Here’s a simple formula for destroying an original idea by adapting it for television: take a film (or comic book) series and shoehorn it into a format suited for syndication. The defaults you’ll find on network television are: ER clones, law firm look a-likes, New York ad agency stories, the monster of the week, and the cop drama. When in doubt, go with the cop drama.
The very first line in Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is, “I have a meanness inside me, as real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out…”
Right out of the gate, I knew I was going to like this book. It spit in the face of everything my screenwriting background had taught me. Libby Day, Dark Place’s narrator, doesn’t care what the reader thinks of her and that’s one of her most endearing qualities. She doesn’t pet a dog to win us over. She doesn’t compensate with a sense of humor. If she’s an ice queen with a heart of gold, she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve.
Libby wins our affection almost by accident. She’s the lone survivor of a murder spree that claimed her mother and two sisters. The moment this personal tragedy could get our sympathy, we learn she’s been exploiting it for money, living off of donations, even having a self help book on recovery ghost written for her. Now she’s down to her last few dollars. She’s a loser who strives to be as unlovable as possible.
Libby testified that her teenage brother sacrificed her siblings in the name of Satan, but didn’t actually see the event go down. When a group of true crime junkies hire her to investigate her past, Libby starts to wonder if the killer is still out there.
Libby’s call to action forces her to grow fast. Since she starts from such a low place, she has nowhere to go but up. Even though, she set out to rub us the wrong way in chapter 1, we find ourselves rooting for her when the book is done. Her no bullshit attitude proves beneficial. She doesn’t come with a strong moral code, but she finds one on the way.
These are the types of stories I love the most: likability long cons. If Libby had started as a grown up girl scout, she wouldn’t have commanded my attention.
Ask yourself, if Tony Stark was a gentleman from frame one, how compelling would you have found his transformation into Iron Man? If Han Solo never cared about Galactic Credits, how much would you have cared when he helped the rebellion at the last minute? If Catwoman hadn’t stollen Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, would you have cared as much when she decided to help him save Gotham?
Unlike those lovable rogues, Libby Day doesn’t even bother being charming, but she goes through a similar karmic transition.
Average Characters are Overdone
A trap early writers fall into is trying to make their characters likable from the get go. Treating character introductions like job interviews, they go out of their way to make a good first impression.
A lot of writers think the key to making characters relatable is to make them as average as possible. This is why sitting through movie trailers feels like watching a parade of Joe Everymen. I’ve already written about how much I hate that feeling. I don’t find regular Joe’s very compelling. Designing your lead to appear hyper normal, is a cheap way to make them accessible. A smarter investment, would be to give them a goal your audience can relate to.
Maybe we’re not all blue collar slobs, but we all want a reason to get up in the morning. Maybe we’re not all Joe-sixpacks, but we all want to be happier than we are. Maybe we’re not all average Americans, but we all want to be loved by someone.
Your character doesn’t need to be someone the audience wants to have a beer with. They’re not running for president. You don’t need to file down their jagged edges. Well developed characters are just as likable as characters that are just like us. It’s more important for your hero to feel like a human being than a delegate for all of humanity.
Don’t Avoid Every Extreme
Writing a believable character is a lot like trying to seduce someone; if you’re too calculated in your approach, your target audience is going to feel it. They might not be able to explain why it’s not working, but they’ll have a very strong hunch. If you use manipulative language on a first date, your date has every right to walk out on you. If pander to what you think your audience wants, they have every right to put your book down.
Readers have read enough stories to subconsciously recognize writers’ tricks. Character formulas are not love potions.
If you write with an imaginary audience in the room, you’ll sacrifice your honesty in the name of broadening your appeal. You’ll avoid extremes. You’ll struggle to make your character vulnerable, without seeming too whiny. You’ll make them an underdog, with an unnatural resilience. You’ll waste too much time trying to make them seem smart, but not too clever. One sarcastic quip too many and you’ll fear you’re losing your reader.
If you write with your audience in the room, you’re setting yourself up for writer’s block. How can your story move forward, when you’re so afraid your reader will turn on you?
There’s something freeing about writing nasty characters, then unleashing them on the total squares that occupy their universe. We all spend so much time saving face, it’s fun to watch someone cast off social mores with reckless abandon. Audiences might find your hero repellant in the prologue, only to root for them later on.
Sarcastic, cynical, arrogant people are not without their appeal, so long as they’re three dimensional. Defects give your characters room to grow. Don’t rob them of a deep emotional change by making them too likable from the get go.
Everything has been done before. Accept it. Everything has been said before too, you can check Google for the transcript. Odds are your fresh blockbuster pitch is already on Netflix, and The Twilight Zone beat you to your fresh story by more than half a century.
