JOHN OSTRANDER: DEATH AND VANDALISM

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by John Ostrander

Writing a weekly column can be a funny thing at times, especially when you wait until the last moment to do it. Not only does it irritate your editor but the blamed thing can morph from its original topic. Such as this week. I started with one topic and then found two others that I wanted to comment on as well. I think I’ve found a connection within all three; let’s see if I can make it without stretching too much. Wish me luck.

We’ll start with the death of Leonard Nimoy, a.k.a. the original Mr. Spock in Star Trek. He was 83 and died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Spock was an iconic character not only on Trek or in science fiction but around the world. “Live long and prosper” was his signature phrase and his cool, logical, and scientific manner created an army of fans, me included.

My friend Lise Lee Morgan and I met Mr. Nimoy in person many years ago in a guest suite at a Star Trek convention. My friend Stuart Gordon had got us the opportunity and Mr. Nimoy was charming, engaging, and enthusiastic about Stuart. I liked him even more than I liked Spock.

How significant was Nimoy’s passing? He got a eulogy from Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the Moon. President Obama released a statement saying “Long before nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future … I loved Spock.” Come on. How cool is that? Any of us should wish to have a life with as much impact on the world.

On the other side of the coin there’s the report of author and blogger Avijit Roy being hacked to death with machetes by Islamic extremists. Roy was a native of Bangladesh although he lived in Atlanta and he was attacked as he left a book fair in the Bangladesh city of Dahka. He was there to promote his book The Virus of Faith. A fan of Bill Maher’s harsh view of Islam, he was critical of all religions and especially Islam and that made him the target of death threats by Moslem extremists. Ansar Bangla-7, an extremist group, has claimed responsibility for the death.

The third item catching my eye was the destruction of ancient artifacts in a Mosul museum by members of ISIS. The items dated back thousands of years, from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires. The vandals’ justification was that the statues were by polytheists and therefore an affront to their skewed notion of Allah. This ignores the fact that the art was part of the heritage of us all and they were only the current custodians. They did not have the right to destroy them. Sadly, such iconoclasm has a long and pernicious history.

So … what unites these three events? They underscore the importance of art, of literature and – yes – of pop culture. A writer is killed because of ideas that he espouses, artifacts are destroyed because of what they once represented, Nimoy’s death is remembered because of a part he played on TV and in films. All this underscores the importance of art, its power, and the threat it poses to the close-minded.

It makes us remember the past, question the present, and bring hope for the future. Pop culture, which we celebrate here, is a huge part of all that. It helps define who we are and tells us who we were and points to what we could be. It reflects our passions and our interests. It questions what we are told and that’s why extremists ofall stripes want it destroyed or controlled or obliterated or killed. The violence, the extreme nature, of their actions tell us how real the threat is to them. That tells us how powerful it is. Art is dangerous. Pop culture is or can be or should be dangerous.

Leonard Nimoy, as Spock, exemplified all that. That’s part of the reason his passing affects so many. He made an indelible mark on the world. We should strive to do the same.

Live long and prosper, y’all.

TV’s Most Realistic Mom-Child Relationships

And why are they so real?

Because of the writing:

by Alison Natasi

There was something oddly comforting about watching Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson having an awkward mother-daughter spat mother-by_chaoslavawolfwith mom Melanie Griffith on the Oscars red carpet. When asked if Griffith had seen the film, in which Johnson plays an oft-nude virginal initiate into the world of BDSM, she said no and that she didn’t need to see it to know her daughter was a good actress. Cue a familiar eye roll and a few fed-up expletives from a bratty Johnson.

It’s telling that one of the most realistic portrayals of a mother-child relationship on television this year didn’t happen in a family sitcom, but at an awards show. But there are a few family-driven programs that have presented believable moms and children, like Amy Sherman-Palladino’s beloved Gilmore Girls. The pop culture-obsessed relationship between Alexis Bledel’s Rory and Lauren Graham’s Lorelai was dynamic. Lorelai’s complicated relationship with blue-blood matriarch Emily (played by Kelly Bishop, who celebrates a birthday today) was also unique. Bossy and often brutal, Emily was not simply a caricature of a parent who just didn’t understand. She longed to find that connection with Lorelai, whose hurt and frustrations would often get in the way of building a bond.

