Posts Tagged ‘Sequence 08: Stories I Love’


John Wick: A Blend of Love and Fear

A good introduction conveys an entire person with only a couple snappy lines. It’s not a matter of condensing pages of info-dumpy prose, but rather knowing how to pick the key traits that will allow the reader to imply the rest of the character. A brilliant introduction, however, is one that gives a perfect picture of the character while also cementing reader empathy.

The writers and directors of John Wick pulled off a brilliant introduction.

Based on John Wick’s synopsis and advertising, the audience comes into the theater expecting an action movie. We know that John Wick is a killer, an antihero. However, the writers did something very clever by choosing to open with scenes of vulnerability. Had the movie started with mayhem, they would have had to rely on empathy by way of extreme competence. By showing us John Wick the grieving widower before we are presented with his deadly skills, they made him human and gave the audience a chance to bond with him. A character who loves, and loses, is very easy to empathize with.

His humanity is expanded upon when he receives his wife’s last gift at minute 6:15. She had arranged to send him a puppy after she died. In the accompanying card, she explains that he needs something to love once she is gone. And no, his car doesn’t count. It’s a perfect beat of humor to cut through the drama. That scene also does a great job establishing John Wick’s motivation for the rest of the movie.

Eight minutes later, a group of men led by the local Mafioso’s son break into John Wick’s house intent on stealing his car. They end up killing the puppy in a moment of petty cruelty. This is the movie’s inciting incident, and though John Wick is the antihero, we the audience are fully in support of some biblical scale vengeance against Iosef Tarasov.

With empathy in the bag, the writers of John Wick turned to establishing his competence as an assassin. After all, all we’ve seen John Wick do is grieve and get his butt kicked. Again, they did something unexpected and very smart. They didn’t show John Wick’s skills, but rather the force of his in-world reputation.

When Iosef takes John Wick’s car to a chop shop to get new VIN numbers and papers, the shop’s owner lays him flat with a single punch. He recognizes John Wick’s car and will have nothing to do with it. He’d rather hit a crime lord’s son than piss off John Wick. Quite a testament.

But the writer’s don’t leave it there. They take it to the next level when Viggo Tarasov calls Aurelio to demand why he hit his son.

Clearly, the crime lord is terrified of John Wick’s wrath. We’re only 20 minutes (13.5%) into the movie, but already we know who John Wick is, who he was, and are fully on board with his vengeance. As I said. Brilliantly done.


Diversity on a Mythic Scale

Though we like to think of ourselves as predators, human beings are closer to herd animals. We instinctively cluster for safety, to help in raising our young, and to share resources. Unfortunately this herding instinct also pressures us to conform to the group’s culture, values, and sense of morality. Given enough time and isolation, this tendency can lead to homogenization of thought and eventually cultural stagnation.

That is why art is so important. Artists thrive on rocking the boat by introducing new ideas and points of view into the mix. However, artists are still people. We too have our comfort zones and fall subject to the echo chamber. Without conscious effort to expand our own horizons and produce something new, we will fall back on replicating what we enjoyed in the past.

A perfect example of this sort of literary rut is how English literature tends to treat mythology. Until recent years, my experience has been that many English and American authors tend to lean heavily on the Greco-Roman, Celtic, and Norse traditions. Looking at history, this makes perfect sense. The Anglo-Saxon tribes that would eventually accrete into the United Kingdoms were subject to Roman invasion for 370 years, had frequent conflict with their Celtic neighbors, and were victim to periodic Viking raids. Culture is traded in war as often as swords and spears, so it’s unsurprising that their pantheons and heroes have made their way into our works.

However comfortable, the road well-trod isn’t good art. To continue to push the boundaries with our fiction, we need to experiment and explore. Luckily, there is a plethora of mythology virtually unused by western literature. Need inspiration? Look into any of the Asian, Indian, Native American, African, or Pacific Islander traditions. There are dozens of cultures within each of these regions, all with their own history, traditions, and mythos. So long as you are careful to research thoroughly and do justice to the source material, chances are you’ll be able to introduce your readers to something they’ve never experienced before.

Kevin Hearne does an excellent job at this in his Iron Druid Chronicles. True to modern urban fantasy, Hearne’s world works to meld myth from around the world into a single universe. However, Hearne takes the concept to the next level by having his characters interact with gods, goddesses, heroes, and monsters from every corner of the globe. He starts with the Celtic tradition in the first book, but quickly expands to a trio of Polish goddesses, a Hindu body switcher, and Coyote as seen by several different Native American tribes in the next couple of installments. He continues this trend over the course of the series and has introduced me to a variety of mythology that I’m itching to explore for myself. After all folks, we live in the information age. With the access we have now to people and source material very different from our own culture, ignorance is a choice.


The First Part, but Also a Whole

Many of the trilogies I’ve read try to stretch the classic story structure across multiple volumes. The first book is used to introduce the reader to the world and characters, launch the initiating event, and start the climb up the slope of the rising action. The second book is reserved for the bulk of the rising action and a handful of plot twists, while the third focuses on driving towards and executing the climax. Essentially, the reader is presented with one long novel, cut in three parts for the ease of binding.

While this sort of fiction sells, I do not think it is the best use of story. Instead, each installment should be self-sufficient. The first volume especially must have a satisfying emotional journey for the reader while leaving them craving more. I think this is where Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope invested its genius.

Any first installment in a series must do four things to help set up the rest of the work. First, it must establish the milieu and emotional draws for the reader. In A New Hope, this happens in the initial space battle. We immediately know that we are dealing with a science fiction setting with space ships and laser weapons and that the story will be a combination of wonder and adventure. Second, the first book in series must establish the status quo and introduce the large scale conflict. This is accomplished when we are told that Leia is involved in a rebellion against an evil empire. It must also establish an immediate conflict that’ll carry the plot for that volume and provide an inciting incident. In A New Hope, the off screen theft of the Death Star plans serves both of these needs. Finally, it must introduce a core cast of characters that we will follow through the series, both protagonists and antagonists. This is first done in the conflict between Vader and Leia, and then furthered through the rest of the movie to include Luke, Kenobi, Han, Chewie, and the droids.

For the most part, A New Hope does everything it needs to do in order to support the series in the first twenty minutes of the movie. The rest of the time is spent developing and addressing its own plot line. The infiltration and destruction of the Death Star is compelling enough in its own right to be a standalone work. It didn’t need Empire or Jedi. Rather, they built on its success.

When A New Hope was released in theaters, there was nothing quite like it on the market. It quickly became an international cultural icon. Nearly forty years later, the Original Trilogy has spawned hundreds of follow up novels, video games, comic books, and every other kind of consumer product imaginable. The success that the Star Wars franchise has enjoyed is staggering. Largely, I think that the success of the entire franchise can be traced back to how awesome A New Hope is from a storytelling perspective.


A New Direction for an Old Trope

Like most, I first encountered the idea of insanity as a price for magic in the Wheel of Time series. At the time that Tor published the Eye of the World, it was a novel concept and uniquely terrifying. More importantly, that particular story element was masterfully executed. It was ingrained in, and drove much of, the story’s world building, character motivations, and plot. Like any other great work of fiction, Jordan inspired a generation of writers who gleefully worked to make the idea their own. However, in my experience not many authors have taken the time and effort to improve upon the concept. That is until Jim Butcher published the Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first installment in his new Cinder Spires series.

One of the things I like most about Butcher’s treatment of neurodivergence and neurosis is how different his characters are from those who have come before. For example one of the three etherealists that Butcher introduces us to, Master Ferus, is entirely unable to operate door knobs. He literally can’t get them to function. Though this limitation might seem trivial, can you imagine how difficult life would be if you needed to rely on others to get through simple doors? Furthermore, while it is often used as a comedic beat in the story, Butcher sets up a scenario in which Ferus’ inability to get through a door on his own has legitimate life and death consequences. It’s a wonderful tension payoff for all the moments of humor we enjoyed before.

Secondly, I love how Butcher handles delusion. One of his etherealist characters, Folly, often says things that seem like non-sequiturs or that are entirely incomprehensible to both the reader and other characters. However once the reader is allowed a view inside Folly’s head, we find out that she isn’t delusional at all. Rather, she is able to perceive an additional reality to which most of the other characters are both blind and deaf. By overtly reacting to that reality, she only appears to be delusional from the outside. It was an interesting twist on an old concept that had me as reader questioning my own assumptions of others “delusions.”

Finally, Butcher does an excellent job leveraging his character’s neurodivergence and neuroses while maintaining their humanity and competence. Jordan relied mostly on megalomania, schizophrenia, and delusion, all of which were shown to be unmanageable, destructive, and inevitable. While that choice worked well for Jordan’s story and aims, it’s an oversimplification that doesn’t do justice to the reality. Master Ferus, Folly, and Madam Cavendish are certainly all limited and shaped by their quirks and neuroses. However, they are also shown to be highly intelligent and capable agents in their own right. By writing his etherealists as three fully realized, competent characters, rather than maintaining the caricatures that have become all too common in popular culture, Butcher was able to take the trope into a new, unique direction.


Our Audience is Funnier Than We Are

**SPOILER WARNING: In this post, I talk about plot details from the 2015 film The Martian.**

I’ve found that selling hard science fiction books is remarkably difficult. While I’ve met a few fans who want their stories to be accurate down to the smallest scientific nuance, many SF fans, if not most, seem to be more concerned with the wonder and adventure aspects of the story. As an author it’s really hard to please both groups at the same time, which is why I was so impressed by how well Andy Weir (book) and Drew Goddard (screenplay) did on the movie adaptation of The Martian.

I think there are two main reasons for the movie’s mainstream success despite its very hard SF plot. First is that the story only rarely took the time to stop and explain the science behind the world. When they did, they were brief, clear, and entertaining. By choosing to show the consequences of scientific reality rather than engaging in long explanations and technobabble, the writers were able to keep the plot flowing and the tension high while still appeasing the hard SF crowd.

Second was that the story was very people focused. Matt Damon was extremely charismatic and likable as Mark Watney, largely because he was incredibly funny. We as the audience admire his “I will find a way” attitude and willingness to laugh in the face of near certain death. Humor is an incredible sympathy builder, but is also difficult to pull off well for a large audience.

One of the best executed comedic moments in the movie was Mark Watney’s first conversation with Earth. When Matt Damon’s character is told that his friends don’t know that he’s still alive, he responds with well-justified profanity. Instead of disapproving, we the audience chuckle along with the characters on screen. The small laugh sets up the bigger one to come. On screen, Vincent Kapoor then asks Mark to watch his language because the conversation is being live-streamed to the whole world. The scene then cuts to Damon’s face, who considers the request with an expression that shouts, “Oh yeah? Well then, you’re not going to like this!”

Instead of paying off immediately, the writers force the audience to wait and build tension with the promise of a much bigger laugh as the emotional release. At this point, most authors would sling out their best comedic line. However, the screenwriters and directors do something even more brilliant. They make the audience do the work.

We never see what Watney types back, but instead watch the other characters react with horrified gasps, titters of laughter, and profuse apologies to the President. The writers knew that they’d never write a single line that appealed to everyone. Senses of humor and sensibilities vary too much. Instead, they primed their audience for a laugh and then decline to provide the punch line. In so doing, we automatically filled in the blank with the funniest thing we could imagine and laugh harder than we would to any line that was fed to us.


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