Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As the 2020-21 season has become “The Years without Theatre,” it’s still important to remember that the show must — and will — go on. While neither I nor any of my friends are currently performing live, we’ve found ways to do it virtually, usually via Zoom.

For the thirteen months, I’ve been doing improv every Monday night remotely with the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League. We just don’t have any audience besides ourselves. But despite not having live venues at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not creating.

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that’s about to go up, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life  Basically, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married, my father met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Arnold goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into the most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

Theatre Thursday: A Bard’s dozen

I am a huge fan of Shakespeare, so keep that in mind and… here we go…

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that the psychological truths in his plays are so universal that they offer themselves up for endless adaptations and recreations. They can be staged as faithfully as possible to the actual look and feel of whatever era he was writing about, or be stretched and bent into just about anything else. A lot of people may not know it, but the seminal 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet is somewhat based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and when you can easily leap from 17th century romance to 20th century science fiction, it says a lot about the original writer.

The other amazing thing about his works is this, and something I cannot emphasize enough to someone who fears getting into Shakespeare: Yes, it may be hard to read his words on the page, but watch them acted by brilliant performers, and you’ll be sucked in in a second. The language barrier will vanish while the emotional power will take you over.

Here then are half a dozen straight adaptations of his works, followed by half a dozen that only took inspiration but still delivered powerful stories because, after all, the Bard of Avon was a powerful story-teller.

Straight Adaptations (Most to least faithful to the original era of the story)

  1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Probably one of the Bard’s best-know works, which also gave us West Side Story and  Romeo + Juliet, this tale of star-crossed lovers was best told and most accurately cast in Zeffirelli’s version. Unfortunately, years later, the actor Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in the film, took part in the #MeToo movement, when he revealed that Zeffirelli sexually harassed him on set.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999, Kevin Kline)

This is one of the most over-produced Shakespeare plays ever, possibly because it’s really the least substantial, but at least this version managed to nail things down definitively with an amazing cast. I mean, come on… Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, and David Strathairn…  how much more stellar could you get?

  1. Henry V (1989)

Branagh. Shakespeare. Say no more. He is one of the most definitive Shakespearean actors — in fact, he can rightly tell Laurence Olivier to fuck right off (because, honestly Olivier wasn’t that good as Hamlet or Richard III.) But Branagh has brought us multiple Shakespearean adaptations, from Hamlet to Henry V to Much Ado, and all of them are brilliant. Still… his turn as director and star in the pivotal film in Shakespeare’s amazing “War of the Roses” cycle knocks everything else out of the park.

  1. Hamlet (1990)

Despite the allegations about Zefferelli mentioned above, he still gave us a version of Hamlet that rang true, even if Mel Gibson was way too old to play the hero and Glenn Close was way too young to play his mother. Branagh did it six years later, but his exercise was way too academic. Zefferelli’s is visceral and gutsy, and definitely blew Olivier’s bloodless 1948 attempt right out of the water. Unlike Branagh’s, Zefferelli did not adapt the play mostly uncut — which is why his version only runs 2 hours and 14 minutes, while Branagh’s is just over 4 hours.

  1. Richard III (1995)

This is my second favorite Shakespeare play starring one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellan, and the reimagination here is brilliant. It takes this War of the Roses and sets it in an imaginary world where the UK went through a civil war in the 1930s and the fascists won — at first. McKellan plays the humpbacked anti-hero with all of the nasty glee necessary, and is aided and abetted by an amazing cast. (Full disclosure: My actor’s dream would be to play Gloucester/Richard III through the whole cycle of plays he’s in, from all of the Henry VI’s through Richard III… He’s just that amazing a douchebag of a character.)

  1. Titus (1999)

And this is my favorite Shakespeare play, despite most Shakespeare scholars considering it problematic, but in Julie Taymor’s adaptation, it takes off and sings. Her first and most brilliant move was setting it in a Rome that is not specific, but is eternal — it could be anywhere from the time of Julius Caesar to the time of Mussolini, or maybe even Fellini, and it all works. On top of that, the cast is amazing: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Harry Lennix, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Angus Macfadyen. If you’re not sure about Shakespeare, this is probably your best entry point.

Reimaginations (Nearest to furthest)

  1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Quick catch-up: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Hamlet. In the play, they are two old school pals of Hamlet, and they were brought in by the villain to lure Hamlet onto a boat-ride intended to lead to his death. However, Hamlet turns the tables, re-writes a letter and, instead, sentences these two to be executed in his stead. This play, by Tom Stoppard, makes R&G the lead characters, with the actions in Hamlet in the background, and becomes an existential comedy. In the film version, directed by Stoppard, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman essay the lead roles, with Richard Dreyfuss appearing as the lead player — more important here than he was in Hamlet.

  1. Ran (1985)

I saw this film at one of the revival houses in L.A. and went in knowing nothing about it, other than that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. I was about one act into what I thought was some traditional drama set in the shogun era when my brain suddenly clicked and I realized, “Holy crap. This is King Lear.” And it was. Other than a gender swap up top regarding who inherits what, the rest of it is pure Shakespeare, and there are a lot of moments that really stand out visually, particularly the mad king wandering unharmed through a castle that is being pin-cushioned by arrows, and the summary execution of Lady Kaede, which indicates that maybe her blood pressure was a bit too high.

  1. Scotland, PA (2001)

Another odd little adaptation, but one which gets the source material entirely: This is Shakespeare’s story of ambitious monarchs writ large brought down to human scale, and it totally works. Yes, it’s set in a real place, and manages to reset all of the drama of Shakespeare’s original in the context of the petty squabbles inherent to a fast-food franchise. Surprisingly, though, this does not blunt the drama from the Scottish Play one bit.

  1. West Side Story (1961)

As if you didn’t know, this is Romeo & Juliet, updated and with an utterly amazing collaboration with seasoned pro Leonard Bernstein writing the score and newbie Stephen Sondheim providing the lyrics. This was lightning in a bottle, almost perfect in every way from Broadway onward, and the movie adaptation is one of the most incredible musicals ever filmed. The talent on tap is over the top, the numbers are choreographed to perfection (thank Jerome Robbins for that), and put this down as the second best adaptation of Romeo and Juliet ever filmed.

  1. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Also known as The Taming of the Shrew (see how the titles rhyme?) this is another Shakespeare update that is admirable for bringing the bard to a new and younger audience. It’s the same story in a different setting: Petruchio… er, Cameron, wants to date Bianca, but her dad is stuffy, so won’t let her date anyone until her older sister Kat hooks up. Enter Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) who will try to, well, tame that shrew. This all takes place at Padua High School, and it’s all a lot better than you might think it’d be from the description.

  1. Theater of Blood (1973)

All right. Question one: Do you like Shakespeare? Question two: Do you like Vincent Price? Question three: Are you a fan of horror movies? Well, if you answered “yes” to at least two of those questions, this is your lucky day. Theater of Blood is an amazing film in which Vincent Price plays a disgruntled Shakespearean actor who did not win a critics’ award, so goes on to bump off each of those critics following his most recent season of Shakespeare plays. The cast of critics is an all-star bunch of British actors of the 1970s, Price is abetted by the amazing Diana Rigg (what ho, Game of Thrones fans!) and we get the amazing combination of Price and Rigg doing Shakespeare, a comedy gore-fest, and a metric buttload of fantastic British actors, well, acting. Keep your eyes out for murders based on Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Othello, Henry VI: Part One, and Titus Andronicus. Price’s character fails, however, with attempts at Romeo & Juliet and King Lear. Oops… spoilers?

What is your favorite Shakespeare play or film adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

Theatre Thursday: Fact and fiction

About six hundred and eight years ago, Henry V was crowned king of England. You probably know him as that king from the movie with Kenneth Branagh, or the BBC series aired under the title The Hollow Crown.

Either way, you know him because of Shakespeare. He was the king who grew up in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Yes, that’s a set of four plays and since it was his second, Shakespeare sort of did the Star Wars thing first: he wrote eight plays on the subject of the English Civil war.

And, much like Lucas, he wrote the original tetralogy first, then went back and did the prequels. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V were written after but happened before Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.

Incidentally, Henry VI, Part 1, is famous for having Joan of Arc (aka Joan la Pucelle in the play) as one of the antagonists. Funny thing is, that name wasn’t slander on Shakespeare’s part. That’s what she preferred to call herself.

Meanwhile, Richard III, of course, is the Emperor Palpatine of the series, although we never did get a Richard IV, mainly because he never existed in history. Well, not officially. Richard III’s successor was Henry VII, and Shakespeare never wrote about him, either, although he did gush all over Henry VIII, mainly because he was the father of the Bard’s patron, Elizabeth I. CYA.

If you’ve ever seen the film My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant and staring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, then you’ve seen a modern retelling of the two parts of Henry IV.

Now when it comes to adapting true stories to any dramatic medium, you’re going to run into the issue of dramatic license. A documentary shouldn’t have this problem and shouldn’t play with the truth, although it happens. Sometimes, it can even prove fatal.

But when it comes to a dramatic retelling, it is often necessary to fudge things, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It’s not at all uncommon for several characters to be combined into a composite just to make for a cleaner plot. After all, is it that big of a difference if, say, King Flagbarp IX in real life was warned about a plot against him in November by his chamberlain Norgelglap, but the person who told him the assassin’s name in February was his chambermaid Hegrezelda?

Maybe, maybe not, but depending on what part either of those characters plays in the rest of the story, as well as the writer’s angle, they may both be combined as Norgelglap or as Hegrezelda, or become a third, completely fictionalized character, Vlanostorf.

Time frames can also change, and a lot of this lands right back in Aristotle’s lap. He created the rules of drama long before hacks like the late Syd Field tried (and failed), and Ari put it succinctly. Every dramatic work has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and should have unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.

A summary of the last three is this, although remember that Aristotle was writing about the stage. For film and video, your mileage will vary slightly.

The story takes place in one particular location, although that location can be a bit broad. It can be the king’s castle, or it can be the protagonist’s country.

