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

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

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

“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”

“Why does David go away to school?”

“Why is David’s family so mean?”

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

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

I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

Sound familiar? It does to David.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing Says Farewell to #WyrdandWonder with #Wizard #Etiquette

Hello, Friends! I wanted to run by with a quick hello while fleeing the wizards…and the essay grading, but mostly the wizards.

NOT THOSE WIZARDS!

Ahem. No no, just the wizards Diana Wynne Jones describes in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. As a final jaunt through her critical parody of fantasy writing for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder

–it is high time we take a look at the most powerful magic-wielders in any fantasy realm: the Wizard.

WIZARDS are normally intensely old. They live solitary lives, mostly in TOWERS or CITADELS, or in a special CITY which has facilities for study. They will have been studying MAGIC for centuries and, alas, the great majority have been seriously dehumanized by those studies. Two-thirds have become EVIL, possibly agents of the DARK LORD. The remaining GOOD one-third have become eccentrics or drunks or just very hard to understand. Evil or Good, Wizards are the strongest MAGIC USERS of all except for the DARK LORD and GODDESSES and GODS, and can usually be distinguished by the fact that they have long beards and wear ROBES.

You need to distinguish Wizards: if crossed, most Wizards get childishly offended and exact terrible revenge. Angry Wizards are likely to throw lumps of LANDSCAPE hither and thither, move MOUNTAINS, wave WEATHER systems about (see STORM CONTROL), hurl DEMONS, flood or bury CITIES, and pollute whole COUNTRIES with sleeting Magics. This is how the WIZARDS’ WAR seems to have come about: too many Wizards got too annoyed at once.

As a result, full-scale Magic Wars have been prohibited by the Rules. Nowadays most Wizards are bored. Evil ones have to occupy their time with BREEDING PROGRAMMES and plans to rein over the world. Good Wizards could not do this, and so the Tours have come as a godsend to them. Some Good Wizards can accompany the Tourists as MENTORS, and all of them have fun bossing the show and delivering PROPHECIES or cryptic advice. And the Management in its turn is grateful to the Wizards, both for making the Tours so interesting and for obligingly putting all teh Landscape back together again after each Final CONFRONTATION, so that the next Tour may visit Fantasyland and find it whole and entire, as if as always.

I do so love Jones’ take on the Wizards’ War consisting of a bunch of annoyed Wizards in a snit with one another. I can only imagine she had this in mind as she crafted the world around the country of Ingary and its own population of witches and wizards, many with temperaments liable to bring about pools of green ooze or something worse: a curse.

So, let us all keep in mind the importance of Wizard Etiquette, shall we? One never knows, after all, just who walks by us on the street…

HOW TO INTERACT WITH WIZARDS

Treat all Wizards with the utmost politeness, even if one of them is your Tour MENTOR and you are trying to bully her/him into providing some action or telling you something. Remember that Wizards do not need anything from you and do not like to be coerced. Even the smiling ones with bushy eyebrows are touchy on this point.


Evil Wizards are liable to immure you in ice, bury you alive, or just transmit you to the Breeding Pens as food for their MONSTERS. Be highly civil.


Good Wizards do not go so far. They will just remove your skin and then make you itch. Be very courteous.
Poor Wizards, who are back at MAGIC, need to be treated with even greater politeness, unctuously in fact. If they botch the SPELL they put you on in anger, they might turn you into

anything an then not be able to undo it. Positively crawl to these.

And, please, please, never attempt to seduce a female Wizard. The consequences can be terrible.

Thank you all so very much for travailing with me through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland! We didn’t get to all the people and places I had hoped (the Crone, oh heaven, the Crone!), but I’m thankful for how far we could go together. I can’t wait to spend June catching up with you as I teach summer school, university, and attend school for another Masters. I’m also excited share a few fun interviews, some music, some lessons learned, and God-willing, some WRITING.

But first…the larch. The. Larch.

