Avengers: Endgame – Hitting the High Notes With No Tune

I’ve been mixed on the Marvel Cinematic Universe for most of its existence. As a Johnny come lately I started with the original Avengers film, went back and watched the films leading up to it and then kind of drifted along watching most of the MCU films as they hit their home releases. Aside from Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange the only MCU films I watched in theaters were the Avengers line. Other than the original Iron Man and the Captain America trilogy, along with the first Avengers, I didn’t really feel like any of the films cross the line from good to great and there are a couple of clunkers mixed in there.

That said, it’s not like I didn’t enjoy a large chunk of the MCU when I was watching it. Infinity War was a pretty strong film in the MCU cannon, managing to show the fallout of Civil War and build up a pretty strong villain all in one go. Watching the Avengers get defeated in detail was pretty intense, and the fact that they lost in part because they were divided was not lost on me. More than anything, the scene of Thanos taking his ease, watching the sun rise on an altered cosmos was brilliant from both an emotional and storytelling standpoint. The problems begin with what happens directly after that.

And, of course, from this point on there will be spoilers for Avengers: Endgame but it’s been out for nearly six months so hopefully no one will be reading this without seeing the film first.

Endgame starts pretty much where Infinity War left off, with the Avengers scattered and trying to process what happened. The story cuts a few corners in pulling the surviving cast together but quickly restarts things by sending them after Thanos which is better than beating around the bush. Everything up until Thor executes Thanos and the Avengers return to Earth empty handed is pitch perfect. Even Thor’s parting line, “This time I aimed for the head,” is excellent.

Things go downhill rapidly with the introduction of the five year time jump.

I could really dig in to my problems with Endgame, the treatment of Thor and the Hulk, the general weakness of a time travel plot as a way to basically magic the cast out of a problem, the way the time travel in the story doesn’t even hold to its own rules, the dissonance of the Avengers defeating a Thanos from the past who wasn’t even the one who wronged them. There’s at least two thousand words on those subjects alone.

Then there’s all the things that I really loved in Endgame. Thor, Tony and Cap vs. Thanos, Tony talking to his father, the Portals, Hawkeye and Black Widow fighting for the Soul Stone. And Tony closing this chapter of the MCU as he opened it, by claiming the mantle of Iron Man once more and proving his heroic mettle by giving of himself for the sake of the rest of the universe created the perfect note for a generation of heroes to depart on. That, too, could support thousands of words of analysis.

I’m not going to dive in to any of that. Other people have done it better, and I don’t know that I have a whole lot to add. Instead I want to look at the aspect of Endgame that does interest me, and that’s why the story as a whole doesn’t satisfy me. Endgame was written to be the cherry on top of one of the most successful movie franchises in history. Almost every major emotional moment it seeks to hit, it hits. And when it hits those notes it is pitch perfect.

The problem is, those notes do not make a melody.

As a writer who often begins with a number of scenes in a story and a vague idea of the plot points that will tie them together this is something that speaks to me, and not necessarily in a good way. When writing Endgame the Russo brothers clearly had dozens of ideas about what they wanted to say about their characters and how those ideas would speak to their audience. They clearly loved the characters they were working with and knew their audience would go with them to those moments, no matter how flimsy the connecting tissue was, and they decided to just go for it and grab as many of those powerful moments as they could.

The problem is, while the Russos hit a staggering number of high notes, they don’t tell a good story. Don’t get me wrong, the story is okay. But in sitting down to write this post I found I could recall the story and plot points of Civil War or Winter Soldier much more readily than I could Endgame, even though it’s been more than a year since I watched either of those movies. Even with all the high notes in Endgame I struggled to recall them because they didn’t make a story. Cap fighting himself doesn’t play in to his character arc in Endgame, nor does most of the other things that happen in the time travelling sequences bear on the characters who do them. They are there because this is the sendoff for the franchise. That’s a shame, because many of these moments were quite good, and would have stood on their own much better with a story that was designed to maximize them, rather than just being shoved into what almost felt like an anthology film and being presented to the world as the climax of the MCU.

It’s tempting to just try and present all the best moments you can think of to your audience. But you serve those moments best by putting them in a story that your audience will love just as much as those moments. They may still go with you on the journey – and that’s certainly something to be grateful for. But they’ll actually remember them better the more effort you put in to it.

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The Big Short – Larry Correia’s Target Rich Environment

It’s always hard to talk about short story collections. Even when they’re written by a single author there’s rarely any kind of narrative through line, they frequently lack a shared cast and tend to vary wildly in tone. In my experience the best way to tackle them is to discuss the author so before we get to Target Rich Environment we need to talk about Larry Correia first.

Correia is a somewhat popular fantasy and science fiction writer known for long, pulpy novels with an emphasis on crazy action and bizarre creatures. While many of his characters are characters they aren’t the deepest examples of character writing in the world. These stories are written for the penny dreadful enthusiast and feature exotic locations, pretty women and hard fighting. There’s lots of good, honest fun to be had but not much in the way of the deeply psychological or introspective. That alone should be enough for you to decide whether you want to read it or not, but if you really need convincing I’ll say a few words about the stories themselves.

