For this, “thank you” will never be enough. You are my community. You are my tribe. You are the stars in my night when depression’s clouds roll in.
You are wondrous, each and every one of you.
I am proud of my own stories developed these five years, to be sure…
…but what truly thrills me more than anything is the creativity I’ve seen blossom in my kids over the years.
Bash’s love for the robot Wall-E is as vast as the universe. He’s made stories with Wall-E meeting the Transformers, Santa Claus, My Little Ponies, Thomas the Tank Engine, and even the old Hanna-Barbara superhero Blue Falcon. This is a boy eternally creating, finding characters and conflicts where no one else does. My son, who fears failure so much, is one of the most fearless storytellers I’ve ever met.
To see Biff willing to write his own stories at all lifts my heart. This is a boy who finds what he loves and sticks with it, such as stories from the Island of Sodor, only here with the buses he rides to school: “Once upon a time in the busing company of L__, the buses were working hard…” His teacher tells me they’ll be working on “Expert Stories” soon–stories where the kids can write about things they know well. Biff is so thrilled to write about Star Trek he literally hops up and down when talking about it. We’ll see if the Sodor Style comes to Starfleet this spring!
And now, last but never least, comes Blondie, who’s written her own moment for this post. Allow me to bow and give the stage to my daughter, my heart’s smile, my Blondie.
I have been reading the Adventurer’s Guild book series. It is filled with unsuspecting (and sometimes a little terrifying) surprises. I am right now working on a 300-piece puzzle of the constellations. I hope I finish it today.
I would like to recommend some books and authors. You should read Endling: The Last and Endling: The First by Katherine Applegate because it is full of fun and exciting (and sad) parts in it. my favorite character is Byx the darine because she’s a girl and darines have things that I like, like soft, silky fur and looks like a dog, and I absolutely love dogs. It is my most favorite book series. Katherine Applegate did lots of other good books such as Wishtree, which when a tree named Red is the wishtree, and I really like the baby animals in it, and I haven’t read Crenshaw yet, but I will, and more.
Also, there’s Allan Zullo, who has done Bad Pets, Bad Pets on the Loose, and more. The Bad Pets series is about wacky and zany pets do crazy stuff, like a dog drove a garbage truck into a lake! More recommendations will be made when I write here again. I will be writing more on Alley Heroes in the future. It right now has 12 chapters ,I think, and is supposed to have 14 chapters, but I’ll probably go over 14. I would like to add that I love writing on this website to you and writing stories and drawing comics. Happy writing, y’all!
Best writing wishes to you,
Blondie (aka: Firewing) 🙂
Best writing wishes indeed! From my family to yours, may Heaven smile on your creative souls and inspire you to continue spreading the friendship and hope you have so graciously given us. What adventures await in the next five years? With companions like you and my family, I can’t wait to find out. x
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
I think it’s high time for an interview, don’t you think? Plus I’ve more music to share, and maybe, JUST maybe, a little new fiction. Fingers crossed and turn thrice widdershins for me!
“But I don’t KNOW what to do, I don’t KNOW!” Bash sits between me and the occupational therapist, head in his hands. Tears run down his nose and splatter on “Glass Man,” the Unthinkable that blows a small problem way out of proportion. The space after I can defeat Glass Man by____ is blank.
“All I know is ask the teacher for help!”
The therapist and I trade looks. Bash was all fun and smiles for the initial physical activities, but now that we’re talking about tackling disruptive behaviors, he’s shrinking in his chair. The kid so fearless on the trapeze and crash pad is curled up and shaking, his glasses on the table streaked with dried tears.
Inside I ache, on the verge of crumbling just as he. His hands are too small to be holding his head like that. He shouldn’t feel the Fear like this so soon in life. This is the kind of Fear that crushes imagination, courage, hope.
I should know, carrying the burden as I do now. But not then. Back then I feared climbing a tree, sure, but not reading with my classmates. I may have feared taking my bike down that vertical drop of a gravel road to the park, but I never worried so much about my math that I threw away my test and hid in the school basement, only to find out later I had gotten every answer right.
I cannot solve this for him, I tell myself time and again as I stroke Bash’s back, doing my damndest to keep my outsides calm as the therapist tries to look into Bash’s face.
“But you did such a great job on Energy Hare-y!” she says, her voice just bubbly enough to be excited without patronizing. Her freckled face and ponytail give her the look of a high school baby-sitter, though her diplomas on the wall reflect a solid ten years of medical education. “You said you should take a break, and that’s just the thing to help a body get the wiggles out and find new focus.”
“This sounds an awful lot like Rock Brain,” I add, pointing to another Unthinkable. “He’s got you stuck real hard.”
Stuck is right. For every tough behavior—inability to sit still, outbursts over small problems, fleeing in fear of failure—Bash’s answer has been, “Ask the teacher for help.”
Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? Ask for help. I tell my students that every week. I’ve told Blondie, Bash, and Biff to do this when tackling something new and/or hard. Never be afraid to ask for help!
This is even truer when it comes to matters of mental health. Illnesses like depression and anxiety can isolate a person and make them feel incapable of connecting to another human being. I experienced this first-hand during my years of post-partum depression. Holding one baby boy while another slept, I’d stare out the bedroom window to see other people walking dogs, grilling food, swimming in pools. They were all neighbors, yet impossibly far away. The walls of the house seemed impenetrable. I felt like I was losing my sense of Self, of hope. I’d pray to get through the day, hour, minute without succumbing to the voices inside telling me how easy it was to just walk out of the house and not come back, to make the boys cry for a reason…
Though my sons’ birth cracked open the darkest pieces of me, they were also my inspiration to hammer those pieces to dust. Now Bash is facing his own darkness, one that tells him over and over that he is stupid, that he can’t do anything, that his teacher will be mad because he’s wrong, he’s wrong in everything, that he can’t do ___ because he’s never done it before so he’ll fail and everyone will laugh.
I want so badly to lift the Fear off his shoulders and carry them myself. I want to hold his hand and guide him to the right answers at the right time. I want to see him succeed…
But he will not succeed if I do everything for him.
Some battles must be fought alone. We can provide the tools, the support, the whatever-else-needed, but in the end, the fight is Bash’s and only Bash’s.
It’s not an easy truth for writers to face, either.
Fear looms over us with every submission and book review. For some of us, Fear grips us before we even put the story to the page. I don’t have the time to write well like real authors. I can’t afford to spend time on something that’ll fail. It will fail. No way anyone could like something I write.
It’s a Charlie Brown moment—we just can’t do anything right, not even what we love.
Better to run and hide our creative selves from the world than face the disapproval and derision sure to come.
The therapist gently tugs on Bash’s arm. “Let’s do another break, huh? How about riding the scooter down the ramp five times, and then we’ll try beating Glass Man?”
Bash slowly rolls off my lap. His body’s bent forward so low his hands practically touch the floor as he approaches the scooter. He flops belly first onto the scooter, his legs crooked up into the air. He grunts little grunts, his fingers tap little taps on the scooter, floor, ramp.
He pulls. Just a little. Pulls more. Just a little. Pulls the first two wheels onto the ramp. Just a little.
