Monday, March 22, 2010

Jump In, But Follow the Rules by Susan May Warren

Are you enjoying Susan's series as much as we are? She's back this Manuscript Monday with another great article, pulling from movies to help us writers with our books. Welcome back, Susie!

Craft Tips and Techniques from Today’s Blockbusters Series
Jump In, But Follow the Rules
by Susan May Warren

When the readers/viewers understand the rules of the world, regardless of how far-fetched...

A Review of Jumper

I admit it; I went to see the movie Jumper because I have four teenagers, three of whom are boys. Because the special effects captured every boy’s wildest dream of being able to transport himself wherever his whims carried him and the hero was Hayden Christopher (that was for the teen daughter), I thought we’d have a winner.

Aside from the morally questionable, unsympathetic hero, David, who uses his brilliant superpowers not for good, (i.e., saving Katrina victims), but rather to seduce women, steal money, and live a life of debauchery every mother would cringe at, the story itself, which I as a writer can’t get past, drove me crazy with its messiness.

Somewhere in the mess was story structure. Good Guy (or is he Bad Guy?) David (Christopher),is chased through the world by Bad Guy (or is he Good Guy?) Paladin Roland (played by Samuel L. Jackson). We know David’s motivation has to be to stay alive and to win the girl’s heart (played by Rachel Bilson), after all, it is a teen movie. But he too easily wins her affections, so it can’t be a romance. And then there’s that mystery about his mother, and why she abandoned him at age five…

But those aren’t the biggest issues. I could probably sit back, numb myself with some popcorn and a giant soda if it weren’t for that fact that, well …I was confused.

Regardless of where the story takes place—in the streets of historical London, or Tatooine, the forest of Middle Earth, or the dark alleys of Gotham, we need to know the rules of the world in which our hero lives. Constructing Story World is about details, and making the fictional world breathe. But when constructing such a world, if it’s an unfamiliar world, the reader/viewer needs to know what can and can’t happen. Can trees talk? Can they walk? Which trees? (If you read Tolkien, you know the difference). What can destroy the Death Star and why? (Thank you, George) When the readers/viewers understand the rules of the world, regardless of how far-fetched, they can move inside it and lose themselves in the fictional dream.

What are these rules?

Let’s take a closer look at Jumper.

David gets his magical powers to jump when he’s about fifteen, when his life is threatened. He’s drowning. And suddenly, he’s not. He’s in a library. Why the library? What triggered the jump?

Great questions, and we’re at the edge of our seats waiting for answer that never comes. Rule #1: Tell us how and why the hero got his magic powers. Even if in “real world” –and the hero is a world-renowned sculptor, tell us where he studies and how he achieved his talent. Just a little clarity will help us believe.

After a little honing of these mysterious skills, David becomes a playboy with seemingly no consequences to his actions. This mother was actually a little relieved when Paladin Roland (Jackson) showed up with his Discipliner, the Mother of all Tazers. Which brings us to Rule #2: What are the hero’s limitations? His weaknesses? What foils him? Every hero has to have a weakness, a glitch in his abilities. The Terrifying Tazer helps, and later we discover that electricity binds David, but some hint of this at the beginning would have helped resolve the panic.

So poor David is chased around the world and meets another Jumper who knows this evil Paladin well. We begin to care a little bit (frankly, Roland is a bit terrifying), but we’re left wondering . . . why? So what if David is a playboy. And a thief. He’s not a serial killer. He’s not going to destroy the space-time continuum or the fabric of the earth (although he does some structural damage every time he lands). Why does Roland want to kill him? (I don’t buy the, “No one but God should have this power” bit; after all, Roland is trying to, uh, kill David. Another ideally, God-only power. Can anyone say, “Hypocrisy”?) Rule #3 is: ’Splain, please. What’s the big deal? Draw us a picture of what could happen if you don’t take out the Death Star, or if you don’t kill David. We want a glimpse at the dark future so we can get behind the, uh Good Guys? (See, I told you I’m confused).

These are not hard rules: How? What? Why? They frame the story for us, allowing us play freely on the playground of the imagination. They keep us from jumping out of our seats and running out for more popcorn. (And maybe the movie next door.) Supposedly these questions will be answered in the sequel.

Yeah, let me know if they do.

Susan May Warren is the founder of My Book Therapy, a boutique fiction editing service for writers, and runs A Writer’s Blog. See her Web site to learn more about her award-winning fiction.

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