Monthly Archives: June 2015

Blog News and the Villain Problem

I’ve decided to devote this summer to a writing project. I had a couple of weeks off from work to get a start on it. Unfortunately, my job does include working summer school, so to free up my time I’ve prewritten several posts. At the end of August, I’ll have news about what my project is and how it will be published, so stay tuned.

July’s posts have a theme. There is a problem writers often talk about, typically called the Villain Problem (obligatory Writing Excuses link). It’s the tendency of villains to be more interesting than the protagonists. Villains are fun, while good guys are boring.

When I was a kid this bothered me a lot, because it was a sign of how people were overly obsessed with sinfulness or something. Young me was a bit zealous at times. Now I think its important to note that there are cases where this is simply what the story was supposed to be. There is a very common story type, arguably a megagenre, where the hero is an ordinary person, and the villain’s presence somehow disrupts their comfortable status quo. It is the hero’s job to bring things back to normal. In this case, the villain has several natural advantages, as far as interest goes. They are proactive, while the hero is reactive, at least for most of the story. The hero is familiar, the villain, as the deviation from the norm, is often more interesting. This story type includes classics like Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz and The Phantom of the Opera.

However, there is a difference between Luke, Dorothy, Christine, and the innumerable forgettable protagonists we encounter every year. If a story does feature the protagonist as proactive from the start, if there isn’t an interesting and well-crafted villain to overwhelm them, and the hero is still boring, there’s a problem. I’m going to post this month about the ways protagonists can be boring in a bad or unnecessary way.

The first of those will be up in a couple of days. Until then, thanks for reading!

Jurassic World and Suspension of Disbelief

I finally got my chance to watch Jurassic World this week, and I came away thinking about Writing Excuses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a podcast that has, I think, some of the best writerly advice out there. They did a post a couple years ago, with Patrick Rothfuss, on suspension of disbelief. He made a lot of great points about how it’s not actually about having all your facts straight. Audiences will often forgive factual errors, and often not even notice them*. What they really need to believe a story is verisimilitude. The characters and the world need to feel believable. If the audience gets a sense that the story is true, they won’t care too much whether or not it is correct. Jurassic World illustrates this perfectly.

But before I get to that, here’s a brief spoiler free review of the movie. I liked it. I think people who like dinosaurs and Chris Pratt will also like it, because those things went well together. There, how that’s out of the way, on to the object lesson.

Patrick Rothfuss was the big star of that episode, in my opinion, but the other point that really stuck with me came from Mary Robinette Kowal. She pointed out how there’s this popular story that convinces us all, with no explanation, that there is a magical undersea kingdom and also talking fish. It’s called The Little Mermaid. Because “mermaid” is right there in the title, we all know right away that if we want the emotional payoff that the story promises, we need to accept mermaids, so we voluntarily do. In other words, don’t hide the most implausible part of the story. If your premise needs it to be there, put it front and center. The audience will do the work of believing for you.

Jurassic Park had an absurd premise. We figured out how to clone dinosaurs. The scientific explanation for how we got their DNA was flimsy, but we had all chosen to accept it, in exchange for a movie where dinosaurs run around and eat people. It was totally worth it. Jurassic World had an even harder sell. On top of that absurd and easily acceptable premise, it also had to convince us that the park’s owners would be so idiotic as to reopen the park again, and also genetically engineer a super-dinosaur. This is more difficult to believe. The original film merely violated laws of nature, which we humans have a rather adversarial relationship with anyway. The new one is violating common sense.

However, once again the tactic of putting their biggest stretch front and center worked to its advantage. I do know people, and I know that often they fail to use their common sense. There have been projects that cost human lives before, and often the machine of progress and financial profit just ground on ahead. As time passes, people sometimes forget past tragedies. The trailers gave me lots of time to think about how this might apply to Jurassic Park, sorry, Jurassic World. I went in theaters willing to believe that this was what had happened, that dangers aside the promise of profit was eventually too much to resist. Still, my suspension of disbelief was in a precarious balance.

