Monday, December 31, 2012

Goals for the Coming Year

So, from my clock, 2012 has a mere 13 hours and change left to it.  2013 is coming, so its high time to set some unrealistic goals for the year:

1. Book deals for Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew, and Maradaine Constabulary.  If we're really aiming pie-in-the-sky, this deal will involve the same publisher and all three at once.  That would be very nice, indeed, Universe.  But in the case of all three, I think I've really done what I can do, and it's past time to be focused on the Next Project.

2. Finish Rough Draft of Way of the Shield.  I should have finished this last year, but between various rewrites of the other three, a hectic summer and a few other things on my plate, it didn't come together.  Part of that was due to a flawed outline, which I think I've got a handle on now.  I understand why it wasn't working, which is a big hurdle to clear.  Time to drive it forward.

3. Finish Rough Draft of Banshee.  This is a project that's gone through significant conceptual changes over the years (you may notice that it's no longer USS Banshee, which is one major shift), but I've finally found an angle that combines character, plot and worldbuilding in a way that works pretty well, at least so far. 

4. Attend my first Worldcon.   It's in San Antonio, it's literally taking the place of ArmadilloCon this year, so it's what I'm doing.  Hopefully I'll have something good to do there.  (See point 1)

5. Have a good reason to start second books of Thorn, Holver Alley or Constabulary.  See point 1.

6. Hash out some of these random ideas into usable outlines.  Because if I accomplish 2 & 3 before I accomplish 1, I'll have no good reason to do 5.  So I'll need a new "new project", as it were. 

7. Never give upBut this one's a given.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 In Review

So, a year ago I put out my goals for 2012, for which I can say: some came to pass, some not so much.  I still don't have a book deal, for Thorn, Holver Alley or Maradaine Constabulary.  However, I can honestly say I feel like I'm a lot closer on those.  All three of those were re-drafted or fine-tuned, so this year I have finished-until-a-paying-editor-tells-me-otherwise levels of drafts for all three. I got a really excellent rejection letter for Thorn. So for the first three goals, I'm still a bit short of the line. 

Number 4: Finish Rough Draft of Way of the Shield, did not come together.  I see now that my initial outline for it was woefully flawed.  In outline, it was a politically-themed murder mystery, but that was far too thin.  It needed scope, grandeur, and more antagonists who had a clue.  I need to get back in there and work out the details. I've had recent epiphanies that made things gel in my head.  Now I need to get them onto the page.

I did do more outlining and worldbuilding-- and some scene writing-- for what Banshee has morphed into.  I feel good about how this is coming together.  The bits that I have written, I really like.  But I need to solidify the outline before it really starts to live and breathe as a novel.  The finale is still something of a mystery to me.

Also, had Out of Ink produce one short play, wrote another for this year's.  I wrote an actual short story that I feel pretty good about.  ArmadilloCon and the Writers' Workshop went very well.

All in all, 2012 went strongly.  Not as well as I would have liked, but still: progression on the writers' path.  That's good, though.  It serves as a humbling reminder that I can always do better.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Special Worldbuilding: Religious Texts

Given that it's Christmas eve, I'm not devoting a lot of time to today's blog.  I'm sure you understand.  But I was thinking about religious texts, and how they inform the world one builds.   Now, "inform" is a key thing.  They are a great supplement to what you write.  It's probably not a great idea to actually include it in one's work.

I hadn't actually written out any significant religious texts for Druthal.  The Druth Bible, as it were (The Books of Saints and their Deeds) is mostly a collection of saintly stories, fables and parables, collected from all over Druthal.  In some ways, it has as much in common with the works of the Brothers Grimm as the Christian Bible.

