A Thought Provoking Critique Of The Phantom Menace

I hadn’t planned to do another post before the end of the year, but then Lovely Lindy sent me a link to the first part of a video critique of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.   I watched it, expecting humorous jokes, sarcasm, and snide remarks, and all that abounds in this review. 

But it also contains carefully thought out, extremely sophisticated, arguments about the difference between strong characters and weak ones, between exciting plots and boring ones.  It openly and honestly lays out the necessary elements for a good story, and argues convincingly that all those elements are missing from The Phantom Menace.

Below is the first part of the series, and here is a link to it on YouTube.  There are seven parts in the whole series, each 10-minutes long. 

Yes, that’s right, this is a 70-minute critique of The Phantom Menace.  Trust me, just watch the first 10-minute segment; if you don’t like it you won’t be interested in the rest. 

But if you are like me, if you care about storytelling and seek to improve your skills, you will find yourself wanting to take notes.  This is the kind of honest, unvarnished criticism that writers always want but rarely receive.   It has given me  insights into my own attempts at writing; has prompted me to ask myself questions that I will be struggling with for some time to come. 

I Must Include The Following Warning

This video series also includes a darkly comic sub-story revolving around the narrator’s fictional private life.  I won’t provide any spoilers here, except to say that the video does contain elements which may offend some people and which are not for young children.  Consider yourself warned.

The maker of this video series also has has a 4-part series critiquing Star Trek: Nemesis.  The comments on his YouTube site indicate the Nemesis review is as funny and insightful as his Phantom Menace review.   If it is, I may well write another post promoting it as well.

Vignettes: Where to Begin

In my last post I wrote about my problem with writing convincing characters.  I said:

I must practice writing characterizations, focus on each character and discover their individual voice.  Learn to describe  them in ways that captures their mood and emotions in an honest fashion.  I must discover the words they would use, the sentences they would say, and the actions they would take.

I have considered using blogging as a solution to this problem.  … I could use some of my time blogging to write small scenes and out of context conversations.  Vignettes from my world that I may or may not keep.  

I received some support for this idea, enough to make me seriously consider it.  The problem is that I am uncertain how to begin.  This style of writing is foreign to me.  My thoughts first leap to my plot, followed by the settings, followed by other concerns that I have typically let take precedence over the characters.  The idea of putting some collection of characters together and letting them interact without a broader context is bizarre to me.

Add yet, that is the whole point of the exercise, isn’t it?  To break my current paradigm for writing so as to improve my overall skill.  To discard old assumptions and start looking at things from a fresh perspective.

This is easier said than done.

As I sit here, flipping through my characters in my head, I find myself paralyzed by indecision.  Who do I pick to start with?  Do I start with a single character alone?  Or should I have two or more in a conversation or perhaps some kind of conflict?  Would it be better to focus on major characters first, or to practice with secondary characters instead?  Should I try to write a scene already in my head, one I know I will want later?  Or should I focus on fixing a scene that I have already written, but which has problems? Or would it be better to focus on something I have no intention of keeping, but which might flesh out the character’s background and behavior?  Should I incorporate descriptions of their current setting, or should I leave out such details for now?

I am tempted to write names and ideas on little scraps of paper and throw them together into my hat.  That way I could draw one at random and just force myself to write on whatever I pull out.  Hardly a great idea, but it would break my current logjam.

Another aspect of my dilemma is that I am a slow writer, prone to editing my work as I am creating it.   I tend to analyze each sentence, each word, in an effort to form the right phrase.  But what I need to do is capture characters in a visceral way.   Analyzing sentences while engaged in that effort seems akin to losing sight of the forest because you spend too much time studying the trees.

And so I dither and instead write a post about the difficulties of making the effort, rather than making the effort itself.

Hopefully by next time I will have a better grasp on how to begin.  If not, I may delay the vignettes a bit longer so I can vacillate some more.  Certainly I have a host of other topics I can write about.  I believe, however, that it is my weakness with characterizations that needs addressing most urgently.  It is this problem that keeps my existing chapters from feeling finished. That forces me to edit them again and again.

When Last We Met…

On Sunday October 19, 2009, the Magic City Writers met and ruthlessly savaged my second chapter, …Awakens The Outer Circle…, leaving me a broken shell of a man (again). 

But first, lets talk about the food. 

Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate

The food, as always, was excellent. 

Kathryn baked fresh pumpkin bread (with a hint of orange flavor) and banana nut bread, both served with apple butter.  She also baked tandoori chicken, made with various herbs suspended in Greek yogurt and drenched over juicy chicken breasts.   

