Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ambiguity and the Shark

If you remember Scoobie Doo, every plot turned around the notion that there was some mystery that seemed to have something supernatural at its root. However, in the last scene, the spectral figure would be unmasked as old man caruthers who'd invariably say "I'd have gotten away with it had it not been for those meddling kids."

It was very important that these stories have no actual supernatural explanation.

Then there was Magnum PI wherein you'd have plots
wherein a beautiful woman would be the spitting image of the long dead victim of some decades-old crime. There would be broad hints and possibilities that perhaps there was something supernatural going on. Maybe the ghost of the dead girl gave Magnum the vital clue, or maybe it was a coincidence. There was both a naturalistic explanation, and there was a supernatural one, too.

It was very important that these stories have a naturalistic explanation for everything except for one spooky ambiguity introduced in the last scene. Though you might see t
he ghost in the last frame, there'd be no proof.

Castle is a TV show that does this a lot. You can see several episodes wherein something spooky, science fiction, or horror related might explain the crime. Rick Castle is all about wild about jumping to the supernatural conclusion, and Kate Beckett spends the show shooting him down and coming up with a reasonable explanation.

Castle is not the Sarah Connor Chronicles. Nor is it the Dresden Files. This places constraints upon the writer if s/he wants to avoid jumping the shark.

One of those constraints is to maintain ambiguity. You can't prove definitively within the story that the murderer or the red herring actually was from the future.

This means you can have the putative time traveller disappear from Castle's view, but you cannot allow Beckett to spill coffee on a letter in exactly the same pattern as shown in the picture of the letter from the future. If the pattern varies, you can plausibly maintain the photo was a coincidence. And if it varies, you can use a butterfly effect argument to maintain the time travel was real.

Clearly, I should be writing more and watching TV less.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Prequels Not Advised

I've always been biased against prequels. I think they come with too much baggage.

You've got a story about a teenaged orphan who's living with his aunt and uncle. He does on a quest where he meets a sage mentor who knew his father and said his father was killed by the story's antagonist who in turn murders his aunt and uncle. He goes on to rescue the damsel in distress and achieve his quest. Cool.

Two sequels go on to show the quest encounter various reversals before it unfolds into a larger crusade to defeat the focus of evil in the world. One major complication in the story is that the boy's father turns out to be the antagonist who'd been turned evil. Yes, Darth Vader is Luke's father who's gone bad and ultimately repents of evil and receives a modicum of redemption.

It's not a bad story arc over the course of the three installments.

But, you may wonder, how did Darth Vader become evil in the first place? The answer is held in not one, but three prequels. But while consuming millions of dollars worth of CGI animations and all manner of explosions, sword fights, and derring-do, we all know that Anakin is going to break bad.

Seems sort of pointless, doesn't it? You like the girl? She's gonna die. You like the annoying kid, and the petulant teen? He's gonna be wearing the black helmet. Why bother investing in the story along the way when you know where it's going?

Play him off Keyboard Cat.

When I watched the second Indiana Jones movie, I thought it was a SEQUEL to the first. Thus I was on board with the fight scene where the two guys with swords go after him, and he reaches for his gun and it's not there. It was cute, because if this fight scene happens after the first fight scene with one guy with a sword that Indiana Jones dispatches with a gunshot, then his reaction and my reaction makes sense.

However, I recently learned that Temple of Doom was a PREQUEL to Raiders. How is it that Indiana Jones could react as he did when the two sword fighters dressed identically to the one sword fighter confront him? Had I known this was a prequel, it would have utterly taken me out of the story. In fact, this is such a violation of continuity, that I'll never be able to watch these stories again. The whole franchise is dead to me. There's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that's good and reasonable, but there are limits.

So, you've finished a well-received work and you're considering another writing project that's set in the same world. You have thought through the back-story of all your characters and you're proud of how well all that scaffolding holds together. You may have even written a few scenes with the detective's dead partner that were key in developing his character.

You don't publish scaffolding.

