Archive for the 'Writer’s Reviews' Category

Aug 23 2012

Which Movie Reviews Would Help Your Writing the Most?

Published by under Writer's Reviews

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

After my anthology of superhero movie reviews (Avengers, Dark Knight, Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man, Catwoman and Green Lantern) gets published, I’d like to look into a follow-up edition of 4-5 more great movies and 1-2 disasters. Which of the following would help you the most? Are there any movies you’d suggest?

  • A second set of superhero movies (perhaps a lineup like The Incredibles, First Class, Dark Knight Rises, Kick-Ass, and 2 disasters).
  • Pixar movies–any five of their great movies (e.g. Incredibles, Up, Toy Story, Monsters Inc., WALL-E and Finding Nemo) and the disastrous  Cars 2.
  • Crime/cop movies (perhaps Godfather, Dirty Harry, The Untouchables, The Usual Suspects, Gigli and another disaster TBD).
  • Science fiction (maybe The Matrix 1, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, District 9, Terminator 2, Avatar and Pluto Nash)
  • Spy movies (perhaps Casino Royale, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Argo, The Avengers, and The Jackal)
  • Something else?

 

We don’t have any ironclad criteria, but my publisher and I focus on these sorts of movies:

  1. Preferably, each movie is either a critical masterpiece or disaster. Strong opinions create interest.
  2. Preferably, the movie is a recent blockbuster and/or a memorable classic. The review will make more sense if many readers remember the movie well.
  3. Ideally, each movie offers stylistic variety compared to the other selections. In particular, I’d like to avoid doing 2+ movies from the same series in a book.
  4. Ideally, each work clearly fits into the category. (E.g. the Matrix isn’t clearly a superhero movie, even though it has superpowers and a dual identity between Mr. Anderson/Neo).

47 responses so far

Aug 01 2012

Learning Writing Skills from Hancock

1. Hancock’s personality and interaction with other people made for some interesting conflict. The train scene with Hancock, Ray, and the other people at the intersection is a great example of Hancock’s alienation and anti-social nature. He’s one of the few superheroes that people generally hate, as opposed to, say, Superman.

 

 

2. The mechanics of Hancock’s superpowers were very fascinating. When he kicks off the ground to propel into flight, it yanks stuff up out of the ground. His invincibility could be cliche, but was used creatively (the shaving scene was a kickass example of that). The physics behind the powers was believable. In contrast, Superman has to use special Kryptonian razor blades when he has to shave (ugh!).

 

3. Superheroes can commit crimes, and they can get in trouble for it. Hancock went to prison because of the way he used his powers. He had several crimes hanging over his head: aggravated assault and battery, destruction of property, reckless endangerment, and even endangering the safety of a minor (the French bully he launched into the sky). This is very refreshing—in most superhero stories where the police are antagonists, they don’t actually add significant consequences to the characters’ actions. (For example, Batman might have a chase scene or two with the police, but it rarely actually costs Batman anything).

 

4. Hancock’s significant other was an interesting twist, but could be confusing and contradictory. During the major fight scene with Hancock and his “wife,” she keeps screaming that she hates him, and that she’d never forgive him for what he did. What did he do? They never explain what he did, and they gave no reason for why she’d hate him. Then, in the hospital scene towards the end, she explains how he always saved her over the centuries, and how he was meant to be humanity’s hero. But didn’t you say earlier that you were faster, stronger, and smarter than him? Lady, you’re confusing me!

 

Continue Reading »

10 responses so far

Jul 16 2012

Learning Writing Skills from Green Lantern

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. The two minutes of voiceover/narration should have been cut. First, do we really need to start the story with the backstory of the Green Lantern Corps? It would probably have been more natural (and less pretentious) to cover this in a conversation with Hal Jordan (probably when he meets up with the Corps on Oa). As it is, I think this information is a distraction from Hal, contributes to a disjoint between what the aliens are doing and what Hal is doing over the first 30 minutes, and is redundant with the two other scenes recapping the purpose and history of the GL Corps.

1.1. When you’re introducing a character and/or organization to readers, I think it’d be more effective to show them in their element rather than through lengthy exposition. We’re later told Abin Sur is a “great light” of the Lanterns, but we never actually see him do anything impressive. Similarly, rather than introduce the GL Corps with a speech, I’d much rather see them doing a typical-but-interesting job (the GL equivalent of a hostage situation or a high-stakes bank robbery). Since the defining characteristic of the GL is supposed to be fearlessness, it’d be better to have them do something memorably courageous than to show them panicking as they face Parallax. Fleeing isn’t the most intuitive way to establish a corps founded on bravery. Moreover, we don’t actually see much fearlessness from the Lanterns over the course of the movie.

