Rosewood Lane: From a Writer’s Perspective

Kudos to creepy paperboy(s) for making this movie slightly unsettling, despite the paperboy looking like he’s about 19 and still riding a bike. A 12-year old would have been creepier.

Though as bad as Rosewood Lane, starring Rose McGowan, is, a writer can learn a lot about plot by using this storyline as an example of what not to do.

Here is my top 10 list:

10. Never play the “crazy” card, using it as an excuse to let your antagonist do whatever he wants. Even if your bad guy is paranoid, schizo, delusional, psychotic, or just a generic form of mentally ill, your antagonist will always have a motive for why he does the things he does. It may not be logical to sane people, but it at least has to be plausible to the audience. Your bad guy will encounter an inciting incident and have an external goal much like your main character. You should never use the excuse that “he’s crazy” to justify his actions.

9. Never write an animal into your story just to kill it off later. (Unless you’re Stephen King.) Having your antagonist kill an animal just to prove he’s evil is like beating a dead horse. The audience should know he’s evil long before he gets his hands on Fido or Fluffy especially if you’ve spent as much time creating your villain as you did your protagonist. Don’t fall victim to the trope. Instead, do something less cliché like getting Fido or Fluffy help your main character vanquish the villain.

8. On that note, never have your main character leave her pet outside or alone in the house when she knows there’s a psycho murderer on the loose. And certainly don’t leave it outside if the murderer has a history of killing animals. It’s completely irresponsible of your main character, and your audience will hate her and you for it.

7. Never place a weapon into your plot just because you think it’s cool. I mean, what lawyer for the District Attorney’s Office lets off steam by shooting a crossbow? And don’t let said lawyer leave the weapon lying around in the basement with a psycho murderer on the loose who has already broken into the basement. While it is true that if you introduce a gun in the first chapter, you need to make sure someone uses it, you should also make sure your weapon du jour has a credible reason for being used. Police detective>Gun; Hunter>Crossbow; Ex Special Forces soldier>sniper rifle; Lawyer>Crossbow=NO! Baseball bat, maybe. Wusthof Cook’s Knife, more likely.

6. Never mention bits of backstory without explaining the significance of it. For instance, if your creepy paperboy spouts off nursery rhymes and your protagonist mentions off-handedly that he must have heard one of her radio shows on nursery rhymes, then please explain what this show was about and what the correlation between nursery rhymes and abuse victims and/or psycho paperboys is. Because if we don’t know, we won’t be able to understand your psycho paperboy’s motive (See #10.)

5. Never introduce subplots you have no intention of following up on. If your protagonist has a conversation with another character about having been in therapy before, make sure the audience knows exactly why she was in therapy and how her actions now seem to warrant more sessions. I mean, I don’t think Googling the paperboy’s address to talk to his parents after he’s broken into your main character’s house, stalked her on his bike, rearranged her porcelain knickknacks, and tried to kill her boyfriend is unjustified or abnormal behavior needing counseling.

4. For that matter, never write a story without at least two-to-three subplots as they provide the audience relief from all the tension of the main conflict. Many subplots include elements of humor, romance, and every day nuisances to allow the reader to catch her breath until the next big upheaval happens. It is often these subplots that show the depth and complexity of your characters because they are not just reacting on adrenaline.

3. Never introduce a supernatural element into your story then explain it away in the resolution. Yes, this may be construed as a plot twist, but it is also misleading. Your reader wants to know what kind of story she is reading and will allow herself to invest in this world as long as the author delivers. If you have not provided any clues that the other-worldly, adopted paperboy with the reptilian eyes who can be in two places at once is really just one kid in a set of triplets, your reader will feel duped and cheated.

2. Never write a resolution that fails to tie up major events. That’s the whole point of a resolution–for the audience to see the widespread effects of the main plot and most subplots. What happened to the lawyer boyfriend who was buried alive somewhere? Your main character just spent two hours trying to find him, digging through piles of dirt in her backyard to no avail, so it must be time for a bath, and we must never mention his fate again.

