Monday, July 21, 2014

Tropes, memes, yawns

Recently, blogger and writer Charlie Jane Anders put out a call on twitter for suggestions of screenwriting moves that are overused, which resulted in two blog posts: "20 Screenwriting Tricks And Tropes We Never Need To See Again" and "Even More Screenwriting Tricks And Tropes That Need A Nice Long Rest."

And if you read--or let's be honest, skim--these lists, you might find yourself nodding along. Yes, there are lots of scenes where someone talks smack about someone and then realizes that that someone is right behind him. (If you want evidence of any trope, check TV Tropes or look for a supercut on YouTube (though sometimes the examples aren't exactly what we'd want them to be).)

Though you may also find yourself feeling somewhat equivocal about some of these tropes. After all the "villain who wants to get caught" isn't really all that common as a movie trope--it just happens to have appeared in some big budget, popular, nerd-friendly, and recent films (Avengers, Skyfall, The Dark Knight, Star Trek into Darkness). We're not really working with a deep trope here and need to be careful of our impressions being biased.

But whether these things are tropes with many examples ("You're off the case" yells the hard-nosed administrator to the maverick cop, who will solve the case and possibly either earn the respect of the administrator or punch him in the face) or with only a few; or problems that go deep into culture beyond films and tv (the white person as savior of some darker natives--or who is even better at being a native than they are)--I think any list like this calls up a few serious questions about each trope:

  • Why is this used at all?
    • For instance, the "villain wanted to get caught" is both a way to show how smart/mastermindy the villain is and is also a scene of sudden reversal (the prisoner is now in power) and lets the hero and villain have a dramatic scene;
    • "You have to see this" (parodied here) is common in tv and movies--just like people popping over to talk rather than calling--because it's a visual medium and watching two people talk is less interesting than seeing them interact in person (is the common wisdom);
  • Is this really a problem?
    • "I just threw up in my mouth a little bit" was fun and slightly edgy and gross the first time it came up; the 100th time, not so much;
    • "We only use 10 percent of our brains" isn't really a trope, per se, but it's a bit of misunderstood and wrong science that really is just used as an excuse for someone to develop mental powers;
  • Is there a way to save this?
    • On the second list, someone offered "when a villain tells the hero that they're the same" as an overused trope--and that particular scene may be over-repeated, but the idea that the hero has to struggle with some similarity with the villain is less a "trope" and more a form of ur-story that we often tell. Just because that scene needs to get reworked doesn't mean the underlying structure needs to get thrown out. So how do we save these story beat? The easiest way would be to change up the trope: maybe it's not the villain who points out the similarity, but someone else. Maybe the villain rejects this similarity. There are dozens of really easy tweaks to breathe a little bit of air into this trope.
    • Or take the villain wanted to get caught: once we know why we're tempted to use it (to show villain's smarts and provide a reversal and give a dramatic confrontation), you can think about how to get those effects through other means: for instance, the villain could (gasp!) escape through a well-thought out escape plan after some drama; and maybe luring the hero out to catch the villain helps the villain to do something else nefarious elsewhere.
As much as I enjoy this sort of list (and this sort of crowd-sourcing), I'd love to see a sort of story clinic for these tropes to dig down into why these tropes were used, why overused, and how to find something new in there.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 236: James R. Gilmore [Edmund Kirke], Our Visit to Richmond (#236)

James R. Gilmore [Edmund Kirke], "Our Visit to Richmond" (1864) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Gilmore was one of two people who sent south to meet with the Confederates about a possible peace plan, a mission which was put in place (or expedited) by the fact that Horace Greeley was meeting in Canada with Confederates who had their own peace plan. In other words, the South looked like it was trying to make peace, which would make Lincoln look bad before the 1864 election; so this other mission went to make it clear that the South's--or at least Jefferson Davis's--idea of peace was nothing the north would want.

Again, it's always interesting, and sometimes a little sad, to read these stories from the past where we know how it all turns out. For instance, when Davis meets the two envoys and talks about how the Confederacy is not suffering and could still win--though is that (1) Davis not knowing the future or (2) Davis putting the best spin on things that he can?