Now, the Acserians, to the south of Druthal, are a lot more codified and rigorous in their religious texts.  Their bible, the Acseram, is a more classical religious text.  Back when Crown of Druthal was a thing I was working on, I wrote this bit from the Acseram: The Book of Nalesta, Chapters 1-6:

1               Here is the life, as I have come to understand it, of the Great Prophet of God. I have known the man, his words, his thoughts, the touch of his hand, for I am Nalesta, born in Heniza to Traalen and Yienna, and I served at his arm as a disciple to his teachings. I know not how the Great Prophet knew God, but I knew God through him, and his light and his word and his greatness will shine on the world like the sun through me.
2               The Great Prophet was born by the name of Acser, which he humbly kept through his days, in the city of Poriteiza, to a family that had been privileged with the favor of the Kierans. His father was Icseien, who was the son of Telees. Acser grew knowing little but comfort, no worries of hunger, no worries of poverty, no worries of violence, no worries of ignorance. He was friendly with Kieran and Futralian, and greeted all with an open hand of warmth.
3               One day in his sixteenth year, the Great Prophet took his boat onto the lake, since he did love little more than to take his day fishing. This day he did so without friend or manservant. This day his line was pulled by a fish stronger and mightier than he had ever known. This day, he was pulled from his boat under the water. His man on the shore saw him go under the water, and swam to save him. He was pulled to shore, but he breathed not, and his head was bloodied. The servant wailed and cried at the death of his master.
4               A beautiful hawk flew down from the sky, and landed on the chest of The Great Prophet, and in moments he again drew breath. He was confused, but joyous. He had died and seen the face of God. He had heard His words in his heart. He kissed his man, telling him he would return, and walked to the east, to the high mountains. The bird stayed on his shoulder.
5               Five years later, he came back down. He returned to the city of his birth, now a man. At his arm was his first disciple, the dark traveler who had wandered from the far east, far beyond Mahabassa, far beyond the seas, who was known as Hiedrovik. On his shoulder was the bird, proud and noble. The Great Prophet first went to the Kieran Stronghold, and demanded to be let into the prison there. It was in a cell, chained to a wall, that his old servant was found, imprisoned for all believed he had drowned his master years before. “Walk free, good friend,” The Great Prophet told him, “And serve no man, for you are now given to God, and He declares that your suffering must now end. And so did this servant, Zanik, find himself free and at The Great Prophet’s arm as his second disciple.
6               He spoke in the streets of the Word of God. “We are all His Spirit. Our Souls are the very essence of God. They are pure fragments of his will, poured into our flesh, gifts of his love for us.” In the streets, he was asked, “Is this all men, and all women, be they Futran or Kieran or Mahaban or Kindric?” And the Great Prophet said that God touches us all, every man and woman. In the streets, he was asked, “If we are all the essence of God, then why are some men wicked?” “The flesh of the body is of the earth, and like the clay we built with, it sometimes can crack, it sometimes can break,” said The Great Prophet, “God did pour our souls in our flawed bodies, for it was no test of our goodness were there not the possibility of temptation, unless we can fail. He knows of this, that we can be wicked, so it is all the more great when we are holy and pure.”
Happy holidays, one and all.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wide Sprawling Epic Casts

It's the nature of sci-fi and fantasy to go big, and big means a cast of "main" characters in the dozens, and hundreds of minor characters.  And, as much as I love that sort of thing, it is in this very aspect that a lot of said big, sprawling epics just lose me completely.

Because the writer doesn't necessarily get me to give a good damn about who these people are.

I'm going to pick on a specific example, in that it was one that didn't work for me, personally.  I know there are plenty of people who love it, of course, but I'm not one of them: The Honor Harrington Series.  Now, I liked the first book fine, and several of the subsequent books.  But over time it lost me, and I think a large part of that was the enormous sprawl.  The shear volume of characters involved is incredible, and I salute anyone who can keep track of all that.   Frankly, there wasn't a character I really connected to, really felt endeared to, besides Honor and Chief Harkness.  Chief Harkness is a minor character, but he was a lot of fun, and in In Enemy Hands, he plays a key role.*   Whenever one of those two characters were center stage, I enjoyed things.  When they weren't, not so much.  And even though Honor is the main character, she is not center stage a lot

The following book, Echoes of Honor, is structured in alternating sections-- one section details Honor, Harkness and others on a prison planet, the other section just... other stuff.  Slogging through those sections was rough, because I just didn't care about who was on the ruling council of Manticore or the People's Republic (especially since those people were A. relatively disposable, B. easily interchangeable and C. by design, horrible and stupid.)  Now, of course, in both cases, these are the "bad guys" of the novels, for all intents, and you're not supposed to "like" them.  But you should be able to enjoy them, and I didn't find any of that.  And, frankly, many of the characters I was supposed to "like" I didn't find particularly engaging, either. 

