lördag 17 januari 2015

On writing "action", part 1

So I've got some opinions on how to, and how not to, write action – both in movies and TV, and comics. Since I'm a fan of good characterization, a lot of this series will deal with that; but I want to emphasize that I'm not claiming that I'm particularly good at writing this stuff myself; I'll mainly point to good and bad examples and discuss how one could go about it to do it better.

You may think that characterization isn't particularly important in action movies or comics; that the important thing is to have lots and lots of action – fist fights, shootouts and explosions. You'd be wrong. Characterization is what makes an audience care about the characters in the story, and willing to spend up to two hours in their company, rooting for them to succeed. There is a genre of films that mainly tries to appeal to fans of violence, of course. Sometimes, such a movie will be made by a regular Hollywood studio, in which case it'll have excellent production values, at least a couple of big-name actors (though a couple of them will likely have a career that hasn't exactly been booming lately), and well-crafted violence ballets. It will still suck, though, because it's still just a bad excuse for the viewer to enjoy people seeing being maimed and killed. Yes, I'm talking about crap like John Wick – and basically every Jason Statham movie ever made.

(Now, you can enjoy this kind of movie without being a psychopath. For example, if you're into martial arts, there's a lot of enjoyment to be had from watching the techniques used in say, an old Jackie Chan movie. But there has to be some pretty darn good martial arts techniques to justify the simplistic stories and rudimentary characterization levels of these movies.)

If you see one of these movies, it's usually written according to a very simple model:
1. The hero is introduced. He (it's usually a he) does something nice, to show that he's a good guy, and possibly something not-so-nice, just to show that he's a tough or cool guy.
2. The villain is introduced. He does something horrible, to show that he's a horrible person – or, frequently, there's a bunch of villains introduced and shown to be horrible persons, even though one of them is the leader and the rest are his henchmen. The reason for this is that it the more villains there are, the more the hero can kill and/or maim on his way to the top villain. Of course the villains are shown to be such horrible people to justify the hero's levels of violence against them. Generally, unless you have a pretty messed-up personality or view of society, you don't appreciate people being beaten to a pulp for pilfering an apple, for example. And with the levels of violence in modern action movies, the villains have to do some pretty disgusting things to justify them – sadistic torture, rape, mass murder etc.
3. Somehow, the villain(s) and hero cross paths, and the hero gets a reason to fight the villain(s).
4. Fight fight fight fight.
5. The hero wins, and everything is well in the world. End.

There are a lot of crappy movies made according to this model, and some of the blame for this falls on people like Blake Snyder and John Truby.

"Who are they", you ask? Well, Snyder wrote Save the Cat, a scriptwriting manual outlining a simple (or, rather, simplistic) scriptwriting model that gave the reader detailed instruction on how to structure a story. Truby's The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller does the same thing. Both of them could have named their books Scriptwriting for Dummies instead – while they make a lot of good points for the novice writer, the resulting monoculture of mechanical movie writing can only be viewed as bad.

Basically, their approach to movie writing is that you tell most of your story through its structure. To shorten their structure-driven movie writing recipe somewhat: start with points 1-3 above, move to the hero having a huge setback and becoming depressed, hitting rock bottom and feeling that he's failed. Then have one of his friends set him straight, have him realize what his big moral weakness is and correct it, and through that change become capable of defeating the villain(s). Huge win, happy ending, blah blah blah.

When I was in my thirties, I had seen so many such movies, built on pretty much exactly the same structure, that I was rather sick and tired of Hollywood movies. I could count the beats of the story off as they occurred, and knew what to expect at pretty much every point of the story. "Well, things seem to be working pretty well. I guess it's time for some disaster to struck, so that… Aaand there it was. OK, how long will we have to wait while the hero's wallowing in his own misery until something happens that makes him pull himself together and finish this?" Basically, the only movies I could be bothered to go to see in a cinema were Disney movies (after the studio pulled itself together with The Great Mouse Detective, they started churning out some quite beautiful animation, and while the stories were pretty predictable as well, the sheer storytelling skill, beautiful artwork, and humor compensated enough to make them worth watching) and the occasional comedy. See, when you use structure to tell the story in a manner to maximize impact on your audience, and that structure has to follow a certain template, your audience is going to learn the template eventually – and then your stories basically won't have any impact, because the audience already knows what is coming.

