The Bad Dinosaur, Part 2

Did you miss Part 1? If so, go read that first and then come back here for the finale of my first official movie rant. 

Alas, my hopes for the rest of the film were instead dashed on the superbly-animated rocks, for the remainder of the film had a lot of story problems, all of which violated Pixar’s 22 Rules. Perhaps the film was existentialist in nature (so to speak), but the writers certainly used a lot of coincidences and cliches. For example, when Arlo gets himself stuck under some boulders, Spot returns to dig Arlo out- despite the fact that he had no reason to help the dinosaur and every reason to stay away. Why would he come back? Because the writer wrote himself into a quandary he couldn’t solve, so he had to employ deus ex machina (definition: cheating).

Again, at the beginning of the movie, the pterodactyls killed and ate a little critter on-site, but when they capture Spot with the same intent, they hesitate to kill him just long enough for Arlo to come rescue him. This is what Blimey Cow calls “the chatty bad guy cliche.” The villain has no reason to delay except that the hero (and by that I mean the writer) is too lazy to find any other way to fix the problem, thus the villain has to play the fool and give the hero a chance to thwart his plans.

Yet again, at the climax- which is supposed to be the very worst point of the story- Spot and Arlo happen to survive the plunge over a hundred-foot waterfall. There’s twenty feet of fresh powder down there; it’ll be like landing on a pillow! Hopefully. Let’s leave aside the fact that if people went over a waterfall like that without a barrel or other such protective device, they would die.

None of these plot devices has any place in any story- except, it seems, in a story designed to represent the true hardships of real life. Right? I’m sorry, it just doesn’t make sense. None of these coincidences stands up to the test of reality; why on earth would they even pass as acceptable in a film by the number one family filmmaker?

Then there were so many smaller cliches within scenes, two of which stand out as painfully obvious. How about this refreshingly original dialogue at a pivotal scene? Arlo: Where are we going? Poppa: You’ll see. Or, when asked if he wants to sell Spot to some farming Tyrannosaurs, Arlo gives the completely unexpected response: “Actually, the droid’s not for sale.” Just think, he could have gotten forty portions for selling the kid. 

The final problem I had with this movie runs much deeper than amateur storytelling or cliches; I am concerned about the ethical views presented in the movie. In one needless scene, Arlo and Spot discover some decayed berries on the ground, and, after trying them, experience bizarre hallucinations that make them laugh hysterically. Nothing more is said about such opiates, leaving kids with the assumption that hallucinogens are funny and harmless. Elsewhere, the farming Tyrannosaurs use a swear word- the one starting with S. Hmm… Notice something here- it’s not the villainous pterodactyls or hyena-like creatures who use vulgar language; it’s the heroes, the ones who previously saved Arlo and Spot from death.

You may say I’m ridiculous; who cares about one half-finished cuss word and a silly scene lasting thirty seconds? Well, I turn around and ask you: who in 1939 cared about one expletive at the end of Gone With the Wind? But 74 years later, we are surprised at the 935 f-bombs in The Wolf of Wall Street. Who knows? In 70 years, you might be wincing at a graphic you-know-what scene in Toy Story Rebooted. Norms change, and it is “harmless” films like The Good Dinosaur who set those changes in motion.

And even if you don’t care about expletives and hallucinogens, you ought to care about how Disney and Pixar have just dropped the bar for all other filmmakers. Not only are we going to see an increase in the junky content, we’ll see a decrease in solid, plausible, edifying storytelling. Why? Because Disney is the trendsetter. They just set a bad storytelling trend for the kids, and today’s kids are tomorrow’s storytellers and audiences.

I will say this much for Pixar’s latest feature film: The climax was mostly well-developed, as it forced Arlo to make the difficult choice to face his fear and rescue his friend Spot, rather than fleeing to save himself. And of course the CGI was indescribably beautiful; if you had removed the cartoonish characters from any screenshot of the movie, I would have believed it was a photograph of a romantic South American landscape.

But decent climactic scenes and top-of-the-line graphics do little to remedy the other problems of any movie, and Disney/Pixar’s newest release does indeed have problems. If you need a Disney or Pixar fix, go rewatch an old classic like Toy Story or Cinderella. Kids need good movies, too, so don’t waste your time on the bad ones. Indeed, The Good Dinosaur is nothing short of Bad. 

What’s your verdict? Did The Good Dinosaur live up to its title?