So, for me, HUGE parts of that book, as well as many other books in that series, lacked any hook.  These people could live or die, and I really didn't care, as long as they never had another meeting. 

Now, why didn't I care?  Was this my fault as audience, or the writer's fault?  I can take some of the blame, and I don't want to attack Mr. Weber in any way, but I think a lot of it has to lie on his shoulders.  As for why, I think it ties into what I talked about on Monday-- when it comes down to it, I don't think he believes in his antagonists.  By this, I mean, he sets them up as strawmen to fail.  When they argue their positions, it's usually a flawed, if not downright stupid argument.  They enact plans that the narrative tells us is doomed to failure.  They're not just playing checkers while Honor and her allies play chess; they're just flinging the checker pieces at her king and don't understand why that doesn't mean they win.

I'm exaggerating for effect, but the point stands: they aren't people, at least I don't feel the author believes in them as people.  And if they aren't people, I can't invest in them. 

And this ties into where I was going wrong with Shield.  My two main antagonists were weak.  One was a strawman of wrongness; whatever your personal political leanings are, imagine an absurdist, reductive take on that.  And the other one was a cynical user of the first one.  He might as well have a tattoo on his forehead: "I AM USING YOU AS MEANS TO MY OWN END".  That's not what I needed to make Shield an interesting book.  I needed these guys to be the heroes of their own stories.

One of my favorite bits in Thorn of Dentonhill involves only the antagonists.  It works, in my humble opinion, because I did my best to make them their own characters.  I haven't-- yet-- succeeded on that same level with my Shield antagonists.  Maybe I need to figure out what's the story is that they are the hero of. 


*- But even still, I had to go look that up.  The fact that the name of the character I liked the most who wasn't the title character wasn't in my brain signifies something.  It might be my failing memory.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Dark Side of Outlining

So, I was reading back through what I had written for Way of the Shield, trying to figure out what wasn't working, and why it wasn't.  I am still most likely to keep my attention focused on Banshee, but the problems with Shield are now becoming clear.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that I was thinking more about the long-game instead of this book as it's own standalone.  There were choices that, in essence, I wasn't letting myself make because they weren't fitting my predetermined plan.  It was the writing equivalent of not moving any chess pieces because I was saving them for later. 

And the real problem with that boiled down to this: that's not who Dayne was.  Dayne is the throw-himself-on-a-grenade type.  And in not writing the story with that same hell-bent care, it wasn't working.

This is, of course, the potential problem with outlining in general: letting it be a trap.  I know more often than not I've caught myself thinking, "I can't have that, because it goes against [future plot point that I haven't actually written yet]."  Why was I beholden to that?  Because I had a plan

Now, this tends to be the argument of those who prefer not to outline: if I outline, then I'm STUCK.  I'm LOCKED ON THE PATH. 

And this isn't true.  But it is sometimes challenging to see that straying from the path can lead to a clearer road once you're already lost in the woods.

The other problem I was having stems, to a degree, from the outline as well, in that in the outline, my antagonists were not well-defined.  So, at least in this work-in-progress rough draft, they were coming off as one-dimensional strawmen.  They were just wrong people who were wrong in thinking wrong things wrongly.  They were only the heroes of their own story if you accept that their story was about stupid people.  And that's not interesting. 

So that's my challenge, before diving back into that project (eventually): figuring out who the antagonists REALLY are, and from that, how they'll implement their goals, and what the consequences of them doing that are.  And to be willing to have real consequences hit my protagonists. 

Because, when it comes down to it, I was essentially protecting a "status quo" that doesn't really exist yet.  Why do that?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 5

Parts one, two, three and four of looking at Star Trek: Enterprise's third season Xindi Arc.