A writer can only make so many variances to the same old tale. There are thirty-six dramatic situations, fitting into seven basic plots, told in three acts, following the same hero with a thousand faces. Do the math, show your work, or go ahead and copy off your neighbor because it really doesn’t matter.
My early efforts tried to break the formula by adding variables to the equation. I’d mix genres, combine my favorite characters, and play with dated one-liners. I thought it all added up to something unique, until my friends easily pegged the sources of my inspiration. My creativity was less than the sum of my influences. All of my additions amounted to a zero sum.
So I got abstract, bogging my screenplays down with themes I’d taken from dreams. My professor called them Lynchian, another apt comparison, pointing out that David Lynch was already on the road I was going down.
When I started writing horror, I trekked into obscene depths, searching for a story so grotesque no writer would dare tell it. I’ve mined the pit of human depravity only to find others had been there before me. The moment I thought I’d come up with an original concept, I’d find it’d happened in the real world and there was already a made for TV movie.
Like Chuck Palahniuk says, “You can’t invent a new sin.”
Turns out I’d read so many books and watched so many movies that I could never be sure if an idea was truly my own. Of course I could have gone out into the world in search of inspiration, but I grew up in Minnesota, it’s cold and it’s not good to leave your video games on ‘pause’ for too long.
I was down to a few options: plagiarize an obscure story and pass it off as my own, like a bad musician sampling without giving attribution, or show up to the party in the same dress as Stephen King and just tell everyone how I’m wearing it different (yup, that’s the analogy I’m going with, now it’s up to you to try to visualize it).
I decided if anyone pointed out that Mr. King was donning the same sparkling skirt I was vamping around in, then I would just say, “I know, my outfit is an homage to his.”
The Difference Between Fan Fiction and a Proper Homage
The biggest difference between fan fiction and homages is that fan fiction brings established characters into new situations, while homages bring original heroes into familiar ones. With an homage, it’s not uncommon for the setup to be the same as a classic, while the payoff might be completely different.
If you’re writing modern day characters the audience will assume they’re familiar with pop culture. You can’t introduce a vampire and pretend your characters have never heard of Bram Stoker. Dracula is the most filmed literary figure of all time. If your characters see someone sucking blood from a neck they better not say, “What the hell was that thing?”
If they do, we’ll be wondering if they live in an alternative reality where Nosferatu never happened. That kind of convenient naivety breaks the suspension of disbelief. It’s better to have one of them hang a lantern on your influence, draw attention to the similarities to let your audience know that your interpretation is going to be different.
Right now I’m working on an homage to Robert W. Chambers’s classic supernatural horror story The King in Yellow. In Chambers’ 1895 book, copies of a mysterious play have caused such widespread madness that the government has installed Suicide Chambers on every street corner. The banned text The King in Yellow resonates so powerfully with anyone who dares read it that they go mad from the revelation.
My story is about a modern private detective, investigating the death of a script reader who read an adaptation of Chambers’s fabled play right before setting himself aflame. The detective has to trace the cursed screenplay’s origins before it can claim another victim.
Now I know, Chambers isn’t that obscure of an influence to borrow from.
The King in Yellow inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s tome of forbidden knowledge The Necronomicon. Lovecraft also put a copy of the play itself in the Arkham Library appearing in many of his stories. He found Chamber’s story so inspiring that he included the titular character in his pantheon of cosmic beings under the name Hastur.
Director Sam Raimi borrowed the Necronomicon for his Evil Dead series, while John Carpenter used the concept of the deadly book in his film In the Mouth of Madness, ensuring that the universe shared by Chambers and Lovecraft expanded into other mediums.
The King in Yellow made the jump to TV when True Detective’s show runner, Nic Pizzolatto, incorporated names, symbols, and themes from Chambers’s book into the show.
Chambers himself borrowed the names Carcousa, Hali, and Hastur from Ambrose Bierce’s short stories An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haïta the Shepherd. In his story, Chambers offered a mere glimpse of The King in Yellow play, but the setup bears a striking resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.
If a piece had a profound impact on your work, why not slip in a mention of it? Stephen King’s short story N, has a character slyly compare his situation to the plot of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (which inspired me to quote it at the beginning of my own novella).
The take away point here isn’t stealing is fine because everybody does it, it’s that influences are for everyone.
If Everything has been Written Before, Why Bother Writing Anything?
If after reading all this you find yourself having an existential crisis, then good. My work here is done. Until next week. I mean, wait.
So what if everything has been done before? It hasn’t been done by you yet. Those stories haven’t been told with your voice, using your life experiences. Your take is going to have some variances. An awareness of what came before will allow you to play with your audience’s expectations, a slight deviation will feel like a full on twist.