That's why I've been more fond of "revisionist" superhero writers since the 80s – or rather, the seventies, because Steve Gerber qualifies as a revisionist superhero writer even though he did his most seminal work in the seventies (and I read them in the eighties, anyway) – because these guys worked from a different structure, so I couldn't predict what would happen. Or, maybe I should rephrase that: I could be surprised by what happened. The standard structure always opens for a couple of different outcomes; for example, at the end of a drama, you can have the protagonist succeeding in his (or her) effort, or he could fail, and then kill himself for good measure to try to make a cheap emotional impact on the audience, but once you've seen a bunch of these movies you know what the possible outcomes are. With the revisionist writers, or with independent filmmakers, you'll get something far less predictable. And since a huge part of the reason I like to watch and read fiction is avoidance of boredom, less predictability is usually a good thing.

As long as there's a happy ending, of course. I read enough history and current affairs to have had my fill of unhappy endings. They depress me, and I don't need any more of that in today's world. (That's part of why I like Grant Morrison's writing so much. He'll take you on a wild, unpredictable roller coaster ride and somehow manage to end it all on a positive note anyway, no matter how disastrous and hopeless everything has seemed midway through. Unpredictable and predictably non-tragic. The best combination there is.)

There are other things that can make me un-bored with a story, of course, and I hinted at some of them with that Disney reference earlier on. If the ride is enjoyable, it's not really a big problem that that you know where it's going. Other storytelling elements can also be used. With comics, you can have beautiful images. You can also have beautiful language, or clever wordplay, which is also very enjoyable. There is also the characters; strong characters that I care about can do a lot to keep me interested in a comic even if it doesn't quite deliver in other areas. For example, Charles Schulz's Peanuts had a bit of a slow period for a number of years when it wasn't as funny as it had used to be (though in fairness, it's very hard to be as funny as Peanuts was at its peak), but because I still cared for the characters, I still enjoyed reading about their lives and experiences.

So there's an example of something you can use as a writer to make your work more interesting: characterization. What passes for characterization in modern blockbuster movies and TV series is often rather pathetic, unfortunately. Too often, what we get is just stock characters with a couple of quirks thrown in. I'll give you an example: Criminal Minds, where the team has a computer specialist, the characterization of whom boils down to dressing in a flamboyant girly manner, talking flirtatiously to another member on the team when he's out trying to save lives and needs relevant information fast, and saying self-assured stuff like "Do I know where the killer lives? Does the pope wear a funny hat?" a lot – another case of chattering instead of giving out critically important information as fast as humanly possible.

This shallow kind of characterization goes hand in hand with another of my pet peeves, banter, but I hope to get into the problem with mind-bogglingly vapid banter in a later installment of this series, so I'll leave it for now. Just remember: quirks don't equal characterization.

To be fair, there is not a lot of space in an action story for introspection or long soliloquies – which, considering the writing skills of the average action movie writer, and the acting skills of the average action hero, probably isn't a bad thing. However, there are other methods of characterization than weird fashion statements and recurring phraseology. One method, especially appropriate in action stories, is action. That is, the way a person behaves shows us something about what kind of person he or she is. Take a look at the following clip from Lethal Weapon, and pay special attention to how Mel Gibson's character, Riggs, acts at the start of the clip and after the murder. (I suggest you watch the first 20 seconds or so, and then skip to the three minute point.)

First, notice how Riggs doesn't mix at the beginning of the clip. He doesn't approach the other people there; he doesn't want to mingle. He's a man apart, a loner. That's a pretty import part of his emotional makeup, and one that is well echoed in this scene.

Next, after Hunsaker is shot, what does Riggs do? He acts. Immediately. He starts running towards a position from where he can fire on the helicopter, and then starts blasting. So, obviously, he's a man of action (and violence, when necessary). And what does he do as the helicopter leaves? He runs after it – shooting. Now, that's pretty meaningless, because he's not likely to hit anything while running, but obviously he's too angry, to eager to get the bastards, to care. We see this also when he reloads and continues firing after the helicopter is well out of range. So not only is he a man of action, he is also a pretty emotional kind of guy. Also a nice piece of characterization, although a bit overvalued, especially in heroes. Me, I prefer heroes a bit more able to temper their emotions with more practicality – or perhaps "professionalism" is a better word. There are ways to emphasize professionalism more than emotionalism in this scene, but this is already a pretty long, wordy post, so perhaps I will get to that in a later post on this subject. The art of writing action stories will be revisited in the future.

To be continued...

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