"Home", the third episode* of the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise served as an epilogue to the Xindi Arc, primarily by dealing with the emotional fallout of the character subplots.   Specifically, it focused on Capt. Archer, and Trip & T'Pol.  Both of these aspects work fine in terms of the episode itself.  For Archer, he's somewhat broken by the things he did in the Delphic Expanse.  He specifically mentions the theft of the warp core, which as mentioned last week, was his greatest sin.  But beyond that, his optimism about exploration in general is broken, despite the fact that things did end relatively well. This ties into the one other minor plot thread in "Home"-- the Enterprise crew might be hailed as heroes, but there are some people who aren't thrilled with the fact that they had spent two years running around space saying, "Hey, we're from Earth.  Come on over and smack us around, why don't you?"**  For Trip & T'Pol, their subplots of his grief over his dead sister (more or less resolved in "The Forgotten") and her emotional damage due to self-inflicted Trellium exposure*** dovetailed into their semi-romantic friendship.  So they go to Vulcan together, and deal with T'Pol's family drama. 

So, in the end, what worked, and what didn't in the Xindi Arc?

For me, the broad brushstrokes worked: a threat is presented, and to defend themselves from that threat, core principles are challenged and strained.  Despite that, in the end, it is those core principles that saves the day: friendship is achieved with (most of) the Xindi council, creating a lasting peace through conversation. 

What didn't work, though, is how things went in terms of character.  Specifically, character never tied into plot in a real organic way.  The closest was with Archer, who's moral center was challenged, but that balance between what he needed to do and what he had to bring himself to do always came more with an axe instead of a scalpel.  Archer doesn't get a slow descent into darkness.  He gets one questionable moment (putting a pirate in an airlock to get answers) and one really bad no-win scenario (the theft of the warp core).  Beyond that, what does he do?  True, he doesn't blow up the refinery in "The Shipment", but that seems less of a Moral Choice, and more thinking in terms of long-term strategy: going in guns blazing isn't the smartest thing to do if you've only got one shot at that, and you haven't found the right target.  In the final third of the season, Archer seems ready-- even eager-- to die for the cause, but why he's gone semi-suicidal isn't really explored.  Despite Daniels coming from the future TWICE to tell him, "Yeah, you're important, you can't die," he seems hellbent on it anyway.  There is a bit of lip service of not wanting to order someone else to their deaths, but that wasn't something ever really discussed.

What also didn't work was the lack of focus.  Most of the first two-thirds is spent wandering: some of it ties to the Xindi or the Spheres, but the rest is largely irrelevant.  It doesn't move the plot, nor is it called back later.  So it doesn't serve a purpose.  Perhaps if it had done more worldbuilding of the Expanse, creating encounters that mattered, so that they could be called upon at the endgame, then it would have seemed more meaningful.  And that would have also tied into a Trek solution: humans build communities, create allies, so when the chips are down, friends come to their aid.  But no species in the Expanse really were important other than the Xindi and the Spherebuilders.  The Spherebuilders were, at the core, the Big Bad, and the Xindi-- while having solid individual character-actors-- themselves had no definition beyond "five subspecies in fractious alliance". 

As counterpoint, I might present the end of Farscape's second-season.  After two seasons of more or less random encounters-- those stand-alone episodes-- the crew is faced with having to do a Big Crazy Plan.  And to pull it off, John Crichton calls on various species and people they've met along the way.  Now those stand-alone's tie into the solution, and to worldbuilding as a whole. 

But, credit where it's due: they took chances, and in the end, created something that had value.  In my recent re-watch of it all, I was largely entertained.  With a little more streamlining and focus (which, admittedly, in the world of episodic television, especially a decade ago, is challenging), it really could have stood out as something special. 

*- The first two episodes had nothing to do with the Xindi storyline.  Instead it involved time-traveling Nazi aliens, and served mostly to tie off the Temporal Cold War storyline, which had never been very well handled.  "Zero Hour" ended with an exceptionally bizarre Hail Mary of a cliffhanger, and those episodes are at best a serviceable affair of digging themselves out of that hole, as well as the entire TCW one. 
**- Though you have to wonder why, when the Xindi weapon showed up, Earth's only defense was, apparently, a single Andorian cruiser.  It made for some satisfying drama, but didn't make much sense.
***- A clumsy drug-addiction metaphor.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 4

Parts one, two and three

The third act of the Xindi Arc is pretty action packed.  On some level, it does make up for the heel-dragging and aimlessness of the first two thirds:  Episodes are: "Hatchery", "Azati Prime", "Damage", "The Forgotten", "E2", "The Council", "Countdown" and "Zero Hour".  