Monster Hunter International is Correia’s biggest franchise and features a solid ten books, six by Correia alone and four with cowriters. There are two shorts in the collection featuring MHI, one that stretches back to a time before most of the existing stories, the other focusing on a side character from the main novels as he struggles with the personnel issues that come from working in professional monster extermination. Both stories feature the kind of B movie, fast moving zaniness that defines the MHI franchise and are fun, but not particularly remarkable. MHI has worked best when Correia lets his imagination run free and follows wherever it goes, something a short story doesn’t always allow. While neither story feels incomplete they don’t really measure up to other MHI stories.

The Grimnoir Chronicles are a different take on pulp, focusing less on action and adventure and more on the moody feel of a film like The Maltese Falcon. While MHI ostensibly takes place in the world we know, Grimnoir is in a neon soaked 1920s where magic is spreading through the general populace and changing the face of warfare and espionage. Both the Grimnoir shorts in the collection focus on the franchise’s protagonist, Jake Sullivan, and tell a little about his life before and after the Grimnoir trilogy. The second also hints that Sullivan’s story stretches out beyond the three books and two shorts he’s appeared in. They’re great stories for fans of the franchise, but only the first will really jell with people who haven’t read Jake’s other adventures.

There are a number of shorts set in other people’s worlds, using original characters. These are pretty much what I’d expect – again, adventure stories with fun action and fun characters that don’t work the brain too hard. But it’s in the collection’s original stories that we find the hidden gem. “The Adventures of Tom Strange, Interdimensional Insurance Salesman” is Correia at his best. While the premise is a bit sillier than he usually goes for, Correia wisely chose to steer into the absurdities of interdimensional insurance, piling one misadventure on top of another in an ever evolving pile of goofiness until you don’t really care if Tom’s weapon of choice is the Combat Wombat, or that Correia himself (from a parallel dimension, of course) sits atop one of the most powerful organizations in the cosmos or even that Tom’s intern is a hapless, Starbucks chugging wimp. All you really care about is seeing where the story goes and how much it will make you chuckle. The original audiobook version was read by Adam Baldwin, which I’m sure added to its appeal.

On the whole, Target Rich Environment is a great investment for the short story lover or the adventure story lover. It’s not the greatest pick for the person who overthinks his reading material. But if you have  a long international flight coming up you could do worse than taking this book along with you.

The Sibyl’s War – Good Ideas Alone Are Not Everything

One of my favorite science fiction authors is Timothy Zahn. I’ve raved about his many accomplishments in the past but today I’m going to take look at his shortcomings through the lens of his latest original series, the Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War. At a glance, this should be another dose of great Zahn storytelling, beginning with an interesting premise and setting up interesting conflict. However, as big a fan as I am, I have to confess that I haven’t been as interested in it as I could be. Since what makes good writing is very important to me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out why that might be and I’ve arrived at some conclusions.

First, let me set the stage. Nicole Hammond is a low rent gang kid from Philadelphia who is abducted by aliens and dragged away to the alien ship Fyrantha to serve as a Sibyl, a human with the ability to telepathically hear the ship giving repair orders when she takes a specific drug. Unfortunately, on top of the whole abducted by aliens thing, taking that drug slowly poisons her and ensures she’ll die in a year or so. To top it off, one of her old gang members was abducted with her and is intent on raising a ruckus through the decks of the ship, getting her and her work crew into trouble. Nothing’s easy for Nicole but when she discovers there are prisoners on board being forced to fight in death matches for reasons unknown even Nicole’s jaded heart is forced to take an interest. Soon she’s doing her best to make peace, both in the death match arenas and the ship at large.

Now, this premise is fine and dandy. It has a protagonist, plenty of hurdles for said protagonist, lots of people for her to cross paths with along the way and so on. The ideas are solid. The problems come in execution. Zahn is not the best character writer in scifi. Now, as a genre more invested in ideas that’s not a major hurdle to overcome and Zahn has always brought strong plots, world building, mysteries and puzzles to the table. On the surface, the Sibyl’s War should be able to stand on its ideas.

Down on her luck girl gets a chance to save city sized starship from the hands of slavers? Great! Ancient battleship of incredible power teetering between the hands of villains and the common folk? Great! Kidnapped gladiators fighting for their freedom? Academy award winning premise! The problem is what happened when all those ideas got jumbled up together.

You see, Zahn’s character writing really shines when we spend a lot of time with a small group of people against the backdrop of a large, colorful cast who come and go but – and this is important – who are with the cast for most of any story they appear in. In short, Zahn can write very good characters, but he needs to spend a lot of time with them to do it. He does not have the gift or technique to sketch compelling characters quickly. But with all the ideas fighting for time in the Sibyl’s War series, characters appear and vanish quickly, sometimes appearing for only a couple of chapters a book, and even those that do receive development get it at a pace too slow to really feel like they’re paying off. This even goes for Nicole, one character who should absolutely not feel like she’s static, especially in the first book of the series (she gets more growth in the second).

