Posts Tagged ‘Sequence 08: Stories I Love’


The BAD-ANON Affirmation: Closing the Circle


Though I was never an arcade aficionado, Mario, Sonic, Link, and the like were a part of my childhood. So when Disney Animation Studios announced a movie that promised to be packed with classic gaming nostalgia, I was in. However, Wreck-It Ralph delivered well beyond my expectations. Its tight plotting, clever world, lovable characters, and strong emotional journey have made it one of my favorite movies of all time.

Though there are many things I loved about the movie on that first viewing, I can clearly remember my delight at how neatly the writers closed the circle of their story. Discussions of the Campbellian monomyth emphasize the need for the hero to return home at the end of their journey and find that they no longer fit into their old world. It is equally effective for them to find that their actions have changed their world for the better. Either way, the characters need to have grown as part of their journey and this technique is often discussed as the best mechanism for showing that change.

However, the return home isn’t always literal — it can be an emotional or metaphoric return as well. Though Ralph does make a physical return home, I think that the circle is closed before that. In the opening scene of the movie, Ralph goes to BAD-ANON and spills his woes and aspirations to his fellow bad guys. Several important threads are initiated in that scene, but the one I didn’t see coming was the Bad Guy’s Affirmation.

On first viewing, I thought that the affirmation was just a throw-away joke. It was funny, but it didn’t stand out as particularly significant.

However, during the climactic scene of the movie Ralph is faced with a horrible choice. He can either sacrifice himself to defeat the Big Bad, or he can give in to despair and watch his new found friend die as the first casualty of Turbo’s bid to destroy the whole arcade. He makes his choice, and in the time it takes for him to fall to his “death,” the writers surprised me.

The writers had essentially told the entire story in the first few minutes of the film and then spent the rest of the movie making their point. Ralph’s journey explored what it meant to be a friend and a hero. He never thought he was either, but in the end he proved that he was both. After all, selfless sacrifice isn’t in the evil portfolio. Though the movie goes on to see through a fully realized denouement, that moment was the end of the story, the drop-the-mike moment. By having Ralph repeat the affirmation, and MEAN IT, they closed the circle beautifully and showed that Ralph wasn’t such a bad guy after all.


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.


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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