Category Archives: Frog Jones

Adapting the Past

I grew up on the Shannara books. I loved them. Oh, looking back I see them for what they were; Tolkien- ripoff hackery. They are not good books. But as a twelve-year-old just taking his first steps down this path, I loved them. And when I pick up those cliche tomes these days, I am still overcome with a sense of nostalgia.

So, last year, when I saw that MTV (of all channels) had decided to do a Shannara adaptation, I had two reactions, in sequence:

1. Sqquuuueeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

2. How in the heck are they going to do that?

Now, I am not alone in my Shannara geekery. For books that would never see the light of day if they were written now, they have a strong following. A lot of us, young in the eighties and seeking some form of fantasy, devoured and loved them despite their flaws. And a lot of us are very, very committed to the books; even the parts that suck.

But not enough of us to make an MTV audience. Let’s face it; most Shannara fans are my age. You had to be young enough to dig fantasy and old enough to live in a time where there weren’t other options. And most of them are male, because the Shannara books aren’t particularly great about depicting women. MTV, of course, does not even come close to targetting my demographic. So who in the world thought it’d be a good idea to put this niche show there?

And, as I processed all of these factors, my third reaction began to dawn, ever so slowly.

3. This is going to suck.

Why did I think this? Well, let’s start with this. This picture, just to the left here. You know what that is? That’s the original group of adventurers from the first Shannara novel. It’s a pretty racially diverse cast; you have a dwarf, a couple of Valemen, some humans, a druid, and two elves. Of course, they’re all white males, but still…diversity, right?

Now, I knew MTV wasn’t about to put that cast up on the screen. I figured we’d see some gender-swapping, and some characters would end up being not-white. Which I was OK with, really. I am not someone who believes you can’t gender-swap a character. Obviously, there are series that have done this, and done it well.

So, the first thing that relieved me on this was where MTV decided to start. Oh, the great community of nerds had some things to say when we discovered that Sword of Shannara was merely backstory. That, instead, we would be dealing with Elfstones of Shannara, the second book in the series. Upon seeing this, it occurred to me that MTV had actually sat down, read the books, and figured out what the heck it was doing.

The Shannara Chronicles are not point-by-point true to the original book. There’s no King of the Silver River, Grimpen Ward is never mentioned, the Witch Sisters barely make an appearance, and the great mid-air confrontation between Allanon and the Dagda Mor is more of a couple of seconds on the ground. Special effects budgets, storyline, and the need to get some kind of episode-based rhythm account for much of it, but honestly, there’s something else.

The Shannara Chronicles is simply written better than the original books.

Remember what I said at the beginning of this article. The Shannara books are not well-written. They’re basically hackery of the lowest sort. I know, I know; if you’re an old-school geek like me, you remember them fondly. But you know what else I remember fondly? The Thundercats cartoon. I tried to re-watch it, once. bad idea.

The Shannara Chronicles cut down on the cast. Now, obviously there’s a budgetary reason for this; when you’re making a TV show, each new character is a new person you have to pay. But that also had the effect of streamlining the story, which the book very badly needed.

The series made the story one of the personal relationships. They did that for their demographic, of course, but doing it made us far more focused on the characters. Cephelo isn’t just a lovable rogue in the series; he is very, very dangerous. Eretria isn’t just “the other girl,” or “Wil’s second choice.” She’s a kick-ass survivor with her own set of priorities. And Amberle isn’t single-minded in her devotion to the cause; she has to examine what’s being asked of her again, and again, and again.

Wil, on the other hand, is all too aware of what happens after the heroism. He’s constantly worried about the price he’s going to pay long-term for his exploits, and he has the shadow of his father, Shea Ohmsford. Shea’s exploits from Sword are referenced, often in praising terms, but Wil’s problem is that he knew his dad as a worthless, drunken waste of humanity. And he fears, deeply, that he’s on the same path. Save the world, but lose yourself in the process.

All the characters are wrestling with their internal demons instead of just the external ones trying to kill them. And that kind of internal conflict makes the series simply better than the books.

***SPOILER ALERT – I’M GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE END OFSEASON ONE. STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT IT SPOILED***

The thing that most scared me when I saw that Elfstones was the adaptation was simple: Elfstones’ best story point is its ending. The heroes win, but there is a huge sacrifice to be made. Amberle must become the Ellcrys. She doesn’t die, no, but we’re talking about killing off one leg of your love triangle in the end of the first season. I was terrified that MTV wouldn’t have the guts to do it–and I’m really happy I was wrong.

***END SPOILERS***

The point, here, is that stories were a certain way in the 1980s. And they’re just better now. Our profession has gotten a lot more involved in the internal dramas, and beating the great evil thing using the Macguffin simply doesn’t cut it anymore. MTV took a story from the past, a beat-the-evil-with-the-thing work of hackery, and made it three-dimensional. It’s an exceptionally well-done adaptation, and it stands as an example of how to update an old, tired, tropey work.

