Try A Roadside Chat

Has the following ever happened to you? You’re outlining your next masterpiece, the script/book that will take the country by storm and cement your legacy as one of the finest writers of all time. You know how the plot will unfold and fit together, and how it will end in a way that will leave your readers and viewers in awe at your command of the written word.

Then you start to work on your characters, and realize that you have no idea who these people are.

Desperate, you try a few exercises: you write out incredibly detailed backstories that detail your character’s childhoods, their outlook on life, and their favorite flavor of chicken nuggets. When that fails, you try writing out an interview with your characters to know them better. You imagine that they’re a minute away from being eaten by a giant lobster, and find what it is they regret the most from their lives, and what they’re the most proud of.

Yet, nothing works. Your characters remain elusive; they’re shadowy forms within the ether of your imagination, blobs that are just out of sight. What do you do?

How about talking to them in the middle of the forest?

Lately, I watched an episode of Jim Henson’s ‘The Storyteller,’ where a princess’ brothers are turned into ravens by a wicked witch, and the only thing that can change them back is if she doesn’t speak a word for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. While living in the woods, she eventually meets a handsome prince traveling through, who spends some time talking with her and introducing himself. In a little under thirty seconds, we learn that he’s a prince, and that despite only knowing her for a few minutes, he’s madly in love (are we sure this isn’t a Disney story?), and that their love is true.

There’s more to the story, like how the princess keeps popping out babies despite having them get swiped away within a day, how she’s almost burned as a witch herself, and how one of her brothers becomes a half-raven, half-human mutant, but I was ruminating about how the prince had introduced himself. Not because it was a beautifully written scene or featured lovely acting, but because it was an interesting idea for writing:

If you want to figure out what the core of a character is, pretend that you only just met them besides a forest path while they’re on a journey. Have lunch with them, during which time they introduce themselves to you, explain who they are, and where they’re going before they resume their quest.

Think about this: If you’re having lunch with a stranger, the two of you likely aren’t going to stay together for long before going your separate ways. No matter how riveting you find each other, you’re not going to spend your brief time together giving each other your life’s story, your dreams, or how many Pokemon you’ve caught in the forest while playing Pokemon Go. You’re going to stick with the big stuff: your names, your professions, where you’re going, and what you hope to accomplish. Let’s try a few examples:

“I’m Roger, junior deputy from the nearby town of Windy Willow. A prisoner escaped on my watch and ran through here recently; since this is my first assignment, I need to catch him before he escapes into the wilds, because if he gets away I’ll be fired and have no way to feed my family.”

“My name is Ser Galbadon, royal knight of his Majesty King Arthur. A fearsome dragon has taken up residence in a nearby mountain; as his Majesty’s most experienced knight, I am on my way to slay the foul beast, even though I’m old and not as strong as I once was. Still, I shall see my task through to the end; would you care to join me? Our country and our king needs you!”

“Look, I’m Sarah and I’m in sort of a rush; a meteor is racing towards Earth and I have to get my family into my underground bunker. Problem is, they’re fifty miles away, and I only have a day to get to them! No, I can’t help you capture Pikachu! I’m sorry you and your folks are going to die, but there’s nothing I can do to help you. Now, I have to go! Good day!”

In less than a paragraph, we learn what each character wants, the obstacles in their way, and what will happen if they fail, far more useful information than what their childhood was like, their hobbies, and the like. Those are extras, bonuses that can revealed during the story; what you have here is the core of them, the thing that drives them, and that can be invaluable when it comes to learning who your characters are.

The next time you’re stuck trying to figure out who your characters are, try chatting with them during a break in their journey; you never know what new things you might learn about them!

Please Call Your Senators and Representatives To Save Youtube

What’s this? A political post on a writing site?! Blasphemy! But before you unsubscribe and turn away, I ask you to please humor me for five minutes, as this affects everyone who enjoys Twitch, Youtube, and other video-sharing sites.

