(If you've somehow managed to go this long without reading/watching Harry Potter and yet are still reading blog posts about them: there will be spoilers left, right, and center. You have been warned.)
I recently finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
to my son, smiling as he discovered all those moments that delighted me on my first visit to Hogwarts. (My favorite part was shortly after the Sorting, when he asked me, "Mama, is Snape a bad guy?" Ahh, my child, so much virtual ink has been spilled over this question . . .) We're reading them about every six months so he doesn't have to take in the heavier Order of the Phoenix
stuff until he's a bit older, but I didn't want to wait for three years to finish the series, so I promptly launched into my umpteenth reading.
And as always, J.K, you offer a master class in storytelling with these books. There's a simple reason why it's nigh impossible to start a Harry Potter book without inhaling it in one sitting: they're good.
Ridiculously, unbelievably good. I've mentally cited Harry Potter as the absolute best example of "yes, but/no, and
" ever since I first heard the term, and I'm only now getting a full grasp of how well Rowling juggles subplots to keep the pages turning. Just when I start getting a bit fatigued with one storyline and am thinking about quitting for the night, a subplot that really, really interests me will swoop into the foreground and glue me to the pages again. I clearly remember being all ready to put down Chamber of Secrets
at midnight when I turned the page and saw that I was finally
going to see what happened when they tried Polyjuice Potion this chapter . . . but I digress.
It wasn't until this reading, though, that I noticed how well Rowling handles emotional scenes. No, I'm not talking about Harry's chest monster or the CAPS LOCK OF RAGE; I'm talking about the moments where we make discoveries that cause our stomachs to drop somewhere to the region of our feet, whether it's the scene in Prisoner of Azkaban
where Harry overhears Sirius' back story or the scene in Goblet of Fire
where we find out that "Mad-Eye Moody" is a Death Eater. Rowling writes those scenes beautifully--and she does it by holding back on the description.
I've run into the phrase "If your characters cry and laugh, your readers won't." It always seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me, because while I understand that you don't want to be melodramatic, you also don't want your characters to be robots that never react realistically to the situations around them. To further muddy the waters, I've found that TV and movies actually work in the opposite way; I might sit in numb shock after a favorite character dies or a beloved ship gets torpedoed, but I rarely burst into big, cathartic sobs until someone onscreen does it first (I'm looking so hard at Anya's speech in "The Body
" right now). How are characters and readers supposed to cry together?Prisoner of Azkaban
might not let us cry together, but it certainly lets us stare together in numb horror. If you have a few minutes and a copy of the book, go back and reread chapter 10, "The Marauder's Map," when Harry learns that his parents chose Sirius to be their Secret-Keeper. I remember reading that chapter for the first time and feeling my heart pound faster and faster as we learned the "real" back story behind Sirius Black. Harry's heart must have been going at triple the speed of mine--but we never hear about it. All we get is this:
"Naturally," said Madam Rosmerta, with a small laugh. "Never saw one without the other, did you? The number of times I had them in here--ooh, they used to make me laugh. Quite the double act, Sirius Black and James Potter!"
Harry dropped his tankard with a loud clunk. Ron kicked him.
That's all. That's the only reaction we get from Harry in the entire scene. The next chapter opens with about two and a half pages of Harry struggling to process what he's heard, but during the scene itself, we get to experience the full emotional impact because we aren't filtering our reactions through Harry's.
The same goes for chapter 33 of Deathly Hallows, "The Prince's Tale"--Harry undoubtedly had many, many thoughts on what he was seeing in the Pensieve, but all we get is a single paragraph when he learns that he's destined to die at Voldemort's hand:
Harry seemed to be watching the two men from one end of a long tunnel, they were so far away from him, their voices echoing strangely in his ears.
And, again, that's it. We get about four pages of "I don't want to die" and "How could Dumbledore have betrayed me?" at the beginning of the next chapter, but for the moment itself, we're allowed to experience our own emotions. The next chapter is for Harry's feelings; the scene itself is for ours.
If you're a Potterphile and you're trying to keep your emotional scenes from getting melodramatic, don't let those chest monsters stop you from rereading Harry Potter as a source of how to do it right. There's a reason you're emotionally invested in these books--it's because Rowling knows how to make you feel emotion. And that's a darned useful skill for any writer to learn.
My son's elementary school held its career day last month, and because I actually have a forthcoming book to talk about--and one that kids will actually be allowed to read!--I signed up as a presenter. I knew that I wanted to be an author as far back as second grade, and I would have killed to have an author presenting at career day.
Unfortunately, authors are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to adding razzle-dazzle to our presentations. One of the presenters was a police officer who could show the kids his car; another was an architect who had the kids build bridges out of straws and marshmallows. (I consistently followed the architect, and it's a testament to the teachers' classroom management skills that the kids weren't building bridges during my entire presentation.) Maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but I couldn't find many career day tips for writers online, either.
Well, starting today, there's going to be one more page with writer career day tips! Here are a few things that went right with my presentation, as well as a few things I wish I'd done differently. I also noticed some trends in what kids of different ages found interesting; while this was a pretty limited sample size, it may ring true in other schools. If you ever had a career day presentation as an author (or any other job that doesn't lend itself well to visual aids and props), chime in with what worked for you!The kids liked an interactive style.
I peppered my presentation with a lot of back and forth: "What might be hard about not having a boss? What do you think is the main thing I do during my work day? How do you think we go from this [holds up pile of printed papers] to this [holds up book]?"