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one. 🙂 I’m in such a loopy mood…ANYway, I just wanted to say I’ll be sharing a new Diana Wynne Jones analysis with you just as May departs us. The kiddos have been mightily enjoying our lunchtime read, and the last chapter awaits us tomorrow. What did we read? What did we learn? Stay tuned and find out!

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

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with #Legends More Truthful Than #History All Sung in a #Ballad

Good morning, Friends! Sooooo I know I mentioned dungeons yesterday, but yesterday’s chaos swarmed upon my time like a plague of locusts and the chance to share all things dark and deadly was eaten alive. I won’t go into details, but if you imagine my three Bs at the auto mechanic and Biff’s gear-headed nature, I’m sure you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions. (No, no one was hurt. Just a very tiring afternoon making sure Biff didn’t go near the blowtorch.)

Let’s think on older things, shall we? Ancient things. Let’s think on one of the elements of an epic fantasy for Wyrd and Wonder.

I’m talking about the Legend.

Not THAT Legend!

I’m talking about a story-world’s history so often hidden among legends and ballads of old.

HISTORY is generally patchy and unreliable. Any real information about past events is either lost or contained in a SCROLL jealously guarded in a MONASTERY or TEMPLE. All that can be ascertained with any certainty is:

  1. That there once was an Empire that ruled the continent from coast to coast (give or take a few enclaves of ELVES, GOBLINS, and the like), but that this shrank to one CITY a long time before the era of the current Tour, leaving only a few ROADS, perhaps some of the less ancient ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS and much deserted country.
  2. That there was once a WIZARDS’ WAR which problbably occurred earlier still. The result of this is that large tracts of land are still magically devastated (see WASTE AREAS). See LEGENDS, as more reliable sources of information.

I can only imagine Diana Wynne Jones was thinking of a certain past teacher of hers as she wrote this entry in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. *cough cough TOLKIEN cough cough*

Ages can pass between the historical events that influence the current story, allowing for much information learned in the past to be lost to those in the present. The only echo of history seems to find protagonists in two forms: Legends, and Ballads.

LEGENDS are an important source of true information. They always turn out to be far more accurate than HISTORY. Listen and attend carefully if anyone recounts you a Legend. The person telling it may be an old HERBWOMAN, a BARD, a bad KING, one of your COMPANIONS, or just someone in an INN. But no matter how improbable the story, it will always turn out to be the exact truth, and only by following it accurately can you hope to succeed in your QUEST. The Management will never allow anyone to tell you a Legend unless unless it is going to be important for you to know.

When I was working on the history of my Fallen Princeborn universe, I realized I, too, would need a history lost to the legends. But how to do that when some characters are shapeshifters capable of living for millennia?

Consider human nature–not, you know, JUST humans. Sinful nature, then. The Old Adam. Our Old Selves. The Sinister Side of the soul. It’s the side that focuses strictly upon the Self’s wants and ambitions. It only considers what directly impacts the Self, and cares nothing for what can’t meet the Self’s desires. (I’m sure there’s a much more philosophically poetic way to say this, but I’m only on my second cup of coffee and Blondie is already awake because God forbid she miss Nova.) History doesn’t affect the Self in the present; therefore, History is dismissed and forgotten. History becomes nothing more than a story with which to entertain. Its bite of relevance has lost its teeth, but there is still something to be felt.

Hmmm. Perhaps this is why Legends and Ballads are more useful to the fantasy-storyteller than a well-known History. If the History is clearly established, then there is little to discover about the story-world. Uncertain History promises mystery to the characters, and therefore to the reader. Exposition-giving methods like Ballads allow the storyteller to do a little…sugar-coating? Rose-tinting? Mixing-upping? Call it what you will. The point is that the Ballad’s useful despite sounding nonsensical, as Jones explains in…

HOW TO COMPOSE A BALLAD

You need to start with some lines of well-known Wisdom, like this:

Why number the teeth of a stallion
you have just received for free,
Or swiftly assess and inspect with care
the gulf you must jump for me?
Know that an avian held in the fist
weighs more than the flock you see,
And among a great surplus of chefs,
your soup might burn’ed be.

