Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Writer's Eye Finds Symmetry

We had an interesting discussion on Spoilers recently in which I held that any story worth reading or viewing couldn't be "spoiled" by knowing the ending, or any particular scene, plot development or bit of dialogue.

In other words, I held that there is no such thing as a "spoiler."

If knowing what happens "spoils" it for you, then it wasn't well written enough to be worth your time and money anyway.

But in fact, there is such a thing as a spoiler!!!

What "spoils" fiction for readers and viewers is not knowing what happens, but knowing the trick behind the fictional facade.

The trick that's jerking your emotions around, that takes an event or line of dialogue and carries it straight through your conscious defenses into your subconscious and hits your deepest, most buried buttons, works just as well whether you've heard the plot in advance or not.

But once you know the trick being used against you, you don't react to it any more.

As stage magicians loathe letting anyone know their "secrets" (even other magicians), so also writers (who are prestidigitators of the emotions) should guard their proprietary secrets. Some writers go so far as to not-teach new writers because newbies are 'the competition.'

There is a process which trainee writers undergo as they pass from audience to stage-magician that is extremely wrenching. As you learn the secrets that writers have been using to jerk your emotions around, to make you laugh or cry over a scene, to deliver a GASP!, or a whoop of triumph, you find that your favorite fiction is "spoiled" -- you just don't enjoy it anymore, the way you used to as a mere reader.

You've found the keywords that trigger your emotional responses, even when used 200 pages before the impact hits you. You've found how you fall for the hero's kryptonite weakness, or root for heroes who have no such weakness. You've read a lot of these articles on how to write, and you've attended panels at conventions where writers reveal their secrets. Perhaps you've even done some writing yourself, and realize that these stories that always seemed so real, so important, so filled with higher truth, spiritual insights, or personal affirmation of your view of the world -- all this stuff you always adored suddenly seems as flimsy and false as the Western town main street consisting of plywood fronts for stores with catwalks on the back for cameras.

And it's all bland and pointless, except there's money to be made writing! So you set out to write, and that just makes the apathy for reading or viewing any fiction worse.

This state of apathy for fiction can persist for years once fiction has been "spoiled" for you by glimpsing behind the scenes. Or it might persist only for a few months, depending on how fast the stage of mastering the craft lasts. And the length of that interval depends on how hard you work at mastering the tricks yourself, and how much of yourself you put into it, and on how good you are at learning abstract things then applying them in the practical world.

Some people actually reach a version of this stage of apathy just while watching television, never thinking to become writers. They grasp the underlying formula for a TV series, find it predictable, and then find it boring because it's predictable.

Some will then segue into an "I can write better than that!" attitude and proceed to do so (with varied results), but still not find their enjoyment of commercial fiction returning.

So let's talk a little about how writing students bootstrap themselves up to the level of professional writers, and begin enjoying fiction for totally different reasons than they had ever been able to imagine before. This sheds light on why the same novel rarely wins both the Hugo (voted by fans) and the Nebula (voted only by professional writers.)

What does the writer's eye see that the reader's eye misses?

What do writers see in each others' work to send them into paroxysms of joy, of admiration, or even (*gasp*) into becoming a FAN of another writer's work?

It's all in the writer's TRAINED EYE. The writer's inner eye "sees" patterns that escape the casual reader. Having attempted to capture such a pattern and display it in a fictional universe, a world they have built themselves, the writer is aware of how difficult it is to put such an abstract vision into a piece of fiction and have the fiction still work as a story comprehensible to other people.

Only the writer who has studied the craft, then attempted (and perhaps even sold) stories has full appreciation of what an achievement capturing a real-world pattern in a bit of fiction can be.

If the pattern is put into the foreground of the fiction, the fiction fails to reach the reader/viewer's subconscious. If it's in the background or too buried in symbology or assumptions, the fiction doesn't communicate the pattern to a commercial size audience. If it's too hidden in the THEME, the fiction fails. Too blatant or too hidden -- either one is easy to write. But getting the pattern to be visible, clear and well stated, but still open to personal interpretation, and thus able to engage the audience's subconscious, now that's hard.

A writer can have a blazing epiphany, become filled to the brim with the urgency of showing the world an important bit of wisdom, and write their heart into a story -- only to have it sneered at or rejected.

After such a failure, a writer is set up to break through the apathy barrier, to become a FAN of other writers, to appreciate writing as craft and art welded into a thing of beauty.

What does a writer learn in that moment of breaking through the apathy barrier? What breaks that barrier and restores enjoyment to fiction? Finding a pattern you recognize properly used in a bit of fiction, understanding the craft elements that construct and convey the pattern, and knowing "This is what I was trying to do!" Recognizing another writer's success at something difficult restores a writer's zest for reading/viewing other writer's fiction.

