#Indie #Author #Interview: Chris Hall discusses #reading, #blogging, #writinginspiration, and other delightful bits of the #writinglife. Thanks, @ChrissyH_07!

Featured

Greetings, one and all! After a rough week schooling the kiddos at home (stay tuned for THAT post), it’s high time we celebrate Indie April with an interview with an AMAZING writer and reader, Chris Hall.

Let’s begin with the niceties. Tell us a little about yourself, please!

Nice to be here, Jean!

I was born, grew up, lived and worked in the UK until 10 years ago, when childless, in our forties and fed up with our jobs, my husband, Cliff and I upped sticks and emigrated to South Africa. We’d already met people here through a school exchange programme which Cliff was involved in, visited numerous times, and finally decided to come to a new country and do something different.

We’ve settled in a town about 30 miles from Cape Town, where we can almost see the ocean from our house. Our cat, Luna (after whom my blog is named) emigrated with us and loves it here. We inherited some chickens along with the house, all of which have since gone to chicken heaven at a ripe old age, but now we have two large brown hens which usually means lots of lovely eggs, although it’s a bit hot for laying at the moment they tell me.

Chris is on Goodreads, too!

Since I moved out here I’ve done various voluntary work, been employed as an administrator in a guesthouse and an art gallery, and now I’ve turned freelance doing copywriting, ghost-blogging and social media stuff for other creative people who lack the time/patience to do for themselves. In my spare time I write a lot and read a lot (when I’m not chasing hens off the veg-patch or catering to Luna’s little whims). It’s all a far cry from the 24 years working in risk management which I left behind in the UK.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

Two of my favourite authors have written about the craft of writing. On Writing by Stephen King and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. le Guin, have both had a positive impact on the way I write. Their words are wise.

But also, when you read any book with the eye of a writer, your experience is a whole lot richer. Considering the way that other authors construct their books and frame their words makes me think that little bit harder about my own writing.

What is your favorite childhood book?

This is difficult! I’ve wrestled a bit with this, but having roamed my bookshelves, it has to be Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – and if forced to choose one, it would be The Little House on the Prairie. For the whole of my first high school year (aged 11-12), I totally lost myself in Laura’s world. The daily chores, the struggles and adventures of pioneering life, within the context of this close-knit family, enthralled me. I always had one of her books in my school bag. I’d take it out at every opportunity before and between lessons and bury my head in the pages. The covers are little battered and the pages yellowed, but I still have them all.

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

My ‘stand out’ visits were to the homes of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. I fell in love with his poetry when I was studying advanced level Spanish, prior to a series of visits to Spanish-speaking countries back in the early noughties (that’s another story).

Neruda has three houses in Chile: in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Isla Negra. I visited all three over the course of two trips to Chile, and I found all three utterly stunning: true reflections of the man and his poetry. The ultimate is the house at Isla Negra, located right on the beach in a tiny, remote town. Getting there on a local bus was an adventure in itself, but the sprawling, single storey property and its surroundings are jam-packed with mad collections of ships mastheads and bottles, shells and ship’s bells and all manner of things. I especially liked Neruda’s writing room which looks out onto the ocean. He made his desk from a piece of driftwood which he waded in and rescued from the waves.

On your website, you call yourself an “accidental blogger.” How would you say blogging’s benefited your writing life? Do you recommend it as a method of building an indie author’s platform? What’s one thing you do differently now with blogging that you wish you’d done from the beginning?

Blogging has been a very happy accident. When I began with my website, I really had no idea that there was this big, friendly and supportive world of writers (and others) out there. What a revelation!

The support and the feedback from the people in our little corner of blog-land has been a tremendous encouragement, which I hope I reciprocate adequately. Keeping up the blog has helped me with the discipline of writing something almost every day, although I don’t post all that I write. Some things are remaining under wraps.

A blog gives you a presence as an author (indie or otherwise). It gives you a chance to get out there, show off you books and share a little about yourself. My Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn accounts are all connected to my blog, and more recently I’ve added Instagram too. So now I can be found and so can my books, should anyone care to look. Whether this had as much impact on the sales of my books, I’m not so sure, but it forms a foundation.

Blogging has been, and still is, a journey for me. What I put out on my blog now is all my own work or about my work: stories, installments, reviews, a bit about my successes (and failures) in trying to promote my books and occasionally, a bit about my writing life.

And I don’t think there’s anything I wish I’d done differently at the start. As in many things, I’m still learning and growing. Change is good; development is better. I’m planning to set up a separate author website under my actual name; it’s something I’ll ‘get around to’.

You chose to publish your first book, The Silver Locket (2012), under a pen name. May I ask what your reasoning was for using a pen name then and not now?

I have to admit that it was out of a lack of confidence. I was a ‘secret’ writer then. I hardly told anyone about the book when I first published it on Amazon, much less publicized it. But little by little, as people I knew downloaded it – even bought paperback copies from me – then read it and told me that they enjoyed it, my mindset started to alter. I could actually bring myself to tell people that I was an author!

Then I had a couple of short pieces published in online magazines and I joined Medium and started publishing on there, all under my own name, so it seemed logical to continue. I now wish that I’d written under my own name from the start. Holly Atkins will remain a one book wonder.

Your next publication, A Sextet of Shorts (2018), takes reader through a variety of quick adventures both personal and fantastical. Can you take us through the process of how you choose to craft a story as short fiction and other stories as novels?

The six short stories I published in that slim volume were ones I’d written way before I started working on The Silver Locket. They were the stories which I’d written for the creative writing classes which I attended for a couple years before we left the UK. I’d had good feedback from the writing tutors and members of the associated writing groups, and I was pleased with them.

Two years ago, I decided to dust them off and publish them to use for a bit of local publicity. With my bio and blog details on the back cover, there are copies in waiting rooms, doctors’ surgeries and hair salons around my home town. A couple of them are quite well-thumbed now!

Since writing them, and although I continue to enjoy writing the many, many micro- and flash-fiction pieces I’ve put on my blog and flung out around social media, I’ve discovered how satisfying working on a novel is. There’s so much more time and space to get to know the characters, immerse myself in their lives and watch what they get up to. And that comes back to finding my Happy Place.

You’ve published TWO novels in 2019! The first, You’ll Never Walk Alone, takes readers back to the 1980s in a location quite different from your own! What inspired you to set the story in Liverpool, and in that particular decade?

My former life in Liverpool has been an enormously important part of my personal history. I moved there in 1981 to attend University, and You’ll Never Walk Alone is set in that city at that time. I was in my early twenties and those were truly my formative years, when away from where I grew up, I started to make my own way in the world. Very little of any of that is in the book, but Gina and Lucy would have been my contemporaries, and the house in which they live is based on one of the large, converted old buildings where I had a flat, even down to the Chinese landlord. The locations in which the novel is set would be very recognizable to anyone who knew the city then, but everything else is pure fantasy!

The novel was a long time in the making. Gina, Lucy and Cynthia were born out of a short story I’d written more than 10 years earlier. That’s a long time for a character to be hanging about in The Well of Lost Plots (Jasper Fforde, 2003), but now they have a book of their own, and they’ve told the world they want another. One day, ladies!


Considering your experience writing fiction set in the past, how would you describe your research process in taking care the historical context is accurate? What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?

Can I say how scary it is to think that the eighties are historical now?! But I do always check my facts so far as I can, mostly via our friend, Mr Google. Even though I lived through the times and events which form the backdrop to You’ll Never Walk Alone and The Silver Locket, (circa 1983 and 1989 respectively), I covered the research ground as wanted to make sure there were no glaring errors.

When writing Following the Green Rabbit, I was even more conscious of the two time periods in which the narrative is set. I researched what people would have worn, what they would have eaten and drank, what herbs would have grown in England in the early 17th century and so on. I deliberately left the earlier date vague and avoided mentioning any identifiable historical figures for the very reason of avoiding any dilemma about portraying real people.


Your latest, Following the Green Rabbit, features some heroic children in an Alice in Wonderland-esque adventure. What would you consider to be the biggest challenge in writing a Middle-Grade adventure, and how did you see yourself through that challenge?

First if all, let me correct any misconception that despite the tropish title, the story has anything in common with the Lewis Carroll fantasy story. It may be sub-titled a ‘fantastical adventure’, but that’s to do with the girls’ inexplicable transition to ‘past-times’. There are no mythical creatures or size-changing potions; the children find themselves in a place and time where the dangers are very human and very real.

As for the challenge of writing for a MG audience, I hope I made the story page-turning enough, I hope there were sufficient cliff-hangers and there was adequate suspense and enough alarm. But I suppose I fell back on telling a story which I would have wanted to have read, with characters with whom the much-younger me would have identified.

