Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Ascension of Joss

The Master at work
”Joss Whedon is My Master Now”

That was one of the more popular shirts at San Diego Comic-Con in recent years.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it should. He’s kind of been in the news lately. You might have heard of a little movie called “The Avengers.” Or maybe “Cabin in The Woods?” Two of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies released in the last month. He co-wrote and produced “Cabin…” and co-wrote and directed “The Avengers” and in between production and post-production on that one, in his spare time, he gathered a few friends and filmed an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing.”

Let me repeat that…. in his spare time…

He’s only been responsible for some of the most culturally influential genre works in the last 15 years.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel. Firefly and Serenity. Dollhouse. When he premiered his online musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” demand was so high that servers crashed and critics accused him of breaking the Internet. And then it went on to win a People’s Choice award, a Hugo, seven Streamy Awards, an Emmy, and was named one of Time magazine’s Top 50 Inventions of 2008.

And until now, he’s been one of Hollywood’s best-kept open secrets. They knew what he could do and seemed hellbent through either incompetence or malicious intent (because nobody could be that willingly stupid, could they?) on keeping him from doing what he does best. But after the last few months, the world knows just what he is capable of.

So why am I going on about this guy on a blog that’s supposed to be about writing? Simple.

Because he knows what he’s doing. And he’s doing it very well. Joss Whedon may be a cruel sadistic bastard who delights in making you care for his characters then dropping them into a meat grinder with a side order of big-eyed puppies and fluffy baby ducks, but that’s only because he’s so good at what he does.

Joss Whedon makes you care about his characters. And none of them are perfect. In fact, far from it. They are well-rounded, deep and fundamentally flawed. Because Joss Whedon knows that in order to make a story good, you need three things:

– A flawed character who wants something.
– Someone who is preventing them from getting it.
– And a mudpit/arena/battlefield for them in which to fight to the death.

Everything else is just window dressing and budget size. In the 200-million dollar epic, “The Avengers,” the team must prevent Loki from unleashing an alien army on they earth. In the micro-budgeted “Dr. Horrible..”, the doc must overcome his nemesis, Captain Hammer, in order to join the Evil League of Evil. In the multi-season TV series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Buffy must embrace her destiny to be the Slayer, the Chosen One of her generation.

What do these have in common? They are all damaged characters. They all have deep internal flaws they need to overcome in order to defeat the external force opposing them. The thing inside them preventing them from achieving their goal is as powerful as the external force.

The Avengers are all individuals who must learn to come together as a team. Dr. Horrible wants to be more evil than he actually is. Buffy wants to have a typical normal life and boyfriend. In some of these examples, they make a choice. In some, the choice is made for them.

But all of them come at a cost, as most good internal conflicts do. Because if what your character wants isn’t the most important thing in the world to them, then it won’t be to a viewer or reader. And if the lengths to which they go to achieve it (either willingly or unwillingly) aren’t comparable to the ends of the earth for them, then your audience has changed the channel or gone out for popcorn or put down the book and picked up the latest part of the Twilight saga instead.

If you aren’t willing to have your character give up everything they have to get what they want, then they don’t want it very much.

And no, the stakes don’t have to be world-shattering. The fate of the entire universe doesn’t have to hang in the balance for everyone in the universe. It can be as simple as a new bike for a ten-year-old boy, or a Brownie’s desire to sell the most Girl Scout cookies. Pretty inconsequential to the average person on the street.

But to that boy and girl? Let’s take it deeper…

Let’s say that boy is the only healthy child of a mother with tuberculosis, abandoned by her husband, with a younger sibling in need of an operation, and the only way they can afford heat in this worst winter in a hundred years is if he can complete his paper route. But to do that, he needs a new bike.

And our little Brownie? She was the darling only child of her parents… until her new little sister was born. And now the only attention she gets is from the Girl Scout troop that her parents made her join to get her out of the house so they could spend more time with the new baby. So she believes that if she sells enough cookies, she’ll prove her worth and her parents will love her again.

A bike. A Girl Scout cookie sale. The loss of family, the loss of love. It’s a matter of life and death.

Last year, an interviewer asked Joss why he writes such strong female characters. His answer? “Because you still ask questions like that.”

See, he knows it’s not about male or female, gay or straight, black, white, or green, or even human.

It’s about character. What does your character want? What’s keeping them from getting it? What are they willing to give up to get it?

If you can quickly and compellingly answer those three questions, then you have a successful career awaiting you in Hollywood.

But don’t tell anyone. Because it’s a secret. Like Joss Whedon’s omnipotence.