Of these eight, really only two are inessential: "Hatchery" and "E2".  But both of them do speak to the character of the Enterprise crew.  Since the one character-arc that's really tied to story-arc is "How far will Archer go?", to a degree "Hatchery" answers the question, "How far will the crew let him go?"  Now, it approaches it from a different angle, where Archer goes to extreme measures to help a creche of Xindi-Insectoid infants, and the crew, sensing something wrong, engage in a mini-mutiny.  As Archer is Being Affected By Something (a Trek staple to avoid actual conflict or responsibility), the real conflict boils down to the crew vs. Major Hayes, since Hayes just follows orders.  This is also the closest thing we get to something resembling focus on the Xindi-Insectoids, who in terms of story never amount to actual characters, simply additional muscle to back up the Reptilians.  "E2" is a kind of fun what-might-be time-travel episode, where the crew meets their descendents from a failed future-version of their mission, but other than turning the screws a bit tighter on the Trip/T'Pol romance, it's largely a placeholder.

That said, the three in between those episodes, "Azati Prime", "Damage" and "The Forgotten" do a very nice job illustrating the Collapse-Retreat-Recovery aspect of the Twelve-Part structure.  The ship is really hammered, but at the same time Archer makes some connection with Degra and the other Xindi-Primates.  It's here that the core Trek principles are pushed to their limits: having discovered the Xindi world-destroyer weapon, the first plan is just to blow it up.  This goes wrong, and Archer gets captured, but in being captured, he uses his knowledge from "Stratagem" to his advantage.  This convinces Degra enough to at least listen, and stop the Reptilians from attacking the Enterprise.  Degra (with the help of the semi-enigmatic Aquatics) returns Archer to the broken ship, and sends message for a secret rendezvous a few light-years away.  The ship being in such a state, making that rendezvous is impossible without a new warp-coil.  Fortunately, there's another damaged ship nearby, and Archer feels forced to take theirs by force in order to make the meeting.  This is without question his lowest point, committing for all intents an act of piracy in the name of saving Earth.  It's very non-Trek, which works excellently for the sake of drama.  Capt. Archer is torn up to do it, but he feels he has no choice.  You could easily see, for example, Cmdr. Adama, John Crichton or Malcolm Reynolds doing the exact same thing under the same circumstances.  The only question is, would they feel the same weight?  As horrible as the act is, it is in service of, ultimately, a Trek-solution: solving the Xindi situation through dialogue instead of violence.

Of course, the cracks in the plotting armor are quite evident.  Degra could have this clandestine meeting somewhere easier for Archer to reach, given that Degra knows the state Enterprise is in.  He even could just go to Enterprise directly, and not even be clandestine.  The need for secrecy from the Reptilians (and Insectoids) is a bit artificial.  And that's a big part of the problem with this plotting, in that it forces Enterprise to go from Point A to Point B (this necessitating the stolen warp coil) and then from Point B to Point C (this using the subspace passage that creates the timetravel accident in E2, which is neatly avoided, meaning the second Enterprise may have "never existed".)  It's mostly hoop-jumping so Degra can use Archer as a surprise in "The Council".

"The Council" is, in theory, Archer presenting his case that Earth is not a danger to the Xindi and that the Sphere-Builders/Guardians have been playing the Xindi for their own purposes.  It's the latter point that is most crucial, since the Guardians are worshiped as deities by the Xindi, though they were unaware of the connection between the Guardians and the Spheres.  While the Xindi Council has five groups, really only three matter: the Arboreals back up the Primates, and the Insectoids back up the Reptilians.  And the Aquatics are the enigmatic deciders.  In terms of character, it really boils down to Degra (Primate) and Dolim (Reptilian). 

It should be noted that Randy Oglesby and Scott MacDonald deserve a lot of praise.  Both are journeyman actors who have done tons of guest roles on various shows, including all four of the modern Treks.*  They do solid work, often under a lot of latex, and you have to respect that kind of actor. In fact the real dramatic centerpiece of "The Council", and to a degree the turning point of the story arc itself, is between these two actors. 

