Sunday, November 23, 2014

George Lucas Disease: A Commentary

Hey y'all.  So George Lucas gets a lot of crap for ruining the Star Wars franchise.  The original trilogy he created back in the day was a fun romp through a science fiction world, and a great classic adventure.  And then he created the prequels, which ended up being everything the originals were not: boring, overly digital, unexciting, and having a plot so complicated no one's really sure what happened.  No one cares, that's for sure.

So what happened?  Did Lucas' head get too big?  Did he care more about the money than doing his job?  Is he really a terrible storyteller who needed lots of help from other people to create the original trilogy?  Well, I would like to submit that George Lucas is an extreme example of what can happen to potentially any writer.  Hence, George Lucas disease.

But wait, you protest, how dare I ascribe to all writers the possibility of Lucas' decrescendo? Lucas obviously lost his touch, and that doesn't happen to everyone.  Yes, it doesn't.  Not to that extreme.  It is, however, something that can happen when a writer works too much on one franchise or that franchise becomes extremely popular.  Chances are, a writer won't fall nearly as hard as Lucas, but keep in mind that Lucas had a much higher cliff to fall from; Star Wars is a franchise with lots of expectations on it.  Few writers reach that level.

So what is George Lucas disease?  It's the swelling of a story franchise to the point where people are sick of it, and the writer is incapable going interesting new directions.  There are many causes to it, but the results are all the same; people (besides uber fans) stop caring.

One of the primary causes of Lucas disease is that a franchise is just too long, or the writer writes similar stories too much -- any long series of books with a single focus.  For example, I've heard some people complaining about Stephen King novels, how they've become all the same these days. Far be it from me to deny King his chops as an author, but it's the same with all prolific fiction writers.  He's written so many horror books that his readers aren't scared anymore.  King, or any other horror writer, looks at the horror genre in a specific way.  You get that writer's flavor by reading their books.  And like eating a lot of one thing at once, eventually you just need a change.

This is also a thing that happens to franchises.  For example, RA Salvatore's Legend of Drizzt series had a really interesting beginning, but several books in, it becomes very repetitive -- just the dark elf Drizzt being the ultimate hero while everyone else fawns on him.  I lost interest in the series after one book where Drizzt is off making out with some elf chick while his dwarf friends are all dying in a horrible battle.  He shows up after all is said and done, only to steal a chick from his best friend. Guess you weren't all that interested in the elf at the beginning, were you Drizzt?

There's also the aspect of ego: the writer gets more popular than either their skills deserve, or popularity makes them think they're better than they are, or they've come to believe that anything they put on paper is the best thing ever.  Don't laugh.  This potentially happens to every writer, even ones that are only showing their stories to their best friends.  Of course, in that case, the writer is typically brought down to reality by non-obliging publishing editors.

Thing is, when a writer is new, he has a lot to prove.  He has to make sure everything is edited properly and is interesting.  There is no slack to be cut.  Thus, the writer works harder and produces better work.  While every writer needs to believe they can put something good together to proceed, there's a point where the writer becomes lazy and needs others to tell him to shape up.  It's something all arts have in common, really.

Lucas is a good example of this.  Star Wars was a great story, combing old story forms with new, interesting details.  Storytelling is all in the details, and Lucas had it for a while.  And then his popularity allowed him to have primary control over the prequels, and a combination of big head and no resistance produced what we saw in the first three episodes.

But he's not the only example.  People get on M. Night Shyamalan's case for not having produced anything good since his early days.  He's an example of a person being suddenly too popular too soon, before he has a chance to mature as a writer.

In the novel arena, I'd like to point out Suzanne Collins, author of Hunger Games.  To be blunt, the novels she wrote aren't great.  They have plenty of good ideas, don't get me wrong, but her writing style is often choppy and thematically muddy.  Not to mention that in the third book (eh, mild spoilers) Katniss Everdeen does almost nothing other than watch people suffer and die because of her.  I know to some extent this is the point to support the themes of futility, but the reason we read about a protagonist is because that protagonists makes decisions.  Katniss stops making decisions some time in the second book, and then just lets everyone else determine her fate from that point on, either because she's injured or emotionally shut down.

