Saturday, January 25, 2014

Painted into a Corner

 Arthur Conan Doyle had it easy. He was tired of people pestering him to write Sherlock stories so he invented Professor James Moriarty--Sherlock's equal in every way. Then threw them together in a to-the-death battle that culminates at the Reichenbach Falls.

Two years later Doyle resurrects Sherlock with a story of climbing a sheer cliff while a sniper is taking pot-shots at him. And it makes sense because that same sniper is the villain nabbed in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Not so the swells at the BBC who altered the climax of Season Two with Sherlock taking a dive off a multi-story building landing on the sidewalk for the physician John Watson to find.

I must confess that I put some thought into how Sherlock could fake his death in this fashion. And I further confess that my solutions were unsatisfactory.

To put it bluntly, the writers had written themselves into a corner--much like the fellow painting a floor finds that he's painted everywhere he might step to exit the room.

Which brings to mind tribbles. One of the cleverest episodes of Star Trek the original series was "The Trouble With Tribbles." In this story Kirk matches wits with a shady space trader, an annoying bureaucrat, and the evil Klingons. We know they're evil because they wear the same makeup as Emperor Ming The Merciless.

After Star Trek went on to syndication Gene Roddenberry went on to make movies with bigger budgets for makeup and he improved the look of his Klingons to be much less offensive to Asian audiences. They were bigger, meaner, and looked more like aliens than Mongolians.

This was highly successful and several movies spun off several new TV series. One of which, Deep Space Nine (aka Melrose Space), had a Klingon named Worf. So far so good. Somehow a plot device hurtles all the main characters of Deep Space Nine back in time to the same space station where The Trouble with Tribbles takes place.

All the DS9 humans look at the Emperor-Ming lookalikes and then at Worf and they say, "What happened?" Worf can't come out and say, "Gene had more budget for makeup." The DS9 writers had written themselves into a corner just as surely as the Sherlock writers had.

What to do?

As you know, any show as popular as Star Trek and Sherlock will generate chat groups and message boards where plot points are discussed. Audience members will posit likely solutions to plot problems such as these. The writer will have a hard time coming up with a solution that's better than any of those offered online.

On Star Trek, they had the human cast members pepper Worf with suggested explanations for the appearance discrepancy. And some of them sounded relatively plausible. Worf replies, "we don't talk about this," and ends the discussion.

It's a cop-out, but it's funny, and it works better than a lengthy exposition that doesn't quite work.

I ran a story past a friend of mine who noticed a glaring flaw in my plot. He provided a couple reasonable alternatives, but then he said, "hang a lampshade on it." And by this he meant to embrace the flaw and make it into something that told the reader you'd noticed and that you were playing it up.

Sherlock handles the same problem differently. It shows a half-dozen different explanatory scenarios ranging from bungee cords to airbags to dummies. The clever big is that after the germ of the idea is presented to the audience, one of the characters proceeds to debunk it. I can almost imagine the posting/reply cycle on an internet message board.

In the end you never get a 'canonical' explanation for Sherlock's survival. It's a cheat, but it's creative and it almost works. Or let's say that it works as well as a Dr. Who episode.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Yet Another Vacuum Story

If you are writing stories about near term space operations, there are some well known hazards that drive a lot of stories. It can be almost formulaic:

  • Someone's in space. 
  • Something goes wrong. 
  • Survival situation ensues. 
  • Someone bodges together something.
  • Some, maybe not all, survive.

My friend Martin Shoemaker calls these "vacuum stories." And he laments the fact that the grand masters of science fiction have written all of them. I counter that you can probably recycle the basic plot and have a ripping good yarn by insinuating fresh characters into the story.

But Martin has a second complaint in these stories and it bears on that second step "Something goes wrong." Too often the thing that goes wrong is really lame:

  • Someone does something stupid
  • Someone evil throws a spanner in the works
  • Something easily anticipated is overlooked.

