Every form of writing will have its own outlining standard (novels, articles, dissertations, screenplays, etc.). And within each category of writing, every writer will have his or her own preferred style of outlining.
The important thing is to have a system for planning your creative work.
In all my interactions with other writers, the most common grievances that come up again and again are:
Structure comes more naturally to some personalities than to others. Not all of us put the same pant leg on first every morning. (I recently realized I always start with the left. This realization dawned upon me when I almost fell over by starting with the right leg one morning.)
(Addressed, not necessarily solved.) Organizing your time can actually help you become more efficient so that you finally do find time for your writing—it doesn’t create time, but it sure can help make the most of what you’ve got.
As I’ve delved further into the screenwriting process for my 8-part limited series, my appreciation for structure has deepened by leagues. For those of you unfamiliar with television writing, the key to creating a successful episode is having a well-built beat sheet. A beat sheet is basically the writer’s road map for what has to happen at each point in the story, so that the audience can be properly introduced, hooked, amused, devastated, and exhilarated—and all within 60 minutes. Yikes!
At first the rigidity of the beat sheet felt restrictive—like I was trying to squeeze my fabulously unique story that knows no limits into the premade mold that only uncreative people use. Well, I was wrong. In fact, the “formula” used in outlining only exists because it is the pattern that most effectively holds an audience’s attention. If you have ever watched a solid movie or show, chances are you could go back through the script and pinpoint where each of the key beats happened. Because these outlines work.
Which would you rather do when you hit a problem: rearrange a couple of bullet points in your master outline, or have to rewrite eight pages because you realized they shouldn’t happen in that order?
Some of us tend to buck outlining because it feels unnatural. Let’s just remember that there are plenty of healthy habits that will at first feel unnatural. Trying a new approach will usually be a little uncomfortable, but the habit of outlining is actually more like an exercise—it builds muscles of organization and rhythm so that the more you do it, the smoother and stronger your writing process becomes. It took me two and a half weeks to flesh out my first beat sheet for my television series. Yep. That’s pretty slow. But the next one took me only one week. And the third one… well, I had basically started outlining Episode 3’s beat sheet before I wrote the last line of Episode 2. That one was done in two days.
And as I evaluate the actual episodes themselves, I can already see that Episode 3 is much sleeker than Episode 1—in large part because the repeated outlining process has helped me understand the critical elements of each episode.
So if you haven’t given outlining a go yet, or if you have Post Outline Stress Disorder from previous experiences… get back in there and give it a shot. Depending on your writing form, check out some different outlining techniques and find which one works best for you. It will be clunky at first, but by the time you are well into your project, you’ll be glad you have a replicable pattern to follow. And so, by the way, will your readers. 😉
If you’ve followed The Inquisitive Inkpot for any amount of time, you’ll know that I am not about providing formulas—I’m about suggesting concepts. And when it comes to improving your writing, I’d like to share with you the most recent discovery I’ve made.
Get your hands on other people’s work.
I don’t mean published works or produced scripts. Those are absolutely helpful if you want examples of a finished product, but reading through them is a fairly one-sided activity. What you need is an up-close look at someone else’s ongoing process—a sneak peek at a creation in the raw.
Writing is like baking.
You can admire a beautiful cake and even eat a piece of it without knowing the recipe. This way, you enjoy someone else’s product but are no closer to creating your own. Or you can memorize the recipe but never see the finished product, so you don’t know what a successful cake looks and tastes like. This way, everything remains theory in your head with no living example.
What better way to do this than by reviewing others’ content?
As you likely know, I have recently pulled back on my blogging regimen in order to devote more time to scriptwriting and videography. And while some of that time has been spent on writing my own scripts, the other half of it has gone to reviewing the scripts of people I admire who are kind enough to involve me in their creative process. Until reading their work, I had no idea how much I needed to learn. Even so, their scripts are not in the final stage. We’ve had conversations about their scripts and what needs revision, elaboration, or the good old red pen. I get to see the way they approach storytelling, and that informs the way I approach it. There truly is nothing like sitting down with another writer and asking them questions about their work and why they made the choices they did.
For some of you, this might mean joining a group in your quest to improve your writing. You will see all levels of writers and get plenty of practice sorting through material. For others, this might mean trading work with one or two close friends.
In either case, you need to be around writers who are more advanced than you. Writers whose habits and knowledge you want to rub off on you. I cannot say how privileged I feel to be working with some of the individuals I am right now, but they are doing the same thing. They too are surrounding themselves with writers they admire, and that’s how they got where they are. And that is how we can all get where we want to be.
I think it’s especially hard for bloggers, because taking a break means interrupting whatever publishing rhythm you had going. It was a tough call for me, but recently I have realized that is what I need in order to prioritize some more pressing, intensive projects.
Previously I wrote about the pros and cons of juggling multiple projects—and while I do believe there are benefits, right now there are two related endeavors that are demanding more focused time because of their nature.
So yes, I am taking a break from the weekly posting schedule. However, before I retreat into the secret recesses of my creative life, I want to let you in on what these projects entail.
I’ve already shared with you some of the scriptwriting journey so far, but that is about to ramp up. While submitting my 2-hour historical drama to playwriting contests, I am also working to transform the script into a television series—which is not as easy as it sounds, although several authoritative sources have told me the story is better suited to the screen. And when you consider that my About page has named screenwriting as my ultimate goal literally from Day One of this website, you can imagine how excited I am for this. This is actually my most immediate impetus for taking a break from the weekly blog, since I am aiming to have the pilot episode script completed before the second week of August.
Or rather, joining an existing business and taking it in a new direction. One of my friends from long, long ago reached out announcing that he had his own videography business that he wanted to expand into something more—something that services other businesses with video marketing plans. So, after months of research and preparation, we have finally begun the consultation process with prospective clients.
As many of you know, I am also preparing to release my second children’s book this summer, Bertrand the Bashful Bumblebee. Most of the legwork is off my plate and in the hands of the illustrator and interior formatter, but some final logistical touches are required before the book hits the press.
So… taking a break?
But in the meantime, my library of articles is all yours to peruse and comment on at your leisure. I will keep you updated as things progress, and I will certainly still be managing comments and responding. I might even just spend a bit catching up on your blogs as well, since I haven’t had the time to do so lately.
Onward and upward!
At its best, change can lead a person to a completely positive transformation, where their best qualities are ever more radiant and their inner demons are defeated. At its worst, change can turn someone we knew and loved into someone we barely recognize, by eroding their character from the inside out.
We’ve all seen friends and family members change, either for better or for worse. We know the joy over seeing someone excel and the pain from seeing someone plummet. In both cases, though, our relationship with that person is inevitably affected. Their character change will either enable us to connect with them more deeply or it will sever the connection we once shared.
In the world of narratives, identification is the degree to which we audience members relate to a character on an emotional level. We want them to succeed. We hate their enemies. We celebrate their victories. We mourn their losses. We even care for the people they care for.
Consequently, we grieve with them when a loved one dies in the story. This is perhaps obvious, but I want to point out that there is a different kind of loss that our favorite characters often face, with which we as the audience are also capable of empathizing. Not only can we grieve their losses, but we can also grieve their broken relationships. We witness it when they, or someone they love, undergoes a destructive character change that severs a relationship.
In some cases, we are watching the main character on a downward spiral—which can certainly be sad in its own way. But when someone they love changes beyond recognition—perhaps a character we liked on their own merit—this can hit us emotionally on two levels.
First, we mourn the objective tragedy of that character’s negative outcome. It is sad to watch someone make choices that harden their conscience, darken their hearts, and cloud their judgement—no matter who they are. Seeing a character we once liked fall into this trajectory is regrettable.
But this sense of pain is amplified when the character on the downward trajectory is someone our main character loves. It could be his or her family member, friend, or love interest. As long as the relationship is affected negatively by this character change, we are supposed to mourn that pain not only through our eyes as the audience, but also through the main character’s eyes. Executed properly, this aspect of the story will produce in us a two-sided sort of empathy in which we feel both the objective sadness of a character’s choices and the subjective sadness of the resulting broken relationships.
Why do I write about this?
It gets us to consider people from multiple angles, not just our own. It is easy to regret another person’s choices or changes when it hurts us—after all, we are by nature very selfish creatures. But in our grief over our loved ones’ negative changes, we should not only think of our own pain, but also of the objective damage they are doing to themselves and to others. After all, if we truly love that person, their well-being is just as important to us (if not more so) as our own. So we would do well to remember that the deeper tragedy is what that person is doing to himself or herself—not just what they are doing to us.
I think that this outward-focused mindset—if the person begins coming to their senses—will prepare us to reconcile much more easily than if we get caught up in our own pain.
What do you think?
What are some films or books where you were genuinely sad over how a character changed?
What kinds of character changes do you think are the hardest to watch?
