How to Fix Riddick

I love Pitch Black. It’s an almost perfect B movie to me, all horror and snark and very little fat left on the bone.

After the bloat of Chronicles of Riddick, I was hoping the third movie would be a return to form, stripping away the mythology of the sequel to reveal the basics that made the original great.

Instead, Riddick is just another male power fantasy, embracing every cliche possible, from “one man against the wilderness” to “masculine man of manliness converts lesbian to heterosexuality.”

What a mess.

But it’s not hopeless. There’s a good movie buried in there. We get flashes of it in the dialog given to the grunt mercs, which is cynical and darkly funny. We see more of it in the early scenes of Riddick hunting the mercs down, a horror film where Riddick is the monster.

It’s this film we need to strengthen.

We start by dropping the entire first third of the movie. I don’t care how Riddick ended up marooned on the world. The fact that he is marooned is what’s important, and that it happened after the events of Chronicles of Riddick. But I can learn he’s marooned there from the mercs’ dialog when they talk about someone setting off the emergency beacon, and I can deduce this is happening after Chronicles when I see Riddick wearing his Necromonger armor.

Instead of starting with backstory, the movie should open with the mercs landing. By starting there, all the mystery they encounter gives the movie tension. We know (or think we know) Riddick’s going to show up at some point, but we don’t know where or when or how. And when we find out he called the mercs there, and we read his note, we wonder when the bodies will start to fall.

The entire first half of the movie should be given over to this Alien-like horror sequence, with the mercs pitted against Riddick, the monster in the night.

Given more room to breathe, this part can tell us all we need to know about Riddick’s time on the planet. We can see him use his dog to trick the mercs. We can watch him use the water monsters’ poison to kill one or two of the others (and let him explain in an off-hand remark that he’s immune to their venom). By using the planet as part of his arsenal, we’ll get the sense that Riddick’s been there a while, that he knows his way around, and that the mercs face an uphill battle.

For the final half, we can introduce the rain storm. This twist forces Riddick to reach out to the (reduced to maybe one or two remaining) mercs for a truce, and now we get the scenes of a captured Riddick escaping and the tension of the mistrust between the two groups.

Finally, Dahl’s character should have a consistent sexuality. Either she should be — and remain — a lesbian, and the sexual talk between her and Riddick rewritten into a form of oddly respectful banter, or her line to Santana should be changed to “I don’t f— little boys,” and it made clear that she’s attracted to men that could their own against her in a fight (maybe by hitting on Diaz). Either way, their lines to each other need to be rewritten to show some chemistry — either friendly or otherwise — between the two.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The second of the set of classics I’ve decided to finally go back and read.

As with Heart of Darkness, this book deserves its status. It’s oddly written from a modern perspective, violating rules left and right — telling instead of showing, switching from third to first person narration at the end of the book, having significant action happen off-screen — but is an absolute delight to read. The characters are all distinct and interesting, the dialog often made me laugh out loud, and despite the gulf of two hundred years — and a good deal of class status — made me relate to and care about the happiness of the Bennets.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Verbal tags (e.g., he shouted, she sighed) aren’t as necessary as I thought. Austen uses almost none, yet since we know so much about each character’s personality, we can infer the tone and intent.
  • Description can be dropped for a book set in the same time period as the audience. Austen didn’t need to describe a drawing room, or a coach, or any of the characters’ clothes. Cutting all that description gave her more room for dialog and inner thoughts, which was more time for us to spend getting to know and care about her characters.
  • Don’t feel constrained by time. Austen zooms in and out of events as she pleases, summarizing a ball but giving a single conversation blow-by-blow. Skipping over events let her cover a lot of ground in a single novel.

Dropping Threads

Novel’s made it to 43,593 words.

Starting to worry that pantsing it means I’m dropping plot threads. I’ve already noticed a major one that just completely fell of my radar, and two more that are smaller but also haven’t been addressed in a while.

Not sure if I should slow down and try to fill them in, work the missing threads back into the book, or keep moving forward, and worry about fixing it later.

This might even be a good thing, a sign that these plot elements don’t belong, and should be cut, not reinforced.

It’s hard to tell which is right. I think it’s too late for the major plot point, that’ll have to wait for the second draft. The minor ones, though, I think I can fill in as I go, and take care not to leave them behind. I guess if I get stuck somewhere further in to the book, and it’s because of these missing threads, I’ll know to be more careful in the future.

Aliens vs Predator: Which is the Better Movie?

A friend of mine last week insisted that Aliens was a better movie than Predator. Having fond memories of both of these movies from my younger days, I didn’t believe her at first. I thought the movies were very different but equally good sci-fi films.

I re-watched both movies to test her thesis, and man, was I wrong. Aliens is far and away the better movie, and not just because Sigourney Weaver can out-act the former governor.

Both movies turn out to be very similar to each other, but the writing and structure of Aliens is much better, much better.

How They’re Similar

Both movies follow a military team into an uncertain situation. This uncertain situation turns out to contain an alien threat.

