Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Pet Peeve: Please Don’t Give Kids a “Word of the Day” Calendar

One last nitpick on “A Wrinkle in Time”:
For the most part the book does a good job with vocabulary. L’Engle mostly uses words that 8-12 year olds would know, with some more obscure words sprinkled in that they’ll be able to pick up from context (wraithlike, uncanny), and that’s just how kids like it. And Meg talks believably like a 12 year old.

As I said when I discussed the movie, Charles Wallace is trickier. We’re told that he didn’t speak at all until he was four, but he’s now five and he’s caught up quickly, talking in a very advanced way for his age. This wasn’t believable at all onscreen, but is it believable on the page? Eh, close enough. It feels a little convenient for L’Engle to have a five-year-old co-hero who isn’t limited to how a five-year-old would actually talk, but we go along with it.

But there’s one thing L’Engle does that’s a major pet peeve of mine. If she was the only one who did it, it would be fine, but a huge percentage of kids’ books do the same cheat: You’re writing a young hero, and you want to put a word in his mouth, but the character suddenly says to you, “Nope, I wouldn’t know that word at my age.” It’s admirable to listen to your characters when they refuse to do what you want them to, but L’Engle then solves the problem in an all-too-common way: having the character mention that he just learned the word:

  • “Let’s be exclusive,” Charles Wallace said. “That’s my new word for the day. Impressive, isn’t it?”

Now that I’ve pointed this out to you, you will see it all the damn time. And I never buy it. That’s not the way we use vocabulary. By the time we feel comfortable enough with a word to use it in conversation, we’ve forgotten when and where we learned it and just feel like we’ve always known it. L’Engle got away with it in 1962, but don’t try to get away with this in 2019! We see what you’re trying to get away with.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Understand Your Reader’s Psychology

As I hinted about last week, Madeleine L’Engle is walking a tricky line with “A Wrinkle in Time”: I think it’s fair to say that she’s primarily writing for tween girls: her heroine is a tween girl, and therefore that’s who her book is going to be primarily marketed towards, so that’s who she must satisfy first and foremost. But she’s also ambitious enough to try to write a book that can be enjoyed by all readers, male and female, of every age, albeit in slightly different ways than the way tween girls will enjoy it.

Most readers of every age like this novel, but none bond with it as tightly as tween girls do. Partly, this is because they most identify with the heroine, but partly it is because it is keyed into their hopes, needs, and fears.

Meg has lost her father. He disappeared two years ago, after leaving the vague sense that he might be going on a government mission. Everyone assumes that he’s left Meg’s mother for a younger woman, and Meg swears this isn’t true, but doesn’t seem entirely sure. She’ll soon discover that her virtuous father has just been kidnapped to another planet and she’ll get the chance to rescue him and bring him home.

Many tween girls who read this book will not have fathers around, either because their father really has abandoned the family, or just gotten amicably divorced, or died, or is serving overseas, etc, and they will naturally identify with Meg’s loss and cheer for her wish-fulfillment triumph in reuniting her family.

But the genius of the story is that all tween girls, even those for whom dad is in the next room, feel that they have lost their fathers, to a certain extent. Puberty complicates things, and a growing sense of the world outside has given them a new sense of perspective, allowing them to see for the first time that their father was never the masculine ideal he once seemed to be.

In order to travel to her scientist father, Meg must learn to understand big scientific concepts and in order to rescue him from an evil mind-warping creature, she must learn to be her best self. She is, of course, getting her father back in the way many girls get their father back, by learning and maturing until they’re past their estrangement. For Meg, that takes one night. For the reader, it may take much longer, or may never happen. When Meg gets her father back, all tween girls, to a certain extent, will wish they could be her.

Drama is how it is, genre is how it feels. The key to writing a beloved book is to understand, personify and magnify your target reader’s hopes, dreams and fears. Make their biggest fear manifest and then let them see their fondest wish come true. That’s what this book does.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Books Vs. Movies: Taking Out the Heart of “A Wrinkle in Time”

I’ve devoted long units of this blog to praising the work of Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Ava DuVernay (Selma), so when I heard they were teaming up to adapt a great but hard-to-adapt book, I was excited. And the result was …not terrible, at least on first viewing. I spent the whole movie saying to myself, “This is fine, they’re doing nothing wrong, I don’t see why the reaction has been so blah,” but then at the end, I just felt …blah.

In many ways, the movie reconceives the book, which is fine, and there’s no reason that a reconceived movie couldn’t have worked, but for today, let’s just focus on the ways it does not capture the appeal of the book, either because it fails to or chooses not to.

One big difference is what we’ve talked about so far. In the book, Meg has an external problem (her father is missing) and many internal problems: She’s scared all the time, she’s got terrible self esteem, she’s violent (“a delinquent”), she misperceives her world, and she lacks the wisdom of her mother or even her younger brother. The fourth paragraph makes it clear: Meg’s problem is Meg.

