Reading a recent post by Mike Mearls inspired me to write about the boogeyman of any endeavor even remotely creative: COOLNESS.
Mike suggests that story(-like) elements in RPG books should be detailed enough to be interesting, but not so detailed that they become difficult for gamemasters to incorporate into their game.
I feel that it doesn't matter how detailed or not an element is, I'll find some way to include it if it's tres kewl, and blow it off if it leaves me flat. Long winded isn't bad in and of itself, it's bad when it's boring. When it's cool, I'd just as soon it kept going on forever.
Unfortunately, there are no books you can read, or classes you can take, or handy bullet lists of points you can learn in order to start coming up with cool ideas.
Cool is a complete mystery.
That's what made (and still makes) me nervous about going into screenwriting. I knew I could do well at things like programming or academics or science because they have nice, quantifiable tests for your ability in those areas, and, if you're smart, you'll evenutally figure those fields out.
And I am pretty smart -- smart enough to know that being smart has no necessary connection with writing cool. I know enough smart people who tell the most awfully corny jokes.*
But the little RPG writing I did got some pretty decent responses so I thought I'd at least be in the ballpark.
So that's just part of the Cool problem -- you don't know whether or not you are cool until it's too late.
And, by and large, other people don't know whether or not you are cool until it's too late either. So your friends and family either over-estimate or under-estimate your chances at making a career. Comrades in your writing classes might be giving you good advice, but also might be giving you bad advice -- because they might have cool or uncool tastes.
Then, for film-making, you get a whole bunch of people involved in a creative endeavor. And they WILL end up in situations where they disagree on what should happen in this or that scene.
The argument might start off with fairly objective things, like pointing out continuity issues, or making sure the characters behave logically. But, somewhere along the line you'll get to a disagreement about coolness -- and these disagreements cannot be solved by any sort of argument. So, unless everyone in the room happens to know that one guy is the king of mondo-kewl, we'll all think we're the king of mondo-kewl. Actually, even when one guy is the king of mondo-kewl we'll still think we're right -- we just won't press the issue.
Then, finally, the movie comes out in some form or another and the critics and audience trundle to the theater to watch it and, if it wasn't cool, they come back and tell us why it was bad. They will point out all the terrible plot holes (such as that complete deus ex machina where the sailor pops through the door carrying just the item the protagonist needed), or the shallow character arc (such as the hero going through all this melodrama just to learn how to say "I'm sorry"), or the implausibility (such as spaceships flying like airplanes in an atmosphere).
But all of those are just excuses for why we say the movie sucked -- our attempt to turn an irrational process into something quantifiable, with evidence and formal rules. Because we have gleefully ignored every single one of those problems when the movie was cool.
* Colin Quinn had this nice little bit once on his TV show where he asked his guests who they felt sorry for -- when it got back to him he said that he felt sorry for the corny people. You know these people, are probably related to a few. And they certainly try hard; there's no moral turpitude here -- it's just an unfortunate and uncurable affliction.