This week, the US congress must pass an Omnibus spending bill to keep the government open. Unlike so many other bills that die in either the House or the Senate, this bill must be passed. But hidden within it are three proposals that could devastate Youtube and other video sites.

Snuck into the bill are three proposals: The CASE Act, the Trademark Monitization Act, and, more importantly, the Felony Streaming Proposal, introduced by Senator Thom Tillis. This proposal, if turned into law when the Omnibus bill passes, would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material a felony, which means anyone doing it could face five years in prisons, fines reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or both. This means that every single person on Youtube who posts any material that isn’t theirs – even if it’s only a few seconds of a song for a meme video– could have their lives ruined.

Yikes.

Now, I’m not pointing this out because I’m in favor of people being able to post whatever they want on Youtube and Twitch; entire movies or albums shouldn’t be uploaded by anyone other than the copyright holder, but the Proposal would be a death warrant for people who stream Let’s Plays of video games, post any footage from a video game, or take clips from films and TV to turn into memes, as well as posting short clips for the purposes of analysis, critique, or review (which are allowed under Fair Use, but the Motion Picture and Music industry will abuse the hell of out of this Proposal if their previous track records are any indication). All the clips I post here on this site would have to go, which means no more Favorite Moments, Perfect Moments, Favorite Background Characters, and Scenes from film and TV in general.

Simply put, this bill is a draconian, no-mercy proposal that doesn’t take the intricacies of video sites into account. It’s an all-or-nothing approach, and while Mr. Tillis claims that it will not affect individual users, I call bullshit. His bill – and the other two – were snuck into the Omnibus spending bill without the public being informed. He knows that the public would erupt as it has in the past with other copyright reform bills (remember SOPA?), and tried to get it into law without being debated and passing both houses based on its own merits, as any bill in a democratic society should be. The fact that he created this bill shortly after getting massive donations from media companies further suggests that he does not have the public interest in mind.

With all that said, I’m asking all of you in the US to please take ten minutes out of your day to call your representatives and Senators in congress and demand that they remove all three bills from the Omnibus bill. Let these proposals pass and fail based on their own merits, instead of being attached to something else in secret like a parasite. You can find their contact information here and here, and here’s a small script that you can follow when you call them:

‘Hello. My name is ________, and I’m calling from_________, to ask Senator/Representative ____________ to please oppose attaching the CASE act, the Trademark Monetization Act, and Senator Thom Tillis’ felony streaming proposal to the Omnibus spending bill. While I believe our copyright system needs to be reformed, these bills should be discussed and voted on based on their individual merits, and not attached to must-pass legislation.

Thank you’

Furthermore, please spread the word on all your social media accounts. Let as many people know about this as possible, and what they can do. Feel free to copy and paste this text if you’d like. Here are a few links that go into more detail about the Proposal if you’d like to include them as well:

Link 1

Link 2

Link 3

The industry has tried these sort of tactics before, but because enough of the public demanded that Congress stop, they were halted. We can do so again, but only if we take action immediately; according to various news reports, the Omnibus spending bill might be unveiled today, Tuesday the 15th. That leaves us with very little time, but we must still try. Copyright law needs to change and adapt for our complex, digital society, but not in secret, and not like this.

Great Quotes About Writing: Survivors Aren’t Fearless

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

***

‘Sigourney Weaver is such a great actress. I love how unlike some “women” (I used quotes because they don’t really seem that human , just “perfect”) in film, you really believe her terror but at the same time really see her in that adrenaline rush and just doing everything she can to survive. Those are my favorite types of characters in horror/thriller films in general. Their not made of stone with no sense of fear, but they also don’t sit around weeping and waiting for the killer to get them. These characters are terrified and can barely think or move, but they dig as deep as they can into their primal survival instincts and they just do what they need to do to survive.’

David Ganderson, commenting on Ellen Ripley’s escape from the Nostromo in ‘Alien’ (emphasis mine)

Not much to add here: This is one of the best summaries of suvivor characters I’ve ever come across, and a reminder that even a character who is brave and works to save themselves can still be scared out of their minds.

