Storyteller’s Rulebook: Extend the Trend Lines

Nothing makes one feel older that rereading a science-fiction book from one’s youth only to find that it’s come true in the meantime.

I had previously read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” at age nine (I was precocious) back in 1984. At the time, the notion of an electronic book with a leather cover (my ipad today has a leather cover) was pretty strange, as was the notion of that device containing a nearly-infinite crowd-sourced encyclopedia that covered almost every conceivable topic, which was filled with errors, but nonetheless good enough to eclipse the popularity of traditional encyclopedias.

But it all came true. I’ve always said that Wikipedia is one of the most utopian aspects of our modern world, and this seems to confirm it.

And so I think to myself, “Boy, if I could go back in time and tell my younger self that this book would come true in his lifetime, wouldn’t he be surprised?” And then I realize, “No, he wouldn’t be.” If I were to go back and tell my 1984 self, “Hey, can you believe that the world is really different in 2018?” my 9-year old self would say, “Well I should fucking hope so—that’s the distant future! Do you live on the moon?” Then I would have to say, “Well no…In fact, we’ve abandoned manned space travel…But we all have computers in our pockets!”

(This is another area where Adams seems prescient. Indeed, one of the most dated aspects of the era in which it was written is that digital watches still seemed cool at the time. He correctly looked at that development and said “Um, we shouldn’t be so impressed by these. Better stuff is coming.”)

This book is far from hard science-fiction, but in creating the character of Ford Prefect, Adams wanted to show that he was cooler than anyone on Earth, so he invented something that made him cool: the guide. And now we’re all that cool. And that’s pretty neat.

In 1979, post-apocalyptic fiction was all the rage, and this book certainly fits into that category, but thankfully it turned out to be wrong about that, so far. You could say that the world is still tottering on the edge of apocalypse, but so far only the cool tech from this book has come to pass. At least I’d have a little good news to report to my 1984 self.

(I was going to illustrate this with a still from the movie, only to discover another thing the movie messed up: The book doesn’t have “Don’t Panic” on the cover!  This was the best I was able to find, though it hardly fits the description in the book.)

The Book that Breaks Every Rule, Part #3: Write What You Know

This is maybe the best known of all writing rules. Anyone who has merely dabbled in writing in high school has been told this by their teacher. But this book blows this rule out of the water. Let us examine the ways:

  • It’s set in a fantasy world, but it’s based very closely on medieval Britain, and Martin is American (New Jersey born and raised, primarily of Italian and Irish heritage.)
  • It’s about war and armies, and Martin was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He volunteered for Vista instead.
  • It’s about power and wealth. There are no peasant characters here. Even in the army setting, which is mainly working class, the only three characters we get to know are from lordly families. Almost every character in the book is a lord or related to one. Martin, on the other hand, grew up in a housing project.

Does the Book Get Away With It? As to the first two bullet points, the answer is very much yes. How? Massive amounts of research. I’ve always said that you can write about anything if you’re ready to do years of research, and Martin’s understanding of medieval life could not be deeper or more convincing. As opposed to Tolkien, who was celebrating his own country and heritage, Martin is playing in a sandbox not his own, but he clearly loves it. Even the military, which Martin specifically rejected in his own life, is lovingly and precisely rendered.

(I should point out here that two of my own major projects were set in England, despite the fact that I am not English, nor even much of an Anglophile. I just found great true stories that happened to be set there and did a ton of research about those eras in that place. It can be done.)

But what about the third bullet point? Well you might recall that though this is one of the best-known writing rules, it’s not my rule. Rather, I’ve recommended that you don’t have to write the details of your life, but you do have to write the emotions you know. So is Martin doing that? Yes and no.

The original writing guru, Aristotle, said that all tragedies should be written about royalty, not because those are the only important people, but because they have farther to fall. Readers like stories that are big. If this book was about jockeying to be on the town council, it might have all the intrigue, but not the pathos.

So you could argue that Martin’s just following Aristotle’s rule, and by extension, mine: The book is emotionally convincing, so clearly Martin has found a way to tap into real emotions he knows well, then made them bigger by projecting them onto royalty.

But are there any downsides to a kid who grew up so working-class writing about the rich and powerful? The danger is that he might have resentment towards such characters that might show through. We’ll pick up there next time.

How to Generate a Story Idea: The Archive

I love this section. It was one of the last things I cut from the book.

How to Generate an Idea, Addendum: Tweak the Right and Left Simultaneously

As I’ve discussed, I’ve always been a big fan of “24”, despite the nasty assumptions that fuel many of its storylines. I know a lot of people who just can’t stomach this element and they demand to know how I put up with it. I tell them that I like it for the same reason I like Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”.

