#WriterProblems: How Many Characters Do You Really Need? #DeathOnTheNile #AgathaChristie

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Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

Last year, my husband and I began watching various episodes of mystery series together. It began with Columbo–

–continued with Sherlock Holmes–

–and ended with some Poirot.

Now as I’ve noted, my dear Bo is quite the cinephile, so on top of the television adaptations of these stories, we were also watching the film adaptations. This meant we saw four different versions (at least!) of Hound of the Baskervilles and a couple versions of Death on the Nilethe 1978 version starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and the 2004 version starring David Suchet as Poirot. (I had yet to see the new Kenneth Branagh adaptation at the time.)

While Bo was giving me commentary on what actor had gone on to do X or Q or T, I was noticing how certain plot threads would come and go depending on the adaptation. Now for technical reasons, I could see how a story is condensed so it can fit into a two-hour movie or three-part special. This will mean cutting characters or condensing characters for the film–normal stuff. As writers, we can debate the trials and tribulations of film adaptations until the cosmic cows come to roost, or however that saying goes.

But there was something about the Poirot Death on the Nile adaptations that left me pondering. Lots of good fiction depend on multiple plot threads to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. Mysteries in particular need those extra plot threads to create red herrings and plot twists so that the solution to the mystery is a surprise to the reader. In order to populate those other threads, one must have a sizable cast of characters.

But is a big cast really necessary for the story, or are they just filler?

THAT is the question I’d like to discuss with you today, and I’m keen to use Death on the Nile to do so. If you don’t recall the original story’s plot, the Wikipedia entry covers it fairly well. (The entry also mentions the film adaptations I’ll be mentioning here, too.) I’ve also snagged the original cast list from Litcharts so we can see what Agatha Christie saw fit to print. I’ve actually trimmed a few folks out, trying to limit us to the folks who rode the Karnak during the majority of the novel.

ALSO: Spoilers abound. Writer problems trump “spoiler-free” descriptions any day.

THE ORIGINAL CAST OF THE 1937 NOVEL (PRETTY SURE, ANYWAY)

Hercule Poirot: This is a given.

Linnet Doyle: the spoiled rich English lady who marries Simon Doyle and gets murdered.

Jacqueline De Bellefort: Linnet’s best friend who was engaged to Simon until Linnet gets involved. Also, one of the story’s murderers.

Simon Doyle: the youngest son of a well-to-do family, so he loves fancy things but has no money for them. Loves Jackie but marries Linnet. Also also, the other one of the story’s murderers.

Colonel Race: I didn’t remember him from other stories, but apparently he befriended Poirot before Death on the Nile takes place. (Edit: I had to look this up–they do meet in Cards on the Table.) He is present on the riverboat Karnak due to a potential Communist and/or Anarchist threat, but from a storyteller’s standpoint, he is the trustworthy one Poirot can speak freely about his observations so readers know what’s going on.

Andrew Pennington: An American trustee for Linnet Ridgeway due to family connections. There’s a partner, but he barely factors in, so we’ll not bother with him.

Mrs. Salome Otterbourne: a writer of sensational, sexualized fiction who drank more the less her books sold.

Rosalie Otterbourne: Daughter of Salome–and because of the alcoholism, her mother’s keeper. This leads to Rosalie being very difficult for folks like Poirot to interact with.

Mrs. Allerton: the “nice” character of the novel, and essentially Poirot’s gateway into meeting all the other passengers of the riverboat Karnak.

Tim Allerton: son of Mrs. Allerton, eventual lover of Rosalie Otterbourne, and cousin of Joanna Southwood who enjoys hanging out with Linnet before the trip to Egypt. He helps Joanna steal jewelry and make forgeries, and on this boat, it’s his job to switch their fake pearls with Linnet’s real ones. This leads to one of the minor plots of Linnet’s missing pearl necklace being a possible motive for murder.

Miss Marie Van Schuyler: wealthy old American lady who bosses her cousin Cornelia and nurse Miss Bowers around throughout the novel. She’s also a kleptomaniac, which adds to the pearl necklace subplot.

Cornelia Robson: a nice girl who becomes a tool for Linnet and Simon and an object of the affections of Mr. Ferguson and Dr. Bessner.

Mr. Ferguson (Lord Dawlish): a Communist who is hateful to pretty much everyone except Cornelia, infatuated with her genuinely kind nature. Secretly a member of a very well-to-do English family. His brazen comments about how awful rich people and capitalism are material for the political agitator subplot.

Miss Bowers: nurse to Miss Van Schuyler who isn’t actually treating the old lady for anything. She’s there to keep the kleptomania in check and return things Van Schuyler steals, which means there is a “mysterious” return of the necklace, only it’s a forgery, and…yeah, the necklace subplot is a bit much.

Signor Richetti: a middle-aged Italian archaeologist that Poirot meets on an excursion near the hotel (which Ferguson also came on). He turns out to be the political agitator that Colonel Race is after. He has absolutely nothing to do with the deaths on the Nile. He’s just there to be ominous and threatening.

Louise Bourget: maid to Linnet and Simon Doyle, Louise initially appears to be a minor character, until suddenly she takes center stage when she becomes the second murder victim.

James Fanthorp: a young English lawyer for Linnet Ridgeway, the nephew of the lawyer William Carmichael. I vaguely remember this guy.

Dr. Bessner: a middle-aged European doctor on board the Karnak who takes care of Simon after his leg injury and who eventually proposes to Cornelia Robson. Yes, Cornelia chooses this dude over the English Lord, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.

Fleetwood: an engineer on the Karnak who attempted to marry one of Linnet’s old chambermaids, despite the fact that he was already married to an Egyptian woman. Linnet prevented the marriage, which made both Fleetwood and Louise extremely angry.

So, we have our cast, and it’s not a small one. We have our primary players who drive the plot forward with their secret and not-so-secret actions, and those who make stuff happen for our primary players to react to.

Realistic Population

Death on the Nile primarily takes place in Egypt, broken up with stops at hotels and busy locations. The named characters ride on the S.S. Karnak up the Nile River together, and it is on this boat that the murder and mayhem take place. In the original novel, Ustinov adaptation, and Suchet adaptation, most of the characters have negative, tenuous connections to Linnet Doyle–her father bought out one character’s business, ruining the family, for instance. In another example, we see that in the Ustinov adaptation, Dr. Bessner’s clinic is about to lose its funding because Linnet Doyle is changing her father’s financial ties. But not all characters have these connections, and that is okay. Something we must remember as writers is that when a story is taking place in a public space, there will be strangers to the story. There are plenty of other visitors to the hotels in Egypt, and the riverboats are common transportation for tourists. Readers don’t expect every tourist on a boat to be connected to every other tourist on the boat. That’s what makes the old connection between Mrs. Van Schuyler and Linnet Doyle a surprise. On the surface, Mrs. Allerton and her son Tim have no connection whatsoever to Linnet Doyle, but when Joanna’s name is mentioned, a shady connection reveals itself.

To put it another way, it’d be as if the Hogwarts School was only populated by Harry and his friends, and Draco and his friends. The school just has four teachers at any time and that’s it. None of the other students and faculty matter, so trim them out!

Readers expect a school to be populated. They expect a city to be populated. They expect a passenger boat to be populated.

Of course, Agatha Christie had plans for the characters she put on the Karnak, but at the outset, having this large group made sense because it’s a tourist’s boat. It’s supposed to be busy and crowded. But it’s not necessary to make all those characters obviously connected. She didn’t make intricate connections between every student and every teacher in Cat Among the Pigeons, either; sometimes, you just need people there because people are supposed to be there. They are, essentially, moving scenery. And because those extras are treated like scenery, we readers are not expecting backstories on all of them. We don’t know all the backstories of all the crewmembers on the Karnak, nor are we looking for them. They are there to simply fill in the scene.

In the most recent Branagh version, however, this entire cast–yes, all those people–are the wedding party for Simon and Linnet Doyle. Considering Branagh’s time in Shakespeare, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this strategy. Now the entire cast’s presence on the boat is justified. Such a move, however, means all the secretive, surprising connections are thrust out into the open. The chances for surprise go way down. And the fact some of those connections are negative at the outset makes it all the stranger some of these people are invited to the wedding. For instance, Branagh transforms the Dr. Bessner role part into another doctor who was Linnet Doyle’s former fiance. The man is clearly fawning after Linnet until she dies. Why is he at this destination wedding? No idea. But we need our suspects, dammit!

More Characters = More Subplots. Yay!

As previously noted, having this size of a group means one can have some other plot threads. These smaller plot lines give the writer a chance to break up the major plot and allow little breaks from major events without bringing the story to a standstill. After all, if all the major plot points of Death on the Nile were smushed together (marriage/murder/second murder/third murder/reveal), you’d have an overwhelming episode of a television show rather than a movie, let alone a novel. So having other plot lines allows the writer to build curiosity in the reader. What did that dollar fragment in the maid’s hand mean? Wait, who is Mr. Farnthorp, really? Why is the Signor so upset about his note? Why is Rosalie Otterbourne so protective of her mother?

Now even in a novel, one can have superfluous plot threads. Yes, Dame Christie, included. Take the Signor Richetti character. His sole purpose is to be the reason Colonel Race boards the Karnak. He is a sulky man who has no connection whatsoever to the Doyles or anything going on. He gets to have one angry interaction with Linnet Doyle, and that’s it. There’s a reason that all three adaptations of this novel omit this character. One could remove the “political agitator” subplot and affect absolutely nothing else in the story, which is why the films consistently cut him out.

The pearl necklace subplot is altered from film to film. Sometimes the pearls are forged, sometimes they are just stolen. Sometimes it’s the klepto old Miss Van Schuyler, while in the Branagh version the character created to replace Col. Race took the pearls in order to have a clean start with his love, Rosalie Otterbourne, whose mother is a jazz singer hired by the Doyle’s for this destination wedding thing. Unlike the political agitator plot, the stolen pearls provide a worthwhile red herring to Linnet’s murder–someone may have murdered her out of hate, but maybe they were just greedy for the money in those pearls. Greed doesn’t require a previous relationship or connection, and such greed allows strangers to become suspects. In a mystery set on a tourist boat, such a move makes sense and therefore requires characters to flesh it out.

If I could have a smidgeon of the fun Angela Lansbury has in acting for this film, I would be a happy soul, indeed.

More Subplots = More Characters to Keep Track of. UGH.

So you saw that list I made earlier. Let’s face it–that list is huge. Macbeth has roughly the same number of named characters. There’s a reason films often condense or omit characters from a movie: it’s just too much. The Suchet adaptation, for instance, eliminates three characters. The Ustinov adaptation deletes six. Branagh cuts a few, but then also adds some different ones to fill in the gaps. Yet these adaptations were able to tell the same essential story.

This means the effects of cast changes are felt far more in the subplots than in the major plot. Branagh’s adaptation, for instance, pushes love as the major motive for everything: the pearl necklace is stolen for love. Linnet is murdered for love. The maid–and the necklace thief–are murdered to protect love. By reorganizing the characters and how they connected, Branagh altered the very subplots those characters served.

And…sure, I guess that’s okay. But when there’s only one real reason folks are doing anything, you suck a lot of mystery out of the story.

Yes, having a big cast is a pain. Keeping track of multiple motivations is a pain. The Ustinov adaptation made this painfully clear with the connections they created for motives: Mrs. Otterbourne was getting sued by Linnet for libel (and Rosalie would go far to protect her mother, wouldn’t she?); Dr. Bessner’s clinic was going to lose funding; Communist Ferguson openly despised Linnet’s wealth and wanted to see her dead; the trustee Pennington was embezzling Linnet; even the nurse Miss Bowers blamed Linnet’s family for ruining her own. You couldn’t take a step on that boat without bumping into someone with the motivation to kill Linnet.

Keeping track of all those motivations and connections is very, very hard, for on top of making them exist, you have to make them matter. This means dedicating page space (or screen time) that adequately gives every plot thread relevance and urgency to the overall storyline. The more plot threads you have, the more complicated your pacing will have to be, too, for the major plot thread can’t be out of sight for long.

Final Thoughts…

So if you the writer are not sure you can make it all weave together, DON’T DO IT.

There is nothing wrong with keeping to a few plot threads and a small cast. There’s a reason “cozy” mysteries typically use a small group of characters: readers can track them easily, their motivations are easy to track as a writer, and any change to those characters is easier to distinguish because there’s less moving scenery to distract a reader. As one who has read mysteries for a few decades, nothing infuriates a reader like goofed character/plot connections. It messes up the story, and it makes you the writer look like you don’t know your own story-world.

Now I’m sure that, assuming you made it to the end here, you have your own thoughts on stories and the size of their character cast. I’d love to hear them!

I know that the easy advice here would be to “create only the characters your story absolutely needs,” but sometimes we just don’t know how many characters that entails–not in the first draft, anyway. I still grind my teeth over the plothole the filmmakers created in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because they condensed the story too damn much. It takes time and practice to first find our central plot thread, and then the characters needed to see that plot thread through. I’m still working on this just like you, so I’d love to hear your take on big/small character casts, plot threads that could have used a few more characters, a few less, and so on.

And what’s your favorite book cover from the assortment in this post? I admit, I love the clean, cool colors of this one.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve another indie interview on the way! Plus we could wander the Holmesian countryside if you’d like, dissect the plot and characters of my own fiction, find inspiration among the sounds of nature, or take up a dragon to fight Napoleon. Mystery and adventure await!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Of Monks & Marigolds & Murder: A Nature Walk with Brother Cadfael

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! The Summer Solstice has come and gone, leaving Wisconsin with a collection of thunderheads eager to crack our air with lightning and thunder and blanket our countryside with rain (and sometimes hail). Had I knowledge of seeds and soil, such weather would be fit for a plot of sprouts (well, not the hail, but you get me). But alas, my neglected garden remains…neglected. Well, save for the one onion I threw into the mud for a lark. That’s actually sprouting! Now to make sure I don’t mow it down by accident…

In a few days’ time, a group of fellow educators and I are getting together to celebrate nature in literature. Some are eager to discuss the beauty of nature in poetry, others the power of nature’s presence in nonfiction.

And then there’s me, eager to talk about how nature can be used to kill us.

Don’t worry, I’m not digging into any eco-terror-type tales. No, I went to my beloved mystery series, for of course I had to. I gathered a batch of Sherlock Holmes stories where the rural isolation played a role in the crime, and a batch of Brother Cadfael mysteries where flowers played a role in the whodunit with the Rare Benedictine. If you’d like to explore the Holmesian Countryside with me another time, let me know! In the meantime, let’s take a stroll among the flowers that will never ever grow under my care (though considering the poisonous nature of some, that’s probably for the best).

~*~

I’ve only written about Brother Cadfael once or twice previously, so here’s a brief refresher:

The Cadfael series is a mystery series set in 12th century England featuring a Benedictine monk who had served in the Crusades before taking Orders. His time in the world not only taught him a wide variety of herbal remedies and apothecary skills, but also the depth and breadth of human nature.

Cadfael’s peace, though, is always to be found in the garden.

He doubted if there was a finer Benedictine garden in the whole kingdom, or one better supplied with herbs both good for spicing meats, and also invaluable as medicine. The main orchards and lands of the Shrewsbury abbey of Stain Peter and Saint Paul lay on the northern side of the road, outside the monastic enclave, but here, in the enclosed garden within the walls, close to the abbot’s fish-ponds and the brook that worked the abbey mill, Brother Cadfael ruled unchallenged. The herbarium in particular was his kingdom, for he had built it up gradually through fifteen years of labour, and added to it many exotic plants of his own careful raising, collected in a roving youth that had taken him as far afield as Venice, and Cyprus and the Holy Land. For Brother Cadfael had come late to the monastic life, like a battered ship settling at last for a quiet harbour…He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude. Spiced, to be truthful, with more than a little mischief when he could get it, as he liked his victuals well-flavoured, but quietude all the same…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

Don’t we all, Brother. Indeed, don’t we all.

First, a visit to The Rose Rent.

We are not quite in Brother Cadfael’s herb garden within the cloister’s walls, but we are now on abbey grounds. This home, you see, was willed by a widow named Judith. She gifts it to Shrewsbury Abbey with the request of being given a single rose from her late husband’s rose bush as a form of rent. The rose bush itself is quite impressive, as our flora-loving monk will tell you.

A snow of white, half-open buds sprinkled it richly. The blooms were never very large, but of the purest white and very fragrant.

Many men seek the attention of the pure, beautiful Judith, but she refuses all. Even the young monk charged with caring for the rose bush falls in love with the widow, but he is soon found dead alongside the plant. The authorities assume the rose bush was simply wrecked in the attack, but Brother Cadfael thinks otherwise.

“What was done to the rose-bush,” said Cadfael firmly, “was not done with that knife. Could not be! A man would have to saw away for half an hour or more, even with a sharp knife, at such a thick bole. That was done with a heavier weapon, meant for such work…”

Why is the rose bush as brutalized as the boy? THAT is a crucial piece of the mystery, for someone wants the Rose Rent as broken as Judith’s ties to the past. But who could it be?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Come, let us visit Brother Cadfael’s workshop now. I hear he keeps cherry wine here as well as many balms and salves. Just take care with the Monk’s-Hood!