Nicole also displayed impressive culinary skills by improvising a tasty recipe for curry fried rice with stir-fry veggies on the spot. 

Needless to say, we were all well sated by the end of the meeting.  And best of all there were leftovers for me and Kathryn to dine on for the next couple of days.

And Now Back to the Savaging

With regards to the reviews of my new and improved chapter two of Gods Among Men, I am saddened to report they were mixed.   The chapter is substantially improved over last time, and some parts are quite good.  Unfortunately, only some parts are quite good.  This is not to call the rest rubbish, merely not good enough.

My most serious problem is structural.   The climax of the chapter requires an ambiguous point of view that is hard to get right.  There are multiple characters interacting in a way that creates two sequence of events happening at the same time.  I switch back and forth between different character’s perspective several times.  My intention is to help the reader understand what is happening and how the characters are affecting each other.   However, the switch between the different points of view, as written, is disconcerting and disrupts the reader’s ability to become absorbed in the scene. 

The group had few suggestions on how to resolve this point of view problem, and there was no consensus on the right solution.  None of the proposed solutions felt satisfactory to me.  I fear I may have to be satisfied with minimizing this problem rather than eliminating it.  My best hope at the moment is that once other problems in the chapter are fixed this point of view problem will not be as important as it is now. 

Another prominent criticism was that my secondary characters don’t feel real enough to maintain the readers suspension of disbelief.  Essentially, the group felt that I was forcing the characters to act as I wanted them to act and say what I wanted said, as opposed to the characters doing or saying what a real person would. 

This problem with the secondary characters is addressable by fixing certain key interactions.  As I reflected on this criticism, however, I concluded this problem was indicative of a weakness in my overall approach to writing. 

Houston, We Have A Problem

The first time I submitted any of my initial chapters, the group complained my characterizations were all over the place and unrealistic.  I fixed the main characters and the secondary were still problematic.  I fixed the secondary characters and tertiary characters continued to have similar problems. 

I am, by nature, a plotter, which means I first came up with the major concepts for Gods Among Men and from those concepts determined the details that must occur.  From there I extracted broad themes and formulated a complex tale, complete with an in-depth mythology of its own.  Then I focused on descriptions of settings and other such imagery.  It is characterization that I let linger until the very end. 

Given the type of tale I am trying to tell, I think  focusing upon plot and mythology to a certain degree is warranted.  But the result is that my skills for describing people in a realistic fashion is wanting. 

Perhaps this is an advantage of the “pantzer” style of writing.  If you focus only upon the situation at the moment and your characters’ reactions and interactions, with no thought as to where the story is going, perhaps you get truer characterizations.  I don’t know for certain that this is true, but it is worth considering.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

Practice is what makes perfect, and practice requires a consistent devotion of effort over a long period of time. 

I must practice writing characterizations, focus on each character and discover their individual voice.  Learn to describe  them in ways that captures their mood and emotions in an honest fashion.  I must discover the words they would use, the sentences they would say, and the actions they would take.

I have considered using blogging as a solution to this problem.  My reasoning is thus:  A fixed schedule is the best way to ensure that effort is maintained.  I intend to keep putting up new blog posts, preferably twice a week.  (Though lately it has been closer to once a week.)  Since I always need something to write about I could use some of my time blogging to write small scenes and out of context conversations.  Vignettes from my world that I may or may not keep.   Posting these experiments on the blog also has the advantage of organizing them with attached tags I can use for looking them up again later.

I am still in my waffling stage on this idea.  It might work, or it might be a total waste of time.  The main point here is that I am searching for ways to improve my ability to write realistic characters.   Suggestions are welcome.

The Remains of The Day

After eating and editing, we sat around for a long time talking about various subjects.  Then we went upstairs to watch/listen to the RiffTrax for the movie Daredevil

A RiffTrax is an audio file of snarky comments that you play alongside a movie.  The worse the movie, the better the RiffTrax that goes with it.  Given how truly putrid Daredevil is, the RiffTrax for it was absolutely hysterical.

After the movie/RiffTrax, Lindy had to go to work.  Nicole, Kathryn, and I finished off the evening by watching episodes of the new Battlestar Gallactica.   I personally believe this series is the best science fiction show of the last decade, and one of the best and most daring television shows of all-time.

That concludes the summary of our latest meeting.  Kathryn is set to submit her first draft of the third chapter of her story, MoonlitShe will be mailing out copies of that chapter to the group in a few days.   Our next meeting will be on November 1st, again at my house.  As always I shall try to describe what happens in an interesting or at least entertaining way.

Until next time, have fun and party down.