That's a review for another day.  In short, Suzanne Collins had good ideas, and these ideas outshined her writing and enabled her to get fame out of the reach of better writers.  In fairness to Collins, that happens a lot to teen writers (Stephanie Meyers, Veronica Roth, etc), because most teen girls don't know the difference between good and bad writing, if the story is sensual enough.  Don't think I'm cutting you any slack, teen guys.  Hollywood is just more focused on female teenagers right now. That, and teen books don't cater to guys much these days.

One last point about popularity before I move on.  Sometimes, an author only has inspiration for one book or one trilogy.  After that, they're ready to move on.  But if people lose their minds over that book or trilogy, then the writer may feel forced to add to it.  The only example coming to mind right now is Watership Down, a very good story about rabbits and their culture.  Rabbits having a culture is such a novel idea that of course people wanted more.  Obviously, Richard Adams didn't have a sequel in him, as Tales from Watership Down was boring, odd, and at times inconsistent with the first book.

Another cause of George Lucas disease is a cultural fact that's nobody's fault in particular.  Or everyone's fault, depending on how you look at it. Digital computer imaging has become too common.  This effects any visual medium from Star Wars to Starcraft.  Starcraft's original game and expansion were amazing adventures with great tension.  And graphics that are definitely dated. Starcraft II has movie-worthy graphics...and dialogue that should be banished to the Syfy channel.

There are three types to blame.  There's the technological innovators, but only so much blame can go to them.  It's like blaming the inventor of the internal combustion engine for all the car accidents that happen today.  Sure, they wouldn't happen if cars didn't exist, but it's not a car's fault people are absentminded, clumsy, or irresponsible.  And it's not CGI's fault that people use it as a crutch, trying to trick people that the shiny things they see on screen make the story good.

That, and Blu-ray hurts my eyes.  Natural light softens what we see, but high definition isn't quite the same.  It's too sharp, somehow.

So we get to blame directors, too.  We also get to blame mainstream audiences.  I'll never forget the time someone said of the movie Avatar, "but the graphics are so good!  Just imagine what they can do when there's a good story!"  Uh, good stories have predated graphics by millenia, and are not nearly so expensive.   Is it too much to ask that people try to be creative before they get to the programming?  Pixar manages somehow.

Maybe I'm hammering this point in too much.  It's just that I don't need visuals for a good story (books!) so it's a sensitive point.  But no one can deny that CGI easily looks fake, and is not so impressive as a well-executed visual effect or a complex puppet.  No one can deny that the clean, stale graphics of the Star Wars prequels is what made the whole thing feel like a creativity-lacking farce.

The things I've mentioned before are somewhat out of the writer's control.  Popularity doesn't closely correspond to talent, and graphics will go on whether we want them to or not.  What is a writer's fault is stubbornly clinging on to old ideas that only have so much carrying capacity.  Fun fact; Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame had George Lucas disease.

Thing is, when the original series of Star Trek came out, Roddenberry was like every other new writer.  He had to make people pay attention to his work.  But then it became a cult hit, and Roddenberry had the chance to come back with a new television series and an OS movie.  While Roddenberry's enthusiasm for his franchise was up and down over time (it's complicated), he always used it as a format for showing an idealistic future where people are over things like racism and backwards cultures.  Once The Next Generation came into being, he decided it was going to be even more idealistic than the Original Series, as though the century of time that passed in his world meant that humans were even more "progressed" than their TOS counterparts.

There are a couple of problems with Roddenberry's idea here.  One is that this theme has been something TOS already showed.  Another is that the idea itself is weak.  Critics of Trek say that it's too idealistic, and that people will never be as good or culturally sound as the show portrays.  Others, such as myself, find the show's adherence to human self-superiority as judgemental and anti-cultural. Just look at how Picard treats some of the races he encounters.

