Saturday, December 23, 2017

Subverting Expectations AKA A Writer's Defense of The Last Jedi

Scott D. Parker

While Star Wars: The Last Jedi might not be a mystery or crime film, there is something we storytellers can learn from the kerfuffle that has arisen since the film’s release last week.

No matter the medium—books, TV, movies, comics—we consumers enjoy stories. And if the stories are serial in nature, many of us enjoy dissecting every detail to discern some greater meaning. One of my favorite things about watching the TV show “Lost” in real time was the water cooler chats the day after each episode aired. Me and my office pals discussed in great length every shred of evidence from the episode, crafting in our minds what a shot of a book might mean. Then, the following week or later in the series, we might get answers. Sometimes those answers matched our expectations; other times the answer were not what we had crafted in our minds.

But we were not the storytellers. We were the consumers. We read or watch what the creators create.
When it comes to genre, certain tropes come along for the ride. If you’re reading an Agatha Christie mystery, you know you’ll get interesting characters, all the clues, all the evidence, and a chance to solve the mystery before or alongside her detective, be it Poirot or Marple. If you are reading an Elmore Leonard novel, you know you’ll get snappy dialogue and criminals who are self-aware. If you’re reading a western, you’re going to get a gunslinger, a corrupt cattle baron, a beautiful woman, and a horse with some character. If you’re watching a rom-com, you know you’ll get the charming leads, their funny fiends, and a situation that’ll put them together.

Creators of these kinds of stories know this and plan accordingly. As a beginning writer, we are all instructed to know the genre in which we’re writing and put in the tropes readers expect. We call them obligatory scenes. Take romance. Here are the must-have scenes in any romance: the leads are introduced separately, the leads meet, the leads solve a problem together, a situation arises in which one lead questions the relationship, the break-up scene, the realization scene, and the getting-back-together scene. It’s a roadmap readers and viewers come to expect, but it’s a gifted creator who can play with those tropes and present them in a fresh way, maybe even subverting audience expectations along the way.

Star Wars is not only a science fiction series (with all of those tropes) but it brings in its own set of tropes unique to the franchise. All those tropes were in the first movie, now forty years old. You know them because you’ve absorbed them for four decades. Farm boy with dreams of adventure has adventure land in his lap. Evil galactic empire after a small band of rebels personified in a princess. Lovable rogues who help the farm boy. Wise mentor who sacrifices himself so farm boy can escape. The plucky band of rebels attacks the “small moon” of the Empire’s base and destroys it. And, taking a cue from the second film, a big revelation that the bad guy is actually the farm boy’s dad.


Back in the early 80s, we spent three years wondering if Vader spoke the truth. Some of my friends didn’t think it was possible; others thought it was the truth. Either way, when Return of the Jedi debuted, we got our answers directly from George Lucas’s movie. I suspect there was some grousing from a certain sector of fandom, but there it was, out in the open.

Up until 2017, we had seven numbered Star Wars movies and one off-shoot. All but one (Empire) arguably played from the exact playbook. Every movie showed a big thing to destroy, a lightsaber battle, lovable rogues, earnest heroes, bad villains, and robots that made us laugh. Like almost every Perry Mason TV show episode, the Star Wars movies all but lulled us into a routine. As good as Erle Stanley Gardner was as a writer, when you picked up a Perry Mason novel or tuned in to the TV show, you knew exactly what was going to happen. There is a certain comfort in that knowledge. I understand it, but every now and then, isn’t it more interesting to have a creator take a left turn when you were convinced, through repetition and constant reinforcement, the creator was going to take a right turn?

Now comes Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Viewers have had two years to ruminate over all the details of The Force Awakens. I think most of us did exactly the same thing when we saw that 2015 film: put the new characters into the positions of the legacy characters. Rey was the new Luke, Poe was the new Han, Finn was the new Leia (more or less), Snoke was the new Emperor, and Ren was the new Vader. After watching that movie, we were convinced we knew exactly how The Last Jedi was going to play out because we had seen it all before.

But writer/director Rian Johnson did something we writer/creators should have the guts to do every now and then: show us something different.

(Spoilers start here, by the way.)

If Johnson had simply remade The Empire Strikes Back with The Last Jedi, complete with a bunch of shots we fans had been conditioned to expect, most of us might have been happy, or at least comforted. Oh, there’s Luke’s X-Wing under water? Well, then, we expect to see Luke lift the craft out of the water just like he couldn’t do in Empire. Johnson likely considered it and then made a different choice and likely for a specific reason: Luke’s a Jedi Master. Of course he can lift an X-Wing. Why do we need to see it? Much speculation was made about Rey’s parentage. Based on the past movies and the internal Star Wars tropes, she just had to be Luke’s daughter or Kenobi’s granddaughter or something like that. Johnson likely thought long and hard and realized there was a better choice to be made. He made it.

And, lest we forget, Disney signed off on it. Disney: one of the biggest trope machines on the planet, but a company who is willing to change things up every now and then (Wall-E, Up, Inside Out, Ratatouille).

So Star Wars fans are up in arms that the latest movie didn’t go along with the established Star Wars pattern. What did they get instead?

Well, they got a story that did not conform to established patterns. Isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t you have liked to have seen Perry Mason lose, at least once? We got a movie from a gifted writer who made the conscious choice to go against expectations and not service every whim of the fans. We got a refreshing film from a director with a certain point of view. Arguably, we got the most unique Star Wars film since Empire.

In short, Rian Johnson subverted viewers’ expectations.

And I loved it.

I have always contended that the best time to be a Star Wars fan was from 1977-1980. You see, up until Vader revealed himself to be Luke’s father, the Star Wars galaxy was wide open with thousands of stories to tell. Afterwards, it’s merely a family saga. The galaxy got very, very small.

Luke Skywalker goes to great lengths to liken the Force as not belonging to just the Jedi but to everyone in the galaxy. I think the negative reactions to the film are largely from a cadre of fans who think Star Wars is theirs and theirs alone. Every movie since the original trilogy has been made for the die-hard Star Wars fan, complete with callbacks that only we’d know.

The Last Jedi, with writer/director Rian Johnson, has gone to great lengths to shed the franchise from many of the shackles it has carried through the decades. It was a brave choice he made to write a movie that went against almost all the audience expectations, but how neat is it to leave the theater not really knowing how Episode IX will play out.

It’s refreshing.

The galaxy is, once again, wide open.

As is our tradition here at Do Some Damage, we are taking some time off. New posts resume on 2 January 2018. Thank y’all for coming back day after day and reading what we have to say, and have a fantastic holiday season!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

That Writer

by Thomas Pluck

Are you one of those writers who shrinks like a salted slug when someone asks you about your writing?

Let me put on my Andy Rooney eyebrows and ask Why is that?

We should be proud of our work, not ashamed. Maybe we're anticipating those cliche questions?
Are any of your books movies?
You must be rich, right?
I've got a great idea for a book, want to go fifty-fifty?

Perhaps, but I think some of it is that stereotypical self-deprecation, the impostor syndrome, and general shyness. We shouldn't be shy. One of the best books I've read on the writing business was Intent to Sell by Jefferey Marks. It seems to be out of print, but you can get similar advice from Lawrence Block in his Liars series of writing columns, which begins with Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, or David Morrell's Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing. Or you can ask Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross:

Always Be Closing.

How can you expect people to be excited about your books if you're loathe to talk about them? Of course, you can go too far and become That Writer, who only talks about themselves, their books, abandoned story ideas, interrupting every conversation to link it to their backlist, preferably with an Amazon link pasted afterward. Don't be them. But there is a lot of space between being enthusiastic about your work and being a boorish ass. Jeffrey Marks had some advice I'm not sure I'd recommend, like Vanity license plates that say you're a writer, bumper stickers, and so on. He doesn't tell people to do things like put your book facing out at Barnes & Noble, stick your business cards in books of famous writers in your genre, and leave copies of your book in indie bookstores for people to find and bring to the register, like lost treasure, so the owner will exclaim "Why, I don't carry that book! And you want to buy it? Perhaps I should order two gross, even if it's not returnable and is only printed by an affiliate of a corporation that wants to sup on my bone marrow!"

Those are bonehead moves. What you want to do is have a relationship with local bookstore owners and employees, preferably as "that local author who is always supporting us on social media and buying books at our store" so when it comes time to schedule an event, they might squeeze you in even if the odds are you'll be reading an excerpt to your mother, some weirdo from high school who wants to lock you in his crawlspace, and the local crank who wants to ask why your books don't talk about chemtrails brainwashing us. I mean, we all have to start small, and if you stick around and are pleasant to deal with, your chances of survival go way up.

But I digress. This is going to sound like I have a lot of health problems. Thankfully they are minor. But my dentist, podiatrist's assistant, and dermatologist are all avid readers. So is one of my drinking buddies at the local watering hole. We all talk books when we cross paths. More about authors we both like, such as James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Stephen King, and so on. And of course once they know I'm a writer, they ask a little about what I write, and I mention it. They've all come to my book events. Because now they know a writer!

Yeah, I'm no Lee Child. But they are happy to know me and talk about what's coming out next, and spread the word to their reader friends. And how did I find this out? Even here in New Jersey, people ask how you've been, what you've been up to. And you can say "nuthin'" or you can say, "I had a book signing last week and I was pretty thrilled at how many people showed up. How about you, go anywhere nice lately?"

And after they tell you about this little place in Barnegat with the best fried clams, they might say, "you're a writer? I love James Patterson. What kind of books do you write?"

Now here's the closer. Do not froth in a rage about the self-blurbing one-man industry! Even if they ask if you loved The DaVinci Code, this isn't the internet. People are allowed to like things you don't! Now don't suck up and lie, either. I haven't read Patterson, but I did read Angels and Demons which I thought was pretty ridiculous, but I saw the appeal. When I visited Rome, all I could think of was the priests Dan Brown murdered in overly complicated ways, so there's something there. My answer?
"I write crime thrillers."
\"Oh, like The Godfather?"
"Well I did work down at the port with some guys who were on The Sopranos, and there are some mobsters in my latest book. But they're the bad guys."

And there you go. I didn't say, "Pshaw! Li'l old me? I scribble a little, nothing you've heard of!" or "Patterson? That hack?! My undiscovered genius is worth ten times his ill-gotten fortune!" or "I don't write that kind of garbage, if you want to read some real noir you should read my story collection The Nun's Puppy Was Beaten to Death With Nazi Dildoes."*

*coming in February from BloodNoir Press.

If you've met me, I have a confession to make that will elicit laughter.

I'm an introvert.

What? Tommy Salami? The guy with the beer in his hand bloviating about Krav Maga moves is an introvert?!

Yeah, really. I got better. I trained myself to talk to people. People are scary. They want to know all about you and sometimes they say mean things, and the leading cause of death in humans is other humans. Admittedly, I used booze to make that easier in the beginning, which is an expensive and possibly dangerous solution to social interactions. But in the end, I learned that when people ask you about writing, most are genuinely interested. Sure, some will be jerks about it, or ask the dreaded questions, or make you feel small compared to Gillian Flynn or Jodi Picoult. So what? That's what people who've accomplished nothing do, bring other people down. You'll have to deal with them in your life anyway, might as well learn now.

So happy holidays, and when your relatives ask about your books, guilt them into buying twelve! Make them tell all their friends. Tell your pedicurist while she's sawing off a callus. I came this close to telling my proctologist when I woke up during a colonoscopy, but the the drugs were too good. And I got to see the video, so I know what it looks like to have my head up my ass... and I'll keep trying not to act like it.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Dark Christmas

It's surprising - or maybe it's not - how many Christmas movies have a dark tone.  What has become the standard Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life, certainly explores some grim areas.  Everyone has their favorite dark Christmas films, and here's a few I enjoy.  I always like watching these while drinking egg nog laced with rum, but it goes without saying that you can nix the rum in that blend and substitute your liquor of choice.

There's Allen Baron's 1961 film noir, Blast of Silence, an austerely beautiful low budget gem about a hit man on an assignment in New York City during Christmastime.

Christmas season figures as the background to Syndey Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, and the film culminates in the great, tense scene played out to carolers singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".

There's no bleaker Christmas season movie than Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. A fraying marriage, sexual frustration, the complications and setbacks that come with finding the right gift - when did Christmas ever seem so hard to get through?  A slowly unwinding bad dream of a movie.