Personally, I think they handled it spectacularly. They never gave me a scene explaining how the park had been reopened. That’s good. I didn’t need or want one. I was willing to believe it had happened, and by leaving the precise events to my imagination they ensured I would come up with something that I would find plausible. What I really needed to believe was characters who acted like the kind of people who would work at Jurassic World. I got it.

I particularly liked the personality of the CEO, Masrani. His personality was similar to Hammond’s, and some people didn’t like that, as it felt like a retread, but I honestly thought it served a purpose. We are told Hammond personally gave him the park on his deathbed, after securing a promise to take good care of it and use it to remind people of how big the world is. I did have trouble believing that Hammond would really let the park reopen after what he went through, but I can see him thinking, “look, when I die somebody will use the technology and reopen the park. The least I can do is put that power in the right hands.” Masrani seemed like the kind of person Hammond would trust.

There were other details that made the park itself work. I liked how the people pushing for the big engineered dinosaur weren’t cardboard figures slobbering over money. They also talked about progress and keeping costs covered and staying ahead. One of the protagonists, Claire, talked worriedly about “customer satisfaction holding steady in the low 90s.” I liked that. It reminded me of all the real bosses I’ve looked at who are always afraid that doing well isn’t good enough. The rides and education centers were exactly like what a dinosaur zoo amusement park would be. The way Owen Grady, Chris Pratt’s character, interacted with the dinosaurs felt true to how animal handlers really interact with wild and dangerous animals, at least based on everything I know.

So for about two thirds of the movie, my disbelief was well and truly suspended, especially when they gave me an explanation for all the super-dino’s abilities. Then, for me at least, they fumbled it. Ending spoilers from here on.

The final fight with the dinosaurs was cool, but a little too neat. While watching it, I liked it, but it seemed to break some things about the world that had been established. Primarily this was that the velociraptors, who had been established to have a complex, animalistic and ambiguous relationship with Owen, suddenly became canine-loyal, willing to fight a larger animal to the death for him when earlier it seemed they were perfectly willing to turn on him. Also, the film was too tidy in how it made all the big scary dinosaurs show up for the last scene. This was something else that came up in the podcast. There’s a fine art to wrapping things up, but not so tidily that you remind people there’s a writer behind this. When the dinosaur I had almost forgotten about showed up, I definitely remembered there was a writer.

But once again, none of this was really insurmountable for me. You know the part of the story that really broke my suspension of disbelief? The part where the leads got together.

The main complaint I’ve heard for this movie is that the characters were a little flat, even by action movie standards. Most of the way through it, I thought this was unfair. I liked all of them, and I thought they got as much development as the Mad Max characters. Then came the gratuitous kissing, and I realized the problem. It wasn’t the lack of development, it was that they developed the characters and then broke it.

They tried to set up Claire and Owen as opposites. They did a great job. Claire was tidy, controlled and not great with people because she’s more comfortable with data and schedules. Owen was also not great with people, but you got the sense that was because he likes animals better. He’s rough, outdoorsy, and honestly has standards of personal hygiene that gross Claire out.

Of course, when the crisis hits, they find a way to work together, but you know how in Mad Max, Max and Furiosa come to trust each other but don’t get together in any romantic way? Those writers got that the two aren’t the same.

The thing about “opposites attract” is that it happens when both people see something in the other that they appreciate, that balances their own traits. My boyfriend is a lot of extroverted, outgoing and dominant than me. I like the way he takes me out of my comfort zone. He likes the way I slow down and introspect. If one of us was always pressuring the other to be different, this wouldn’t work. Claire and Owen never really have a moment where they see the value in the other’s of view. Their relationship is not going to last once the adrenaline wears off. Of all the implausible things in the movie, that was the one I couldn’t get over.

*Accuracy itself is an interesting topic. I might have to use that for an upcoming post.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Rack, Shack and Benny

This episode opens with Larry stumbling around blindly because he’s got an oven mitt on his head. He is doing so because an article in a magazine told him this was the latest fashion. Bob the Tomato is skeptical of the practicality of this. While rebutting Bob’s arguments, Larry trips and falls into the kitchen sink. Bob figures that watching him try to get Larry out for thirty minutes isn’t the best use of our time, so he sends us to watch the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or as they’re called in this episode, Rack Shack and Benny.