“Let me help you,” the therapist says, but Bash moves past her hands. Back toward her hands. Away from her hands again. The ramp’s only four feet, and Bash covers those first three feet a lot—up and down, side to side. Yet he does not give up. When he slaps the sticker at the top of the ramp with his palm, he gets there himself.
It’s just a few seconds down the ramp and across the room. But it’s enough to crush the sadness and fill Bash with wild and happy giggles. He runs back to the worksheet, “I can breathe!” he says, and shows us how he can fill his tummy with air and blow out his fingers like birthday candles.
The therapist claps. “That’s great! Say, that’s the perfect way to beat Glass Man.”
Bash grins and hops over to his sheet. He writes BELLY BIRTHDAY BREATHS so big it covers the picture of Glass Man completely.
It’s another Charlie Brown moment, when one’s determination finally eclipses the Fear.
We find the breath in us to move forward across a land of glass and rock and discover we are not such fragile stuff at all. We are capable of incredible feats of imagination and bravery, for there is no greater Fear than the Fear we carry within. Only when we shirk that Fear can we share stories from the deepest, truest places, the kinds of places readers yearn to find.
So take up that kite, writers. You may get tangled, the kite may get torn, but there is always tomorrow and the promise of another chance to fly, and fly far.
Happy Monday, one and all! Yes, I know I’m a day late, but I’ve got the best of reasons: I got to spend ALL of Friday with Blondie at her Parent Visitation Day.No calls from the boys’ principal this time. Just me sharing hugs and silly faces with Blondie during her classes and scribbling “Captain Poop” on the name slot of her Spelling Test because I’m mature like that.
It was worth putting off the pile of grading and my interactions with you all because when you’ve got little loves in your life, you’ve got to make every hug count.
So, now that the brunt of grading has been completed and I’ve successfully ignored all calls to substitute teach in this county, let’s wrap up our look at The Force Awakens and prepare for our shift into The Last Jedi with a little talk about villains.
As far as Disney’s sequel Star Wars trilogy is concerned, I consider the villains to be at their strongest in The Force Awakens because they had the most potential here. Each villain has a unique look, sense of purpose in body language, and dialogue that consistently carries the story along. Each had a strong mix of elements that could leave lasting impressions on readers.
THE PRINCIPLE OF ANTAGONISM: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
A big reason Episodes I-VI are still loved today is the cast of antagonists. Darth Vader was other-worldly with his powers and costume, yet impossibly human when he tells Luke he’s his father. The Emperor, a specter of white skin beneath a black hood, didn’t just carry power in his Force lightning, but in his voice, his speeches chipping away at Luke’s hope until the final showdown when Vader finds redemption in saving his son. The prequels take those two villains and re-cast them as protagonists, revealing the roads taken that transform Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader and Senator Palpatine into…well okay, Palpatine was also evil in the prequels, but he wore the good-guy disguise. We were still watching that transformation of shedding the good-guy pretense and becoming the Emperor.
In both trilogies, there were transformations at work. The heroes were growing, yes, but so were the villains, and THAT is just as important if not moreso.
Rather than spending your creativity trying to invent likable, attractive aspects of protagonist and world, build the negative side to create a chain reaction that pays off naturally and honestly on the positive dimensions.
In any story, there must be a clear sense of cause and effect: if the hero does something, that’ll ripple over to the villain in X way. If the villain does something, it’s going to impact hero like Y. Audiences are quickly bored with a villain that simply twirls his mustaches and goes right on with the same schemes that tried and failed before.
Let’s break our four primary villains down and see what could have–should have–been.
A female storm trooper of authority–something audiences had not yet seen in Star Wars. Phasma had a cold-blooded voice and towering presence that could make anyone run for cover. The actress’ screen time in Game of Thronesproved she was capable of combat and other feats of bad-assery, so audiences expected to see some wicked work done by this daunting leader of First Order troops.
But it’s awfully hard to effectively show how bad-ass you are when you’re not even in the story for two whole minutes.
No joke. These are all her scenes in the first film.
For a character that looks like she should have plenty of conflict potential with Finn, the Storm Trooper Turned Good, we get practically nothing. The character is relegated to a few snippets of dialogue and a bit of fan service with the “trash compactor.”
Supreme Leader Snoke
Ah, the character that bred a thousand fan theories… Snoke’s hardly in the film–like Emperor Palpatine, Snoke only appears in hologram communication in this first film. Like Phasma, Snoke looks good. The towering projection of him dominates not only the villains of the film showing who’s in charge, but looms over audiences, too, freaking them out with his deformities twisted by shadows and ghostly light. Kylo Ren and General Hux are both eager for his approval, which adds an extra layer of conflict among the antagonists.
Not bad, right? A bunch of yes-men in uniforms quickly makes for dull viewing. Intrigue in the ranks is a great way to sneak in extra plot twists, shifts in power, etc. Mystery never hurts, either. This Snoke guy must be pretty powerful if he heads The First Order (wherever they came from), and if he’s trained Kylo Ren in the ways of the Dark Side, he’s got to be a powerful Force user, too. As much as I hate seeing too many Mystery Boxes in one film, JJ Abrams knew what he was doing in planting just enough information about Snoke to intrigue audiences and keep them talking about a character who’s only on screen for a few minutes.
Just as Vader had a very old Peter Cushing (I mean, Grand Moff Tarkin. Look, I only knew him as Peter Cushing even as a kid, okay? Peter Cushing was AWESOME and don’t let anyone tell you different.), Kylo Ren had a military counterpart that worked with him as much as he worked against him. The General Hux character of Force Awakens is sharp, curt, quick to please his Supreme Leader as he is to put down anyone beneath him. Ambition oozes from his body language and dialogue, especially in his speech to the troops.
The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized…story must become.
Again, there is potential here. This is a character that feeds on power, thrives on stepping over the masses groveling at his feet. General Hux is no Force user, but he has forces of thousands at his command. Should a character like he choose to clash with one like Kylo Ren and/or even Snoke, there could be some fascinating political theater here. He’s a powerful speaker, for instance–he could persuade legions to follow him. Trick troops into thinking they’re carrying out Snoke’s commands. Pit lower-ranked commanders against one another. This general looked and sounded capable of all of this. Had the movies followed through on these established traits, they would have had some mischievously tricky plot threads to bind audiences to future stories.
For those who don’t know, Kylo Ren was born Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. In The Force Awakens, Ren is seen not to revere not his parents, but his grandfather, Darth Vader. For him, the temptation is from The Light, not Dark Side. He led other Padawans to become The Knights of Ren and destroy Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Temple and almost killed Luke Skywalker in the process. Some of this echoes the character arc of the now non-canonical Jacen Solo of several Star Wars novels, son of Han and Leia, TWIN BROTHER of sister Jaina who starts as his ally and ends his enemy.
Empathetic means “like me.” Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity.
So, so many of us have fought against that “which is in our blood,” have struggled to be anything BUT our parents, yearned to be something bigger than ourselves. More than any other character, it is Kylo Ren with whom audiences connect. No one condones his determination to remain on the Dark Side, but audiences fight for his redemption, even here, because they know who his parents are. Even after Kylo Ren kills his own father, audiences know there is “good in him” like Luke knew there was good in Vader. Audiences want to see this character succeed–not as a villain, but as a villain-turned-good.
What went wrong?
Death Star 3.0, for starters.
Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels.
The dissonance is subtle at first, but it swells quickly. For all the hype over Captain Phasma, it occurs to us in her last scene with Finn that she’s hardly done anything throughout the story. For all the booming threats from Hux, he becomes inept when he himself is faced with a threat. For all the “Ye GODS” Force-wielding moments Kylo Ren has early in the film, by movie’s end he can barely duel Rey, who’s never held a lightsaber in her life.
But the worst offender by far is that Starkiller Base. You and I know it as Death Star 3.0 because that is PRECISELY what it f’ing is.
What Abrams and/or Disney thought could be pulled with this stunt, I do not know. George Lucas succeeded with his reveal in the first Star Wars because it hadn’t been done before.
Even the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi feels redundant, but because Emperor Palpatine is on board, audiences are willing to set aside the déjà vu and see how this new conflict unfolds.
“But look!” Disney seems to say. “This time it’s a whoooole planet and it can blow up a bunch of planets at once! It’s bigger, better, more blastier than ever!”
Yuh huh. No it’s not.
Cliché is at the root of audience dissatisfaction, and like a plague spread through ignorance, it now infects all story media… The cause of this worldwide epidemic is simple and clear; the source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story.
All four villains in The Force Awakens had the potential to become something special in the Star Wars universe. Each had characteristics and made choices that affected a protagonist, creating promising conflict for the upcoming films. Had Disney’s “creative team” followed the antagonists’ choices to the logical next step, they could have given audiences thrilling adventures with minimal cases of déjà vu.
But Disney wasn’t about making something new, at least not with The Force Awakens. They wanted something that would ignite the nostalgia in my generation and engage my generation’s children to invest their time, money, and Christmas lists in whatever Disney slapped the Star Wars seal on. I have no doubt that JJ Abrams and any other director involved with Star Wars sincerely enjoys the classic adventures in the galaxy far, far away. But the potential of their Mystery Boxes, villains, and heroes was crushed beneath the demands of The Mouse’s Committee.
Heed this, writers, and heed it well. When a writer doesn’t take time to explore the potential of his own story-world, instead choosing to depend on what is considered “a sure thing” in the publishing industry, a writer ends up no only disappointing audiences but his own storytelling spirit. Never is this clearer when an antagonist’s traits are altered, choices limited, or ambitions doused for the sake of a trend or gimmick. As author Michael Scott once told me:
I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal…I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.
Do not damage the potential of your own story’s villain for the sake of pleasing some committee. Know your story. Know what drives the Dark so that you may better create its counterpart in the Light. If you ignore one, the other’s arc will burn to inconsequential ash.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
We’ll see if I can get Blondie to say what she’s been up to, Miss “I want to write book reviews on my own website!” xxxxx I’ve also got some choice words about the state of literacy in Wisconsin, few of them good.
Or we might just talk about mental health. Or music. Frankly my mind’s so fried from grading I’m amazed this post got written.
Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.
This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)
Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanistis calling for western speculative flash fiction:
Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Nametrilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)
As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.
That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.
So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.
(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)
Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.
Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.
“How Does Your Garden Grow?”
In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!
Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.
More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.
Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.
Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.
“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”
Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.
Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.
“Triangle at Rhodes”
Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.
And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.
When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.
The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.
Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.
“The Affair at the Victory Ball”
Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.
Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:
Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”
“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”
And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.
Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.
“The Cornish Mystery”
It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?
Ah. That is why the reader reads on.
So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.
Hello hello, everyone! Once again, it’s been…oh, it’s been a week at the good ol’ American public schools. Between tweens yelling at me that they don’t have to do their homework because I’m not their mom, to kiddos my sons’ age hitting each other because the other “was going to do something bad”….well, it’s no wonder I have some of the university students I do. Eeesh.
So, let’s focus on something lovely and positive, shall we? Let’s celebrate one another with a delightful indie author interview. Colin Garrow is a FABULOUS writer of mystery and spine-tingling adventures for adults and children alike.His latest for tweens, The Curse of Calico Jack, and his latest for adults, A Tall Cool Glass of Murder, are available now on Amazon and Smashwords. Check’em out! (After the interview, of course.)
Let’s begin with the niceties. Tell us a little about yourself, please!
You might think from some of my previous jobs (taxi driver, antiques dealer, drama facilitator, Santa Claus impersonator, fish processor, etc) that I’m a bit of a Jack of all trades, but let’s just say I like variety. When I left school, I had a vague idea of becoming either a rock star or a novelist. At the time, I was too timid to strut my stuff on a stage, and instead spent many hours churning out short stories and poems. In those days (late seventies), there were hundreds of what were called ‘little press’ magazines on the go, all looking for talented writers.
So, sending my scribblings out to such literary tomes as Stand Magazine, Envoi and Staple, I managed to collect a huge pile of rejection slips, and though I did eventually get a few poems and a short story published, it was studying for a BA in Drama that really made the difference to the quality of my writing. After that, I spent a few years writing plays, some of which were eventually performed by my theatre company in Aberdeen, but I didn’t start trying to write novels seriously until 2013, after a failed relationship left me living alone in a damp, mould-infested hovel, with little money and a lot of spare time. That summer I decided to try and finish a book I’d started a few years earlier. It was called ‘The Devil’s Porridge Gang’ and was set in a fictionalised version of the town where I grew up.
I suppose I started writing for children because I didn’t think I had the talent to write for adults, so my Terry Bell and Watson Letters books didn’t get under way until a few years later. Now, having recently published my 20th book, I’m feeling a lot more confident about my creative abilities.
TWENTY BOOKS, my goodness! I tip my hat to you, Friend, and admire your years of experience in this publishing jungle.As a book reviewer and writer, what do you see as the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
Aside from Kirkus reviews which, at several hundred dollars a pop, should never be considered by any sane person, I think the practice of paying a reviewer for his or her opinion is dodgy, to say the least. Even if you believe the individual is completely unbiased, you’re never going to know for sure. Readers too, are aware of this practice and if a book has too many five-star reviews on Amazon, it can give the impression someone is taking backhanders, even when that’s not the case. I’ve also seen books with six or seven reviews that sound so similar they could have been written by the same person.
Indie authors often give away free books in the hope of prompting readers to buy some of our other wares, or at least to leave a review. While I don’t have a problem with this, it’s not the same as someone actually handing over hard-earned cash in exchange for a book. My own reviewing practice is to buy a copy of any book I intend to review, which puts money in the author’s pocket, and eans they also get a ‘verified’ review on Amazon. Even so, I do sometimes accept a free copy in return for an honest review, though this is mostly due to my being on Amazon’s Vine programme.
It might sound odd, but the hardest part is coming up with a title and a cover for the book. With these in place I then have the motivation to write the book and discover what it’s about. As an example, the cover for the second Terry Bell mystery, A Long Cool Glass of Murder had to fit with the design of the first book, so it took me a while to come up with something that made sense. It also gave me a title that suggested poison, which was a good starting point.
On the other hand, I’m currently working on a horror novel for adults (as opposed to children), which doesn’t have a title or a cover. I do have a working title of Witch Moon (which may end up as the actual title), and a vague idea of what the cover will be, so there’s enough to get started with but I’ll need to finalise both before progressing much further with the plot.
One of the reasons I jive so well with you is because you’re a HUGE SherlockHolmes fan, just like me! Tell us about The Watson Letters.
I’ve loved Sherlock Holmes for years but not being a particular devotee of ‘fan fiction’ had never thought of writing about him. Several years ago, a friend and I started emailing each other under the guise of a variety of fictional characters, usually centred around toilet humour and fart gags. Our favourite roles were Holmes and Watson, so when I started a website in praise of Arthur Conan Doyle and the associated books and movies etc, I included a spoof blog called The Watson Letters inspired by our musings. Some years later, my friend having taken to producing fewer and fewer emails in response to my attempts to create actual stories, I often found myself writing both parts of whatever adventure we were ensconced in, and when she eventually gave up altogether, it occurred to me I might take selected episodes of the blog and knock them into some sort of book.
The first book, The Watson Letters vol 1: Something Wicker This Way Comes was a bit of a hotchpotch and I didn’t really expect it to catch on, particularly as it jumped around a lot and didn’t exactly have a ‘through line’ in terms of the plot. It’s also very short, at around 23,000 words. But considering a second book, I opted to write three complete adventures and continued with that idea for books three and four. The current book, Murder on Mystery Island is different, in that it’s one complete adventure, and the next book, The Haunting of Roderick Usher will probably be the same.
By this time, I’d scrapped the original website and started a new Watson Letters Blog, so what hasn’t changed, is that I still write each story on the Blog first, before putting it into book form. I’m aware that this practice limits me to what I’ve already written, but it’s good to have a challenge.
Hmm. This is an interesting one, as obviously there are tons of books written about Holmes, Watson and several of the other characters created by Conan Doyle. I think if you’re going to be true to the characters and attempt stories that reflect ACD’s style and character traits etc, then that’s great, but since the original books are perfect as they are, I wanted to do something different. Taking a bunch of well- known characters, moving them off into a parallel universe, having them swear and do battle with villains like Hannibal Lecter and Bill Sikes, I hoped readers would go along with it, recognising I’m not trying to copy the original, but to create something different, though with a generous nod to the originals. Of course, one or two readers have complained that Holmes doesn’t use the F word, and Watson would never urinate on a pair of ne’er-do-wells, but when you’re in a parallel universe, anything can happen!
Ha, eeeeexactly! One of the fun things about writing fiction is that you don’t HAVE to follow “how things work.” I recall Colin Dexter saying as much about his Inspector Morse mystery series. Still, writing historical fiction is going to require some sort of research. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
In general terms, I don’t do a lot of research for my books, as I believe it’s a writer’s job to make stuff up. However, there are some things you just can’t make up and need information or detail to give the writing an authentic feel. Usually, I leave it until the point in the story when I need specific information before I’ll start looking for it. In the case of my middle grade series The Christie McKinnon Adventures, the first book begins in Edinburgh in 1897, so I used an old map of the city to work out Christie’s routes between one place and another. I did the same thing with The Maps of Time series which is set in 1630s London. In that instance I also wanted to use the old street names, like Cheap Syde and Fanchurch Streete.
For the Watson Letters books, which often use dates on letters and telegrams etc, there came a point when I confused myself and had to resort to using an online calendar to work out when things happened. This was particularly noticeable with The Curse of the Baskervilles adventure. The book starts in 1891, but the first story actually goes back to 1884, with the adventure following it beginning in 1889. For other books, there have been times when I’ve needed to know about air rifles, handguns, specific types of period clothing and how to use skeleton keys. Anything that requires lots of research is probably something I’ll avoid writing about.
That’s a great piece of advice. Would you like to close out on any other important writing tips for aspiring writers?
I think the advent of eBooks and the ease with which virtually anyone can become a published author, has also created its own set of problems. It’s not so much of an issue now, but a few years ago there were an awful lot of people churning out books that were nothing short of abysmal—packed with clichés, typos, poor sentence structure and a lot of really bad writing. I’ve had a few people approach me for advice on their own work and overall, they thank me profusely for pointing out their mistakes, realising no-one can produce a perfect novel all by themselves. Of course, there are those who think their immense talent should be obvious and the only motivation for asking my opinion is so I can tell them how wonderful they are. I know it’s hard for newbies to get started and forge relationships with other writers, editors, beta-readers etc, but I do think it’s essential, especially for indie authors, as we all need to know how other people see our work. As well as having two editors, I have several writer pals who proofread my books, while I do the same for them, so even if you can’t afford a professional editor, there are always people who can help out. It’s the same with book covers too—unless you happen to be Stephen King, a rubbishy cover will never sell your books. I have a reasonable ability with Photoshop, so I create my own covers (though I’m aware some of the early ones need updating). If you’re not gifted in that area, there are plenty of generic cover creators who can adapt a cover with your name/title etc for a reasonable price, so your book at least looks professional.
As Smashwords boss Mark Coker says, ‘…it’s the readers…who decide what’s worth buying. Bad books will sink.’
So, essentially, you need to write a good book, get it proofed, edited and pop on a good quality cover that tells us what the book is about, and off you go.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and insights, Colin! Folks, you can find Colin all over the place–go, visit, see, read!
Miss Parts 1and/or 2 of my Robert McKee & Star Wars series? Click a number to catch up!
Nothing grinds a writer like plot holes. Hell, I STILL can’t watch the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without griping at the screen about the absent explanation of how Lupin understands the Marauders’ Map.
No writer tells a story with the intention of digging plot holes (one would hope, anyway). If a writer loves the craft enough, that writer will do their utmost to tell a complete story, avoiding intentional plot holes like Biff avoids broccoli.
The bugger comes when the story sprawls over the course of multiple installments. Now the writer doesn’t have to reveal everything before the end of Act III. Important reveals can be put off until Act VIII, or XI, or even XIV. After all, what else engages audiences like a good mystery?
You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.
JJ Abrams has never been shy over sharing his love of mystery. To him, storytelling is all about The Mystery Box, as this excerpt from his 2007 TED Talk shows.
On this page, it would seem that Abrams and McKee agree. If one answers aaaaaaall the questions before the story’s even begun, why should readers care about the story? I can only imagine how readers would have felt if Rowling had wedged Voldemort’s backstory into the first book of the Harry Potter series instead of the sixth. Honestly, I know what I’d have done:
Glazed over it.
But after reading five books about this villain, seeing his various reincarnations and the consequences of his ambitions, I’m dying to know who this dark wizard is and what drives him. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has always felt like the least action-oriented book of the series, but readers are still okay with this because a degree of the mystery is being revealed to them. After the monumental battles in the fifth book, the series’ pacing allowed for a slow-down.
Regarding JJ Abrams and Star Wars, he likely felt comfortable building oodles of Mystery Boxes in The Force Awakens because he expected the later movies to open his boxes and reveal the answers. If we learned eeeeverything about the First Order, Rey, Luke Skywalker, etc in The Force Awakens, then we wouldn’t be curious to see what’s coming in the other films.