Now that the season is done, we have a new question for MTV. Season 2 is in the works, and we know that it deals with the same characters. That’s really interesting, because…Wil doesn’t do anything else in the books. Wil Ohmsford, in the books, goes back to Storlock, finishes his studies to become a healer, and settles down with Eretria. They have a pair of kids, and those kids go on to have their own adventures. The next book in the series is Wishsong, and it’s not about Wil at all.

It doesn’t sound as though MTV wanted to rotate their entire non-Allanon cast to deal with Season 2. And I get it; you want your fans to become attached to a main character, not someone entirely new. But there’s another adaptation challenge ahead. Do they simply make up new storylines? Do they try to adapt the Wishsong storyline into Season 2?

I’m honestly not sure, but I’m interested to see where it goes.

The Difference Between Darkness and Murk

When I was in my sophomore year, we all had to write a short story about whatever we wanted. Now, I’m not sure what I wrote; the assignment didn’t stick in my head because of what did.

No, the assignment stuck in my head because of what my buddy Jacob did.

See, Jacob went for the most gruesome splatter-based horror story he could. It was the sort of story you’d expect from a tenth-grader, badly written and dripping in gore. At one point a series of people got taken out by a snowplow. Amongst all our friends, it was generally agreed that Jacob had produced a work of pure genius, to rival those of Poe himself. He got a C-.

That story was so “awesome” to my tenth-grade self that I kept a copy of it. And while I was in college a couple of years later, I stumbled across it and re-read the stupid thing. I immediately concluded that “C-” had been generous. Grammar errors aside, the story structure had less cohesiveness than an average porn movie. Oh, the bodies were stacked up like cordwood, but that’s all the thing had going for it. That sanguine veneer covered exactly…nothing.

Now, none of this should come as a surprise to any readers here, save perhaps the fact that I’m talking about a writing assignment from High School at all. Of course it sucked-we were in the tenth grade.

But every time I sit down to try to write something dark, I remember that stupid story. I remember how fascinated I was by it, and then how terrible it was. Those two extreme reactions are interesting and paradoxical enough that they form the core of my thinking about writing dark. And they’re the reason I rarely do it.

Dark writing is often used as a way to cover up bad writing. And it should never, ever be.

There’s a lot of posts going on this month about pulpy fun. And that’s fine, so long as that’s the contract between the reader and the writer. Reader goes in expecting pulpy fun, reader gets pulpy fun, all is well in the world. But doing an intentionally pulpy story is one thing; being dark because it’s a substitute for being good is another.

Let’s take this to cinema for a second. You know why nobody liked Man of Steel? Because Grimdark Superman isn’t a thing. Zach Snyder took on the admittedly steep challenge of doing the Big Blue Boy Scout and completely muffed it. Superman’s a tough character to write specifically because you can’t simply go dark to get a serious edge to your story. You have to have a purely morally upright hero. It can be done–and done very, very well–but it pulls that crutch out from underneath you.

Which should only serve to point out that there is a crutch here.

So, writing good dark fiction requires that one be aware of the fact that going dark can be a crutch. Keep it in your head at all times, because every time you add to the body count there should be a purpose to it. Every murder, every horrible monster; you need to look at the thing you’re trying to evoke in your reader. If it’s pulpy, campy fun, then fine; be up front that you’re going to have pulpy, campy fun. But if you want a really good, dark, horrific story then the first thing you have to do is stop thinking of it as a dark story and just think of it as a story.

Your characters still need to be well-rounded. They still have to have real emotions, still have to think and be motivated realistically. If you have a villain–even one whose goal it is to go about gruesomely murdering people, then that villain needs to have reasons for what he or she is doing. Arguably one of the best horror villains written is Hannibal Lecter, and he’s not great because of his victims. He’s great because his murders stand out in stark contrast to his erudite intellectualism. He’s terrifying because we like him.

So, in short; the trick to writing good, dark fiction is to stop thinking of it as dark fiction. Write your characters. Give them a full life, and let the readers love them for who they are. Watching some random, faceless murdered commit atrocities is fun. Watching a character you love commit atrocities is terrifying.

Two Cathedrals

A Guest Post by Frog Jones

We live in a golden age for television shows. Netflix has surrounded us by amazing, boundary-pushing videos, HBO is constantly upping its game, and the cable networks have had no choice but to follow suit. Even among this eruption of great television, and as devoted a fan as I am to basically all of it, I continue to hold that there is no greater hour of television made than “Two Cathedrals,” the season 2 finale of The West Wing.

And yet, I’ve never really broken down why.

First off, we have to place the episode in context. Sorkin did a great job of building to the moment for this one, and so the audience approaches “Two Cathedrals” already having some information. That’s handy, for a writer; laying the exposition elsewhere lets you spend a great deal of time bringing nothing but impact later on. For a similar effect, watch the first “Avengers” movie; almost no exposition was necessary, because that got taken care of in the initial, individual character films.

enhanced-buzz-27204-1361238426-0 (1)So, coming into “Two Cathedrals,” we know some things. We know that President Bartlet has been concealing his Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis from the public, and that the team is getting ready to break the news. We know that the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not he will announce his candidacy for re-election. And we know that his secretary, the much-loved Mrs. Landingham, was killed by a drunk driver the previous night.