So what if your idea shares a setup with something else? Movies are pitched like that all the time. Under Siege is just Die Hard on a boat, Passenger 57 is just Die Hard on a plane, and Home Alone is just Die Hard with a kid. Isn’t it time you stopped worrying about being so fiercely original and wrote a Die Hard of your own?
Have you ever clicked on a link only to discover it failed to provide any information beyond a definition of the subject in question? The article took a few paragraphs to confirm the topic’s importance, before wrapping up with a handful of links. You clicked on one to find a post that was virtually identical to the one you were just reading; short, simple, and useless.
You’ve uncovered a network of bloggers attempting to establish their authority by dipping their feet into conversations without diving all the way in. Underestimating their reader’s attention span, they figured you’d stop skimming a few paragraphs in. They end before coming to the conclusions promised by their headlines. What’s worse is you got the sense they knew what they were talking about, that they had the information, but were hoarding it for themselves.
They hold their advice back so they can sell it to you, but you’re not sure of its value. How could you be, when these writers cut themselves off in the middle of showing their credentials?
I come across these placeholders when I follow links on self-publishing more so than when I seek them out on my own. Sure, these marketing masters try to fill their paragraphs with buzzwords for search engine optimization, but the articles on self-publishing that show up on Google, benefit from having engagement. Their commenters elevate the conversation.
There’s no shame in offering quick tips, micro sized posts to raise awareness of a fresh topic, just label it as such. Don’t be liberal with the phrase “Everything You need to Know About Self-Publishing.”
The word “Everything” implies something longer than an essay answer.
If you have genuine knowhow share it. If you think traditional publishing is dead. Show me your data. I don’t care if you’ve felt that way for a long time. Have you had industry experience? A hunch is not a credible source. Observations from the outside looking in do not make us expert witnesses.
The Self-Publishing World is Filled with Empty Advice
I love the idea of self-publishing, doing everything on my own, and cutting out the middlemen, but just because that feels like a great way to share my work, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective one. I don’t need another opinion to reinforce that feeling. I need hard stats to help me examine my options. Many of us shopping our manuscripts around are wondering the same things.
Bloggers, if you found an effective formula for promoting your self-published works, take us through the steps.
What are some of the best ways to get the word out? How effective are book trailers, local readings, and short term discounts? Should we wait until we have several books for sale before giving anything away for free? Should self-publishers take to Twitter to ask for reviewers? Should we swap reviews with other writers? Is there a conflict of interest there?
If we use social media to target our audience, which sites get the most engagement? Everyone says Reddit is where it’s at, how do we establish ourselves on that? What percentage of our time should we devote to social networking versus content creation? Can blogs really raise an audience’s interest in their author’s voice for narrative?
For every one of these questions I’ve found answers to I’ve found ten comment-sized articles that acknowledge their importance, but little else. As if to say, “That’s a great question, but can I ask you something? What’s that over there?”
The Right Way to Do It
Something happens when too many bloggers adapt the quantity over quality philosophy. Readers notice. Some would-be bloggers emulate the format, echoing the same vague statements of encouragement, plagiarizing platitudes, devaluing their brand before it’s been established. Others get discouraged, wondering, “What’s the point if every blog offers the same thing?”
Of the self-publishing advice sites I’ve found, there is an article format that works great. Successful self-publishers spend a month focusing on a specific subject, like formatting eBooks or making good cover art. They write a long form article, filled with pictures, deep technical insights, and they break it down into a series of weekly numbered posts.
This is the best of both worlds.
Rather than blowing their load on one big information dump, these bloggers have a month of fresh content. These segments are short enough to hold readers’ attention, they deliver what they promise, and they give a guy like me something to dive into once the whole shebang is online.
The internet is changing. Readers are spotting sponsored content on the pages they frequent: advertisements inside the margins, formatted to look like headlines. Commercials have moved from popups to the page, from banners to block quotes, from expanding ads to the editorials themselves.
Sidestepping filtering measures like Adblock Plus, marketers are going undercover, posing as endorsements by real writers, hoping reader’s won’t realize one of these articles is not like the others. Resizing their photos to the site’s dimensions, companies show themselves in a positive light. Composing their text to match the site’s layout, companies leave no room to read between the lines. Curating comments, they muzzle descent.
Tech blogs feature glowing reviews of the latest smartphone, long before the editors get their hands on demo models. News outlets endorse corporate mergers, before their business journalists get a chance to weigh in. Secular magazines find religion, before the staff can decide on the right one.
If your advertisement is going to pose as an article, it needs an angle. It needs conflict, death, and sex. It needs a writer with the courage to criticize every aspect of your business, but still make it look squeaky clean by the end.
