Big Damn Heroes

Repost from March 26, 2012:
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I love nothing better than a real, honest-to-goodness hero. There is just something about a larger-than-life, two-fisted, rootin’ tootin’ good guy who beats up the baddies and rescues the girl that appeals to me on a primal level. I’ve got my favorite heroes from film, television, and literature and there are several qualities they all have in common.

Unconventional
My favorite heroes are men who follow their own star. While some, like Indiana Jones, may superficially appear to conform to societal standards (Archaeology Professor) they have a rebellious streak. You realize that, while they appear to conform, they have found their own way to gain acceptance within the system while operating outside its constraints. Another favorite hero who fit into this mold was Fox Mulder from the X-Files. He was a brilliant FBI profiler whose obsession with the paranormal landed him in the basement of the J.Edgar Hoover Building.

Others openly flout convention, like Daniel Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye from Last of the Mohicans. He is the adopted son of Chingachgook, and though white, he eschews the ways of the white settlers in favor of living off the land like his father’s people. Paul Newman and Robert Redford brilliantly portrayed this kind of hero in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Still others are forced from their conventional lives, like Errol Flynn’s Peter Blood in Captain Blood, or Robin Hood, or Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, or the Science Fiction icons Han Solo (Star Wars) and Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly). These heroes are usually princes among thieves, men of honor and integrity who are forced into a society devoid of these things, and as such, they rise above their circumstances, holding to their own code and earning the respect (and often animosity) of those around them.

Which brings me to the next quality of a Big Damn Hero…

Integrity
No matter the mores of the society in which they operate, the Hero will always hold to his own code of ethics which is often in conflict with that of his society, but inviolate. Once the hero decides that something is “wrong” it’s wrong and nothing can force him to compromise his values. This often keeps the hero from finding success by the standards of his society, but he measures success differently.

Rugged Individualist
It only goes to reason that the unconventional man with integrity tends to be self-reliant and not in need of validation from others.

Resourceful
One of my favorite things about the Big Damn Hero is the creative ways he finds to save the day. I don’t care if it’s reprogramming the Kobiyashi Moru, raising an army of the dead, using himself as a diversion, floating away with the garbage, or setting his ship to self-destruct while he and his crew make their getaway in the bad guy’s War Bird, the hero is clever under fire. He is ready to sacrifice himself, and the things that mean the most to him, in order to save the day.

Invincible
Okay, maybe not really invincible, because Superman leaves me cold. It’s more the attitude than the actual invincibility that I love. One of my favorite lines comes from Galaxy Quest. “Never give up, never surrender.” That’s the attitude of a hero. No matter how bad things get, the Big Damn Hero never sees failure as an option. He’ll rescue the girl, save the world, stop the bad guy or die trying. I think that’s why I never saw Luke Skywalker as a true hero. He gave up too easily. Han Solo was the one who never stopped looking for a solution, a way out of whatever intergalactic pickle he’d landed in.

That’s one of the draws of Doctor Who for me. The Doctor isn’t invincible, but he is clever and resourceful and he never stops looking for the solution. He knows it’s there, he just has to find it before he runs out of time.


Impeccable Sense of Timing
The Big Damn Hero doesn’t save the day when trouble starts. He shines at the darkest moment when all hope is fading. The swashbuckling hero will burst onto the scene, swinging in on a rope from the rigging, swooping in from out of nowhere, with guns blazing and a heroic fanfare with lots of staccato strings and the entire brass and woodwinds section of the London Symphony Orchestra.

He’s got a determined glint in his eye and a crooked smile that asks the audience, “Did you miss me?” As he so handily manages the bad guys and the disaster with a quip and a flourish, I usually feel like batting my eyelashes, clasping my hands together. “My HERO!”

Heroes Gallery

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From Frying Pan to Fire: Scene and Sequel

Most writers have heard the terms “scene” and “sequel.” The first time I was exposed to the concept was when I read Dwight Swain’s book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. They are such an important element in storytelling that I wanted to write a blog post about them, but every time I started, I realized that consolidating all of the important elements of scene and sequel into a short post would be nearly impossible if I were to deal with the mechanics of them in any depth. After all, Swain took an entire chapter to delve into the nuances of scene and sequel – they are that important.

At the most rudimentary level, scene can be explained as “action” and sequel can be explained as “reaction.” Both exist together to drive the action forward and control the pace at which the story unfolds. Scene is about linear events and sequel is about the emotional impact of these events and opens the door to the next scene.

Every scene should be like a microcosm of a story in itself, with your character having a goal, reaching an obstacle, and encountering change as a result. In the sequel, the character has an emotional reaction to the conflict created by having their goal blocked and either overcoming or failing, deals with it and transitions into a new mindset in order to face the next scene.

A scene has three elements:

  1. Goal
  2. Conflict
  3. Disaster

The term disaster is used to describe the new negative state of affairs that must be overcome. Swain calls it a hook that pulls the story forward. The goal in a scene is a short-term, focused goal, small in scope and immediate. The conflict is the obstacle keeping your character from attaining his goal.

One example of these elements is found in the opening scenes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Indiana Jones has reached the golden idol in the temple of the Chachapoyan Warriors. His goal? To take the idol. The obstacle? The pedestal is booby trapped. The disaster? The temple collapses around him.

