Tag Archives: Lost

Here Comes The Ending

In many ways, I’m super jealous of the writers behind the Game of Thrones tv show. Over the years, they’ve built up an array of excellently developed and flawed characters, well-rounded, conflicted people who are often their own worst enemy. It’s Jon Snow’s loyalty to his homeland that makes his relationship with the Free Folk so fraught, but it’s that relationship that ends up saving his life. Petyr Baelish is delightfully conniving – he’s someone who wants power and will double cross anyone — even himself — if it gets him there. They’re complex, with shifting and conflicting loyalties that mean that sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. The show gets a lot of mileage from throwing curveballs at these characters and watching what happens.

But then, I’m really happy I’m not writing Game of Thrones. Part of every story is its ending and I really don’t want to have to figure out how to bring that behemothic narrative to a resolution. Where do these characters’ arcs have to go? How will these myriad conflicts be resolved? What’s up with the White Walkers? There’s a lot going on.

The show’s finale airs tomorrow night, after a truncated season. It’s been rough; a lot of character arcs have been quickened in an effort to get everyone where they have to be before the end. Some have gotten the short end of the stick, some others have been given their moment to shine, and most have gotten some combination of both. There’s a lot in this season that I like, if not necessarily its execution.

Endings are hard.

I’m one of the few who adores the conclusion to Lost. After six seasons of mysteries and lore building, the series needed to come to a satisfying conclusion. And boy howdy, there were a lot of questions. Who put that wheel there? How’s time travel work exactly? Why did that bird screams Hurley’s name? Questions.

I figure the showrunners of Lost realized early on that short of an FAQ session, there was no way to answer every single question. So they wisely decided to hone in on the characters of the show and give them the resolution they needed. Some mysteries were solved, sure, but the focus was more on giving closure to the characters.

Take Sawyer, unapologetically my favorite character alongside Desmond and Ben. At the start of the series, he’s nothing more than a selfish jackass who wants to be hated. But as the series progresses, he discovers a gentler, protective side of him. Naturally, the culmination of it all has Sawyer making choices that are a testament to how far he’s come and finally, finally getting his happy ending.

Not all of our questions are answered — we never found out what the deal was with that dang bird — but by the time the final episode’s credits rolled I felt satisfied, I felt like my investment in Lost, its world, and its characters had all been worth it.

Honestly, that’s what really matters. Was it worth it? I have seen some awful movies in the past, but I remember more than a few of them fondly because of the circumstances of my viewing (like running a commentary with a friend in an empty theater). Lost was worth it for the journey it brought me on, for the characters I met and loved. I have no doubt that the ending to Game of Thrones will be far from perfect, but I think I’ll be happy so long as I get my closure, as long as l feel like my time with the show has been worth it.

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Fear of The Unknown

One of the wonderful agonies I found when I started watching Lost years and years ago was the show’s tendency to show a character’s reaction to a revelation/object/monster rather than the revelation/object/monster itself. It became characteristic of the show, and something emblematic of Abrams’ style.

Granted, J.J. Abrams had little involvement with Lost past the pilot, but he did work with Damon Lidelof to lay much of the show’s groundwork. Including, presumably, Abrams’ love of the Mystery Box. See, according to him, there’s a certain level of suspense and wonderment to be found in not knowing something. That there is a mysterious monster is more frightening — and in some ways more beautiful — than what it is. It’s less important what’s in the hatch than that there is one. The best horror writer is the one in your head, coming up with all sorts of half-formed possibilities for why something might be the way it is.

More than anything though, it makes us want to see what’s going on. Take Predator, due to the alien’s stealth, we spend much of the film not knowing what’s killing Dutch’s squad. Simply knowing something’s out there, something we can’t see and something deadly enough to take out an elite band of mercenaries, is terror enough. Alien does the same thing, withholding a good view of the Xenomorph as long as possible, leaving us to fill in the gaps on this monster. It’s effective, so much so that finally seeing the titular alien would be a letdown were it not for H.R. Geiger’s inspired design.

Point is: there’s something to be said for being restrained.

