American Sniper – Scene tension

I watched American Sniper last night, and was impressed with some things I saw.

Spoiler alert blah blah blah.

There is a scene where Chris is providing overwatch on an area where there is a humvee parked and some soldiers talking to people. We see him on the roof, then there’s a camera shot of a little boy (maybe 5-6 yrs) sitting against a door and throwing rocks. He’s important, we’re coming back to him in a moment, but the camera shot introduces the character. It’s just a kid throwing rocks, right?  A taxi rushes down the road and makes a left into an alley a block from the humvee. Chris knows something is up and puts his crosshairs on the corner of the alley, since it is perpendicular from his field of fire and he can only see the end of the alley. A few seconds later, the taxi driver (though it could be passenger) arrives at the corner with an RPG, and raises it to his shoulder.  The crosshairs are on the left side of his back, and it is a foregone conclusion that taxi driver is about to be shot and die.

Chris squeezes the trigger and a shot rings out, and we see blood on the taxi driver’s back as he collapses to his side, dropping the RPG next to him. It was a routine sniper kill, if anything like that could ever be considered pedestrian. It’s routine to us, we’ve seen a lot of people die from sniper shots and this is no first kill. But then we see the point of the scene.

The rock throwing child walks over to the body and the RPG.  We know he probably doesn’t know the taxi driver, because the guy arrived in a taxi and chances are this isn’t his neighborhood. Is the kid curious about the dead body? No. He looks at the RPG.

Everyone in the theater is now thinking three words. Don’t do it. It’s an interesting dichotomy–we’ve all gone from a calloused “just shoot the rebel haji” to observing something forbidden: Children as propagators of war.  Moreover, there’s the tension of whether Chris is going to take the shot if the kid picks up the RPG, and we see reaction shots. This is clearly disturbing Chris.  Killing Hajis with AK47s is worthy because he is “Saving our guys” and “fighting to protect the best nation on earth.” Killing children… not so much.

The child struggles with the RPG. It weighs somewhere between 8-10 pounds (2.5 kg) and he tries to heft it to his shoulder. He knows how it’s supposed to be fired, and he gets it to his shoulder and tries to aim it at the humvee.

Rock throwing kid struggles some more with aiming, and we have a few seconds of indecision. Shoot child or no? Reaction shot showing the finger tensing up on the black trigger, and right before he squeezes tight, we see through the scope the child drop the RPG and run away.  Chris collapses with relief.

The tension of the scene was a combination of horror. We contemplate the extinguishing of an innocent (one scarred by war and taught an unrelenting hatred of an enemy) and we flinch. It is horrible.  We know the sniper can do it because we’ve seen him do it (his first kill was a young boy with a grenade/mortar round), but we would really rather he did not do it.

I think I need to read the book.


Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.

The nature of blogs: I didn’t intend for that to happen maybe

Funny thing. I’m lookin’ at stats, like you do, and notice I’ve a new follower, the lovely Charlotte Hoather, who is an opera singer.  Her site is a visual delight and there are some samples of her singing [mumble which I’m not able to listen to at the moment but must save for later].

Then, because I’m curious about stuff like that, I wonder… how’d she find the Dog’s Breakfast? [Tasted awful, they sometimes say.]

I’ll postulate it here.

Reference to Dmitri Hvorostovsky, famous opera singer, in this post:
I WON! I WON! Wait. What have I done!? Sacre Bleu! The 10 pages challenge

Perhaps that is what brought Charlotte hither?
I guess I could ask. Charlotte, how’d you get here?

Now, the circular problem of referencing Dmitri again is going to misdirect MORE traffic. Oh monstrous authority, I have misused you. Bad blogger. No tuna fish sandwich. They should not give us the stats tool in blogging.

Which is not to say that I don’t delight in opera. I do.  Even married an opera singer for 7 years, and I could tell you some stories… but this is all water under the bridge.

Postscript: I don’t think the map they give you with the stats is accurate. That is, the map is drawn correctly, but the data of who is where seems suspect, or just a bit spotty.

Creating Dimensional Characters—The Blind Spot

And here’s the crux of the matter – story arc relates to character arc relates to character flaw (blind spot) and virtue and it’s what the story is really about.