 

2. The relationship between Hal and his father was one-dimensional and did not help develop Hal or the plot. This felt like a very forced way to work courage vs. cowardice into the plot. “You’re not scared, are you, Dad?” “Let’s just say it’s my job not to be.” Ick. Here are some more effective examples of family cameos.

  • Ellie, the main character’s wife in Up. In just a few minutes, each character shows how much they mean to the other. (Spoiler): When she dies, viewers really feel the main character’s loss, whereas Hal’s dialogue with his father is so lifeless that there’s no emotional heft. In contrast, Up’s Ellie-Carl scenes help develop why the main character is lonely and surly for most of the rest of the movie and helps set up some of the immediate conflict between the grouch and the cheerful Boy Scout he gets trapped with. Speaking of which, the Boy Scout’s relationship with his family is also emotionally effective—I’d really recommend seeing this movie if you haven’t already.
  • Batman’s relationship with his father mixes respect and conflict. Ra’s al Ghul points out that Bruce trained to become something like the opposite of his father—if the father had been as physically tough as the son became, they all would have survived Joe Chill. This is more interesting than JUST having the character try to fill his father’s footsteps (a la Hal Jordan). I also like that various other characters try pulling Wayne’s legacy in different ways (e.g. Ghul accuses him of being useless and mocks his philanthropic work, Joe Chill falsely claims that he died begging for his life, Batman risks disgracing his father’s name by cutting himself off from high society, and Joker implicitly disagrees with the elder Wayne about whether Gotham is worth saving, etc).
  • The mother of Kick-Ass has an aneurysm and dies while eating breakfast. This adds some ghoulish comedy and helps reinforce that the main character is lonely and sort of messed-up. It also plays on the comic book trope that the character’s parents will always die in some plot-relevant and meaningful way. Not bad for ten seconds of screen-time.

 

3. Main character Hal Jordan makes his first appearance 6 minutes into the movie. While I think it’s generally interesting to try scenes without the main characters (e.g. Dark Knight’s ferry scene), focusing on minor characters to the exclusion of the core of the story is probably unsound. I can’t think of any reason to start with the aliens here rather than either 1) starting with Hal and covering the information about the aliens later, probably when Hal meets the aliens or 2) starting with the aliens doing something which directly involves Hal. For example, it might make sense to start with Abin Sur as he’s looking for a Green Lantern—this would help develop what was so impressive about Hal that he caught Abin Sur’s eye.

 

Continue Reading »

53 responses so far

Jul 12 2012

Learning Writing Skills from X-Men: First Class

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. A lot of the relationships really work, but the characterization would likely have been stronger if several characters had been removed. In particular, I think Xavier-Magneto and Hank-Mystique-Magneto alone were worth the price of admission. In the ten-minute training sequence, we see some really interesting threads, but they aren’t explored as fully as they could have been–for example, there’s a hilarious bit where Xavier and Hank only barely trust Havoc’s accuracy, but nobody ever mentions his accuracy again after that. Instead of having him prove his accuracy by shooting down Angel later on, it might have helped to force him to try a highly-dangerous trick shot to save an ally. Havoc gets a few lines being an ass to Beast, but again it didn’t really go anywhere. Cutting some of the minor characters might have helped buy more time for these plot threads to develop. Between Darwin, Angel, Havok, Banshee, Riptide (the unnamed tornado villain), Azazel (the demonic villain) and maybe Moira, 4-6 could have been easily removed.  In particular, introducing Darwin just to kill him immediately strikes me as a waste–he didn’t make enough of an impression for people to care about his death.

 

2. Notably, action plays a secondary role to character development. If you’re writing a superhero story which isn’t mainly about combat, I think First Class is probably the most helpful example from Hollywood so far.  I would definitely look at how the characters interact, how character traits are developed, and whether you would have subtracted and/or added characters.

 

Continue Reading »

20 responses so far

Jul 10 2012

Learning Writing Skills from The Avengers

As always, please see the movie before reading this review.

 

1. The conflicts within the team and between the teammates and Fury/SHIELD were impeccable. One aspect which lends depth to the conflicts is that most of the character have intelligent reasons to disagree and the writers don’t push viewers to side with one protagonist or another. In contrast, the Fantastic Four’s squabbles are usually driven by someone (or everyone) being an idiot, which mainly leaves me wanting to punch everyone. The scene where the Avengers confront Nick Fury over what he’s been holding back from them is vastly superior to anything in the FF movies.

