The first major sequence in James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia revolves around a boxing match between the protagonist, beat-cop Bucky Bleichert and his soon-to-be-partner Lee Blanchard. The fight takes place at the end of the fourth chapter, and it’s loaded with stakes: personal stakes, for Bleichert and his father; professional stakes, given his advancement in the police department is dependent on this fight; social stakes, since the bout is a ploy to garner public support for a bill that will earn the police department money; and, ultimately, big emotional stakes, because everything is in balanced against each other. A win on the personal side of things means tanking his professional advancement. He can have one, at the cost of the other.
So the entire fight is one big choice for Bleichert, where he figures out the kind of man he’s going to be for the rest of the book. It feels more intense than the climax of most novels, and you’re only 10% of the way through the book. It artisinal, in the old-school sense, where you can see the quality of the workmanship as a layperson, but you’re in awe of it if you know the details of what you’re looking at. You can see the labour that’s gone into the book.
It does this so well I basically read it, had a lie down, and contemplated giving up writing because…damn.
I started April full of confidence. I had a plan for a novella. Nothing important, just a goofy 40,000 words about dinosaurs and apocalypse and super-intelligent battle-orangutans that’s mostly being written to amuse a friend of mine. I knew could hit two thousand words a day, so I figured I’d get through a rough draft in the space of thirty days.
Now we’re nineteen days in and I’ve burned the entire draft to the ground so I can start over and build something better in the wreckage.
Not that I’m getting rid of the any of the goofy elements – there will still be dinosaurs and apocalypse and orangutans – but I wasn’t happy with the draft I was writing and desperately needed to change it. The voice didn’t fit. The plot was wrong. My 40,000 word novella draft was up around 30,000 words, and I was only just getting out of the first act. The middle act belonged to a completely different story (and, now, can go become that story without being hampered by the first act that didn’t fit).
I can usually tell when I’ve done something wrong with story structure because my entire life grinds to a halt. I get restless and anxious and eventually depressed. When I loose track of the plot, I literally lose the plot. That’s harder to navigate than it used to be, full of second-guessing. Am I junking this story because it’s not a good fit, or because my first response to a low is period do everything crazier, faster, better.
I do not plan stories well. I cannot figure out what I’m really writing until I’m down in there, among the words, figuring out where shit goes wrong.
I was going to show up here and write a long post about dialogue this evening, given that I’m rewriting a story where I’m trying to do things I don’t ordinarily do with dialogue, and that’s seeping into the new story I’m trying to draft.
Then I remembered that CS Pacat already has one of the most kick-ass posts about dialogue structures that I’ve seen on the web, so I’m just going to link to her post about manipulating topic patterns instead. Or, as it should be titled, a quick primer on how Aaron Sorkin does all those Aaron Sorkin things in dialogue.
Go forth and read, peeps. I’m going back to my story.
I went to see the recent Queensland Theatre Company production of Tartuffe over the weekend, but this is not a review of that show. My review would run very simply: incredible work, great fun, go and fucking see it. Even if you have no idea what Tartuffe is and why Moliere is a big deal.
Hell, especially if you don’t know why Moliere is a big deal.
But what I’m still noodling about on a Tuesday morning, three days after I saw the show, is a very small slice of the overall show: set design.
There’s been a run of QTC shows with incredible sets in the last twelve months. The set for last year’s The Odd Couple was an incredible piece of work, creating an apartment in the middle of the stage that allows for a lot of dynamic movement. The set for Tartuffe is equally incredible work: the rooms and balconies of a double-story mansion on a rotating stage, allowing for five different places where scenes can be set. A set that was rich in details, from the knick-knacks to the art hung up on t he walls, to placing of doors that allowed for multiple paths of entry and exit onto the stage.
It was a fantastic set, bringing a sense of realism to the staging. Really nice work.
And I spent the first half of the play wishing it wasn’t there.
Back in ye olden days, when I taught a more diverse range of writing that I do now, I spent a lot of time trying to wedge the following idea into people’s heads before they sat down to write scripts: film simulates, theatre suggests. When you’re looking at the toolkit you’ve got for telling stories in either medium, they’re important things to keep in mind.
What this translates into, when not speaking in pithy sound-bites, is the realisation that each of these mediums has a different toolkit for evoking reality. Film relies heavily on visual details – when you point a camera at something, it captures everything in the frame and provides a rich spectrum of details for the viewer to read the story against. If you’ve got the time and the budget, you can physically take your camera and your crew to a real place and capture the actual details of being in that place. It’s not as good as actually being there, and of necessity it’s still a crafted experience because there is an art to film-making and constructing meaning with the visual language of cinema, but the strength of film as a medium is its ability to simulate reality as a kind of near-exact photocopy.