Hugo’s novel has an audacious and somewhat cheeky premise: let’s take the ultimate liberal hypothetical and the ultimate conservative hypothetical and combine them into one man.

When liberals advocate humane treatment of poor criminals, they frequently cite the possibility that the accused was just a poor man desperately taking bread to feed his family, but this drives conservatives crazy. “Sure that could happen in theory,” they say, “but it’s never actually the case in real life.”

Conservatives, on the other hand, defend misbehaving members of the upper class in much the same way: They paint the accused as a bold “maker” who probably rose from nothing, had a great business idea, built a factory from scratch and magnanimously took care of its workers, all of whom would be thrown out of work if we peevishly insist on convicting him of some minor infraction. To this, liberals say, “Sure, that’s possible in theory, but it’s never actually happened that way, so let’s not indulge that fantasy.”

If a writer were to simply dramatize one or the other of these powerful myths, the result would be a partisan polemic, acceptable to only one side of the other, and that’s fine, but Hugo’s puckish genius was to smash the thesis and antithesis together, uniting them in a single hero. Jean Valjean is both the man stealing bread to feed his family and the unjustly persecuted factory owner all at once.

The result is both deeply ironic and wildly entertaining, as we watch poor Jean swim his way across an epic sea of troubles, encountering lots of ironic reversals, none of which fully confirm our political prejudices.

And so this brings us back to “24” and another hero known for his seemingly endless struggles. Why do I put up with the ultra-right narratives that so frequently infect the show? Because there are 24 hours in a day, and this plot never stops twisting, so those troubling narratives are constantly colliding head on with equally compelling counter narratives.

In the most recent season of the show, we had the standard right-wing narratives: British Muslim sleeper-agents plot the destruction of London, exploiting foolish Western tolerance, and an Assange-like character denounces imperialism while secretly selling the secrets he hacks to the Chinese. Yes, that’s all offensive to me, but we also had lots of left-wing red-meat tossed in: the terrorists are motivated by wrongful drone deaths, and they hack into those drones to rain death upon London, proving that they’re a terrible idea. We even get an American president forced to submit himself the humiliation of British question time, a longtime fantasy of the left!

So on the one hand I do worry about the effect of dramatizing and affirming various bigoted fantasies, but I love that they’re countered with the sort of left-wing narratives you wouldn’t normally see on TV, and I especially love that the advocates of the other side have my side thrown in their face as part of a program they deeply love and trust.

In other words, as is so often the case, irony makes it all work. Slamming these two counter-narratives against each other creates more narrative power (and fun) than either would have on its own.

Let’s look at one last example: If we combine the last story-starter (Ask “What if It’s All True?”) with this one, we get one of my favorite movies, The Manchurian Candidate.

Once again, this movie takes its premise from a then-current ultra-right conspiracy theory that was deeply offensive to most Americans (the fear that Korean War vets had been brainwashed by the Red Chinese before they were sent home) and yokes it to a far-left narrative (Posh Republican matrons and their McCarthy-ite stooges hate this country even more than the Soviets) Amazingly, the result offended no one and entertained everyone.

So now we have a rule and its two corollaries: One way to tap into the public imagination is to start with a current crazy theory and ask, “What if it’s all true?”, and one way to maximum the irony and fun of that exercise is to slam right and left-wing narratives up against each other.

How to Generate an Idea, Addendum: Ask “What If It’s All True?”

We’ve already covered the topic of tapping into the public imagination. In the original post, I mentioned movies like The Parallax View, Winter Kills and The Package that take some of the most wild-eyed theories about the Kennedy assassination and bring them to life in a lightly-fictionalized way, but now I’d like to dig further into that and create a corollary rule.

Politically, those movies seem to be on somewhat safe ground, because America’s debates about the Kennedy assassination have never been particularly partisan. Many staunchly defend the official lone-gunman story, and many others passionately believe in various conspiracy theories, but no matter how righteous people get, they don’t really get morally offended by the other side.

But here’s the funny thing: Even when you look at some more inflammatory versions of “What if it’s all true?”, you notice that it doesn’t actually matter, because audiences tend not to take offense no matter what.

There’s no better example of this than “House of Cards”. I know a lot of Clinton-loving Democrats who adore this show...and that’s downright weird, because it’s predicated on one simple supposition: What if everything the ultra-right said about the Clintons in the ‘90s turned out to be true? What if they really were soulless Machiavellian psychopaths? What if they really were killing former allies with fake suicides? What if they really were having creepy threesomes with secret-service agents? It’s all there!