Time and feedback will tell me to whether I pulled it off as a MG adventure, but I’ve described it as a ‘novel for adventurers everywhere, from 9 to 90 years’, partly based on the fact that my 90 year old mother said she ‘really enjoyed it and didn’t want it to end’. My mother is not one to hand out compliments lightly, so I consider that to be praise indeed!

Out of aaaaaall the fiction you’ve written through the decades, what would you consider to be the most difficult scene you ever had to write? What made it so hard, and how did you overcome it!

Ah, this is where sex rears its ugly head!!

Both of my adult novels required sex scenes. None is gratuitous; each is an integral part of the story. The ways in which each of the scenes play out tell the reader something more about the characters involved, and after all, people in their 20s who are attracted to each other will inevitably end up in bed.

There is no doubt that sex scenes are difficult. You don’t want to be too cheesy and you don’t want to be too anatomical, and I believe that cutting to ‘waves washing over a beach’ is a cop out. The scenes must feel real.

Basically, they all involved a large number of rewrites to hit the right tone. I haven’t written anything especially graphic, although I did end up toning down the one at the start of Chapter 10 in You’ll Never Walk Alone during my final, final edit.

Hooray to new projects! I know that, like me, you worked on something new during 2019’s NaNoWriMo—and you got way further in your project than me, too. Will we be seeing another Chris Hall tale hit bookshelves in 2020?

Well, yes, I was indeed busy with a new book during NaNo. I guess I’m almost half way through the first draft now. It has been semi-parked through December, but now we’re in the final days of the holidays, I’m ready to get stuck in again.

I decided to write a novel firmly rooted in South Africa this time. The story is set in the present day, in a fictional small town on our West Coast and the overarching theme is the lack of water which is a serious and on-going concern for us here. The narrative combines a slightly romanticized tale of everyday folk with a large dollop of magical realism and myth thrown into the mix. I have assembled an eclectic cast, some of whom people might recognise from some of my stories last year. All but one of them is contributing nicely to the story, but I can’t quite get under this one’s skin yet.

It’s a more ambitious project than any I’ve worked on before, but for the moment I’m just going with the flow. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull all the strands together, but that’s all part of the fun. I’m hoping to complete the first draft by mid-2020, so who knows, maybe it’ll be ready for release towards the end of this year. No promises though!

Last question, I promise! (Hee hee!) Does writing energize or exhaust you?

When I’m deep inside a story, crafting that story energizes and excites me; there’s a little shot of adrenaline too. That’s when it’s going well.

Ah, but when it isn’t! It’s frustrating, it’s unnerving, it’s heart-thumping for all the wrong reasons. I question what I’ve written. Is this a story? Is it going anywhere? I guess some of that might not happen if I planned properly. But that’s not how I write.

I go through a whole gamut of emotions. Not every day, not all the time, but enough.

Many, many thanks, Chris! I can’t wait to see how your writing blossoms in the months to come.

I do hope you’ll check Chris out! Be sure to also swing by and vote on my own short story for an anthology produced by Wisconsin’s own Something or Other Publishing. Every vote matters!

Inspired by street photography and fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer” takes readers to the town of Pips Row, where magic grows as sweet as the fruit of the trees. In the wrong hands, however, magic becomes as rotten as the sorceress who wields it, and no one is more rotten than the fearsome Madame Midsomer. Today, the people of Pips Row have had enough.

The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer

Stay tuned! Gah, I gotta vent a little about teachers NOT used to distance learning having out-of-whack expectations of little kids. I’d also some lesson ideas for you to use with your children, and then some music to escape the home and discover writing inspiration.

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!

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee and #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 3: Digging #plotholes with false #mystery.

Miss Parts 1 and/or 2 of my Robert McKee & Star Wars series? Click a number to catch up!

I’m not the only one who loves Robert McKee!

Nothing grinds a writer like plot holes. Hell, I STILL can’t watch the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without griping at the screen about the absent explanation of how Lupin understands the Marauders’ Map.

No writer tells a story with the intention of digging plot holes (one would hope, anyway). If a writer loves the craft enough, that writer will do their utmost to tell a complete story, avoiding intentional plot holes like Biff avoids broccoli.

The bugger comes when the story sprawls over the course of multiple installments. Now the writer doesn’t have to reveal everything before the end of Act III. Important reveals can be put off until Act VIII, or XI, or even XIV. After all, what else engages audiences like a good mystery?

You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.

Robert McKee

JJ Abrams has never been shy over sharing his love of mystery. To him, storytelling is all about The Mystery Box, as this excerpt from his 2007 TED Talk shows.

On this page, it would seem that Abrams and McKee agree. If one answers aaaaaaall the questions before the story’s even begun, why should readers care about the story? I can only imagine how readers would have felt if Rowling had wedged Voldemort’s backstory into the first book of the Harry Potter series instead of the sixth. Honestly, I know what I’d have done:

Glazed over it.

But after reading five books about this villain, seeing his various reincarnations and the consequences of his ambitions, I’m dying to know who this dark wizard is and what drives him. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has always felt like the least action-oriented book of the series, but readers are still okay with this because a degree of the mystery is being revealed to them. After the monumental battles in the fifth book, the series’ pacing allowed for a slow-down.

Regarding JJ Abrams and Star Wars, he likely felt comfortable building oodles of Mystery Boxes in The Force Awakens because he expected the later movies to open his boxes and reveal the answers. If we learned eeeeverything about the First Order, Rey, Luke Skywalker, etc in The Force Awakens, then we wouldn’t be curious to see what’s coming in the other films.

A certain amount of audience curiosity is essential. Without it, Narrative Drive grinds to a halt…. But you must not abuse this power. If so, the audience, in frustration, will tune out…. No dirty tricks, no Cheap Surprise, no False Mystery. False Mystery is a counterfeit curiosity caused by the artificial concealment of fact.

Robert McKee

Over-telling too early causes people to forget what is important and be confused by what isn’t. Under-telling, however, can be just as dangerous, and on this, Abrams is VERY guilty. Let’s walk through a few plot holes in The Force Awakens and consider whether or not these “conceals” are necessary or artificial. For comparison’s sake, I’ll use two very different trilogies, one of blockbuster scale (Hunger Games), the other not (Southern Reach).

ONE: The Beginning

I already whinged enough about how The Force Awakens simply dictated the universe must have the same stakes as the Original Trilogy without showing how the heck this galaxy far, far away started the vicious cycle all over again. This information, however, didn’t have to come in The Force Awakens. The first Hunger Games book doesn’t dive too much into the world’s history; instead, we get this information in bits and pieces throughout the second and third books. For the films, this storytelling method worked pretty well, as the first film could focus strictly on Katniss’ preparation and battle for survival in The Hunger Games at hand. In Annihilation, we have no idea where Area X came from, let alone the backstory of nearly all the characters. It’s not until Acceptance, the final book of The Southern Reach trilogy, that we learn the true motivations of the antagonist from the first book as well as where Area X came from. Had all that information been dumped on readers in the first 100 pages, they’d be bogged down and ignoring what really was important, focused instead on whatever words relay the current protagonist’s plight.

So as far as these opening stakes go, Abrams, you get a small pass.

TWO: Pilot Poe’s Survival

As I described in Part 2, the character Finn, our Storm Trooper Turned Good, escapes the First Order with Rebel Pilot Poe. They crash the TIE fighter, and when Finn awakes, he finds himself alone with Poe’s jacket. The ship sinks in the sand, and as far as Finn knows, Poe’s died in the sand already. He says as much to the droid BB-8, and the story goes on, treating the pilot as lost…

…until he shows up at the Resistance base, healthy and whole.

How’d he survive the crash?

Dunno.

How’d he get off the planet without the First Order noticing? They were all over the place chasing down Finn, Rey, and BB-8.

Dunno.

And we never find out.

Now if Poe were a tertiary character, one with little presence in the story or impact on the overall plot, we could probably evade this plot hole without much trouble. Easy peasy–Poe woke up first and got away from the ship. He left his jacket because…well it doesn’t matter. He abandoned his new friend Finn because…well, it doesn’t matter. He got off the planet without looking for his droid BB-8 because…well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he got back to the Resistance to fight another day.

That sure is a lot of “doesn’t matters” for one character’s choice, isn’t it? A character’s choice that, considering what little we do know of the character, doesn’t make sense. Poe’s the one who wanted to return to this desert planet to find his droid, and yet he vanishes from the story entirely to arrive just in time to wave happily to the droid that, by all accounts, he was determined to find. But we never see him try to find the droid, the sole motivation for his actions in the first half of the movie.

