April 27, 2016
Not for real. I would never set Barry and Kara against each other because they are total BFFs. But I want to compare the season 1 finales of each show, because I think they offer a really a great lesson in tension, suspense, and how to maintain those things in fiction.
The lesson: A great way to increase tension in the story is to make sure the main character and the audience are on the same page, pointed in the same direction. A great way to destroy tension is to put the character and audience at odds.
I’ve talked before about the first season finale of The Flash: how an episode that is basically people talking the whole time had me at the edge of my seat, emotionally engaged, and brought enough tension to be nerve-wracking. I think part of how it accomplished this is by keeping Barry and the audience on the same page, asking the same question: Should he travel back in time to save his mother or not? Barry spends the whole episode on that question, and we’re right there with him until he finally pulls the trigger on the action and it all comes to a head and we all learn the answer at the same time.
Now let’s talk about that Supergirl season finale. The big action scene in the last half of the episode had an actual ticking clock, so the tension should have been thick, right? Time’s counting down, only a few minutes left to save the world, yikes! So why were my friends and I yelling at the TV and bored and frustrated? I think it’s because we weren’t on the same page as the characters. We weren’t asking the same questions, we weren’t pointed in the same direction.
The episode: Kara and Alex fight, but Love Conquers All, and Kara goes on TV to tell everyone that Hope saves the day, and Myriad is defeated, except it isn’t because Non and Co. have now set it to destroy the brains of everyone on planet Earth and Kara must dump Non’s HQ into space, which is likely a suicide mission and everyone knows it. So she goes around to tell everyone how much she loves them because she thinks she isn’t coming back, then she fights and kills Non, dumps the thing into space, Alex saves her (yay!), the end, cliffhanger.
Just like The Flash finale, this episode features a whole lot of the main character going around having heartfelt conversations with the most important people in her life. How interesting, I thought, that both these episodes are mostly the main character talking to people. Especially because I think The Flash episode succeeds massively, and the Supergirl episode, well, doesn’t.
The problem? The doomsday clock is already ticking when Supergirl goes around having her heartfelt conversations. This means all I could think about was “Holy shit why are you wasting all this time talking to people, the clock is ticking, Earth is doomed, stop stop stop go fight Non ARGH WHY ARE YOU STILL TALKING.” And then she lies to James about how she really feels again, which is a whole other issue. Then she gets to crashed Fort Roz and it’s the same thing. “Don’t fight Non why are you stopping you have like three minutes left just drop him in a hole and come back for him later ARGH.” This scene that’s supposed to be super tense and exciting was just completely frustrating. Because the character’s goals did not seem to line up with where I thought her goals really should logically have been lined up. She’s wasting time, running down the clock so we can have a nail-biting finish because the plot says she’s supposed to, not because it makes sense.
Why did the Flash episode get away with all the talking? There was no ticking clock. Barry had control of the action, which wouldn’t start until he said so. Him going ahead with the action was the answer to the question we’d been pondering that whole episode, and he could talk as much as he wanted before pulling that trigger and we’d go along with him.
I find it fascinating that the episode with the literal ticking doomsday clock was dull, while the one where the characters spend the whole time talking about whether they should do the thing was so gripping.
I’ve talked about this before, regarding a book I read where the viewpoint character had a Deep Dark Secret that the reader didn’t know about. I believe this was done to increase the tension, to make the reader keep reading in order to find out what the secret is. But this doesn’t actually work, because what really happens is the reader gets so damned frustrated not knowing something that’s a key part of the viewpoint character, that instead of being drawn in, the reader is pushed away. The character has their story — keeping the secret, pursuing goals, doing their thing. And the reader is on a different vector entirely: what’s the secret? The character and reader are at odds. But if the reader just knew what the secret was, then the reader becomes invested in the character’s goal: keeping the secret. Whom can the character trust? Whom will she tell? What will happen if anyone finds out? Those questions will keep us reading much more happily than wondering what the secret is.
I would have been much happier, much more engaged with the story, if Kara had behaved at all logically, and didn’t spend pretty much half of her ticking clock scenario talking while Earth is in danger.