It should take place over a fairly short period of time. Aristotle liked to keep it to a day, but there’s leeway, and we’ve certainly seen works that have taken place over an entire lifetime — although that is certainly a form of both unity of time and unity of place, if you consider the protagonist to be the location as well.

Unity of action is a little abstract, but in a nutshell it’s this: Your plot is about one thing. There’s a single line that goes from A to Z: What your protagonist wants, and how they get it.

Now, my own twist on the beginning, middle, and end thing is that this is a three act structure that gives us twenty-seven units. (Aristotle was big on 5 acts, which Shakespeare used, but that’s long since fallen out of fashion.)

Anyway, to me, we have Act I, II, and III. Beginning, middle, and end. But each of those has its own beginning, middle and end. So now we’re up to nine: I: BME; II: BME; III: BME.

Guess what? Each of those subunits also has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not going to break that one down further than this. The beginning of the beginning, Act I: B, has its own BME, repeat eight more times.

The end result is 3 x 3 x 3, or twenty-seven.

And that’s my entire secret to structure. You’re welcome.

But because of these little constraints, and because history is messy, it’s necessary to switch things up to turn a true story into a “based on true events” work. Real life doesn’t necessarily have neat beginnings, middles, and endings. It also doesn’t necessarily take place in one spot, or in a short period of time.

So it becomes the artist’s job to tell that story in a way that is as true to reality as possible without being married to the facts.

Although it is also possible to go right off the rails with it, and this is one of the reasons I totally soured on Quentin Tarantino films. It’s one thing to fudge facts a little bit, but when he totally rewrites history in Inglorious Basterds, ignores historical reality in Django Unchained, and then curb stomps reality and pisses on its corpse in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I’m done.

Inglorious Misspelling is a particularly egregious example because the industry does a great disservice in selling false history to young people who unfortunately, aren’t getting the best educations right now.

Anecdotal moment: A few years back, an Oscar-winning friend of mine had a play produced that told the story of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. They were a company composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans during WW II, and joining the company was the alternative given to going to an internment camp.

Of course, being racists, the U.S. government couldn’t send them to the Pacific Theatre to fight, so they sent them to Europe, and a lot of the play takes place in Italy, where the regiment was stationed. And, at intermission, my playwright friend heard two 20-something audience members talking to each other. One of them asked, “What was the U.S. even doing in Italy in World War II?” and the other just shrugged and said, “Dunno.”

So, yeah. If you’re going to go so far as to claim that Hitler was killed in a burning movie theater before the end of the war, just stop right there before you shoot a frame. Likewise with claiming that the Manson murders never happened because a couple of yahoos ran into the killers first.

Yeah, Quentin, you were old, you were there, you remember. Don’t stuff younger heads with shit.

But I do digress.

In Shakespeare’s case, he was pretty accurate in Henry V, although in both parts of Henry IV, he created a character who was both one of his most memorable and one of his more fictional: Sir John Falstaff. In fact, the character was so popular that, at the Queen’s command, Shakespeare gave him his own spinoff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hm. Shades of Solo in the Star Wars universe?

Falstaff never existed in real life, but was used as a way to tell the story of the young and immature Henry (not yet V) of Monmouth, aka Prince Hal.

Where Shakespeare may have played more fast and loose was in Richard III. In fact, the Bard vilified him when it wasn’t really deserved. Why? Simple. He was kissing up to Elizabeth I. She was a Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII who, as mentioned previously, was the son of Henry VII, the king who took over when Richard III lost the war of the roses.

The other time that Shakespeare didn’t treat a king so well in a play? King John — which I personally take umbrage to, because I’m directly descended from him. No, really. But the idea when Willie Shakes did that was to draw a direct contrast to how Good Queen Bess did so much better in dealing with Papal interference. (TL;DR: He said, “Okay,” she said, “Eff off.”)

Since most of my stage plays have been based on true stories, I’ve experienced this directly many times, although one of the more interesting came with the production of my play Bill & Joan, because I actually accidentally got something right.

When I first wrote the play, the names of the cops in Mexico who interrogated him were not included in the official biography, so I made up two fictional characters, Enrique and Tito. And so they stayed like that right into pre-production in 2013.

Lo and behold, a new version of the biography of Burroughs I had originally used for research came out, and I discovered two amazing things.

First… I’d always known that Burroughs’ birthday was the day before mine, but I suddenly found out that his doomed wife actually shared my birthday. And the show happened to run during both dates.

Second… the names of the cops who interrogated him were finally included, and one of them was named… Tito.

Of course, I also compressed time, moved shit around, made up more than a few characters, and so forth. But the ultimate goal was to tell the truth of the story, which was: Troubled couple who probably shouldn’t have ever gotten together deals with their issues in the most violent and tragic way possible, and one of them goes on to become famous. The other one dies.

So yes, if you’re writing fiction it can be necessary to make stuff up, but the fine line is to not make too much stuff up. A little nip or tuck here and there is fine. But, outright lies? Nah. Let’s not do that.

Going, gone, went…

When it comes to verb conjugations, English can be a little weird. Some verbs seem to barely change. For example, a regular verb like “to look” uses the present form look for I, you, we, and they. The only one that changes is third person singular — he/she/it looks. The past participle is looked for all persons, and so forth.

But then we get the irregular verbs, which can be even more irregular than they are in other languages: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are. But one of the stranger ones, which I hear misused a lot by both English learners and native speakers, is the compound past tense of “to go.” (Note: for some reason, to be and to go seem to be totally irregular in every language, which is strange considering how common they are.)

The present of “to go” is regular — go or goes, the same as to look, above. But there are two forms we can use in the past: gone and went. You’d never say “I goed away.” It’s “I went,” and the form is went for all persons as well. This is great right up until you combine it with an auxiliary verb. Logic might seem to be that “I had went” would be correct, but it isn’t. This is where the other version comes in. The correct phrasing is “I had gone.” And, by the way, it’s also “had” for any person: You had gone, she had gone, etc.

The difference is that went is the past tense, while gone is the past participle. Again, this is one of those areas where sometimes English words change a little and sometimes they change a lot. For “to look,” for example, the past tense and participle are both the same: looked. The difference is that the participle always needs another verb before it while the past does not. So if the word before is not a verb, the word you want is went. Otherwise, it’s gone.

To add to the confusion: Gone can also be an adjective but went cannot, so we can have a sentence like “They will be gone for the month of November,” but not “They will be went for the month of November.” Even though gone in the first sentence follows a verb, it’s functioning as an adjective there, describing the state they will be in for November.

On a related note, I also hear the present continuous conjugation of “to stand” formed incorrectly a lot. Present continuous is the tense that combines the verb “to be” with the present participle of another verb, which is the –ing tense in English. For example, “We are looking for a few good men.” That one is pretty straightforward, so it would seem obvious that the correct form is “He is standing in the street.”

It might seem obvious, and yet I hear abominations like “He is stood in the street” all the time. Okay, that form of to stand doesn’t have the obvious –ed ending of a lot of English past participles, but at least it does have a D. On top of that, I never hear anyone say something like “You are looked for Waldo.” That just makes no sense.

So yeah, a sentence like “We had went outside and now are stood on the corner” would make my skin crawl. Oddly enough, the same thing can happen with the verb to sit, as in the incorrect “She is sat at the table” versus the proper “She is sitting at the table.” The former is non-standard English and should be avoided.

The article I linked in the previous paragraph has some useful examples of irregular verbs that do make the error obvious if you test them: I was ran down the road, and he is flown to New York. Even though they don’t follow the usual –ed construction of the participle, the incorrectness should be pretty obvious to native speakers. Ironically, though “he was flown” can be a proper construction if the verb becomes transitive. That is, “he” becomes the direct object of the sentence: He was flown to New York by the contest sponsors.

Isn’t language just so much fun?

The one thing I will say about the mongrel beast that is my native language English: It can put up with a lot of mangling and still make perfect sense, or at least be understandable. A lot of other languages cannot handle that. Misplace a pronoun or adjective or derp up a verb, and the entire sentence becomes gibberish.

One of the most classic examples of this, which long ago achieved meme status, is the entire opening dialogue from a 1989 video game called Zero Wing. I encourage you to click that opening dialogue link and read the “Official Translation” column, because it a glowing example of machine translation gone wrong. Nothing is right in how the words went from Japanese to English, and yet it still makes sense. This is the source of several famous internet memes, including “Somebody set up us the bomb” and “All your base are belong to us.”

And for an example that intentionally aims for gibberish and yet still makes sense, you can’t beat Lewis Carrol’s classic poem “Jabberwocky.” The man was weird, but he was a genius all the same. (Just check out “The Hunting of the Snark,” for example.)

Then again, English is also absolutely capable of sentences that make complete sense semantically, and yet still mean nothing. Try to wrap your head around “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” for example. It’s a noun adjective combo that can verb in an adverbial way, and yet…

Don’t think about it too hard, or else you may find that you have went mad and aren’t sure where you’re now stood.

That hurt to write.

When it’s “its”

Even Microsoft Word’s spell-check gets this one wrong sometimes, but you shouldn’t. Here’s the scoop on possessives that don’t take apostrophes.

I could write tons and tons on the use of apostrophes, but there are already plenty of guides online. So, instead, I’m going to focus on one area that causes a lot of confusion: Possessive pronouns that do not have apostrophes.

There are eight of them, five of which end in an S and one of which ends in an S sound, although the mistake is most common with only two of them — and it’s a very common error. I’ve even seen it happen on presumably professional sites like CNN and the Huffintonpost.

Here are those eight possessive pronouns:


The most obvious thing about them on sight, of course, should be that there are no apostrophes to be seen. They aren’t necessary because these words are always possessive. For some of them, that doesn’t seem to cause any problems. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use hi’s or her’s or our’s or their’s. That doesn’t mean this hasn’t happened; just that I can’t remember seeing it.

But I see “it’s” and “who’s” get misused all of the time — probably because both of them are perfectly legitimate words. It’s just that these two are contractions and not possessives. They just happen to look a lot like possessives, hence the confusion.

At least in the case of its, it’s a very easy typo to make, and I’ve caught myself doing it accidentally from time to time — hence the importance of proofreading. Of course, before you can proofread, you have to know the rules.

