Tag Archives: April 2020

Trick Readers Into Thinking You Know What The Heck You’re Talking About

How often has this happened to you: You’re reading a book. Everything is going great. You’re enjoying it. Then, out of nowhere, you’re hit with that dreaded moment where you stop and roll your eyes. You put down the book and sigh. “That’s not how that works,” you say.

As readers, only the most incredibly fortunate of us can say that we genuinely have not experienced this moment before. It’s more than likely that you’re in the majority that has experienced that situation yourself.

Nothing ruins a good book quicker than inaccuracies and inconsistencies. As writers, that should be front and center on our minds as we develop our stories. Ideally, there will be people reading what we’ve written. And ideally, that readership will grow exponentially.

That equates to a lot of readers with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experiences and a lot of interests on one side. On the other, we find ourselves. ‘Little old me,’ having every word I write critiqued and analyzed.

Is it possible for us as individual, lonely writers with simple, introverted lives to convince our audiences, with a combined IQ far beyond anything we could even conceive of, that we do, in fact, know what we’re talking about? Can we convince them that our stories are accurate and that they can feel free to check their concerns at the door and just enjoy them?

The solution, I believe, is that we have to work hard to “trick” our readers. There was a suggestion discussed on multiple episodes of the writing podcast Writing Excuses that I believe is key for achieving this goal.

The idea they presented was that, as a writer, you have a budget of free passes, or gimmes. There are a certain number of things you can expect your audience to accept without question.

The number of free passes you get is not static. You can earn your reader’s suspension of disbelief as if its currency that you can collect and spend as needed.

Put simply, if you convince your readers that you know what you’re talking about by demonstrating your knowledge clearly and early on, then they will be more and more inclined to put their faith in you as a writer.

Take as an example the first two excellent seasons of the BBC drama Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes has been an incomparable genius ever since his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, released in 1887.

The problem is that the writers who have depicted him in adaptations such as Sherlock have had to do so without his unbelievable gifts. This would justly scare the crap out of any sane writer. They’re not just being judged on the quality of their story, but on their ability to do the impossible.

So, what did Stephen Moffat do in his premiere episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, to demonstrate the main character’s extraordinary capacity for deduction?

From Sherlock’s very introduction, Moffat took advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate his mental abilities.

With one glance at his future best friend John Watson, he was able to identify his career as a medical doctor, the location of his stationing, his psychological profile, and his desire to be Sherlock’s flatmate.

When Watson pulled out his cellphone, Sherlock managed to deduce that it was a gift from his alcoholic brother, a deduction that was accurate in everything but gender.

All of these deductions, upon further inspection, make perfect sense. They hold up under scrutiny. Every piece of the evidence presented fits into place perfectly to form the picture as he portrays it.

After careful observation, you can’t help but believe that Stephen Moffat himself is fully capable of discovering the same amount of detail if he was to meet John Watson in real life.

That, of course, is so far from the realm of possibility for most writers that it’s laughable at best. What Stephen Moffat did in the creation of this episode was to work backward. He started with the answers, the deductions, and then no doubt spent days, if not weeks, figuring out what clues there could possibly be to lead him towards that answer.

There are three advantages that Moffat had in the creation of this episode.

First, Stephen Moffat had as much time as he needed to depict Sherlock Holmes as a genius. He could brainstorm, discuss, organize, and polish what became a scene of less than a minute on-screen.

Second, Stephen Moffat had near-unlimited resources available during the writing of this episode. He might not have known anything about the qualities of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he had the internet. He had experts available on any field imaginable that could answer his inquiries with the click of a button. He could research as much as needed until his writing was polished like a gem.

Third, the viewer had precious few moments to register what Sherlock had said to John Watson and even less time to decipher it and come to the conclusion that Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, a genius.

From that moment on, the viewer is willing to believe more and more of what Sherlock says on blind faith. Eventually, the writers of the show got to the point where they could simply let him make an observation and go about his business without any need for explanation.

That trust built all the way to the end of the second season when not a single viewer doubted that Sherlock had an unbelievable plan in place when he jumped off that roof.

