Agent Coulson and Tragic Irony

Joss Whedon’s comments on the difficulty of bringing Agent Coulson back from the dead for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but not having him appear in The Avengers: Age of Ultron have been big news in the geekosphere for the past few days.

We could talk for hours about the difficulties with continuity in an ever-expanding shared universe the size of the MCU, not to mention the fact that Whedon himself was involved in the decision to bring Coulson back and now seems to regret it, but what really interests me is this: is it really such a bad thing?

Here’s what Whedon had to say:

“As far as I’m concerned, in this movie, Coulson’s dead. If you come back in the sequel and say Coulson’s alive, it’s like putting f***ing John Gielgud in the sequel to ‘Arthur.’ It mattered that he’s gone. It’s a different world now. And you have to run with that.”

I get what he’s saying.  It makes sense.  The whole point of killing off Coulson, who had been a vital character throughout all of the Phase One MCU movies, was to unite the Avengers.  His death motivated them to put aside their differences and work as a team to solve the problems of the day.  Bringing him back from the dead creates problems within the world and outside of it.  In-world, the Avengers discovering that Coulson’s death was faked undermines team spirit that the event helped create.  And from an external, story-teller’s perspective, suddenly bringing him back to life cheapens his sacrifice for the audience.

But given that this bell has been rung, why not see if we can’t make the best of the situation.  The idea that Coulson’s death was faked does work, given the established nature of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole–they’re spooks.  They manipulate people to get what they want.  Staging a tragedy just to get a bunch of superhumans to band together and save the earth is just what Nick Fury would do if he had to.  So it makes sense for the universe.

But I feel cheated, you say.  They told me he was dead.  They made my transparent aluminum nerd eyes shine with misty feels.  I feel betrayed that it was all a sham.  They will suffer.  Whedon must suffer.  I will blog the shit out of my discontent.

Isn’t just as tragic, albeit in a different way, if Coulson did live, but all of the heroes he helped create remain unaware of it?  Whedon’s obviously put the kibosh on revealing Coulson’s survival to the Avengers, at least in Age of Ultron.  So Thor, Iron Man, Cap and friends aren’t going to see their buddy Phil again anytime soon.  As far as they know, he died with Loki’s scepter through his chest just before the Battle of New York.  How much more nagging is that sense of loss for the viewer if they know the whole time, having watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., that Phil’s hale and hearty and going about business as usual?

How does that feel for Coulson?  He’s not as cynical as Fury; he’s Captain America, not Tony Stark.  How heartbreaking would it be to know that a group of people that by this point you’d have to consider friends think you’re dead, and that your death hit them so hard they put aside some pretty ingrained differences to avenge your ass?  Wouldn’t you, as the viewer, feel both sides of that loss?  Wouldn’t the Avengers’ ignorance, and Coulson’s regret, come off as kind of a twisted, tragic joke?

I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s an angle that I haven’t seen anyone else consider as of yet.  What do you think?  Does this make sense, or am I grasping at straws?

Earning Your Cliffhangers

Screen Junkies’ recent video on the Top Ten TV Show Cliffhangers got me thinking about the cliffhanger as a storytelling mechanism.  As classic a move as it is, it’s still risky.  Done well it can be game-changing; done poorly, it plays as a cheap trick.

Let’s say you’re the IT guy in your average American corporate workplace.  The dress code is business casual, which translates to the same pleated J.C. Penney khakis and button down shirts responsible for the downfall of sartorial standards for the modern American male.  After years of reading GQ on the toilet at home, you finally get up the courage to wear a suit to work.  So you show up Monday with a Mens Wearhouse special and, to your surprise, everybody asks you who died.  When they find out that you didn’t go to a funeral that morning and that, in fact, you wore a suit to work because you think you’re that awesome, the heckling begins, and suddenly you’re known throughout the company as the Duke of Fucking Windsor.

It’s not that the IT guy can’t pull off wearing a suit to work.  It’s that in addition to doing it with dead-certain confidence and a healthy dash of style, he’s got to lay a foundation first.  He can’t just bust in looking all Mad Men–or, worse, looking all Rudy Giuliani–and expect to start getting propositioned over the Keurig machine.  He’s got to start slow, go from pleated to flat-front–make the jump from Sketchers to Florsheim before he tries on the Aldens.  Spend more than ten dollars on a haircut and buy some socks that aren’t white.  That way, when he finally does work up to the slim-fit, double-vented Milan-cut suit with a handmade linen pocket square, he’s given people some time to adjust.  Then instead of guffaws, he gets jealous whispers.

OK, maybe that’s unrealistic.  Chances are you’re still going to be the Duke of Fucking Windsor.  But my point is, you need to earn a cliffhanger, just like you need to earn sartorial respect.