Theatre doesn’t have that. Theatre is a storytelling medium that grew around it’s limitations, which include the physical limitations of the stage and the fact that the audience will only see the action from a single direction on any given viewing. A film camera may pick up on incidental objects in a particular location, but nothing exists on a stage unless it’s put there – and so the history of theatre is filled with a larger world being suggested or evoked by a single well-chosen object that serves as a metaphoric stand-in.
Or, to put it another way, in order to kill someone in the end of your film production of Hamlet without breaking the audiences sense of belief, you need some realistic looking swords, fight choreography, blood packs, and some clever camera work to make it all look fluid and real. Fuck that up, and the audience will get distracted by the feeling that there is something a little fake in your simulation.
In order to kill people at the end of your stage production of Hamlet, you can use a stick and a length of red ribbon and everyone will still be on the edge of their seats.
You can evoke an awful lot with very little in the theatre. That is its strength. It can also be its weakness, because everything you put on the stage takes on more meaning. It’s a queue to the audience about what they should be expecting and what’s important in the performance.
And here is where I had problems with the set for Tartuffe – the first thing you see is this big, elaborate set mimicking a modern beach-side mansion.
The second thing you see is a bunch of well-dressed cast members drinking and dancing to techno as the stage rotates around, giving you a glimpse of the even more impressive sets on the far side of the turntable.
And then the dialog starts, and Moliere was a playwright active in the late 1600s. This particular translation of Tartuffe involves a lot of rhyming couplets full of clever wordplay, but it also keeps some of the particularly anachronistic aspects of the original. Which probably works fine, if you are familiar with
Moliere and know to expect that from the moment the curtain goes up. But if you don’t…
Well, he cognitive dissonance starts early, and stays around for a long, long time. There’s a wait while the play teaches you how to read what’s going on, instead of using the set to transition you into that a little more smoothly.
And after seeing Tartuffe on Saturday night, I spent Sunday at the powerhouse watching a cabaret production of Angela Carter’s The Lady in the House of Love, which used a single chair and an ornate wooden stage as its setting and used them to evoke rose-choked ruins, the countryside, an French army base, and a more. It worked spectacularly well, because everything on stage meant something and played to the strengths of theatre, using very little to create an awful lot.
None of this is intended as a slight against the Tartuffe production in any way – it remains a fantastic set and a fantastic production, and I’d recommend seeing it if you’re in the Brisbane area. I’m am focusing on a minor quibble that bugged me far more than the people I was there with, and I will freely admit that I am a grumpy theatre goer who objects to many, many things that are done on stage.
But I’m still mulling over this particular feeling of disconnection because its a useful reminder as a writer: prose, like theatre, is reliant on metaphor and suggestion to build its setting and contextualise the action that takes place there.
It’s particularly important for me this week, as I’m trying to evoke a much larger world in the novel that I’m writing with a couple of very small scenes. My first impulse is always going bigger, but bigger isn’t necessarily better here. In a metaphor-driven medium, evoking the right detail will mean more than evoking a dozen others that aren’t necessarily a good fit for the story you’re trying to tell.
And with that, I’m going to finish my coffee and get cracking on the novel for a bit.
I have spent the last few weeks agreeing to do things, comfortable in the knowledge that time when I would actually have to do said things was comfortably distant in the future. Except now the future is almost here, and this will be my last week where all my writing time is actually devoted to writing-related tasks.
I tend to forget that October is a good writing month. The weather is pleasant and there is a kind of lull in the yearly commitments, a quietness between the festival chaos of September and the beginning of the end-of-year chaos that comes in November. Every year October comes around and I do a whole bunch of work and I think, well, this is nice, it would be great if this was all year round. And then I start making plans, because everything seems so achievable.
Then November reminds me that those plans are foolish, and December derails them entirely.
Which…I’m okay with, mostly, given that I was either feeling asleep at the keyboard ’cause the sleep apnea hadn’t been diagnosed yet, or basically fighting my own brain twenty-four seven ’cause I hadn’t yet figured out that maybe I was a depressed.
Still, I don’t like leaving things unfinished, and I really don’t like leaving a point unproven. The massive burst of productivity that comes with October has started whispering its siren song to me, pointing out that November is coming…
I write rough drafts in my notebooks these days. It gets me away from my perfectionist impulses, lets me embrace the idea of scribbling out a crude and ugly scene that will get fixed up when I type it into the computer.
Except I don’t really look at the notebooks when it comes time to sit at the keyboard. I just sit and rewrite the entire story, based on the rough beats I remember from the notebook. Everything else is basically written anew, fleshing out as I go.
It feels inefficient. I keep sitting down and wondering if it’s time to go back to the computer for everything, or if its time to try doing rougher sketches in the notebook rather than trying to write full scenes.