Unfortunately, that trust does have limits, and the premiere of season three of Sherlock pushed the viewers’ suspension of disbelief past its breaking point. They realized how implausible everything they were being presented was, and thus the writers’ spell over them was broken.

How can we succeed in tricking our readers? Just like Stephen Moffat, there are three things we can do.

1—Take as much time as you need.

Writing a novel is a journey of months, if not years. The best part is that you don’t have to get it all perfect on your first go.

Most writers operate under the belief that the first draft of their novel has to be perfect. The truth is that it is the first step in a long, multi-faceted process. You don’t have to have all the answers when you start writing.

2—Do your research and talk to experts.

Unfortunately, there are occasions when time alone will not be enough to successfully write a story. There’s only so much that you can do on your own, and there are many occasions where you can’t BS your way through the details.

There will be times when you do not have the knowledge necessary to complete your writing on your own. This is especially the case when dealing with topics of science, real-world cultures, jobs, settings, and so on. Ask the experts. Read articles about the topics of your story. Heck. Read entire books about them.

If you want to write about Cleveland, Ohio, go visit Cleveland. Or, during this COVID-19 pandemic, traverse the city on Google Maps. Open up Twitter and find some Cleveland natives to give you the lowdown on the city.

If you want to write about police officers, watch a documentary or two. Interview an officer or, when the stay-at-home orders are rescinded, look into the possibility of going out on a ride-along so you can gain first-hand knowledge.

If you want to write about the effects of relativity, such as those on display in the Ender’s Game series and Interstellar, pick up a couple of books from the library. Message a college professor or a science aficionado. You have the opportunity, and the time, to learn and discover as you go.

3—Keep up the pace of the story.

Many of the deductions presented in Sherlock, especially the early ones, were explained and reasoned out for us to understand, even if just for a second.

Later on, they were presented at breakneck speeds. We often didn’t have the time to even register the details before the next deduction came along.

As writers, we have the option to either slow down the pace and focus on every little detail, keeping things front and center in our readers’ minds, or we can present the facts and move on.

We can give whatever details we need to, as quickly as possible, to make it sound like we know exactly what we’re talking about. Then we can keep moving, letting the high quality of our narrative carry our readers forward through the story without a second thought.

What tactics have you found for tricking your readers? If you’d like to share your techniques, send me a tweet at twitter.com/qj_author. And be sure to check out the incredibly helpful writing community while you’re there.

Ranking the Marvel End Battles, Part Four

In twelve years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has managed to release twenty-three blockbusters that, at worst were still successful at the box office, and at best currently hold the record for the highest-grossing film of all time.

When it comes to blockbuster franchises, only the James Bond series has more films among its ranks. Yet the MCU has managed to earn twice as much as any other series in history, including that of said super-spy.

Over the last three issues of this magazine, I have discussed one major issue that all of these films share. That issue is the general tendency they all have of containing copy-and-paste end battles. Throughout those articles, I have analyzed and ranked all the films based on the originality of said end battles.

The list started with The Incredible Hulk, which was far and away the most generic good-guy-vs.-bad-guy-with-the-exact-same-powers punching match in the whole of the MCU. It went on from there all the way until the most unique and original film, Avengers: Endgame.

This list was not based on the quality of the films as a whole, but rather how different their end battles managed to be, and how much they managed to stand out from the crowd.

But in my opinion, the most important reason for us as authors to look at, review, and analyze other stories such as these is so that we can take away lessons from them and make our own stories all the better for it.

Through thousands of years of history, humanity has demonstrated itself to be one big collaboration. Humans have learned from each other, learned from history, and built off of what’s come before. While some writers are very apprehensive about looking at the works of others for lessons, I believe that it’s an absolutely essential aspect of our humanity.

So, what can we learn about the end battles of the twenty-three films of the MCU?

Limiting the Suspension of Disbelief

One of the most obvious things that we can find while analyzing all of these films is that the more original and out of the ordinary the film, as well as the hero, are, the less original the villain and the end battles usually tend to be.