Perfect Moments: There Are More Of Us

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

***

The Movie:

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

The Moment:

Why it’s Perfect:

Like many people, I didn’t like the Star Wars sequels. While I’m still a fan of the series, I can’t see myself watching episodes seven, eight, and nine in the years to come, save to review them as part of a series-wide, ‘what we can learn from’ marathon. Yet, despite their many, many problems, they do have their fair share of great moments, and possibly the best one of all takes place in Episode 9, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’

In the scene, the Resistance, having launched a desperate attack against the Final Order, are on the verge of defeat. Their ships are being blown up, they’re outnumbered by almost 1,000 to 1, and are on their last legs… and then Lando Calrissian arrives with the biggest fleet in Star Wars history, and the fight finally turns against the Final Order.

What’s so perfect about this scene isn’t that it’s one of the most spectacular shots in the Star Wars saga, but what it represents: throughout the entire series, the regular people of the Star Wars galaxy have relied on the Republic, the Rebellion, and the New Republic to fight their battles for them against the Seperatists, the Empire, and then the Imperial remnant. For decades, the galaxy has suffered from war after war, conflict after conflict, and all of it orchestrated by one man: Emperor Palpatine. And now, despite every desperate attempt to stop him, he’s on the verge of ultimate victory, and if he wins, he’ll be unstoppable and destroy everything that could possibly stop him.

But not if the good people of the galaxy have anything to say about it.

For the first time in the Star Wars series, the regular people of the galaxy, the beings who just want to live their lives in peace, put all their differences aside and unite to fight Palpatine directly. They aren’t relying on the government to save them. They aren’t relying on a rebellion to do their fighting for them… They’re going to do it themselves.

And so, faced with the destruction of everything they know and love, the free people of the galaxy, defying all attempts to stop them, to intimidate them, and frighten them into submission, rise up against Palpatine and his egomania, his threats of terror, his lies, his delusions of godhood, and declare with one voice that they have had enough. And against the backdrop of the most triumphant rendition of the Star Wars theme ever recorded, they go to war. And while the battle has not yet been decided, there’s no doubt that the people aren’t going to let everything they hold dear go down without a fight.

The Best Background Characters: Floppy Hat Guy

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

***

The Movie:

‘Jaws’

The Character:

A guy in a white hat who’s way too happy during a shark attack.

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 2:15 at the bottom of the screen, and at 2:18 on the far left)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

Humans are weird creatures. When faced with catastrophe, disaster, or the wrath of a man-eating shark, you’d expect people to be frozen in fear, frozen in shock, or being one of the few brave souls who charges in to save others.

What you don’t expect is for someone to be having the time of their lives, as one beachgoer does in 1975’s classic, ‘Jaws’.

The fellow in question, a mustached man with a white floppy hat, charges into the water with other adults when the shark attacks poor Alex. But unlike the adults who are trying to get the kids out of the water, Floppy Hat Guy just frolics about with the biggest, dopiest grin, nonplussed at the terrors of the deep turning him into Purina shark chow.

Naturally, one wonders what this man’s story is. Is he high on drugs? Mentally challenged? Secretly in love with the idea of flaunting danger? Getting a thrill out of seeing kids get eaten? Of course, the real answer is that he’s played by an extra who was probably just really happy to be in a movie, but that’s nowhere near as much fun as watching a guy having fun when surrounded by death and sharks.

The Murderer Made It In?!: The Importance of Avoiding an Afterlife Only For The Elites

If you were like most kids who watched Star Wars growing up, you fantasized about going on adventures with Luke, Han and Leia, exploring the galaxy’s many worlds, and chilling out in Han and Chewie’s sky house (or was that just me?). And at the end of your days, you would pass from the physical world and become a force spirit, where you could hang out with your best friends forever and become super sparkly!

But would you, really?