  • She wasn’t usually afraid of weather.—It’s not just the weather, she thought.—It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

In the movie, Meg still has the external problem, but not so much of the internal problems. Her problem is not Meg. Instead of fighting with everybody at school because of an internal flaw, she’s got one smirking, sadistic bully picking on her for no reason, who goads her into violence so egregiously that it’s impossible not to root for Meg when she throws a basketball in the girl’s face. (As I’ve said before, I think bullies should never have no reason at all) I think L’Engle would have been horrified to find that Meg’s violence is a stand-up-and-cheer moment in the movie. In the book, Meg says about the boy she hits, “I’m sorry I tried to fight him” but Meg in the movie justifies her violence by saying, “Dad always told me to stand up for what I believe in.”

Could this new Meg have worked? Of course: It’s common in movie adaptations to make problems more external and less internal (and more personified). But this is an example of losing the appeal of the book and not replacing it with new joys.

Charles Wallace, by contrast, has not changed enough. L’Engle can just tell us that Charles Wallace doesn’t speak like a five year old for good reasons, but the movie can’t make that clear, so we’re just left with a character that doesn’t seem to be believably written. I think they would need to change him from the book to be more believably five.

But I don’t think the movie gets into serious trouble until Mrs. Whatsit is introduced. In the book, we find out that Charles Wallace has been hanging out with a “tramp”, aka homeless person, who has taken residence in an unused shed on the edge of their property and stolen some sheets to sleep under. She then shows up in the middle of a storm, dressed in rags, dripping wet, needing shelter from the storm. She’s a ragged old woman and her “grayish hair was tied in a small but tidy knot on top of her head”. The mom then makes the crucial decision to let her into the house and take care of her, helping her get her boots off and get her socks dry, while Meg offers her food and makes it. It is seemingly in return for the kindness that Mrs. Whatsit imparts some key information, that the tesseract is real.

They earn this plot progress by being kind to someone who seems like a non-magical homeless woman. Importantly, there’s a big Christian element in this scene: I came to you homeless, you took me in, you bathed my feet, you fed me, etc. Then it turns out that the woman is a literal angel-in-disguise who is there to do a miracle for them in return for their kindness.

In the movie this all goes out the window. Mrs. Whatsit is now beautiful young Reese Witherspoon, wearing a spectacular gown she made from the stolen sheets, just because she’s a fun-loving kook. She’s not at all wet and not at all in need of shelter. She knocks on their door for unclear reasons, Charles Wallace lets her in, but Meg wants to call 911 on her and the mom orders her to leave. Mrs. Whatsit agrees to leave, but pauses to tell them about the tesseract on her way out, in return for nothing but hostility. Lee and DuVernay have excised the Christianity and they haven’t replaced it with anything, except inanity. Mrs. Whatsit helps them despite their hostility, instead of in reward for their actions.

I noticed none of this while I watched the movie the first time. It just seemed a little …off. Only in retrospect do I see why it didn’t work. Meg is remorseless about her violence and heartless towards Mrs. Whatsit, which rips out the heart of the story. The story happens to Meg instead of her making it happen, and she is proven right (“Dad always told me to stand up for what I believe in”) instead of being forced to change. It’s far weaker on second viewing than it was on the first, especially now that I’ve reread the book.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: It’s Okay to Put Some Distance Between the Reader and the Character

I talk a lot about identification. It’s good to have your audience identify with your hero: experience the world through her five senses, take in all the same information, try to solve the same mysteries at the same time, etc (whether it’s first person or limited-third person.) And in many cases, the author will want the reader to reach the same conclusions, love the same people, hate the same people, share the same fears, etc. But not in all cases.

It’s a trickier way to write, but sometime you want to create some distance between your hero and your audience. I talked in this old post about the difference between the hero of the story and the hero of the scene: Usually Buffy was the hero of the episode, but when she had scenes with Willow, Willow was often the hero of the scene, correctly pointing out Buffy’s flaws, which Buffy often refused to admit. We knew not to trust Buffy’s judgment on many issues, though that didn’t make us like her any less (usually.)

But even when there’s no one to point out that the hero’s wrong, a prose writer can create distance between us and the hero, even just by telling us her obviously-overblown thoughts. The writer has various ways to let us know or suspect that the hero may have a distorted perception of her own life. 

Let’s look at Meg in Madeline L’Engle's “A Wrinkle in Time”:  I do wonder if adult reader and tween readers have different reactions to Meg: As an adult, it’s pretty obvious that she has bad self-esteem distorting her view of her world. We suspect that she’s not as weird looking as she perceives, and we even doubt that she really heard all these insults that she thinks she’s heard.

