An audience will out (and other confusing things).

Recently, I’ve noticed a disparity between films I love and films that receive critical and audience acclaim or which do well at the box office.  What brought this to my attention was that the past several movies I’ve seen in theaters have been with my good friend, and we seem to have a disconnect about what movies are great and what are not.

We saw Bellflower, a quite good indie drama that I thought was fantastically-made if perhaps not specifically “enjoyable” (it had infrequent bits of humor amidst very dark storylines).  My friend thought it was “an hour too long” and annoying.  We saw Transformers 3, which he thought was “pretty good” or “okay” and I thought had two or three mildly amusing jokes amidst two-and-a-half hours of boring and not-very-well-done action.  The only interesting parts of that movie, I thought, were the scenes of melodrama in the first 15-20 minutes when Sam is trying to find and keep a regular job after having saved the world twice.

We watched The Hitmen Diaries, which I believe my friend enjoyed, and which made me depressed at the state of humanity.

And finally, we watched 30 Minutes or Less, which I absolutely loved and which my friend called “a s..tty film.”

30 Minutes hit a low 44% on RottenTomatoes’ critic meter, but scored 68% audience rating, which is 12% higher than Cowboys & Aliens.  I told my friend as we left the theater that “the entire theater was laughing the whole time” and that while the film was certain to earn low box office and be slammed by critics as it already had been, I was certain that many of the people who saw it would love it.  The exceptions, of course, are those who went to “see how bad it is” or for other reasons.

And now comes Mad Men, proof of my theory that an audience will out.  Mad Men began airing on AMC in 2007; it has an IMDb user rating of 9.0/10.  The show took off immediately and has won 13 Emmy awards, 4 Golden Globes and 2 BAFTA awards, with literally dozens more nominations over just four years.

And then came Netflix Instant – the great democratizer.  Netflix recently acquired the streaming rights for Mad Men, making it available to millions of people who had never gone out of their way to watch it before, but now that it’s free and they’re bored, why not?

Let me be clear and upfront: I hate this.  Netflix has taken a show that was viewed and appreciated and loved by a select group of people who had actually sought it out to watch.  I started watching after the first two seasons were released on DVD.  I’ve now seen all 4 seasons.

So it really irritates me that now that everyone can watch Mad Men, all I see on Twitter and Facebook is “Wow, I really don’t like Mad Men.  Don Draper is such an a**hole!”  People who don’t “get” the show are now watching it on Netflix Instant and then going to Facebook and Twitter to complain about it.

The show earns critical and audience acclaim within its select audience, but when it’s opened up to people who don’t appreciate the style of the series, it becomes open season on Don Draper.  The fact is, the show found its audience.  It had it and it earned it and it conquered it.  Even though Season 4 was the worst of the show, when they return for Season 5 in 2012, I’ll be sitting here in my recliner staring at the screen like a… ahem… mad man.

And I’ll probably see 30 Minutes or Less again the week it releases on DVD.

Keeping it real. No, really.

I read for one reason: escapism. Entertain me. Bring me places.  Show me monsters, supercops, magic, the afterlife…you’re the magician and I’m the rube. Pull the wool over my eyes and make me forget about the real world for a small chunk of time. I’ll love you for it.

Just don’t insult my intelligence.

When I write, I follow two main rules: Rule #1 – Just write the story. I don’t get cute. I just tell the story as if we were sitting in front of a campfire. That doesn’t work for everyone; it’s just my style. As a reader, I allow a lot more latitude, because no two writers are the same, and I’d hate to miss out on a great story because someone starts slower than I would like.

And Rule #2 (Now that I think about it, this really should be #1.) – A reader will believe anything if you get the mundane, everyday details right. This means going to great lengths to make sure that your readers never have a chance to say, “Oh, come on. That wouldn’t happen.” It can be practically anything.

It might be one of those conversation where Person A tells Person B that they know something. Person B admits it, but they’re thinking about something entirely different. They both go on and neither one of them says anything to make the other say, “Wait…we’re talking about two different things.”

Or it could be mystery novel where one of the characters neglects to share the single most vital piece of information that will break the case.

Or, that staple of horror, splitting up for absolutely no good reason.

In reality, people just don’t behave like this, and it puts the brakes on what should be a smooth ride.

The most egregious example I can think of is in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I don’t like to constantly harp on Brown’s writing (yes, I do) because he’s obviously doing quite well for himself, but one part in TLS was so unbelievable that I actually dropped the book on the table and put my head in my hands.