Next, include a LEGEND (which turns out to be History and quite accurate), so:

There once was a monarch, his name was Cole,
who drank and laughed his glee,
For beside his throne on seats of stone
sat his lovely daughters three.
One was as fair as the dawn’s bright air,
the second dark to see,
And the third was lovelier still, my lads,
and a wicked one was she.

After this you will need a chorus, which seems to be nonsense but turns out to be Hugely Significant, like this:

And they fiddled and they twiddled
And they twiddled and they fiddled
And they fiddled all night all three.

Do this two or three more times and you will have your Ballad.

It’s okay if Ballads are silly, too.

I actually worked on a Legend/Ballad for Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, utilizing a small portion of it for a freaky little song to be sung as a girl is kidnapped.

Two more shadows appear behind the others. Anna recognizes the driver Mr. Smith and Jamie. They smile and start singing badly:

“Wish for sleep
Sleep and dream
Dream your wish
Your life we’ll keep.”

She should scream for Charlie. Her quarter falls with a weak ting on the ground. She turns to scream to Uncle Mattie for help. “Close enough.” She blinks. The squirrel sits on the well just inches from her, quarter in its paws. Its eyes are violet and silver in the night.

If you’re a fan of fantasy adventure with a smart-ass of a protagonist, I hope you’ll give my Young Adult novel a go. It’ll be just 99 cents starting tomorrow and all through Memorial Day weekend. To celebrate, we’ll talk dungeons and Dark Lords, swords and sorcery, and whatever else sounds good for an adventure. x

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

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with an important #writetip for #kidlit #storytelling

Soooooo my puppet plans for the day went so-so. Each kid had a snit at some point: Blondie in making the puppets, Bash in writing his play, and Biff in performing for his family. Still, the kids had TONS of fun at various points of the day creating their robots, rockets, and superheroes. We also took breaks to watch the ultimate puppet show, The Muppet Show. The episode with John Cleese is always a favorite!

I also had a lovely chat with long-time friend, Anne Clare. It always lifts the spirit to connect with an old friend and fellow creative who adventures with teaching and parenting at home as I do. Be sure to stop by her site and say hello!

This week we also found the library that contained the last book to Blondie’s current fav series: Last Dogs by Christopher Holt. She’s found a lot of escape in this series, and I didn’t want to cut off her escape time by missing one of the books.

Escape is very important in times like this, and I hope you each have found that beloved book to transport you out of the current chaos (feel free to share it in the comments below!). I’m excited the stories I’ve written have helped others escape; nothing helps me reset like escaping into my fantasy writing. Diana Wynne Jones also considered fantasy stories to be a delightful bit of escape and adventure for children, but she also reminds writers that fantasy is much more than that for children. Through fantasy, children discover how to be their best selves.

From Writing for Children: A Matter of Responsibility

…many writers, not only those who say imagination drives you mad, get the wrong idea. They assume that because a thing is “made up” it is unreal or untrue (disregarding the fact that any kind of story except the most factual biography is always “made up”). They see a child reading a fairy story, or constructing his or her own fantasy, and they at once conclude that the child is retreating into make-believe simply to get comfort in a melancholy situation.

Fantasy certainly does provide comfort–and who is not entitled to a little comfort if they can get it? For those who need that, it is the mind’s perfect safety valve. But a child reading, say, a fairy story is doing a great deal more. Most fairy stories are practically perfect examples of narratives that fit the pattern of the ind at work. They state a problem as a “what if” from the outset. “What if there were this wicked uncle? That evil stepmother who is a witch? This loathsome monster?” Stated in this way, the problem (parent? bully?) is posed for the widest possible number of people, but posed in a way that enables the reader to walk all around it and see the tights and wrongs of it. This uncle, witch or monster is a vile being behaving vilely. As these beings will invariably match with an actual person: parent, sibling, schoolfellow, what a child gains thereby is a sort of blueprint of society. Reading the story, he or she is constructing a mental map–in bold colors or stark black and white–of right and wrong and life as it should be. Turning to the cruel parent or schoolfellow, where right and wrong are apt to be very blurred, this child will now have the mental map for guidance.