While kids (and many adults) fantasize about living in the Star Wars universe, a strong case can be made that it’s a terrible place to live, especially since it’s in a state of constant warfare, ensuring that you have a high chance of dying a terrible death, but there’s one aspect that’s rarely discussed:

The afterlife in Star Wars is unfair.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try a thought experiment and pretend that you’ve a typical person in the Star Wars galaxy who has just died:

Opening your eyes, you realize that you’re dead. That sucks, but you were prepared for it; after all, you lived a nice, long life. While it wasn’t exemplary and didn’t have any impact on the galaxy at large, or even the planet you lived on, you were still a good person who tried not to hurt anyone, admitted when you made mistakes and tried to make amends, and were generally someone who enriched the lives of the beings that knew you.

Now you find yourself standing before a great, multi-colored ocean. Without anyone telling you, you realize that this is a physical manifestation of the Force, a place where everyone goes after death. That sounds pretty fair… but then you hear the Force itself telling you that your ultimate fate is to enter and become one with it… but in the process, you will lose your personality, your memories, your sentience, and essentially cease to exist.

Wait a minute! You say, That’s not fair!

The Force doesn’t care. You’re just one being out of untold trillions. Tens of trillions of beings have entered the Force before you, and tens of trillions more will come after you. It’s a fate that has already affected your parents, your deceased relatives, friends, and your beloved childhood pets. By becoming one with the Force, they no longer exist.

You scream that it isn’t fair! Isn’t there any chance of not being dissolved?

Yes, the Force says. About ten beings have died but preserved their consciousness and become immortal.

TEN?! You yell.

Yep. And all of them were members of a religious order that was barely known by the galaxy at large… Oh, wait. Another one has just arrived!

You turn around to see someone at the edge of the ocean, but they’re being embraced by a beautiful, glorious light shining down from above. But who is it? You squint, trying to see who had earned immortality when you didn’t. And then you see that person’s face, and all your faith in justice and mercy is shattered forever, for it’s Kylo Ren, leader of the First Order, the monster who killed your parents and family when he raided a planet two years ago.

Why does he get to be immortal and not me?! You scream.

Because I made him force sensitive, the Force says, and he was very sorry at the end of his life that he murdered billions of beings.

Before you can say anything more, the Force suddenly drags you into itself, where you dissolve into cosmic goo and are erased forever.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren high-fives Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Yoda, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, and the other lucky immortals.

None of them pay you any heed.

Harsh? Yes, but what you’ve just read is an accurate summary of how the afterlife in Star Wars works. If we only go by what we see in the movies, everyone who dies in the Star Wars universe becomes one with the Force. Exactly what happens to the individual themselves is not specified, but they apparently become part of a larger whole, like a drop of water entering an ocean, losing their personality, their memories, and everything that makes them, ‘them.’ However, there is one way to avoid that fate, and not get turned into non-sentient cosmic go. How does that happen?

1. Be born force-sensitive.

2. Be fortunate enough to join the Jedi Order.

3. Be fortunate enough to learn secret teachings that only a few Jedi know.

4. Spend the rest of your life not turning to the Dark Side.

4B. If you do turn to the Dark Side, repent at the very last minute.

5. Become a Force spirit when you die.

6. ???

7. Profit!

That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But there’s just one problem:

If you’re not born with the ability to use the Force, you’re screwed.

It doesn’t matter how you live your life. It doesn’t matter if you were devoted to destroying evil, helping space-orphans, or blowing up space-orphans in space-orphanages with their space-doggies mookas; you’ll be absorbed into the Force upon your death and cease to exist. And it’s not just you who suffers this fate, but all of your loved ones, and everyone who wasn’t chosen by the force to have the ability to sense it. Think being eaten by a sarlacc was bad? Imagine spending a thousand years being digested alive in unimaginable agony before finally dying, only to immediately be erased from existence instead of being reunited with your loved ones who have passed on before you, meaning that being tortured every moment of every day for a thousand years was all for nothing.

The longer you think about the implications of this, the more horrifying it becomes: Luke, Leia, and Anakin may have achieved immortality after their deaths, but they will never see their non-force sensitive friends or relatives again. Shmi Skywalker, Padme, Han, Lando, Chewie, Bail Organa, Uncle Owen, and Aunt Beru are doomed to be dissolved, or have already been dissolved. It’s amazing that Leia and Luke didn’t have a complete mental breakdown upon realizing that Han had died, and it’s no wonder Anakin was so desperate to save his wife after losing his mother.

And then, to twist the knife even further, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ ends with Ben Solo, the leader of a fascist empire, a mass murderer, emotional abuser, and willing follower of the Dark Side, gain immortality. In a truly rage-inducing moment for everyone who believes in decency and justice, the official novelization of the film has a line where Ben feels the Force reaching for him in welcome as he dies, all because he felt sorry for being the worst human in the galaxy since Palpatine and Anakin. The Force will happily grant a mass murderer immortality while consigning everyone he slaughtered to oblivion. It’s a disgusting perversion of justice and turns the Star Wars universe into a hellhole where only a chosen few who were gifted at birth have any chance at immortality, and everyone else have no chance of achieving the same thing, no matter how hard they try. And this isn’t wishful thinking; according to the Star Wars wiki, only force-sensitive individuals can become spirits:

“Not only was preserving one’s consciousness reserved for the Jedi, but also for users of the light side not affiliated with the Order.”

Damn.

When you realize how horrifying and unfair the Star Wars afterlife is, it becomes obvious that writers shouldn’t make their fictional afterlives favor elites and those with advantages they didn’t earn, condemning everyday people to oblivion or worse, all through no fault of their own. It’s cruel, sadistic, and once your audience realizes that, their view of your fictional universe will forever be tainted. After all, who would want to lose themselves in such a place, much less read about it? (though to be fair, an exception could be made for the purpose of social commentary, but that still won’t be enjoyable reading).

We must be fair when creating our fictional hereafters; If they must be grim, where the possibility of being dissolved or erased exists, then make sure that everyone has an equal chance of avoiding such a fate. If our characters have to earn their eternal existence, have them all know what must be done, make that information readily available, or make it so that the process is fair and applies to everyone (such as making immortality available to the compassionate and kind, but not the cruel and sadistic). Someone’s social standing or membership in an obscure organization with only a few hundred members should have no bearing on if they get to have a happy afterlife or not.

If writers make our afterlives fair, our audiences will be more willing to endure the trials and tribulations our characters will go through if there’s a chance they will make it to the great beyond, than if that possibility is denied to them. And to that end, let’s take another look at what the afterlife of the Star Wars universe might be like if it were fair:

Opening your eyes, you realize that you’re dead. That sucks, but you were prepared for it; after all, you lived a nice, long life. While it wasn’t exemplary and didn’t have any impact on the galaxy at large, or even the planet you lived on, you were still a good person who tried not to hurt anyone, admitted when you made mistakes and tried to make amends, and were generally someone who enriched the lives of the beings that knew you.

Now you find yourself standing before a great, multi-colored ocean. Without anyone telling you, you realize that this is a physical manifestation of the Force, a place where everyone goes after death. That sounds pretty fair… but what comes next?

That’s up to you, a voice tells you. It’s a voice you recognize as the Force itself. You may become one with me, or you may remain an individual as long as you wish.

What happens then? You ask.

You’ll become a force spirit and can visit the physical realm, you’re told. You can interact with your loved ones, as well as go anywhere and see everything. Nothing can harm you, and if you ever tire of such an existence, you may join with me and become part of a greater whole. And if you tire of that, you may live again.

Sweet! You say. I think I’ll become a force spirit for now.

As you wish, the Force says.

Good choice, someone tells you. Turning, you find yourself face to face with the legendary Anakin Skywalker. And not only him, but his son and daughter, his mother, and many others you’ve heard about: Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, and so many others, all welcoming you to your new existence as a force spirit.

Hey guys, can I join?