Monk’s Hood

While many plants served their purpose in healing mixtures, some could be powerful healers as well as killers. Monk’s-Hood is one such plant. Named for the cowl-like shape of its petals, this lovely flower plays a critical role in attending the aged in the abbey’s infirmary. The risks of using it, however, cannot be understated.

“But keep it carefully, Edmund, never let it near your lips. Wash your hands well after using it, and make sure nay other who handles it does the same. It’s good for a man’s outside, but bad indeed for his inside. … [the oil is] the ground root of monk’s-hood, chiefly, in mustard oil and oil from flax seeds. It’s powerfully poisonous if swallowed, a very small draught of this could kill…”

When a hard-headed landowner is found poisoned not only by food from the abbey but with the Monk’s-Hood salve Cadfael makes for the infirmary, the Benedictine must act quickly to clear the abbey and reveal the killer.

“If you can make medicines from this plant,” said Prior Robert, with chill dislike, “so, surely, may others, and this may have come from some very different source, and not from any store of ours.”

“That I doubt,” said Cadfael sturdily, “since I know the odour of my own specific so well, and can detect here mustard and houseleek as well as monk’s hood. I have seen its effects, once taken, I know them again.”

Cadfael uses his knowledge of the oil’s smell and stain to bring the killer to justice, for few realize just how poisonous such a potion can be. The sheriff certainly didn’t until Cadfael tested the main suspect by asking him to drink the monk’s hood to calm his nerves–and he would have if not for Cadfael’s intervention.

But why was the landowner killed? For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Plants can not only help heal, but they can also help provide place. We can visit a nearby shepherd’s hut so you can see and smell for yourself.

One Corpse too Many

The clover’s quite heady isn’t it? Clover was often used as a perfume for altar lamps in this time period, but it was also grown by farmers to feed livestock. Goose-grass, too, was quite handy for feeding farm animals, but even Brother Cadfael could put such a clingy plant to use in making salves for wounds.

It’s this particular combination of clover and goose-grass that helped Cadfael uncover a murdered man’s body among King Stephen’s executed prisoners. Only the murdered man had the smell of clover and the burrs of goose-grass (as well as different strangulation marks, but that’s nothing to do with the plants), so by finding the barn with both plants, Cadfael was able to uncover the murder weapon and other clues to the killer.

The dry grass was well laced with small herbs now rustling and dead but still fragrant, and there was a liberal admixture of hooky, clinging goose-grass in it. That reminded [Cadfael] not only of the shred of stem dragged deep into Nick Faintree’s throat by the ligature that killed him, but also of Torold [Blund]’s ugly shoulder wound.

With war among the monarchs, everyone, even those cloistered, are caught up in the bloodshed, the betrayals, and the espionage. Cadfael must show the king that this singular corpse could crack his credibility beneath the crown…hopefully without losing his own life in the process. Does he succeed?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

One last stop, I think. The hawthorn hedge is beautiful this time of year, its white petals falling as gently as snowflakes upon the ground. Did you know those of this time period believed the crown of thorns placed upon Christ’s head came from a hawthorn plant? Such a connection with the divine should be revered…and put to good use…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

One of the young monks under Brother Cadfael’s supervision frequently experiences visions and extreme spams, so Cadfael must often give the monk poppy juice to help still the boy’s body and mind. When some other ambitious monks “interpret” the boy’s visions as a plea from a Welsh saint to dig up her bones and bring them to Shrewsbury, Cadfael (being Welsh) has no choice but to accompany this band of Brothers into Wales to exhume the saint.

Not surprisingly, this venture leads to conflict between cloister and Welsh, and one morning soon after their arrival, the leader of the Welsh village is found dead. Cadfael is not wanting for suspects, but once he discovers his poppy juice supply has been drained, he quickly works out the identity of the killer.

To cease the conflict in the village and protect the saint whose bones his abbey so desperate wants, Cadfael chooses to put that reverence for hawthorn to use in a display of “divine” intervention.

Over altar and reliquary a snowdrift of white petals lay, as though a miraculous wind had carried them in its arms across two fields from the hawthorn hedge, without spilling one flower on the way, and breathed them in here through the altar window.

Why the ruse? For that, you’ll have to read the mystery.

~*~

Is it any wonder that Cadfael inspired my character Arlen? Both men of nature and healing, of principle and justice. Both called in dire days to summon past skills. Both fiercely loyal, giving, and kind.

We could use more Cadfaels in this world right now. But perhaps they are already among us–in the streets. In the battles.

Or, perhaps, in the gardens.

This season, do take a moment to explore a beloved park, forest, or other sanctuary of nature. Such places of color and quiet can be a balm to soothe the tired soul.

~STAY TUNED!~

If you’d like to meander through the Holmesian countryside, do let me know! Otherwise, I’ve finally seen Kenny B’s adaptation of Death on the Nile, and I have thoughts–not just about his take, but on how big or small a cast should be. Considering how the cast size of Death on the Nile changes over the course of a novel and three different film adaptations, it’s worth asking ourselves as writers just how many characters and subplots one needs in a tale to keep it clipping along.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Lessons Learned from William Lindsay Gresham’s #NightmareAlley: Don’t Do the Spook Show.

Ah, the lure of the Dark Carnival.

As one who deeply loves Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, how could I NOT be fascinated by the trailer to Guillermo del Toro’s latest film? The combination of carnival lights and period noir ignited something electric, something…unnatural, yet all too true to the darker corners of human nature.

I found the graphic novel, the original novel, and even the Tyrone Power adaptation from the 1940s before treating myself to the new cinematic adaptation of Nightmare Alley last week. (Babysitters are damned hard to come by these days, and Bo got to see Halloween Kills by himself in November. My turn!)

For those curious about the premise of Nightmare Alley, here’s a blurb:

Nightmare Alley begins with an extraordinary description of a carnival-show geek—alcoholic and abject and the object of the voyeuristic crowd’s gleeful disgust and derision—going about his work at a county fair. Young Stan Carlisle is working as a carny, and he wonders how a man could fall so low. There’s no way in hell, he vows, that anything like that will ever happen to him.

And since Stan is clever and ambitious and not without a useful streak of ruthlessness, soon enough he’s going places. Onstage he plays the mentalist with a cute assistant (before long his harried wife), then he graduates to full-blown spiritualist, catering to the needs of the rich and gullible in their well-upholstered homes. It looks like the world is Stan’s for the taking. At least for now.

Published in 1946, Nightmare Alley was adapted into film the following year and put author William Lindsay Gresham on the literary map…for a while, anyway. This novel was his only popular publication, and in the early 1960s Gresham took his own life by overdosing on medication. In looking at his brief biography on Wikipedia, I notice a parallel between his life and Nightmare Alley’s protagonist, Stanton Carlisle: both seeking community and purpose, only to judge all as a con afterward. Carnivals are full of deception–of course they are. But so is show business, so is psychology, so is religion, so is the amber drink of the bottle and the counselors who are supposed to break you free from the bottle so why even bother leaving the bottle at all…

All give false comfort. All deceive with the most dangerous power of all:

Hope.

A powerful thing, Hope. It has the ability to drive out despair, grief, and anger. It has the ability to ignite empathy, love, and trust. Countries rise and fall upon the revolutions spurred on by Hope. Religions millennia old root themselves in Hope.

Hope brings many to the Ten-in-One show. Be it Molly, the Mamzelle Electra; Zeena and Pete, a pair of mentalists who wowed crowds until Pete took to drink; or Stanton Carlisle, a young man determined to make himself in a world of marks and saps.

The crowd was coming out of the geek show, gray and listless and silent except for the drunk. Stan watched them with a strange, sweet, faraway smile on his face. It was the smile of a prisoner who has found a file in a pie.

We’ll return to that geek show in a moment. First I want to highlight a specific exchange between Zeena and Stan in the third chapter, for much of Stan’s story ties back to these words:

“I’ve always stuck to the mental business. It don’t hurt anybody–makes plenty of friends for you wherever you go. Folks are always crazy to have their fortunes told, and what the hell–You cheer’em up, give’em something to wish and hope for. That’s all the preacher does every Sunday. Not much different, being a fortuneteller and a preacher, way I look at it. Everybody hopes for the best and fears for the worst and the worst is generally what happens but that don’t stop us from hoping. When you stop hoping you’re in a bad way.”

Stan nodded. “Has Pete stopped hoping?”

Zeena was silent and her childish blue eyes were bright. “Sometimes I think he has. Pete’s scared of something–I think he got good and scared of himself a long time ago. That’s what made him such a wiz as a crystal-reader–for a few years. He wished like all get out that he really could read the future in the ball. And when he was up there in front of them he really believed he was doing it. And then all of a sudden he began to see that there wasn’t no magic anywhere to lean on and he had nobody to lean on in the end but himself–not me, not his friends, not Lady Luck–just himself.”

Perhaps it is Zeena’s final note on self-dependence that prevents Stan from taking Zeena’s words to heart; there are multiple flashbacks to Stan’s childhood in the novel, where his mother’s deceit and father’s abuse taught him that everyone lies and no one is worth real trust. But readers cannot help but absorb Zeena’s other lessons: that everyone is looking for hope and will take it wherever they can get it. That believing one’s own hustle will only lead to a dark place of liquor and hopelessness, and when hopelessness sets in, all is over.

But at this early point in the story, Stan’s not worried about hopelessness, hope, or anything else. Money’s all that matters to him, and he sees the money to be made in the carnival acts. Even The Geek–a person who bites the heads off of chickens and drinks their blood–is a major draw. When he questions Clem, the manager of the Ten-in-One, about where a Geek is found, Clem explains a Geek is “made” by exploiting an alcoholic’s desperation for drink.

“So you tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.’…[After a week] you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. Out you go’…[And] you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.”

Remember this.

Stan first maneuvers himself in to help Zeena and Pete with their mentalist act, slowly asking for tips and tricks about cold reading people. He picks it up quickly, so quickly he’s able to talk down a sheriff and his raiding officers from shutting down the carnival. Through seducing Zeena and poisoning Pete, Stan gets a hold of the codebook for their mentalist act and then seduces young Molly to come with him as his partner in the nightclub circuit. A few years of this, though, make Stan hungry for more, and he shifts into spiritualism with a fake ordination certificate from a church correspondence school.

Both film adaptations skip the preacher portion of Stan’s series of cons. From a storytelling perspective, I do not blame them. Initially, I thought this was because Religion is too important to too many potential movie ticket-buyers to be included in the films, but I can see now that removing the “preacher” phase of Stan’s evolution tightens up the narrative so we can get to Stan’s next con: applying his “mentalist” powers to “help” the wealthy communicate with their dead loved ones.

Molly hates this shift away from their stage show, feeling it too deceitful and mean to play on people’s grief. But Stan will not listen.

I’ve met half a dozen spook workers in the past year and they’re hustlers, every one of them. I tell you, it’s just show business. The crowd believes…isn’t it better to give them something to hope for?

Stan successfully persuades Molly to play along, promising her a happy marriage and child one day while threatening her with exposure as a fraud the next. For a while, Molly deceives herself that Stan is just struggling with the pressure of the business, that their relationship will go back to its happier days soon. She bets her hopes on a future where Stan will stop trying to one-up his own game.

And that is her mistake, for Stan has already chosen to bet on the power of another woman to help him.

Ooooh, psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter is slick. Slicker than Stan, I’d say. She attempts to out his “mentalist” con while he’s performing, and when that fails, invites him for a consultation where she quickly sums up his sleepless, nervous character.

Dr. Lilith Ritter was regarding him from across a wide mahogany desk. She went on, “I thought I’d be hearing from you, Carlisle. You were never cut out to run a spook racket solo.”

Stan, so bloody sure of himself, is certain he can use Dr. Ritter’s connections with the upper echelons of the city to get enough clients–and dirt on their pasts–to keep the “spook racket” going until he’s cleaned out the lot. He believes his own hustle so much, he never once considers Ritter to have her own con at play.

Whether you want to go with the del Toro’s adaptation of Ritter using Stan to get back at the wealthy Mr. Grindle who scarred her, or Gresham’s novel version of Ritter using her sexual appeal and domination to con Stan into deceiving Grindle so that she could “heal” the man with therapy and then marry him and his wealth…there are just so many ways to interpret this character that I cannot fit into this post. Honestly, no character in this story, be it film or book, is dull. In all the adaptations, though, it is Ritter who toys with Stan’s body and mind, breaking his alcohol abstinence and drawing out Stan’s confession of murdering Pete.

A stubborn thing, Hope. Stan so badly wants to prove the world’s nothing but marks and saps that he can shake down to his heart’s content. He’s sure no dame would be stupid enough to go against him. He even starts feeling he can handle the liquor AND take on the powerful Grindle for all he’s got thanks to Ritter’s information.

But the con falls apart. Grindle sees through the facade Stan puts on Molly to make her appear as the ghost of Grindle’s past lover. Grindle vows revenge at any cost. Molly flees on her own while Stan runs to Ritter for money and help…only for Dr. Ritter to act as if she has no clue what he’s talking about. He’s suffering delusions, she’s been nothing more than his therapist for months, it’s time he be committed for his own sake, she of course only wants what’s best for him.

Instead, Stan runs. And drinks. And runs some more. He’s soon one more bum among the others in a nameless camp, lost in alcohol with the shadow of Grindle eternally on his heels and in his nightmares.

~*~

A deceitful thing, Hope. It can make us see what we want to see. Back in the early days of the carnival, Pete tries to help Stan understand the role of Hope’s Deceit in cold reading people:

(and I do wish I could share this whole scene because the prose is so bloody brilliant, but I’ll do my best to condense it for you here)

“…Then I jump right into the reading. Here’s m’crystal.” He focused his eyes on the empty whisky bottle and Stan watched him with an uneasy twinge. Pete seemed to be coming alive. His eyes became hot and intent.

“…through the ages certain men have gazed into the polished crystal and seen…Slowly, shifting their form, visions come…”

Stan found himself watching the empty bottle in which a single pale drop slanted across the bottom. He could not take his eyes away, so contagious was the other’s absorption.

…Pete’s eyes burned down into the glass. “…A boy is running on bare feet through the fields. A dog is with him…Happiness then…but for a little while. Now dark mists…sorrow. I see people moving…one man stands out…evil…the boy hates him. Death and the wish of death.”

Stan moved like an explosion. He snatched for the bottle; it slipped and fell to the ground. He kicked it into a corner, his breath coming quick and rapid.

[Pete] crumpled into the folding chair…”didn’t mean nothing, boy…Stock reading–fits everybody. Only you got to dress it up…Everybody had some trouble. Somebody they wanted to kill. Usually for a boy it’s the old man. What’s childhood? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy had a dog. Or neighbor’s dog…Just old drunk. Just lush. Lord…Zeena be mad.”

Again, Stan doesn’t listen.

Or perhaps he does, wrongly. He could not deny Pete’s power in that moment of clarity with the empty bottle. He felt the draw of Hope that one could really see the past, see the future. He knew what Pete was doing, but in that moment of Pete’s crystal-gazing, Stan did not care. And that is the power Stan wants to hold over others for his own gain.

How can such a soul find redemption?

Let us fast-forward to the end now, and see for ourselves.

The movies don’t bother with something that Gresham writes next, and it’s a pity. It’s one last deceitful hope–this time by Gresham on us.

Stan spots an ad in a newspaper for Zeena’s horoscopes and bums rides to the address. There he finds Zeena making a living off of horoscopes for newspapers and some other subscription services. She cleans Stan up and offers him help to find another carnival until Grindle’s hunt dies down. During his stay, Stan has stopped drinking and is even working on developing a new mentalist alias.

Perhaps this really is a new beginning! we readers think.

And then we see Stan stealing from Zeena’s earnings before she gives him money for the bus.

He hasn’t learned.

Not at all.

By the time Stan arrives at the new carnival, he is completely soused. The manager McGraw wants nothing to do with him…at first.

In the office trailer McGraw was typing out a letter when he heard a tap on the screen door…The bum was hatless, shirt filthy. “Allow me t’introduce myself–Allah Rahged, top-money mitt reader. Best cold reader in the country.”

McGraw took the cigar out of his mouth. “Sorry, brother, I’m full up…I don’t like a mitt camp. Too much trouble with the law.”

The bum was eyeing the bottle, his red eyes fastened on it…”Hey, mister, how ’bout [a] li’l shot ‘fore I go?”

“Yeah, sure. But I just happened to think of something. I got one job you might take a crack at. It ain’t much, and I ain’t begging you to take it; but it’s a job. Keep you in coffee and cakes and a shot now and then. What do you say? Of course, it’s only temporary–just until we get a real geek.”

What. An. ENDING. In terms of prose, in terms of narrative arc, in terms of twist.

But unlike the book and del Toro version, Tyrone Power’s 1947 adaptation chooses to take the audience past this moment of Stanton becoming the Geek–

–and down the redemption route.

Oh look, Molly is at this carnival as well, and oh look, Molly sees Stan is the new Geek, and oh look, Molly can get through to Stan and the power of love will help Stan heal and there IS hope after all! Hope can be found in Love!