The alien threat in both cases clearly outmatches the resources of the team.

Both squads have an Outsider Who Is In Charge along with them (Dillon in Predator, Burke in Aliens). This Outsider has a different moral code than the rest of the team, being concerned with either profit or enemy intelligence above everything else.

The original mission in both movies is supposed to be rescue, but we find out the team has been tricked, and they’re really there to advance the Outsider’s agenda.

The Outsider is karmically punished for their betrayal of the team by the alien threat.

The climax of both movies is a one-on-one fight between the protagonist and the main alien threat.

What Aliens Does Better

Almost everything.

The Team

Let’s start with the team, since that’s who we spend most of the movie with. This is supposed to be a tight-knit group of people who have worked together for a long time, and we’re supposed to root for them throughout. So the film needs to take every chance it has to communicate that to us.

Aliens succeeds. Its marines seem to actually like each other, and function as team. We get to see them joking and talking as they come out of hyper-sleep and while they’re eating before the mission briefing. They continue to banter using their radios as the mission starts (before things go haywire).

We also get a clear sense of the hierarchy and role for each member of the team: we know who the sergeant is, which people are carrying the heavy guns, who’s got the radar for spotting, etc.

Predator fails to do any of this. The members of the team don’t seem to like each other at all. We don’t see them bantering, but we do see them do some macho posturing, which is not a substitute.

What’s more, none of the team members really seem to have a clear role. They all carry basically the same weapons, they don’t work in groups, and they all have the same skills.

The one exception is Billy, the tracker, but he’s so close to the “wise Native American hunter” stereotype that it doesn’t serve to flesh out his character, it just makes him more of a caricature.

The Betrayal

Next, the “turn” or “betrayal” moment, when we find out the Outsider has tricked the team.

In Aliens this is a real betrayal. Burke locked two of them in with an alien in the hopes it would impregnate one of them, and was ready to kill the others so he could take off on his own (with the alien and its host). The Outsider turns out to be a real threat to the team, and there’s conflict generated both in overcoming his betrayal and deciding how to punish him for it.

Predator‘s betrayal is much lower key. The team’s capture of the rebel camp seems effortless, with not much risk to any of the team members. Dillon’s betrayal is just an ulterior motive for getting in the camp. He never directly puts anyone’s lives in danger, and so the protagonist’s treatment of him feels overblown and melodramatic. There’s no real punch to it.

It would have been much better to make Dillon’s betrayal more serious. Imagine if Dutch’s team made it to the camp only to find that everyone was dead, with Anna the only survivor. She won’t talk, but they decide to take her back with them anyway. As they head back to the evac point, the team start getting picked off by the Predator. Eventually only Dutch, Anna, and Dillon are left.

Dillon finally confesses what’s really happening: he knew about the Predator, and contracted Dutch’s team under false pretenses because his first pick got wiped out by the alien. He wants to capture it, which is why he hasn’t been shooting to kill when he sees it. He’s ready to admit that he was wrong, though, and wants to help kill it so they can all get home.

Now Dutch has got a real moral problem: should he trust Dillon and work with him to defeat the predator? Or should he punish him for betraying his team and getting most of them killed?

Either choice is interesting, and would have a significant impact on the plot.

The Climax

Finally, the climax of Aliens is done better. I don’t just mean the robot-on-alien action (which is objectively awesome).

I mean that in the Predator climax, the alien gets progressively dumber. He starts out as this advanced warrior, but eventually ditches all his advantages — his armor, his gun, his helmet — to take on the protagonist in one-on-one combat. Against such a willfully dumb and weakened adversary, how could the protagonist lose?

In Aliens, the alien queen gets smarter as the fight goes on. We originally see her as just an egg laying machine. But she escapes from the power station before it blows up, stowing away on the ship. Once on the ship, she waits until they’re docked with the main one before emerging, and when she does she goes after the humans for food (Well, and maybe a little revenge. She does seem pissed off). She uses every advantage she has, all her strength and cunning, which makes Ripley’s victory even more impressive.

The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts by Graham Robb

An odd book. The author’s main thesis — that the Celts knew enough about geometry and astronomy to align their cities with the path of the sun — is convincing, once his evidence is laid out. But along the way he falls into claims that sound more like an “aliens built the pyramids” book, such as when he says all Celtic art was based on complex geometric designs.

It’s hard to fault him too much, though; the central idea is inspiring, and his excitement at getting to share it bleeds through.

Just a few of the things I learned from this book:

  • The Druids — and the Celts in general — were not illiterate, though writing down druidic knowledge was taboo. Most of their writing was done using the Greek alphabet.
  • There were several large Celtic migrations in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, that were apparently well-planned (Caesar relates one that was planned two years ahead of time). Many of these ended up in northern Italy; both Bologna and Milan were founded by migrating Gauls.
  • The Roman conception of Gaul’s geography was terrible. Tacitus thought Ireland was just off the coast of Spain (!). Caesar had to rely completely on local knowledge to navigate the terrain. In contrast, a Gaul from Marseille (Pytheas) circumnavigated Europe in the 320s BCE (Mediterranean to Atlantic Coast to Britain to Baltic to Black Sea back to Mediterranean), taking accurate latitude readings the whole way.

