Going Straight for the Feels


Any good story must get a strangle hold on the audience’s emotional heartstrings and PULL. While there are many ways of going about this task, it always starts by building your reader’s empathy with a character. After all, you won’t feel for someone that you don’t first care about. Once that’s done, the most common method is to place the character and their goals in peril. However, just because it’s the most common means of going straight for the feels doesn’t mean it’s always the most effective.

I would argue that sacrifice can be even more powerful than peril. As an example, watch this clip from Pixar’s most recent movie, Inside Out.

This scene happens well into the movie, after we’ve had plenty of time to bond with Joy and Bing Bong. Their goals have been well established, as was the lethal threat of the Memory Dump. Additionally, the writers had set up the mechanism for the character’s escape, but made sure the result was uncertain enough to create a sense of tension. All good so far.

At first, I thought this was going to be a three tries to victory sort of scene. However, they did something even cleverer. Joy was ready to give up after the second try, but Bing Bong encouraged her to try once more by saying that he “got a feeling about this one.” More importantly, he looked sad while he said it. Without a single word, he communicated to the audience what he was planning.

Bing Bong and Joy

Despite the clear foreshadowing, we didn’t want to be right. We liked Bing Bong and wanted him to succeed in getting a second chance with Reilly. However when the time came, Bing Bong chose to jump off the wagon so that Joy could escape. In that scene, Bing Bong’s sacrifice meant so much more to me than Joy’s victory for four reasons.

First, he chose to sacrifice himself. Had he been forced to do so, it wouldn’t have been nearly as meaningful. Second, the sacrifice was significant. Bing Bong knew that he was condemning himself to death by staying behind. Third, the feeling was compounded by how excited and happy he was about his friend’s escape. It added a sense of nobility to the gesture and fit his character perfectly. Finally, his last line and the accompanying montage drove the knife home and twisted it mercilessly. In so doing, the writers reminded us of how much we liked Bing Bong and forced us to acknowledge exactly what his sacrifice meant for him personally.

The scene was powerful because it was set up and executed masterfully. The writers took the time to ensure that we cared about the characters, knew the stakes were high, and left the outcome uncertain enough for us to feel anxiety. All those feelings were paid off when victory came at a cost. To me, it proves that as much as audiences admire victory, we love sacrifice more.


Kickstarting Zen Awesomeness

If you've been reading In Brief for long, you probably know about my deep respect for James A Owen. He’s a talented and successful author, comic books artist, and business person. He's always been a good friend to me, giving me unconditional support and encouragement in not only my writing, but also my personal life. He taught me about the power of selling your Eggs Benedict and about the need to push yourself until you are just a little bit scared. His actions frequently remind me of the power of kindness and understanding. Now, he's the one in need of a little help, and I'm for sure going to answer the call!

When first asked to speak to middle schoolers as part of his book tours, James decided that he didn't want to talk about his Imaginarium Geographica series. If he was given only one hour to speak to the kids, he wanted to talk about what he thought was important in life. About the cumulative power of choice in our lives, on the need to decide what you want and work for it, and on the idea that it's never too early to start shaping your destiny. This talk, Drawing out the Dragons, was so successful that he's been asked to repeat it hundreds of times over the years.

When James realized that he couldn't reach all of his audience personally, he converted the talk into a book. However, the story and the philosophy weren't done there. He had more to share. And so, he wrote the Meditation's trilogy to share his amazing life and philosophy of relentless optimism in the pursuit of one's destiny.

My first experiences with the trilogy came when I heard James' Drawing Out the Dragons presentation at the Superstars Writing Seminar back in 2013. I then read the first book, by the same name, and enjoyed it greatly. In fact, it is one of the few books I perpetually keep in my phone. Like everyone else, sometimes I just need someone to tell me that they believe in me and inspire me to keep pushing forward. James does this, both in person and in text.

Right now, James as a little less than a week left in the Kickstarter he is using to turn these powerful books into a beautiful hard cover set. I'm a supporter, and hope that y'all would be willing to consider taking the leap of faith needed to help him complete this awesome project. I promise, you won't regret it!