There's also some material here that seems of its time: Gilmore paints Judah Benjamin as a slightly disreputable figure, with "a Jew face," and a noted lack of greatness; while Davis is clearly a great man who can sway his people. Though this is given a little tweak at the end when Gilmore seems to suggest that killing Davis would be one way to end the war.

Gilmore also has a little sense of humor, which is a nice bit of sugar to help this message go down: here's a joke about Georgia banks and mines and mosquitos--all of which bite--to soften you up for the real message of this piece, which is that the Union has to crush the Confederate government. It's a nice rhetorical move; and whether or not this piece had that much material effect on the war, we know how history turns out.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Super short review: The Conjuring

The Conjuring got very good reviews and did really amazing business--so much so that there's going to be both a sequel and a spin-off.

And there's a lot to like here: fine, grounded acting; fun, practical effects rather than CGI; some spooooky bits.

But there's also a lot not to like. Here's a spoiler: when the two demon-hunters start to look into the past of this haunted house, they find a murder. OK, that's pretty standard in horror films: people find some horrible history. Sometimes, in some films, the investigator discovers the horrible history and a red herring horrible history. ("Oh no, there was a murder, but this haunting is from this other suicide!")

Similarly, in this film--and many other horror films--the investigators look for some evidence and find some.

In The Conjuring, once the investigators start to find out the horrible past, it piles up almost comically. Similarly, the evidence is so over-the-top that it's hard to take these people seriously. A woman hung herself? Someone drowned a kid? There's an evil doll? Birds keep crashing into one wall of the house? The house is freezing and smells like rotten meat?

At some point, this seemed more like an SNL parody of horror than a horror film to me.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 235: Louisa May Alcott, How I Went Out to Service (#235)

Louisa May Alcott, "How I Went Out to Service" (1874) from Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings:

Louisa May Alcott is such an interesting person and writer. While we remember her today mostly for Little Women--and we remember Little Women primarily as a sentimental family story with some semi-typical romantic plots--she wrote a lot of other stuff, not all of which hits these sentimental notes.

(And really, is Little Women really unalloyed sentimentality? There's a lot of strangeness and darkness in that book. Though possibly nothing as weird/dark as her book Moods, from which I love to quote this climactic moment between two romantic rivals on a sinking ship (iirc): "In the black night with only Heaven to see them the men kissed tenderly as women, then hand in hand sprang out into the sea.")

"How I Went Out to Service" is much more in line with that dark and comic Alcott than the sentimental Alcott. It tells the story of how she, in real life, went out to "service" for a small and aging family: old father, nervous sister, reverend brother, and aged servant. That is, she was hired for light housework and to be a companion to the unwell sister of the house and to be one of the family. But it turns out that the situation is worse than that, since the reverend brother is a passive aggressive tyrant (who also, though its not explicit here, made the situation uncomfortable sexually).

Which is all pretty grim and uncomfortable; and though Alcott winds up the story with a silver lining (I learned a lot) and a moral (be nice to people), most of the story has that grimly comic and ridiculous tone, as the villainous reverend talks about how spiritual he is and then orders some heavy food in the same note. In some ways, his horribleness is the central idea here, and we only get a bit about how Alcott responded to it.

And one reason why I love Alcott is because she doesn't always hide the parts of herself that might seem less angelic or wonderful--the usual marks of 19th-century femininity. For instance, when she wants to leave this bad post, her mom
... advised me to be patient, to do the generous thing, and be sure I should not regret it in the end. I groaned, submitted, and did regret it all the days of my life.
Where most writers of the time might want to put a nice (Christian) gloss of working hard now and feeling better after, Louisa May Alcott the writer doesn't give in to the romantic and novelistic and sentimental ideas--the same ones that led Louisa May Alcott the young worker into this bad situation to begin with.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Diplomacy--a perfect and terrible board game for anonymous online play (or maybe just not for me)

A friend recently linked to a Grantland article about the board game Diplomacy; and this friend commented that the game sounded interesting, but also sort of horrifying. "But," I eagerly posted back to him, "if you never played it, you only get some idea of how horrifying it actually can be."

I've played Diplomacy a few times: with college friends, both in person and online; and online with some random and anonymous people. In fact, after that Grantland article, I decided to sign back in to my account at playdiplomacy.com and joined a few games.