 

2. The writing was very fresh and clever. The arc where Loki allows himself to be taken prisoner in an attempt to provoke Bruce Banner into going crazy is a nice play on the (sort-of-tired) trope where a supervillain breaks out of captivity. Additionally, the scene where SHIELD tries to contact Black Widow (who is being interrogated by Russian smugglers) is hilarious.

  • BLACK WIDOW: “This is just like in Budapest.” *She stabs an alien in the head.* HAWKEYE: “You and I… remember Budapest very differently.”

 

3. I believe the main weak point of the movie was the selection of Loki as the main villain—he wasn’t as cost-effective as more limited, terrestrial villains like the Joker, Green Goblin or Obediah Stane. He got better characterization than, say, the alien antagonists in Green Lantern or FF: Silver Surfer, but I don’t believe the movie would have been much worse if all of his lines of dialogue had been cut out. In particular, a character that is based on deception and trickery should develop the plot and characters more with his dialogue than he actually did.

 

Continue Reading »

52 responses so far

Jul 07 2012

Learning from Amazing Spider-Man

(As always, please see the movie before reading this).

 

1. To the extent that you cover a superhero origin story, I’d recommend focusing on things and approaches we haven’t seen much of before. I think it would have helped to either spend less time covering the origin story or make it more different than Spider-Man 1. That said, I thought ASM’s approach to the death of Uncle Ben was smoother and more thematically effective–when Peter has the opportunity to stop the robber, there’s a plausible and immediate threat to bystanders. Peter declines and Ben gets killed seconds thereafter. This makes Peter’s motivation for a life-changing decision (becoming a superhero) more plausible.  In contrast, in Spider-Man 1, Peter gets torn up because he doesn’t get involved in a relatively minor situation with a police officer present, with only a faint connection between Peter Parker letting the robber go and the robber killing a civilian.

1.1. Peter plays a more active role acquiring superpowers. He was only in the laboratory because he stole an ID and figured out how to thwart a keypad. I think the scene develops him more than just getting lucky at the science fair in Spider-Man 1. (Likewise, he makes his own webslingers instead of getting them from the spider-bite).

 

2. Beware the idiot ball–make sure there are believable consequences to actions. Peter Parker displayed his superpowers in public so many times that I think his classmates would have to be idiots not to notice something was amiss. (For example, the NBA-caliber dunk? Or breaking a goalpost with a football? Or lifting enormous Flash Thompson by the neck?)  When characters make decisions, there should be consequences. For example, if the character is reckless with his powers, maybe other characters come closer to figuring out what’s going on. Or at least start asking difficult questions.

 

3. Speaking of consequences, I thought the crane scene was kind of cute. (Peter saves a construction worker’s kid and the construction worker later pulls in favors at the climax to help Spider-Man).  It helps build a contrast between Spider-Man’s decidedly limited means and, say, the lavishly-funded Avengers or X-Men. I think it’s also a more subtle and effective way of showing he’s more of an everyman hero than we saw in previous Spider-Man movies (e.g. subway passengers throwing themselves between Dr. Octopus and a crippled Spidey felt sort of hokey to me).

 

4. I thought it was a bit contrived that Peter Parker just happens to find the love interest working for the villain he’s trying to find. One way to clear out this contrivance would have been to make the two more causally connected. For example, maybe Peter Parker’s trying to figure out how to get to the villain, so he introduces himself to the assistant in the hopes that she’d eventually bring him to work. (This would make the relationship seem a bit more manipulative at the beginning, but he could probably come clean sooner rather than later. I think it’d help that he reveals his secret identity to her relatively quickly–he’s more upfront than most superheroes are).

 

Continue Reading »

25 responses so far

Jul 06 2012

Learning Writing Skills from The Dark Knight

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. The conflicts really help make the relationships memorable. One element which worked out unusually well was the depth provided by protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts (e.g. Gordon conflicting with Dent over who blew a case, Dent respecting Batman but hating Bruce Wayne, Lucius vs. Batman over libertarian issues, cops pressuring Dent to surrender Batman to Joker, Batman vs. Dent over threatening to kill a deranged patient, Dent angry that Batman saved him rather than his girlfriend, Batman vs. a misled SWAT team, Gordon suspecting most of his own unit of possible corruption, etc). The plot has a lot of angles, but each of these conflicts is very easy to follow and is consistent with the character development. I think that the protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts help give all of the characters something to contribute to the plot. In contrast, if (say) the Thing were cut out of the Fantastic Four movies or Violet were cut from The Incredibles, I don’t think the plot would change much.