The Big Picture, Part 3: The World That Never Was

Foreword:

This post is part of an ongoing series laying out essential elements for understanding both the complex plot of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the byzantine plans of its protagonist, the wizard Damon Roth.

Here are links to earlier posts in this series.

Starting With the Threat and Working Backwards

In a previous post, I summarized the major plot of Gods Among Men as follows:

Damon Roth sees a threat so far in the future that for him to even talk of it makes people think him insane.  He takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means destroying a civilization to do so.   The price of failure is his soul.

I will explain the threat Damon perceives in a later post.  For now, accept that the threat is real and that his solution to it will work.  Implementing his solution, however, requires a concerted effort that must be maintained for eons. 

This fact exposes the fundamental problem I faced in Gods Among Men.  I don’t believe any short-lived species (such as humanity) could implement, on their own, a complex plan requiring constant effort for perhaps millions of years. 

It is unreasonable to expect a reader to suspend more disbelief than the writer can.  For me to “believe” that Damon could create a society capable of confronting an eons long task, I had to include an immortal race, or one so long lived they can be considered immortal.  One whose fate is tied to that of the earth’s. 

A Choice of Races

In fantasy and science fiction literature there are numerous ways to create immortal or nearly immortal races.  For a while I toyed with the idea of using robots or some other kind of automated machines to address my story’s needs.  I opted against this approach because it felt hokey, I disliked the symbolism, and because it led to a dénouement that felt false and boring to me.

I decided I wanted an immortal race that has existed since the earliest periods in earth’s history.  A race that once interacted with man frequently, but then retreated behind some mystic veil.   A race which we today either know nothing of, or believe to be the product of fairy tales.

And thus J.R.R. Tolkien inspired a simple solution: Elves, though Faerie Folk might be a better description. 

In The Lord of The Rings, and Tolkien’s other tales, elves were immortal, powerful creatures that left middle-earth at the dawn of the age of man.  The elves he described, and the manner in which they retreated from the world of men, were not perfect for my situation.  But my thoughts on Tolkien’s ideas combined with my knowledge of other mythological concepts surrounding elves and faerie folk until I arrived at my eventual solution.

The Unrecorded Past

In my mythology, elves (and other faerie folk) exist on more dimensions than we can perceive.   They interact with us by “projecting” part of their essence into the dimensions we inhabit, à la Flatland.  This lets them appear to change shape, sometimes appearing much like beautiful humans, and other times looking like animals such as white stags or black cats. 

It is possible for humans to “crossover” into the elven dimensions and interact with them in their native environment.  But the limitations of human perceptions hamper our ability to understand or clearly remember what happened.  And time does not flow at the same rate in these other dimensions as it does in ours.  A person who spends a few weeks living among the elves may return to our world only to discover decades have passed, while they have not aged.

In our pre-history, men interacted with elves regularly.  The graceful–and at times terrible–elves, with knowledge and powers no human possessed, inspired stories that in later generations became the foundations for mythologies and religions. 

Elves are immortal, but are highly susceptible to metal, especially iron and steel.  Weaker elves can die by touching something made of iron or steel. As mankind learned to make items out of metal, elves retreated from the dimensions they shared with us to protect themselves.  Near the dawn of our written history, elves cut off almost all contact with humanity and became just legendary creatures inhabiting fairy tales

How Elves Fit Into Damon Roth’s Plans

There are other faerie creatures, such as unicorns and the like.  But Elves are the ones important to what Damon Roth is planning.   Being immortal they can provide the stable core for the new society he plans to build.  Elves can guarantee that efforts to thwart the long term threat to the planet do not falter. 

But Elves will not ally themselves to a society dominated by wizards, for reasons I will explain in a later post.  At the start of Gods Among Men, wizards control the upper reaches of a world spanning empire called The Guild.  These wizards do not believe elves exist.  They think elves are just  products of Damon’s madness.  Thus the wizards refuse his demands that they relinquish power.  This results in Damon’s decision to destroy The Guild and create a new society that elves will ally themselves with.

Tolkien wrote about a crisis that ends with elves retreating from the world.  I write about a crisis that ends with elves returning to the world in order to ally themselves with mankind.  This is not the totality of Gods Among Men, or even the primary plot thread, but it is a crucial fact that drives much of Damon’s motivations and machinations.

Summary

The following is a list of key points explaining the founding logic of my world, the importance of elves to Damon Roth’s plans, their relationship to mankind at the beginning of Gods Among Men, and how this relationship must change by the end of the story.