What Marvel Taught Me About Writing, Part One

I haven’t made any secret of the fact that, basically, I don’t like Marvel movies.

Don’t get me wrong. Superhero stories are a wonderful subgenre, just like every other kind of story (except perhaps vampire romances… but that’s a post for another time). If well-done, a superhero movie can be pretty darn awesome. Take Batman Begins, for example; I loved that film. It completely changed my perspective on superhero movies.

The thing is, most Marvel movies aren’t well-done. Be honest with yourself; would Shakespeare look at The Avengers and applaud? No. No, he wouldn’t, and you know it. Fortunately, I think I have figured out the reasons (yes, plural “reasons”) why this particular series is a flop. And, cynical optimist that I am, I have turned it into a list of lessons to be learned for writers that I will share over the next two weeks. You’re welcome.

And yes, I will absolutely spoil the movies for you. Sorry I’m not sorry.

You can recycle an old plot, but you should at least tell a new story.
Still of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in The Avengers (2012)

“Tony, do you ever feel like you’re suffering from severe deja vu?” (image credit)

Paul Assay comments in his review of Thor: The Dark World, “Marvel movies are as reliable as a six-pack of Coke: Every can tastes the same.” I couldn’t have said it better than that. Yes, I understand that we have a limited number of plots, but we have unlimited stories to tell, countless lessons to teach. You’d think that in eight years, Marvel would have come up with a new message to teach its huge fan-base.

Yet pick any Marvel movie at random and see how well it fits my description: Hero has problems, hero encounters bad guy, hero’s friend “dies” (but not really), and hero sacrifices himself and overcomes insurmountable obstacles to defeat bad guy. Moral of the story: a hero is someone who does good heroic things and beats bad guys.

How did I do?

Look, even when you are rewriting an old plot, if you want to write to be distinguished from all the other twaddle out there, you need to tell a new story. Have a character learn something new about heroism or strength, and your story will be all the better for it.

If nothing else, take the time to write a solid story and characters.

“That’s my secret, Loki. I’m always angsty.” (image credit)

If you’ve read this blog for some time, you know something about my conflicted feelings for the movie Thor. The storytelling drives me crazy. Leaving all the terrible acting and dialogue aside, the story just didn’t work, and for that we can blame the characterization.

Let’s start with Thor. All he ever does is whine, smile obnoxiously, or walk around without a shirt on, and I for one do not find any of those things attractive. Even within the context of the story he is a vain, greedy, cruel boy. And we are supposed to care?

Jane. She was supposed to be the Strong Female Character who changes Thor’s character for the better. How, by getting him a cup of coffee and then watching the stars with him? As cute as that sounds, it won’t teach the arrogant Jotun-slayer about the value of humility. 

Ah, but it doesn’t stop there. As for Odin… seriously, what kind of person tells their son that he’s a failure- while the son is hanging off a bridge?? Then he throws a big party after he thinks Loki is dead.

What about Loki, though? Most people agree that Loki would have made a better protagonist than Thor. I agree. Yet Loki has his own character problems. Despite being promoted on several posters as “the god of mischief,” he doesn’t really work much mischief in this movie. Thor does that very well on his own. (I tell you, their roles should have been reversed! Confounded comic books.) As popular as Loki is with fans, he doesn’t even live up to his label.

The most disappointing thing is that Thor did have a chance to be a genuinely good movie with poignant lessons about kingship, sacrificial love, and family values, but the lack of characterization ruined that chance. Don’t let the same thing happen to you. Get to know your characters.

Ah, there’s more… but that will have to wait another week. Check back next week for Part Two!

What do you think so far? Am I right, or do you disagree with me on any of these problems?

She-Elves, Princesses, and Assassins: Let’s Bust Some Archetypes

Confession time.

We writers, especially young writers like myself, pride ourselves on breaking stereotypes and making the world of literature a better place. We purge our stories of anything that even hints of cliche and strive to write earth-shattering plot twists. We find the cleverest ways to work in a “soapbox theme” without coming across as preachy. Occasionally, we have even gone “indie” and published on our own. We don’t need no stinking Big Four or stock characters to make it.

But it’s time to admit the truth. In the midst of our fight against author- and story-stereotypes, we have allowed Hollywood to take over in other areas. We have allowed them to decide on what exactly is a Strong Female Character.

So, today, we’re going to sit down and do what we writers do best. We are going to rethink the standard that Hollywood has given us, and maybe we will even break a few archetypes. I’ve chosen three which pop up everywhere in movies and books these days- and a bonus, they haven’t already been analyzed on at least fifty different blogs. The bad news is that I won’t get to pick apart Katniss or Bella. The good news? You don’t have to read yet another post about Katniss or Bella.

Hear me now: All this is not to say that the characters I will talk about are bad characters. Some of them did a good enough job in their respective stories. But, by definition, these ladies are not strong. We hold male characters to certain standards of “strongness,” and we should do the same for female characters, right? Of course right. So here we go.

The Soapbox Suffragette: Tauriel of the Hobbit trilogy is the captain of the entire elven guard, a favorite of the king, and everyone’s love interest. She can do no wrong. Moreover, she suddenly finds it feasible to rush off after her boyfriend Kili a pack of orcs, dragging Legolas and the rest of the kingdom to war like a redheaded Joan d’Arc. All this is in direct defiance of royal orders- but that’s perfectly okay, right? She is an empowered heroine who is doing the right thing!

Now, the first problem we notice is that Legolas, for instance, could have done every one of these things (save falling in love with Kili), but instead he had to take on the role of Thranduil’s indoctrinated minion. He was villainized by her very presence in the movie. And one does not simply villainize Legolas.

So if Legolas could easily have filled her role, why bring Tauriel into the story in the first place? According to TheOneRing.net, writer Philippa Boyens “created her… to bring that energy into the film, that feminine energy.” Feminine energy? Tauriel is in the movie as a beacon of girl power- but in a fantasy tale about the dangers of greed and pride? That has nothing to do with the story! Tauriel is ineffective because she distracts Kili, Legolas, and the whole audience from the real story. Now I think we have a name for that sort of character… oh, right. The damsel in distress. Not only is Tauriel irrelevant, but she is a self-defeating character.

The Immature Ideal: Rapunzel from Tangled is gullible, naive, positively grubby, ditzy, and a bit- well, um- vague. And she has a million different hobbies, but she feels that every one of them is pointless; when will her real life begin? Everybody loves character like that. Don’t they?

What Disney may or may not have realized is that Rapunzel- and every other young protagonist they write- becomes a role model for millions of kids worldwide. Little girls and big ones dress up like Aurora, sing “Let It Go,” and pretend that they have magic hair that glows when they sing. This is not necessarily a bad effect; for at least fifty years, Disney produced mature models like Snow White and Cinderella. But then came the age of Ariel, Jasmine, and Rapunzel.

As cutesy and relatable as Rapunzel is, everything that Mother Gothel says is true of her: she is immature and naive, all too ready to disobey her mother’s commands in favor of getting what she wants. Watching this movie and others, little girls are bombarded with the message that they must follow their heart’s desires. That’s right, the heart that tells them to disobey authority and run away from home with a man of poor reputation. Just like Lydia Bennet. Is that the sort of role model parents want for their children?

I think not.

The Ambiguous Assassin: Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, is the kick-butt fighter from pretty much every Marvel movie ever made. She has the mental capacity of Alan Turing, the weaponry of the ancient Chinese, and the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is no beating her. End of story. When I look at any character like Natasha, I try to figure out her place in the metanarrative, if you will. Yet this is well-nigh impossible to do.

Natasha isn’t a role model/Mentor. None of her stunts, however awesome they look with CGI, makes her a role model, even in the grayish context of the Marvel universe. If anything, she takes on the role of student rather than teacher. Yet she isn’t the Young Protagonist, either, for she undergoes little, if any, character transformation. She is not a suffragette like Tauriel. She is not here to preach girl power or fight chauvinism; she is here to fight Bad Guys.

As a primary or even secondary character, Natasha is ambiguous. She has no inalienable role in the movie- unless that is to look good, knock down bad guys, and balance out an otherwise all-male cast. But, of course, they could have gotten Thor to do all three of those things. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry…) So where does Natasha fit? Well, we have a seat for characters like her, and it isn’t on the stage of Strong Female Characters. It’s on the bleachers with the tertiary characters and the Foils.

Remember- I’m not saying that Tauriel, Rapunzel, and Natasha have no use in a story. I’m saying that they are mislabelled as strong characters and thus are given too much credit for the job that they do. Put them in different roles and they are just fine. Otherwise, I’d call these archetypes busted.

What do you think? Should we bust these archetypes, or did I overlook something important?

What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part Two)

What to do about exposition?

In the last post, I effectively took the three most popular devices for handling backstory, locked them in a stocks and pillory, and proceeded to throw tomatoes. Obviously, we can never ever ever use those tools again.

Seriously, though, we can’t simply leave the backstory out and expect the reader to keep up. For one thing, some amount of explanation is absolutely necessary to tell an intelligible story to another person. As Brandon Sanderson explains in this video, every book, especially fantasy, has a particular “learning curve” that the reader has to overcome before they can fully understand the story. The reader has to become somewhat familiar with an entirely new world with histories, laws, and magic systems of its own, as well as meet new characters and understand their individual goals and personalities. Any author will have a hard task to explain all this information and still hold the reader’s attention. And therein lies the problem.

Take your pick.

Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when books were so rare and expensive, people liked to take their time and savor the few books that they had available. Therefore, books written in those centuries tend to be slow and meandering, feeding you all the information gently and then starting the real story several chapters later. Les Miserables and Ben-Hur are good examples.

In our age, though, with countless books and e-readers at our fingertips, our stories need to grab the reader’s attention and hold it fast; otherwise, there is always another Stephen King thriller that will get to the point more quickly, and our books are forgotten. Most modern readers have no time to sit around and read about Bishop Myriel and how he got himself a carriage. We want to read about Jean Valjean and Fantine, and we want to read it now!

Let’s start by addressing the prologue problem. If you go to the blog or website of a good author you like and find any advice on writing a prologue, you’ll probably read a post about deleting it. Deleting the prologue. And as harsh as that sounds, it makes sense. Many prologues, no matter how interesting they are to me as the writer, aren’t going to make a whit of sense to a reader who just picked up the book, even in the story’s context.

03_PR

Interested yet? And the real story hasn’t even started.

Then again, my prologue might make sense and add to the story. For example, in the Les Miserables concert by Schonberg and Boublil, the entire backstory with Bishop Myriel is gone. The concert still begins well before Fantine dreams a dream, but we’re hooked with the song “Look Down”. A bunch of men in prison? One is going on parole? He has enemies? “Look Down” sets up the rest of the story, makes logical sense, and grabs our attention. If my prologue fits those three criteria- setup, logic, and attention- keep it. (And maybe call it Chapter 1?)

Next comes the infodump, which might be a little bit harder to handle. If you read The Lord of the Rings (props to you!), think back to the chapter “The Shadow of the Past.” For those of you who only watched the movie or don’t know the story, this is when the wizard Gandalf sits down and explains all about the Ring’s complicated history to Frodo.

Notice that I haven’t said anything bad about what Tolkien did here, and that’s because I have nothing bad to say. Tolkien explained the backstory in a compelling and, at that time, non-cliche fashion. (Again, that “slower” culture comes into play; people had time to sit down and read things.) He did it so artfully that all other fantasy writers after him copied what they thought he did.

Unfortunately, when we copy others, we lose our own style and thus end up with a huge infodump that sounds like every other fantasy ever written. We hush our inborn originality and put off our thinking caps. The solution? Make it your own! My favorite writers are those who work in the backstory bit by bit, revealing only as much as needed, using it to build the plot and make the reader curious for more.

The Horse and His Boy, our latest family readaloud, is a good example. C.S. Lewis had a lot of exposition to work into such a short book, but he does it piecemeal, only as needed. We don’t know anything about Shasta’s history until a nobleman drags the truth out of his foster-father, and we hear nothing about Aravis’ troubles until she turns up at the river.

Finally we come to the villain’s monologue. Since it almost never makes sense for the villain to reveal his grand scheme to his mortal enemy, we have to find some other way of explaining the method to his madness. Our first impulse may be to keep what we have already written and simply put it into a logical framework. For example, some writers might have the villains expound their plan to their evil halfwitted minions. Remember The Emperor’s New Groove, that stupid yet hysterically funny movie that we writers are all obsessed with? It worked for that one.

The main problems with both approaches vary between points of view. In limited third-person POV, the protagonist isn’t usually around to overhear a scene like this. And why does he need to hear it at all? Instead, if the good guy is really smart enough to defeat the antagonist, he is smart enough to figure out the evil plot by himself. Again, if I’m telling in third-person omniscient, why explain the plan at all? I should tell the plan from the villain’s perspective as it happens and skip the exposition altogether. It’s the old show-don’t-tell rule.

