Scrapyard: Improving My Craft

First, a hat tip to David Lawrence, another aspiring author, head of The Seraphim Regiment : Christian Online Gaming Guild and co-inspirational goofus for driving me in this drive towards making writing my career and really working at my craft.  Thanks for the inspiration to try this out.  Go check his blog out.

Two resources have been put front and center in my writing life right now.  First is one I found and latched onto like a lamprey, while the other has come up behind me and clubbed me a good one thanks to Dave.

The first is “The Story Grid” by Sean Coyne while the second is “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey.  The two are revolutionizing how I write and work with my stories.  What’s even better is to realize how much I used before learning more about these things on instinct.  I think I can blame 30 years of being a GM for various RPGs and participating in oral storytelling for most of my life.

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So last night, I started analyzing some of my favorite films.  Yes, 2am, Christmas Eve/Day is a good time to watch a movie when you should be keeping your regular schedule.  What did I pop in?  “The Fifth Element“.  Not the most holiday-like of a film but it was what I wanted to see as I resisted the re-watching of “Blade Runner” because I’m on a giggly anticipatory edge for the sequel.  That, I will watch later today.  What I wondered was why, although “The Fifth Element” is an incredible movie, it doesn’t quite go over the ‘critical hump’ to make it a masterpiece.

What I realized is that it did not quite manage the “Hero’s Journey” in a completely satisfying manner or its delivery of obligatory scenes was not quite up to snuff, and made up for the gap in the storytelling with a richness of top notch production design (which nobody can disagree with.  Nope sorry, your argument is invalid because reasons.) and good acting.

Luc Besson spends a long time building the universe, and although it’s fun to watch everything up to the point of Korben Dallas getting into the story (the true personification of the hero in the story) it is about 20 minutes of setup that is more or less dithering on establishing the “Status Quo”.  It doesn’t really dig into the actual story, which in effect is a very short and basic.

You have also have a lot of parallel villains and macguffins.  Now this isn’t bad per sey because Zorg (and Mr. Shadow) with the Mandalorians are all seeking the stones.  The three threats are all striking similar chords and add some delicious betrayal and complexity, but each time, it slightly weakens the overall whole.  Mr. Shadow is a “Man Vs. God” level threat, and the other two are “Man vs. Man” threat.  You have a small “Man vs. Self” threat in terms of Korben’s depression and helplessness but that is almost an afterthought to create the ambiance of his character as the burnt out veteran. Even though the man vs. self does a quick return at the finale, it’s got no real power other than some base sentimentality and emotional manipulation to make the “gets the girl” trope work.

The movie does spend some good time with the next three steps of “Call to Action”, “Refusing the Call”, “Assistance” and “Departure” which comes in many various flavors.  The movie is more like a rope in this manner rather than a beam.  Many things working together, providing great flexibility and art, which is good, but it is not as strong in the end as a singular focus.  The call comes to adventure comes to Dallas through multiple sources, same does his assistance.  Again, although they are alloyed together and echo each other, it is not as strong.

As for the “Trials” honestly, this is almost non-existent and is wrapped up in the coupled fights before and after the Plavalaguna’s Concert, but it’s also mixed up in a disorderly mess where two of the three villians (Zorg and the Mandalorians) are dispatched leaving only the real Man vs God threat as Mr. Shadow goes right for the temple to kill everything and so too must our heroes.

“Crisis” is present when Leeloo is wounded, but again, it is easily overcome, which hurts.  Yes Leeloo is wounded with some great buildup and diminished, and then we get some angst out of Korben, but that’s about it.  Combine with that the emotional shock of the self sacrificing Diva, we are back to that “rope” I’ve referred to.  Good, flexible, textured, but again, not as strong.  The obligatory scene of “Hero at the mercy of the villain” is here with Zorg vs Leeloo, but again, its a little weak on its own, but with the death of the Diva and Korben trying to figure out where the stones are, it’s strengthened.

Then comes the final battle which combines “Crisis”, “Treasure”, “Result” and “Return” all into one quick 10 minute event.  Leeloo is fully realized, Korben gets the girl, evil is defeated for another 5000 years and they’re all back on Earth.  Badaboom, it’s resolved and for me, the first time I saw this movie, it was satisfying, beautiful and fun just like every good thrill ride.  But why did the movie not make the jump to true “classic” film?  I think it’s because it used rope versus versus a steel beam of singular sources of hero and threat.

We even get an “all is lost” moment in when they assemble the weapon only to not understand how to make it work.  As I think about this movie, it works a lot on thematic echoes.  Protagonist Korben is echoed by Leeloo and to some extent Father Cornelius.  The Villains are echoed.  The Macguffins are singular, but in four parts.  The departure (boarding the spaceplane) is repeated FOUR TIMES!  The “Crisis” and “All is Lost” moments are echoed as well.  And again, what it does it sets up a nice harmonic, but goes back to my basic criticism I think to where it keeps this movie from being considered a true classic, but rather an “Honorable Mention”.

