Game of Thrones’ Endgame

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Watching Avengers: Endgame, I noticed the movie spent the first hour showing the characters reacting/processing what had happened in Infinity War. This makes sense. They just lost their biggest battle against their biggest foe and saw the biggest genocide take place in the universe.

Spoilers!

Compare this to Game of Thrones season 8 episode 4. In episode 3, the North were facing the biggest, baddest army of the dead. Every character lamented their looming deaths. Then the long night came. And went with the North victorious. Yay! Episode 4 begins and they spend the first five minutes burning their fallen heroes in massive funeral pyres. Great. Now let’s party it up and drink like it’s 1999. That’s actually what happened. They drank and drank, people fornicated, and a big blonde woman lost her virginity. Uh...

In storytelling, scenes should have consequences, good or bad. Otherwise, why show them? Then there needs to be an equal reaction to the weight of that scene. For example, if a guy get’s the date with the girl of his dreams, that’s great. However, the fact that he’s taking the girl of his dreams out on a date begins to weigh down on him. He might stress over how to dress, feel incompetent, or wonder if he can keep the conversation going. Worst yet, does he go for the kiss? If he doesn’t, he might look like a wimp. If he does, then he might be moving too fast.

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GoT episode 4 spends almost no time processing that win. No one talks about the health of their armed forces, takes account of their resources, or wonders if they are capable of beating their next foe. Taking the time to surmise the state of things can up the tension for the viewers and present problems that the characters have to tackle. They can still party and have sex, but save it for later though. Much later. At least let the smoke from the funeral pyres clear.

I was listening to a podcast about GoT’s recent episodes and how they sucked. Most of what they said could be argued either way. But a commenter made an important point: Good stories show “this happened because that happened”. Instead, the recent episodes showed that this happened, then this happened, then this happened, etc. In writing, there’s a structure in storytelling called MRU’s, motivation reaction units. The motivation can be summed up as a goal. Whether that goal is reached or not will result in how the character will react. Here the character spends time thinking about what happened and discovers the next goal, which leads to further action until that new goal is either met or not met. Another reaction ensues. And on and on. Using MRUs makes it easy to structure your scenes and helps the viewer and reader understand what’s going on. Because this is how we live life. We all have goals. We all celebrate our wins or lick our wounds. And then we move on. Hopefully.

Curiouser and Curiouser

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Working on a new writing project is always a little daunting for me. I don’t know the world, the characters, the detailed plot, nor the ending. Basically, I know shit. I have found that once I begin to think about a story, I tend to dive into things that seem to have no relevance.

For example, my characters in my fantasy has wings. The world they live in is completely made up. As I moved through my normal life, my mind seemed to come up with things that I could include in the story and world. So much so that I couldn’t keep track of it all. I bought a small notebook, this was before phones had become smart, and I jotted down everything that came into my mind that I thought might be of use. All of the sudden a flood gate opened, and my notebook was filled with nick knacks and tidbits and nuggets and morsels. I was amazed at what came out. And I’m not talking about my first time.

I remember watching a documentary about the evolution of birds. One of the topics it explored was: Do birds prefer to walk, or do they prefer to fly? To test this, the scientists put a bird on a wooden plank. The incline of the plank was increased to various degrees. No matter the degree, as long as the birds could walk up the plank, they would walk. It wasn’t until the incline had gotten so high that the birds were forced to fly up the plank. So I decided that my characters with wings would have that same behavior. That they preferred to walk, unless the place they wanted to go to required flight.

Be it fantasy, science fiction, or plain ole’fiction, the foundations of the world needs to be consistent. I’ve talked about his in the world of Harry Potter where J.K. Rowling almost made a mistake in this regard. Being the writer that she is, she caught it and corrected it.

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In my new book, one of my main characters is a skeptic. He was entrenched in his martial arts school, loved teaching, and loved working with kids. But a slow disenchantment led him down the road of rebelling against his own school, much like Bruce Lee had, and he questioned what they taught and their methods. His skepticism lends well to working with children because he’s willing to investigate their issues to discover their real causes.

Before I knew all of this, I came across YouTube videos from the Athiest Community of Austin, the ACA. Their cable access show, The Atheist Experience, is run live with callers that ranges from theists to atheists to conspiracy theorists. I have to admit the theist callers are fun to listen to because the debate that ensues is not only entertaining, but opened my eyes to what constitutes as evidence and gave me a basic overview of how logic works. Both of these things were not very well defined in my mind beforehand. And this current character that I’m writing understands those things well.

