Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tell Me a Story

When learning the craft of writing, which is really the craft of storytelling in the medium of the written word more so than mastery of the written word by itself, one begins to see the seams and joints in other works.  One begins to recognize bad writing where one originally thought a given piece of writing to be good.  It is frustrating because once the eyes are opened to bad writing, it seems to be everywhere.  The good news is that the really good writing generally stands up.

For example, when Steph and I are watching an episode of a favorite TV show, we will (both of us, now) catcall the plot developments before they happen, and predict the resolution before it arrives.  We are rarely off base by much, if at all.  This can happen for good writing or bad, of course, but when it's bad, it is a disappointment because we know it could have been done better.  I am not simply talking about creative tropes here.  David Eddings wrote nothing but tropes, and his writing was great.

The problem comes when a story is doing a bad job cutting through the useless gunk and getting to the business of telling us what happens to the protagonist and what he or she is going to do about it, and thus the story lacks drama.  We as an audience have to know what the protagonist wants to achieve, who stands in the way, and why it has to happen now.  Writers refer to these things as the Goal, the Nemesis, and the Ticking Clock.  A good story keeps raising the stakes until the protagonist realizes how he must transform to meet his goal and defeat his nemesis, all before the ticking clock runs out.  The action in the story related to those three things is known as Drama.  And so few stories dramatize well!  David Mamet correctly noted that any scene that has two characters talking about what a third character is doing is a crock of shit.  I blush at how much of my own past writing is essentially that.  If the characters are talking, exchanging information, then they aren't doing dramatic things.  People won't read or watch for information nearly as readily as they will read or watch good drama.

Think about a story like that in the film The Empire Strikes Back.  Luke's goal is to save his friends.  To do so he must defeat Vader.  And if he waits too long, his friends will (he believes) die on the torture rack in the Cloud City Security Tower.  Goal, nemesis, ticking clock.  Luke's moment of transformation comes when he lets go of the railing and falls into the shaft to the weather vane, rather than giving in to Vader's tempting offer to rule the galaxy father and son.  Luke had to make a decision that he was going to "do, or do not," as Yoda had taught him, since his "try" to defeat Vader had gone so terribly off the rails.  Luke decided he was going to believe in his ability to use the Force for good.  He rejected the quick, easy, seductive path, and instead survived to fight back another day. 

Tellingly, there isn't a moment in Empire in which we don't know damned good and well who the protagonist is and why he matters.  Luke is both the first and last person to do anything on-screen.  The villain is Luke's direct nemesis, Darth Vader, and Luke and Vader are both alike and opposite.  While Han, Leia, Chewie, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio all have minor story arcs involving some modicum of choice, mostly they just react.  Luke's arc of choice encompasses the entire duration of the film, from his tentative efforts to retrieve Anakin's Lightsaber in the Wampa Cave, to his choice to go train under Yoda, to his choice to abandon his training prematurely, and finally to his transformation.  And throughout the movie, characters rarely talk about doing things -- they just act!  Very effective dramatization.  Empire is not the most fully-realized, conceptually brilliant, or consistent science fiction story ever, but as SF stories go, it is among the most dramatic in the genre, and is possibly the best story of them all.


  1. Steph, sorry to contact you here, but you didn't leave an email address on your Twice Lovely post, and I was wondering if you could leave three comments (instead of just the one) so that you could be entered 3 times (one entry per comment.) Thanks!! :)

  2. My brother and I were having a similar discussion. Eventually we debated the problems of the SW prequels - Episode I in particular. I poked holes in the story and all I got in return was that I was missing what the story was about.

  3. Jeremy needs to watch the RedLetterMedia review of Episode I and he'll understand. Speaking of which, have you watched their Episode II review? It's up now. The first few chapters aren't as good but he really hits his stride toward the middle. The last few review chapters are the most damning criticism I've ever seen of a movie -- all of it deserved.

  4. Sounds like Kristin and I have some video to watch this weekend!

  5. I should also mention the Jeremy thinks that anything George Lucas touches turns to gold. He would accuse the review of missing the point of the story altogether.