Writing Excuses 11.49: Elemental Ensemble, with Michael Damian Thomas
Key points: Ensembles are more than just heist stories. Ensemble stories have a team of specialists, each with a different role and part to play, who get together to accomplish some important goal working together. Get people together, let them bounce off each other, and together solve a problem. Why do we like them? We get to see lots of different people, see them interact, and make friends with them. Multiple character arcs intersecting in unique ways. A team of interdependent specialists, hyper competent in individual ways, but holes as a team. How do you make one? Start with a cast of characters, but give each one similar emotional weight. Make sure your characters are specialized enough. They don’t all need a POV, plot arcs can happen offstage. One of the keys is introducing the members of your ensemble quickly, usually in action. Make the scene do multiple things. Don’t infodump! Think about your competency porn scenes, where you show us how good the characters are at what they do, usually while doing something else at the same time.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 49.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Elemental Ensemble, with Michael Damian Thomas.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And, once again, we have a special guest for you. The number one requested thing we get is to have more editors on. So, we brought on Michael. Will you tell them a little bit about yourself?
[Michael] Hi. I am Michael Damian Thomas, and I am the copublisher and coeditor-in-chief of the Hugo award-winning magazine Uncanny Magazine.
[Brandon] And you’ve done anthology work, too, haven’t you?
[Michael] Yes, I have. I was the coeditor of Hugo nominated Queers Dig Time Lords and co-edited an anthology named Glitter & Mayhem.
[Brandon] Excellent. We are going to talk about ensemble stories. The fun thing about this one was when I pitched this idea of the elemental genres, which, as is our tradition, Howard actually named, I just had this concept. The first one that popped out of people’s mouths was, “Do we get to talk about heist stories?”
[Brandon] I said yes, but I feel that heist stories are a subset, a large subset of a different genre which we talked through and, Mary I believe, called ensemble. Which is the story where a team of people, each having a different role and individual part to play, get together to accomplish something, and the story is moved by our interest in their interaction, and how they pull off some important goal working together.
[Dan] In my head, as much as I love heist stories, I keep thinking of this genre as the Michael Chrichton genre, because he loves doing this. He has The Great Train Robbery, which is a heist, but then also Sphere. Even Jurassic Park is let’s get all these people together, watch them bounce off of each other, and together they will solve a problem.
[Howard] A good non-heist example is also Firefly.
[Dan] Except for the episodes that were heists.
[Mary] But, just to flag that it doesn’t have to be something that is all action adventure event-oriented, a classic ensemble show is Facts of Life. That is… Any school drama is definitely going to be on ensemble piece. There, what you’re looking at is characters who are trying to solve character issues. So it’s still trying to solve anything, but it’s them trying to make themselves better people.
[Brandon] Well, West Wing is a classic example of these sorts of things, where you have a large ensemble drama cast who each have a different role behind the scenes in some large show or political entity or things like this.
[Dan] All of the Aaron Sorkin shows. Even 30 Rock is…
[Brandon] Oh, 30 Rock is the most like this, I think, in many ways.
[Michael] Most long-running TV dramas, legal dramas, medical dramas, from St. Elsewhere to Grey’s Anatomy to ER…
[Dan] All the Star Trek’s.
[Mary] Friends. Friends is basically nothing except ensemble.
[Brandon] That is correct. So my question then is, why are these so compelling? Why are they so common? What can we learn about, observing these very excellent ensembles that we’ve all loved?
[Howard] I read them… I mean, that considering, that page turning… I read them for the escapism of imagining that I have that many friends.
[Howard] I mean, we laugh at that. Okay. A little self-deprecatory humor there. But really, when you watch a show like Firefly or like Leverage, we become friends with those people. That is part of the experience. In the same way that you fall in love with the characters in a romance, I feel like I become friends with the characters in an ensemble piece. That actually is… That’s a neat brain hack, however they’re doing it. That is really cool.