Here are other mother-child relationships on television that broke the mold and got real.

Roseanne Conner, Roseanne

Roseanne Conner (played by Roseanne Barr), the outspoken matriarch of one of television’s most successful working-class family sitcoms, remains the standard by which realistic TV moms are judged. The Conners face money struggles, domestic strife, teen pregnancy, and other issues familiar to the average American family. Roseanne deals with things with humor and without wrapping a neat, little bow on the family’s problems. She doesn’t have all the answers and offers realistic advice when daughters Darlene and Becky complain about the trials of young adulthood. And Roseanne has her own life to sort out while she’s busy being mom, especially her career as co-owner of the Lanford Lunch Box restaurant.

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Television’s Very Own Auteurs: Showrunners

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Part 1
by Diana Black

Television auteurs? Can that be? Doesn’t the medium of TV by its very nature force everything presented on it to be “collaborative,” with the collaboration totally controlled behind the scenes by TV executives?

And yet – does anyone remember a fellow by the name of Gene Roddenberry? He certainly ruled the original Star Trek with an iron fist. And what about Joss Whedon and his control over Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, more importantly, the ultimate genre classic, Firefly?

Think about it. Both Star Trek and Firefly went ‘cult’ on a global scale. Star Trek has not only become deeply entrenched in pop culture over the last forty-five years, and the ‘Prime Directive’ is, according to Aaron Miller, recognizable in current US foreign policy.

Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma supports this view, reporting anecdotally that the ‘Prime Directive’ is informing policy on drone warfare. Firefly ‘speaks’ to a broad, multi-national demographic; peeved with Government bureaucracy and the malaise of mainstream the world over. Of course both fan bases also happen to like ripping good yarns and strong characterization.

Does the reverence with which Gene Roddenberry and Joss Whedon are held qualify them for ‘Auteur’ status? Are the tenets of ‘Auteur Theory’ demonstrated in their work? Gene probably wouldn’t give a damn about being labeled such and perhaps Mr. Whedon’s sense of professional accomplishment doesn’t rest solely on the reception of his work in that manner either. Both no doubt, were/are just pleased to be able to work and through their gifted and impassioned writing, make a difference.

So what constitutes an ‘Auteur’, ‘Auteur Theory’ and/or ‘Auteur-ship’? It might be useful to recall the elementary grammar exercise we all did as children when exploring ‘word families’; a useful skill when having to decipher unfamiliar text. ‘Auteur’ is French for ‘Author’ and originally associated with French Avant-garde film of the mid-twentieth century. Alexandre Austruc formulated the concept of ‘Auteur Theory’, in which the Director could and should wield the camera as the Writer does a pen. Shortly thereafter Francois Truffaut and colleagues took a poke at what they considered to be a conservative French film industry.

They, like all aspiring screenwriters were keen to ‘break in’ and make a difference. Truffaut & Co maintained that American cinema was the product of someone’s ‘unified, organizing vision’’ but this was in reference to the Director, not the Writer. In their view, a Director/Filmmaker such as Alfred Hitchcock for example, was an Auteur because he was able to rise above the constraints of an industrialized ‘Studio system’.

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Few would deny that Hitchcock placed an indelible ‘stamp’ on his films, making them instantly recognizable; not only in terms of the film narrative and/or genre choice but also in the manner in which the narrative was explored and presented – lighting, staging and editing etc. (Pearson and Simpson, 41- 42). After Truffaut, Andrew Sarris formulated a version of Auteur Theory for America via his text, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968.

This became an unofficial ‘bible’ of Auteurism, with an Auteur being a Director (not Screenwriter) who demonstrates competence and a recognizable style to his/her work which they can repeat time and again. Sarris was criticized as being elitist and subjective but it did ‘set the tone’ for the American film industry for quite some time thereafter. Doree Shafrir argued in 2006, “Why can’t a Screenwriter be an Auteur, too?” Good point don’t you think? But let’s back up a tad…

In 1965 Pauline Kael, a renowned film commentator, maintained that film critics in their blind loyalty to particular Directors, created the notion of ‘a film canon’ around these Director’s works; which of course only added to their status and clout in relation to the Studios. Sounds almost like ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ and in a way it may well have been with the adoring insecure keen to be seen as ‘having seen’ (and loved) the Director’s latest film, regardless of its artistic merit.