For “it’s” and “who’s,” the easiest way to remember is to always read them in uncontracted form. It’s helpful that the apostrophe even sort of looks like a little letter “i.” (Well, only sort of, but go with me on this one.) So, when you see “it’s” or “who’s,” read them in your head as “it is” and “who is.”

This makes it easy to spot their misuse:

The cat licks it’s paws.
The cat licks it is paws.

Oops. Wrong word! “The cat licks its paws.” Conversely:

It’s time to go.
It is time to go.

Right word!

Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have these words that are possessive but don’t use apostrophes, but I never said that English does make sense. However, it is a fairly standard feature of a lot of languages that possessive pronouns work a little differently than regular possessives.

English used to have — and many languages still do — an entire grammatical case to show possession, so at least take heart in that fact: You only have to learn a few apostrophe exceptions instead of a completely new set of inflections for nouns!

Of wigs and words

I ran across a very useful and interesting phrase in Spanish today — interesting because there are actually various versions of it. It is: “ni calvo ni con dos pelucas,” which literally means “either bald or with two wigs,” although I’ve seen it with varying numbers of wigs, at least up to seven. (Another fun fact: Unlike English cats, which have nine lives, Spanish cats only have seven.)

But the meaning of the phrase is simply that neither extreme — having too little or having too much — is good, and you should aim for the middle. And now that you know the word for wig, peluca, you might be able to recognize another word you may see on businesses: peluquería, which is derived from it; the c to q change is very common in Spanish. And no, this word does not mean wig-maker. It means hairdresser or barber shop.

The word for bald, calvo, might remind you of another Spanish word you may have seen: calavera, which means skull, or calvario, which refers to Calvary, the Latin word for the hill Jesus was crucified on and which was known as Golgotha, or Gólgota in Spanish, from the Greek word Γολγοθᾶ. This gets really interesting, because that word came from Aramaic, Gûlgaltâ (obviously not in the original characters) and wound up also being translated into Greek as Κρανίου Τόπος.

Now if you transliterate that Greek into the Latin alphabet, it might be more obvious: Kraniou topos. “Cranium” is pretty clear in the first word, and topos means place — hence the word “topography,” or writing about places. All of the words above refer to “Place of the Skull” and, apparently, that hill sort of resembled one.

In case you’re wondering, yep. The name “Calvin” comes from the same roots and originally meant “Little Bald One.” Same goes for the author Italo Calvino, whose name rather unfortunately meant “Little Bald One from Italy.” Ironically, he never really went all that bald. But we can now see that using somewhat negative terms to refer to people losing their hair goes back quite a long time in human history.

Finally, here’s a nice twist on it showing how strong the influence of Latin has been on most Western European Languages. The German word for bald is kahl, and you’ll find similar-sounding words for it in a lot of other European languages. Interestingly, even a language as unrelated as Finnish has “kalju,” which is clearly related. The common thread seems to be the hard “K” and the “L” ending. Play around with that long enough, and “skull” just pours itself right out of the sounds.

This does make me wonder whether George R. R. Martin wasn’t playing around when he named a character Khal Drogo, although khal also means “vinegar,” hence “bitter,” in Arabic, as well as “canal” in Bengali, more on which below. Although it also evokes Genghis Khan, who could certainly be taken as a role model for the character in every way, and which may have been more what Martin was going for.

As for the Drogo surname, on the one hand, it invokes the Latin draco, dragon (and hence Draco Malfoy, whose last name means “bad faith” in French), on the other hand, Drogo is also the word for “expensive” in Polish.

And this is why languages fascinate me, because it’s just so damn fun to look at how they’re connected and how they influence each other, and how long-dead empires and cultures can still have an impact to this day because of the literature and influence they left behind. It’s also interesting to see how similar sounding words have no connections whatsoever. For example, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was named after a city on the Scottish Isle of Mull, which came for the Norse words kald and gart, for “cold garden.” And Kolkata, in India, was either named for the goddess Kali or for its original location on a canal, or khal. Although they both sound like it, neither one has anything to do with Calvary. Or, for that matter, the cavalry, but let’s not horse around with that one right now.

And that’s enough PUNishment for the moment.

British and American words that mean different things

In 1887 in the book The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde wrote, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” He was speaking from the point of view of an Irishman living in Britain, but he was more correct than not. Like Spanish in Latin America vs. Spanish in Spain, there are some big differences between the American and British versions. Let’s leave aside spelling and terms that are mutually unknown (oven vs. cooker, for example), and just look at the words that, while they look the same in both countries, mean something very different depending upon which side of the Atlantic (aka “The Pond”) you’re on.

