Constellations by Nick Payne

Constellations, acted by Edward Harrison and Stephanie Street at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, has a parallel-universe premise built on some very hand-waving “physics”.

The play has just two characters, Marianne and Roland. They appear in a series of short scenes on an empty stage below a light fixture of 100 LED “stars”. The scenes tell the story of one couple, but the two lovers don’t have just one story, they have many differing stories. Sometimes they never get past an awkward hello.

More below about the play and why it was entertaining.

Continue reading Constellations by Nick Payne

Looper (2012)

Looper has a time-travel premise, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. It was better.

I was perhaps expecting something like Edge of Tomorrow, if only because I read a reference to this movie when reading an article about that one a year and a half ago. But no, there is hardly any Groundhog-Day style repetition, just two simultaneous versions of one guy: a younger one (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an older one (played by Bruce Willis).

As I was watching it, I started to think maybe Looper would be like Paycheck, a sci-fi movie in which a hunted, mind-wiped character has to figure out some mysterious clues he gave himself, or Predestination, a time-travel movie in which there are some really strange relationships between the characters. But although it’s just as flawed as any time-travel movie, Looper isn’t really that complicated.

Looper has some dystopian futuristic stuff and some magical sci-fi stuff (mostly done with practical effects and not overbearing CGI), but the heart of the movie is not sci-fi, it’s drama. The themes include justice, redemption—and motherhood, of all things! The resolution of the conflict doesn’t hit you hard because it’s a clever gimmick, it hits you hard because it’s a deeply felt moral choice.

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Looper (2012)

The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel by Robert J. Ray

I’d say The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel is useful whether you’ve got a completed manuscript or not.

There are suggested methods for rewriting a whole manuscript by targeting certain parts of it on specific weekends, and suggested methods for writing vivid word pictures: use sensory descriptions, strong verbs, and concrete nouns—especially repeated objects that can become symbols.

But there are larger lessons, too.

The book talks about the primal conflicts that make stories compelling. Using examples from successful fiction and film, it explains story structure by breaking down subplots by character and showing how major scenes happen when secrets explode from the subplot and collide with the plot.

I still like Save the Cat better.

When and Why I Read The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel

I read this before. I remember it had useful things to say about subplots.

Genre: non-fiction (writing)
Date started / date finished:  07-Mar-17 to 13-Mar-17
Length: 266 pages
ISBN: 9780823084432 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Phew. Okay. Saint Anything was way less heartwrenchingly dire than Dreamland!

I loved the ongoing debate about what the band should be called; reminds me of the Zits comic in which Jeremy’s mom offers the band some goat cheese pizza during practice, and “goat cheese pizza” thus becomes the name of the band.

I’m always impressed by Dessen’s fake world. At least some of the time she reuses the same town and high schools, which makes the places feel familiar and real even if they’re not. Her world also has its own shops, restaurants, brand names and pop stars. The culture her teen characters inhabit is specific and authentic without being real. It isn’t tied to a specific place and time.

I have noticed technology creep in over the years, though, which might give readers a way to place the setting in time. For example, the characters didn’t have smartphones in earlier books… but nobody had smartphones in 1996 when Dessen published That Summer! The characters; computers and phones aren’t an important part of the novels, but teens reading the earlier ones might scratch their heads wondering why tech isn’t as important in the characters’ lives as it is in their own.

When and Why I Read Saint Anything

I’ve read all Sarah Dessen’s books so far.

Genre: fiction (YA)
Date started / date finished:  04-Mar-17 to 06-Mar-17
Length: 417 pages
ISBN: 9780147516039 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2015
Amazon link: Saint Anything

Westworld (Season 1)

After watching the trailer plus one episode, I would say Westworld reminds me of two other sci-fi productions.

Westworld reminds me of Bladerunner (1982) because the “hosts”, the synthetic people who inhabit the Westworld theme park, are, like the replicants, starting to want to protect themselves and choose their fates. The difference is in the hardware: the replicants are genetically engineered, not built by robotic 3D printers and controlled by wireless signal receivers like the hosts.

Westworld also reminds me of the show Dollhouse (2009–2010), which is also about an expensive service that gratifies rich clients by supplying them with realistic but fake people. One difference is that the dolls are not fundamentally artificial; they were and will again be people with their own pasts and futures. Their brains and bodies are simply borrowed during their contracted time. Another difference is that the dolls go out into the real world and pass as people, whereas the clients of the Westworld park only interact with the hosts within the park itself… at least as far as we know!

There’s also an element of repetition reminiscent of Groundhog Day (1993) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014), but the loops are not actual loops in time, just loops in the behavior of androids who have been programmed to behave the same way over and over.

I’m interested in the philosophical questions the science-fiction premise raises:

  • Could an android become human by having experiences?
  • How should we treat androids for our own sakes, if not theirs?
  • Could we be downloaded into replacement bodies, and thus live forever? If so, would we still be human?

What I don’t like about the show is that it has violent scenes with a real tinge of horror. I get that the show is trying to be raw and disturbing. Reining back the violence would lessen the drama.