Obviously children can be compelling lead characters in literature and film. Just look at some of the most popular, longstanding works we know:
The Chronicles of Narnia
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn
Anne of Green Gables
There’s no doubt that a child protagonist can carry a story. But what about children that appear later in a story, as the offspring of the main characters? What do they contribute?
What I find shocking is how little such children often contribute to the larger narrative. Depending on the story and its particular medium, we might see cursory mentions of them in the text or witness them briefly on the screen—or they might become a central focus of the story itself. Whether or not the children of a lead character take the story’s spotlight, however, realistically they would play an enormous role in shaping the lead character moving forward.
Why then do we see so many shows where a main character’s children are little more than props?
This is not how real life works. Sure, not every parent spends a lot of time with their children—but whether they do or don’t has a huge impact on that parent’s identity. A father or mother’s degree of investment in a child always impacts his or her own character. Your style of parenting shapes who you are.
Their existence is little more than evidence that the lead characters consummated their marriage. Whoo-hoo. Their function throughout the story is often reduced to one of two things: a one-dimensional liability for the lead character (i.e. “I must protect my family!”) or a one-dimensional symbol of an idyllic home life (i.e. “I just can’t wait to come home every day”). Things get interesting when children take on their own personalities, but it seems this rarely happens when the children have been conceived and born during the timeline of the story. In my observation, children who are there from the beginning usually contribute far more than those that enter later on.
While we’ll never know what the writers have in mind, I suspect that prop-like children are the result of two possible causes:
I believe this also accounts for the way that characters (especially in television) often vanish from a story without explanation. The writers want to implement a change of either adding or subtracting a character, but they don’t bother fleshing out its implications. In the case of children, the writers clearly want the lead character to produce offspring, but they devote little energy to showing the impact of parenthood on that character’s identity. In other words, they want the subliminal presence of children, but none of the strings attached. Sure, the lead character will grow and change as he or she takes on monumental obstacles and quests… but parenthood? Nah, that won’t change ’em.
While some writers are likely too lazy to bother developing the parent-child dynamic, others probably fear that this added dimension will detract from the main storyline. They themselves are much more interested in the original plot, and they worry that adding domestic relationships to the main character’s life will shift the audience’s focus away from the central plot. To be fair, this can happen, and it takes strong narrative and character development to weave children into the plot in a meaningful way. But attempting to do so is better than asking the audience to forget that the lead character is a parent 90% of the time.
On a deeper level, though, it could be argued that this indifference to children is the result of a society that undervalues home life. I don’t know that I agree, but there are some who would suggest that the minimal impact children have on today’s lead characters is representative of what many parents desire: to minimize the changes that offspring bring with them.
Do you think this is the case? Or do you think the explanation lies in one of the two causes I listed?
If you see another possible explanation for this trend, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you’ve read my article on making the “pitch” for a script, you already know this process can be uniquely intimidating. Impressing powerful people always is. Even so, there’s plenty a person can do to prepare for this in-person encounter with a producer, so thankfully you don’t have to walk in there with your knees knocking.
Your presentation, however, is only part of the script pitch process—and in some cases, you may not even make it to the in-person pitch. After two years of painstakingly revising a polishing a script for a historical drama, I recently began submitting this play to a variety of playwriting competitions across the country. The submission process reminded me very much of my querying days as an unpublished author: preparing files to look exactly the way gatekeepers want them, explaining the plot as concisely and tantalizingly as possible, and hoping that something I wrote will catch their attention.
The thing is, you can’t write a flashy synopsis if your story itself doesn’t have any flash to it. So what makes the script juicy? What is it that makes the producer or reviewing team pause and think, “Now that’s a story people would come to see”?
I’ve been reading a fantastic book called The Screenwriter’s Bible, full of wisdom about crafting a compelling script. It delves into the different layers of plot and character development, and how these two must express themselves visually in a screenplay if the movie is going to pack any punch. It was incredibly invigorating to see that this particular script I am submitting actually checks all of the boxes described in this book (based off of others’ feedback). It remains to be seen whether the script will in fact catch anyone’s attention, but in the meantime I find myself examining the story for all the features that could possibly attract or deter a producer.
1) The two lead characters have tangible, competing goals
2) Both characters have a clear external and internal arc
3) The story connects contemporary readers to the past using relevant questions
I write “desirable” in quotes because, while these traits seem to grace the overwhelming majority of professionally produced works, I will let you decide whether you believe these make a story production-worthy:
1) Overt sexual content
While much of the story hinges on sexual tension, the script is not packed with sex. Any sexual content is simply implied and done so in a non-sensual way.
Although this term could have appeared in 17th century England (yes, the word is that old) the script does not sport much profanity. By today’s standards, that might make a story downright boring.
3) Contemporary social agendas
Every movement has its roots and many movements are connected, but one thing I deliberately avoided was packing modern social issues into a historical time period. Today’s controversies were not the controversies of the 1600s—although many producers seem to think otherwise.
No doubt it would have a better shot at pleasing a broader array of producers if it had these.
It all came down to what the story needed. Aside from any moral misgivings an artist may have with these three components, I think we should all ask ourselves what serves the story and what does not. I don’t mean what makes it flashier or sexier. I mean what serves the meat of the story, the core—what makes it compelling. Let’s face it: much of sex, language, and politics we see in today’s books and film does not make the characters more unique or the plot more memorable. If anything, it makes the story sound like everything else out there right now, because for some reason sex, f-bombs, and politics are selling.
Let me be clear: you must always work to sell your script. But let’s remember that there is a difference between selling your script and selling out. I hope we never are guilty of the latter.
Where do you draw the line between writing to please an audience versus “selling out?”
Do you feel that film and theatre have become overly sensual or provocative? Why or why not?
Newsflash: For you writers out there, be sure to check out my freshly published YouTube video on the pros and cons of traditional publishing.
The last blogging milestone I made a post about was the 30th one, in February of 2020, which was more like an announcement of The Inquisitive Inkpot’s identity shift. I don’t think even after thirty weeks of blogging that I understood how challenging the long-haul commitment would be.
People start blogs for all sorts of reasons, and their work can grow in any number of ways. That being said, I could never have known that my blog would turn into something other than a haven of historical fiction commentaries and writing excerpts. I could never have known that it would be something other than a platform for promoting my books.
As I look back, I realize how glad I am that The Inquisitive Inkpot became than a book-selling platform. Make no mistake—I always celebrate when I receive another book order notification! But if a blog were nothing more than an echo chamber of an author relentlessly plugging her own books, then how would that author grow from the blogging experience?
Every article should offer the reader something valuable—whether in the form of entertainment, information, thought-provocation, or discussion. Likewise, every article offers the writer an opportunity to stretch oneself, by requiring either research, a new perspective, or intensive revision. Some articles will require all three of these.
Writing for a blog has not always been equally rewarding—I still laugh at the way my perception of a knock-out post differs from my readers’ perception. Some of my favorite articles get the least hits, and some of my least favorite ones get the most. You readers sure like to keep me guessing! 😉 In any case, however, the simple drill of planning, drafting, preparing, and publishing a new article each week has given me a type of structure my creative life has never known. There are times when I think my other creative projects would go quicker if I didn’t feel obligated to publish each week, and for that reason many writers take breaks from blogging. I may try that some time. But I do find that the weekly deadline has helped me sharpen my writing skills—or at least preserved them from post-college atrophy. Along with the deadlines, the habit of weekly publication provides a small, measurable accomplishment that really does boost my sense of productivity—even when it feels like The Muse has eluded me in other areas.
1) Thank you to everyone who has participated in the discussions on The Inquisitive Inkpot, and to those who simply drop by to read. Your time is valuable, and I am grateful that you choose to spend some of it here. I hope that this blog has benefited you in some way!
2) Let’s keep thinking critically and creatively. The Inquisitive Inkpot is all about asking questions of the stories we encounter and create, because there is always more than one side to a story and every story has implications on the way we interpret life. I love to hear your thoughts and to read your perspectives, whether in the comments section or on your own blog. The world could certainly use some more deep thinking.
Here’s to two more years and 200 posts!
What is one thing you have gained from the blogging experience?
If you have been following The Inquisitive Inkpot, what is one thing you have enjoyed or one way you have benefited from this blog?
Going for walks in nature is one of my go-to introvert activities, in which I can leave behind all technology, obligation, and mandatory sitting. (Side note: it perpetually frustrates me how sitting is the requirement for almost all social gatherings. The human body was just not meant to sit all day.)
In any case, the particular nature walk I am about to share with you happened a week ago and left me with an unforgettable impression. It occurred to me while watching these events unfold that this is the sort of drama that probably happens all the time in nature, but we just don’t pause to appreciate the comedy of it all.