In a film that’s meant to introduce you to the concept of a real-world hero in a technologically advanced super-suit, the suit itself is where the line is drawn for the suspension of disbelief. Imagine if Iron Man, in the first Iron Man film, had faced Dormammu, or even Ronan the Accuser. The writers of this film already had to prove to us beyond the shadow of a doubt that the technology of these suits is not just possible, but real. Introducing such odd and unique varieties of characters and settings would extend the suspension of disbelief and pull you out of the story.

Iron Man 2 continued the theme of villains stealing technology from Stark. It wasn’t until Captain America: The First Avenger introduced super-soldiers that Iron Man 3 felt comfortable providing us with a unique villain, a walking reactor rather than a suit thief.

Ant-Man and Black Panther likewise introduced us as the audience to new and different technologies and settings. Doctor Strange provided the audience with one of the biggest leaps we’ve seen so far. To solidify all these new concepts and ideas, rather than have him fight a man in an advanced suit or a shape-shifting alien, the writers pitted him against a fellow sorcerer. Even the inclusion of Dormammu felt like a clear evolution of the celestial beings in Guardians of the Galaxy.

So, as authors, is it necessary for us to resist taking it too far with our own suspension of disbelief? Do we need to keep things within a category when we write, not veering too far from what’s been established already?

This is a hard question to answer. In a way, this is the very definition of genres. When someone picks up a fantasy book, they expect knights and wizards. When someone picks up a sci-fi book, they expect robots and spaceships.

Are there fantasy stories with robots and spaceships? Yes, there are. Take as an example Final Fantasy. Are there sci-fi stories with knights and wizards? Yes, there are. Take as an example Destiny.

But are these the exceptions that prove the rule? That’s where things get a little bit complicated. For every successful story that blends genres, there are a thousand more successful stories that don’t risk it.

I think the number one thing you need in order to successfully develop large-scale stories with multiple unique elements is a proven track record. It’s important not to start your career off by breaking the rules. This may work for the rare author, but for the most part, I believe that we need to start with the basics and establish ourselves as writers before we branch out.

What’s Best for Character Development

Another lesson that I believe we can learn from the MCU films is the way originality affects character development. For the most part, the greater the similarity of the villain to the hero, such as in Iron Man and Doctor Strange, the more they fade into the background, placing the focus solely on the hero and their development.

So, from this point of view, you could conclude that making them essentially the same characters but evil allows the villain’s personality to be a foil to that of the hero. This permits you to develop the hero to the greatest extent possible in the story.

Of course, that’s not always the case. It can’t be that easy. Some of the best character-driven stories of the MCU come when the hero is faced with a unique and different villain. Doctor Strange (on the flip side) and Spider-Man: Far From Home come readily to mind. While they could have demonstrated the same character development if they were being reflected off of identical villains, it’s ultimately the uniqueness of the villains that offers the setting necessary for their character development.

Mysterio was the physical personification of the lies and self-doubt that Spider-Man had to learn how to look past to develop as a character and move beyond Tony Stark’s death. Dormammu presented Doctor Strange with such a unique set of circumstances that he was able to demonstrate his skills and resolve the battle in a way that would have been impossible against Kaecilius alone.

But for every Doctor Strange, there’s a Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was wholly unique in the fact that Carol Danvers was so completely overpowered when compared to her enemies. Yet that provided her with virtually no opportunity for character development. We didn’t see her resolve. Rather, we only saw her empowerment.

So yet again, there’s a caveat with the question of what’s best for your storytelling, and that is that it just depends on your story. It depends on what situation your character needs to confront to fulfill his character arc.

What your character needs to face could be a reflection of himself, to demonstrate his evolution and the ending of his character arc. Or it could be something completely unique, to emphasize other qualities that they’ve had to develop along the way, such as bravery and creativity.

Same Old Same Old is Boring

Finally, there’s one lesson from these twenty-three films that I feel is undeniable. For the most part, having the hero face an evil clone of himself is just plain boring.

The less the ending of the film is used to reflect the main character’s personal arc, the worse the result is, because the only thing that was capable of carrying the story forward, the unique character development, is also lacking.