Clothing and Accessories

  1. Jumper — In the UK, this is a piece of outerwear, frequently knit, and designed to be worn over a shirt or blouse. In the U.S., we call it a sweater. To us, a jumper is someone who commits suicide by diving off of a high place.
  2. Fancy dress — In the UK, this is costume party, akin to what Americans would have for Halloween. In the U.S., this refers to a very formal occasion, usually with men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. The Oscar ceremony is American fancy dress.
  3. Trainers — In the UK, these are shoes, generally of the type Americans would call tennis shoes or sneakers. In the U.S., a trainer is a person who screams at you in a gym in order to motivate you to work out.
  4. Pants — In the UK, you wear your pants under your trousers, which we call underwear. In the U.S., pants are your trousers.
  5. Braces — In the UK, braces keep your pants up and we call them suspenders, In the U.S., braces are something to straighten your teeth.
  6. Vest — In the UK, this is a sleeveless T-shirt meant as an undergarment, something Americans might call an A-front or (very disturbingly) a “wife-beater.” In the U.S., a vest is part of a three-piece suit, worn under the jacket.
  7. Purse — In the UK, this is a wallet kept in a handbag. In the U.S. it’s a bag to keep your wallet in.
  8. Boob tube — In the UK, this is a garment with no sleeves that is basically held up by friction, hope, and boobs. In the U.S., it is an old slang word for television.


  1. Chips — In the UK, these are French fries; in the U.S. they are thin, crunchy salty snacks made from fried potatoes. American chips are British crisps.
  2. Biscuit — In the UK, a sweet treat made of baked dough, and you might find chocolate chips or jam in it. In the U.S., a biscuit is a dense chunk of buttery dough, generally not sweet, and frequently associated with Southern cooking, as in biscuits and gravy.
  3. Banger — In the UK, a banger is a sausage. In the U.S., it’s a gang member.


  1. Solicitor — This is a type of lawyer in the UK, and probably useful. In the U.S., it’s anybody who goes door-to-door to try to sell you something, and is considered very annoying. The category includes salespeople and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other pests.
  2. Boot — In the UK, this is the storage space in the back of your car. In the U.S., it’s a type of shoe that goes on your foot and usually extends at least to your ankle if not higher.
  3. Bonnet — In the UK, this is the thing that covers the engine of your car. In the U.S., it covers your head, but only if you’re a baby or a rather quaint woman.
  4. Trolley — UK version, this is what you put your purchases into while you’re at Tesco (that’s a grocery store); in the U.S., this is a form of public transit that frequently but not always runs on rails down city streets. San Francisco is famous for its trolley cars.
  5. Coach — In the UK, you’ll take this to transport a bunch of people from one place to another, although it won’t be called Greyhound. In the U.S., this is the person in charge of whipping a sports team into shape.
  6. Fag — In the UK, it’s a cigarette. In the U.S., it’s very derogatory term for a homosexual male and should be avoided. (Although in a lot of parts of the U.S., smoking has also become very verboten, which is a good thing.)
  7. Dummy — Use this to keep your UK baby quiet and happy as they suck on it. In the U.S., use it in a store to model clothes or as a general human-shaped object for whatever purpose.
  8. Comforter — Another word in the UK for a dummy. In the U.S., it’s a duvet, as in a big, stuffed fluffy blanket that goes on top of your sheets.
  9. Bomb — In UK theater and media, a huge hit. In U.S. theater and media, a huge failure. Note, though, that “the bomb” (or “da bomb”) in the U.S. also refers to a huge hit. Nuance matters here.
  10. Flannel — In the UK, a piece of cloth you use for washing up your face or hands. In the U.S., a type of material, usually plaid, and most often used to make shirts or blankets.
  11. Hamper — Absolutely necessary for carrying your food around for a picnic in Britain; absolutely necessary for carrying around your dirty laundry in the U.S.
  12. Casket — In the UK, this is a small box for jewelry. In the U.S., it’s a big box for a dead body.


  1. First floor — In the UK, one story up above the ground. In the U.S., the story that’s on the ground
  2. A&E — In the UK, where you go for urgent care of an injury (“accident and emergency”), what’s called the ER in the U.S. In the U.S., A&E is a cable network showing Arts and Entertainment

Unfortunate Confusions

  1. Rubber — In the UK, the thing, usually on the back of a pencil, used to rub out mistakes. In the U.S., the thing you put on your dong before sex in order to avoid mistakes.
  2. Hoo-ha — In the UK, this is an argument or disagreement. In the U.S., it’s slang for a vagina
  3. Pissed — In the UK, you’re drunk. In the U.S., you’re angry.
  4. Blow off — A very British fart. A very American way to skip a commitment or appointment without making any excuses or giving warning.

And there you have it. Can you think of any other examples? Share them in the comments!