A certain amount of audience curiosity is essential. Without it, Narrative Drive grinds to a halt…. But you must not abuse this power. If so, the audience, in frustration, will tune out…. No dirty tricks, no Cheap Surprise, no False Mystery. False Mystery is a counterfeit curiosity caused by the artificial concealment of fact.
Over-telling too early causes people to forget what is important and be confused by what isn’t. Under-telling, however, can be just as dangerous, and on this, Abrams is VERY guilty. Let’s walk through a few plot holes in The Force Awakens and consider whether or not these “conceals” are necessary or artificial. For comparison’s sake, I’ll use two very different trilogies, one of blockbuster scale (Hunger Games), the other not (Southern Reach).
ONE: The Beginning
I already whinged enough about how The Force Awakens simply dictated the universe must have the same stakes as the Original Trilogy without showing how the heck this galaxy far, far away started the vicious cycle all over again. This information, however, didn’t have to come in The Force Awakens. The first Hunger Games book doesn’t dive too much into the world’s history; instead, we get this information in bits and pieces throughout the second and third books. For the films, this storytelling method worked pretty well, as the first film could focus strictly on Katniss’ preparation and battle for survival in The Hunger Games at hand. In Annihilation, we have no idea where Area X came from, let alone the backstory of nearly all the characters. It’s not until Acceptance, the final book of The Southern Reach trilogy, that we learn the true motivations of the antagonist from the first book as well as where Area X came from. Had all that information been dumped on readers in the first 100 pages, they’d be bogged down and ignoring what really was important, focused instead on whatever words relay the current protagonist’s plight.
So as far as these opening stakes go, Abrams, you get a small pass.
TWO: Pilot Poe’s Survival
As I described in Part 2, the character Finn, our Storm Trooper Turned Good, escapes the First Order with Rebel Pilot Poe. They crash the TIE fighter, and when Finn awakes, he finds himself alone with Poe’s jacket. The ship sinks in the sand, and as far as Finn knows, Poe’s died in the sand already. He says as much to the droid BB-8, and the story goes on, treating the pilot as lost…
…until he shows up at the Resistance base, healthy and whole.
How’d he survive the crash?
How’d he get off the planet without the First Order noticing? They were all over the place chasing down Finn, Rey, and BB-8.
And we never find out.
Now if Poe were a tertiary character, one with little presence in the story or impact on the overall plot, we could probably evade this plot hole without much trouble. Easy peasy–Poe woke up first and got away from the ship. He left his jacket because…well it doesn’t matter. He abandoned his new friend Finn because…well, it doesn’t matter. He got off the planet without looking for his droid BB-8 because…well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he got back to the Resistance to fight another day.
That sure is a lot of “doesn’t matters” for one character’s choice, isn’t it? A character’s choice that, considering what little we do know of the character, doesn’t make sense. Poe’s the one who wanted to return to this desert planet to find his droid, and yet he vanishes from the story entirely to arrive just in time to wave happily to the droid that, by all accounts, he was determined to find. But we never see him try to find the droid, the sole motivation for his actions in the first half of the movie.
A “hole” is another way to lose credibility. Rather than a lack of motivation, now the story lacks logic, a missing link in the chain of cause and effect….Maybe the audience won’t notice. But maybe it will. Then what? Cowardly writers try to kick sand over such holes and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Other writers face this problem manfully. They expose the hole to the audience, then deny that it is a hole.
What frustrates a writer like m’self so much over a plot hole like this is that it would not have taken much to fill the hole. Abrams could have kept Poe out of the plot until Finn and Rey arrive at the Resistance base, sure. We could have seen him still recovering from the crash, demanding a ship to fly back for BB-8. We could have seen him on a communicator, checking in with ships on any signs of BB-8.
A character’s absence may be forgivable, but not the absence of motivation. When Katniss and Peeta are separated in the arena, we find out later on what Peeta was doing, and his physical/emotional state show proof of this. When the psychologist separates from the biologist, we don’t know what she’s up to. The biologist shoots her at the end of Annihilation, so we’re left to assume the psychologist was up to something nefarious. It’s at the end of Acceptance that we at last fully understand the psychologist’s motivations–and what the hell she was doing at the lighthouse in the moments before the biologist shoots her.
If Poe needed to be removed from the film to give time for Rey and Finn, then so be it. But that didn’t mean Poe’s arc gets to be fast-forwarded to where it’s convenient. He needed to be off-screen following through on his motivation so that when he’s back on screen, he looks like he was off-screen for a reason.
So as far as Poe goes, Abrams, that ship don’t fly.
THREE: Talking Lightsabers That Just So Happen To Be In A Mysterious Box In A Tavern’s Basement
This is the point where I audibly said “Bullshit” in the theater.
Finn, Rey, and BB-8 travel with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to some ancient looking planet’s cantina, where the owner Maz Kanata provides sage advice. While Maz and Han talk, Rey hears something and goes under the cantina into a big storage area, where a faint voice calls from a box. She opens the box to discover what the audience immediate recognizes as Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Maz finds Rey and tells her about the force, but Rey refuses the lightsaber and runs off. So, Maz brings the lightsaber to Han.
“A good question, for another time.”
…coincidence is a part of life, often a powerful part, rocking existence, then vanishing as absurdly as it arrived. The solution, therefore, is not to avoid coincidence, but to dramatize how it may enter life meaninglessly, but in time gain meaning, how the antilogic of randomness becomes the logic of life-as-lived.
When used well, coincidences help tie together plot elements and propel the narrative along. In the first Hunger Games, for instance, it’s a pretty big coincidence that the other candidate chosen to fight for Katniss’ district has also been crushing on her for years. In Authority, the second book of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the new director stumbles upon the psychologist’s old phone and, thinking it might hold useful data, takes it home. This just so happens to be the same phone the psychologist had taken into Area X on a secret expedition, so of course, that phone has changed into something else…a something that is now skulking around the new director’s home.
On Rey’s desert planet Jakku, there just so happens to be a seller of parts scavenged from other ships, and this seller just so happens to keep some junk ships…like the Millennium Falcon.
While I have a hard time imagining Solo losing his ship, I can accept it being considered garbage; after all, in A New Hope Luke takes one look at the Falcon and says, “What a piece of junk!” So that a scavenger has allocated the Falcon on the planet where Rey just so happens to live is an acceptable coincidence.
That Han Solo just so happens to fly Rey to a cantina where a sage-like character just so happens to have a vault with a box that just so happens to have Luke’s lightsaber that just so happens to connect with Rey…
That is not acceptable.
Had Maz mentioned living in Cloud City (where Luke had lost the lightsaber in his duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back), okay. Weird, but okay. At least there’s some sort of intent, a trail of motivation: Force-sensitive Maz discovers the lightsaber and feels its importance, so she keeps it safe until finding its owner. Or Lando’s team recovers it and gives it to Han, who entrusts it to Maz for whatever reason. Heck, in Rey’s vision of the Jedi temple burning and Luke crouched low by R2-D2, Maz could have been there ready to give him the lightsaber, but upon seeing the Knights of Ren hides instead.
Instead, we have none of these things. We have only the Mystery Box, and “another time.”
And maybe Abrams did intend to explain this Mystery Box another time. There were two more movies, after all, and he had notes for the other directors to help keep the storyline unified across the trilogy.
Only The Powers That Be in Disney and Lucasfilm didn’t see the importance of paying off those expectations. They had their own agendas, agendas that would take the galaxy far, far away into a new cosmos:
Political and social commentary.
Disney wanted a Star Wars trilogy that would inspire new and old generations alike to buy millions of movie tickets, toys, and theme park passes. Creating a story befitting the lStar Wars universe was never the top priority, not for them. Was JJ Abrams passionate about this project? Let’s just say yes. But loving a story-world and its characters is not the same as creating in that world. Abrams selected bits of the Original Trilogy he wanted to share in his own way; some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. The plot’s true shortcomings, though, can be summed up in two words:
Too often we are wondering how X happened, or why Z did ___. It’s one thing to have a mysterious villain, or an unknown backstory. But when a writer takes time to establish a character’s motivations only to ignore them until the plot makes it convenient for the motivations to come back, or a writer ignores the older characters’ stories so the plot’s MacGuffin can move to the newer characters, then there are serious problems afoot.
And we haven’t even TOUCHED the flippin’ Death Star 3.0 yet.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
More student assignments are coming my way in a few days, so I think we’ll have a lovely author interview next week. After that, we’ll wrap up The Force Awakens with a discussion of what makes a great villain…and why it’s unwise to go the safe route.
Good morning, all, from a wintry Wisconsin! At long last, snow’s found my corner of the Midwest. Biff, Bash, and Blondie had a blast sledding upon our wee hill. It’s the sort of blizzardy day that encourages one to tuck into a blanket and a book–not that I can, with my pile of student projects requiring grades and the kids now planning to convert the house into one giant Gotham City/Sodor hybrid because I was fool enough to leave those old toys out. Still, isn’t it a lovely thought to just wile away the day with a cozy mystery? Or, perhaps an epic adventure into the Elsewhere…
Dark Crystalis a film I’ve only watched a handful of times, and yet I can still remember the awe of my first encounter. Everything glowed, moved, lived. I knew these were puppets, and yet they felt real to me, so real that their torture under the Skeksis scared the pants off of me. Heck, I still have the occasional nightmare about that chair.
Dark Crystal is also one of the few creations by Jim Henson Disney doesn’t own, which is why Netflix was able to produce its own prequel series. I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical, but the music alone has won me over.
To the lovers of fantasy, the lovers of adventure: here is a theme to call you over that threshold for a hero’s journey.
Oh, Daniel Pemberton, you do not disappoint. The mix of zither and medieval instruments atop a foundation of strings inspire the feeling of a dirt track beneath leather boots, of dusty wind whipping rain-washed hair. We close our eyes to a sun first rising over old forests and older mountains, the road lost in a valley of thorns and uncertainty.
I’m such a sucker for the medieval flair in this score. The feel of history, I think, and the simplicity in its emotional expression.
The score to Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance doesn’t just count on the medieval flavor, however. The moments of synthesized melodies seems to hearken back to the 80s while also remaining distinctly…distinctly itself. “Unnatural” would be my description, an antithesis for the skin drumheads and soft flutes of before. The result unsettles the imagination, cracking it as a clawed foot cracks the ice.
When winter turns our real world bleak with cold, music like Pemberton’s reminds us there’s magic both frightening and fragile beyond the snow. We’ve only to turn our writing eyes inward, and watch music awaken Story’s Landscape.
That, and there’s nothing quite so lovely as a fluttering solo violin. 🙂
Someday, I hope to see the story actually paired with Pemberton’s music (Yes, I’m one of thooose people who has no streaming service of any kind.) Until then, I’m thrilled Pemberton’s found a way to bring the music of Henson’s original story together with his own, just as the writers of Age of Resistance found a way to create a new story in Henson’s universe.
May your own stories, whether unique to you or inspired by others, contain such magic as to enchant your readers and leave them breathless in a land of hope and shadows.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
I’m keen to get back into my Star Wars series by studying some plot holes in The Force Awakens and how those holes affect the strength of the trilogy overall. I’ve also got some FANTASTIC interviews lined up, with the first to be posted in the next few weeks. Blondie’s also been pestering me to write on here, too, so you may be hearing from her soon. xxxxxx
Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and forever.
November. The media blitz is on to promote Rise of Skywalker, the third installment in Disney’s sequel trilogy in Star Wars. Kathleen Kennedy, the current head of Lucasfilm, is interviewed by Rolling Stone to discuss the films and their challenges. When asked about writing the third film to close the arc, Kennedy says:
Every one of these movies is a particularly hard nut to crack. There’s no source material. We don’t have comic books. We don’t have 800-page novels. We don’t have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be.
It seems a curious line, to specifically point out how Star Wars has no comic books. A dig, perhaps, at the Marvel films and aaaaaaaaaaaall those comic story lines at the screenwriters’ disposal for adapting into film?
For folks like my friends and brothers who had read the comics and novels, this was a serious blow to the gut. For more casual fans like myself, who grew up with the movies and the goofy spin-off cartoons–
–I wasn’t angry so much as confused. If the cartoons can pull one or two tertiary characters from the original trilogy and build successful stories around them, why was it so important to blow up the ENTIRE EU and all its storylines? Each one had already undergone serious testing with lovers of sci-fi, let alone Star Wars. It’s not like all the storylines had potential for film adaptation, but surely a few had promise, right?
But Disney didn’t want to continue the saga in the galaxy far, far away as other creators had seen it. They wanted their Star Wars to be like the Star Wars movies from the 70s and 80s, only different enough so they could make the most money with the least amount of change.
The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.
Enter The Force Awakens.
Damn, if that teaser STILL doesn’t give me chills. We have a panicked Storm Trooper–a human, panicking Storm Trooper. This isn’t just some eleventh generation of clones from the prequels, but a person, and this person looks sincerely scared. For the casual fans like myself, this had never been seen before. The first few seconds of this teaser promised audiences a new kind of Star Wars story. Throw in a new droid, renegade girl, and an X-Wing pilot, sure, but the real compliment to that opening new thing was the climactic-yet-familiar thing: the Millennium Falcon fighting TIE Fighters. Over the course of roughly 90 seconds, the teaser promises audiences a balance of familiar and unfamiliar to create a new Star Wars story.
Don’t worry, I won’t go into an analysis of all the trailers. It just felt important to show that in 2015, The Force Awakens looked extremely promising to the fans who grew up with the first six films, and now have toy-loving children who of course have seen those films, too. After Disney had yanked the EU,devoted fans like my brothers were excited to see what Disney wanted to put in its place. Considering the cool work they’d done bridging the gap between prequels and original trilogy with Star Wars: Rebels, Disney had a lot of audience goodwill in their favor, visible in all the Cosplay and YouTubers whooping with light sabers as they prepped their own audiences for movie reviews.*
Then folks saw the movie.
Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible…we don’t want to hit the same note over and over…. They key to varying a repetitious cadence is research. Superficial knowledge leads to a bland, monotonous telling. With authorial knowledge we can prepare a feast of pleasures.
Many were thrilled to see a style more like the original trilogy than the CGI-infested prequels. However, many–me included–felt a very strange deja vu. Echos, if you will, that felt too like what’s come before. And we felt it before the opening scrawl had departed for the stars.
Luke Skywalker has vanished. Woah! The only known Jedi in this new series was officially missing? How? What happened? One sentence in, the audience’s curiosity is piqued. But then we keep reading: In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.
So, that whole chucking-the-Emperor-into-the-abyss didn’t kill the Empire? Hmm. Well, it’s just the head of state. Big Bureaucracy like that could probably run for a bit without the head. But if this First Order is looking for Luke, then they must not be responsible for his absence. So is there another villain here? What’s going on?
The scrawl goes on: With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.
So…ok. the Republic of the prequels is back now, but there’s still a First Order that came out of the Empire. If Leia’s leading the Resistance, that must mean the First Order has more power than the Republic, I guess? Who’s even in the Republic? Wouldn’t the First Order technically be the minority, the underdog?
We’ve defined setting in terms of period, duration, location, and level of conflict. These four dimensions frame the story’s world, but to inspire the multitude of creative choices you need to tell an original, cliché-free story, you must fill that frame with a depth and breadth of detail.
Herein lies the next major mistake Disney made with Star Wars: they wanted all the same stakes of the original trilogy without putting in the effort to bring the galaxy to that point. People like Rebel Princess Leia, so keep her in that position. People liked the baddie Empire, so make a new Empire. People liked the Death Star, so let’s make a new one. How the First Order–consisting from, as the scrawl said, the “ashes” of the Empire–has the might they do to build huge fleets and planet-killers is never explained. Why doesn’t the Republic have its own army? At the very least it’d have reused whatever’s left from the Empire…unless the First Order took ALL of that? So then what the heck is in the Republic, and why are they separate from the Resistance?
Time never moves without effect. Years have passed since Return of the Jedi, and yet good and evil are right back where they were. History may be cyclical, but something must happen to reset the cycle.
Disney never shares that something with us. It’s as if they hit the reset button on a video game, selecting different faces and places, but leaving the stakes the same.
However, as my husband Bo reminds me, there’s only so much one can pack in the first movie. Backstory can always help explain things later in the narrative arc, when a breather in action is needed. So at this point, audiences have to hope for a quiet moment with a sage-like character–Leia, perhaps, since she’s the only one the scrawl tells us is present–to clue audiences and new characters in as to how the galaxy ended up the way it did. A scene with some exposition could better clarify why the stakes are what they are so audiences can care about the characters involved in those stakes. This didn’t have to happen in The Force Awakens, but the opportunity was there in one of the first characters audiences see: the scared Storm Trooper from the teaser.
The opening scene echoes the entrance of the black-cloaked figure in a mask, Kylo Ren. The daring pilot’s hidden the clue to Skywalker in his droid, BB-8, and sends him off…He wants the map to Skywalker from what the title scrawl calls an “old ally”–not anyone we’d have actually seen in the first six films, mind you. Just Max von Sydow talking to Adam Driver (Kylo) like they had a history…not that we know any of this history…
As a story opens, the audience, consciously or instinctively, inspects the value-charged landscape of world and characters, trying to separate good from evil, right from wrong…. The worst of people believe themselves good. Hitler thought he was the savior of Europe.
It doesn’t take much to see the evil masked people killing the good guys. But one, one does stand out: a Storm Trooper who runs to assist one of his dying comrades, the dying man putting a bloody hand to the other’s helmet and streaking it with blood. The Storm Trooper pulls back, and you can see the panic in his body language. He no longer lifts a gun when ordered.
We see a Storm Trooper, always the symbol of order and Empire, breaking free.
THAT gets our attention. Something is different with this character. A Storm Trooper turning good? Maybe we could learn about the First Order through this character! Audiences fixate upon this character who clearly questions his masters, who fears the life he’s in. As McKee calls it in Story, this Storm Trooper, named Finn by the pilot, becomes our Center of Good in the first ten minutes.
Only we’re diverted after that to Rey, a lone girl on a desert planet doing the same thing day in, day out…kind of like a farm boy on Tatooine, methinks…scavenging crashed ships for parts, dreaming of a life elsewhere. But I’ll give credit where it’s due: the first scene with Rey does a beautiful job telling the story of her life without her saying a word. A quick montage of her day, and we know what her life’s been like living in a hollowed out Walker.
So…so where is our Center of Good? Are we following the Storm Trooper, or the scavenger?
Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on the star role. If not, the Center of Good decenters; the fictional universe flies apart; the audience loses balance.
Rey is, from the start, a good character. She helps the BB-8 droid without knowing who it is, she doesn’t sell it off when that would easily give her enough food for months. She’s consistently nice and helpful.
Finn, however, was clearly raised to be a mindless soldier. He’s been conditioned to follow orders and kill without mercy, yet this guy doesn’t. Despite his environment and all that he knows, he is different. And that, by definition, makes him stand out. It makes him unique.
It makes audiences want to see him as the Center of Good, to overcome the old identity of Storm Trooper and discover who he truly is.
Fine writing puts less stress on what happens than on to whom it happens and why and how it happens.
By the time we see Storm Trooper Finn again, he helps break out the imprisoned pilot so they can both get off the vast, fancy, well-stocked star destroyer. Their ship is struck, and Finn wakes to find himself alone in the wreckage. He takes the pilot’s abandoned jacket and wanders the desert until he stumbles upon the village where Rey and the droid are. Finn tells them what happens, and takes on the guise of being a Resistance fighter. When Troopers and Fighters come, he doesn’t simply run from his old life. He protects the droid his pilot friend wanted to rescue and the girl whom the droid’s befriended.
TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.
These are the kinds of choices that engaged fans like me in TheForce Awakens: the Storm Trooper breaking free of his old coding to join the fight for good and, in consequence, discover his own self-worth. I would have loved to learn more about the First Order way of life through Finn’s memories. I would have loved to see Finn reach out to those he cared about, like the dying Storm Trooper in the first scene, and see if other Troopers were capable of finding the good within. I would have loved to see Finn’s potential with a light saber as shown on the movie’s poster.
Fans were excited for something new, and a story of a Storm Trooper Turning Good would have been dazzlingly new as far as these cinematic episodes go. We were ready to follow a classic story in a familiar galaxy with this unique character.
CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
You know, I really hoped I could do one film per blog post, but there is just waaaaaaaay too much to cover regarding plot holes, characterization, and antagonists. Since I have students submitting projects this week, I’ll likely save the next Force Awakens post on worldbuilding and plot holes for later. I think we could all use a music break, right? Who doesn’t love a trip into a land fantastic, rich in history and ripe for adventure?
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
*Video game and movie critic Mauler has an excellent series on The Last Jedi. While his The Force Awakens series remains unfinished, I still recommend what he’s done so far, especially since his thoughts on the world-building problems inspired me to share my own.
But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.
Robert Mckee, Story
It’s an opening as known as Once upon a time.It’s the sort of opening to calls upon readers to leave the reality they know and enter a story both of the future and of the past—a hero’s journey, a villain’s redemption, a coming of age, a coming together of hearts, of friends…
The dialogue over Disney’s contributions to the Star Wars universe has been….well, a pretty shitty one. We’ve reached the point where Star Wars fans are like the Yooks and Zooks of Dr. Seuss’ The Great Butter Battle, and if you know that story, you know it doesn’t end well for anyone.