The final wrap-up of "Countdown" and "Zero Hour" is serviceable, in that the Xindi-Reptilians cement their role as the irredeemable villains, who have tied themselves to the Guardians.  The Guardians, of course, want to reshape reality-- terraforming our space, as it were, to one that they can survive in.  The Reptilians are their willing dupes.  Even the Insectoids wise-up, though all they do is wonder why the Spheres are suddenly working to help their efforts to destroy the Earth before the Reptilians sudden-but-inevitable betrayal.  The final push, in which Archer enlists Reed and Hoshi to destroy the weapon, saving the Earth, while Trip, T'Pol and Phlox destroy the Spheres themselves, saving the Xindi (and all of reality)-- is entertaining and fun, but sadly mostly involves pushing buttons and punching aliens.  The highlight in terms of What-Makes-It-Trek is not the bit where annoying-time-travel-exposition-fairy Daniels pulls Archer to the founding of the Federation (to convince Archer not to sacrifice himself, something Archer is pretty hellbent to do).  Instead, it's the moment where the Andorians show up to help defend the Earth.  Jeffery Combs-- another strong member of Trek character-actor stable-- sells the hell out of it as the Andorian Commander Shran, and that's a lot of fun. 

But in the end, it's a Big Finale: Things go Boom, and the Day Is Saved?  Is that all there is?  Is that all there can be?  That's the big question remaining.

*- I'm fairly certain that the two of them and Jonathan Frakes are the only actors to appear in all four modern Treks.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 3

A continuation of my analysis of the Xindi-arc of Star Trek: Enterprise.  Parts one and two.

The argument could be made that the first third was a "slow build", putting pieces in play that would be needed later.  While there is some truth to that (Rajiin introduces the idea of the Xindi working on a biological weapon as a Plan B, and Exile has a B-plot in which a connection between the Spheres and the Anomalies is made clear-- but both of those are drops of data in otherwise wheel-spinning exercises.) 

So, onto the middle third of the arc, things should pick up?  Should, yes.  But doesn't.  This middle third batch of episodes are: North Star, Similitude, Carpenter Street, Chosen Realm, Proving Ground, Stratagem, Harbinger and Doctor's Orders.  Of this batch of eight, only three do any heavy lifting in terms of the arc plot, and they're back-to-back-to-back: Proving Ground, Stratagem and Harbinger.  The rest are very mushy mushy-middle stuff. 

The two biggest missteps are North Star and Carpenter Street.  Strictly speaking, Carpenter Street does do some arc-work, but it's not compelling.  Both these bits suffer from having an "neat idea" supersede what the story arc really needs.  In the case of North Star, it was doing an old-school, Original-series style of episode where they come across a planet that's a History Planet instead of an alien world, in this case, the Old West, and it doesn't tie to the Xindi arc at all.  It's disposable.  For Carpenter Street, it's having the characters time-travel to modern-day Earth.  For that, it does tie to the arc, in that they go back to stop Xindi Reptilians in Earth's past who are preparing the biological weapon.  The time travel is so incidental for both parties, it's pure handwavium, and raises more "If they can do that..." questions than the arc wants to answer.  It does, in the end, provide Capt. Archer with something tangible, and that proves important later... but that could have been achieved without the time travel mess.

Chosen Realm is largely disposable, but it throws a small long-term setback into the mix by having all the data they've collected on the Expanse and the spheres deleted from their computer.  It's only small because it doesn't seem to slow them down significantly.  It also introduces the idea of Who Built The Spheres, and that said Builders might be worshiped.  Similitude and Doctor's Orders are also relatively disposable, but both of them are, at least, nice character pieces.  Similitude again pushes the character-arc question for Capt. Archer: how far will he go to succeed?  In this case, he allows a sentient being to be born and live for a short period of time in order to save Trip's life, on the principle that he cannot succeed without Trip.  The plot requires a lot more of sci-fi handwavium (Dr. Phlox happens to have a Morally Questionable Miracle in the back of his cupboard...), but it works if you can swallow that pill.  Doctor's Orders is fun enough, carried largely by John Billingsley's charm.  It does built off the idea that the Spheres are Changing Space, set up in Harbinger, so that helps give it some purpose.