Theatre Thursday: So much for stage fright

The one thing I miss most of all during these strange days, other than hanging out with friends, is being able to go on stage and perform. I know that it’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t miss because they’d never do it in the first place, but I’m feeling the loss, and so are my many actor and improviser friends.
Studies seem to show that the one thing people fear the most, beyond death and spiders, is public speaking… and I just don’t get it. Then again, I’m a performer. Put me on a stage, give me an audience, and I am on. And it doesn’t matter whether I have pre-planned words to speak, like doing a play or giving a speech, or whether I’m totally winging it by doing improv.
To me, an audience is an invitation to entertain.
On top of that, to me, the more the merrier. I’ll take an audience of hundreds over an audience of dozens or fewer any day. The energy of a large house is infectious, and whenever I’m with a cast that’s in front of a big crowd, we all can feel it in each other’s performances. The intensity level and connections between us all go way up.
And it’s not an ego thing. It’s not about “Oh, look at ussssss!” It’s the people on stage thinking, “Look at them.”
We can see and hear you out there, and speaking for myself, if I’m doing comedy, there’s nothing I appreciate more than hearing a good laugh. If I’m doing drama, then there’s nothing more satisfying than the silent intensity of dozens or hundreds of captive eyes and minds.
Every time I go onstage, I have to wonder why anyone would fear doing it. Because here’s a simple truth that performers just know but which muggles might miss: The people watching you in the audience are a lot more afraid than you are.
Why is this? Two reasons. The first is that the audience gets to sit in the dark and be anonymous, while the performer doesn’t. You’d think that this would put the performer on the spot, but it’s quite the opposite. In fact, being in the spotlight gives the performers all of the power — and if you’ve ever been in the house of a large professional theater with a name actor onstage when someone’s cell phone rings audibly, or people are taking pictures, you’re seen this power being used with a vengeance.
This touches on the other reason for the fear: That an audience member is going to wind up being forced to participate somehow — that’s been a hazard of modern theatre ever since Bertolt Brecht broke the fourth wall, if not even earlier. Audiences can get spooked when the actors notice them and interact with them.
I’ve seen it as an audience member most obviously when I went to a production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which is a piece of environmental theatre first created in the 90s that casts the audience as the wedding guests. (A modern example of the form: escape rooms.) The audience starts out just sitting in the chairs under the outdoor tent for the ceremony, which is not without its family drama, although this part plays out a little bit more like a traditional play.
It’s when everyone moves inside to the banquet hall for the reception that things get interesting. Well, at least the cast tries to make them so. The audience is seated at various tables, with one or more actors planted at each. Now, I have to assume that each table had a similar set-up facilitated by a different family member. At ours, the Tina’s mother came over to tell us that Tina’s ex had come to the wedding uninvited, but that was okay. He was fine as long as he didn’t drink, so she was putting him at our table and asked us to make sure that he didn’t.
I wound up sitting next to the actor, and I sure played my part, making sure to vanish his champagne and wine glasses before he could get to them, but not only was no one else playing along, they weren’t even interacting with him. Now, I’m sure the inevitable arc for that actor is to figure out how to get “smashed” no matter what, and the character gets really inappropriate later on, but nobody at my table was trying, and I’m sure it was true at others.
I finally got to the point of abandoning my table and chatting with anyone who seemed to be a player, and damn was that fascinating — not to mention that they seemed grateful as hell that somebody was interacting with the character they’d bothered to create. I learned all kinds of things about what was going on, family dirt, some of the Italian wedding traditions, and so forth.
That’s what you have to do as an audience member when you go to environmental theatre. That’s the contract! So if you’re not into it, don’t go see those kinds of shows.
On the other hand, I’ve seen it from an actor’s POV more than a few times, and in shows that were not necessarily advertised as environmental theatre, or were not even announced as happening beforehand. In those cases, I can understand the audience discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun to put them through it, at least in those situations.
Those situations have also been some of my favorite show memories, though. I was in a production of an Elaine May play, Adaptation, that posits life as a game show with a large ensemble cast. I think that only the host and star of the show-within-the-show played one character. The rest of us played a ton and our “offstage” was sitting in the audience, meaning that we had plenty of asides delivered directly to whomever we wound up sitting next to between scenes. Or, sometimes, we’d turn around and deliver the line to the people behind us or lean forward and deliver it to the people in front of us, which startled the hell out of them.
I also performed in a series of Flash Theatre performances done all over Los Angeles over the course of an entire year and staged by Playwrights Arena, and a lot of those involved interacting directly with our audience, which were a combination of people who knew about it beforehand and (mostly) whichever random folk were in the area when it happened. That is perhaps the most immediate and real fourth wall breaking because there was never a fourth wall in the first place. Or, rather, the audience is inside of it with the cast, even if everyone is outside, and a lot of the shows were. It’s the ultimate environmental theatre, staged with no warning and no invitation.
Even when the play wasn’t designed to break the fourth wall, a director’s staging can make it happen, and I had that experience in a production of Tennessee Williams‘s Camino Real, where I basically played Mexican Jesus.
It’s one hot mess of a show that only ran sixty performances originally in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his powers, and I can say for certain that while it’s really fun for the actors to do, I felt sorry for every single audience we did it for. And I am really curious to see what Ethan Hawke manages with his planned film version of it. Maybe that medium will save it, maybe not.
But… our big fourth wall break came when the actress playing my mother (aka “Thinly Veiled Virgin M”) held the “dead” hero in her lap, Pietà style (while I was secretly getting a workout using my right arm to hold up his unsupported shoulders under the cover of the American flag he was draped in), and during her monologue, which was a good three or four minutes, every actor onstage except Mom and “dead” hero (there were 26 of us, I think) started by locking eyes with somebody in the audience house left and then, over the course of the speech, very, very slowly turning our heads, making eye contact with a different audience member and then a still different one, until, by the end of the speech, we were all looking house right.
Ideally, the turning of our heads should have been imperceptible, but our eye contact should have become obvious as soon as the target noticed. I should also mention that since I was down center sitting on the edge of the stage, the nearest audience member to me was about four feet away — and I was wearing some pretty intense black and silver makeup around my eyes, which made them really stand out.
Good times!
I’m glad to say that what I’m doing now — improv with ComedySportz L.A.’s Rec League — is designed to never make the audience uncomfortable, so that no one is forced to participate in any way. And that’s just as fun for us on stage, really, because the participation we get via suggestions and audience volunteers is sincere and enthusiastic. And if our outside audience happens to be too quiet or reticent during a show, we always have the Rec League members who aren’t playing that night as convenient plants who will take up the slack after a decent pause to allow for legitimate suggestions.
Yeah, I won’t lie. I definitely enjoyed those times when I got to screw with audiences. But I enjoy it just as much when we go out of our way to bring the audience onto our side by making them feel safe. I never have anything to be afraid of when I step on stage. I’d love to make our audiences realize that they don’t either.
Image by Image by Mohamed Hassan via mohamed Hassan from Pixaby.