An important part of this mental map is that the story should usually have a happy ending–or at least an ending where justice is seen to be done to villains and heroes alike. This is again part of life as it should be. The mind, as I have said, is programmed to tackle problems, joyfully, with a view to solving them…it is important that the blueprint instructs them to aim as high as possible.

If you bear in mind these responsibilities as you write, you need have no fear that any child will mistake the blueprint for the actual world. Children recognize the proper workings of the imagination when they are allowed to see it and may quite well remember your story, joyfully and gratefully, for the rest of their lives.

As you all continue on your adventures through the fantastic, I hope you’ll take a moment to remember the authors who inspired you with their monsters and warriors, and how those stories brought you here, to your Wyrd and Wonderful place, to create a new world of monsters and warriors to inspire a new generation of readers drawing up their own blueprints to becoming their best, their brightest, their most unique selves.

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

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with #Clothing

Anybody else have to do laundry on Mother’s Day? I did my best setting the twins off to put away clothes while Blondie helped me fold. The job got done…eventually. Bo grilled despite the snow/rain outside, so our tummies were warm and full by the end of the day. 🙂

All that laundry yesterday got me thinking about which Tough Guide to Fantasy Land highlights I wanted to share today for Wyrd and Wonder.

There are many world-building curiosities DWJ clearly had fun poking at in her book, attire being one of them.

CLOTHING. Although this varies from place to place, there are two absolute rules:

  1. Apart from ROBES, no garment thicker than a SHIRT ever has sleeves.
  2. No one ever wears SOCKS.
    See also CLOAKS, COSTUME, and KNITTING.

COSTUME. It is a curious fact that, in Fantasyland, the usual Rules for CLOTHING are reversed. Here, the colder the climate, the fewer the garments worn. In the SNOWBOUND NORTH, the BARBARIAN HORDES wear little more than a fur loincloth and copper wristguards (see CHILBLAINS and HYPOTHERMIA). However, as one progresses south to reach the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS, one finds VESTS and BOOTS added to this costume. Further south still, the inhabitants of the VESTIGIAL EMPIRE wear short SKIRTS and singlets and add to this a voluminous wrapper on cold days. Thereafter, clothing steadily increases in thickness and quantity, until one finds the DESERT NOMADS in the tropics muffled to the eyebrows in layers of ROBES (see HEATSTROKE).

UNDERWEAR is optional and largely nonexistent. It is believed that some form of loincloth or drawers is sometimes permitted, but the Management is naturally coy on this subject. Bras are certainly unknown, but in the case of dancing girls may be replaced by sequined things with tassels.

SOCKS are never worn in Fantasyland. People thrust their feet, usually unwashed, straight into BOOTS.

BOOTS. In Fantasyland these are remarkable in that they seldom or never wear out and are suitable for riding or walking in without the need of SOCKS. Boots never pinch, rub, or get stones in them; nor do nails stick upwards into the feet from the soles. They are customarily mid-calf length or knee-high, slip on and off easily, and never smell of feet. Unfortunately, the formula for making this splendid footwear is a closely guarded secret, possibly derived from nonhumans (see DWARFS, ELVES, and GNOMES).

Ah, sharing Diana Wynne Jones always brings a smile to m’face. We’ll see how the antics with our schooling at home help me choose tomorrow’s selection. In the meantime, stay healthy and keep on walkin’!

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

#writerproblems: #worldbuilding a #fantasy when the #writing #magic seems all but gone.

Magic.

We could all use some, I think.

But where to find it?

Ah, now that is the question. Some wander over the occasional ancient wall or two. Some play hide-and-seek in peculiar wardrobes. Some explore animal homes. Some play a forgotten boardgame. Some even purchase a kit from a store.