In the Bible, that trio, along with the better known Daniel, are captives of Persian king Nebuchadnezzar. He is trying to raise them as Persian dignitaries, and part of that means giving them non-kosher rich guy Persian food. They choose to eat vegetables instead. The vegan diet does well for them, as they end up healthier than all the other Rich Important People in training, which causes Nebuchadnezzar to promote them to be his most trusted advisers. This goes well until Nebuchadnezzar decides that everybody should start worshiping a big golden statue of him, and those who don’t should be thrown into a fiery furnace. This kind of thing happens a lot in the Old Testament.

In the Veggie Tales episode, Rack, Shack and Benny work in a chocolate bunny factory which routinely violates standard health code regulations and employee benefits, as indicated in the opening song, “Good Morning George.” It’s a fun song, and it also introduces us to Laura Carrot, one of the few female characters who gets her own name. She won’t do much in the episode, in the narrative sense that nothing she does has lasting consequence, but later on she will lead a rescue attempt for Rack, Shack and Benny that will give the world one of the best chase sequences in the history of animation. That is an entirely objective judgment that has nothing whatsoever to do with my personal affection for the Veggie Tales franchise.

Anyway, Mr. Nezzar, a giant pickle, is the stand-in for Nebuchadnezzar. In celebration of the factory’s sale of its two millionth chocolate bunny, he gives everyone an hour to eat as many chocolate bunnies as they want. Everyone chows down, except Rack, played by Jr. Asparagus, convinces Shack and Benny to only eat a few bunnies, because that’s what their mommies would want them to do.

This decision pays off when, at the end of the hour, they are the only workers not doubled over in agony. Mr. Nezzar promptly promotes them to junior executives, which means they have to wear ties. No really, that’s the explanation given in-show as to what their new responsibilities will be. God I love this show.

The other part of their job is standing around while Mr. Nezzar rattles off whatever idea has popped into his head. In this case, he’s decided that, because chocolate bunnies are the best thing ever, he’s going to make a giant bunny statue for all of his employees to sing the Bunny Song to. Oh, here’s the Bunny Song. It’s way better than any of the goody two shoes songs Jr. sings in this episode, which just goes to prove yet again that the devil has all the good music.

Whether this is bad because it endorses an unhealthy diet, is an act of idolatry, or violates employee’s freedom from religious discrimination is unclear. I mean, probably the writer’s weren’t going for the latter, but you never know. In any case, it is Bad, and the protagonists have no intention of singing it. This is unfortunate, because the consequence for not singing is being thrown in the furnace. They have a furnace on site. It’s for defective chocolate bunnies. This is a totally non-wasteful and reasonable thing to have in in your chocolate bunny factory.

Perhaps we should have reported this to OSHA before this point.
Perhaps we should have reported this to OSHA before this point.

Naturally Rack, Shack and Benny refuse to bow and are sentenced to the furnace. Laura Carrot comes along for a rescue that is both awesome and fruitless. They all end up in the furnace, but an angel comes down, just like in the Bible story, and prevents anybody from getting burned up.

This proves that you absolutely should not stand up for what you believe in. You very well might be wrong and trying to incinerate people the divine creator likes.

I mean, the stated theme of the episode is the opposite of that. You should stand up for what you believe in, because Rack, Shack and Benny did that and they got to be part of an awesome miracle. But weren’t Mr. Nezzar’s actions equally informed by his beliefs? He clearly thinks chocolate bunnies are the best thing ever, and that burning up people who don’t agree with his Chocolatebunnitarian beliefs is a reasonable and justified action. The protagonists are challenging him, and he’s standing up for his beliefs, right?

Perhaps I should have considered some alternate points of view.
Perhaps I should have considered some alternate points of view.

All over the world, people are standing up for their beliefs. Richard Dawkins is standing up for his belief that evolution is true and wonderful, and also that religion is toxic. Fundamentalist Muslims are standing up for their beliefs that women should not be educated, while Muslims like Malala Yousafzai are standing up for women’s rights everywhere. In some places, people are standing up for their beliefs by marching under rainbow flags to Lady Gaga; in others, people are standing up by their beliefs by picketing soldier’s funerals because our government isn’t homophobic enough. People who don’t vaccinate their kids are standing up for their belief that vaccines are poison. People who write letters to government officials about displays of the Ten Commandments are standing up for their belief in separation of church and state.