That’s where I come in.
As someone who’s built a brand criticizing bad netiquette, I’m in a unique position to pander for payments. I’ll disguise your native advertisements in the same off-color tone as my own rants. My mockery is waiting to be monetized. My contempt is waiting to be cashed in on. My sarcasm is for sale.
Who better to shill your products but someone critical of the practice?
Let my smug mug be your pitchman, hawking your wares with back handed compliments. Let me drag you down to my level, to help raise brand awareness. Together, we’ll test the theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
As the Emperor of the sovereign nation of Blogsylvania, I assure you there is no division between the church of currency and the state housing my stories. I have the moral flexibility to bend over backwards. So let’s get this limbo party started.
Here’s a title that would make an endorsement of Scientology sound a little more plausible:
“I think L. Ron Hubbard was full of shit, but some of my best friends are Scientologists”
Right out of the gate, a little profanity adds a lot more authenticity. The client takes one step back, to take two steps forward. It’s a patient form of manipulation, planting seeds for delayed gratification. It tricks the reader into thinking this cynical asshole is coming around to the religion. It’s a subtle bandwagon argument, from someone who appears to be above that sort of thing.
Anyone can pay for celebrity endorsements, but to get an aging Gen-Xer’s approval, that’s an accomplishment.
Not all advertisers are offering salvation. Some of you are snake oil salesmen, exalting a magical elixir that doesn’t do a thing. The very names of your products get flagged as spam. Our brains are conditioned to skim past them. That’s where my reverse psychology smear campaign can do wonders for your brand.
If I tell my readers that your all-natural male enhancement supplement causes bloody diarrhea, they’re more likely to believe it does what you claim. How could it be a placebo if it causes irritable bowels? After all, side effects mean it does something. Let’s pile a bunch on so they take up half the advertisement. It’s hard for customers to be skeptics when they’re too busy weighing the costs and benefits. Now that’s clever marketing.
Ideas just like these are up for auction. If an advertorial sounds too good to be believed, readers know it probably is. It’s time to add authenticity to your sales pitch by passing it through the filter of my self-righteousness.
I know what you’re thinking, who’s this guy to spit in the face of our strategy? I’m someone who raises interest in the hardest product in the world to market: a personal blog.
Depressed by the rise in Clickbait, One Blogger Does Something to Restore Readers’ Faith in Humanity
Bloggers have it tough, working long hours, paying to play, for an audience that may never stay. The world sees our failure as the punchline to an elaborate joke. As far as they’re concerned, our words are selfies for snobs, journals masquerading as journalism, vanity press that wouldn’t exist without the internet.
Scroll through your Facebook feed, compare the choices to what we’re offering. If readers have to pick between our editorial on net neutrality and a report on the death of The Walking Dead’s lead, it’s hard to compete (Andrew Lincoln is alive and well, but that article will be accurate eventually). Sure, we might have important information on OK Cupid’s psychological manipulation plan, but there’s a report going around that Orange is the New Black has been cancelled again.
There’s new footage of a goat/sheep hybrid. This ‘Geep’ is too cute to be ignored. What are we offering that’s so much more enlightening?
While these eye catching links score the page views our latest efforts becomes old news.
When the person next to us is reading clickbait, it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever read one of our long form articles. They may find the experience more rewarding, but they know it’ll be time consuming. While we offer food for thought, they’re choosing junk food instead.
Plenty of bloggers have come down with a case of viral envy. Seeing our friends post lackluster links, we start ‘share shaming’, combing through articles like ‘Things You Never Noticed About Famous Movies’ for factual accuracy.
How this Blogger handles Sour Grapes Over Clickbait is Genius
People enjoy reading lists, but do they ever recognize the authorship? They like the format, but would they ever pay for a book written by a contributor? These sites are tailored for turnover. After churning out top ten lists, where can a BuzzFeed freelancer go from there? How many agents are knocking down their door?
People keep telling me there’s no money in long form writing, but how many of these clickbait contributors are rolling in it? How many of them have a long term plan? It’s hard to imagine there’s job security in what they do. The format is so easy to replicate the satirical UpWorthy Generator could replace the headlines on Upworthy proper.
We bloggers, aspiring to be authors, keep telling ourselves that we’re the tortoise and these viral writers are the hare. They’re beating us in traffic but we have a far better chance of getting to our destination. We just have to keep inching along without the instant gratification of watching our stats surge.
We love Memes, but Viral Content Might Be Making Us Sick
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas G. Carr says all this constant skimming is affecting the way we think. Exposure to the internet changes how our minds work offline. The neuroplasticity of our brains shifts, increasing our appetite for entertainment, reducing our attention spans, making it tough to embrace a mere moment of silence.