All that is very abstract. Here's a concrete example.

Let's take the film MR. AND MRS. SMITH, the 2005 movie version where a husband and wife are in marriage counselling, and discover that each one has been keeping a secret from the other.

They are both assassins working for secret agencies. And they've been assigned to kill each other, and in fact the situation which pits them against each other was rigged by their superiors simply because they were living together. (um, yeah, it's a romance, and has all the elements of an alien romance, since each is "the unknown" to the other)


I've seen this film several times, and once again just recently.

But this last time was the ONLY time I saw what it was that speaks to me in this film.

Previously, it had been years since I'd written a screenplay. Recently I've done three (none yet to my own satisfaction!). Now I'm seeing movies differently, and really enjoying things I did not enjoy before. Apparently I stopped writing screenplays before I broke this barrier.

So in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I found the PATTERN that (when I couldn't see it) was jerking me around. Now it is very likely you saw this pattern the first time you saw the movie, and you won't understand why I didn't see it.

And I like this movie even better now that I've seen clearly what was only hazy before.

I hope you've re-read my post
because in that post I did mention that if you have a prologue, you also need an epilogue. That's a technique of structure often called "bookends." Mr. & Mrs. Smith has "bookends" in the structure, and I never missed that point.

The film starts with the husband and wife sitting in office visitor chairs before a desk you don't see. It's a marriage counselling session. They haven't had sex in a while (with each other, that is) and can't agree on how long that's been, nor on how long it's been since they met. We see how they met, pretending to be a couple even though they didn't know each other, evading a police search for an assassin who was an American traveling alone. Total strangers, they provided cover for each other.

We see each of them in their ordinary workday persona, in wild "James Bond" action, battling, killing, almost being killed, arriving home in very "James Bond" unruffled fashion, being the perfect suburban couple. They argue or go stone-silent over trivial household matters. Clearly something abnormal there.

Then they're pitted against each other (we don't know why at first) and each wrestles with whether to kill the other (almost does it), and finally they begin actually TALKING about the issues between them ("What did you think the first time you saw me?" asking frank and embarrassing questions and answering honestly.) As they clear the air, they decide they won't kill each other, and they team up as allies against the conspiracy of their superiors to make them kill each other because they're living together (and therefore the "other" is a spy.)

The battle scenes get wilder and wilder until they shoot up a store, blow things up, (even their own house gets turned into a pile of kindling) then there's a stunt-doubled car chase to make Indiana Jones pale.

And after one wild-WILD action fight sequence, they blow off the rest of their aggressions in sex, wild passionate sex like they haven't had in years.

They settle the problem with their superiors, and they're back at the marriage counsellor. Mr. Smith prompts the marriage counsellor to ask the sex question again. They admit they redecorated the house (one of the issues they were spatting over was the color of the curtains).

Of course, the way I've outlined the story here, the pattern is obvious because I see it now.

The VIOLENT ACTS we see as they do their day-job, the violence in joining in combat at a job (that was a setup) where one tries to steal the "package" from the other, all the way through forming an alliance and shooting up and destroying a SUBURBAN HOUSEWARES STORE (with all kinds of nasty hunting weapons) (and they turn out to be wearing kevlar vests! I tell you the SYMBOLISM is perfect for penetrating subconsciouses), even the explosion that destroys their house -- all that violence and destruction is the SHOW DON'T TELL illustration, an exact replica or reflection, of the usual ho-hum marital-spat screaming fights most couples have. When a marriage is in real trouble, those spats become symbolic of the real problems in exactly the way the violence and truth-in-marriage issues do in this film.

The violence in this film acts as a SYMBOL for the marital issues that are screamed over and around but never actually stated in ordinary marriages (such as viewers of the movie might be living through). As the violence escalates, their COMMUNICATION over the real issues escalates (as rarely happens in real life -- I said this is a romance.)

The marriage counsel session dialogue is easily recognizable as marital issues. Just read some self-help books and you can't miss it. Textbook stuff. The marriage counsellor doesn't know they're both assassins by trade. Would that trade make a difference?

The VIOLENCE appears to be just rollicking good fun needed to sell a movie. Neither is rattled by explosions, wounds, etc. The violence isn't about the violence. It's about conversation, about communicating.


The film doesn't go into great detail about the sex scenes, but the violence is detailed move for move and prolonged for fun, right down to gradually stripping off clothing as it gets ruined by the violence.

We've all discussed the psychological equivalence of sex and violence.

From the writer's point of view, the trick is to define a HIGH CONCEPT, and write that story, delivering on the fun in the concept.

The CONCEPT that husband and wife are (secretly from each other) professional assassins casts the marital "battle of the sexes" into HIGH CONCEPT, and provides the "violence" that producers require to pull in audiences.