It feels inefficient, but it’s not. Notebooks are the perfect place to write that messy, ugly zero draft. They’re the perfect place to dump this stuff out there, figure out what the story isn’t so I can start paying attention to the thing that it probably is.
And the best chance of figuring out if it really is inefficient isn’t halfway through the draft. It’s when I’m done, and I’m starting a brand new project, and I can set up new habits around it.
I’ve built my habits for a reason, turned them into a process that seems to be working. My brain doesn’t trust that, but then, my brain is full of bad wiring and treats writing like an antidepressant.
I have a bunch of rules to live by these days: sleep is non-negotiable; always order the pork belly.
Increasingly, I’m adding this one to the list: trust in the process; the brain doesn’t get a vote.
It’s seven fifteen in the morning and I’m in the Wintergarden food-court, writing. My phone is counting down the minutes, my pomodoro app ticking softly to mark each passing second. I’m seated amid the empty tables, notebooks splayed out in front of me. There is weirdness on the walls, interior design done with light and shadow instead of wallpaper or paint.
In an hour and a half, I head off to the day job. There are one hour and fifteen minutes of usable writing time between now and then, and I’ve got a list of things that need to get done today.
A) This blog post.
B) The next scene in my current work in progress.
In the five minutes between writing bursts, I get to tweet or check Facebook or contemplate this question: what is the best use of my writing time right now? What is the opportunity cost of focusing on A, instead of B?
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU REALLY HAVE FOR WRITING EACH WEEK?
There is a recurring obsession with time, when it comes to writing advice. You hear it over and over: set down an hour a day and write, guard it like a lioness protecting her cubs. Treat your writing time as sacred, and turn off the internet while you work.
It’s a useful starting point, but it has its limitations. For one thing, it’s focused on the act of writing, not the business of maintaining a writing career.
For another thing, if you’re the kind of person who wants to write for a living, that one hour a day probably isn’t going to build your career as fast as you’d like.
Because writing isn’t just writing, after a certain point – it’s redrafting and dealing with edits on your work; it’s running correspondence and dealing with the minutia of a small business; it’s tracking deadlines and writing blog posts and dealing with small projects that people ask you to get involved in. It’s teaching classes or doing talks, writing guest posts and doing promotion for your work. Networking and being a good part of your peer community.
And if you practice that one-hour-a-day-is-sacred by rote, you can lose track of the lesson it’s trying to teach you – your time is a resource. It needs to be deployed wisely.
I am not wise with my time. Not the way I should be.
I did some calculations, a few weeks back, which brought this realisation home. When I put my writing plans together, I look at time as an abundant resource. There is always time there, and I can always find more if I need it.
It’s not hard to see how this got started: I work part-time. I have two dedicated write clubs every week. I have weekends I can fill with words, if I’m so inclined. I have hours and hours and hours, if I need them.
Which means, of course, I don’t use much time at all, because everything can be deferred until later if it has to be. There is always time tomorrow. I can always do better, if I didn’t get enough done today.
I tend to think and plan my writing projects aspirationally, rather than realistically
I also have nine months of data about my writing habits. Weeks and weeks of information tracked through rescue time, plus a whole stack of handwritten notes recorded in my bullet journal. Those informed me that my writing time was no-where near as abundant as I thought, and identified the blind spots where I’m losing hours.
So I sat down and looked at the hours I spend working every week. Not just the total, but the quantity of time spent doing each individual thing.
Then I looked at my weekly schedule and asked the hard question: if I treated time as a finite resource, how much time could I realistically devote to my whole writing career week to week?
How much time did I really have for writing, in order to get things done?
The answer was 21 hours, assuming I paid attention and monitored my time.
And when I looked at my to-do list, I was trying to cram way more work than that into the week to come. I approached my schedule aspirationally. I planned for the time I thought I had, rather than the reality in front of me.
ASPIRATIONAL THINKING IS A PROBLEM
When thinking aspirationally about your time, there’s no concession to the realities of living your life.
In my aspirational schedule of what might happen in the coming week, there’s never a bad day or a knotty problem with a project that takes longer to sort out than I think; there’s never a night when I go hit the movies or catch up with friends; there’s no weekend where I flake out and watch wrestling, because my sleep is disrupted and wrestling is my escape. I am always writing, always moving forward, doing the next thing.
When you’re thinking aspirationally, like your time is abundant, It’s easy to give up time now, because I will be perfect tomorrow.
In my aspirational schedule I never really need to clean the house or do laundry or wash the dishes. I certainly never need to iron, which is a chore that catches me off-guard ever week now that I have do it again.
In my aspirational schedule, I can chase down every possible project and do everything I want. And I am perpetually feeling lie there’s something left undone, and everything I do is making me fall behind.
Here’s how I came up with the 21 hours for writing jobs.
