Monday, February 9, 2009

Genesis

A few people have asked where I got my idea to write this series, or how it all came about. The genesis of things always fascinates people I think. It is often hard to answer that question because it wasn’t a light bulb moment, but more of a sedimentary layering of concepts that hardened into a cohesive idea. So if you like, please step into the Way-Back machine and I will try to explain.

Perhaps the most precise spark to truly ignite the Riyria Revelations was—of all things—Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over the years I have watched less and less television, but these two shows were some of the last I really enjoyed. The thing about them that I found fascinating were the layered plots and the mixing of humor and emotional drama with great characters. B5 in particular was amazing in that the entire five-year series was mapped out before the first episode was shot. I think this might be the first, and only, time that’s ever happened. Yet it allowed for the unique chance for viewers to watch episodes and look for clues to the ultimate mystery in a way that no other show ever did. In addition, Straczynski—the show’s creator—layered his plots, something that was mimicked to a lesser degree in Buffy. This really impressed me. I saw it as a revolution. I was certain I was seeing the future of television, the medium raised to an art form equal to a symphony. I never saw the maniacal bus, that is reality TV, coming.

It is always presumed that movies are better than television, that the little screen is inferior. In thinking about it, I came to the opposite conclusion. At best, a movie can only present a four-hour long story. This isn’t a lot of time and is why so many books made into films are truncated. But television can present hundreds of hours. TV is the novel to movie’s short story. Television can take the time to develop characters and settings, to weave plots and build foundations to erect skyscrapers on. The problem is that until Babylon 5, no one thought to do it. Instead of creating novels, producers opted for flash fiction in hour or half-hour standalone episodes. The most they managed was a weeklong mini-series always adapted from a book.

What I began to envision was, like I said, a symphony, a blending of themes set in movements. Not just one plot, but several woven together and blended into a complimentary harmony. I began to imagine that if I were a powerful producer trying to think of a new idea I would make a series where each one hour weekly show would be like a chapter in a book, except that it would have its own complete plot, a beginning a middle and an end. That way first time viewers could always enjoy it. In addition, I would weave in a season long plot, something that each week you could tune in to learn clues about and talk to your friends discussing what you think is really going on. And just about the time the season plot is ending another is already starting. And finally there would be the series long plot. This too would develop, but slower and more profoundly. This multi-layered plot concept I felt would be very exciting, so much more than watching a series where writers are making new stuff up each week based more on what fans think than on what a good story would be, struggling to squeeze every last drop of creativity from an idea.

Having thought of this, and still pretending to be a producer, I had to ask myself, ok, but what kind of show would it be. That’s when I realized there’s never really been a successful medieval fantasy television series. There hasn’t even been many attempts. Those few that were made, like most of the movies in the genre, were horrible. Either the characters were stiff overly dramatized caricatures spouting awkward sounding heroic dialog, or they were inane, silly clowns playing in a slapstick farce as if the producers are saying, “yeah we know this fantasy stuff is ridiculous too.” So I began to think how could it be done right?

Fantasies always seem to be about overly serious characters who never laugh. Why not have the main characters be able to make jokes but not be silly. People always make jokes, usually in the most inappropriate times in order to alleviate stress, so why not? And rather than have them be haughty, serious, self-righteous people who speak like rejects from a bad Shakespearean play, why can’t they be…well, normal. Maybe even a bit better than normal, how about cool?

I remembered old westerns, and Errol Flynn swashbuckling movies, I used to watch as a kid. That’s the way those characters were. They weren’t stupid, arrogant, or morose, filled with some consuming, robotic sense of duty, or desire for ultimate power. They weren’t kids reluctantly being groomed to be the savior of the world either. They were cool. The kind of people you’d like to have as friends. The kind of people you know you would get along with. The kind of people you grew to care about.

I began thinking that if I could bring those kinds of characters to a TV series that used the layered plot technique and the complete, say, six-year story arc, it would be great. I would also keep the magic and fantasy creatures to a minimum. Dragons, magic etc, have a tendency to come off as hokey, and such things are better kept understated in order to build a greater sense of mystery, fear and suspense. People’s own imagination works the best for such things. Individual viewers won’t picture something in their own mind that is silly to them. The more I thought about it the more I became depressed that it would never happen.

I began to think of two characters, nobody special, just a couple of guys who work as special agents for the rich. One a thief the other ex-military, just trying to get by in a tough economy, staying out of everyone’s way, using their specific skills to do covert jobs. In what I imagine, Hollywood-Speak would translate as: Ocean’s Eleven meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Middle Earth. Then the hook—they are setup to be the scapegoats for a government coup d'├ętat. I thought it was a good idea. Familiar themes in an unfamiliar setting, with characters viewers would like to spend an hour with each week. It was really a shame I didn’t know anyone in show business.

Then it hit me. I could do the exact same thing…in book form. A series of six books, each like a season of TV. Yes, I thought I could do that, but at that time I had sworn off writing. I had put that dream away and locked it tight. I hadn’t written a creative word in nearly a decade and I was going to keep it that way. I had wasted too many years trying and failing. What good could come from it anyway? Another five years working on a series that, like all the others, would be dumped in the trash unread by anyone but me? What was the point? No, that was all behind me.

I forgot about the idea, stuffed it in a mental cardboard box in the back of my head, and moved on. Still, occasionally I would be walking the dog, or cleaning the dishes and think to myself: So if I did write it how would it start? Like any TV show I would want to begin with a nifty preamble, the kind of thing that would run before the title and lead credits, the intro that sets the tone. Something like that first part of Indiana Jones, or the murder you see before you first meet the sleuth in a show like Monk, or Murder She Wrote. And then? And then they go on the job that nails them and off the story goes. I pictured it from time to time, the two of them scaling the tower in the dead of night, whispering complaints back and forth like real people do when they are trying to be quiet. Then I would stuff it all back in the box, reminding myself there were more constructive uses of my time.

Years passed, and my daughter was struggling in school with reading. She’s dyslexic, which makes reading difficult. Not being good at something, means it isn’t very fun. So I got her books, good books, books I loved. The Hobbit, Watership Down, Narnia Chonicles, Chronicles of Prydain and that new book that I was hearing about, that thing about the kid who was a wizard or something…Harry Potter.

It was sitting around on a table one afternoon. Beautiful brand new book—I’m a sucker for a pretty book. I cracked it and started reading. It was great. So easy to read, so fun. Maybe I—no! It is a waste of time, you can’t get published, no one will ever read it! But what if that didn’t matter? Can’t I write it just for me? For the fun of making it? So what if it goes in a drawer, it’s already in a box in my head. Maybe my daughter would read it? I could even put it on the Internet for free and people could read it there and leave me messages saying if they liked it or not. I could do that couldn’t I? Couldn’t I?

I was starting to feel like Gollum/Smeagol. I won’t spend too much time on it, just when I’m bored. Just as something to do. I wrote the first book in less than a month. The second one took even less time.

I posted it online and a few (very few) people did read it. Some even commented. They liked it a lot. I showed it to my daughter. She looked at the stack of eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch manuscript sheets and turned her nose up. “What’s this? I can’t read that. It has to be a book, you know, bound with a cover. Trying to read that would drive me crazy. It’s just—I don’t know—too weird reading it that way. If you want me to read it you have to get it published.”

No, precious, no don’t trust the publish! No Luke, that way leads to the dark side. Good grief, Lucy was holding the damn football again! “Com’on Charlie Brown, one more try! This time will be different, I promise!”

Who knew Lucy could be trusted?

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