But the violence in Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2005 version) is not gratuitous. It's not there to draw audiences. It's not there to display the grandiose physiques of the stars or the director's genius. It's there to FULFILL A PATTERN, to reticulate a pattern, and to discuss the nature of marriage.

Whee! This writer SQUEALS FOR JOY at seeing every bit of this script so clearly etched that every line traces right back to where the concept came from.

Now seeing into the wheels-and-gears behind the illusion does not spoil it for me. It is in fact the reason I imbibe fiction in all media. I take vast joy in well oiled wheels-and-gears.

Seeing into the mechanism is one part of the exercise of creating such a mechanism of your own. Seeing this particular mechanism fitting a typical alien-romance plot into commercial box office parameters makes me ever more hopeful that we can indeed create that blockbuster, runs-for-twenty-years PNR TV series.

Does anybody reading this remember TOPPER? It's not even currently available on DVD, and what's available used is only "highlights" -- it's time to rethink all this PNR stuff.

AMAZON SAYS: "A madcap comedy escapade, The Adventures of Topper is a collection of the funniest episodes from the ""Topper"" television series. The show, based on a novel by Thorne Smith and the book's subsequent spin-off motion pictures, features genteel banker Cosmo Topper who moves into a new house that comes complete with ghosts and all!"

Remember "The Ghost And Mrs. Muir" ???

Each of those two "Concepts" spoke to a particular generation in terms of what was bugging that generation most. Mr. & Mrs. Smith speaks to the issue of truth in marriage. Note how on SMALLVILLE, and even in BUFFY, the truth issue is make-or-break in the Relationships. (Clue: truth in marriage wasn't always iconic in USA society, [rememer I LOVE LUCY?] nor in Victorian or Renaissance English Romances. It's really a very new yardstick for measuring relationships.)

Book, film, TV Show -- there's a link, a trail to follow that connects these forms of entertainment with each other and with the social matrix they address. And today we have to add web-originals, and other graphic novel, TV, and other new distribution channels.

Now think CONCEPT and think SYMMETRY as only the writer's eye can see it.

Think about Mr. And Mrs. Smith and how the violence level of the script mirrored the exact textbook progress of a marriage encounter-group session. See the pattern whole and completely reticulated, in the subconscious and in the conscious. The pattern is not in the foreground, not in the background and not even in the THEME. It's in the ties between the violence and the psychology that exist ONLY IN THE VIEWER'S MIND, and never on screen.

Don't just admire the modern Mr. And Mrs. Smith -- follow the pattern lines back to the originating concept, reverse engineer the script, deconstruct that concept into its components, and delve into how that concept was created.

It's not just a flash of inspiration that creates concepts. It's long, hard days of perspiration -- sometimes watching or reading things you wouldn't ordinarily want to. When that flash of inspiration occurs, it's your subconscious reporting on its month's work.

Writers do most all their work while sleeping, but the IRS doesn't let you deduct the bedroom of your house. Talk about unfair tax practices.

So replicate what they did to create and recognize the High Concept, "A married couple where each is secretly an assassin."

You can't use their concept, but you can use their method of finding that concept.

What other conflicts besides the "battle of the sexes in marriage" do you know of that go on in millions of people's lives every day? That's the question to answer in order to get the effect Hollywood wants: THE SAME.

What kind of well known, familiar conflict is so pervasive people don't even notice it's there, nor consider it worth commenting on? And what are the best self-help books that address subsets of that vast conflict area?

Nail that SAME part, then search for the BUT DIFFERENT part of the formula.

With Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the "different" part is that they're BOTH professional assassins.

Then the grind-the-crank part of the plot leads directly to "assigned to kill each other" - you just have to figure out a reason. The elegant solution is "because they're living together which means each is a spy assigned to waggle our secrets out of our hired assassin."
The twist with Mr. and Mrs. Smith is that the box-office requirement of VIOLENCE is supplied by their day jobs, not by the domestic dispute over keeping secrets.

I'd bet all of you already know all this.

So what are you thinking. Two alien from outer space spies meet on Earth and marry to maintain their cover? But they've each been sent here to search for the other and a) kill him, or b) protect Earth from his faction Out There?

Here are some widespread "conflicts" to explore other than Battle of the Sexes:

1) People Vs. Medical System
2) People Vs. Insidious Advertising Practices (think 0% nothing down mortgages)
3) People Vs. The Boss From Hell
4) People Vs. College grading system
5) People Vs. Traffic congestion
6) People Vs. Post Office Screw Ups
7) Tech Support Slave Vs. Enraged Customers
8) Mom Vs. School System over allowing Bullying

What other pervasive, everybody knows what it is about, conflicts can you think of?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg