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

Podcast Episode 9: 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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: A Different Type of Agency in “Educated”

Tara Westover had a problem.  She knew the hero of her memoir “Educated”, her own young self, would be very easy to believe in, because of a wealth of detail (she kept journals at the time), and very easy to care about, because of the horrible abuse and neglect she suffered, but could the reader invest in her? 

Tara (I’ll refer to her younger self as “Tara” for the rest of these posts) will withstand a lot of abuse before she runs away. As with a teen in a horror movie, the audience will be shouting “Just get out of the house!” for the entire first half (then we’ll be shouting “And don’t go back!” for the second half, but she will continue to do so.) If her family loves her at all, it’s such a sick, twisted, toxic love that she’d be better off without it. We’re going to get frustrated as she stays. We know that it’s unfair to judge an abused child, but it’s hard to root for a heroine who doesn’t try to flee this situation.

But what choice does young Tara have? She’s just a child, totally cut off from the rest of the world until she’s 17: She’s never set foot in a school, never seen a doctor, she has no birth certificate, she is forced to spend her summers canning peaches and burying rifles in anticipation of the “Days of Abomination”.

Does the fact that she has little choice mitigate our difficulty in bonding with her? No, it intensifies it. We want our heroes to protect themselves, but we also want them to have agency. We want them to be making decisions. Preferably good decisions, but even bad decisions are better than none at all.

That’s why Westover’s first chapter is so brilliant. She can’t begin with her hero fighting back, but she does the next best thing: She begins with her younger self getting one chance to choose a better life and rejecting it.

The first chapter skillfully weaves together three different incidents that didn’t actually happen at the same time (and she makes that clear): Her father’s decision that the bible forbids milk (a metaphor for denying love), her father’s obsession with the fate of Randy Weaver, and an offer that Tara’s grandmother made to her around the same time: to abscond with Tara in the middle of the night, take her from Idaho to Arizona, and enroll her in school.

And Tara seriously considers it. She knows, on some level, that she’s being abused, that she should be in school, that her grandmother is trying to save her …but in the morning she hides until her grandmother leaves without her.

Tara lacks the self-preservation instinct we want in a hero, but at least she has agency in this one chapter. She has a better option, agonizes over it, and ultimately refuses to take it. This is not the first incident in the book chronologically, but Westover must begin here to get us to invest in the character, as much as we can. For the next two hundred pages, Tara will lack capability, but she will at least have culpability, and that is compelling in its own way. The story will have irony, because this horrible life will be a life she chose. That makes it far more meaningful.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Annotation Project: Educated

Wow, could it be the case?  A non-fiction book?  Do such books obey the typical rules of concept, character, scene work, dialogue, tone and theme?  Let’s find out!  This is also our most recent book, and one that I’m sure many of you haven’t read, but it’s one of the bestselling books of last year with good reason --it’s an instant classic.  If you haven’t read it, these eleven pages are self-explanatory and will give you a taste of the wonderful book that awaits you.  And isn’t that a gorgeous cover?  (Here’s the doc.)

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.