A “hole” is another way to lose credibility. Rather than a lack of motivation, now the story lacks logic, a missing link in the chain of cause and effect….Maybe the audience won’t notice. But maybe it will. Then what? Cowardly writers try to kick sand over such holes and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Other writers face this problem manfully. They expose the hole to the audience, then deny that it is a hole.

Robert McKee

What frustrates a writer like m’self so much over a plot hole like this is that it would not have taken much to fill the hole. Abrams could have kept Poe out of the plot until Finn and Rey arrive at the Resistance base, sure. We could have seen him still recovering from the crash, demanding a ship to fly back for BB-8. We could have seen him on a communicator, checking in with ships on any signs of BB-8.

A character’s absence may be forgivable, but not the absence of motivation. When Katniss and Peeta are separated in the arena, we find out later on what Peeta was doing, and his physical/emotional state show proof of this. When the psychologist separates from the biologist, we don’t know what she’s up to. The biologist shoots her at the end of Annihilation, so we’re left to assume the psychologist was up to something nefarious. It’s at the end of Acceptance that we at last fully understand the psychologist’s motivations–and what the hell she was doing at the lighthouse in the moments before the biologist shoots her.

If Poe needed to be removed from the film to give time for Rey and Finn, then so be it. But that didn’t mean Poe’s arc gets to be fast-forwarded to where it’s convenient. He needed to be off-screen following through on his motivation so that when he’s back on screen, he looks like he was off-screen for a reason.

So as far as Poe goes, Abrams, that ship don’t fly.

THREE: Talking Lightsabers That Just So Happen To Be In A Mysterious Box In A Tavern’s Basement

This is the point where I audibly said “Bullshit” in the theater.

Finn, Rey, and BB-8 travel with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to some ancient looking planet’s cantina, where the owner Maz Kanata provides sage advice. While Maz and Han talk, Rey hears something and goes under the cantina into a big storage area, where a faint voice calls from a box. She opens the box to discover what the audience immediate recognizes as Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Maz finds Rey and tells her about the force, but Rey refuses the lightsaber and runs off. So, Maz brings the lightsaber to Han.

“A good question, for another time.”

Say WHAT?!

…coincidence is a part of life, often a powerful part, rocking existence, then vanishing as absurdly as it arrived. The solution, therefore, is not to avoid coincidence, but to dramatize how it may enter life meaninglessly, but in time gain meaning, how the antilogic of randomness becomes the logic of life-as-lived.

Robert McKee

When used well, coincidences help tie together plot elements and propel the narrative along. In the first Hunger Games, for instance, it’s a pretty big coincidence that the other candidate chosen to fight for Katniss’ district has also been crushing on her for years. In Authority, the second book of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the new director stumbles upon the psychologist’s old phone and, thinking it might hold useful data, takes it home. This just so happens to be the same phone the psychologist had taken into Area X on a secret expedition, so of course, that phone has changed into something else…a something that is now skulking around the new director’s home.

On Rey’s desert planet Jakku, there just so happens to be a seller of parts scavenged from other ships, and this seller just so happens to keep some junk ships…like the Millennium Falcon.

While I have a hard time imagining Solo losing his ship, I can accept it being considered garbage; after all, in A New Hope Luke takes one look at the Falcon and says, “What a piece of junk!” So that a scavenger has allocated the Falcon on the planet where Rey just so happens to live is an acceptable coincidence.

That Han Solo just so happens to fly Rey to a cantina where a sage-like character just so happens to have a vault with a box that just so happens to have Luke’s lightsaber that just so happens to connect with Rey…

No.

That is not acceptable.

Had Maz mentioned living in Cloud City (where Luke had lost the lightsaber in his duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back), okay. Weird, but okay. At least there’s some sort of intent, a trail of motivation: Force-sensitive Maz discovers the lightsaber and feels its importance, so she keeps it safe until finding its owner. Or Lando’s team recovers it and gives it to Han, who entrusts it to Maz for whatever reason. Heck, in Rey’s vision of the Jedi temple burning and Luke crouched low by R2-D2, Maz could have been there ready to give him the lightsaber, but upon seeing the Knights of Ren hides instead.

Instead, we have none of these things. We have only the Mystery Box, and “another time.”

And maybe Abrams did intend to explain this Mystery Box another time. There were two more movies, after all, and he had notes for the other directors to help keep the storyline unified across the trilogy.

Only The Powers That Be in Disney and Lucasfilm didn’t see the importance of paying off those expectations. They had their own agendas, agendas that would take the galaxy far, far away into a new cosmos:

Political and social commentary.

Disney wanted a Star Wars trilogy that would inspire new and old generations alike to buy millions of movie tickets, toys, and theme park passes. Creating a story befitting the lStar Wars universe was never the top priority, not for them. Was JJ Abrams passionate about this project? Let’s just say yes. But loving a story-world and its characters is not the same as creating in that world. Abrams selected bits of the Original Trilogy he wanted to share in his own way; some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. The plot’s true shortcomings, though, can be summed up in two words:

Why? How?

Too often we are wondering how X happened, or why Z did ___. It’s one thing to have a mysterious villain, or an unknown backstory. But when a writer takes time to establish a character’s motivations only to ignore them until the plot makes it convenient for the motivations to come back, or a writer ignores the older characters’ stories so the plot’s MacGuffin can move to the newer characters, then there are serious problems afoot.

And we haven’t even TOUCHED the flippin’ Death Star 3.0 yet.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

More student assignments are coming my way in a few days, so I think we’ll have a lovely author interview next week. After that, we’ll wrap up The Force Awakens with a discussion of what makes a great villain…and why it’s unwise to go the safe route.

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

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #robertmckee and #starwars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 2: #TheForceAwakens to #MissedOpportunity

Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and forever.

Robert McKee

November. The media blitz is on to promote Rise of Skywalker, the third installment in Disney’s sequel trilogy in Star Wars. Kathleen Kennedy, the current head of Lucasfilm, is interviewed by Rolling Stone to discuss the films and their challenges. When asked about writing the third film to close the arc, Kennedy says:

Every one of these movies is a particularly hard nut to crack. There’s no source material. We don’t have comic books. We don’t have 800-page novels. We don’t have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be.

Kathleen Kennedy to Rolling Stone, November 2019

It seems a curious line, to specifically point out how Star Wars has no comic books. A dig, perhaps, at the Marvel films and aaaaaaaaaaaall those comic story lines at the screenwriters’ disposal for adapting into film?

Or did Kennedy forget Star Wars DID have comics and novels–decades worth, in fact?

In 2014, Disney officially announced all the published Expanded Universe (EU) stories of the Star Wars universe were no longer canon. All the adventures that took place after Darth Vader hurled the Emperor into the abyss were gone.

For folks like my friends and brothers who had read the comics and novels, this was a serious blow to the gut. For more casual fans like myself, who grew up with the movies and the goofy spin-off cartoons–

R2-D2 is HILARIOUS in these. A big favorite with my droid-lovin’ kiddos.
The theme song got better…eventually.

–I wasn’t angry so much as confused. If the cartoons can pull one or two tertiary characters from the original trilogy and build successful stories around them, why was it so important to blow up the ENTIRE EU and all its storylines? Each one had already undergone serious testing with lovers of sci-fi, let alone Star Wars. It’s not like all the storylines had potential for film adaptation, but surely a few had promise, right?

But Disney didn’t want to continue the saga in the galaxy far, far away as other creators had seen it. They wanted their Star Wars to be like the Star Wars movies from the 70s and 80s, only different enough so they could make the most money with the least amount of change.

The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.

Robert McKee

Enter The Force Awakens.

Damn, if that teaser STILL doesn’t give me chills. We have a panicked Storm Trooper–a human, panicking Storm Trooper. This isn’t just some eleventh generation of clones from the prequels, but a person, and this person looks sincerely scared. For the casual fans like myself, this had never been seen before. The first few seconds of this teaser promised audiences a new kind of Star Wars story. Throw in a new droid, renegade girl, and an X-Wing pilot, sure, but the real compliment to that opening new thing was the climactic-yet-familiar thing: the Millennium Falcon fighting TIE Fighters. Over the course of roughly 90 seconds, the teaser promises audiences a balance of familiar and unfamiliar to create a new Star Wars story.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into an analysis of all the trailers. It just felt important to show that in 2015, The Force Awakens looked extremely promising to the fans who grew up with the first six films, and now have toy-loving children who of course have seen those films, too. After Disney had yanked the EU, devoted fans like my brothers were excited to see what Disney wanted to put in its place. Considering the cool work they’d done bridging the gap between prequels and original trilogy with Star Wars: Rebels, Disney had a lot of audience goodwill in their favor, visible in all the Cosplay and YouTubers whooping with light sabers as they prepped their own audiences for movie reviews.*

Then folks saw the movie.

Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible…we don’t want to hit the same note over and over…. They key to varying a repetitious cadence is research. Superficial knowledge leads to a bland, monotonous telling. With authorial knowledge we can prepare a feast of pleasures.

Robert McKee

Many were thrilled to see a style more like the original trilogy than the CGI-infested prequels. However, many–me included–felt a very strange deja vu. Echos, if you will, that felt too like what’s come before. And we felt it before the opening scrawl had departed for the stars.

Luke Skywalker has vanished. Woah! The only known Jedi in this new series was officially missing? How? What happened? One sentence in, the audience’s curiosity is piqued. But then we keep reading: In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

Hold on.

So, that whole chucking-the-Emperor-into-the-abyss didn’t kill the Empire? Hmm. Well, it’s just the head of state. Big Bureaucracy like that could probably run for a bit without the head. But if this First Order is looking for Luke, then they must not be responsible for his absence. So is there another villain here? What’s going on?

The scrawl goes on: With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

So…ok. the Republic of the prequels is back now, but there’s still a First Order that came out of the Empire. If Leia’s leading the Resistance, that must mean the First Order has more power than the Republic, I guess? Who’s even in the Republic? Wouldn’t the First Order technically be the minority, the underdog?

We’ve defined setting in terms of period, duration, location, and level of conflict. These four dimensions frame the story’s world, but to inspire the multitude of creative choices you need to tell an original, cliché-free story, you must fill that frame with a depth and breadth of detail.

Robert McKee

Herein lies the next major mistake Disney made with Star Wars: they wanted all the same stakes of the original trilogy without putting in the effort to bring the galaxy to that point. People like Rebel Princess Leia, so keep her in that position. People liked the baddie Empire, so make a new Empire. People liked the Death Star, so let’s make a new one. How the First Order–consisting from, as the scrawl said, the “ashes” of the Empire–has the might they do to build huge fleets and planet-killers is never explained. Why doesn’t the Republic have its own army? At the very least it’d have reused whatever’s left from the Empire…unless the First Order took ALL of that? So then what the heck is in the Republic, and why are they separate from the Resistance?

Time never moves without effect. Years have passed since Return of the Jedi, and yet good and evil are right back where they were. History may be cyclical, but something must happen to reset the cycle.

Disney never shares that something with us. It’s as if they hit the reset button on a video game, selecting different faces and places, but leaving the stakes the same.

However, as my husband Bo reminds me, there’s only so much one can pack in the first movie. Backstory can always help explain things later in the narrative arc, when a breather in action is needed. So at this point, audiences have to hope for a quiet moment with a sage-like character–Leia, perhaps, since she’s the only one the scrawl tells us is present–to clue audiences and new characters in as to how the galaxy ended up the way it did. A scene with some exposition could better clarify why the stakes are what they are so audiences can care about the characters involved in those stakes. This didn’t have to happen in The Force Awakens, but the opportunity was there in one of the first characters audiences see: the scared Storm Trooper from the teaser.

The opening scene echoes the entrance of the black-cloaked figure in a mask, Kylo Ren. The daring pilot’s hidden the clue to Skywalker in his droid, BB-8, and sends him off…He wants the map to Skywalker from what the title scrawl calls an “old ally”–not anyone we’d have actually seen in the first six films, mind you. Just Max von Sydow talking to Adam Driver (Kylo) like they had a history…not that we know any of this history…

As a story opens, the audience, consciously or instinctively, inspects the value-charged landscape of world and characters, trying to separate good from evil, right from wrong…. The worst of people believe themselves good. Hitler thought he was the savior of Europe.

Robert McKee

It doesn’t take much to see the evil masked people killing the good guys. But one, one does stand out: a Storm Trooper who runs to assist one of his dying comrades, the dying man putting a bloody hand to the other’s helmet and streaking it with blood. The Storm Trooper pulls back, and you can see the panic in his body language. He no longer lifts a gun when ordered.

We see a Storm Trooper, always the symbol of order and Empire, breaking free.

THAT gets our attention. Something is different with this character. A Storm Trooper turning good? Maybe we could learn about the First Order through this character! Audiences fixate upon this character who clearly questions his masters, who fears the life he’s in. As McKee calls it in Story, this Storm Trooper, named Finn by the pilot, becomes our Center of Good in the first ten minutes.

Only we’re diverted after that to Rey, a lone girl on a desert planet doing the same thing day in, day out…kind of like a farm boy on Tatooine, methinks…scavenging crashed ships for parts, dreaming of a life elsewhere. But I’ll give credit where it’s due: the first scene with Rey does a beautiful job telling the story of her life without her saying a word. A quick montage of her day, and we know what her life’s been like living in a hollowed out Walker.

So…so where is our Center of Good? Are we following the Storm Trooper, or the scavenger?

Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on the star role. If not, the Center of Good decenters; the fictional universe flies apart; the audience loses balance.

Robert McKee

Rey is, from the start, a good character. She helps the BB-8 droid without knowing who it is, she doesn’t sell it off when that would easily give her enough food for months. She’s consistently nice and helpful.

Finn, however, was clearly raised to be a mindless soldier. He’s been conditioned to follow orders and kill without mercy, yet this guy doesn’t. Despite his environment and all that he knows, he is different. And that, by definition, makes him stand out. It makes him unique.

It makes audiences want to see him as the Center of Good, to overcome the old identity of Storm Trooper and discover who he truly is.

Fine writing puts less stress on what happens than on to whom it happens and why and how it happens.

Robert McKee

By the time we see Storm Trooper Finn again, he helps break out the imprisoned pilot so they can both get off the vast, fancy, well-stocked star destroyer. Their ship is struck, and Finn wakes to find himself alone in the wreckage. He takes the pilot’s abandoned jacket and wanders the desert until he stumbles upon the village where Rey and the droid are. Finn tells them what happens, and takes on the guise of being a Resistance fighter. When Troopers and Fighters come, he doesn’t simply run from his old life. He protects the droid his pilot friend wanted to rescue and the girl whom the droid’s befriended.

TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.

Robert McKee

These are the kinds of choices that engaged fans like me in The Force Awakens: the Storm Trooper breaking free of his old coding to join the fight for good and, in consequence, discover his own self-worth. I would have loved to learn more about the First Order way of life through Finn’s memories. I would have loved to see Finn reach out to those he cared about, like the dying Storm Trooper in the first scene, and see if other Troopers were capable of finding the good within. I would have loved to see Finn’s potential with a light saber as shown on the movie’s poster.

Fans were excited for something new, and a story of a Storm Trooper Turning Good would have been dazzlingly new as far as these cinematic episodes go. We were ready to follow a classic story in a familiar galaxy with this unique character.

CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.

Robert McKee

Alas, it was not meant to be.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

You know, I really hoped I could do one film per blog post, but there is just waaaaaaaay too much to cover regarding plot holes, characterization, and antagonists. Since I have students submitting projects this week, I’ll likely save the next Force Awakens post on worldbuilding and plot holes for later. I think we could all use a music break, right? Who doesn’t love a trip into a land fantastic, rich in history and ripe for adventure?

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

*Video game and movie critic Mauler has an excellent series on The Last Jedi. While his The Force Awakens series remains unfinished, I still recommend what he’s done so far, especially since his thoughts on the world-building problems inspired me to share my own.

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 1: the ignored blueprints of #StarWarsRebels.

But  the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.  

Robert Mckee, Story

It’s an opening as known as Once upon a time. It’s the sort of opening to calls upon readers to leave the reality they know and enter a story both of the future and of the past—a hero’s journey, a villain’s redemption, a coming of age, a coming together of hearts, of friends…

…and Ewoks.

In other words: timeless. (Except maybe for The Battle for Endor, but anyway.)

The dialogue over Disney’s contributions to the Star Wars universe has been….well, a pretty shitty one. We’ve reached the point where Star Wars fans are like the Yooks and Zooks of Dr. Seuss’ The Great Butter Battle, and if you know that story, you know it doesn’t end well for anyone.

So let’s just put aside our Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroos for a second, lean against the wall à la Charlie Brown–

–and talk like storytellers. Not as rabid fans, or haters, or menaces, or warriors. Just people who love crafting good stories as much as they love experiencing them. And what better way to focus on the craft than by utilizing wisdom from one of the most revered voices in storytelling?

Robert McKee has been a revered voice in Hollywood for decades, as he’s taught notable storytellers like Peter Jackson, Paul Haggis, and William Goldman. His book Story is one of the few texts I’ve kept from my hellish graduate school days, as it utilizes films from several different genres to show how smart writing with character development, tension, and scene structure can build a powerful story with which audiences can connect.