The main criticism of TNG, however, is that it's boring.  The earlier seasons, the ones while Roddenberry was still alive to influence things, retread a lot of TOS.  And since the new crew was "progressed beyond interpersonal conflict," any tension in the stories had to come from external sources, rather from people getting on each other's nerves.  While Roddenberry's death meant that the writers of The Next Generation could go in new, more tense situations, many of the writers still continued to pedal out the Great Bird's themes over and over again throughout Voyager and Enterprise, reducing both shows to stale retreads of their predecessors.  Deep Space Nine is watchable only because it doesn't chain itself to old ideas.

Yes, Gene Roddenberry constantly hassled the writers of both TNG and the first 6 Star Trek films to ensure that each retained his vision.  His vision, however, never changed and never considered the depth of the human heart.  Why then, you ask, did he not kill his own franchise in the same way that Lucas did (modern day resurrection of Star Wars aside)?  It's for various reasons, but the most important one is that some smart person in Paramount decided that they were going to put the reigns of Star Trek into the hands of other people.  Paramount got right on putting directors on the films that weren't afraid to take creative control, Nicholas Meyers in particular.  Despite Meyers having directed both The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, two of the best Trek films, Roddenberry criticized much of what he put into them.  But there was nothing he could do.  The Phantom Menace, however, was produced by LucasFilms, and Lucas wasn't exactly going to replace himself.

What happened to Roddenberry is more likely to happen to most writers.  The larger your popularity grows, and the more people get involved in your creation, the more the creation leaves the writer's hands.  This is both good and bad, depending on the circumstances, but usually more good than bad, if the new people love your world as much as you do.

Huh, I should probably write a blog on the right degree of outsider participation.

A related reason why Lucas disease happens is because the writer loses touch with why people like his franchise.  In Roddenberry's case, he was so focused on his old idea that he didn't realize it wasn't so much his ideas that made people like the show, but the interpersonal relationships between his characters.  People loved watching Dr. McCoy bicker, Captain Kirk strut like a peacock, and Spock reveal bits and pieces of his rich heritage.  A future where everyone gets along and no one fights? Eh, that's nice.

Lucas' problem is much the same way.  Star Wars fans loved the gritty nature of the original three movies, as well as the relatable characters, constant feeling of danger, and cool swords.  The value of the original three movies wasn't even in the visuals, but the fact that each scene was an effort on the part of the production to make something interesting happen.  Lucas somehow misinterpreted this as people wanting to see a massive electric jumble of neon crap.  Sure, all the characters are boring, and the only one who isn't is the most hated character in all of science fiction, but Yoda's got a light saber so that makes up for it, right?  Of course not.

The most important reason for George Lucas disease, the one that is the basis for all the others, is that every storyline, every unique character, and every world has a limited shelf life.  A reader can only read about it so long before growing tired of it.  On one hand, this is dependent on the reader -- they can be the sort of person that must have everything new, or the nerdy type that obsesses over every good world they find.

On the other hand, there's also a heavy dependency on the writer.  A writer only has so much inspiration for a storyline.  Sometimes this inspiration can last them many years.  Other times, the inspiration isn't even enough for one short story -- the writer has one good idea, but can't make it work into some sort of big picture.

Any attempt of the author to write outside of his inspiration can have very negative results.  A writer can force himself to have inspiration, depending on how professional and practiced he is, but there's a point (depending on the ideas in question) where a story should just end.  When the writer knows a story is done, there's little point in making more sequels.  He may end up writing repeats of old work, forgetting or de-emphasizing important character traits, or taking the story into absolutely ridiculous direction to catch new readers.

Sometimes it's not the author's fault.  Every idea that exists has a shelf life.  Generally speaking, the more unique an idea is, the fewer ways it can be used and the shorter a period of time people find it interesting.  Classic stuff is classic for a reason.  Also, ideas that are emotionally close to the reader are longer lasting -- romance, good vs. evil, personal struggle, etc. are all things everyone understands.  Of course, the longer ideas are too generic for a good story, so usually more gimmicky things are paired with longer lasting themes to create a story.  Like for example, a superhero with the power to turn water into diamonds (gimmick idea) can really be a story about overcoming a difficult past (long term idea).

