Monday, January 26, 2009

Discussing Contest

This entry is my comment on an opening 10 page assignment for a script contest for 2009. The premise given to be fulfilled by the entry was:

Movie Premise: Determined to be a high-level Jason Bourne type operative, an awkward teenager enlists the help of a mysterious, supposed ex-CIA agent in his hometown and finds himself entangled in a dangerous plot that is way over his head

One of the contestants has posted an entry here:

I have read

And I have many observations (plenty of praise too), but there's no way to comment back to the author on his own page. I think Bourne To Spy (great title) is "better" (in terms of sticking to the premise) than the winner, but I see many reasons why this would not make a good film script opening.

I think judges would dismiss it on page one because of one intrinsic conceptual flaw.

The biggest problems lie not in the writing, per se, but in the handling of the concept. That could be wholly a matter of personal taste, though.

What I think is funny is not necessarily what teens think is funny.

Here's the problem I see. Bourne to Spy puts the "comedy" element into the premise rather than into the acting itself and the basic situation.

It makes the premise look "silly" rather than making the perfectly believable characters face a totally serious situation wherein they must use their sense of humor (and understanding of Divine humor) to solve the problem.

That is, this is a different genre of comedy than the ones that I find funny. (taste, you see)
This opening contains a type of writing artifact called by some being "on the nose" -- what you are saying is just too up front, to in-the-face of the audience. It's too blatant to be funny.

Consider the principle of charging a lot of money for something -- making it seem valuable to the customer and thus getting more respect for your product. When you job hunt, don't under-price yourself.

It works the same in fiction. What the reader/viewer has to work to extract from the story will seem important, memorable, impressive, and ultimately produce that huge ROTFL effect in the final scene.

You need to get the viewer to invest in following your story - to anticipate what will happen next and wait with baited breath to find out.

Laughter is at the threshold of pain. To get a laugh, you don't just bash people over the head, you have to crank up the pain slowly, sneak up on the viewer, bash them from behind with a punch line. Part of the technique is foreshadowing, laying pipe as Blake Snyder says.

My reaction to BOURNE TO SPY is simply that tells us too much up front.

As a result of that, the real story gets buried in overly long, abstract dialogue bits such as McCoy's speech on page 6.

This is TELL NOT SHOW. Films are stories-in-pictures. Here the information the viewer needs to know is dumped in a long speech - no pictures. Worse, the viewer really hasn't been teased into wanting to know what McCoy is talking about.

This is a result of the writer writing himself into a corner. At that point in the plot development, there is no other way to insert this plot element.

Another instant-reject for BOURNE TO SPY is (probably the same thing wrong with my entry) too much dialogue.

Professional producers scan pages for the proportion of action to dialogue and want to see a balance that's just exactly "so" because that bespeaks a pacing of the film that will work.

I haven't got the knack of that yet, but if you want to see my attempt at this premise, I've posted it on my screenwriting website at

Please reply with comments about my entry here on my writing blog.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Cycles And The Seasons

Margaret Carter raised an interesting point in her New Year's post.

All of Earth's cultures have noticed we have a "year" -- a solar year, or cycle, and picked a point of the circle for a "beginning" of the year -- and made that a celebration of some sort. Fiction worldbuilders writing for an Earth audience have to take this kind of celebration into account when creating alien cultures - and romances across that cultural gap.

Also this year the standards authorities have brought to our attention that the Earth's rotation is slowing, and this year the master timekeeping standard atomic clock was adjusted another second.

We've only been able to measure accurately for a little while, so presumably the slowing has been going on since Earth began rotating.

Still, the Day is part of the Year cycle. The slowing, the lengthening of the Day and year, indicates a kind of non-permanence about our situation on Earth and around this star. Time is elastic. What changes can begin -- and end. The slowing of the Earth's rotation puts a whole 'nother spin on things.

In the Torah, the Creator of the Universe assigns the proclamation of the New Moon, and the New Year to the human venue. We are responsible for choosing the marking and celebrating of TIME itself -- and as Margaret pointed out, all our cultures create and innovate on how to do this. But NONE of these cultures have chosen "wrong" -- they're all "right" -- all at least OK. Because it's the human prerogative to divide and mark the cycles of Time.

From the human perspective, we all know "time" is "relative." The 20 minute wait in the dentist's office is much longer than the 20 minutes spent watching your favorite movie, or bedding your lover.