Writing Through It

Novel’s grown to 41,169 words.

This week’s writing has been done not in spite of stress, or without it, but because of it.

A lot of things I thought were settled suddenly popped back up again: my mother-in-law has been in and out of the hospital, the buyers for our house seem to be having second thoughts, and my day job turned into slamming my head into a brick wall over and over again, for eight hours.

On top of that, the time for me to pack up the house and move is getting closer, so I’ve got that prep to deal with: going through years of accumulated memories in an empty house and sorting through which ones get to come with us and which ones get left behind.

I thought it would prove too much, and that I’d have to stop writing again. I did take off an extra day this week, spent it watching movies instead of working on the book.

But the next day I got back into it, and was surprised to find that writing the novel — at this point, at least — is the easiest way to take my mind off of all the stress. It’s hard to feel lonely when I’m writing dialog, or worry about my house selling when I’m trying to work through a character’s alibi.

I’m not sure why it’s so different now than back in July. Perhaps it’s because I’ve loosened my grip on my outline, so I don’t have to think so far ahead?

Whatever the cause, I’m grateful for it.

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Fantastic, pulpy action. I mean, it’s zombies vs superheroes, how could I not read this?

The writing is sharp and moves along at a good clip, with a cinematic feel. Clines’ use of flashbacks lets him bounce back and forth across the zombie apocalypse divide, deepening the characters and the world without slowing the action.

Three things about writing I learned from this one:

  • Even in an ensemble book, focus on no more than half a dozen characters. I couldn’t tell the non-superheroes apart in this one, and gave up trying to keep track of them all. The heroes were all well-fleshed out, but the regular humans were extras, and who watches a movie for the extras?
  • Using flashbacks in short, quick bursts can let you jump in to the interesting part of the story immediately, building and keeping momentum behind the main storyline. Clines could have used the first third of the book to work through each heroes’ timeline before the zombie apocalypse happened, but it would have resulted in a much slower book.
  • Don’t be afraid of writing what you want to write. I’m sure there are plenty of people that would look down on the zombies + superheroes concept, but I’m glad Clines ignored all of them and wrote something this fun and entertaining.

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

An amazing achievement. Moore’s novel deals head-on with the tragedy and emotional wreckage of losing someone you love, but doesn’t pull its comedic punches either. You end up with a book that’s perfectly willing to poke fun of the lead character one minute, then show the empathy resulting from his experience of tragedy the next.

Oh, and did I mention Moore does it while keeping the writing so smooth its frictionless, juggling multiple points of view, and occasionally just stopping the action to give background on the psychology of the main character?

Forget amazing. It’s intimidating.

Three things I gleaned from this one:

  • You can get away with dropping a lot of background info on the reader if it’s: a) humorous and entertaining, b) about one of the main characters, c) dropped in after the reader’s already emotionally invested in that character
  • Placing a tragedy at the heart of a comedy gives it an emotional weight that strengthens both
  • You can setup multiple POV later in a novel by swapping out from the main character for short bursts in the beginning, then gradually lengthening the time away from the main POV character as you go. By the time you get to the longer passages later in the book, your readers won’t have any problems switching and keeping track of them all.

The Only Thing Blocking Me is My Fear of Being Blocked

Novel’s reached 37,510 words.

My semi-pantsing of the thing is still working. The characters are starting to do and say things on their own now, which I’m taking as a good sign. It means I can relax my grip a little more, give them leeway to go through the story in their own way.

I still get a sense of physical terror when I sit down at the keyboard, though. It’s been getting stronger every day the past week, as if each day’s success means I’m that much more likely to fail the next day. I know it’s not true, that the words will come if I just sit down and push them out.

But fear isn’t rational. Sure, I’m not as worried anymore about making the first draft as perfect as it can be. Now I’m just worried about being able to write each day’s part of the draft at all.

Only way I’ve found so far to defeat the anxiety is, of course, to write. Writing the day’s words pushes the fear back a little, proves once again that I can do this, that I can create something on the page.

Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George

Fascinating. Shines light on an invisible but vital industry. The author got to travel on a container ship from the UK to Singapore, and she uses each stage of the journey to dive into the history and current existence of merchant sailors, from their food to how they deal with pirates to the convoluted shell companies that own and run the ships.

Extremely well-written, and made my next visit to the Maritime Museum much more interesting, because I understood more of the context in which those ships were operating.

Three of the very many things I learned:

  • Merchant sailors are often cheated out of pay by their bosses. In 2010 alone, the International Transport Workers Federation managed to recover $30 million in back pay that was owed to seafarers.
  • The Suez Canal is only wide enough for one-way traffic, so they have to stagger the ships going through in convoys each way
  • Merchant sailors captured by pirates in the Indian Ocean are held for 250 days (!) on average