All of our actions are informed by our beliefs, and sometimes those actions take us into direct conflict with those who disagree with our beliefs. Typically, we applaud those who stand up for the beliefs we happen to share, and decry those who stand up for beliefs we happen to reject. This shows that, at our core, when we praise people for standing up for what they believe in, we are actually praising them for standing up for what we believe in. That’s not just tribalism. It also comes from the belief that our beliefs are true. By definition, it’s impossible to believe your beliefs are false. This is why it’s important to consider how we come to our beliefs, what the implications of our beliefs are, and whether we could be wrong.

Since becoming an atheist, I’ve come to see the value of the reverse of this moral. Question your beliefs. Try to falsify your belief, or, if that is impossible, think of something that could falsify what you don’t believe in, and go look for that evidence against. Think about how other people might form their beliefs, and do this with compassion. Try to make room for multiple interpretations in your world, and learn how to cooperate with people who you think are probably wrong about some things. I don’t take this to the radical extreme of refusing to consider anything “true” or “false,” but I do think being willing to let go of my beliefs, in exchange for something that seems more likely to be true, has done me as much good if not more than all the standing up I’ve ever done.

May I Please Promote My Fucking Awesome Sister?

So, as you probably know I also write with my sister Ginny about social issues over at The Brunette’s Blog. In light of this whole Rachel Dolezal scandal, I felt the need to write about why what she did is in no way analogous to being transgender. As I headed over to the site, I happened to see that Ginny had already not only written about the topic, but done so about fifty times better. If you’re confused about this issue, or know somebody who is, or just want to hear a perfect analysis, go check this out. It is amazing.

Excellence

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. It was my first time reading it in any format; I’ve read most of his work, and now that one is done only Coraline is left on the list. I think I need to read more Gaiman stories in audiobook form. He puts his words together so beautifully, and I appreciated them more fully when I could hear them.

Anansi Boys starts out like a family comedy drama. It seems like it’s going to be a realistic and funny yet perceptive novel about fathers and sons, and it happens to have a magical twist for fun. This is not inaccurate, but there’s more to it than that.

The story carries you along, gradually adding more and more magical elements, until, like an Escher painting, it has become something else. It’s a folktale. Specifically, an unwelcome guest folktale; a form found all over the world. Naive everyman invites magical being in, magical being causes trouble, naive everyman must figure out how to get it out again. It’s told everywhere because it’s funny, and because the struggle to extricate oneself from unpleasant company is apparently universal.

But there’s more to it than that.

The story shifts and shifts again, and now it’s not realistic drama, it’s not a folktale, it’s a Myth. It’s about human nature on a grand scale. Its scale and cast have dramatically expanded. It may have actually crossed the line into an epic. All this happened so naturally and gradually, I could never point to the stitches that tie these three different forms together, but there they all were.

Then, very neatly, the epic is resolved, the fairy tale is over, and the story becomes one of family again. I may have a new favorite Gaiman book.

(no, I take it back. It’s still The Ocean at the End of the Lane.)

The book made me think about a lot of things, but one of them is the question of excellence. I teach myself to write well by reading; both books on how to write and good fiction books, of all genres. Over the years I’ve tentatively developed a theory; what makes a story not bad and what makes a story excellent are two distinct things. That is to say, the techniques of storytelling do not guide you along a spectrum from very bad to average to extremely good. They teach you to avoid problems that would drag the story down, but if you dodged every mistake and did nothing more, you would not end up with a good story. You would end up with a decent story. An unobjectionable story.

Excellence, on the other hand, is something that can be practiced, but not taught. It comes from that place where writers get a bit mystical, where they talk about where the story wanted to go and what the characters said they were going to do. Above I described what I thought made Anansi Boys excellent, but I cannot generalize from that. I can’t say, “all my stories should go from realistic drama to fairy tale to mythic epic and back again.” That was what Anansi Boys needed to be, but I might never write that kind of story.