It is with McKee’s craft lessons in Story I’d like to discuss the flaws that plague Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the Star Wars saga. As storytellers, I think we can all agree on some pretty important things are necessary to make a strong story, and therefore understand certain choices that both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson made with their installments. To be clear,I’m not going to bash either director. On the contrary, I think both brought some positive elements to Star Wars that shouldn’t be dismissed just because you don’t agree with all of their other creative choices.

No, the flaw lies in the foundation of the sequel trilogy. Like the parable of the foolish man who builds his house upon the sand, the recent Star Wars trilogy was built without a solid foundation. In other words, the creative powers of Disney failed to do the necessary worldbuilding—galaxy-building, if you will—for the stakes of the new trilogy to appeal to audiences old or new.

In this blog series, I’m going to utilize McKee’s words on story craft to break down where the sequel trilogy’s potential shines as well as where it dims. Every film has its moments, so I’m not going to dwell for a thousand words on one and then just rush through another.

And the truly tragic part? This could have aaaaaaall been avoided had Disney stuck with what it already built.

Story is about originality, not duplication.

Robert McKee, Story

Disney purchased Lucasfilm and rights to Star Wars in 2012, and by 2014 had created its own original storyline in the Star Wars Universe. The story was set between the prequels and original trilogy, a time when the Empire are hunting down any surviving Jedi and the Rebellion is slowly beginning to form.

Star Wars: Rebels ran for just four seasons, but in that time gained a solid following of fans, a good merchandise line, and even splinter stories in books and comics. The cast was a mix of alien and human-like folks, male and female, adults and kids, each with unique talents that came together to create a strong team to deal with a vicious gallery of Imperial foes.

The storyline fit snugly in the between the established trilogies without disturbing any of the arcs of previously established characters in the Skywalker episodes. Audiences were happy to go on adventures with the scrappy kid, laugh at the cranky droid, marvel at the piloting smarts of the lady alien, feel for the Jedi mourning the loss of his brethren…

…in other words, Disney had successfully built a solid setting in this galaxy far, far away that was unique while also adhering to the state of this galaxy as Revenge of the Sith left it.

Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.

Robert McKee, Story

You’d think that for a studio that loves making live-action remakes of their animated properties, bringing a live-action adaptation of Rebels to film would have been the easy-peasy choice for their feature debut with the Star Wars franchise. They had fans happy with the show, they had storylines all written out ready to go, characters fun and fleshed out. All the hard work of worldbuilding, character development, and plotting was already done.

But perhaps, to those Disney Powers That Be, this was the problem.

Ezra the kid wasn’t like Luke enough.

Hera the pilot wasn’t like Leia enough.

Kanan the Jedi wasn’t like Kenobi enough.

The Inquisitor wasn’t not like Vader enough.

Rebels wasn’t enough like Star Wars’ original trilogy, a film series loved by millions across multiple generations. Rebels’ own successes just weren’t enough.

Disney was determined to repeat the cosmic success of the 70s and 80s, and decided the best way to do this was by treating those original films as a formula to follow.

This choice, right here, before ANY director could say “Action!”, marks the beginning of the troubles for Disney’s Star Wars films. Had they begun with a feature film cast with their own characters and followed previously tested storylines, they would have planted the seeds of goodwill among audiences while also learning the ins and outs of producing a sci-fi adventure epic that is a Star Wars film.

Instead, they chose to fly as close to A New Hope as possible. Too close, as we shall see.

~STAY TUNED NEXT TIME!~

Oh, I’m keen to do some analysis of the entire sequel trilogy, so you’re stuck with me on this topic for a little while. 🙂 But I’ll also throw in some AMAZING music by Daniel Pemberton I got for Christmas, plus there’s some swanky author interviews coming, too.

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

#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: #Write #ChristmasTraditions with a #Sinister Flair for some Wickedly Fun #Seasonal #Storytelling

Good morning, my friends! At last I can write to you by the light of a Christmas tree. Many still slumber in this snowless cold of Wisconsin, but thanks to coffee and sweet sounds of soft singing, I’m content to sit and write to you of Christmas traditions…and murder!

Inspired by amazing indie author SJ Higbee, allow me to share some samples of this story’s covers. First, nothing’s so ominous as a skull outline in frosting. 🙂

“It’s dying out, you know,” he said, “the real old-fashioned type of Christmas. People spend it at hotels nowadays. But an English Christmas with all the family gathered round, the children and their stockings, the Christmas tree, the turkey and plum pudding, the crackers. The snowman outside the window…”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

Two years ago I shared with you a few of the traditions Bo and I have passed on to our children. I realize, however, I didn’t stress just how important those Christmas cookies are. Telling Bo to “skip the cookies this year” is akin to telling me to “skip the music this year.” In order words: BLASPHEMY! Bo will spend hours upon hours dying the dough, organizing the cutouts, laying out the sprinkles and ships for the kids to use for decorations. He loves giving these cookies to friends and family because they embody the love his mother shared when she baked cookies in his childhood. Though dead for twenty years, her love sweetly returns every Christmas through Bo, a tradition I love to see him honor.

Traditions, especially Christmas traditions, have this way of calling us back to our childhood. Once more we feel the snap of magic in winter’s air, hear the joy in song, see beauty in the world when the candles are lit and ornaments are hung. And don’t forget the food!

“All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey–two turkeys, one boiled and one roast– and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re not pure silver anymore. But all the old desserts…”

“What does all this have to do with your little murder bit earlier, Jean?” you may ask.

Okay, okay, I’m getting there.

Isn’t this one dreadfully plain? Oh, it’s pretty enough, but there’s absolutely no sense of mystery here whatsoever…unless we’re to presume the snow’s actually arsenic powder or something.

While some reread A Christmas Carol every year, I love to reread the Poirot short “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.” (No, I do NOT like to reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmasthough I’m the first to admit the David Suchet adaptation of this clunker is hilarious because they added a storyline of Inspector Japp dealing with his in-laws.) The premise for “Christmas Pudding” seems straightforward enough: a government official and a princeling ask Poirot to help them recover a jewel stolen by someone they suspect to be staying with the Lacey family at the old manor house King’s Lacey. They manage to bribe Poirot with the promise of the manor’s modern heating system–and, perhaps, some bloodshed.

“You see, it is very famous, this ruby. There is a long trail behind it, a history. Much bloodshed–many deaths!”

Poirot finally agrees to help and goes to the manor house under the guise of wanting to experience a good old-fashioned English Christmas. Though the Laceys do not know of the jewel, they do know they don’t like their granddaughter’s boyfriend, and hope this detective can help them disentangle their granddaughter Sarah from the cad Desmond, who only seems good when he tends to his mysteriously ill sister always hiding away in her guest room.

So, we have the traditional homecoming mixing with the nontraditional guests. This clash promises some engaging storytelling to come–and it does.

Hercule Poirot entered his bedroom. It was a large room well provided with radiators. As he went over towards the big four-poster bed he noticed an envelope lying on his pillow. He opened it and drew out a piece of paper. On it was a shakily printed message in capital letters.

DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING. ONE AS WISHES YOU WELL.

Hercule Poirot stared at it. His eyebrows rose. “Cryptic,” he murmured, “and most unexpected.”

A note is no dead body, but there’s a clear warning here of danger to come, and of all things that danger is connected to a Christmas dessert. I can’t imagine Bo’s cookies being dangerous, but then again, we don’t serve his cookies ON FIRE.

On a silver dish the Christmas pudding reposed in its glory. A large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it like a triumphant flag and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it. There was a cheer and cries of “Ooh-ah.”

Folks, it is utterly impossible for this anxious-addled mother of mischief-maker kiddos to imagine serving food on fire and expecting them to EAT IT. I mean, I know you don’t eat the fire, but still.

Rapidly the plates were passed round, flames still licking the portions.

“Wish, M. Poirot,” cried Bridget. “Wish before the flame goes….”

…. In front of everyone was a helping with flames still licking it. There was a momentary silence all round the table as everyone wished hard.

There was nobody to notice the rather curious expression on the face of M. Poirot as he surveyed the portion of pudding on his plate. “Don’t eat none of the plum pudding.” What on earth did that sinister warning mean? There could be nothing different about his portion of plum pudding from that of everyone else! Sighing as he admitted himself baffled–and Hercule Poirot never liked to admit himself baffled–he picked up his spoon and fork.

At a glance, this cover doesn’t look like much effort’s gone into it: just text in frosting with the pudding for a backdrop. But I do like how the frosting drips from the letters…like BLOOD, mwa ha ha!

