Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Finding Your "Voice"
Previous posts in this series:
Here is the index of previous posts relevant to this discussion:
In Part 3 of this series on episodic plotting and story springboards,
we started sketching out the issues and topics relevant to constructing an Episodic Plot.
In this "reviews" series we're exploring places you can find examples of what we are discussing:
So here we are in the middle of Chanukah, a time of re-dedication, renewal -- what's called in the Comics world "An Origin Story."
This time of year is about beginnings, more than endings.
Marion Zimmer Bradley taught the oldest truth of storytelling -- "Every Ending Is A New Beginning."
Back in the Fall when I watched the first episode of the new ABC drama "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." -- I noticed how it used that line - the Origin Story - as what SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder terms, "theme stated."
Theme-stated is a line of dialogue that shows without telling the philosophical core question the work deals with, and states the question in such a way that you can "hear" the Author's Voice and know what the work is really about, regardless of what it is ostensibly about.
THEME-STATED is all about "Voice."
"Voice" is one of those elusive subjects new writers natter on about, obsess over, and just can't quite get a grip on. It's like "style" - an intangible that can't really be taught or even learned, but must be discovered by the writer herself.
So the opening episode of this new TV drama (composed of characters and material that has been market tested in comics, film, and other media) told the "origin" of a new series.
The script provided the opening "beat" (to use another SAVE THE CAT! term) of the new series, hinting at a long series of episodes.
In November, we began an exploration of the necessary elements to construct an episodic story. We looked at some previous posts on story-mechanics then began peeling away the masks of the element called "Springboard" (a term borrowed from TV Screenwriter's Marketing).
Story-Springboards are the mechanism that makes episodic structures work, that make Movie Serials (Flash Gordon) work, that make TV Series work, and yes, comics and novel-series too.
The elements of a series of novels are all present in, but invisible during, the first novel or episode. The universe the story will explore has to be in that first "hook" -- yes, even inside the first line of the first episode.
From there it "unfolds."
Note how the AGENT TV series opens with a guy and his kid looking into the window of a very geekish comic store with action figures -- a few lines of dialogue set up the subject of the theme (family relationships, a well-raised kid who doesn't throw a "Daddy-buy-me-that!" temper tantrum while knowing his Dad is "out of work.") The "universe" of this series is in that store window.
Just as that quick set-up scene is in progress BOOM, an explosion high up in a building behind them -- and we do not know that the Dad has had business on the upper floor of that building.
We just watch the Dad check to see the kid didn't get hit by debris, then TRUST the kid to stay put, and the Dad rushes across the street toward the fire while everyone else is fleeing.
Then the Dad looks this way and that (like Superman about to change clothes and fly up from an alley -- really well acted! My Geek-nerves thrilled no end!) drives his bare hands into the bricks of the building and climbs up into the fire. He flinches from the flames, races into the burning room, and jumps out of a high window holding a woman draped over his extended arms.
That's an important visual -- he is NOT holding her in a "fireman's carry" over his shoulders as he should be, but in the Superman/Lois Lane rescue position depicted on comic book covers. It's also the position favored by Pulp Fiction covers with aliens kidnapping helpless human women (nobody explains why) and the position used by human Hero rescuing helpless human woman.
It's stupid and dangerous, but seems to be the "image" that telegraphs "strength" -- more strength and confidence than is necessary or wise.
The show progresses through explaining and demonstrating the modern tech (complete with James Bond allusions! -- I'm gonna love this show! It's a scream and a laugh between every commercial!) -- and ends with the inevitable showdown scene.
In that ending scene we get the REST OF THE THEME STATED ("voice" remember?).
Up until this final-showdown scene with an impending explosion that could take out half a city, (talk about the cliche stage-writing-trick of putting a "bomb under the chair.") we aren't really sure who are the "good guys" and who are the "bad guys" and whether this new guy belongs on the good-guy's roster.
Oh, yeah, you know because you know the universe and who owns the franchise, who wrote and produced -- I mean who hasn't been following all this on Google+ and Facebook? -- but the innocent audience hasn't been shown, so they are on the edge of their chairs wondering if they're going to like this new TV Series or not.
So we're in the showdown scene at the end of ep 1, and we learn that this building-climbing guy has a chemical in his system that will cause what amounts to an atomic explosion that could take out half a city.
This fellow, whom we met in scene 1 got fired from a low-level job because he got injured, found a doctor who was running an experiment (for an unknown nasty), got implanted with this material that will explode (just like the previous experimental subject exploded in scene 1 and took out a building top laboratory), and became a "super-hero" with a "crazy-streak" that is breaking out now. So his inner resentments have been heated up artificially, and he is raging mad at the injustice of it all.
Our sympathies are with this guy., This guy saved-the-cat by promising his kid, in scene 1, that they'd see what they could do for his birthday present, then rescued a woman from a fire! This script is pure SAVE THE CAT! writing.
But the SHIELD team that is supposed to be our "good guys" have decided they have to take this guy out (with a shot to the head) to save a good chunk of the city from annihilation. (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, as Spock said.)
So the head of this SHIELD team is talking to the new guy while the marksman on the team is targeting the new guy's head.
The new guy gets dialogue lines that -- in lean, spare, precise, perfect dialogue! -- state one side of the political argument going on in America today, that will be the main subject of the elections of 2014.
And right out loud, on TV, the new guy mentions GOD!!! The source of his moral/ethical stance (which we've just seen him violating) is God. Yet he states his resentment of the "Suits" -- the big money, ruling class, people who hire, destroy, and discard "workers" as he has been discarded -- he clearly states which "side" he's on -- what we recognize as the Good Guy Side. Yet, just as clearly, he is not sane at that moment. The team leader states that this new guy has expressed the philosophy that indicates he is just exactly the sort of person who should be on his team.
At that point the part of the audience which is clueless is deciding if they want to watch this show or not.
They are listening for the VOICE of the producer, but they don't know that's what they need to hear.
They want to know what this series will be "about."
What the show is about is inside the timbre of the "Voice" of the producer, and it comes through clearly in the last few moments after all the suspenseful buildup.
The marksman makes his shot -- something is embedded in the new guy's skull, and he falls motionless. (No blood.)
The audience sees the group they thought were the good guys apparently murder a good guy whom they liked.
Spirits plummet. This is not a show for me. These people are BAD, and not in a good way at all. Yuck.
Last scene -- it is made clear that the new guy will survive and be OK.
And in that survival is the VOICE OF THE PRODUCER and the SPRINGBOARD for the series.
The "voice" is within the THEME STATED (this sub-set of that larger theme says "good guys don't murder good guys"), and the "springboard" is wound tight. The viewers are ready to tune in next week (or DVR next week's show). This set of Good Guys and their bags full of techie magic tricks captivate because they are "interesting." They are "interesting" because they take risks and win -- which creates the suspense-line "what if they don't win?"
As with The Dresden Files (long book series by Jim Butcher - 16 and counting)
... we have a classic character with 6 problems but in this case represented by the 6 members of the team.
This is from ABC's website: http://abc.go.com/shows/marvels-agents-of-shield/about-the-show
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s first television series, is from executive producers Joss Whedon (Marvel's The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen, who co-wrote the pilot (Dollhouse, Dr.Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). Jeffrey Bell (Angel, Alias) and Jeph Loeb (Smallville, Lost, Heroes) also serve as executive producers. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is produced by ABC Studios and Marvel Television.
The nature of a character's character and the intricacies of the 6 problems (in this case the relationships among the 6 and the external problems they face together) are two of the essential elements in forming the "springboard."
The "springboard" has to be a "board" (character) that can BEND or DEFORM, and be made of a substance (such as a belief in God, or a disbelief, a cause, a dedication, a trusting relationship) that has the "potential energy" to make that deformed board SPRING back and hurl the character into a NEW LIFE.
In this case, each of the six being assembled into a team are leaving what they had to become something new.
Every ending is a new beginning.
That in itself is a theme which is a component of larger themes.
The trick to understanding how theme becomes VOICE is to understand that theme is "what your story says" and that what your story says is very likely not what you set out to say, what you read it to say, what it seems to say to you.
In fact, what your story really says is very likely not even what most of your readers think it says.
Worse -- not even academics or reviewers always nail the theme of a story.
But academics who study the whole body of a writer's work often do uncover a common thread among those works. Sometimes they divide an author's work into "periods" -- sets of works that share something in common, and an appeal to specific audiences that are different from one another.
Authors, like people, grow and over a lifetime change, evolve different philosophical takes on the world and the meaning of life, as well as increasing skill producing text that reflects that meaning.
Every ending is a new beginning -- and as Gene Roddenberry taught, the purpose of fiction is to ASK QUESTIONS but not provide "answers."
Themes frame those questions and begin explorations of all the related questions.
Now study up on SOUND -- and how digital sound analysis can "recognize" voices.
That's what a reader "hears" in the themes, sub-themes, and various "notes" present in the voices of the characters in a story. It's a whole symphony of thematic-sounds -- of tones and pitches.
Every subject about human life has thousands of tones, just like "white-noise."
The story-teller's job is to make "music" out of the "white-noise" of life by sorting tones out of the background and putting them together into something that harmonizes -- like the "voices" of the instruments of a symphony orchestra.
But the "quality" of an instrument or an orchestra lies in the "resonances" the playing of an instrument produces. The violin you rent to give your kid his first lesson is not the same as the violin played by the lead violinist of the Philadelphia Philharmonic.
The difference in those instruments lies in the resonances of the wood and glues.
Each hand-made violin has a "voice" composed of such resonances.
Each writer has a "voice" composed of the resonances aroused within the author by handling the themes of life composing the story being told. Note how a trained singer's voice differs from that of a person who has not exercised vocal chords and trained voice and ear. Note the Drill Sergeant's Parade Ground voice is loud -- how does that happen? It's not just innate -- it's training, practice, exercise, and technique.
"Voice" is not just the strings or the bow, the touch of the violinist, the composition of the piece, the acoustics of the Hall (or recording studio), or the recording technology.
"Voice" is all of that and more.
For a work of fiction, "voice" is not any one of the craft techniques we've been studying in this blog. It is the connections (glue) between those components, the parts of the writer's character as a person that the writer herself is not aware of -- that's the part that vibrates and produces an induced vibration in the reader.
The reader "hears" the vibration of their own body/soul combination -- not the writer's vibration!
The "voice" the writer speaks in is not the "voice" the reader hears.
We say, as we grow up, that we've "out-grown" a particular genre or type of story.
Writers too out-grow their first stories and evolve a new voice.
With music, as we age, our "ear" may lose acuity in certain tonal ranges.
With reading, (or TV etc) our ability to respond to certain "springboards" vibrating as they toss a character into story may change.
As I've quoted Alma Hill saying, "Writing is a Performing Art."
The stage upon which the writer performs is theme, which is composed of many "boards" and "nails" -- and may be hollow underneath and echo, or have trapdoors for magic tricks.
Stages can be simple (a soapbox) or complex. The only way to develop a "voice" is to stand up on the stage and perform just as a singer must sing to strengthen the voice's muscles.
Here are some previous posts on THEME.
Here are 7 parts:
And with links to parts 8, 9 and 10:
We've also been examining the integration of theme into other fundamental components of storytelling such as character:
Until I have enough on a subject to post an Index, I generally list previous parts of a discussion at the top of a post -- and include links to other related subjects within a post, but often rely upon you to remember parts of a discussion.