We’re hungry for information, but only in bite sized little chunks.
Clickbaiters are at the forefront of exploiting this phenomenon. Their science is in composing titles our curiosity can’t help but click on (i.e. everything in bold in this article). Each page view generates revenue. UpWorthy writes 25 headlines for everything they share, meticulously placing hooks readers can’t ignore.
While UpWorthy’s headlines inflate their videos to epic proportions, other sites resort to outright fabrications. If the internet teaches us anything, it’s that the common denominator can always get a little lower.
There’s a New Condition that Causes Sufferers to Confuse Lying with Satire
There’s a gullibility test going around Facebook. The way it works is one of your friends posts a link to an article with a headline that’s too amazing to be true, like:
CONFIRMED: HPV Vaccine Linked to Dementia Neil deGrasse Tyson: Sixth Extinction Event Will Happen in Our Lifetime Woody Harrelson Shot and Killed Outside of Vegas Nightclub
Here’s where this becomes a test: do you do a quick Google search for more information, see if the New York times has weighed in on these developments, or do you just hit ‘share’ to inform your friends?
If you hit ‘share’ you should look up, it says ‘GULLIBLE’ on the ceiling.
One of the biggest culprits of this technique is EmpireNews.net. Every article on their home page looks like a scoop, big developments every major news outlets are trailing behind on. The headlines are crazy, but not too far outside the realm of reason.
EmpireNews.net bills itself as “a satirical entertainment website.” Like The Onion without the irony, exaggeration, or social commentary.
These are works of fiction, but unlike entries from The Onion they’re too banal to be satirical.
The idea of Jimmy Fallon feuding with NBC Executives isn’t ironic. TV personalities posture for raises all the time. There’s no real mockery. A satirical headline would’ve read:
Conan O’Brien Fired From ‘The Conan O’Brien Show’ After Feud with TBS; Jay Leno to Take Over Title Role.
It would feature a Photoshopped picture of Leno sporting Conan’s iconic red hair, and it would’ve come out over a year ago, when it would’ve been timely. Empire’s title is designed to upset Fallon’s fans, tricking his viewers into sharing the bad news with their friends.
Faking TV show cancellations, celebrity arrests or deaths, is a cheap way to find success. It get’s clicks, but those clicks don’t guarantee engagement. At the time of this writing none of the articles on EmpireNews’s main page feature a single comment. Either no one has anything to say, or the admins delete anything critical of what they’re doing.
Empire News is looking for contributors. Nowhere on their hiring page do they mention humor. Part of me wants to apply, submitting the dictionary definition of ‘satire’ as my writing sample.
Long form Journalism is making a comeback, You’ll Never Guess Where
If you visit BuzzFeed’s main page, you’ll find something funny. Above the trending titles, footage of celebrity fisticuffs, and videos of kittens, is news. At the time of this writing, the ceasefire in Gaza is the top headline. Next to that is a thorough article on Uganda striking down its Anti-Homosexuality act.
While local newspapers are doing everything they can to turn themselves into printed versions of websites, BuzzFeed is dabbling in 2,000 + word articles. Two years ago BuzzFeed hired former SPIN and Details editor Steve Kandell to edit their long form content. Kandell’s goal was to produce sharable editorials, after all it’s the title that gets the click, but he realizes that it’s the depth that gets the engagement.
I knew none of this when I started this piece. I assumed BuzzFeed was the big bad and traditional media was picking up its habits. A little research, spun my thesis on its head.
My friends in local news outlets tell stories about editors begging for more top ten lists, drooling at the prospect of getting BuzzFeed’s traffic.
Traditional media is destroying traditional media by confusing reduction with adaptation. By shifting their efforts to quick consumption, they abandon topics worth sharing. By curating someone else’s content they diminish the value of their own. While CNN fills their main page with videos of puppies, in a desperate attempt to beat BuzzFeed at their own game, BuzzFeed is dabbling in real news.
This is something to keep in mind whenever someone tells you, “There’s no room for real writing in a post-BuzzFeed world.”
BuzzFeed doesn’t seem to think so.
Long form writing isn’t a dated practice, it’s a niche, one in need of writers willing to embrace it.
Bloggers, if you can’t fit your thesis into 500 words, go longer. Complete your thought. Your intriguing headline deserves an equally compelling closing argument. It’s easier to get readers to click on your page than to follow it. Show them that you have what it takes to go the distance.
Part song, part spoken word anthem, the above piece is a mantra for getting writing done. It’s creative advice served with a side of synths, and a beat worth bumping to, a metaphor for writers trying to keep stressors from stalling their fiction.