I was a little worried that this would lead to a free-for-all--I remember times from my teaching days when I would ask a question that the kids liked, and ten minutes later they'd still be yelling out answers to that question--but here, it worked. No one did yell out answers to a very old question, and even if they had, it would have been a good gauge of what they found the most interesting.
(Side note: I told them the main thing I do during my work day was writing. The correct answer is more like "wasting time on the Internet," but that's neither here nor there.)Any props are better than no props. Mother Ghost
isn't out yet, and my physically printed short stories are either inappropriate for little ones or featured side-by-side with stories that are inappropriate for little ones, so I didn't want to bring in any of my magazines as visual aids. I brought in a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
to talk about the publishing process ("Then J.K. Rowling sent it to a company called Scholastic--see, you can see 'Scholastic' on the spine!"), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
to talk about why it takes so long for some books to get published ("This must have taken a long time to write, revise, and edit!"), and Mummies in the Morning
to talk about research ("What did Mary Pope Osborne need to research for this book?"). I wish that I'd had more props, although I don't know what they would have been, but even those three props were a far cry better than nothing.Very young kids need lots of activities.
My presentation was pretty talk-heavy, because again, I wasn't sure what else to do. It worked well with the fourth-graders and second-graders. Predictably, it didn't go over so well with the first-graders and kindergarteners (I wasn't scheduled to present for third or fifth grade). The kindergarteners in particular were about to start vibrating into another dimension, although that was partly because I was the last presenter before recess.
Next time, I'm going to try to find some kind of activity that I can do for all the kids, but especially for the little guys. One possibility is to give them a writing prompt; another possibility is to give them a sample of the text of a picture book with no illustrations, then having them make their own illustrations as an example of storyboarding and making dummies. If any other career day veterans have suggestions, though, I'd love to hear them. My teaching experience is with middle school, so this age group is outside my comfort zone.Early readers are fascinated by the publishing process.
I had more second-grade presentations than any other, and they were all fascinated by the question of how a book goes from a file on the author's computer to a printed, bound, and illustrated volume on a bookshelf. It was pretty clear that they'd never thought of that before, and realizing that someone actually has to make that book was pretty mind-blowing. Nearly all of their questions were about the publishing process--who actually binds the book, how does the book get illustrated, how long does it take, etc. I even had a question about typesetting from an eagle-eyed kid who noticed that the font in Harry Potter is different from the font in Magic Tree House.Older kids want to hear about your failures.
I only presented to one class older than second grade, so again, the sample size was tiny--but the fourth-graders really
wanted to hear about my failures and frustrations. Some of them had started to think seriously about being authors themselves, and they wanted to know that their first rejection letter wouldn't be the kiss of death. They wanted to know if I ever got rejected, how long I had to try before I got published, whether I ever got frustrated as a writer--all of those things that could reassure them that, yes, they have a shot even if they aren't Stephen King right out of the gate.I am so using PowerPoint next time.
The presentation was fine for the second-graders and up, but giving the younger kids something to look at would have been really helpful for them. I like Shawna JC Tenney's page on making a picture book dummy
as a possible visual aid. I may not be an illustrator, but showing illustrations to younger kids will be a heck of a lot more engaging than showing them my rough draft paragraphs, my final draft paragraphs, and my paragraphs after a professional editor got hold of them--although the fourth-graders would have eaten that up with a spoon.
Overall, Career Day was an absolute blast, and I'm definitely going again next year. Has anyone else had experience with Career Day presentations to younger kids? What worked for you?
The announcement is up on Publisher's Marketplace, so I can officially let the cat out of the bag: I have a picture book coming out! Sleeping Bear Press will be publishing Mother Ghost: Spooky Rhymes for Halloween
sometime in fall 2018. Sleeping Bear prints absolutely gorgeous picture books, and I'm really excited to see what they do with Mother Ghost--
especially given the illustrator they've picked for the project. I was aiming for "spooky but not scary," and Roland Garrigue
is unbelievably perfect for that descriptor.
I know that my publication history hasn't exactly screamed "picture book"--everything else I've written has been for adults. But a few years ago, my then-four-year-old was madly in love with both Halloween and Mother Goose; being madly in love with Halloween myself, I wrote him "Mary, Mary, Tall and Scary" and "Zombie Miss Muffet," and the rest went from there. Halloween is the season that brings out my own inner kindergartener, so it makes sense that it would make me want to write for actual kindergarteners!
I'll be posting updates on the project as they come; fall 2018 is quite a while from now!
Like many people who only watch things when they come on Netflix, I finally saw Finding Dory
earlier this month. I haven't been this conflicted about a Pixar movie since I realized how much objectivism lurks beneath the surface of The Incredibles.
There's a lot to like about Finding Dory.
It's funny, it has some terrific set pieces, and the animation shows you exactly how far technology has come since Finding Nemo.
You could remove Marlin and Nemo from the movie entirely with minimal impact on the plot and themes, and there's a bit of retreading the original (when a human rescue team scooped Dory out of the water and Marlin screamed in horror, I actually groaned aloud), but it's not nearly as sequelly as it could have been. It has one of the best treatments of disability I've ever seen in a children's movie--some critics were grumpy about the fact that Destiny's near-sightedness and Hank's missing limb never played a plot role, but I thought it was the disability equivalent of the women in the background of The Force Awakens
. What's more, it made me cry harder than any other Pixar movie, Up
and Inside Out
And that's the problem.
People accuse Pixar of being emotionally manipulative on a pretty regular basis, and it's an accusation that usually falls flat with me. Art manipulates emotion, plain and simple. Some stories do it more skillfully than others, but all stories do it. Horror writers choose their words carefully to manipulate you into feeling fear. Romance writers choose their words carefully to manipulate you into twisting with anxiety when Guy and Girl hit a rough spot and sighing contentedly when they fall into each other's arms again. Pixar chooses its words and imagery carefully to manipulate you into sobbing like a hungry, colicky, wet-diapered baby with five teeth coming in at once. That's what they do.
But this time, the accusation hit home, because Finding Dory
didn't fully earn those tears. It took me a while to realize why at first, because taken by itself, the actual scene that made me sob my eyes out did
earn copious weeping. I can't say too much without spoiling the climax of the movie, but suffice it to say that Dory and some other characters shared a hard-earned and emotional victory that called back to well-seeded flashbacks from Dory's childhood; it was a part that even the generally dismissive Honest Trailer
credited with "Damn you, Pixar, even your B material makes me cry!"
The trouble, though, was that much of the emotional weight from that scene came from those flashbacks, and those
were an eye-opening illustration of the difference between a masterful tug at the heartstrings and the kind of "emotional manipulation" that gets described with an eye-roll or a sneer. Baby Dory is pure cuteness, all big eyes and adorable voice. Her parents are living avatars of love, support, and positivity. This clip
illustrates the sole emotional beat in their relationship.
Don't get me wrong--as a special needs mom myself, I am absolutely delighted to see a character with special needs whose parents not only give her unconditional love and emotional support, but also equip her with the tools and strategies she needs to live with her disability rather than quoting Hallmark platitudes that somehow miraculously repair her prefrontal cortex. But repeatedly hitting that one emotional beat is overly simplistic and false. There's only one fleeting instant where we get a sense of how frustrating it would be to have to teach Dory these things over and over and over and over and over
again, and that moment is more comic than anything else. Dory seems completely devoid of the anger and frustration that children feel about their own disabilities; her one moment of dejection is played more for "aww, widdle baby Dowwy is just da cutest!"
than anything else. Baby Dory and her parents barely come across as characters; they're little blue machines designed solely to make us sad when they're separated.
Compare that to any other tear-jerking Pixar character. I get something in my eye at the callback to "Daddy's got you, Nemo" every single time my kids watch Finding Nemo.
Riley's arc in Inside Out
is pretty much guaranteed to turn viewers into a sobbing mess. And the first ten minutes of Up
are, well, the first ten minutes of Up.
But none of these hinge on flat, one-note characters for their emotional punch the way that the Finding Dory
flashbacks do. Marlin is overprotective and neurotic and Nemo lashes out against him; that makes me cry more at "Daddy's got you," not less. Even before Riley became a moody tween, she felt like a real kid, not a living pair of puppy eyes. Carl and Ellie's relationship hits a dozen different emotional beats in under ten minutes.
Dory and her parents may be a refreshingly positive depiction of a special needs family, but they're a flat one. She's not quite "The Littlest Cancer Patient,"
but she's close. No matter how hard I cried at the climax of the movie, part of me was angry because I knew I'd been played.
I have yet to intentionally write a tear-jerker, but if I do, I'm going to remember Finding Dory
as an example of how to almost, but not quite, do it right. And then I'll do my darnedest to make sure that the tears come from complex and well-realized characters like Nemo, Marlin, and Adult Dory, not cutesy plot devices like Baby Dory.
The Kolar household has joined the rest of the Broadway geek world in getting really, really obsessive about Hamilton.
(OK, I'm more of a recovering Broadway geek than a current one, but it doesn't matter what level of geekery you have; this musical is inescapable.) I'm not going to gush about how good it is--much--because if you're in the Cult of Hamilton,
you already know, and if you aren't, you probably feel as though smiling theater aficionados in matching suits and ties are going to start knocking on your door with pamphlets at any moment. The one thing I'll say on that subject is that if you're not interested because you don't like hip-hop, give it a listen. I rarely listen to hip-hop and expected Hamilton
to be one of those things that I appreciated rather than enjoyed, but six weeks after my first listen I'm still sneaking it into the CD player every time I want background music and the kids are out of the room.
This week, our obsession reached the point where we actually started seeking out cut songs on YouTube. Like most deleted scenes, you can see exactly why the majority of these songs were cut. The John Adams diss track
is clever, but Adams is too minor a presence to warrant a whole song; the reprise of "Dear Theodosia"
is heartbreaking and gives us some nice parallels between the death of Hamilton's son and that of Burr's wife, but it doesn't add anything to Burr's motivation and stalls the momentum near the end of the story.
There's one song, though, that I wish could have worked: "Congratulations,"
which Angelica Schuyler would have sung right after "The Reynolds Pamphlet." For those who aren't familiar with the musical, it has a refreshingly mature love triangle with Hamilton, his wife Eliza, and his sister-in-law Angelica; Angelica has loved Hamilton from the moment she met him and is pretty clearly a better match for him than Eliza personality-wise, but reluctantly steps aside because she wants her sister to be happy. The two write to each other frequently, and the song that features their correspondence is packed with yearning ("And there you are an ocean away/ Do you have to live an ocean away?/ Thoughts of you subside/ Then I get another letter/ I cannot put the notion away . . .").
In the musical as written, the Hamilton/Angelica romantic tension gets an OK ending, but it could have been stronger given all the build-up. Hamilton writes a pamphlet detailing his lurid affair with another woman (the Smithsonian has a nice historical summary
). Angelica arrives, and Hamilton thinks she's there to comfort him, but she tells him in a single withering verse that she's there to comfort Eliza, not him. We then transition into Eliza's absolutely devastating reaction to the affair, "Burn,"
where a character who's been passive until this point finally lets out her torrent of grief and rage. It's a tour de force for Eliza, no question, but it left me wishing that Angelica got a bit more closure.
"Congratulations" would have given us that closure in spades. It stretches out Angelica's one venomous verse to an entire song that does everything we could want an Angelica song to do at that moment. It gives us catharsis by having a character Hamilton respects rip him a new one. It has plenty of those clever Lin-Manuel Miranda rhymes we love ("You know why Jefferson can do what he wants?/ He doesn't dignify schoolyard taunts with a response!"). It lets Angelica remind Hamilton that while she's been stuck in a loveless marriage, he had a happy one that he willingly flushed down the toilet. It offers a blistering summary of the entire second act: "So scared of what your enemies will do to you/ You're the only enemy you ever seem to lose to!"
It would have given us everything we could have wanted from an Angelica song . . . and it would have done it by gutting the emotional punch of "Burn," a far more important moment than "Congratulations" would have been. One Schuyler sister venting her heartbreak is haunting. Two Schuyler sisters in a row? As good as "Burn" is, it would have been hard for the audience to avoid checking their watches. You can't have two scenes that cover identical emotional beats back-to-back. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for Lin-Manuel Miranda to cut "Congratulations," but he made the right call.
This is one of the best examples of "murder your darlings" I've seen recently. Let's jump back to all those deleted scenes in movies. As mentioned, in most cases, you can watch those scenes and pretty quickly see why they were cut. Not all of them are full-bore terrible (although some are *cough* JabbatheHuttinNewHope
*cough*), but most of them drag down the pacing, repeat information we already know, bloat the budget for no apparent reason, etc., etc., etc. If they make all three of those missteps *cough JabbatheHuttinNewHope
*cough*, they're a slog. Usually, though, they only make one or two. Those tend to be perfectly fine scenes, but nothing to write home about.
In a small handful of other cases, you watch those deleted scenes and can immediately see that taking them out was the wrong call. Whoever cut those Faramir flashback scenes from The Two Towers
needs to be slapped in the face with a fish; they're the only things that lend any motivation at all to his actions. ("Do not trouble me with Faramir. I know his uses, and they are few"? Just call Denethor "Eliza Hamilton,"because that's
a burn.) That scene does
something. It doesn't just give us the warm fuzzies of seeing Boromir again; it makes the actions of a major character snap into perfect focus. Yes, it bogs down the pacing a bit, but the trade is well worth it.
Scenes like "Congratulations," though, have to be the hardest to cut. At first glance, it looks a lot more like a Boromir flashback than an ugly CGI Jabba the Hutt. It does something--a lot of somethings, in fact--and it's a lot better than "perfectly fine." It's almost essential. Almost. But it comes at the expense of something that is
essential, so away it goes.
As I embark on my last round of revisions, I hope I can burn my darlings that ruthlessly.
Writers have spilled a lot
of ink over how to slog through your rough draft when you're ready to throw your computer or notebook out the window in despair. Anne Lamott famously exhorted writers to embrace their "shitty first drafts;"
another writer whose name unfortunately escapes me suggested that writers think of their first draft as a simulation of a novel, not a real novel, to take pressure off themselves. My favorite writing podcast, Writing Excuses, recently had an episode
reminding listeners to stop comparing their rough drafts to the polished final drafts that they see in bookstores--or, heck, to their own polished final drafts, if their current project isn't their first.
I can certainly appreciate the truth behind Lamott and the Writing Excuses crew--I'm sure that even writers I adore wrote some absolutely godawful rough drafts--and I can see how the "simulation of a novel" advice might be helpful to some people, but none of that was terribly helpful to me when I hit a wall. (Well, to be fair to the Writing Excuses crew, my rough draft was done by the time they aired that episode.) For me, the single most helpful line for enduring a rough draft was from Stephen King. It didn't come from On Writing (although that book is a gold mine). It didn't come from one of his writer protagonists gushing about the joys of writing, either. It came from Adrian Mellon, a character in It who got eaten offscreen by Pennywise before the novel even started. Because it's a Stephen King novel, though, we get a good 10 pages about Adrian's back story, including the fact that he's been idly plugging away at a novel for the past twelve years. Shortly before his death, he pulls the novel out of his trunk and starts working on it again, telling his boyfriend that "it might be a terrible novel, but it was no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel."
I cannot possibly tell you how many times I repeated that line to myself when in the depths of "oh my goodness I am never going to finish this thing and even if I do it will be total crap" despair. (We've all had that, right? It's not just me?) "Shitty first drafts" and "don't compare your rough drafts to other people's final drafts" ultimately paint your rough draft as something horrible to be endured before you get on to the fun part . . . which is certainly true in certain sections of the draft, but not exactly inspiring. When you've been hammering away at something for a year, it doesn't do much to cheerfully remind yourself that it's shitty.
But "it might be a terrible novel, but [it's] no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel"? That made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something. A shitty first draft is better than . . . no shitty first draft, I guess? Again, not terribly inspiring. But being the author of a finished novel, even a terrible one, rather than being that guy who's been idly puttering at the same project for twelve years? That's
an objective improvement. Whenever I would hit a wall in my rough draft, I'd close my eyes and repeat, "This might be a terrible novel, but it isn't going to be a terrible unfinished novel." And then "Eye of the Tiger" would play in my head, and I could keep going.
Technically, my novel is
still unfinished--I finished the first two drafts, but there's still more revision to go. When it's completely done, I don't know whether or not any publishers will nibble or if it has enough first novel problems to truly be a terrible novel. But dangit, the first draft is the hardest, and it's done. I am going to finish this thing. It's not going to be a terrible unfinished novel.