DRAWING OUT THE DRAGONS: A Meditation on Art, Destiny and the Power of Choice

"James inspires and motivates both the young and young-at-heart with personal stories that share an important belief: that you can choose to lead an extraordinary life if you will just persevere, stay focused on your goals, and believe in yourself." —LeVar Burton educator, actor, entrepreneur. Drawing Out the Dragons has the power to uplift, inspire, and change your life, and is the first book in The Meditation s series.

THE BARBIZON DIARIES: A Meditation on Will, Purpose and the Value of Stories

"Mythologies are huge, sweeping things. And the grandest stories are those with the widest arcs of triumph and despair. As much as we may want to, we may not be able to avoid the despair – but triumph is a matter of will." DRAWING OUT THE DRAGONS was written for everyone, but this book is an advanced course in surviving the Refiner’s fire – because some stories are too important not to share, and some stories are too meaningful to hide.

THE GRAND DESIGN: A Meditation on Creativity, Ambition, and Building a Personal Mythology

This book brings together the ideas from the previous volumes in The Meditations series (Drawing out the Dragons and The Barbizon Diaries) about all of the things I know and believe are most important in choosing to live an extraordinary life. Significance is a choice; and the extraordinary can always be chosen. That’s everything. And that’s all.


No Battle Plan Survives Contact with Pierce Brown

The instinct for manipulating reader tension is one of the most fundamental skills for any writer to master. Once your story has established the protagonist’s motivation and goals, the character should start working towards those objectives. However, instant success is not only cheating, it’s boring. For your character to have an emotionally satisfying journey, they need to try and fail several times before getting it right.

Pierce Brown is one of my favorite debut authors of the past five years precisely because of his mastery of the try-fail cycle. While others praise his world building and poetic prose, both of which are top shelf, I rather admire his plotting and characters. Brown seems constitutionally incapable of cutting Darrow, his protagonist, a break.

The key to Brown’s success with try-fail cycles was that they felt organic. Darrow didn’t fail as often as he did because it was what the story needed. He failed because the other characters acted with agency. Each time Darrow makes progress towards one of his goals, one of the other characters springs an attack, an ambush, or a trap that bloodies him and knocks him flat into the mud. In a few instances, literally. I was honestly surprised by how many times I thought “well, at least this couldn’t get any worse for him,” and then was proven wrong. Very wrong.

It’s important to note that each time Darrow fails, the odds are stacked higher and higher against him. That’s key. Try-fail cycles are meant to be more than a setback. They need to make it harder for your protagonist to achieve his or her goals. That way, when they do end up succeeding, the win is so much more satisfying.

I’ve noticed that many authors write their story with only two major characters having any significant, independent agency: the protagonist and the antagonist. I suspect this isn’t a conscious choice, but rather it is simply easier to keep track of from a plotting perspective. Brown, on the other hand, ensured that most of his secondary characters and a few of his minor characters also act with agency. In so doing, he perfectly justifies a complex plot.

I’ve found that using a series of try-fail cycles is one of the simplest and most effective ways to maintain your readers’ sense of dramatic tension. It doesn’t matter how good you are at character, plot, world building, or prose if you are unable to engage the reader on an emotional level and use that connection to draw them through the story. Reader empathy with the protagonist and other characters is only the first step however. Once you’ve set that hook, you must know how to drag the reader through the novel by putting those beloved characters, and their deepest desires, in jeopardy. Ultimately, reader tension is what makes the difference between a bland book and an emotionally satisfying novel.


The Kingsmen – A Blend of Humor and Nostalgia

**SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the movie The Kingsmen**

Meta-humor, also known as self-aware or self-referential humor, is one of the most difficult forms of comedy to do well. Be too gentle with the reference and the audience will miss the joke entirely. However, be too obvious and you end up breaking the fourth wall and taxing your audience’s suspension of disbelief. If done just right, such as in the movie the Kingsmen: The Secret Service, self-referential humor allows a story to pay homage to an older body of work while simultaneously forging a new path.

The meta-humor in the Kingsmen works so well because the writers took the time to justify the in-world existence of the films and TV series they were satirizing. At several points in the movie, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) start their exchange by directly acknowledging “those old spy films we loved so much.” In so doing, the writers and actors are able to more effectively manipulate the parallels and contrasts between the old movies and this new chapter.

Take as an example the first face-to-face meeting between Harry and Valentine.

I love this scene because it works on four major levels. On the surface, each character is subtly threatening the other by acknowledging their roles as spy and villain. Drama beat. Take one step deeper and you hit the ironic contrast of their stated childhood desires and their roles in story. Comedy beat. On yet another level there is a strong resonance of nostalgia. After all, who hasn’t day dreamed about being a super spy or an evil scientist? When Valentine ends the exchange by stating that it was a shame that they had to grow up, the gauntlet is cast and the two characters acknowledge that there must be conflict between them. Action beat. By combining the three beats and the nostalgic resonance, this complex scene beautifully acknowledges the genre’s heritage while also pushing the plot forward.

However, parallelism with old movies isn’t enough to make a good new volume. As the old entertainment industry wisdom states: audiences want more of the same, but different. The Kingsmen delivers this difference by subverting classic spy film tropes in interesting ways.

First, the writers remind us of the trope of the evil monologue and overly complex death scheme. They establish an expectation, but then immediately pay off the promise in an unexpected way. Even better, they add a twist of tongue-in-cheek comedy when they signal the subversion in the moments before it happens by saying, “Well this ain’t that kind of movie.”

Though most comedies can easily forgo the use of meta-humor, it’s a necessary skill for any satirist. After all, the best satirical humor makes fun of itself as much as the original body of work. By relying on both parallelisms and subversions of old tropes, the Kingsmen was able to simultaneously pay homage to spy classics as well as give the audience some delightful surprises. In so doing, Kingsmen was a refreshing take on a well trod genre.


Eve Dallas — A Damn Good Cop

Being a hero is simple in a world of black and white. All you have to do is stand up to the bad guys and defend the weak. However, in a world made of shades of gray, it is much more difficult to know right from wrong. While I find that struggles of gray morality are much more emotionally satisfying and relevant to our daily lives, they are also incredibly difficult to write well. Too often in my experience, failed attempts come off as contrived, flat, or forced.

One of the masters of storytelling who consistently pulls it off is Nora Roberts. Though best known for her romances, I prefer the In Death series she writes under the pseudonym JD Robb. The series protagonist, Lieutenant Eve Dallas, is a murder cop in a late twenty first century version of New York City. Though the series starts off with clear-cut police procedurals, things become much more morally complicated as the story progresses.

In the course of the (as of now) 42 books, Dallas is repeatedly forced to face her assumptions on the nature of good and evil, justice, and her duty as a police detective. All the while, she does the best she can to seek justice for the murder victims and honor the badge the she treasures.

One of best examples of this was in book 39 in the series, Festive in Death. The victim, a personal trainer named Trey Ziegler, immediately comes off as a gigantic asshole. Arrogant, narcissistic, and a serial womanizer and cheat, he’s just the sort of guy for whom few tears are shed when he is found dead in his apartment. As the investigation progresses, however, he goes from asshole to despicable criminal when it comes to light that he is also a serial rapist and blackmailer.

Robb does everything in her power to make both her readers and her protagonist hate the man. In fact, several characters through the course of the book suggest by implication or overt statement that the killer did the world a favor. While many of us would give into the temptation to buy the killer a drink or let the case go cold, Dallas works hard to find justice for a despicable man.

I admire Eve Dallas because she is a paragon of justice. Unfortunately, we seem to live in a world where too many people justify immoral actions by pointing to others and saying, “But they are worse!” Stories are meant to show us examples of what we should aspire to in our own lives. Eve’s morality isn’t defined by the wickedness of the victims she stands for, nor should our actions be defined by the wrongdoing of others. In a world filled with shades of gray, being a hero is a matter of choice. It’s as true in fiction as it is in life.


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