Instead of turning that scaffolding into a prequel, turn it into a sequel. Maybe Spade and Archer did something special before they had a case involving a black bird from Malta. Then carry it forward a generation after Sam sends Bridgid up the river. Then put together some young punk with those old clues from a generation before and solve the case in a context where the reader doesn't know for sure who's coming out of the story alive and who isn't. 

You know that Saul Goodman is an amoral lawyer with a dark sense of humor when you meet him in the second season of Breaking Bad. And you know he has a rolodex of guys who know guys who an make any unlawful thing happen. If you start telling his story when he's in law school, you know he's going to end up passing the bar. If he starts with a girlfriend who he thinks is "the one" you know they'll part company. If he has any shred of morality and idealism, you know it'll be gone by the time he meets Walter White. These things are foregone conclusions.

Instead, I'd like to know what becomes of him after he's managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. Or when one of Jesse's burnout buddies gets a job in that Cinnabon. What's past is past. Tell me what happens next.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Strange Love

A friend recently remarked that she really loved old-time songs she termed "hellfire and brimstone," but she felt the old-time songs didn't love her back.

She was right, but she was wrong.

The Westboro Baptist crowd is an exception I'll describe in hopes of making my point by contrast. I once watched one of their YouTube videos where the girl spent five minutes repeatedly saying, "You're going to Hell," in a perky voice with a smile on her face. One cannot say this with a smile on your face and have an infinitesimal of love in your heart.

I think there is a sort of sadistic personality type who enjoys inflicting emotional pain on others. Such people are beneath contempt.

Such people are NOT the folks who were writing and performing the old-time "hellfire and brimstone" songs.

What were they thinking?

My earliest memories of church involve crying. "Hellfire and brimstone" sermons are not as common as they once were, but if you read any of the old-timers' books about soul winning, they say there ought not be a dry eye in the place. The fellow who wrote the book on "Hellfire and brimstone" just happened to be a Christian philosopher named Jonathan Edwards. He reasoned that a sinner doesn't love God, but he may love his own skin enough to seek a way of escape and thereby acquaint himself with the good news parts of the Gospel. Upon learning what God has done for the sinner, the sinner may think it fitting to love God back.

If you really believe those around you are at risk of destruction, the compassionate thing to do is warn them and share what you know about how to escape.

This line of reasoning makes the "hellfire and brimstone" warnings an expression of love. So, my friend is indeed loved back. But it's a strange love. The only way you can distinguish this love from Westboro's hate is whether the person saying it is crying or smiling when s/he says it.

Now, when writing a plausible villain. The conventional motives are money, jealousy, hatred and revenge--Plus whatever other negative emotions I've overlooked. Better motives are unconventional, positive emotions.

Provided you can make them plausible.

You see, it's because I love that young girl that I inflicted all those tortures upon her and eventually burned her at the stake, because God would judge her witchcraft more harshly and perhaps my efforts turned her to repentance and the joys of Heaven. 


Religious fanaticism is a dangerous thing when writing villainy department because a) it's overdone, and b) most writers doing it are functionally illiterate of religion. Their villains come off as off-key and get all the trust-cues wrong. And I hate when they do that.

So, I suggest something different.

My favorite villain is the Operative in Serenity. He's perfect because he's not motivated by the stale and trite things. He says he's motivated by Faith. Not the concrete Faith in God that J. Gresham Machen wrote about, or the vague objectless Faith in Faith that Soren Kierkegaard wrote about. His faith in the government who empowers him and sends him on his killing spree.

In a post-Christian, or post-Theist society, there are some folks who will still need to find something bigger than themselves to put meaning and purpose in their life. If they are Atheist, then the government is the second-best thing. Thus, I see a government fanatic is a better villain than a religious fanatic.

Mindful of this, consider this quote by C. S. Lewis:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
So, next time you're wondering about your next villain, perhaps you'll consider some sort of overbearing altruist.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Making Art

If you read the Make magazine blog, you'll see a lot of folks making stuff. Lots of technologists and craftsmen are putting together neat stuff and setting up maker spaces. For instance, there's the folks at GRMakers who have set up the maker space in my hometown Grand Rapids, MI. This is also the home of Art Prize.