In real terms, there are only 168 hours in a week. 56 of them are spent asleep, since sleep is no longer negotiable for me. If I miss a few hours, I pay for it, and I’ll lose more writing time than I gain by staying up late.
Bad things happen to my brain chemistry when I don’t sleep enough – both RescueTime and my Bullet Journal showed that – and nothing will cause aspirational time to become wasted time faster than depression. My ability to make smart choices is basically gone.
So, we’re down to 112 hours. Now 21.45 of those are spent at the day job. 14, more or less, are spent getting ready for the day or for bed, showering and shaving or getting where I need to go. 7 hours are spent reading every night, before I go to sleep, which could be qualified as a “writing” job, but has more to do with good sleep habits than anything else.
That’s over half my weekly allotment of hours gone before I pick up a pen, and none of it can be cannibalised to get some extra writing time.
Spending time with my family? 4 hours a week, on average. Catching up with friends? 6 hours or so, depending on how write club breaks down and whether I’m meeting to catch up. Watching movies or TV? Lets call it 3 hours, if I’m paying attention to the way I use time. A whole weekend, if I’m not and I just let Netflix autoplay.
Now I’m willing to give some of those things – I don’t need to jam two days of Netflix into my week all that often – but a lot of it isn’t something I want to give up. My parents are getting older and my dad isn’t well, so the time I spend with the family means a lot right now. Hanging out with friends is a necessary thing, right up there with getting enough sleep every night, if I want to remain on an even keel.
When I start with that 168 hours and start taking out all the stuff that needs to be done, that large expanse of aspirational time looks considerably smaller. And so, I end up with:
That’s it. 21 hours for all the tasks associated with my writing career, while still having sufficient time to clean and bathe and work and see other people. 21 hours, and that largely means working seven days a week and aggressively searching out writing time.
Here’s the other problem with aspirational thinking: it doesn’t take into account everything that needs to happen within those 21 hours. In my head, if I don’t think about it, that’s twenty one hours of pure writing time. It doesn’t take into account the redrafting and dealing with edits; the correspondence and the minutia of running a small business; the tracking of deadlines and writing blog posts and dealing with small projects.
If someone asks, are you available to do this, my first response is to say yes and assume there is time to get things done.
When you approach your business like that, 21 hours disappears incredibly quickly.
Let’s be clear: that 21 hours is a privilege, and it add up to a hell of a lot over the course of a year. But getting those 21 hours means staying on top of things. Even with four days a week at home, it means aggressively clearing space in my schedule. It means getting up at 6 AM and jamming an hour of half of writing at the food court before I head to the day-job. It means hammering out some seven-hour writing days on Saturday, if I want a half-day off on Sunday to do lunch with friends.
You can’t do that if you’re not paying attention to the hours you’ve got, always thinking about what you might be able to do in a week if you really had too.
And this is where I’m now: 21 hours is the realistic hours I can devote to my writing career each week. Not just the writing – the whole damn career. It was a sobering thing to realise, because it meant figuring out the best ways to use it and giving up what might be possible and focusing on what usually is. When I look at a goal that I’ve blithely put down, say finish a novel by the end of the year or write five blog posts a week, there is context around how those things get done.
And there is context around the things that need to get cut.
When you focus on how much time you’ve got, you start paying more attention to how it gets filled. Drafting five scenes on my work in progress, moving the rough draft forward? That’s a good 10 hours of time every week, just for a crappy zero-draft.
Plotting out new scenes? Two hours a week to come up with a sequence of five or six scenes, then sketching it out well enough to write it when the time comes.
Redrafting and making scenes that don’t suck? Another seven hours or so, and that’ll move at a slower pace than the handwritten drafts. Email? An hour a week, just to stay on top of things. A relatively straightforward blog post like this? About two hours, all up, from draft to redraft to posting it online.
Spending a few hours setting this up and tracking it has proven to be a real useful thing for me. Nothing about time sits in the realm of abundance anymore. Anything I do gets balanced against the things that won’t get done as a result.
Is my desire to blog six times a week worth the nine hours of writing time? Do I want to devote more than one-third of my productive time to blogging, or would I be better served writing stories or working on the novel?
It isn’t always fun. Working with real hours makes it easy to see where the focus should go, but damn, it still hurts to do it. Because it means giving up things that feel a lot like work, simply because there’s not enough time to do those and get the things that need to happen done.
But what it gets me is well and truly worth it. Being honest about my time is incredibly hard, but I can prioritise the things that need to get done and distribute my hours accordingly. I can devote two thirds of my weekly hours to writing and rewriting, distribute the rest as necessary for the tasks that are more about maintaining the career rather than moving it forward.
More importantly, when those 21 hours are done, I ca be confident that I’ve done enough. I can fuck off and enjoy wrestling or a movie or hanging out with my family, certain that I am there rather than feeling haunted by the things that probably aren’t getting done.