Kristen Lamb's Blog

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Last time, we talked about how to deepen characters and how EVERYBODY LIES (thank you Dr. House). Lies are critical for great fiction. To become excellent writers, we need to become great secret-keepers. Denial is more than a river in Africa 😉 .

I’d started a series on this a few months ago and Shingles got in the way of the next posts I had planned. But, the first of the intended series was about THE WOUND.  Check it out if you have a bit of time.

Most of us don’t go around lying because we are pathological liars. We lie because of our wounds. And, if you read the post, wounds don’t have to be big to be BIG.

Newer writers sometimes think we have to have a rape or death for it to be “enough” but never underestimate “smaller” wounds. They are far more common, very damaging, and…

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Emotional Connections to Characters that We Kill

My treasured spouse The Blonde likes to watch those awful forensic crime dramas. I still love her.

So one of them, the other night, shows us the household of a nice family, mom, dad, a little boy, and a toddler.  They’re written as a pretty normal family and we like them.  They’re getting ready for a trip. There’s something going on with the large dog they have, and that turns out to be an Important Point In the Story.  Of course it is. They only include the clues we need so we don’t get too mad when they draw conclusions later and we’re not able to find out the bad guy because they didn’t give us the same clues the protags are getting.

But I already know that this crime drama is going to do something mean to these characters. How Olympic.  Zeus creates a mortal, and then he toys with him.

Nevertheless, we start to identify with the family, and the tension we feel is real: What are those awful writers going to do to them? Who is going to be killed/kidnapped/have something awful happen?

The family goes to sleep, and the mom wakes up. It’s her POV. She sits up, says “Honey?” and looks to her left. Shot of the husband, eyes wide, gagged and duct taped to a chair shaking his head.

Then to the crime scene: the entire family was killed and left in the basement after being tortured for a few days.

I curse the writers, because I was emotionally identifying with the family, similar to my own, and now I’m going to sleep with the loaded shotgun nearby for a few nights due to being paranoid.  Good writing? Yes and no.  Good in the sense that it’s a crime drama and they made the family charming and normal and interesting.  Bad in the sense that they took that and snuffed ’em all out.  The writers killed a three year old. And they made me feel it.

So how does that tie into writing fiction? Do we build up a character to kill them later just to wrench an emotional reaction from the reader? Is this cheap and tawdry? Can it be done classy? Or is it gimmicky?

Friday Fun — Testing your story’s opening

Tossing this in here, because Wendy Thomas did a great list that I should probably tattoo on my left forearm.

Live to Write - Write to Live

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: How do you test your story’s opening?

wendy-shotWendy Thomas: First of all, I sit on it. After I write my story, I give it time away to do a little bit of maturing. Because I’ve got tech writing in my blood and I feel comfortable with plotting (as opposed to pantsing) once the story and I have both had time to settle down, I go over the beginning with a checklist that looks very much like the rubrics you had to use when writing high school papers.

  • Is there a hook?
  • Have I introduced the hero?
  • Is there conflict?
  • Have I created tension?
  • Is there too much back story?
  • Have I grounded the…

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It was all a dream or It was a really realistic training scenario: Stuff I hate. And you do too.

It might be that I’m speaking out of hand about what you like or don’t like. There are millions of people with likes and dislikes. So, for now, unless you type “I agree” in a comment below, thus blowing up my ego, this is what I hate.  Some of you seven readers of mine may object to the term hate. It’s even in italics. Such a strong term, such a weak term: Hate is hackneyed. Let’s winnow this down to use the correct language.

Here’s what I see:
The Hero is plunged into the middle of a tremendous battle.  The odds are against him. There’s no way to win. Finally, his forces are overrun by the enemy and he is laying there dying, and then hears the words, “terminate exercise.”

Die, trope, die!  It is not a new idea. It’s been over-used in television, film, and fiction. Do not do this. Star Trek bloody loves this trope; holodecks, and the Kobayashi Maru thing spring to mind immediately, but it’s been done to death elsewhere. I have not looked at TV Tropes to see what they say about this, but I know they have a trope for it, and I know I hate it.

Why, Pontius, why? you ask.  It’s deceptive.  It’s not nice. It’s a weak way to try to introduce DANGER! and EXCITEMENT! into a dull portion of your story. Rip it out. Or, at the minimum, do not present it As If It Were Real Events.  It’s training. Make that clear. Then give your reader the real conflict of the scene/sequel.  It’s not that he’s going to die–it’s training, and they don’t usually kill you if you fail in training unless you’re with a sadistic organization, and then there’s a whole new source of conflict for you–it’s that there’s tension and conflict underlying the training that advances the plot somehow and permits us to emotionally identify with the protagonist.