Examples of this include, beyond a shadow of a doubt, The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World. Neither of these films had overly interesting or well-developed main characters with profound character arcs. And neither of them had an end battle that was in any way necessary or significant for their character arc. So, what we’re left with is an even planed battle of veritable similitude that never achieves the status of “interesting” or even “entertaining”.

On the other hand, some of the most outstanding end battles in the MCU have earned their position because of their uniqueness. One such battle that comes to mind is that of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The way the story evolved past a super-powered punching match and allowed Steve Rogers the opportunity to just give up rather than kill his best friend was so unique and so profoundly fresh and enjoyable.

Likewise, seeing Thor realize that he actually had to give up in Thor: Ragnarok and utterly destroy Asgard to save the Asgardians is a profound and emotional event that stuck with us long after the film ended.

So now let’s open it up to you, dear reader. As unique human beings with unique histories and experiences, each one of us is going to have a different take-away, even when looking at the exact same stories with the exact same objective and perspective.

So, let’s collaborate. What lessons do you believe can be learned from the end battles of the twenty-three MCU films? Let me know on Twitter at twitter.com/qj_author. I look forward to hearing from you and having the opportunity to learn from your own unique perspective.

Next week’s issue of The Writer’s Everything is going to look at the roles of the two Captain America: Civil War bugs, Ant-Man and Spider-Man. Were they misplaced in their respective roles? Find out next time.

Ranking the Marvel End Battles, Part Three

Critics can level all sorts of accusations regarding the quality of entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and even superhero films in general. If there’s one accusation that is more valid than any other, though, it would be regarding their paint-by-numbers end battles.

The hero learns to use his powers, only to be confronted by another character with the same powers, but evil. It’s the tried and true formula that can’t help but be repeated again and again.

Over the last two issues of The Writer’s Everything, I have been developing a list of every MCU end battle in order based on their originality.

We are now in part three with the final seven entries in this list. These following films are the most original, most unique, and most notable end battles in the MCU. So, let’s finish this list, film by film, and then next week, we’ll look at the list on a whole from the perspective of what we as writers can learn from it.

7—Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel was, in most respects, fairly paint-by-numbers. Of course, it was the first female-led solo MCU film. The end battle, however, will no doubt stand out for a long time to come. It was, honestly, a rather risky decision from a storytelling point-of-view, but it certainly bucked the trend of having two virtually identical characters on an even playing field, with the winner being whoever has a hero’s resolve. In this case, Captain Marvel discovers the true extent of her powers shortly before the battle with the Kree, and she proceeds to decimate their forces, leaving two of their three ships in ruins and scaring off the third. Did they feel like it would upset the masses if the first female-led MCU film featured an under-powered protagonist? I don’t know. Are the writers of the franchise going to find themselves at the bottom of a very deep hole when it comes time to write Captain Marvel 2? Absolutely. Nevertheless, it was in all respects unique, and easily earned its place above Avengers: Infinity War.

6—Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 was the first film of Phase 2 of the MCU, being released directly after Marvel’s The Avengers. This wasn’t the only first that this two hour and eleven-minute action-adventure extravaganza presented us with. It also happened to be the first film in the Iron Man series to not feature a villain in a custom-made Iron Man suit. Instead, it featured Aldrich Killian as the fire-breathing, Iron Man-suit-melting villain who takes upon himself the title of The Mandarin. I have to get this out in the open right now: I would have much rather had the real Mandarin in this film. He could have been the Heath Ledger of the MCU. However, this setup still delivered us a unique end battle. In fact, it was the only film out of the first nine MCU films that had that distinction.

5—Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok was an absolute joy to watch. It’s one of the most fun films in the history of the MCU, and one of the few that I can watch over and over again on repeat while maintaining the same level of enjoyment. While Hela, the goddess of death, is essentially an evil version of both Thor and Loki, the end battle of this film managed to be unique in a different way. After a mostly successful team-up of the Revengers, Thor realizes that he can’t save Asgard. The only way to defeat Hela and remove her powers is by allowing Ragnarok to take place and Asgard to be destroyed. A terribly timed, mood-ruining little quip from Korg notwithstanding, the ending of Thor: Ragnarok was both emotional and dramatic. The fact that it avoided throwing identical characters against each other in a punching match certainly served to make it a highlight of the MCU.