*SPOILERS AHEAD* Peter Solomon and his younger sister Katherine are working in a top-secret lab doing top-secret research in noetic sciences (a fringe science, at best, but I’m okay with going with it). No one but their assistant is allowed in this lab. Ever. Peter goes missing (kidnapped by the bad guy) for days. Katherine is worried sick. The bad guy sends a text message from Peter’s phone (we’ve already been told that Peter can’t figure out texting on his iPhone) and tells Katherine to let Peter’s psychiatrist (the bad guy, naturally) into the lab for some reason I never quite figured out.

It’s a book. It’s pretend. I’m fine with all of this, until…

She lets him in without question. Do you think anything good comes of it?

To recap: Secret lab. Brother goes missing. Sister receives text from missing brother, which she knows is completely out of character for him. Still hasn’t spoken to brother. She lets shrink into top-secret lab anyway. Mayhem.

What? In real life, if someone you love goes missing for days, the first thing you’ll do after they send you a text is call them up and scream at them for freaking you out. And that’s if you don’t have a top-secret lab. If you do, your initial response would probably involve the phrase “Are you kidding me?!?” peppered with the business end of a bunch of curse words.

Could Brown have figured out a believable way to get the bad guy into the lab? I hope so. I figured out about ten.

*END SPOILERS*

This is why a writer has a responsibility to ask themselves two questions at numerous points in their work: “Would I actually do this?” or “Would someone else actually do this?” If a writer can answer either of those in the affirmative, it’s probably safe to continue. If not, rewriting is necessary. Either kill it altogether or be creative and make it believable.

Keep it real.

keep your gun clean

null

image by Pedliano

A well-written story, whatever the form, is always armed with a battalion of guns – Chekov’s guns, that is. The rule of “Chekov’s gun” says that if you’re going to fire a gun in a scene, you need to show it hanging on the wall or laying on the table a few scenes earlier. In other words, set-up your pay-off.

Set-up is the flesh of a fulfilling story. Set-up gives purpose to your plot twists and keeps your pay-offs from being contrived deus ex machinas. If your clumsy janitor has the keys to unlock the generator and keep the building from exploding, your climatic ending will be far more fulfilling if the audience learned earlier in the story that the janitor had a key ring. As opposed to having the janitor suddenly burst out, “Oh, I forgot, I’ve got this key I’ve been carrying around in my pocket – let’s try it and see if it works!”

While putting your gun on the table a few scenes beforehand will do worlds for making your story sound, I’d like to suggest that sometimes putting the gun on the table isn’t enough. You need to clean it, have someone’s mother complain that it’s not in the cabinet where it should be, or carry it to another room. Maybe it gets used to shoot a squirrel off the bird feeder. In any case, don’t just drop it on the table – work it into the story.

Some elements can be set-up and left to explode like a bomb without any further involvement. But many elements could stand to be cleaned, exercised, and used – to be ground into the story. Many a poorly-written movie will toss out a bit of information early on in the story (usually in the form of contrived dialog) so that they can pull on it later in the film. In the 2009 Astro Boy, we learn during a revealing conversation that Cora has parents in Metro City. This dramatic tidbit is not mentioned again until her parents waltz onto the scene at the end. The information doesn’t even appear to have a significant effect on Cora’s character or motivation.

Scenarios like these do set their gun on the table before they fire it, but the element is so drastically underdeveloped that the entire sequence feels contrived and lacks impact. The pathetic set-up is tacked on and then completely forgotten until the information suddenly becomes important in a pay-off that is only a heartbeat away from deus ex machina.

How much more fulfilling would it be if our gun played a roll in the story that was more significant than wall décor? Using the example of our clumsy janitor again, instead of just giving him a key ring to carry around, let him use the keys once or twice for other purposes. Maybe they even get him in trouble because he accidentally locks someone in their office. Develop the janitor’s asset so that when he saves the day by unlocking the generator, it’s fulfilling, not convenient.

image by Mar Estrama

Of course, you can take it too far. The audience is intelligent. They don’t need a character to explain “This is a gun”; they also don’t need to be beaten over the head with the object. The audience will remember what you set-up – but they’ll enjoy it a lot more if it’s creatively woven into the story rather than tacked on to soften a deus ex machina.

After all, a good rifleman keeps his weapons in good condition so they don’t malfunction or misfire.

Keep your gun clean!