This is why some stories you read or watch or listen to, say they were good and then go years without thinking of them again, while others you complain about their obvious faults but still enjoy them and go back and back again, choosing to ignore their stumbles, or nod and laugh at them. This is why I can acknowledge every bad episode of Doctor Who, yet still call it my favorite show. The things that make it frequently awful and the things that make it consistently wonderful are completely different.

And another factor of excellence, of course, is the subjectivity of reader’s taste. It’s about those moments that, despite all the distance between writer and reader, somehow what the one created is exactly what the other needed.

Excellence is a story that is what it needed to be, put into the hands of someone who needed what it was.

Gorillas in the Phone Booth

One of my favorite writing resources is Writing Excuses. It’s four writer friends hanging out and talking writing in a way that is accessible and encouraging and just overall wonderful. If you write, please check it out. Over the years they’ve developed their own jargon, which they are pretty good at explaining for newcomers. One of my favorite phrases of theirs is “gorilla in the phone booth.” It is for those cases where a writer accidentally puts in something, as an aside, that is so unusual and interesting that the readers halt and demand an explanation. If in the middle of a chase scene the characters ran past a gorilla using a phone booth, everybody in the audience would say “hey, what’s up with the gorilla?” and be highly disappointed if they never got an answer.

I’ve realized this is one of the many problems that confronts writers who aim to represent human diversity. For example, an earlier draft of the novel I’m currently working on had an asexual protagonist. The story wasn’t about asexuality, nor did it contain any romance or sex of any kind, but the character had an asexual vibe to me, so in my head she was asexual. I wanted to make that text instead of subtext, but every time I tried, the story ground to a halt. I couldn’t bring any explanation of asexuality into the story and make it seem natural.

Right now, unfortunately, asexuality is a gorilla in a phone booth. It’s real, but even those who have heard of it probably don’t really understand it. I couldn’t put it in a story without explaining, and I couldn’t explain in a way that was natural to that particular story.

As portrayals of a given minority become more common, it becomes easier for all other writers to write them. It’s almost like there’s an assembly line. First a type of person is never represented, or actively demonized. Then there are the stories that double as PSAs, and for a while this is a relief. Then the demand comes for that type of person to be an integral part of the cast. If that demand is listened to, eventually the old strange becomes the new normal. I don’t have to halt a story with a love story between black and white characters to explain why no, this is totally a fine thing to happen. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner already broke that ground for me, along with countless other portrayals of healthy interracial relationships.

Eventually I actually changed protagonists altogether. My current protagonist is mildly schizophrenic, which ties in well with the themes of illusion, secrecy and how to know what is true. I can debunk myths about psychosis in a way that enhances the creepy psychological thriller that forms the main plot. Meanwhile, my asexual character waits in my head for a new plot. I have every intention to use her, when the right story comes along.

Is Doctor Who My Religion?

I’ve recently gotten hooked on the PBS Idea Channel on Youtube, hosted by Mike Rugnetta. He combines pop culture with philosophy and it is brilliant, though sometimes a bit goofy. Goofily brilliant.

One video explores the connection between Doctor Who and religion. He quoted a philosopher who defined religion as something that uses symbolism to promote a cosmology. Religion provides a framework for our moral ideas that helps provide answers to moral dilemmas and meaning-of-life type questions. He then argued that Doctor Who does this as well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Csjr8bXvPw

Of course his whole premise seemed ridiculous, I thought, as no Whovian seriously believes that a regenerating man really flies around through time and space saving people from his little blue box. The belief in the supernatural is an essential part of religion.

And then I thought, wait, is it? Confucianism and Taoism are both typically considered religions, and while they both contain subsects that believe in some aspect of the supernatural, neither has any reference to the supernatural in their core tenets. Buddhism and Hinduism both contain supernatural elements, but have sizable numbers of followers who follow their practices secularly. Judaism, for many people, is about an ethnic identity, and therefore they follow its laws and rituals without believing in Yahweh. That’s five of the most populous religions, right there. Then I started considering his argument in all seriousness.