This begs the question, “Are Auteurs self-made or manufactured by the viewer/s?” Is popularity analogous to ‘Auteur-ship’? Kael stated that the status associated with the ‘Auteur label’ for ‘Kings-in-waiting’ goes way beyond intellectual squabbling and garnering the popularity of the masses. When no one dares question a Director who is fast gaining or has gained the status of ‘Auteur’ that Director can make whatever film they bloody-well like.

While this might all sound rather ‘old-school’, the notion of Auteur, particularly in Europe, is not to be taken lightly. European Union Law considers the Director as being at least one of the authors, if not the primary author in terms of copyright…wtf? Hopefully writers in Europe are well paid for their original ‘blue-print’ – because in the eyes of the Court system, that’s all a screenplay is.

Those of us trying to break into feature film writing have been told ad nauseum that we are powerless, with the creative work we have slaved over for months if not years, merely a ‘blue-print’. We’re also told that the Director as a matter of course will ‘modify’ the original, quite possibly to such a degree that the we, as the original author, may not even recognize or want to be associated with it.

Coming into the ‘now’, should this notion of Auteur-ship be of any concern to us as aspiring television writers? Well yes, because it is all about power – who has it and how much. No matter how much we would like to think that we are the sole creator of our masterpiece, what comes to the screen – large or small, is only there because of collaboration and on behalf of many. Doree Safrir makes the point that a film is not a book and what we see and hear in front of us is the culmination of a team effort.

Our esteemed leader at the TVWriter™ helm, Larry Brody, seems to agree. However, he also raises a prickly question, “Do changes improve the piece and make it possible to be produced?” This is something we must come to terms with; the fact that writing a story is one thing, but writing a story that will sell, may be a different animal. How many of us write with the ‘business model’ firmly in our minds? By embracing the mighty dollar does it compromise our wondrous sense of creativity or, are we able to be highly creative and have a commercial ‘product’ in our hands? Well, I guess the onus is on us as writers to prove that we can demonstrate both.

In relation to ‘the suits’ whether we love them or hate them, they are essentially there to make money and not just for themselves; everyone involved stands to benefit if our television series is green-lit. However, just like their clients, ‘the suits’ are driven by fear; hence their paranoia over ratings and their desperate desire to garner advertising dollars.

It is generally and begrudgingly accepted that they do have a ‘Ferengi’ eye for business; except for when they stuff up and pull down a highly popular program who has the misfortune of being embraced by only a niche market… ‘Hell hath no fury…” I am sure none of us have to think too hard to recall a beloved program that’s been trashed; due to their lack of faith and foresight, not ours.

While television writers may enjoy substantially more control over their work than their feature film buddies, the manifestation of power via polite consultations with the Director of a particular episode, can only occur if the writer has been retained once the television series is green lit by the Studio Execs.

Even then, that level of clout will only get one so far. Both Star Trek and Firefly were cancelled by the suits. No one outside of the inner circle is likely to recall who those henchpersons were but we all know and love those who created these great Sci-Fi shows and it is these folk and the quiet achievers who provided them with the necessary logistical and creative support that we choose to remember.

Sadly ‘The Great Bird of the Galaxy’ is no longer with us but I am sure many would agree that the hallmark pertaining to Gene’s and Joss’s work is passionate and compelling writing as it is with any writer worth their salt. However, these guys did more than that; they took on the unenviable task of being the ‘go-between’ between the dreaded suits and the rest of the team and ‘running the show’ as bet they could. They are not the only brave stalwarts of TV Land – we now call them Showrunners.

To Be Continued!

Philip K. Dick on How to Build a Universe

Specifically, “one that doesn’t fall apart two days later.” He said this in a speech back in 1978, but, like his fictional universes, this article’s wisdom is still standing:

Our kind of guy

Our kind of guy

by Philip K. Dick

First, before I begin to bore you with the usual sort of things science fiction writers say in speeches, let me bring you official greetings from Disneyland. I consider myself a spokesperson for Disneyland because I live just a few miles from it—and, as if that were not enough, I once had the honor of being interviewed there by Paris TV.

For several weeks after the interview, I was really ill and confined to bed. I think it was the whirling teacups that did it. Elizabeth Antebi, who was the producer of the film, wanted to have me whirling around in one of the giant teacups while discussing the rise of fascism with Norman Spinrad… an old friend of mine who writes excellent science fiction. We also discussed Watergate, but we did that on the deck of Captain Hook’s pirate ship. Little children wearing Mickey Mouse hats—those black hats with the ears—kept running up and bumping against us as the cameras whirred away, and Elizabeth asked unexpected questions. Norman and I, being preoccupied with tossing little children about, said some extraordinarly stupid things that day. Today, however, I will have to accept full blame for what I tell you, since none of you are wearing Mickey Mouse hats and trying to climb up on me under the impression that I am part of the rigging of a pirate ship.

Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful. A few years ago, no college or university would ever have considered inviting one of us to speak. We were mercifully confined to lurid pulp magazines, impressing no one. In those days, friends would say me, “But are you writing anything serious?” meaning “Are you writing anything other than science fiction?” We longed to be accepted. We yearned to be noticed. Then, suddenly, the academic world noticed us, we were invited to give speeches and appear on panels—and immediately we made idiots of ourselves. The problem is simply this: What does a science fiction writer know about? On what topic is he an authority?

It reminds me of a headline that appeared in a California newspaper just before I flew here. SCIENTISTS SAY THAT MICE CANNOT BE MADE TO LOOK LIKE HUMAN BEINGS. It was a federally funded research program, I suppose. Just think: Someone in this world is an authority on the topic of whether mice can or cannot put on two-tone shoes, derby hats, pinstriped shirts, and Dacron pants, and pass as humans.

Well, I will tell you what interests me, what I consider important. I can’t claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?

In 1951, when I sold my first story, I had no idea that such fundamental issues could be pursued in the science fiction field. I began to pursue them unconsciously. My first story had to do with a dog who imagined that the garbagemen who came every Friday morning were stealing valuable food which the family had carefully stored away in a safe metal container. Every day, members of the family carried out paper sacks of nice ripe food, stuffed them into the metal container, shut the lid tightly—and when the container was full, these dreadful-looking creatures came and stole everything but the can.

Finally, in the story, the dog begins to imagine that someday the garbagemen will eat the people in the house, as well as stealing their food. Of course, the dog is wrong about this. We all know that garbagemen do not eat people. But the dog’s extrapolation was in a sense logical—given the facts at his disposal. The story was about a real dog, and I used to watch him and try to get inside his head and imagine how he saw the world. Certainly, I decided, that dog sees the world quite differently than I do, or any humans do. And then I began to think, Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me wonder, If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe, it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too diffrently, there occurs a breakdown of communication… and there is the real illness.

I once wrote a story about a man who was injured and taken to a hospital. When they began surgery on him, they discovered that he was an android, not a human, but that he did not know it. They had to break the news to him. Almost at once, Mr. Garson Poole discovered that his reality consisted of punched tape passing from reel to reel in his chest. Fascinated, he began to fill in some of the punched holes and add new ones. Immediately, his world changed. A flock of ducks flew through the room when he punched one new hole in the tape. Finally he cut the tape entirely, whereupon the world disappeared. However, it also disappeared for the other characters in the story… which makes no sense, if you think about it. Unless the other characters were figments of his punched-tape fantasy. Which I guess is what they were.

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it’s all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.

So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.

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Writing Tips from Stephen King

Stephen King…Stephen King…where have we heard that name before…?

Oh, right. Where haven’t we heard that name before?

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by Nina Bourne

Horror writer extraordinaire, Stephen King, has been around the proverbial block more than enough times to know what it takes, what works and what doesn’t when it comes to being a writer. He was kind enough to share some of his experience and insight into the profession in his 2010 memoir, On Writing.

There are a ton of invaluable tips and tid bits of advice for writers and it was nearly impossible to pick just a select few to cover today. After much consideration we were able to narrow down what we found to be incredibly useful information for our writer readers.

In his book, King said “I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.” Well, he has a point…a blunt point, but a point all the same. So, with that in mind, here are some of our favorite tips from the “King of Horror”:

  1. Put down the remote and pick up a book.King calls television the “poison to creativity” and he’s pretty much spot on. TV is known to suck out the imagination and dull the senses, which are two very important things to writers. He suggests doing away with the TV and picking up a book instead.Reading allows you to constantly learn and challenge your brain. This continuous challenge will help you grow as a writer and will often spark creative inspiration when it’s needed the most. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all other: read a lot and write a lot,” he says.
  2. Don’t shy away from editing.Cutting out bits and pieces of your writing is a rather hard part of the job, but an unavoidable one. King tells writers to, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” You heard him, folks! Don’t be afraid of the delete and backspace keys.
  3. Cut yourself off from external distractions when writing.“Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open,” King says. That sounds about right to us, too. Nothing can jam a writers creative flow quite like a heap of distractions. Writing is an internal activity that often requires the writer to sink into a zone that needs to be maintained.The best way to stay in the zone is to tuck yourself away in a corner without your phone, access to any social media sites and a note on your door asking for privacy.

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Peggy Bechko: Creating a Flat, Two-Dimensional Villain

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by Peggy Bechko

Seriously. Here’s how to do it. Because there may be times when you actually want to create a ‘cardboard’ villain, one who is ‘hilariously’ even one-dimensional. There are times…

On the other hand you might want to go 180 degree turn and actually create a villain who has some moxie, some real reasons for villainous behavior.

Either way, read on.

Now some writers create antagonists who are cool as a cucumber all the time. In victory or defeat (at least the minor ones that come before the big crash) he or she is basically emotionless. The most the movie watcher or novel reader might see is a slight smile with a victory.

So, how real is this? How much does it draw in the watcher or reader? Really, no reactions? Us humans aren’t like that. Rarely, to the point of non-existent, do we do something just because we want to do it. I mean, even in the animated world the characters do things because some emotion drives them. The good writer will show that driving force and the emotion behind it. Just because a character sports flaws, actually because a character sports flaws, is reason enough to fill out his driving forces.

One of my favorite examples is Despicable Me. We get glimpses of Gru’s childhood and what motivates his desire to be a ‘super-villain’. He ends up becoming the hero of the piece, but let’s move on.

Come on, if cartoon characters have personalities and a past, then so do the others in our created worlds on paper or on screen. So talk to your characters, find out what makes them happy, sad, desperate, hopeful, frustrated. Find out what passion lies in his background and how that character utilizes it to move his plots forward.

What if your villain wants power just for the sake of power? He’s never satisfied and attacks the hero just because the hero won’t bend before him. Without passion and deep-seated motivation the villain becomes boring. Give him that passion, the psychological need that drives his actions. Maybe he had a moral compass once upon a time, but he’s been wounded and finds himself at odds with the rich and vital moral compass of the hero. Go deeper. Make the villain complex. Find the seed that grew within him to make him what he is and drives his desires.

Another antagonist that can be disturbing is one with big goals and a minion horde that helps him feed his thirst for power. We watch and we wonder WHY that minion horde would remain loyal to him as he treats them terribly, perhaps having some killed, perhaps threatening their families, perhaps throwing them as cannon fodder into a skirmish that can’t be won. This villain does a series of things that show his poor judgment, exhibits continual strategic mistakes and we all wonder why the heck anyone would be following him anymore.

The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t, and neither would his minion horde. So what to do about that character who’s weakening the story, if not destroying it altogether?

The solution is to make the villain stronger, better, more competent. Yes, give your hero reason to rise to a real challenge. Give the hero a villain worthy of him. Make the reader and the watcher gasp, slip to the edge of his or her seat in anticipation of how the hero is going to get out of this, or fix it, or even come out on top at all.

Come on, guys, let’s have a strong villain against whom the hero can really shine. Save the cardboard for humor and parody. In a “real” story we want real motivating forces. If you have a flat villain on your hands, time to revise and edit and give your readers and watchers something real.


Peggy Bechko is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.