And so, thanks to a recent writing prompt from Sam Kirk, I will recount the dramatic altercation I witnessed at my lake last weekend—brief, but memorable:
Mr. and Mrs. Mallard stroll down the dusky bank on a romantic Friday evening, their webbed feet in step with one another.
With a coy look in his eye, Mr. Mallard suddenly arises and flutters down into the water– an invitation Mrs. Mallard accepts.
The pair glide gracefully in the water for a moment, savoring the serenity of their solitude… until a third, lone female without a date joins them in the water with an abrupt splash.
ENTER: the third wheel.
For a touching moment, the couple swim towards the lone female, as if to welcome her and assuage her sense of isolation. (I must admit, my heart welled with warmth at this sight.)
But suddenly Mr. Mallard emerges from the water and spreads his wings with an indignant hiss, startling our lone female and sending her into flight! He pursues her up into the air, hurling insults and disdain at her intrusion upon the couple’s outing. At last our third wheel vanishes into the trees and Mr. Mallard descends back into the water, where Mrs. Mallard awaits.
With their privacy restored, the pair return to their intimate evening on the lake.
Sam’s prompt encouraged writers to examine their daily experiences for story material—anything that could lay the groundwork for an unusual narrative. Well, I confess that this took very little of my imaginative power, since it felt more like a scene from a sitcom set in wildlife. Aside from proving that perspective enriches our experience of life, this little incident also reaffirms the animal kingdom’s unique power to provide amusement.
If you are looking for a little drama to spice up your life, just try looking out the window or watching your pets. It’s remarkable how animal interactions resemble human ones.
It all began with a story I had recorded prior to Memorial Day for the national radio program Our American Stories. The piece featured my boss, an ex-marine, telling the incredible story of the war-torn WWII veteran who became his best friend.
Last year, it ended with my one-chance-in-a-million discovery of this man’s gravestone in an enormous cemetery on Memorial Day. So this year, I find it fitting to look back, not only on this particular experience, but also on the story of this man’s (and many others’) survival, loss, and sacrifice—but ultimately on his gift to the people he encountered.
And when he gets going about his time in the marines, it almost always comes back to the man he met after eight years of active duty: Forrie. I love story time. It gives me a window into a life so different from my own, while reminding me that even a Special Ops service member had lessons to learn. And so many of them he learned from Forrie—a man over fifty years his senior.
Do you ever feel like you know someone because of everything you’ve heard about them? That’s how I felt about Forrie. After conducting this interview and listening to hours of “story time” that revolved around this man, I felt like I had personally known him. Heard his laugh. Seen his smile. Heard his stories from his own lips. And above all, I wanted to do something to honor him, however small that might be.
So I went to visit his grave on Memorial Day.
I went looking for Forrie’s grave in the cemetery where my boss said he was buried. Little did I know when I arrived at the cemetery that there were hundreds upon hundreds of headstones, all without any particular alphabetical or chronological order. I decided I would drive to the furthest corner, park, and start my search there, expecting it would take several hours to find Forrie. I did just that: I parked, got out of the car, and began walking toward the first row of graves in the furthest corner. I was mostly watching where I stepped because the ground was somewhat uneven and I had worn completely unsuitable footwear for a cross-country graveyard expedition. But as soon as I turned my head, there it was: FORREST L. JOHNSON. Located directly in front of my car. Next to his headstone was that of his four-year-old son, who passed shortly after he returned from the war.
It could have taken hours to find that one out of perhaps a thousand or so gravestones. My first words were, “Thank you, God.” After standing by the grave for a while, twisting together a clumsy dandelion bouquet, and recalling the hours of stories I’d heard about him, my last words were, “Thank you, Forrie.”
Somehow his children heard the radio piece. And thanks to Facebook and social media, I was able to reach out and tell them what an honor it was learning about their father and how I wished I’d known him. The story has basically gone viral within their family and friend circle. To think of all those people gathering around the story of their father—the man who served his country and nearly lost his life, the man who poured his heart and soul into those around him—to think of these people coming together in shared grief, memory, and gratitude is the greatest reward I could have hoped for.
Who do you know who has served? How did that experience shape them?
In what ways have people of older generations (veterans or not) impacted your life?
We can’t deny them. Nor can we fix them in other people. Sure, we can work on tackling our own character flaws and mitigating their expressions, but we will never eradicate them this side of eternity.
While we shouldn’t cherish our character flaws, we must recognize that we will always be at war with them until we exit this fallen world. We have to acknowledge, resist, and forgive them as they rear their ugly heads in our lives. That also means we must learn to live with—and forgive—the character flaws of others. Uh-oh.
Forgiveness is a lifestyle. It’s not easy, but it’s essential for a number of reasons—the most universally accepted reason being that without forgiveness we cannot move forward.
“I can forgive anyone of anything,” we say out loud.
But do we?
Let’s take a look in the mirror of stories.
Most of us can think of a literary or cinematic character whose character flaws we cannot forgive.
We might have loved them up to a point in the story. We might have been rooting for them every step of the way. We may have even loved them for some of their minor flaws or idiosyncrasies, which made them more relatable. But then they commit the act. The one deed that shatters our perception of them and undermines their worth in our eyes.
Maybe they hurt a minor character we liked. Maybe they fail to stand up for their values. Maybe they go back on their word. Whatever it is, they do something that makes them deplorable and makes it difficult to sympathize with them. Until they are penitent, we can no longer honestly view them as the protagonist.
Here’s just a couple of shows where a lead’s character flaws really ruined my ability to root for them.
In Poldark, Ross Poldark’s marital infidelity.
In Downton Abbey, Mary’s serial habit of sabotaging her sister’s happiness (although, to be fair, it’s a two-way street).
I could name more, less well-known examples of characters doing basically the same things as these two, but you get the point.
As I think about the real-life situations I have faced, this checks out. The offenses I have found hardest to forgive are were either expressions of disloyalty or excessive selfishness. Someone betraying another person and then lying to cover up. Someone casting aside their standards for a chance to gain popularity. Someone breaking faith in a marriage. These are all pretty heavy, but unfortunately they are not constrained to the pages of literature or the television screen. These are real wrongs committed by real people that I have struggled most to forgive.
Do we need to forgive characters in fictional stories? No, I suppose not. First of all, they’re fictional. Secondly, we have no relationship with them so there is nothing to restore. But it plays out differently in real life. Many of the people who hurt us or those we love will remain in our lives for a long time to come. And even if they do not, carrying a grudge for the rest of our lives is no way to live.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
No, this article is not suggesting that by reading more books or analyzing more films you will suddenly begin forgiving everyone in your life. What I do suggest is that our reactions to certain character flaws in stories reveals the offenses we will struggle the hardest to forgive in real life—whether or not they have happened to us yet. Because knowing our minds is one way to prepare for the future—not because we can control the future, but because we can control our response.
What are some lead characters who lost your support because of their actions?
What flaws do you find hardest to forgive?
Some of these lies originate with our own flawed perspectives. Some are pushed on us by others we trust. Others are sold to us through the vast web of media that comprises much of our life experience. Many of them we believe.
If I can just reach this milestone, I’ll be truly happy.
Follow your heart and you’ll never go wrong.
The here and now is all there is, so I might as well do whatever I feel like in the moment.
If I can find my soul mate, I’ll never feel alone again.
There’s a part of our humanity that warns us of the fleeting nature of the present, the darkness of our own hearts, and the inability of another human to make us whole. Yet these are lies many of us buy into practically. In our heads we know they aren’t true, but our day to day choices reflect a belief in them.
These lies can come from any number of places, but I’m interested in exploring their prevalence in the stories we encounter. How many cheesy romances leave you feeling like you’re incomplete until you find the perfect lover? How many sports films convince you that the champion title is the ultimate goal in life? How many glamorized war films persuade nonveterans that the battlefield is a glorious place to be?
But for some reason, placing these ideas in the context of a story with relatable characters compels us to feel that there must be an element of truth. This comes back to Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm: a rhetorical system that accounts for the various nonrational ways we as humans can be persuaded. The concept is simple—we hear a story that moves us emotionally, and we alter our beliefs according to our emotional response to that story. This means compelling narratives can persuade us of things we would never accept in a strictly rational sense. They arrest us by the heart, and we become putty in their hands.
And so we subconsciously begin to believe the lie.
As someone born with a strong natural sense of nostalgia, I have lately realized one of my core lies: that somehow the past can be relived. Someday it will all go back to the way it was—the blissful days of childhood when my family was all still alive and life was simple. Someday lost friends will return to my life, and we will all enjoy the harmony we once had. If I can just reimagine a particular moment clearly enough, it will happen all over again.
As I think of this lie, I am reminded of The Great Gatsby, in Jay Gatsby’s most revelatory exchange with the narrator:
“You can’t repeat the past.” (Nick Carraway)
“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” (Gatsby)
While I rationally know that no moment of the past can actually be resurrected, my nostalgic nature continues to promise me that it can all come back someday—just like Jay Gatsby believed. If you know F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous story, this illusion leads to some pretty tragic consequences. I doubt my life will pan out as dramatically (hopefully it doesn’t!), but the point stands: believing a life lie always has consequences.
In fact, many literary and cinematic masterpieces are designed to do just that: illustrate what a lie looks like when lived out. The hope is that we as the audience will recognize our own reflection in the mirror and root out the lie’s effect in our lives. We need more of this type of narrative today.
Sadly, though, many stories are better at deceiving us. They keep feeding us the predictable values of pop culture—the ego-inflating, the saccharine, the materialistic, the toxic. A steady diet of this is going to change us. Subtly, yes. Slowly, perhaps. It may not alter the values we talk about or the claims we make, but it will alter the way we interpret life and the choices we make. It will change who we are.
Believing a lie always does.
What are some convincing lies you recognize in stories?
Which lies have you bought into at different points in life?
There’s plenty of kinds of focus. Focus in the sense of your actual attention span, focus in your work ethic, focus in your monetary investments, and focus in where you direct your free time. We live in a world where all of these types of focus are challenged by the multifarious pursuits, people, and businesses vying for our attention.
There is certainly value in diversifying your life. If we spend every ounce of our time, energy, and skills on one singular pursuit, life is going to be extremely monotonous and even unhealthy. We need balance. Yet there is a fine line between balance and distraction, and this is what I encourage us to think about for a moment.
Based on some of my recent articles and even my about page, you can probably tell that I have multiple pursuits. Multiple ongoing projects. Multiple skills and outlets I am actively investing in, with various points of overlap and difference from one another. While there is nothing inherently wrong with having a diverse list of activities, however, I have been forced to recognize a sobering fact:
Sure, you can make gradual progress by juggling many projects at the same time. You can, in fact, complete all of them and even be proud of all them. But when it comes to getting a career off the ground—I mean really launching into something life-changing—this is going to require a unified effort on your part.
If your goal is to find an agent, you have to master the querying process. If your goal is to become a successful recording artist, you have to master your instrument. If your goal is to start a business, you have to master your trade. But beyond all of these skills (writing, music, service), you also have to do a lot of homework. Many of today’s professions aren’t just about mastering a skill, but mastering a system—digging into the industry and understanding the system in a way that your competition doesn’t. This requires a whole different kind of focus. It’s not simply saying, “I’m going to get really good at this one thing.” It’s saying, “I’m committed to getting really good at this and understanding the keys to success.” It’s a holistic kind of focus that demands more time, more sweat, and more dedication than many of us are willing to give. And for those of us who are willing to give it, we struggle because we keep trying to juggle our five other pursuits.
It means sitting down and listing all the pursuits we are investing in right now, and deciding which of those we want most. We don’t have to give everything up in order to pursue one, but we do have to prioritize the ones that will get the majority of our time. Maybe that does mean putting some goals on the backburner, to be revisited in later years. Maybe it means rearranging our schedules and lifestyles to focus on learning everything about our main interest, rather than dividing our mental energy between four interests. Who says we have to do it all at once?
This is written as much for my benefit as for yours. I had to hit a wall before coming to terms with the real lack of focus in my efforts. If this is you, know that you are not alone! And know that your best work will blossom when you give it the dedication it deserves.
Now we just have to figure out what that looks like.
What would that look like for you?
What are some pursuits you are juggling simultaneously? Do you see them competing with one another in your life?
What has been your main focus over the past few years? Do you think that will stay the same for the foreseeable future?
As someone who has always had a fear of change, I often assumed that my reason for wanting things to stay the same was because the alternative must be worse.
If I switch schools, I won’t make any friends there.
If I move off campus, I’ll wind up in a dumpy, spider-infested house.
If I take this job, I won’t have as much time for writing.
If I end this relationship, I might regret it later.
All of these fears seemed completely legitimate at the time, but in looking back I can see that none of them were well-grounded. (Well, the off-campus house I moved into did have a centipede problem. There’s some significant trauma there.) But overall, my worst-case scenarios did not play out. In fact, some of these changes were the best decisions I made.
Can you relate? Do you find yourself wondering what could go wrong if you step out on a limb?
The death of family members. The foreclosure of a home. Taking a job that leaves no time for your family. Some of these give us a choice, whereas others don’t. While I think it’s normal to dread what could happen to you, dreading the possible results of your own choice can create a special kind of anxiety. If something goes wrong, you will consider yourself responsible. You will have no one to blame but yourself. That can be paralyzing. In this sense, I think a fear of change can get in the way when making important decisions.
Do you say no to new situations because you actually see red flags or simply because they are new?
Do you pass up opportunities because you are afraid of losing the stability you have now?
Do you rule out new ideas simply because they are not familiar?
I have to answer yes to all of these, which gives me a grim diagnosis: a chronic fear of change.
If this is you, you might be wondering this too: What do I do about this fear?
Well, fear is often a good impulse that prevents us from entering dangerous situations—so we can’t always disregard it. Nor should we let it rule us. God is pretty clear about that one (2 Tim. 1:7).
Is my current situation one that I could gladly keep for the next year?
What are my frustrations with my current situation?
Is the type of change I am considering one that will grow me or inhibit me?
This is a very incomplete list of questions, so please share some of the questions you ask yourself in considering a major change. What this list does, though, is force me to evaluate my current situation realistically. There are certain things I love about where I am now. But what do I lose by refusing to trade those in for new growth opportunities?
Contentment recognizes the joys and benefits of the present without rejecting the possibilities of the future. But complacency rejects the possibilities of the future out of a desire to maintain the status quo because it is familiar—not necessarily because the status quo is all that amazing.
Whether you find yourself overly cautious or overly spontaneous, let’s remember this: fear is a visceral reaction that can either preserve us from disaster or prevent us from succeeding. As such, we would do well to engage our minds in the analysis of potential changes, so we can recognize whether we fear a specific change for valid reasons or simply because it is unfamiliar. This can be challenging, which is why we should also involve other people in the consideration process. People we trust. People from different perspectives, from different age ranges and experiences.
Can you tell I’m preaching to myself here?!
What’s your perspective?
How do you cope with change? Do you usually embrace or resist change?
Are you more of an agent of change or are you usually the one responding to change you can’t control?
What are some difficult decisions you’ve had to make and how did your expectations compare with the outcomes?
Days before I received my positive covid test results, I had struck a gold mine of creative energy. My second children’s book has been progressing toward publication, and only a week ago I had an incredible surge of progress in my sequel to The Exile.
Unfortunately, this surge was short-lived. Let’s just say it’s hard to conjure up creative genius when your brain feels swollen and reading makes you dizzy. So yes, I quickly found myself in the same survival mode many have found themselves in– laid up on the couch with shortness of breath, unable to taste or smell, probably overdosing on ibuprofen, and unable to think coherently. This is actually the first semi-coherent piece of content I have written in almost a week. Small victories!
And already my mental energy is waning, so this will be brief.
Often I find people’s suggestions to “just take it easy” as veiled excuses for laziness. Many people (myself included) call it quits long before reaching an actual burnout. But the reality of illness and its effect on your brain is not something you can dismiss. Your mind is simply not at its best when your body is fighting an intense virus.
Different people have had different symptoms, but what I’ve found most surprising is how quickly my mind wears out with this sickness. If I read or write for too long (or even just think for too long), my brain begins to feel like it’s swelling inside my skull. Thankfully, this can be alleviated by lying down and resting my eyes– but it sure doesn’t make for a very productive quarantine period. Projects have sat untouched for days. My favorite blogs have been neglected. I haven’t posted any new YouTube videos. Deadlines have been postponed. And that’s okay.
As bizarre and uncomfortable as this illness has been, I am reminded that there are people who have had far worse reactions. There are people who have lost their lives or loved ones. Losing one’s taste, smell, and creative capacity is certainly no picnic for a writer who loves food as much as I do, but I am still breathing. I am still at home. And I am recovering. Slowly. And that’s okay.
I say this as someone who often neglects mental exercises because they take time. Why use the precious minutes of my day on something completely unrelated to my all-consuming projects? Books and scripts get written by writing… not by fiddling around with mind games or crossword puzzles.
And yet, numerous scientific studies correlate mental exercises with improved mood, memory, and overall brain functionality (especially as you age).
This should come as no shock, when you consider that brain power resembles a muscle: you use it or lose it. But how exactly can hands-on activities boost your creative skills? Well, I’ll leave it to the scientists to explain that one, but I can name a few mental exercises I’ve recently rediscovered that have sharpened my brain and helped free it from the mind-numbing world of screens:
This one is pretty obvious for writers. I mean, we live in the world of words, so this is supposed to be our jam, right? The only problem I frequently run into is that I don’t know the references in the hints, so I have no idea what they’re actually hinting at. This just makes me feel like an uncultured fool, so many of my crossword puzzles have empty spaces left at the end. :/ Still, it gets me thinking analytically and trying to tie things together (a skill every writer needs).
