The Inside Story

Title: Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc

Author: Dara Marks

Genre: Writing Guide

Length: 327 pages

Read: Oct 22 – Nov 3, 2011

Summary: Best book I’ve read on character arcs.

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I’ve been finishing up my fourth (and hopefully final) draft on my new book Untimed. In discussing the previous draft with one of my writer friends he recommended this book on writing. It’s aimed at screenwriters, but while the mediums are different, there are a lot of commonalities — stories are still stories.

The Inside Story deals with character and structure, and the relationship between these and theme. I’ve read a lot of books on writing in general and story structure in particular, and this is certainly the best on the subject of the transformational arc. It has certain overlapping information with Save the Cat (reviewed here) — but the style is radically different and more serious.

Inside Story focuses very clearly and with no bullshit on the basics of film structure. The A Story forms the external plot, the B story the internal challenge of the protagonist (usually hindered by a fatal flaw in opposition of the story theme) and the C story is contains the relationship challenges required to solve the internal conflicts, and then change enough to overcome the external ones. This book walks through each stage of the arc both in the abstract and specific, using three consistent film examples (Romancing the StoneLethal Weapon, and Ordinary People).

It’s clear after reading this that the deficit in many films is a lack of proper arc and thematic development. Sometimes even good (but not great) films forget this key component. Speed is a good example. It’s a well executed and watchable film, but it fails to really have any arc or theme. Unless you consider “Jack must stop the bomber” to be a theme. There’s no development. Jack stops the bomber by way of guts, determination, and cleverness — all of which he possesses at the start of the film. He really doesn’t have to learn any lesson. The film gets by by way of excellent execution and casting. Lethal Weapon, however, is a character driven (even if intense) action film. No one remembers the specifics of the drug dealer plot. They remember Mel Gibson and Danny Glover‘s characters. And they remember them because they actually have problems they learn to overcome (which incidentally also helps them stop the bad guys).

So how does all of this apply to my novel? Or so I asked myself as I read. Untimed does have a fairly clean three act structure. It does have a character who needs to change in order to overcome his antagonist. C story solves B story solves A story. But on the other hand, I didn’t conceive of the book originally with a clear “theme” in mind, the protagonists issues are not structurally in opposition to this theme (what theme I have, organically grown), and the intensity of suffering is muted by a sometimes light tone. Does this matter? Perhaps less in a novel. Even less in an action novel. Even less in a series book. It’s perhaps this neat and packaged arc that makes so many great films difficult to sequel. If the character has already changed, it’s hard to make him change again. All too often the studio/writers attempt to regress the protagonist in a sequel, to undo and then redo the conflicts that made the first film great (Die Hard 2!). The best sequels, films like Terminator 2 or Aliens, change up the formula and give the character something new to overcome. Still, it’s really really hard to do this three times. Can anyone even think of a stand alone movie where the third installment is great? And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t count, even if it is the best of the eight films.

In fact, this leads me to the interesting observation that not only do individual Harry Potter books have very weak arcs, but even the entire series doesn’t cover much emotional transformation. How is Harry (or Ron or Hermione) terribly different at the end of book 1? Even at book 7? I mean as people, not in terms of circumstance, which is only the A story. The answer is “not very different.” Yeah, they grow up a bit, but there is no fundamental quality that they gain which isn’t present in book 1. Still, these are good books. Some of them are even great books (like the first and third). So go figure.

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Untimed – Off for Line Editing

Yesterday, I finished my fourth (more like 3 1/2) major draft of my new novel, Untimed, bundled it up, and shipped it out to my editor for line editing. This was a relatively quick and easy draft (about ten days), although it still took the usual three passes/reads. I concentrated on beefing up conflict. Every book has its trouble spots. In Untimed, these are the couple chapters following the Act 1-2 break and likewise those surrounding the Act 2-3 break (plus in earlier drafts, the ending — but that’s been resolved since the second draft).

The early Second Act has the problem of needing to up the stakes without being too flaccid or redundant. In the first and second drafts it had problems with being divergent to the main storyline, of basically doubling down on the action that occurs at the end of the first act. 1+1 does not equal 2. With the third draft I rewrote it completely, but here in the fourth, my editors had suggested a superficially minor reordering of the action. While textually small, pulling a couple reveals earlier had some great effects on the dynamic between the two leads, basically, giving them more divergent agendas for several chapters. Conflict is good in fiction. In real life we go to a lot of effort to minimize it. When writing, you want to squeeze every ounce of fight out of the story.