Now, as with religion, how you approach a board game like Diplomacy has a lot to do with you. So here's my favorite way to play: back when I was playing online with college friends, I was playing Czar Nicholas (or Kaiser Wilhelm) and I kept up an elaborate correspondence with other players in character; I even researched and discussed what historical uniforms my soldiers would be wearing at the time. Right there, that tells you a lot about what I like: I like roleplaying, I like story-building, I like specifics.

One other benefit--and horror--of playing with friends is that you already have an existing relationship with them. You think you know them. Which of your friends will pull a fast one to get what he wants? Which of your friends will stick to a deal even if another opportunity comes up? Of course, this isn't serious: at the end of the day, you are playing a game, and no soldiers actually get pushed out of territory. So you can't entirely judge people by their private, non-board game lives.

(Much better to judge them according to the "Would they hide me from the Nazis?" sort of game that some people play.)

Now, after playing for a few days online this time around, I resigned all my games, whether I was winning or losing. (Curiously, the games where I was doing the best were the ones where I was Austria; which, if you don't know the game board, is significant because Austria is surrounded by potential enemies.) Why?

Because it wasn't any fun. Would anonymous-player-63 turn on me? Who cares! It wasn't an interesting question since I had no other relationship with these people. Could they trust me? Well, that's a slightly more interesting question, but still not all that interesting to me. Why would I betray an erstwhile ally? To win. Why? Uh, because... winning is good? So now I'm playing with strangers that I don't care about, playing a game that I don't really care about.

And on top of that, it takes a lot of mental energy to go through all the scenarios, trying to figure out the best move to make.

So, for me, Diplomacy is best played with friends, probably while being stuck in a small room.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Computer programming and writing

For the past few weeks, I've been mainlining computer programming courses--taking a Coursera class in Python, a Code Academy class in Ruby, and a few (many) other classes. (I also watched a bunch of lectures on programming for iOS for the immediate goal of making a card counting trainer in time for my girlfriend's trip to Las Vegas--and succeeded!)

The downside of this flurry of activity is that many of my older hobbies and interests have suffered. In particular, I haven't had as much time to write. But I've spent so much time listening to writers and thinking about writing that it's hard to get away from some of the ideas on how to write best. And--surprise surprise--I've noticed a lot of overlap between the two types of work.

For instance, there is the distance between the work in your mind--perfect and elegant and powerful--and the work as it actually starts off, which is usually cramped and clumsy and probably ineffective. In both cases, the writer/programmer has to allow for failure in their process: the computer prototyping process (says the teacher of this Human-Computer Interaction course) should be quick and full of failure--and that's probably the same advice I would give to many a beginning writer. Don't be Professor Seagull, constantly writing and rewriting the same small thing over and over, whether it's code or narrative.

On the other hand, whether you're writing code or writing a story, you may not want to be satisfied with your first version. Your story probably needs revising; and your code could probably use some re-factoring. The first time you write something, it probably won't work perfectly; the second time, it might work, but not do the things you want it to do; the third time, you might want to make sure it not only works, but works elegantly. Curiously, in both writing and coding, a lot of revision is thinking about better ways to say the same thing; and what words you can do without.

There are some other overlaps, but those are the salient pieces of advice that are easily transferred between the two fields.

Oh, another lesson: be careful with your punctuation!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 234: Fanny Fern, Tyrants of the Shop (#234)

Fanny Fern, "Tyrants of the Shop" (1867) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

"Fanny Fern" was the pen-name of Sara Willis--which I mostly mention for the Poe fans among you, who may recognize the last name as that of Nathaniel Parker Willis. N.P. Willis was Fanny's brother and later a "friend" of Poe--in quotation marks more because of Poe's issues than N.P.'s.

Though we could also note that Fanny charged brother Nathaniel Parker with more-or-less abandoning her in her need, as recounted in the semi-autobiographical--and very good--novel, Ruth Hall. As the LoA notes, many contemporaries thought Fanny Fern was too mean, too sarcastic, too--gasp!--unwomanly in her writing. They leave off one of my favorite jokes in that vein: people who thought Ruth Hall was too mean and vicious to real people referred to it as "Ruthless Hall." Ba-da-bing!