 

1.1.  Few, if any, superhero movies have accomplished as much with antagonist-vs-antagonist conflict. For example, Joker orders a hit on Coleman Reese, Joker fights with mob leaders, Joker turns on his own goons, and turns Dent into Two-Face (both physically and morally). One reason that the bank heist at the beginning of the movie is so memorable is because all of the antagonists involved are criminals—in contrast, many superhero movies have the superheroes warm up by taking down faceless bank robbers who receive no development.

 

2. The characters generally have complex motivations. Probably the most notable example here was Joker trying to prove that everybody is fundamentally as crazy as he is (and that people are only as moral as conditions allow them to be). It made him much more interesting than just another villain trying to make a ton of money or accumulate power without any particular agenda in mind. I’d also recommend checking out how Batman and Gordon conceal Two-Face’s misdeeds to help keep hope and inspiration alive.

 

3. The use of side-characters is phenomenal. Except for maybe Avengers, I don’t think any other superhero movie comes close in terms of character/plot development or creating interesting scenes. Take, for example, the ferry scene. Batman isn’t directly involved and none of the characters on-screen actually have a name. How many series are there where minor characters could have a compelling scene which develops the plot and the villain? Some other interesting examples where Batman isn’t present:

  • Joker’s opening bank heist. If I had to pick a single movie scene which did the best job of introducing a villain and developing his personality and modus operandi in a memorable way, this would be it. The heist is fittingly anarchic and unpredictable in the best way.
  • Joker’s pencil scene.
  • Lucius vs. Coleman Reese. (“You think your client, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, moonlights as a vigilante and beats criminals to a pulp with his bare hands? And your plan is to blackmail this man? … Good luck with that”).
  • Gordon/MCU fighting with Dent/DA’s office about who blew the bank seizure.
  • Joker in the MCU cell—the cell-phone bomb was a clever touch, but I thought his goading the veteran cop (Stephens) into an imprudent confrontation was most memorable here.

 

Continue Reading »

14 responses so far

Apr 19 2012

Writer’s Review of Bob Moore: No Hero

Published by under Writer's Reviews

Bob Moore: No Hero is a superhero novella about a private investigator looking into a baffling series of (possibly) missing superheroes.  Here’s what writers can learn from it and why you might want to check it out.

 

What Worked:

The characterization is unusually strong, particularly for the main protagonist. His development arc was unexpected and fresh. The book has hardly any romance (besides two brief conversations between the main character and his ex-wife), but the relationship definitely added something to the main plot which would have been otherwise missing. As for the main antagonist, he’s not one-dimensionally evil, but he’s definitely a problem that the protagonist needs to deal with.  If you’re struggling with how to write a not-conventionally-evil antagonist without making the stakes less urgent for the protagonists, No Hero  is a good example.

 

The ending sequence was eerily effective. The author (Tom Andry) made an unusual decision to end the book with a conversation between the protagonist and his ex-wife rather than, say, a conversation with his assistant or anybody else that’s actually present in his life.  In retrospect, I think it really effectively showed how the character had evolved and made his previous decisions in the climax both more interesting and morally questionable.

 

-I would strongly recommend this book to anybody who wants to make a disagreeable protagonist more likable.  Notably, the book doesn’t gloss over his disagreeable actions and other characters (mainly his ex-wife) call him out for it in reasonable ways and he responds in a mostly reasonable way.  I think that helps readers stay on board even if they aren’t taken with the character’s occasionally hard-boiled approach.

 

Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

Nov 30 2011

A Writer’s Review of Priscilla the Great

7th grader Priscilla Sumner lives a small town with her annoying siblings, a brainy best friend—and the most overly protective dad in the world. No yearbook photos, no news coverage, nada. Combined with the fact that her mom is always away on business trips, it’s no wonder Priscilla is a bit grumpy.

 

And then that time of month rolls by and she gains the powers of conjuring flames, super-hearing, and super-strength, among others. She freaks out, her best friend slowly drifts
away, more than one love triangle goes awry…Oh, and she gets kidnapped after her face appears on the local news.

 

Priscilla discovers her mom is a genetically-modified superhuman, her dad is a guard who liberated her from the nefarious Selliwood Institute, which wants their family, and those “business trips” are actually rescue mission for the rest of the children of the institution.

 

That’s only the first half of the book.

 

Priscilla the Great is a Middle Grade/Young Adult book with superhero elements. Everything about it was designed to have a bit of wit. Graphic novel-esque cover? Check. Witty first person narrator? Check. Sci-fi elements running on kid-flick coolness? Check.

 

Yet, it avoids the cheesiness and cleanliness of works like Spy Kids while retaining the fun.