It’s funny how much people talk about the show without mentioning the Clinton element, despite the many obvious connections, both in front of and behind the camera: After all, Beau Willimon, the creator of the American version, worked on the 2000 Hilary Senate campaign, and star Kevin Spacey is an occasional F.O.B. (they infamously flew to Africa together on the jet of billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein). And yet almost everybody politely declines to note the parallels.

Why is this? I’m not sure. Obviously, the fact that the names and major details were changed makes a big difference. When CBS made a docudrama claiming that Clinton was somehow responsible for 9/11 (“The Path to 9/11”), there was enough outrage to pre-empt it off the air. But a fictionalized version of other allegations, even one that faithfully recreates a lot of very-specific allegations, is seen as harmless.

Actually, because most of my friends are either Democrats or leftists, I don’t actually know how Republicans feel about the show. I assume they like it, but do they? It would be fascinating if they didn’t.

It’s interesting to compare the show to the remake of “Battlestar Galactica”. I wrote here about how that show’s premise seemed to be, “What if everything the far right claimed about Muslims was actually true? What if they really were a unified death-crazed theocratic hive-mind infiltrating all of our institutions in order to eradicate us?” In that case, this was clearly a show aimed at those who didn’t believe that, because it was implicitly asking “Even if that were true, what it be worth abandoning our values in order to defeat them?” And the implied answer was: “No.”

But “House of Cards” isn’t doing anything like that. It’s not, for instance, exaggerating Frank’s horribleness to make the point that he’s still better than the opposition (at least not in the first two seasons.  I haven’t started season 3 yet, so no spoilers!) Spacey, on “The Colbert Report” (the only place I’ve seen him called out on the Clinton parallels), made a half-hearted attempt to say, “Yes, but at least he’s getting legislation through!” but the show itself, to its great credit, has not done that. There is no sense of “Yes, but we need the Frank Underwoods of the world.” He’s just terrible.

So I can only conclude that audiences just don’t care. We may find a particular allegation wildly offensive in real life, but as soon as it gets fictionalized, we’re just ready for the popcorn. One wonders how far you could take this…If they made a fictionalized version of a “9/11 truther” theory, would people accept that? Last year on the Black List, there was a script about Stanley Kubrick faking the moon landings. That’s a loony theory that many people find particularly offensive…but would it bother them onscreen? I guess we might find out…

But wait, all of this brings another permutation to mind! Come back tomorrow for yet another similar type of story idea suggested by “Les Miserables”, The Manchurian Candidate, and “24”...

Storyteller’s Rulebook #190: Limit Yourself

PIXAR had a problem. They had pioneered the idea of computer animation and made some very appealing short films featuring a jumping desk lamp, so they were eager to move into features ...but their technology seemed to have huge limitations.  

There was a reason that they had been anthropomorphizing lamps: they just couldn’t get the hang of creating hair or warm-looking skin, which seemed to mean that they would never be able to feature human characters.

They parleyed their short Tin Toy into a first feature called Toy Story. While that was in production, they sat down for a now-legendary lunch in where they tried to figure out the future of the company: they couldn’t make movies about toys forever, but how many movies they could make about heroes without hair or warm skin?

In addition to more Toy movies, they wound up brainstorming a list of five more ideas, all of which eventually got made:
  • Ants: A Bug’s Life 
  • Monsters: Monsters Inc. (They didn’t know at the time that by the time they got to this movie, they would finally master hair, and be eager to show it off) 
  • Fish: Finding Nemo 
  • Cars: Cars 
  • Robots: WALL-E
Once they had their list, they realized that had a really hard job ahead of them. The problem was that all of these potential heroes would be hard for audiences to identify with…in large part because they lacked hair and warm skin!

So was it worth doing? Was there any point in making movies about such unlikely subjects? Yes, but they’d have to make up for the inherent liabilities with extra assets: they would have to create heroes that were extra-lovable, extra-compelling, extra-human.

Faced with such a daunting task, they had to admit something that no one else in town was willing to say out loud: the Hollywood way of crafting stories was broken.

In the heyday of the studio system, as historian Thomas Schatz famously described in his book “The Genius of the System”, the studios managed to closely manage their artists in a way that unleashed creativity instead of stifling it. During the system’s peak, from the mid-‘30s to the mid-‘40s, they somehow created something unprecedented and never again replicated: quality and quality control at the same time.