If the great Belgian detective admits he’s baffled, then readers know there’s a real mystery afoot. We know there’s a precious ruby somewhere in this manor. We know the the manor’s heir is dating a ne’er-do-well that is surely the ruby’s thief. But what has any of that to do with this age-old Christmas tradition?

We soon find out.

Something tinkled on [Poirot’s] plate. He investigated with a fork. Bridget, on his left, came to his aid.

“You’ve got something, M. Poirot,” she said. “I wonder what it is.”

Poirot detached a little silver object from the surrounding raisins that clung to it.

“Ooooh,” said Bridget, “it’s the bachelor’s button! M. Poirot’s got the bachelor’s button!”

Every portion of the pudding contains a little token: wedding rings, a thimble, a pig, a coin, etc. For my lovely friends across the Pond, you’ll have to enlighten me about what tokens are or are not traditional, for my two-second search on Google only alluded to coins, thimble, bachelor’s button, and a wishbone. (And again, Panic-Mom-Me would be crying “THEY’RE GOING TO CHOKE!” throughout all this. Prrrrobably for the best we don’t have the Christmas Pudding Tradition in the Lee house.) I especially wish I knew more about the traditional tokens because of what happens when the lord of the manor digs into his portion.

While not too colorful, I do love the menace of this cover. You’ve got the ruby that starts the story, an old illustration of making the pudding, and blood dropping onto a snow-like surface. I dig it!

“God bless my soul,” [Mr. Lacey] ejaculated. “It’s a red stone out of one of the cracker brooches.” He held it aloft.

…. “But what I can’t understand,” said Mrs. Lacey, “is how it got into the pudding.”

Mr. and Mrs. Lacey are both baffled about this particular “token.” Poirot isn’t–nor are we readers–but the reaction of the Laceys makes it clear that of all the tokens Tradition dictates be put into the Christmas pudding, a red stone isn’t one of them. It’s a peculiar twist on the tradition to them, but to Poirot, the pudding provides the answer to the mystery of the ruby’s hiding place.

Of course, now he has to figure out how it got there in the first place. The answer comes in yet another Christmas tradition learned when Poirot compliments the cook Mrs. Ross on her pudding and asks how she makes it.

“…As it was, that pudding was only made three days ago, the day before you arrived, sir. However, I kept to the old custom. Everyone in the house had to come out into the kitchen and have a stir and make a wish. That’s an old custom, sir, and I’ve always held to it.”

When the cook says “everyone in the house,” she means it: not only did the family members come and have a stir, but the staff and all guests–including the suspected thief Desmond and his supposed sister. This tradition provides the nontraditional guests the opportunity to hide their criminal activity in an unlikely place.

Yet why would they hide the ruby inside something everyone was going to eat? It turns out the Christmas pudding wasn’t meant to be the Christmas pudding, as the cook explains.

This is the cover of my copy. I love the balance of festive color against that vicious knife. If only the author text weren’t so huge!

“As a matter of fact, sir,” said Mrs. Ross, “it was the wrong pudding you had for lunch today…This morning, when Annie was getting [the Christmas Day pudding] down from the shelf in the larder, she slipped and dropped it and it broke…. So we had to use the other one–the New Year’s Day one.”

Thanks to the tradition of multiple puddings for the holidays, the Christmas dinner had been saved–and the ruby exposed.

Of course, then, there comes a wee spot of murder, but I’ll let you read about that on your own. Honestly, “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is a quick’n’fun read for your lunch break or before dawn creeps to your window.

As you embark on your own writing adventures this December, consider the holiday traditions you’ve known since childhood. What villainy could hide under the plate of cookies, or in the shadows beyond the carolers outside? A festive promise of mystery and adventure awaits!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m lining up author interview for 2020! Some have already reached out to me, and I’m in the process of reaching out to others. It promises to be a smashing year of sharing authors we love! I’ve also got some brilliant music to share with you both seasonal and magical. Plus, let’s not forget an update from Blondie and her own storytelling as well as the importance of giving the gift of literacy to others. Here’s hoping I can get Bash back on his Transformer Christmas story, too. 😉

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

#lessonslearned from @arden_katherine: #readers don’t need to see the #horror to feel it. #amwriting #writetip

Ah, ’tis that most wonderful time of the year…when Linus camps out in the pumpkin patch, when Bo shares classic monster movies with the kiddos, when I stroll with a cup of coffee, kicking up the fallen leaves as I go.

It’s that time when Blondie creates ghost stories for every old house we pass on the way home from school, when Bash draws a collection of Frankenstein monster pumpkins for the wall, and Biff curls up beneath his Star Trek comforter with books on all things weird but true.

It’s that time when I’ll return to the stuff of childhood nightmares–in a good way, mind. Creepy story collections like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Today I’d like to add to that list with a story fit for any Midnight Society’s campfire, one a parent can spookily read with his/her child…or perhaps a brave older kid would enjoy reading with a flashlight under the covers.

That story is Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces.

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think–she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. …On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” … Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.

From Cover Blurb

I don’t want to give away the whole story (unlike the back cover, gah!). Rather, today I wanted to share a wee epiphany I had while reading this book.

Let’s start when Ollie’s class first arrives at the farm. It’s a large farm, and isolated–no town’s anywhere nearby. This already creates a sense of being cut off from all that’s familiar to Ollie and her classmates.

A group of three scarecrows stood on the edge of the parking lot, smiling stitched-on smiles. Their garden-rake hands were raised to wave. The tips of the rakes gleamed in the sun.
Ollie kept turning. More scarecrows. Scarecrows everywhere. Someone had set up scarecrows between buildings, in the vegetable garden, on stakes in the cornfield. Their hands were trowels or garden rakes. Their smiles had been sewn or painted on.

Chapter 8

Readers feel Ollie tense up at the sight of all these scarecrows. Can we blame her? It’s one thing to have a few scarecrows up for decoration, but “scarecrows everywhere” is unsettling. Then you add the fact that none of them have proper hands, but rather trowels or rakes–no gloves, no straw just sticking out. Nope. Just sharp, pointed things.

The moment reminded me a lot of John Carpenter’s Halloween, actually. I know slashers aren’t for everyone, but I promise you this clip is blood-free. (My apologies for the opening 5 seconds of cussing Freddy Krueger. I just really wanted to use this clip!)

This scene is one of a few depicting Michael Meyers stalking Laurie. He does nothing but stand and stare at her for a few seconds before walking out of sight.

What is he doing out of sight?

We can’t answer that. Laurie can’t, either. You can see the concern and fear fill her face as her friend approaches the hedge. She knows something is off about this faceless Shape, but she can’t yet define it. She didn’t need to see any blood on the Shape of Michael, or a weapon in his hand. There’s no blood-curdling screams from the house, frantic gunshots, etc. The stillness of Michael’s Shape is enough to unsettle Laurie and put her on her guard.

The Unsettling Of The Protagonist during the first act of a story builds an incredible amount of tension. This tension grips the audience and holds them in place because they need to see what could possibly happen. Now comes the real trick for this treat: paying off that expectation.

Well we know Carpenter’s Halloween does this, or it wouldn’t be considered the masterpiece it is today. The stalking escalates to the murder of Laurie’s friends which then escalates to the cat-and-mouse fight for survival between Laurie and Michael in the third act. This escalation fits well with the genre and needs of the audience, to be sure. Sooooo how do we swing a similar escalation into payoff for kids?

Hide the horror’s action off-page.

As the blurb says, Ollie and two of her classmates run from the broken school bus into the dark forest. There they find

WE SEE YOU was written on a tree overhead in ragged, dripping white letters.
Below them another scarecrow leaned against the tree. There was paint on his coveralls; he was grinning ear to ear. He had no hands at all, just two flopping paintbrushes where hands should be.

Chapter 13

Did Ollie and two of her classmates see the scarecrow paint the letters? No. Yet the evidence before them says that it did. Do they see their classmates on the bus? No. And yet:

A scream tore through the twilight. Then a whole chorus of screaming.

Ollie and Coco hurried up the sloping path. The first of the scarecrows stood right on the edge of the fenced-in dead garden, head a little flopped to one side. Brian was standing in front of it, his hand over his mouth.
“What is it?” said Coco.
“That scarecrow,” Ollie said, panting a little. “Is–does it look familiar?”
“Yes,” Brian whispered. “Because it’s wearing Phil’s clothes. Because that’s Phil’s hat and Phil’s hair and kind of Phil’s face–if it were sewn on. That’s Phil.”

Chapter 13, 18

We do not see the school kids transformed into scarecrows. We only know the Before, and the After. It is up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the space between. And a reader’s imagination can be a very, very powerful thing.