Think of it like this: you’re a director charged with delivering a film on schedule. Your story is the production, your imagination is the location, and every aspect of your personality are the stage hands.
What happens when the morale shifts, the spirit of the set turns toxic, and the forces behind the camera get overtaken by doubt? You grab yourself a megaphone, and you own your production. When Inspiration goes on strike, its up to you to shut Fear, Anger, and all the other scabs out.
You’re filming on a closed set, kick Heartache off of it. You’re not about to go wasting film on Self Pity’s vision. Narrow your focus through the right lens. You’re not about to give a panic attack all the best lines. The name on the director’s chair is not “Depression.” It’s high time you took back your imagination. Continue reading Take Back Your Imagination (Audio Blog)→
You see him everywhere, with his crewcut, t-shirts, jeans, and vintage motorcycle jacket; this white, clean shaven, hetrosexual, twenty to thirty something rules the summer movie season. A de-socialized soldier in civilian clothes, he goes wherever the screenwriters order, not because of a strong desire, but because the plot needs him to be there.
He doesn’t waste screen time illustrating his motivations, those frames are better served with explosions. When there’s a 120 page script with 250 scenes, he’ll be there. When it feels like you’re watching a two hour montage, he’ll be there. When a set piece passes before you can figure out its dimensions, he’ll be there sprinting onto the next one. While other films take time to reveal their characters, Joe Everyman races to the closing credits.
When the premise is the selling point Joe doesn’t slow things down with character development. Every second he needs to evolve, comes at the expense of giant robots knocking over skyscrapers. He keeps things consistent so we can get back to super-sized dinosaurs fighting on beach front property, and UFOs blasting through landmarks.
In screenwriting, there’s a rule: enter a scene late, leave it early. Joe Everyman exploits this rule, to seem like more than what we see. As a cheat, the screenwriter implies Joe is a dynamic three-dimensional character, whenever he’s not there.
Joe can make his wife laugh, though we’ll never hear his joke. She’s swooning over a romantic gesture he performed off screen. They’re deeply in love, see they’re kissing, in a nice warm lit room shown through a shaky camera, so you know its intimate. As for the rest of their relationship, we’ll just have to take the movie’s word for it.
The screenwriter didn’t have time to fill in Joe’s personality, they left you to do it for them. Joe is a mannequin, hanging from train cars, leaping across buildings. A blank template for the viewer to project themselves onto, a surrogate, an empty vessel, a pod person. He’s a cardboard cutout with flat character traits and an empty face, ‘insert self here.’ He has a Madlib in place of a personality.
In this by the numbers story telling equation, the hero is the least important variable.
Without a call to action, Joe Everyman would languish behind a desk for the rest of his life. Stuck in a go nowhere 9 to 5, he’d have his 2.5 kids, and wait for his 401k to come. Coincidence has elevated him to the role of the chosen one, the one who will bring balance to the force, lead our armies against Skynet, and free us from the Matrix. If only there was a mentor figure to tell the rest of us how special we were.
The Alternative is Always more Attractive
There’s a reason everyone likes Han Solo over Luke Skywalker, Wolverine over Cyclops, Michaelangelo over Leonardo, Hit Girl over Kick Ass, Captain Jack Sparrow over Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann over Will Turner, Captain Barbossa over Will Turner (you see where I’m going with this).
Personality is appealing. Every saga has its vanilla individuals, fine, safe, and boring, then there are the players with some flavor.
Choosing between ‘interesting’ and ‘identifiable’ character attributes, I go with interesting every time. The character’s drive, goals, and failings should make them identifiable, not their broad appeal.
Beige just isn’t my color.
While erratic villains lead the plot in interesting directions, Joe Everyman takes orders between locations. Walking off the set of War of the Worlds, Joe shows up in Godzilla in the exact same outfit. Sam Worthington’s character from Terminator Salvation wondered through Avatar, then onto the set of Clash of the Titans. These were different time periods and places, but the exact same person. Not to make fun of Worthington as an actor, he’s good in everything I’ve seen him in, it’s just these parts were all underwritten.
Joe Everyman makes the supporting cast look cool by accident. He’s always upstaged by misfits whose plots we’d rather follow.
I can’t help but imagine a Matrix movie with Morpheus as the lead, a Thor title starring Loki, or a Godzilla film staring Bryan Cranston (for those of you saying “Don’t we already have one of those?” No, no we don’t).
Joe Everyman must come into His Own
Joe Everyman is a portrait of the audience, painted in broad strokes, a bad boardwalk caricature. His psych profile is all encompassing. He’s the one size fits all of storytelling. He communicates with all the grace of an advertisement, a Frankenstein Monster stitched together from market research. As authentic as a politician, he’s something for everyone, and everything to no one.