PIXAR realized that, if they were going to create five very expensive movies about five different types of hard-to-like creatures, they were going to have bring back that studio spirit. This meant that they had to bring back the idea of the “story department”. Egos had to go out the window, replaced with rigorous group critiques. Everything was constantly second-guessed by their “braintrust” and whole movies were sometimes sent back to the digital-drawing-board.

The results, as you probably know, were stunning. They were creating characters that were so lovable, even people who disliked computer animation were flocking to the theater every year. More than any other studio name in town, “PIXAR” came to mean quality.

And then a funny thing happened: they ran out of limitations. Now that they can tell any type of story, the PIXAR name has started diminish in the public’s eyes. They aren’t bending over backwards to make us fall in love anymore, because they seem to feel like their new human characters should be inherently likable.

But no character is inherently likeable. Even if you’re making a live-action movie, your character are just cold constructs until you hook them up to a lightning bolt and jolt them to life. Every character starts off as a bug, a fish, a car, a robot… they only have as much life as you give them. I wish that every studio would take PIXAR’s lead and bring back story departments, but unfortunately, it seems PIXAR is joining their competitors instead of beating them.

Meanwhile, if you don’t run a studio, what lesson can be learned from this? Limit yourself. Put yourself in a box and try to figure out how to do great work inside of it. Can you write a great thriller set entirely in two apartments, like Bound? Can you make people cheer for a love affair between a teenage boy and an eighty-year-old woman, like Harold and Maude? Can you make an entire super-hero movie out of found footage, like Chronicle? Can you write a silent movie, like The Artist?

Hold your own feet over the fire. Create a situation where you find yourself saying “This will only work if I do everything right.” Because guess what? That’s always true.

How To Generate An Idea, Addendum: Regrow It From A Seed

Welcome back!  I may talk more about the return of the blog and other changes soon, but for now lets just dive right in:

So, as you may know, I took this summer off from this blog to force myself to actually write some movies. Naturally enough, I decided to follow as much of my own advice as possible at every step of the way. And, inevitably, I discovered when I tried to road test everything for the first time that not all of it worked quite as well as I was hoping it would.  

Let’s start with my How to Generate an Idea series. The bad news is that I tried all nine methods that I had suggested and none of them came through for me.  I came up with lots of lists of ideas based off of each one, but nothing excited me.  I wanted some high-concept ideas, which means I needed something big. Nothing I came up with was big enough.

Then I started looking at various successful high-concept franchises and trying to figure out how they did it: were they successful because of the neat little details of the franchise or because of the core of the idea?  I realized that this was a hard question to answer, because a lot of these franchises had been around a while, and the details now bore little relation to their conception. The original stories about this character had been metaphors about an emotion, but now they were just writing stories that were about previous stories.  

So I got an idea: I listed every franchise I could think of, over a hundred in all, mostly old, forgotten superheroes or pulp heroes, and I tried to figure out what the original core metaphor was behind that character, either consciously or subconsciously in the mind of the original creator.  Then I threw away all the accumulated details that had crusted up over the years, leaving just the core metaphor.  Then for each one I tried to create a new franchise based on that core.  Soon the high-concept ideas were flowing. 
Of course, once I’d had my brilliant idea, I started to notice that everybody else had been doing it for a long time.  Here’s Suzanne Collins on the origin of her billion-dollar Hunger Games franchise: 
  • A significant influence would have to be the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.
  • Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was. Crete was sending a very clear message: “Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.” And the thing is, it was allowed; the parents sat by powerless to stop it. Theseus, who was the son of the king, volunteered to go. I guess in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus.
  • In keeping with the classical roots, I send my tributes into an updated version of the Roman gladiator games, which entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment.
Of course, Collins could have just written a series of books about Theseus, who is, after all, in the public domain, and since she was already an established writer she probably could have sold them and made a nice living off that.  In fact this might have been an easier sell to publishers, since “Theseus” was already an existing property.  Mythology-loving kids were already going to libraries asking for books about Theseus or the Minotaur, whereas nobody was asking for books about Katniss Everdeen yet.  

But instead of locking herself into the specific characters and details of that story, she merely borrowed its metaphorical core.  She went to the old, overgrown, dormant tree that was the Theseus myth, chopped it apart, found a living seed in the heart of it, then replanted that seed in modern soil and grew a new tree.  A money tree, as it turns out.    

Of course, the best thing about this method is that it works even if the franchise is not in the public domain.  You can identify the core metaphor behind Superman and then grow a new story from that seed, and DC Comics can’t do a damn thing about it! 