Screen Junkies made a great list, and I suggest you watch it.  I’m going to disagree slightly with them on one, however.  Battlestar Galactica (the reboot) has a number of great cliffhangers, but my favorite comes at the end of season one.  You already know what I’m talking about: the Galactica and the human fleet are still at Kobol, trying to decide between colonizing it and continuing the search for Earth.  Commander Adama has just ordered President Roslin arrested for treason, after she secretly convinced Starbuck to steal the captured Cylon Raider and return to Caprica for the Arrow of Apollo.  The Cylons have caught up to the survivors over Kobol, and battle ensues.  In a daring attack, Boomer (the Galactica iteration), lands her raptor on the Cylon Basestar and destroys it, after learning once and for all that she is indeed a Cylon.  She returns to Galactica, where Adama holds out his hand to congratulate her.  Her Cylon programming taking over, she takes out her weapon and fires two rounds into Adama’s torso.  Cut to credits.

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It’s an incredible scene.  But much like the related action of killing off characters, it’s only powerful because of the strong foundation that the writers have laid.  A lot of dramatic tension and characterization over the course of a whole season of television went into creating that scene.  It works because of the general excellence of the storytelling: we feel for these people, we’re horrified at what they’ve survived; we’re rooting for them despite overwhelming odds.  We’ve also become very invested in these characters.  Commander Adama is the valiant, wise military commander we all hope would be in charge in circumstances like this: a man bred for war, a man whose flaws make him a bad family man but a great general.  He’s pulled the dregs of humanity out of the fire time and time again, and always made it look easy, always kept it together.  He’s a father figure for the entire crew of the Galactica, for all of humanity, really: he can be hard and determined and unforgiving, but he can also be compassionate and self-analytical when necessary.  He’s not afraid to admit it when he’s made a mistake.  It feels a lot of the time, watching the first season, that Adama is holding things together single-handedly.  And then one of his own officers puts him on the ground.

We’re left wondering whether Adama survives.  It’s shocking, and traumatic, and creates a feeling of desperation and hopelessness in the viewer: where do we go from here?  How can we go on without Adama?  Who else has the grit to get the job done?  Ron Moore and his team earned that cliffhanger.  They established Adama as a person, someone we’d fear to lose, and then, in true expert style, took him away from us.

But what if it had been Colonel Tigh that Boomer gunned down?  Sure, Tigh’s a great character too; in the first season in particular, he’s one of those guys you love to hate.  A useless drunk who’s not qualified for his rank or position.  If he’d been blown away you’d probably have thought: eh.  No great loss.  Moore and co. took away our favorite character at a vital point in the story, and gave us no indication of whether or how he’d survive.  And, importantly, it left us wanting more than simply to know the answer: it left us wanting to see and experience the aftermath.  Does Adama survive?  How?  What does he do afterward?  What are the consequences for him, for Boomer, for humanity?

Conversely, when cliffhangers don’t work, it’s a much less visceral experience.  George R. R. Martin has written some great cliffhangers, but he’s also written some crappy ones.  It’s a danger of overusing the form: eventually you’re going to miss.

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The example that comes to mind with Martin is the way he leaves Arya Stark’s character at the end of A Feast for Crows.  Having fled Westeros for Braavos, Arya comes to the House of Black and White to train as an assassin.  She essentially gives up her identity as Arya Stark and becomes Cat of the Canals.  That old identity asserts itself, however, when she runs into Dareon, sworn brother of the Night’s Watch and erstwhile traveling companion of Samwell Tarly, who is on his way to Oldtown to become a maester.  Presuming that he’s abandoned his post on the Night’s Watch, she kills him as punishment.  She returns to the House of White and Black and is given a glass of milk to drink.  She wakes up the next morning blind.

Admittedly, A Feast for Crows isn’t Martin’s best work.  And there are logistical reasons why the book ends as it does: due to the problems surrounding the writing of Crows and its sequel A Dance with Dragons, what was originally one large book was split into two smaller ones.  So it is entirely possible that Arya’s ending changed as a result of the years-long editing process.  That said, when we finally learn what happened to Arya in Dragons, the result is fairly anticlimactic.

It turns out the potion only made her blind temporarily, as punishment for her transgression.

Now, maybe it’s just me; maybe other readers thought this was a great cliffhanger.  Maybe it’s just that the years between Crows and Dragons created an artificial sense of importance that wasn’t intended to be attached to Arya’s blindness.  But the way it felt to me was Martin was messing with us, and not in a fun way.  He left us thinking Arya might be blind forever, only to come back years later in the sequel and essentially say “oh, yeah, that was totally just a red herring.  She was blind for a few days.”

That’s not a cliffhanger I can get behind.  That’s a cliffhanger for the sake of having a cliffhanger.  That’s a cliffhanger that might be acceptable between two episodes in the middle of a TV show season, but not one that I find acceptable between two major volumes of a large work.