And let’s not even talk about the parents that spend the day graveyard-hopping with their kids (post forthcoming).

For those of us confined to a house of snits and snaps and other plastic mayhem, the hope for peace and quiet and magic feels all but gone, especially when lockdowns are extended, when schools are closed for the year, when jobs are furloughed until further notice.

Oh, I cried when Wisconsin’s governor extended the lockdown. Even though all the rational parts of me knew this was coming, I still cried. I had hoped my mother could finish her teaching tenure with her students. I had hoped my sons could continue their Occupational Therapy. I had hoped my daughter could return to her friends. I had hoped for a little time for myself, too.

But none of this is meant to be, dammit, so here we are, fearful of the outside world while driven mad by the inside one.

How do we counter this?

Magic.

Perhaps you find it in an old story, as I did. “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer” began with a photo spotted in the fall of 2018.

Something about the old woman reaching for that apple…it was like she was reaching for, for something else. For me? N-no, but something about the urgency in her manner, the aggressiveness. She needed that fruit. But why? I mean, it’s not like people’s lives depend on a single apple.

Uuuuunless they did.

And from here came the crack and thunder of magic gone wrong. People’s lives did depend on this apple, if that apple was needed in order to stop a Happening from, well, happening.

But what was Happening?

Why, a story, of course.

But sometimes even an inspiring photo isn’t enough. We need to look beyond the photo’s perimeters. What does the traffic sound like on the street? How high do the buildings tower over others? Are we in a world of electronics, or some sort of yesteryear? And smells, don’t forget smells.

(Yes, even towns can have a characteristic smell. For decades, Milwaukee was always blanketed with the smell of yeast from the Miller Brewery. Ever since they removed that level of operation from the downtown location, my nose no longer believes the rest of me when I drive to Milwaukee.)

In order to build upon that initial inspiration, we’ve got to put our sense-memory to use. After spotting the wee shop in the background named “Meatball Obsession,” I focused on my first date with Bo when he cooked me spaghetti. He loves making his own sauce, a day-long endeavor that fills the house with a rich, spicy, meatiness that makes you think the very air is edible. And suddenly I’m imagining people walking about nibbling on saucy meatballs since apples were for magic and not eating.

Hmmm. Sounds a bit silly.

Eh, why not? It’s my story, dammit. At the time I wasn’t looking for serious fare. To help me stay lighthearted, I even put on the soundtrack to Midsomer Murders while I wrote, Parker’s themes for mystery in rural life the perfect balance of spooky and delightful. The mix of smell, sounds, and sights helped me focus on building a story about a woman—no, not just a woman. Look at that hat and coat. Come on. Surely this is a Madame, one of status and prestige…even if no one else agrees. But Madame who? Hmmm…say, isn’t that my Midsomer CD over there?

(Yes, that is occasionally how things come into my stories. If something’s in my eyeline, then iiiiiiiiiiin it goes! So when in doubt, look around you.)

And one apple seems so paltry. Surely Madame Midsomer would insist on purchasing not just one apple but a dozen, certain she could stop the mayhem of her own doing from destroying the entire town. The seller, however, doesn’t like her, refuses to help, and the magical authorities take her away and everything’s fine and life is happy the end.

After posting the story on my free fiction page, I decided to send it off to an online magazine. They didn’t take it, citing the need for more developed worldbuilding and consistent tone.

Well, poop. I liked it, so the story stayed as is…until this past March.

Something Or Other Publishing reached out with information regarding their latest anthology project and inquiring whether or not I’d like to submit.

Um, sure? Except my current short fic WIP wasn’t close to being ready, and SOOP’s deadline was just a few days. What to send, what to send…

I passed “Tampering” off to another fantasy reader to get feedback. While he liked a lot of things, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the meatballs.

But. I. LIKE THEM!

And yet.

Maybe in this confinement, when we’re so ready for ANYthing to break us out of the rutted dread, I was hoping for those meatballs to just come a’ rainin’ down, blessed by the wind.

