Sunday, December 9, 2012

Thoughts On Battlestar Galactica

A brief confession. I never watched Battlestar when it was on. Never cared about it when it was on. I was one of the many who wrote BSG off as another over hyped, cliched ridden sci-fi show with a low budget and cheesy acting. A judgement I came to without ever having scene an episode. I ignored it along with all the other over hyped cult classics and went about my merry way.

With all the recent talk about how wonderful Blood and Chrome is and hearing the names of BSG's actors whispered in reference on too many times I decided to finally sit down and give this serious a fair shot.

I was wrong. I'll be the first to admit it. I was damn wrong. I'm not sure what exactly I had been expecting. A cheesy, Star Trek style space opera with weak writing, weak acting and overall coating of cheese perhaps. Maybe another Stargate Universe, a decent show that limped along. A show that had it's highs and lows and survived off its interesting concepts. Maybe a Doctor Who. A show that inspires a deep love as whole but fails utterly when broken down into it's various parts.

Whatever I was expecting, I got a show that starts off with interesting concepts and world building and escalates into a wonderful and fascinating study in human relationships and just how far a person can be pushed before they break. This is hands down on of the better shows I've seen in a long time, and one I've enjoyed immensely. Is it perfect? Not in the slightest. Is it great? Defiantly. Does it deserve it's spot in the revered pantheon of Nerdom? Yes, I think it does. While not a Zeus or a Hera, it certainly earns the spot of an Apollo, or Athena. (See what I did there?)

To better illustrate what makes this show work so well in spite of it's faults, I'm going to break it down and hopefully in the process you will gain some greater insights into your own writing. I'm going to go easy on specific examples as I wish for this to remain as spoiler free as possible.

The Bad

Melodrama - This show has drama. More drama than you can shake a stick at. The plot puts the entire human species at risk while adding in love triangles, espionage, betrayal, politics and religion. Most of the time it creates a tense atmosphere the reflects the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Most of the time it takes characters we care about and pushes them to the limit. It breaks their souls and allow us to watch as they struggle to pick up the pieces.

Drama is a tricky thing. Too little and we're bored. Too much and it rips us out of the moment. They go from heartbroken to whiny. We go from sympathetic to annoyed. The line is thin and subjective to the viewer. What may be heart wrenching to one, causes another eyes to roll.

The show is usually good about braving that type rope but falls enough to be noticed.

Plot - This show excels in plot for reasons I'll get into later. Here I wanted to address some of it's weaker points. This ties in to some of the point's about drama. A show this complex, with many different strands that intersect and intertwine can create a web that grabs a hold of the viewers attention and refuses to let go.

Go too far however, and the viewer's suspension of disbelieve vanishes amongst betrayals, reveals and plot twist. The viewer loses his trust in the writer's plans and wonders how many choices are being made for a cheap boost in the viewer's attention (or ratings.) This show has some excellent twist and turns, but towards the end I found myself wondering how much had been planned out from the beginning and how much the writer's were making up as they went along. You can normally get away with this, BSG however built it's entire premise around the plan of it's players. When you do that you have to be sure of where you're going, or the viewers will lose faith that you can find your way.

The show also has a strong reliance on flashbacks. Sometimes going so far to have an episode that is entirely a flashback, with further flashbacks within it. Most of the episodes use the to show background of a character and fill in their past. Others seem to use it fill in plot holes or other problems that might arise. I think I'm one of the few people who doesn't really mind flashbacks. They allow us to skip the boring parts while retaining the interesting. Others may not be so kind to the shows liberal use of them.

The Good

World Building - I'm a huge sucker for world-building when it's done right. Done wrong, world-buildings is a mess of granular details we have no reason to care about and exposition dumping that slows down the narrative. When done right it lures us into the world crumb by crumb until we're hopelessly lost in it's magical forest.

Battlestar Galactica uses it's world-building to a wonderful degree. It starts out with the twelve colonies, setting up that this is not our world or history. It tells us of servants that rose up in defiance and the war that resulted. It expands into not one, but two distinct and fleshed out religions with their own flaws, failures and successes.

More importantly while the religion gives us the central plot device in the search for Earth, they make sure to use it beyond that. The religious beliefs and lack thereof gives us an added layer of depth into the characters. It pops up in politics, episode plots and random stories. It permeates through every aspect of the world which gives it the weight needed with the viewer while helping to round out the world it exist within.

The Cylons begin as a faceless, emotionless enemy. By the end we see they have their own culture, believes, personalities. They evolve from a boogie man harassing the survivors, from a one dimensional wolf harassing sheep to a proper faction in their own right. More than villains, they are shown to be agents of their own fate, with their own hopes, dreams and fears.

Contrast this with Stargate Universe. A show I have no problem with going on the record of having liked, and was very sad with it's cancellation. The shows have a very similar core concept. That of survivors on their own, a long way from home. Or in BSG's case, without a home. While SGU has some world-building in terms of the Ancients and other artifacts, it never comes close to the comprehensive nature that BSG takes with the Cylons.

Stargate Universe was set in what is basically our own world, with some minor differences. The characters all came from Earth. Had our history, our religions. This limited in their options to use these for conflict. Far easier to poke fun at the false gods of fiction than religions who will boycott your show. In the end I think it gave SGU a shallowness of the world that BSG was able to lack. Battlestar was able to achieve not only depth but a truly impressive scale due to the effort and execution of its building.

And of course, who could forget frak. Frak is used as the de facto expletive in the show in place of another four lettered word that starts with F. Though it could also be interpreted as other expletives in certain context. It's a brilliant work around for television censorship. Anyone who's been in the military can tell you there is a lot of cussing involved, no matter what branch you're in. To have a show with people under stress driving them to betrayal and suicide holding in every cuss word would seem unrealistic, and bleeps distracting.

While the use of the word isn't perfect, things like mother fracker can seems forced, it's a wonderful dash of world-building that adds even more to the story. I also find it rather catchy.

Balance - The re-launch of Battlestar Galactica ran from 2004 to 2009. This was a time in America dominated by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A time of deep, bi-partisan political entrenchment and bias across seemingly every form of media. No matter what side your political beliefs fall on, it's undeniable that Bush Era saw a bias in both fiction and news media that boarder lined on Propaganda from both political ideologies.

In the middle of this we have a show about war. A show about government and religion in a time when the country in which is was made was deeply divided over the issues. At the heart of the shows first and second season were the questions of power in government. A careful balance between the military and the people, between civil liberties and national security.

It would have been easy, far to easy, for the show to take a stand for one or the other. For the show to stand up on it's soapbox week after week and denounce a tyrannical military establishment shoving aside the concerns of the people, or lament the weakness of soft-hearted liberals unable to stomach the realities of war.

While the show certainly has it's moment of over reaching military power, and a civilian government unable to make the tough calls, I think it walked a remarkable thin line when so many others in this country were unable to. Whenever one side or the other over stepped it's bounds in the show, they always had reason to do so, and their actions felt within their character.

Character Development - While on the subject of politics, this show has phenomenal character development. Two of the show's central characters, Commander Adama and President Roslin (played by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell) show wonderful character growth throughout the series, along with others. Adama starts out as the old vet. Military man through and through who has no time for politicians. Roslin is a school teacher who finds herself in the role of President to a dying people. Not only to they evolve as individuals, learning and adapting to the situations they encounter, they evolve together as well. The Commander is softened through the lose of those under his command, as The President is hardened by an unforgiving world. They start out as rivals, gain each others respect and eventual friendship. Adama and Roslin are lesson in how you write a love story. There's no courting, no flirting. Their relationship evolves naturally over time, rising and falling with the circumstances that surround them. And no matter their feelings, they stay true to themselves and act accordingly. Their intertwining path is truly masterful.

As is the development of other characters. This show has a massive cast that grows and shrinks over the course of the show. Instead of relying on a few, small number of characters with which to grow and cultivate, the show continuously challenges itself to fully develop as many characters as possible. Branching out from Adama, Roslin, Lee and Starbuck we meet Chief Tyrol, Lt. Sharon Valerii, Dee, Karl 'Helo' Agathon, and on and on. The sheer amount of characters that not only are fully fleshed out in their own right but continue to evolve and change over the course of the show is staggering on the level of mind blowing. For those who have watched the show think of who Lt. Gaeta was at the start of the show and who he was at the end. Or Starbuck, who begins the show as butch, cigar chomping cliche evolves into well rounded character with real depth and conflict.