This is the more visual cousin of crossword puzzles, and I’ll be honest: I’m a word nerd, not an art nerd. I struggle with visualization. I can create scenes with words, but I wrestle with physically pulling together the details of an image. I’m not great at creating charts or pictures to represent my ideas, so I consequently struggle to organize visual fragments into a whole (I can organize ideas all day long, just not images). Jigsaw puzzles help me get my brain and my hands working together, picking apart details and synthesizing them. Also, there is no replacement for the feeling of pressing in the last piece of a puzzle and seeing it complete.
Yep, you read that right. Not sure if it’s proven to have any specific benefits, but it takes focus and a lot of patience. Don’t get me wrong—untying knots in your hair or in a necklace chain is one thing. That’s just stressful. But every time I find my crochet yarn skein tangled up in itself, I’m in for at least a few minutes of work. As long as I’m not in a rush, this process can be a semi-pleasant challenge. When we are so used to living a life of scattered thoughts and multitasking, it is surprisingly refreshing to just channel all your focus toward one singular thread and follow it where it leads. And watching the snarls and clumps fall apart as you unwind is a remarkably therapeutic feeling, as the mess progressively becomes one smooth, clean thread. If only mental and emotional knots could be untied like this!
It could be a new language, a new instrument, a new song, or even just a new vocabulary word. While some of these are more intensive activities than others, just the simple act of learning introduces new information to our brain and expands our scope of knowledge—or shows us an unexpected connection between things already familiar to us. It’s like adding new ingredients to the creative cauldrons in our mind. It enriches the flavor of our mental activity and enables us to break free from the ruts we may have already formed.
Clearly this is not an extensive list, but these mental exercises have played important roles in helping me think outside the box and even shatter the dreaded wall of writer’s block. Sometimes we just have to look at our work from a different standpoint in order to solve the problem. Sometimes we need to give the pot a stir in order for things to come together. This is why it’s helpful to train our minds so they stay sharp and agile, able to pivot, analyze, and synthesize as needed in our creative process.
How do you stay sharp?
Do you ever do any of these activities? (Whether as a mental exercise or just for fun.)
Shortcuts sell. They hook us with promises of overnight success, instant weight-loss, and rapidly acquired riches. They convince us of radical new formulas that invert the traditional (or even natural) order of things, and guarantee they can get us where we want to go faster than ever.
To be sure, some shortcuts are brilliant. Whoever invented the microwave, dishwasher, and washing machine—those folks really had it going on. While these are all technically “shortcuts,” they are also much more. They are innovative solutions to physical problems. They save us time and yield effective results that might not even be possible with sheer elbow grease.
The shortcuts I’m suggesting we should beware of are not technological innovations (although caution is often prudent here too). I’m talking about the ideological movements that promise mega results for miniscule investment.
I don’t participate in either, and yet I’m constantly resisting the temptation to explore some too-good-to-be-true shortcuts promoted by alleged thought leaders in the business and literary world. Voices who tell you that your first book could be a bestseller—if you just follow these five steps! Voices who tell you that meeting your lifelong creative agent is just one paid subscription away—just pay your monthly fee and you’ll have a knock-out agent in no time! Voices who tell you… just about anything other than, “Work hard. Keep your eyes open, but work hard. Your ship might come in someday.”
Why is this?
Because sleepless nights don’t sell. Sweat doesn’t sell (unless you’re a body-building model). Forgone social engagements don’t sell.
It’s like telling a preteen that they can waltz through puberty without a single pimple. And yet people still fall for it.
I write this not as someone who is immune to the seductions of glamorous shortcuts, but as someone who needs to remind herself that truly fulfilling achievements are obtained through hard work. American culture binges on instant gratification—hence, it’s no wonder that career, monetary, and educational shortcuts sell so well today. And it is possible that some of the get-rich-quick tricks work occasionally, otherwise there would be no success stories. Some people might actually find the gratification they crave from the shortcuts they buy.
Gratification can be attained cheaply. True satisfaction requires much more. One of the fads that I always find amusing is the weight-loss fad. Every time I’m in the checkout line at the grocery store, I see a new formula for losing 10 pounds in one week. I swear, the #1 magical weight-loss superfood changes every 14 days. Does this mean that no one who eats these foods experiences weight-loss? Of course not, they might actually lose a few pounds by simply replacing something in their diet with kale, regardless of whether they exercise.
But the person who exercises will sleep better at night. Why? Because their body didn’t just digest something green—it worked. It sweat, it burned calories, and it released endorphins. And that combination of biological activities reduced stress in the body and brain and gave that person a true sense of achievement.
It’s the same in career choices. We can chase the fads and try new shortcuts to get our half-baked books in front of people who will buy them… or we can wrestle with our work for a year until it is finally presentable and then have it published. One of these results will check a box on our bucket list. The other will yield a product that represents your best work and makes your best even better.
Sure, networking and strategic connections help in obtaining success—but like Cal Newport points out, these will only help you get discovered if you have a skill worth discovering. And the only way to develop discover-worthy skills is hard work. We should beware of anyone who tells us otherwise.
What are some shortcuts you regretted taking? What are some that actually delivered good results?
Do you see shortcuts as a sign of an innovative spirit or a lazy spirit? Perhaps it depends on the shortcut?
By “creative conscience,” I don’t mean a moral compass that dictates what we do and don’t create. I mean a still, small voice that haunts us when we aren’t creating and hounds us for not achieving milestones.
The creative conscience is like an internal secretary: it dictates goals and nags us until we accomplish them. It scolds us when we become distracted. It convicts us for procrastinating. Perhaps it even belittles the goals we have set, suggesting they are too lax to make any significant progress. It is always measuring, always scrutinizing, always correcting, and—occasionally—applauding our efforts. The creative conscience defines our view of our own work volume.
I say work volume here because in my experience, the creative conscience is more interested in how much I create than how good it is. Does this sound familiar?
For some of us, that means we adhere to tight publishing schedules. For others, that means we want to crank out a couple big works a year or various smaller ones—or even just complete that one glorious project over the next couple of years. We all have goals.
And we all see others with more aggressive goals. We all see others publishing and selling way more books than we are. We all see others receiving accolades and rankings that we aren’t. We’re just trying to keep up with our own set of goals… and our creative conscience is plaguing our heart out.
Some of us are more prone to despair and negative self-talk than others, which means that their creative consciences probably feel like internal persecution more often than not. But just as having a secretary can help keep you on track, that still, small voice can hold you accountable when it matters.
Let’s be real: not every minute we spend away from our notebooks or word documents is wasted. We need to get out and do other things. We need to spend time in the company of others, in nature, in prayer, in all sorts of activities that take us outside of ourselves and let our creative engines rest.
But let’s be honest: not every minute we spend away from our projects is well-used either. Social media (which has wired our brains to compare ourselves with others, by the way), cat videos, email checking, and a host of other activities vie for our valuable off-duty time. These activities are not bad in themselves, but I name the because they have the tendency to devour more time than we realize—and then we wonder why we aren’t making as much progress in our writing as we’d hoped. In such cases, a sharp kick-in-the-pants from our creative conscience might be just what we need.
What we feed our mind and what behaviors we permit ourselves affects the way we perceive right and wrong. Likewise, how we analyze others’ success and what we tell ourselves about our own work will affect how much guilt-tripping we endure. It’s nearly impossible not to compare ourselves with more “successful” writers, which means we must be mindful of the takeaways we draw from their success. Do we leave feeling like our own work stands no chance? Do we leave lamenting our own lack of marketing skills? Do we leave feeling like we will never have a large enough library of original work to maintain a steady audience?
It is easy to feel all of those things. I say this to myself as much as I say it to you: rather than let your creative conscience scold you for not measuring up, consider incorporating some of those successful writers’ habits into your own routine. Evaluate whether some of their practices are realistic for you, and try to build them into your own plan. Focus less on whether that will give you identical results, and focus more on letting your creative conscience adapt to these new expectations. At the end of the day, nothing will go 100% according to plan—so why set your heart on cranking out a specific number of works unless you can be proud of their quality?
But let’s be careful not to dismiss those internal proddings when we know we are making excuses… because we have that creative conscience for a reason.
What’s your take on the creative conscience? Do you find it more often helps or hinders you?
How do you maintain healthy expectations of your own productivity?
While kids and adults all over find their noses stuck in picture books and novels during National Reading Month, my nose has been stuck in something different: a stageplay script.
I give you A Man for All Seasons.
