Monday, July 15, 2019

Nice Review from K. M. Weiland

One of the bestselling writing advice authors in the world is K. M. Weiland. Guess what her new favorite writing guide is? (And she’s been backing it up by quoting me and linking to my book in her wonderful blog/podcast several times recently)  Thanks, K. M.  I’m a fan of your advice, too.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

New Podcast: Heroic Self-Interest

Hi guys, it’s time for another episode of the Secrets of Story Podcast! In this episode special guest Geoff Betts joins us to talk about Heroic Self-Interest and James pitches a new take on “Annie”. Check it out!

Friday, June 07, 2019

Fantastic News!

Hi, guys! I've been shame-facedly hiding the fact that my publisher went bankrupt a few months back, because I was hoping that everything would turn out okay. Today I got the best possible news: Not only am I not going out-of-print but I'm moving on up to a more prestigious publisher: I'm a Penguin Random House author now!

Monday, May 20, 2019

New Podcast: More Fun with Jonathan Auxier

Hi, guys, long time no see! Here we are with a new Podcast episode! Special Guest Jonathan Auxier returns to the podcast to give us some pushback for our last three episodes! It’s a good one! Exclamation point!

I also had some follow-up thoughts for those of you that have listened to it. Have you listened to it yet? Good, here we go: Jonathan points out that the Rank-Raglan 22-step structure wraps around to overlay on top of itself, with the hero going through the first 11 steps while the villain goes through the last 11. As I edited the episode, I wondered if that was true of Harry Potter, and it is true with Voldemort to a certain extent, but where it really applies is not to the villain but to the mentor, Dumbledore. Harry meets most of the first 11 steps while his mentor meets all but one of the back 11.

12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor): This is obviously the one that fits the least since, as we later found out, he’s gay, but basically the princess is Hogwarts itself.
13. Becomes king: He’s offered leadership of the whole wizarding world but chooses to just rule the school.
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully: For many years.
15. He prescribes laws: He also chairs the Wizengamot.
16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects: People are constantly plotting against him in the books.
17. Driven from throne and city: He gets fired in books 2 and 5.
18. Meets with mysterious death: Seemingly killed by his follower, but there’s more to it.
19. Often at the top of a hill: He’s atop a tower.
20. His children, if any, do not succeed him: He’s childless, his killer takes his place.
21. His body is not buried: He is laid in an above ground tomb, which is later raided and desecrated.
22. Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs: See above.

I thought that was neat!

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Manuscript Consultation

Hey, guys, I’ve had a couple of people ask “I see that your Manuscript Consultation post was in 2017- Are you still doing that?” So allow me to refresh it and say that yes, I am! And I’ve collected some of the unsolicited praise I’ve gotten:

  • “You, sir, are a freakin’ genius! I can see why my agent spoke so highly of you. Thanks so much for your really constructive remarks. Very insightful. Now that you’ve pointed out some of the problems, they seem so glaring and obvious. Your suggestions are really great, and have me pointed in the right direction. I now see better the book I wanted this to be but somehow lost sight of. Thank you! (Later email from the same author) “I’m happy (and very relieved!) to report that my editor really loved the manuscript. She and I are still currently going through the usual rounds of revision before publication in 2019 but even now I'm often reminded of how your advice helped improve the manuscript.”
  • “Thank you SO much for these fantastic notes. Your edit suggestions have me excited about this book in ways I haven’t been in a long while.” (Later email from the same author) “I just wanted to let you know that this book, under a new title, got picked up by Imprint/Macmillan for publications in winter, 2019. I appreciate your feedback and support a great deal, and will continue to promote your services. It was a huge help.”
  • “Your astute observations and clarity about plot are exactly what I was looking for and am so happy to have! You are the best! Thank you!” (Later email from the same author:) “I went out to new agents, including aspirational agents, ended up with three offers, and signed with my dream super agent. I’m hoping will go out with the book this fall, and I wanted to thank you so much for your really smart notes and affirmation.”
  • “I can read all the craft books I want, but to have someone with skills read and comment on MY work makes the suggestions and techniques really hit home. It will help with future work.” 
  • “As my first time going through this process, I have learned A TON! So, thank you. You've been great to work with and I’m far more equipped to write a great book than I was before.” 
  • “I got an offer of representation two weeks ago. I've really really appreciated your feedback and believe it has and is making this book a lot stronger.” 
  • “Holy shit these notes are amazing!” 
  • “Wow, Matt, this is so much more feedback than I'd expected. I can't thank you enough! Aside from my agent's initial response, yours is the first one that has given me real hope for my novel. You’re the best! My agent thinks you are ‘worth your weight in gold!’” 
  • “Thanks so much for the thoughtful feedback. It's exactly what I was hoping for: a great mix of quick, actionable edits and bigger structural issues for me to work through. I really appreciate the depth of your engagement with the text”

So here’s the deal:

  • You email me your manuscript (novel, screenplay, teleplay, etc.) in script format if it’s a script (pdf or Final Draft), or double-spaced 12 pt text (Microsoft word or rtf) if it’s prose.
  • You include an email telling me what you want to do with it and what sort of notes you’re looking for.
  • I read it and mark it up, usually about one annotation per page.
  • I then write you an in-depth editorial letter, about 4-8 single-spaced pages, with notes for pushing the manuscript in the direction you want it to go.

So what’s the price? $2.50 per page of your manuscript. So a 60 page TV pilot would be $150, a 120 page screenplay is $300, a 240 page novel manuscript is $600, etc. It’s not cheap, but it’s pretty comprehensive and my customers have mostly let me know that they’ve been eminently satisfied.

NEW: I also do documents under 20 pages, such as treatments, for a minimum of $50. And, by request, I now do phone consultations for $1.50 a minute.

My work has been about 50/50 between writers who have agents and writers who don’t (There are a few agents who sent their writers to me for notes.) It’s been tremendously gratifying to help some people hone their work until it gets them an agent and/or gets published (One author who took my notes got a starred review in PW when his book got published.)

So feel free to contact me at MattMBird@yahoo.com. Hopefully I won’t be too backed up when you get in touch.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

This Looks Cool

Hey guys,  I always considered turning my book into an app but ultimately decided it was just too much work.  Well, it looks like another group has done something similar that looks cool. They’re recommending my book and manuscript services to their clients, so I figured that I’d put in a plug for their app. Watch the video preview here:

Monday, April 22, 2019

Sorry about the lack of posts! And my obligatory MCU list!