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 11: Raid the Public Imagination

If you don’t want to raid the public domain, you can simply raid the public imagination. Ted Elliott memorably described this as “mental real estate” and talked about how he and his writing partner raided it quite profitably for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Another great example is Men in Black. There was a longstanding urban legend about mysterious G-Men in black suits and glasses who would show up after any mysterious event and intimidate people into saying nothing had happened. Even if you’d never heard the legend, it tapped into a universal fear of government suppression in an iconic way.

Likewise, you don’t have to make a extensively-footnoted docu-drama like JFK in order to tap into fears about assassination conspiracies. Movies like The Parallax View, Winter Kills and The Package do the job just as well.
I pointed out before that there’s no better source for short film ideas than Paradox Publishing’s graphic novel compilation “The Big Book of Urban Legends”. For feature-length ideas, you could do worse than to raid the rest of that series, which offered more in-depth looks at other twice-told tales that infect the public consciousness. Their “Big Book of Conspiracies”, “Big Book of the Unexplained”, etc. collect and codify those nagging, unproven suspicions that lurk outside the realm of confirmed fact.

The simplest version of this tactic is shown by the movie Safe House. If the movie had just been titled Kill the Spy! it would have sounded too much like something we’ve seen a million times before. On the other hand, if it had been titled One Day in Johannesburg, it might not have piqued anybody’s interest.But most people have some vague idea that spies uses something called a “safe house”, and yet we’ve never really seen a movie set there, so that was a piece of mental real estate waiting to be claimed. By choosing the name Safe House, they said to the public, “It’s a genre you know and love, but it’s an angle you haven’t seen before.” A name like that is gold.

Okay, that’s it for now. Below, you’ll find the tag for this series. Feel free to send it to your future fans when they ask you, “Where do you get your ideas??”

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 10: Raid the Public Domain

I probably don’t need to tell anybody this, because it’s all the rage right now, but the public domain is a great source of story ideas. One of the most popular movies of last year was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, leading to an avalanche of edgy re-interpretations of fairy tales and other children’s stories.

Of course, if legal sanity had prevailed, we would now have everything from the 1950s on back entering the public domain, but corporate power has declared war on this precious natural resource by constantly extending copyrights. Copyrights were created to reward innovation, but now they do the opposite, encouraging their owners to wring a thousand years of blood out of every old stone. It now seems unlikely that most post-1910 works will ever enter the public domain, much less anything from the 21st century.

But that still leaves a treasure trove of works to plumb, including works that still have recognizable names and easily-adaptable stories. I’ve toyed with adaptations of “The Most Dangerous Game” and “The Man Who Was Thursday”, both of which have very modern themes that still resonate today. All you have to do is update the setting.

It used to be hard to figure out which works were in the public domain, but the internet makes it much easier. Just look up any work you’re curious about at Project Gutenberg. If it’s available to the public, they’ll know, and they’ll have the whole text available for download at the touch of a button. Cut and paste it into a new document, then start reshaping.

But as I said before, this well is currently being over-tapped, and after we have a dozen failed fairy tale updates in the next year, then it may become poisoned for a few years. Tomorrow, for our grand finale, we’ll look at a variation that works just as well...

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 9: Show Us the Other Side

One day, Billy Wilder was watching David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, about a veddy British adulterous couple having a series of guilt-wracked assignations. They’re ashamed about every part of the process, including the fact that they have to stay out of sight by doing the deed in the apartment of the man’s friend.

That friend is barely seen onscreen—he has nothing to do with the story, but Wilder couldn’t stop thinking about him: that poor schmuck who has to come home to a sullied bed. The character stayed with Wilder for years until he finally turned into C.C. Baxter, star of The Apartment.

Likewise, it’s not hard to figure out the origin of The Other Guys: it begins as two hard-as-nails supercops watch some bank robbers driving away…They look at each other and decide to take a so-crazy-it-just-might-work leap off a building and onto the bad guys’ car…But it was a little too crazy and they simply splat dead on the ground. That leaves the case in the hands of two paper-pusher cops who are more used to riding desks.

Of course, this can be a dangerous way to create an idea: you don’t want to end up with the abstraction of an abstraction. Instead of writing something that merely comments on someone else’s metaphor, it’s important to fill in the missing half of the original metaphor and connect it back to your own hopes and fears. On Scriptshadow, I recommended the book “Fat Vampire” for adaptation, which has a good example as its premise: Why does becoming a vampire always mean that you remain forever beautiful? What if it just kept you forever fat?