One great example of this, without spoilers, is the three pilots. Early on in the show there's an episode where some new pilots need to be trained. Three lucky recruits are sent to Starbuck to be trained as pilots. We see three young adults ready and eager. The minute I saw them I thought, hears a couple of red shirts. Expendable characters that will be dead within a few episodes. Of those three characters one has a long, multi-stage arc and another is always around, developing their own character. What in any other show could have been cannon fodder to be introduced and tossed away becomes an opportunity for growth and development and a chance to get the viewer invested.

Not only is the show not afraid to bring in side characters and give them full arcs of their own, the show isn't afraid to kill characters off. This is something that I miss dearly in a lot of shows, especially those that deal with war. The show is built on the premise that it's a dangerous life and people die and sometimes for shitty reasons. The show goes behind having this spouted by characters to show it in action. Characters die. Characters we've come to care about over dozens of episodes. Characters that had hope and dreams and plans for the future. Instead of pissing us off it makes us love the show even more. It makes us care about the characters that have survived, makes us carry some of the weight that they carry themselves.

Instead of fearing that the viewer would become lost and confused in a sea of characters, Battlestar Galactica gave us a reason to care about each and everyone. They used their cast to give a sense of realism to the world that many shows are missing.

Plot - TV is a tricky medium. In a movie, or a novel you generally have a strict linear progression. You have segments or chapters sure. And a novel is prone to being made up of several stories, tied into a larger whole. You might have the various kingdoms a party is traveling through, or several cases a detective must solve tying into a larger mystery, but the book is working toward a single tale, a single ending.

While TV shares similarities, it has a challenge all its own. Each week it must tell a self contained story strong enough to satisfy the viewer. It must also show the development of plots and characters toward a whole that not only makes the actual story, but compels the viewer to return week after week.

BSG has some wonderful episode plots that focus a specific section of the world, be it politics or religions, while juggling its many characters and plots. More impressively, the show is able to loosely defined goal of a destination and stretch it out without the viewer losing hope. They interweave so many plots, both global in terms of Cylon vs Human or Military vs Civilian bound together by dozens of relationships, rivalries and loyalties.

No matter the size of the conflict, from a worker's strike on a ship, to searching for food, to a love triangle the show boost it's plots through so many layers of worldbuilding, groups, relationships and character that you can't help but enjoy the ride.

One of things I found most impressive with show comes at the end of Season 2 and beginning of Season 3. I won't spoil anything, or at least I'll try not to. Season's one and two have their central focus on the fleet and it's drive to Earth. Far from stale at the end of Season Two, the writer's took the show in a radical direction. They changed up the dynamic completely. There's a decision within the show that is made, followed by a time jump. I found myself thinking it would be a few weeks, maybe a couple months in time. Nope. It's a year. A year. Let that sink in a minute. Something happens in the show, then we cut to a year later. A whole damn year. How many shows do that?

The world we find ourselves in a year later is quite different. The times have changed and relationships with it. People who an episode before where going on their first dates are now married or have kids. The whole time I was watching I kept expecting a retcon. Someone to hit the reset button and go back to the last save. It was a dream sequence or a vision or someone who find a wormhole and warn the others. Nope. They stick with it. They follow through and keep the changes and all of it's consequences. Whether you agree with the choices or not you have to admire the balls of the writers. I don't know of single other show that's done something like that and stuck with it.

Which brings me to another point. Flashbacks. The show has so many, and yet for the most part, they work. Flashbacks are one of those things you see on all these writer's list floating around the internet as an evil thing you should never do. BSG seems to have one every four episodes or some. Some episodes are nothing but flashbacks. Razor, a Battlestar Galactica TV movie is itself one long flashback that has other flashbacks within it. But it works.

Why? Because it allows us to see the good bits without getting bogged down in the boring. During the Season 2/Season 3 jump it skips over a lot of stuff. Most of it probably would have been boring or slow. So they skip it. A few episodes later we get an episode showing us only the most interesting bits that had happened. It allows us the best of both worlds. Along with everything else in the show, it's a fine line that BSG navigates well.

I've enjoyed Battlestar Galactica more than I have other shows in a very long time. It took a while for me to like it as much as I do. Like Stargate Universe it was a good seven episodes before I found myself really caring about what was going on. Maybe that's a problem with me, maybe it's one with the show. I am certaintly glad I stuck with it.

Battlestar manages to wade through countless minefields to come out with fists full of storytelling gold. It not only earns its spot in the Pantheon of Nerdom but is strong enough to defend that spot for decades to come. If you are at all interested in writing, TV, or sci-fi you owe it to yourself to seek this out (it's on Netflix) and give it a watch.

This article is by far the longest I've written for the site. I hope you enjoyed it. If you'd like to see me ramble on other shows, let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Art of the Slow Story

In becoming one of the many subscribers to Netflix, I finally got around to watching Freeks and Geeks. For those who don't know Freeks and Geeks was an NBC show back in 1999 about high school kids in 1980. It was produced by Judd Apatow and stars many, many people before they were house hold names including James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen.

The show is a beloved cult classic amongst the United Kingdoms of Nerdom and has been recommended to me by more people they I can remember. I had watched Undeclared, a kind of pseudo sequel in spirit (also by Apatow) and really enjoyed it, but for whatever reason took my time in finally checking out Freeks and Geeks.

I'm glad I did. The show is well written, had great characters, outstanding acting, and amazing music and above all retains a nostalgic sweetness about it that it makes it comforting to watch. Another peciluar thing about the show, and the impetus for this article is one of its stylistic choices. While the show is essentially a sitcom, it's an hour long as opposed to the half hour standard. Some may argue the show is actually trying to be a teen drama, but the style and writing of the show is much closer to the feel and tropes associated with the sit-com genre.

Some may think that a longer show would make it slow and boreing. After all if you watch a modern sit-com there's a punch line every twenty seconds out of fear that the audiance will get bored and turn their attention elsewhere. That's the conventional wisdom these days, grab your viewer and never let go. If you let them turn away for even a second they'll abandon you forever. I've talked before about how ridiculas I think this is, and I think Freeks and Geeks shows a good example as to why.

Unlike other sit-coms of today the show doesn't pressure it self to be constantly funny. Some of the most hilarious moments are throw away lines at the end of a scene or seemingly random choices by the actors. The dialog remains snappy and quick without taking on the rush, caffeinated tempo that every actor seems to have these days.

It goes beyond merely comedy and dialog though. The longer episode length gives the time to see through an actual episode arc. In most sitcoms things happen so quickly and are resolved so rapidly they rarely feel to have any weight. We see a problem introduced in the first five minutes of a normal sit-com, watch it get resolved in the next ten and then have a five minute resolution. We see so little of the problem's impact that it's hard for it to matter to us as the viewer.

Lastly, it's a matter of character. By having a full hour for the comedy the writers and directors are able to have shots of the characters standing in the hall or sitting around a table. It gives a realism and weight to their lives while giving the actors a chance to show the more subtle workings of their character dynamics. Franco's character showing affection for his girlfriend, or Rogen's awkward aloofness as the one on the outside of the group's circle.

We see full arcs not only of Lindsey (played by the beautiful Linda Cardellini) and her friends but also of her younger brother Sam and his friends in addition to their parents, teachers and others in their lives. All of these peaces come together to create the feeling of a world that is far more real and alive than the simulated realities of today's sitcoms. I think it's one of the reasons this show has remained so loved by so many. By spending an hour with these characters each episode we really got a chance to know them and their struggles, even if the show only did go for one season.

My point is that you don't have to always be in such a rush. You can show your characters standing around to build character and show their dynamics. You can linger in a shot to show the characters awkwardly standing around. Yes, your audience may flee for the entertainment hills off their phones or computers. But they also might stick around and fall in love with your characters because you took the time to show them who they are and why they should care.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Off Topic - Halloween

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Even when I was too young to trick or treat and had to watch as my brother got ready in his costume, having to be placated with thoughts of next year when it would finally be my turn.