I have recently complained that stories with smart characters risk having them do something stupid that the reader can see is stupid, but the story requires him/her to do it.

The premise here is that if you've got people going into space, they're going to be smart people. Ignoramuses don't go into space. They stay in North Dakota and plot to kidnapping schemes that go wrong.

Now, I have had smart characters do stupid things for the sake of the story, but I justified the stupidity and used the character's awareness that he was compelled to do something wrong to increase tension.

But in a vacuum story, astronauts aren't stupid and you ought not make them do something stupid just to create an inciting incident.

However, they can do something that should be OK, but cascades into something very wrong. Imagine a really complicated piece of equipment that has a little fan that's not used very often. In the times before when it's been used there's been no problem. Nobody's stupid. In fact the smartest engineers in the world have made this system. But the fan is inside an oxygen tank. Though the fan is insulated, this time it sparks and the tank explodes. The explosion takes out the equipment bay.

As we saw in Apollo 13 a trivial malfunction can easily escalate into a survival situation.

Here's a great way to show the reader how smart the characters are in your story. Really smart characters will plan for failure. They'll eliminate opportunities for trivial mistakes and have contingencies ready when things go wrong.

But there are limits for what can be anticipated and planned for. When an airliner crashes the investigators generally learn that no one thing brought the plane down, but a perfect storm of multiple malfunctions.

Devising these perfect storms of interlocking failures may tax the ingenuity of the writer, but it's a lot more original than having some crazed snake handling fundamentalist release a bunch of snakes on a spaceship.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Stupid Genius

I like stories with a smart protagonist and a smart antagonist, but there's a risk.

Recently, I had occasion to see The Bletchley Circle on Instant Netflix. The premise is that a quartet of female boffins, who used to break Nazi codes, have gone on to civilian lives, BUT one of them notices a pattern in the news of a series of murders.

And she gets the band back together to do some sleuthing.

Great premise.

I love working with smart people and I never worked with a smarter bunch than when I was part of the Puzzle Palace. So, the prospect of seeing these brainiacs in action was most appealing. I was even able to ignore the RELENTLESS ANTI-MALE SEXISM of the story. (The only males who aren't rapists, murderers or both in this story are father-figures representing the benevolent Socialist government.)

It was an absolute joy to see the alpha geek chick giggling about figuring something out, but in the context of a horrible crime. Not an appropriate time for giggling, but that's what geeks do. My delight with this story started very high and it suffered a monotonic decline as the story left off the mathy bits and delved into the psychology.

But what got me to write this down was an instance of something I saw that has been often repeated in stories with smart protagonists. Let's suppose you have Sherlock or his smarter brother Mycroft in a confrontation with a bad-guy, the hero can't do something stupid. The hero has to see what the reader sees before the reader sees it.

In Bletchley Circle, the girl meets the killer alone in a darkened building. She doesn't know the guy is a killer, but every viewer who's paying attention realizes everything about him fits the profile she's just assembled of the killer. Eventually, he's shown smoking the same brand of cigarettes as were found at the murder scene, and even the slow members of the audience put two and two together. And a little bit after that she reacts so that the viewer sees she realizes what most of the audience already knows.

She's supposed to be smarter than you are. Smarter people don't take longer to figure out things than the audience. If you're going for the suspense thing where the audience feels jeopardy while the protagonist is blithely waltzing into danger, you've got to have a reason for it that's better than your super-genius didn't think of it. She could be setting a trap or she could have a gun in her purse aimed at his heart unbeknownst to the audience.

Conversely, when you have an normal-intelligence protagonist and a stupid villain, this risk goes away. Raylan Givens doesn't wear his star because he breaks Nazi codes: it's because he can pull his weapon faster than the other guy. Boyd Crowder isn't a criminal mastermind because he's three chess-moves ahead of the Detroit crowd. It's because he makes things blow up and people die.