Tracking the 21 hours, making decisions about how they’re used, means being aware of the fundamental truth of writing in the age of the internet: things take the time they take. You have to pick the things that are most important and give them the lion’s share of your attention and your time.
I sat down to watch Ryan Coogler’s Creed last night, and immediately started thinking about what a remarkable film it is. Fortunately, I don’t have to, because the inimitable Grant Watson has already written the best review of the film you’re going to see. So good, in fact, that I immediately went back and re-watched bits of the film that he talks about so I could appreciate them all over again.
But from a writing point of view, I do have things to add, because there are things that Creed does that are worth learning from.
In this case, it’s a film of enormously subtlety, with a script of enormous subtlety. It isn’t afraid to set things up, then let them pay off without you noticing.
Case in point: There is a scene, early in the first act, where our protagonist Adonis Johnson tells his mother, Mary-Anne Creed, that he plans to be a full-time boxer. She immediately tries to talk him out of it. “Do you know how many times I had to carry him up those stairs because he couldn’t walk?” she asks. “How many times I had to wipe his ass, because he couldn’t use his hands?”
It seems like a throw-away series of question, three seconds of dialogue that demonstrates the dangers of boxing and establishing the stakes. And they do that, admirably, but they also do more, because both of those questions and the way they are phrased set up stakes for things that happen later in the film in ways you’re not even thinking about as a regular audience member, because they immediately connect Adonis Johnson to the two most important people he meets in the second act.
The first question – do you know how many times I had to carry him up those stairs – is all about Mary-Ann Creed’s history with her husband. It’s a warning, yes, but it’s also a testament to the connection between her and her husband. It’s about the past, and shared experience, and one that only happens because the two of them are bonded.
Then the second act of the film introduces our B-Plot: the beginning of a surrogate father-and-son relationship between Adonis Johnson and an aging Rocky Balboa. And while the thing that lays Rocky low in this story isn’t boxing, there is a particularly loaded moment in the finale that involves Johnson carrying his father figure up a flight of stairs, and it’s incredible.
The film never hits you over the head with this. It doesn’t actually care if you notice or not, ‘cause that stair scene will make you feel if you’ve got a goddamn heart of stone, but the resonance sings through the movie.
The second question – about losing the use of his hands – proves to be just as big a set-up. One of the first people Johnson meets when he hits Philadelphia is Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a young musician with a degenerative hearing condition that will eventually take her hearing. She explains it during the pair’s first not-really-a-date, teaching Johnson the one piece of sign language she well and truly remembers in preparation for the date. Johnson mimics the sign, and they bond, the whole love-interest vibe sealed.
And it’s a beautiful moment, because even though the film never touches on it again, the threat of what losing his hands could really mean for Adonis Johnson’s future is immediately contextualised and given an external metaphor.Of course, that metaphor is also a musician committed to following her dreams today, before the inevitable happens,which makes her simultaneously a warning and a cheerleader urging the plot forward.
I’ve got an incredible amount of admiration for the layers in this film. Now either of these things would have been unbearable if they had attention called towards them. It would have seemed schmaltzy and sentimental, drawing away from the other parts of the film.
But because they are inserted into the script, and used with a deft hand, the viewer is free to make the connections themselves and lose nothing if they do not. It’s a little thing that pays off if you choose to do a closer reading, and it shows the level of control and craft that’s gone into every aspect of the film.
It’s a technique worth stealing, when you get the chance.
So, let’s be clear: there are good superhero films, and there are okay superhero films, and there are atrocious superhero films. And then there is Green Lantern. The the Generation X telemovie and the first attempt to do a Justice League film in the nineties, and the version of Nick Fury, Agent of Shield staring David Hasselhoff. And then, somewhere at the tail end of that list, trashing Halle Berry’s career not long after she picked up a mother-fucking Oscar, there is Catwoman.
For me, the quality of the film doesn’t matter. I love comic books, I love superheros. To convince me that I should not only avoid such films, you basically have to attach Zack Snyder as a director and fuck things up for everybody by ignoring…well, basically anything that resembles a film.
In the realm of trashy movies, Catwoman is kind of glorious: a movie so goddamn bad that Halle Berry showed up at the Razzies to accept her award in person and hang some shit on the studio that made it. Because of this, I will sit down and watch it more often than is actually sane, and because I am a waste-not, want-not kind of guy, I will start looking for reasons to justify putting myself through this particular cinematic experience.
And, weirdly, if you pay close attention to Catwoman, there is actually some useful lessons for a writer to pull out of it. It’s like a cinematic what-not-do-do that hammers home some oft-repeated writing advice in a very visual, obvious way.