We even get a little moral of the story from the bystanders watching Stan and Molly embrace: “How can a guy get so low?” one asks. Another answers: “He reached too high.”

Aw, isn’t that sweet? If the worst of us, like Stanton Carlisle, can be redeemed, then maybe we can be redeemed, too.

This, my fellow creatives, is the REAL Spook Show. This ending, right here, is a narrative deceitful hope, and it will not hold up.

A man who has seduced, killed, and constantly swindled isn’t going to magically sober up in the last two minutes and be back in love with the girl he was willing to dump for the dominatrix psychiatrist. Even del Toro doesn’t go this route for Stanton Carlisle in the new movie, for he knows that in a tale like Nightmare Alley, there is no hope for such a man. Clues throughout his movie (as well as Gresham’s novel) make it clear to us that Stan is not a soul that can be saved.

You cannot apply glowing paint to a picture of a heart, dim the lights, pump sounds of heartbeats in through hidden speakers, and tell us that’s a real heart. We know the hustle too well by now.

Any story that pulls such a con will always feel hollow at its end, the deceit a taint upon whatever true strengths in narrative the story shared. Do not build the spook show, writer.

Do not look for hope where there is none, reader.

For there shall always be those fictional souls born to be damned.

~STAY TUNED!~

Thank you all so so SO much for listening to the December podcast series Blondie and I did together! She loved it so much that she wants to start her own blog and podcast. Proud Mama moment, indeed! I’ve got some goals to share as well, and after wandering around Nightmare Alley, I neeeeeeeed to make good on my promise from last year and write about comedy.

Also, I’m looking for authors to interview in 2022. If you’ve got a new release planned or just want to connect more with other writers and readers, please let me know by emailing me on my Contact Page.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Another Wednesday, Another #Podcast for my Fellow #Readers and #Writers: #TheMidnightBargain by #CLPolk

Happy Wednesday, one and all! We’ll continue to celebrate Wyrd and Wonder with another fantasy read on Story Cuppings: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out together.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I hope you enjoy this sip from The Midnight Bargain with me! Here’s awesome indie author S.J. Higbee’s review of the book for a more complete take on it. 🙂

If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. Let’s all enjoy different genres and styles of storytelling throughout the year, shall we? xxxxxx

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

My #Podcast for #Readers and #Writers is up! Episode 1: #Raybearer by #JordanIfueko

Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve officially got the first episode of my podcast done and done. To help celebrate Wyrd and Wonder–and because it’s just been recommended so gosh darn much–I chose to start with Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out together.

I hope you enjoy this sip from the story with me. Any feedback on the podcast itself will also be greatly appreciated, as I hope to make this a weekly thing. x

If the link above does not work, try this one! Story Cuppings • A podcast on Anchor

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#LessonsLearned from #JohnLeCarre: Always #Write a #Setting of Quality.

Welcome to February, my friends! Sunlight is rare in Wisconsin these frigid days. The snow has frozen, and mothers–well, this mother, anyway–cruelly refuse to let children hurl ice at one another for fun. This has led to lots of running about the house, blasting imaginary baddies while flying off on dragons, Transformers, and Federation star ships. So long as their epic battles do not end with more stitches, we’ll be fine.

Tales of action and adventure have been long been a part of my life, and Bo’s, too. James Bond is a mutual favorite–the suave rogue against impossible villains, constantly in daring chases across the world, winning all the women and destroying all the doomsday devices. That’s what spy films are all about, right?

And then I discovered John le Carré through a whimsical selection of the library: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring the late great Sir Alec Guinness. Bo, ever the student of all things related to cinema, told me Le Carré wrote the George Smiley novels as a literary retort to Fleming’s Bond.

Image from Bond on the Box. Click the link for more information on a fascinating debate between Anthony Horowitz and David Farr about the spy-worlds crafted by Fleming and Le Carré.

The two authors did actively serve their country in the Intelligence realm, so considering how each approached the world of spies, I’ll leave the idea of a rivalry up to you. Personally, when a character describes protagonist Smiley with “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” I can see how one could perceive Smiley to be the antithesis to the debonair 007.

In celebration of the incomparable John Le Carré, let us visit the postwar England of his protagonist, George Smiley. Let us see how one author transforms the landscape for a story dark and full of danger…oh, but this is not a tale of international espionage. Oh no. This is but a humble tale of a village murder.

Yet even a village murder can be filled with secrets and lies. Even a village murder can be a story of quality.

In the spirit of SJ Higbee’s Friday cover comparisons, let’s see a few covers. while I love the ornateness of the Q, isn’t it a shame the back color is a drab white? The gold is practically lost to it.

We begin.

Chapter 1: Black Candles

The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset. But Carne prefers the respectability of the monarch to the questionable politics of his adviser, drawing strength from the conviction that Great Schools, like Tudor Kings, were ordained in Heaven.

“Ordained in Heaven.” Already, Le Carré establishes Carne School’s feelings of superiority over the rest of the masses. Not only is this school connected to the throne and the aristocracy, but to God himself. Surely no common man would think himself better than such a place.

And indeed its greatness is little short of miraculous. Founded by obscure monks, endowed by a sickly boy king, and dragged from oblivion by a Victorian bully, Carne had straightened its collar, scrubbed its rustic hands and face and presented itself shining to the courts of the twentieth century. And in the twinkling of an eye, the Dorset bumpkin was London’s darling: Dick Whittington had arrived. Carne had parchments in Latin, seals in wax and Lammas Land behind the Abbey. Carne had property, cloisters and woodworm, a whipping block and a line in the Doomsday Book–then what more did it need to instruct the sons of the rich?

“Rustic hands.” “Bumpkin.” A school of the country, nestled in the dirty rural life, yearns to be a part of the “courts” and be “London’s darling.” Classism flows through the novel with a powerful current, the kind that grabs you by the foot and pulls you under if you’re not careful. We must tread on, carefully, for the students are arriving.

This cover tells me I am in a school, but that’s it. The font for title and author are equally vague. Blech.

And they came; each Half they came (for terms are not elegant things), so that throughout a whole afternoon the trains would unload sad groups of black-coated boys on to the station platform. They came in great cars that shone with mournful purity.

They came to bury poor King Edward, trundling handcarts over the cobbled streets or carrying tuck boxes like little coffins. Some wore gowns, and when they walked they looked like crows, or black angels come for the burying. Some followed singly like undertakers’ mutes, and you could hear the clip of their boots as they went. They were always in mourning at Carne: the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave, the masters because mourning was respectable and the wives because respectability was underpaid…

Oh, this imagery! All the vibrant energies equated with youth have been cloaked with black and contained with piety.

But more on that in a moment, I just want to pause here on the importance of connecting what is “normal” in one setting is not always normal elsewhere. Sending children away to boarding school is not a common thing in the United States; I did so in high school (that is, for ages 14-18), and even for my religious boarding school, life was nothing like Carne. At first read, I couldn’t help but think of Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and his episode all about poor Tomkinson’s transformation from a lowly first year to…well. You can watch the episode. It’s brilliant. 🙂

For those who did not send or attend a boarding school for children, this idea of youth forced to attend a starkly religious place for education completely justifies this procession of “black angels” and “little coffins.” But Le Carré also says the boys look like “crows,” and this hints at something a bit more malicious, a bit more sinister. After all, crows are the mediators between life and death, and feasters upon the rotting flesh of others.

Crosshairs! Well now, that is exciting. 🙂 But why the pea green?

We’re not two pages in, yet we are already keenly aware Death is afoot in this place.

…and now, as the Lent Half (as the Easter term was called) drew to its end, the cloud of gloom was as firmly settled as ever over the grey towers of Carne.

Gloom and the cold. The cold was crisp and sharp as flint. It cut the faces of the boys as they moved slowly from the deserted playing fields after the school match. It pierced their black topcoats and turned their stiff, pointed collars into icy rings round their necks.

“Gloom and the cold.” I love that this is a sentence fragment after such lines about gloom over “grey towers”–for an institution that considers itself divine, Carne certainly has no physical sense of light or hope. But gloom can be a different thing on warmer days, when sunlight is not so rare. In the wintry days of Lent (Carne can’t even refer to this time as the Easter Term, Easter being a holiday of light, resurrection, glory, HOPE!), when the Divine is at its lowest point in preparation for crucifixion, the cold has a physical power to “cut” the innocents of this school.

Carne isn’t the only gloomy place

in England on this day. London, too, struggles beneath foreboding.

Who the bloody hell designed this?! There are no mysterious men in sunglasses, no sexy dames with their thighs hanging out. Just because a spy is in the novel doesn’t make it a spy novel! You are a very stupid boy, Tomkinson!

Abruptly [Brimley] stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window…She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide. The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine. Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.