How to fix the pacing on that Supergirl episode: After stopping Myriad (she thinks), she can have those talks with people. “When I thought I’d lost you I felt all these things and want to tell you how much you mean to me,” etc. etc. As these conversations progress, a problem becomes apparent: they all have raging headaches, and they’re getting worse. Kara runs back to HQ, “Something’s very wrong!” Yes, and here’s what it is, we’re all about to explode unless we can get the giant ship into space or something. We have 20 minutes, but our solution might kill you. Doesn’t matter, Kara zooms out to the thing because she only has 18 minutes now. Non and Indigo are there to stop her. She doesn’t immediately confront them — all she has to do is get the thing, right? But they insist on fighting her. So it’s a two-pronged battle, of her trying to get away from them while also trying to get the thing, until she finally stops to kill Non. Clock’s still ticking. Climax and finale ensue. Ta da!
And by the way how is it that Superman is always going into space with no ill effects and for some reason it’s a really big deal whether or not Kara can go into space?
April 18, 2016
I gotta get this off my chest:
So The Flash, Arrow, and Supergirl have all made passing references to Opal City now. This is a DC universe thing. Each hero has their own city, right? Batman is Gotham, Superman is Metropolis, Arrow is Starling City, Flash is Central City (which is nothing like Central City, Colorado, alas), and so on.
Opal City is home to Starman.
The only superhero comic I ever followed with any sort of devotion, that I actually own the first 60 or so issues of, was the 1990’s run of Starman by James Robinson and Tony Harris. I picked up the comic because the art was beautiful — art nouveau and art deco inspired, streamlined and colorful. Basically, completely different than the hyper-steroidal messy/gritty Leifeld-style art in every other comic at the time. And the story was great: Jack Knight is the younger son of Ted Knight, who in the Golden Age was Starman. Ted is an old man now, and he really wants Jack to take up the cosmic staff and become the next Starman. (Me, interested in families of superheroes and the generational issues involved? Who knew!) Jack runs an antique store/junk shop. He doesn’t really want to be a superhero. Until he does.
At this point, after this many references to Opal City on the TV shows, I am desperate for more allusions to the Robinson Starman run. Like, I am agonized for them. I mean, we don’t actually have to go to Opal City (though that would be awesome). I don’t necessarily need Starman himself (Jack or Ted) to make an appearance (though that would be AMAZING). But I want something. A character stops by an antique store run by a punk-looking guy named Jack. Star Labs consults a gray-haired physicist named Ted Knight. A mere glimpse of the cosmic staff in someone’s stash, in a box with a return address of Opal City. I want my own personal Starman easter egg, with a big sign saying HERE YOU GO, CARRIE, ENJOY.
(Apparently, Robinson has a great deal of control over what gets done with Jack Knight/Starman, which means I’ll probably never get that easter egg. But I live in hope.)
April 13, 2016
First thing: here’s the link to “Origin Story,” which is about the unexpected things that can happen when you live in city populated with superheroes and villains.
It’s season finale season in TV land, and a bunch of shows are pulling out the stops, giving us mayhem and cliffhangers and surprise deaths. So…much…death… Spoilers below, primarily for Arrow and Supergirl.
I think killing characters off is a necessary thing, because death is a real thing, and fiction is a good place to explore and process the emotions that come with death. It’s also just good visceral fun to realize that your favorite characters may not be safe. I learned that with T.J. in the first Kitty book — after that, and for thirteen more books, I kept readers off balance because they knew I wasn’t afraid to go there.
But there’s a point where it becomes either A) gratuitous — done for shock value rather than emotional impact (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones); or B) so predictable the emotional impact is deadened.
That’s what happened on Arrow last week. Laurel’s been a stable, reliable part of the team for almost a season and a half now. Not much character development to speak of, but she’s still been cool and awesome to have around. Then, all of the sudden in the space of one episode, she’s having heartfelt discussions with everybody, pouring her heart out to Ollie, facing a couple of big life decisions. And then she says something like “I’ll be Black Canary just one more time!” Oh, honey. No no no. I spent half the episode just a little pissed off that the episode broadcast her fate so broadly. One might almost call it satire?
Supergirl hasn’t actually killed a hero yet, but when one of them utters the line, “I’ll tell you everything when I get back,” just before leaving on the dangerous mission, you know something terrible is going to happen.