So let’s just put aside our Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroos for a second, lean against the wall à la Charlie Brown–
–and talk like storytellers. Not as rabid fans, or haters, or menaces, or warriors. Just people who love crafting good stories as much as they love experiencing them. And what better way to focus on the craft than by utilizing wisdom from one of the most revered voices in storytelling?
Robert McKee has been a revered voice in Hollywood for decades, as he’s taught notable storytellers like Peter Jackson,Paul Haggis, and William Goldman. His book Story is one of the few texts I’ve kept from my hellish graduate school days, as it utilizes films from several different genres to show how smart writing with character development, tension, and scene structure can build a powerful story with which audiences can connect.
It is with McKee’s craft lessons in Story I’d like to discuss the flaws that plague Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the Star Wars saga. As storytellers, I think we can all agree on some pretty important things are necessary to make a strong story, and therefore understand certain choices that both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson made with their installments. To be clear,I’m not going to bash either director. On the contrary, I think both brought some positive elements to Star Wars that shouldn’t be dismissed just because you don’t agree with all of their other creative choices.
No, the flaw lies in the foundation of the sequel trilogy. Like the parable of the foolish man who builds his house upon the sand, the recent Star Wars trilogy was built without a solid foundation. In other words, the creative powers of Disney failed to do the necessary worldbuilding—galaxy-building, if you will—for the stakes of the new trilogy to appeal to audiences old or new.
In this blog series, I’m going to utilize McKee’s words on story craft to break down where the sequel trilogy’s potential shines as well as where it dims. Every film has its moments, so I’m not going to dwell for a thousand words on one and then just rush through another.
And the truly tragic part? This could have aaaaaaall been avoided had Disney stuck with what it already built.
Story is about originality, not duplication.
Robert McKee, Story
Disney purchased Lucasfilm and rights to Star Wars in 2012, and by 2014 had created its own original storyline in the Star Wars Universe. The story was set between the prequels and original trilogy, a time when the Empire are hunting down any surviving Jedi and the Rebellion is slowly beginning to form.
Star Wars: Rebels ran for just four seasons, but in that time gained a solid following of fans, a good merchandise line, and even splinter stories in books and comics. The cast was a mix of alien and human-like folks, male and female, adults and kids, each with unique talents that came together to create a strong team to deal with a vicious gallery of Imperial foes.
The storyline fit snugly in the between the established trilogies without disturbing any of the arcs of previously established characters in the Skywalker episodes. Audiences were happy to go on adventures with the scrappy kid, laugh at the cranky droid, marvel at the piloting smarts of the lady alien, feel for the Jedi mourning the loss of his brethren…
…in other words, Disney had successfully built a solid setting in this galaxy far, far away that was unique while also adhering to the state of this galaxy as Revenge of the Sith left it.
Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.
Robert McKee, Story
You’d think that for a studio that loves making live-action remakes of their animated properties, bringing a live-action adaptation of Rebels to film would have been the easy-peasy choice for their feature debut with the Star Wars franchise. They had fans happy with the show, they had storylines all written out ready to go, characters fun and fleshed out. All the hard work of worldbuilding, character development, and plotting was already done.
But perhaps, to those Disney Powers That Be, this was the problem.
Ezra the kid wasn’t like Luke enough.
Hera the pilot wasn’t like Leia enough.
Kanan the Jedi wasn’t like Kenobi enough.
The Inquisitor wasn’t not like Vader enough.
Rebels wasn’t enough like Star Wars’ original trilogy, a film series loved by millions across multiple generations. Rebels’ own successes just weren’t enough.
Disney was determined to repeat the cosmic success of the 70s and 80s, and decided the best way to do this was by treating those original films as a formula to follow.
This choice, right here, before ANY director could say “Action!”, marks the beginning of the troubles for Disney’s Star Wars films. Had they begun with a feature film cast with their own characters and followed previously tested storylines, they would have planted the seeds of goodwill among audiences while also learning the ins and outs of producing a sci-fi adventure epic that is a Star Wars film.
Instead, they chose to fly as close to A New Hope as possible. Too close, as we shall see.
~STAY TUNED NEXT TIME!~
Oh, I’m keen to do some analysis of the entire sequel trilogy, so you’re stuck with me on this topic for a little while. 🙂 But I’ll also throw in some AMAZING music by Daniel Pemberton I got for Christmas, plus there’s some swanky author interviews coming, too.
…just in time for our Christmas church service, no less! At least Blondie’s ready and raring to recite Luke 2 and sing oodles of carols.
But enough whinging over fevers.
Firstly, I wanted to thank you for supporting me through what’s been a very bumpy year. My publisher discontinued my series, which meant I had to pull my free short stories Tales of the River Vine and overhaul my platform. You held me up when I felt like the game was over, and you encouraged me to write on and fight on.
So I did, and got a novella published in the process.
It seems so bloody easy to walk away. To give up the battle because the world says we’re just not good enough. I’ve seen these faces of defeat in many classrooms over the past few months: eight-year-olds who still cannot connect letters to sounds. Twelve-year-olds who’d rather throw books than read them out loud. Eighteen-year-olds who’ve never learned to use an index, let alone critically dissect a few textbook paragraphs. And the teachers? The teachers will move them onward and outward whether the students are ready or not.
We live in illiterate times, my friends. You may know proficiency rates are low where you live, but do you know how low? I learned last week that in the public schools of Wisconsin’s capital, only 36.6% tested proficient in reading.
Think about that for a second.
Only three in ten can read at grade level. And that’s just the basic stuff without all the critical thinking skills to go with it. These kids are graduating high school without the skills to read literature appropriate to any profession, let alone write a resumé. They’re simply dumped into the workforce and expected to survive.
Not for lack of trying, mind. Teachers in Madison, Wisconsin, and anywhere are in a terrible place. When I see what they’re up against, I can’t help but think of World War 1: embedded in trenches dug by faulty philosophy, living with almost no resources, struggling through the barbed wire that is parental criticism with little support from administration, their very livelihood determined by the results of tests created without their input.
This Christmas, let’s tell our kids stories by the light of the Christmas tree. Let’s enchant them, spook them, tickle them. Let’s engage them with characters and places realer than real. Whether it’s a story about Christmas or a story to love all year long, it is time to give the sweet gift of story…with cookies. Never forget the cookies!
From our sniffly house to yours, may you have a most blessed Christmas and an adventurous new year!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
It’s so exciting to see my author interviews fill up for 2020! I can’t wait to share these wonderful writers with you. I also got an early Christmas present of music I MUST share with you next month. First, however, we need to discuss a serious writer’s problem, one which has gotten lots, and lots, and LOTS of press lately.
Oh yes. Next week, we are going to a galaxy far, far away to discuss what went wrong with Disney’s sequel trilogy…and no, I’m not just going to bash Rian Johnson and/or JJ Abrams for a thousand words.
I Lang hae thought, my youthfu' friend, A something to have sent you, Tho' it should serve nae ither end Than just a kind memento: But how the subject-theme may gang, Let time and chance determine; Perhaps it may turn out a sang: Perhaps turn out a sermon. - Robert Burns