Now, I started to watch the videos before I began to write this new book. To prove that my mind knew to watch these videos because I was thinking about this new book would be difficult. But I’ve always allowed myself to dive into things that seemed unrelated to anything that I was doing in my life. A lot of it went into the ether. Some of it was useful. Quantifying it would nearly be impossible since I don’t remember where anything that I think of comes from. But had I not watched the ACA videos, I may have not had enough of an understand of logic and evidence to write this character well.

Steve Jobs talked about this process in his famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. In it he mentioned that he took a calligraphy class at Reed College simply because he was fascinated by the beauty of the lettering. He learned about serif and sans serif typefaces and what made great typography.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me...It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”

I’m not saying that everything you’re interested in will become useful in the future, but you never know. Why not delve into something just because you’re curious? For me, it’s part of the great joy of life, to learn and experience new things.

Out of Control

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I was talking to a writer friend of mine about how characters sometimes take on a life of their own. In my experience, sometimes they do things that can help the story. Sometimes they screw shit up. This is where writers come in and reign them fuckers in. But there’s a balance between letting the story flow naturally to wrangling it via Deus ex Machina.

This happened when I was rewriting the ending of my second book. In my first draft, I had killed off a supporting character. Workshopping the book had revealed a lot of weaknesses that I needed to shore up. During my rewrite, I was looking for an opportunity to off this character. But as the new ending progressed, the situation required him to remain alive because I needed someone to complete certain tasks and goals. I could have killed him off, then used a no-named character to fulfill these tasks, but the scene wouldn’t have any emotion. With that I was forced to keep this character alive. After he had completed his tasks, I decided to have him escape death. On an intellectual level, I had already killed off a lot of the supporting characters, so keeping him would be a great way to have some continuity going into the third novel.

An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere —Gustave Flaubert

I’ve written how heavy handedness in storytelling can be a huge problem. Most people can feel that manipulation, which can take them out of the story. And I think writers, including myself, sometimes forget that being a good wordsmith, the mechanics of language, the structure of story only serve to spark the most powerful machine on the planet: our minds.

When we watch musicians, their tools of the trade are their instruments. When reveling in the performances of dancers, actors, singers, and professional wrestlers, we’re admiring the human body as instruments. But as storytellers, our tool is the imagination.

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Consider the saying: a picture is worth a thousand words.

How many words is the imagination worth? Simply put, enough to spark it.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I started a new writing project. For the past 15 years, I’ve been living in a fantasy world of my own creation. Longer if I consider that I’ve been dipping in and out of it since I was in high school. The challenge is that I have to describe everything that isn’t familiar to this world. That’s part of the reason why fantasy novels tend to be longer than normal fiction.

My new story takes place in San Francisco. And that’s refreshing because I can use words like office and bedroom and car and street without having to fully describe every single detail. I still have to show what’s important, ground the reader in the setting, but a lot of the heavy lifting is done by virtue that I’m using the real world. The challenge for me is giving enough detail to spark the imagination, but not so much that I bog the reader down.

So let’s explore this sentence: She entered her bedroom. If I don’t write another word about the bedroom, the reader will automatically picture their interpretation of a bedroom: bed, side table, armoire, bay window, sex swing...sorry. That’s my version. Putting no details whatsoever can be a mistake, especially if this is the main character’s room, because using the environment can be a great way of showing what this person is like. Is she messy? How expensive is her taste? A plant and it’s health can be used to symbolize the progress of the character arc. I can set the lighting to represent her mood. Pictures can illuminate her interests, passions and loves. These are the kinds of details that readers are likely to want because it helps tell the story without writing on the nose.

Working in a writing group is helpful because I can see where we all fall short in telling our story, or where we do a great job. So much of what we like in art is based on how it makes us feel, which is incredibly subjective. But we as writers are trying to spark the imagination and invoke emotions, all the while making sure the mechanics and structure of our writing are sound without confusing the reader. A small task, wink wink.

My writing group was featured in a podcast, showcasing how we work, answering questions about writing, storytelling.

Resist!

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Resist! Ban! Boycott! This is crap! These were some of the words screamed from nerds far and wide when they saw The Last Jedi. I was definitely one of those nerds, prompting me to explore one of the reasons the film sucked. What I didn't think would happen were the fans' boycott of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Occasionally, I'll see YouTube recommendations on the subject of the fan backlash and news that Disney is pulling out before committing themselves to another evil stepchild of a Star Wars movie.