I think a lot of people give Christmas all the love. A supposed time of charity and giving, when we forget our differences and come together as a family. But this is not the case. Sure we give to charity, put a dollar in the jar, mostly out of guilt. We exchange gifts, but do so with family and friends and perhaps the occasional co-worker.

Halloween is the true holiday of charity and community. The underlying principle is that families by candy and then everyone can go around and get a bit here and bit there. However families often buy twice as much as would satisfy their kids for a few days. You have a holiday built on mutual effort for a greater hole. People spend even more money on costumes and decorations to sell the mood for the holiday.

And that's where the true magic of Halloween comes in. Where it proves itself over Christmas. On Halloween even those with out kids take part, handing out candy and decorating their homes. Poor families that can't afford to hand out candy are allowed to take part with out any social stigma or being looked down upon. Rich families too, heading off to their parties or other activites hand out candy or leave some on the front step for the kids eagerly making their way through the neighbor hood.

At any other time kids, wandering around in the anonymity of costume would be cautioned against all the dangers, and yet we come together to keep watch over the village. Worrying about each other instead of our selves.

Halloween, with it's costumes and make up personifies the breaking down of all barriers, social and economic for a common community celebration. It is the one holiday where we get to forget our troubles, pretend to be someone else and work together for a global enjoyment.

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and will continue to be, perhaps, forever. So remember next Halloween when you're wondering if it's worth the effort, if it's worth the money and time to sit out front and hand out candy. This is the one holiday that shows the true virtue and companionship of humanity.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Climbing The Mountain

On last week's episode of the AtT Podcast Tyler asked me about my writing. I gave a muddled answer, due in large part to the drunks yelling in the background. Since then I've thought about it a little bit more. I'm not going to talk about my process so much as my evolution as a writer. Though I am still young in this passion of mine, maybe my perspective can help others out there.

I started writing a few years back. Around the end of 2007. I took a stab at it. Played around with it for month or so and then didn't write much of anything over the next year. After that I got a little more serious about it. I started learning about it and tried to practice it more often. There were still periods where I didn't write anything for months at a time. Seasons alternating between being knee deep in it and forgetting about entirely.

Over those years I tired to get myself to write more and more frequently. I eventually got it to where I was writing one a week at least. I had studied it in depth, read countless articles and listened to countless interviews. I had thought about the craft from every angle I could think of. I finally started to feel like I got it. Like I was a writer.

I was of course wrong. My writing was still terrible. I cringe to even think of going back and reading some of that stuff. Around the winter of 2010/2011 something strange happened. Out of nowhere I took a break from writing that lasted almost two months. It wasn't intentional. I had gotten promoted to a supervisory position at my crappy retail job. I flew back home for the birth of my niece. Life seemed to have gotten in the way, and my writing fell by the wayside.

However, something else came out of that time. Something that would forever change me as a writer. That was the period when I came up with Icarus. That sci-fi project of my started as an exercise. I'm interested in all mediums and genres and try to experiment with them whenever I can. Especially if I'm in a period where I don't have an idea I'm super excited to work on. That was more of a problem then, not as much these days.

I sat down one day with the thought of "If I were to do a sci-fi story, what would it be?" That was it. A simple lowly thought, on par with a writing prompt. Nothing special about it. But it was in chasing that question down it's impossibly long rabbit hole that I came up with Icarus. Before Icarus, I never worried about Worldbuilding. Most of what I wrote was either modern or so close to it as to not warrent much thought. I never thought about characters, most of them were normal people with normal backgrounds.

Icarus changed all of that. The political and economic landscape of the world required that I knew where my characters stood on the important issues, and therefore, was backgrounds informed those beliefs. Icarus forced me to think of worlds and peoples and technologies, of details that I would have never bothered to think of. It elevated me to a new level of writing.

Over the last year, I challenged myself to write every single day. I don't always meet the challenge. I seem to still miss a handful of days a month. Most often when I've just finished a draft and we have a podcast to record and edit.

The Mountain

I find and interesting pattern in other writers, and in myself. It seems that when we fist start out we know how bad our writing is. We stumble in the dark, attempting to learn the trade and hope that someday will get better. We might sit with a grin on our face as we pound the keys or as the pen scrawls across the page, but in the cold hard light of editing we realize how bad it is.

Then we reach a level of comfort. We know writing. We've settled in for its challenges, for its ebbs and flows. We eagerly look forward to the day when we will be battle hardened vets of it's corpse strewn fields.

I've found though, that at certain points I reach an entirely new stratosphere, a new league where it seem like I'm back on the bottom. Like I am once more the rookie learning the ropes. Sure I have all my lessons and experience from before, but up here, in these new realms it doesn't seem as important, as powerful as it did before.

I'm talking about when you see other writers who are better. No matter how good you get there's always a writer you look at and curse your own inability, wishing you could be better. I had that recently with Rian Johnson and Looper. Or Nolan and Inception, or Whedon and the Firefly pilot. Things that are so masterful, you wonder if you will ever get as good as them.

No, I mean with yourself, with your own assesment of your skill. You reach a point where you realize of far you've come and how far you have yet to go.

I was thinking about it in terms of hiking up a mountain. In the beginning you're lost in the woods, the sun blocked by the leaves overhead. Distracted by the chirping of birds and rustling of rabbits. You walk for what feels like forever. Eventually you become one with the woods. You know the animals and the sounds they make. You deftly step over fallen branches and gnarled roots. Nothing on the forest floors can trip you up.

Then there comes this moment, when you exit the woods. You find yourself on a plateau of rock. Stretched out in the valley beneath you is and endless forest. You can see a wide river snaking it's way between the trees.

The entire time you had been walking you failed to notice the subtle incline, failed to notice how high up you were getting. Yet here you stand. Seeing the miles and miles in which you traveled. You feel a huge since of achievement, seeing the distance you covered, knowing you've done on your own power. The advice of those who had made the journey before you echoing within your mind.

You turn away from the valley, eying the summit of the mountain stretching up into the clouds. You think of the masters that await you there, and the long journey still ahead.

This is the life that awaits us as writers. This is joy that we get to feel as we create worlds and twist lives. We stride alone in the valley of the gods, comforted by the whispers of those that had traveled there before us.

I took my first steps on that journey a few years ago. I didn't intend to take my last for a very, very long time.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Refilling the Well

I haven't talked about writing for a couple of post, so let's get back to the important stuff.

The well. That thing within us from which draw inspiration. For some it's an aqueduct that once built effortlessly delivers fresh water at a constant pace. For others it take the from of a strip mine. A hole they bore into the earth with metal tools and explosives. A place where they rip out anything and everything that looks valuable to refine and shape later into useful material.

Sometimes that source of inspiration begins to run dry. We glance around the soot covered walls off are mine and see few glints of the precious metals that once lived there. If your a writer who works on their craft every day, it can be discouraging to look down at the paper with no ideas. I think new writers have this problem a lot, mainly because they haven't learned to document and cultivate their ideas. They haven't learned to listen to themselves. But to writers who have been at it a while, writers who have been through periods where they have so many ideas they don't have the time to write them all down. Writers who will fling themselves across a room and empty drawers onto the floor like a wild tornado to get down that great idea on paper. Writers who thought they would be bathing in the heavy downpour of ideas forever.

And then you find yourself staring down at  a blank page, pen tapping against your desk with nothing. Cue cliche tumble weed across desolate wasteland. Empty cupboards. River beds of dried, cracked mud. You struggle to come up with the simplest ideas and fail.



I think every writer has found themselves in this place at some point. And I think many of them find themselves here more often than they'd like to admit. Fear not writers of the world, there are easy ways to fix this.

1. Time Heals All Wounds

Wait. Yep that's it. Bask in the glory of my infinite wisdom. Do Nothing.

Some of the time our wells running dry is from simple exhaustion. I ran into this early this month with my sci-fi/tv project. I had been writing episode after episode and pulling long hours at work,. When it came time to think of another one I had nothing. I slammed my head against that wall for a couple of hours and nothing came out of it. I dug further into the mountain desperate to find another vein of gold only to find worthless rock.

Eventually I gave up, and took two days off from writing. On day three the ideas started flowing again. First a trickle, then a flood. The problem wasn't that the mine had run out of gold, it was that I was too tired to see it. My eyes had become weary and caked in dirt. What little flecks I did see I dismissed as not worth the effort. All I needed was little break to recharge.