Update 13 March 2017: After watching all of Season 1, I can say that the show is thoroughly bloody, and yet philosophically interesting enough to hold the attention even of a squeamish person. Free will vs. determinism, good vs. evil, humans vs. artificial intelligence. Captivating.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

I love Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

I’ve been using Snyder’s fifteen-item beat sheet to analyze movies. The beat sheet has helped me remember movies after I’ve watched them, and has also helped me appreciate their twists and turns as they happen. Ultimately, I hope internalizing the beat sheet will help me as a writer.

A 2013 Slate article blamed Snyder for a slew of bad movies, claiming that ever since he published his ‘formula’, movie-makers have slavishly followed it, to the detriment of art. It’s hard to disagree, until you read the rebuttal, which is that bad movies exist because making good movies is hard. Okay, yeah, fair enough.

Storytelling is an old art, and stories already had a three-act structure back when Aristotle was around, because he wrote about it. Nobody blames Joseph Campbell, with his famous Jungian Hero with a Thousand Faces, for ruining storytelling by outlining the meta-myth from which all myths spring. No more should we blame Snyder for understanding how best to bend myths into movies.

I read the Campbell book; didn’t much care for it. I’ve considered reading Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, but I suspect it’s more on Campbell’s end of the spectrum than Synder’s. Somewhere sitting happily in the middle is Robert J. Bly’s book The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel, which leverages many mythological archetypes and terms from Greek rhetoric but explains and exemplifies them usefully, often giving tips for writing novels lifted from—you guessed it—the discipline of screenwriting. I’m tempted to read something by Syd Field or Robert McKee, but then, at least at this point, I’m not actually interested in screenwriting per se.

Save the Cat isn’t all about the much-maligned beat sheet; if it were, the book would be called Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet instead. What else is in the book?

  • how to write and test a good logline (one sentence movie concept)
  • Blake’s list of 10 unconventional movie “genres”
  • how to choose a hero
  • how to arrange your scenes on “the board” (use four rows; one row of about 10 scenes for Act I, two for Act II, one for Act III)
  • how to leverage a handful of quirkily named commonsense rules of screenplay writing (including Save the Cat)
  • how to troubleshoot a weak screenplay
  • what to do after you finish writing a screenplay
  • a glossary of terms (industry terms and Snyderisms)

Right, so, what does “Save the Cat” mean anyway? It just means that your protagonist should do or experience something very early on to win the audience’s support.

When and Why I Read Save the Cat

I have read this book before. It has been great at helping me think about plot. In fact, I have the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet on the wall by my computer. I read the book again to get a firmer grip on the details. There is so much more good advice than I remembered. How does it all fit in such a short book with so much whitespace? I don’t know how he did it.

Genre: non-fiction (movies, writing)
Date started / date finished:  26-Feb-17 to 04-March-17
Length: 195 pages
ISBN: 9781932907001 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2005
Amazon link: Save the Cat

Style by Joseph M. Williams

I never thought I would read the word “turgid” so many times in my entire life. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace repeats the word, of course, because it’s telling you how to avoid writing “turgid prose”.

There’s a lucid chapter on the subject of usage, which deftly cuts through all the normal chatter about what should be a rule and why or why not, but most of the book is not about controversial words and grammatical constructions. It’s about what makes a passage understandable, and it describes the process of transforming one that’s not into one that is. It’s describing the acquisition and communication of concepts and knowledge as much as anything. It’s almost a book of cognitive psychology. I have a lot of books on language and writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like this before.

Maybe that’s because it was originally a textbook. It feels a bit strange to watch someone poke sentences and move bits of them around on the page; the skills being described can only really be improved through use. This version of the book is informative, but perhaps not as effective as the versions that give the reader practice writing and revising.

More on what I liked about the book and when and why I read it below.

Continue reading Style by Joseph M. Williams

Blade Runner (1982)

Note to self: There is no need to ever watch Blade Runner again.

I think we Netflixed it sometime in the New Jersey era (2003–2008), and parts of it seemed vaguely familiar. Yet I watched it again!

Yes, Blade Runner is a classic. And yes, the rainy/neon Japanese/German/Spanish vision of the future, with giant pyramid skyscrapers, is wonderfully creative (if not realistic for 2019). And yes, the movie has an interesting, philosophical sci-fi premise. But it’s just brutal. And it goes on for too long.

We watched the theatrical version this time; maybe the international version? I dunno, there are lots of versions. There were silly voice-overs, a happy ending, and no unicorn dream.

The premise is that bio-engineered people (originally created to do dangerous work off world) have developed realistic emotions and thus resent their short lifespans. Four of them are back on Earth for some reason and Harrison Ford’s character is supposed to “retire” (execute) them, which is a creepy thing to have to do because they’re not that different from regular people.

The reason my husband and I watched Blade Runner again was that we are typically intrigued by movies made from Philip K. Dick stories.

Have not seen:

  • Radio Free Abelmuth (2010)
  • A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Okay, I guess I would watch Blade Runner 2049, which is supposedly going to be released later this year. Not a remake, but rather some kind of sequel. With Harrison Ford in it.