All of that, of course, is assuming that the idea in and of itself is good.  An example of this is in the comic Spawn.  The abiding philosophy of the book is that heaven and hell are two entities that don't like anyone, and only take in souls for their armies to fight each other.  The trouble with this idea is that everybody dies, so are going to be in one army or the other no matter what they do.  Since neither side (in the comic's world) is good, there suddenly becomes no good at all, and any chance at happiness a person has is during this lifetime.

Not only is this idea horrendously depressing, it's a logical failure and a literary stopping point.   On the book side of things, if heaven and hell are both bad, there's no future for anyone.  What can one do to change things?  What's the characters' goals?  Either their actions mean nothing, or their goal is nonexistence, an equally depressing end.  Also, there's the logical failure that if heaven and hell are both bad, then why do we know what good is?  Where do those expectations come from?  It's more or less equivalent to living in Saddam's Iraq or Stalin's Russia.  In a country run by a monster, with little chance of escape, people stop looking for good and start taking bribes, fighting, bombing police, believing violent things, or simply ducking down and doing whatever they can to survive, without caring about other people.  Good is no longer part of the equation.

So hopefully this makes things clearer about what George Lucas disease is, and how no one is immune to it.  However, there are certain things where George Lucas disease isn't applicable, or can only exist in extreme situations, like if someone is obsessed with emo poetry and won't write anything else.

That's right, poetry is rarely affected by GLD.  Primarily because it isn't all that popular these days, and all poets must either work hard to be appreciated or write song lyrics.  The art of poetry is to say something without saying it, to use effective symbolism in making a person feel the way you wish them to feel.  Since it's closely tied to emotionalism, it generally touches on things that exist in everyone, when it's effective.  So there's less chance of it being tripped up by gimmicks.

Except for,
    you know,
  those really stupid
     editing gimmicks.

Another advantage of poetry is that it's short.  Longer examples existed in the past only because stories used to be told in poetic form.  Anything that is not long, such as one poem, or one novel, or a short story, will generally not cause someone to fall into GLD unless the people around them say too many compliments and the writer's ego inflates like a balloon.  The  more people who believe the hype, the more the hype can go to a writer's head.

So how does one prevent a horrible case of GLD?  There are various means.  The simplest mean is to never be successful or never show your work to anyone.  Obviously that's pointless.  Maybe there's a time not to show people your work, but writing is a product, just like tupperware or books.  It exists to be shared.

There are other realistic methods, but it depends on your particular situation for which one works best.  Sure, people can tell you every truism in the world, but they can't tell you how to apply them. Just use your judgement.

1. End your story.

One of the things I've noticed when I write is that I have to create a large mass of inspiration and plans before I'm able to really get going on a story.  Like, I have to think about the themes, the world, and what I want to do with the plot before I have a good sense of how strong my inspiration is.

While everyone's writing process is different, no one can write when their inspiration runs dry.  No matter how much other people nag, push, or throw money at you, the story isn't going to go anywhere.  Too much pushing forces the writer to give in and produce something just for the sake of continuing what they started.

Thing is, most stories do have a natural end, a place where we're done with the characters and the plot is stretched thin.  Sometimes the best stories end before they reach this point, leaving the reader wanting more.  That's the perfect point to stop, and then create a new world.

Also, you age.  You change over time, in both what you like and what you tolerate.  The person who wrote your popular series in your twenties may be completely gone by the time you turn 45.  If you know your tastes have changed, then you have to let the past be the past and move on.  Or else you'll write your own equivalent to Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- something no one wanted, written by men who've aged twenty years since writing the last films.

2. Force yourself to have inspiration with planning.

I know this sort of contradicts the previous point, but sometimes inspiration is just a matter of sitting down and planning, rather than staring at a blank page and forcing yourself to write the actual story. So open up your word processor (or get some paper, if you like) and write down a list of directions your story can go.  No, don't just do this in your head.  By writing an idea down, you "remove" it from your mind, enabling you to think up different options without getting stuck on two or three.