If Time were to be absolutely regular and objective, the Creator could have just assigned the cycles and markers to suit Himself. But now, only NOW, we discover that Earth's spin is not precisely repeating. No two years are alike. And it's up to us to call the end and beginning of cycles.

More than that, we now understand how our Sun fits into a spinning Galaxy that's moving through space.

In truth, no two successive years (days or months or any other cycle) are THE SAME. There actually is no "repetition" -- yet we are given the responsibility to mark the anniversaries of a death of a close relative, and other Events that are featured in our personal and collective History. All our cultures and religions have a year's calendar of Holidays commemorating such Events.

Yet the Earth is never -- ever -- in the same place twice. Even in the billions of years it takes a Galaxy to rotate completely, the Galaxy has moved through space and the suns do not come back to the same "place" in space-time.

I used the galaxy's rotation and move through space in setting up the backstory of two novels (now available on as e-books as well as used on Amazon) - Molt Brother and City of a Million Legends.

Each moment of life is unique. Imagine that.

Margaret brought up one of my favorite novels by Robert A. Heinlein, Time For The Stars, where twins are used to communicate telepathically from Earth to FTL ships.

That reminded me suddenly of a wonderful little book -- HOW TO BUILD A TIME MACHINE by Paul Davies, from Penguin Books paperback 2001 -- reprinted through 2003.

I don't know if this book is still available. It might be woefully out of date with respect to the newest discoveries in astrophysics. But that wouldn't matter to worldbuilders writing fiction.

HOW TO BUILD A TIME MACHINE is popular physics which explains clearly in layman's terms how it is that there can never be any such thing as simultaneity at interstellar distances.

Gravity distorts space-time in such a way that the galactic civilizations we write about really can't exist or function as we describe them -- as analogues of Earth at the time of sailing ships.

My mind is still absolutely dizzy about this concept. Even Robert E. Forward (an astrophysicist) in order to write a good novel had to kind of cheat his way around this concept.

And then a couple years ago I took a course which I've mentioned many times in blogs and my review column ( ) and which led to a series of 6 review columns which I called the Soul Time Hypothesis. Those 6 review columns presenting this concept of the relationship between the Soul and Time became the basis of a course I gave in the Spring of 2008.

The mind-boggler is that the soul enters manifest reality through the dimension of Time.

Physicists obsess on measuring Time because it's a factor in almost all the key equations that describe the physical universe. So possibly they'll keep on studying and finally discover that the non-simultaneity concept has to be changed to something more amenable to SF writing. After all, physics said FTL travel is impossible, but we write about it. And physics said matter-transmission is impossible, but it's been done in the Lab (albeit on sub-microscopic particles). So maybe there's hope for writers.

Maybe, by writing such imaginings, getting others to imagine the universe CAN have simultaneous effects on events across galaxies. Maybe we can actually change the way the universe works? If Time is so plastic -- maybe other things are likewise responsive to human imagination? That was the theory behind Marion Zimmer Bradley's MISTS OF AVALON - a wonderful novel of Arthurian Legend's women.

Or alternatively, the power of the human imagination to change the functioning of the physical universe could become the reason that galactic aliens want to destroy Earth and all humans? What a threat - our novels alter THEIR reality! What a Helen of Troy lovestory!

Actually, I approached that idea sidewise in my novel DREAMSPY. But I fudged the physics with a little magic. Anyone know another novel that plays with that concept?

I don't really know how to "worldbuild" myself a universe strictly based on the non-simultaneity concept that includes the Soul-Time Hypothesis and that would work for a novel's background. Yet more than likely a blending of those two ideas would depict our objective reality (if there is such a thing) much better than any novelist has yet managed.

Well, then maybe the key for writers is to create some Aliens who do understand the universe in that blended way - non-Simultaneity plus Soul-Time, and just proceed from there?

Oh, wait -- actually, I think Edward E. ("Doc") Smith did that with the Lensman Series and his Arisians vs. Boskone war that stretched over millenia. I read all those books when I was in grammar school and High School, and they made a deep impression on me. They're still available in a recent reprint.

I haven't seen anything even remotely similar lately. If you have, please drop a note about them on the comments here. But don't forget that the Lensman Series had the first really HOT romance in the space-travel SF field. I've always wished I had auburn hair.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg