Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Do’s and Don’ts of Great Storytelling

(As seen by a gamer)

1. The Love Triangle is no Bermuda – Think if you will the greatest love stories you’ve ever read, seen, or heard; now how many of them were love triangles? Love triangles are the foundation of the old romance novels, the ‘bad boy’ and the ‘good one’ fighting over the heart of the heroine. As romance novels modernized the locales and stories might have changed but the Love Triangle remains, Twilight anyone? It’s why Uncharted 2 touches upon it, by the device of the ‘bad girl’ being the old girlfriend. If there’s one thing no story wants to be, it is tired and cliché and quite frankly the love triangle does just that.

2. Many characters make weak stories – If there is one thing you learn when you watch Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, it’s that too many ingredients muddy the taste of even the finest ingredients. It’s the same thing with characters. When’s the last time you played a game with multiple heroes that had a good storyline? If you answered Borderlands 2, let me remind you of Borderlands 1. Great story begins with laying the foundation. It’s hard enough to do when you only need to focus on a single character, but put three or four in the mix and things get dicey. It’s not to say that it can’t be done, but the challenge is an order or two of greater difficulty.

3. Romance or Something A Lot Like Love – We sing about it, we read about it, we talk about it; humans and love are inseparable. So too then are Story and Love. A great story just isn’t the same without a great love. Chief and Cortana, Drake and Elena, Shepherd and EDI, Joel and Ellie; love doesn’t have to be romantic to boost the emotional level of the story. Kirk isn’t romantically involved with Spock, Benson isn’t in love with Stabler, or Holmes with Watson; love in any of its forms tends to transmute a story to be more than the sum of its parts.

4. Stick to your guns - Nothing tears a story down quicker than cowardice by the writer. It’s understandable; as humans were constantly in fight or flight mode when disputes arise. A writer will either kowtow before the pressure or go down swinging. Constructive criticism is good for any writer but ask comic books fans how well writing by committee works.

5. Pull the trigger – With apologies for two straight gun clichés, nothing is more irritating that a story running away from plot threads. You see it a lot in lesser stories. A plot thread will come up that is vaguely interesting but the writers take forever to develop the plot. Red John in The Mentalist is a prime example. Take too long and the excitement and emotion that you’ve built up just turn to dust. Eventually even the scariest or funniest idea becomes mush from too much time out in the sun.

6. My Kingdom for a Villain – And you shall be known by the quality of your enemies. A hero is only as good as his villain; too often tragically bad villains tarnish a good story. A villain always needs to be at least as well written as the hero.

7. Make me laugh – There is a signature moment in True Blood, the HBO vampire show, where a villain goes on live television after ripping out a man’s spine and bathing in his blood. It’s utterly shocking and horrific, and yet the first reaction of long-time viewers is to laugh. A long-time viewer knows that the villain is hamming up his actions to appear as horrifying as possible to provoke the humans into war negating the peace the villain wants destroyed. No show, no matter how good, can keep the tension up for an entire episode, humans don’t have that kind of concentration, it’s not our nature. The more serious the subject matter the more the audience needs to laugh. Django Unchained did it better than anyone else I've seen in recent memory.

8. Don’t lie Lucie, you’re going to take the football away – The world is sometimes beautiful and sometimes it’s rotten to the core, but nothing kills a story quicker than lies. A lie doesn’t have to be spoken, it sometimes reveals itself in actions that don’t fit a character you’ve built from the ground up, it can be a story that takes the easy way out of a hard situation; it shows itself it many ways but the audience will always know when it’s happened. 

9. Trust the Silence – No matter how fast paced and frenetic a story, you must respect the quiet times. Without these calms before the storm and the eye of the hurricane there would be no great action scenes. In short to enjoy the action, a story must have the calm and peaceful times as a background; the sun never looks so golden except after the storm.

10. There is no conspiracy, just a good old-fashioned Old Testament shindig – Conspiracies happen, or perhaps more accurately there are times when men and women get together to plan a venture, but most times in history things happen because people are ruled by their passions for the good and the naught. 

11. Show Don’t Tell – The audience is smarter than they’re often given credit for being, and even when they're not a few of them will spell it out for the rest. Therefore it is incumbent on the writer to let them discover the world being built before their eyes. Oftentimes with bad stories authors get into the habit of pointing to the ‘great’ plot point and thus ruin its effect. Like a magician’s trick, the audience is always better off discovering the truth of the magic trick themselves, because even once discovered the memory of the path to discovery will soften the blow of already knowing the trick. In short even a ‘merely’ good story can be great if the audience discovers part of the story themselves; show don’t tell.