One vlog asked the question whether Rei is a Mary Sue, a character that can do no wrong and is good at everything. The vlogger did a much better job than I, proving why she is. And it's not about gender. For me, it's about the character set up.

This particular vlog had mentioned that Disney execs stated that the ensuing films would clear up why Rei is the way she is. This is bad storytelling.

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In fiction, be it book, film or TV, the suspension of disbelief is a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe something surreal. The reader/viewer goes into fiction with this already built in. Meaning, when an audience goes to see a film, they know that everything on the screen is fake, but they've put that knowledge aside. They want to be taken on a rollercoaster ride. They want to feel the ups and downs of the characters without risking anything themselves. So it falls to the storyteller to maintain that suspension of disbelief. Otherwise, the audience will be taken out of the experience because they'll inherently question the logic of the story.

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't. —Mark Twain

In The Force Awakens (TWA), Rei as a character wasn't set up well. She's never been off planet, she's not part of any military, and her parents are unknown to her, and as a result, to the audience. She's great at taking things apart, but that doesn't make her a great pilot. So when she's able to fly the Millennium Falcon like a seasoned veteran, the audience will naturally wonder how and why.

Getting back to the Disney execs. The idea that the following film(s) will show why Rei is good at everything is bad storytelling. At this point, it's too late. This has to be done first in TWA in order to support the logic for the following events. Try going to a bank and have them give you a loan before you can prove that you can pay it back. Common. I dare ya.

Well, Jimmy, have you heard of subprime loans that caused the 2008 financial crisis?

Yeah, but we've learned our lesson and banks ain't gonna do that again.

Uh...not so fast my slanty-eyed friend. Subprimes are back!

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Still, the fan backlash is real. The low box office numbers for the following film, The Last Jedi, supports it. And, of course, Solo couldn't escape the bad storytelling decisions Disney had made. Solo flopped in the box office, despite it being a better film.

For me, each novel or film has to be contained in and of itself. They can have cliff hangers. But the arc of the character/story should be complete. And they can lead to another arc or be a part of a greater arc. I've been very conscious of that when writing my novels. This is the keystone to why I love story. And of course to get chics. That has not worked out well. They don't seem to care that I'm an artiste.

Life Has No Schedule

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I went to World Con 76. Their convention is much like the San Diego Comic Con, except there aren't any big Hollywood celebrities, you're not forced to move with the crowd because there aren't 150,0000 people attending, costumed super heroes and villains don't roam the convention center, and the con centers around books. Specifically SFF, science fiction and fantasy. This is the group that gives out the Hugo Award for the genre, which is like getting an Oscar. So much of fiction is riddled with romance, because that's what sells, so it's heart warming to see an organization dedicated to SFF.

I was excited to go to the Hugo nominees' readings where the authors read a selection from their own books. There might have been sixty to eighty seats, but they were all taken, so I had to stand. I didn't care. I wanted to hear excerpts from great writers. Then we were told that the fire marshal wouldn't allow us to stand as it was a fire hazard. WhatchutalkinaboutWillis? I had a clear path to the door had there been a fire. Still, I and the other standers were asked to leave. I suggested to the room we bribe the fire marshall, but that wasn't well received. Especially from those seated. Bastards. Joking...things like bribing or paying off porn stars and Playboy models ain't my thing.

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I decided to go to a talk about how aliens might think. The panel was made of two university professors whose specialties lay in human consciousness, and a SFF author who studied AI at MIT. Her name is SL Huang, which I assumed was her pen name, since the panel kept calling her Lisa. She sort of had this Natalie Portman thing going on. Dating has been hard for me, so maybe my celebrity crush was manifesting itself in some way. But I checked out her website, and she's quite an accomplished author. She had to be in her thirties. She looked younger, but Asians don't raisin.

Then my insecurity reared its ugly head into my mind. Here, I'm writing an article that will likely never be read, had been going to a writing group work-shopping my second book when the first one isn't even published, and still trying to get representation from a literary agent. Loser!

Breath...om...Keyser Söze...

I reminded myself that life has no schedule. Except that things are born and then they die. I know, real insightful. It seems people need to plan everything that happens in between these two points. I have to graduate high school in order to go to college, then I can get a job and earn enough for a down payment for my first home by this age. I'll need to meet The One soon if I want to have kids because I don't want to have them too old, otherwise I'd be too old. Eventually I'll have to change jobs every now and then so I can get the requisite pay increases and save for my retirement. And I do want to leave something to the kids when I die because they're my children and that's what a parent does.