Last but not least, and on the lighter side, there's Christmas Tales from the Crypt style. This is the full ...And All Through the House segment from that 1972 British anthology film directed by Freddie Francis.  Poor Joan Collins. She has one hell of a night before Christmas.

Enjoy the holidays...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Winston Churchill, in the Movies and as a Daring, Young War Correspondent

By BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives -

With a certain dynamic, charismatic Englishman showing up in the cinema at the end of this week, I thought I’d ask a friend of mine what he thought about the resurgence of interest in one of history’s greatest leaders and what shaped the man who rallied a nation. Simon Read is the author of Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent.

Simon started out the same way I did, as a newspaper reporter (we met while covering crime for competing papers). Simon then turned to true crime, writing several fantastic books in that genre. Then came Winston. Before he became the epitome of the elder statesman, he was a daring journalist who covered multiple wars. Didn't know that? Then read on . . .

Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s finest hour, rallying Great Britain to carry on its solitary struggle against Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940, is getting the big screen treatment this month in Universal’s “Darkest Hour.” Churchill is a man frozen in time: forever the determined war leader with the bulldog scowl and ever-present cigar. The image has become so pervasive, the man’s almost been rendered a caricature—one that overshadows his stunning achievements and true depth of character.

In today’s troubling political climate, Churchill can seem something of an aberration: a politician who spoke the truth regardless of the political cost, who put country before party, and who torpedoed his career multiple times to do what he thought was right. That’s not to say the man was without fault. His views on empire and the superiority of the English-speaking peoples are painfully outdated today. But there was never any question as to where Churchill stood, good or bad.  He is, when compared to many of today’s leaders, a tonic.

He viewed his life prior to becoming prime minister at the age of sixty-five as a prelude to his greatest challenge.  “I felt as if I was walking with destiny,” he wrote in his memoirs, “and that all my life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” But what forces shaped him into the man he ultimately became? I think his most formative years were those he spent as a war correspondent.  Between 1895 and 1900, Winston Churchill emerged on the world stage as a brazen young journalist and author, covering wars of empire in Cuba, India, the Sudan, and South Africa. In those far-flung corners of the world—reporting from the front lines—he mastered his celebrated command of language, discovered the joys of a good cigar, learned to love the pleasant burn of strong whiskey, and established his reputation for courage and his enthusiasm for armed conflict
He always sought out danger and thought little of his personal safety, so convinced was he of his destiny.  I have faith in my star—that is that I am intended to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother at the age of twenty-three from one battlefield.  “If I am mistaken—what does it matter?” He was even more forthcoming several months later in a letter home dated Dec. 22, 1897. “Bullets—to a philosopher my dear Mamma—are not worth considering,” he wrote. “Besides I am so conceited I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending . . . I shall devote my life to the preservation of this great Empire and trying to maintain the progress of English people.”

Throughout the various campaigns in which he served as both soldier and journalist, he was nearly hacked to death by ancestors of today’s Taliban, took part in one of Britain’s last great cavalry charges, and escaped from a POW camp and slogged hundreds of miles across enemy territory to freedom. He wrote bestselling books and penned numerous articles, firmly cementing his bona fides as a man of words and action. His experiences allowed him to better empathize with the fighting men on both sides—a trait that would define his attitude towards wartime leadership: “In war: Resolution. In defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill.”

His adventures as a war correspondent, more than any other, shaped his complex feelings on war. His reporting taught him how to relate the battlefield experience to everyday people. As prime minister, he would use to his advantage what he knew of war to convey to the British public in Shakespearean tones the horror and glory of their most desperate hour.

As a young man, he had told his mother he believed he was one day destined to save Britain and its Empire. In that dark summer of 1940, Churchill found himself in his element.

A former newspaper reporter, Simon Read has always been fascinated with Winston Churchill’s time as a journalist. Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent is the first book to solely address that period in the unforgettable Englishman’s unforgettable life. He doesn’t consider it a biography or a work of history – although it contains elements of both. It is, instead, a true tale of adventure featuring Winston Churchill in the starring role. When writing the book, he described it to friends as “Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones.” For more information, historical photos, and maps, visit Simon can also be found on Twitter at @simonreadbooks.