The good news about cliffhangers is that readers have an excellent nose for bullshit: they know when they’ve been played and when being left hanging actually serves the story.

So remember, writers: earn your cliffhangers.  Don’t taunt your audience.  Look what happened with Lost.

What are some of your favorite cliffhangers?  Which worked, and which didn’t?  Why or why not?

Christopher Nolan on Obsession

The Tribeca Film Festival is happening right now in New York (it goes through the 26th), and The Hollywood Reporter has some great coverage of the event and its various panels, one of which involved a discussion on filmmaking with Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher).

There were two moments in particular that I enjoyed reading about.  While discussing the difficulty in maintaining creative direction over a studio film, Nolan talked about some advice given to him by Steven Soderbergh and having the courage to do your own thing:

“You have to get out there and find a place for yourself,” he explained. “You have to make your own rules. You have to figure out what’s going to work for you…. That’s the thing he taught me, is that you’re on your own and you have to get out there and make it work.”

Nolan made his own rules when he was writing the script for Memento, attributing the film’s mind-bending storytelling approach to him just disregarding the rules.

“It’s the classic example of something interesting that can come about when you don’t know what you’re doing,” Nolan said when Miller asked how one writes a script like that. “You’re starting out and you think, ‘Why are there all these rules? Why do people take screenwriting courses? Why can’t you just write the movie you want to see as it would appear on the screen?’ “

Later, when asked about his fears going forward, he said:

“My biggest fear is embarking on a project that you lose faith in or fall out of love with,” he said. “There’s a huge investment of time [in a film], and the biggest fear is that I’d get halfway through and think, ‘No, this isn’t something I really care about anymore.’ So before I embark on a project, I just have to test it, however I test it, by writing drafts, by just living with it and really trying to dive into it. You have to be sure that you’re going to be as happy, as obsessed with this film two-and-a-half, three years later as you are the day you commit to it.”

Christopher Nolan is a great role model for aspiring artists of any genre or medium, because he epitomizes an ideal balance between mainstream appeal and artistic integrity.  He tells stories that move and excite people and that appeal to a diverse audience without sacrificing his artistic vision or dumbing down his subject.

His fear of losing interest in a project he’s working on likely hit home with many artists, particularly writers.  Writing is the art of the long con, a marathon not a sprint, and it’s important to be able to gauge how in love with an idea you are before embarking on the process of turning it into a real thing.  Even when you find an idea you love consistently, there will undoubtedly be times when you need to bolster your enthusiasm–when you’ll need to sit back and remind yourself of why you wanted to write this particular story in the first place.  When you’ll need to take a break and regain some of that lost passion.  This can happen to anyone at any time.  With that in mind, it’s obviously best if, like Nolan, you only put your creative effort behind the projects that really grab you.  The ones you can’t let go of.  The ones you’re obsessed with.

With art, obsession can be a good thing.

‘A Locking Door’ Shortlisted for ‘The Liar’s Key’ Writing Contest

22852698ThatThornGuy.com, Mark Lawrence’s “unofficial” website, is hosting a writing contest to promote The Liar’s Key, the second book of his The Red Queen’s War trilogy.

The contest rules were simple: write a piece of flash fiction no longer than 300 words including both the words “liar” and “key.”  No other parameters specified.  (This is the second iteration of this contest, the first being for The Prince of Fools.)  The fiction would be judged by authors T. Frohock, Myke Cole, T.O. Munro, David Jackson, Fantasy Faction Overlord Marc Aplin, and Mark Lawrence himself.  The prize would be a signed ARC of The Liar’s Key, graciously provided by ACE Books.

I submitted a piece titled “A Locking Door,” which, to my delighted surprise, was selected for the top ten out of 105 entries.  Here it is:

A Locking Door
By James Cormier

Chloe checked the door again, the knob warm in her hand, careful not to jostle it. She’d never seen doors like these before they moved, heavy things with glass knobs and worn brass plates, each with its own tarnished skeleton key. Old keys, like Chloe’s, that squealed in dry locks that drove heavy old bolts into neat slots cut into the heavy wooden jambs.

Her mother had pressed it into her small hand after she’d told her, her mouth firm. Chloe was a good girl, and almost a young woman, now. Good girls locked their doors at night and didn’t talk about those things. Good girls were quiet as mice.

Chloe listened through the storybook keyhole and heard the TV downstairs, along with the clatter of dishes under the running faucet and the clink of his glass on the table. If you told anyone, he’d said, after the first time, they’d just think you were making it up. You don’t want people to think you’re a liar, do you? You know what God does to liars. He only said it that once. She chewed at a fingernail, peeling off a half-moon shred and hissing when it bled.

