Writing Is A Bad Habit: A Fantastic Crash! a.k.a. A Writer’s Autopsy of Fantastic Four (2015)

Movies and books are sister media.  While there are distinct differences and certainly a need for different techniques, both involve the art of story-telling and you can draw considerable connections between the two.  That is especially true when looking at core story structure and characterization concepts.  This brings us to today’s topic: the newest Fantastic Four reboot movie by 20th Century Fox.

This won’t be a review.  No, this is more of a dissection.  We’ll cut into the main course of the plot and various elements of both that and the characters of the movie and see what is wrong with these things, then apply that knowledge to the art of writing.  For that reason, there will be no talk of the strength of the adaptation itself, no talk of the many known issues of the troubled production, and, unlike my Starving Reviews, there will be spoilers!  If you wish to see the movie yourself with a clear mind, do not proceed!


Looking at Character: Punchclock Villains a.k.a It’s Just a Job, Nothing Personal

I thought it was time once again to get back to Looking at Character and correct a deficiency in these articles so far:  lack of antagonist analysis.  We’ve talked about heroes of various permutations, but not one look at the other side of the conflict fence.  For today, then, I decided to bring up one of the most relatable villain archetypes, the Punchclock Villain.

For the Punchclock Villain, whatever morally questionable actions they perform are just part of their job.  They aren’t into crime, murder, theft, smuggling, or whatever other activities they do for personal reasons, political motivation, or mental imbalance … the Punchclock Villain is just collecting a paycheck.  Outside of work, even inside it, the Villain might be polite, professional, and seemingly a decent sort, but that won’t usually prevent him/her from completing the dirty deeds that his/her job requires.

It’s this basic dichotomy of ‘decent person’ vs. ‘villainous scum’ that makes the Punchclock Villain both refreshing and relatable as an antagonist (or even a protagonist, depending on the tale).  After all, we all have to work to make our livings and often we are forced to take jobs we don’t want to make ends meet.  We may even find we have a real talent for a line of work in which we absolutely hate.  Still, we swallow our pride and do what we must to keep a rough over our families’ heads and food in the pantry.

The Punchclock Villain takes those normal, natural actions and feelings and simply pushes them a bit further for the sake of drama.  Instead of making some small compromises to make ends meet, the Villain makes more substantial ones, but their motivations and actions still remain understandable.  The reader may even be able to sympathize to the point where he/she questions what to do if he/she were in the Villain’s place.  This can especially be driven home if the author includes situations where the Villain has to make increasingly harder choices and compromises as the conflicts in the novel escalate.

What can make a Punchclock Villain dramatically interesting, beyond the potential for interesting internal conflicts as I mentioned above, is the ability to contrast them versus more traditional types of villains.  The Punchclock Villain isn’t necessarily traditionally ‘evil’ or ‘crazy’ or the like; he/she has as much in common with the protagonists as with a archetypical megalomaniac supervillain.  That uniqueness can make for a whole new web of drama and plot points, spurred on as much by the Villain’s similarities to the protagonists as their conflicts.  It’s certainly a time-tested set-up to have a traditional ‘evil’ master villain with a Punchclock Villain serving as his/her second-in-command, letting the author explore the relationships and dramatic impact of both traditional ‘hero vs. villain’ conflicts, but the more nuanced ones between all three parties.

The potential stumbling block, of course, is balancing the sympathetic points of the Punchclock Villain versus the conflicts with the protagonist.  If you make the Villain too sympathetic and too ‘good’, you begin to stretch the suspension of disbelief of the reader.  If this guy/gal is so morally good, how can he/she continue to make such drastic compromises?  Likewise, if you make them too unsympathetic, you begin to loose the differentiation between the Punchclock Villain and a more traditional antagonist, leading to a loss of the dramatic tension you introduced that kind of villain to produce in the first place.

Have you ever used such a character in your writing?  Did you find them an interesting element to add to shake up the usual conflicts in a piece?  Do you have any advice, questions, or criticisms?  Put it in the comments below!

Plot and Motivation: Foreshadowing and mystery

This morning, I realized I needed to do the reformatting work on the second edition of The Opening Bell and, in doing so, I wound up taking another look at the Prologue and Epilogue I had originally written for it.  I wound up taking both entirely out of the novel for the second edition, not because they were poorly written (they weren’t) or that they were unnecessary (though in a sense they were).  I took them out because I felt that they foreshadowed too much, especially the Prologue.  That then got me to thinking about the struggle between foreshadowing and mystery in general.

I think foreshadowing is a great thing, personally.  It helps provide a sense of logic to your plot and can give clever readers a feeling of satisfaction for noting the foreshadowing when it happens and the pay-off comes later.  I think the sense of logical consistency is the greater of the two benefits, especially in many kinds of genre novels.  Sometimes, the ‘rules’ of the genre can lead to a sense of illogic, but some proper foreshadowing can provide a trail for a reader who doesn’t normally read that particular genre to follow through the possibly confusing genre conventions.

