2018/02/02

Captain Blood and the Soul Cycle

My friend and editing client Alex, @DaytimeRenegade on Twitter, produced a fun little Periscope about the classic Errol Flynn movie Captain Blood and my Soul Cycle horror/adventure series.

Captain Blood The Ophian Rising - Brian Niemeier

Watch the Periscope here.

Alex's observation of the differences in structure and pacing between pre and post-1980s movies is quite astute--especially his example of the Transformers films.

Captain Blood takes its time establishing its characters and the world they inhabit. The first act takes up half the movie. The swashbuckling doesn't start in earnest until act two. Yet this film shot in 1935 never drags and uses every minute of its two hour run time to maximum effect. It's engaging throughout.

In contrast, 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon features almost constant action but feels longer than its two and a half hour length. The reason is that Transformers flagrantly breaks Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "and then" rule, while the writers of Captain Blood knew how to string scenes together logically.

There's a key pacing lesson here for authors. If the only way to describe the transition between any two scenes in your story is "and then", you need to rewrite until every scene is connected with either "therefore" or "but".

Pacing has much less to do with cramming gratuitous action onto every page than with making sure the action comes as a consequence of prior action or a complication athwart future action.

H/t @DaytimeRenegade

5 comments:

  1. Captain Blood is one of my favorite novels. The first half of the movie is faithful to the novel, but the second half - I thought - was oversimplified and lost the momentum the story had in the book. I'll have to rewatch it.

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  2. No way a complaint, just seeking clarification:

    So, in many books like, for a completely random example, Ophian Rising, there are early scenes which leap about like crazy - you're in an ether mine one scene, on a desert planet the next, and so on, for no obvious reasons. I noticed years ago that this approach - "meanwhile, back at the ranch..." weaving multiple threads that only fully converge at the climax - had become the dominant structure in adventure-type stories.

    Anyway, the point here is not about that sort of thing, right? In great novels, the convergence of the threads is foreshadowed, but exactly how they converge and resolve is the twist/surprise. Done well, it's totally excellent.

    Not trying to be a pedant, just trying to understand this for future reference.

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    Replies
    1. You raise an excellent question. It gives me a chance to expand on the "and then" rule I mentioned above.

      If every transition between story beats should be describable as "but" or "therefore", is it a violation of the rule to have one scene take place in an ether mine and the next scene on Tharis?

      The short answer is no. Here's why: That question pertains primarily to setting, not structure. Look at the globe-hopping that takes place in pulp-style adventure stories like James Bond and Indiana Jones films. They're all over the map. But they don't break the "and then" rule--even though both always begin with an opening sequence that's not directly related to the main plot (The Raiders of the Lost Ark script is considered the gold standard for screenplays).

      Note that nowhere in the "and then" rule is it stated that the reason for the transition must be immediately obvious. It just has to follow the story's internal logic. You can leave the audience in suspense for a bit before showing your hand. That's because a second, equally important plotting technique involves setting up and resolving mysteries. In a nutshell, you start posing questions right away but stagger the answers to keep the reader guessing until the end. This approach builds and maintains dramatic tension, which is the fuel a story runs on.

      Getting back to your example, why does that particular scene take place in an ether mine? Well, it's the first scene, so if you're setting up a mystery, the reason_shouldn't_be clear right away. Why is Indy traipsing through the jungle at the beginning of Raiders? We don't find out where--or who--he is until three minutes into the movie.

      In OR, Astlin is searching the mine for something she's wanted for a long time. I won't spoil it here, but it's spelled out in the first chapter.

      An even better question is "Why do we cut from the mine to a desert planet?" If we frame the plotting as "The story opens in a mine and then cuts to Tharis", the rule is indeed broken. But that's not the proper way to describe story structure, because we've got a protagonist who the story is primarily about.

      [Slight spoiler]

      The way I'd outline that specific transition is: "Astlin comes under attack in the mine and escapes to Tharis, but the desert planet is under assault, too."

      True, you don't learn that she fled there until later, but that's covered under the "stagger questions and answers" rule.

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    2. Continued:

      Another way to look at the ether mine --> desert planet transition gets into more advanced story structure theory, but it's worth explaining because I think new authors stand to benefit from it.

      A big part of the seeming discrepancy between Trey and Matt's rule and OR's structure has to do with the fact that they're mainly talking about writing screenplays for movies and television, and I'm talking about writing novels. They share similarities but also have major differences.

      A movie or TV show episode is usually structured as a single three act arc. This makes sense because the writer only has two hours, one hour, or even just 30 minutes to tell a complete story.

      Novels aren't bound by those time limits. Consider that each screenplay page translates to one minute of screen time. That's why a film script is usually 120 pages long. Now factor in that an average novel is around 300 pages, which are each far more densely packed than a screenplay page. That's one reason why novels are so hard to adapt into movies.

      On the plus side, a novel can pull off a lot of tricks that a movie can't. For example, it's far easier to have multiple POVs and subplots in a book. A novelist simply has a bigger canvas than a screenwriter does.

      A novel usually isn't a single three act arc. Authors often string multiple arcs together. Or if you want to go for the gusto like I do, you weave multiple plot threads together.

      To get specific, the way I structure each Soul Cycle book is to interweave 3-5 complete story arcs (I use seven point structure instead of three act structure), each of which follow the "and then" rule.

      In the example you cited from OR, the transition from the ether mine to the desert sphere is also a transition from Astlin's arc to Ceyhan's arc. However, they're connected because both scenes involve the same antagonists.

      And now those tricks are in your tool box, dear author.

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