2. Binge Consumption

This is one of my favorite methods for finding new ideas. Mostly because it involves avoiding work,.

I find I don't consume media in a regular fashion. I don't have my regular TV shows that I watch, and intersperse it with movies and books throughout the week. Instead I have lists of things I want to eventually watch or read. A whole list of movies recommended to me by other people, another list for books, yet another for comic books, video games and so on.

Then when i find myself in the mood for a particular something, let's say anime, I'll shotgun entire series in a row. I'll spend two weeks watching nothing but anime for my entertainment and get through entire series in a couple of days. I did this when I caught up with Doctor Who and finally saw Firefly a few years back.

I find it works well in the case of movies, because you get the entire story, concepts, arcs and all in a couple hours. In one weekend you can get through twenty different stories, all exhibiting different genres, characters and plot elements.

The best thing about binge consuming is you get really, really fat with ideas. All those times where you saw the writer take the concept in direction A, but you can take it direction B, stack up and mix in your brain. You rush back to your laptop eager to type because you have so many new ideas to get out there.

3. Friends


Yes, they are actually useful for something. I know, I know, I was surprised to. Turns out they aren't useless sacks of meat flesh that live only to get in your way.

Friends can be a fantastic source of ideas, not only in the conversations you have with them and the perspectives they bring to the table, but in simply helping you articulate your own writings and ideas. Friends who are also writers are great for this, as they know what questions to ask when you get stuck. Earlier this month I was talking to Chris of The Archatype about how I was running low on episode ideas. He knew to ask if I had fleshed out my plot lines enough, if there were side characters or sub plots that needed more screen time or fleshing out. While the conversation itself didn't spark any ideas, when the ideas came back and I was ready to write again it spawned ideas on what to focus on.

Yeah, I Thought The List Was Going To Be Longer

Those are some of the tricks I have when you find yourself running low on ideas. Also try jumping genres and types of stories. If you're a sci-fi guy try fantasy. Of if you like dark, brooding romances try comedies.

What are some of your tricks for getting ideas? Let me know in the comments below. I'm always looking out for new tips and tricks.

And be sure to check out our Around the Trunk podcast this week when talk Static and Dynamic Characters.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Charity Idea, I know it's Not Writing, Hear Me Out

I posted this to reddit and twitter earlier. I came up with this around three am last night, trying to get some feedback on the idea, see if it's worth pursuing.

Imagine a crowd sourcing site like Kickstarter, only instead of launching projects it would be for charity, and the draw would be celebrities agreeing to do nude photo shoots. Just hear me out.
It would work like this. Any celebrity could be submitted to the site, male or female. Their name and photo of them would appear with a grayed out donate button.

If the celebrity was interested they could contact the admins, and set an amount and a charity. So let's say celebrity "A" sets 1,000,000 and the red cross. The amount and charity would go up and people could click the donate button and donate any amount they want. When the goal is reached, the celebrity chooses a photographer of their choice, takes the nudes and posts them online to their own site, reddit, twitter whatever or a partner site to the main one.
That's the base idea, here are some of the finer details.

The celeb could set whatever amount they want. Unlike Kickstarter which works off a pledge system, the donations would be immediate, ensuring the amount is collected before the celeb delivers. If the goal is not met, the money is donated to the charity anyway. If the celeb backs out, the money is refunded to the donors.

Like Kickstarter, they could set tiers, both in terms of goals and donations. For instance, for 100k they do a lingerie shoot, for 250k they do topless and for 500k they do full nudity (or whatever amounts they decide). If a specific donor gives a certain amount they could get an autographed print or request a position or body part or something.

The site would not take any percentage of the money, it would all go to charity. The photographers could either donate their time or be payed for out of the donation fund. All charities and organizations chosen by the celebrity would be vetted to guard against fraud.

The idea is that while many actresses would never pose in playboy for self gain, they might do so for charity, and while it's hard to get people to put a dollar in the salvation army bucket, they would give a dollar without hesitation to see their favorite actress nude.

The celebs could state up from what they would do for the goal, so no one feels mislead. They would state the types of posses or body parts they'd be willing to show and could even do video shoots.
I think this could raise a lot of money, it would need a reputable backer, maybe like kickstarter, and someone to co-ordinate with the charities and at least one celeb to be the first to volunteer.
Anyway, let me know what you think, and if there are any obvious holes/faults I've missed. Don't forget to upvote, if we could this thing some visibility it might take off.

Added Later:

Was thinking some more about this.
The celebs name would on a bar in list format, when clicked it would drop down and show what the celeb has agreed to and the benchmarks, or information about the charity with links.
Also you could add in a thumbs up system or similar for celebs who have not yet agreed to show their popularity and demand and help show them the potential good they could do.

You can join the discussion at:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Feedback and Community - Dual Post

This will be posted to both the blog ( And the Podcast (

It is also hilarious that I'm posting this when blogger has been hit by a glitch that wiped out all page views on blogs.

Anyway, I've been running this blog for a few months now, and the podcast for... two months? Maybe? And we have no idea if people like it. Yes, there are worse problems to have. I like running this blog, and I like doing the podcast and can even put up with the pain in the ass of editing. I will keep doing these things regardless.

However, we've run into a problem with the podcast concerning it's direction. It was originally planned to be writing focused and has meandered into nerd culture. We are still trying to find it's voice. It would be a lot easier if we could get feedback from out listeners, who I know you're out there.

I'm sure your thinking that someone else will comment or send us a tweet, but they don't. There is only you. The fate of the blog, nay of the world rest in your hands. All you have to do is go down to the bottom and say something like "Podcast Good" Or "Me no like podcast." Like a caveman. Easy stuff. We're not asking for professional reviews. This isn't some ploy for ad revenue or something. As you can see we don't have ads.

The problem is we're doing this thing in a dark room. We can't see the crowd. We don't know if they're laughing at the jokes or snoreing in their chairs. And we won't ever know unless you tell us. I myself have never really commented on web pages before, mostly because ten thousand people have already beat me to it. Most websites are full of comments by jack asses and people putting other people down.

We want to build a good community, but we can't build any community if people aren't talking. We don't know whether to dig deeper into writing subjects or talk about cool comic books or anything unless you tell us.

I know the pages get traffic. Mostly from awesome places like stumble upon. If you're a member of stumble upon and liked our articles or our podcast, gives us a thumbs up. It only takes a second and really helps drive traffic in addition to letting us know you liked it. And not just for us, do it for your other favorite websites too.

The bottom line is we want to bring you awesome stuff. We want to give you articles that are worth reading and podcasts that are worth listening to, we'll do all the work, all we need is your feedback to let us know it's worth it.

I hope to be doing this for a long time, past the point where I'm sick of it. But I don't have that many ideas. All my idea potential is stolen by my writing. So tell us what you would like us to write about or review and discuss. Let us know if you'd like to see other themes or topics.

Only then can do the things you want us too.

You can always reach us in the comment section, email (
and on twitter.

Mike: @MadnessSerenade
Chris: @TheArchetipical
ATTP: @AroundTheTrunk

Thank you, and we hope to hear from you soon.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Story Arcs, Plot Threads and Subway Maps

I was watching the story board on geek and sundry today (Check it out, really great writing discussions. and they were talking about form and function of our writing. Do we plan out arcs or do we work toward and ending? It got me thinking about how I do things in my own writing.

I've avoided writing about how I write so far because there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. Some stories start because I came up with a cool concept and want to expand it into a story. Others because I thought of an interesting character and the story they had to tell. Most of the time it's a scene, or series of scenes that I want to tie together. Or an ending that I want to work toward.

I listened to the writers in the Story Board episode each give a different answer, and found myself identifying in part with each one. I wondered if I was a bit of an anaomly or if it was because I'm still a fairly young writer, still figuering out my own voice and style.

I see writers do the same type of thing in the same genre and in the same medium and marvel at how they could ever do that. In the past week I've gotten ideas for an animated comedy, a movie and a comic book. All radically different in themes and style, each with their own "voice."

I've always felt that the story can only be told the way that story can. My voice changes depending on the story I'm telling, just as it would in real life. My tone and vocabulary constantly shift to best serve the story I'm working on at the moment.