Cloverfield, that found-footage monster movie produced by Abrams, is in actuality a magnificent exercise in restraint. Rather than doing what Godzilla and virtually every other monster-invasion movie does, Cloverfield focused only on a small group of friends trying to survive on the ground. There’s no sweeping shots or frantic discussions in a war room. The found-footage nature of it forces the filmmakers to keep it small and, in turn, the audience in the dark. We see the monster’s limbs, we see smaller monsters, and all the time it’s scarier because we don’t see it in full. The possibility of it all is far more frightening.

Keeping in that sensibility is the not-a-but-kinda-sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane. Trapped in a bunker with a captor/savior while Armageddon might have happened outside, protagonist Michelle — and the audience — is left to fill in the clues as to what happened. We don’t know what happened outside, we don’t know if Howard is really doing this out of the kindness of his heart, heck, we don’t know what his angle is at all. That the movie is not particularly forthcoming on any of this makes every hint of malice or mystery terrifying. There’s nothing scarier than not knowing what’s going on.

10 Cloverfield Lane earns this, however, by making sure we know Michelle on at least some level. We aren’t totally in the dark, we have a handle on our protagonist and thus we can react with her to all the crazy crap going on. We have a touchstone, a constant, a frame known to counter the unknown. Without that, 10 Cloverfield would be more frustrating than gripping.

Y’know, I’m not a fan of horror movies. Too much reliance on squick and pain and how downright creepifying something can be. But what 10 Cloverfield Lane, Alien, and Lost did are much more my jam. The simple fear of the unknown taken up to eleven, an implacable fear that you can’t quite put a finger on. Now that is terrifying.

Also, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a dang fine movie you should check out and I wanna rant about, but won’t because the less you know the better. Like I said, it’s scarier when you know less.

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Expository Conflict

Othello really hits the ground running. The first time we see the titular character in Shakespeare’s play he’s on trial in a war room. Now, it’s important to note that this is his introduction, this is when we learn who he is.

The easiest way to clue the audience in would be to just give us an infodump. Have people go “This is Othello, the Moor, who’s a general, and married to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter” in some fashion. No, it’s certainly not the most elegant way to disperse information, but, well, it works.

Thing is, exposition is boring. Really boring. No one wants a huge lecture in their story, especially if it comes right at the top. Which presents a unique problem for Shakespeare in Othello, how can he bring the audience up to speed on an unusual situation without boring the audience five minutes into his play? Simple: He turns exposition into conflict.

Conflict occurs when there’s disagreement. They can argue, they can fight, they can spend all day undermining each other. Conflict is also usually quite interesting. Two people going “as you know, such-and-such is whatever” is boring; an argument over whether such-and-such is whatever, however, keeps the audience interested. Now there’s tension over the exposition: Is it true? Who’s right? What’s gonna happen when one of ‘em is proven wrong?

And that’s what the first act of Othello is. He’s put on an informal trial and forced to prove he is who he is. We don’t hear the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him just out of the blue, rather their story is the explanation and evidence for his elopement. It doesn’t feel forced or out of place, and it’s interesting. Othello’s reputation is on the line and we want to see what happens next.

Exposition has to be interesting. Having it happen in conflict raises the tension and makes us pay attention. Compare two characters getting to know each other over coffee versus an interrogation. This is something that Lost does very well. Not only are all the characters strangers (and thus all serve as audience surrogates as they learn things about each other), but the mystery island setting has everyone tense and suspicious of one another. Secret agendas, angles, and hidden pasts make getting to know the characters exciting by itself.

It’s helped along in earlier season by flashbacks which further flesh out the characters. Once again, these flashbacks, which are basically just exposition, are made interesting through conflict. Charlie’s Dad doesn’t tell him he’s irresponsible, we see Charlie being irresponsible and butting heads against people close to him which in turn affects how we see him in the present. There’s also an arc to the flashbacks which helps invest us in the proceedings.

