The Dreaded Plot Plink

Cover copy“75 Miles to Montauk” is a supernatural thriller.  It has a lot of adventure, a good bit of action, some awesome characters and a few wrong turns at Albuquerque.  I love this story and I devoted most of my “National Novel Writing Month” experience to it last year.

During Nanowrimo time is golden.  The goal is to write just under 1,700 words per day, which requires a steady pace.  If I researched something I thought it was really important, like the critical scene in a Vegas nightclub where three of my characters meet for the first time.  It put me a day behind schedule but the information I found was critical.

There’s only one problem.  There is no nightclub scene in my book.  The characters only mention it in passing.  So what happened?

It was consumed by the dreaded plot plink.

Plink: 1. a short, sharp metallic sound made by plucking a musical instrument. 2. The sound of a bullet striking metal. 3. To shoot things at random. See: Boing.

(this is what a plink sounds like)

I know writers who outline their novels very carefully.  Like a storyboard for a move, each scene is carefully detailed so that they never lose focus during the actual writing process.  I also know writers who never outline anything.  They adopt a “seat of the pants” approach and end up wherever the muse takes them.

I’m somewhere in the middle.  I have a good idea of what I want to accomplish, and I usually do a ton of research to get me there.  But the story itself has room to grow and change as needed without the constraints of a rigid outline.  I adopted this style after learning the truth – good plots always plink.

Here’s a simple example.  In a scene as I originally envisioned it, my characters decide the object of their desire is being held on a top secret military base.  They break onto the base and they’re arrested.  During the following interrogation one of my characters argues passionately with the authority figure in charge, convincing him to join forces to search for this valuable thing.

As I started writing I listened to my characters.  One of them, a middle aged lady, expressed doubts about the wisdom of this plan.  When the idea of carrying a gun was mentioned she flatly refused.  When they were arrested she lost her temper (very rare for her, as she’s a nurturing type) and scolded her companions.  Meanwhile the MPs who detained them gave them a stern talking to about taking Close Encounters of the Third Kind too seriously, then let them go with directions on how to find Roswell, New Mexico.

Believe me, that’s the better scene.   By far.  In fact, I laugh every time I read it – it’s one of my favorites.  Had I rigidly held to the original idea, several of the actions would have been out of character for my team, and lacking in the humor I try to toss in as often as possible.  By going with the plink I lost the device of military back up, but I gained a much stronger group.  Also, I was forced to abandon the intended location of my hidden object.  After another good bit of research I found a new location, not guarded by anyone, and it’s a really awesome site.  It’ll film beautifully if someone decides to make the movie.  *G*

Writers, trust your instincts at the start.  But trust your material through the process.  Don’t force your will onto a scene if it’s just not flowing.  Listen to your characters and if a plink happens, write it!  You may not end up where you were originally going, but it’s likely you’ll end up somewhere much more interesting.

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Bellatrix story

Disclaimer:  I’m not JKR.  I admire her business sense and a few of her ideas.  However, her writing leaves holes large enough to drive the Death Star through.  Anyone who wishes to profit from her work isn’t me.  Got it?  Good.  Moving on.

Bell

It was a dark and stormy night.  In truth, most were at Azkaban.  The difference between this night and all others was the gaping hole in the wall.  Typically it was a dark, stormy night full of ice cold spray pelting through the window.  The window did not exist to offer the incarcerated either a view of the sea or fresh air in their cell.  It was, in fact, placed exactly so a prisoner in chains could count on enduring a frozen Atlantic gale combined with nearly endless sleet, Azkaban’s version of a shower.   Occasionally, on a calmer day one might be shat on by seagulls.  At least it was a bit warmer.

The Dementors seemed to enjoy the endless variations of the cold.  In an odd way, Bellatrix was fond of them.  They seemed somehow to be kindred spirits.  She had observed them closely over the years she had resided in Azkaban, first because there was nothing better to do.  But later because she thought she detected slight differences between them.  They were subtle, certainly.  To the naked eye a Dementor was nothing more than an animated lump of greasy rags with a hole for a mouth.  They flew, froze everything around them and rendered all who encountered them into a state of abject despair.  Yet one had slightly lighter robes than the others.  One was shorter.  One turned faster, one slower.  There was one who moved as though almost asleep, and it was to this one that the duty of digging graves was assigned.