Of course, "unwomanly" could also be a positive thing for some people; the LoA notes that Nathaniel Hawthorne praised her work: she "writes as if the devil is in her." What the LoA doesn't note is that this message of his was an addendum to his justly famous and reviled comment on how American novels are dominated by "a damned pack of scribbling women." That is, in one letter, he complained about women's writing; in the next, he singled Fanny Fern out as an exception to that rule.

But if we--for the moment--dump out all the gendered language and the restrictive ideals of femininity of the time that Hawthorne is leaning into, I think we might more or less agree with him: Fanny Fern is not a "nice" writer. This whole piece is two pages about what jerks men shop-owners can be to their female help; and how women who make very little and don't have a lot of job prospects have to submit to this sort of inhumane treatment. And I say "jerks," but Fanny puts this into rather quintessentially American language of tyranny and repression and slavery--all the things that Americans (theoretically) hate, but which many people seem fine with as long as its happening to someone else.

No surprise that Fanny Fern--like her old school-mate Harriet Beecher Stowe--was an abolitionist as well as a feminist.

Monday, June 30, 2014

2014 (well, from June on) monthly movie list: June edition

Inspired by friend David Steffens and his list-making over short fiction podcasts (like this), I thought I would start keeping track of the movies I watched in 2014. There'll be minimal commentary here--I'm just interested in keeping track of what I saw and about how much I liked it. And since I rarely get out to the movies, most of these will be rentals and Netflix.

Also, to be clear, this is not a list of "best" but rather a list of "most enjoyed."
  1. Kill Bill 1 & 2
  2. Her
  3. Edge of Tomorrow
  4. The Emperor's New Groove
  5. World War Z
  6. The Wolverine
  7. We're the Millers
  8. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
June surprises: I was a little bored with I saw Kill Bill the first time, but now I thought it was not only enjoyable, but clearly a work of incredible craftsmanship.

Her was very interesting, as a rom-com (sort of) about a guy getting over his ex with a new girlfriend, who was able to help him reconnect with his joyousness--only this new girlfriend is a computer OS (rather than a manic pixie girl) and there are certain missed connections between a human and an OS (which is what really sets her off from the MPG, since she has her own arc); in many ways a tone poem to depression and recovery, and by "tone poem," I mean I was occasionally bored.

Emperor's New Groove is one of the not-very-much-talked-about Disney movies from after the 90s Renaissance but before the Pixar salvation. Apparently it had a very troubled making, but I thought the movie was enjoyably meta and strange, from the non-linear telling and interruptions to the setting of a pre-Columbian Incan Empire (with plenty of anachronisms).

Emperor's New Groove also demonstrates something that Incredible Burt Wonderstone failed at, which is making your unpleasant protagonist fun and/or identifiable: Kuzco and Burt are both self-centered, but Kuzco has a sense of humor, whereas Burt is a joyless jerk; and while Kuzco is introduced in contrast to the really evil villain, Burt's sad introduction with bullies and an absent mother don't actually build to anything.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 233: Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (#233)

Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

The LoA introduction for this week's story dwells almost exclusively on the mysterious disappearance of Bierce. Perhaps it's inevitable that the topic would be "mysterious death or disappearance"when the story up for discussion is about a mysterious death/disappearance. I would mark that last sentence with a "spoiler warning," except this is a story that many people read in high school--remember, the one where the guy gets hanged and has this whole fantasy of escaping that seems real until the last line?--and that the story starts off with him about to be hanged.

Re-reading the story as an older person, there's a lot to notice. Not least of all is the way in which memory has changed the story, as it sometimes will: whereas almost all of the story tells about his escape and his sudden death occurs when he arrives home, I remembered it as the story of someone who lives out his whole life in this fantasy realm. (That might have to do with some of the tv/film adaptations, not to mention Robert Sheckley's "Store of the Worlds" story.)

And now that I've taken a course on American Gothic with a Bierce expert, where we emphasized Bierce's interest in psychology, it's interesting how the opening section sounds like the opening to one of Bierce's battle stories, where the main topic is geography and troop placement. There's almost no psychology at all, just "here's the railroad, here's a guy, here's another guy."