In the span of 105 words, I've scheduled my whole life. All of that, by the way, is crap. Life has no schedule. Some people die before they're born. Others die after more than a century has past. A lucky few make it big in their chosen industry. A majority do not. Some people earn their way in. Others do not...ahem...the Orange One.

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My writing group and I had been interviewed and on a podcast. One of our writers had an interesting story. He volunteered at the San Francisco Writers Conference where he set up and tore down rooms for presenters. He set a room once for an author who pulled out binders full of rejections letters from literary agents that had amounted to hundreds. He eventually made it, but it was through sheer effort and not giving up. In contrast, a dozen agents rejected JK RowlingKathryn Stocket, who wrote The Help, was rejected by 60 agents. The point is that different people make it at different times. And because we as humans are very bad at telling the future, we don't know what's coming around the bend. Had Stocket given up on the 59th rejection, she would have never found her current agent and her ensuing success.

Does that mean you should never give up? No. I think there are circumstances that may indicate ending something is good. I had given up on acting because I fell out of love with it. My best friend and I had decided not to open our own martial arts school after planning and working on it for a couple of years. So far a reason to give up my writing hasn't presented itself to me. Having a never quit attitude doesn't guarantee success, however you define success. But you'll never succeed if you don't start or give up too early. And be cautious about attaching your happiness to circumstance. Not making it in any industry doesn't affect your happiness.

Life has no schedule.

Cobra Kai

In my last post I talked about why sequels can suck. When a character moves through their arch, they start from who they are, having a trait such as not believing in oneself. The plot will continually challenge that notion until the character realizes what it means to truly have faith in themself. And if the writer is good, then the story will test the staying power of that new trait.

Therein lies the problem for sequels that I discussed in my last post: The character has become the person they should be. So how does a writer continue that character's story in a sequel, while still having an arch to traverse?

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One of my favorite movies from my childhood is The Karate Kid. On the surface, Daniel, the main character, seems to be confident in himself. Right after moving across the country with his mother, he makes a new friend who invites him to a beach party. There he sees a girl that he likes and doesn't have a problem charming her. Her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, spots them, and he tries to force a conversation with her. Daniel stands up to Johnny and receives a beating for his efforts.

As a character, Daniel has attitude, confidence, and is unenlightened. How can someone have confidence and lack enlightenment? That's what so intriguing about Daniel.

Confidence is the trust in one's own ability. The plot shows us this. Robert Mark Kamen, the original screenwriter, knew what he was doing. Daniel's ability to make a new friend, to charm a girl and stand up for himself are signs of confidence. Confidence, however, doesn't guarantee success. So when Daniel fails by losing that new friend, the fight, and the ability to show his vulnerability to the girl, doubt seeps inside and eats at him. So what does he do? He tries to learn Karate from a book and checks out a Karate school called the Cobra Kai. He's trying to shore up his doubt by out-Karateing Johnny.

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Mistah Miyagi is Spiderman.

Mr. Miyagi has made a deal with the Cobra Kai that Daniel and Johnny will settle their differences at the All Valley Karate Tournament. Months of training fly by as Miyagi instructs Daniel. Daniel confesses that he doesn't feel like he's learned enough Karate. With a knowing smile, Miyagi says to trust in the quality of the training, not the quantity. This is important because the solution to Daniel's problems isn't to know more Karate. Nor is it to be stronger. Nor be faster.

Miyagi has always taught from a place of truth. That one must be fully committed to the task. Hard work done well is important. Balance in life is essential. Miyagi is an enlightened individual. He's detached from silly things like winning and losing. His only concern is that Daniel knows himself. That his truth lies within.

Sweep the leg.

Daniel does well in the tournament and makes it to the finals. This is where the plot tests how well he's learned his lessons. The Cobra Kai sensei instructs Johnny to cheat, so he sweeps the leg, forcing Daniel to forfeit the bout due to injury. Will he be satisfied with the current outcome? Or will he choose to fight injured?

This is a movie goddammit! So he chooses to fight injured.

Miyagi looks at his wounded student. "No need fight anymore. You prove point."

"What, that I can take a beating?" Daniel says. "Every time I see those guys, they'll know they got the best of me. I'll never have balance that way, not with them, not with Ali...not with me."

Not with me. And here we find out that Daniel is enlightened.

Now. How does a writer create a character arch who is enlightened?

Thirty-four years later, Cobra Kai.