ONE: DON’T CHASE THE MARKET
Sam Raimi’s Spiderman hit cinemas in 2002 and basically blew away people’s perceptions of what a superhero film could be. Sure, there had been hits in the genre before, courtesy of the X-Men franchise, but for the most part pre-2002 movies featuring superheroes were…well, cheesy and often hampered by the limits of special effects. Also, slightly embarrassed by their source material.
But Raimi? Raimi hit it out the park, making the first-ever film to clear $100 million dollars in its opening weekend and earning a fair amount of crucial success.
Two years later, Catwoman hits cinemas and…well, let’s just say that if you watch Catwoman and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman back-to-back, you’re going to notice a lot of familiar narrative beats and set-ups.
Consider the respective plot-lines.
In Spiderman, Peter Parker is a shy, nerdy high-school student who is given superpowers by a genetically engineered super-spider, and must stop millionaire industrialist Norman Osborn after Osborn is given powers (and driven mad) by some experimental chemicals. Along the way, Peter discovers his true feelings for the girl-next-door and learns some bitter lessons about the responsible use of powers.
In Catwoman, Patience Phillips is a meek, slightly geeky type working for a cosmetic company who gains mystic cat-powers, and must stop cosmetic millionaire Laurel Hadare who has been given powers (and driven mad) by some experimental cosmetics. Along the way, Patience discovers her true feelings for the neighbourhood cop and…well, learns some lessons about the responsible use of powers. Kind of. As best you can, when you’re also meant to be an amoral catburglar.
I’m playing fast-and-loose with details here, but the similarities really do stack up as the films progress. You can literally hear Catwoman’s producers in the background screaming MORE LIKE SPIDERMAN, THAT SHIT MADE MONEY.
And they do it regardless of whether it makes any sense for the character of Catwoman, or the story that is being told. Beats from Spiderman are more-or-less shoehorned in for the sake of having them, and what works well in a coming-of-age story about a teenage geek doesn’t work anywhere near as well here.
Catwoman utterly fails to capture the success of Spiderman. And because it’s trying to hard to do so, it also utterly fails to be the interesting film that it could have been if someone had actually set out to make a Catwoman film.
Don’t chase the market just because something hit it big. Tell the story that makes sense for the character you’re writing about, and do the things that will make the story yours.
TWO: RESPECT THE AUDIENCE EXPECTATIONS
If you were at all familiar with Catwoman from the comics, you were probably baffled by the Catwoman film. The same is true if you were familiar with Catwoman from the Adam West Batman TV show, or Batman: The Animated Series, or Tim Burton’s Batman Returns take of the character from 1992.
Basically, Catwoman was a character who had been around for a while, in various incarnations, and the basic strokes were pretty-well established: amoral cat-burglar who flirts with Batman, wears a lot of leather, and uses a whip. She might not have the cultural cache of Superman, Batman, or Spiderman in terms of sitting in the public consciousness, but Catwoman was a character who had fans and expectations.
And while you don’t have to meet those expectations, it can behove any creator working with a particular established character or genre to figure out what it was people actually liked about said character/genre, and what they expect from a movie.
This is a particular talent, among writers. And somewhere, in an alternate universe, the folks who made the Catwoman movie probably did something sensible when they decided to reboot the character. They recognised that comics and superheroes weren’t a genre unto itself, but characters that fit into specific types of genre, and they worked accordingly. Let’s do a heist film, they said. Or let’s do a super-powered film-noir homage.
Essentially, let’s tell stories that fits with people’s core expectations about the character, because Catwoman is a pretty terrible character to use for a coming-of-age story, what with being, you know, adult. More specifically, an amoral adult that has a tendency to be highly sexualised, which just gets weird in a coming-of-age superhero narrative where you basically learn that with great power comes great responsibility.
If you’re going to tell a story, respect the expectations the audience is bring to it. We are attracted to certain types of stories because they deliver a particular experience, and audiences react poorly when the experience doesn’t mesh with their expectations.
It can take an otherwise good film (I’m looking at you, Die Hard with a Vengeance) and kill it dead because your ordinary-guy-against-the-world story has just gone all buddy cop. It can take an utterly atrocious film (I’m looking at you, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and make it considerably worse, ’cause you’re not only bored, you’re feeling vaguely insulted.
Respect the audience expectations, even if you’re going to subvert them. Hell, especially if you’re going to subvert them. You don’t need to slavishly meet every audience demand when it comes to casting and narrative, but don’t cheat people of the experience they think they’re going to get.
Catwoman basically riffs off the Burton Batman films rather than the comics, in terms of it’s mythology, and that mythology worked fine in Burton’s films despite being utterly weird and insane, largely because the spirit of the character still came through. Catwoman was amoral. She was possibly insane. She was an anti-hero, in the end, and a natural counterpoint to Batman as a character driven by revenge.