[Dan] Well, we talked so much last month about issue and about how it’s important to show different sides of an issue. That’s one of the things that ensemble really kind of inherently does, is let’s show all of these very different and very contrasting personalities. Whether they’re different on a particular issue or just on their background and how they look at life. The drama, the page turning hook comes from watching those different personalities bounce off of each other.
[Michael] And having all the different character arcs. So that you have seven or eight different character arcs going on simultaneously, going in different directions, and then interacting with each other at interesting points in the different character arcs, and then kind of pinging off each other to bring that arc to a different conclusion that you didn’t expect.
[Mary] I think that’s a really smart thing. That is the intersection of those character arcs that makes ensemble piece compelling. Because an ensemble… Like you can have a book that has a ton of different point of view characters, but if they’re not interacting with each other, if they are not a group, it’s not an ensemble piece.
[Dan] Not to hark… We’re talking so much about TV shows because they do this so well. Community was brilliant because of the way that it would combine different characters every week. This week, our A story is this one and this one that we never really see interacting much, and now that changes the entire tone of the episode because of how unique they are when put together.
[Brandon] To bring up an example that is not a TV show, Schlock Mercenary…
[Brandon] Is, at its core, an ensemble piece. More and more, through the history of the story, you have done exactly what Dan was talking about. You’ll have A plot, B plot, plot C plot… And often A plot is two characters we know, but haven’t been together, B plot is two new characters, and C plot is two characters we know, also doing something, often destructive.
[Howard] I mean, the whole strip grows out of my desire to pretend that I have friends.
[Dan] Who are alien friends.
[Brandon] So, I’m going to say what I really like about it, and looking at Schlock as an example, is I love a team of specialists. When I wanted to write Mistborn, which is a heist story, I boiled down and said, “Why do I want to write this? What’s great about this?” It was… I realized every character having their specialty allows them all to need each other in a really cool way. I can have hyper competency and kind of holes in what the team can do at the same time. Which is exciting to a writer, because it gives you your flaws and your strengths wrapped up in one, it’s just a different person has to be here to do this thing that we need.
[Mary] I think the thing that you just hit which I hadn’t really thought about as being a key element of an ensemble piece is that the… Is how each… They need each other. I think ensemble cast has to be interdependent in order for it to really be an ensemble.
[Brandon] Usually, it is ensemble of people who each have different skills and strengths. The movie, we’ve talked about it before, but Guardians of the Galaxy was an ensemble piece. The goal of that film was to show hey, here are these wacky people who alone are terrorists of the universe and misfits at best, and who together, their strengths complement one another to the point that they made the actual climax of the film, they win by holding hands. Right? That is how they defeat the bad guy. If you haven’t seen this movie, they hold hands, and together…
[Brandon] That makes the bad guy get defeated.
[Howard] They hold hands after a quick dance off.
[Brandon] Yes, I know.
[Michael] It is pretty much saving the universe with the Care Bear’s Fair.
[Dan] I hope we ruined that movie for at least one person.
[Brandon] See, but no, I love that because even though it was a little on the nose, a lot of ensemble films that try it where they fail, I feel, is there. Like, the Mission Impossible films, which have their strengths, fail at being ensemble films, when the television show was originally an ensemble piece, because it is let’s get this superhero in and have him do stuff and everybody else fades away, and the superhero does with the superhero does.
[Dan] So when… A couple years ago when they announced, “Hey, we’re going to start making new Star Wars movies,” I thought, “Oh, that’s great. I love Star Wars. This is going to be awesome.” Then, a few months later, they announced, “Oh, by the way, we are also going to make a new Star Trek TV show.” I went bananas. I re… I couldn… I was trying to wonder why. Like, I always considered myself kind of equal opportunity fan, but no. I realized it was that ensemble aspect. That is what I love. Star Trek: The Next Generation, as an example, ended the same way. It ended with a poker game. They’re all sitting down as friends and it’s that ensemble aspect, the team of specialists, that I am the best science officer or I am the best engineer, but I still can’t solve this problem without you and you and you.