Again, this isn’t a flaw in the premise of the series or in Zahn’s abilities as a writer. It simply feels like he has mismatched his talents with the demands of his story. Perhaps Zahn wanted to challenge himself as a writer. Perhaps he’s never attempted this kind of character writing and didn’t realize he would be so lackluster at it. Perhaps he just wanted to tell this story regardless of how well he did at it. Whatever led to it, the Sibyl’s War just doesn’t stack up very well against most of the rest of his work. Everyone has a bad project or two, and it’s better to over reach your grasp than never take risks. Still, a part of me will always wonder if the story would have been more satisfying if the ideas were pruned down, or tackled by a different writer.

World Building – Ignorant vs. Incorrect

Recently I was giving feedback to another author on a book and I wound up talking about a concept that I’ve found myself drawing heavily from in my own writing career but I find used very little in most fantasy and scifi fiction I read, namely being incorrect. I presume this to be an outgrowth of wiki culture, where we can get huge amounts of information on any subject with a quick Internet search. Rarely questioned is whether that information is correct, which ironically is what underpins one of my favorite kinds of world building. Consider.

You have two characters come from different (probably but not necessarily fictional) cultures living right next to each other. The reader needs exposition on how these cultures function to understand the story going forward. So you have each character ignorant of the other culture. By asking each other questions they can give each other the necessary exposition and help the reader understand what is going on. This kind of thing is surprisingly common, especially in urban fantasy stories, but the degrees to which it comes off as believable… varies. Ignorance is a fine way to justify exposition as a way to push exposition. But it’s not the only one and it’s not the most interesting or informative way to do it. Sometimes its better to have characters be incorrect in what they “know” about others.

Wikipedia isn’t always right, after all.

Take for example Raiders from the Rings, an old and not exactly outstanding scifi novel that introduced this idea to me when I was very young. We join a Spacer who is part of a great raiding party landing on Earth. He fulfills his goal, to kidnap a woman and abscond into space with her, but finds he’s also accidentally gotten a stow away, her brother who tried to rescue her and got taken along for the ride. The three reach a truce after some shenanigans and spend some time getting to know each other.

The Spacer is surprised to learn from the Earthmen that they expect to be used in evil Spacer genetic experiments that will produce more mutants for the Spacer hordes waiting to reconquer Earth. He laughs and tells them there is a mutant horde, of course – cosmic radiation will do that to a people. All Spacers are mutants, the radiation has damaged the X chromosomes of the men so that they function as Y chromosomes in the reproductive process, ensuring that all Spacer children are male and forcing them to constantly kidnap women from Earth to sustain their population. But they’re not monsters, just normal people. This reinforces his opinion that Earthmen are too stupid to survive in space, they just won’t be able to handle it. That impression is demolished the next day when he gets home to Mars and finds every building there destroyed by a vengeful fleet from Earth, launched at the exact moment the Spacer raiding fleet passed the point in Earth’s gravity well that made it impossible to turn back.

This sequence in the book establishes a lot of things about the world – why our hero was abducting girls at the beginning, what the big hurdle he has to overcome is and – most importantly – what the status quo of the two factions is. It also tells think of each other and in doing that also tells us something important about the weaknesses of each culture. Earth culture is founded on fear – they’ve spent centuries watching the skies wondering when the next raid will come and now they’re fighting back, not in a controlled, planned way like a military would but with the panicked flailing of a terrified child. Spacer culture is suffused with arrogance – they’ve always held technical and tactical advantages over Earth so large they can no longer conceive of effective resistance. 

And the best part about this exposition is that the second half of it is shown, rather than told. We see it in the way they think of each other, what actions those thoughts provoke and the way those assumptions are proven false.

There’s room for, “What is this thing about your culture?” questions in a story, of course, but it’s passive world building. You’re handing your audience facts about the world. Ignorance creates more active world building, where characters actively grapple with cultures and facts as they confront them and the characters find their faulty understandings of the world disproven. This allows for not only exposition but character exploration and growth. Not every bit of exposition calls for this level of depth but there are definitely times when it gives a more thorough and rich understanding of the world, as in Raiders from the Rings.

Another perk of handling exposition this way is that it leaves some uncertainty in the reader’s mind. After all, if one character was wrong about the truth of a situation how do we know the next person to exposit on the subject isn’t just as wrong? Of course you don’t want to keep yanking your readers around that much but if you can create that sliver of uncertainty you’re much more likely to hold your audience’s attention than you are without it. Certainty kills tension, which is at the heart of good narratives. Too many world builders are intent on telling their readers the way the world is. However good exposition is like exploring – much of the fun is in the gradual discovery of things and seeing how pieces fit together as the story progresses. Characters with incorrect understandings of the world add a spice to that which keeps your exposition interesting. Exposition tends to be bland to begin with, don’t take out any more of the flavor than you have to.

In all there’s no one size fits all approach to world building, but that’s what makes the steady increase of straightforward ignorance as the key to exposition such a negative part of modern storytelling. Whenever possible, check to see of changing things up might add a needed dimension to your exposition. Start by letting your characters be misinformed, rather than just uniformed.