This theme of proper mourning flows downwards from the school to the nearby village. For instance, Le Carré has readers picture the village’s hotel as “sitting like a prim Victorian lady, its slate roof in the mauve of half mourning” (24). When a policeman meets with George Smiley about the murdered wife of a teacher, he wastes no time in establishing the set-apartness of Carne School:

“Funny place, Carne. There’s a big gap between the Town and Gown, as we say; neither side knows or likes the other. It’s fear that does it, fear and ignorance. It makes it hard in a case like this….They’ve got their own community, see, and no one outside it can get in. No gossip in the pubs, no contacts, nothing…just cups of tea and bits of seed cake….”

“Town and Gown.” What a phrase. Now this definitely recalls something of my own boarding school experience. We were all of us outsiders to this small Midwestern community. We weren’t of their earth, we teens of unknown backgrounds. And with all the rules dictating where we could go and when, we rarely connected with any peers of town. Where no one knows the other, ignorance will take root, and in Carne, those roots run as deep as the currents of classism. All are beneath the sanctity of the School, worthy only of “bits” of seed cake and tea. Not even seed cake–bits of seed cake. It hearkens to the Biblical image of dogs begging for scraps from the Master’s table, and that such scraps of Gospel Truth are the key to salvation.

Now this one I rather like. The red threatens, the long shadow looms. The boy on a bicycle looks to the side as if worried (as he should be). The text size and color aren’t ideal, but they do stand out without detracting from the boy.

Yet clearly Carne School does not feel the rest of the town is worth such truth, as one teacher proves in a conversation with Smiley:

“The press, you know, are a constant worry here. In the past it could never have happened. Formerly our great families and institutions were not subjected to this intrusion. No, indeed not. But today all that is changed. Many of us are compelled to subscribe to the cheaper newspapers for this very reason.”

It is quite a surprise to Carne School’s faculty, then, when the new teacher’s wife refuses to follow the rules and restrictions that keep Town and Gown apart. After this same wife is found brutally murdered in her home late one snowy night, both Town and Gown are suspect because, as another teacher’s wife put it, “‘Stella didn’t want to be a lady of quality. She was quite happy to be herself. That’s what really worried Shane. Shane likes people to compete so that she can make fools of them.’ ‘So does Carne,’ said Simon, quietly.”

Let us close this analysis with Smiley’s glimpse of the murder scene.

[Smiley] glanced towards the garden. The coppice which bordered the lane encroached almost as far as the corner of the house, and extended to the far end of the lawn, screening the house from the playing fields. The murderer had reached the house by a path which led across the lawn and through the trees to the lane at the furthest end of the garden. Looking carefully at the snow on the lawn, he was able to discern the course of the path. The white glazed door to the left of the house must lead to the conservatory…And suddenly he knew he was afraid–afraid of the house, afraid of the sprawling dark garden. The knowledge came to him like an awareness of pain. The ivy walls seemed to reach forward and hold him, like an old woman cosseting an unwilling child. The house was large, yet dingy, holding to itself unearthly shapes, black and oily in the sudden contrasts of moonlight. Fascinated despite his fear, he moved towards it. The shadows broke and reformed, darting swiftly and becoming still, hiding in the abundant ivy, or merging with the black windows.

We return to darkness, slick and liquid, seeping into all the cracks seen and unseen. We return to the imagery of a woman from a bygone era and the doomed youth. In this place ordained by heaven to protect and enlighten, the pure innocence has been stained black and red. Beware the Town. Beware the Gown. Beware the Devil flying with silver wings.

Such are the details that catch the reader’s breath in their throat. Hold it there, writers. Take a lesson from the Master of Subtlety and Method, whose Slow Burns creep so delicately the reader never notices the licking flames until it’s too late. Use the details of the setting to bind actor, atmosphere, and action together, leaving no chance for escape until the final page is read and the reader can breathe at last.

~STAY TUNED!~

Along with more lovely indie author interviews, I’m keen to share my process in worldbuilding for my own fantasy fiction. We’ll have a go at a little mapping, a little digging, a little thrill-seeking. 😉

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: one #narrative #pov does not fit all #stories.

In Wisconsin, summer is a time for nature immersion. Whether you hike in the woods, take to the lake in a boat, or hunt for bugs’n’birds’n’fairies, this is the season for journeys into the wilderness of the North Woods.

Every venture “Up Nort'” requires mysteries for road reading. Since Bo had gotten me some Poirots for Mother’s Day, this seemed like the perfect time to catch up on them. (Bo can’t read in the car because a)motion sickness and b)my driving style freaks him out.) What was meant to be a little simple escapism turned into a reflection on narrative point of view and how it helps–or hurts–a story’s ability to hold a reader.

Back when I was researching the nonfiction writing workshop I had to give at my university last month, I came across an article that referenced “Fleming Method.” This method, the author said, called for blasting through a story by writing only key elements: the dialogue, the action, etc. All the other elements were to wait for the next draft. Doing this allowed Ian Fleming to complete the initial draft of Casino Royale in a few weeks.

After reading Sad Cypress–published years before Casino Royale–part of me now wonders if Christie came up with the Fleming Method before Fleming did.

The premise is clear-cut.

Beautiful young Elinor Carlisle stood serenely in the dock, accused of the murder of Mary Gerrard, her rival in love. The evidence was damning: only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to administer the fatal poison.

Yet, inside the hostile courtroom, only one man still presumed Elinor was innocent until proven guilty. Hercule Poirot was all that stood between Elinor and the gallows.…

The story itself is divided into three parts: Elinor’s flashback through all the events preceding the murder, Poirot’s investigation of the murder, and then the trial. Again, clear-cut.

Yet when I finished the book, I let out a “hmph” and tossed it onto the car’s dashboard.

Bo’s not used to me doing that, especially after what was, by all accounts, a good morning. We had successfully completed a walk and lunch at a beer garden with the kids–a HUGE accomplishment when two out of three are picky eaters. “Wasn’t the book okay?”

The mystery itself, I explained was fine. There’s a love triangle of sorts, a girl gets murdered, Poirot eventually shows up to investigate, yadda yadda. But the way Christie tells it was weird.

Bo gave me a look. “What do you mean?”

I show him a thick pinches of text–Part 1, the flashback. It’s all quite narrative, with descriptions, exchanges, changes of scene. Part 2 changes point of view character-wise, from the accused murderess to Poirot. Again, we’ve got multiple elements of storytelling. Grand. Part 3, however, drops almost all pretense of story-telling and moves forward almost entirely through dialogue–that is, through the exchanges between witnesses and lawyers during the trial. After 200 pages of “traditional” storytelling, 50 pages of almost pure dialogue jolted me so much I found myself nothing but irritated with the story when the mystery was resolved.

Bo considered. “Has Christie done that before?”

I don’t think so, I said. The cynical teacher in me imagined Christie was on a time crunch, didn’t much care for the story, and decided to just slap together the ending so she could move onto something she did want to write. Or maybe she was so mentally drained from writing And Then There Were None the year before that she needed to put out SOMEthing to appease the publishers. But I don’t know for sure, I said with a shrug, and the reception on this road sucks too much for me to do any deep digging.

“So how does Christie normally write a mystery?”

I stared at Bo so long that Biff scolded me. “It’s rude to stare, you know!”

How did Christie “normally” write a mystery? Was there such a thing as “normal”?

I looked at the other books I had packed along: Dumb Witness, After the Funeral, and Death on the Nile. I thumbed through them, sharing observations with Bo as I went…

Dumb Witness

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

This story had a mix of methods I both liked and disliked. The first few chapters involve a lot of head-hopping amongst the characters of the victim-to-be’s family. I have written about this head-hopping before–nope, not a fan of this “I’m thinking murderous thoughts” to “and I’m thinking murderous thoughts, too!” to “oh, we’re just aaaaaaall thinking murderous thoughts, aren’t we?”. After those opening chapters, however, the unreliable-yet-charming Captain Hastings takes over as narrator until the end of the book. I’ve also written about benefits of the unreliable narrator for mystery writing, and in Dumb Witness those benefits were seen once again: clues quickly dismissed by the narrator Hastings carry crucial importance, and characters Hastings suspects or respects often tend to be something else entirely.

I always enjoy a trip alongside Poirot and Hastings; the two have a wonderful chemistry that allows for light-hearted moments, such as when the victim’s intelligent dog takes such a liking to Hastings that Hastings feels he knows what the dog is saying.

If Christie had written every Poirot mystery with Hastings, though, the misdirections would grow tedious, the joviality stale.

In other words, we’d get bored.

