirely. Premise is delivering on the kind of story promised by your opening paragraphs. Star Wars promises spaceships shooting at each other; Star Trek promises exploring “new life, and new civilizations, boldly going where no one has gone before.” (This explains why I loathe the J.J. Abrams Star Trek franchise.) Harry Potter promises wizardly battles, magical hijinks and teenage derring-do. Any Banks’ Culture novel promises enormous, creative vistas of shock and awe within which surprisingly petty people continue to do their petty things. Weber’s and Bujold’s novels always deliver on the premise: long before the final reveal, there’s a long stretch where Honor or Miles are doing what they’re really all about: making other people become better people by example.
The premise is the fun part of the story, it’s the part where the audience gets what it came for, not in the small drips and drabs and hints and promises of the first few chapters, but in a long stretch where we get to see the character in his or her new element, confronting the challenge and excelling. Not good enough, quite, to vanquish the crisis, which must of course rise in power to meet and exceed the protagonist’s efforts.
As I write erotica, the theme can be lots of different things– the rising or fading of desire, love conquers all, fear of failure, etc. The plot can be all over the place. The premise is that “the characters have sex,” and my responsibility is to get them there as fully realized and justified characters, and to make the sex act a central and revelatory scene, and to show how the consequences of that scene lead to the ending.
Whatever your premise is, deliver on it. Moon, Sun, Dragons has a problem in that the middle part of the book must show Cheilleine and Sarah successfully leading the charge to kill the dragons; Sword of the Bankers (my “What if the Medici had had a few Jedi to work with?” novel) must somehow show Janae learning to appreciate her powers, and enjoy using them even as she unravels the way the power structures in Italy and Denmark conspire to maintain power. Somehow, I haven’t quite reached the point where I could deliver on those.
But I can deliver on short stories of people boinking. It’s what I’m good at. So I’ll keep delivering on that, at any rate.
2013Nobody Misses You
Nobody misses you.
If you’re a creative whose outlet is the Internet, or an art gallery, or a bookstore with a weekly reading event, or a cafe that hosts bands, or a bar, or any other outlet where musicians, aritists, vriters, even programmers or designers hand out, the solumn truth is simple: if you disappear, nobody misses you.
Oh, sure, people might ask in an idle moment, “Whatever happened to…?” But the fact is, other than idle moments, nobody misses you. There’s too much good stuff on the Internet, too many distractions, too much beauty and loveliness and challenge.
A question sometimes asked is, “Where are the Shakespeares of today?” Well, there can be only one Shakespeare, only one person who first pushes forward the power of language with his quick wit and agile mind, but after he’s done in, thousands have followed in his path, taking what he did and pushing it just a little faster, just a little further. Given how few people of his age were literate enough to write a mere letter, and given how many people now communicate with the written word every day, there are thousands, if not hundresds of thousands, of people with the wit and skill and verbal dexterity of Shakespeare. We don’t appreciate them just because there are so many of them.
You could well be one of them.
But there are so many of them already. Regardless of taste in art, music, cinema, culture, etc., the distribution costs are so low, and the excess capacity of producers so great, that regardless of what is or where it’s produced, your fans can probably afford to enjoy it.
Which means that unless you’re producing something, injecting something into their thought stream that demands they pay attention to you, nobody misses you. You have to be producing all the time, creating something that keeps them interested at more or less the same rate as a slot machine, you will be, if not forgotten, at least subjected to fan silence until you produce more.
2013Applying David Mamet’s advice…
There are few things more beautiful than the absolute clarity of a traditionalist. I may not like David Mamet’s politics, but he’s absolutely right about his approach to writing. I was reading through several of my own stories, and I finally applied his advice to two of them:
Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.
This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.
All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.
Any scene, thus, which does not both advance the plot, and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, on its own merits) is either superfluous, or incorrectly written.
Every scene must start because the main character has a problem and it must culminate with the character finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.
When I read this, I applied it to my stories. I found three stories that might benefit from it, and immediately applied it. I finished three of them. Sadly, one of those stories involved no sex at all, and may not survive the great filter if I don’t find a fourth plot to make important to the story. It’s the best advice you’re ever going to get.
Sadly, after finishing those three stories, I’ve been a bit… drained. I haven’t been able to finish another one.
And looking through my stories, I’ve kinda realized that I don’t have the kinds of crises in some of my stories. I need to work on that. I need to figure out what the conflicts are in my stories, and write about them.
2013The Woodshed and the Story’s End…
As an erotica writer who’s always attempted to portray both men and women as realistically as possible (yes, even my dragons, centaurs, and so on), I have a deep sympathy with the crisis Kameron Hurley shows in her brilliant essay, We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative. The essay is about how stories have always been wrapped around the narratives of men, and how she’s trying, harder than ever, to depict women faithfully, to slough off the cultural baggage of women constrained to romantic, sexual, or subservient roles in any given story, and show women as just as capable of action as men.
In a paragraph toward the end of the essay, though, she struggles to re-write her women characters so that they’re explicitly not depicted in one of those roles– even when those roles might be appropriate.
I thought about that because I just finished a story where Ken is mourning the death of a beloved friend from a relatively rare (for the Pendorian Corridor) species, and how he encounters another fem from the same species. She plays the role of confidant while he sorts himself out. It is a stereotypically “feminine” role– but all she is is confidant. The love scenes are all male/male, starting as a dive into explicitly drunken abandon, and ending as something more romantic and holistic. Which was sorta the point of the story. It’s a nice arc, not at all challenging. (To me, at any rate: I understand that male/male romance is challenging for some people.)
I thought about Hurley’s struggle, and applied it to the paragraphs when Ken and Evane are talking. After a few iterations I found myself back at the beginning. Confidant is a fine role for just about anyone. Evane is not explicitly locked into anything in particular. She has understandable and humane reasons for her interest in Ken. The story doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, but that’s hard to achieve when you have a first-person narrative from a male character.
So I reverted back to the original. It’s good as is. Another story done.keep looking »