The problem with foreshadowing is when it’s taken too far.  As a writing technique, foreshadowing is usually meant to be subtle, a trail of breadcrumbs that an astute reader can pick up on and follow.  The more experienced a reader is, the more he/she picks up on.  Every once in a while, a very direct application of foreshadowing may be called for or even used as a sort of red herring to obfuscate the plot instead of enlightening it.  However, if you find that you’ve not just scattered some breadcrumbs to follow but drawn a line in glow-in-the-dark permanent marker straight to the end of the plot, there may be too much foreshadowing.

It’s not foreshadowing if you have made an obvious arrow pointing at the heart of the mystery.  Instead, you’ve ruined that mystery for your reader.  This may not be too serious of a blow if your piece isn’t focused on the mystery, if it’s a side plot or a minor event in the main plot.  If the mystery you just revealed six chapters early is a critical point of the main plot, though, you have most likely shattered the dramatic tension caused by the mystery itself.  The reader is likely to become bored as he already knows the key plot points coming up ahead and his/her frustration at the protagonists for not also seeing the obvious plot point can lead to a breaking of the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the tale.  At worst, the reader will just sigh, close your book, and not come back to it.

That’s what I did with the first edition Prologue of The Opening Bell.  In just one page, I revealed a major character who is slowly built up to for chapters and laid out in the spotlight, straight down to a strong implication of motivation.  Thank God for second editions!

Into the Action: How detailed should an action sequence be?

I write a lot of action scenes.  Consider that, no matter the potential depth for narrative and character development, the genres I write in also demand a lot of action and direct conflict.  One series of books is set in the superhero genre, a classification that can have entire comic book issues devoted to an extended action sequence, and the other is grounded in professional wrestling, a sport entirely about ‘let’s you and him fight!’.  Certainly, I try to twist those genres and interject plenty of discussion, introspection, and character-building moments, but who am I to deny the fans of the genres I write in one of the things they expect?  After four novels of action scenes, I think I’m starting to get a handle on it enough to talk about it in a more analytical sense.  Today’s musings are part of that analysis.  Specifically, what I want to talk about today is just how much detail and length should a writer devote to the action sequences in his book.


I think the first thing to note is that action isn’t always a direct physical conflict (though it often is).  Moments of intense conflict where not a single punch is thrown can be a fulfilling form of action in and of itself, be it an emotion-laden argument between two lovers or a seemingly polite duel of wits between two enemies fought over a pleasant meal.  Though much of my focus in this post is about physical action, you can transpose some of these ideas to other forms of action with minimal adjustments.


With that established, when contemplating how to approach an action scene, an author should consider how important this scene is to the overall plot.  Is there any critical narrative or character impact in the scene or is it simply a minor plot point?  The more important the scene is, the more length and detail should be devoted to it.  While this seems really obvious, the fact is that it is easy to get carried away.  Writing action scenes can be fun, after all, and it’s easy to invest yourself too much into lovingly detailing out every minor scrap you can find.  Doing that, though, just bloats your scenes and bores the reader.  Action has to lead to consequence or it’s wasted pages and the depth of that consequence should equal the length of the scene.


If you follow the traditional curve of a strong initial hook, then rising action to climax, the curve alone can provide a barometer of how deep you should make each sequence.  The detail and strength of an action sequence should pretty closely map it’s position on the curve.  Feel free to start an action novel with a bang, using a strongly written action sequence to start the book, then ramp down, using gradually swelling bits of action to lead to a showstopping climax.  Again, this seems pretty logical, but if an author doesn’t properly structure the story, they can wind up fatiguing the reader with out-of-place intense sequences, leading them to just be, well, tired and burned-out by the actual climax.  Left with a feeling of ‘what could possibly top that’, their suspension of disbelief can break and they may not buy into the importance of the true climax of the book.


If these main points seem to be saying the same thing in different ways, they are to a degree.  The main rule of thumb should always be ‘importance = intensity’.  No matter the type of conflict, the intensity of the action should never overstep the scene’s importance.  Never use the genre as an excuse to overstuff your works with excess scenes and wordy baggage.  This applies as much to a mystery or a disaster yarn as much as to a martial arts action novel.  In a mystery, for instance, don’t waste excessive pages on the questioning of a minor witness that adds little to the unravelling or obfuscation of the ultimate mystery.  That’s a waste of action as much as a two-chapter fight scene with a shoplifter in a superhero book.


How do you approach action in your own works?  Do you see the action inherent in conflict that isn’t purely physical?  Do you treat that conflict in a similar way as physical ones or do you approach them on a different level?  Start the conversation in the comment section!