Certainly, when she soon meets a sports-star who thinks she’s beautiful (without her glasses on, anyway), we don’t think, “That’s odd, why is he attracted to this Quasimodo that everyone else finds repulsive?” Instead, we think “I knew she was wrong about her looks, and she was probably imagining some of the criticism.”*

We can also see that Meg is far too scared of her world. When the story begins, she’s cowering in terror from a storm outside, but we’re not so scared. She then gets very scared about reports of a tramp on the loose, but we guess that her fears are overblown. When it becomes clear that her five year old brother has been walking around in the woods and hanging out with the tramp (Hey, it was the ‘70s), and he says she’s okay, we’ve already figured out to trust his judgment more than Meg’s, though we still identify with Meg as our hero, not him. We believe that she’s real, we care about her, we’re invested in her goals …but we don’t trust her perceptions or judgment. We share her hopes, but not her fears, which is a tricky line for a writer to walk.

How does L’Engle do this? By giving Meg a level of hyperbole we don’t trust, but which we find endearing. When L’Engle writes “—I’ll make myself some cocoa, she decided.—That’ll cheer me up, and if the roof blows off, at least I won’t go off with it”, we look down on Meg a little bit, sure that her fears are overblown, but we’re bonded all the more with her as a result. We’re amused that she’s using her overblown fears as an excuse to have a sugary drink. Both the fears and the desire for cocoa are self-indulgent, and we’re amused by the confluence of them, in a slightly-paternalistic way. This is different from full identification, but not so different.

Next, we’ll talk about how this played out in the recent movie…

*I asked my wife, who loved the book as a tween and just read it to our daughter, if she thinks tween readers doubt Meg’s negative perceptions as much as adult readers do and she thinks tween girls at least totally identify with Meg, far longer than adults will, believing (and identifying with) Meg’s negative self-assessment, only doubting it a little when her mother says otherwise, and only seriously doubting it when Calvin says she’s gorgeous (which of course lets them fantasize that they will soon find out from a boy that they’re secretly gorgeous.)

Sunday, January 06, 2019

New Video: Irony

Remember how shocked you were when I put out a new podcast episode, after more than a year away?  Well get ready to be flabbergasted, because here’s a new video after more than two years!  When I launched my book in late 2016, I had an ambitious plan that I would have a new video every other week from then on and a podcast episode on all the off weeks.  Ha!  Turns out that videos are a lot of work.  But I'm very happy with the four I’ve made and I’ve wanted to do a new one on irony for a while.  And I’m mostly talking about a movie we haven’t already discussed to death on the blog!  Let me know what you think, please.

(I’ve also replaced the Moment of Humanity video with a cleaner version, since kids like the videos.  No more 40 Year Old Virgin opening shot!)

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Send Your Hero on External and Internal Quests

Most great stories don’t feature content heroes whose lives are upended by an inciting incident. It’s usually better to begin with a hero with a longstanding personal problem: an inner flaw (which they may not be fully aware of) has resulted in a series of social humiliations (which they are very much aware of) and they are starting to suspect that the problem is them.

When we first meet Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time”, she’s hiding under a quilt, shaking in fear from a storm:

  • She wasn’t usually afraid of weather.—It’s not just the weather, she thought.—It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

We then find out she’s got a black eye from a fight she got in school that day, and she says:

  • —A delinquent, that’s what I am, she thought grimly. —That’s what they’ll be saying next. Not Mother. But Them. Everybody Else. I wish Father—
  • But it was still not possible to think about her father without the danger of tears. Only her mother could talk about him in a natural way, saying, “When your father gets back—”
  • Gets back from where? And when?

So already on the first page we have an outer quest and an inner quest. She wants to find her dad and to stop doing everything wrong. She then combines the two:

  • Surely her mother must know what people were saying, must be aware of the smugly vicious gossip. Surely it must hurt her as it did Meg. But if it did she gave no outward sign. Nothing ruffled the serenity of her expression.
  • —Why can’t I hide it, too? Meg thought. Why do I always have to show everything?

This isn’t a flaw we see a lot in stories: Meg wants to be cool, but not the way most tweens do—She wants to be internally cool. She wants to control her emotions. Later, her mother says:

  • “You don’t know the meaning of moderation, do you, my darling?” Mrs. Murry asked. “A happy medium is something I wonder if you’ll ever learn.

Of course, Meg is about to go on a big outer space quest to rescue her father, and she’ll literally find a personified Happy Medium out there. As in most science fiction, the hero’s journey into outer space is really a journey into inner space. It allows L’Engle to make Meg’s inner journey manifest in an exciting way.

In most great stories, there is both an outer quest and an inner quest: something the hero physically needs in the real world, and a change they need to make on the inside. The more elegant the story, the more the two quests will be intertwined. L’Engle does a fantastic job.