Sorry about the lack of posts, guys! Things are in transition. Expect a re-design soon (Everyone loves redesigns, right?) In the meantime, I posted this in the comments of this article, got greyed out, then realized, “Oh, right, I have a blog that’s thirsty for content, why not just post it there?” So here you go. Sorry if it seems like I’m trolling you with my unorthodox picks. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em!

  1. Iron Man (Practically perfect in every way)
  2. Black Panther (Plot problems, but inspiring and deep)
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Kicks all kinds of ass, but awkward yoking of Hydra story to the Winter Soldier story)
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy (Just delightful)
  5. Avengers: Infinity War (Deftly plotted, wildly thrilling)
  6. Iron Man 3 (Fantastic action, but a step down from the top 5)
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger (aka The Rocketeer Part 2, which is a compliment)
  8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Underrated, big emotional punch)
  9. Doctor Strange (Amazing, but I wish he wasn’t a jerk anymore after his spiritual journey, like in the comics)
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (Underrated, admirably complex)
  11. Captain Marvel (A little too jokey, but a lot of fun)
  12. Spider-Man Homecoming (Disposable fun)
  13. Thor: Ragnarok (Massively overrated. Huge tone problems. A horrific tragedy with a chuckleheaded tone. Still a fun time at the movies)
  14. Thor (Plot problems, but a great cast)
  15. The Incredible Hulk (Underrated. A fun slam-bang action flick)
  16. Thor: The Dark World (Underrated. I’d rewatch it anytime. The only reason I ranked it so low is that the MCU is so damn good.)
  17. Captain America: Civil War (Ludicrous villain plan, murky theme, forced conflict, it makes no sense who signs up for each side, etc.  Great action, though)
  18. The Avengers (Massively overrated! Nonsensical plot, awkward chemistry)
  19. Ant-Man and the Wasp (Forgettable. The first on this list I wouldn’t rewatch.  The Wasp in the comics is a ray of sunshine!)
  20. Ant-Man (Considered turning it off, finished out of complete-ism)
  21. Iron Man 2 (The only genuinely bad movie they’ve made.)

Thursday, April 11, 2019

How to Write a Memoir: Have a Skewed Point of View

As with all prose writing, memoir writing really comes down to voice. You are asking to be invited into your reader’s home. Will they be happy to hear you talk for several hours?

Yes, they want to hear about amazing events, but no memoir has ever sustained itself by just being a series of events. What they really want to know is, even if there’s nothing extraordinary going on, will you have a unique perspective on everyday life? Do you have a properly skewed point of view, showing amusing and perceptive insight that surprises us, but instantly seems right?

Of course, one question that Trevor Noah had to ask himself when he sat down to write his life story was how angry he wanted to be on the page. He’s writing about horrific historical injustices, and the last thing he wants to do is trivialize them, but he does want to make light of them, and that’s a tricky line to walk.

The solution is to look back at injustice with an amused and amusing point of view. The whole point of this book is that Noah, being one of very few biracial South Africans, is never entirely welcome in any community outside of his own home. This means that no historical perspective is “his story.” He looks upon both blacks and whites from the POV of a somewhat-cynical outsider, which allows him to take his amusement where he pleases, neither approving of nor judging those who had to make terrible decisions. For instance:

  • The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.”


  • If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.

We just like hearing this guy talk. Another form of skewed point of view that early-childhood memoir writers can and must avail themselves of is child logic. We all remember, with some embarrassment and some wonder, the bizarre logical inferences we made as a kid, looking at the world with unschooled eyes. The ability to capture this way of thinking, and show its wisdom, is a big part of memoir writing:

  • But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more.

A great storyteller doesn’t even need interesting material.  They can make anything amusing.  Of course, if you start with an amazing life, and then add a great voice on top of that, you’ll have it made.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Unique Relationships in “Born a Crime”

So we’ve talked about how Trevor Noah creates the classic archetype of the scampish kid, and he also taps into the universal archetype of the indomitable bad-ass single mom. Each character has lots of specifics to make them come alive, but they’re definitely characters we recognize from other stories. But that’s fine, because, as I’ve said before, readers don’t actually crave unique never-before-seen characters. We like archetypes. But while we don’t demand unique characters, we do like them to combine into unique never-before-seen relationships.

Anyone who’s seen “Gilmore Girls” or other similar stories will recognize the idea of a single mom and child who interact as almost-equals, but never quite like Trevor Noah and his mom. Here’s their conversation from the first chapter of his book (It is always dubious, of course, when a memoir recreates this much dialogue, but readers are forgiving.)

  • “It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”
  • Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.
  • “Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”
  • “Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”
  • “No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—”
  • “No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”
  • “Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”
  • “No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”
  • “But, Mom!”
  • “Trevor! Sun’qhela!”
  • Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—what we call a spanking.

(This is of course a trick that screenwriters don’t have, jumping in to unpack the hidden meanings behind one word.)

Both characters have unique voices and strong opinions. Together they have a complex, shifting power dynamic. Either character on their own could probably carry the story, but it’s their contentious but loving relationship that will really power the book. Compelling characters are great, but compelling relationships are even better.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

How to Write a Memoir: Digress Deftly

There are a couple of ways to tell a complex anecdote from your childhood when you’re talking to your friends. Sometimes you start with the incident in question, then find yourself having to stop several times and say, “Wait, I forgot, I have to tell you about something else that happened before I go on...”

Or, you can keep all your ducks in a row, and start out with, “So there was this funny thing that happened to me as a kid, but before I begin, let me tell you about three other things that will be important to this story…”

Both of these approaches are frustrating for the listener. The first is too confusing and the second is too boring.

Yes, it is inevitable that telling any one story from your childhood will probably need you to add some background, either before you begin or interspersed, but there are more elegant ways to do it, and that’s a big part of memoir writing.

Let’s look at the skillful way the first chapter of Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” is structured:

  1. He quotes the Apartheid Law that meant he was “born a crime.”
  2. He briefly tells us a bit about the civil war between Zulu and Xhosa that followed the end of Apartheid.
  3. He jumps into his main anecdote at the moment he gets thrown out of a moving car. He says it was on a Sunday on the way home from church.
  4. He jumps back to tell us about how South Africans embraced Christianity.
  5. He tells us about a typical Sunday with his mother and baby brother, attending four church services all over town. His description of each service is funny.
  6. He briefly reminds us that this will be a story about getting thrown from a moving car.
  7. He goes back to that morning, when the car was broken and he tried to talk his mother out of church, but she said they would take minibuses. The conversation ends with the threat of a spanking.
  8. He mentions that he would sometimes run away from spankings, and she would chase him.  He says they were both champion runners at his school’s sports day (where parents were allowed to compete). He tells stories of other misbehavior and his mom shouting to a crowd that he was thief when she couldn’t catch him.
  9. He briefly goes back to getting on a minibus to head out to church.
  10. He jumps back to tell us more about the civil war between Zulu and Xhosa. He talks about his mom walking through the violence to go back and forth to work. She was never scared.
  11. He talks about going from church to church that day, until they were stranded on a street late at night, looking for a minibus.
  12. He explains the nature of the conflict between minibus operators.
  13. Now we finally have enough info to finish the anecdote: They end being bullied into a Zulu minibus. The drivers find out his mom is Xhosa and threaten to rape or kill her. She throws Trevor out of the car and jumps out with her baby in her arms. Their running ability comes in handy and they get away. He tells her that this proves his was right about not going out, and they laugh about it.

A few of these transitions are awkward. Here’s the most awkward one:
 But the other eleven transitions are all fairly smooth. Here’s a good one:

He needs to include that little em-dash to make it clear to us that he’s jumping in time again, but he knows he has to ramp us up to jump us over the gap, so we don’t use that em-dash as an excuse to put the book down.

“Even when she should have been” ends that digress on a note of foreboding. We fear, correctly, that the anecdote we’re jumping back to will be a case where she maybe should have been more scared. He reassures us every time that he’s digressed from the main anecdote for a good reason, which will soon be readily apparent.

Almost getting murdered is a hell of a story, and he’s stretching it out as long as possible, threading in a lot of not-quite-as-interesting material that now become much more interesting when we know that it will come into play in this anecdote. He starts us off with just a little about the Zulu-Xhosa Civil War, but he works most of that information in once he’s telling a story about almost getting killed by a Zulu for being Xhosa.

Now we care: about his anecdote, his life, and his country. Smoothly interweaving wild anecdotes with less-interesting background details is a big part of memoir writing.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

How to Write a Memoir: Establish that You Were in the Thick of It

There is nothing you can do that is more self-important than writing a memoir: “Hey, you! Hey, everybody! Stop what you’re doing and devote 10 hours to hearing every detail of my life! In return, I will not listen to a word of your life! Because I am so much more interesting than you!”

Trevor Noah has a bit more claim to our time than out last memoirist, Tara Westover: We’ve at least heard of him. We’ve maybe been entertained or edified by his TV shows. We might say “Oh, sure, that guy, let’s hear what he has to say.” But that only gets us as far as the first chapter. If he launches into chuckleheaded tales of celebrity shenanigans, we’ll check out quickly.

No, all memoirists ultimately face the same test: Once the reader is reading they’re going to ask, “What can you tell me that’ll blow me away? What about your life is remarkable or shocking or harrowing enough to be worth my time?” As veterans used to ask of each other, “Sure, you were in Vietnam, but were you in the shit?” Noah understands that even celebrity memoirists, if they want to reach beyond their hardcore fans, have to assure the reader: “I was in the shit.”

Luckily Noah has three historical horrors to power his story. His title lures us in by promising a tale of one of history’s great crimes, apartheid, which we’ve all heard of. But that turns out to be sort of a fake out, because Apartheid ends when he’s five, so, after getting us to pick up the book, he transitions us on the first page into another conflict, the subsequent civil war between Zulu and Xhosa ethnic groups. American readers are less familiar with this (and wouldn’t have bought a book that promised to be about this), so he has to get us up to speed, and convince us that this, too, is the shit.

So his first chapter is about a time that some Zulu minibus drivers almost killed him and his mom for being Xhosa, until they leapt from the moving vehicle to get away. And he makes it kind of funny, while still totally harrowing. It’s a great first chapter.

And lest that conflict run out of steam, he briefly mentions in this opening chapter that he’ll also be telling the story of his stepfather shooting his mother in the head! Noah is going out of his way in this first chapter to tell us, “It doesn’t matter if you love me or not, I have a hell of a story to tell.” He is holding himself to the same standard that Westover or any unknown memoirist has to meet: I will make you care whether you want to or not.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Annotation Project: Born a Crime

I’m memoir crazy now!  And 2018 crazy!  I figured why not try another bestselling memoir from last year, but this time with an antipodean jump from Idaho to South Africa?  A little funnier, and with a more loving parent, but still with lots of that horrific violence against children that readers crave! Get the doc here.

More to say about it soon...

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Storyteller's Rulebook: How People Really Talk

So I assume we’re all enjoying the “Operation: Varsity Blues” scandal, where the rich and famous got arrested for various illegal schemes to get their kids into universities (hiring imposters to take their kids’ SATs, faking learning disabilities to get more time on the SAT, photoshopping their heads onto athletes to get recruited, outright bribery, etc.)

The latest development is that Vice has transcribed some of the tapes, which are delightful, but they’re also really instructive for writing dialogue. In my own writing, I’ve often gotten pushback for how fragmentary my dialogue is, but I always defend it by saying that the way we really talk. Well, these strictly-faithful transitions back me up nicely. Here’s one example:

  • SPOUSE: So [my son] and I just got back from [U]SC Orientation. It went great. The only kind of glitch was, and I-- he didn’t-- [my son] didn’t tell me this at the time-- but yesterday when he went to meet with his advisor, he stayed after a little bit, and the-- apparently the advisor said something to the effect of, “Oh, so you’re a track athlete?” And [my son] said, “No.” ’Cause, so [my son] has no idea, and that’s what-- the way we want to keep it.

Another conversation:

  • B. ISACKSON: Well, I, I-- But if-- but they, they --
  • CW-1: Yes.
  • B. ISACKSON: --went the meat and potatoes of it, which a-- which a guy would love to have is, it’s so hard for these kids to get into college, and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities. Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.