Written by Robert Bolt and originally performed in 1960, A Man for All Seasons tells the story of Sir Thomas More, the English Lord Chancellor who stood up to King Henry VIII—and died for it. As the famous story goes, Henry wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Spain, in order to marry another woman whom he felt convinced could bear him sons (little did he know that’s not how biology works). After breaking with the Church of Rome, Henry was quickly able to obtain his divorce and marry Anne Boelyn, making her the new queen and demanding that everyone acknowledge her as his rightful wife. Pretty much everyone did… except for Sir Thomas More. He stood by the church’s authority to declare marriages valid or invalid, thereby rejecting Henry’s self-proclaimed supremacy. After trying relentlessly to gain More’s approval, Henry finally had him executed.
The play was eventually made into a movie in 1966, starring Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw, although Scofield continued to play the role of Sir Thomas More on stage for years to come.
I actually grew up on the movie since it was my father’s favorite—although as a youngster, I could never understand why he loved it so much. It was just a bunch of people in fancy costumes talking, right?
Now, years after my dad’s passing, I stumbled across the play script in his basement. I opened it up and started reading. And now, years after those family movie nights, I can see why it was his favorite.
It’s about jealousy. It’s about insecurity. It’s about manipulation. It’s about power. It’s about fear. It’s about courage. It’s about betrayal. But most of all, it’s about conscience.
I find it noteworthy that the Martin Luther (the father of the Protestant Reformation) shared More’s level of conviction about conscience: “…to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
The ethical questions raised in this story are beautifully explored in Bolt’s script, and they are just as relevant today. As a writer, I especially relish the way the dialogue resembles a chess game. Every piece on the board is working to corner More, and you can only wonder how long the game can continue before someone falls. So if you are looking for a thought-provoking, historically based read to finish out National Reading Month, I highly recommend this one. You will not be disappointed. And if you can’t get to it this March… well, the title suggests it should do for any time of year. 😉
What have you been reading this March?
Do you ever read stageplays for fun?
How familiar are you with the story of Sir Thomas More? What are some historically based works that you think raise pertinent questions?
Dive into the Norse wilderness where a princess and a clan warrior find themselves in the same struggle for survival, against the forces of brutal captors, clan warfare, and untold fears.
Discover where this ambitious sock goes and why in this thrilling tale. Where will the perils Melvin meets outside the drawer take him?
How many of us have heard career advice that goes like this?
“Follow your passion and success will follow.”
“Just follow your heart.”
“Your passion will lead you where you need to be.”
“Pursue your dreams first.”
How nice that sounds… but what does it look like in real life?
Often this kind of chuck-everything-to-the-wind career advice leads people with otherwise stable situations to hastily sacrifice their current job and location in order to chase their dream. For many of us creative types, this means moving to L.A. or New York. It means trading a steady source of income for an audition slot. It means aborting whatever skills you were learning at your current job because you think you can make enough money off of a different set of skills—even if those skills aren’t exactly in demand.
“Follow your passion.”
How often does it work out as poetically as they make it sound? Well, there’s a reason we have the term “starving artist.” Not to say that success never happens this way, but those cases tend to be the exception. Although you wouldn’t know it based on how often you hear the mantra.
Newport first gives this mantra about passion a name: he calls it “the passion hypothesis.” The hypothesis, as he explains it, is the idea that unlocking your one true passion is the key to finding meaningful work. As soon as you identify what you’re passionate about, all you have to do is chase that dream—even if that means giving everything up in the meantime. Oh yeah, and you’ll be miserable until you acquire that dream job.
Here’s what Newport has to say about this idea:
“The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous. Telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.”So Good They Can’t Ignore You, p. 24
Even though I had subscribed to the passion hypothesis for many years, this statement resonated with me deeply.
How often do I question whether my current job is valuable? How often do I assume that every hour spent outside of my creative projects is an hour wasted? How often do I lament the fact that I’m not yet living my “dream?”
The fact is, believing your job satisfaction rides on your ability to achieve that one dream job that satisfies your one true passion is a recipe for frustration when either
While there’s so much more career advice in Newport’s book that I can’t go into now, the main takeaway I want to share with my fellow creators is this:
Rather than suddenly chucking my current position and “going for the gold,” I should learn as many relevant skills as possible from my current job—skills that can take me to the next stepping stone, and eventually toward my dream.
As much as I sometimes want to give everything else up and be a full-time freelance writer, that will not pay bills. What’s more, is it will deprive me of the kind of resume-worthy experiences that might someday impress a gatekeeper in my desired industry. As glamorous as it sounds, the expression “going for the gold” often means entering a competitive environment for which you are unprepared—because your inventory of skills is not yet thoroughly developed. Cal Newport does not suggest you forget about your existing passions and just stay complacent wherever you are now. Instead, he suggests that the best thing you can do to advance your passion is to invest in acquiring relevant skills wherever you are now—skills that will help get you closer to where you want to be. Then, when you strike out for something new, you have fine-tuned skills that will make you an asset to the folks you want to impress.
Think about it: in the world of networking, no one is just out looking to do free favors. Everyone wants something in return—especially gatekeepers. It logically follows that if you have a set of well-developed skills from one of your previous jobs, you have a chance to cash those skills in when you find someone in your field of interest who needs those skills. In other words, you should focus on becoming so good at something that no gatekeeper can ignore you.
I’ll use myself as an example:
Right now I work in marketing/communications.
Where I want to work is in the film industry—specifically as a screenwriter.
So my approach, following Newport’s advice, is to grow my communications skills to the point where someone in the film industry might actually have use for me. And that is exactly what I am working on.
In the meantime, I highly recommend that everyone looking for direction in their careers pick up a copy of So Good they Can’t Ignore You. I was blown away by how practical and relatable the material in this book was, and I’m sure you will be too.
What do you think?
Do you have one specific passion that you’re looking to fulfill in a dream job?
What is that dream job for you? What are you doing now to work towards it?
Plot arc and character arc—those are the two essential ingredients in any story. Without those two, you have something less than quality storytelling.
What I’ve noticed, though, is that not all characters see their own arc. Now there’s a difference between character development and a character arc, although you can’t have the second without the first. Character development, at the very least, is “the process of building a unique, three-dimensional character with depth, personality, and clear motivations.” This can include the changes the character undergoes, but it more strictly refers to the process of making the audience familiar with the character as he or she is.
If the audience gleans nothing else from the story, they will at least see how the events have impacted the lead character and altered him/her in some way.
That being said, every well-developed character resembles a real person. He or she has believable human thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and motives. But here’s the catch: many people in the real world are not self-aware. I bet you can think of some.
Sometimes we do know when we’ve changed. Take for example:
Other times, though, changes can fly under our own radars:
No doubt some people are more perceptive than others too, which means that some of us would notice all of these changes in ourselves, whereas others would notice none of them. And no doubt some of these changes are more life-altering than others. In short, some of these give us more of a character arc than others.
Looking at classic stories, I see a mix. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck has moments of incredible self-awareness and revelation, but by the end he still sounds in many ways like the same old vagabond boy bent on his own idea of freedom. By the end of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s encounters have undoubtedly deepened his perspective on life, but he keeps his flippant tone through the very last page.
This lack of self-awareness doesn’t mean a lack of character arc—if anything, I think it sorts out perceptive audience members from less perceptive ones, because the less perceptive ones will always take the main character at his word. A perceptive reader or viewer, however, can see things that the lead character may not see in himself, or things that he flat-out denies.
But do you think that the power of a character arc depends on the character’s awareness of it?
Do you think that a truly powerful story requires the character to recognize his own growth (or decline)?
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Of course you have. We pitch ideas to other people all the time, whether we realize it or not. Whether you get what you want out of it is a whole separate question.
Authors know this as the “querying” process. You write up a compelling cover letter, a synopsis of your book, perhaps even a marketing plan, and you hope that whoever reads it will give you the time of day. And then you hit “send.”
I know the drill very well by now. So well that the adrenaline rush of hitting “send” has quite worn off. No doubt part of my calm is because of familiarity with the process—but another part of it has to do with the safe nature of written submissions. The agent, publisher, or general big-wig does not know how apprehensive I may feel. They cannot see my face. They cannot hear my voice or see the pre-submission jitters in me. There is no way for me to feel intimidated by my judge’s presence, because the judge is simply not present.
In the film-making world, screenwriters have to physically sit down across from the producer and unpack the story in a handful of minutes (at least they did before covid). A query letter accomplishes basically the same thing, but the difference is that your demeanor becomes part of the pitch itself. Your level of confidence in your own story will come through in the way you talk about the plot. Your understanding of your own story (or lack thereof) is suddenly laid bare.
I recently submitted a video pitch for a short film contest, which meant I had to record myself explaining the script in 60 seconds. Actually, it meant I first had to condense my story to one sentence (a.k.a. the logline) and use that sentence as the foundation for my synopsis. I found this a challenging and revealing exercise as a writer.