And my #1 thing to never do in your story is:

1. Never ever have your pscyho paperboy shoot your main character in the back with a crossbow then rip out the arrow as she runs to her car (because how else is she going to sit in the seat) only to have her beat the crap out of him with a baseball bat one-handedly, get in the car, spend 30 seconds trying to start the car with her left hand because apparently she is now paralyzed on her right side, make a 3-point turn, slam her car into the paperboy who is now riding his bike straight into her, watch the bike fly over the car without the paperboy on it, then get out of the car to look around the street for his body. If you can’t find all the problems with this scene then I can’t help you.

There you have it. Ten things you should never do in your plot. Hope this helps.

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Who Knew?

Like many Americans, I don’t know squat about U.S. history despite having been subjected to it year after year after year. I know even less about Abraham Lincoln except that he was the 16th president (I think), he had something to do with ending the Civil War, and he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre.

I was even more skeptical of how one could possibly pull off a story about a giant, gangly, top hat-wearing lawyer who kills vampires in his spare time. I mean, there’s only one slayer in all the world, and it’s not Van Helsing.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

To my surprise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a really good movie! Like most action adventure stories, Abe: VH executes the elements of storytelling well. He’s got a backstory (best friend taken into slavery, Mom infected by vampires and killed), he’s got an external goal (revenge), he’s got an internal need (to believe in himself), and he even has a mentor to show him the ropes (Henry Sturges). There’s conflict, twists, and turns, and awesome fight scenes. And I for one am glad they did not turn this movie into some kind of campy slasher film–that would be a disgrace to the seriousness of the slavery and Underground Railroad subplots.

But the thing that pulls this story together is the way in which historical people and facts are woven into the tale. It amazes me how much research must have gone in to writing the novel and screenplay. For instance, Lincoln’s boyhood friend, William Johnson, was real, as was Joshua Speed. I know it came out with horrible reviews, but critics spend their time looking for faults and only focus on them. Just ask Edgar Allan Poe.

So what can we learn from this? No matter what kind of story you are writing, you will inevitably have to do research. And while not all of us are writing historical fiction or some kind of weird hybrid genre, historical (or otherwise) accuracy of details is what lends all stories their credibility. Yes, even fiction needs to be credible, and actually more so than reality.

For those of you who have been following my posts on First Draft in 30 Days, the Karen S. Wiesner method, the next step of the journey is research. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a week looking stuff up, but it should mean that you keep a running list of things you will eventually need to know to make your story credible. Research may span any number of story elements, including character, setting, and plot and, as you start looking for information, you’ll find that you come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for your story and may even find your story takes off in a direction you hadn’t expected. That is the beauty of knowledge; knowledge is power and, in this case, it also inspires creativity.

Throughout your writing process, keep a running tab of information or details you need to research. You may also want to list the chapter or page number at which you will need to include this information. My list is usually kept on any number of scrap papers that I’m working on at the moment and looks like this:

General research list

General research list

 

 

 

 

This is not exhaustive by any means, and it doesn’t even mean that as things progress and I learn more about certain details that all of these items will need to be researched. This general list is just a tool to get you to start thinking about what you don’t know yet.

Another element of research is the interview. In this case, you should write up a list of questions you will need to ask but also include relevant information from your story in case the interviewee needs more specific information. For instance, if you’re interviewing a police officer on procedure or laws, you may need to know all the extenuating circumstances of your story to get the most accurate information (how old the suspect is, what kind of weapon was involved, if any, if the suspect has prior charges, etc.).

Interview Questions

Interview Questions

At this stage in the writing process, though, don’t worry about doing all your research at once. Many writers get so caught up in the research process that they lose their original vision, or worse, they lose their interest in writing altogether.

For now, keep a general list until you finish your preliminary outline (and keep adding to it throughout the process) then you will have a better idea of what you actually need to spend your time trying to figure out. You may also want to keep a list of specific questions that will need to be answered to inform your characters, setting, or plots. And remember, not everything you find out about a specific topic will be used directly in your story but it will all help your story grow organically. Again, this is just about figuring out what you don’t know yet but may need to.

From a Writer’s Perspective: The Cabin in the Woods

Yikes. I don’t know if I should be appalled at the utter horribleness of this movie because, I mean, it’s Joss Whedon! (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my all-time favorite tv shows) or be mesmerized by the campy commentary on the horror movie genre and the state of humanity today because I mean, it’s Joss Whedon!

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Nothing in this movie is what it seems, which is why it both sucks and is brilliant. The audience is left feeling a bit like stoner Marty (Fran Kranz), out of sorts and yet seeing the truth about society that no one else can see because they’re too close-minded.

First, there is no real protagonist. We know we’re supposed to root for Dana because she’s the virgin and will presumably be the one to escape. But she’s not really a virgin, and she doesn’t even participate in trying to save her own life or her friends’. (Come on, I don’t care how cute Chris Hemsworth is, you never split up.)

(There actually isn’t enough substance to any of these characters to make me want to root for someone. Except maybe Bradley Whitford. And the only thing that could make this anti-climactic movie better would be if Marty was the virgin after all. )

But I guess that’s what this movie is all about–participating, or rather not participating, in your own life. We are addicted to “reality shows” because our lives are so boring that watching someone else’s seems more entertaining. But I pose to you, if we weren’t so busy distracting ourselves with other people’s drama, wouldn’t we be more inclined to create our own destiny? Try staying off Facebook for one week and see how much more you can accomplish.

2009-07-07-reality-tv-destroy2

None of the other characters are what they seem: Curt is not the athlete, he’s a sociology major; Jules is not really a whore, it’s just her hair dye; Holden (what’s up with his face?) only becomes the scholar when he puts his glasses on midway through the movie; and Marty, as I’ve said before, is not just the Fool but the only one who can deduce what is really going on. There are others: the two middle-aged (and then some) scientist geeks who kill people for sport and contest (and to save the world); and the creepy guy in the gas station who speaks in pseudo-religious cryptic warnings until he suspects he’s been put on speakerphone. The moral of this story, then, is that is doesn’t matter who we try to portray ourselves as, we are who we are and we shouldn’t try to be anything else.

The horrors these characters face are not real either. They are imagined nightmares controlled by man, or rather middle-aged scientist geeks. Is this to mean that as much as we create our own fears, we can control them too? Are we like those kids in the basement who think we have freewill but our choices are really programmed by our interactions with others and the environment around us? What happens when we are finally stripped of outside stimulus and forced to survive on our own? Will we try to jump a ravine on our dirt bike without knowing if we will even make it to the other side to save ourselves and our friends? Will we plunge into the depths of our nightmares to find an escape from fear? Or will we shoot our friend in the back to save ourselves (and technically the rest of the world)?

As incredibly not scary and laugh-out-loud as this movie is, it poses some interesting questions we should all ponder about our own existence. Because I mean, it’s Joss Whedon! it’s what he does best. Joss_Whedon

 

 

Conan the Barbarian–From a Writer’s Perspective

I must admit I was a bit scared to view this movie after approximately 27 years. When it was popular in the 80s, I must have watched it a thousand times because I was super into anything Dungeons & Dragons like, and I never missed a showing of it on TV (and I swear it was on every Saturday afternoon). The reason I was so scared was because I had recently watched Red Sonja on Netflix, another Dino de Laurentiis film from the era that I had once loved, and it was so horrible I was embarrassed for myself for once liking it.

However, I was pleasantly surprised with Conan, and it is still a movie that can live up to today’s standards (mostly). In fact, as far as storytelling goes, it far surpasses a lot of the crap movies that are out there now.

First, Conan the Barbarian (oh, did I mention this is the Arnold Schwarzenegger version) is an epic tale and embodies most of the conventions we assimilate with epic literature: it’s written in a formal style on a serious subject whose main character or protagonist is of a quasi-divine nature. The hero’s actions often determine the fate of a nation and involve super-human deeds and battles with supernatural beings. There is also an element of ceremony or ritual, and a vast setting that encompasses lots of travel.

Aside from just being a great story all around, Conan is a master of showing character through action. By this I don’t mean sword fights because, let’s face it, the fight choreography is a little lame by today standards. Rather, I mean we see the true nature of Conan through his actions and not through dialogue. He actually doesn’t speak much at all and has the least amount of dialogue of any of the characters. But we are still able to see his struggle with his internal need and his desire for the external goal by small actions.