And another:

  • CAPLAN: Done. The other stuff (laughing)--
  • CW-1: That will be up to you guys, it doesn’t matter to me.
  • CAPLAN: Yeah, I, I hear ya. It’s just, to be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the, if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished. So I, I just—
  • CW-1: It’s never happened before in twenty-some-odd years. The only way anything can happen is if she--
  • CAPLAN: Someone talks--
  • CW-1: Yeah, if she tells somebody.

People don’t finish their sentences, they lose their train of thought, they rephrase things on the fly, they interrupt each other. These are all highly-educated successful people and every single one talks this way.

So should you write this way? As I said, producers and other note-givers thought I was doing it too much. It was realistic, but maybe too much so. If your characters are too articulate, injecting some of this realism into your dialogue will make it come alive and feel refreshingly real, but maybe don’t take it as far as I did. The goal in writing is to crate a sense of the real, but once you’ve done that you can make everyone a little more articulate than they would actually be.

Edited to Add: Here was a comment of mine that I thought should be elevated to the main piece: Looking at the above transcript, you probably wouldn't want to write a sentence exactly like “and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities.” That's realistic in an annoying way.

But you might well want to write something like the next sentence: “Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.” That's realistic in a more appealing way. Not finishing that sentence seems more meaningful than the stumbles in the previous sentence.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Little Break

Okay, guys, despite the fact that I’ve had several weeks, I don’t have another book ready to go. I don’t know if we’re going to move forward to another one or move backwards and re-examine some of the others from a “Believe-Care-Invest” perspective, but I’m not ready to do either yet, so I’ll take a week or two off here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Have at Least Six Painful Decisions: The Archive

Hi guys, I continue to dig through old posts looking for stuff for a new book and re-discovered this forgotten micro-series that I like a lot. The Checklist is set in stone now that it’s in a book, but I can’t figure out why this question never made it onto the list, and I wish I could add it now. Ah well.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Best of 2018, #1: The Favourite (And How Audiences Pick Their Favorites)

(Spoilers ahead!)
This year, The Favourite was my favorite (and wouldn’t it be nice if the Oscars picked it, just so that the headlines could write themselves?)

We’ve talked about the Villain Fake-Out before, where a supporting character turns out to have been the villain all along, but this movie does something more ambitious: Our hero gradually turns villainous, and her victimizer gradually grows more sympathetic.

The movie does all the work of making us fall in love with Emma Stone (First step: Cast Emma Stone), and we only belatedly say 90 minutes later, “Hey, why did I ever fall in love with this lady? She’s kind of terrible.” So we look back at what gave us the false impression that she would be a better lover for the queen than Rachel Weisz. We see the tricks they used:

  • Stone is poor. She’s a cousin of Weisz, but her father has cost them everything, and now she must come begging for any job.
  • Stone is humiliated: When she gets off a carriage seeking her cousin, someone sadistically kicks her and sends her sprawling in the mud. Later, she is treated terribly by the rest of the staff.
  • Stone is “nicer”. The sexual relationship between Weisz and the queen has turned acidic. At times it seems they can barely stand each other, but the queen clearly needs Weisz, both sexually and for advice.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our poor, put-upon heroine could live out a Cinderella story, win the heart (and bed) of a royal and get to spend the rest of her life attending balls in the palace?

But it’s only when Stone is the new Favourite that we remember, “Oh right, bad people can be poor and humiliated, too.” And they can even be “nice”, when it advances their cause. As Weisz tries to remind the queen after she’s been forced out, a good lover should tell you when you look like a badger. Stone sees that the queen no longer wants honesty, and there’s a chance to steal her away with fawning lies.

We believe in all the characters, because the details in the movie are wonderful, but we care for and invest our hopes in Stone’s character only. Then we discover that her eventual success does not gratify our emotional investment like we thought it would. By design, we do not care for nor invest in Weisz’s character …until the end, when we re-evaluate our value system. The movie encourages us to question the ways that all movies get us to choose our favorite character, and realize that just because one character is clearly easier to care for and invest in, doesn’t mean that the easy choice is the right choice.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Best of 2018 , #2: Black Panther (and Rise Above Your Genre's Limitations)

Black Panther begins with an exhilarating scene: On the verge of becoming king of Wakanda, T’Challa invites anyone who wishes to challenge his right to rule to fight him unarmed. A giant named M’Baku steps up, and the two have a thrilling fight in a waterfall. Our hero, though smaller, fights better, proves his physical superiority, and earns the right to rule.

But then, halfway through the movie, Killmonger comes along and demands his own challenge. They go back to the waterfall, where he turns out to be a better fighter and seemingly throws T’Challa to his death. Killmonger then becomes king and Black Panther.

And here’s the thing, it must have been so tempting for the filmmakers to have Killmonger cheat in that big fight. That’s how they did in the perfectly fine cartoon version, after all. That’s the way superhero movies are supposed to go: might makes right, and the heroes are going to win any fair fight.

But the filmmakers rose above that temptation. Killmonger wins fair and square. The kingdom is rightfully his.

There’s just one problem: That’s a really messed-up way to choose the leader of your country. FDR was maybe America’s greatest president, and he wouldn’t have fared very well in that waterfall. Many people have noted that superhero movies have a fascism problem. This movie tackles that head on. They get us to root for the hero to rule in a fascistic “punch your enemies into submission” way, then remind us that that’s all kind of messed up.

In the end, T’Challa never goes back to that waterfall. There is no third unarmed fight. He doesn’t contest that the first fight wasn’t fair. He takes his country back by using every trick in his book. And once he’s back in charge, he starts making some changes in how things are done. This movie confronts the genre’s fascism problem, and the result is the biggest-grossing and most acclaimed superhero movie of all time.

People go to genre movies to experience familiar genre pleasures, and they come prepared to forgive your genre’s inherent flaws.  But sometimes, if you’re sure that your movie is wildly entertaining, then you can try to confront those flaws and rise above the limitations that have held back your genre from Best Picture status.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Best of 2018, #3: Vice (and Who Has the Right to Tell a Story?)

A lot of people were shocked this was nominated for Best Picture, because the reviews weren’t great, but if you look at my previous Best Of lists, you’ll see a lot of McKay, Bale, Adams and Carrell, so you can’t be too surprised to see this here, can you? I don’t know what those bad reviews were talking about because I loved it.