As for Arcs, that too has always befuddeled me. I study them of course, I learn about three, five and seven act structures. About the Hero's Journey and the Monomyth and all ways you can tell a story. While experiance is invaulable, studying the ways old old is equally important.

Though when I write I rarely find myself thinking in terms of first, second and third acts. I think things like, "Okay this is when things really start to ramp up" or "We just went through a lot of action, we need a breather."

I had a realization when Terry Brooks said he wrote in threads. This character's thread or that plot point's thread. As he said it an image jumped into my mind.

That colorful mess of lines is the DC subway map. I realized that's how I think about stories. Each color is a character or or plot thread. They all have their own individual course, their own path through  life and destinations to reach. Occasionally those destinations are shared, scenes where character's meet and interact. Way station on their trip through life.

I realized that was how I thought of stories. Though they usually look less like the picture above and more like this one.

That's the one for Tokyo in case you were wondering.

To think of complicated stories as the rise and fall of a simple arc is to discredit them of their inherent, complicated beauty. While others may see a tangled web of colors, the mad scratching of a toddler, I see countless stories woven together by my characters lives. Each stop representing some triumph or defeat, a confrontation or an emotion struggle in their lives.

So that's how I think about story. How do you write arcs and plot threads and what image does it bring to your mind?

Remember to check out Story Board on Geek and Sundry and our Around the Trunk Podcast where we talk more about writing. You can also follow me on Twitter @MadnessSerenade.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

New Column: Daydreams - Ikea, Piracy, Batman

Could not for the life of me think of something to write about on the site this week. I had some ideas and there were some things I'd like to discuss, but none that warrented their own article. So I thought I'd steal and idea from Movie Bob and the like and do an article of random bits stuck together to give the impression of a whole.

I was going to call these side dishes or some other random thing (junk drawer already being taken) but settled on day dreams to give at least one half assed attempt at a theme for the site. For better or for worse, here we go.


Yeah, the store. Run by the blonde people with the complex furniture. I know it's not dragons or whatever, just bare with me. Hadn't been to Ikea in years. Had some time to kill, went in one. There's one near me that's a muli story affair with it's own parking garage.

I have to say I was pretty impressed. The store has some problems for sure. I for one would never want to take a small child in one of those places for fear it would get lost, have to ration it's own pee for drinking water and be found a week later in the rafters having subsisted off bats.

The store layout is pretty genius. It has a little grocery section, a concessions area and a full cafeteria. And the way they take you from area to area winding your through a space, is pure brilliance. In most places it would be one big open, square room. Ikea takes you from mock apartment to fake bedroom, winding you though this space. It gives the illusion of a much larger area. There may be a more efficent way to arrange it spatially, but the effect it has on the customer's mental state is intelligent in way most stores can't match..

Back to writing. I found myself musing at the mock apartments and bedrooms, about how much they look like sets for a TV show. Then realized that's exactly what they are. I've also talked before on this site about how everything we see as writers are legos for our brains. It's true in this case as well. Each tiny example room was done in a different style, for a different demographic. It's showed me rooms I would have never thought up because I've never seen them or thought about them in that way.

Now in a movie or TV show that would all be handled by production and set design, but for narritive writers and even those simply trying to visualize the setting I think it has some value. Also, when I was walking around the cafe area and was reminded of airports. This led me to thinking that space stations of the future will be a lot like airports. Seems pretty obvious now that I type it out... Oh well.


The boring cyber kind, not the 'arrr me matey' awesome kind. Torrent sites and clients are basically libraries of the future, when you stop to think about it. That's all, on to the next topic.


I know, I know. I talk about Batman a lot. That's why I didn't want to do a full article. But since we're here, why not.

I'm almost done with the animated series. One of the interesting tid bits about the series is that in the third season they change the opening to Batman & Robin. It's a more stylised approach to the intro that's less dark and brooding even though the show stayed pretty much the same. In the fourth season they went back to the old intro, as they drop Grayson for Drake. Easier I guess then making a new intro.

The intresting thing though is the entire tone of the show changes. Even the animation changes in style to something much closer to Justice League. In addition the show takes a lighter, more comedic tone. This is mostly due to the added role of a kid Robin in Drake and a bigger role for Batgirl. Even the villains seem more comediac and down right cartoonish. What I find strange is that though the show becomes lighter, Batman actually becomes darker. We see more of his inner sociopath and willingness to go to extremes..

This is especially odd because when you look at the earlier seasons Batman isn't actually all that dark. Sure he's dark for a kids cartoon, especially one in the early nineties. But compared to modern batman he's pretty tame. He's very emotive, gets bested often by the baddies and even wares rubber masks as disguises on multiple occasions. And the villains in the older seasons are much darker. Much more tragic.

Take Babydoll for instance. In the older seasons she's a lost soul, pushed to the brink of insanity by the memories of a time when she was happy, and a society that refuses to accept her. She kidnaps her old fake family in a sick plot of revenge against someone who at the time of the original injustice was a toddler. In the newer season she's a walking punchline machine (purposely) that has a crush on Killer Croc of all people. Even the Joker comes off less menacing and crazy.

The obvious answer is  tone. The older seasons were so dark they had to have a light come from somewhere. So it came from our hero, someone often times flying solo. Allowing us to identify with him in spite of the mask. In the last season we have Drake and Batgirl able to bring some light, and the villains to bring the humor. This leaves room for the dark and brooding Batman we love.


Well, that concludes the first daydream segment. Maybe I will do more in the future. Hope you got something out of it. If you have something you'd like to see me talk about, let me know in the comments. God knows I could use the ideas. Also let me know what you'd like to see on the site. More articles about the things I'm watching or playing, or would you like to see articles focus more on the craft of writing and less on the analyses?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

No New Podcast This Week

Unfourtanly there will be no new episode of the Around the Trunk podcast this week. We ran into massive techinacal difficulties. Chris had near constant connection problems, Tyler was having some issues with his mic leading to him sounding a little muddled.

There was a lot of disjointed conversations as Chris dropped in and out and we attempted to get him back. After almost and hour and a half of this we gave up on Chris and thanks to Tyler spurning us on made an attempt at salvaging the epsiode. We talked for another forty minutes and had some great discussions, only to lose them to problems in the recording software.

We tried folks, we really, really did. These things happen unfourtantly. Instead of giving you pieces of what we do have I wanted to keep a high quailty, or at least a quality to the podcast instead of giving you some pieced together slop. We shall be back next week and hopefully have all of this sorted out.

So to our only listener, our apoligies and we'll be back next week.

We did want to have a contest in this one which we'll discuss in more detail in the next podcast. We are also hopeing to start a questions segment. If you have any topics, stories or questions about writing you want shared/answered, let us know.

You can reach us on Twitter:

Podcast =

Mike =

Chris =


And in the comments below.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts on my Writing and Writing What You Know

My sci-fi project has been kicking my butt lately. Normally I can write an episode every week, to week and a half, working for a short time in the evenings. The episode I was having trouble with before (the third) was tricky because I wanted to try some new themes and styles with it.

In trying to craft an episode into a certain mold I found myself struggeling to come up with the actual plot of the epsiode, something that normally doesn't give me trouble. Eventually I found the key was moving the big punch I was saving for the end to the middle. Why fill the episode with filler to get this one moment when we can start with that big moment and see the interesting stuff that comes after?

As I finished this episode I moved onto the fourth and set myself another challenge. I tasked myself with doing a bottle episode. A bottle episode is usually lite on plot and takes place in a single location. For instance the crew would never leave the ship, or the couple never leaves the apartment. These episodes are often regarded as the best or worst in a series, as the writers either phone it in or rise to the challenge. With no explosions or big events, with no outside forces it traps the writer into using character motives alone to drive the plot.

As I was trying to think of how to do this I kept hitting a brick wall. How do you make the uninteresting, interesting? As I thought out different plot elements I realized something about my own writing. I either can't or won't write a happy story. Every single thing I have ever written has been dark in some way. I'm not talking 40k, emo grim-dark here. I mean more of the inner torments.