You turn and scowl. Kylo Ren, the murderous tyrant and leader of the First Order, walks up, having recently died. But before he can say another word, he’s suddenly yanked into the ocean and dissolved; while he was sorry for being a genocidal egomaniac with self-esteem issues, and did bring one girl back to life, that wasn’t enough to grant him the right to choose how he wants to spend his afterlife. Thus, he becomes one with the Force, much to the relief and satisfaction of his billions of victims, all of whom are now spirits who go spend time with their families in the world of the living.

Glad to see that little twerp get what’s coming to him, you head off back to the physical world to see how things are going. Watching the sunrise on Coruscant seems like a good place to start. And as you materialize on the top of the planet’s tallest skyscraper, a nice spirit named Beru appears beside you, offering you a glass of spectral blue milk to welcome the day.

As we can see, this scenario seems much more fair and just. Death is supposed to be the great equalizer, which pays no heed to one’s wealth, social class, or beliefs. We shouldn’t be afraid to make that true when it’s time for our characters to head to their final rest.

No Explosions, No Gun battles, and No Multi-Million Dollar VFX budget: Writing Your Book Like It’s A TV Episode

Recently, I came across an article on io9 about the future of Star Trek films, and a comment written by was a lengthy discussion on what course a hypothetical film should take. The whole comment is a great read, but these two parts jumped out at me:

‘2) follow ST:IVs “no gunfights, no explosions” rule, and that forces the story to find ways to challenge our characters in ways that let them express their character…

6) No gunfights, no explosions. I really want to stress this, because Star Trek doesn’t generally do action well. Even when the effects are great, you have to come up with weird contrivances to explain why Kirk needs to skydive or why Picard needs to take the dune-buggy out. TWOK, arguably the most “action oriented” of original films, doesn’t have much action, and the space battles are very much in the vein of Horatio Hornblower in spaaaaaaace: they’re slow, they’re about positioning and about the crew working together, about tricks and strategy. Which isn’t what audiences really expect, so hell, for our first outing, just don’t. Sci-fi action these days is supposed to look like Marvel movies, and you aren’t making a Marvel movie. Don’t try. Minimize the action beats, to make room for character and wonder.’

Can you imagine that? Writing a science fiction movie that doesn’t rely on explosions, actions, or gunfights? Such films are so common these days that it’s sometimes hard to find ones that don’t feature them. And the longer I thought about it, the more genius the idea became.

Picture this: You’ve been chosen by a major entertainment corporation to write the screenplay for your dream story. Even better? It’s your favorite genre! You finally have the chance to tell that war story, that monster movie, or finally bring your grade school masterpiece, ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ to the big screen!

But then the studio tells you that you have a tiny budget. Like, really tiny. Think, ‘TV Budget’ tiny. Because of that, you can’t have any explosions, any gunfights, or fancy visual effects in your story (a few miniatures and matte paintings are okay, but that’s it).

Can you write your movie under those constraints?

Now, take that same principle and apply it to a novel: Can you tell your story without explosions, gunfights, or sequences that, if adapted into a television show, would cost too much to make?

Looking at our work with this mindset may seem like a disadvantage, but it can work out in our favor: We’ll have to focus on characters, their motivations, and their relationships with each other. They’ll have to use their wits to overcome the obstacles in their path. They’ll have to talk more. Any fights will be with their fists and melee weapons, and not with miniguns and plasma rifles. Battles will be limited to maybe a dozen people, and everything takes place in apartment buildings, deserts, and parks conveniently located within ten miles of the LA area.

While it’s easy and fun to write scenes that would be impossible to film, there’s just one problem with that: if your magnum opus is ever published, Hollywood might pass on turning it into the next big blockbuster movie if the price tag is going to be over $300 million. But if your magnum opus could be turned into a movie that could be made for under $50 million, they just might give it a shot.

Consider the following:

*Instead of your epic space saga about aliens destroying the universe with massive fleets that engage in battles that destroy entire solar systems with a single blast, it’s now about an unarmed scout ship trying to find a way to stop the alien fleet before it arrives.