And there was nothing I loved more about the movie than the opening title card:

  • The following is a true story.
  • Or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history.
  • But we did our fucking best.

One of my problems with BlacKkKlansman is that it falls into a trap I’ve talked about before. In order to make a movie about the Klan in the ‘70s, the filmmakers just waited until someone walked in the door with a self-aggrandizing memoir. Then they had to turn an “I prank called David Duke” anecdote into a whole movie.

But movies should tell true stories that need to be told, not just tales on the periphery of history that a self-promoter wants to push. This is much harder to do, but the makers of Vice did their fucking best. Neither Dick nor Lynne Cheney were pushing McKay and company to tell this story, but enough of the facts were out there that they could get the job done.

I did a whole series many years ago on the question of who has the right to tell a story. Do you have the right to make a biopic about someone who doesn’t want their story told? For that matter, do liberals have the right to make movies about conservative protagonists? I think that one way you earn that right is to show empathy for your enemies, even the very worst of them, and this movie does that well. My heart leapt when Cheney almost-instantly told his daughter he didn’t have a problem with her being gay. That was the moment of actual heroism that McKay was able to find in Cheney’s life, and the movie would never have worked without it. That was the moment that McKay earned the right to tell this story: He found humanity within his anti-hero, and celebrated it.

You don’t have the right to tell a story about any protagonist, fictional or otherwise, if you can’t empathize with them at any point. If McKay took the attitude that Cheney was simply inhuman, the movie wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have been convincing, it wouldn’t have been tragic, and it wouldn’t have been ironic. That’s the difference between an anti-hero and a villain: A good anti-hero must have the potential of redemption, and fail to achieve it.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Best of 2018, #5: If Beale Street Could Talk and #4: Roma

On “The Secrets of Story Podcast”, James Kennedy and I just had a debate about passive protagonists. He argued that, as a story guru, I’m too predisposed to demand active protagonists and overly dismissive of stories about passive ones, even when that works better for the story, and he’s probably right.

How important is it to have an active protagonist? An active protagonist certainly makes it easier to fully invest in and identify with a story, but does that have anything to do with great storytelling? Movies with passive protagonists simply require more of the viewer. Instead of reaching out and pulling us in, they require us to step through the screen of our own accord. Is that a bad thing?

If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma are very similar movies. Both deal with poor, minority, working women in the early 70s going through a pregnancy without a father around (though the dads are missing for very different reasons). Each is structured around the course of the pregnancy without a lot of plot beyond that. In each, the heroine is very sympathetic but also relatively passive, making very few decisions until the very end.

So according to my book, neither movie should be very compelling. And yet they are. Why?

  • Most obviously, because their suffering is very moving, in terms of the personal, systematic, and historical injustices they suffer. But according to my usual advice that should not be enough.
  • The realism is rewarding. We revel in each movie’s ability to capture unique-but-universal little moments that make us say “Ah-ha, yes, life is like that, isn’t it?” We like that the movies respect our intelligence and don’t try to manipulate us.
  • I think it’s key that these are the two best shot movies of the year (It’s an absolute outrage that IBSCT didn’t get a Cinematography nomination.) The majestic camerawork grants a power and dignity to these women’s lives that circumstances cannot.

I did not cry at either of these movies, despite their tragic endings. I was not put through the ringer or taken on an emotional rollercoaster. I felt somewhat alienated and distanced from these women, though I felt for their suffering very much. I was moved, but more on an intellectual level than an emotional level. Perhaps this is just because I am a white man unconsciously inured to the suffering of women of color. Perhaps it is because the movies did not grab me in the way they intended to. Or perhaps it’s because they had precisely their intended effect, preferring to be thoughtful rather than manipulative.

But I had no doubt that these were great movies that everyone should see, regardless of whether their heroes followed my rules.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Best of 2018: Runners Up 10-6

When I do these lists, I tend to go back and forth between having 5 and 10 movies, depending on how strong the year was …and some years I split the different by declaring movies 6-10 to be runners-up, as I’m doing this year. This is largely just because I don’t have enough to say about these five to fill entries, but I’ll do a little...

10: BlacKkKlansman This movie was a lot of fun and also a timely tale about the mainstreaming of hate, but ultimately I found it to be too predictable and the lead too uncharismatic. Nevertheless, Lee’s direction is wonderful as always, and I’d love to see him win Best Director for old time’s sake. I had another issue with this movie that I’ll talk about in contrast to the #3 movie.

9: Paddington 2 This was the best reviewed movie of the year with good reason -it’s absolutely delightful- but its pleasures were perhaps a little too small-scale to finish higher on the list. Brendan Gleeson definitely deserves an Oscar, though.

8: Infinity War No movie thrilled me more or hit me harder in the gut. It was a cheap hit, because they’re obviously going to undo it all, but powerful nonetheless. Thanos is one of the all-time great villains, at least so far.

7: A Star is Born I hate to reward a fourth-time-around remake, especially since it’s nowhere near as good as the 1954 version, but this movie, judged on its own merits, works spectacularly well. Cooper and Gaga both felt like real flesh-and-blood people, which is pretty amazing given how melodramatic the story is.

6: A Quiet Place A masterfully-made white-knuckle chiller. And I actually found a Rulebook Casefile:

I’ve talked about how superhero movies have a Klan problem, but of course by the same token, post-apocalyptic movies have a survivalist problem. If America is actually invaded, then those living off the grid with big gun stockpiles will look pretty smart, but liberal filmmakers such as myself don’t want to tell that story, so we have to come up with apocalypses that don’t reward gun ownership …such as aliens that attack loud sounds. Even in this case, where the writer/director/star seems like he’s probably a right winger based off other projects he’s chosen, he knew that it would be more fun to have unique villains doing a unique attack that had to be defeated in a unique way.  We’ve talked about how you should come up with ways to hurt your hero that would only hurt your hero, well I guess it also works the other way: Come up with ways to defeat the invader that would only hurt this invader.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Not on the Best of 2018 List: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Every few years a movie comes out that everybody absolutely loves, but I find I don’t love it, or even like it, and in fact I can’t imagine how anybody could like it. There were so many reasons I disliked Into the Spider-Verse:

  • Headache-inducing visuals: I just saw this movie with a friend and we were the only ones in the theater. We were seeing an “XD” showing, not a 3-D one, but everything in the foreground or background had a double-vision effect going on. He turned to me a half-hour in and said, “Uh, is this a 3D print or something?” I said, “Yeah, you’re right, it is.” So he went out to get glasses, but he came back without them and said, “They say that’s just how it is.” I was convinced they were wrong, and as I watched, I thought, “Well, this is a very unpleasant viewing experience, but I shouldn’t blame the movie, because, no matter what they say, this is clearly a 3D print.” But when I got home and googled it and found out that no, that’s just how it is. The movie also does that drop-every-3rd-frame thing that “Dragon Prince” does to make it look more like cel animation, which is massively annoying.
  • Headache-inducing concept: The whole idea of the movie is that every parallel Earth has its own Spider-Man with its own tweaked version of the origin. That’s fine, so Miles Morales is the one from this Earth, right? But he’s not: the Peter Parker Spider-Man has already existed on his Earth and gets brutally beaten to death at the beginning (I was glad I hadn’t taken my kids!). So doesn’t that violate the whole concept? Why is our Earth the only one with two Spider-Men, and how did it get two? Miles is bitten by a seemingly-normal spider in a subway tunnel. There’s none of the explanation we get in other movies about a radiated or genetically engineered spider. So how did he get powers? Is this the same spider that bit Peter? Has it bitten anybody else in the intervening years? It would seem like this would be a set-up for a movie about lots of Spider-Men all on our Earth, but then we go off in a different multi-dimensional direction, and no explanation of how Miles got his powers is given. It just doesn’t hang together as a concept.
  • Headache-inducing plotting: To those that love the movie (which, I’ll stress again, is everybody but me) can you explain to me why Spider-Man can turn invisible? Or shoot electricity? Isn’t the whole concept of the character supposed to be that he has the powers of a spider? Why mess with that? Just because the writers said, “Hmm, how to get him out of this? I know, we’ll just give him electricity powers!” Is there any other explanation other than laziness?
  • Sheer exhaustion: We’ve already had three Spider-Men in recent years, two of which were pretty great. We’ve already had two kingpins, two green goblins, etc. Aren’t you people tired? Am I the only one that’s tired?

I suppose there were elements of the movie that were appealing. Miles was likeable. His relationship with his dad was well written. Nicolas Cage was funny. But, for the most part, I thought this movie sucked, and I’m so, so completely baffled at the love it’s received. Not on the list!

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Best of 2018 Intro and Why Bohemian Rhapsody Didn’t Make the List

Okay, the Oscars are almost two weeks away, so we’d better get started on some year-end write-ups. I thought there were no capital-g Great movies this year, but there were a lot of very good ones that I’d like to spotlight.

(As usual, I should begin by pointing out that I haven’t had a chance to see many of the movies that are showing up on other year-end lists, such as The Wife, Cold War, First Reformed, The Ballad of Buster Skruggs, Eighth Grade, Sorry to Bother You, Hereditary, Zama, Burning, Leave No Trace, At Eternity’s Gate and Destroyer.)

Okay, last year I began spotlighting why some movies didn’t make the list, so let’s start with:

Why It Didn’t Make the List: Bohemian Rhapsody

It’s interesting to look at which historical inaccuracies I’ll let a biopic get away with. In this case, I went along with the big change, but one tiny 20-second scene ruined it for me ...and made me howl with laughter.

For the most part, the writers have found a great biopic subject whose life lends itself very naturally to classical story structure. An awkward gay Zoroastrian finds a band where he can be a star, experiences many glorious years, falls into debauchery and drugs, ditches the band, realizes that he’s messed everything up, finds out that a charity concert wants the band to get back together, humbles himself, crawls back to them, and then they have a triumphant concert.

But the writers decided to make one big change: The real Freddie Mercury would find out two years after the reunion concert that he was dying of AIDS. The writers said “Gee, what if we move that up by two years? It makes it much more dramatic that he now has one last chance to get the band back together, doesn’t it?”

And you know what? I’m fine with that. I’ll grant dramatic license for the purpose of a more satisfying movie. And after all, Mercury must have suspected already in 1985 that he was in serious danger, if the movie is to be believed about how much anonymous gay sex he had in the early 80s, a time when transmission was rampant and every gay man knew dying people. So I’ll go with it.

No, my problem was with a super-brief scene that would have been so easy to cut, but they just couldn’t help themselves. I have no problem with getting some mileage out of the fact that Live Aid was a charity concert (they show organizer Bob Geldof making a plea for a million pounds in donations), giving a heroic patina to the performance and allowing Mercury to tell his father that he’s finally living up the Zoroastrian call for good works. But they’ve made clear that all the greatest musical acts in the world are performing at the concert, and they list them, and they show that Queen has to shoehorn themselves into a line-up that’s already been finalized. The movie accurately portrays that Live Aid does not need Queen.

But just before Queen goes on, they felt they had to include a scene where Geldof goes back to the phone bank and sees that seemingly nobody has called to make any donations so far. The concert is a failure! Then Queen comes on, and the lines light up! In ten minutes, they’ve suddenly reached a million pounds! To put it mildly, I didn’t buy it. It’s funny that I was willing to go along with the big act of dramatic license, but not a small one, which just made me laugh out loud and say “This is manipulative bunk.”

Malik and the music were great, though. And I’d love for it to win Best Editing.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Believe, Care, Invest in “Educated”

Okay guys, I’m starting to play around with the next book, and I’m considering the title, “Believe, Care, Invest: How to Get Everyone to Love Your Hero”. I think the heart of the book will be a walk though 10 novel examples, 10 movie examples, 10 TV examples, maybe 5 non-fiction examples, and 5 comics examples, a breakdown of the first page or chapter or 10 minutes of each, and how they get us to believe, care and invest. What do you think?

As proof of concept, let’s start with our most recent book. This is so masterfully written that I don’t have to go beyond the first page. We’ve even get Believe, Care and Invest pretty much in order!

Believe in: The best way to get us to believe in the reality of a character is through the use of vivid, specific, sensory details. Let’s look at the first two sentences of the book:

  • I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt.