Similarly, I loathe dream sequences presented as if the character is really there which are abominational devices because they are deception and give us false DANGER! and EXCITEMENT! that couldn’t be carried by the storyline normally.  If it’s a dream and the reader knows it’s a dream, why, we’re in on the gag and we can see it for what it is, a dream. That’s not to say you can’t have dreams, it’s presenting it as if it were not a dream that is pretty hinky on the things an author can do to you.

Both of these are prevalent enough in fiction that I sometimes discount a turn of events because there’s no context and think, bet this is just training of some kind. Wouldn’t make sense for them to be in this big ol’ battle at this point in the book. Which isn’t to say that I can’t be fooled, but I rarely am.

Scene and Sequel – bloody progress. xbyfri Part A

After playing an hour of terrible BF4–either everyone was hacking or I was terrible, or both–I settled down with Word to churn out my ten pages.  I managed to do 6.

This is an analysis of what I’ve written. I won’t reproduce the actual writing here, as there is no point. I will talk about my processes of what I’m doing. This might get messy. Those of you in front might get splashed with outline.

At this point, I’m putting content on the page. It looks pretty. Garamound, twelve words a line, and hanging quotes.  Yeah, that kind of pretty. What’s happening in the story is not pretty.

The first scene, the one that’s supposed to grab my reader by the throat and light ’em on fire and offer no hope at all… that one is meh.  Heart pounding excitement? Nope. A routine destroyer makes long range contact with four warships.

Yawn.

How dull.

Where’s the conflict? The XO is afraid to wake the captain. That’s it. That’s the conflict. And it’s not much of a conflict. See, we know that when the warships get close enough, then you HAVE to wake the captain and say “we’re in a pickle Captain” and maybe you get yelled at, but we also know if the ship gets destroyed, like so many bookend space vehicles do, it was justified for him to wake the captain and we aren’t emotionally invested in the XO because we know he’s going to die anyway, right?

So let’s discuss the bookend space vehicle.  A bookend space vehicle is a space vehicle that is destroyed or disappears in the opening scene of a book or movie. It may be the focus of the story to discover or uncover the reasons behind its destruction. Because it is frequently used, readers typically do not want to invest in the BSV at the beginning because it usually turns out to be a waste. If we start to identify with a character and the character is then snuffed out, we mistrust the writer because that was Not Nice.  The BSV does afford a good grabbing moment as the BSV can be put in horrible straits and suffer destruction and it makes an exciting opening scene.  If, however, the BSV is the focus of a Goal/Conflict/Disaster, it is almost impossible to provide a sequel to the scene and thus it is stand-alone.

So there’s my answer. Putting on my Pontius developmental editor hat, I’m going to have to scrap the scene and either replace it with a scene sequel or leave it out.

The next scene is the marines aboard the ship being alerted and them getting suited up and loading on to a shuttle.

Purpose? Introduce us to the marines, and then locate them on the shuttles for the upcoming Disasterous Space Battle.  Focus is on Lcpl Yuen, who leads a fireteam. We meet the fireteam and find out things about those four characters which fill in our background.

The writing there is adequate, but again, where’s the conflict? Um… Yuen has to get her team suited up in a hurry.  The new guy is slow.  That’s conflict?  I guess it could be.  Marines are about conflict. Maybe some background–the fireteam is in trouble for not being fast enough or efficient enough, and they’re under the gun.  If they screw up one more time, Yuen gets a negative counseling statement on her record. Who cares about immanent destruction of the ship when your career is threatened by the new private screwing up by the numbers all the time? If he fails, it’s your fault.  We know, as long as I’m writing this much detail about these characters, that we’re going to be packed up in their duffels for the long haul, and that even if the ship is a bookend, the marines are not.