He’s so hyper-average that he threatens the suspension of disbelief.
Plenty of stories start with a pessimistic protagonist. A person who’s been railroaded by life, a victim of a series of accidents who learns to take control of their situation. A passive presence who changes the moment they decide they truly want something. This is when Joe Everyman works best, when he becomes Joe Individual.
In The Matrix, Neo decides he’s not ‘the one.’ Realizing his life is expendable, he sets out to save his mentor. Rather than let the Oracle tell him what he is, he makes a defiant decision (which I know, was her plan all along). Regardless of the existentialist determinist debate, Neo believes he’s made this choice on his own. Killing his Mr. Anderson persona, he evolves into his avatar.
A storytelling crime happens when Joe Everyman is introduced only to stay blank until the very end. He may have gone through an adventure, but made no choices, personal changes, and learned no lessons. Taking orders without making decisions, he’s still just a victim of circumstance.
If a screenwriter wants our empathy, they shouldn’t expect it from the character’s presentation. Sure the guy on screen might look like me, but he has to earn my empathy. Get me invested in his plight, until his goals become my goals, his change becomes my change, and his outcome becomes my outcome. Then, and only then, will I see myself in him.
Do this well and it won’t matter what age, gender, color, or sexual orientation this character comes in, we’ll still see ourselves in them.
When you create a slate for people to project themselves on, take care not to leave it blank. If the vessel stays empty, it will feel hollow to the audience. Average Joe Everyman should end up Exceptional Joe Individual, or at the very least Tragic Joe Anti-Hero.
A pundit on the talk show circuit, calling herself the ‘Princeton Mom,’ urges young girls to “Find a husband while they’re still in college.” Shaming the bar scene, she says the pickings get slimmer for women waiting until they find a career.
While she doesn’t feel the same rules apply to men, a study by Indiana University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, shows that children of older fathers have a higher risk of developing mental illness. On top of that, New York University’s Langone Medical Center found that marriage lowers disease, depression, and the death rate in men.
I’m pretty sure these studies were commissioned by my parents.
LinkedIn keeps emailing me reminders to congratulate my friends on their promotions. Facebook’s ‘Like’ algorithm fills my news feed with wedding announcements and infants. Match.com keeps telling me to finish my registration.
Alright internet, I get the hint.
There’s a clock, with hands governed by biology, and markings agreed upon by society. The hands advance, reducing our metabolisms, bringing us grey hairs, and crow’s feet. The markings tell us when we ought to be done with our graduate degrees, when we should have careers, and life partners. I’ve watched the hands cross those marks, while I’ve labored to become an author. A five year plan came and went, while I worked dead end jobs, and typed through the evenings.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says, it takes 10,000 hours of practice, roughly ten years, to be an expert at something. My artistic pursuits have set me on a narrow path.
I hear the clock ticking. The Grimm Reaper’s scythe swings like a pendulum. Every time I look up, it lowers an inch. For some life is a journey, for others a destination, and for too many of us it’s a countdown. Every day is a life event we’re racing toward. We’re late for a very important date.
If only this pressure wasn’t there.
What I’d Do if I were Immortal
Everyone knows what they’d do if they won the lottery, but few could tell you what they’d do if they were immortal. Most folks don’t dabble in the thought unless they’re plotting a vampire novel. It’s counterintuitive; life is short, we’re supposed to make the most of it. That ticking clock is all that gets some folks out of bed, but what if it wasn’t a motivating factor? Indulge me in this thought experiment.
What would you do if you were immortal?
Me, I would go to law school so I could write a proper legal thriller. I’d study abnormal psychology so I could write my mysteries with authority. I’d dual major in philosophy and information technology, so that my science fiction was informed by reality.
My quest for research and reference material would take me around the world. I’d go to the empty Chinese cities, built before the population could afford them. Investigating the dormant halls of the largest mall in the world, I’d map the ruins of a future civilization. Trudging through the overgrowth on these unopened buildings, their architecture would inspire my atmosphere.
I’d join up with ghost hunters, not to chase spirit orbs or follow trails of ectoplasm, but to get inside their heads, to study the living’s obsession with the dead.
If I were immortal I’d master every medium. I’d rotate around recording studios, from the strings, to the sticks, to the keys. Clutching the microphone, I’d bottom out my baritone, and break glass with my falsetto. I’d beatbox, I’d scratch records, I’d learn to play the theremin.
I’d paint across canvases and digital touch screens, in watercolors and 3-D vectors. I’d draw from memory and from dreams. I’d wander the country with a camera, collecting textures, fresh layers for my Photoshop collages.