4—Doctor Strange

Amazing, mind-bending graphics or not, Doctor Strange follows the Marvel formula quite faithfully through most of the film. This is the case all the way until the end battle. The end battle itself appears to be just a typical MCU action fest until, at the last second, the status quo is altered drastically. Rather than dueling against Kaecilius the entire time, Doctor Strange finds himself confronted with Dormammu, whose goal is to absorb all of the multiverse into his Dark Dimension. To stop this from happening, Doctor Strange placed Dormammu and himself in a never-ending time loop. He willingly suffered agonizing deaths over and over again until he drove the celestial being mad. This is such an outstanding end battle because it puts Doctor Strange’s unique quirks on clear display. It was his ravenous hunger to learn and his desire to increase his understanding that led him to master the forbidden spells he used in this end battle, and it was his unique capacity for problem-solving that showed him how to use them in a way no one had ever imagined before.

3—Guardians of the Galaxy

Here we are at the top three. This entry may well be a divisive choice for many comic-book movie fans who hated the ending to the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. They believed it to be the epitome of everything that is wrong with the MCU, including its childishness and emphasis on humor over realism. Honestly, Lee Pace’s dramatic, “What are you doing?!” was certainly over the top and added some validity to these complaints. However, we have to remember that films are over-simplified representations of life. The ending of Guardians of the Galaxy served to demonstrate that Peter Quill chose to do the one thing that only he would do to save the universe. It just so happened that that was initiating a dance-off. It really highlights Peter’s child-like naivety and makes him so unquestionably heroic in the face of his severe limitations.

2—Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home was the last MCU film to have been released in theaters, and honestly, I can’t go on enough about how much I love what they did with the end battle in this film. Mysterio was my favorite Spider-Man villain ever since I was a child. I used to dream of what he could do if his powers were ever brought to the big screen. Far From Home certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. It provided us with an end battle so unique and different from anything the MCU had done before. Instead of a duel of genetically enhanced gods among men, he’s fighting against a guy with some projectors and his own 3D animation studio. Even better, Peter Parker doesn’t just punch his way out of this one, as was done in Black Panther. No, he has to finish his journey of self-discovery to see through all of Beck’s lies and deceit, and the end result serves as a fantastically emotional and moving ending for an MCU film.

1—Avengers: Endgame

I’m going to come right out and say it. I would have loved to have let Spider-Man: Far From Home have the top spot on this list of most original MCU end battles. It certainly has that position in my heart. Unfortunately, Avengers: Endgame had to go and be the epic, emotional, fulfilling culmination of everything that the MCU had been building to since Iron Man first came out in 2008. The end battle may not in itself be original or unique. Honestly, you could say it’s just another Avengers movie in some senses. However, the scale of this end battle is unparalleled, not just within the MCU, but in the history of live-action filmmaking. We’d never seen anything like this before, and we won’t soon see its equal. The way they effortlessly weaved dozens of main characters from over 20 films into this end battle was simply jaw-dropping. If that in itself isn’t enough uniqueness for you, there are also a couple of well-earned moments of pure fan service, namely Captain America’s wielding of Mjolnir and Tony Stark’s heart-wrenching final line, “I am Iron Man.”

Well, here we are at the end of the list. There’s no doubt in my mind that you didn’t agree with some of the entries. You more than likely swore at the screen of your electronic device of choice, saying, “How stupid can he be putting X ahead of Y!”

However, I hope that, for the most part, I was able to win you over, if just for a moment, to my point of view.

Now that we’re done with this list, though, the question for us as writers is, “What does it all mean?” Are there lessons within the end battles of these 23 MCU films that we can use to perfect our craft?

That will be a discussion for next week’s issue of The Writer’s Everything. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter at qjmartin.org/newsletter so that you’ll receive Issue #014 sent directly to your inbox upon release.