Thus:

Scene: The XO and crew are terrified of the captain, who is asleep.
Goal: XO wants to get through the watch without any incidents.
Conflict: Possible incoming fleet is not acting friendly. When to tell the captain?
Disaster: Waiting too long to call the Captain when the ships are, indeed, unfriendly.
POV: XO (executive officer, second in command)

Sequel: The Captain bawls out the XO for waiting too long -in front of his troops-, and will put a note in the XO’s file derailing the XO’s career. Captain attempts to hail the incoming ships.
Reaction: XO mourns that his career is destroyed by drunkard Captain.
Dilemma: Should the ship run or turn and fight the fleet?
Decision: The ship will fight and probably lose.

To fix the scene, we’re going to have to emotionally invest in the XO and we need to ratchet the captain into a real Queeg character- a drunkard with a mean temper who will never be promoted above destroyer Captain. The focus is on the XO’s internal processes, not the brick brack of running the ship and routine contacts and all that jazz.

More on the marine section later. That’s going to need a good tweak to introduce conflict and make sense.

What do we call it? WriTePaByFri? The 10 page 7 day writing challenge

I’ve got this goal of 10 pages by Friday. Good pages. I can write 10 pages of mediocre adequate slush in an evening, so the amount isn’t the problem.  It’s the content.

One of the problems is to name it something, so it’s iconic and stuff.  Write Ten Pages by Friday becomes WriTePaByFri, or Writepabyfri. Which sounds dumb.

Maybe latin? Decem ceras a veneris. That’s hard, the Romans didn’t have pages per se, so it’s ten wax tablets by Venus-day.  Maybe XCeaVe. Exceave? Sounds like a sleep medication for seniors.

A mix! WriXpabyVen.  No, no, that’s not it.

XbyFri.

That’s what I’ll use.  Mind, I think nano is a horrible name and emulating it causes me digestive stress, but it’s just what we’re going to go with.

I’d ask for your votes, however, I’m impassably dictatorial about this and you’d probably all decide Writepabyfri is your favorite, and who cares what I want?

I WON! I WON! Wait. What have I done!? Sacre Bleu! The 10 pages challenge

I was commenting on Kristin Lamb’s blog, like you do, and after the careful slapdash application of humor and chutzpah, I said, “Oooh, ooh, did I win the internet? Where do I send my 20 pages? Aw, wait, that was a different month. Never mind. I’ll go back to my story spreadsheet.” That is, to send her 20 pages of my fine writing and she’d critique them, probably put lots of red marks all over it, and send it back to me. This is something she offers as an incentive to people commenting on her posts – one person a month wins that.  At least, that’s the idea I’m getting.  And she must be good; she’s got 15,000 followers, and that’s about 14,000 more than Jim Jones ever had.

And she responded, saying “You know what? Points for creativity. Send me ten to kristen @ wanaintl dot com. LOL. Thanks for the laugh!”  See, chutzpah for the win!  I will also point out that this makes me a paid writer: I wrote something humorous and received compensation in kind, which is critique of 10 pages, normally a service for which Kristin charges… mmmmph dollarsUS.

One little tiny problem. I don’t have 10 pages.

It’s about 200 words a page, and I’ve got 75 pages of non-conflicty fiction, 15,000 words.  Those aren’t representative of the new me, the one that knows stuff. Like three acts and scene/sequel. But the new me hasn’t written that much, because new me is trying the whole outline-your-book-so-you’re-not-rewriting-it-when-you’re done.  Sure, there’s a lot of dashes, but you gotta do it.

And you hate to send in 10 pages of crap.  She’d hate it, too.  Don’t make people regret their acts of kindness, Pontius.

This leads me to my dilemma (conflict, if you wish): How to produce 10 pages of high quality product that will lead to hearing excellent insights from an industry professional. If this was opera, I’d be the new tenor doing a master class (a short one) for Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  Gulp. With writing, I can fake it (sorta) since it is, after all, my native tongue.  But you can’t fake tension. And conflict. And scene/sequel. And a really fantastic outline.

So my mission is to write ten pages of scene sequel in… I give myself a week.  High quality. Fantastic top level stuff. This ain’t nanotanemo bay writer’s challenge, it’s 10 pages. One week. High quality.

First, I have to repress the urge to write boring scenes full of conversation and not much action. So… start with an explosion? That’s a helpful place to start. I so want to start with the discovery of the enemy fleet and ease into the hot tub from there, but I know that’s deadly dull and will kill it flatter than Kansas.  Get a running start and start it at the moment of: impact.

And Tuesday I’m flying to Reno and driving back. So it’s 6 days.


Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.