Are you ready, fellow fantasy writers? I challenge us to delete our prologues and write our exposition the way Tolkien, Lewis, and Schonberg and Boublil did- with a dose of creativity from our famous fantastical imaginations.

What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part 1)

Let’s be honest, fellow fantasy writers. Plenty of authors have turned the word “exposition” almost into a curse word, and we’re the worst offenders.

Think about it. Epic plots, magic battles, worlds full of creatures unseen except in our imaginations… they make for a very long, very full, very expository sort of book. Telling rather than showing seems to be the way to go, even though we know that’s against the rule. Writers don’t like it, readers don’t like it. The mention of the “e” word makes all of us shudder, yet when readers pick up a new fantasy book, they almost expect us to throw a heap of backstory at them. And I too am guilty of writing unimaginative exposition.

Everything you ever needed to know.

But do we really want to settle for such low expectations? It’s time for us to break the chain and make our backstories interesting- and maybe exposition can help us do that if we do it right.

This week, I’m exploring the three biggest offenders in fantasy: prologues, infodumps, and villain monologues. Next week, I’ll share the ways that I avoid these three rascally problems. Ready? Here we go.

Starting with Act I, our first offender is the almost entirely dispensable prologue, and you could find it in almost any fantasy from The Lord of the Rings to Eragon. Now, in the rare event that your prologue actually is the perfect introduction to your book, most editors will tell you to make that your first chapter. However, the problem with most prologues is that they usually have very little to do with the rest of their respective books, except to summarize all the information we will need later (and then some).

While it might seem like the most efficient way to summarize a fascinating plot to a new reader, it is also the most yawn-worthy. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, many readers actually expect a boring prologue in a fantasy book; therefore, they will automatically skip the paragraphs under the heading “Prologue” and so miss any vital information that I might put in here. No way around it; people just don’t read prologues. Honestly, when was the last time you read the prologue?

The world is changed…

Secondly, the characters who get all the explaining done to them are quite likely to have heard it all before. Why would their mentor friend explain it over again? And for that matter, characters in a prologue are usually not so significant to the story that they deserve the first place in a book. Why not start with the main character in his or her daily life? The mentor and company can explain everything when they meet.

Our second troublemaker comes in the form of a big infodump, typically toward the beginning of Act I. This is in essence exactly the same as a prologue, only rewritten and placed in a new chapter. We overcome the temptation to write a prologue only to drop an encyclopaedia in another chapter. So there is of course a right way and a wrong way to do it; some books do explain huge chunks of history in such a way that keeps readers interested. But most new writers do it the wrong way by having the hero’s Mentor plunk down and explain the history of whatever fantasy world we have in our heads.

An infodump is simply too much, too fast. By definition, it dumps information on us all at once, devoid of elbow room or breathing space. Often this information isn’t even relevant to the plot. In an old draft of a story I never published, the hero is chosen for a quest (sound familiar? He even had a magical sword to go with it). But before he can go on that quest, he has to have the entire history of the world explained to him in a nice chunk of exposition. In one sitting. People just can’t read paragraphs like that. It’s not interesting to them, and they won’t need all this prior knowledge to enjoy the rest of the story.

If we can move past the prologue and infodumps, we might still end up throwing exposition at readers even in the third act of the story. I speak, of course, of the villain’s monologue. We have all seen this one before, especially in movies for kids. All the little kids watching Frozen (spoilers…?) just won’t understand why Hans wants to take over Arendelle- despite the fact that he already told Anna about his twelve elder brothers. When we encounter this illusion of a problem, we usually end up writing a scene in which the antagonist faces the protagonist in a moment of triumph and explains all the ins and outs of his or her complex plan- under the guise of “gloating”.

Frozen (2013)

Here’s the thing: some really despicable villains might be inclined to gloat, but most antagonists aren’t that foolish.  If you had your mortal enemy in your power and were just about to execute the final crushing move, would you reveal every part of your plan to them? Of course not. Hans, for example, has no reason to tell Anna that he deceived her- she knows that by now- or to explain that he’s going to kill Elsa.

And that, fellow writers, covers our three biggest enemies in exposition. Tune in next week for part two, and I’ll share a list of some techniques that might help work in the backstory.