But in a short story, where the worldbuilding must be solid in only a few paragraphs, I couldn’t justify having something so oddball as obsessions with meatballs. Even one as out there as Neil Gaiman knows he has to tone things down sometimes for the sake of the readers.

A fresh challenge comes when we remove that presumed Thing from the worldbuilding. To us, that Thing embodied so much of the story, like the meatballs representing the out-there zaniness of my setting. In focusing on that zaniness, though, I forgot to give the setting any sort of history, or rules, or heck, even a name. When we over-prioritize the gimmicky Thing instead of characters or plot, is it any wonder readers question the story’s logic or tone?

This calls for serious inspiration.

I didn’t want this urban fantasy to feel too dated, but I did want it to feel different. It hit me I wanted magic to be a normal thing in this society; at first this was to be through the meatballs, but now, I wanted a calmer presence, something akin to Ingary in Howl’s Moving Castle. Witches and wizards were simply a part of life there. One went to a wizard for spells or potions to protect a voyage, help a crop, etc.

Why not let magic be as natural as a flower from the ground?

*gasp* Or the fruits of the trees?

So many possibilities opened in that moment. A quaint farming community, a town proud of its home-grown magic…because it was unique?

Or because it was dated because the rest of the world had moved on to more modern methods?

Imagine magic factory-made and shipped to big box stores, as pleasantly packaged as a box of cookies, consistently good. Not as good as home-made, mind you, but still, you know, good.

Now this story wasn’t just about a sorceress angrily fighting with a fruit seller. This story was about a community struggling under the weight of a pompous magic-wielder. A town proud of its natural magic and fed up with those who misuse it.

At last, I’d found the world built.

And its name was Pips Row.

“Hullo, Seller!” Madame clacked her way down the walk with the straightest of spines and the most pointed of chins. It made no difference to her that the Seller was addressing a small group of whiny school children and their frazzled teacher on the importance of fruit in Workings and other Spells. “So, just as there’s a fruit for every season, there’s a magic for every fruit. Why, if not for lemons, you’d never have fireworks. If not for holly berries, you’d never have snow for Christmas.”

“Isn’t that fascinating, children?” the teacher said with as much enthusiasm as a slug in a salt shaker. “While most communities import their magic from the capital’s factories, little places like Pips Row carry on the old-fashioned way.”

Old-fashioned, indeed! Madame Midsomer had half a mind to show this frumpish excuse of human being just how “old-fashioned” a Regional Sorceress could be. “Excuse me, Seller?”

“Why don’t people here buy by their magic from Merlin’s Mart like everything else?” One gap-toothed girl asked while licking sprinkles from her fingers.

The teacher opened her mouth to speak, but Madame Midsomer brushed her aside. “Manufactured powders don’t hold a snuff to the real thing, child. Now out of my way. I have urgent business to discuss with Seller.”

Out of the corner of Seller’s eye, he could see the tower of Madame Midsomer’s residence shudder ever so slightly, sending a cloud of pollen from the flowers of her creeping vines into the air. The wind coughed—an unsettling sound to any native of Pips Row.

Seller gave a tight-lipped smile to the teacher behind the little mob. “If you’ll excuse me.”

But this school group was not of Pips Row, and had so far only learned they can throw sweets without consequence. “No! The hag can shut up so you can show us real magic!” the girl said, and the lot of them pitched fistfuls of sprinkles at Madame Midsomer.

This was unwise.

Dear writing friends, do not look upon this time of lockdown as a creative drought. Peruse old works for new potential. Tap the dust off favorite reads for new lessons. Lose yourself in the emotions of music. Look upon the world outside your window, and ask:

What’s hiding in the beyond?

Thanks so much for reading my little explore into this writing experience! If you like the sound of “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer,” then I hope you’ll help its chances for publication by voting on SOOP’s website. If you’ve already voted—

~STAY TUNED!~

Photos and music and stuff are a’comin’ after I figure out yet another school-at-home conundrum.

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

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

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.