With normal-intelligence characters minds move at a pace where you can see them come to realizations. Low-intelligence characters are useful in villains because their violent impulses can be expressed unpredictably.

Though it is is tempting to make your characters super-intelligent, you have to be very smart to not write them doing something stupid when the story needs it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Failure IS an Option

I've always been a believer in positive thinking. When I get started on a project, I hope everything will go well and I expect things to work out. Most people feel the same, and that's a problem.

A friend told me about how he went into business with a partner. They planned to bid on jobs, do the work, then get paid. This worked for a while, but then there was a problem. The problem was that they bid a job at a fixed rate, but the work turned out to be more than was expected.

They could respond to this problem by either reneging on the deal, or incurring additional expense to finish the work. They disagreed. As a result the partnership and the friendship ended.

The real problem is that they didn't expect a problem. They hadn't had a chance to think through the negative possibilities. Failure is always an option. If you think failure is not an option, you'll be caught flat-footed should failure occur.

Murphy's Law was named after an engineer named Ed Murphy. He noticed that when it was wired backwards it would be ruined, but was annoyed when he discovered someone had wired up 20 consecutive gauges backwards. He then had the idea that the strain gauge could be made so that it was physically impossible to wire them backwards.

Because Murphy recognized that Failure was an option, he could think through ways to make it harder to fail.

When you sign up for a Kickstarter project, you have to enumerate the risks that you foresee. Failure is not an option, it is many options. And you have to write them all down.

You can think positive, but if you do, you may overlook the fact that a supplier might raise prices, someone might get sick, you might underestimate the cost of shipping, or something else. When enumerating risks, you want to think defensively.

Had my friend considered the possibility that he'd disagree with his partner and planned for that disagreement up front, he could have avoided the partnership and kept a friend, or he could have agreed up front how they'd work it out. If they'd considered the possibility that the work could exceed estimates, they'd put in place contingencies to get paid more or to back out of the contract gracefully.

There is a difference between planning to fail and planning for failure. Sometimes success comes after overcoming one or more reversals. You should expect to succeed and you should expect to use one or more of the contingencies you've put in place for the parts that go wrong.

Monday, January 13, 2014

When I'm Dead and Gone

I have fond memories of Christmas Eve when I was a child. My mom would get out the phonograph and she had a 78 record she'd play: White Christmas.

I hear that Bing Crosby sold a lot of records and mom rather liked that one.

And when I was a kid I'd see the occasional movie where he was a priest or something. And of course, the road movies with Bob Hope and the beautiful Dorothy Lamour. He was on the occasional TV show and I liked his singing and comedy.

He seemed a happy, easy-going, likable sort that I would not mind hanging around with.

Then he died. And with him safely in the grave and unable to rebut anything said against him, stories started coming out about what a horrid, horrid man he was. I don't know who's lying, either Bing up there on the screen or his critical biographers. I just know the one-sidedness of it and the tendency for ghouls dishing dirty to get bigger paydays than hagiographers.

And every Sunday evening when better people than I were going to evening services at church, I'd stay home and watch the Wonderful World of Disney. I rather liked that fellow who'd introduce the shows and talk about the world of the future. He seemed another pleasant fellow I wouldn't mind knowing.

Then he died. And with him safely in the grave and unable to rebut anything said against him, stories started coming out... Sound familiar?

To hear some tell it, Walt Disney had KKK sheets in his closet. Just now I heard someone pushing hearsay that they had on good authority he was an anti-semite. Why stop there, give him the full Godwin and call Walt a Nazi, OK?

And while we're at it, kindly consider Henry Ford, the man who brought motoring to the masses via the Model T. His death did not usher in a bunch of dirt-dishing tell-alls, but a careful look at the man's statements would make the sensitive reader regard him a cismale gendernormative fascist.

Pretty much every hero of my youth from E. Rice Burroughs to Lucky Lindy has been deconstructed and turned into a monster.