 

Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Nov 22 2011

Other People’s Heroes: A Writer’s Review

Other People’s Heroes is easily the best superhero novel I’ve read this year (at least in comparison to the other two, Perry Moore’s Hero and Playing for Keeps). It’s not perfect by any means, but it was fun and definitely helpful for other superhero novelists looking for inspiration.

 

After a nice-guy journalist with a fervent admiration for superheroes develops powers of his own, he immediately opts to join the community he’s respected for so long, only to find that Siegel City’s heroes and villains are about as genuine as professional wrestlers, from hero merchandising to staged brawls. Though he initially stays in order to expose “the biggest con game this city has ever seen,” he eventually realizes that there’s something even more sinister beneath the system’s surface.

 

Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Jul 28 2011

Why So Serious, Alphas? A Preliminary Writers’ Review

Alphas is a TV show about a team of superheroes people with unusual talents working to solve apparently uncrackable cases.  Overall, it’s a decent timewaster, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it.   So far, it’s condescending towards previous superhero works (and superhero fans) and isn’t fun or stylish enough.

 

What Worked:

  • How the powers are depicted, especially mind control.  Seeing and hearing the controller’s objective everywhere around you was vastly more interesting than a voice in the head.  In particular, the way it distorted the character’s perspective was memorable, like the way a little old lady in a grocery store asks the protagonist where the ice cream is and then says in the most cheerful voice possible, “It’s time to kill.”   (Superhero writers, even a stock power can get a lot more interesting if you play around with how it manifests and works.)
  • I know some people with autism, and I felt that Ryan Cartwright acted well enough that he was believable as an autistic technopath.  From his slightly awkward speech pattern to the repetitive gestures, he was on the mark.
  • A few of the characters are interesting. In addition to the autistic technopath, the superstrong guy had a really solid scene with his wife.

 

What Could Have Been More Effective:

  • The characters were bland.  They are introduced with their names and powers on screen, which is the only way I can keep most of them apart.  For the love of any deity you believe in (and/or the Flying Spaghetti Monster), please make us actually care about your characters.  Also, Alphas’ Rachel (Azita Ghanizada) bears an uncanny resemblance to Glee’s Rachel (Lea Michele).
  • The stock plot could have been more lively.  There’s a mysterious murder, one of the heroes is the prime suspect and the real perpetrator gets away.  There’s not much more than that, certainly not any humor or feeling.  Even if your story is the grimmest of grim, you can still use dead baby comedy.  Just because it’s “edgy” doesn’t mean it has to be emotionless.
  • The plot twists are predictable.  (It’s too obvious that the mind-controlling villain zapped the bellhop into acting as a decoy, for example). This was also a problem with Playing for Keeps.
  • It talks down to the audience.  I know that it’s probably unintentional and they’re trying to pitch the show to a wider audience, but going to any lengths to keep the show from being *shudder* a superhero show and what the fans expect it will be? Either way, I still don’t like it. (Writers, don’t hate on your genre for no good reason. Audience members that are fans of the genre may feel patronized).
  • It wants to be more realistic than other superhero stories, which is fine, but it didn’t even get the research right.  (For example, synesthesia? Yeah, it doesn’t work that way).

10 responses so far

Feb 11 2009

A Glimpse into the Editor’s Office: Editing Twilight

This is how I would have edited the first two pages of Twilight.  In particular, I found that the main character has a bland personality and needs better motivations.

 

If I had been the publisher’s assistant considering this work, I would probably have stopped reading at this point.

  1. Character motivation is missing.  For example, if she loves Arizona and her father makes her uncomfortable, why does she decide to go to Forks?
  2. I’m not feeling the main character’s voice.  She sounds sort of pretentious (e.g. “despite the scarcity of my funds”) and not terribly interesting.
  3. The sentences are unnecessarily convoluted.  (Bella really likes em-dashes!)  That particularly hampered the pacing during the death scene flash-forward.
  4. I don’t think the author is on my page.  The narrator says that she’s terrified, but she actually comes across as implausibly calm.*  She denies that she’s verbose, but even her denial is verbose!  If you want readers to reach those conclusions, have your characters lead the way with their actions and words.  Telling us she has a particular trait when she’s demonstrating that she doesn’t is probably not as effective as it could be (unless you consciously want to make the character look unaware of herself).

 

*Across the board, the author could have done more “showing” rather than “telling.”  For example, I would have tried to show how terrified the narrator was by using syntax, her word-choice, body-language and actions. Terror is a strong emotion that should be more visible than it was. Although she’s purportedly terrified, she actually comes off as implausibly calm for someone facing death at an early age. It didn’t feel believable to me.

 

**********

If you enjoyed this review of Twilight, please also see my list of editing errors in the Twilight series.

294 responses so far