12. The Whiny Hero – I’m not quite sure when it happened by I’ve noticed lately that the whiny hero is becoming an ever more prevalent crutch. Rather than write the difficult hero transformation, authors are turning to the hero’s angst to prop up character development. Let me say first that good character development is hard to develop and depending on how a character is initially developed, there can be few possibilities for a good writer to choose. However, nothing trips up a good story quicker than a hero or heroine that grates on your audience. A prime example of this is Revolution. It was a show that looked mildly interesting to me from the start but was saddled with a heroine that the writers clearly didn’t know what to do with. The first season is over, and the season reviews are pretty consistent in the fans having the same opinion. Whatever path a writer takes in developing a character they need to be sure to stay away from the trap of the whiny hero.

13. Death: The meaningless and the sacrifice – Death happens in stories, where there is conflict there is the possibility of death. Removing it from a story makes the story weaker, but the greatest trick is to make your audience fear the possibility of death without killing any characters off; two examples of death and story come to mind. By now most everyone has heard about the infamous Red Wedding in the Game of Thrones television show. I’ve made no secret I found the books wandering and oddly pointless but that’s for another day. The Red Wedding is a scene where four main characters are killed for no reason. There’s no end goal, no truth or justice, or any real meaning behind their deaths; they simply irritated a crazy man. The second example of character death is Joss Whedon. Whedon is famous for killing off main characters in both his shows and movies. Sometimes his characters will sacrifice themselves as in Agent Cole in Avengers and sometimes his characters just killed like Wash in Serenity, but always his message is clear, no one is exempt from death. I’m never a big fan of using the death of a character to shock people, on the other hand character death tends to lend meaning to the conflict being portrayed, in short real life is messy and people die even when doing everything right. In my opinion that’s why the Red Wedding doesn’t work, pointless death becomes trivial after a time, if there’s no message attached to a characters death there is no longer shock of the moment and death becomes meaningless. However death is used or not used, the message it sends must be clear.

14. Don’t be predictable – There is nothing as boring as a story where the ending is known to the viewer beforehand. A reread book is one thing, but a predictable story can turn even the most interesting characters into spam meat. For the example let’s look at the tale of two Sherlock’s. Sherlock by the BBC is widely regarded as one of the best interpretations of the legendary Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. CBS has its own version aptly named Elementary, after the signature phrase of Holmes. Series 2 of Sherlock ended with a scene while mildly shocking was entirely predictable, on the other hand Elementary ended the first season with a two-part finale that was one for the ages. Elementary took the century old tale and tilted it on its axis, while Sherlock merely updated the story. While it can be argued that Sherlock is still the better show, Elementary left an indelible mark on its audience and is likely to be long remembered for it. No matter how good a story, don’t be predictable.

15. Speech, Speech, Speech – Once upon a time, Kevin Spacey used to be famous for his speeches, every movie he was in seemed to have at least one long monologue by the character he played. Video games on the other hand are still using the silent protagonist. While it's no longer as common as it once was, it rarely works very well anymore. There are many great voice actors in the industry besides the handful of famous ones, there's no reason that we still need to be chained to the silent protagonist.

16. Forget the Kitchen Sink – I don’t know who coined it but westerners have a term ‘throwing the kitchen sink’ at a problem. It means to throw any and all solutions at a problem to see if it works out as a solution. That might be a good idea in a spaceship, but in a story the kitchen sink is the last gasp death rattle of a story. Using the kitchen sink approach and expecting it to work is the same as buying a lottery ticket expecting to win. There’s no problem with taking a different road when the story is currently in trouble but when choosing a different path choose one and stick with it. Nothing hurts a story quicker than wishy-washy writing.

17. Don’t ignore the flow – Have you ever been having a quiet conversation with friends, and then someone joins in and starts talking loudly and expressively. It’s awkward, and depending on the person and conversation it can be difficult to retake the balance. In a loud party that person would have been perfectly at home, but in this particular instance it throws everything out of wack. Don’t ignore the flow in a story, more times than not I’ve seen a great story disrupted because a writer just had to tack on a section that didn’t flow well. Sometimes it’s largely unavoidable, but oftentimes the section feels contrived or extraneous even when the information imparted is valuable; don’t cut against the grain of the wood.

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