*Your epic, alternate-universe 1940’s WW2 movie that involves giant monsters and robots is now about two soldiers sneaking behind enemy lines to escape hostile territory and only face one monster at the end (that could be portrayed by a guy in a suit on a green-screen set).

*Instead of ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ following an epic war of thousands of Unicorns slaughtering armies hired by evil corporations who want to bulldoze Sparkle Forest and turn it into a sewage refinery, it’s now about two villagers trying to find the one unicorn (who turns out to be an anthropomorphic unicorn that could be portrayed by someone in robes and a mask) who could stop the evil corporations, and have to fight their mercenaries using bows, arrows, and knives in sneak attacks at night.

These three scenarios take unfilmable movies and instead turn them into focused character studies. Any action or big events happen sporadically and briefly, and aren’t the main focus of the story, giving our characters more time to grow, interact, and endear themselves to our audiences, who will become more emotionally invested in their adventures.

For all the fun it is to write books and stories about impossibly huge armies, futuristic societies, apocalyptic scenarios, creatures that defy description, and Michael Bay explosionfests, it might be worth trying to write on a budget. Books let our readers use their imagination to bring the impossible to life, but sometimes having limits can help us narrow, focus, and zero in on what’s really important in a story, and help it reach its full potential.

‘The Force Awakens,’ ‘Underwater,’ and the power of Expanded Universes To Enrich Your Story

Note: This post contains spoilers for the 2020 thriller, ‘Underwater’

The year is 2015, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ I sit back in my seat, mulling over the first live-action Star Wars film in over a decade, my mind full of questions, so many questions, and few of them good:

*Where did the First Order come from? How did this group that’s supposed to be smaller than the Empire (and possessing a fraction of their resources) get more advanced ships, weapons, and a galaxy-killing planet?

*What’s the political state of the galaxy? How has it changed in the thirty years since the end of ‘The Return of the Jedi?’ Is the New Republic struggling? Has it been successful? Is it on the verge of becoming an empire itself?

*How did Maz somehow get a lightsaber that tumbled into a gas giant, ensuring that no one could possibly retrieve it?

*Why, when faced with a new fleet of space-Nazis, does the New Republic dispatch such a pitifully tiny group to fight it? What happened to all the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers we saw in ‘Return of the Jedi’? Shouldn’t a galactic government have the means to defend itself?

These questions left me frustrated because the film had no interest in answering them. Even more frustrating was that to get answers to many of these questions, I would had to buy tie-in novels, visual dictionaries, and encyclopedias to get answers that should have been in the movie in the first place.

Fast forward to 2020, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Underwater,’ an underwater horror-thriller (and the final film released by 20th Century Fox before being rebranded by Disney) in which drillers and researchers struggle to escape from the bottom of the Marianas trench while being attacked by fearsome underwater critters. While you won’t be able to remember the character’s names or any witty dialogue a week later, it’s still a satisfying and enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes. Later, I look online to satisfy my curiosity at any interesting behind-the-scenes trivia and read a few articles, including one promising a major revelation about the big monster who shows up at the end.

A few minutes later, and I’m blown away: It turns out that the big monster in ‘Underwater’ is none other than Cthulhu himself, the most famous character from HP Lovecraft’s fictional mythologies. In an instant, ‘Underwater’ goes from a generic creature flick to a movie about humanity’s first encounter with unspeakably powerful gods who could easily wipe humanity out without any effort.

Since reading that Cthulhu is the main monster of ‘Underwater,’ I’ve come to realize that the movie does one thing ‘The Force Awakens’ failed to do: use its expanded universe not to explain an incomplete story, but to enrich it.

For those who are unaware, expanded universe material is any secondary publication outside of a movie, television, book, or video game that further explores the world and characters of that story. Star Wars is the most famous example, with hundreds of novels, video games, and comics released over the decades that explores its fictional universe, but it’s now common for blockbusters and other big franchises to get expanded universe material of their own.