Enter the sequel. Swain’s three elements of a sequel are:

  1. Reaction
  2. Dilemma
  3. Decision

Reaction: Indy’s smug confidence turns to anxiety as he realizes he’s about to become a permanent part of the site. Dilemma: He doesn’t have the time to carefully negotiate his way back through the booby-trapped floor tiles. The ceiling is falling, setting off the poisoned darts. Decision: He makes a mad dash through and prays he makes it without getting hit by a dart or falling rocks.

Of course, Indy makes it through unscathed, stops and turns, adjusts his hat with a little relieved smile and the wall behind the idol shatters as the giant boulder crashes through. New goal, new conflict, new disaster.

That is an oversimplified explanation of scene and sequel, but you get the idea. Sometimes, it is possible to have several scenes in succession before bringing in the sequel, but the sequel must come into play. The sequel not only lets the character internalize the emotional impact of the action, but it also lets the reader figure out their own emotions as well.

Evoking an emotional response is what good fiction is all about. And that in a nutshell is how scene and sequel work together towards that end.

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Are you conscious of scene and sequel in your reading and writing? How do you keep track of scene and sequel?

Is Indiana Jones a Pantser?

One question writers get asked a lot is “planner or pantser?” First time I heard this, I stared at the person like they were from another dimension. Pantsing, or being pantsed has a completely different meaning in my world. I have three older brothers. Being a pantser in my house was being the person who went around catching ususpecting victims from behind and yanking their pants down around their ankles.

No, no, no, silly writer! Planner or pantser is the question about your writing process. Do you plan your story out with outlines and notes first? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go, like Indiana Jones chasing after the lost Ark of the Covenant?

Ah! I see now. It has nothing to do with adolescent pranks at all! Am I an organized linear thinker or am I a free-wheeling free-spirit?

I had to think about this one. For many years, I had what was jokingly referred to by my family as my “neverending story.” It was pretty much the equivalent of a television series in that my characters dealt with one crisis after another, resolving one only to have another one hit them after a short commercial break. This is not uncommon among pantsers. The problem with this for me is that story craft and construction suffer as the tale rambles on and on without any real buildup of tension, but it can be a fun ride!

The alternative is to have every move planned out and outlined with few, if any, surprises to the writer. But this way, you can be assured that the story builds at the appropriate times and advances the plot towards the climax… and all that other nuts and boltsy storytelling stuff that writers must master if they hope to find any measure of readership. Learning to write is something we all do in school. Learning to craft a story is a skill most writers spend a lifetime learning to master. Story craft without skillful wordsmithery or vice versa is what separates mediocre writing from stellar writing. Both disciplines must not only be studied, but mastered.

That’s one reason I (and many other writers) hate reviewing books. I see all the technical flaws. The most common flaws are*:

  • Typos
  • Misused words
  • Backstory dump
  • Passive voice
  • Telling not showing
  • Flat characters
  • Lack of tension
  • Plot points in the wrong place
  • Poorly developed middle
  • Unsatisfying story resolution
  • Sudden inexplicable character change without reasonable explanation or foreshadowing
  • Unsympathetic or unlikeable main characters

Historically, editors have caught these issues before they ever saw the light of day. Now, with the ease of self-publishing and with smaller press publishers, I see more and more of these issues in books on the market. Most of these issues can be resolved before the second draft if only the writer had done a little more planning and a little less pantsing.

What do I do? I know my flaws as a writer. I know my tendency towards passive voice. I know that I tend to info dump and miss the key moment to introduce a major plot point. I am guilty of every manuscript flaw on the list and several more I can’t think of at the moment. I write in a combination of first pantsing, then planning.

Plot points are key pivotal moments that change the course of the story. They’re the moments that take your characters out of their comfort zones and send them after the larger quest. They’re the scenes that are required to drive your story in the direction you want it to go. They happen at pretty much the same place in every story. You can see them if you know what you’re looking for. These are the scenes I try to write first. They tend to get revised several times before the end of the story, but they are the vital joints that propel the story forward.

Once I have the major plot points worked out, I make sure I have them at the right place in the story. If my first five chapters drag on without introducing the first plot point, then I’m starting the story in the wrong place.

Once the bare bones of plot points are laid out, I start pantsing. This is where I let my free-spirit soar and unleash my creativity. I let my characters go and just have fun with them following them from one plot point to another. I know I’ve got to get them to a certain point and I ask myself how to accomplish that. Once I get the pantsing urge out, I put my planning hat back on and look at the story, analyzing it for pacing, coherence, holes, dropped plot threads or missed opportunities.

I go back and forth between the two until it’s ready for the beta readers and finally the editor.

It’s not the way I started writing. It’s not the most fun way to write. It is the result of decades of story craft study, countless writer’s workshops, and numerous critiques that stripped my manuscripts bare and exposed their flaws for all to see. In short, it’s the way I’ve learned to write professionally.

I need a combination of planning and pantsing because for me, without the planning, if I presented my writing to the world, I would feel exposed, as if I had my pants down around my ankles, waiting for someone to point and laugh. By the same token, if I didn’t wing it every now and again, my work would fall flat and be too mechanical without any spontaneity or fun. Some of my favorite lines and scenes have come from just seeing where the spirit takes me. One method is not superior to another, but in utilizing both, I find that my writing shines brightest.

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How about you? Are you a planner, a pantser or some combination of the two?

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*Note:  Fifty Shades of Grey was guilty of all of these technical flaws which is why writers everywhere hold it in such contempt.