There are a couple ways this happens. The first I've touched on. The second is changing moral standards. There was a time when someone who used the N-word was the Senate Majority Leader. Frankly, our society has taken the notion of racial equality and turned into a game of gotcha. A lot of things that were once perfectly acceptable in polite society are now the direst crimes. A cigarette at your desk was once a legitimate way of calming one's nerves amidst a stressful workday.

I don't think all moral standards are so fungible. The Savior summarized the decalogue in two parts: Love God and your fellow human. (I once could say fellow man without starting an argument.) If Bing and Walt were sincerely loving people, then they've been unfairly treated. I don't know one way or another.

But when I'm dead and gone, I hope my sincere warmth and bonhomie will be that which everyone talks about.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Unforgivable Sin

I once heard someone say that if you commit the unforgivable sin, you'll never feel sorry about doing it. And Christians should never, ever say they'll never forgive someone who's injured them.


I was watching the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved the movie at the time. There's a gag in the movie that I particularly loved. Indiana Jones confronts this big guy in flowing robes carrying a huge Scimitar. The big guy brandishes the scimitar and you expect to see a big fight.

i've heard that Harrison Ford was sick that day of filming so instead of doing the elaborate fight scene they had blocked out, they had him just pull out his gun and shoot him. Never bring a scimitar to a gun fight, eh? The scene is funny and it works.

It also set up a similar scene in the second movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Indiana Jones is getting chased and now he sees TWO big guys in flowing robes each of whom are carrying huge Scimitars. He sees them and you get a reaction shot of Indiana Jones thinking, "Oh, not this again." And then he reaches for his gun just like he did in Raiders.

I got a big laugh and thought that was a great scene. When I would think back on Raiders and Temple, I'd get a little chuckle.

Then someone pointed out something.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a PREQUEL. It happens BEFORE Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Therefore, Indiana Jones can't remember confronting the One Scimitar Guy when he encounters the Two Scimitar Guys, because the One Scimitar Guy hasn't happened yet. He has no reason to give that "not again" look when he goes for his gun!

When I realized this, I felt used and utterly betrayed. I was no longer capable of suspending disbelief. From this point forward the entire Indiana Jones franchise was dead to me.

Update: I almost forgot. Joanne Renaud has her own reasons to find fault with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I find them compelling.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Mysterious Opening

I like a certain pattern of story that begins with an incomprehensible inciting incident, then the rest of the story consists of disclosing clues the reader can use to figure out what happened. Because this requires patience of the reader, the writer must make the incomprehensible thing particularly compelling. It has to be life-or-death.

What was with that opening scene with the fire? Why is the girl running from the police?

Two stories come to mind with this structure: Get Low, and Safe Haven. And the television series Longmire does this somewhat, too.

As the story proceeds you can either leave that opening scene alone completely or you can provide a series of cut-scenes that provide clues. If you take this approach, you can use ambiguity to good effect.

Safe Haven opens with a hooded figure fleeing an apparent murder scene and making her way out of town with a policeman in Javert-mode is in hot pursuit. Facts come out in a way that at first confirm the reader's supposition that the girl has committed murder.

This provides a bit of tension that keeps the story a bit more interesting over the course of introducing the other elements of the story as the girl meets a widower and unpacks her emotional baggage.

Similarly, in Get Low, a house bursts into flame and a shadowy figure is seen fleeing the scene. What's with that? In a subsequent scene, Robert Duvall who plays a notorious hermit meets with Lucas Black and Bill Murray to arrange his own funeral.

Food, sex, and death. These are three obvious hooks you can put in an opening to pique the reader's interest. And once you have that interest, it's incumbent upon the storyteller to make the reader care about your characters. With your readers caring about your characters you can tell your story and disclose what that incomprehensible incident means.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Reminder About Superlatives

You've seen the lists: top ten movies of last year, most influential people of the last decade, greatest failures of the last century.