The Third Act break just plain needed more fighting (the personal, not the physical kind). I ramped it up again. Still, I wonder if I couldn’t use a bit more of “the whiff of death” but I Untimed is fairly light and I didn’t want to somber it up. Anyway, it read pretty well in my read through.

I’ve also been banging my head a bit with the issue of character arc, but I’ll have more to say on that in a day or so.

Now off to work on other things while I wait for the line edit to come back.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Way of the Warrior – The Lost Interview

A Twitter friend of mine dug up this ancient and forgotten interview that I gave from my Cambridge Mass apartment in 1994, during the development of our 3DO fighting game, Way of the Warrior. The original post can be found here, but he gave me permission to repost the whole thing here. It’s certainly one of my older interviews on record. I did a number in the 80s but those are pre-web and certainly long lost (unless I comb through my parent’s basement for old copies of EGM and the like!).

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Back in May I had a chance to interview Andy Gavin, one half of the team that makes up Naughty Dog Software. The other half consist of Jason Rubin who’s a graphic arts specialist. These guys are based in Cambridge, MA., where I happen to be from, and have created what may be the best fighting game for the 300. I played Way of the Warrior and it definitely blows the first Mortal Kombat away easily. The game is similar to Mortal Kombat in many ways. The digitized characters, fatalities, combos, blood galore, hidden characters, and special attacks are all here. What Way of the Warrior does is take if a step further with an amazing AI(Artificial Intelligence), characters that shrink and grow, over 50 attack moves for each character, 100% 3D scrolling, hidden weapons, interactive backgrounds, bonus items, and so much more. Let’s have a talk with Andy and see what he has to say about Way of the Warrior.

VGT: When did you first start programming video games?
Andy: About 1 0-12 years ago, the first game we made was Ski Crazed on the Apple II, which came out in 1986. It sold a couple thousand copies. Dream Zone was our next game that sold about 15000 copies. Keef the Thief, from Electronic Arts, did much better and sold about 50,000 copies on various machines. We then did Rings of Power, which was our only Genesis cartridge. It’s was very complex and sophisticated and took about 2 1/2 years to produce.
VGT: When was Naughty Dog founded?
Andy: Well , Naughty consists of mainly Jason Rubin and myself . Naughty got its names from a cartoon character that Jason drew. (Andy showed me a picture of an old Naughty Dog logo). Their new logo is on their flyers. The character was created about 8 years ago.
VGT: Is there any downside when programming on the 300 with their CO’s? Does access time and RAM space affect your games?
Andy: Well, first of all the 3DO has 3 megabytes, not mega bits of RAM, which is bigger then the largest SNES cartridge. The CD itself is 660 megabytes . There are technical issues that need to be addressed when programming on the 3DO. One has to use clever designs to reduce and eliminate load times. In Way of the Warrior the entire program was designed in what we call, Asynchronous. The loading is done while you play, by anticipating what needs to be loaded’ in advance with a hardware process called DMA (Direct Memory Access) . There ‘s a short pause going into a fight, but once the action has begun, there is no pause. Players can perform all their moves, with fatalities, 3D scrolling and the stereo music blaring, but with no load time.
VGT: So even though we’re playing continuously, there’s no slow down what’s so ever.
Andy: Yes, the 3DO is capable of loading stuff without any slow down. However, many previous CD games, including the 3DO, have had notable slow delays.

VGT: Like the Sega CD for instance?
Andy: Yes, this is due to sloppy, programming and not being aware of how to program on CD’s. It’s a difficult issue when writing programs that can actually play and load at the same time. It’s a technical challenge. With good program design the load time can be minimized. In turn, the quality of the sound effect, music, FMV, and game play surpass any cartridge game. Cartridge games only have a limited amount of memory in which you can program. CD’s only cost a dollar to manufacture, while cartridges can cost anywhere from 20-30 dollars. CD’s have enormously superior cost to storage ratio.
VGT: Can the access time for the Sega CD be reduced with technical design programming?
Andy: They can definitely reduce the access time. I don’t know that much about the Sega CD though. I don’t think their DMA is better than the 3DO. The 3DO has 4-5 times more memory. It also has a CD drive that’s twice as fast. It has decompression hardware that effectively doubles the speed. It has a unique and extremely powerful custom DMA architecture that can move graphics from disk to memory to screen and back without effecting game play.
VGT: What makes Way of the Warrior different from all the other fighting games?
Andy: As I mentioned before, I have an Artificial Intelligence Graduate degree from MIT. The computer players in WOTW are much more sophisticated then in other fighting games. Whereas they often resorted to patterns to beat the human players, there are no patterns programmed in for WOTW. It uses research grade AI that learns the best way to beat you. It’s extremely cunning and different and actually looks like a real player fighting by adapting to the situation and using all it’s moves.
VGT: Is it always learning consistently more and more each time you play it?
Andy: Yes.
VGT: What about the characters? What makes them so special.
Andy: The characters have around 50 normal moves and about 15-20 special moves. These moves reflect their styles and personalities. There are many secrets that use the background area and hidden characters can also be found.
VGT: So is each character equal in sense or are some stronger then others?
Andy: All the normal human characters are designed to be equal even though they’re different.
VGT: Well, I remember the first Street Fighter II game had very uneven characters. Some had a major advantage over others.
Andy: It’s tough to get the characters exactly even. We tried to get them as close as possible. People also developed different strategies for beaten the other characters. There are a lot of unique techniques and abilities for each character. Like Konotori, which means “stork” in Japanese, can flap and stay in the air longer. Major Gaines has special steroids’ implants that can change his size and therefore the amount of damage he receives become minimal. Nikki Chan is a Chinese Kung Fu artist who can do flips with special moves. She’s very fast and agile. Crimson Glory has close in grabs and special multi-missles that can be fired. Some character has special weapons. Nabu Naga has a sword and throwing stars. Shaky Jake has a staff.
VGT: There seems to be a little bit of everything from all the other fighting games in this game.
Andy: The other fighting games are very narrow. Most of them are to much alike. What we tried to do was take everything good from all the other fighting games and combine them all into WOTW. We’ve added unique features with better graphics, sounds, 3D backgrounds, special magic and potions, panning and zooming, background interaction, and larger more detailed characters.

VGT: Was the process of digitizing the characters the same as Mortal Kombat.
Andy: There are similarities. We’ve never seen them actually doing it. We have seen photos in magazines. They are actually a little more regimented then ours. Their fighting engine is much less sophisticated then WOFW. It requires that every characters moves line up to the exact same position. When each character does a high punch in Mortal Kombat, they high punch at the exact same point. So when they digitize their characters they have to line up perfectly. In WOTW, every character has its own information so not all characters need to have a high punch. Some of the characters punch high, some low, while others are tall, short, big and small. There’s no requirement that the character be the same size. We built the character the same way the actor would appear, rather then force them to convert to our pre-requirements.
VGT: With the 300 having such a small user base at this point, do you think it can increase sales and become successful?
Andy: We think it has a good chance. All game systems start off with a small user base. People forget the Genesis came out in August of 1989 and 2 years later when the Super Nintendo was released it only had 700,000 machines out there and only 23 games after the first year. 300 already has more then that. The 300 is the first of the 32/64bit machines and the difference is academic. Sony, Sega, and Nintendo have all announce 32/64bit systems that won’t be available until 1995. The 300 will be the only significant 32bit machine when Christmas comes. It will have a year of development by then and the price will probably drop some more. So I think it’s in good shape. We hope WOTW with help sell systems.
VGT: Are there any other projects being worked on for the 300?
Andy: We have 2 other projects we’re working on, but we can’t comment on them at this point.
VGT: Do you think that CD’s are the way to go for our future programmers?
Andy: I think this year is the year of the CD’s. It already has the PC market. It offers so many advantages in cost and amount of storage . The access time disadvantage can be overcome with well-designed machines and good programming techniques.

VGT: Are there any other types of games that Naughty Dog will be working on besides fighting?Andy: We signed a deal to put WOTW in the arcades.
VGT: If WOTW does come to the arcade, will it be different then the 3DO version.
Andy: It would be a bit different. The basis of it would be the same. There are different constraints for the arcade version. The 3DO is capable of producing arcade quality games.
VGT: What’s the most outstanding achievement you’ve seen in video games today? What games really blow your mind?
Andy: I have favorites over the years. I tried Ridge Racer which was very impressive looking, but had mediocre game play. In the PC world, “DOOM!” was very good looking. It shows us that 3D games are here and can be produced very well, even on PC’s.
VGT: Well, that’s about it for the questions. Thank you very much for taking the time to be interviewed by VGT. We all hope that Way of the Warrior is very successful and we look forward to reviewing it and any other games that are produced by Naughty Dog.
Andy: Your welcome. Thank you for choosing Naughty Dog as your first interview. We look forward to reading VGT when it’s released.

This is back to 2011 Andy. It’s so worth watching the totally hilarious video from our 1994 masterpiece (LOL). As you can see, we went for over the top.

For more info on my video game career, click here.

For what I’m up to now, click here.