The Catwoman in this movie is, theoretically, driven by the same revenge…were it not for the fact that she’s much more interested in getting into the pants of the male lead, despite the fact that someone killed her and mystic cats licked her back to life.
It’s…not a particularly satisfying take on the character, even with Benjamin Bratt doing his damnedest to be a credible Mary-Jane Watson.
THREE: AN UN-BUILT METAPHOR MEANS FUCK-ALL
There is the potential for an absolutely beautiful finale to Catwoman – one that could have been a great set-piece fight-scene that redeemed everything.
The set-up is simple: Catwoman confronts the villain of the film, Laurel Hedare, in the penthouse space where the old Hadare Cosmetics advertisements are stored in what I presume is meant to be a towering monument to her vanity.
I presume this, because they’re not actually something you see at any other point of the film. They’re just…there for the final fight, in this location we haven’t visited yet. If you’re really curious, and don’t want to watch the film, YouTube has you covered:
And I can totally see the metaphor they’re striving for. Laurel Hadare was the face of Hadare Cosmetics in all those old billboards, until she got older and turned to experimental cosmetics to try and preserve her beauty, only to discover that they turned her into a super-strong, indestructible monster instead. Catwoman confronts her and the two women fight among those old billboards, destroying these giant replicas of Hadare’s face as they brawl, talking about identity and masks as they go.
It should have been brilliant. Loaded with meaning and metaphor. The indestructible woman, who has been retreating from her humanity all film, destroying all these reminders of who she used to be. A hero who has been unnoticed in her ordinary life, and hiding her identity all film, finally getting the cathartic reveal of being seen.
It should have been a moment where we peeled back the onion skin layers of the character, via the medium of an action sequence. A real moment of tragedy when we empathise with the villain, even if we don’t like her.
Instead, it’s just…there. They fight amid old billboards that no-one has seen prior to this point in the film, and they trash them in an attempt to create meaning that no-one is willing to buy. The fight choreography is stale, and we’re reminded again that action means nothing without purpose and meaning behind it.
If you want to use a metaphor like this, you need to build it up for the audience. Given them a few scenes to register its importance before you start pulling it apart. There is the old rule we inherit from Chekhov: the gun that’s fired in the third act must appear on the mantle in the first.
The same applies to your big metaphors: put them in early, so that they mean something when you change them at the tail end of the story.
FOUR: SPEAKING OF VILLAINS…
Oh, Catwoman, no. Dear god, no. Laurel Hadare is a godawful villain. She is so cartoonishly evil she should be twirling a moustache. Poor Sharon Stone should be laughing maniacally and tying people to train tracks, not applying evil facial cream and trying to shoot people with a gun.
Partially this is because the story never commits to which painful stereotype they’re asking Stone to embody. She starts as the amoral corporate villain, releasing a dangerous anti-aging cosmetic for sale despite warnings about its dangerous side-effects; she becomes a jilted woman, murdering her husband after he abandons her as both the face of Hadare cosmetics and takes up with her replacement; she’s then…psychotic? Driven mad by her own use of the dangerous cosmetics? Terrified as her own disintegrating beauty?
Honestly, by the time we get there, I have so little faith in any scene that Hadare appears in that I am basically praying for the quick release of death. This is not the stuff great villains are made of.
I’m not taking aim at any of these stereotypes – any one of them could have been built into something with depth, if they had given Hadare screen-time to do anything more than deliver a line of god-awful dialogue.
It could have been made better by picking one core motivation and sticking with it, letting everything else stem from that single, fatal flaw that the film revolves around.
Consider, for example, Darth Vader in Star Wars – one of the great movie villains. He comes on screen with a single flaw that drives everything he does – arrogance – and this is reflected in every other named villain in the movie.
Imperial bad guys are arrogantly confident about their battle stations, their plans, their methods of control. They are the minor-league Vaders, giving us little object lessons about what happens when that arrogance meets a more powerful force (hint: it involves being force-choked), so that when Luke and Vader finally square off, we subconsciously know what’s going to happen.
Even better, Vader’s fatal flaw in the film is the thing Luke is struggling with. He wants to run away from his moisture farm and be great, a hero just like his father. He gets that opportunity – literally, running away to become a knight – and there’s scene after scene where his confidence is tested and he’s told to embrace humility. At every step he is humbled – in his training sequence aboard the falcon, when his eyes are covered; when he shoots his first tie fighter, and Solo warns him not to get cocky – and when he accepts that, and follows his mentor’s advice, he is rewarded with victory.
All this sets us up for the final moment of the film, so that when he finally embraces it for good and listens to Ben Kenobi’s whispered advice to trust the force instead of himself, we feel the hero triumphing over the boyish dream that was seeded way back in act one.