A perfect example of this is when Valeria begs him to forget about saving King Osric’s daughter from Thulsa Doom and take the jewels and love they have at the moment and run away. Without speaking, Conan embraces Valeria back in a sort-of agreement but stares at Thulsa Doom’s talisman over her shoulder, which represents his desire to avenge his family’s death. The next morning, Valeria wakes up alone.

Any screenwriter of any genre would do well to study this movie for character’s actions/reactions as well as a lesson in using dialogue sparingly to convey only the most important information.

Truly, this is an epic movie.

The Rite: From A Writer’s Perspective

It’s four months in Rome. What could go wrong? Oh, you’d be surprised.

They say reality doesn’t need to make sense but fiction does, which makes me wonder what exactly happened in the real lives of the real Frs. Michael Kovak and Lucas because I had a hard time believing (and accepting) the storyline of The Rite. I could be biased; anytime I hear a movie is based on or inspired by true events, I tend to think they’re making it up just to increase sales. I mean, did we learn nothing from The Blair Witch Project?

Not that there is anything wrong with the actual elements of The Rite–most of them seem to be there: catalyst, internal need, external goal, opposition, darkest moment–it’s just that they are all squished into the last 2o (or 30 if we’re lucky) minutes of the film.

Enter Michael Kovak: a priest-in-training with no faith. Father Superior gets the brilliant idea to send him to exorcism school in Rome cuz, ya, that will help him. Maybe lectures aren’t Michael’s thing, so his teacher sends him to a little village in Florence to witness a real live exorcism. I’m fairly gullible, but even I don’t believe Rosaria is possessed. I think Michael hits the nail on the head (pun intended) when he states she was internalizing her guilt over being raped by her father and carrying his demon seed.

(One thing I would like to know is why doesn’t this happen more often? The possession part, I mean.  The other, I’m sure, happens more often than we know, and it does seem like the work of the devil, but not all victims go around speaking in foreign tongues. I guess I want to know why Satan/Beelzebub/Baal chose to inhabit a 16 year-old Italian girl. What exactly did he get out of it? She and the baby died, so…it seems rather anticlimactic and not really worth the trouble.)

We witness a few more possessions, a few more exorcisms, some of which are hoaxes, none of which are believable enough to force Michael to believe in God and take a stand.  What exactly pushes him over the edge? Is it realizing he just talked to his already-dead father on the phone? (I think I might have reacted a bit differently than sobbing on the bed if that happened to me. Just saying.) Is it the random voices in his hotel room or el mulo with the red eyes in the courtyard? Maybe it’s hearing Fr. Lucas himself tell us he’s possessed. (Again, I have to wonder why the devil chose him. Aside from the fact that Anthony Hopkins is a brilliant actor with a bit of crazy in him.)

Regardless, we finally hit our first plot point. Michael now has a goal, we know he’s searching for his own faith, why he has none, and that he’s recruited his friend, Angelsomething, to help him out.

The screenwriter shoots off the rest of the elements in rapid fire, wasting no time because he’s already over budget. Michael performs an exorcism on Fr. Lucas, it doesn’t work, his faith is tested, Angelsomething has to convince him to get back in there–he can do it, he’s not alone. (Usually, the opposition has much greater resources and is much stronger than the protagonist; however, Michael has the power of God on his side. Seems a lot like cheating, doesn’t it?) Michael tries again, this time he gets the devil to give up his name. (Baal’s screwed now.) Oh, it worked! Story’s over.

I’m not really buying that Michael suddenly finds his faith in God either. I don’t know if it’s just bad acting or not, but I tend to think it’s because we don’t get to see him really search for it, to really want it. The majority of Act Two should be the protagonist fighting against all odds to achieve his goal. Instead, Michael pretty much complains and denies his faith throughout the whole storyline until the very end, and actions speak louder than words. One can’t go from having no faith, to realizing you have no faith, to suddenly achieving faith. You kind of have to work at finding it. (In contrast, I totally believe Anthony Hopkins is possessed. The way he smacked that girl–freaking brilliant writing.)

I’m thinking the screenwriter could have gone back for a few more rewrites, weeded out some of the inconsequential details, worked on pacing, and found more creative ways to handle the amazing amount of backstory we had to watch for the first 82 minutes of the film.

The good news, though, is that Michael doesn’t have to pay back his student loans.