She’d locked the door during a loud commercial, when he’d gone to the bathroom, flinching at every squeak from the lock. It would be worse if he caught her doing it. Chloe waited another minute, just to be sure, then got into bed with her jeans on. She listened to the hissing, clanking radiator and squeezed her key until it hurt. She opened her hand and felt the key-shaped mark in her palm. When she started to nod off, she slipped the key into its spot under her mattress to keep it safe and waited for morning.

My heartfelt thanks to Mr. Lawrence, Agnes of ThatThornGuy.com, and all of the judges and participants.

Aidan Moher on Why (and How) He Self-Published His First Book

tide-of-shadows-cover-aidan-moherAs you might have noticed, I’m a huge (lifelong) fan of science fiction and fantasy.  I’ve been reading A Dribble of Ink for years now: it’s one of a very small handful of SFF book review sites that I turn to when I want to know what to read next.  Its news keeps me up to date on what’s going on in SFF fandom and the publishing world.  Its commentary, published in the form of essays from Aidan and a number of respected, well-known voices from the SFF field, is unparalleled (A Dribble of Ink won the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine in 2014).  And all of this is curated and presented with skill and style by Aidan Moher, A Dribble of Ink’s owner and editor.

Having published my own first novel through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, I have intimate knowledge of the decision-making process that comes along with self-publishing.  So when I heard that Aidan was self-publishing his first book, a short story collection titled Tide of Shadows, I was immediately interested.

Yesterday on Medium, he shared a detailed account of why he chose to self-publish his work and the details of the process of doing so:

I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been holding onto these stories for years, buried under the frustration that they wouldn’t sell to pro markets. This frustration had been holding me back as a writer — instead of focusing on all of the new stories bouncing around in my head, I was continually looking for new markets for my old stories. I was looking for closure.

I wanted to be excited by these stories, not discouraged by them.

And that’s ultimately what this collection is: a exclamation point at the end of that sentence in my career as a writer.

Aidan’s feelings, concerns, and conclusions will resonate with anyone who has considered or accomplished the independent publication of a book.  Bravo, Aidan.  Can’t wait to read it.

‘Exile’ Around the Web

Exile: The Book of Ever (Vol. 1) has gotten some attention around the old interwebs lately.

River at Cherry Blossoms & Maple Syrup wrote a review and gave it five out of five stars, saying: “The unexpected twists were SO good. I thought that this was going to be a journey book (which is part of why I picked it up, because I’m a HUGE fan of survival and journey stories) and while it was, it wasn’t in the way I thought it was going to be. I thought I had it pegged and then there were two twists that made me SO happy that this WASN’T predictable and made me love it even more.”  Read the full review here.

Bestselling author Jackson Dean Chase also featured Exile on his blog at JacksonDeanChase.com, where you can also read a brief excerpt of one of the book’s later chapters.

My thanks to all!

The Death of the Editor-Author Relationship

A few thoughts on the traditional relationship between authors and their editors, compared to what we seem to have today.  Imperfect and flawed, I admit; I was trying to get some ideas out.  There have certainly been more intelligent things written about this subject.

The SPFBO Charges Onward

Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is well underway, and several of the participating book bloggers have posted progress updates and reviews. Mark keeps a page on his own blog updated with all of the latest additions, so check that out and follow the hashtag #SPFBO on Twitter if you want to stay up to date.

Most recently, Sarah from Bookworm Blues has posted reviews for the first five of her assigned (27 or so) books. There are two awesome things about this.

First, Sarah is doing what she calls a mini-review (which really isn’t that mini) for every book she reads, which is going above and beyond the call of the Blog-Off: participating reviewers are only asked to select their favorite of the 25 or so books sent to them.  How they do that is up to them, and they aren’t required to finish every book, let alone review every book on their site.  So the fact that Sarah is taking the time to read and review each book shows an incredibly gracious and determined professionalism on her part, especially given the personal setbacks she’s had to deal with recently.  Hang in there, Sarah!  Thank you for your work and effort, and I think I speak for all of the authors involved when I say our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Second, Sarah’s first batch of reviews is overwhelmingly positive.  Bookworm Blues uses a five-star rating system.  Of the five books she’s read, four of them received four-star reviews, and one received a three-star review.  This speaks highly of the work submitted to the contest thus far, particularly given that she chose the first five books at random.

This may be the golden age of self-publishing, but self-published authors still face a significant hurdle in getting their work taken seriously; many reviewers and readers alike still presume that self-published fiction is generally of lower quality than its traditionally published counterparts.  The fact that so many book bloggers, who have become some of the most important book critics of this generation, are taking self-published work seriously enough to review it in the same manner they review fiction published by the Big Five is incredibly encouraging.

I wouldn’t have been any less enthusiastic about this contest if all of the reviews were negative, but it is wonderful to see self-published fiction being praised.

Enigma Machine Happiness

If you’re into World War II or cryptography, you need to watch these videos.

I also can’t recommend Simon Singh’s The Code Book highly enough.