In time Bellatrix attempted to befriend them.  Her efforts were not encouraged or rewarded, not at first.  Any attempt to contact the Dementors resulted in simply drawing their attention.  Repeated attempts resulted in a layer of thick ice and eventually a trip to the infirmary for frostbite and hypothermia.  Yet she was determined.  Unlike other prisoners who adopted the occasional stray pigeon or rat, the Dementors became her pets.  Or it might have been the other way around.  There was really no telling with Dementors.

There was only one thing a Dementor valued.  Fortunately, it was the one thing Bella had an endless supply of, even in a place as wretched as Azkaban.  They loved misery.  Traditionally they ate positive feelings, replacing them with… nothing.  That void then filled with the loss of the happiness, prompting massive depression.  However, enough positive feelings, concentrated in a very specific way, could keep a Dementor at bay.  Called the “Patronis Charm”, Bellatrix had never managed it.  But she knew of it, and the theory behind it.  And it prompted a few ideas.

Dementors were not well studied.  In fact, under normal circumstances all living things took whatever measures necessary to avoid them.  Dementors ate happiness as one eats cotton candy.  But they could also, she discovered, eat violence, anger, pain, fear, in fact they loved nearly all powerful emotions.  Joy fed them the most satisfying of meals, but a specific style of hatred could fuel a Dementor for days, if properly directed.  She thought that directing hate at a Dementor was common enough.  But her brand of hate, a mixture of passion and murder, stood alone.  So she fed them, and they loved her and if it was possible to be content while simultaneously being cold, miserable, hungry, tired and largely bored, Bellatrix managed it.

She knew, of course, that the Death Eaters were organizing.  Even if she did not have alternate means, common sense told her that a loyal Death Eater would not stop until the Dark Lord was resurrected.  And of course, all Death Eaters were loyal.  Either that, or they were dead and of no consequence.  As the years passed she would feel a slight stirring on her arm from time to time.  Someone was thinking of her.  Or someone close was thinking of Him.  Either way, her other pet (if one might call it that) became the serpent tattooed on her arm.  She often spoke to it when it became restless, wondering if it could actually hear.  Or if someone could hear though it.  Snakes had no ears, neither did skulls, and such matters became important when days were long and empty.

Bella had been sleeping when the world blew itself apart.  It was, indeed a dark and stormy night.  Thunder rolled over the furious sea.  It wasn’t uncommon for poor souls on the lower floors to drown when a storm blew hard.  Tonight the building shook with it, so much so that at first she thought it simply a lightning strike on the tower.  Perhaps it was.  Whatever means they used she never knew.  When she fell asleep there had been a thick wall between her and the outside world, protecting them from things that go bump in the night.

When she woke, the hole was there, her chains were gone, and the Dementors awaited her command.  And she laughed, for life was good.

Hunger Games Trilogy

So, I finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy in record time.  I actually would have finished it much sooner, but the third book was a sincere slog.  I’m so glad I read these books.  It’s not just that the story was fantastic, but it also offered a good deal of insight into the publishing industry in its current incarnation.

The language in Hunger Games will never win prizes.  It’s clean and precise and fairly minimal.  Our main character (hero, anti-hero, confused teen) Katniss is a girl of few words and fewer conclusions.  She essentially exists to react, taking the readers with her.  If the situation she found herself in wasn’t so incredible, these books would not have the rabid following they do.

The story carries a strong anti-authority central theme, which modifies through the course of the books.  As in Battlestar, Katniss becomes confused watching the same tactics she despised in the Capitol used against her enemies.  Is it alright to become the thing you hate in order to overcome your foe?  In Battlestar it was suicide bombings, clearly influenced by the beginning of the latest war.  But Hunger Games was published in 2009, I believe.  It carries the weight of soldiers who have deployed several times.