Do you have the first fifty pages of a terrible novel languishing in your desk or on your hard drive? Go finish it. It might be a terrible novel, but it is no longer going to be a terrible unfinished novel. Then revise it and make it terrific.
You know what's really annoying in spec fic stories? That protagonist who just refuses to see that something supernatural is going on. We're 120 pages into the novel, and everyone except the main character knows why people are showing symptoms of anemia with unusual injuries on their necks or that maybe there was something to Grandpa's crazy stories about fairies after all. A really skilled writer can turn this into horrifying dramatic irony as we sit at the edge of our seats, wondering if the protagonist is going to figure out what's going on before it's too late. More often than not, though, we end up just wanting to reach through the book, smack the protagonist upside the head, and scream, "GET ON WITH IT!"
At the same time, though, it's understandable that the protagonist of a spec fic story doesn't know that he or she is the protagonist of a spec fic story. In real life, most of us would giggle nervously and make a few jokes if there were an outbreak of Neck-Rupture Anemia in the neighborhood, but we probably wouldn't put up the crosses and garlic, and we certainly wouldn't go out hunting with stakes and mallets. How can we set up a mystery like this for our protagonist--"is it really a vampire, or am I crazy?"--that doesn't make the reader irritably point to the word "horror" on the back cover?
When you set up a problem like this, you're putting your character at a narrative fork in the road. The trouble is that in mediocre stories, one of the paths leads to an interesting, twisty ramble through an exotic forest and the other leads to a dead end. There needs to be a compelling alternative for what'll happen if Neck-Rupture Anemia really is just a disease or if Grandpa's fairy tales really were just an old man spinning yarns; that way, the reader will see that both paths actually go somewhere. How to go about doing this?
The first time I noticed a well-executed narrative fork in the road was the movie The History of Violence.
(I haven't read the graphic novel, but I've heard that it's completely different.) If you haven't seen it, you should; I won't spoil it here beyond laying out the basic premise. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a restaurant owner and father of two in Indiana. When a pair of thugs try to rob his restaurant, most of the staff and customers freeze in terror, but Tom quickly kills them and is hailed as a local hero. It seems like a happy ending . . . until a mobster from Philadelphia rolls in, claiming that he saw Tom on the news and recognized him as his old mob buddy Joey Cusack. Tom and his wife vehemently deny this, but the mobster continues to stalk and threaten the Stall family, claiming he won't leave them alone until Tom (Joey?) returns to Philadelphia with him.
I spent the first half of this movie on the edge of my seat--because I had no idea what movie I was watching.
Was this the story of a Joey Cusack, a repentant mobster who
had escaped the criminal world and tried to make a new life, only to learn that violence and the past would always find him? Or was it the story of Tom Stall, an innocent man mistaken for a murderer, who commits a single, justifiable violent act and finds that it will lead to more violence and bloodshed, possibly transforming him into the killer he coincidentally resembles?
I would watch the heck out of other of those movies. Both are compelling stories--the fork in the road leads to two paths that each like a terrific hike, although in different ways. What's more, both are consistent with the tone and theme of the movie so far, which is clearly established as a dark film that studies both the allure and the destructive effects of violence. It isn't like we've been walking along a dark and eerie trail, and our two choices are either a similarly spooky path or a delightful sunlit ramble. I want to give David Cronenberg and Josh Olson a standing ovation for this one.
The 2015 UK horror movie The Hallow
has a similarly well-done narrative fork in the road. I won't spoil the ending, but I can't talk about it without getting into some third-act plot developments. It's on Netflix streaming and is quite decent; if you want to go in completely unspoiled, either watch it and come back in two hours or skip to the next paragraph. A couple and their baby are being terrorized by old-school evil fairies, and like any self-respecting old-school evil fairies, they have a history of stealing children and replacing them with changelings. The husband, Adam, is convinced that they've stolen and replaced baby Finn, and we know they had the opportunity to do so . . . but Adam got hit by a glamour earlier in the movie. His wife is positive that the baby is their own and that Adam is being influenced by the glamour. Are the fairies manipulating this poor sap into killing his real child, or into giving the real child to them in the mistaken belief that he's returning a changeling? Or is the glamour allowing him to see fae things for what they really are, turning him into a tragic Cassandra-like figure who can't make his wife see that she's clutching a viper to her bosom while abandoning their real child? Again, those are both spectacular stories, and they're both a solid tonal and thematic match for what we've seen before.
Either of these movies could have been one of those eye-rolling affairs where everyone knows what's coming except the characters. If the Philadelphia mobster hadn't been a direct threat to Tom Stall's family who could have lured him into more and more acts of justifiable violence, it would have been clear that Tom was Joey Cusack--otherwise, there's no story. If the mobster mistook him for something innocuous, like an honest citizen who'd seen his crimes and been placed in witness protection, it would have been clear that he was Tom Stall--there'd be no compelling reason for him not to come clean to his family about his identity, and again, no story. There are a hundred ways The Hallow
could have been a snoozefest as well--I won't get into details so we don't have another spoileriffic paragraph, but let's just say that it would have been a disaster to have that same setup at the beginning of the movie instead of in act three. I can't see any way that they could have maintained the mystery that long., and eventually it would have been clear which character was careening toward a dead end.
So if you have a situation where there may or may not be supernatural going on, or any other situation where the viewpoint character may or may not be right about the story's basic premise, it's critical to make sure that the story would be compelling and thematically consistent no matter what. Neck-Rupture Anemia that may be an illness or a vampire attack is boring; a series of deaths that could be caused by a vampire or a serial killer is cliche, but at least dramatically interesting. Fairies that may be real or may be an old man's ramblings are boring; fairies who may be real or may be his delusional interpretation of a sinister, fully human conspiracy are more interesting. (You could also get a really poignant story out of a narrator who's young enough to believe in fairies, pulling your reader back and forth over whether this is going to be a "hooray, Grandpa's fairies are real" story or an "and this is how I learned there are no such things as fairies" story, but this is where tone and theme are so important. A story like this is going to need a general tone of wistfulness and a hint of magic throughout, or it'll be clear that it either isn't going in the darker direction.)
Do you have any stories where you were at the edge of your seat, not knowing what story you were reading and watching? What about thoughts you've had for how to make these "it's obviously a vampire" stories more compelling?
When I hear "epistolary," I think of college English lit classes. It's a dry, jargony term that we don't throw around much outside of that context, particularly since there aren't a whole lot of modern examples. The Screwtape Letters notwithstanding, the genre saw its heyday in the 18th century and has steadily been petering out since then. Gothic horror writers loved it, and any genre that counts Dracula as an exemplar is fine in my book, but really, you can only suspend so much disbelief at the idea of someone scribbling down intricate details with perfectly recaptured dialogue during tense moments. (I've heard that Henry Fielding's Shamela skewered the heck out of this all the way back in 1741.)
We have a few modern epistolary novels, sure. Some handle the format adroitly (Max Brooks' World War Z is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius); some hit the same stumbling blocks that caused epistolaries to fall out of favor in the first place (John Marks' Fangland has an awful lot of emails giving excruciating details of events that the recipient saw firsthand, including a reporter giving us her own physical description in her notes); some are having so much fun reveling in their gimmickry that you really can't tell whether they handle the basics well or not (Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is delightful, but "gimmickry" is an accurate description). I'd absolutely love to see more novels in this genre, particularly as we return to more text-based forms of communication--a well-executed novel made up of blog posts, emails, and text messages could be incredibly cool, although there are probably a thousand poorly-executed ones languishing in slush piles.
But we're actually embarking on a new golden age for the epistolary; it's just using a different medium and a rebranded name. It's found footage. Instead of stringing together imaginary letters, journals, newspaper clippings, and diary entries, film editors are stringing together imaginary camera footage. Instead of the breathless final journals of a man hunted by an implacable THING, we get the harrowing video clips of a man stalked by the Slender Man.
It's not hard to see why found footage has exploded. It has all the advantages of the epistolary novel or short story--the extra layer of realism, the chance to play with a specific sense of rules and limitations--with few of the disadvantages. In an epistolary novel, part of you is rolling your eyes that Lucy Westenra pulled off this massive diary entry in the very moment that Dracula was coming for her for the last time, or that Dr. Frankenstein would quote lengthy conversations with the monster verbatim instead of saying "And then he asked me to make him a bride." With found footage, no one in the midst of the action is stopping to write it down or trying to remember details later; it all unfolds in real time in front of the camera. What's more, you generally know that the author of the letters and journals in an epistolary is going to survive--otherwise, who would write the journals? With found footage, you have no such assurances. The major limitation they share is the tendency toward "as you know, Bob" conversation, which is probably why the documentary format is so popular. No one cares if you exposit in a documentary
There are two things I'd like to see from both found footage and the handful of epistolary texts that are still kicking around. One, frankly, is quality. There's a lot of crappy found footage out there. There's also a lot of very good found footage out there. However, I don't think we've had a stone-cold classic film that does for found footage what Frankenstein and Dracula did for novels. I have no doubt that there's someone out there who can make an absolutely breathtaking found footage movie, but it hasn't happened yet. For contemporary epistolary novels, we do have one that I can think of--World War Z--but I'd love to see more. There's a lot of text floating around out there. There are stories unfolding every day in emails, in comboxes, in insane text message conversations. Let's play with them.
The other is more work that engages with technology. Documentaries are fun, but in an age of webcams we can do more interesting things. Unfriended was a spectacularly underrated movie; we can have an argument about whether the plot is just one more movie about a bunch of unpleasant teenagers getting killed in nasty ways, but the way it handled the Internet as Greek chorus was stellar. I've heard that The Lizzie Bennett Diaries does wonderful things with the idea of vlog epistolaries, but I'll admit I haven't seen it yet. The same goes for epistolary texts. There will always be journals, diaries, and mailed correspondence, and there have been some terrific contemporary works dealing with them, but I'd love to see more novels that specifically use the Internet. That's where text is happening nowadays.
Am I forgetting your favorite found footage movie or epistolary story? Is there something that you'd like to put forward as the found footage Dracula? Do you have burning thoughts about the epistolary or found footage genre? Let's have a dorky English major discussion!
In my previous post about the Bechdel test,
I mentioned that there was a fourth type of story that can be an acceptable Bechdel fail: a story where masculinity and/or the marginalization of women are critical themes. If your story is all about different definitions of what it means to be a man, most if not all women are only going to exist as foils for the male characters. A lot of crime novels by writers like George Pelekanos and Richard Price fall into this category; they're about criminals and the cops who chase them, but they're also about seeing who's biggest and all the different rulers you can use to get those measurements. Similarly, if your story is about the fact that women tend to be separated from other women or reduced to their relationships with men, you're going to demonstrate that by . . . separating your female characters from other women or only having them talk to each other about men. Several episodes of Mad Men
flunk the Bechdel test spectacularly, but it's clearly by design, to the point where more than one critic has described it as "TV's most feminist show."
