Two Reasons I Liked Rogue One

Reminder: Don’t forget about free books!

I feel like this post doesn’t need much of a prelude. Chances are that anyone reading has already seen the newest Star Wars story and doesn’t care about reviews or spoilers, so this is basically a structured rant about a fun adventure/war film. Because I like that sort of thing.

Cinematography…

So yes, I’ve seen Rogue One! I actually watched it about a week before I went to see Doctor Strange (which of course resulted in me wondering why Kaecilius looked so familiar), because although I’m not a Star Wars fan per se, the trailers caught my interest. It didn’t seem like the traditional huge space epic, but more like a smaller and more intricate war movie, which quite honestly appealed to me.

Now you’ve probably heard all the complaining: the pacing was off, the battles were tactless, the characterization was stuffy… and I can definitely agree with most of it. But in spite of all that, I still enjoyed the film. I can’t explain my thoughts precisely in a single sentence, but the closest I can get is this: Despite its mechanical flaws, Rogue One is a genius story idea that taught me two big lessons about writing. And- you guessed it- we’re talking about those two lessons today.

Cue the “blog post proper” theme song…

Reason #1: Most epic use of a plot hole.

Or a ventilation hole, come to think of it.

Anytime I think of plot holes, I think of How it Should Have Ended. Have you heard of it? HISHE is a comedy channel on YouTube that parodies popular movies by asking the question, “Why didn’t they just do X instead of Y?” Thus, they rewrite plots and plot holes and totally change the ending of a movie, to everyone’s amusement. (Note: I didn’t provide a link because HISHE isn’t always clean, and I don’t want to be yelled at for letting little kids watch it. Sorry, kids.)

Now as a moviegoer and fan, I appreciate such parodies and laugh when they humorously point out gaping plot holes. But, as a storyteller, I have a certain fear gnawing at the back of my mind- how does any writer end up with such glaring flaws? Authors’ worst nightmares consist of two things: plot holes, and no book sales. And if we overlook our plot holes, we also get no book sales. Lose-lose.

Well, now let’s talk about the genius of Rogue One.

I imagine that the brainstorming session looked something like this. A bunch of Star Wars fans who also had a thing for storytelling looked at one of the most famous plot holes of all time: why the heck was there a hole in the Death Star that led to the core of the machine? The question had been plaguing fans for years, and these storytellers dared to answer it: The hole was there because the rebels put it there.

For those of you who don’t know, the whole concept of Rogue One is that the guy who designed the Death Star realized too late the destruction it could bring, and he built in a secret weakness with the intent that the rebels could find it and destroy the weapon. Now, the daughter of that engineer and her team of rebels are out to find the plans and bring them to the Resistance.

Thus, what used to be a gaping plot hole becomes an epic heist film.

mind blown

Yeah, that’s how to tell a story.

Lesson learned: seek out and work with the plot holes. They can help you tell a better story.

Reason #2: The bravely creative ending.

Hope.

*spoilers warning spoilers warning spoilers warning*

Let us not mince words.

Everyone dies. 

Seriously, how insane is that? Let’s just leave aside the terrifying awesomeness of Darth Vader- although that, too, was a fantastic scene that no one will ever forget. Think about it; the last twenty or so minutes of the movie is literally a series of death scenes and sequels, which, I think, is quite a fitting end to a war movie about a Resistance team. It’s probably my favorite aspect of the movie: I got to watch a group of regular, courageous people give their lives for what they believed in. It drove the theme home so hard. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

You probably won’t believe this, but at the beginning of the movie, I took a bite of popcorn and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if they all died on this mission so that the rebels could save the galaxy? -But no, that’s crazy. No way would that work.”

And then it happened! Intentionally or not, the story set up a wild idea in my mind and then fulfilled it beyond all expectations.

sherlock benedict cumberbatch sherlock approves

But I have to stop and ask myself, how did that production meeting go? We writers know how it is when we kill just one character; what about a whole cast? There’s always that one lady who despises watching characters die- death is heartwrenching! There’s the money guy who’s still holding out for a sequel- no sequels unless you have characters! And then the focus groups analyst who says that killing characters makes people angry- look what happened to The Walking Dead!

Yet, despite all the craziness surrounding it, the production team went for it. And am I ever glad they did.

It’s the bravest endings that stick with us. Resolutions needn’t always be bleak, nor even tragic, but they should always be a fitting close to the tale we’re telling. And sometimes that means asking questions that sound insane:

What if the Greeks built a giant wooden horse?

What if Romeo and Juliet actually kill themselves?