My attachment to Doctor Who is peculiar. With most shows, I am highly critical, and prone to abandon them if they turn sour. Doctor Who can be as bad as it likes. I will always love it. Often I say its the one show that I turn my brain off for, but that’s not accurate. I still see all the flaws, and I might hate nine episodes out of a season, but I’m still a Whovian to the core. I’ve attributed this to nostalgia. My sister introduced me to Doctor Who when I was a little kid, before the series had even revived. I was hooked quickly. At the time, my strict religious upbringing meant I was not allowed to participate in much of the pop culture that united my friends; Pokemon, Harry Potter, even some Disney movies were off limits. Leaving religion has cut much of the religious media I consumed out. Doctor Who is one of the few things I can be as passionate about today as I was when I was a kid. Still, that doesn’t quite explain it. I did have Winnie the Pooh and some of the old Disney films. Despite the fact that those may be better quality than the average episode of Doctor Who, Winnie the Pooh does not make my heart jump like the sound of the TARDIS landing.

As I view Doctor Who through the religious lens Mike presented, my loyalty starts to make sense.

Studies on morality have shown that humans have an innate moral sense, that our answers to certain moral questions will not vary from culture to culture. However, this is often still a need to seek for answers and meaning. Becoming an atheist hasn’t changed that for me. I’ve decided that to a certain degree, the search is arbitrary. There are multiple answers, and many of them involve humans choosing what to value and what to impose meaning upon. I also think there are wrong answers; ends to the search that are unhealthy, destructive, poorly reasoned or otherwise flawed. There’s still a hunger in me for a philosophical framework that lets the world make sense.

While I’ve been in church services that are flamingly liberal and accepting, I’ve always felt better seeing myself as a visitor into those spaces. While I know atheists are accepted in Unitarian Universalist churches, I don’t think I would want to join one. There is something about the thought of joining a church and participating in actual rituals that is quite viscerally uncomfortable to me. I think I will always feel uncomfortable in a church.

I also don’t think that atheism offers a moral framework in the same way that religions do. That does not mean that atheism is immoral. It is silent on the topic altogether. All it means to be an atheist is to not believe in a God. Secular humanism is pretty cool, but its so nebulous and common sense that I actually don’t get that much out of it, personally. There is a movement of skeptical atheism that protests religion in all its forms, liberal and fundamental. It’s moral framework is to see science and religion as diametrically opposed, with science as the side of good and religion as the side of bad. While I think people in that movement have many good things to say, on the whole, I’m not a fan of making my life revolve around telling other people their beliefs are wrong. Actions, yes, where that is called for, and also I’m all for cheering on science, but I’m not the what’s-in-your-head police.

When I watch Doctor Who, I feel like I’m participating in this mentality of Whovianness that transcends the goodness or badness of a given episode. I feel connected to a way of viewing the world that is deeply satisfying. I take out of it ideas about how to live my life that make it better. If Doctor Who has doctrines, they are the following;

1. Life is full of wonder. Enjoy it.

2. If normality has gotten in the way of that sense of wonder, go see something new. Give yourself permission to have adventures.

3. If on these adventures, you come across someone who is being wronged, that is not an inconvenience or an interruption. That is the most important part of the adventure; the part where you get to help someone else out.

4. You will change over the course of your life. Those changes can be mourned, but they are not bad.

4a. The former yous were real, as are the future reals, as is the you who you are today.

4b. Through all the changes, there are little pieces of you that will not change. That is a treasure.

5. Take other people with you on the journey. Adventures are better when shared.

You know, as religions go, you could do a lot worse.

Mad Max and the Art of Pacing

Last night I saw Mad Max again, because my friend wanted to go see it and I easily enjoyed it enough for a second watch. Also, I thought a second watch would help with the second blog idea I got from the movie. Earlier I wrote about how it used the female characters, and specifically how it subverted the Damsels in Distress trope. The other thing that stood out to me was the action, not just the adrenaline of it, but the way they used it.

