Tag Archives: screenwriting

Filler vs. Plot: “Legend of Korra” and “Supernatural”

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ImageOnly a few short months ago, I declared to pretty much anyone that would listen that “Legend of Korra” was set to outstrip its predecessor, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” My evidence for this? The lack of filler.

“Avatar” took a while to find its groove, especially in season one. There were a lot of random daytrips, a healthy dose of sillyness, and a lot of character expansion.

Going into “Korra,” the writers decided they wanted to take a more streamlined and direct approach to the show, diving right into the action and staying with the main plot. I thought that this would be a change for the better. The action popped, the intensity didn’t let up, and the fight scenes were to die for.

But after a while, it felt like something was missing.

While filler does little to advance the plot, it works wonders for underdeveloped characters. Often you get to see the world of the story from a different perspective, or characters learn something important about themselves that will change the rest of their journey.

For instance, Sokka in “Avatar” would still be an obnoxious sexist if he hadn’t met Suki in the Kyoshi Warriors episode. Toph and Katara would still hate each other if they hadn’t come to understand each other in “The Runaway.”

As awesome as the first season of “Korra” was, it was sorely lacking in that department. Asami is struggling under a lack of personality—pretty much she has daddy issues and drives cars. Just one Asami-focused episode might have pulled her out of that. And come on, Commander Iroh had what, three lines? Not cool, man.

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I want to like you, Asami! I really do!

Prepare yourself, I’m about to make a weird analogy.

So the way I see it, the plot is like a water snake. At first you’re like, oh, it’s a stick. Then it becomes increasingly clear that it’s a snake. You can only see the coils that break the surface occasionally. Then finally the head rears up and attacks you.

The first five seasons of “Supernatural” nailed the balance between the overarching plot and the week-to-week story.

Take season two of Supernatural. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The snake under the surface are the kids with psychic powers. Every so often, coils of the snake break the surface—a psychic kid here, a revelation there—until BAM, good ol’ yellow eyes (a plot snaking through since season 1) throws the psychic kids into a crazy deathmatch and (literally) all hell breaks loose. [END SPOILERS]

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I’m pretty sure he couldn’t see a thing through those contacts.

Because “Supernatural” knew exactly when to reveal the larger plot and when to focus more on their monster-of-the-week format, we got both character and plot development.

In Avatar, the snake was always on the surface. We didn’t have time to think we were safe, or go on a side adventure, or wonder where the series finale was headed.

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 came out, a lot of reviewers were enamored with the quiet little scene where Harry and Hermione dance in the tent. The moment meant nothing to the plot, but it offered us a glimpse of what these characters mean to each other and reminded us that they’re just kids dealing with a terrifying situation.

Which leads us to another intangible: Heart.

You’ll hear it all the time in movie reviews, but it’s really hard to pinpoint what gives a story “heart.” I’ll probably go into more detail in a later post, but for the purposes of this one, well-done filler helps give a story heart. It gives you a chance to slow down and dwell in the world of these characters, kind of like hanging out with co-workers over coffee instead of in the office.

We got plenty of great character moments in “Korra,” but no full episodes. The closest thing to a filler episode was “The Spirit of Competition,” which was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise all-action series. It didn’t advance the plot, but it gave us insight into Mako and Bolin’s relationship, and let’s be honest: Who doesn’t want to see more of Bolin?

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“You’re not my brother! You’re a brother BETRAYER!”

Exploring the balance between meandering filler and plot can alter the flow and feel of a series. Chime in with your comments and let me know what you think of filler episodes/moments in movies/TV/books!

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Can comic relief characters carry a story?

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I wanted to tackle this topic because it’s becoming increasingly relevant in a movie culture that’s all about sequels and spinoffs, and also because I touched on “funny characters” in my post about “cool characters.”

There’s a belief among moviegoers and critics that comic relief characters can’t carry their own movies. The argument is that with the weight of the story on them, funny characters either a) become too serious in order to advance the plot, or b) are too silly to make people care about their stories.

I disagree with this assessment as much as I disagree with the (rapidly fading) belief that female protagonists can’t carry a film, which I will expand on later.

Let’s explore some recent examples:

Puss In Boots

I have to say, I was pretty excited for this movie. The commercials looked hilarious and I loved Puss in the Shrek series.

It killed me that the movie wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, because I knew people would blame the film’s mediocre quality on the fact that Puss can’t hold his own as a main character.

The problems don’t come from Puss though, because they changed his character. Seriously. Watch Shrek 2. Puss is a sneaky, conniving character who gleefully asks to shave Donkey in his sleep and takes money to kill an ogre. He’s a pretty scummy character, admittedly a scummy character with his own code of honor. In Puss in Boots, he’s repainted as a smooth-talking outlaw with a heart of gold. Boring.

Sure, you can argue that it’s a prequel and maybe he got saucy and immoral later in life, but then doesn’t that negate the whole redemption plot that happens in Puss In Boots?

The second problem is the unexciting, overdone plot. Which is LITERALLY IDENTICAL to the plot for Pirates Of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides, another movie that gave a comic side character the spotlight.

Pirates Of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates 4 went in the opposite direction of Puss In Boots, turning Jack Sparrow into a caricature of himself and depriving him of purpose.

You’ve probably heard that each character you create has to want something. Badly.Puss in Bootsat least got that right: Puss desperately wants to restore his honor so his adoptive mother can be proud of him. Jack doesn’t want anything, not really, unless you count stumbling drunkenly from point A to point B without getting killed. He’s not an active character.

I would argue that the subplot with the mermaid and the priest is more interesting because both of those characters want something and actively pursue it. The mermaid wants to survive and the priest is determined to protect her. Because they want something, they propel their own story, rather than letting it propel them as Jack does.

The disappointing thing is that Jack is much more interesting when he wants something. Think Curse of the Black Pearl, that pistol with one bullet. In the beginning of the film he points the gun at Will and begs him to move because the bullet is meant for someone else. He wants to put that bullet in someone’s head, and he’s willing to risk his life rather than shoot the wrong person. That’s purpose, and that makes Jack intriguing.

Fool

This line of thinking goes as far back as Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s fools are often his smartest, most articulate characters, but they’re never leads. Which I think is severely unfair. I even wrote a play about it, I was so annoyed (it’s called “Jacks and the Fourth Wall.” Tell yo friends).

There’s actually extensive scholarship about the fool in “King Lear” that Shakespeare had to cut him out of the second half because he was taking over the play. You know why? Because he was a GREAT CHARACTER.

Seriously. It’s implied he had strong loyalties to Cordelia and was angry when Lear sent her away, he’s wildly passive-aggressive,  and even though his boss is nuts, you can tell that he cares for him, just a little. He’s hilarious and he’s a well-rounded character.

So much so that Christopher Moore was able to write a whole (AWESOME) book from his perspective.

Read it. Seriously. It’s great.

Fool is “King Lear” as told (and orchestrated) by his jester, Pocket. It shifts the quintessential Shakespearean tragedy to the perspective of a comic side character, and it works. because Moore crafts Pocket as a full character with his own agenda, dreams and demons without sacrificing his sense of humor. Pocket has a purpose outside being funny, but he’s still hilarious.

I read an article  recently (I can’t remember where, I wish I could) that addressed the idea that female superhero movies are inevitably bad. They pointed out that this belief comes primarily from movies like Elektra and Catwoman. When The Hulk failed, no one blamed it on a male protagonist. Elektra and Catwoman failed because they sucked as films, not because they featured female protagonists.

The same can be said for stories with comedic main characters. They can carry a story (an awesome story!) as long as they’re multidimensional and want something badly, and as long as the plots you write for them aren’t rote and boring.

“Being funny” is a trait, not a character motivation. Comic characters can carry a story, but comedy alone can’t carry them.

Character Bootcamp: Part 1

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So I love characters. I love making them. I love learning about them. I love when they do things I don’t expect. If I had to pick one strong point of my own writing, it would probably be characters. Therefore, I would like to introduce…

Character Bootcamp: Part 1
Knock them off their high horse.

When I first started writing, I was sure of one thing. There were funny characters, and then there were cool characters. Funny characters could slip and fall in mud, blurt something they meant to keep secret, make awkwardly nerdy references at serious moments.

Cool characters, however, were blessed with flawless coordination, a total inability to be ruffled, and a lack of surprise at the world around them. They couldn’t step in dog poop, they couldn’t get sick and babble nonsense, they couldn’t accidentally walk into a wall in a dark room. Because they were cool. And cool characters were untouchable.

I was sure of this dichotomy. That is until I realized how fun it is to screw with cool characters.

I’m serious. It’s SO. MUCH. FUN.

Case and point: Loki from Avengers.

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He’s pompous. Theatrical. He’s such a clever manipulator that they actually MUZZLED him at the end of the movie so he couldn’t talk. He was in charge of a massive alien army and had a cool power staff. Loki is a serious, seriously cool threat.

And yet the best (and funniest) moments in Avengers came when the unparalleled Joss Whedon showed us that even power-hungry deities can be a little, well, pathetic. Without spoiling anything, I’m referring to “performance issues” and “puny god.”

When we see the coolest characters debased, when we get to laugh at them, it shows us that there’s someone like us under all the posturing.

There was an Entertainment Weekly Review of “Archer,” “Eastbound & Down” and “Delocated” that used a phrase I absolutely loved. They were discussing how viewers can keep watching shows that feature offensive egomaniacs and said “How can these offensive men remain so watchable? They’re all self-assured goofballs who are regularly punished for their hubris. The message of this trio of shows is reassuring: A-holes — they’re just like us!”

I couldn’t figure out why I loved “Archer” so much until I read that review. It’s because Archer, who’s pretty much James Bond without any semblance of a moral code, is regularly humiliated by mommy issues, a crippling fear of crocodiles and his own incompetency. You put up with his ego because you know he’s going to get screwed over soon anyway. And you almost kind of like him for it.

So try it. Go against all your instincts and walk that mysterious elf warrior right into a tree, then watch how flustered he gets when he tries to regain his coolness (it’s okay to giggle at him—he can’t hear you). Punish your characters for their hubris. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a comedy or a serious epic. Readers want to know that characters aren’t above them.

Character Examples: Zuko from “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, Skulduggery from Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, pretty much everyone in “Supernatural”