What if the whole team dies on the planet?

Lesson learned: Ask the crazy questions; go for the extreme endings. They may turn out to be the most memorable stories. 

Well, here we are. No matter if you liked Rogue One or not, I think we can all take a lesson or two from the imaginations behind it, as well as learn from its failures. That’s the thing about movies- there has never been a film that can’t teach us something about writing. And now, thanks to one particular Star Wars Story, I’m inspired to be a braver writer than before.

Very Young Writers: Break All the Rules!

Adobe Spark (3)

I’m starting a new series of sorts. Yeah, I sound like a Bible-belt preacher. But my little sister has been asking me all sorts of questions about what she should and should not do with the story she’s writing. At last, she asked me to write a blog series for writers her age who just can’t handle all this teenage-and-older advice.

As may be apparent, I thought it was a good idea. So this week I’m starting a new category of blogs written to Very Young Writers- VYWs, for short- in which I post random pieces of advice for writers who are just starting out. No explanation necessary; you know who you are. And if other blog readers are older and more experienced… you can still stick around and help me cook up some good tips.

So, dear VYWs, my first piece of advice is simple…

Break All The Rules

Let’s face it: we writers have made a lot of rules for ourselves. And that’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Who said that you have to write a certain way or else all the readers will line up and slap your hand?

Now, of course there is something to be said for the good advice of authors who have come before. After all, if you tell rather than show, people will probably yawn and put down your story. If you use bad grammar, people won’t understand the book at all. Some of these rules have a good purpose for published stories.

But- I hate to break it to you– chances are that you are not going to publish a book any time soon. I’m a good bit older than the average Very Young Writer, and I’m still considered rather young to be a published author. So spend your time now figuring out how writing works. Break the rules. At your age they don’t matter as much as experimenting, testing, rearranging, and finding your own style.

Critics say comedy stories always have happy endings? Make it sad anyhow. Older writers say you aren’t allowed to describe an object with a list of characteristics? Do it anyway. Teachers say you shouldn’t jump between viewpoint characters? Try it and see.

When you break the rules, one of two things will happen:

  1. You learn why the rules work and decide on the best way to follow them.
  2. You discover that the rules don’t work and make up some new ones.

I will let you in on a little secret: this is exactly how the rest of us older writers learned to write. For example, I learned story structure not by studying diagrams or reading K.M. Weiland’s advice (which is nonetheless very good), but by writing stories that had different structures. Some of them worked, others didn’t. No matter how many infographics I looked at, I would never have known until I tried it.

You have a brain, too, you know. Use that brain and try different things. The first a writer needs to have is an imagination. So, if you have that, don’t worry about making your story fit a set of rules. Good advice for your older sister just might be bad advice for you.

So break a few rules and find out.

Are you an older writer with some more advice? Or are you a VYW who has questions or ideas? Share it all in the comments. 

Dear Fellow Writers: It’s Not for Adults, Either

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Dear fellow writers,

Let me begin with a story. It’s what I do best, after all.

It is a sunny afternoon. You and I are walking down a country lane next to a brook of water. We have talked about everything from philosophy to chocolate to characterization, and now we are on the subject of the lovely summer weather.

“Such a beautiful day,” I comment.

“Yes,” you answer with a smile. “I just love walking underneath the clear blue skies.”

Without warning I slap your face. Hard. On purpose.

With pain shooting through your cheeks and anger rising in your stomach, you turn and stare at me. “Why on earth would you hit me?” you demand.

“Because it makes this story seem more realistic.” I shrug, grin, then skip off down the lane.

Now, friends, what do you think?

Rather, do you even have to think about it? I just can’t do a thing like that. Hitting you for no reason was gratuitous, hurtful, and just plain cruel. I would never really do a thing like that, and neither would you. Slapping people like that makes me look like a selfish child who doesn’t know anything.

Now, then. If you wouldn’t slap a person across the face for the sake of realism, why on earth would you slap them with a curse word, a mindlessly violent act, or a pornographic scene in a book?

I talked about this some time ago in my article “The Wince Factor” at Kingdom Pen. A Wince Factor is a sudden, unexpected slap that authors put into their stories for various purposes. As I said then, some of these Wince Factors have a legitimate place in the story- like, say, slapping Bruce Wayne for trying to get illegal revenge on a crook. Others, though, have absolutely no place in a story- like having a Tyrannosaurus Rex swear in a children’s movie for no apparent reason, or like putting “adult” scenes in Titanic.

So what’s the difference? Here’s a better question- do you want your future children doing the same things you make your characters do?