And this is why the story bogs down.  It tries so hard to deliver an accurate social message (and it does, believe me, right down to PTSD) that it sacrifices character.  As I was reading the third book the author in me kept popping up.  I cared desperately what happened to each person involved in the first book, and this curiosity carried me through the second (largely on supporting characters).  But by the third the characters had become props to the message.  Sometimes this might work.  But in this case you need someone – anyone – to care about.  When the most sympathetic character you can find is a mean tempered alley cat that doesn’t even appear until the second half of the book, you’re in trouble.  When I finished the third book my first thought wasn’t lost in contemplation of the fate of our characters.  Instead I mentally shook my head and concluded that whoever optioned the film rights for the trilogy was in real trouble, because the third book will be flat out impossible to translate to a visual medium.  It’s possible to film it.  But getting people to care?  That’s something else.

So what happened?  I can make a strong guess. These books were published by Scholastic press, and they handled their author badly.  It took her 5 years to write The Hunger Games, some of which was devoted to the sequel, Catching Fire.  So you can rough estimate maybe three years each for the two books.  I find this an acceptable time line.  But look when the third was published.  If I’m not mistaken, it was less than a year after the second.  I’m guessing that based on the success and hype of the first two, SC was given a deadline of about six months to produce the concluding volume.  And it really shows.  The clean writing style of the first book disintegrated into near nonsense by the third, her descriptions so brief that many times I had to go back and trace what happened, because the chapter’s conclusion made no sense.  Because all three are told in first person, if Katniss doesn’t know it, neither do we.  Usually this works.  Here it does not because Katniss is largely kept in the dark for all major plot developments, only finding out in retrospect what’s really going on.  By then another plot point is attempting development, leaving the entire thing with a rushed, incomplete feeling.

I take this as a cautionary tale.  Before approaching an editor, have the entire story written.  Don’t let them squash you into a temporal straight jacket, or you’ll suffer the same fate.  While a strong central message is needed, so are characters to hang it on.  All character no message is Twilight.  But no character all message is Mockingjay.  Balance the two, and you get Battlestar.

What it’s like to write a flop?

I didn’t write this.  Obviously.  But I like it.  I’m not too worried about the public reception of my work    The only audience I strive to satisfy is myself.  However, should this ever come to pass, I’ll read this article again.

What’s It Like to Flop at the Box Office?

by Sean Hood

When you work “above the line” on a movie (writer, director, actor, producer, etc.) watching it flop at the box office is devastating. I had such an experience during the opening weekend of Conan the Barbarian 3D.

A movie’s opening day is analogous to a political election night. Although I’ve never worked in politics, I remember having similar feelings of disappointment and disillusionment when my candidate lost a presidential bid, so I imagine that working as a speechwriter or a fundraiser for the losing campaign would feel about the same as working on an unsuccessful film.

One joins a movie production, the same way one might join a campaign, years before the actual release/election, and in the beginning one is filled with hope, enthusiasm and belief. I joined the Conan team, having loved the character in comic books and the stories of Robert E. Howard, filled with the same kind of raw energy and drive that one needs in politics.

Any film production, like a long grueling campaign over months and years, is filled with crisis, compromise, exhaustion, conflict, elation, and blind faith that if one just works harder, the results will turn out all right in the end. During that process whatever anger, frustration, or disagreement you have with the candidate/film you keep to yourself. Privately you may oppose various decisions, strategies, or compromises; you may learn things about the candidate that cloud your resolve and shake your confidence, but you soldier on, committed to the end. You rationalize it along the way by imagining that the struggle will be worth it when the candidate wins.

A few months before release, “tracking numbers” play the role in movies that polls play in politics. It’s easy to get caught up in this excitement, like a college volunteer handing out fliers for Howard Dean. (Months before Conan was released many close to the production believed it would open like last year’s The Expendables.) As the release date approaches and the tracking numbers start to fall, you start adjusting expectations, but always with a kind of desperate optimism. “I don’t believe the polls,” say the smiling candidates.

You hope that advertising and word of mouth will improve the numbers, and even as the numbers get tighter and the omens get darker, you keep telling yourself that things will turn around, that your guy will surprise the experts and pollsters. You stay optimistic. You begin selectively ignoring bad news and highlighting the good. You make the best of it. You believe.

