Tuesday, July 5, 2016

"Typical" Writing

A couple of recent conversations and a video on YouTube reminded me of less-than-helpful comments writers sometimes get on their work, and things to avoid while writing, so I decided to discuss it a bit here.

One of the conversations covered a number of writing-related topics, and the other was more about a nonsensical suggestion one of my friends received on a manuscript she's been working on. The video was one of YouTuber Archengeia's "ruminations" on the Star Trek movies -- specifically, Generations.

It's a thorough and entertaining analysis of the movie, as are his other videos on movies, games, and TV series. I've learned a lot about writing from watching these, so if you're interested in becoming a writer or improving your techniques, these videos delve pretty deeply into things that work and things that don't.

In the above video, one of the points Archengeia discusses is being a "typical writer" -- the term being applied to him in a derisive manner. As in, "You're just a typical writer because [insert bullshit here]." In this case, it's not writing something unexpected that makes him "typical." He goes on to explain why it's not a bad thing, and I find myself agreeing because I tend to see my writing much the same way.

This all reminded me of a suggestion I got on one of my novels, which was to kill off a couple of fairly major characters because it would be a "gut-punch" for readers. And that was it. Okay, so, it'd be a gut-punch. So what? What would you actually do with it? What would be the point? Shock value isn't enough. It's got to happen for a reason. And in this case, there really was none, other than shocking the readers with the sudden deaths of two major characters.

Leaving aside the purely nuts-and-bolts problems this would cause -- having to rewrite the entire back half of the book because those two characters continued having a big role in the story -- I have a few other issues with pulling a stunt like this.

This is just my opinion, but I don't think a character death should be done lightly. A major character shouldn't be killed off just for the sake of killing him/her off. Shouldn't be done just to shock the readers or audience. If it's done, it should arise naturally from the events unfolding in the story, there should be a point to it, and it should move the story forward, not just cast a pall over everything following it.

We need only look back at Generations to see an example of a character death happening just for its own sake and serving no real purpose. It wasn't necessary to kill Kirk off, but if you absolutely have to do it, there are far better ways than what ended up in the movie. As Archengeia said, it would've been more effective if it had happened in the opening segment -- Kirk saves the Enterprise, the energy ribbon zaps the section he's in, and that's that. It was a powerful moment in the movie. A gut-punch that, to me at least, didn't need to be there, but was still an effective scene. It would've had a lasting impact on the rest of the characters, had the movie stayed with them rather than skipping ahead seventy-eight years to the Next Generation crew.

But then Kirk reappears near the end of the movie, when Picard meets him in the Nexus. When Kirk dies, it isn't the kind of death a character like him deserves. If you absolutely have to kill off Captain Kirk, you should at least come up with a fitting send-off, not just shoot him in the back (his original scripted death, before it was rewritten and the replacement scene was filmed) or drop a bridge on him. It doesn't affect the story except to cast a shadow over the final few minutes. Kirk and Picard meeting and working together to stop the villain should've been awesome. Their initial meeting was one of the best scenes in the film, but the way it ended after the fight with Soran was just anti-climactic and a huge bummer.

But maybe a writer wants to make the audience aware that anyone can die. Well, some ways of doing that are more effective than others. Serenity has a major character death near the climax of the movie, and makes it work even though it comes out of nowhere. It raises the stakes, makes viewers worry that most or even all of the remaining characters will die (which is something that happens fairly often when the protagonists make a last stand), moves the story forward, and will have a lasting effect on the survivors.

The best example of a good character death that springs immediately to my mind would be Star Trek II. This is among the points Archengeia discusses in his analysis of that movie, by the way. It makes for a good contrast between the two approaches to killing a character off.

The plot led up to it, it made sense, and it was a heroic death. Spock knew how to fix the engines, knew that something had happened to Scotty, and didn't even hesitate. He traded his life for the lives of the crew -- most of whom were trainees in their early twenties or even younger. It was also a turning point for Kirk. It forced him to face something that he'd been cavalier about during most of his career.
"No. Not like this. I haven't faced death. I cheated death. Tricked my way out of death. And patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing."
If you're going to kill off a character, that's how you do it.

Contrast that with, say, Transformers Prime, which took the "anyone can die" trope and ran with it. As much as I love that show, it had its share of flaws, and this is one of them. Several characters were killed off in their debut episodes. The very first episode had a character who was a pretty major role in previous iterations of the franchise, and he was whacked within the first five or ten minutes. It affected the other characters for a very long time afterward, but for the audience ... well, for me it was, "Oh -- well, um ... that happened." It would've been more emotional for the audience if he had stuck around long enough for us to get to know him.

Several other characters cacked it over the show's three seasons, and most of those deaths were kind of pointless. Many more interesting stories could've been told with those characters, but nope, they were killed abruptly when they had only just begun to become interesting.

Another example that comes to mind is one of the deaths in Mass Effect 3. Granted, that's only one issue among dozens in what passes for a "story" in that game, but there's one character death in particular that just didn't have to happen. They weren't backed into a corner. There was a rather obvious way it could've been avoided, but instead of setting the death up in a way that couldn't have been dodged (and would've made sense, which much of the story did not), they just plowed ahead. I won't go into too much detail because I'm already dealing with that story in a series of videos I'm putting on YouTube and I'll get into the matter there. I'll just say here that, when I get to that point in the story, the scene will probably make me cry because I really like that character ... so yes, it's an emotional gut-punch -- but only on the surface. Because once you start thinking about it, it's little more than the death happening just because the writers decided it should happen.

And to bring it back to the suggestion I was given for my novel ... while killing off the two characters would've been a shock to the readers and maybe made them worry how many others would die ... we're only about halfway into the book by that point, if not less. With so much farther to go, it's not likely that many more would be killed off between there and the end. It's too early in the book to think about raising the stakes, and it would've served no real purpose. As mentioned above, it would've necessitated a rewrite that would've changed a huge portion of the second half of the book. Not only that, but it would've changed the tone of everything that followed, and would've been way too much of a downer in a story that already had its share of dark moments.

Also, if too many characters are killed off too rapidly, sooner or later it'll either lose the effect you're going for, or your readers will end up being completely turned off and stop reading. As a reader, I'd never be able to enjoy something like Game of Thrones because, from everything I've heard about it, it just seems like an incredibly unpleasant experience. If I started reading it, I'm pretty sure I'd get frustrated or depressed and just pull the ripcord.

As a writer, I try not to kill off any main (or secondary, or even tertiary) characters unless there's actually a point to it. It's got to benefit the story, not happen just because it's "unexpected" (which, to me, sounds like "just for the hell of it"). When it's done right, for the right reasons, it can be a really powerful moment, which is why I think it should be used sparingly. If that makes me a "typical writer," then so be it.

So ... I don't want to say there's a right way and a wrong way to write a story, because when it comes to writing, I'm not really sure there is such a thing. I'm just offering my perspective.

There are, however, approaches that work better than others.

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