The movie itself hits a ton of obligatory tropes:

  • spaceship with FTL
  • Flying cars
  • Megacities
  • Aliens
  • Cool new technology (that nanoreassembly is an incredible bit of SFX)

They even give a few 1990’s cultural twists that were popular ironic social observations.

  • Cynical former military hotshot
  • Benevolent or at least benign but incompetent government
  • Big Business cooperating with evil blinded by profit
  • Damsel in not so much distress (Damsel saves Knight)
  • Scatterbrained priest with undefined strange religious trappings (Dem robes y’all)
  • Shallow uber-sexual narcissist media figure idiot
  • Stoner ground crew of the Reggae variety

But how about obligatory scenes/events common to sci fi/space opera?

  • We get a few battles in flying ships.  (Flying cars and spaceships)
  • Learning about the alien culture (Leeloo learning human culture… now with nudity!)
  • Big spaceship explosion (So long, Fhlostan Paradise)
  • Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons (Meet Leeloo the deified ancient weapon)
  • Plucky Rebel against insurmountable odds (Korben and Leeloo vs a cast of several)
  • Last second salvation  (The rainbow barf pew pew that saves the universe)

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Now I’m not trying to minimize how much fun this movie is, because dagnabbit, it’s a blast and I like to watch it regularly.  But as I learn more about my craft, I realize why it’s not a seminal classic or rated among the best films ever.  Now I get it.  Hold this up to say “Blade Runner” you can see how it differs in that manner (even though this is light space opera adventure versus a cyberpunk film noir thriller).

Anyhoo, this is me having fun with mah new skills.  I think I may make this a regular series when I sit down and tear into other movies using the ideas from Shawn Coyne and Joseph Campbell.  If not to help myself improve my craft, but to give observations that may help other writers, or just be entertaining.  So, let’s see if my “Scrapyard” will become a regular series of articles.

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Wipeout

Yep.  I’m wiped out.  I pushed too hard again, am facing a possible setback that I won’t get into yet, and just am burned out at the moment.  What’s worse is that I want to start working on book 2 but just cannot find the handle I thought I had, so I may have sunk too deep into the philosophical and just need to say “Screw you, plotline!  I’m pantsing the hell out of this book too!”

It’s even affecting my posts as I have now shelved 3 of them I’ve started that got too deep into the philosophical end of the pool and I realized I didn’t know what I was babbling about.  So you get this one instead.  Maybe I’m just trying too hard.

I know where I need to be at the end, I just don’t know where to start or how to get there.  It’s like waking up in the trunk of a car at an unknown airport.  I know I need to get home, but first I have to figure out where I am and then how to pay for the tickets without a wallet.

On a positive note, my copy of The Story Grid showed up and I’m reading it.  Some good stuff which will probably help me out of this hole relatively quickly.

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Improving My Craft

Learning the craft of writing is far more than pecking away at a keyboard and handing over those thoughts without review.  Writing is in the re-writing and editing when pursuing a professional quality.

I am reminded of a special I watched on Monty Python.  In it, John Cleese explains how brutal they were on editing each other’s work.  Apparently, they were brutal to one another, and what was born out of such ruthlessness was on of the best comedy shows that ever had existed

It was erudite as well silly.  Bawdy or witty.  They also knew when they had said enough and ended the show.  Learning this on your own is nigh impossible, I suspect.  

A few months ago, I started listening to a few podcasts on writing and editing.  In an effort to share the wealth, here are some links to my favorites.

The Story Grid

http://storygrid.simplecast.fm

By far a most excellent Podcast done by Shawn Coyne and hosted by Tim Grahl.  The Story Grid tool has single handedly altered how I write forever.  I now know how to dissect my writing on a grand scale far better and caught some huge mistakes I had been making.

The Creative Penn

http://www.thecreativepenn.com

Author Joanna Penn was my first foray into listening to craft related podcasts.  Her back catalogue is huge and has so many hidden nuggets on the industry as whole.  Plus her easy country English manner is good enough to read a phone book and draw a sizable audience.

Two other related bit not directly aimed at editing, but about the Self-publishing industry are:

The Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast

http://rockingselfpublishing.com

Hosted by Simon Whistler, this podcast is a great interview collection.  Simon is top notch in getting some interesring tidbits from authors who have made it.  The site’s pop-up adds are not well optimized for mobiles, so be ready for that irritation, but the product is well worth it.

Author Level Up

https://m.youtube.com/#/channel/UCcdjxp-TGOOucIV1rMDS8jw

This is more of a vlog as it is a YouTube channel hosted by Michael LaRonn.  Although he is taking a break at the moment as to focus on some related creative work, is format is perfect for quick, useful advice.  He also focuses more on the business side of creating your author brand making it an invaluable little show.

I hope these resources can be a help to you too.