I'm mostly going to be focusing on stories about masculinity here rather than stories about the marginalization of women. Chances are that if you're going out of your way to write a story about the marginalization of women, you're also going to go out of your way to write the women well. We'll get to that in a minute. I want to talk about the question of masculinity first, because things get incredibly
tricky there. For one thing, some writers claim to be about "definitions of what it means to be a man" when they're actually about "definitions of what it means to be a human being;" the male writer doesn't realize that the issues he thinks are specific to masculinity are actually pretty universal. Joseph Campbell is our most facepalm-inducing example here. When asked what a Heroine's Journey might look like to complement his Hero's Journey, he replied, "Women don't need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize she's the place people are trying to get to." So . . . personal and spiritual growth and struggle are unique to men, apparently.
This one of the more egregious examples of this mindset, but it isn't the only one. If you think your story is uniquely male, try talking about the themes with some of the women in your life. If they're nodding enthusiastically and sharing their own experiences, it isn't uniquely male. They've been there.
But some stories really do work better with men. Breaking Bad
is a good example here; it just wouldn't have the same punch without Walter White's sense of thwarted masculinity bouncing off Jesse's feelings of impotence and Hank's macho posturing. As mentioned, crime novels and shows like The Wire
fit here as well--criminal groups usually have a culture of toxic masculinity, and the cops can be held up either as a positive counterexample or a cynical mirror group that's nearly as toxic as the crooks. Also, the more we have stories like these that deconstruct traditional notions of what it means to be a man, the more we need stories to build up new visions of masculinity in their place. As male-dominated as stories tend to be, we still need
good stories about men and manliness if we're going to have examples of how to be a man who doesn't adhere to some strict macho role.
So let's say you're writing one of those stories, but you're worried that women are absent or underused. Are there any themes other than masculinity that the women can represent? This is one of the areas where Breaking Bad
drove me bananas, as much as I loved it. One of the crucial themes was masculinity, but another crucial theme was family, so the relationship between Skyler and Marie really should have been more important. The show flirted with this in early episodes but basically shoved their relationship (and most attempts at character development for Marie, for that matter) under a rug. The show frustratingly failed the Bechdel test more often than not. It didn't have to. Skyler couldn't act as a parallel to Walter on the theme of masculinity, but she could have acted much more strongly as a parallel or foil to him on the theme of family. (I'm curious about whether Anna Gunn would have gotten more or less hate mail in this alternate reality . . .)
You may still find yourself in a situation where men are ruling the roost and flunking the Bechdel test because of your story's themes. There are plenty of examples of this happening--The Godfather
and all those crime novels come to mind, although The Wire
doesn't thanks to Kima and her girlfriend. (And possibly Ronnie. Do Ronnie and Kima ever have a conversation that isn't about a man?) Unfortunately, I can't get into a lot of detail on these kinds of stories because I don't enjoy them very much. Men don't tend to read Jane Austen even though she's a great novelist, and if they do read her, they don't tend to enjoy her as much as women do. I wonder if I'm the only woman who secretly thinks The Godfather
is hella overrated because it's too darn butch for me. If you're writing something aggressively masculine, you risk alienating half your potential audience. That's fine--everyone knows you shouldn't write something with the sales figures in mind--but please know it going in, because I'm tired of the conventional wisdom that everyone enjoys boy stories.
Ahem. Anyway. As I was saying, if you're absolutely in a situation where the men are ruling the roost because of your story's themes, though, your best bet is to go out of your way to make sure your women are interesting characters with agency.
Of course, you should make sure that all of your characters are interesting--no one sits down at their desk delighted at the thought of writing a really boring character today--but if you have an engaging female character from the start, you'll gain a lot of trust and traction with your women readers. The Wire
gets a lot of flak for its female characters, but to my mind it does this right; I may not typically enjoy macho stories, but I'm one of those annoying Baltimoreans who will talk your ear off about The Wire.
Kima's an obvious reason why--I don't know if I would have had as much initial buy-in with the show if Kima hadn't been such a fantastic character, with a personal life and strengths and flaws just like all the men--but even minor characters who really do exist solely as foils for the men tend to pull this off beautifully. Our Barksdale gang Mother of the Year winners Brianna Barksdale and De'Londa Brice mainly exist to show some of the poisonous ways that family affects gang life, but you can understand how each one sees herself as the heroine of her own story--and Brianna in particular is as nuanced and interesting as any of the male criminals. Perhaps best of all, when a first season episode gives us a fairly typical scene of how disposable women are in gang life--a stripper, Keesha, overdoses at a party and her body is thrown in the Dumpster--it goes in a completely different direction than these scenes usually do. Rather than being used as a cheap shock moment, or something that kicks off a man's soul-searching journey of self-discovery, it leads to another woman's
soul-searching journey of self-discovery as gang girlfriend Shardene realizes that Keesha's fate could have been her own. She ends up taking actions that critically change the course of the first season because, like Brianna and De'Londa, Shardene is the heroine of her own story.
So is everyone, including your female characters. Even if your story is a necessary Bechdel fail, the best way to keep it from being sexist is to treat them that way. Your sole female character may only be onscreen for twenty pages of a three hundred page novel, but if you know exactly who she is, why she's there, and what she thinks about the events going on around her, you'll be
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go rewatch The Wire.
Recently, I read a post by a certain cantankerous conservative writer who had discovered the Bechdel test
for the first time. I don't know if he genuinely misunderstood the purpose of the Bechdel test or was just drumming up outrage, but his basic reaction was what you'd expect: "The SJWs want to stop you from reading Melville and Shakespeare because they don't pass a feminist purity test!"
Yes, that's ridiculous. We know that isn't what the Bechdel test is about. The trouble is that sometimes, it's hard to grok what the Bechdel test is
about, at least in a way that makes it useful for writers. As others have pointed out, the test is more useful to analyze patterns of female presence in media than to assess whether a specific piece is feminist or sexist (this essay
does a nice job of laying out that argument). This is handy for critics, but as writers, we are
trying to figure out whether specific works are feminist or sexist--specifically our own. As someone who's actively trying to build more diversity into her work, I can understand why even well-meaning male writers sometimes scratch their heads over whether it's OK for their works to fail the Bechdel test, since Gravity
and Saving Private Ryan
do it and are fine (yes, some people complain about Saving Private Ryan,
but they're trolls). While 90% of Bechdel fails are straight-up lazy (why was the galaxy far, far away swimming in testosterone until this past December, and why do Skyler and Marie have so little to talk about other than their husbands?), some are fine or even downright necessary. Which ones?
For my money, acceptable Bechdel fails fall into two major categories:
- False negatives--works that technically fail the Bechdel test, but whose awesome female characters have very, very good reasons for not talking to each other (or whose single awesome female character has a good reason for not talking to other women). Gravity is probably the most frequently cited example here, but my personal favorite is "The Yellow Wallpaper." When an influential feminist work is a Bechdel fail, you know that it was never meant as a one-size-fits-all litmus test.
- Stories that are male-dominated by necessity. Saving Private Ryan is a good example here; it would be pretty darn hard to sneak women into a movie about a platoon of men in World War II.
I'm going to talk about false negatives in a later post because I love that kind of hair-splitting insanity, but that's more of an intellectual game than a useful discussion. Here, I'm interested in talking about male-dominated stories. I can think of four kinds of male-dominated stories that make for perfectly acceptable Bechdel fails. One of them--stories in which masculinity and/or the marginalization of women are major themes--has so many caveats that it's going to be the subject of Part Two. I'm detailing the other three below. Each one has circumstances in which it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the failure, and each also connects directly to a similar but more woman-focused story that we don't see enough.Adaptations.
If you're riffing on source material that doesn't prominently feature women, your adaptation might not, either. A short story riffing on Hamlet
from Claudius' point of view is probably going to treat Gertrude and Ophelia as separately as the actual play does.But . . .
the more you depart from the source material, the less justifiable this becomes. A straightforward riff on Hamlet
is one thing; Hamlet IIIIIIIIN SPAAAAAAAACE!
is another. If you're dramatically changing the setting, plot, or theme of the work you're adapting, you can probably stand to gender-flip a few characters. The same is true of adding subplots. 1 and 2 Samuel don't pass the Bechdel Test, but both Kings
and Of Kings and Prophets
do because the writers added subplots for the women as well as the men. If the work has both male and female characters and you're only interested in fleshing out the men, ask yourself why.My wish list . . .
Really, the "but" paragraph covers this one. I'd love to see more adaptations of the classics that engage the women, particularly if it's an adaptation written by someone who actually has a decent grasp of both the source material and the way women talk to each other. It would also be terrific to see more interesting gender flips. If no one ever gender-flipped characters in adaptations, we wouldn't have Kara Thrace. I don't want to live in that world.Stories with setting limitations.
I mentioned Saving Private Ryan
above. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
is another good example. Sometimes your story is set in a time and place that only features men.But . . .
this only goes as far as the historical accuracy of your story. A realistic story about a group of World War II soldiers trying to find another and bring him home? That's a completely justifiable Bechdel fail. A story where the soldiers are fighting clockwork Nazis? Less so. When the only historical fact you're setting in stone is the race and gender of the people who are likely to be involved, you're on shaky ground. My wish list . . .
The obvious answer here is more stories about women's equivalents to these male settings (wouldn't it be great to have an Orange is the New Black
set in a women's prison for every Shawshank Redemption
set in a men's prison?). What I'd love even more, though, would be more stories about what the women were doing while the men were off at war during these historical periods. Why have we not had a series about the women getting their Rosie the Riveter on during World War II? Why is it that I can't think of a single movie about what the women were doing during World War II except A League of Their Own?
For that matter, what about all the women during the Middle Ages who had to handle their households during the Crusades? The idea of a woman as the head of the home had real teeth eight hundred years ago.Stories with a small cast or narrow character focus.
Short stories are a good example here. If you're writing a very short story about two brothers, you might not have any other characters at all. Similarly, some novellas, TV episodes, or short movies barely have a single conversation that doesn't involve the protagonist; if the protagonist is a man, it's going to be a Bechdel fail.But . . .
if there are only a few characters, can any of them be women? There are some ways that the relationship between brothers is different from the relationship between sisters or a brother and sister. If your story focuses heavily on those things, it's going to be about brothers and fail the Bechdel test, and that's OK. If it doesn't, consider gender-flipping a brother.My wish list . . .
Again, this is pretty well covered under "but." It would be terrific if the default for small-focus stories wasn't "a couple of men" or "a few men and maybe one woman." The Shining
is one of my favorite books, and it certainly has a small cast, but there's no reason Dick Hallorann couldn't have been a woman. There's not a specific reason for him to be a woman, but then, there's not a specific reason for him to be a man, either, so why not gender-flip him? When in doubt, why default to men?
And that's what the Bechdel test is all about, Charlie Brown.