After the Funeral (also known as Funerals are Fatal)

“He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

When Cora Lansquenet is savagely murdered, the extraordinary remark she had made the previous day at her brother Richard’s funeral suddenly takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it. But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”

Did Cora’s accusation a dark truth that sealed her own fate? Or are the siblings’ deaths just tragic coincidences?

Desperate to know the truth, the Lansquenet’s solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel the mystery. For even after the funeral, death isn’t finished yet . . .

I hope you like head-hopping, because this story moves from character to character in an entire family tree throughout the whoooole novel. For the record, I didn’t throw this book out the car window because a) I recalled some of the plot from the David Suchet adaptation, but not all the bits and that was really irritating, and b) the kids would have yelled at me for littering, which would have been even more irritating.

But, I must admit, there was something else here, a good something that kept me wanting to remember the solution. For all the head-hopping, there remained a consistent uncertainty between characters, a singular dread of not feeling entirely comfortable around one’s own family, of relief for getting money and the simultaneous guilt for being thankful someone died so that money could be given. By giving these characters that mutual guilt and suspicion, the narrative no longer jostles readers about. We’re still following that dread, catching the little things that make the characters unique instead of having those things hit us in the face page after page after page to remind us who’s who.

Death on the Nile

The tranquility of a cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.

Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet in this exotic setting nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I feel like this is the mystery that inspired spoofs like Monty Python’s Agatha Christie sketch or the movie Clue–you know, where someone says, “I saw the ___ who did it!” And just before that someone says a name, the lights go dark, a shot rings out, someone groans, and thud–another murder.

(I’m likely quite wrong on this, but that sort of scene is in Death on the Nile, so it’s all I can think about now.)

Blessedly, Death on the Nile is told with an omniscient narrator who mostly follows Poirot about, only occasionally lingering with other characters if there’s a romance arc to propel along.

The narrator never focuses readers away from what Poirot’s doing, nor does the narrator give unnecessary attention for the sake of distraction or red herrings. Being a third person limited point of view, readers don’t get insight into Poirot’s head, either, so we still don’t learn the full solution until Poirot’s ready to “do his thing,” as it were. And that’s fine.

It’s all fine.

Honestly, it is. The head-hopping, the unreliable narrator, the traditional omniscient–each are appropriate approaches to telling a story. Even a chapter of pure dialogue has its place. What matters is that the chosen method encourages readers to continue the story. Can the reader get the information by following one character around, or are multiple viewpoints needed in order to get the big picture? Would readers enjoy the guessing game that comes with unreliable narrators, or does the plot require a more neutral voice to share it? Does the scene’s power come in what is said, or what is not?

It never hurts to experiment and find which approach is the best fit for the story at hand, for like our kids, every story is different. So long as we consider the heart of the story–spurned love, broken family, desperate greed–we can take a step back and consider how readers should reach this heart. We don’t want it to be a simple straight path, nor the path we know so well we could write it blindfolded. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the understanding in that?

So, try directing readers to different characters to help them appreciate the multiple relationships. Let them follow the outsider to reach that inside perspective. Leave them with one soul and see if they will trust that character–or not.

Just don’t commit the Unforgivable Writing Sin, one that leads to readers abandoning your story to the Did Not Finish shelf, never to be journeyed again:

Thou Shalt Not Bore.

Have you ever been intrigued by an author’s choice in narrative point of view? Befuddled? Disappointed? I’d love to hear about it!

STAY TUNED!

Interviews, music, and fantasy fiction lie ahead! I’ll also provide more updates regarding my new novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and how YOU can get your hands on an ARC.

(Yes, I know this says 2019, but IT’S HAPPENING, dagnabit, and that’s what counts!)

Thank you for companionship on this writing journey. You help make my corner of the world a brighter, saner place. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#LessonsLearned from #DianaWynneJones: Small #Family #Conflict Can Grow Into An #Epic #Fantasy

For a long time, I loathed writing the “intimate family story.” They were all the rage in school, these small-cast, down-to-earth stories of relationship conflict without any hope of a happy ending. Where’s the fun in writing such a story? You can’t have any massive showdowns or laser battles. It’s not like you can blow up an aircraft carrier when everything’s set on in the middle of Fort Bored, Wisconsin.

Now I know such stories have their place and their readers. Nothing wrong with that. But as a reader and writer, I struggled to see the true weight of small conflict…until now.

“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”

“Why does David go away to school?”

“Why is David’s family so mean?”

Blondie, Biff, and Bash sat around our meal/school table, their peanut butter sandwiches untouched, string cheese still wrapped. Apple sauce dripped from their spoons onto their Oreos.

“Is David that guy?” Bash points to the boy on the cover.

I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”

I had thought long and hard regarding which Diana Wynne Jones book to read to the kids. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first choice, but it seemed…oh, it seemed too easy a choice. They had seen the movie which, while very much its own creature, would still give the kids lots of visuals to think on as we read. I wanted to start from scratch and require the kids to visualize the story for themselves. This isn’t a typical challenge put to seven-year-olds, who are still very into picture books and the like, but Blondie was quite used to lunchtime read-alouds without any illustrations, so . We’d had success…and see if Myth-Reader Blondie would catch on as to who’s who in this story of freed mischief and horrid family members. Good thing I didn’t have this particular cover, which gives away the whole bloody mystery…

I mean, come ON. To post the climax of the story on the flippin’ cover…

Anyway.

Eight Days of Luke is a perfect example of just how epic an intimate family conflict can be. Jones accomplishes this in two parts: first David’s family, and then Luke’s.

Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great Aunt Dot, Great Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him. (9)

One paragraph in, and readers know the family dynamic is not at all pleasant, let alone fair. Being an orphan is lousy in and of itself, but to live with relatives who expect nothing but gushing gratitude for nothing is its own level of Hel.

“David,” said Aunt Dot, “I thought I told you to change your clothes.”
David tried to explain that he had now no clothes that fitted him any better. Aunt Dot swept his explanation aside and scolded him soundly, both for growing so inconsiderately fast and for arriving in advance of his trunk. It did no good for David to point out that people of his age did grow, nor to suggest that it was the railway’s fault about the trunk. (19)

Expectations set for David are always impossible to reach. He is not allowed amusements of his own, like a bicycle or a friend. The latest strain brought about by his family’s misunderstanding of when school let out leads to David boiling over and saying what no one’s dared say.

Before she or anyone else could speak, David plunged on, again trying so hard to be polite that his voice came out like an announcer’s. “It’s like this, you see. I hate being with you and you don’t want me, so the best thing is just to leave me here. You don’t have to spend lots of money on Mr. Scrum to get rid of me. I’ll be quite all right here.” (30)

While this cover also gives away Thor’s hammer,
there’s also a lot of magical whimsy with the way
Luke ribbons his fire amidst the garden.

The relations are utterly flabbergasted at David’s bluntness–no one denies David’s words, but they are so angered by it all that they send David away without lunch. David sulks in the backyard and, overcome by a desire to say awful, cursing words, unwittingly cracks open the very ground to reveal snakes and fire and…another boy named Luke. The two fight back the snakes, and then David is summoned to face the judges, his family.

“We will say no more about your rudeness at lunch, but what we would like to hear from you in return is a proper expression of thanks to us for all we have done for you.”
Under such a speech as this, most people’s gratitude would wither rather. David’s did. “I said Thanks,” he protested. “But I’ll say it again if you like.”
“What you say is beside the point, child,” Aunt Dot told him austerely. “All we want is that you should feel in your heart, honestly and sincerely, what it means to be grateful for once.”
“Then what do you want me to do?” David asked rather desperately.
“I sometimes think,” said Uncle Bernard vigorously, “that you were born without a scrap of gratitude or common good feeling, boy.” (47)

It doesn’t matter that David really is thankful not to be sent off to a remedial math tutor for two months. It doesn’t matter what his manners are, or what he does to stay clean (which, for a boy, is nigh impossible anyway). David’s very presence in the family breeds contempt, not love, and in that contempt there will always be conflict.

It takes some time with the mysterious Luke to bring about some much-needed change to David’s family’s dynamic. Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid, for instance, ends her days of simpering and snapping and starts standing up for David’s needs.

“Honestly, David, sometimes when they all start I don’t know whether to scream or just walk out into the sunset.”
It had never occurred to David before that Astrid found his relations as unbearable as he did.

[said Astrid.] “Bottom of the pecking-order, that’s you. I’m the next one up. We ought to get together and stop it really, but I bet you think I’m as bad as the rest. You see, I get so mad I have to get at someone.” (127)

David’s family also doesn’t know how to handle the new attention from individuals keen to find Luke: the gigantic gardener Mr. Chew, the inquisitive ravens, the impeccably dressed Mr. Wedding, and more. David can’t fathom what these people would want with Luke, and Luke doesn’t know either, at least at first. It takes a run-in with a ginger-haired man who looks a lot like Luke to move the mystery forward into another scene of accusation before familial judges.