This is, of course, something that Fantastic Four did fantastically wrong. So much of the movie felt like pure exposition with no conflict to push things along. Reed meets a pre-evil Doom and the two simply, well, coexist. There’s no clash of worldview or rivalry of genius, they’re just there. I’m not asking for a Shakespearean trial; a competition for Sue’s affections would be insulting, but at the very least would be more interesting that what was essentially a series of “I’m smart,” “So am I,” “Cool, let’s science,” “Yes, let’s science.”

Stories have to introduce their audience to a new world. Could be a world inhabited by friends who work at a brewery or where a Moor in an interracial marriage is on a Venetian war council; could also be a world where a kid is able to create an inter-dimensional teleporter. No matter what there’s gonna be something the audience doesn’t know and will have to learn (seriously, if you’re doing an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood you’re still gonna have to tell us why she’s going to her grandmother’s). Exposition happens. It always happens. The trick is to make it work, and not bore us with it. So let’s keep Othello on trial.

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Mother Met

I wasn’t a fan of the How I Met Your Mother finale that aired on Monday. Now, I usually like finales; I love the ending of Lost and I do like how Chuck ended. Though both are controversial in their own right, they felt emotionally honest and true to the show. The problem with How I Met Your Mother’s “Last Forever” was that for what it was trying to do, it felt unearned.

And if you haven’t seen it yet: SPOILERS

My main complaint is, of course, Ted and Robin getting together at the very end. Why is this such a big issue? Because it undoes a season’s worth of work. That’s the primary problem with the finale: it backtracks. What have we spent most of the past season doing? Just about every episode’s pursued either a ‘Ted-gets-over-Robin-so-he-can-meet-the-eponymous-mother’ or ‘Barney-and-Robin-get-over-issues-and-recommit-to-each-other’ plot in some form or another. The penultimate episode (finally) wrapped up both arcs; Ted was over Robin, Barney and Robin were married.

Undoing the latter within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the finale and undo the former in the last three not only feels cheap but doesn’t mesh well with, y’know, everything else. It feels like a gut punch to anyone who spent those hours with the show.

Sure, people get divorced in real life, but the issues with Barney and Robin is, again, the year we spent confirming that they should be together, only to see a single fight a couple years in the future that led to them deciding they shouldn’t be together. It was handled so abruptly that it’s unmerited. If they were to pursue this route, they would have to spend more time on it. It’d been such a long time coming; both Barney and Robin had to get over commitment issues over the years to get here. To have it undone so quickly was a shame.

With that, How I Met Your Mother has been a show that lets its characters change. Barney spent the past couple seasons leaving his womanizing ways. It was a huge change for one of the pillars of the show, but it worked. Though him regressing post-Robin does show signs of rock bottom, it feels like a huge slap to the face of the last couple years (and 31’s baby, though sweet, also feels shoehorned and raises additional questions [does he have custody, is he settling down with 31, etc])

Finally, the mother. My biggest concern with the finale (and this season) was that we wouldn’t be sold on her relationship with Ted, wouldn’t get that catharsis. And with so much of the finale spending time with the other couples (despite both being pretty much wrapped up in the prior episode), I felt like we were running out of time. But the scene under the umbrella where they meet (Tracy!) was wonderful and the train moving past would have made the perfect ending. Because right then, I was sold on the mother, I was sold on Ted and Tracy. Even if she died, it’d make for a pleasant, bittersweet ending.

To have it end with Ted going after Robin, though, made the mother seem like an obstacle along his way to Robin. Suddenly the mother didn’t matter. And that felt dishonest, that felt untrue to the Ted from the beginning and the Ted we got to know. It happened too quickly (though it was six years in the plot, it was barely a cut for us) to feel earned. It felt cheap, and made the show feel cheap.

All that said, I have the utmost respect for Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. They shot the bit with the kids nearly a decade ago and stuck with it (though editing could have changed the ending); they stuck with their original idea through it all. They stuck to their guns and told the ending they’d wanted to tell all along. I do think they got screwed by the network, though in basically the opposite way that Firefly did: the show went on too long. I feel like the twist would have worked better three or four (or even more) years ago, or even if they hadn’t built up Tracy so much. But still, to pull a twist that big on this sort of show? That takes balls.

I guess your reaction to this ending depends on why you’re watching it. To call back to Lost for a second, I watched it for the characters, not the mysteries, and loved the finale. With How I Met Your Mother, I watched it because I wanted to see Ted meet the mother. I guess if your investment was anywhere but there, the ending would have landed better.

In any case, I would have been alright with the finale were it not for those last three minutes. For me, it ended with the train.

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The One With Aristotle

Around 2,300-odd years ago this guy named Aristotle wrote a thingy about what makes good stories. Yes, I’m referencing Aristotle; this is definitely an essay and not a rant. Now, I think storytelling as a whole has progressed beyond some of his ideas (his limitation of fiction to tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy, for example), but one thing that still sticks is his idea of catharsis. Aristotle figured that a story should arouse a lot of emotion in its audience, and then purge it in the end: catharsis. So, why is this vital to a good story/movie/book/video game/tv show/ballad?

Super 8 is a story on many different levels. People call it a story about an alien in a small town, I say it’s a story about kids making a movie. But underneath all that, is the story about a boy growing up and learning to move on. The movie carries this theme and tension, we see it when he interacts with his dad and with his friends and it’s reflected in the conflict with the alien. For most of its runtime we’re drawn into Joe’s turmoil, we feel his refusal to let go and understand how he has to. This is the thing that Aristotle called ‘arousing feelings of pity and fear.’ The movie culminates in Joe letting go of his mother’s locket, symbolically expressing his willingness to accept life as it is now and, with that, purging us of all that built up emotion. That feeling you get when you watch the ending of Super 8? Ladies and gentlemen: catharsis.

Using that dramatic structure thing you learned back in middle school, this is called the resolution. But resolution implies that everything has to be resolved, catharsis does not. Take The Empire Strikes Back, for example. It ends with Han frozen and captured, the Rebels scattered, and Luke finding out that Darth Vader is his father. There’s little resolution to be found (Will Han be okay? Obi Wan lied! Who did Yoda mean by ‘another’? [I bet it’s Han!]), but it feels complete all the same. We got our catharsis through the escape from Cloud City and the scene aboard the medical frigate. Unlike the second movie in many two-part trilogies (Dead Man’s Chest, Matrix: Reloaded), you get that sense of closure even without the third entry. Interestingly, the same goes for The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. During the Breaking of the Fellowship or Sam’s speech about the stories that really mattered we find our catharsis. Though the plot is tied up yet and though the ring is yet to be destroyed, we feel fulfilled.

Catharsis, if done right, can be more important than tying up plot. Like the finale of Lost, which, yes, I will constantly and vehemently defend. Instead of trying to tie up every loose end, Lindelof and Cuse opted instead to give the audience catharsis for their emotions. Sure, we didn’t find out why that one green bird said Hurley’s name that one time, but we did get the resolution that despite all the crap they went through, the survivors were reunited. They got their happy ending, and we felt all the better for it. Least we did if you weren’t watching Lost just for the mysteries. And why not? Focusing on the mysteries of Lost rather than the characters resulted in an intellectual rather than emotional investment, and thus, none of Aristotle’s desired feelings of fear and/or pity.

It all comes down to caring about the story. If we don’t give a crap about what’s going on, we won’t feel anything with the inevitable catharsis (for example: Hereafter). We go to the movies, play video games, and read books to feel something. Maybe it’s the wish-fulfillment of shooting up the Covenant as Master Chief or the sense of familiarity from watching Firefly, we wanna feel something. We just need that moment of release afterwards.

And yes, I did actually read Poetics, though it took Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters for it to really make sense.

Note: When done right the lack of proper catharsis is catharsis in and of itself. See: the ending of The Last of Us, though it could be argued that the catharsis comes during that final chapter. Either way, it still works due to our heavy investment in the characters and Druckmann’s incredible script.

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Change is Good

The TV show Chuck begun with a really simple conceit: nerdy, intelligent twenty-something stuck in a crappy deadend job in a BestBuy BuyMore suddenly finds himself with a CIA computer (the Intersect) in his brain and involved with various spy activities with agents from the NSA and CIA.

Simple.

The show could have very easily fallen into step; keep the perpetual romantic tension between Chuck and Sarah (the CIA agent) with Casey (the NSA one) filling the role of the authority figure. They’d fight the villain of the week and just maintain that status quo. It’d be fun, filled with great gags with Chuck and best friend Morgan or with his inability to really mesh with the whole spy gig. Instant formula.

Only they didn’t.

In Season Two, Chuck gets the Intersect out of his head. But then the show plays with the idea of the Intersect, giving him a new one that rather than just information, gives him skills too. So come Season Three, Chuck, now an intermittent badass, is able to actually take to the field. He and Sarah become a committed couple (eschewing the will-they-or-won’t-day schtick), and Morgan is let in on Chuck’s double life. As the series continues Chuck loses the Intersect and becomes a spy in his own right, Casey softens into the papa wolf of the group (which in turn expands to include Morgan and Chuck’s sister and brother-in-law). Seasons 4 and 5 were very different from Seasons 1 and 2. The show kept its heart throughout, but allowed its characters to grow.

TV’s a special medium. It’s a blend of short and long-form storytelling, one that allows for long arcs and even changing genres. Look at Lost. The show shifted gears from mostly a drama-mystery to mostly science-fiction show. But, despite the change, it remained heavily character focused right up to and during the end. Lost couldn’t have kept spinning its wheels with the castaways on the island idea, it had to develop beyond the simple idea.

What happens if a show does stay the same? Look at The Office, which began to wear out its format and stories a while ago. Recently, though, the show has begun to explore its idea of being a mocumentary and, with only a couple episodes left, allow its characters to really start making big life choices (that would have them leaving Dunder Mifflin and thus the show). In this case, the show format grew to hamper the story. Anything we saw on camera had to be justifiably filmed by the documentary crew.

Sometimes watching characters grow and change is good too. Look at How I Met Your Mother over the years. Granted, some episodes/storylines fall flat and nothing seems to happen, but the show isn’t afraid to let the characters grow. Barney, for example, grew from a one-note womanizer to an engaged man. Their friendship remains constant, but they’re all in different places from where they were seven years ago. ‘cuz, y’know, people change.

Which brings me to Community. Here again we have a show that’s changed over the years as characters develop and relationships change. Abed has become more social and Jeff legitimately cares now. It’s not as much of a black-and-white change as in other shows, but the dynamic between characters steadily grows and shifts over time. Watching Season One makes you realize just where these characters go. It stays interesting.

I find TV to be a fascinating medium with great potential. Shows like Lost and Game of Thrones wouldn’t work as a film. Long arcs play out so much better in television, especially when they’re character focused. One thing that Chuck, How I Met Your Mother, and Community all have in common is that though some of the storylines can be farfetched and goofy, the characters are always treated with a level of respect and allowed to grow over time. No matter how unrealistic the world around them can get, the characters stay grounded. The shows continue to be interesting and we really begin to fall in love with them and who they are. They change, and change is good. Sure beats pulling a The Big Bang Theory and making the same joke for years on end.

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Too Many Characters, Too Little Time

I started watching Game of Thrones with a couple friends of mine because everybody and their grandmother (actually, no, your grandmother wouldn’t watch Game of Thrones) have been telling us how good it is. And it is, but that’s not quite the point of this essay (that’s not a rant). One of the great things about Thrones is the incredible amount of characters. Seriously, this show gives Lost a run for its money. Unlike Lost, however, Thrones doesn’t have quite as much luxury with giving each character their proper and definite introduction.

We’ll meet characters quickly in the background then a couple episodes (or season if you’re Theon Grayjoy or Loras Tyrell) until they become relevant, at which point we’ve probably forgotten their name. Even if we’re plenty familiar with the character it’s still easy to forget their name (“oh, that’s Varys and he’s Pycelle”). But it’s these characters that make the show so terribly interesting. They’re all magnificently fleshed out; each one with their own goals and they lie, lie, and lie. It’s dramatic irony at it’s finest: we know what they want, but the other guy doesn’t and we get to watch as one falls into the other’s ploy. It’s exciting, it’s interesting.

And, of course, this wouldn’t be possible were it not for its airing on television. We get ten episodes a season and each episode’s an hour long. Not the 45 minutes of network television, a proper hour. We spend time with these characters, enough time that even if we’re not quite sure what their name is we know who they are.

Lost did this too. I’ve mentioned this before, but through its flashbacks we got to know the characters. Lost, and like Thrones, developed enough characters enough that watching them die cost us something. Furthermore, enough characters died with little pomp that for a while there we were worried if anyone would survive.

Which in turn is very similar to the climate in Game of Thrones. Anyone can die. It adds tension and, since these aren’t just red shirts beamed down to show how dire the situation is, we actually care about their deaths. The whole issue of character death is further enhanced since very often a death of one is a great character moment for another. Even if a character seems to die needlessly, the ripples of the impact effect everyone and we begin to see exactly who they are.

The thing is, it ll feels too short. These characters are fascinating, but we don’t get enough of them. It feels like we’re just getting glimpses of them or, in some cases, not seeing them at all (seriously, where was Arya in the season 3 premiere?). Sometimes focusing on one character or another from episode to episode makes sense, but screen time is a valuable commodity and the writers have to make the most of it. Firefly (which, yes, is my gold standard of characterization) had incredibly layered characters that were quickly built up. Granted, the interplay and politicking wasn’t as dense as in Thrones, but the writers found a way to make sure each character really got their dues. Most everything characters did in Firefly said something about their character. The plot advanced due to it. Thrones spends more time dealing with its plot because with a plot like what it has, well, it has to.

Perhaps Game of Thrones suffers more from its short seasons. Had they more than ten episodes we’d get to spend more time with characters and their conniving. We don’t get quite enough time with them as it is. And we want more time with them, these incredibly fleshed out characters with their myriad goals and plans.

As it is, though, I’m eagerly awaiting Sunday night to see what happens next. Because the show is just so darn fascinating. We keep watching to find out more about our characters, hoping that the next episode will focus more on Arya or Jon Snow or Tyrion, and hoping even more that they won’t die.

Except Joffery. I can’t wait till he dies. Because he has to.

Please.

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One Year

Holy crap. This is my fifty-second post. That means I’ve been keeping up this blog for one year. One post a week for a whole year

Dang.

I’m actually quite impressed I’ve managed to keep this up. My last attempt at a weekly blog wound up becoming bi-weekly, then monthly, then wheneverly. The fact that I’ve been keeping Essays, Not Rants! going for the past year with weekly posts of at 600-800ish words makes me want to give myself a self-five. Which I’ve done..

I’ll admit, it’s not the easiest thing. Sometimes it comes easy, sure. Posts about storytelling and Jesus or Cortana and video game feminism or analyzing The Avengers. Posts like those are fun and come remarkably easy. Sometimes I get those done in the middle of the week.

But my normal Saturday morning routine tends to be me going “crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapineedtowriteapost.” Then writing the thing and posting it. Sometimes they turn out alright. Sometimes less so. But I get the post out.

So this makes me think about how crazy it must be to write TV shows and other forms of serialized fiction. See, I just write posts. Sometimes my last ditch effort to find a topic is spending an hour exploring TV Tropes. But having to come up with around twenty-four stories each lasting from half an hour to a full hour? That’s impressive.

Granted, I’m the only one in this outfit, I do all the writing and all; TV shows have entire teams of writers. But my point remains: keeping stories going isn’t easy.

Because this is me, I’m going to bring up Lost. It’s overall an incredibly strong show with fantastic characters and a great narrative, but it’s not perfect. Some episodes (particularly the middle of season 3) felt draggy and filler-like. Granted, most of them had some redeeming qualities, but it’s easy to see how it lost its footing when it wasn’t sure how much longer it’d have to tell it’s story. The fault wasn’t so much in a lack of inspiration as a question of when the writers were going to have to begin tying things up for the major reveals and change of pacing that season 4 onwards would bring.

Chuck is another show that prevailed despite the question of whether it’d continue. Basically, we got several series finales. Not season finales (although we did get two of those in season 3), full series finales. See, Chuck was a show that was always just on the edge of being canceled but also a show that had a very clear narrative for each season. They had to tie up the story to do justice to the shows’ characters, else the story they were telling would have, well, been pointless.

To their credit, they pulled it off. Each finale felt like a proper finale and each continuation didn’t feel entirely forced. I have great respect for the team behind Chuck; they cared about their fans enough to make sure they got their proper ending. No matter how many times it ended.

Which brings me to How I Met Your Mother, another show on TV I enjoy. Currently in its eighth season, everything this season seems to be leading up to Ted finally meeting the mother in the season finale (then spend the next season letting us get to know her). Keep in mind: this is season eight. It’s taken eight years for the plot to advance to its natural end point, and those eight years were because it kept getting renewed for season after season. It’s not necessarily bad to get more episodes, it just harms the conciseness of the plot. Now, some of the stories within those years have been great, some have been dreary and left us itching for the arc to conclude. Good news is the show has for the most part been consistently funny and has had an almost fanatical adherence to continuity. It’s not a bad show, Ted just needs to hurry up and meet the mother.

Carrying a story on isn’t always easy. And I guess neither is keeping a blog going.

So thanks for reading guys, it’s been a heckuva year. Here’s to the next.

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Instant Tension: Just Add Guns!

Say three guys are discussing the proper pronunciation of the word milk. Then the argument heats up and they start yelling. Things are starting to get a little intense Now one of them pulls a gun on the others. Things just got real, man! Then the other guys pull out their guns! Just like that the tension in the story jumps through the roof and the argument about elocution is forgotten in favor of will these friends kill themselves over it.

Most stories (and hilarious Julian Smith videos) need tension to move them along or they’ll wind up boring. So the story needs a crisis, a threat or something. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add a gun. Instantly someone’s life is on the line! Drama! Suspense! Tension!

This can be done right, of course. Look at Lost, especially in the earlier seasons when there were only a handful of guns. We got great drama from the fight for possession to their occasional use and threatening. The conservation of guns allows the actual use of them to provide great tension. Guns mean that life was seriously at stake and there were consequences. But the show didn’t always need guns. “The Constant”, arguably the best episode, is a terrific, tense episode that doesn’t have anyone firing a gun.

Some stories require guns. Video games like Uncharted or Mass Effect are about guys with guns saving the day. Chuck is about spies doing spyish work with guns. Take away James Bond’s gun and we get, well, not James Bond. You can’t rave against guns in these stories since they’re essential to the plot.

But let’s take out guns. Can a story keep that level of tension without a firearm?

Ender’s Game is a magnificent book, that should go without saying. One of the things that makes it so good is the state of constant excitement and tension. And besides the practice ones used in the Battle Room, there aren’t any guns. Rather, the tension comes from our wondering how Ender’s going to carry on.

The larger narrative external to the central one in Ender’s Game is a war between mankind and the alien buggers. But the one we follow is Ender’s personal struggle as he’s thrust into a new environment where he must use his wits to get ahead. We’re invested in the kid’s struggle, we want to see how far he can be pushed and how he’ll continue to think his way out. There are the occasional life-or-death moments, but for the most part the tension is intellectual.

Sometimes the thing at stake isn’t the character’s life but humanity. Silver Linings Playbook uses this sort of tension. Pat, Tiffany, and the other characters’ lives are never at the risk of ending, but rather we’re wondering if their lives will continue. As we watch Pat over the course of the movie we’re cheering for him, hoping that he’ll be able to get past his inner demons and come out on top. In a story like this we don’t need the external threat of death to spur things along. Sometimes the internal conflict is more than enough.

Other times a blend makes things work. Iron Man 2 has a few external conflicts in it (Monaco and the climax), but the central plot centers around Tony Stark’s struggle with his humanity and the consequences of doing the superhero schtick. The tension is a lot like that in Silver Linings Playbook: Will Tony be able to fix himself? It’s a blend that works.

Look, stories need tension, that’s just a fact of life. The question is always how to go about with that tension. Internal, external, guns waving around everywhere; the key thing, of course, is to do it well.

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Protagonists and Such

Call him the main character, the lead, the hero, the player character; most every good story has a protagonist. He (or she) is the person we follow. Either because they provide the viewpoint and let us into the world or because they’re out on a grand quest. A lot of stories rise and fall based on the protagonist (or lack thereof).

The lack of a protagonist in The Phantom Menace is one of its shortcomings. Obi-Wan would make a great one, only he winds up playing second fiddle to…well, everyone for much of the film (and sits out all of Tatooine). What about Anakin? He doesn’t get introduced until Tatooine and has no character arc (what’s his motivation?) beyond being the kid who wins the podrace and blows up the droid control ship. Heck, he hardly does jack on Coruscant.

Padme, then! Only she doesn’t do much of anything (besides the senate thing) and her duplicity as to who’s actually her and who’s a handmaiden hamper our getting into her as a main character.

Fine! Qui-Gon! He’s awesome, he gets the plot moving, he can be the protagonist, right? Only no. He plays the mentor archetype, the one who guides the protagonist along. Qui-Gon is a static character who guides the plot, but has no personal investment. Plus, at the climax, the duel with Darth Maul is (sad to say) completely irrelevant to the plot.

Basically: there’s no protagonist in The Phantom Menace, no one for us to root for besides the umbrella of “the good guys”. It hampers our investment in the story. It worked for The Empire Strikes Back because we already had our investment in Luke and Han from A New Hope, but in the latter Luke was unquestionably our viewpoint character and protagonist. Menace has no such luck.

Not to say having a clear protagonist means we’ve got a good story on our hands. Let’s look at Twilight (having read a crappy book makes for good examples). Bella is unquestionably the protagonist, but she lacks anything that makes us care. She has no motivation past getting Edward to fall in love with her. She’s boring and has little characterization/use besides being an avatar for the reader. If the protagonist has no proper characterization, arc, or motivation it becomes hard to get invested.

Look, a work doesn’t have to be high art to have a protagonist. Rod, from Hot Rod, is an example of a great protagonist. Does he have characterization? He’s a delusional, hubristic wannabe stuntman, so yes. His arc is to get the girl and save his stepfather’s life so he can kick his ass. Why? Because he wants his stepfather to respect him. Yes, Hot Rod is a (hilarious) stupid film, but there’s a clear protagonist. It works! The Princess Bride has Westley and Buttercup as protagonists and Fezzik and Inigo as deuteragonists. Escape from New York has Snake Plisskin, Final Fantasy VII has Cloud, Chuck has Chuck.

But what about ensembles? Shows like Firefly, How I Met Your Mother, and Lost; who’s the actual protagonist? That’s the beauty of tv, supporting characters can all get their spot in the limelight. An episode like “Ariel” has Simon as one of the primary protagonists, or “The Constant” has Desmond as its protagonist. Several protagonists are far easier in an episodic serial.

Now the big question. The Avengers. It’s got seven main characters (Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki). Who’s the protagonist?

They all are. Each one has their character arc and/or motivations (Loki wants to go home, Iron Man grows into a hero, Hawkeye wants to make up for what he did, etc). With or without the prior movies, each protagonist is set up in The Avengers and winds up as a realized character. You can call any one of them the lead (well, maybe not Hawkeye [it’s workable, but definitely a bit of a stretch]), and the movie still works. You can have multiple protagonists, so long as they’re actually protagonists and not a cast of supporting characters.

It feels like it’s the obvious thing. Stories need not just a protagonist, but a good one. Motivations, characterization, an arc and all that. A good protagonist can help even a mediocre plot. Somewhat, anyway. Y’kinda need the whole lot to tell a good story.

But you already knew that.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! Each story has a clear protagonist!

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