For me anyway, this saps most of the emotional impact from the event. So frustrating.
As a contrast, I think one of the most impactful deaths on recent television was Barry’s mother in the first season finale of The Flash. The situation was already twisty — I mean, we know she’s dead, she’s been dead for the entire season. But that episode made us believe that Barry would save her. We started hoping — in spite of the problems it would cause — that yes, Barry could undo that moment in time and save the life that has driven so much of the backstory of the show. And then he doesn’t. And it isn’t that he fails — he chooses not to. The potential consequences of changing the past are too huge. The moment was a surprise. It also made sense. So powerful.
Another one is that one I keep going back to: Pilot, in Captain Power. At a time when nobody died in TV shows ever, Pilot died. She was left behind at the base which was about to be overrun by bad guys. She gathers together as much tech and info as she can, the computer backup, etc. She sets the base to self destruct, prepares to leave — and the self destruct malfunctions because of the enemy attack. She has to stay behind and detonate it manually. And she does, to keep the team’s secrets from falling into enemy hands, because that could potentially destroy humanity. Her death was a complete surprise. But also intensely logical, and the emotional fallout for the rest of the team was deep, deep story meat.
That’s how you do it. And for pity’s sake, you avoid any dialog that broadcasts what you’re about to do: I’ll tell you everything when I get back. I’ll just do this one more time. I’m retiring next week. We’re getting married. Etc.
March 29, 2016
I missed a few days blogging in there because. . .no excuse, really. I just missed them. I’m usually pretty good about scheduling posts ahead of time when I travel, but last week turned out to be. . .interesting. We got slammed with an honest-to-goodness spring blizzard last Wednesday. 14″ of snow fell at my location in the space of about 8 hours, and it kind of threw my whole schedule off. Instead of getting any work done, I sat at my computer obsessively refreshing my flight’s status all day long. The Denver airport actually closed for most of Wednesday, which is almost unheard of it. Good thing I was flying out Thursday, right???
So yes, I did manage to dig out of my house and catch my ON TIME flight. But I didn’t do much of anything else. Except have a fantastic time at WonderCon. Everyone was so friendly and happy, and I didn’t get exhausted and burned out, and I got to go shopping and listen to Alan Tudyk’s talk, and eat a giant brownie sundae from a food truck. . .and. . . Yes. Good weekend.
I haven’t yet seen BvS, so no review yet. I’m hoping to get to it this week. I’m so fascinated with the huge variety of responses, I’m quite looking forward to seeing it for myself. From an academic standpoint, of course.
And I can’t help but think it was not at all a coincidence that the same weekend we get Batman and Superman duking it out on the big screen, TV gives us its own team-up between the two happiest, sunniest superheroes of them all: Supergirl and Flash. OMG you guys it was everything I wanted it to be. An hour of happy, happy tears. And the hugs. So many hugs. And ice cream! Hugs and ice cream FTW.
I do not believe that Batman v. Superman will have any hugs. Or ice cream.
March 18, 2016
I’m five episodes in and I’m officially obsessed with Mr. Robot. It’s the spiritual adaptation of Neuromancer we always wanted but never got.
I’m obsessed because it’s so smart and detail-oriented I already want to scroll back to the beginning and stop every frame to pick apart the details. I want to google every arcade game in fsociety’s hideout to see if they’re real or if they mean something. So many scenes have signs and wordage in the background (“Concessions,” “No Refunds”), and you know every single one of those had to be put there on purpose and has to mean something. And that’s just the start.
I’ve been looking for some kind of annotated guide or list of allusions, but most of what I’ve found is broad. The plot to erase all credit card info is just like the plot in Fight Club! Tyrell Wellick is just like the guy in American Psycho! Well, yes. Those are influences, not allusions. Here’s what I’m talking about:
Tyrell. You cannot put that name in a cyberpunk show and not evoke Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner. It’s too unusual a name. It’s too unusual a first name. Now, give that name to the show’s unbelievably psychotic villain, and it means something.
And what was the cheesy 80’s hacker movie they’re watching in the hotel room while Elliot is withdrawing from morphine? While they’re discussing how real hacking never looks like Tron? I didn’t quite catch it and I want to know.