My sci-fi project is probably the most clear example of this, as every episode in some way has a gut punching moment, either through something bad happening to a character or them struggling with the demons within. Now I'll admit it's a dark universe, not a lot of sunshine and lollipops in the worlds that those characters live in. But I have yet to give them lasting successes. I have yet to give them a triumph they could hold onto. Every single victory has it's price. Every hill, every saved victim, every personal demon slayed is paid in blood.

A week or so ago I started writing a movie. I wanted to play with characters, with writing stories that don't have action sequences or outside threats. It was going to be a sweet romance between a guy who's lost his drive in life, and a blind girl struggling to find her own place. Standard romance stuff. By the second seen the blind girl had been hit by a car and was in a cast. Though she laughed about it, not the nicest thing to do to a character. Two scenes later she was crying, wondering if she'd every be able to raise a family through the difficulties imparted by her disability. The more I plotted out the story and thought of the path to get there, the deeper and darker those tunnels became. While the story has a happy ending, I don't let them get there without their share of angry shouting matches and crying spells. And that was me attempting to do something happy.

Write What You Know?

So what the hell is wrong with me? Why is every story I write so damn depressing at times? Well, the easy answer without going to much into my personal life, is that I've only really felt strongly during the darker times. Pain has always been easier to feel than love. "Happy" has at times felt like a downright lie and at others as a boring retirement, of being set out to pasture.

To me the times that really mattered where the ones when I had to fight. When things were so damn dark I forgot what light looked like, what it was. When I had to close my eyes and look deep down inside myself and push on. When I had to trust my own voice and fight my way through to the other side. The times when I was drifting in a vacuum, only to claw and bite my way back to the surface.

A triumph of happiness, of victory, didn't seem important. It wasn't about reaching the summit, it was about the climb to get there. And there was always a higher peak waiting. Maybe it's wrong of me to put my characters through hell. To allow them only fleeting repreives from the hellish downpour that is their lives. Maybe it's some sadistic part of me wanting to share the scars. Or perhaps it's a voice seeking empathy. Who knows.

In the meantime, I've learned something about my writing and myself, and I can only think that will lead to better stories and characters. And maybe, just maybe, I'll give the character's that easy victory they yearn for.

On second thought, I'll probably shoot their dog. Builds character.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Podcast is Now on iTunes

What it says on the tin people. After some techinical trouble we have the podcast on iTunes with the correct information. Subscribe if you like it. We're going to keep them coming each week. We normally record the podcast on Sunday, edit and post on Monday.

If you have any topics or questions you'd like us to cover, let us know. You can reach us by email, in the comments section or on twitter.

Also want to thank the guys over at The What Have I Done Podcast again for their help in sorting out the feed. Check out their great podcast. They talk about creative stuff, if you like us chances are you'll like them.

Almost forgot the iTunes link...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Around The Trunk Site

Our awesome podcast covering media and writing and all manner of nerdly things now has it's own website.

Around The Trunk Podcast

All future podcast will be posted there. Still working on getting it in iTunes. Should be sorted out soon.

Monday, September 10, 2012

2 - Spoilers, Spoilers Everywhere

Episode Two of the Around the Trunk Podcast.


This time we talked about the return of Doctor Who in Asylum of the Daleks, reviewed Super God by Warren Ellis and close out with a discussion of our favorite characters from Game of Thrones (the TV show)

Spoilers. This show has them. Lots of them. We talk about these subjects as if you have already viewed them. If you haven't, no worries, this podcast will still be here once you've gotten caught up.



We are on iTunes, but under the wrong name. Something went wonky in the submission process. We hoped to have it fixed soon. We will also be experimenting with different editing techniques next week and I'm going to dig deep under the couch for some pennies to get a mic, hopefully this will lead to better audio for you and less editing for me.

Show Notes:

Intro: 0:1:00

This entire episode deals with spoilers for it's respective topics. You have been warned.

First Topic: 1:00-29:00

Doctor Who Returns!

What did we think of Asylum of the Daleks, Amy, Rory and Oswin (New Companion?)

Second Topic:29:-47:42

We discuss

Super God by Warren Ellis & Garrie Gastonny

And let you know what we like and didn't like about this comic and tips for how to avoid some of the problems the comic
runs into.

Third Topic: 47:42-120:17

We talk the Game of Thrones TV show, specifically who are favorite characters are and what makes them so well written.

Closing: 120:17-121:51

Twitter Handles & Blogs

Mike: @Madness Serenade

Chris: @TheArchetipical

Saturday, September 8, 2012

JL8 and What It Means To Define a Character

I don't normally feature other work, but today I found something that not only is cool enough to share with others, but ties into some overall points I've been thinking about.

 JL8 #1

JL8 is a web comic by Yale Stewart that follows children sized versions of DC's the Justice League as they navigate through the playground perils of every day youth. Most of the arcs are remniscent of most children's fare including bullies and school yard crushes, while retaining a solid foundation of humor. The real trick is in keeping the characters familiar and true to themsevles, while putting them in the bodies of children.

Yale manages to retain the characters' voices and overall personalities while putting them in new and often lighthearted situations mostly unfamiliar to how we've seen the characters previously. Yale is able to distill them down to their definitive state without turning them into cardboard cut outs.

Those who watched the Justice League animated series will remember an episode in which through magical hijinks the heroes were reduced to pre-teen age, they remembered their skills and training while losing their maturity. At first I hated the episode. I thought it was a cheap gimmick after the writers had run out of ideas. But around half way through the episode I found myself loving it, and even thinking I'd watch a full series in that style. While we may never see that, JL8 retains the idea and takes it further.

The reason for my change of heart was because the writers went beyond the gimmick to use the episode to show sides of the characters rarely seen. We got to see Batman,  Superman and Green Lantern in a more immature state, and Wonder Woman less dignified and pompous. More importantly by retaining the characters' skills the writers were able to retain the character's level of bad ass so we wouldn't lose out some of what makes these characters awesome in the first place.

In both the animated series and Yale's strip they used their setting and premise to show us sides of the characters and their relationships with their parents, mostly dead or missing in the comic, which we would have never other wise seen, outside of isolated flashbacks.



I've been thinking a lot about characters lately. About how you add depth and layers to a character while still making them feel true to themselves. In game of thrones Tyrion Lannister, played by the amazing Peter Dinklage in the show, is able to have a surface character that is a carefree fool and a deeper layer of incredibly intelligent and emotional conflict. This is informed by his background of his twisted family and physical conditon, but on camera comes across as natural. The writers were able to start us off with the jester, giving us hints of what lay beneath until finally showing it to us in full. This gave us a character with depth that still felt consistant, something I continue to strive for in my own writing.

In the Justice League they had the opposite problem. How do we take characters from their own histories and valued stories and remove layers of complexity while retaining their depth? Some may argue if they succeeded or not but I think they did. You have Superman as both the man of steal and  the outcast boy worried he'll break everything around him. You have Bats as both the brooding loner and the man struggeling to not only intergrate into a team but lead those following in the teams footsteps, and his complicated realtionship with Wonder Woman.

In Hawkgirl's story arc they took a character that was intially a battering ram and developed her over time, gave her conflicts, trials and triumphs. Yale does this in his comic as well. Early on there's a scene where Batman and Superman are confronting the bullies of the playground, Lex, the Joker and others. Superman gives a speech that could have come from any of his comics, you can't help but here it in the voice of Tim Daly (of Wings fame and the voice actor for superman for as long as I can remember.) It's a brilliant scene that shows the character at their finest, even when reduced to the more simplistic days of childhood.

Wrapping Up

We can learn a lot from characters by looking at them in different settings and points in their lives. The childhood Bruce of JL8 and the old man Wayne of Batman Beyond show us different sides of the character that can help us write them in their prime as Batman. We can also learn to add layers of depth to our characters while keeping a simplicity that makes them easy to understand and pick up by our readers.

Don't forget to check out JL8.

JL8 #1

Monday, September 3, 2012

Help From the Community

I want to give an official thanks to @ for helping me out with some podcasting issues. Was very helpful and nice. Go check out their awesome podcast at

Thanks to them the podcast should soon be on iTunes.

People like that remind me that there is hope for humanity after all. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a new podcast to listen to.

1 - Gods Of Earth 09/02/12

The very first episode of our Around the Trunk Podcast.

First Topic: 3:08- 30:00

Skyrim and Fallout, a comparison of Worlds.