  1. The world is our earth in the distant future
  2. Elves have existed since before humanity evolved.
  3. Elves are effectively immortal.
  4. Elves have a well-developed, highly stable, culture and society.
  5. Elves and other faerie creatures cannot tolerate metal, especially iron and steel.
  6. Elves and other fairy creatures retreated from the “human” dimensions when mankind began using iron and steel.
  7. By the start of Gods Among Men, most people have forgotten even the tales and legends of the faerie folk.
  8. Damon Roth is one of the few who know that elves exist.  (I shall explain how he came by this knowledge in a later post.)
  9. The future threat that Damon is aware of is real.
  10. Elves are aware of this threat, and it endangers them as well.
  11. Damon’s solution to the threat will work, but requires a sustained effort for perhaps millions of years.
  12. Elves are aware of Damon’s proposed solution, and accept that it is the best answer to the future threat.
  13. Elves are incapable of addressing the threat by themselves.
  14. Damon believes, with cause, that the world’s only hope is for mankind and elves to form an alliance dedicated to enacting his solution to the threat.
  15. Elves, for good reasons, will not ally themselves with any society dominated by wizards.
  16. The Guild, the dominate power in the future is largely controlled by wizards who do not believe that elves exist.
  17. These wizards refuse to relinquish power and turn control of the government over to non-wizards.
  18. Damon decides to destroy the current society and create one where wizards play a lesser role in world affairs.
  19. Elves will neither interfere with nor aid Damon.  They shall wait to see the outcome of his actions and, if he succeeds, form an alliance with the society that forms after the fall of The Guild.

The final point is crucial.  The elves in my story feel they must remain neutral.  They want Damon to succeed, but they are afraid of interfering lest some factions of mankind come to see them as enemies and not allies.  In fact, part of Damon’s plan is to identify and eliminate any who might react violently to an alliance with elves.  Therefore, while elves are crucial to the finale of Gods Among Men, and are essential to Damon’s motivations, they are little more than spectators to the major events of the story. 

I would not go so far as to call the elves in Gods Among Men some type of MacGuffin.  Some of the elf characters are very important to the scope of the story.  But none of these characters are the primary focus of any central story arcs.  Rather the elves in my story are structural elements, secondary characters that provide depth and meaning to the main characters.  They fill this role because, to me, elves have much better symbolic value than robots, and the dénouement they provide is far more satisfying. 

The Big Picture, Part 1: The Point and Purpose

As I have mentioned previously, writing these posts helps me refine the ideas behind my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men.   They force me to express my nebulous thoughts in concrete sentences.    To take the vague and make it specific.

The protagonist of Gods Among Men is Damon Roth. Recently I had an epiphany where I saw behind Damon’s tactics, which I had instinctively settled on long ago, and grasped his strategy in a clear manner.  I glimpsed into the devious mind of a character I had created and truly understood him for perhaps the first time.  I saw how he treated the world as a chessboard, and people as pieces moving on that board.   The reasons behind his actions became clear to me, and I appreciated the elegant brutality of his solutions to problems. 

This knowledge allowed me to write a clear, concise summary of the fundamental story.  I tried to write down Damon’s strategy and tactics in a similar manner, but found myself balked by my mythology.  I discovered that to understand “why” Damon acts as he does requires understanding:

  1. The world he lives in
  2. The nature of the threat he is responding to
  3. His ideas for addressing that threat
  4. The reasons some oppose him and others support him.
  5. How he plans to eliminate those who oppose him
  6. How he plans to reward those who support him
  7. Why he sees himself as a threat to his own plans, and his solution to that problem.

That is a tall order.  A single post, or even a single day’s work, is insufficient to write something that covers all of that.  To explain Damon’s strategy and tactics I must first explain the big picture in a way I have never done before.  It requires spelling out information that hitherto resides solely in my mind.  Plot points which I intend to incorporate into my story as needed. 

The finished story is the ultimate, and definitive, explanation for all of this.  But a summary of what I intend the story to contain, written so it is clear to the average person, is a reasonable goal.  In fact, such a summary is necessary if I hope to someday be published. 

Which brings us to the point and purpose of this series of posts, which I am calling The Big Picture.  In this series I will explore the history and mythology that forms the setting for Gods Among Men. I shall explain how the world transitioned from the way it once was to how it is now; and why that is important.  I will reveal enough of the back-story of central characters, along with their motivations, so that their goals are put into context.  I will explain the threat that Damon is responding to, along with his solution to the threat. Finally I will reveal Damon’s byzantine plot and what he hopes to achieve.   I shall reveal the cost he must pay for his plans succeed.

This is not to suggest I am going to post on this subject exclusively.  Merely that I will return to it regularly for some time to come.  It is, after all, a subject dear to my heart.  Plus, I don’t want the vagaries of memory and the demon of time to steal my current clarity of thought.