Most of the time, you'll hear someone say, "This list is bogus because it doesn't have Waterworld in it." It is easy to construct a counter-example from a list of "worst things" by simply finding one thing worse than anything in the list.

And this impacts anything you write that involves superlatives. If your story has the most beautiful woman in the world, the reader can't say, "That's not true, because she's not blonde." Some people gauge beauty according to different standards. If you rank the N most beautiful women, someone with a different standard can find a counter-example.

Do I think Gwyneth Paltrow is beautiful? Yes. Is she more beautiful than Rani Mukerji? Or someone else? Do you want your reader trying to pick at your ranking or do you want the reader's head in your story?

It depends.

What are you trying to do? If you want to tease out greater engagement, this picking and quibbling is catnip. It's a subtle form of flame bait. So, put superlatives in your blog posts alongside the weird trick to lose weight for the New Years.

But what if you are writing a potboiler where you don't want the reader to put down your story? You want your reader thinking about the dashing knight in distress being rescued by the beautiful damsel. You do not want the reader thinking, "Chris Pine is a lot hotter."

Superlatives are not just the single most beautiful woman, but also the N most beautiful women. You want to make your characters extraordinary without triggering the quibble reflex. That way your readers are in your story and not out there googling "hottest actors" and getting distracted.

Though I still think superlatives are for children, I now have more reasons to avoid them.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Devastating Rebuke

In Jane Austen's story, Emma, Mr. Knightly witnesses his love interest thoughtlessly insult the powerless spinster, Miss Bates, whereupon he rescues the spinster from her embarrassment and at the next opportunity he gives Emma a right proper scolding: He points out how unfeeling her remarks were, her obligations of kindness and lack of compassion. Badly done, Emma. Badly done.

In the Bollywood movie Yeh Dillagi, the beautiful Sapna who is pursued by the frivolous playboy Vikram. After a failed attempt to seduce her, he finds her at the train station.

And she unloads on him. In this movie, Sapna is a chauffeur's daughter and Vikram is a member of the rich family that employes Sapna's father. A great deal is made of the social stature of Sapna below Vikram. But in her diatribe she points out that he lacks the moral fiber and strength of character to be worthy of respect.

At one point she says she is showing him a mirror.

That's the best rebuke--one that lets the character see for herself or himself who she is.

Sapna tells Vikram that he must become a better man than he has been. Mr. Knightly tells Emma that she must be a true and not a fake friend.

When you look at your writing, consider the characters and their respective arcs. As you put each character through hell, you should expect the crucible of the story to test each character burning away the dross and refining their true natures.

A straightforward way to kindle the refiner's fire is with a rebuke where one character spells out exactly what must change in the other. In the case of Emma and Vikram, the rebuke evokes immediate change of heart.

But the scolding need not be immediate. In fact, you can use this to foreshadow character arc that you plan for later in your story.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Weird Trick for 2014 Resolutions

Today is the day when I usually compile some resolutions. And usually, those resolutions are mere exercises in wishful thinking. However, I've just discovered a weird trick for 2014 Resolutions.

Here they are:

1) Use the word term "weird trick" in a gratuitous fashion in a blog post

2) Smoke half as much in 2014 as I did in 2013

3) Learn something about the Internet

4) Be nice to people I like

5) Avoid things I dislike

6) Think about things

7) Ask questions

8) Listen to people who agree with me

9) ...

10) Ask folks on the Internet what I should write for #9

Check Your Premises

I studied mathematics in school. And I loved the way Euclidean geometry started with some postulates and reasoned from them into theorems. Hopefully, you had this in your sophomore year of High School. The most controversial of these was his fifth postulate:
If a line segment intersects two straight lines forming two interior angles on the same side that sum to less than two right angles, then the two lines, if extended indefinitely, meet on that side on which the angles sum to less than two right angles.
Some thought this postulate should be derivable from the postulates. Over the course of centuries mathematicians came to understand that this postulate was either true or false based on the curvature of space. Positively curved space is what you find on a globe. Two lines of longitude may form two right angles with the equator, but they end up meeting at the north and south poles. (This is termed Reimannian geometry.) Another way this axiom is false is when you have negatively curved space. This is the space you see in pictures of black holes with those hyperbolic shapes. Einstein played with a lot of hyperbolic spaces when doing General Relativity. (This is termed Lobachevskian geometry.)