Research everything, believe nothing

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surrounding a very jittery bunch of spread-out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

(There are actually a lot more forms of matter than these, but you can go read about them yourself if you’re interested.)

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-power radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to lift that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

How to structure your writing

You see it mostly in the film industry, rarely in TV, sort of onstage, and well-hidden in novels: An obsession over getting a story’s structure “right.” But what is the right structure, anyway?

Certain people who shall remain nameless have made way too much money presuming to teach the “right” way to structure a story, particularly screenplays, but the truth is that there is no magic formula to structuring a script. Sadly, in the film business, you have to make a screenplay look like it follows whatever flavor-of-the-month structure is preferred by the accountants running the show — they don’t know how to read scripts otherwise — but it really is a lot of obsession over a problem that isn’t as difficult as it should be.

There’s a term that comes out of the world of architecture but which really applies to any art: “Form follows function.” That is, if you’re building a bakery, you shouldn’t design it like it’s a library and vice versa. Otherwise, you’ll just wind up with a bad bakery (or a loathsome library).

Likewise, the overall structure of the piece you’re writing should reflect the story you’re writing, and you can see examples of this everywhere. A Beautiful Mind, for example, told the story of a man whose schizophrenia began to develop in college and it told that story from his point of view — it wasn’t obvious that he actually had mental issues until well into the movie.

Pulp Fiction takes inspiration from its title to structure the story, which is more episodic and novelistic — and also rattles the old rule that movies had to follow a strict three-act format.

You see this even more strongly onstage. For example, the musical Chicago was designed to mimic a vaudeville show of the era — the 1920s — a convention that was sort of kept and sort of not in the film version. Film and TV, by necessity, almost always have to be more literal than other formats, although there are those rare films, like 2003’s Dogville, a Lars von Trier movie in which the “set” is just a schematic diagram of the town it’s set in on the floor of an empty soundstage.

Of course, films like that don’t often find wide audiences.

But to meander back to the subject at hand, structure really works like this, and it’s worked like this for as long as people have been telling stories: There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.

That’s it. Oh, except that each of those has its own beginning, middle, and end, so you eventually wind up with three sets of three.

  1. Beginning: This is the part in which we find out who the characters are, where the thing is happening, and an idea of what the situation or conflict will be — what is the event that makes the story happen?
  2. Middle: This is where the main story happens, with all the stuff set up in the beginning developing and complicating itself and the conflict building until we hit the climax at the end of the middle — the point where it looks like things couldn’t get any worse or more complicated. Or can they?
  3. End: This is where everything plays out and is resolved. If the story is a comedy, then the protagonist gets what they were after. If it’s a tragedy, then they don’t. Note that these are the strict, classical definitions of the two — meaning that yes, technically “The Martian” was a comedy and won its Golden Globe in the right category.

Now, here’s the fun part: Arranging things this way absolutely does not mean that you have to tell your story in strict chronological fashion. Pulp Fiction jumps all over the place but still progresses forward dramatically. Memento goes in one direction and out the other. Run Lola Run tells its story three times. Merrily We Roll Along is still backwards.

In all good art, the structure is not temporal. It’s emotional. Think of how different Citizen Kane would be if you found out what “Rosebud” meant in the first scene instead of the last — and yet it’s entirely possible that the revealing moment (in “real life”) may have actually happened much closer to what we saw as the beginning of the story rather than near the end.

So when you set out to tell your story, first find the form to follow your function, then pick two points: What’s the beginning, and what’s the ending? Next, figure out what complications and conflicts happen in the middle. Now subdivide your beginning, middle, and ending into their own beginnings, middles, and endings, and fill up those nine little boxes.

There’s your structure. Now build the thing to look like the form you came up with originally. Don’t worry that much about things like page count or what exactly happens when. If you can explain what happens in your story when and why, then you’ve already got the pitch that will make it look like your script tastes like the structure flavor-of-the-month — and if you’re writing for theatre, you’re going to be much less limited in that regard to begin with.

Don’t be afraid of structure. Embrace it and make it your own.