Second Topic: 30:00 - 51:00

Time Travel. We had a more centralized focus for this topic, but it got away from us. As the wibbly wobbly tends to do. During this topic Chris got interrupted and didn't mute his mic, so the audio gets a little garbled. He will mute his mic in the future or we will skin him alive. We also go on a bit of a historical tangent toward the end. We will be better about that in the future.

Third Topic 51:00- 1:37:00

The Super Power Game

This was a special thing we did for the first episode. It goes pretty long and is the last topic. If you have no interest in it you can turn the podcast off here and not miss anything else.

Mike: Flight, Immortality (G), Solar Sustenance
Chris: Time Travel (G), Earth Bending, Muscle Memory
Tyler  Brute Telekinesis, Healing Factor (G), Teleportation

Let us know in the comments which super powered God you think would in the game of world domination and which one you would rather be.

Twitter Handles & Blogs

Mike: @Madness Serenade

Chris: @TheArchetipical


Tyler texted me after recording this. Killing kids in games isn't illegal in US law, but in the industry would almost guarantee an Adults Only rating, leading to most carries to ban your games.

First episode, already getting things wrong. Off to a great start.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Two Face and the Importance of Our Past

Everyone has a past. Some of us are defined by them. From time to time I've come across Character Sheets on the web. Forms that ask you to fill out every single detail about a character, from the house they grew up in to their favorite food. I've always hated these. Why would you spend hours staring at a piece of paper trying to decide what food best explains your characters personality? Does a love of pizza say someone is out going? Can't a rich guy love mac & cheese? Why aganoize over something that will likely never come up in your story?

Most of these character sheets aren't meant to be filled out line by line, but instead help get the mental wheels turning, each question acts as prompt to get us to consider aspects of a character we have yet to think about. And almost all of them deal with a character's past.

Harvey Dent

Anyone who's been following this site (if they exist) will know that I've been on a bit of Batman kick lately. Reading some of the comics I've missed and re-watching the animated series from the nineties One of the thing's I've really enjoyed about the animated series is watching their take on certain story arcs, how they've condensed some, expanded others, and made alterations for the show to be more family friendly..

I've never really cared about Two-Face. He never seemed that interesting to me, a little one note (or two note in his case.) So he was scarred, and flipped a coin, big deal. I never thought it was interesting, just kind of stupid and sad. I thought Nolan's Dark Knight did a good job of humanizing the character and his struggle, but I tend to chalk that up more to Nolan than the character.

In the cartoon however we get to see a lot more of him. For starters he doesn't even become Two Face until a third of the way into the first season. The writers had the foresight to include him in early on as regular old Harvey Dent. We see him as the star D.A. helping out Gotham, working along side Batman and Bruce Wayne alike. Those of us who know his fate are rewarded with seeing the seed of something we know will blossom into fruition later. Those who are experiencing the story for the first time get the emotional payoff of seeing a character they've gotten to know and respect be tormented by his inner soul, and ultimately changed for the worse because of it.

The cartoon goes one step beyond the acid incident and shows that the character has real mental issues and a suppressed inner dark side. That the acid doesn't warp his mind so much as it unlocks the cage of the demons already present. It hurts Harvey to the point where he doesn't care anymore, where he's lost the will and reason to fight the endless war against his inner torments.

Further more the cartoon reminds us as his story continues of his old days as Harvey. In one of the best episodes of the cartoon "Almost Got 'im" we see Two Face, The Penguin, Killer Croc and The Joker sitting around playing cards telling stories of how they almost defeated Batman. Poison Ivy walks in, much to the displeasure of Harvey Dent. He says something like "Half of me wants to strangle you," Poison Ivy assuming he's referring to the scarred side asks about the other. Two face turns to her and says the other half wants to burn her alive. When the others gathered around the table give her a "what was that about" look she says they used to date, referring to an earlier episode that served as Poison Ivy's origin. In another episode Hugo Strange attempts to auction off the identity of Batman to The Joker, The Penguin and Two Face. When they learn it's Bruce Wayne, Two Face rejects this, saying that he's known Bruce for years and that he could never be Batman.

In every case the character's past, both pre- and during the show inform his motives and methods of operation. More importantly it separates him being just another flat villain with a gimmick.

Captain America and The Doctor

We see this in other characters as well. Almost everything about Captain America is defined by his past. From his patriotic duty, to his manners and fashion, to the pain he carries from the world and loved ones he lost. His past has made him a character displaced in time, and made him all the more interesting because of it. He not only is defined by his past, he's the definition of that era to others. He's a relic, forced to carry around the burden of an old soul and we love him all the more because of it.

In the reboot/relaunch of Doctor Who we have a much darker and tortured Doctor who's just come off the Time War. A hero that has spent his impossibly long life saving countless others is now burdened by not only the guilt of failing to save his own people, but the remorse of knowing he was the one that ended them. The Classic Whos have their charm, and the character of the Doctor is brilliant in a mad genius sort of way, but it comes off thin in light of the complexities of the modern Doctor. Davies and Moffat have crafted a character consumed by guilt and loneliness, transforming the often dull Companions from a cheap excuse to explain things to the viewer to a valued part of the Doctor's development. Instead of being a barely disguised stand in, the companion has a real reason for being there in helping to soften The Doctor, remind him what he is fighting for and helping to stave off his crippling loneliness.

Past, Present and Future

Our character's past can be more than a blurb in their file or a list of likes and dislikes. By giving our characters real struggles not just in the present but throughout their life we create deeper characters with richer motives. We get invested in their struggle because we know where they came from and want to see even more where there are going.

Going once more back to the Batman cartoon, we see multiple episodes that fill in the gap of Bruce Wayne's life between the time he left Gotham and returned. We see he was not simply a brooding loner, but that he forged lasting connections with people. He had multiple father figures that he deeply respected, helping to not only train him to eventually become Batman, but sooth the wound of his missing father, taken from him far too soon. You could also argue that the lack of his mother, and her sudden departure from his life informs his many conflicted love affairs with the women (often villains) in his life. In every case the past of the character adds to a richer and more diverse person.

Challenge yourself to go farther back in your character's lives and see what struggles emerge. Not every character is going to have one, and that's okay. Some characters become defined by their peaceful past being shattered by their present misfortune, as in almost every post-apocalyptic story. But for those characters that do have a past, let your reader know. And if you have the opportunity, show us a character like Harvey Dent, before he is transformed into Two Face. We can go on their journey with them, as opposed to being informed at the last minute why we should care.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Brave, The Bold, and The Brooding

I've been watching a lot of batman lately. The last of the Nolan movies left me wanting more of one of my favorite characters of all time. I decided to finally get to some of those comics gathering dust on my shelf and to re-watch the nineties animated series which I haven't seen since I was a kid. In addition I finally decided to watch the old justice league cartoon from around the same time, as I had never seen it.

As I watch, it continually surprises me how much I love the character with how little he actually seems to do. His entire character as Batman revolves around showing as little emotion as possible, and half the time as Bruce Wayne he spends falsifying emotions and pretending to be a playboy. It's really quite amazing that a character who says so little is so pervasive through our culture.

The Eternal Loner

I think I find popular culture's interest in Bats so fascinating because it's the opposite of reality. Pop culture in all forms love the quiet, introverted and borderline sociopathic lone wolves while in real life they are virtually shunned. Right now three of the most critically acclaimed properties are Batman, Doctor Who, and Sherlock. All of which are loners to a large extent (except their trusted compainon) and all hide their true emotions on a near constant basis. In real life people with their personalities would be outcast. They're quiet, smug, arrogant, and in the doctor's case, ramble to the point of annoyance. Hell whenever any of the three talk it's either to show how smart they are, how stupid you are or to show how little they care about the rest of us.

While these characters can be funny and charming at times their over all personalities are a checklist of off putting and undesirable characteristics. Why is society fascinated with arrogant loners in fiction, but ostracizes them in real life?

Under Calm Seas

Beneath the flat surface of these character lay a storm of conflicted emotions. And this is where I think the true strength in the characters lay. All of them have deep personal conflicts and tragedies that define them. Unlike in real life, we the the viewer are privy to the total knowledge of the character. We know why they hide behind the mask or the bow tie because we've seen their pain.While others see only the smug arrogance and a mask of deflection, we see the scared little boy that misses his parents underneath.