[Mary] [inaudible – and handling it?]
[Howard] A good example of ensemble done well in a recent book is Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series, Envy of Angels, Lustlocked, Pride’s Spell, in which the cast is a… They are a catering company that provides food for supernatural entities and demons. Okay. A chef’s line… A catering line, you’ve got the sous chef, you’ve got the person who cuts things, you got the people who run out and grab ingredients that you really can’t just find anywhere else, it’s a wonderful ensemble story. I love it, because I’ve never seen ensemble pulled with cooking before. It’s huge fun. It does… I think it does all these things right.
[Brandon] Well, that spins me into stopping us for the book of the week. Because that’s a great segue into books. But… when I went to Michael, and I tried… See, I do this thing before where I’m like trying to pry out of the person what they want to promote or a story or things like this. Michael said, “Well, I’ll just promote the whole magazine.” I stopped and thought, “Well, yes, of course you should. That is exactly the right thing, because it is an ensemble piece every issue.”
[Michael] What a great way to spin that.
[Brandon] So let’s talk about Uncanny.
[Michael] I’ll take it. Well, yeah, that was obviously the brilliant thing I was thinking of when I did that. [Inaudible] That is actually a very… That is how I look at each issue. How Lynne and I, when we co-edit, and with Michi Trota, our managing editor, and our entire team, we do look at it that way. Because we see all these different pieces bringing different voices into an issue, just like with an anthology. They do ping off each other, and we are trying to… When we put in the fiction, we want the fiction to sometimes be in dialogue with… The different stories in dialogue with each other, the different characters in dialogue with each other. Then the essays come in and they are adding other elements to… I mean, we don’t necessarily do theme issues, but we find… The funny thing is, we don’t do theme issues, and yet we find that they keep happening. I mean, whether it’s just timing or where our brains are or just a thing happens on the Internet and that’s how all submissions look for a while because everyone’s angry about this thing. That’s funny on the Internet, that happens.
[Brandon] No, I’ve heard that from other editors before, that they are not looking for a theme, but then they find the pieces they bought all actually connect, in really interesting ways.
[Michael] In an upcoming issue, there is a Kat Howard story and Alex Bledsoe story which are completely different… I mean, these are not the same writer. They are both great writers, I love them dearly, but Alex is doing one of his Eddie Lacrosse stories, and this is… Anyone who’s familiar with Alex’s work, he’s a hard-boiled sword-and-sorcery detective. Kat Howard is doing a lyrical thing, because Kat does lyrical beautiful… Her first novel, Roses and Rot, just came out from Saga. But their stories are both taking Arthurian… They start with Arthurian beginning points and then they go into kind of looking at Arthurian myths, updating them, and challenging certain misogynistic things. It’s just, one is from Alex’s point of view, and one is from Kat’s point of view. Because they are such different people, it’s fascinating. So the stories end up in dialogue, and then we have another reprint from Amal El-Mohtar that… Which is another fairytale retelling from an anthology coming up from Saga, called the Starlit Wood, which also seems to be in the same dialogue. It was not planned, yet here it will probably come out in November and December in issue 13. The essays underneath, we have an essay coming from Monica Valentinelli which is just an… She is a writer and she works a lot in the gaming industry and a lot… This is an essay about her own life and becoming a professional in gaming and just being angry about having, as a woman professional in gaming and then in SF too, having to go through the same stuff [garbled]
[Howard] And you say November December, this episode is airing in December. So, fair listener…
[Michael] Well, they can get it at uncannymagazine.com when it is free on the website, or they can get… The entire issue comes out on the first Tuesday in November, which is probably already past at that point. But you can get all the stories and essays and poetry and two months worth… I think it split in half between half is free in November, half is free December. But it can be bought as an e-book from all good e-book retailers across the Internet.