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I was concerned that the YouTube Red series, Cobra Kai, was gonna suck ass. So much of the promotional commercials show Johnny as the sympathetic/protagonist and Daniel as a douche. That would be like doing something ghastly, taking a totally optimistic character and making him completely pessimistic—ahem—Luke Skywalker—cough. Thank baby Jesus that didn't happen—sneeze—sarcasm.

The writers for Cobra Kai continued the mythology of Daniel and Johnny. Their core character traits are still intact.

Daniel has become a car salesman. He owns a chain of car dealerships. The writers showed that that level of comfort has softened Daniel. His focus is on the good life: riches, providing for his family. What he didn't have himself: A loving father and material wealth.

Johnny's still an asshole, but from what I gather, he hasn't had a lot of opportunities throughout the past 34 years to grow into the person he should be. He started on that path when he congratulated Daniel for beating him in the '84 All Valley Tournament. The life of wealth that Johnny had came with severe costs—a stepfather who hated him.

What I love about these two characters is the gray area they venture in and out of. Both of them make good and bad choices. So my mind is always trying to categorize who the good and bad guy is. This is mirrored in the young cast of characters. The writing plays with my sense of expectations. Sometimes the story fulfills it. Other times it switches things around.

The biggest point is that Daniel and Johnny felt real because their core character traits have remained true. The nostalgia, the incredible storytelling and good acting made this series a joy to watch. Often times I forgot that I was a writer and was pulled into the story. That's a good sign. Because when I'm critiquing a story that I'm reading or watching for entertainment, it means the writing hasn't done the job of pulling me in.

Why Sequels Suck

In storytelling character traits are very important in giving dimension to characters. The rule of thumb is that a character should have three to five traits. Having too few will leave it feeling one dimensional. Having too many can convolute the character, making it a nightmare to write.

One of the character traits is usually bad, dysfunctional. Greed, unfaithfulness and hate are a few examples. Moving this bad trait to a good one is called an arc. Scrooge is a textbook example of character arch. He only thought of himself and was selfish and ungiving. These are not three traits because on paper they look very similar to each other when shown. By the end of the story, Scrooge learned that the world was bigger than him, that love was important, and giving to others in need filled the soul. He has become the person he should be.

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To write the sequel to Scrooge would be difficult. The writer would have to come up with another bad trait for Scrooge to have and then show how that happened. This would allow him to traverse another arc, allowing him to become the person he should be. Again.

In movie sequels this is often done. That's why they often feel false and forced. That's why a lot of sequels suck ass. This brings us to The Last Jedi.

In my humble opinion, Rian Johnson, the writer and director, had gone straight down the garbage compactor. He had taken an iconic and loved character, Luke, and destroyed all of the work the initial Star Wars trilogy had accomplished.

The first two movies taught us that Vader is the baddest fucking dude in the galaxy. He kills and tortures people like a psychopath, destroys his daughter's home planet, and doesn't shy away from freezing people in carbonite. His own son picks a fight with him. But instead of giving him a slap on the hand, Vader chops it off. The masturbatory one!

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Despite all of that, Luke wonders whether he can rescue his father from the dark side. He converses with his old quirky teacher, Yoda, who states, "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." In other words: Yo pops...he gone, bruh.

That was Yoda. Grand Master Jay. Short for Jedi grandmaster. And still, Luke be like, "Yo. He mah pops, sucka. I see da good in him, bruh. I'm out. Peace."

By the end of the third film, Luke rescues his father's soul, drags his body into his ship as the new Death Star falls apart all around them, and gives him a proper burial. Respect. Luke is a dude that sees past the worst of you and says, "Ya aite."

Down the garbage compacter we go.

In The Last Jedi, Luke had taken his nephew, Ben, under his wings and taught him the ways of the force. To Luke's dismay, the dark side was strong with Ben. So what does an uncle do? Kill him. Ben finds out about Luke's plan, which sends him farther down the dark path.

For Luke to look at his nephew and have no hope betrays one of his core character traits. It would be one thing if Luke found out that Vader had no good within him. Then, attributing that to Ben would make complete sense. But when Anakin shares a father/son moment right before the Death Star blew up, and said, "Tell your sister that you kissed in the mouth in Empire Strikes Back that you were right. You were right."

Johnson's version of Luke was so off putting that even actor Mark Hamill, who plays Luke, couldn't help himself but have a dead stare.

I'm not sure if Johnson wanted to give Luke an arch to travel, so he had to force a bad trait on the character. But Johnson didn't have to because there are other characters. Not everyone has to have an arch. Maybe Johnson didn't know that. Given how he torpedoed The Last Jedi, I wouldn't be surprised of his ignorance.