Shhhhhhh…

Oh yeah, if you want more of Joss’ wisdom on writing, check out his top ten writing tips here, originally published on BBC’s channel 4 Talent Magazine.

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How Beginnings Work (and other neat tricks)

What a good opening page looks like…

I’m a slow starter, and this is why.  This is a story about beginnings:

Once upon a time…

Now that’s a good opening.  Short.  Simple.  Sets a mood.  Makes you wonder what could come next.  Everything a good opening should do. Those Brothers Grimm knew a good thing when they saw it.

… there was, to a king, a girl born with hair as black as coal, lips as red as roses, and skin as fair as snow…

This is what’s known as your protagonist, your main character.  You can visualize this one pretty easily, and while our interpretations may vary wildly, I’ll bet most of us think of the Disney Snow White (1937) when you hear those words.

… but she was lonely because her mother died birthing her, and the king was busy ruling his Kingdom…

This is known as a sympathetic trait.  Something to invest you in the character.  As a children’s tale, the loss of a parent is one of the most powerful elements to bind a reader to a protagonist.  Think of what you did when Bambi’s mother was shot, or when Simba’s father faced the wildebeest stampede, or when Nemo’s mother met her fate.  There’s a reason Disney is so cruel to parents.

It’s called a profit margin.

OK, not really, they use it because it works.  It’s emotional shorthand.  And while you can say its just a cliché, its a cliché that works.  Because it’s universal.  All of us have parents.  Most of us know who they are.  Issues with parents are things some people never work out.  And when children become parents, it’s a chance to look at the whole thing from the other side.  Kind of like starting over from a taller viewpoint.

So, we have our setting, our protagonist, and our emotional stake.  What else do we need?

… and the King married a Queen, a proud vain woman who longed to be the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom, and watched her budding step-daughter with calculating eyes…

Good.  An antagonist.  Just what every solid story needs.  And we can see the set-up of the conflict.  The Queen is feeling her age, seeing faint lines appear on her face that weren’t there before.  And Snow White is a little hottie.  Lush young body, burgeoning sexuality, still that tinge of sweet innocence.  Unaware of the power she’ll have over men.  True, she’s the King’s daughter and the Queen is knocking boots with the old guy whenever he commands, but still…

Yeah, that’s not in the story…  not exactly.  That’s what we call subtext, and I’ll talk about that some other time.

… so each day, the Queen would ask her magic mirror who was the fairest in the land, and the mirror would answer “You are fairest, My Queen” and the Queen would be satisfied.

But one day, she asked the mirror her question and the mirror responded “You, my queen, are fair; it is true. But Little Snow-White is a thousand times fairer than you.”

And the Queen’s heart hardened.

And with that, we have all the pieces we need to set our story in motion.  A sympathetic hero/heroine, a villain, and a drive.  With that proclamation from the mirror, our story is set in motion.  We have a villain who wants something and a hero that prevents them from getting it.  Everything that follows will spring from that basic story.  All the details that follow are window dressing for that one simple story: Will Snow White escape the jealous Queen and live happily ever after?  The dwarves, the Huntsman, the Prince, the poison apple, the glass coffin… all of that serves the central question.

This is all that good storytelling embodies;  Someone who wants something and someone standing in their way.  How badly they want it and how strongly the other resists, well that’s a mark of how good a story can be.

In a movie, you’ll be somewhere between 14 to 20 minutes in when you see the story.  At that point, you will know who the hero is and what they need to do.  In longer movies, it can occur later, but you’ll still learn pretty early in that Frodo has to take the One Ring to Mordor, that only the Wizard can help Dorothy get back to Kansas (in one of the great movie fake-outs), that Rick Blaine will have to confront his past in Casablanca, that Simba will need to overcome his guilt and return to lead his pride, that Marlin will have to venture into the great unknown world to find Nemo, that Michael will have to join the Corleone family business (no matter how much he denies it).  And so on and so on and so on…

It’s like gymnastics or running or skating.  When done right, it looks effortless.   Yet it is anything but.  Beginnings are easy.  But the easier they look, the more effort usually goes into them.  Each minute on the ice or the balance beam represents 10,000 hours or more of painstaking practice and effort, of sweat and straining to make it just so… to make it appear easy.  Yes, beginnings are easy…

… but Good beginnings are hard, and usually come about only after you’ve written the end, several drafts down the road.  And the more you write, the more you know just how complex and elusive things that look easy can be.

But this is just my quick take on them.  And that’s why I’m a slow starter.

Page Tally:  last week, I wrote 22 pages of audio drama, 2 blog entries, and 6 pages of original script. Most of the audio drama will stay, but the 6 pages may be rewritten if they don’t fit.  For now, they go into the first draft pot.