However, there’s one important thing to remember: Expanded Universe material is meant to enrich and enhance the franchise it’s a part of, not explain away problems that should have been addressed in the original movie, book, video game, comic, or TV show. ‘The Force Awakens,’ tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there are substantial gaps (such as the ones mentioned earlier) that require reading said dictionaries and novels to understand.

Conversely, ‘Underwater,’ is a complete, self-contained movie that uses its expanded universe material to add another layer of depth that’s not in the film. The first time you see it, ‘Underwater’ is about scientists and drillers trying to escape underwater monsters. The second time you see it, it’s a movie about scientists and drillers trying to escape from a demigod, who’s just one of hundreds who have come from a place outside of time and space, all created by an insane god who could destroy everything if it wakes up. Our protagonists live in a world where gods are real, and none of them are our friends.

Yikes.

What does that mean for writers? When we write our stories, our audiences should get all the information they need from following our works instead of having to consult a wiki to understand what’s going on. While it’s fine to leave some mysteries and teases of a larger world in our stories, it’s important that those mysteries don’t come at the expense of the main story, and when a viewer has to do research to understand a story, that story needs help.

Try looking at it another way: Your story is a gourmet dish, and the expanded material is the sauce. If your dish is missing several ingredients, the sauce can’t salvage it. But if your dish is well-made, the sauce enriches and adds onto it, elevating the dish to something truly magnificent.

Great Quotes About Writing: Do the Best You Can With What You’re Given

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

***

‘I think the idea of midichlorians is a lot better than the “anyone can be a Jedi” trope that The Last Jedi tried to push. That’s not the way the world works. Some people are born more smart or talented than others, but it depends on what you do with what you’re given. There’s heroes in the Star Wars universe without high midichlorians that still did great things and others like Anakin that had talent that he wasted. “Do the best you can with what you’re given” is a much more empowering and realistic message than “You can be anything you want to be” ‘

LandoMT, commenting on ‘The Six Levels of Midichlorians Density‘ (emphasis mine)

So often in stories (and real life) we’re told that we can be anything we want if we push ourselves just a little harder, study a little longer, and keep going when everyone else gives up. It’s a cliche that will never die. But what if your character realizes that they can’t fulfil a dream because, no matter how hard they try, they will never have the skills or the talent to make it come true? The shock of that, coupled with searching for another dream, and then adjusting to work on that one and finding satisfaction in it, can be enormously satisfying because of the conflict the character has to go through.

Great Quotes About Writing: Winning Without Punching

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

***

‘I can’t think of a single other superhero movie right now where the real superpower that saves the day is the protagonist’s ability to convince other people to Do the Right Thing.

Of all the major confrontations in the flick, Peter is either at a disadvantage, or loses. He never wins via punch. He convinces Harry to tell him where Octavius is. He convinces Octavius to sacrifice his life to save the city. He wins over a train car full of New Yorkers. He convinces MJ to attack Octavius at the last minute. He convinces freakin’ J. Jonah Jameson that Spider-Man is a hero.

We need more heroes like that, and fewer heroes who save the day by using billion-dollar tech and magic rocks to vaporize their enemies. Yeah, you heard me. F*** Tony Stark and Spider-Holland. Long live Spider-Tobey.’

, commenting on ‘Spider-Man 2 Is a Perfect Sequel‘ (emphasis mine)

With superhero movies having saturated cinemas for the past decade, we’ve gotten used to expensive fight scenes, explosions, and magical artifacts being used to save the day at the climaxes of those movies. But as 2Lines1shape points out, perhaps the best heroes in fiction aren’t the ones who can punch through planets, control reality, or can blow things up with their minds.

The best heroes – superpowered or not – are the ones who inspire other people to be their best, to help them do what they can with their own abilities and gifts, and even save themselves, both physically and morally, characters like Superman, Atticus Finch, or Samwise Gamgee. They seek not to glorify themselves, but to extend a hand and invite us to join them in greatness.