In the days before the release, you get all sorts of enthusiastic congratulations from friends and family. Everyone seems to believe it will go well, and everyone has something positive to say, so you allow yourself to get swept up in it.

You tell yourself to just enjoy the process. That whether you succeed or fail, win or lose, it will be fine. You pretend to be Zen. You adopt detachment, and ironic humor, while secretly praying for a miracle.

The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. “Exit polls” are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they’ve heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That’s when your stomach starts to drop.

By about 9 PM its clear when your “candidate” has lost by a startlingly wide margin, more than you or even the most pessimistic political observers could have predicted. With a movie its much the same: trade[s] call the weekend winners and losers based on projections. That’s when the reality of the loss sinks in, and you don’t sleep the rest of the night.

For the next couple of days, you walk in a daze, and your friends and family offer kind words, but mostly avoid the subject. Since you had planned (ardently believed, despite it all) that success would propel you to new appointments and opportunities, you find yourself at a loss about what to do next. It can all seem very grim.

You make light of it, of course. You joke and shrug. But the blow to your ego and reputation can’t be brushed off. Reviewers, even when they were positive, mocked Conan The Barbarian for its lack of story, lack of characterization, and lack of wit. This doesn’t speak well of the screenwriting – and any filmmaker who tells you s/he “doesn’t read reviews” just doesn’t want to admit how much they sting.

Unfortunately, the work I do as a script doctor is hard to defend if the movie flops. I know that those who have read my Conan shooting script agree that much of the work I did on story and character never made it to screen. I myself know that given the difficulties of rewriting a script in the middle of production, I made vast improvements on the draft that came before me. But its still much like doing great work on a losing campaign. All anyone in the general public knows, all anyone in the industry remembers, is the flop. A loss is a loss.

But one thought this morning has lightened my mood:

My father is a retired trumpet player. I remember, when I was a boy, watching him spend months preparing for an audition with a famous philharmonic. Trumpet positions in major orchestras only become available once every few years. Hundreds of world class players will fly in to try out for these positions from all over the world. I remember my dad coming home from this competition, one that he desperately wanted to win, one that he desperately needed to win because work was so hard to come by. Out of hundreds of candidates and days of auditions and callbacks, my father came in… second.

It was devastating for him. He looked completely numb. To come that close and lose tore out his heart. But the next morning, at 6:00 AM, the same way he had done every morning since the age of 12, he did his mouthpiece drills. He did his warm ups. He practiced his usual routines, the same ones he tells his students they need to play every single day. He didn’t take the morning off. He just went on. He was and is a trumpet player and that’s what trumpet players do, come success or failure.

Less than a year later, he went on to win a position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he played for three decades. Good thing he kept practicing.

So with my father’s example in mind, here I sit, coffee cup steaming in its mug and dog asleep at my feet, starting my work for the day, revising yet another script, working out yet another pitch, thinking of the future (the next project, the next election) because I’m a screenwriter, and that’s just what screenwriters do.

In the words of Ed Wood, “My next one will be BETTER!”

UPDATE, 2:10 PM: Conan the Barbarian script doctor Sean Hood has sent along to Deadline the following regarding his piece we told you about last night, focusing on the part that could have been construed as throwing the screenplay’s previous drafters under the bus:

“Actually my words “I made vast improvements on the draft that came before me” weren’t very classy because it does sound like I’m throwing the previous writers under the bus, and I need to publicly apologize to Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Andrew Lobel. All I can say is that I didn’t mean it that way and I should have chosen my words more carefully.

What I meant to say that I was proud of the work I did solving problems that that had emerged in the development process, over many years and dozens of drafts. To suggest that I did better work than the writers before me would be both un-classy and flat out incorrect.

Many people have read Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer’s early drafts of Conan when it showed up on the internet, and a great, great number of them think theirs was the best draft of any, including the shooting script. Andrew Lobel’s draft was filled with great humor, which some critics thought the movie lacked.

I didn’t write this to point fingers. As the last writer on the project, the criticism of the story, dialogue, and characterization should fall primarily on me… not my peers, not producers, not studio executives, not the director.”

(me again – considering that he admits that he did not choose his words carefully may shed light into the overall problem.  However, that could just be me.)