Looking at Character: The Load

Looking at Character is going to be the first of several semi-regular categories of my starved authorial ramblings and is going to concentrate on various character tropes and archetypes, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, looking at the pitfalls and uses of each.  As with all my musings, the thoughts and ideas shown here are purely based on my own experiences and ideas.  Take them as the opinions they are and feel free to dispute them.  Disagreement is the basis of discussion, after all.

The first subject of this feature is the ‘Load’.  Named quite literally, the Load is a helpless character (at least in comparison to the conflicts of the majority of the story or to the main characters) who, despite this, not only is deeply involved with the story but is essential to either the main characters or to the solution of the conflict of the piece.  The Load is a vital person, but is a burden on the main characters.  The Load generates plot points not through their action, but their helplessness, sometimes tied into a nature as a MacGuffin.  Often, the Load develops as a character over the course of the piece, proving their worth and rising to the situation, but this isn’t always the case.  Sometimes they just remain a burden on everyone around them.  Common examples include some portrayals of children, the ‘bumbling sidekick’ from superhero lore, or the ‘person of prophecy’ who has some vital purpose but has no actual power as is seen in some fantasy works.

I think it’s important to note that what makes the Load a load is often how the author writes a character.  For instance, take two fantasy stories with a ‘person of prophecy’, like I mentioned above.  In both pieces, the character has no unusual abilities outside of their importance to the prophecy compared to the other protagonists.  However, this person is only the Load in the first story, where all he/she is capable of in danger is hiding, freezing, and crying.  Outside of danger, he/she is equally a burden, showing no appreciable skills at all.  In the second story, simple characterization turns the Load into something else: he/she had been a farmer before picked by prophecy, let’s say, and, while not helpful in a fight, their knowledge of the land and homegrown common sense prove an important balance for the group.  One is a Load, the other is something else.

Does this mean that the Load is always a bad thing?  Well, no.  Not always.  There are some characters that would, realistically, be a Load in most situations.  Take a protagonist who has an infant child and is forced to bring he/she with them on their adventure.  The infant can’t fend for themselves and must be constantly protected from danger.  He/she may be the Load, but can still provide valuable characterization.  A Load can provide an interesting foil in a story, provided they are well characterized and dealt with realistically, which often means, at times, they may not be a total burden on the protagonists.

The Load can become an annoyance to readers, however, when dealt with unrealistically.  If the author continually creates contrived situations to keep the Load around or to keep the Load useless, the reader’s patience will wear thin quickly.  Even worse, an author may make a mistake of combining a Load, poor characterization, and common racial, ethnic, social, or gender stereotypes to form a truly insulting character, one that makes the reader just put it down in disgust.  Remember, as an author, everything you write makes a statement about yourself and creating a ‘lazy, useless ethnic sidekick’ to add to your story makes very unfortunate implications about your character.  Don’t do it!

I think the best way to handle a Load is to take a nuanced approach, something I will often say about any character trope or archetype.   These archetypes come to the fore because they hold certain truths about human nature and resonate with readers.  If you use any of them too strongly without a gentle touch and fleshed-out personalities, however, you will bludgeon your readers so excessively you overwhelm that subtle resonance and break their suspension of disbelief.

What do you think about including a Load in a piece of fiction?  What other good or bad points might there be to their use as a story element?  Is it possible that the Load is an artifact of a more blunt and stereotypical writing style and doesn’t have a place in more nuanced modern literature?  Let me know in the comments!

Fun vs. Meaning: Does writing have to be deep?

I write action-adventure, sports, and superhero yarns.  Those genres certainly would seem to represent a stronghold of fun and a refugee from deeper meaning.  I can imagine in some people’s minds there’s an inverse relationship between fun books and educational books.  If something is supposed to be ‘insightful’ or ‘meaningful’ or ‘instructive’, it’s really not allowed to be ‘entertaining’ or ‘engrossing’ or ‘delightful’, is it?   I mean, we have laws for that, right?

I think most of us that write or most of us that truly enjoy reading would find objection to that notion.  The simple fact of the matter is that most any piece that is written from the author’s heart bears an imprint of some kind of deeper meaning.  Sure, it may not be the point of the piece and it may not even be intended, but that meaning is still there.

Sure, that meaning isn’t always the most though-provoking and it may not even be properly explored by the story, especially when such themes are unintentional.  It still does not mean we cannot learn something from everything we read, even the really bad books.  Even the process of writing a piece can be eye-opening to the author as they discover things about themselves they never knew before.

The next time you pick up a favorite popcorn novel, stop to think about what other meanings are behind the entertainment.  The next time you finish a short story or a chapter or a poem, contemplate what meaning you have left behind in it.  You never know what you may find.