[Brandon] Excellent. So. The second half of the podcast, let’s talk about specifics, if you have any suggestions on how to build an ensemble story. We’re going to start with Mary.
[Mary] So, one of the things that I was thinking about is that when Howard was talking about the cooking…
[Howard] Sin du Jour.
Mary] Sin du Jour. I was thinking about Iron Chef and Kitchen Stadium. The thing about Iron Chef is that there’s a big group of people that are supporting the celebrity chef, but it is not an ensemble and the reason that it’s not an ensemble is because they don’t have the same emotional weight. They’re background characters. So just, again, having a large cast of characters isn’t enough. I think that this large cast of characters has to have… Each character has to have a similar emotional weight. Like if you look at Lies of Locke Lamora, each of those characters when they come in has similar emotional weight in terms of the way they… The amount of story that they’re taking up. When you’re looking at some of the Oceans 11, 12, and 13, as they add characters, a lot of the characters become supporting cast rather than full ensemble members. I think that is because they are not given the same emotional weight as the other characters. What I mean by that is that they don’t have a character plot of their own.
[Brandon] When I was building Mistborn, I started with an ensemble book. I’ve talked about this a lot, I talk about it in the annotations. That halfway through, I realized this is an epic fantasy. Even though I’m using a heist veneer to it, and there is a heist in it, it is not a heist book. That was a very important moment for me, to realize that’s not a bad thing, to be like, “Oh, I’m not writing an ensemble story,” and I wasn’t. I was writing a mentor and apprentice story, with a cast around them who are going to help train the apprentice, but it was, at its core, an epic fantasy coming-of-age story.
[Dan] When I started writing the Partials sequence, my intention was to make that into an ensemble story. In part because I was deliberately kind of this is going to be my version of Battlestar Galactica. It didn’t end up that way. Part of it was because of the differing emotional weights. But looking back on it, I think one of the big mistakes I made… I’m happy with Partials, I’m not saying that it was a mistake, but that one of the reasons it did not turn into an ensemble is because I didn’t specialize the characters enough. So when I sat down to write the Minador series with Bluescreen, I specifically chose what are the specialties I’m looking for. I need a software hacker, I need a hardware hacker, I need a con man… These different things. Then, once I had those, that forced me in outlining to find roles for them all. Which then forced me to give each character more of an arc, and more weight.
[Mary] I do think that it’s important to say that you can actually have, I think, an ensemble cast without giving each of the ensemble members a POV. I guess a lot of their ensemble work and their own individual plot arcs can happen offstage. We can know about it because of the interaction that they have with the POV characters. So don’t feel like, “Oh, I want an ensemble cast. I must therefore have 11 different points of view.” Unless you’re Brandon.
[Dan] In which case, 11 is low.
[Brandon] Howard, I want to pitch this at you, because you’ve been doing this exclusively for 10+ years.
[Howard] One of the best examples I can come up with for ensemble done well and a technique that I think will map well for writers is the compression of storytelling that was used in Guardians of the Galaxy as compared to the massive Marvel cinematic universe that was used to build up to the Avengers. In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have to meet the members of the ensemble and like them and know what they do with about 2 and 1/2 minutes each of screen time. The one I’m going to use for an example is Gamora. When we meet her, in color terms, she is green and everything else around her is blue-black. She stands out visually. How do you do that with words? I’m not sure.
[Howard] But once you know how it’s done with color, you can look at it and say, “Oh. I have to draw some sort of contrast here.” She is being beaten down on by one person and propped up by another person. The way she talks, you can kind of tell she’s right. You can tell she’s super competent, and you’re afraid of what she’s going to do, but you’re confident that she’s good at it. The way she has been framed, you’ve decided, “Well, everybody else in the room is obviously evil. So even though she says she’s going to be an assassin, she’s a good guy.” They did that in two minutes. When you are writing ensemble stuff, and especially in comics, which is where I’m working… You have to use whatever tricks you’ve got for compressing the storytelling, making a scene do multiple things, so that that character is so interesting, is funny, is empathetic, we know what their specialty is, we know perhaps what their weakness is as early as possible. So that we’re engaged, so that when they get together, when they first meet another character and you start seeing these intersections that Mary mentioned, we are already excited about it, we’re already excited to see the fusion.