I've heard a lot of people say Batman's popularity is because of his rouges gallery, and though I think he has probably the best group of villains, I think this is untrue. Batman has managed to stay relevant for decades across multiple platforms and even extremely different styles. From the pulp detective stories to the tongue in cheek humor of the Adam West era, from the dark days of Miller to the realistic days of Nolan, Batman has remained one of the strongest and most beloved characters of our time. You couldn't do this without such a strong character to hold it together. For every Riddler or Joker in Arkham there's a Calendar Man or Cluemaster. Criminals come and go, without our hero the struggles against them wouldn't matter.

A Fine Line

As writers and storytellers we have to be careful with how we craft and display our characters. Whether it's show, don't tell, or making sure our brooding, conflicted hero doesn't look like an emo kid wearing mascara. One of the thing's I've noticed about the Bat is that even though he rarely speaks, what he has to say usually matters. You see this a lot in the Justice League cartoon.

The writers of the Justice League have their screen time split between seven heroes that all are major names in their own right. As such they often exaggerate the character's traits to ensure they stand out. The Flash becomes a constant stream of one liner's and corney jokes. Wonder Woman becomes a non stop feminst and Hawkgirl wants to smash everything in site.

For Batman this means he almost never speaks. When he does he's usually explaining something the others were too stupid to catch. Most of his emotions in the show come from his eyes by either narrowing into a squint, or widening out in surprise. And the wonderful thing is we know exactly what that means. It's all Bats needs to do for us to get everything he's thinking. It's a brilliant bit of showing and not telling. In Doctor Who the title character almost never shuts up, so it tells us how bad or difficult things are when he does.

What's more, when Batman does talk, not a single moment is wasted. He may say one line, or one joke in the entire episode but it hits home because it is placed at the precise moment it needed to. Characters such as these teach us that we don't have to put every motivation or thought on the screen. We can trust the audience to understand our characters and their emotions by giving them the minimum of what they need and letting them construct the rest.

Remember the next to time you watch the strong and silent type to watch how little speaking they do, and how much non verbal communication they use. Analyze how these characters are used at their most effective, and allow that to guide you in how you think about all your characters and how to use them at their best.

Now I'm thinking about a Batman, Doctor Who, Sherlock cross over...

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Familiarity Conundrum and Episodic Content

In the realm of TV, comic books, web series and other episodic content lies an underlying contradiction that I think challenges a writer of any level. In TV shows for example, every episode is supposed to tell its own self contained story, one that ties into the large narrative of the show as a whole. At the same time the shows must have familiar characters and settings that bind the narrative together and prevent the show from being a series of unrelated short stories.

In addition there's the familiarity of the story structure itself. One of the reason's I got into TV writing as opposed to books or comics was out of disgust with the procedural shows that cluttered my television. I was tired of seeing the same old plots acted out again and again with barely anytime given to the development of the characters or their stories. I would watch an hour of television, sitting through fifteen minutes of commercials to get five minutes of character growth. In almost any procedural show on television, whether it be about detectives or lawyers or doctors, they all invariably follow the same structure. You get the opening that has them talking about their lives, then the hook, be it the dead body that washes up on the shore or the accident victim being wheeled into the emergency room.Then they go through the episode's plot, who killed this person or what disease do they have. (And no, I'm not making the lupus joke.) You'll get a line of banter here or there about their relationship or what existential crises they happen to be struggling with that season, but by and large they fail to change or address anything of substance. Then at the end of the episode after the case is closed and the organ transplanted, we get our star crossed lovers having a quiet moment to themselves, only for the episode to end before it actually goes anywhere.

How many of us have seen episodes where the girl and guy to be are talking somewhere by themselves, having one of those romantic moments where they look into to each others eyes only to smile and look away, and then the episode just ends, for no other reason than they have to save something for sweeps week. In the real world the characters don't simply stop. It implies that they awkwardly walk away after the camera stops rolling, failing to mention anything that just happened. How many of us could go through that situation week after week before we grabbed the other person and said "enough with this shit, is this going anywhere or not?"

From Familiar to Boring

While familiarity in of itself is not toxic to stories, and can even be good (we'll get to that later) it runs the risk of ruining the story before your audience even get's a chance to experience it. I want you to do me a favor the next time you watch your favorite cop show of choice. Regardless of network, or series you will, without fail, see the same patten emerge. The killer, nintey percent of the time, is the second character introducted in the investigation. Could be a friend of the victim, or the neighrbor or a supsect, dosen't matter. If there are three suspects it is almost always the second one.

If the cops find out she was last seen with guy A,  it won't be him. They talk to the neighbor, guy B, and find out she was arguing with an ex-boyfriend. So they close in on guy C, thinking it's got to be the disgruntled ex. Nope, it was the neighbor. He thought he finally had his chance with her when she broke up with C, but was driven to a murder rage when he saw her with A.

Murder Rage, now there's a name for a band.

The formula completely ruined cop shows for me. Even when they try to spice it up by having only two suspects you know it will always be the first because the feel the need to pad the second act. The story of that type of show had become so predictable that it ruined the mystery.

Is Familiar All Bad?

No, it's not. As I said you need characters for people to identify with if want to have any hope of your story mattering to anyone. In addition there's something to be said for the comfort of the familiar. After all we're more comfortable in our own homes than in a stranger's.We all prefer our own beds to that of a hotel's.

One of the routines I used to have was turning on Scrubs after work. I had already seen every episode of that show at least three times, but still went back to it. After a long stressful and often unpredictable day it was nice to have something that I knew what to expect from. Mac and cheese may not be the most exciting of meals but at least you know you'll be satisfied with it. By building a familiar world and location we establish a sense of family with our characters. We feel like we could be friends with them and even come to call them family if they were to exist.

Alter the Mold Without Breaking It

I use Scrubs as an example above because I think it's one of those shows that really seems to get the medium it's in. When you turn on any random episode of Scrubs, you know what you're going to get. J.D. will be wacky, Elliot will be an emotional wreck, Dr. Cox will belittle someone and Dr. Jan Itor will say something that reminds us of the lovable sociopath that he is.

Within that standard framework the show was able to achieve so much more. It had multi episode arcs and rarely went more than a few episodes without having some kind of growth for one its characters. This was aided by having a huge cast that allowed them to rotate in side characters as they needed, but it was a show that was also willing to go to places that other half hour comedies weren't, like in the episode My Lunch. (My favorite by the way) Scrubs was able to use its familiatry like a securtiy blanket, giving us something to find comfort in as it explored darker areas.

The Simpsons is another great example, and speaks to why that simple cartoon has stood the test of time. You never, ever know where an episode of the Simpsons is going to end up. An episode is just as likely to begin with Bart in detention and end with Homer in a Russian gulag turning to Marge to say "it was a sure bet, how could we lose," as it is for the family to spend the entire epsiode within their own home. While using characters that have stayed virtually the same for the many years the show has been on, it provided and anchor with which to explore literately anything that came into the writer's minds.

So how do you fix this? How do we give engaging stories while retaining the familiar, how do we break into new territory without losing the familiarity that ensures the fans care? While I could provide more example like those above (Cowboy Bebop is a master of this by the way) I think it's best to go with the simple answer.


Characters are the chains that bind your story together. You can spend every episode in a different place, telling a different story in a different style as long as your characters are there for the ride. As long as you make your characters consistent, while giving them meaningful arcs and challengers to overcome, your audience will go anywhere with you. We travel with the crew of the Bebop to different worlds without hesitation, watching as they chase their latest target and get wrapped up in the target's story because we care about what's going to happen to them there. We care about how they're going to adapt to these new environments and the challenges that they bring.

We can break the mold of the same boring plots and paint by numbers fashion of storytelling because our viewers are there for the characters. Without interesting people no one would care if the murder was solved, without troubled doctors, no one cares if the patient is cured.


Is simply another tool in the writer's belt. It can liberate your story or carry it down into the murky depths of mediocrity depending on how you wield it. We're entering an age where television doesn't have to be the same boring cookie cutter templates we're used to. We can reach out into new forms of storytelling, explore new genres and styles as long as we give our audience something to hold onto, our characters as a security blanket to remind them what they're fighting for.