You don’t have to be a phenomenal public speaker in order to make a clear pitch—but you do have to be precise and concise.
This means you have to shave off the extra layers of flab that surround the muscle of your idea. In short, you have to tone your story up. Writing a one or two-page synopsis of a novel is hard work. Orally summing it up in a couple of minutes is even harder.
If you find you are comfortably able to summarize the main points of your 500-page novel in under sixty seconds, you are either really good at summarizing or you might want to do some manuscript trimming.
This doesn’t mean that every non-crucial part should be cut. Some elements, while not essential to the plot, add a depth and richness to the story’s development. But if you find that the nonessential elements are taking up more pages than the essential ones, you might want to rethink your page distribution.
Regardless, honing your ability to cut to the chase on your story is always a good idea. Just like everyone looking to advance their careers should have an elevator pitch prepared, I suggest that every writer who plans to publish practice boiling their stories down to a couple of minutes’ oral explanation. You may never have to present this pitch to a publisher, but at the very least it will give you a better understanding of your own creation—and it prepares you for selling your book later down the road!
Have you ever had to present an idea to a decision-maker? What helped prepare you for that moment?
Do you find it difficult to explain your creative ideas to other people? What do you find most challenging about it?
Basically, before moving forward, you need to know where you are now.
Taking a personal inventory is helpful for more than just skill development. Examining our minds and hearts is just as important as examining our habits—in fact, our habits express what goes on inside of us. But in terms of setting realistic goals for ourselves in a new year, it’s a good idea to step back and think about where we stand right now.
Many writers decide that this is going to be the year they complete their first book. Or publish their first book. Or market their existing books.
Many non-writers decide that this is going to be the year they get off social media. Or start an exercise routine. Or look for a new job.
Regardless of whether you fit under the writer or non-writer category, you probably have some skill you either want to develop or improve this year—or perhaps even something you simply want to do more consistently.
I’m in no position to advise you over which new skills you need or which existing ones need honing. Everyone’s life requires different things and presents different opportunities.
The way in which I saw this tested most was the intense amount of learning that went into publishing my first children’s book, The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock. Aside from the grind of revision, storyboarding, and manuscript preparation, I also had to learn how to make this book available to the rest of the world. This meant digging into some more technical aspects of the modern-day author’s life. Not only are authors expected to write their books, but we have to create the marketing and distribution plans as well. For someone like me, who frankly loathes staring at a screen and wrangling technology, this was a real challenge. I also had to find the most cost-effective way of shipping my books, which took some number-crunching and out-of-the-box thinking. Did I enjoy the process? Not always. But having gone through it successfully has given me greater confidence in my ability to solve problems and untangle knots.
An author should always involve other people in their work, but there are several skills that are handy to have on your own. For instance, I have never been fantastic at bringing words to life through physical pictures. Translating images into words is my forte, not vice versa. This means that I relied heavily on others’ visual imaginations for the creation of the storyboard for my first children’s book. Thankfully, as I worked through the same process for Bertrand the Bashful Bumblebee, I found my mind’s eye keeping up with the words. Although I solicited the help of my spunky creative team, my own visual imagination was actively working much more this time around than it had with my first children’s book. A large part of that was no doubt influenced by a familiarity with my illustrator’s style, which helped me predict how she might work with the scenes in the story. But overall, I found the storyboarding process less stressful and more fun this time, as my creative skills flexed and grew.
The skill of focusing is severely underrated in our world. We pride ourselves on multi-tasking. We embrace the constant interruption of electronics or the newest train of thought that offers a distraction. I didn’t realize how detrimental this rhythm of life is until I noticed myself struggling to remember things that I used to never struggle with. My short-term memory and attention span has grown alarmingly brief, which causes all sorts of problems in productivity and creativity. Although focusing is not a new skill, I feel that I have had to re-learn it all over again. Putting my phone out of sight and listening to music without ads while writing has helped. So has limiting the number of times I check emails and other notifications each day. Still, it is an uphill battle, as I fear it is for many.
It’s hard to market effectively unless
a) you know what works (which requires research)
b) you have a plan
c) you do it consistently.
This is perhaps the facet of my writing career that needs the most work. If I could simply write my books, I feel I could focus much more and create much more. But alas, the burden (and opportunity) of the modern-day author is that promotion rests on his/her shoulders. I am learning, but the learning process has gone slowly. What with a full-time job and other obligations, I often let either my writing or my marketing fall by the wayside while I devote time to the other. It is an unfortunate trade-off that I don’t know how to avoid, but I trust that it will even out with time as my books gain traction and I gain experience in marketing them. One of my favorite bloggers, New Lune, has written a stellar article on the struggles of consistent marketing/writing, which I encourage you to read if any of this sounds familiar.
What are some new skills you have set out to develop this year?
What are some existing ones you need to sharpen?
It’s as if people think that the new year is somehow going to be “the one” in which they actualize their potential and fulfill their wildest dreams (or create a five-step plan to make that happen). It’s true that 2020 has been a wild ride, but how is the numerical change of “20” to “21” going to transform the world? I keep hearing folks say, “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over,” as if the mere page-turning of a calendar brings about a fresh, new world. If only…
Let me clarify: there’s nothing wrong with goals. In fact, without vision for the future, we will never achieve anything! But whether or not you jump on the annual bandwagon of New Year’s resolutions, we can all agree on one thing: the end of a year is a good time for introspection. I’m not here to suggest we avoid taking personal inventory—I’m here to suggest that we often take inventory of the wrong things.
We measure our success by how many pounds we lose. How many miles we can run. How many dollars we profit. How many followers we acquire. How many books we publish. How many contests we win.
What we lose sight of is the fact that each of these achievements requires only a limited scope of character traits. You don’t have to be generous to lose weight—you just have to be self-controlled. You don’t have to be humble to run a marathon—you just have to be diligent. You don’t have to be honest to exceed last year’s profits—you just have to be strategic. You don’t have to be genuine to gain followers—you just have to be interesting. You don’t have to be skilled to publish books—you just have to be resourceful.
Please consider these questions with me:
Are you really better off if you lose that weight by adopting an eating disorder?
Are you really better off if you train for that race at the expense of family time?
Are you really better off if you rake in the cash by doing some under-the-table deals?
Are you really better off if you sacrifice your honest opinions in order to reach a broader audience?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we are all characters. We all have a character arc. We all either grow or decline within the course of a year. And the beginning of a new year is a great time to ask ourselves which of these we did over the last year.
When we’re “in the thick of it,” it can be hard to see whether we’re getting better or getting worse. Challenges, trials, and setbacks all have a way of making us question whether we’re really getting anywhere at all. And for some of us, we are still in the thick of it by the turn of the new year. It’s not as if all of last year’s problems have dissolved because we’ve reached January. But we all fight multiple battles each year, and even if the outcome of one battle is still pending, we can still take stock of the smaller ones and ask ourselves how we’ve grown.
How has our perspective changed over the last year?
Have we become more cynical?
Have we developed a healthy skepticism?
Have we stepped outside our comfort zone or withdrawn into ourselves?
Have we become more grateful or more greedy?
These questions are definitely harder to answer than the ones about tangible goals. It’s harder to assess your character than your bankbook. It’s harder to assess your heart than the number on the scale. But one of these can be taken from you, while the other cannot. One of these will pervade the entirety of your life, while the other is confined to one aspect of your life.
So by all means, let’s set goals and try to accomplish them. Let’s celebrate the achievement of a resolution! But more importantly, let’s celebrate the ways in which our integrity, compassion, and discernment have grown—whether as a result of or in spite of our New Year’s resolutions.
It’s not chic. It’s not on fleak. Everyone wants to talk about pride, but no one wants to talk about humility. This is nothing new.
I think part of this is because many have a flawed definition of humility. So let’s start there first.
This definition is absolutely brilliant, because it gets to the heart of the problem that plagues every one of us in one way or another—the problem of pride.
Yes, I called pride a problem.
Now to be clear, pride in your work is not the problem. We should work hard and be pleased when our diligence pays off. Nor is pride in another person the problem. We should delight in those we love and celebrate their success and growth.
This is what Lewis was getting at.
It is not self-confidence that leads us to forget our place in the world, but self-obsession. This obsession is nothing short of toxic. (Now there’s a vogue word!) It is toxic because it leads to a number of failures that we can all identify in our lives in one way or another.
We fail to meet needs around us. We fail to build meaningful relationships. We fail to share our resources. We fail to build any kind of legacy that transcends our own name. We fail to point people upward.
In short, we fail to invest in anything that doesn’t directly revolve around us.
“Well,” you say, “isn’t this a literary blog?”
I’m glad you asked.
Every story has characters. And every character has objectives. Every character has desires. And every character has needs. Sometimes the desires and needs of different characters come into conflict. Some characters have noble desires, some have selfish desires. And some have both.