But here’s the one that has me frothing and questioning my sanity. Okay, in the fifth episode, they’re in the van, and the big slobby hacker from fsociety is eating a hamburger and a spot of ketchup drips onto his shirt in a perfect line? That has to be a direct allusion to the last page of Watchmen. You know the one I’m talking about, where the intern at the conspiracy magazine is eating a burger right before finding Rorschach’s journal, and the imagery recapitulates both the drop of blood on the Comedian’s badge as well as the ticking of the Doomsday Clock. Anyone who grew up immersed in 80’s cyberpunk tropes — as the makers of this show clearly, absolutely did — would also have a more than passing familiarity with Watchmen, and this can’t be a coincidence. But what does it mean? Is fsociety about to blow open a conspiracy they know nothing about? Is it just meant to mark the ticking to the banking doomsday they’re trying to bring about?
That’s when I thought maybe I was reading too much into it (and dude, I never think I’m reading too much into it). I mean, maybe that detail is just there to show that the guy’s a slob.
And maybe the global megacorp isn’t watching my every keystroke as I’m typing this right now.
But maybe they are.
(NO SPOILERS PEOPLE! I’m only five episodes in. I have so much more to obsess over and I’ll get to it soon.)
March 5, 2016
The March 2016 issue of Lightspeed is now available to buy — this has my long review of Deadpool. And I do mean long. This thing where I get a couple of thousand words to talk about movies and culture and context and everything is pretty sweet.
I didn’t watch the Oscars this year. It’s gotten hard for me to watch when they cut off the speeches of people for whom this may be their only time on stage at a venue like this and they’re clearly nervous and trying to say a lot that’s really important to them. But the A-listers all seem to get as much time as they need. It makes me anxious.
That said, I did watch my Facebook feed fill up with people smack-talking Mad Max: Fury Road for winning as much as it did. I’ve watched the movie a couple more times since it was in theaters and I stand by everything I said about how brilliant and beautiful it is. Every frame is well-planned, well thought out, and artistically framed. The sound — Max’s point of view is expressed in the sound, if you’re paying attention. And the message is surprisingly hopeful and uplifting, given the setting. Because of the setting.
Seriously, a genre movie taking home more Oscars than any other film? I’m going to celebrate that. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer movie.
And over on the TV side of things with The Flash, my friends and I are collecting Jay Garrick conspiracy theories. Love that actor, and I hope it all gets crazier before it gets cleared up. My second favorite show after Agent Carter.
Oh, and I’ve finally delved into Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. And yes, it’s just as lovely as everyone said it was. Those clothes. That music. Hmmmm…
And now it is the weekend. Have a lovely time, everyone!
February 17, 2016
I really want to go hiking today. It’s supposed to be in the 60’s — holy cow do I need a warm sunny day. But right now it’s overcast and gloomy. I’m hoping the clouds will break by lunch time so I can GET OUT. Maybe see some birds.
I am working on a thing right now. A new book. Part of the book is a journey and the characters visit lots of towns and meet lots of people. I don’t have names for any of them. They’re all just marked by brackets in the text because I don’t want to stop and think of names. I’m a third of the way into the draft and it’s starting to get ridiculous. I just need to settle on a naming convention and make a list.
TV: The X-Files has been a hoot. So far three good episodes, one crappy one (that first one, where they cribbed all the dialog from the worst of the season seven conspiracy episodes), and one okay one (this week’s, with Mulder’s placebo-induced drug trip? WUT.). I really love that they kept the original opening credits, although I’m waiting for an alternate message. I also love that instead of doing one storyline, they’re basically doing a survey of all the usual X-Files episodes: metahuman, monster of the week, a funny episode, etc. We’ll see next week how they wrap it all up.
Legends of Tomorrow. I’m done. The first episode was fast paced and rollicking and fun and good enough. Every episode since then has been a repetitive drag, every line of dialog rehashing basically everything — character backstory, the mission. Every. Single. Time. And the characters are all idiots. They just are. I can picture Rip Hunter thinking, “Wow, you all really are losers. I’ve made a terrible mistake.” But he’s an idiot too, so I don’t care. I’m done.
And now, back to work…