Sunday, December 15, 2019

Podcast Episode 14: Involuntary Notes

Two episodes ago, the edit was running super-long, so I snipped off the Free Story Idea.  That was for the best, because James gave me such good notes that I later chose to turn it into a beatsheet.  James had previously turned one of my Free Story Ideas into a screenplay and submitted it to my critique in our Laika episode, and he's been after me to do the same, so I figured why not?

So now you’ll get to hear that Free Story Idea you never got to hear, followed by me returning a few weeks later and submitting my beatsheet to James’ scrutiny.  In both cases, things are surprisingly constructive with lots of yes-anding.  I think we make some good progress, and I’ve had subsequent thoughts I may add in the comments after I let you guys chime in.

By the way, the comment section from our previous podcast on the Moment of Grace is still going strong with 26 comments so far, so feel free to keep that discussion going as well!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Believe Care Invest: Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

  • A British suburb in 1979: 30-something BBC employee Arthur Dent wakes up with a hangover, then suddenly remembers that bulldozers are coming to tear down his house to build a bypass. He lays down in the mud to stop them, but soon his friend Ford Prefect, who is secretly an alien, comes along and convinces him to go out drinking at a pub instead, because the world is about to end, and they’ll have to be drunk to hitch a ride off the planet.

This book actually begins with a few pages about Earth and its unawareness of the existence of the titular ebook. These pages establish that we’ll have an omniscient voice with a wonderfully funny and skewed point of view. We love it, but we still long for a hero we can identify with. We’re not too worried, though, because what we’re reading is in italics, and if we flip ahead a few pages, we’ll note that “Chapter 1” hasn’t begun yet, so we know our real hero is still coming.

Then chapter one begins and we meet Arthur. Continuing with the omniscient voice, we can see what hungover Arthur doesn’t: That his house is surrounded by bulldozers. The fact that the narrative voice is omniscient prepares us for the long sections where we’ll leave Arthur behind to jump across the galaxy, but Adams knows that, in order to get us to commit to the book, we’ll need a hero to believe in, care for, and invest in, and we’re about to meet a wonderful example.

So why do we quickly come to identify with Arthur Dent?

Believe: In the first paragraph of chapter one, we get the following description of Arthur’s house:

  • It was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

By the time the book ends, we’ll learn that the meaning of life is 42, which is to say that this is a book that will derive humor from attempts to quantify the unquantifiable and it’s already doing that here: how can windows exactly fail to please the eye? It’s absurd, but it’s also endearing, because we know what he means. Finding out about the house’s imperfections makes us more concerned that it will be torn down, because now it feels real to us.

We then meet Arthur and find out, “the thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about.” This is a universal emotion we’ve never heard described before in quite that way, which is the always the goal.

Care: It’s pretty easy to care for Arthur. After all, his planet is about to be destroyed to make way for a galactic highway! Of course that’s a little big for Arthur or the reader to conceive of, but it just so happens that Arthur is already dealing with an exactly analogous situation: His Earth house is about to be torn down to build an Earth highway.

In order to bond us with Arthur, Adams must make this as exasperating as possible, and once again, he achieves this through outrageous absurdity. As Arthur lies in the mud, he spars with the foreman in charge of tearing down his house:

  • “But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
  • “Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
  • “But the plans were on display …”
  • “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
  • “That’s the display department.”
  • “With a flashlight.”
  • “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
  • “So had the stairs.”
  • “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
  • “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”

It’s too absurd to be remotely realistic, but we still strongly identify with Arthur’s frustration because this feels like the sort of thing we’ve all been through when dealing with bureaucracy.

Invest: Ultimately, Arthur will hardly be a bad-ass in this series, but Adams knows he must get us to invest in his hero right away, so Arthur starts out by doing the bravest thing he’ll do in the whole saga: blocking a bulldozer with his body. This is a hero! If he just stood there stammering while they tore his house down, we wouldn’t bond with him. Of course, in the next chapter, he’ll basically just stammer as another foreman destroys his planet, but we know that, when he could act, he did.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Believe Care Invest: Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”

  • Rural Appalachia in a dystopian future: Katniss Everdeen gets up early while her mother and little sister sleep, slips out of the electric fence surrounding their village, and goes out to hunt wild game with a bow and arrow.

As I point out in my first book, Suzanne Collins doesn’t fit the popular narrative of the overnight success Cinderella story. She started out with a five book series about a kingdom of cockroaches that sold respectably. But then she dug down and hit gold, narratively and financially. She realized that the legend of Theseus (Evil king demands that teens be summoned to take place in deadly games) might resonate with today’s teens, transposed it to a dystopian future, and crafted a powerful new fable.

I think that Collins’ greatest inspiration was that there was a generation that was aging out of the Harry Potter books and was now craving something super-dark, and she was prepared to give it to them. So how does she convince these former-Harry-lovers to embrace a new type of heroine?

The late Blake Snyder wrote three great books of writing advice that are still widely disseminated today, but I have a problem with his central piece of advice, that heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they “Save the Cat.” “The Hunger Games” takes a different path. Let’s look at the third paragraph:

  • Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

I guess you could say she saves a cat …from her own murderous impulses. But she still describes her as disgustedly as she possibly can!

So why do we like this cruel heroine? Just from this one paragraph, we already believe, care and invest:

Believe: This one paragraph does a great job showing a consistent worldview. The syntax is consistent terse (“He hates me. Or at least distrusts me.”). Her value judgments show her character (“he’s a born mouser”). Her idea of showing kindness is to share the entrails of her kill. She doesn’t seem like an accumulation of author-imposed traits. She seems like a fully-realized human, albeit an unpleasant one.

Care: She’s clearly suffering and doing what she can to survive (“The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed.”) If she was living a comfortable life in the suburbs, we would hate her for wanting to kill a cat, but seeing her hunger, our heart goes out to her. We wonder what we would do.

Invest: We definitely trust her to solve whatever challenges this book offers. She’s bad-ass, and she’s ready to make hard decisions. Shortly after this, still on page one, she slips though an electrified fence to bow-hunt her own food. We’ve picked the right hero!

Don’t worry, Katniss does get a chance to kill a cat a few pages later:

  • Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.

All of this cat killing ironically sets us up for her one big moment of selflessness later. If Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games because she was a super-nice person, we wouldn’t buy it. It’s only because she’s so vicious that it’s believable and compelling.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Believe Care Invest: Stanley Yelnats in Louis Sachar’s “Holes”

  • A desert prison-camp for boys in 1998: 12 year old Stanley Yelnats is brought out by bus to be processed, and thinks about all the terrible luck that led him there. He arrives and meets Mr. Sir, who tells him how bad things will be.

As with the last two examples, this is the first novel some kids read on their own, and it’s wildly entertaining, but it’s also steeped in the tragedies of American history. Our white hero is falsely accused and arrested, which is to say that he’s being treated like a black kid, but he eventually realizes that, even in this unfair hellhole, he’s the beneficiary of all kinds of white privilege. Only by doing what he can to atone for his family’s original sin (exploiting and betraying a person of color) can he lift the “curse” that led him there. It’s a powerful tale, and all the more powerful for confronting the youngest of readers with these uncomfortable truths.

So why do we embrace this complex hero? Sachar will eventually complicate our feelings towards Stanley, but only after we intensely bond with him in the opening pages.

Believe: Stanley doesn’t just chalk up his terrible situation to bad luck, he blames his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”, which is compelling. He’s got an odd name that makes him unique. He’s overweight (unlike in the movie), and we get a specific example of what that’s like:

  • On his last day of school, his math teacher, Mrs. Bell, taught ratios. As an example, she chose the heaviest kid in the class and the lightest kid in the class, and had them weigh themselves. Stanley weighed three times as much as the other boy. Mrs. Bell wrote the ratio on the board, 3:1, unaware of how much embarrassment she had caused both of them.

If you’re a fellow writer, that the sort of example that makes you say, “there’s no way the author made that up, that really happened to the author or somebody he knows,” and those are exactly the sorts of details you want to make your writing come alive.

Care: The very next paragraph is just “Stanley was arrested later that day,” so obviously we’re going to care about his kid.

But let’s talk about another great way to get us to care intensely for any hero: Show that something horrible is about to happen to them, and then show that they naively expect the opposite. The book’s great first paragraph starts us off with an ironic contradiction:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

Then, after three pages describing the hellishness of the camp, we find out about Stanley:

  • Stanley and his parents had tried to pretend that he was just going away to camp for a while, just like rich kids do. When Stanley was younger he used to play with stuffed animals, and pretend the animals were at camp. Camp Fun and Games he called it. Sometimes he’d have them play soccer with a marble. Other times they’d run an obstacle course, or go bungee jumping off a table, tied to broken rubber bands. Now Stanley tried to pretend he was going to Camp Fun and Games. Maybe he’d make some friends, he thought. At least he’d get to swim in the lake.

We don’t know yet that Stanley has been falsely convicted, but we don’t care: This poor kid thinks he’s going to get to swim! Even if he’s killed sixty people, that’s heartbreaking. We will soon find out that our hero is there because of a crime he didn’t commit, but only after the book has established that no one deserves this punishment.

Invest: Like another hero we’ll discuss later, Stanley takes his injustice like a man, which is more impressive in this case since he’s just a boy. He doesn’t protest his innocence to anyone. In fact, he discovers an irony (and ironies are always good): “Nobody had believed him when he said he was innocent. Now, when he said he stole them, nobody believed him either.”

Another point: All of the men in Stanley’s family are convinced that they’re cursed, which can imply a certain lack of personal responsibility, but Sachar lets us know this key information:

  • All of them had something else in common. Despite their awful luck, they always remained hopeful. As Stanley’s father liked to say, ‘I learn from failure.’

Pluck is always an essential quality in a hero.

But wait, we’ve seen how Sachar gets us to believe in, care for, and invest in a hero, but Sachar, goes further, and in these opening pages, he also does the same for a villain, all in one paragraph!

Stanley has been driven out to a desert prison camp by a bus driver and guard and he’s being dropped off with a warden. Then the guard notices something:

  • ‘That’s a lot of sunflower seeds,’ the bus guard said.
  • Stanley noticed a burlap sack filled with sunflower seeds on the floor next to the desk.
  • ‘I quit smoking last month,’ said the man in the cowboy hat. He had a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his arm, and as he signed his name, the snake’s rattle seemed to wiggle. ‘I used to smoke a pack a day. Now I eat a sack of these every week.’

So right away, we…

  • Believe: Specificity of the sunflower seeds, which is not a detail that I’ve seen in a lot of books. 
  • Care: Trying to quit smoking and dealing with cravings. 
  • We even “invest,” though that’s a tricky word for a villain: He’s badass: He’s got a cowboy hat and a rattlesnake tattoo.

With a hero, obviously, we invest our hopes for a happy ending. But with a villain, we also have to “root” for him to be a good villain, and the hat and tattoo do that. Sure enough, further down the page, Stanley gets to know him:

  • The man in the cowboy hat spit sunflower seed shells into a wastepaper basket. Then he walked around the desk to Stanley. ‘My name is Mr. Sir,’ he said. ‘Whenever you speak to me you must call me by my name, is that clear?’
  • Stanley hesitated. ‘Uh, yes, Mr. Sir,’ he said, though he couldn’t imagine that was really the man’s name.
  • ‘You’re not in the Girl Scouts anymore,’ Mr. Sir said.

He then denies Stanley badly-needed water, we’re going to primarily boo-hiss him, but our enmity will be strengthened, not lessened, by our belief in him as a human being and our understanding of his one weakness. This is a real villain, not a fake one, and he’s all the scarier for that.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Believe Care Invest: Meg Murry in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”

How shall I organize these? Let’s arrange this section by age by the age at which people tend to first read the book, so we’ll start with books for younger readers (or readers of all ages) and move on to books aimed at older readers.

  • A small town in Massachusetts in 1962: 12 year old Meg Murry cowers in her bed from a midnight storm. She thinks about what all has gone wrong with her life, including her father disappearing. She laments that she got in a fight when she heard someone insulting her odd little brother. She eventually decides to get up and make herself a sandwich.

Readers for generations have deeply identified with Meg Murry. How do we come to Believe in, Care for, and Invest in her?

L’Engle begins with a very odd choice: She intentionally starts off with the most clich├ęd opening in literature (though kids may not know that), “IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT”. L’Engle’s puckishly laying down a gauntlet: I can win you over after first getting you to roll your eyes! We then meet Meg has she huddles in fear from that storm and L’Engle has to get us to identify with her…

Believe: L’Engle perfectly captures the thought patterns of a twelve-year old in a way we recognize and identify with:

  • —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? 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?

Good dialogue allows scene partners to step all over each other’s sentences, but here we see that a lone heroine can also do that to herself in her own head. Short, choppy sentences with lots of em-dashes, a brain anxiously circling downward in a miserable spiral of self-pity. We get to the know the specific details of her situation in a rhythm and syntax we recognize as similar to our own inner voice.

In later chapters we’ll get a physical description of Meg that many young readers will identify with (“Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair”), but we’re already identifying with her intensely, because of her very recognizable internal voice.

Care: Here’s where things get tricky. Unlike the other nine novels we’ll be looking at, L’Engle invites to be a little judgmental of her heroine. Meg’s afraid of the storm raging outside, and afraid of tales of a “tramp” threatening the neighborhood …but we’re not as worried as she is. We can sense that the storm isn’t so bad, and she’s just projecting her inner turmoil onto it. And we suspect that the “tramp” might not be such a threat. We certainly feel bad for her for being so afraid for her own safety, but we do so without sharing her external fears. L’Engle is doing something sophisticated: trusting her readers, young and old, to have a little distance from Meg and see things things she doesn’t see.

So why do we still care so much for her, despite the fact that we don’t fully identify with her external fears? Most obviously because her father has disappeared, but it’s more than that. We all identify with characters who have unfair expectations put on them, and that’s very true of Meg:

  • That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, “Really, Meg, I don’t understand how a child with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student. If you don’t manage to do a little better you’ll have to stay back next year.”

Being in her head, we can intimately see things the world refuses to see about her. We understand how unfairly she’s being treated, and burn with indignation for her. And of course, the most unfair assumption people make about her situation is when they assume her father ran off with another woman, so that brings it all together.

Invest: Once again, we’re allowed to be a little judgmental of Meg. L’Engle knows she must get us to invest in Meg’s ability to tackle whatever challenges she might face, and she does so in a classic way: On the very first page, we find out that, earlier in the day, Meg has launched into a fight, fists first, to defend the good name of her odd kid brother. But that night, Meg has already figured out that she was once again projecting her inner turmoil onto an outward source, and she shouldn’t have done it …and we agree. In the recent movie, Meg defends getting in the fight (“Dad always told me to stand up or what I believe in”), but in the book, she just regrets the whole thing, and I think that’s a braver choice on L’Engle’s part. She’s showing that we’ll be able to invest in Meg, but she’s not asking us to fully identify with her hero’s pugnaciousness. Nevertheless, we fall totally in love with this very sophisticated book.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Believe, Care, Invest: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Okay, I’ve been meaning for a long time to do a series on this blog examining “Believe Care Invest” in fifty stories or so and generating my next book in the process. My original publisher going out of business took the pressure off me to do that, but now my new publisher is finally ready for new submissions, so it’s time to get back to it.

But I’ve had some reservations. I’ve been reluctant to start this for various reasons, but they don’t really make any sense:

  • I worry that this will be too familiar from previous stuff on the blog, but I’ve only posted 63 posts this year, so any material is good material, right?
  • I worry that the posts I generate will be too short, but ditto.
  • I worry that this will become too repetitive: I’ll make the same “insights” on example after example. In the finished book, I’ll revise to say unique things about each one, but here on the blog, I won’t be able to work backwards like that.

I had meant to start with chapters defining Believe, Care and Invest, but I think I’d better work backwards on that, generating my raw data before I preview it. So let’s just jump in, shall we? Here’s:

The Two Introductions of Harry Potter

  • Suburban England,1983: Pompous buffoon Vernon Dursely, on his way to his drill factory, keeps trying to ignore that there are lots of wizards around him that are celebrating. That night, unbeknownst to him, a witch and wizard meet outside his door and talk about how a baby named Harry Potter has defeated an evil wizard. A giant brings them the baby and they drop it off to be raised by Vernon. Cut to nine years later: Vernon and his wife and child treat Harry terribly. They reluctantly bring him to a zoo, where he unconsciously uses magic to free a put-upon snake.

The first Harry Potter book starts weird.

First of all, we spend several pages with Uncle Dursely, trying to ignore evidence that wizards are celebrating around him. We are searching for someone to identify with right away, but we just can’t connect with this guy. We do believe in his reality, because of lots of curious details (He makes drills for a living, he has a big mustache but no neck), but we don’t care about him and we certainly don’t invest in him. So why don’t we reject a book that isn’t giving us someone to identify with? Oddly, Vernon Dursley works as a sort-of anti-POV character. Yes, it’s frustrating, because we want to see all the things he doesn’t want to see …but it’s kind of fun to feel that frustration, for just a few pages.

Then, in the second half of the first chapter, we finally meet the character who we know from the title will be the hero of the book …but he’s just a baby. Any writing-advice book will tell you not to do this! It’s impossible to identify with a baby, unless this is the world’s most compelling baby.

But that’s exactly what Rowling gives us. Against all odds, she gets us to believe in, care for, and invest in baby Harry Potter.

  • We believe in his existence for various reasons: Strange physical details are always great for making a character feel unique and real, and this baby has a big, bad-ass scar, in a cool shape! And his life is filled with odd details: He’s brought to his meeting by a giant on a flying motorcycle.
  • And he is, of course, easy to care for, because we learn that his parents have just been killed in front of him: the worst thing that could happen to a baby.
  • That just leaves invest…Surely we can’t invest in a baby? But this is one hardcore baby: He’s just killed wizard-Hitler, and nobody knows how he did it! The entire wizarding world is in awe of his abilities!

So we’re saying, “Hell, yeah, this is an awesome hero!” But of course we’re also thinking, “Uh, I hope he learns how to talk soon, because it’s hard to identify with the character who has no dialogue of any kind.”

Nevertheless, Rowling has certainly compelled us forward to Chapter 2. Thankfully, Harry is now 10-going-on-11, but a 10 year old is basically a totally different person from a 1 year old, so now she has to reintroduce the character all over again and get us to identify with our real hero.

So can we believe in, care for, and invest in 10 year old Harry?

  • He’s believable because of his specific details: Too-big hand-me-down clothes, unkempt black hair, green eyes, and of course he still has that scar. His life is also full of good unique details: His babysitter’s house smells of cabbage (Always good to have a hero smell things that we might have smelled in our own lives, but never heard described in quite that way.)
  • Once again, he’s very easy to care for, because his adoptive parents have only pictures of their biological son, and make Harry sleep in a spider-filled closet under the stairs. His parents and brother denigrate him constantly. The reader deeply identifies with this, because what child with siblings has not feared at some point that their parents preferred the sibling? And of course we’ve all had to watch someone open presents and wish we could get one as well. It’s a good mix of suffering we’ve only feared and suffering we’ve actually experienced.
  • So that brings us to the trickier question: Can we invest in 10 year old Harry? Clearly his wizard-Hitler-killing days are long behind him. He has no idea he’s magic and he has no agency in his life whatsoever. It’s a good general rule that we first identify with kid heroes the first time they sneak out of the house, but Harry doesn’t do anything like that, despite his awful circumstances. He is, in fact, rather passive. But he does just enough. Most importantly, at the end of this chapter, he frees a captive boa constrictor. He does so passively and unconsciously, but he does it, and sort of knows he did it. This is just enough to get us to say, “Well, okay, he’s not exactly bad-ass yet at this age, but I’ll keep reading about this hero until he learns how to use these powers actively and intentionally.”

For many young people, this will be the first novel they’ve had read to them, or maybe the first novel they ever read on their own. And it’ll be a bit of a weird introduction to the world of novels. Neither the book nor 10-year-old Harry are begging to be liked …but maybe that’s why we like them so much.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Podcast Episode 13: The Moment of Grace

Listen to "Episode 13: The Moment of Grace" on Spreaker.
You knew this was coming, didn’t you?  First I posted about an ironic element of the climax of Get Out, then James was seized with mad inspiration in the comments.  Those comments soon become this post and this post, and the comments on those posts mounted up as well.  Inevitably, we had to have this out on the podcast, so here we are.  James has given this a lot of thought, with tons of examples ...some of which I found more convincing than others.  You decide, America!

And then, guess what: We have another episode of the podcast all ready to distribute!  I’ll just wait two weeks so as to not overwhelm you.

And then, starting tomorrow... This blog actually resumes!  With the beginning of a 50 part series!  (I’ll have to break it up for various posts along the way, including my best movies of the year posts in February, of course).  Everything’s turning up cockeyed!