Vader and Skywalker are mirrors of one another – two men who need to learn the same lesson, and it’s the one who learns it who ends the movie victorious and the one who doesn’t that’s sent tumbling into space in a damaged tie fighter.
There is no mirroring between Catwoman and Hadare, although there could be with a little work (and, to be fair, there were plenty of writers who knew their shit on this film – I suspect it was there, at one stage, and got written out by the next draft).
Instead, the film is too busy trying to set up Catwoman’s love interest and hang the meaningful exchanges off him, using him as the mirror. could have been made to work, were it not for the fact that he’s not driving the plot, and so the attention is split again and again. There’s the ghost of the old idea interfering with the new focus.
And this is what’s really the problem with Catwoman: it’s villain feels too small. Hadare’s motivations are too pat and on-the-nose. We are told everything, and shown nothing. There is no mysteries to lure us forward, through the story, in the hopes of figuring out why they are like they are.
Similarly, using Bratt’s detective Lone as a foil is similarly weak, ’cause the moment you start a superhero film with the with great power riff, there is no tension is teasing that the hero won’t learn that lesson unless it’s done exceptionally well.
Depth matters, in an antagonist. It can be the dividing line between a good bad movie, and…well, Catwoman.
FIVE: AVOID THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT
If you are attempting to launch a female-lead comic book franchise, do not build your story around evil cosmetics and beauty without any apparent sense of irony.
The conversation about feminism and fandom wasn’t anywhere near as advanced back in 2004, but even then, I sat there thinking no, you’re fucking shitting me. This is what you came up with?
It’s not that you can’t do something interesting with that set-up, but it’s the most obvious of low-hanging fruit, which means you need to fucking surprise the hell out of the audience with every other aspect of your movie. You need to be on top of your fucking game. You can do anything if you’re smart about things, but that’s not this film.
If you’re not going to be on top of your game, at least pick an idea that won’t make everyone in the theatre roll their eyes at the obviousness.
At the very least, when you fuck up, people can respect the attempt.
So yesterday I talked about where is the money? – the big question I’ve learned to ask of every writing project, courtesy of a shoot interview with former WCW booker Kevin Sullivan. It’s a simple question, and it’s remarkably useful for cutting through to the heart of what needs to happen in your story, novel, or blog post.
Today I’m going to talk about the other big question I learned from paying attention to wrestling bookers, although this one comes from a bloke whose insights into wrestling have already taught me an awful lot about writing – the inimitable Al Snow.
The question he taught me to ask is this:
HOW DO I MAKE THIS GUY?
In wrestling, “making” a wrestler means figuring out what you want the audience to believe and convincing them to buy into it. You can’t just send two guys out there and have them fight if everyone knows the ending is pre-determined – there’s no drama in it. And wrestling leans heavily on drama to make money.
So what do you do when a fresh, unknown face debuts on your show? To borrow words from Al Snow:
If you’re a new talent, we’ve got to make you. Make the audience believe in you, that you are competitive, that you’re a heel for these reasons, that you’re a face for these reason. Acquaint the audience with who or what you are, before we do anything else.
At its core: what do we need to make the audience believe about this wrestler, before we can even think about making money from him?
The belief is important, because…well, lets get this out of the way: pro-wrestling isn’t real. Somehow, people who don’t watch pro-wrestling seem to think that this is an important point to hammer home, as if it’s going to come as some kind of goddamn surprise.
The carny roots of pro-wrestling, where the goal was conning people out of their money through a facade of legitimacy, are now long gone. But then, the days when people will mistake film footage of a train arriving at the station for an actual train are gone, and we have some pretty clear ideas about the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing.
Really, these days, wrestling asks you to suspend your disbelief much like any other form of entertainment, and you’re either willing to go with that or your’e not.
Personally, I am, ’cause pro-wrestling is fricken’ awesome.
And because, every time a new wrestler debuts in a promotion and they start figuring out how to make him or her, you’re simultaneously watching a process of character building and world building at the same time. You watch who they are and how they fight, get a taste for the things that are meant to lead to victory (or defeat).
Wrestling is a narrative form that come down to manipulating the beliefs of an audience, which is pretty much the same goal as writing fiction. Wrestlers user a different toolkit to generate the suspension of disbelief, but they are just as reliant on it, and when you hit the point invisible hand-grenades are a viable finishing move, it’s obvious that realism is no longer part of the toolkit.
For a person who writes decidedly non-realist stories, paying attention to how wrestling makes stories out of some patently absurd things is enormously valuable. And even in the promotions that rely heavily on the feeling that things are a legitimate athletic contest, it’s worth paying attention to see how they make each new competitor.
What do you need to make a reader believe about your character? How do you make them believe that?
Combine these two questions with WHERE IS THE MONEY? and I think everything in writing gets just a little bit easier.