If you follow this process, you should come up with either several interesting choices, or maybe one that is clearly more original than all the others.  Either that, or you'll know that you're fresh out of new ideas, and you can try out option 1.

3. Listen to what your fans love.

Now, this is a double edged sword.  Fans are not the ones in control of your world, and most of them are not writers, and thus can't talk to you about your writing in the same way a critic could.  They are still the people who determine how successful you are.

The most important input a reader type can give you (and there are reader types) is a reason for loving your story.  It's so easy to make assumptions about what the reader wants or misread their reasons for reading your stories.

The only disadvantage is that many of your fans won't necessarily be able to put into words exactly why a story is good or bad.  They'll cite certain reasons why they like your story, and then when you put that element in the sequel, it suddenly doesn't matter anymore.  For example, both the good and bad Star Wars trilogies had fighting in them.  So the guy that says, "I liked the fight scenes!" when referring to the originals might not be all that helpful.  It helps to know which of your readers is more observant of book detail.

In short, don't let them tell you what to do with the plot, but make sure the plot includes the things that made your readers like the story in the first place.

4. Stay humble.

Humble people are those that don't believe that everything they write is golden.  They try and make it golden so that other people will appreciate it.  People don't buy your books to boost your ego, they do so because you have something that they want.  So if ever you feel like you've created something great, enjoy the hype while it lasts, but resist the temptation to believe that you can't fail.  Everything can fail.

Since art is possibly the most subjective thing that exists, you need to get the objective factors in your favor.  Avoid questionable grammar, don't retread old storylines, let themes resonate throughout the whole book, and make characters interesting and lively.  Even if people don't like your work, they'll have to give you credit for all the work you put into it.

5. Respect the efforts of others.

Because not all forms of writing are solo, this is very important right here.  When someone creates a comic, movie, or television show, there are numbers of people that help the writer create something. For example, Star Trek had many writers over its original run, and the actors themselves put a lot into their characters.  Leonard Nimoy as Spock is alone responsible for a lot of the fan's adoration of the series, in both his acting abilities and personal additions to Star Trek's Vulcan lore.  He's the one that came up with the Vulcan salute -- which, as it turns out, is a Jewish hand signal referring to the first letter of El Shaddai, God.

Sometimes you just have to recognise that what you've created isn't entirely yours anymore.  While people will go in questionable directions at times, you've got to respect the input and work other people insert.  Just because an opinion isn't yours, doesn't mean it's wrong.  The reason why Star Trek made it so far and so well over its run is because Roddenberry (unwillingly, I'll admit) let go of the stranglehold he had on the franchise.  Lucas, well, produced his own movies.  There was no one to tell him that he'd gone too far.

6.  Know your story.

Only you can tell which of these options is the best for your story.  That's why you've got to steer your boat through the waters, without letting ennui overturn the thing.

What I mean is, keep track of your details.  Know what your world is.  Keep track of what happens when, and how it affects future events.  Most importantly, remember your themes and why you wrote the story.  All good stories originate with passionate ideas, and if you remember why you had passion for that topic in the first place, you will be able to continue your work for a longer time and take it to places you enjoy more.

The danger here is that you'll forget the details of your world, and that you'll create plotholes only because you don't care as much as you used to.  But every story you're inspired to write is a piece of your soul, an event that happened to you that you wanted to speak about.  Remember that. Remember that one beautiful moment in where you suddenly found yourself in another universe and had to write it down?  When you had that experience you wanted to share with other people?  Think of those things, and go back to that.

7. Don't let people push you into sequels.

And by people, I mean everyone.  Fans, movie producers, and even yourself.  If you don't have the inspiration to write a sequel, or if you're content with how you ended a story, don't go back.  Let your story end with your readers wanting more, not with a dragging, continually story that has long stopped being fresh.   Come on now, don't we have enough of that in television and books series already?

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