Laying out my emotions in black box theaters, I’d project myself to arena balconies, going out into the aisles to touch the audience in their seats.
From film to video game development, I’d become an expert in all the things I’m told I’ve aged out of.
This is my mental montage. At the end of yours ask yourself, which of your options seems the most appealing, which ones seem like they’re within the realm of reason?
Start there and run down the list. No one’s telling you to abandon your family or quit your day job, but of the time you have left, some of it can be spent pursuing these passions.
Devote the time you can. Whenever you’re watching TV just because it’s on, you have a moment to work with. Whenever you’re getting lost clicking through a rabbit hole of trending topics, you could be working on a project. Whenever you’re venting only to find it isn’t helping, there just might be another solution.
All that time you’ve wasted dwelling on the past, start spending some of it in the present. There’s an art shaped hole in your life, fill it.
Bloom on Your Terms
Denis Leary has a standup routine where he sets the rule, “If you’re not what you want to be by the time you’re 35, you’re never going to be.”
Tell that to Raymond Chandler, the father of the modern noir, who started writing at 44. Tell that to Charles Bukowski who was 49 when his first collection was published. Tell that to David Seidler, who came to Hollywood at the age of 40, winning an Oscar for The King’s Speech at 77. These examples might be rare, but they happen.
I can’t help but wonder how many great works we’ve lost, because their authors had succumb to ageism, because they let someone else put an expiration date on their dreams.
This clock isn’t atomic. The units for measuring life events aren’t universal, they’re on a sliding scale. The markings on the clock are just a form of peer pressure that lingered past our high school years. Adolescence doesn’t end when it’s convenient. The socially acceptable grace period for self discovery should be extended.
We don’t all bloom at the same time, but some of our petals come out more refined.
You’re not immortal, but don’t let your peers push aside your passions, don’t live for admiration at your high school reunion, and don’t deny yourself life experiences based on artificial expiration dates.
Trying to write with pent up stress is like walking onto the set of your imagination to find someone else has taken over the production. While you stewed in your own juices the project was stolen by the producers. Succumbing to scrutiny, you left yourself open to a mutiny. Dwelling on the past, you lost half your cast. Undermining your authority, your self doubt took control of this movie.
Apprehension tilted the lights a few degrees in the wrong direction, just enough for your wit to get dim, just enough to cloud your vision, just enough to let the darkness in. It’s got you focusing on the wrong thing. You’re lost in the shadows while the daylight is burning.
Wardrobe’s carefully crafted costumes lay scattered on the floor. Throwing it’s weight around, Anger fills in for the star. Hamming it up, it gives a speech that never ends, it’s ranting and raving. Your lead watches from the sidelines with your Ambition, reduced to understudies by Anger’s show stealing.
Taking over casting, Rejection opens the doors to all its favorite players: employers, publishers, message-board commenters, ex-lovers, number forgetters, and head duckers from the bar. Anyone who can make you question the value of who you are.
Putting in an over the top performance, Doubt crushes the props, and tears down the backdrops. It leaves footprints on the set. Chewing the scenery, it picks cardboard from its teeth. Refusing to be ignored, Doubt leaves a lasting impression on everyone.
Filling in for the cinematographer, Fear staggers onto the scene drunk, keen to replace your choreographed long takes with a shaky cam. He’s seeing double. He wants to share the experience with world. Filling your mind’s eye with lens flare, he blots out the picture. Trying to pick apart the streaks, your brain gets scattered. Blinded by it, you loose the plot.
Pages blow across the ruins. Your script has undergone last minute revisions. Depression has ordered rewrites, it’s been picking you apart all night. It cut the subtext from your internal monologue. These new lines are very direct. They’re so on-the-nose they just might break it.
Reading it’s revision aloud, Depressions says, “It’s too late for your aspirations to come to fruition. Learn your place at the bottom, settle in.”
If morale was any lower it would be buried beneath the floorboards.
Stress doesn’t want to let you sit in the director’s chair. Pushing you out of your own picture, it wants to lock you in your trailer. It wants script approval. It wants creative control. Your bad habits are its passion project. It’s got a bullhorn for all of it’s defeatist rhetoric.
If storytelling is your career aspiration, you can’t wait for better weather conditions. You can’t wait for support or validation. You need to start shooting if you’re going to make your release date on time.
When you can’t use the first idea that comes to mind you need to give direction. Be a dictator. If you can’t call for quiet on the set, you’re going to have to record around the noise, you’re going to have to shoot around the clutter. You’re going to have to tell your story louder than any of your other stressors. It doesn’t matter if your head is clear, get something down on paper, you can fix it in post later.
This is your production. The show must go on. When Stress is out of good ideas, you need take back your imagination.