Right away in the first sentence, we have a person and an action, then we have a vivid image. Then in the second sentence we get a sensory description of the wind. This will not just be a book about what the heroine saw and heard, it’ll be a book about how her life felt in a tactile sense. Not a recitation of facts, but intimate feelings. Later in the first paragraph, we get:

  • Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air... I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess

We get not just adjectives describing nature, but personified verbs: dance, sway, quiver. Nature will be personified in this book. Young Tara will be reluctant to leave this mountain, even after suffering grueling abuse and neglect there, because she loves it like a person, a person who seems to love her back. These details get us to picture the setting vividly and thus believe in the heroine describing them.

Care for: The best way to get us to care for a hero is to watch them unjustly suffer abuse, neglect, or humiliation. In Tara’s case we get lots of neglect, right here on the first page.

  • On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.

By which she means that she is neither schooled in town nor homeschooled --she just receives no education whatsoever.  First she shows us what’s going on through imagery, then she confirms what we’ve just seen: Show, then tell. This will be true of the whole book, the only way we’re going to believe it is if she shows it all to us in vivid detail. We then find out just how extreme her situation is:

  • Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse.

These details help us both believe and care at the same time. I had never heard of kids in the 1990s without birth certificates before, and I thought as I read, “Who could make this up?”, which is exactly the sort of response you want while writing a memoir. And of course we’re now deeply worried about a heroine who’s trapped in an extraordinary sort of prison.

Invest in: Usually, the best way to get us to invest in a character is to show that she’s independent and capable, but young Tara won’t show much independence from her family for a long time, so the book can’t begin with that (In fact, the first chapter will show just the opposite: A time she rejected a chance for independence). But this first page gets us to invest in an ironic way. It shows she was raised to be a bad-ass:

  • I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves.

Ironically, she allows us to admire and idealize this manly man, the very image of rugged American masculinity. She then makes it clear she is his protégé:

  • I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood.

We care for and invest at the same time here. We see that her parents are dangerous lunatics, but don’t you wish you could have gotten some of that training? And of course, her Days will be Abominable, and she will survive, but the enemy will be within. Throughout the book, every time she survives horrific injuries, our heart will go out to her, but we’ll also admire her toughness.

We believe in, care for, and invest in young Tara Westover, all on this first page. We choose her to be our hero, instead of just going along with whatever is placed in front of us. This is how to get people to read and love your book.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Negative Example Posts: The Archive

Hey guys, I’m going through old posts as I think about the next book, and something occurs to me: A few of you have asked for me to do some “how not to” checklists on bad movies, but I’ve done a lot of deep-dives into bad movies over the years that have never gotten spotlighted in the sidebar, so I figured I’d devote a post to archiving those. (I have a bit more to say on “Educated”, and I need to do my end of the year round-up, but I haven’t figured out what I’m doing next, so I’ll just do this for today.)

Green Lantern and John Carter:


Pacific Rim:

Bridge of Spies:

Edge of Tomorrow

What's the Matter with Superheroes?

What's the Matter with Hollywood in 2013 (Man of Steel, The Hobbit, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc.)


Gone Girl

Thursday, January 31, 2019

How to Write a Memoir: Each Chapter Should Tell a Story

If you aren’t already famous, nobody wants to read your memoir ...unless it’s great. There are two types of book that everybody thinks they can write with no training: Picture books and memoirs. When you tell anybody in publishing you’ve written one as your first attempt to get published, you will get an epic eye-roll. They will read it even more skeptically than they read everything else.

Tara Westover lived every non-famous memoir writer’s dream. Her name meant absolutely nothing to nobody. She had only published academic papers. She just knew that her life story was fascinating, and she felt it needed to be told. She knew she needed to tell it so well that people who had no reason to care about her would suddenly care about her.  And she did it.

(And she’d then have to convince that publisher to put a huge promotional push behind the book, saying, “Trust us, you’re going to want to get to know this woman.” The book wasn’t going to sell itself …At least not at first. Eventually word of mouth might kick in, but not if it were hidden in the back of the bookstore with a terrible cover.)

I’ve talked before about how gatekeepers only read the first 15 pages of almost everything in their slush pile. Most books don’t grab them right away, so they quit reading. Westover’s story is very heroic in the end, as she breaks away from her upbringing and gets a great education …but no publisher was going to get to that if this first chapter didn’t grab them.

She could begin her book with a flashforward, previewing the heroic ending that will come, but she chooses not to do that. We begin pretty much chronologically, starting with a moment when she was ten or so and could have run away but didn’t. (For the most part, we move forward from there, but earlier parts of her backstory will be told in little mini-flashbacks interspersed with the next fifty pages or so.)

Westover seems well aware that this prologue and first chapter would be the only part most potential agents and publishers would read, because it is a complete and compelling story, with a beginning, middle and end. At the end, we are launched into the rest of the book and eager to keep reading, but we also feel that we’ve gotten a chunk that is satisfying on its own.

This is a key feature of a great memoir: each chapter has to be a great story on its own. Memoirs are, by their nature, very episodic. Each chapter will jump months or years ahead to the next anecdote. Nobody wants to read a memoir and say, “Well, we’ve had 100 pages of nothing but downward trajectory, so I sure hope this is going somewhere at some point.” They want to read constant ups and downs, constant ironies, constant dilemmas, constant decisions, constant conflict with shifting power dynamics.

A great memoirist is a great storyteller, which means you know how to tell one big story and lots of little stories. If you have a great memoir, you can read any chapter at “The Moth” at any time and satisfy the audience.

Carson over at Scriptshadow talks about how every story needs GSU: Goal, Stakes, and Urgency. In crafting this first chapter, Westover has taken three things that happened around the same time, but not at the exact same time, and interwoven them into one anecdote that has strong GSU:

  • She has a possible Goal, unique to this chapter: running away with her grandparents, which she’s not sure if she wants to do.
  • She has huge Stakes either way, which will be ongoing: Her parents have falsely convinced her that the feds may bust down the door and try to kill her for being (supposedly) homeschooled. Meanwhile, her father’s madness has suddenly purged the house of milk, the ultimate symbol of being denied sustenance she needs to live …and his madness is only growing.
  • There’s a lot of Urgency, unique to this chapter: Her grandparents have given her one night to decide if she’ll go with them or they’re leaving without her.