[Brandon] Go ahead, Michael.
[Mary] Go ahead.
[Michael] While not doing that in an awkward manner, because that immediately made me think of Encounter at Farpoint, which… Bless you, Gene Roddenberry. He’s trying to do that and do those introductions and there is very much these long soliloquies of “Aha. So you are Data. These are the things about you as a person… As an android, and you kind of wish to have emotion.” There’s this long Ryker speech. Like, this is the most awkward thing ever to say, “Here’s this man. Here is Data’s specialties. Here is his background,” and the quick quip and we are off.
[Mary] I think that the thing that the two of you are talking about, the way to avoid that awkwardness, is having multiple things happen in the same scene. One of the things, I just realized, that pretty much every ensemble piece has, a key element to it, which is part of demonstrating each character’s different strength is that they have a competency porn scene. Which is where the… That is the scene where the characters demonstrate how good they are at whatever it is that they do. And they generally are doing something… It’s like, “And now, I’m going to wire a bomb together while we talk about our love for fine dining.” It is… Or the fact that you were snoring last night. That… There are two things happening there. One is demonstrating their different personalities, as well as their different strengths.
[Brandon] Watch how… Even though the Avengers had the whole weight of the Marvel cinematic universe to it, watch how Joss reintroduces characters, particularly the characters who have been side characters in other films, who are now coming to the forefront. Black Widow and Hawkeye. You will see this exact thing happening.
[Howard] “You and I remember Budapest very differently.” That line, I love it. It has so much story weight in it, and it is one sentence.
[Mary] That’s also an example of plot things that happen… Or character things that happen offstage. Like, they don’t actually tell us what happened in Budapest. It’s just “You and I remember it very differently.” The other one is when Agent Coulson comes in with Pepper. She’s like, “How’s the cellist?” Although that is not demonstrating competence, it is demonstrating that there is… That that character has a life outside the story, which is one of the things that you really have to do to keep them from being a supporting character and having them being a part of the ensemble.
[Brandon] We have to call this…
[Dan] Oh, bummer.
[Brandon] I’ll let you go ahead, Dan.
[Dan] I was just going to say, to close the loop on Star Trek. Encounter at Farpoint is so awkward, like you’re saying. The very first episode of Deep Space Nine, while still not perfect, does a much better job. In part, because it is using drama in addition to info dump. We meet Quark because Quark is causing trouble. We meet Kira because Kira is pissed off at the captain. We get to see… We get their backgrounds, but we also get so much character at the same time.
[Michael] Then we get Sisko being clever, like with Quark. The Quark situation, and making him a community leader in order to solve multiple problems at once. It adds more depth to him, it adds depth to Quark, you understand a little bit more of… Then Odo, of course, comes in with his relationship with Quark.
[Dan] So, you’re seeing personalities instead of just dossiers.
[Brandon] Well, we have to stop here. We’ve gone like 25 minutes almost…
[Brandon] Yes, but you can tell we love this topic. We will be back to talk about it again in a few weeks. I’m going to give you some homework, though. When we were talking earlier, one of the things we realized is we love ensemble stories that aren’t always just the obvious heists. But we do love the heists, obviously, as well. We want you to go look at some different professions, particularly ones that have some sort of front person leading the charge, and, like a chef, maybe on a show like that. We want you to identify all the rules that happen behind the scenes to make that person succeed. We want you to try to design a story that doesn’t use the front person at all, and uses all of these different roles supporting them behind the scenes. Do that for a couple different jobs. See what you come up with. We want to give a special thank you to Michael Damian Thomas.
[Michael] Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] We want to thank the Writing Excuses cruise members.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.