Let me say it this way: gratuitously putting so-called “adult content” in books is abusive to the reader and only proves the author to be a lazy amateur.

If I have to use swear words, sex scenes, or sword-killings to make my story seem real and “juicy,” then I am either lazy or an amateur, or perhaps both. Whatever the situation, at some point I must grow up and start putting some educated effort into my occupation. 

Mine is not an unqualified opinion. I’m a published author myself, and I’m learning to make indie films and podcasts. As far as audiences are concerned, I’m eighteen years old and a second-year college student who watches lots of kids’ movies with my siblings. I also read the books that were intended for people well into their thirties or forties. All in all, I’m the intended audience for most television shows and books. Therefore, I am more than qualified to make a statement about all the stuff writers are putting into books and movies.

But is the media really playing to the tastes of the 32% or more of consumers who share my values? I don’t use swear words, and I get uncomfortable every time someone uses a swear word around my younger siblings. I don’t like watching excessively violent character deaths. I have a zero-tolerance policy for gratuitous sexual content in media.

Now I know some of you are about to go to the comments section and start flaming me for being a Christian bigot. I don’t blame you; Western culture in general has the uncivilized notion that to be an adult is to drink alcohol, watch pornographic movies, and use swear words, and their only defense against opposing viewpoints is to slap them with a label and call it a draw.

But it seems that a person who cannot discern the best action in these cases is simply an oversized version of the child who throws a tantrum at the grocery store when his mother doesn’t buy him all the candy in the store, and who sticks out his tongue when told that he is misbehaving. Who is the bigot- the mother, or the child? Writers ought to know that there is a distinction: growing older is getting the ability to purchase all the candy, but being an adult is discerning whether it’s good for your waistline and your wallet. Likewise, being an adult writer is choosing to have a positive impact on the worldview and behavior of your audience.

Think of it this way- if the good guys like something, the readers love it. If the bad guys are motivated by something, the readers loathe it. The author’s opinion becomes the reader’s. Whether or not mass murderers are inspired by films, you can see evidence of a storyteller’s power even in the grocery store: Elsa and Anna on party napkins, or Captain America’s shield on a cereal box. Think about that- Marvel influences your choice of breakfast foods. We writers have great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Media rules the world, so don’t be a tyrant.

Here’s a big news flash- you don’t have to describe every detail in order for readers to know that a thing happened. Andrew Klavan, author of If We Survive, knew that it was crucial for one of his protagonists to use a swear word as part of her character arc, but he was still writing for Christian teenagers who don’t appreciate those sorts of things. So what did the ingenious Klavan do? He made the swearing scene happen off-screen. The character’s arc was completely developed and the story still packed quite as much of a punch, but Klavan didn’t have to verbally abuse his readers to achieve that effect.

Again, in the 1950s, if someone was beheaded in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness or if the Duke of Gloucester had a you-know-what scene with Lady Anne, Mark Robson and Laurence Olivier just made those things happen off-screen. And no one ever criticized Olivier for being a bad storyteller. So are our stories in the 2010s more developed, or just more debauched?

No more excuses. At this point, we all have two options. One, we can take out the bad stuff and write purpose-filled books, proving that we know right from wrong and care about helping people to understand the world we live in. Or two, we can leave the bad stuff in and prove that we don’t really care about anything but the money.

It’s your choice.

Sincerely,
Hannah A. Krynicki

Am I right or wrong? What do you think about gratuitous content in media? 

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?

The Bad Dinosaur, Part 1

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” C.S. Lewis

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). I recently watched The Good Dinosaur with the rest of my family, and though I went in with low expectations, yet I still came out disappointed. Disney has been on my bad list for some time (ever since Good Luck Charlie and Modern Family, actually), but never before had I been so disappointed with a Pixar film in my life.

Now let’s leave aside all the Weltanshauung problems like existentialism and evolution and forget the fact that the plot feels suspiciously like that of The Lion King. I’ll even forgive the composers for ripping off the Braveheart soundtrack. Other Christian reviewers like Plugged In and Christianity Today can discuss such elements.

What I want to emphasize today is that kids deserve good movies, too, because someday those kids will grow up. Pixar seemed to forget about that.

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My thoughts exactly. (credit)

Let us begin with Arlo- one of the most un-empathetic protagonists for children that I have ever encountered. I can understand having a little bit of fear, but that fear should never define a character at the expense of other character qualities and quirks. For example, according to Martin Freeman, Bilbo Baggins “is scared all the time,” yet Bilbo is never defined exclusively by that fear. He possesses other characteristics that contrast with his fear and give him a sense of realism. Have you ever met a person who is so afraid that they have no other dimensions to their personality? Neither have I- so why should a screen character be different?

Again, the characterization seemed off-beat with Arlo’s Poppa. One scene, he is the all-wise and understanding mentor giving Arlo advice on how to be brave, and the next, he is angrily driving his son through a slippery mountain range in a lightning storm. Yes, I realize that breaking and combining stereotypes in fiction is a good idea, but the writers didn’t offer enough development for Poppa to justify such a split-second change. Trying to reconcile those two extremes is like trying to say that there is no fundamental difference between Gollum and Smeagol.

Then the scenes themselves didn’t make any sense. In one particular scene, Arlo is standing in the garden, yelling at his mean older brother- but his intentions seem somewhat mixed. “I’ll make my mark! You’ll see!” Two seconds later: “I don’t care about my old mark anyway!” *stalks off like an angry baby elephant* So what is it- does he want to make a mark, or not?

The logical problems only piled up. I still can’t understand why the older brother was such a bully; what kind of person fakes his death in a chicken coop just because his little brother caused him a minor inconvenience? Later, why were the pterodactyls so flamboyantly cruel? The answer to both: because it makes the story more emotional.

Ah, the mark of a true professional.

I kept my hopes up that the movie would improve as the story progressed. This was Pixar, after all; maybe the story had something better in store for the end. Beginnings are bumpy, especially in an alternate-history story; maybe Pixar could get the thing off the ground in the second half of the movie.

Which, of course, must wait for next week…

What do you think? If you were one of the few people who went to see The Good Dinosaur, I want to hear your take on the beginnings.

Why I Wrote an Encyclopaedia (and Maybe You Should, Too)

Okay. I promise we will have a real post in a few seconds, but first things first. I have gotten this question way too many times, and now I have to clear it up:

Yes, Elkay and Kylo have the same surname. No, that was not intentional on my part. I don’t know about J.J. Abrams.

Get it? Got it? Good. Now on to this week’s real topic.

Let’s be honest again, my writing friends: sometimes we overlook the bloopers in our work. Of course, we don’t realize it until we are happily reading an official paperback copy of our newly-published book. Then we see the blooper, and we panic. It’s too late to contact CreateSpace! Everyone will see this terrible continuity error or plot hole, and they will discredit our work forever! Our books will never be read!

Of course this is all hyperbole, but we writers are very good at exaggerating things. It would seem that we’re also very good at writing bloopers. Wouldn’t it be easier to skip these painful experiences altogether? Wouldn’t it be wonderful never to make any stupid mistakes like that? Ah, wishful thinking.

Or is it?

I have to keep track of a lot of little details that fit together to give my stories a sense of realism. For example, we’re coming up on Ivora’s birthday on 24 May (and Elkay had better not forget this year). The cannon was invented in Lord Vien’s city in 1218, but didn’t catch on in Agran for another hundred or so years because it was so expensive to make. The infamous Farran’s last name was Fenden, and he was an INTJ like me, albeit a more romantic one.

None of those details ever turned up in Son of Ren, but as the author, I needed to know them for myself. But I can’t possibly memorize all of those things or scribble them on misplaceable note-cards as I go. How in the world can I remember all of this random but important information? Because I have an Encyclopaedia. Always, always spelled with a capital “E” and the archaic “ae.”

The Encyclopaedia is basically like the internet. It is a slave that reminds me of random useless things and keeps track of all the details that I would otherwise forget. What should I do with this epic battle scene that didn’t make the cut? Encyclopaedia. Where did I record the laws of succession for Agran? Encyclopaedia. How much older was Sardar than Elkay? Encyclopaedia.

My Encyclopaedia is just another Google Document with a table of contents. I have a timeline of years, historical summaries for each kingdom, a collection of legal codes, a list of character names and etymological origins, the rules of my magic system, and of course an index of deleted scenes. In the past I even had a calendar of holidays that were unique to my world.

Now I might sound super-organized and nerdy. Well, I am not super-organized, not when it comes to writing. However, making this kind of system is really quite achievable, even for a busy college student like me who has to keep up with a lot of other responsibilities and hobbies. And I didn’t write all of it in a week; I created the document in 2013 and have been expanding it ever since as I write my books. You have no excuse: if you have time to write books and stories, you certainly have time to record little details like this as they come up.

As for the nerdiness… let’s face it: writers are nerds.

How do you keep track of all the details? Have you ever forgotten a detail and written a terrible blooper? Share in the comments!