Fortunately, Proving Ground, Stratagem and Harbinger do some good work.  The first two bring the Xindi and the Xindi Weapon into focus, largely through Degra, the Xindi-Primate who is responsible for actually designing the weapon.  An excellent job is done in these episodes changing him from a Nameless Councilmember to a real character, someone who has agreed to do something terrible because he believes it's necessary.  Strategem in particular, is a fun exercise, because it plays the "You don't remember but it's been a few years and we're friends now" trope in reverse-- having our protagonists be the perpetrators of the trick instead of the victims.  But in doing so, Archer gets to know Degra the Man, as opposed to Degra the Weapon Builder, which also helps shift things towards a more Trek-oriented Final Solution.  Harbinger, of these three, does suffer somewhat because it feels more disposable than it actually is: it's mostly character work, filling the time from the travel-with-purpose to Azati Prime (the location of the weapon construction, learned in Strategem) to work on character subplots.  It turns the screws on the Trip/T'Pol romance, as well as the Reed/Hayes hostility.  And, as mentioned, it sets up the Real Villain: The Sphere Builders.  In doing that, the stakes are changed. 

However, one should avoid having the word "disposable" being used too much, especially in the middle third of a storyline.  It leads your audience to wander away and say, "I don't know what's going on, really".  And who wants that?  In terms of twelve-part structure, I feel like this only really brings us to Part Five: Payback (with the Sphere Builders being brought into play showing the real stakes).  Five/twelfths of story when we're two-thirds in?  Problematic.  But it does offer the opportunity for a fast-paced final act.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Archetypes, Rituals and Tropes

First of, let me say I'm going to be talking about Cabin in the Woods here.  So, because this is a movie that it matters for: there will be SPOILERS for Cabin in the Woods.


After watching this movie, it sparked a very specific memory from back in college.  No, I didn't go on a doomed camping trip.  But I did try my hand at writing a by-the-numbers horror script, just to see if I could do it.  The result was a script called Stacks of Evil.  This was in '94.  Watching Cabin in the Woods reminded me just how by-the-numbers Stacks of Evil was.  It hit every single point that is part of the Cabin in the Woods sacrifice ritual.  For the folks Downstairs in Cabin, the events of Stacks would have served perfectly.

Though it would have been a woefully mediocre movie.

But seriously: five college friends (A Good Girl, A Bad Girl, A Jock, A Brain and a Drunk, aka The Virgin, The Whore, The Athlete, The Scholar and The Fool) all decide they are going to sneak into the school's library to spend the night.  Why?  Because, that's why.  They press on despite the warning of the janitor (The Harbinger).  After some partying in the library, the Jock and Bad Girl split off, and the Drunk wanders off.  The Drunk, specifically, commits the Transgression.  He breaks into a locked room and knocks over a jar that houses a vengeful demon.  The Demon then kills the Bad Girl, the Jock and the Drunk, in that order.  The Brain and the Good Girl manage to figure out what's going on, and how to potentially stop it, until the Brain is killed, leaving the Good Girl alone to fight the good fight and survive to be the Final Girl.  Because that's how it's done. 

And I totally had it down that that is how it's done back in '94.

Because I knew my horror tropes.

Now, I'm not claiming that I wrote Cabin in the Woods first, because I didn't, because Stacks was nowhere near that clever.  Though I did have a meta- ending*.  But it does show how pervasive those tropes that Cabin plays with are.  It hits the notes perfectly because they are so well known.** 

After watching Cabin, I went into a TV Tropes hole for a bit, reminding myself about not only horror tropes, but sci-fi and fantasy ones.  One thing I love about the Tropes page is the reminder that "Tropes are not Cliches"-- these are the broad brushstrokes of storytelling archetypes.  Whether a writer makes them cliche is based on what they are doing with them.  With Stacks, I was pretty much trying to be as cliche as possible.  Cabin shows one can take those tropes and do something fresh and clever with them-- even with the fact that they ARE tropes in the first place. 

*- Namely, after the Virgin "wins", there's a final "Jump Scare" where the demon comes back up, but then the film crew rebels and declares the whole thing ridiculous and goes home, leaving the demon decidedly unscary without special-effects backing him up.  Kind of dumb, really.
**- My wife, not being a horror movie fan-- at least, American horror-- was not familiar with these tropes, so much of the meta- aspect of the movie was lost on her.