When we describe precisely what happened, we, well, we limit the reader’s power. We define with clear guidelines just what took place and how. We walk readers around all the edges and features, showing off precisely what makes that Scary Something strong as well as weak. Of course, this method can be very useful–a reveal of method beneath the madness, if you will.

But we don’t always need to tell readers how the Scary Something works. If we do, we risk severing the Scary from the Something.

The very reason readers come to stories like this in the first place.

Do you have any favorite ghost stories to share? Let me know in the comments below. In the meantime, I’m going to wait for my copy of Dead Voices, the sequel to Small Spaces. Isn’t that cover creepily gorgeous? It’ll be perfect for a Novembery read, when Wisconsin’s lost in the transition from autumn to winter.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m excited to share all sorts of creative goings-on with Biff, Bash, and Blondie! I’m hoping to talk a bit about NaNoWriMo, too. Plus there’s a peculiar bit of Wisconsin many presume to be haunted, buuuuut we shall see.

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

#writing #music: #Suspiria by @thomyorke

Rhythm.

We keep in time with it as we dance to life’s obligations. We drum our fingers to it when all else slows to drudge, we unleash our feet to it when all else is quickens to thrill.

Writing, too, has its rhythms. They can be the water flowing through a setting, the heartbeats of two characters meeting, the dialogue where all that is important is left unsaid.

The narrative rhythm quickens and slows with every story, every writer.

And sometimes there is that rare, beautiful moment where the rhythm of one story inspires another.

Welcome, Suspiria.

While both the original 1970s Italian film and 2018 film take place in a dance studio, that is about all they have in common. (If interested, click on for Red Letter Media’s thorough dissection of both the original and the remake.) As I am going to speak of the 2018 film’s soundtrack, let’s focus on the latter, where a young Mennonite American woman feels she must, she must, join a West German dance troupe that is secretly run by a coven of witches. As she grows more entwined with the magic of the school, the psychotherapist of a dancer missing from that same troupe investigates what he believes to be supernatural goings-on behind the studio’s doors.

(Oh, and that elderly psychotherapist gentleman is played by Tilda Swinton, who is also playing one of the teacher-witches. This was actually a controversial point in the press, as she didn’t admit to playing this role until after the film premiered. Just watch this little snippet of the character moving, and you just feel the age of him, the weight of this mystery upon him. Bloody amazing, that Swinton.)

And there is indeed magical goings-on behind the studio doors. The witches need to prepare a vessel for one who claims to be of the Three Mothers whom the coven worships. How do the witches prepare such a vessel? With dance.

All their magic is empowered by dance. Every choreographed movement of the female body, especially a group of female bodies, helps build their power to control, summon, bespell.

So what better way to bespell the audience than with a magical score? Thom Yorke of Radiohead weaves synth, piano, and dancing rhythms through much of the score. Sometimes we are given only sound, such as in “A Storm That Took Everything.” Like a storm outside, the world is noise, dissonant, clashing, overwhelming. (I wish I had more than an Amazon sample to give you, but Yorke limited which tracks could be on YouTube, dammit.)

Sometimes the dancing rhythm takes center stage even when characters are not dancing. “Belongings Thrown in a River” is an excellent example of this. You can just feel the 3/4 time, always used for waltzes, pull you into a hypnotic 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. Even when no witches can be seen, even outside and away from the studio, there is a power reaching out to our characters from afar.

A longer sample I can share of magical rhythms comes in “Volk,” the song played when the dancers perform what they think is a recital while the teacher-witches prepare Mother Suspiriorum’s entry into their chosen vessel, the Mennonite Susie.

The tinkling high synth that sinks down takes us, the listeners, down to the rhythm. Feel the 5/4 time, otherwise known as quintuple meter. It’s unnatural, this rhythm. It’s not one to be walked to, to run to. It is its own…until just after two minutes, and then the rhythm changes. Constantly halted, that synth, pausing you, pulling you, pushing you, a jerking dramatic control so like a puppeteer with his marionettes.

So like these dancers and their bewitching teachers.

But no song bewitched me like Yorke’s own “Suspirium.”

Again, the 3/4 time, but here with piano, a distant organ, later a flute. The rhythm is the melody is the rhythm. One feels prone to dance a walk in silence as the lyrics invoke a haunted hope of an impossible waiting, just ahead.

This is a waltz thinking about our bodies
What they mean for our salvation
With only the clothes that we stand up in
Just the ground on which we stand
Is the darkness ours to take?
Bathed in lightness, bathed in heat

All is well, as long as we keep spinning
Here and now, dancing behind a wall
When the old songs and laughter we do
Are forgiven always and never been true

When I arrive, will you come and find me?
Or in a crowd, be one of them?
Wore the wrong sign back beside her
Know tomorrow’s at peace

Songwriters: Thomas Edward Yorke© Warner Chappell Music, Inc. For non-commercial use only. Data from: LyricFind

It is through this song I found the rhythm of a story to another girl, one also drawn to a place she cannot yet understand, where her fate is entangled with past bloodied and forgotten in the snow.

It was 8:30 at night, and Grandmother still wasn’t dead.

Chloe tapped her box of Winston cigarettes against her nyloned knees, cold and impatient. Sitting at the top of the stairs hurt made her ass hurt, but the stairs started near Grandmother’s room, where Mom sat with the others. Chloe did not want to be too far from Mom, not when she sat so still and quiet in a room where Death was due to arrive at any time. 

Chloe redid her headband to keep her black hair out of her eyes, and then leaned backwards to peer through the doorway again.

Nothing had changed. A heavy, ornate lamp sat on the bedside table with a thin orange shroud draped over its shade to dim the light. The bed stood high with wooden globes for feet, globes carved into precarious connections along the frame and headboard. The blankets on the bed looked like cast-off ball gowns, all bright colors in expensive fabric stitched with gold. Gold was everywhere in that room. No shroud could hinder the light from finding the gilded edges of crucifixes, mirrors, chairs, fireplace. Old family portraits of white people sitting stiffly cover walls papered in some sort of leafy green paper. The paper is cracked and peeling in places, just like Grandmother.

A portrait taken of this generation would be very, very different.

I’m still working out some of the history and time-frame for this story so that, God-willing, come November I can launch myself into Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon.

I should also warn you all I may very well drag you into the forest around the Crow’s Nest during my month-long stay in this story-world. Stay tuned to upcoming posts about that. 🙂

Speaking of writing endeavors, Super-Proud Mom Me is getting out of the chair so Blondie can tell you all about her current writing project. Take it away, Blondie!

Thanks, Mom! I’ll take it from here. Hello, everyone! I’m Blondie, if you don’t know already. Now, my story is called Alley Heroes. A wolf named Thor needs to defeat the evil Loki. Where is it? Oh, it takes place in Milwaukee, and the magical land of Valhalla.

Methinks my daughter has been influenced somewhat by her Basher Mythology book. 🙂 Here’s her introduction. Love this girl! xxxxx

INTRODUCTION

It was a typical day in Milwaukee, or what you call typical. Under a pretty rosebush, Thor was born. What?! No, No, not the Norse god Thor! Well, maybe, but any who, let’s continue, shall we? SO, then, Thor’s parents left him behind when humans came. Thor grew up in the city alleys where it was perfect camouflage. Then it happened. What?! WHAT DO YOU MEAN, “SO, WHAT HAPPENED?” WELL, TURN THE PAGE!

Speaking of books, indie author and reviewer Colin Garrow was kind enough to review my novella Night’s Tooth. I’m so honored!

A mix of classic western and fantasy, Jean Lee’s novella is set on the edges of her Princeborn universe (see Fallen Princeborn: Stolen). Her use of language is delightful, with an unusual writing style that’s as clever as it is original. The characters are an interesting lot, too, (like the Sherriff with the squirrel-tails moustache). Drop them all into an atmospheric Clint Eastwood-type setting, and there’s plenty of action to keep the reader guessing what’s coming next.

*

*

*

*

I hope you’ll check out his site…and, well, my books, too. Night’s Tooth is only 99 cents, after all!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We’ve just enough time before All Hallow’s Eve to explore spaces lost and forgotten, frightening and small. I’ll share a peculiar corner of Wisconsin before we run for the small spaces, where we must hope the smiling man of the mist will not find us….

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

#lessons learned from @CorneliaFunke and #GuillermodelToro: #write a #fairytale to enrich the #history of your #story.

Once upon a time, when magic did not hide from human eyes as thoroughly as it does today…

“The Mill That Lost Its Pond”

You know the words.

Once upon a time.

So many fairy tales begin this way. Like river stones bridging shores, we travel with those words from our world to another, eager to see what lies beyond.