Jer-ne to the center of the Marina

Restaurant: Jer-ne

Location: Ritz-Carlton. 4375 Admiralty Way. Marina del Rey, California 90292 USA. (310) 823-1700

Date: October 29, 2011

Cuisine: Californian

Rating: Solid

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When the Ritz-Carlton Marina Del Rey renovated and opened its new restaurant in the early 2000s the naming committee was obviously inspired by Steve Martin‘s classic LA Story (and its 80s restaurant, lee-dee-oh — spelled l’idiot). In any case, the original Jer-ne actually served up top notch California Asian Fusion when it opened. Like most hotel restaurants, there has been chef turnover — who knows how many times in the last decade. I hadn’t been in a few years (except for the pretty amazing Sunday brunch) and when an old friend from High School Facebook IMed me that he was in town, we headed on over.


The menu is mean and lean, all streamlined modern Californian.


From my cellar. Parker 96 points. “The 2008 Flor de Pingus offers up an enticing nose of smoke, Asian spices, incense, espresso, black cherry, and blackberry. On the palate it displays outstanding volume, intensity, and balance. Rich, dense, and succulent, it has enough structure to evolve for 4-5 years and will offer prime drinking from 2015 to 2028.”


The Ritz always had good cheesy cracker things.


caesar. organic romaine, santa barbara olives, tomatoes, crouton.”


oyster. pacific oysters, crispy potato, spanish ham, sambuca hollandaise.” The sauces were really good, but the oysters had that bitter note that fried oysters often have. Every time I have them I’m reminded that I like my oysters raw.


halibut. sautéed leek, double smoked bacon, corn, potato, clam chowder sauce.”


salmon. green bean, glazed carrots, potato puree, parsley butter.”


lamb. sirloin, heirloom tomato, organic ratatouille, tomato mustard chutney.” Some very tasty and relatively lean lamb. The sauce was one of those meaty jus reductions that I love.


The dessert menu.


greek yogurt panna cotta. slow roasted market stonefruit, corn praline, thymje.”


spiced peanut butter mousse. crunchy peanut butter chocolate, candied ginger ice cream, spicy caramelized honey.” This was a nice dessert. A good interplay between the fluffy peanut butter, crunch, and the ginger ice cream.

Overall the food at this new Jer-ne was good. It didn’t blow me away or anything, and it’s very different than it used to be 8 or so years ago (full of Japanese influenced dishes), but it was a very solid take on conservative but well executed the New American. Even the desserts show plating influences that are very contemporary — what I think of as geometric and dust — the use of cubes, spheres, and ovals in a sort of post war art kind of arrangement, often dusted with granular flavor components. Red Medicine’s desserts are typical examples, but I suspect it’s really a Ferran Adrià thing.

For more LA dining reviews click here.

Goodreads

In my latest move to further build up my social online presence I’ve moved onto goodreads.com. You can find my new profile here. It’s also installed permanently on the righthand sidebar via the  icon.

Those of you who use goodreads, link to my profile and friend me. If you read and haven’t signed up for it, you might want to. Basically it’s Facebook for books. You can easily find rate and review books and then share them with your friends. I posted up about 50 book reviews (mined from this blog) and rated another 70+. Of course I’ve read over 10,000 novels so I’m not about to go back and do them all, but I’ll add them as I see them.

As an author, Goodreads is supposedly a great place to market your books, which is my nefarious ulterior motive in joining yet another social network. Muhaha!

For my book reviews, click here.

For my posts on writing, click here.

Fraiche Santa Monica part deux

Restaurant: Fraiche Santa Monica [1, 2]

Location: 312 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90401. Phone : 310.451.7482

Date: October 21, 2011

Cuisine: Cal French Italian

Rating: Not a bad facelift.

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Fraiche and Fraiche Santa Monica have gone through a number of ownership and chef changes in the last year. It’s been a couple of months so we decided to try it again.


The is a new menu, about 80% different. Bigger, with more entrees.


“Hierloom tomato salad, burrata, pesto, crispy shallots.”


Beef tartare. Hand cut NY strip. Bacon sabayon, lemon.” I’ve grown increasingly fond of steak tartare and this was a tasty one. The arugala and parmesan complemented nicely.


“Pizza Margarita.”

“Pancetta risotto. Black kale. Faum um bert.” A nice rissoto with a cheesy richness bolstered by the rich chunks of ham.


And a trio of creme brulee for dessert. Chocolate, vanilla, and caramel. Nothing not to like here.

While hardly a comprehensive survey of the new menu I enjoyed what we had here. I’ll check in sooner to try it again.

For more LA dining reviews click here.