If you're near a black hole, on a globe, or on an ideal plane, Lobachevskian, Reimannian, and Euclidean models will match your observed reality, respectively.

We see this pattern of axiomatic systems repeated in other contexts. If you're better at Math than me, you can talk about Zorn's lemma and the Axiom of Choice: they work the same way. And I'm of the opinion that the existence and non-existence of God is one of those things that you can use to build two independent, logically consistent explanations for reality. Logic and proof about God's existence is not going to do anything but make you tired, you can only match up how well the system of thinking (axiomatic system) your come up with matches observed reality.

If you're still with me, consider another branch of mathematics you did not learn in grade school: Game Theory. Suppose we play checkers, chess, or poker. You can either win, lose, or tie. The winnings of any player come about pursuant to the losses from other players. These are the games we're most familiar with and they demonstrate the zero-sum games.

But there are other games in life that don't look like games. Life Insurance is a game where the insurance company bets that you won't die, and you bet that you will die. (I rather like the idea of corporate fat cats betting that bad things won't happen.) Casinos also make wagers, but they rig the odds so that your expected payout is less than the amount you wager. A few bettors may win big, but for the most part, only the house gets rich. The profits the casinos take from winning more often that the lose make this a negative-sum game.

Suppose Vikings invade a region to loot its goods. If the victims peacefully hand over the lolly and the Vikings leave with it, it's a zero-sum game. But if they rape, pillage, and burn, those incidental damages make this another negative-sum game.

How about free exchange between willing participants? You've heard business consultants tell folks to think win-win. Economists who know more than I claim that free trade creates more wealth than it consumes. 

Let's say I have a handful of radio parts, and you have a handful of grain. If you need some diodes, and I need food, we can exchange and we will both be better off. 

Our natural desire to get more value in exchanges like these motivate us to grind the wheat into flour, mix it with yeast, and bake it into bread. Or fashion those radio parts into a desirable gadget--a radio, or something more valuable. We exchange better things and we benefit more from the exchange.

Technology enables us to create value without taking from others. We start with some plastic, use electricity to heat it and extrude it into a particular pattern, then a few cents' worth of plastic become a part we can sell for dollars. Maybe a farmer uses that plastic part in his irrigation system to use less water and thereby sell more food more cheaply. 

I think that technological innovation makes free trade a positive-sum game. As it becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, the things only GM could do when I was a college student are within the grasp of makerspace tinkers today. And will be within the grasp of third-world bohemian have-nots within a decade.

I was once scolded by a famous economist when I asked whether productivity gains could solve inflation. When I asked him, one could buy a 19" analog color TV for about a thousand dollars and watch three channels. He was right about inflation. Gold was selling for a couple hundred dollars an ounce and it is well over a thousand dollars an ounce today. BUT a couple hundred dollars will buy a much nicer television that receives much more interesting programming.

I said before that the destination of economic inequality is less important than the way in which we get there. Economic Inequality is a terrible thing if life is more like a negative sum, or zero sum game: Pirates raiding villages, or Politicians (both Republicans and Democrats) enriching cronies on the backs of everyone else, or Casinos making a few rich to distract while impoverishing the rest.

Our world is a mix of negative-sum, zero-sum, and positive-sum components. When economic inequality comes about from the first two, I am justly annoyed. When it comes about from positive-sum exchanges, I remember the last thing Moses brought down from the mountain.

Thou Shalt Not Covet.

Those more worthy than I: