Category Archives: Writing

Random thoughts, opinions, editorials and ideas about writing in general, and my projects specifically.

The Origin Trilogy: Three Questions for an Aspiring Hero

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For the last decade or so, origin stories have been all the rage in the film industry. Especially in the superhero genre we have seen a seemingly endless stream of origin stories and reboots over the last few years, and lately audiences have even begun to tire of the formula.

But something has been happening as these franchises develop, something which may never have been planned but which is becoming a well-established pattern: these origin stories eventually become trilogies, and these trilogies have begun to conform to a set structure. In almost every case, each of the three films addresses a specific question confronting the hero, and by the end of the trilogy the hero has answered all three and completely established themselves as a force within their world.

I have presented these three phases, a structural analysis of my own design, below, complete with in-depth examples from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, as well as supporting examples from the Iron Man Trilogy, the Matrix Trilogy, and the original Star Wars Trilogy. Check them out, and share your thoughts, comments, and questions in the comments below! Read More →

Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS and the Three-Act Structure

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One of the first things that a writer, especially a screenwriter, learns is the Three-Act Structure. This is a broad framework into which all stories (theoretically) can fit. It sketches out the basic beats that a story needs to hit in order to be coherent and compelling, and offers a way of organizing your tale as you set about filling that blank white page.

Like a scaffold on a construction site, the Three-Act Structure doesn’t dictate the specifics of what you are trying to create, but it does outline the basic shape and makes it easier to build your story as you go. Think of it like a roadmap: you don’t know exactly what will happen along the way yet, but you know the basic path you’ll be following to get there.

I’ve had several conversations with friends and family over the years about the elements and uses of the Three-Act Structure, but the biggest problem we’ve had was applying it to real-world situations. Anyone can talk about their “First Act” or their “Denouement,” and using those terms in a conceptual way is fairly easy, but identifying them within a practical story can be more difficult. I’ve used various stories, from Independence Day to Romeo and Juliet, as examples, but it’s still hard to cut away the details of that particular story and get to the common threads between them.

When I first saw The Avengers in 2012, I greatly enjoyed it as both a fan and a filmmaker. But the more I’ve watched it the more I’ve come to appreciate it structurally, as a superb example of storytelling and pacing. Joss Whedon has often commented in interviews about how complex a movie it was to write, having to juggle so many characters and sets and locations and relationships within a single movie, and it’s clear that his solution was to simplify the structure immensely, allowing people to stay invested in the storyline without getting lost or confused. While other filmmakers, such as Chris Nolan in Batman Begins, have used very complex story structures filled with flashbacks and cutaways and parallel action to tell their story, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is much more direct and streamlined, and as such it makes a perfect example through which to explore the Three-Act Structure. He even offers a major change in location at the start of each act, making it very easy to identify where we are in the progression of the story.

Like Apple’s iPod or Google’s search page, Joss Whedon’s story structure draws elegance and power from simplicity.

And so, for anyone looking to better understand the principles of writing a screenplay (or almost any other kind of story), I offer you a step-by-step description of the Three-Act Structure, complete with analyses and suggestions, exemplified by Joss Whedon’s 2012 blockbuster, The Avengers. Be sure to watch the movie, or even follow along with it as you read, so you can get a feel for the pacing of each section, and feel free to offer any comments, thoughts, suggestions or questions at the bottom! Read More →

The End of the Beginning

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In honor of the Superbowl and the obligatory movie trailers that come with it each year, I’m taking a moment to discuss something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: origin stories. I’m getting really sick of origin stories in superhero movies. I know this is an increasingly common opinion these days, ever since Bryan Singer ushered in the Age of the Superhero with his live-action X-Men movie in 2000, but I’m actually talking about something slightly different.

I’m getting sick of supervillain origin stories.

Superhero movies are getting better and better every year, using their financial power to draw in more and more talent, and ultimately tell deeper and deeper stories. And it’s been happening for a long time now: you can draw a straight line from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Christian Bale to (hopefully) Ben Affleck, and you’ll get a progressively more mature and richly-developed Batman. Sure, you’ll get your George Clooneys along the way, but that’s the cost of doing business. For the most part, superhero stories are becoming increasingly more artful and significant with each new generation.

And lately, there has been a lot of innovation and creative exploration within the genre. This is perhaps most apparent in the DC/Marvel style dichotomy: Christopher Nolan made huge waves with his Dark Knight trilogy, and for a while it seemed like “realistic” superheroes were the only way to go. Even today, a lot of fans use words like “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic” as if they are prerequisites for making a good superhero film. But then Marvel came along and said, “Dark gritty realism? How about a star-spangled supersoldier frozen in a glacier, a Norse god with a magic hammer, and an aircraft carrier that can fly?” And now they’re doubling down with the superhero answer to Honey I Shrunk the Kids and a talking raccoon in space. Joss Whedon even ditched the “realistic” Captain America outfit from the first movie, losing the adjustable red straps and brown leather boots, in favor of what can only be described as a straight-up superhero costume for The Avengers.

Superhero movies vary wildly in tone, style, aesthetic and setting. But one thing has been true ever since Michael Keaton rubbed another man’s rhubarb: a superhero movie is, by definition, the rise and fall of a new villain.

Origin stories or not, superhero movies always follow the same formula: the hero begins hearing whispers of a new enemy, often encounters them in their “non-hero” capacity, has a troubling first encounter with the new villain where they fully recognize the potential threat, then becomes the primary target of the villain’s wrath, growing weaker as the new villain grows stronger, but then ultimately finds the strength to defeat them. Every single Batman movie, X-Men movie, Superman movie, Spider-Man movie, and Marvel movie follows this pattern. Some have more than one villain, some focus more on one aspect of the arc than another, but it’s always the same story: good guy encounters new bad guy, good guy fights bad guy, good guy defeats bad guy.

Every. Single. Time.

It’s a good formula, and it works. I’m not knocking it: the Captain America 2 trailer has been out for an hour and I’ve already watched it a dozen times. But you don’t have to look too long in other mediums to find interesting alternatives, alternatives which the film industry could really benefit from exploring. Read More →

Spoiler Alert

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One of the most interesting things that has come from running this weekly role-playing game was something I never would have expected. It started as a novelty, then it became an interesting feature, and now the more I think about it, the more it seems like a profound change in how I think about writing.

To put it simply: I have no idea where this story is going.

That’s never happened to me. With all of my scripts and my novels, even my short stories and blog posts, I have a structure and a plan before I ever put pen to paper. I know where it’s going, I’ve planned the beats, I’ll often have detailed descriptions of the most important scenes before I even know how it starts. For consistency and smoothness I always try to write the first draft in a straight line from start to finish, but the planning is just as likely to go backwards as forwards, or randomly piecemeal.

But with RPGs, you have no idea where the story will go. You may have some cool ideas (I personally sketch them out in a particularly awesome leather-bound notebook), but your players may have other plans entirely. Or they may just not get it, and miss the path you’ve laid out for them. They might veer off in a fit of curiosity and explore a completely different area than you’d anticipated, or come up with a new interpretation that was way cooler than anything you’d imagined. Or they could switch things up just to give you a hard time.

Five minutes into a session they could derail your entire evening’s story, and forget trying to plan next week’s or next month’s. It’s like trying to travel in a sleigh pulled by wild tigers: you can nudge them and guide them along a little, but the more pressure you exert the more danger your plan is in.

As a writer, that fascinates me. How can you plan a story arc without knowing that you’ll ever reach the climax? How can you develop a character when the character might not play along? How can you do anything except lay the tracks down in front of the train, creating off-the-cuff encounters and spur-of-the-moment action scenes? And if that’s all you do, how will you ever make it compelling enough to keep your players invested in the story?

Of course, TV writers do this all the time. They may know what the next few episodes will be about, maybe even a season-long arc, but they usually have no concept of whether they’ll be on the air two or three years in advance, let alone what they’ll be writing about. Even shows with specific ending conditions like How I Met Your Mother or LOST will end up with wildly different conclusions than their creators ever anticipated.

But even TV writers have one thing that game masters don’t: they’re in total control. Whatever comes out of the writer’s room (after the producers and the networks have had their say, of course) is what gets filmed. A GM has to react to the decisions of their players, altering their story both in broad strokes and particulars on a moment’s notice, without any way of planning for eventualities.

I’ve only posted the first installment of my Q’art Hadash series so far, but already I can tell that this “by the seat of your pants”-style of writing will have a deep and lasting effect on my projects and my writing style at large. It creates a sort of enforced immediacy, a focus on the moment at hand without any ability to foreshadow coming events, let alone get distracted by them. I will never be able to rush through a scene in order to get to a scene I prefer, or give away the ending of a mystery before the characters have figured it out. I simply cannot: I don’t know what’s coming any more than they do.

Right now I’m gearing up for a big push to finish the final edit on my novel. My hope is to get it ready for publication sometime in the next few months. I’ve also got several scripts to write, both pilots and features, as part of my efforts to land a writing agent. It will be very interesting to see if I can internalize the urgency and immediacy of this new kind of writing and apply it to my other projects, adding a degree of unpredictability to a process I’ve always had under total control.

If I can, I suspect it will all be for the better. Because as much as I love an intricately crafted tale, who doesn’t also love the idea of setting out on an adventure, leaving the familiar behind, and never quite knowing where the next day will lead?