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has been luring his audiences to cross reality’s river for years, but this summer he and author Cornelia Funke did more than lure us over the river. They led us through the hills past Grandmother’s house into a forest where past and present seemingly grow as one.

According to IndieWire, del Toro had wanted to expand on the folklore within his fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth, and I’m so very glad he did. The book’s a beautiful reading experience from cover to cover. (Seriously, the art work of the book is stunning. Just look at this!)

I could gush for another thousand words about the beauty of the language, the flawless shifts in point of view, etc etc, but instead let’s sit and talk depth. Not, you know, profound philosophy or some such thing, but giving a story-world depth. Giving the world a feel of history and life. Giving a sense of reality to non-reality.

And using the fairy tale to do just that.

Now I suppose that sounds a touch ironic. Words like once upon a time are timeless, aren’t they? They’re right up there with A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Fairy tale lands are…you know, out there (insert vague hand-wavy gesture here). That’s why there’s that indefinite article a. A time could mean Any time.

But The Labyrinth of the Faun is NOT “out there.” We are told on the first page of Chapter 1 precisely where and when we are:

There was once a forest in the north of Span, so old that it could tell stories long past and forgotten by men. The trees anchored so deeply in the moss-covered soil they laced the bones of the dead with their roots while their branches reached for the stars.

So many things lost, the leaves were murmuring as three black cars came driving down the unpaved road that cut through fern and moss.

But all things lost can be found again
, the trees whispered.

It was the year 1944 and the girl sitting in one of the cars, next to her pregnant mother, didn’t understand what the trees whispered.

Chapter 1, “The Forest and the Fairy”

The girl’s name is Ofelia, and this story not only tells of her meeting the Faun, but of war, of grief, of sorrow, and of hope. (After seeing what high school students are reading these days, I would LOVE to just assign this book and build a critical reading/writing unit around it.) So many themes are woven into one girl’s quest to discover her true soul, her identity as the long-lost princess of the Underground Kingdom. And hers isn’t the only journey shared here; we experience the life of Rebels hiding from the Fascist soldiers. We experience the mind of Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s sadistic stepfather. But best of all, we experience the life of this forest via the fairy tales interspersed between the chapters.

This is something del Toro must have known would not translate into the film medium: he and Funke interrupt the present-day narrative with Ofelia to take readers out and into the past. It’s an occasional pause during the first third of the book, but the interruptions increase in frequency towards the end of the book–past and present coming together for that single climactic moment in Ofelia’s journey.

The first fairy tale comes after Chapter 5, sharing the story of the sculptor whose creations Ofelia discovers centuries later in Chapter 1. The second fairy tale, “The Labyrinth,” tells of a nobleman who discovers a beautiful girl asleep in an ancient forest by a mill pond. They fall in love and marry, but her lack of memory plagues her in the night, sending her back to that forest time and again with sadness. The nobleman visits a witch her lives near the “Split Tree, which was said to house a poisonous toad between its roots.”

Hold on to that reference, if you please.

The witch Rocio instructs the nobleman to construct a labyrinth out of stones from the nearby deserted village where the Pale Man stole children to eat. The nobleman threatens to drown the witch in the pond if his wife’s memory doesn’t recover.

Rocio answered him with a smile.
“I know,” she said. “But we all have to play our parts, don’t we?”

“The Labyrinth”

The labyrinth fails to awaken the girl’s memory, and she dies, too ill with sadness to live. The son she bore the nobleman later walks the labyrinth to find what his mother lost only to never be seen again.

It took another two hundred and twenty-three years until the prophecy of the witch came true and the labyrinth revealed his mother’s true name when she once again walked its ancient corridors as a girl called Ofelia.

“The Labyrinth”

All this is learned before we come enter Chapter 10, “The Tree.” The Faun has given Ofelia three magic stones and a book that instructs Ofelia to give the stones to a “monstrous toad” inside a “colossal fig tree” that is now dying because of the toad.

By the end of Chapter 12, Ofelia successfully kills the Toad and sees “The key the Faun had asked her to bring was sticking to the Toad’s entrails along with dozens of twitching woodlice.”

Yet despite dying, this is not the end of the Toad’s presence in the story.

Remember, we are given this land’s history in fairy tales, and fairy tales know no time. Whenever Man wishes to control something as powerful as Time or Life, Death often follows.

Once upon a time, a nobleman ordered five of his soldiers to arrest a woman named Rocio, who he accused of being a witch. He told them to drown her in the pond of a mill deep in the old forest where she lived. It required two men to drag her into the cold water and one to hold her down until she ceased to breathe. That solder’s name was Umberto Garces.
… The task was terrible, and at the same time it arouse him, maybe because the witch was quite beautiful.

“The Echo of Murder”

This vicious act mirrors the evil we readers have seen earlier in the book with Captain Vidal. The echoes don’t end there, however. After sleepless nights of haunting visions, Garces returns to the old mill pond in hopes for peace of mind.

When he stepped closer to the water, though, Garces wished he’d never returned. The water was as black as his sin, and the trees seemed to whisper his judgment into the night: Murderer!”

“The Echo of Murder”

The trees repeat the word, over and over. The land is echoing Garces’ evil back at him.

“I’ll do it again!” he shouted over the silent water. “You hear me?”
His boots sank deeper into the mud and his hands started to itch. He lifted them to his face. His skin was covered in warts and webs were growing between his fingers–the fingers he’d used to hold the witch down.
… Garces screamed again. By now his voice had changed. Hoarse croaking escaped his throat and, his spine twisted and bent until he fell to his knees, digging his webbed fingers into the mud. Then he leaped into the same muddy pond water he’d drowned the witch in.

“The Echo of Murder”

The Toad is created. Yet wasn’t this Toad already present when the witch was alive, a toad the nobleman thinks on in the second fairy tale?

And yet this STILL isn’t the last we’ve seen of the Toad. He appears once more in the final fairy tale before the final chapter. This last tale shares the origins of a Child Eater known as the Pale Man.

In “The Boy Who Escaped,” we meet a boy named Serafin from a village near an ancient forest. The Pale Man captures him and takes him to his layer to eat, but Serafin is so fast he not only escaped the Pale Man’s clutches, but made off with a large key. A key to what? A key to a cupboard where the Pale Man’s dagger was kept–the dagger Ofelia and the fairies retrieved back in Chapter 20.

But hang on, we’re still with Serafin here. He escapes the Pale Man’s layer and, desperate to be rid of the key, throws it into an old mill pond.

Serafin didn’t notice the huge toad watching him when he hurled the key into the pond, nor that it had the eyes of a man. Neither did the boy see the toad swallow the key with its wart-covered lips.

“The Boy Who Escaped”

So…hang on. In THIS story, the village is no longer deserted, but Serafin sees the pond and recalls hearing that “years ago a nobleman’s soldiers had drowned a witch” there. yet in THAT story, the nobleman is instructed by the witch to build the labyrinth out of stones from a nearby deserted village.

Fairy tales need not be restricted by time. Man cannot contain it, as Captain Vidal dares with his silver pocket watch. Oh no. As Doctor Who would say:

Fairy tales happen once upon A time. Perhaps long ago, or not long ago. They happen when they happen. They are when the are.

And because they still are, they affect characters in this, the present tense.

Just as they affect us, the readers, now and always.

It’s always just a few who know where to look and how to listen, that is true. But for the best stories, a few are just enough.

“Little Traces”

What fairy tale echoes in your present life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

October awaits with all its firey magic! I’ve some lovely interviews coming, as well as some exciting news about Witch Week. Plus there’s updates to be told about my Fallen Princeborn series–oh, my western fantasy Night’s Tooth is still 99 cents, if you’ve not snatched that up yet!

I’ve the perfect music to haunt your dreams, and–if my teaching allows it–some snippets of a novella I’m building out of snow, fear, and secrets.

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

#Lessons Learned from #TheHobbit and #RobinHood: use the familiar to build, not burn, bridges into your #fantasy #writing.

There comes a time when one must face Truth.

Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)

So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.

The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)

I knew the animated film before the novel itself. “The greaaatest adventure / is whaaat lies ahead…”

Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.

But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.

(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)

The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.

Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…

Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.

Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.

In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.

Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.

Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.

It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.

Until now!

This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”

O-kay.

So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!

The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.

In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”

The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.

The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.

“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”

At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.

Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.

Anyway.

All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.

So.

The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.

When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.

You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.

And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.

The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?

If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?

But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.

I rest my case.

Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.

Just…done. (That, and there’s a movie review that covers all my complaints and then some.)

Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.

Gah, now I’m just rambling.

I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.

Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.

Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.

Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!

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