This style initially reminded me of the mosaics of Rome until I scoped out ancient Norse carving.

“One of my relations,” said Luke. “He’s lost something and he thought I knew where it was.” To David, he added, “And I see why Wedding’s so set on finding me now. It’s rather a mess.” (131)

****

Most of the other people were shouting accusations at Luke at the same time. David did not notice much about them except that they were tall and angry and that one man had only one ear. Nor did he notice particularly where they were, though he had a feeling that they were no longer in Uncle Bernard’s dining room but somewhere high up and out of doors. (144)

Now unless you were reading that blankety-blank version of a cover with Thor and the two boys on it, you may only now begin to see that Mr. Wedding, Mr. Chew, Luke, and the others are far more than arguing family members. David is witnessing a clash among gods and goddesses, a conflict spanning across all centuries and further, to hillsides of fire, to prisons of snakes, to storm-bringing hammers.

And yet for all that power, that end-of-days, time-bending power, they are still a family of bickering relations refusing to believe a boy’s words.

Sound familiar? It does to David.

The chief thing he noticed was how small and frightened Luke’s harassed figure looked among them. Never had David felt for anyone more. It was just like himself among his own relations. (144)

This parallel stays with us as we watch David offer to clear Luke’s name and set out to uncover the missing object Luke’s been accused of hiding. It takes a visit to Three Sisters living in a cupboard in a city boy’s basement and running a gauntlet of young warriors, but David soon discovers the secret ward hidden in the fires beyond time, and retrieves that which all thought Luke had stolen: Thor’s hammer.

Luke’s name cleared at last, his immortal family rejoices while David learns the fate of his own family.

When the thunder had abated a little, Astrid said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened, David. Dot and Bernard and Ronald have run for it.”
“Run for what?” said David.
“Run away, silly,” said Astrid. “The police think they’re out of the country by now. That’s how much they were worried about you being missing. Or me either, for that matter.” (199)

Now this cover’s got more of a Young Adult feel, what with the spitfire of Luke standing defiantly with his arms crossed and his firey hair blending with the flames surrounding him.

Blondie was shocked David’s family took off. “But he’s a kid!” she said. “They can’t leave him!”

I showed her the page of text. “Welp, they did.” Astrid explains that David was the real owner of the money that his relatives had been spending all these years, and once word (from Mr. Wedding of all people) got to a neighborhood solicitor about David’s situation, the authorities put a warrant out for David’s relatives.

Blondie nodded in approval with this. “Astrid’s way nicer now, so that’s okay.” David feels the same way, too, and says as much. Because his presence in the family was such a source of conflict, the absence of family here takes all the conflict with it. For David, life can only get better.

Could the same be said for Luke? David learns the answer when he asks about those who had taken Thor’s hammer.

David was still puzzled. “Did he–Sigurd–like the lady more, then? He didn’t seem to–just now, at Wallsey, I mean.”

“No. He was mistaken,” said Mr. Wedding.

“Was that mistake your doing, by any chance?” Luke asked shrewdly. “Brunhilda seemed to think it was when she came to see me in prison.” Mr. Wedding thoughtfully stroked the raven and said nothing. “I thought as much,” said Luke. “Their children might have threatened your power, eh? But she found another way of cutting your powers down when she took the hammer into those flames with her. Am I right?”

Mr. Wedding sighed. “More or less. These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.” He turned and looked at Luke, smiling slightly. Luke looked back and did not smile at all.

It came home to David that Luke and Mr. Wedding were going to be on opposite sides, when that final battle came. (201-2)

Unlike David’s relations, Luke’s family has no intention of running. Oh no–that conflict is far from over. He may not have to go back to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but there is no promise of better things in his future. For Luke, there would always be conflict with his family. But these family squabbles would do more than hurt feelings or send a radio into the compost. Family squabbles on Luke’s level could drown islands, crack open time, and burn countless cities to dust. Any small, intimate conflict within a family of gods is destined to impact the world entire.

Be they mortal or immortal, some families are born to fight.

~STAY TUNED!~

I have a few kickin’ interviews lined up, and I’m excited to share more lessons in plotting. I also want to share some of my own writing ups and downs. It’ll be a wee bit, though, as I want to spend time in June exploring YOUR work and all that you’ve been up this spring. Hooray! I’m so excited to hang out with you!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with #Writingtips from the #Imagination in the Wood

Happy Wednesday, all! Uffdah, it’s already been ten days of sharing dragons, bountyhunters, and love for the fantastical that authors like Diana Wynne Jones inspire us to create. In these days of life at home, nothing’s so precious to one’s sanity like imagination. Applying my own imagination to storytelling has been a life-saver for my mental health. One of those stories, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, will be on sale this weekend. You’re more than welcome to climb over The Wall and be lost from the world, if you so wish.

Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte runs away. She takes her bratty younger sister Anna with her, swearing to protect her. However, when their bus breaks down by a creepy old farm, the inconceivable happens—Anna is wiped from human memory.

But something inside Charlotte remembers. So she goes over the Wall in a frantic rescue attempt, accidentally awakening a once cruel but still dangerous prince, and gaining control of a powerful weapon, his magic dagger.

Charlotte’s only chance to save Anna hinges on her courage and an uneasy alliance with some of the very monsters that feed on humanity.

I also thank God every day that my kiddos have been blessed with creative spirits they have, because I’m pretty sure life here would be far more dire if they didn’t know how to escape these walls on their own. Jones understood all too well the lessons to be learned from a child’s imagination, and she shares those lessons in the essay “The Children in the Wood.”

Any book, whether realistic or fantasy, is a self-contained world with the reader in control (if you do not like the game the writer is playing, you can always stop reading). My feeling is that children got most from books which work along the same lines as they do—in other words, by ‘Let’s Pretend’. I am not saying that a fantasy needs to ape children’s games, but I do think it should be not unlike them in a number of important respects. Above all, it should be as exciting and engrossing as the games in the wood. I aim to be as gripped by a book I am writing as I hope any reader will be. I want to know what happens next. If it bores me, I stop. But a book has an additional asset: it seems to be real. If you say in a book that a certain thing is real, then in that book it is real. This is splendid, but it can also be a snare. I find I have to control any fantasy I write by constantly remembering the sort of things children do in their games.

Notice, for instance, that the children in the wood are very wisely not pretending too many things at once. They say ‘Pretend we’re all queens,’ or ‘Pretend we’re explorers,’ and part of the point of what follows is to find out what this entails. In the same way, I find it works best to suppose just one thing: Pretend you are a ghost, or Pretend your chemistry set works magic, or Pretend this dog is the Dog Star. Then I go on to explore the implications of this supposition. Quite often, I am totally surprised by the result.

Photo from Children and Nature

I also bear constantly in mind the fact that pretending is a thing most usefully done in groups….it is obvious that all other characters in a fantasy ought to be very real and clear and individual, and to interact profoundly—real, colourful people, behaving as people do. ..The third thing I bear in mind is the peculiar happiness of the children wandering in the wood. They are killing one another, terrifying one another and (as queens) despising one another and everyone else too. And they are loving it. This mixture of nastiness and happiness is typical of most children and makes wonderful opportunities for a writer. Your story can be violent, serious, and funny, all at once—indeed, I think it should be—and the stronger in all three the better. Fantasy can deal with death, malice and violence in the same way that the children in the wood are doing. You make clear that it is make-believe. And by showing it applies to nobody, you show that it applies to everyone. It is the way all fairy tales work.

But when all is said and done, there is an aspect to fantasy which defies description. Those children in the wood are going to grow up and remember that they played there. They will not remember what they were playing, or who pretended what. But they will remember the wood, and the big city all round it, in a special, vivid way. It does seem that a fantasy, working out on its own terms, stretching you beyond the normal concerns of your own life, gains you a peculiar charge of energy which inexplicably enriches you. At least, this is my idea of a fantasy, and I am always trying to write it.

May all who write fantasy aspire to do so…lest they be tossed into a dungeon and tortured! Mwa ha ha ha!

Say, that would be a good place to start our Fantasyland chat tomorrow…ahem. Anyway.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 4: #sidelining strong #villains of the #story for the sake of #razzledazzle #cliché.

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Much as we all love Snidely Whiplash’s mustaches, the whole take-the-girl-to-the-tracks-thing gets real old real fast.

Let’s break our four primary villains down and see what could have–should have–been.

Captain Phasma

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 Thrones proved 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.

General Hux

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Kylo Ren

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.

Robert McKee

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.

So.

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Thus begins the required “I have a bad feeling about this” line to be uttered in many, many, MANY more movies to come…

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!