The show opens with a number of discussions that make it clear the Democratic party wants Bartlet to step down, anoint a chosen successor. The president’s mind, though, is on Mrs. Landingham. We get flashbacks to his past, revealing his complicated relationship with her. On the show to date, Mrs. Landingham has constantly been the one person who at no point took any guff from the president, and now we see why. She’s not just his secretary; she was his self-appointed big sister—the one who became his family while his father abused him. And she recruits him to stand up to his father on behalf of the women on staff at the private school where he is a headmaster.

LandinghamHe is, initially, reluctant. But after Mrs. Landingham “gives him numbers,” he is forced with a choice: do the right thing, or do the easy thing. Mrs. Landingham makes that apparent, telling him that if he’s simply denying her request because he’s scared to do what he knows is right then, “gosh, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.” Young Jed sticks his hands in his pockets, turns away, and smiles. Mrs. Landingham tells him (and us) that this means he’s made his decision, and he is going to do it.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s the next scene that makes this episode great. Everything builds to it, and it is not repeat not the climax to the story. Jim Butcher has long advocated for a writing technique called the “big middle,” in which a massive event in the middle of the book is the focus of the first half of the book, and catapults the story forward. “Two Cathedrals” makes expert use of this technique, rising the audience to an epic showdown between President Bartlet…and God.

two landinghamsStanding in the National Cathedral, Bartlet asks the Secret Service to clear the building, leaving him alone in the massive House of God. Approaching the altar, Bartlet begins to list his grievances. A devout, educated Catholic, he addresses God in Latin. He blames God for the list of wrongs in his presidency, and asks God why the right things he has done have not been enough for him. His anger grows as he talks to his Maker without response, and as he loses control of himself he switches back to the schoolboy. His father and The Father become conflated, and he looses a tirade of cursing, entirely in Latin, at God, while standing before the altar of the National Cathedral. It is, in short, breathtaking.

And it ends by giving us the answer to the question everyone has been asking. “You get Hoynes,” Bartlet says as he throws down a cigarette on the floor of the cathedral, one last act of rebellion against his father and his Father.

The rest of the episode proceeds with the staff learning of Bartlet’s decision. Toby is presented with a “life boat,” a job offer lined up for him by Leo; he rejects it, then immediately begins to yell at Leo for even presuming he’d take it. Leo assure Toby that he never considered Toby would take the job; Toby inquires as to why he set it up.

“To show him that,” responds Leo. One character, only one, that believes Bartlet is going to change his mind. Toby’s eyes widen as he realizes what Leo is saying; that Leo knows Bartlet better than he knows himself.

And in doing so, Leo gives us the string of hope that’s keeping us going. Bartlet’s already made his decision, and made it in a big, climactic way, but Leo’s move opens that door just a crack. Just enough to keep the audience engaged, while continuing to despair. It’s perfect. It’s brilliant. And it sets up what happens next.

Throughout the episode, an unusual storm has been brewing. Also, the latch on the portico door to the Oval Office has been broken. These two events, having been hung on the wall earlier in the episode, culminate as the storm rips open the door and, on reflex, President Bartlet calls out for Mrs. Landingham.

Then his face falls as he realizes what he’s done. But only for a moment.

Because, at this moment, Mrs. Landingham walks through the door and chides him for yelling. Whether she is an instrument of God or simply a figment of Bartlet’s imagination is left to the audience, but she delivers God’s retort to the accusations Bartlet made back in the National Cathedral. The counter-arguments culminate in Bartlet “giving himself numbers,” a move designed to line up with the earlier conversation. If Bartlet is simply not running for re-election because it’s going to be too hard, then “well, gosh, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”

After this the episode is all denouement. A musical sequence culminating in Bartlet standing before a press conference, being asked whether he is running, ends with him sticking his hands in his pockets, turning away, and smiling. We all know what that means.

The pacing of “Two Cathedrals” is breathtaking, and it is easily the best example I can point to of visual media completely nailing the “big middle” concept. The middle of any story is the hardest thing to right, the thing that bogs the story down into exposition and dragging characters from point A to point B. By executing a “Big Middle,” a mini-climax in the book, “Two Cathedrals” absolutely rockets its pacing forward, keeping its audience gripped. This trick of writing, in addition to some fabulous acting on the part of Sheen and everyone else, makes this episode quite possibly the best hour of television ever produced.

Frog JonesFrog Jones writes with his wife, Esther. After a ten-year vow to never show each other a word they had written, they eventually broke down and wrote a novel together. Together, they have published the Gift of Grace series from Sky Warrior Books, as well as short stories in anthologies such as How Beer Saved the World, First Contact Café, and Tales from an Alien Campfire, as well as many more. The Joneses live on the Puget Sound in the State of Washington with Oxeye, who is twenty-five pounds of pure bunny. Frog’s works can be found at http://www.jonestales.com, and he also appears on the Three Unwise Men podcast at http://3unwisemen.com.

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