And then there's Pablo Picasso. Of all the folks you'd call modern artists, I respect him the most. He was a prolific artist and he did a lot of it. I heard that he did a lot of doves. He said that he refused to draw their feet, because he'd had to draw so many of feet when he was younger. Why would he be forced to draw a lot of bird feet? Because that was the way he was taught.

Before Pablo Picasso produced abstract modern art, he had to master his artistic technique.

When I experience the various entries in Art Prize, I see several Taxonomy of Art Prize Entries. Each entry manifests a separate mastery of some technique. Whereas the Old Masters knew how to put paint on canvas, nowadays artists are also glueing seeds or wine corks to a substrate, or welding, riveting or bolting together bits of metal. Or any of a zillion other techniques.
sorts of work I've described in my

The ones that get me excited generally involve wires and electronic components. And most exciting include some logic switching electrons around.

And this puts a great stress upon the artist, because folks can conceive art works that exceed their inherent skill sets. Some art pieces require a fusion of artistic vision and technological craftsmanship.

This is why some of the neat stuff you see on the Make magazine blog are art projects. You'll also see in maker spaces an easy marriage of the technologists' expertise and the artists' vision.

In fact, one of the leading entries is a dragon from a Detroit maker space. Gon KiRin is awesome.

I figure that maker spaces are going to become a key contributor to culture. If you can hook up with one, or with the maker movement in general, by all means do so.


I was reading an interesting blog post. It's about Strong Female Characters. You should read it, but I'll summarize it by asking, "What constitutes a strong female character?"

I like strong female characters in my writing. Nell in my Finding Time stories happens to be a conventional strong female character of the modern sort. She happens to be fairly good with martial artists. Her mother ran a dojo in Memphis, TN, and her father was an archaeologist. She's the history side of the team that I send back in time with Sid being the engineering side of it. She doesn't have very good judgment where picking lovers is concerned, but she is usually the one to initiate physical violence in whatever story she's in. That's why I put her on the cover of Finding Time instead of Sid.

But as Stephanie S pointed out in her blog, there is more than one way for a woman to be strong. And I'm not thinking of the steroid-marinated Olympic athletes from the East German women's track and field team. At least, I regret thinking of them.

A strong woman can be the single mother who's keeping things together despite grinding poverty--living one day at a time sacrificing for her child. A woman is seldom stronger than Antigone standing against tyranny and engaging in civil disobedience. No fancy ninja swordplay in that.

I unwittingly faced this problem in a short story I've recently finished. The story starts with Nancy in tears telling her boyfriend she's afraid of the "ghost light" she's seen in a cemetery. This sets up the action for the story that I won't repeat here. But it also created the false impression that Nancy was just a "hysterical crying woman." And she wasn't.

There was no place where I could add a fight scene for her to overcome space pirates. I gave her a pistol to keep in her purse, but she never used it. I needed a way to show her character as strong in another way.

I solved it by adding a look back at her first date with the narrator of the story. Nancy is a nurse. So I used an old Hudson automobile and sent it out of control. The ensuing crash injured the driver. While my hero stands around wondering what he should do, she takes charge, pushes him out of the way, crawls into the wreck, administers first aid, and keeps things together until the ambulance arrives. The girl impressed me with the way she handled the situation.

A lot of people think that courage is some amazing quality that is only manifested by burly guys in Army uniforms like John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima.

It isn't. Nancy just keeps her wits about her and does the right thing. She doesn't panic and she doesn't freeze. Happily, she has the training to know what has to be done and she relies on her training as a nurse.

That made Nancy, who's afraid of a "ghost light," as strong a character than Nell, the martial artist.

Remember this when an editor tells you to make some revision to your story. There are multiple ways to be strong and an unexpected way can be just as effective and will fit better within your story.

Those more worthy than I: