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Category Archives: Craft of Writing

Premature, Mature, and Postmature Cancellations: TV Show Endings (All in Running Metaphors!)

Some T.V. shows are cancelled before their time, some go on too long, some should never have been made, and some lucky few actually have an ending, and some of those few are even luckier to have a good ending. Everyone has that one show they loved that they wish was still on the air, the one they wish had never been made, and the one they wish hadn’t gone off the rails. I’d like to examine some shows I’ve watched and explain why they should, shouldn’t have, or were cancelled. So Spoilers!

Running Past the Finish Line, Way Past: Supernatural

This is the only show on this list still on the air, and therein lies the problem. Supernatural is a great show. It’s funny, heartbreaking, dynamic, epic, and totally worth watching. However, of late, there have been some great stinkers of episodes. Such as, in season nine when they introduce Oz into the mythos. What was with those ruby slippers? I could find better quality shoes at Payless. Don’t get me wrong. There have been some great moments still. Timothy Olmundson is just amazing in any part he plays. I mean, look how angry he is. Every moment, even when calm, he looks like he will murder everyone around.

But a lot of recent episodes are poorly written and some lack good research, such as Artemis, goddess of hunters and virgins, having had a lover. Do they know nothing of Greek mythology? The only reason the show is still watchable at this point is the actors and the characters they play. Ackles, Padalecki, Collins, and Sheppard still bring their all to the show, making their interplay still really fun to watch. The characters are still dynamic. However, if you watch the entirety of the show over a roughly single sitting (not truly possible, but watch them all in a row stopping for sleep and work), you’ll notice some weird cyclical character developments:

  1. Sam’s done something bad or thinks he’s evil, Dean’s mad at him, Sam tries something drastic to make up for it: Sam drinks demon blood, tries to kill Lilith; Sam frees Lucifer, quits hunting/sacrifices himself to the cage; Sam thinks he’s just b-b-b-bad to the bone, does the trials to close the gates of hell.
  2. Dean tries to sacrifice himself for the greater good/Sam because he doesn’t believe he is worth saving: Dean sells his soul; Dean wants to do the trials; Dean takes the first blade. (1 & 2 are what I like to call: One of the Winchesters is trying to dive off a bridge.)
  3. Sam wants out of the life, tries to help others stay out, Dean tells him it’s impossible: The many freaking times Sam has quit.
  4. Dean tries to help others stay out, Sam tells him it’s impossible: Speaking to Adam about the life. (3 & 4 are The Godfather Part III: “Everytime I try to get out, they pull me back in!”)
  5. Cas does something he thinks is for the greater good, Dean gets mad at him: Betraying the Winchesters for the Angels (which time am I referring to?), Working with Crowley, Staying behind in Purgatory, Working for Hannah (even if brainwashed).
  6. Crowley is their friend: During the Apocalypse, Against Abaddon.
  7. Crowley is their enemy: During the fight for Purgatory, During the trials. (6 & 7 are essentially the daisy game: He likes me, He doesn’t like me, He likes me . . .)
  8. Dean thinks all monsters deserve to die, Sam argues otherwise: the good vampires episode (also the introduction of Gordon), Ruby (though he is right about this one), the episode with Jewel State (the kitsunke).
  9. Sam thinks all monsters deserve to die, Dean argues otherwise: Crowley (Sam never trusts him) and Dean thinks they should work with him, when Sam meets Benny. (8 & 9 are the dumbest flip flops on the show).

Some of these are paired together because they show a switch of positions, but all of them happen at least twice in the show. But why do all these pop up again and again? Well, that easy. They’ve run out of ideas to make the characters grow and create conflict. Why? Also easy. Season Five was the real conclusion of the show. Armageddon was stopped, Sam made up for his most drastic mistake, and Dean lived out a happy life with Lisa and Ben. The end. No more. But the show was too good and too profitable to stop there. I totally don’t blame them for continuing the show, a big part of me is glad they did. I love this show. But I can’t deny as a writer that the complete (cannonical) piece is just five seasons. This is why we get some pretty crappy episodes and cyclical character development. Because the characters and the actors are so good, Supernatural is doomed to repeat the same developments over and over again until one of the major actors quits. No major plot development can compare to ending the Armageddon. It’s basically impossible. Also impossible is continuing dramatic conflict with having your characters actually, permanently learn from their mistakes (sounds like the opposite of a soap opera). Like that’s ever going to happen, Looking at you Cas!

Tripped Mid-stride: Lost

This is the juggernaut of the list. Critically acclaimed. Loved by nearly all. I was patently uninterested when it was airing, because I refuse to watch shows one episode per week, especially when they are as confusing and complex as Lost. Everyone was telling me I should watch it, but I held off until it was over and on Netflix in it’s entirety. Then I tried watching it. I got bored, really bored, mid season six and about a year or two later, tried coming back to it. I started where I left off, had no idea what was going on, so I went back to the beginning of the season. I was still completely lost, so I went back to the beginning of the show. I watched it all in a row. (Unfortunately, someone else was sometimes in the room saying things like “Oh-kay”, “Aaall right”, and “What the fuck?” every time something weird or dramatic happened, which is freaking always!) This is a great show. It has a great story. It has great characters. It should not have been six seasons long. It should not have had so many character groups. Half the watching time is trying to remember who the hell this or that person is. For example, we have the fuselage passengers (or main characters), we have the Others (who by the way are never explained as how and why they are on the island), we have the tail section passengers, we have the Widmore mercenaries, we have the Dharma Initiative members, and we have the Ajira flight passengers. And that doesn’t include people from the past who are meaningful to the main characters, Desmond, Daniel Faraday’s mother, Rousseau (and the original members of her team), Richard Alpert, Jacob, the Man in Black, their mother, their real mother and her people, the past Others. THIS IS TOO MUCH. When Illana was introduced in season six, along with her crew, all I could think is “I. DON’T. CARE.” But this is just a problem of trying to create an opus of a T.V. show. The real problem is the weird floundering that happen halfway through the show when the Writer’s Strike happened.

J.J. Abrams and crew all quit writing for the show and took to the picket lines. While this ultimately was good for T.V. writers and writing, it was not good for Lost. Why? Writing a specific piece is about being in a specific mood for that work. It’s hard to sustain creative motion after stopping. Sometimes one can get back into that mood by re-experiencing the progress so far. However, sometimes the work is too big and too deep to get back into that mood. And T.V. shows have added constraints of compromises with the studios that produce them. Which is why Annie (can you possibly remember this character without me showing you a picture?) is dropped like a bad habit in Lost. It is why the dark versus light foreshadowing of the first season is not brought up again until season six, which most viewers would have forgotten in the first place, but is the main point of the show. Instead of getting bogged down in what stupid thing Locke is doing now or what contrary and stubborn thing Jack is doing now, we should have been reaching more main point stuff much earlier on. Season Six: Oh, you remember those caves from season one? No, here they are. Remember those bodies and the stones in the cave? No, here they are. Now we can show you Jacob’s origin, since you forgot all that stuff long ago (even if you watched it all within one month, let alone the six years it was on the air).

There is some great character development in Lost though. Locke desperately wants his faith affirmed, Jack will say no just because someone asked, Kate will run away, Sawyer will sabotage any interpersonal relationships, and everyone loves Hurley, because duh. But eventually, Locke realizes his affirmation of faith is not as important as people, Jack says yes because he believes, Kate stops running, Sawyer can have a stable relationship, and everyone still loves Hurley, because duh, but also Hurley doesn’t think he’s crazy or cursed anymore. So watch it, but be prepared for some missteps (the whispers are the Others as confirmed by Ben when he takes Alex from Rousseau–No, wait, we meant the whispers are the sounds of the people who died on the island who can’t move on as confirmed by Michael when he speaks to Hurley as a ghost) and some dragging.

Crappy Equipment: Eureka

Eureka is one of my all time favorite shows. It was just so funny. But it only has five seasons. I’d say this is the best amount, because there was a chance for Eureka to have a season six of six episodes but their budget was being pulled by Comcast. The creator and producers decided instead of doing six really crappy episodes, they would use the much smaller budget to create a finale to the show. Bless their hearts, because I’d rather have a conclusion to the show than have six badly made episodes wherein we get no closure afterwards. It sucks that the show had it’s budget dramatically reduced, but to some extent this is because viewership started to drop off.

This happens for three reasons in our current television age: 1) the channel keeps changing the time/day on which the show is aired, 2) the channel does not advertise new season premiers enough, 3) viewership is calculated through ratings which do not take into account online viewing on the channel website or paid streaming services such as Amazon Video, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Hulu Plus, or Netflix. The first two are totally Sy-Fy’s fault, and they did do these. I remember Eureka was changed to Tuesdays from Fridays between two seasons, and I missed the premiers of new seasons of all their shows because I never heard about them until after the fact. Sy-Fy, when I was watching cable or satellite T.V., has a tendency to not advertise new seasons enough or evenly across all shows and over advertises new episodes of currently airing shows, which is usually when I found out a new season had premiered. The third one is because ratings, and studios by extension, have not caught up to the changing technology of viewership. I have left the ratings count completely, and I’m sure there are a lot of other people who have too. Which means studios need to get with the program and stop defunding shows that possibly have higher viewership than they are currently willing to count. How people watch T.V. is changing rapidly, and no matter how many stupid mail flyers Cox, Dish, or Direct T.V. send me, I am not going to pay $150-$300 to have annoying ads most of the time, censored/truncated content, inconvenient air times, and channels I will never use (Looking at you, CSPAN and ESPN!).

But back to Eureka: a show losing it’s budget is a good reason to just close up shop. Some may disagree with me and want as many episodes as possible, even if they suck. But I’m no fanboy. I want the story and the production to be of quality, so I’d rather have shows do what Eureka did than have them flounder out weak, shoddy episodes. This is a case of quality over quantity. I miss Eureka, but I consider it, for what it is, to be nearly perfectly done (one major misstep, read further below). It had a formula that it stuck to, but the characters grew and their lives changed. I’m glad it exists and will always treasure it.

Fell Face First Right Out the Gate: Charmed

I watched a couple of seasons of Charmed, and to be honest, I’m not sure why it lasted as long as it did. Frankly, I’m surprised it made it past the pilot stage. There are a couple of shows that are awful from the very start: the production is low quality, the writing is passe, unrealistic, or lazy, the acting is phoned in. This is one of those shows. Some people love that show. I’m not sure why. The one good actor on it, Julian McMahon, didn’t have much to work with. Shannen Doherty was unwatchable. And the rest of the actors were pretty green. Other shows like this include Roswell (Twilight anyone? You know before Twilight was written) and Bones. I like Bones, but I like David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel, so maybe that’s the only way shows like this work.

One of the worst things Charmed ever did was shoehorning in the night club wherein a different flavor of the month band would play every other episode. They did this on T.V. shows a lot in the nineties, and every once in a while a show will try it again, Bones again. Thank you for wasting two to five minutes of each episode to a band no one cares about anymore or maybe even by the time the episode aired, instead of, you know, spending the time resolving the plot in a meaningful and acceptable way, instead of going “We need to tie a bow on this, got to get to the band scene!” This is a bad idea. Don’t do it. Most shows are cutting out theme songs and actor shots (ala Lost style) to save that time too. Don’t waste even more time than that on a stupid band I couldn’t name two seconds after you announced it.

On shoddy production, Charmed takes the cake, and sets it on fire. Almost all of the show is shot in about two locations, which could be fine, but the real problem comes with the special effects quality and the monster creation. It’s certain they didn’t spend any of their budget on writing, but with how the show looks, one wonders where the money went. I could say something catty about the actors, but I’m going to refrain because the joke lacks any truth, I imagine. Shows of the nineties, and Supernatural, have an annoying habit of having monsters and aliens just be people, more times than necessary professional wrestlers specifically, wearing weird makeup, latex, and/or contacts. Never is it something completely inhuman. They’re all upright bipeds with two arms and basic facial features. Sometimes, the show just says they’re something inhuman, which is only displayed by powers (ala the dragons and phoenix from Supernatural–why not show us what the freaking dragons looked like picking up a chick? Because now I just picture that guy doing it in cargo pants and a zippered jacket. Not very exiting.). This is the sign of a low budget, or a budget that isn’t valuing creating the world. I gave Farscape a pass on this because Jim Hensen’s Workshop did Rigel and Pilot, and those were awesome concepts, but Star Trek (all of them, even the recent movies), Charmed, and Supernatural display a complete lack of imagination when it comes to showing us crazy, different forms of life. I’m not saying every monster needed to be something totally different, but at least the ones that are traditionally so and a few every once in a while. If Buffy can do it (ala the mantis from season one), so could they. Charmed was the most pathetic when it came to showing us interesting monsters. Oooh, Cole really looks like a WWE member with red and black makeup on. How intriguing.

Charmed really never should have been made. It didn’t really have anything going for it, and I watched a couple of seasons, so you can’t say that it was the season one growing period. There just wasn’t anything there of substance or quality. Maybe it was made and sustained entirely on girl power, which just makes it all the more insulting to the discerning viewer. I’m all for strong women kicking butt, but this show was more about showcasing “sexy” women’s butts (Milano & McGowan are sexy) and telling us they were strong. It was a relief beyond measure when Doherty was no longer on the show, like when someone gives you morphine after you’ve been stabbed, but it’s not like the show got all that better afterwards, what with that stupid elusive enemy of The Source. The Source of What?!

Lost a Shoe in the Middle of the Race: House, M.D. and Two and a Half Men

The cast of a show is as important as its writing. Writing is limited by what actor is available after a certain point in a show’s lifetime. Bewitched lost the original Darren, Dick York, but replaced him with Dick Sargent, when they really should have just cancelled the show. Eureka lost Ed Quinn. Lost lost Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (wow). Charmed let Shannen Doherty go. Misfits lost Lauren Socha. Two and Half Men dropped Charlie Sheen, and House, M.D. lost Kal Penn to politics and Lisa Edlestein possibly over her not wanting to take a pay cut. Actors leave T.V. shows for many reasons: they get sick, they want to do other projects, they get sick of the show, they get arrested, the show gets sick of them, or they argue over money (match ’em up). But this affects what the show can do. They can replace the actor as in Bewitched, which sucked after the change. They can write a goodbye episode, wherein the actor is still used, as in Eureka, Lost, or Charmed. They can write the character out of the story after the actor is gone, as in both cases of House, M.D. Or if the actor they lost was a main character, they can try to desperately hold on to the structure of the show around a new character, as in Two and a Half Men.

Some think that Kutner got a goodbye episode in House, M.D., but a goodbye episode requires the actor be there, which is why when Kutner dies, it is completely out of left field and the writers are trying to salvage the situation. I’m not sure why Penn didn’t stick around for at least a goodbye episode considering how he appeared on the show at least two more times after his character’s death. It was, however, quite clear that Edlestein was done with the show completely once she left it, but it seems her leaving had more of an impact. Possibly because the main dynamic of that show is House, Wilson, Cuddy, and Team (which can change without too much impact because of the other three). Some believe the show unfinished because Cuddy wasn’t at House’s funeral and feel that the House/Cuddy question was never resolved. While stuck with the fact that they could not include Cuddy because the actress would not take part or because they did not wish to work with her, the question can be pretty well resolved within the story of the show. She wasn’t at his funeral. She left the hospital. She obviously didn’t want anything more to do with him. There’s your answer. Maybe it wasn’t the one you wanted, but it is still an answer. If you want your answer, try to imagine House five months after the end of the show. Maybe he killed himself. Or maybe he went and found Cuddy and apologized for all he did, and she took him back. We don’t know. But the show lost something when it lost Edlestein. The interplay between House and Cuddy was very interesting, but the show took a major misstep when it broke them up over his relapse, especially considering that he was contemplating relapsing when they got together and she told him it was his choice. It’s like they weren’t watching their own show. I do not blame the writers for concluding the show at that point. It was a pretty good conclusion, but I wish they hadn’t introduced two new characters in the last season, because like Lost it was too late in the show to make anyone care.

We all remember that Charlie Sheen kind of went off the deep end a few years back. As a result, his presence on Two and Half Men was no longer a good idea. Nor was the continuation of the show. By that point, the show had gotten boringly cyclical: Charlie sleeps around, he meets a serious woman whom he considers a serious relationship with, he’s in a serious relationship with her, he messes up the relationship and it ends, he sleeps around, he meets a serious woman whom . . . and so on and on until Sheen was no longer on the show. I’m not sure why people kept watching it after three seasons, but I’m especially not sure why the writers and studio decided to continue the show after he was gone or why anyone kept watching it. Maybe to see how bad it got. I’d understand that. If in season five of House, M.D., Hugh Laurie quit the show, I wouldn’t have expected them to continue the show. Nor would I in shows that don’t involve a title character but a main one, such as Quantum Leap, Supernatural, or Eureka. I can’t imagine what would happen if these shows lost Scott Bacula, either of the JSquared, or Colin Ferguson, and decided to keep going. That just seems crazy. Some shows are built around a single actor, and sorry to the other One and Half Men, but Sheen was the main character. It seems like the show, that already wasn’t that good, was a wash at this point and should have been cancelled instead of calling in Ashton Kutcher to try to take his place in some strange way. Sorry to those fans out there, it hurts but the truth often does.

Tripped End Over End and Ate Dirt: Heroes

I watched Heroes religiously when it premiered. I loved it. I loved Mondays because of it. Every episode was a treat. The conclusion of season one was a bit of a letdown, just wasn’t as climatic as it should have been. Season two premiered, and I eagerly watched. That wasn’t all that awesome. Season three I watched on Netflix, and that was awful, and then I stopped watching halfway through that season. What happened? How could it all go so horribly wrong? I’m not entirely sure. I can’t remember another show that fell apart quite so badly, to the point where the show became a punchline on The Big Bang Theory (“They lowered the quality season by season until we were glad it was cancelled.”) I haven’t done a lot of research into this phenomenon, but when something like this happens it can usually be because of one of three reasons: 1) The main creative force left the show, 2) The main creative force has run out of ideas, or 3) The studio has a different idea for the show than the main creative force. Either way the quality of the episode stories decline rapidly as a result of a loss of focus. I’m still really surprised by how bad this show got, especially when it started out so good. For example, Peter left his Irish girlfriend in a horrific future and never mentioned her again! That’s insane. The writers forgot about her? Didn’t care about her? The studio wanted to drop that storyline? What? Tell me. If you have some backstory on this, I’d like to know it. Another example of bad writing is when Sylar kind of becomes a good guy, at least he’s not killing the other heroes. He’s traveling around with Elle and is kind of at peace. That is until suddenly and out of no where he decides that he’s still a bad person and kills her. There isn’t really any impetus for this decision. He just does it. We saw him develop into a less evil person and then suddenly for no reason he decides to go back to his old ways. I think maybe people were unhappy with the turn that Sylar’s character took, or maybe the studio blamed the decline in viewership on the turn, so they told the writers to make him evil again, and because this change didn’t happen organically like the first development, it was done poorly. The show only gets worse from there. Don’t know how I feel about the upcoming Reborn series.

Took It Way Too Seriously: Warehouse 13

This show was always pretty campy. It was very silly, which is why to some extent it made sense as being part of the same world as Eureka but not so much Alphas. The villains were always rather cartoony and the artifacts were often silly. That’s not to say that the characters didn’t have problems or that the plots didn’t go to darker places. In one season conclusion/season premier, all hope in the world is destroyed, one of the agents is stuck in a cell just big enough for her body, and another agent is shot. But that all seemed to be a progression of the plots already related to the warehouse. What wasn’t a progression was Myka getting ovarian cancer. It had nothing to do with stopping villains or the warehouse. She just got cancer. As people do. But the show was silly to begin with, so bringing in this very heavy real world issue seems to be a big ole damper on the viewer’s fun. We understand that people get cancer, but they shouldn’t on a show where a man switched brains with a dog. That’s just incongruous. The show was cancelled before the thrilling conclusion to if Myka was okay or not, then returned for a final season to conclude it. I haven’t watched this last season yet because it’s not on Netflix, but I can’t image that the tone is repaired after such an out of character conflict. It’s very important that a show stick to the tone it started with; otherwise, viewership is lost. I don’t expect a laugh riot with Lost, but I did with Warehouse 13 (especially with the hilarious Christmas episodes).

Decided to Run Back and a Lap and Try It Again: Fringe and Eureka

These two shows are both hour long sci-fi stories, but that is where the similarities end. Fringe was a serious police drama as well, while Eureka was a small town comedy (the theme song said it all; Andy Griffith meets The X-Files). However, because they are both sci-fi, they both made a drastic mistake, one I hope all sci-fi shows learn from: Timeline Shifts. Now, this is okay in one episode wherein everything is back to normal at the end of the episode, such as the conclusion of season one of Eureka. But it becomes a major problem when those changes are permanent. Eureka and Fringe both did this at the beginning of season four. In Eureka, several things changed. Allison wasn’t head of GD, Fargo was head of GD, Lupo was head of security for GD (who did this before?), Zane was still an ass, Henry was married, and Kevin was no longer autistic. Those are the changes that were made obvious to audiences immediately. Questions, though, were left up in the air, because everything we knew happened didn’t. Was the artifact ever at GD? Did it go in Kevin? Did Nathan still die? Did Kim still die? Etc, etc. We have no idea what all happened in the past. If it happened as we saw it on the show or if it happened in an entirely different manner. Obviously, it was different. And we didn’t see it happen. That’s frustrating.

Fringe did the exact same thing, and we had to question even more when the change was that Peter died as little boy. How did Olivia get to see Walter when they said only family could see him? Peter is how she got to him in the first place. Half the problems on Fringe in the first three seasons are solved because of Peter, so now the audience has to question the outcome of all the past cases. Olivia went to the other universe to get Peter back and that’s when Fauxliva becomes a part of the story, so why in the new timeline did she still replace Olivia when Olivia had no reason to go to the other universe in the first freaking place because Peter didn’t exist? Then Olivia remembers everything as we do, and that just makes everything more confusing. I have no clue what happened in the timeline of the first three seasons of the show as the characters know it, so I can’t help but feel like the show is worthless at that point. My impetus to watch dropped dramatically in season four and disappeared almost entirely by the time I reached season five. You can see why voiding everything the viewer knows up to this point is a bad idea. It leaves too many questions that are almost never resolved and makes the viewer feel as if their time has been wasted.

Trying to Teleport down the Track: Fringe

I wrote above that season five of this show left me basically devoid of any reason to watch it and that is the other time pitfall shows tend to fall into: jumping into the future. I don’t mind a quick jaunt into the future (the episode before the conclusion of season three is a good example) or months or maybe a year tops into the future, but anything more than that makes me question the writing of a show. Fringe first jumped into the future in season four episode nineteen, and it ruined all tension of the season four plotline. Gee, do they stop Bell? Well, I don’t know. The earth was still there in episode nineteen, so I guess so. Thanks. They tried to not give away what happens to Olivia at the season four conclusion, so that still had some surprise to it, but the major dramatic question (Will Bell succeed/Will they win?) was resolved before the climax by that stupid episode. Then we have the huge jump in time between season four and five. Why do those decades destroy the show? Mostly, it makes viewers feel like they are missing out on stories, it creates a need for flashbacks (which lets face it, if the show wasn’t already utilizing those, it’s a bit late to be adding them in) which are typically not as active and therefore interesting as current scenes, and puts your characters on development ice. Now for some of the years, they were frozen in amber, but for some they weren’t, wherein we would imagine the characters went through some growth as per usual. The most important development we missed out on is probably the Observers decision to invade. I mean, that’s huge. Now, they tell us why they invade, but since these characters were already pretty central to the show, we needed to see their point of decision. The loss of this moment due to the time jump makes their actions seem completely out of character after the invasion and the invasion itself is questionable at this point. Time jumps leave far too many questions and a feeling of having missed major events in our characters’ lives.

Mimicking Another Runner: The Event, Flashforward, Insert-Lost-Copy-Name-Here

Lost really isn’t the first show like itself (that sounds really strange). Instead, I can name The 4400 as the first otherworldly mystery dramatic epic (that’s a lot of adjectives, but that is pretty much the best description of Lost, its fore-bearers, and successors). However, Lost made this type of show a seemingly money-making setup. A large group of people, something weird happens (sci-fi or magical), and they have to deal with it and their own personal problems. This also almost entirely describes the Global Event Magical Realist form. Shows starting popping up all over cable and broadcast trying to follow this format. For most of them, it didn’t pan out. The two big failures are The Event and Flashforward. Both these shows only lasted one season, and left us all with a bunch of questions. The Event was especially bad. In the first episode we see the main character in a past event with his girlfriend on a cruise ship and now trying to stop an airplane. Never in the entirety of the show do we see how he got from the cruise ship to trying to stop the plane. How did he know he needed to stop the plane? How did he physically get from the cruise to chasing down the tarmac? No clue. No answer. Most likely they didn’t have a plan for that. The show ends after one season on a cliffhanger. Flashforward, which also ends on a cliffhanger after one season, was based on a work of fiction that was not an epic dramatic mystery so much as it was more typical sci-fi that asks questions about how science affects our understanding of life. This show is better done than The Event, but still tries too hard to be Lost. They did hire Charlie and Penny (no, I’m not going to look up their real names). The show also, like Lost and The Event, was too bloated with too much going on. Most of these Lost copies don’t do all that well because they tend to lack vision as Lost had. Most come out of a desire to make that Lost money, as opposed to someone having a good idea.

Running in the Wrong Direction: V

I’m a big V fan. I can watch the original miniseries again and again. It has direction and good imagery (some of which is stolen for Independence Day). It’s heartbreaking at times in very real ways and its play on Nazism is very well done. The Final Battle is okay by comparison, and I never watched the series. I did watch the new series when it came out a few years ago. First of all, I hated the fact that they kept saying V stood for Visitor. I hated Tyler. Most annoying teenager ever. They were far too in love with the green screen. But that’s beside the point. The real problem with this show is how the rebels, for whom the audience was rooting, never won a single fight. Not only that, but somehow, everything they did kept making things easier for Anna. They blow up a shuttle, she makes it look like it was full of humans. They try to destroy her power plant, instead they knock out all the human power. They try to kill her, instead she looks like a brave hero and kills her mother. It’s the most frustrating plot progression ever. The only ground they ever gained is when Erica killed all the soldiers. After that, it’s all a pretty smooth ride for Anna. Hell, she even gets the hybrid. Second season was especially bad for this, and they tried to make it more palatable by having Diana and Marc Singer. That was nice, I guess, but it’s no coincidence that Anna basically won all of Earth and then the show was cancelled. It’s not an underdog story if the underdog doesn’t win.

Tripping Up on the Second Lap: Battlestar Galactica

I’ve never seen the original TV show, but I watched the new mini-series and series. I, for the most part, enjoyed the show. Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six were very interesting. It was fun trying to figure out if he was crazy or if she was really there. Though the show took things too far at times with the mysticism, such as Starbuck’s storyline. Bringing in Admiral Cain was a major misstep, because her character and her methods were so hateable, it made it hard to watch the show. Rape as a form of interrogation is not just the most ridiculous and detestable of ideas but also a form of sensationalist writing that the show should have avoided. The series finale tried to compete with The Return of the King for most endings, to the point where I stopped caring and just wanted it to end so I could move on with my life already. Then there was Dean Stockwell’s death at the climax that seemed so slapdash and quick that for a moment there I thought I was watching a parody. The show started to show its true issues in the first episode of season two. No progress in plot was made in this episode. It was all a stall to not answer questions or resolve issues. They couldn’t remove the bullet from Adama’s stomach but were able to open his chest and perform open heart palpitations? That’s insane. Open chest surgery involving a person’s heart is so much harder than removing a bullet from the abdomen. I remember being confused as well by the sudden appearance of Ty Olsson as Capt. Kelly, but at the time, I hadn’t been able to see the miniseries yet. I wonder what Olsson had been doing instead for all of season one. The reason why this first episode was all a stall is that a show usually has way more time to develop season one than they do season two. As a result, season two can sometimes suffer from rushed pre-production. If you pay close attention, you can see that this also happened in the first episode of season one because the real first season is the mini-series which had more pre-production time than the first season of the show. Second seasons have a tendency to be kind of weak story-wise, but some are more weak than others, namely Battlestar Galactica and Heroes, both of which premiered their season two with lackluster stories. For some strange reason that is completely beyond me, a lot of people liked the season two premier of Battlestar Galactica. Nothing happened in that episode. Nothing. What’s there to like?

Going Too Slowly: Caprica

This attempt at a spinoff wanted to show BSG fans how the cylons were made (but, doh! the show it spins off from gives conflicting origins, Oops!). It could have been really interesting. But it totally wasn’t. This is the main reason it never took off on its own. That show is boring. It’s hard to believe that terrorists, parents dealing with the loss of their children, the invention of AI, and really cool technology couldn’t hold any interest, but when the show goes at the pace of snail making its way through mud and dicks around with far too many subplots, viewers tend to lose interest. I don’t believe this show was just cancelled because it was boring, but also because it was contrary to the plots of Battlestar Galactica. There isn’t much to say about shows like this because nothing much happens in them. Well, it was okay, but I’d rather watch something else even if I’ve seen it before is the most one can say when it comes to boring shows. Could’ve been good, wasn’t.

Running in First, But the Coach Decided to Run on the Field and Tackle Their Own Runner: Alphas and Firefly

Now this may be the saddest thing you’ll ever see on television: a great show, with great writing and production, that’s killed too early. Alphas, Firefly, A Gifted Man. These are just a few of the heroes we’ve lost to consumerism. There is nothing wrong with any of these shows. Alphas lasted two seasons and ended on a cliffhanger. A Gifted Man lasted one season and ended up in the air. Firefly didn’t even get a full season, but we were lucky enough to get a movie. Alphas was great. It was better than Heroes. It had a tight cast of characters and a single direction (unlike Heroes which was far too much like an actual comic book). A Gifted Man was pseudo magic realism and followed one man’s journey into becoming a better person and saving lives in the process. Firefly, like Alphas, had a tight cast of characters but was much more about adventurism. It was better than Farscape. Why were these shows cancelled? It wasn’t the writers, the directors, or the actors. It was the channel and the studio. Sy-Fy strikes again with Alphas by not advertising enough. At this point, I don’t trust Sy-Fy to actually conclude a show ever again. I never heard of A Gifted Man until it was on Netflix and my spouse suggested it. Again, feels like a lack of advertising and not keeping up with changing viewership. Then there was the clusterfuck that was Firefly’s handling by Fox. They put it in the nicknamed “Friday Night Deathslot”. You can pretty much trust sci-fi nerds like myself to stay in on a Friday night to watch a show, but we all already were staying in on Friday nights to watch Sy-Fy’s Farscape, an already established show. I didn’t even hear about Firefly until years after even the movie came out, and I love sci-fi. Then Whedon tried to work with Fox again what with Dollhouse, and we all saw how well that worked out. I hope some execs got fired over there once The Avengers was the top grossing film of the year. Serves them right.

Cancelled

Being cancelled is not always the worst thing to happen to a show. Sometimes they drag on forever getting worse and worse as time goes on. Sometimes they suck from the beginning. Sometimes they go off the rails, and they can do that in several different ways. It is, however, very hard to handle when a good show is cancelled for no good reason. For the most part, it comes down to mishandling scheduling, advertising, misunderstanding viewership, and feeling like the project is “not successful enough”. Not that it isn’t successful, but that the project isn’t making as much money as they would like. They could, in fact, be making money over their costs, but the studio isn’t satisfied with the profit margin. That seems like a crazy attitude. It means that the studio is willing to cancel a sure thing for a possible loss or possible better thing. It just seems stupid. I get wanting to make money, but if you are already making money, why scrap the project? Just invest in getting more viewership, or wait for word of mouth to do it for you. All I’m saying is stop making bad decisions about TV shows, stop fighting with the creators so much. Demographics, statistics, and ratings are at this time very unreliable information. Move with the times, of fall in the dust.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2015 in Craft of Writing

 

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Subtext: Some Have It, Others Don’t

First, What Is It?

Subtext is implied information. It’s that simple. It comes from high context relationships, wherein two or more people have common knowledge of past events and refer to them without stating an outline of the events and how they effected each other and their futures. Most people employ subtext when talking to old friends and family. An inside joke is the simplest form of subtext, but in writing subtext tends to be a little more sophisticated. Usually because the characters don’t want to really bring that old crap into the light. Subtext in a narrative is the best way to do exposition of plot and explore motivations of characters. Not all writers are good at this. Some writers hit a reader over the head with exposition and motivation. They hit them with signs that say “EXPOSITION!!!” and “MOTIVATION!!!” and most readers and viewers balk at that kind of clunky story telling. But it is easier to show then to tell, so I’m going to use DraculaKill Bill Vol. I, and Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard for my examples, so . . . spoilers.

For those you you who don’t watch this show, this moment happened right when Spongebob dropped the dialogue bomb of why Mr. Krabs had been gone (he was on vacation). It was purposely clunky, hence the title above his head.

Subtext or Are You Reading Too Much Into It?

There is a joke going around the internet about English professors right now that I love. Here it is:

It makes me laugh every time I see it or think of it, because I completely get it. While reading Dracula for a course, I was repeatedly confused by the idea that Lucy was a slut. Not vampire Lucy, but normal Lucy. I don’t get this. The evidence given to support her promiscuousness is the blood transfusions from four different men, one of whom (Arthur) said it made him feel like they were truly bonded in marriage. I get the idea of mingling blood relating to sex as one result of sex is consanguinity as in the creation of children; however, based on how the instances of the transfusions came about negates any agency from her in the act. She was passed out each time, suggesting instead non-consensual mingling of blood, just as Dracula took her blood without her consent. The leap from her lack of say in the blood transfusions to her being promiscuous seems very far fetched as her inability to consent completely throws out the idea of her as promiscuous which requires an act of agency and instead reinforces her as victim. The whole theory also throws out the fact that this was a life-saving medical procedure (do we consider getting a blood transfusion from strangers as a metaphor for sex when we are in a car accident and need one? No, we don’t. We consider it a medically necessary procedure.)

Some have brought up the fact that she had three suitors, like that is somehow evidence. I disagree as she was an heiress of good breeding and sweet nature. In the time period of the novel, three suitors is quite normal, especially considering the fact that before engagement people would refer to each other by titles and surnames. Dating wasn’t really a thing. Instead we would see friends of the girl’s family spending time with her in public spaces and with other family members and guests. There wasn’t really proclamations of love until a marriage proposal was also voiced. Men of this time were also hard pressed to get a woman alone to profess and propose, which was the only time it wasn’t unseemly for a girl to be alone with a man. Lucy’s three proposals are only strange in the fact that they all happened on the same day. If she had acquiesced to each man or showed fickleness in her decision, I could see an argument for a metaphor for promiscuousness, but I did not see evidence of any fickleness. Lucy seemed quite sure she wanted to marry Arthur to the very end. She does say something about how society doesn’t let a woman have as many husbands as she wants, but she isn’t thinking about sex but about the hurt she had to give to Dr. Seward and Quincey by saying no. She also knew it was a silly thought. She was most likely thinking idealistically, not sexually. I had serious doubts that Lucy knew much about sex, as she didn’t seem to come close to this consideration in any of her writings.

Other flimsy arguments that she was promiscuous bring up the times Dr. Seward and Dr. Van Helsing stayed in her room all night or washed her in a bathtub. This is again refuted by looking at their actions from the medical profession. Had they not done these things she would have died sooner, just as with the blood transfusions. Doctors throughout the ages have spent time in female patients’ rooms without it being called unseemly, far before the period of the book. I agree that the time period of the novel is far more stringent in its decrying of sexuality than say one hundred years prior, but medicine and science were gaining ground at this time over perceived propriety as is evidenced by the entirety of the British Gothic genre which includes far more scientific theory than previous genres.

My overall point though is what exactly do people see in that novel of Lucy’s actions pre-vampire to suggest her being promiscuous that can’t be brushed away by other evidence? I feel as though this is a game of rumor that has been going on for more than a century about this novel. Or preconceived notions gained from others’ interpretations such as that very awful movie where Lucy is naked and moaning throughout most of it. The idea of vampirism being about sex is an established theory, but in most instances then it would seem vampirism is about rape, wherein vampires attack and take from their victims without their consent. I think when Stoker has his characters describe Lucy as sweet, poor, or angelic, I believe he means she was sweet, poor, and angelic. I believe she was developed this way to make her undead state more contrasted and horrifying. I also believe she had so many suitors because Stoker needed someway to have a medical professional in (Dr. Seward), a representation of English power (Arthur), and a classical hero (Quincey) all in the story and connected to Dracula in a believable way with a motivation to go after him (the death of a woman they all loved). So I do not believe the subtext for Lucy being promiscuous is actually in the book but is being read into it. The novel does have subtext, just not that interpretation.

The Opposite of Subtext

Years ago when I was in a two year playwriting program, I was made to read Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard. I’m still scratching my head on that one. Not because it was particularly deep but because I didn’t understand what anyone saw in it. Though I’ll freely admit that the names made following it harder, the dialogue itself often left something to be desired. The beginning has a lot of moments where people reminisce. As a writer, I can’t endorse reminiscence as a form of exposition. I can barely endorse it for any reason. It seems too clunky, and in The Cherry Orchard people have a reason for reminiscing, but it still comes kind of out of no where and leaves a lot of emotionality to be desired. Like this moment:

“ANYA. [Thoughtfully] Father died six years ago, and a month later my brother Grisha was drowned in the river– such a dear little boy of seven! Mother couldn’t bear it; she went away, away, without looking round. . . . [Shudders] How I understand her; if only she knew! [Pause] And Peter Trofimov was Grisha’s tutor, he might tell her. . . .”

There is no impetus for this line at all. It is a statement of facts. Telling us backstory. It’s a non-reply to Varya saying “I told them not to wake him.” Where is Anya’s motivation for saying this? It’s no where. I’ve heard that Checkov is a master of subtext, but stating backstory for no reason is the opposite of subtext. I’ve also been hard pressed to hear the subtext in other moments. Another harsh critic of Checkov believes that a good director took hold of Checkov’s work and told the actors how to behave to give the work depth versus it being in the actual text. This sounds like a good theory to me.

Good Use of Subtext

Now I’m a pretty big fan of the Kill Bill movies. They have great dialogue, great fights, good imagery, good acting, and a sense of humor about itself. In a recent rewatch, I realized there was more to the first one than one would think. Mainly, in the relationship between O-Ren Ishii and the Bride. There are some major clues in this movie that O-Ren and the Bride had a close friendship before the incident in the Texas chapel, but let’s go through them.

One: The first person on the Bride’s list is O-Ren, before the obviously easier Vernita Green. But the Bride wants to handle one of the most challenging of her targets first. There could be many reasons for this: she wants the others to know she’s coming (why else would she leave Sophie alive?), she wants to see if she is capable of fighting and killing after so long, she wants to get the arguably hardest challenge out of the way first, or O-Ren was important to her. I do believe that all of these are the truth and feed into the Bride’s motivations for taking down O-Ren first.

Two: The only person on the Bride’s list to get a biography is O-Ren. When going after Vernita, the Bride simply tells the audience where Vernita is now; whereas, O-Ren is shown at an important moment in her life (becoming the Yakuza boss in Japan) without the Bride there. Then we see a quite long and personal anime sequence showing how O-Ren became the woman she is, including the most important moments of her childhood. We do not see anyone else’s, including the Bride’s, childhood in either movie. We do not know what happened to the rest of the squad or Bill as children to turn them into killers, but we do see this with O-Ren. But how does the Bride know any of this? It is my theory that O-Ren told her about these moments as they grew closer in the squad or even before the squad (it is entirely possible that O-Ren and the Bride had teamed up before joining the squad). If O-Ren did tell the Bride about her childhood, it was most likely because the two relied on each and felt they could trust one another. Perhaps the Bride shared her childhood with O-Ren as well.

Three: The report in the present of the movie between O-Ren and the Bride is very easy but lacks overt expressions of motivation or emotion, unlike the dialogue between the Bride and Vernita, which is instead comprised of the digging up of old issues between the two, most likely never voiced. Overall, the best moment of subtext in this movie is an exchange between O-Ren and the Bride that had a lot of people scratching their heads as to the reason it was even in the movie.

While the reference to the the cereal slogan may seem out of place, it isn’t if we consider it subtextually. If based on evidences presented in One and Two mean that O-Ren and the Bride were once close friends, then this moment could be taken as a throwback to earlier dialogue they would have had when working together. Perhaps when they thought an assignment was going to be easy, but it turned out harder than expected, they would exchange these words and get amusement from it. Most people who are close repeat humorous exchanges throughout their relationship, so this is not a crazy conclusion to draw. So by repeating it here, O-Ren and the Bride are bittersweetly referencing their former closeness as opposed to giving a breakfast cereal free advertising.

Their final exchanges were laced with apology and respect. It did not seem as though O-Ren was simply apologizing for making fun of the Bride but possibly also for her part in the chapel massacre, and that the Bride was accepting that apology, but because of who they are (killers) the Bride and O-Ren are going to finish this fight. The idea of giving forgiveness while still fighting to the death is a very old Samurai story theme, making it both deep and in good tradition. O-Ren can’t voice an apology for the massacre because it is too horrible of an action to ask for forgiveness outright, so the scene is very heavy with all that happened between them before they meet this time.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 is chock full of subtext (and some hints as well, like the fact that it was Bill who actually did the killing of O-Ren’s parents) and is worth another watch to suss out back story and connections between the characters.

To Conclude

It is important not to read too much into a work, to read into it what you want to see versus what is actually there. But it is also important to pay attention and think about what is being presented while reading or watching a story. As a writer, it is important to use tact when creating back story as tact is the secret ingredient in creating good subtext.

Are there any works you find are lacking in tact? List them below! Or are really good at subtext? Explain why you feel that way.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Craft of Writing

 

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The Best Superheroes: An Examination

Get ready for the longest post I have ever written. I have a theory that the best superheroes are the symbolic embodiment of some facet of humanity. Without this, a hero is typically pretty flat. Let’s look at those superheroes which could be argued to be symbols. Look out! Spoilers below.

Batman:

Batman is a much beloved superhero by comic book fans and non-fans alike. He is the single most popular and remembered superhero from DC and possibly of all superheroes. He’s not everyone’s favorite (not mine certainly), but we can’t deny his top spot. He has been re-visioned more times than I can remember and as such his character isn’t always the same. For example, we all have this idea that Batman doesn’t kill, but he has in the past, including when in the 90s movies he killed the Joker and Two Face (watch those again–they’re on Netflix right now–Batman’s actions lead directly to their deaths; that does fall under legal definitions of murder as Batman acts with malice and actions reckless of the lives of the victims, not that we care that he killed the Joker and Two Face). Some people who’ve gotten their hands on the caped crusader have been laughably horrible to his character, while others (*cough*FrankMiller*cough*) have greatly honored Batman. But if we look at the gist of the character, we can get a basic idea of what Batman stands for: Justice & Order.

The understanding of Batman as symbol comes from his origin story. His parents were killed, there was no justice served for the murders, so Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. We can see in certain adaptations that symbolism is brought up point blank, such as in Nolan’s movies wherein Wayne says in so many words that he uses what he fears as a symbol. But it’s important to note the kinds of people Batman traditionally goes after. I’m not talking about his supervillains yet. I mean the everyday street crime he typically handles. Most of these crimes (armed robbery, burglary, assault, theft, carjacking, random murder) go very much without any conclusion from the police and courts. In a lot of cases, the police can’t even find the criminal. In those they do, the criminal could be let go on a technicality, charges are dropped, or cases are not pursued in court by prosecutors because of a low level of evidence. Those that make it to court have taken a while to get there, and they could still end without indictment, in a mistrial, with a plea bargain wherein criminals just walk out that day for time served, or with not guilty verdicts.Those that get guilty verdicts could end up with lower sentencing making the result equivalent to a plea bargain or be repealed again and again. All this can be seen as pesky red tape, but is to protect the accused party from erroneous charges or guilty verdicts and cruel and unusual punishment (two words very much up to interpretation). But this usually leaves the victims out in the cold, meaning they don’t get justice. Batman cuts out all that red tape (i.e. the law–let’s not forget the fact that he is a criminal here) and deals out justice immediately, typically with his fists which adds an extra level of satisfaction. He also actually stops street crimes in progress on a somewhat unrealistic level as it is something the police rarely get to do even with their sheer numbers over Batman (typically police show up to a crime scene after it has happened not because they aren’t trying to get there, but because criminals don’t usually commit crimes within eyesight of a cop and crimes are most often reported after they have happened). This idea that Justice can just show up when the crime is happening (which is pretty freaking impossible) and met out sentencing (in the form of his boot to said bad guy’s stomach) right then and there is enticing to most of us. Batman is also the Santa Claus of crime and knows who deserves to be on the other ends of his fists without hundreds of people putting in their two cents along the path to victims getting justice as is the case in the real world. Again, this all pleases readers and viewers. We can look at Batman and say he gives victims peace of mind that justice exists and the bad guys will get what they deserve.

Some may question this interpretation since Batman doesn’t ever kill in new canon. Well, to some degree I think that’s because Batman remembers that he can never be 100% certain that the suspect is guilty and killing the suspect puts an end to other avenues of justice. Also, possibly one could interpret capital punishment to be law and not justice, making it at odds with Batman’s symbolism.

But Batman doesn’t just stand for justice, but also order. Part of this is the fact that he prevents the injustice of crime by stopping crimes in progress thus restoring order. But there is another support of this symbolism, and that’s the Joker. The more modern Joker that is. The Nolan/Ledger Joker presents a person of chaos: he takes on all of Gotham’s criminals, destroys their money and power, kidnaps/kills/disfigures the city’s leaders, threatens to blow up a random hospital (then does) forcing every hospital in Gotham to evacuate (which I’m sure in most major cities the evacuation plan is to take patients to another local hospital so that plan is out the window), drives random citizens (people who have never committed murder or are sworn to uphold the law) to kill one man under the threat of the hospital’s destruction, and maneuvers the citizens to evacuate the city ONE WAY then threatens to blow them all up. Every single person in Gotham during this movie doesn’t know what to do. They’ve lives have reached full stop by the climax. The Joker has managed to up end every person’s way of life. That is very much chaos. Much of the Joker’s depiction in this movie is based mostly on the Miller Joker who kills himself with sheer will and spite to prevent Batman from becoming a hero thus usurping the natural comic book world order. This is a man who forms intricate plans just to cause as much disorder and craziness as he can. Even the Joker from the Burton film does this: he poisons random beauty, health, and hygiene products sending most peoples’ lives into a realm they never imagined possible and then he held that crazy parade, promising to give out money to everyone. People lost their minds and came to get the money despite the fact that they knew he was responsible for several deaths. In nearly every modern version of the Joker, everything he touches turns to chaos. One man causes so much disorder and death and typically because he thinks it’s fun. But the Joker also usually knows these kinds of actions will attract Batman, with whom he is obsessed. And this is where the symbolism becomes balanced.

Whatever the Joker messes up, Batman fixes or attempts to fix. Chaos turns to order and order to chaos, and we can see this cycle again and again within Batman and Joker’s long battle. In the Burton film, Batman gets rid of the Joker’s gas balloons, saving countless lives. In the Nolan film, Batman prevents the death of the threatened man, prevents Harvey Dent from murdering a child, prevents the ferries’ destruction by the Joker, and restores some order to the city by allowing himself to be vilified. In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman “kills” himself off while creating what might possibly be the coolest neighborhood watch ever (I mean, seriously, if neighborhood watches dressed up as bats–take it further–and stalked around at night going after criminals that would be awesome). In all three instances, Batman helps restore balance and order to Gotham, undoing the chaos that the Joker caused, thus making him the antithesis to disorder, which is of course order. The Nolan/Ledger Joker likens their struggle to the unstoppable force and the immovable object (Marvel has a much more literal interpretation of this idea what with The Juggernaut and The Blob), which very much defines the fight between chaos and order. This is why Batman fans love a Joker story. Their battles are the most fun because of their opposite symbolism, which is another reason why Batman is considered (and pretty exclusively is) the best superhero.

(Don’t ask me about the Hanna-Barbera/West Batman. Let’s just pretend it didn’t exist.)

Spider-man:

Spider-man is probably considered the second best or well-known superhero in the world, especially since the Rami/MaGuire movies came out. He’s pretty close to being my favorite, probably is of this list. I’m not sure I’ve met someone who doesn’t know that silly song, even if they haven’t since the old cartoon, and I grew up watching that very silly cartoon from the 90s (I still like to watch it actually even if it is corny–just let me have my childhood!) In fact, I had one of those B&N first ten comics for Spider-Man which included his introduction in Amazing Stories (do I sound like enough of a nerd yet?), and I like watching anything Spider-man related (including the MTV show with Neil Patrick Harris) and saw the first Rami/MaGuire movie in theaters twice, having bummed a ride the second time and going it solo just to experience it again, though I can’t seem to sit through The Amazing Spider-man 2, which seems to be saying something about their depiction of the character or the world. But my experience with the hero aside, I don’t believe he is a top dog for nothing. Spider-man, like Batman, stands for two things: Responsibility (duh) and the Everyman.

The first one is pretty obvious to most viewers and readers of traditional Spider-man stories. I mean, it’s part of the origin story and stated quite succinctly.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t succinct that time, but the original text has it down pat and is an essential part of the Spider-man canon, so I’m not sure why they didn’t just use it in the new movies. There is literally no better way to convey that meaning.

Everything about Spider-man/Peter Parker feeds into this one saying. He skips school, he ends relationships, he neglects his career, all for the sake of the responsibility tied to his powers. He is miserable the whole time because it’s his responsibility to ignore his own mental, emotional, physical, and social health for the sake of helping others all because he can. This responsibility goes beyond those usually befalling citizens, it goes beyond the law. It’s the last great advice of a young man’s only father figure, but beyond that even, it’s the fact that lives are on the line. When Peter isn’t Spider-man, people die. The second Rami/MaGuire film has Peter walking away from that responsibility, and in a parallel to the first film, he runs into a burning building and saves a child, but someone dies on the third floor, someone Spider-man could have saved had he been there. It’s harsh. In fact, it’s a bit like kicky a puppy, and not just because MaGuire does the best puppy dog eyes ever seen on film, but because he can’t catch a single break. That is so much responsibility. That is Sisyphus level responsibility. That’s sixteen ton weight responsibility. I’m not sure Uncle Ben understood just how crushing those words would be to Peter. Peter is a slave to responsibility. Every time he tries to escape his duty as the web-slinger, he just ends up crawling back to fix all the problems that cropped up when he took what usually amounts to the world’s crappiest vacation because the whole time Peter is thinking: Oh, God! People are dying! As much as I love Spider-man, his story can be somewhat bleak when we notice what a shell of a person he is and part of the reason this can be depressing is because he also represents the Everyman.

Not everyone knows what the Everyman is, so I’m pleased to give you this link. Don’t worry, it’s a quick one. Some may argue that being Spider-man automatically takes Peter out of this category, but I argue that his powers are “extraordinary circumstances.” Unlike Batman, Peter didn’t seek out what makes him super. It just happened to him. There is no character drive behind his powers, they are just the other side of the equation of With Great Power, Great Responsibility. Other than those powers, Peter is a pretty typical guy (unlike Batman who is a billionaire loner/genius with an obsession with beating the crap out of criminals). He’s smart and talented, like most people think they are/wish they are. He struggles to hold a job and maintain a college career, like most college students. He almost always broke, like a lot of people. He misses those people in his life who have passed, like anyone. He gets frustrated with his job (JJJ is to blame on this one). He gets down on himself. He has crushes. He has dreams and aspirations outside of being a superhero (I’m sure a lot of people wish they were a superhero, so we settle for more meaningful and possible dreams, but Spider-man is a superhero and wants the same dreams we do). He has drama in his social circle he has to deal with. He gets embarrassed often. Any of this sounding familiar? We tend to see more of Peter Parker experiencing every day life than we do with other superheroes. I doubt we will ever see Bruce Wayne embarrassed in front of his crush. I mean, he’s too suave for that (as we all wish we were) and may not even notice or care if he did something socially stupid since he’s got other things on his mind like a crazed clown or diabolical penguin man. But the writers tend to find time to show Peter at his most human, which is usually presented by humiliation (people are never more real when their faces are beet red because for the most part embarrassment is a human emotion). Because of all the crap we see Peter put up with on a day to day basis in the most ordinary and sometimes even those extraordinary circumstances, we relate to Spider-man more than any other superhero.

But why doesn’t his life depress us? I mean, it sucks in a lot of ways. We also love Spider-man because he’s able to laugh in the face of all danger. He quips during almost all of his battles (unless someone’s life is seriously in danger and he may not be able to save them), making fun of the melodrama of supervillains and traditional comic book plots. He handles his lot in life with style (and a healthy dose of angst, which is at time purposely funny), and we love him for it.

I also don’t think it is coincidence or bad writing that makes the majority of Spider-man’s villains somehow related to him. If he does represent the Everyman, than the “extraordinary circumstances” should extend into his social life, such as having his best friend’s father (and his best friend) be in conflict with him on the same level, i.e. also have superpowers. This allows Peter’s battles to become symbols of social struggles as opposed to just kickass fighting.

Side note: I’m not sure how I feel about the Amazing Spider-man movies. Everyone seems to talk over each other. Makes everything kind of hard to follow. And as Screen Junkies put it, Garfield seems to stutter a lot. I know they said it, but these movies are just so Sony can keep the rights (as well as the X-Men and FF movies), so they seem like poor, rushed attempts.

Judge Dredd:

Before I begin, let’s all agree to leave Stallone out of this conversation. That movie was very uncanon. But it’s very hard for an American audience to understand Dredd. It’s a UK comic, and it goes back so far with one character (none of that reboot crap or new person taking on the persona–that wouldn’t make any sense either since Dredd is his actual name, that would be somewhat like saying “I’m the new Dr. Smith!”). He’s 2000 AD’s longest running character, having premiered in 1977. And get this, his comic is still going. No breaks. It would cost £410.76 to get all the Case Files and Restricted Files (and don’t think I’m not tempted, but that is $645.26) and the total of all those pages is a whopping 7,716 (prices and pages derived from 2000 AD’s online store). Unfortunately, these and Judge Dredd comics aren’t all that easy to get in the US as you most likely won’t see the File books in your local bookstore or even comic book shops, so most fans know him from little bits of this huge canon and from the film and game adaptations. I also feel woefully left behind on this awesome character, so I welcome any die hard fans to add their two cents on the subject of Dredd as they will have far much more canonical evidence than I will. My first introduction to Dredd was that very awful movie, but then I learned later that he was much cooler than that, and I loved Dredd (2012). But even with my little bit of knowledge, I’m sure we can all agree that Judge Dredd represents the Law, made obvious by the graphic.

In the world of Megacity One, the law has been condensed from police, lawyers, juries, and judges to just judges. They witness, stop, and judge crime. They ride around on great honking motorcycles, carrying awesome guns, and hiding and protecting their faces with iconic helmets. They do this all in a dystopian future/alternate timeline wherein more than 90% of the population is unemployed, people are stuffed into giant slums called Megablocks, some people do nothing but eat, while others consider vomiting a hobby, crime is rampant, and outside the Megacities, there is nothing but nuclear fallout, as such some people are mutated by the nearby radiation. This world just reeks of cool. I mean, not to be really in it, but to read it. The world is a force of disorder and crime, and the judges are the last resort. There is very little fan interest in Judge Dredd’s origin (another reason Judge Dredd bombed here). Most of us only care to see him doing his job. Maybe (who am I kidding? definitely) fighting Judge Death. So the recent movie gave us Dredd on the beat, as it were.

Before I get into the Dredd movie though, Dredd as a symbol is pretty well established by writers and fans. This isn’t really in dispute, but non-fans aren’t really aware of this fact and tend to be put off by Dredd’s seeming two-dimensionality as a result. Dredd is not actually a two-dimensional character though, because within the canon there are constant hints that somehow he is the metaphysical embodiment of the law. Unlike other entries on this list, whose symbolism is not incorporated into the story world, Dredd’s symbolism is a part of the world itself. That’s why his origin doesn’t matter all that much (not to say that there isn’t an origin story, there is, it’s just not as exciting as seeing Dredd in action), because we see the symbolism when he’s judging crime. The two parts of the movie that best depict this come at the beginning and end of the movie, with the presentation of the major dramatic question (Will Anderson pass her exam?) and when Dredd passes judgment on Ma-Ma (spoilers obviously).

Oh! Why’d you cut her off? What was she going to say? Almost what?!

Anyway, the point is that Anderson’s psychic powers were letting her see beyond the facade of Dredd to the deeper meaning of him. It’s nice. Subtle. Something most people who don’t know that Dredd is a symbol would miss or forget about, but any fan probably lost their sh*t at that moment. The first descriptors are almost as important as those she doesn’t get to say: Anger and Control. I believe, the anger stems from the Law being pissed off that all this crime is happening. The control is most likely to stop the anger from getting the better of him and making him no better than the criminals he judges. Let’s face is, there is a bit of anger when the law fails to punish the bad guys and the only thing stopping the law, in the U.S. that is, from just killing every suspected criminal that comes under its purview is preset controls (like appeals and the chain of evidence). Dredd doesn’t need the regular controls we have in the U.S. because he’s there when the crime takes place. He knows, without any doubts, that the suspect did the deed. But the law is a bit like a force of nature in the Dredd universe and as such, Dredd won’t consider anything but the law when in pursuit of a criminal and her sentencing. Case in point:

At the end of the movie (at this point if you don’t know a spoiler is coming then you probably shouldn’t be operating a computer) Ma-Ma has a bomb hooked to her heart, in a ploy to stop the judges from sentencing her to death and carrying it out. Most judges wouldn’t take the risk of getting everyone in the megablock killed over one sentence, but not Dredd. Because the sentence is death, and damned if he’s going to let something like the threat of the death of hundreds if not thousands of people stop him from following the letter of the law to last damn dotted i and crossed t. Instead of considering other factors outside the law, Dredd just does what the law says he should, because, as every awesome Judge Dredd tagline will tell us, HE IS THE LAW!

Captain America:

captain-americas-shield

No, I’m not saying he represents the U.S.A. He represents real patriotism, a.k.a not jingoism. Some may think he is over the top on his symbolism, but one has to remember when he was created. American pride was a driving force behind creating support for our involvement in WWII, which we didn’t have a direct stake in until Pearl Harbour was attacked. But putting aside the historical drive behind his creation, Captain America represents the ideals that America is supposed to represent also. Those being honor, integrity, liberty/freedom, resilience in the face of almost certain death/failure, and most of all standing up for the little guy against bullies. Those last ideals have more to do with the American Revolution than they do with America today. Captain America is these ideals in perfection. We can ague until we are blue in the face that America’s attempts at these ideals are flawed and imperfect to the point of “why bother?”, but Captain America doesn’t represent these things as they are but as they are supposed to be.

For example, no one is going to argue that punching Hitler in the face is a flawed action (unless they are a white supremacist, which who cares what they think anyway?). We all kind of wish we could have done it ourselves, but watching the figurative embodiment of everything that is meant to make America great do it is almost as satisfying. Even if it isn’t real. Captain America is also a very nice person. Steve Rogers is a gentleman and treats everyone with fair respect, another thing America is supposed to value (yes, yes, we were horribly cruel to certain demographics, but remember I’m not talking about the real America but the one we wish it were and it strives to be). Of all the superheroes said to be “boy scouts” (Superman, Cyclops, Hank Pym), Captain America is the only one who actually acts like one. He is pretty much never a dick to anyone. He doesn’t wear honor and integrity as a cologne as those other heroes do. No, it is his natural musk. And we love him for it.

The recent movies starring Chris Evans seem to really capture Captain America as a nice guy, resilient, and a leader. For example, not once, not ever does he brag (which let’s face it, this country and its citizens could learn to keep their mouths shut sometimes–not saying I would want to live anywhere else, but like any nation, it has its flaws). Instead of going around saying how awesome he is (that’s Ironman’s job), Captain America just does what’s needed and goes on to the next task. He saves the POWs and walks them back to Allied territory, and he’s just satisfied that they all came out alive. He fights the Red Skull because it needs to be done. Before he even got his powers, he was a hero, because this:

I mean, look at that! The guy weighs less than I do, and that grenade would have turned him into a scavenger hunt, yet he jumped on it without thinking. All because it was the right thing to do. That’s commitment to beliefs.

Captain America gives us all warm fuzzy feelings because he is the good guy, through and through. He’s nice, he’s brave, he stands up to bullies no matter how much bigger than him they are, and he succeeds. We like to think that goodness perseveres and wins in the end. That’s not always the case in the real world, so it’s awesome to see the greatest ideals literally kicking ass and saving people.

Honorable Mentions: Rorschach, The Hulk, and Wolverine

What is this nutbar doing on this list? Well, for one thing he’s so cool. There are two points (in the comic book) that make Rorschach so loveable (well, not counting the prison line). First is when he kills the kidnapper. We all hate people who kidnap and kill innocent children. It’s so much worse when we read that he cut up the little girl and fed her body to his dogs. Ugh! The reaction is pretty much pure hate here. So when Rorschach decides the best punishment is to chain the killer to the house, give him a saw, and set the place on fire, we all kind of go “YES!” Especially when the guy never makes it out. This is a major turning point for Rorschach as a character. It’s the moment when he decides that no matter what the scum of the earth deserve to be punished. He isn’t Justice or the Law at this point. He is Retribution.

The second point in which we love him is a circling back to something he said in the beginning of the graphic novel: No compromise, even in the face of armageddon. He doesn’t just say this; he believes it to his core. So when the bad guy looks like he’s going to get away with his plan, costing millions of lives seemingly for the sake of the entire human race, Rorschach will not compromise. He (SPOILER!) dies for retribution. And still wins in the end, if one remembers his journal and in whose hands it ends up.

The Hulk is typically a one note character. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, he gets angry, and he destroys most of everything around him. But his character is actually on some pretty solid ground. For one thing, he’s an homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde”, except where Mr. Hyde represents the Id of a psychopath, the Hulk just represents repressed anger. Which is great because most people walk around on a powder keg, because in a polite society, it’s not nice to raise your voice, let alone break something (like that asshole who cuts you off and drives five miles under the speed limit–really? you can’t wait to get in front of someone, but you can’t go the speed limit?). The Hulk often let’s loose where most of us would just have to bite our tongue and take it up the tailpipe, so it’s nice to see that. Also it’s nice to see someone else struggling not to lose it over ridiculously angering things (such as in the Ang Lee Hulk film where people went beyond your typical asshole action and went on to scum of the earth, inhumane actions). We all get angry and struggle not to make a big deal of it, so the Hulk ends up being very relatable, if not tremendously deep.

The Wolverine is a very fun character, and in fact, my favorite comic book hero (especially as played by Hugh Jackman, *eyebrow wiggle*). Sometimes it’s just great to watch someone gut several assholes with six nine-inch razor blades. But Wolverine is also the most classically complete of heroes on this list, what with the amnesia and the search for an origin. It’s a nice twist on the origin story. We don’t know it because he doesn’t know it (at least most of the time). But it’s more than that too. Wolverine is always one step away from being one fastball of animal survival instincts. That’s why he’s so ferocious. When he is in killing mode, he kills at the fastest possible speed. He doesn’t go for wounds or submissions; he goes for killing those that would injure him (not that it would matter if they did) before they have a chance. This is kind of amazing as most of this kind of animal instinct should be based on how if an animal is injured, it is most likely going to die, but Wolverine is fine in the event of an injury, so why in the world are his animal instincts so strong? There’s not really an answer to that, but boy is it fun to watch.

His superhero name is also apt, considering full grown grizzly bears will see a wolverine coming and get out of its way because that is a world of hurt not worth it.

Who Didn’t Make the Grade and Why?:

Superman: Why does anyone like this guy? He’s melba toast with far too many condiments on it, so that when one takes a bite, the tongue is confused into a gag. His character is kind of blah, as I’m never sure what he wants or why he does anything he does. And his powers are a grab bag of weird. He’s really only famous because he was the first, but unlike AOL, which everyone learned wasn’t all that good, people still keep looking to Supes for some kind of story. All the movies are bad. Am I the only person who remembers this scene:

My god, I never thought I’d want to duct tape someone’s brain before. Worst scene ever.

Then there was the recent adaptations, which were very poor in writing, mostly because there isn’t much to work with when it comes to Superman canon. I want a drinking game for Man of Steel, wherein every time someone dies, we drink a shot, and die before the credits. Though Henry Cavil was the best Superman ever for two reasons: one, I actually felt for him (no other actor has managed that), and two, he refused to shave his chest for the shirtless scenes (a wolf whistle to the alien freak). But for the most part, I know Superman from that fun, animated show Justice League, wherein again and again, Superman proved himself a git and a dick with legs, which isn’t that far off from comics what with the destruction of whole neighborhoods because “slums are the cause of crime” and of car dealerships and car factories because “cars cause car accidents”. Brilliant social commentary there.

Wonderwoman: Wonderwoman, like Captain America, was a WWII creation, hence the outfit and the originally extremely racist oneliners. She, however, doesn’t translate well to a modern age because she isn’t an American. She now is more sexist than anything else, and is quite possibly the dumbest superhero ever. I don’t mean her concept is stupid, though it is, but she is dumb. Seriously, watch Justice League and Justice League: Doom and tell me that’s not the biggest idiot ever. I’m not sure stupidity is a good character flaw to go with.

Ironman: Ironman, as played by Robert Downey, Jr., is very fun. But he is a complete character. He has depth and flaws, but he doesn’t really represent anything. He’s also a little uninteresting, mainly because he’s like Charlie from Two and a Half Man. There are only so many times we can read about Tony making strides as a human being before he reverts back to a mentally twenty-something party hound.

Any Women at All: Let’s face it. Comic book writers are men. Walk down the aisles of your local comic book store and you’ll either see muscled men flexing and gritting their teeth looking fierce, or the required women barely dressed in clothes that are basically paint on their skin with tits bigger than their heads that have absolutely no support yet are perky enough to be weapons. These women are not good characters. They aren’t characters. They’re window dressing. I have my favorites (Black Widow, Psylocke, especially in the X-Force costume), but that’s more wish fulfilment fantasy, not admiration of good character development. Incidentally, since I love comic books and graphic novels, I’ve been writing my own, and since I am a woman, my main characters are typically women. If I even partially fill this hole in the genre, I’ll be happy. Though if a reader can think of a female comic book hero that I haven’t , I’d be glad to be corrected.

Conclusion:

This is my list, based on my opinion. If you want to contradict or add (with evidence) to this list, I’d be very happy to hear it. Bear in mind these were in no particular order, so I’m not saying one is better than the other either.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2015 in Craft of Writing

 

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Irony, Satire, and Sarcasm and Those Who Don’t Get It

Three Different Animals

Most people can point out sarcasm when they hear it. Except maybe Sheldon. It’s when someone says something they don’t mean in an overly dramatic voice and often uses hyperbole. Example:

Oh, I really loved it. That book solved all my worries and I’ll never have to worry again, and it can do this for everyone who reads it. It brought Jesus back to life and made broccoli taste like nutela.”

Put emphasis on the words “really” and “everyone”. That’s the overly dramatic voice. It is true that some people are incapable of hearing the inflection necessary to recognize sarcasm, but that’s not many people.

Satire is usually much more long winded. It’s most prevalent in fictive narratives, like Lucky Jim. Which is a great book, by the by. For a more modern example, watch any South Park episode. Satire is used to poke fun at societal conventions. Because it is presented as serious situations, the majority of people have trouble recognizing it.

There are so many different forms of irony, it’s crazy. There’s dramatic irony, verbal irony, situational irony, and those are just the better know ones. For an example, some people may say “Listen to Ironic by Alanis Morsette,” and while I enjoy that song, half the examples are just unfortunate, not ironic. A good rule of thumb for identifying irony is this: something should have been guarded against, but it happened anyway, sometimes because of the guarding tactics put in place or those guards just failed before the event. Best examples I can think of below:

A man gets his fortune read. It says he will die the next day, so he leaves his home/city/state to escape his fate. His travel method kills him (like a plane or car accident) or when he gets to the new place, he dies in an event there (an earthquake/fire/volcano/plague etc.). This is situational.

Now if you are reading a novel, short story, or poem or watching a show or movie and you know something the character doesn’t, that’s dramatic irony. There is a type of poem, called the dramatic monologue, wherein the whole thing is someone talking to someone else and we only read what the first person says. Their speech reveals to us, the reader, deeper information (note: method is called subtext) that the surface meaning of the words themselves do not reveal. This is also dramatic irony, but the best example is obviously Romeo and Juliet. We know Juliet is still alive, but Romeo doesn’t. We’re helpless to stop him from killing himself, even though we know his death is pointless. Dramatic irony is most often not humorous.

Verbal irony is more fun. I do this more than I should. It’s unfair to those I speak to as verbal irony can be just like sarcasm without the tone to suggest the speaker is not serious. It’s not always detectable, but it is very funny to the speaker.

“I watch Jersey Shore every chance I get.”

Technically, sarcasm is verbal irony, but I like to make the distinction since all sarcasm is verbal irony but not all verbal irony is sarcasm (think squares and rectangles).

Not Getting It: The Examples

I’m so shocked when people don’t get satire and irony. I can’t process how they don’t understand. Two major examples come to mind: “A Modest Proposal” by Swift and #SELFIE by The Chainsmokers. I love both these things because of how well they do satire and irony, but not everyone likes them because they miss the point.

Most college students have to read this at some point, whether it is in comp class or British Literature. The first time I read this for class was Brit Lit I, and some of the people in class had to be informed that Swift wasn’t serious. Then when I taught it in my own class, I stood there frozen for a moment, eyes wide, when a good number of my students thought that Swift wanted to eat children. Then I explained satire for the rest of the hour. Show of hands, who thinks that Swift actually wanted the English to eat Irish babies?

Swift was making a point that the English subjugation was killing the Irish, especially the children, so they were as good as eating their children like cattle for steaks. Swift was a bit of an activist, and yes, the English did freak out about “A Modest Proposal”, thinking he was a sick, sick man, but at least it had some impact.

The Chainsmokers have spent a lot of time in clubs, hearing a lot of the inane conversations and flat-out monologues from club girls that repulse those of us who can take a picture without a duckface or filter. #SELFIE is masterfully mixed, even for those of us who love a good string quartet, but the biggest complaint in the YouTube comments for the song is that this song would be way better without the lyrics. I beg to differ, vehemently.

that girl who’s talking she’s so fucking annoying

I  can´t stop dancing to this song but the way this girl speak is so annoying.

it’s almost like watching a trainwreck

So disgusting that this is what’s popular these days. I may as well go join the Islamic State, maybe they’re right about slaughtering all you infidels.

Quotes from the official YouTube video. (“Well, that escalated quickly.”)

Let’s look at the lyrics first. Then let’s take a closer look, and possibly you’ll see how The Chainsmokers are not pandering to the selfie attitude.

When Jason was at the table
I kept on seeing him look at me while he was with that other girl
Do you think he was just doing that to make me jealous?
Because he was totally texting me all night last night
And I don’t know if it’s a booty call or not
So… like what do you think?
Did you think that girl was pretty?
How did that girl even get in here?
Do you see her?
She’s so short and that dress is so tacky
Who wears Cheetah?
It’s not even summer, why does the DJ keep on playing “Summertime Sadness”?
After we go to the bathroom, can we go smoke a cigarette?
I really need one
But first,
Let me take a selfie

Can you guys help me pick a filter?
I don’t know if I should go with XX Pro or Valencia
I wanna look tan
What should my caption be?
I want it to be clever
How about “Livin’ with my bitches, hash tag LIVE”
I only got 10 likes in the last 5 minutes
Do you think I should take it down?
Let me take another selfie

Wait, pause, Jason just liked my selfie
What a creep
Is that guy sleeping over there?
Yeah, the one next to the girl with no shoes on
That’s so ratchet
That girl is such a fake model
She definitely bought all her Instagram followers
Who goes out on Mondays?
OK, let’s go take some shots
Oh no, ugh I feel like I’m gonna throw up
Oh wait, nevermind I’m fine
Let’s go dance
There’s no vodka at this table
Do you know anyone else here?
Oh my God, Jason just texted me
Should I go home with him?
I guess I took a good selfie

Selfie [x8]

Let me take a selfie

If you’re not willing to read all that, go here to listen to the song.

Okay, let’s take the whole thing. It’s a monologue. She asks 12 questions but never once pauses for a response. That’s how self-absorbed she is, more than just wanting to take multiple selfies. Now let’s look at smaller bits. In line 12, she questions why the DJ is playing Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Saddness when it’s not summer. I won’t go into what that song is about, but it’s not about summer and how bright and fun it is to say the least. The only songs that can’t be played year round are Holiday songs (like We Wish You a Merry Christmas), so her question just reads as strange. In the second verse, she wants to pick a filter to look tan, which suggests that she is supposed to (in her own mind) look tan and that instead of tanning (or perhaps she doesn’t think she is tan enough) she wants to use photo-altering methods. This means that she will look different in person than she does in the photo, which is disingenuous (Don’t get me wrong, I understand everyone wants their photos to flatter them, but this is a step too far). Next, she thinks about her caption. She wants it to be clever, but any listener knows that “Livin’ with my bitches, #live” is far from clever. In the final verse, she asks (the admittedly rhetorical) question “Who goes out on Mondays?” Since the person she is talking about is out, she has to be out to see them, so apparently she goes out on Mondays. This is the most obvious point in the whole song, wherein if a listener isn’t at least thinking, let alone exclaiming, “You do!” then the irony has flown over their head.

But wait, there’s more! The speaker is repetitive (not just because they mixed it that way though that feeds into the point as well). Her actions and words are repetitive, retreading ground she has already covered, such as the two times she wants to take a selfie, but also the two drinking moments in the third verse, and the turning of her thoughts to Jason, who can’t be clearly characterized by what she says about him but who is in all three verses. The most subtle repetition is at the top of the third verse wherein she says both wait and pause one following immediately after the other, which have the same meaning within this verbal context. These repetitions are great musically, but in actual speaking and action they show an inane mind that can’t focus on more complex ideas. The simple ideas of smoking, drinking, discussing one’s appearance, and boys/sex show that the speaker doesn’t have the capability or lacks the desire to think about more important and productive subjects and actions.

Don’t change that channel yet! The speaker is shown to be fickle. When returning to subjects, her opinion is different than it was the last time she brought it up. For example, she goes from distrusting Jason’s motives, to thinking he is creepy, to considering going home with him. This all happens in one night, but the short length of the song emphasizes how rapidly her mind changes. On the selfies themselves, she goes from wanting to take one, to wanting to post an altered version of the photo, to wanting to take it down within five minutes, to thinking she should take a new one, to thinking her first one must have been good. This doesn’t just show fickleness but also vanity. This vanity is also shown in how she puts down the other women she sees show in the first verse and the third verse. The first woman is viewed negatively based on the fact that she is with Jason, but also by aesthetic values such as her height and the type of print she is wearing. The second woman is viewed negatively because she took off her shoes (a common occurrence with women because of heels), and is seemingly attractive (being described as a model, even a fake one, suggests some kind of attractiveness), then is subject to less obvious judgments about her non-visible actions. I’ve already mentioned the inherent contradiction of the speaker’s last on this woman.

I could keep examining this song, but I imagine some people are getting tired of it at this point. This long tirade of examination is all dramatic irony. We know, even if she doesn’t, that she’s ridiculous, but what she said isn’t random. It was written by people who knew what they were doing. They wrote each line with purpose: showing exactly how outrageous this kind of behavior is. They even picked a good actress to take on the role and use the correct dialect for this type of person. Alexis Campisi is actually nothing like the character she depicts, so not only was this monologue written by writers (as opposed to actual audio from a club girl), it was an act. Her own selfies lack duckfaces and those weird way above the head angles girls so often use, if not filters. Her twitter feed, at a glance, is replete with actual thoughts and funny quotes (“Do you want to build a snowman? Taking applicants based on singing ability.” and “My iPhone is so conceited, it keeps telling me it’s too hot to function.”) instead of inane chatter and a plethora of hashtags. The point is the monologue is crafted to present something to the listener. It’s grating and irritating, but it’s supposed to be. It’s also meant to be laughable, so I can’t help but be shocked when people don’t understand that they aren’t lauding the character but maligning her.

What’s the Point of All This?

Could someone please explain why some people understand irony and satire and others don’t? I’m at a loss here. I can usually get this kind of writing on the first experience, but I don’t understand how some people can take this stuff seriously. It’s so much more fun to nod along with the creators of satire and irony if we all get it. It’s possible this has more to do with critical thinking skills than anything else. I imagine a bunch of club girls who don’t have a good sense of irony speaking along with the monologue, smiling because it is a song about them and isn’t that great, then I laugh inside, then I die inside. When people don’t get this kind of writing, I’m not just shocked. I’m also sad, not because they’re not in on it with the rest of us, but because through no fault of their own, the creator’s work is perverted. Maybe we should have a picture of Leonard holding a sign that says the appropriate term as a warning to these people.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2014 in Craft of Writing

 

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The Basics of Arguing with Ebola Quarantine as the Example

What with everyone arguing right now over the relative pragmatism and humaneness of quarantining Ebola health care workers, I thought it would be a perfect way to examine how to best argue on the subject.

The Two Different Stances

They can be boiled down to these two basic statements: Quarantining Ebola heath care workers is wrong or Quarantining Ebola health care workers is right. But these two statements are not enough. Both sides need to explain why, because if they were simply to restate those opinions that would be a fallacy called ad nauseum. There are two main reasons backing both: Quarantining Ebola health care workers is wrong because it is inhumane/violates human rights and makes no sense from a medical standpoint and Quarantining Ebola health care workers is right because it is pragmatic and promotes public health safety. But even that is still not enough to be a cogent argument. The first couple of bold, italic statements are opinions on an issue; the second couple of bold, italic statements are thesis statements.

First Thesis Statement, Explanation, and Counter-arguments

The following is the basic claim as to why quarantine may be inhumane or violate human rights: . . . because the authorities are holding health care workers against their will. The explanation: Being held against one’s will is the basic definition of kidnapping, which is illegal. One must also question the authority in holding a person against their will. What legal statutes allow U.S. authorities to hold a person against their will when that person is not under suspicion of committing a crime? The fourth amendment itself protects people from the act of quarantine by allowing people protection against illegal search and seizure including of their person.

Counter-argument: The U.S. allows certain authorities to hold people against their will dependent upon specific conditions, such as authorities witnessing crimes committed by such persons or other civilians reporting the witnessing of crimes committed by such persons. But the witnessing of a crime is not the only instance in which authorities are allowed to hold a person against his or her will. It is also allowed when suspicion of a crime has taken place or public safety may be at risk, such as a person suspected of planning a mass attack. It is not unreasonable to extend, or even consider the issue already covered by, the public safety umbrella to cover infectious diseases.

The first argument is a bit of pathos (an appeal to emotion) in that we find being held against our will inherently wrong and logos (an appeal to logic) in that we have a legal document protecting against seizure. The counter-argument is logos (an appeal to logic) in that it shows that only illegal seizure is protected against and that in certain instances a person can be held against their will.

 

My thoughts on the specifics: Quarantine can be inhumane if improperly handled, but I do not believe it was improperly handled to the point of being inhumane in this case. The nurse was able to contact CNN while under quarantine, meaning her first amendment rights were not impinged upon. While she was possibly delayed in eating and comfort, it was not to the point of inhumanity, which would be when it is physically damaging. We can compare her conditions, if she had stated them in detail, to the depiction of inhumane quarantine in Jose Saramago’s Blindness wherein patients did not have access to working plumbing, adequate food, sanitary conditions, authority to prevent patients from stealing, raping, and murdering fellow patients, and medical attention. That is inhumane.

 

The following is the basic claim as to why quarantine may be nonsensical from a medical standpoint: . . . because the disease in question is not communicable when not showing symptoms. The explanation for this point must include more than just an appeal to logic as the first one did. Instead it needs a resource, which can be from a medical paper on Ebola or from a statement from a person of authority. If no resource is given by the arguer, then the logical counter-argument is akin to Sheldon Cooper’s argument about infectious diseases:

 

“If influenza was only contagious after symptoms appeared, it would have died out thousands of years ago. Somewhere between tool using and cave painting, homo habilis would have figured out to kill the guy with the runny nose.”

 

 

That’s a joke, but it makes the point that many diseases are communicable when no symptoms are present. The counter-argument is only applicable when the first arguer does not present a source to back up this claim, but the immediate response to the claim without a source will bring up this counterpoint, typically using Typhoid Mary as an example. If the argument is an actual exchange as opposed to a paper (which would get a failing grade most likely for opting to skip sources), the person making the unsupported claim cannot then tell other people to “look up” sources for their claim. This is lazy arguing. An unsupported claim when the person who made the claim knows this claim as theory presented by reliable sources is poor arguing. But let’s say they do have sources and list them. The sources still have to be reliable. One can find anything stated by someone else without real research. In this instance, a reliable source has to be a medical scientist whose career is focused on infectious diseases and specifically Ebola.

Not even this guy is expert enough.

But let’s say that the person making the claim didn’t just use a source to back it up but also got a real expert opinion on the disease. Counter-argument: Micro-organisms are not static beings. They evolve to defeat adversity, and they do it at a much higher rate than non-micro-organisms. This is why new flu vaccines need to be developed every year. This is why antibiotic resistant bacteria exists, now making UTIs resistant and pneumonia possibly fatal even when treated. The flu that survived the year before adapted and changed to evade the previous vaccine. The bacteria that survived previous treatment adapted and changed to evade the medicine designed to fight the bacteria. This is evolution. Medical scientists cannot predict when or how a virus, bacteria, of fungus will evolve to become more suited to their current environment, but all evolution is preceded by a change in environment which may wipe out the species if the species does not adapt. Currently, Ebola’s environment is controlled by humans. We prevent Ebola from spreading by quarantining symptomatic patients, but if this environment of prevention threatens Ebola as a species, it could adapt to spread under different conditions. This may not happen for years. It may not happen at all, but it is a possibility. With such a fatal disease, it is impractical to not take the safest approach while still treating patients and quarantined individuals with dignity and respect.

Both the argument and counter-argument are based on logos because one presents evidence and the other has cause-and-effect development.

My thoughts on the specifics: I was quite annoyed when on Monday I saw an RN being used as “expert” opinion on the subject of Ebola quarantine in some news broadcast. Even if a doctor or nurse has worked heavily with Ebola patients, they are not as expert as someone who has made it their career to study the Ebola virus, experimenting with it, studying its favorite environment and gestation rate, mapping its genome, and formulating hypotheses and testing those hypotheses, all so they can then go to the doctors and nurses who are treating Ebola patients and tell them the best procedures to take. Just because someone is a doctor or nurse, I’m not going to take their every medical opinion as gospel. They disagree, on many subjects. And if you’ve ever been to the doctor, which I imagine you have, you’ve probably heard some pretty dumb things come out their mouths sometimes. I’m not saying we should disregard everything medical professionals say to us and listen to celebrities and politicians instead, but that we should take what medical professionals say with a grain of salt. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had a upper and/or lower respiratory bacterial infection and a doctor or RN has assumed I had a cold or the flu. I also have a serious problem with people who treat Ebola like a static species, which by the way there is no such thing. Small pox is contained but given the proper food supply and a chance to procreate, its evolution would no longer be on hold.

The Second Thesis, Explanation, and Counter-arguments:

The following is the basic claim as to why quarantine is a pragmatic action: . . . because it prevents all chance of the spread of the disease. The explanation: While Ebola is not currently spreadable when patients are not symptomatic, quarantining all individuals who have come into contact with the virus prevents relying on patient communication of symptoms. Many times a patient can experience symptoms they are unaware of, such as happens with many individuals who develop cancer. For example, an Ebola patient may have a slight fever and not realize he or she even has it, but he or she is now symptomatic. Health care workers who have worked with Ebola patients may be reluctant to volunteer symptoms they believe are not Ebola caused but from stress, overwork, or another illness. This is not to say that health care workers are going to purposely deceive, but they may in their own minds be downplaying symptoms and do not tell health officials of their symptoms to avoid a quarantine they believe to be unnecessary. Most of them will be right, but it is not an acceptable margin of error for the safety of the health care workers and the people they may come into contact with.

Counter-argument: Health care workers, because of their profession, are more likely to be aware of their own symptoms than the average person. Those who have worked with Ebola will also understand the importance of not withholding or downplaying symptoms, for both their own health and the safety of others. Because of their professional training and experience with the virus, health care workers have a different experience than a typical patient and have a personal gain to volunteering their symptoms to health officials.

Both arguments are logos based because they outline the behavior of patients and health care workers.

My thoughts on the specifics: I believe everyone is human and thereby capable of denial and unhealthy habits. I’m sure we’ve all seen an overweight doctor or nurse in our lives. It’s important to understand that with their profession comes a little bit of arrogance. It’s needed. An unsure doctor or nurse is not helping anyone, but sometimes that arrogance transfers into bad personal health decisions. It sometimes even transfers into blind spots when examining their own patients. We have also heard the idea before that doctors make horrible patients because of what they know, and I think this is another offshoot of the arrogance required of the medical profession. As I said, the confidence in a medical professional is very important, but this can lead to over-confidence which is dangerous when dealing with a fatal infectious disease.

The following is the basic claim as to why quarantine promotes public safety: . . . because it prevents the accidental spread of the disease were symptoms to develop. The explanation: Some doctors have suggested quarantine periods (I’ve heard both 8-10 and 21 days) whether or not a health care worker is presenting with symptoms. This period would allow individuals to present symptoms in an environment that would prevent the spread of the virus. If a health care worker with non-symptomatic Ebola were to forego quarantine and went to a public venue, and then he or she developed symptoms, anyone within that public venue would be at risk to contagion. It would be better if he or she had developed symptoms in an isolated environment. They would also get medical attention much faster in quarantine because a proper quarantine is run by qualified and informed health care workers.

He made sure to touch every piece.

Counter-argument: Health care workers can be screened for the virus through testing and once a lack of infection is confirmed, they can be sent home without need of a quarantine. The general public can be assured at that point that authorities are not releasing Ebola infected individuals into the general public.

Both of these are logos again, with the first because of it’s scary prospect also displaying pathos. I can actually think of a counter to the counter-argument: lab errors.

My thoughts on the specifics: If the medical community is split on the relative need for quarantine, I think we should quarantine. I am actually less afraid of Ebola than I am of human response to it. By which I mean, panic or a lack or response. I want it to be taken seriously, but I also don’t want us stop living our lives and treating people with dignity because of it. I feel like the medical community needs to get it together when it comes to the practices involved in quarantine; otherwise, they will have those same two reactions: not treating quarantine patients well or not having realistic and helpful quarantine practices. It’s possible to fail on both fronts I admit, but that’s why they need experts on Ebola to help them make up the quarantine practices.

The Bad Arguments

There have been a lot of appeals to authority, appeals to the gallery, ad hominems, and slippery slope arguments going around. Below are some examples of all three for both sides.

Appeal to Authority against Quarantine: “My doctor/nurse said their was no reason for quarantine, so I don’t see why we are doing it.” This is a fallacy because every doctor and nurse can have an opinion, but without their also being experts on Ebola, they don’t have a leg to stand on as a support of an argument. The only reason the speaker/writer is bringing this up is that as a medical health professional a doctor or nurse can have an inflated appearance of authority. The speaker/writer believes in that appearance of authority, so they call on their opinion as “evidence.” The average health care worker does know more, most likely, than the average non-health care worker about Ebola, but only to the level of moderate knowledge.

Appeal to Authority for Quarantine: “If our politicians think that quarantine is in the public’s interest, it is something we should do.” Politicians can also appear to have “expertise” to some people, but their opinions shouldn’t be used as gospel as their motivations (especially near election time) are suspect. One should only trust a politician’s opinion when they have advisers who are expects on the issue. Only then are they the mouthpiece of expertise.

Appeal to the Gallery against Quarantine: “No one’s really all that worried about contracting Ebola, so why even talk about quarantine?” Pretending to know what everyone in a nation of 300 million people is very suspect. There are people who are worried, but even if there were not one person worried by the idea of getting Ebola, how people feel in general about it is not the issue. The fact that Ebola is contagious is the issue.

Appeal to the Gallery for Quarantine: “We are all scared, and for the safety of everyone in this country, we need to quarantine every health care worker who has come into contact with Ebola.” Again, acting as though a nation has a uniform thought and we all know what it is oversimplifies the people. Whether or not everyone is scared is also not the issue; again, the fact that a contagious and fatal disease may (and has in some instances) come into the country is the issue.

Ad Hominem against Quarantine: “All politicians are idiots. We cannot expect them to know what they are talking about.” This is also a generalization, but it is an attack on a group of people instead of a counter-argument to their points. Not arguing the points is bad because it clouds the issue and degrades the discussion.

Ad Hominem for Quarantine: “These health care workers only care about people in other countries. They don’t care about American citizens. If they cared about America, they wouldn’t go to Africa and bring in a deadly disease.” It’s much the same as the one against. It’s an attack on the person and doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion.

Slippery Slope against Quarantine: “What going to happen next? Are we going to detain every nurse and doctor that get off any international flight? Are we going to start grabbing people off the street because they could have been to Africa?” We have a lot of checks in place in the country to prevent this kind of thing from happening. Many of our government officials and doctors are against quarantine, so they will prevent things from going that far, but that doesn’t mean that any quarantine will result in this consequence.

Slippery Slope for Quarantine: “If we don’t quarantine every health care worker who’s coming in from abroad, they are going to infect millions of people. One person gets through and we will lose whole cities, states, maybe even half the country.” This seems like a fear response/tactic to me, but it disregards all the other people who are for quarantine and the fact that the illness sends people to the hospital pretty fast once symptoms occur. Most likely, in the event of an outbreak it will not get very far before a response happens to counter its spread.

Both Sides

I hope this exercise taught you a bit about how to argue without sounding like a screaming magpie. But I hope it also taught you the importance of compromise on an serious issue. In a situation like this, the middle way seems best. We shouldn’t be reactionary, nor should we have no reaction. Something serious needs even tempers, logical reasoning, and back and forth; otherwise, something will go wrong.

 
 

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Whore or Wife: The Divide between Artist and Money-Maker

Reading Widely

Though I have a Masters in English and the reading list that comes with that (McCarthy, Conrad, Melville, Hawthorne, Morrison, Walker, Hurston, Crane, Sexton, Clifton, Woolf, Joyce, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, Dickinson, Sidney, etc. & etc., and on and on and on), I’ve read in genres that are never considered for English majors except in those few fun classes some professors are allowed to teach. This includes novels I did not enjoy and some that are my favorites, but includes such writers as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, E.L. James, Michael Crichton, Jennifer Crusie, Erin McCarthy, Vicki Lewis Thompson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jeff Lindsey, Jim Butcher, Cassandra Clare, Marilyn Kaye, Janet Dailey, Stephanie Meyer, Georgette Heyer, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, to name a few. Some names on that list I love, some I gave up on. I’ll read basically anything of note. If a writer or book is big in a certain genre, I’m on it, including classics and contemporary critically acclaimed works. I always want to know what all the fuss is about with popular novels, with award winning novels, with the works that are taught in high-level courses. I will never have enough time to read it all, but damned if I’m not going to try.

The Academic Idea

I once asked a teacher during my undergrad, in one of my first craft courses, if a writer could write both the popular stuff and the artistic stuff. The answer I got was that a woman could not be both a whore and a wife. Not to nitpick, but I imagine there are women who are both. The point is that a writer can’t be both a money-maker (i.e. financially supported by their work alone) and an artist at the same time (i.e. something vague and basically indefinable at the time of creation and first generation experience of the work, something that comes with time maybe or certain special awards: the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the Booker, etc.). Almost no writer that is an artist believes that they will, in their lifetime, be recognized as “the great novelist of our times” and win those awards. There are those lucky few who are recognized in their lifetime and accept those awards themselves (Garcia-Marquez, Hemingway, etc.), but this is the lottery of writing and as such basically unreachable. There is a lot of luck involved in being recognized as an artist in one’s own lifetime, circumstances beyond a writer’s control that may or may not lead to this recognition, which is why this is considered by most as a crapshoot of an idea of what it means to be an artistic writer. Instead, most writers that consider themselves artists live on small means or have a second job to supplement their income with something more reliable, especially these days when one cannot make livable wages from publishing stories and poems in periodicals. This second job is almost always teaching, which means this same idea is passed on from generation to generation of writers who are more artistically inclined.

Portraits of a Money-Maker

Two of the mostly widely known money-making writers right now are Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, closely followed by Stephanie Meyer, E.L. James, and Suzanne Collins what with their novels selling like hotcakes and all that adaptation money. J.K. Rowling, much like the other three women, rocketed to fortune (higher than the others reached), but now some wonder what else she has to offer the literary world (just as everyone wonders about the other three women). This is one side of the Money-Maker. They may end up being one-hit wonders (not that I am accusing any of these women of this, just that that is what is in their readers’ minds). Fans want more Harry Potter, and when she came out with the short story about the witch singer, fans went nuts. Her other novel, The Casual Vacancy, however, did not get as much immediate response. This money-maker (not Rowling specifically or even generally) has hit on a plot, a world, a character, a theme that people love widely, but is either trapped by it (as in the audience doesn’t want anything else or doesn’t believe the writer is good for any other story) or runs with it (as in the writer continues to put out more content related to their hit). This money-maker made a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time, especially compared to the other money-maker.

The other kind of money-maker is best typified by Stephen King, but others exist as well (John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Jim Butcher–I’m not sure what it says that my two examples are genderized, it’s either an effect my reading and those writers I associate with one another or a trend in the commercial market of novels, though Tolkien may be an example of the first type of money-maker). This is the money-maker who rises steadily, who makes money steadily. They become a household name slowly, and people are always interested in their work. Their work tends to be more versatile, it seems at first as their novels are not all of a series or related to a series. But I’m not sure if that is actually true. The more I read of the above mentioned authors, the more I notice connections. King was a huge fan of connecting separate novels. His narratives almost always have some mention of a different narrative, such as the mention of It and the Loser’s Club in Dreamcatcher. One must look to his short stories to find narratives unconnected to other narratives. The other examples of Grisham and Crichton play on the same similar themes again and again, for Grisham it is the courtroom and the vagaries of the law and for Crichton it is science and the hubris of the people involved in the pursuit of knowledge. But I also mentioned Butcher, who is almost exclusively a series writer (The Dresden Files and the Codex Alera) which almost shove him into the portrait of the first money-maker, but there are two types of series writers: the epic series and the continuing series. The epic series is usually a collection of books under ten and the narrative (one hopes) has it’s ending in the first novel (meaning that the first book and the inciting incident sets in motion the entirety of the series). The continuing series is usually over ten novels and the inciting incident and climax, for the most part, stand apart from other novels in the series. I like to compare them to mini-series and T.V. shows, with the epic series being equivalent to the mini-series, and the continuing series being equivalent to the T.V. show. But wait, don’t these two distinctions overlap? You bet your bottom dollar they do. Somehow, though, there is a difference even if it is not completely expressible. Anyway, Butcher’s first novels in his series were not meteoric novels which everyone just had to read. Instead, at first, his novels were read but not widely, and his popularity and following slowly grew, much like some of the other writers in this portrait.

The John Grisham Method

There is a story about John Grisham, and I’m not entirely sure that it is apocryphal, but it goes like this: He wrote A Time to Kill over an entire decade. When published, it ended up on the New York Times Best Seller List. Grisham went out and read all the novels on the List, studying them to see what made them successful. From this, he honed a method by which he could write novels quickly that would also end up on the List, cutting down his writing time and increasing his chances for success. Is it true? I’m not sure. Is there a formula for financial success when writing? Probably. However, this true/not true story brings up the idea of writing to make money as opposed to a writer being so lucky as to make money with one’s work. I have known writers who want to write to make money and who write with that goal in mind. They write to story submission requests, as in “We are looking for stories about the gay and lesbian plight” and then writing a story as if that topic were a writing prompt. My teachers always told me to find places for my work as opposed to working for a place to publish. I’m not sure how I feel about either side. I’m sure some writers benefit from working for a place, that they take these requests as inspiration. I’m not one of these writers. I do follow my teachers’ advice in this respect, and to me, the money is not as important as the work and what I get out of it emotionally (not as in writing as therapy but the satisfaction of writing being done and done well). But I also don’t believe that writers that write to make money are automatically bad writers. This seems like a generalization of dangerous proportions, as if we read a writer’s work with this generalization working on us, we may ignore or miss the work the writer has done to present themes or new ways of expression. I believe this applies to genre writing, as academically genre writing is considered just a money-making prospect and never artistically interesting.

Working for an Award

I feel like to some extent teachers are trying to groom students into award-winning writers, which is an earmark for an artist. I’m not sure this is a good idea. Just as I don’t think the money is important, I don’t think the awards are important. Both of these feel like forms of validation to me, like “Yes, you are a good writer because you: a) make money, or b) win awards”. I don’t think this is good for a writer because when they don’t make money or don’t win awards, they think they are a bad writer (which can create a cycle from loss of confidence) or when they do make money or do win awards, they think they are a good writer (which can create laziness or over-confidence). Neither of these things seem to matter to the work itself. I think writers need to avoid assigning these kinds of benchmarks for success. Success is doing the work, completing the work, editing the work, trying to get the work out there. It is not a fixed goal, but an ever moving mark, wherein if a writer is not working, if they think they have “made it”, now they have failed. It makes me think of the end of Goethe’s Faust: Strive! Success is forever improving oneself as a writer and forever working.

But wait, I list my awards on my website and blog. Why? Well, because I am aware of the fact that other people care, and not listing your accomplishments is a height of stupidity. It’s just something I don’t let go to my head. Winning those awards was really nice, but I didn’t write to win those awards. I wrote to win the awards that can only be awarded to a writer by him or herself. The awards I list are side benefits, good ones, I’ll freely admit, but side benefits nonetheless.

Writing for an award may end up limiting a writer, because of all those pesky rules we’re taught (killing your main character, it was all a dream, one name for two characters) and because they will avoid those scenes and subjects (death, murder, suicide, violence, proclamations of love, sex, and bodily functions) mentors and teachers have said are sensational, sentimental, gruesome, or graphic–four words that will guarantee the demand for a rewrite in the classroom. But there was a lot in Blindness (by the Nobel Prize winning writer Jose Saramago) which written with the wrong language could be described with all four of those words. What I mean to say is that writers should definitely avoid overly pathic language, meaning they are basically goose-stepping the reader to an emotion. I think, however, any scene can be rewritten to evoke emotion or present a certain action without falling into the trap of sensationalism, sentimentalism, grotesque, or graphic language. And sometimes those are the scenes that hit home the most with readers.

Blending Art and Money

Out of all the money-makers I’ve mentioned, Stephen King is probably the most artistic of all of them, followed by J.K. Rowling. King is starting to be recognized academically as an artist, I think, mostly because a new generation of teachers is coming in and they all read King for fun and with an open mind. King presents universal themes, makes readers think and feel with most of his work, and plays with language, which are the tenets of higher writing. J.K. Rowling focuses on universal themes and empathetic characters. So while both these writers have made money, I believe they should be taught as “good” writers with “good” writing, because they both did the work. I think, if a writer works not for money and not for awards, but for oneself and the craft, the chances of success at both increase. O’Connor once said writers would write the kind of work they would want to read, and I believe this is the most important part of being a writer: writing for oneself. We should be writing what we want to read because how is writing what others and not ourselves want to read going to make us happy? My interests are so varied. My tone is varied even, when I write. I can’t even stick to just fiction, or even just prose. And this all puts me further away or closer to the artist in critics and readers eyes, but if I want to write a graphic novel, I’m not going to let the idea that graphic novels are not “art” stop me from writing one. If I want to write a romance novel, the idea that it will taint my career isn’t going to stop me from writing one. Don’t let anything stop you from following the work down its every path, even when they are marked “bad” or “poor”, because at the end of the day the most any of us can say is that we tried with everything we had.

 

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Adaptations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Originals and the Remakes

I’m going to use Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Last Airbender, the Harry Potter books and movies, V for Vendetta the graphic novel and the movie, Twilight the book and the movie, and The Great Gatsby the movies and the book as my examples during this post. Please be aware that I will talk about, maybe even show or quote selections to make my points, so please be aware of the possible spoilers.

A Common Idea

The thought is that we don’t like adaptations of narratives we’ve experienced in their original form as presented by the original creator(s) because the experience isn’t the same, yet we still go to see the adaptations because we’re fans of the narrative and want more of it. We can never have a first experience of a story again. Unless we have suffered a head trauma, but this is an unlikely occurrence for most people who discuss adaptations, so forgetting that possibility, let’s just remember that we cannot have the exact same first experience of a narrative ever again. First experiences of anything are unmatched by the following experiences, so expecting a move adaptation to present one with the exact same experience one had before is crazy, an inverse of the definition of insanity (doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results). But there is still a reason to watch an adaptation: it may present one with an echo of their first experience. A shadow first experience wherein we experience the narrative in a different way with possible new surprises and insights.

What Pisses Us Off in Adaptations

Money Making: Harry Potter

When major changes are made, we often feel as though the story we love was misunderstood or that possibly the creators of the adaptation were simply trying to make money off something we loved. This does happen. For example, there are a myriad of changes from the much beloved book series by J.K. Rowling to the film adaptations, such as the loss of S.P.E.W., making Hermione cry in the second movie, and the cutting of the Quidditch World Cup and much the matches that Harry actually takes part in. These can seem like small changes, such as Hermione finding the info about Nicolas Flamel in the first movie as opposed to how it actually happened wherein Harry found another Dumbledore Chocolate Frog card which mentions the creator of the stone. But to fans of the novels these changes often seem pointless. Why didn’t the way it worked in the novels work on the screen? Frankly, I can’t posit an answer to that last example, but the loss of Quidditch, especially in the later movies, and S.P.E.W. seems to be about time. The movies couldn’t be five hours long, mostly because they were staring children and marketed to children, and also because Pete Jackson didn’t direct any of them. But the change that seems to be the most pointless is when Hermione cries in the second movie:

For those of you who don’t remember the novel, Hermione didn’t know what mudblood meant and was more worried about Ron puking up slugs and almost getting in trouble for fighting than she was about whatever nonsense Malfoy was spouting. Why does this change upset me? Because it rewrites Hermione’s strong character to pull on heartstrings. It is the dumbest sentimentalism. Adaptations give us a chance to compare the writing of the exact same moments and what effects they can have on larger themes. In the novel, Hermione’s non-reaction suggests that to her Malfoy invalidates his opinion of her by being prejudice, making Hermione incredibly strong. Or it suggests that language is only meaningful when both parties taking part in communication have the same understanding of the words used, as Ron understood but Hermione did not, rendering the word useless. In the film, we get the old song and dance that prejudice is hurtful. Gee, you’d think the books didn’t cover that in much better and grander ways. The movie version also presents Hermione as the same overly emotional female caricature most cinema presents of secondary female roles. Please Hollywood, don’t step outside the bounds you have set up for gender roles. We wouldn’t want that.

There were other changes in these films that didn’t make any sense, such as how every wizard’s duel ended up in locked wands or the very gross change in the last movie wherein Harry Potter and Voldemort fell off the Reichenbach Falls right after Harry says “Let’s finish this how we started it: together.” I call this gross because at this point it is cliche and only seems appropriate when those individuals falling off the Reichenbach Falls are in fact Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. There is nothing original in that change, so there is no point in making it, when there was plenty about the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort that was original. The majority of changes in the Harry Potter franchise that weren’t based on condensation seemed based on trying to “bank” on old Hollywood themes that were not present in the novels. I won’t say that the movies didn’t suffer under other problems. The novels have one creator from start to finish with little details that hook up beautifully, but the movies had several different directors all with different ideas of the novels (the worst being the third, fourth, and eighth movies and the first two while being the closest to the actual novels were boring beyond belief).

Some have accused studios of splitting books into two movies to make more money, but in the case of Harry Potter and Twilight, I can see how the final novels were two different narratives capable of holding up their own movie. Not so much with the final Hunger Games novel–that seems to be a decision to make money.

Misunderstanding/Missing Themes and the Major Difference between Fiction and Film: The Great Gatsby

Sometimes the change is because ambiguity is so heavy in the original that the adapters have to make a decision that may rub fans the wrong way. The Great Gatsby is the best example. The end of the novel is very unclear as to what happened to Gatsby, mostly because the novel is from the perspective of someone who was not there for his death. There is some debate as to what happened to Gatsby, who killed him, and why. Readers get facts after the event through the eyes of a narrator, who, I argue, is unreliable because of his attempt to excise himself from the story, as if he has had no effect on what happens in his own life and those around him. But a film traditionally shows important events, whereas a book may underplay them or not show them to increase ambiguity as this novel does. Film is a fixed medium, unlike fiction which is unfixed, meaning that a tree in print could mean multiple things to all of the readers of the print, whereas a tree on screen is the same to every viewer (a concept I learned in school of all places). So film which is a medium of showing (trust me, telling in a film is usually the surest way, but not always, to kill the narrative) must choose a fixed interpretation of all events. What a reader imagined a scene to look like, especially by way of sound, pacing, and lighting, will be different than what the fixed interpretation will show. This means that in both adaptations to film (both Redford and di Caprio), the creators had to decide to show exactly how Gatsby died. In the first film, only the camera is witness to the death scene, presenting the idea that possibly this wasn’t true but only one way it could have happened, as there were no human witnesses, but it lacked the extreme ambiguity of not showing the death at all.

The second film has a human witness (the butler) to the death scene, and as such completely loses all ambiguity.

Some may ask where the novel is open to different interpretations at all. Well, it’s strange, but Gatsby has a gunshot wound but is found in his pool floating on an inflated raft. Uh, I’m no detective, but it sounds like Gatsby was moved after he was shot. See Nick’s description from what he pieced together from witnesses and what he saw after the fact:

At two o’clock Gatsby put on his bathing-suit and left word with the butler that if any one phoned word was to be brought to him at the pool. He stopped at the garage for a pneumatic mattress that had amused his guests during the summer, and the chauffeur helped him pump it up. Then he gave instructions that the open car wasn’t to be taken out under any circumstances — and this was strange, because the front right fender needed repair.

Gatsby shouldered the mattress and started for the pool. Once he stopped and shifted it a little, and the chauffeur asked him if he needed help, but he shook his head and in a moment disappeared among the yellowing trees.

No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock — until long after there was any one to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.

The chauffeur — he was one of Wolfsheim’s proteges — heard the shots — afterward he could only say that he hadn’t thought anything much about them. I drove from the station directly to Gatsby’s house and my rushing anxiously up the front steps was the first thing that alarmed any one. But they knew then, I firmly believe. With scarcely a word said, four of us, the chauffeur, butler, gardener, and I, hurried down to the pool.

There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other with little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of compass, a thin red circle in the water.

It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete.

 

Most of my disbelief of Wilson as murderer, though, comes from the chauffeur. As can be seen above, he really worked for Wolfsheim, one the novel’s shadiest characters and someone Gatsby may owe a great deal of money, and says that he didn’t think much of gunshots. Gunshots are not mistakable for anything but what they are, unlike what a lot of fiction would have you believe, so I find it questionable that anyone would hear those sounds and not freak, going “Were those gunshots?!” then run to investigate.

In the first movie, Gatsby’s is shot on the raft and it pops. In the second movie, he is getting out of the pool by the ladder when he is shot in the back (the scene seems overly dramatic–like: LOOK! Tragedy!). What is the theme missing from the movies? How did Gatsby make all that money? It wasn’t in the military (no one makes that kind of money quietly in the military), it wasn’t in business (again where are the products and why wasn’t he in the news?), so that basically leaves war-profiteering or the mob. With all the booze in his house and Wolfsheim in the picture, I vote the mob. Gatsby’s also wasting a lot of money and booze and attracting a lot of attention with those parties, both things that would piss the mob off if he was involved in their business. The mob doesn’t cut people off who screw with their business, they kill them. Why else would Fitzgerald have Nick mention that the chauffeur was connected to Wolfsheim except to cast doubt on how the characters believe the death played out?

Tone: The Last Airbender

The TV show is probably one of the best stories ever told. It’s interesting, well thought out, character driven, original, epic, funny, and filled with tragedy. This is not to say it didn’t have its problems. The second book wasn’t very good and it’s conclusion seemed half-assed and there was some major sentimentalism going on and sometimes Katara was more annoying than anything, but the overall work was amazing and the conclusion to book three/the series finale was amazing. The movie adaption of the first book, however, was so bad I could barely sit through it. It had some pointless changes (the name pronunciations, the firebenders no longer able to create fire, Aang’s reason for running away–if the avatar can’t have a family then how did Roku grandfather Zuko and why would a 12 year old care about such a thing in the first place?) and some people considered it racist (btw, this is meant to be a fake world with different concepts of race though it was obvious that Air Nomads=Tibetan monks, Water Tribe people=Inuits, Earth Kingdom Citizens=Chinese, and Fire Nation people=Japanese–watch it again and notice the similarities mostly in dress and customs). The real problem with the movie, I believe, for fans was the change in tone from TV show to movie. The TV show is hilarious. There is not a single episode that lacks a joke of some kind. The movie is dryer than blackened toast. Ugh. I cannot sit through the whinging. This is supposed to be a movie for kids! Where’s the funny? Changing the tone, more than the themes or how things came about, is possibly the worst change an adaptation can make. Because the tone of a story is the first expectation of the narrative. When I watch new episodes of the series (The Legend of Korra), I expect the same tone as I got when watching Avatar, and guess what, the creators of both series present the exact same tone. So while Korra may never be as epic as Aang, the show still meets my most basic expectations of an Avatar narrative, which is why I think the creators made the new show. They couldn’t let the last thing anyone remembered was that awful movie. Watch the Honest Trailer for The Last Airbender. It really drives home how badly done that move was.

If you never want to watch the show, just understand that the show asks questions that the movie didn’t even come close to scratching, such as can Aang (who in our world would be a Buddhist) kill? Below is the most epic fight (and most epic ass-kicking) and the conclusion to the TV show’s biggest question. Do not watch it if you have not finished the show and are interested in the path to this conclusion.

 

In Their Defense

Adding Plot: Twilight

I’m not going to say that Twilight is a good movie, not by a long shot, but the movie is much better than the book. That’s saying a lot. The novel lacks a plot–at all. There is no inciting incident (moving to Forks has nothing to do with the climax, so it doesn’t count) and no rising action (falling in “love” and discovering Edward is a vampire also does not feed into the climax) and there is no pacing to the narrative. These aren’t the only problems with the novel, but the lack of plot is the most important. The movie fixed this problem by showing the other coven moving towards Forks and killing along the way introducing tension and rising action to the narrative. In the novel’s defense, it was first person and couldn’t show readers the other coven, but this means that it needed another draft (at least) to create a plot of some kind. The reason a movie adaption was able to fix this lack of plot is that movies are almost never first person (only examples that come to mind are Fight Club and Black Swan and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), but third person omniscient. Movies tend to be more open than novels and even plays. They like to follow other characters, show scenes that were only talked about, and go to locations not shown in the originals. This is because of its lack of limits in showing the exterior of a story, but it extremely limited ability to show the interior of a story because of the lack of narration (narration tends to kill movies–think the theater release of Bladerunner) but that is not always the case (Fight Club and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind again come to mind). The traditional conventions of film making made fixing the lack of plot in Twilight easier than it would be to fix it in the novel, which for the most part seems like a long diary entry (we don’t care if Bella marinated a steak). The film industry is also very focused on plot; they know about the major dramatic question (something not taught in most other creative writing genres) and have their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Act guidelines, which can lead to stale writing but typically produces passable plots, which is why most movies are mediocre but watchable.

Taking Out the Corny and Developing the Characters: V for Vendetta

This movie is perfectly done, and there is a reason for that. First off, the movie was pretty perfectly cast (the only fly is when Natalie Portman questions why she helped V–I’m not sure if she’s not committing to the moment or struggling with the accent, but it just seems stilted and fake). Secondly, what they kept and cut and changed from the graphic novel was all for the better. The Ears, Eyes, and Nose parts of the original were just weird, and Evey was a very flat and undeveloped character in the original, so the changes made were needed. In the movie Evey is suddenly someone an audience member can relate to, which for the most part was missing from the graphic novel wherein a reader experienced the narrative instead of connecting to the narrative through a character they could relate to. And there is this awesome scene, which has no equivalent moment in the graphic novel:

 

Sound: All Fiction Examples

This is just something missing from fiction that is utilized, usually quite well, in movies. For example, the soundtracks to V for Vendetta and the more recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby create a feeling of epic-ness or tragedy that can’t be reached with the same level with words. Don’t get me wrong, I think words are one of the most powerful and versatile forms of communication, but music can be even more powerful and have a bigger effect on audiences than words, partially because music can be experienced en masse. One example that comes to mind is the riot at the premier of The Rite of Spring in 1913. Books have caused rallies, but never spontaneous uprisings of audiences. Coupling music with narrative is brilliant as it can increase the feelings desired in the audience ten-fold. Just watch a move/tv show without music and see how absolutely weird it is. But music isn’t the only way sound can create emotion in an audience. Other ways include a quiet scene to create tension (most often used in horror films) or the cacophony of war, which can’t be captured as well in words as it can in actually hearing it. It’s just an advantage that films have over novels.

The Other Theory

There is this thought that whatever form of the narrative we experience first is the one we enjoy the most, as in if you read the book first, you would always like the book more, or if you saw the movie first, you would always like the movie more. I don’t think this is true. I’ve always like more whichever one is better. For example, I read V for Vendetta first, then saw the movie. I love the movie more. For another example, I saw Dreamcatcher first, then read the book. I love the book more, even though I believe the movie is very good. I will admit there may be some audience members who fall to fanboyism and enjoy what they experienced first more, but I believe the discerning viewer/reader will find they like the better version best.

Conclusion

Not all adaptations are bad, and not all the choices made in the process of making an adaptation are bad, but a good number of them don’t have justifications for the changes they made. What is more infuriating is when someone writes a script and this conversation happens:

Screenwriter: I wrote this script. I call it Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine.

Producer: You know what this sounds like: Starship Troopers. Maybe we can get the rights to that. Could you change the names in the script to sort of match up with the novel?

Screenwriter: Sure. No problem!

Then we end up with Bug Hunt/Starship Troopers, which by the way, I’m not even kidding. Bug Hunt existed. Some may say (based solely on the movie) that it’s just another stupid sci-fi novel. Tell that to the United States Marine Corps and Navy who have it on their reading lists (yes, the military branches have reading lists). This is not an adaptation. In the words of Admiral Ackbar:

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Craft of Writing

 

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