It's also curious to me how Bierce structures the story, with a flashback following this action-packed -promising set-up, before returning to the action. Often when I read these LoA stories, I think to myself how writing style has changed, in everything from word choice, to sentence length, to story structure. And yet, while Bierce has that sort of 19th-century slow opening, the structure is one that I see a lot today: start in medias res, with some big action--rewind to show how we got there--and then pick up. (It's also a structure that is getting more common in tv, I think. Or maybe it was always common?)

And once you know the reality of the story (the guy dies), suddenly certain things jump out about the flashback and the action. I mean, I've read this story many times (probably), but most of the times I probably read it quickly, with an "I know, I know" attitude. (Alternative: Everything I think I've just noticed, I've actually noticed ever time I read this and just forgotten. For instance, for the first dozen times I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I kept figuring out where the Nazis got the medallion copy from--and only on the 13th time did I actually remember what I'd learned last time.) So, if you know that the escape is really just a fantasy (or psychological break), then it makes a certain sort of sense for the hero to be shot at by everyone, including the cannon at the fort. Maybe that really would've happened, but it sure does seem like narcissism--the narcissism of a guy who feels held back from his rightful place winning glory in battle.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Three Men in a Boat: Favorite Jokes Project, part 4

Some last overall notes: Jerome K. Jerome fits with the tradition of comic low-stakes. We can laugh about the bumbling adventures of three twits because they don't have their hands on the levers of power. We could compare this to something like Dr. Strangelove, where the stakes are nuclear war, or Catch-22, where we're in the middle of World War II. It's a little more complex to make high-stakes comedy, I think, though in both these examples, a lot of the comedy comes from the nervous laughter of pushing high-stakes stories together with banal bureaucratic humor. In other words: twits are great for comedy.

So it's no surprise that a lot of Jerome K. Jerome's sense of humor often revolves around human incompetence. What's curious to me--and what calls up some of the humor of Douglas Adams--is how, in this book, to coin a phrase, hell is other people. People try to row together and end up fouling each other, making a worse mess together than they would have apart, even though they're both incompetent twits. It's not always a cheerful view of the world, even if the stakes are just bragging rights for who caught the biggest fish.

Chapter 15:
I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.  
You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now, that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.  
And I am careful of my work, too. Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.
I'm a sucker for this sort of joke: taking a common phrase or idea and twisting it. Instead of "I like work" as "I like doing things," we have the opposite: "I like work" meaning "I'm a collector of work." And then, just for fun, he runs the joke out: work fills up his house, he keeps his work close by, he preserves his work in mint condition.

Chapter 16:

The very short chapter 16 is likewise very short of jokes, though there is this one aside:
Anyhow, she had sinned—some of us do now and then—...
But I should add that this aside occurs in a story about a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock and committed suicide. So, not really a ha-ha moment.

Chapter 17:

After finding a dead body in the river in the last chapter, this chapter focuses on the ridiculousness of fishing and fisherman. (There is also one fun joke about the dirtiness of the river, wherein they try to wash their clothes and end up getting them dirtier.) Fisherman stories include: how often they lie about what they catch; a guy who started out committed to tell mostly the truth; a joke about how fishing is great if you don't want to catch fish.

My favorite joke is too long to quote, but it's a scenario where our twits see a nice fish up on a wall and a succession of natives claim to have caught that fish--and then the fish turns out to be ceramic.

Chapter 18:

In describing the effects of Time in destroying the ruins, J goes on to note
But Time, though he halted at Roman walls, soon crumbled Romans to dust; and on the ground, in later years, fought savage Saxons and huge Danes, until the Normans came.
Which I probably like more than you because I love when British people poke fun at British history as something pure and simple. It reminds me of Defoe's "True-Born Englishman" poem, which goes on to note how "Englishman" are really heterogeneous mongrels born of war, invasion, and--horrors!--immigration.

Chapter 19:

And so, at long last, we come to the end of our boat voyage, largely due to a lot of rain and the sudden remembrance that the city is full of good food and entertainment, whereas the boat has neither and is wet. First, thought, we get a section describing what bad condition the boats to rent are in, which leads J to offer this advice:
To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.
Which could be Wilde on a middling fair day.