In the end, she rejects the goal, accepts the life of milklessness and danger from the feds, and watches her grandparents drive away without her. It’s tragic, ironic, and perilous. “The Moth” would be pleased.

Even the most skeptical agent or publisher, idly pulling this off their slush pile, would be pretty much guaranteed to be hooked by this first chapter. They would know they’d then have a huge job to do: promoting a memoirist nobody had ever heard of, but it would be worth doing, because, if they pushed this book into enough hands, it would soon begin to sell itself. And that’s exactly what happened.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

New Podcast on Positive Passivity!

Hi guys! After a loooong gap between six and seven, we’re back to a good schedule now, and it’s time for number nine. Does a protagonist have to be active? James says no! ...At least, not at first.

And hey, I guess if you have a podcast you’re supposed to ask people to rate you and review on iTunes, so please won’t you rate us and review us on iTunes?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

How to Write a Memoir: Establish Your Unreliability

Tara Westover has every memoirist’s greatest treasure: She kept a journal starting from a young age (the only writing she ever did, because she had no school assignments.) But she still has to establish early on that the facts in her memoir might contain errors. She has to do this for several reasons. Here are the first two:

  • This is an abuse memoir about abusers who are still alive, so they’re sure to sue her and her publisher for any undotted i’s and uncrossed t’s. Anything she isn’t absolutely sure of, she has to point out that this is just her memory, it may be wrong, and it’s disputed by others.
  • She grew up in a family that was especially prone to misremembering its past. When Tara finally tries to get a birth certificate, she finds that no one remembers when her birthday is, and the few documents she’s accumulated over the years all list a different one. Later, when she’s sixteen, her parents briefly try to kick her out of the house because they’ve gotten confused and think she’s twenty!

Right there on page two she makes an observation that is generally true, but it has a footnote which tells us that there was an exception. I don’t know whether that footnote was Westover’s idea or her editors, but I think it reassures the reader. Paradoxically, pointing out that she’s made a technically false generalization on page two helps to convince us that everything else is probably just about right.

We all know there have been several recent memoirs that have turned out to be a tissue of lies, and Westover will share many shocking details that seem like they can’t possibly be true, so she has to be very careful, both to reassure us and to protect herself. And she seems to have done her job well: Her parents’ lawyer has attempted to dispute the book, but only by disputing accusations that she didn’t actually make, as the comments in that link make clear.

But there’s a big third reason that Westover has to establish that her memories will not be entirely reliable: because she’s dedicated to writing the most enthralling memoir possible, and that means that she’ll include some exciting and violent incidents that, she now realizes, she only imagined as a child. Her father has told her the story of the Ruby Ridge story so vividly that young Tara gets confused and thinks it happened to them:

  • My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened. The memory was formed when I was five, just before I turned six, from a story my father told in such detail that I and my brothers and sister had each conjured our own cinematic version, with gunfire and shouts. Mine had crickets. That’s the sound I hear as my family huddles in the kitchen, lights off, hiding from the Feds who’ve surrounded the house. A woman reaches for a glass of water and her silhouette is lighted by the moon. A shot echoes like the lash of a whip and she falls. In my memory it’s always Mother who falls, and she has a baby in her arms.
  • The baby doesn’t make sense—I’m the youngest of my mother’s seven children—but like I said, none of this happened.

For the Westovers, neither the apocalypse nor the government’s jackbooted thugs ever arrived. There was lots of violence within the family, but none from the outside. But the imagined threat of government violence was such an overwhelming element of her childhood that it would seem false to leave it out, even though it only happened in her mind. Those are the first two paragraphs of Chapter One. She’s establishing that the stakes seemed violent, which makes this a more exciting read for us, but she’s also establishing that she now realizes it was all just in her mind (and in her father’s.)

She also has to be clear that she will be telling us these events in the most dramatic order, not chronological order. In the first chapter, she shows her grandma offer to take her away, then as she waits all night for her grandma to arrive, she tells the story of her father telling them about Ruby Ridge, then in the morning, she decides not to go with her grandma. That’s the most dramatic way to tell that story, but she makes clear that it didn’t actually happen in that order. This is very sophisticated memoir writing.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Necessity of Personifying Nature in “Educated”

We already talked about personifying nature with “The God of Small Things”, but Tara Westover in “Educated” does it even more so, many times over on her first page.

As I said last time, Westover has a problem, in that we will want Tara to run away from her family home long before she does, and then we’ll want her to stop going back, which she will not do until the final chapter. (In the end, she says she’ll keep visiting other relatives in Idaho, but seemingly never again her parents or her mountain.)

How can Westover help us understand her decision?

  • First, she must make Tara’s relationships to her family complex: None of them is all bad. They all love her in their own insufficient and/or twisted ways. We can even understand the appeal of “Shawn”, her most abusive family member. We understand how she would keep trying to get the love she’s lacking from these people, even though we can see long before she can that she never will.
  • Second, there’s a big element of wish fulfillment in self-sufficiency. The first sentence recalls “The Boxcar Children”, a book about orphaned kids in the depression that kids nevertheless read as wish-fulfillment, dreaming of living on their own wits and whiles in the woods. The mere fact of not being protected at all is seductive, both to young Tara and to the reader.
  • Third, there is a character that Tara can have uncomplicated love for, one that it will be the most painful to leave: The mountain itself.

You often hear said of good books that “The setting is a character”, but that’s especially true here. Let’s just focus on examples from the first paragraph.

  • The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling.
  • Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air.
  • Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base.
  • If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess.

Two pages later, she will soon explain that there is an Indian legend that says the mountain is a princess:

  • My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley. Dad said the nomadic Indians had watched for her appearance as a sign of spring, a signal the mountain was thawing, winter was over, and it was time to come home.

Her family is hard to love, but who wouldn’t want to have their own beautiful mountain, literally right out of a fairy tale? To leave the mountain is to leave her own princess-tale.

Let’s look at one more sentence from the second paragraph:

  • The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads.

This is beautifully written and very seductive. We will want to read the book for its lyrical power, and for the way it will get us to fall in love with nature again, as we would fall in love with a lover. And we will understand Tara’s love. Even when it seems like her parents want her dead, she will have the Princess to love and the Princess will seem to love her back, in its anthropomorphized way.