The typical action movie alternates prolonged scenes of battles, chases and stunts with quieter scenes. The quiet moments allow the audience to take a breath and let the action sequences stand out more. They are also the place where much character, plot and setting is developed. Mad Max omits these quiet moments almost completely. There are a handful, but they are so short, and so tightly hemmed in by mad paced action the movie feels like a massive chase scene. This is both the source of my biggest criticism and my biggest (story-centric) praise for the movie. On the one hand, a little more time taken to establish some more about the world and the characters would have been nice, as would a few more breathers. On the other hand, the way the action is used is better than what I see in the vast majority of films of its kind.

Ostensibly, the slow scenes in the typical action movie are supposed to flesh out the characters and fit in all that story stuff. In practice, because the writers are often far more invested in getting to the “cool scenes,” these scenes are rushed. They often include the dreaded infodumps, which are not only dull but also have the effect of pushing the audience out of the story. Writing teachers say “show don’t tell” because showing draws the audience in, makes them feel they have experienced the story. Telling the audience something blocks that experience. I know that in last year’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy, Gamera was stolen (research?) from her family. I don’t know anything about how the escaping wives in Mad Max ended up where they are, but I don’t care any more about Gamera than any of them. I do care more about (name) from Pacific Rim, because I didn’t get told about how the Kaiju destroyed her town. I saw it.

The action scenes run the risk of another problem. In many action films I’ve seen, there is plenty of punching, kicking, dodging, blocking, more kicking but different, and after a while all the moves and stunts run into each other. As Confused Matthew often says, they are video games that the audience can’t play. Nothing relevant to the story is actually changing.

One of my favorite books on writing, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, invents a word that I want every writer in the world to know; position. Position means where the character stands in relation to everything else in the story. Suppose the protagonists are running from a villain who wants their family heirloom that unlocks a portal to another world. If the villains catch up, the characters fight and the protagonists get away, things have happened, but nobody’s position in the story has changed. For that to happen, the villains would have to get the heirloom, or the heroes would have to lose it in a swamp, or they could come to trust a previously untrusted companion because of how they fought, or the heroes learn a weakness of the villain, or the heroes lose all their water, then in story terms something has actually happened. Still, even then, if there is five minutes worth of action for a single position change, this can actually slow the overall pace down.

Mad Max’s format forces it to avoid both problems. For one thing, because everything that had to be established also had to fit itself into an action scene, nothing was told. Everyone is characterized by what they do, every bit of worldbuilding is shown or implied or comes out naturally in dialog, and in short all the information you need to understand the movie comes to you in the middle of action.

The action, meanwhile, becomes full of changing positions. In one of my favorite scenes (early film spoiler ahead) Furiosa and Max are trying to outrun the villains in their big badass truck. At first they have the advantage, but then a henchman, who has sneaked on board, sabotages it to slow them down. Furiosa doesn’t quite trust Max yet, and neither do the rest of the escapees, but they are forced to cooperate to repair the truck without slowing down, and as the scene progresses there are numerous subtle signs that they are coming to trust each other. Despite their repairs, the bad guys catch up and it’s time for the chase scene to get a little more battle-y. The villains are getting close enough to get some good shots at Max and Furiosa. One of the escaped wives, Angharad, takes change and , hangs herself out of the cabin, blocking the shooters. Because she is the most prized wife of the villain, his snipers are no longer willing to take their shots. However this risk results in her falling to her death. This is incredibly tragic for the heroes, especially the other escapees, but it does save them all, as the villains stop to recover the body for the villain.

That’s 6 position changes, and I haven’t even covered what happens to the henchmen who got on board. Reading it written out takes some of the drama out (as you can see) but you can still imagine how this is much more engaging then fancy punch, fancy kick, duck, dodge, punch that looked like it hurt, different punch, on and on for even a quarter of the time. Stunts are awesome, but they can’t carry a story on their own.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve seen Mad Max twice, would definitely see it again, and highly recommend it to anyone in the mood for a two hour chase scene.

It’s also a good thing for me to watch as a writer. I work primarily in prose. I like action. I want to write stories with battle scenes, but thrust, parry, thrust comes across far better in a visual medium. I’ve heard people ask how to write good action scenes in these situations, and I think this is an answer. Let the disadvantage become an advantage. Change the positions of your characters within an action scene. Let things actually happen.