We are all this last type of character.
The beauty of a story, though, never comes from just one character. Rather, it arises from the harmony, and often disharmony, of many characters alternately persisting, resisting, submitting, and committing to their own interests or the interests of one another. Whether they like it or not, they do not operate in a vacuum. One character may take center stage more often than the others, but there would be no meaningful story if he or she never acknowledged the presence of his counterparts.
I am prone to think of my life as a narrative in which I am the main character. Now that is pride, isn’t it? Sure, we can all feel like protagonists at times, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that—unless we interpret the rest of reality in terms of ourselves. We assess people’s worth by what they can give us, as “the protagonist.” We view others as minor characters in the backdrop of our all-important lives, and so we construct a universe in which everything and everyone is eternally orbiting around us… except it’s not eternal, because each of us will one day die. We tend to think of our death as “the end of the story.”
If the last several years have taught me nothing else, it is that life is not about me. It is not about any one person on this earth. And our desperate attempts to build a world that revolves around us are sad signs of misunderstood purpose. There is One around Whom everything does, in fact, revolve—but none of us are Him. So rather than trying to steal the show and play the lead role, we would do well to remember that we are all part of a much bigger narrative that has been unfolding long before we came on the scene, and will continue unfolding after we exit the stage.
We would do well to share the stage of life.
Sometimes that means spending time helping another person become their best, instead of always trying to look your best. Sometimes that means giving up an opportunity for self-advancement in order to serve someone else. Sometimes that means giving credit to someone else, rather than basking in the affirmation.
What does practical humility look like for you?
Considering its historical significance and high moral stakes, it makes sense that people still have a taste for dramas centered on its events. The challenge for writers is to find a fresh angle on such an already well-covered topic.
I used to think the topic of WWII had been exhausted, that nothing new could come from a story set during this timeframe. But every now and then, I find a book or film that contributes to the canon of WWII stories—instead of simply repeating it.
My latest such discovery was the British series “Island at War,” released in 2004.
The entire story takes place on the fictitious Island of St Gregory in the English Channel during the German onslaught against Great Britain. This arrested my attention instantly. Think about it: we’ve seen and read countless stories about WWII from the perspective of mainland Europe, of Great Britain, of Germany, of the Jews, and of America—but seldom do we hear about anyone who fell inbetween. “Island at War” gives us a believable glimpse of what German occupation meant for the thousands of real-life islanders who found themselves somewhere “inbetween.”
Anyone who has seen the classic WWII films probably thinks every German invasion happened with guns blazing. That’s what I incorrectly expected to witness at the beginning of this series, especially after the initial air raid. But after the harbor bombing scene, in which we see the effects on three islander families, things go eerily civil. Yes, the Germans land and begin repurposing buildings and homes, but with none of the violence that defines our historical recollection of Hitler’s Germans. Along with the English protagonists, we experience a strange blend of indignance and relief: indignance at the presumption of the invaders in confiscating houses and shops, and yet relief that things are not worse.
The dynamic between one German officer, Lieutenant Walker, and a German Jew, Zelda, fascinated me the most. We have seen similar relationships depicted in films like Schindler’s List. Think of the power Amon Goeth, a German officer, holds over his Jewish house servant. While his fascination with Helen is not necessarily romantic, Goeth finds her interesting enough to keep alive—despite knowing she is a Jew. He even debates with himself the possibility of her human dignity, in one of the most brilliant monologues I have ever seen. And yet he persuades himself that her status as a Jew justifies his routine cruelty towards her, making his interest in her more pathological than genuine.
What’s different about the German soldiers in Island at War is the range of human emotions they display. Fear. Pride. Lust. Compassion. Courage. Grief. Uncertainty. Guilt. While not equally expressed by all characters, these feelings and drives show up in unexpected ways that make even the bad guys seem human. Take Lieutenant Walker for example: he proudly touts his abhorrence for Jews, having bought into the racist propaganda of the Nazi Party. And yet he becomes enamored with an islander girl named Zelda, who has managed to conceal her Jewish identity. As Zelda rebuffs his constant romantic overtures, Lieutenant Walker becomes increasingly determined to win her over (although it is clear that he ultimately wants to get her in bed, as he does with most other women). Without even trying, Zelda gains power over him. He even appears to respect her for it, conceding that he will be content to simply “get to know her better.” For a moment, we see a flicker of nobility in him.
But when he discovers her Jewish heritage, he races to reveal his knowledge to her—all the while assuring her that her secret is safe with him. I confess I did not expect this reaction. I fully expected him to fly into Amon Goeth mode, beating her and dragging her off to the authorities. Instead, though, he compels her to sleep with him—promising that he will not reveal her secret, but that he needs something in return.
Even when he realizes this beautiful woman is a Jew, the Nazi propaganda cannot make her less attractive. He cannot, like Goeth, throw aside his interest (albeit a base interest) and consider her unworthy of his advances. Neither does he turn violent. Instead, he very gently (albeit insidiously) manipulates Zelda into compliance. Although his actions are still abusive, they testify to his human passions and desires—and his inability to deny Zelda’s humanity.
There are other Germans in the series that model more noble human emotions and behavior. What is unique about Lieutenant Walker’s character is it shows that to “be human” is not always a good thing. We sometimes speak of an enemy “being human” as if that inherently makes them better. Well, in some ways, it can. But in other cases, it is those human drives that lead people in power to exploit one another. To trample on those more helpless than themselves, while rationalizing it. Perhaps these are the real psychopaths.
In fact, this bothered my parents quite a bit. I remember many a movie that my dad paused in order to explain to six-year-old Shiloh and her brother that we should never do what the youngsters in the film were doing—namely, disobeying them. It didn’t matter that we were unlikely to ever run away from home or light the toilet paper on fire. The point of these mid-movie pontifications was to remind us that disobedience in any form was not a good idea.
What’s shocking, though, is that the movies consistently make disobedience look like the best—in fact, the only—solution. How many movies have you seen where the parents explicitly forbid the children from doing something, and that something winds up being the only action that can save the world. Wow, what are the odds?!
This bothered me, too, as a kid. From experience, I knew that things did not generally turn out well when I went behind my parents’ back or defied them openly. So it made very little sense to me that the kids in movies always got away with backtalk and rebellion—and were in fact praised for it in the end!
In reality, most normal kids I knew would have gotten into huge trouble, or would have wreaked disaster on themselves by disobeying. But the kids in movies always got off the hook and even received apologies from their parents for trying to tell them what to do.
It is Mom and Dad who, after their child has prevented some catastrophe, admit to their child that they were wrong for establishing rules. For enforcing those rules. For disciplining their children for breaking those rules. For, you know, parenting.
If kids in real life were half as smart as the kids in those movies, then some of those rules might not be necessary. But the fact is, your average preteen is not *in fact* a literal rocket scientist. Chances are your seventeen-year-old son’s driving skills are not better than yours. And most adults would have a better shot at diffusing a bomb than an eleven-year-old. But it’s the movies! Adults can’t possibly know more than their offspring!
It’s almost a wonder these fictitious parents even survived long enough to reproduce. Anyone that oblivious would have been eliminated from the gene pool! There are too many examples to go into detail, but if you’ve seen classics like Back to the Future, E.T., and even Shiloh—or any number of popular films featuring adolescents, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If the corresponding intelligence levels of adults and children in movies represented reality, the human race would have died off long ago.
Instead, we have a collection of entertaining films that teach kids never to listen to their parents. I find this rather unfortunate. Yes, parenting is a learning process. Yes, no adult has all the answers. But let us remember that young people are already prone to thinking they know everything—so why reinforce that belief in movies?
An inspiring story will empower them to solve problems by learning. An inflating story will tell them they don’t need to learn anything because they know better than everyone else.
One of these stories will lead to growth. The other will not.
We trumpet the value the of teachability and lifelong learning—and with good reason. We will never become our best if we cannot admit our worst. Kids need to understand this early on. So while parents should not stifle their children’s creativity, they must help them understand that adult authority exists for a reason, and that most movies don’t tell the real story.
Did you ever notice this trend in movies you watched growing up? Did it bother you?
Why do you think it is so popular to undermine parental authority and wisdom?
Several weeks ago, I was browsing one of my favorite blogs, The Daily Flabbergast, and happened upon an announcement for a “flash-fiction” rodeo contest. So, naturally, at 11:30 pm on a Tuesday night, I decided to saddle up!
The challenge, sponsored by The Carrot Ranch, was to write a story in exactly 99 words, based off the following verbal and visual prompt:
Within the next 45 minutes, I had written a story. It won. Yay!
If you’ve ever read a play, you will notice that there is minimal narration in the script (with the exception of occasionally exciting stage directions). In a play, the dialogue is enough to tell a story. So that’s what gave wings (or spurs, rather) to my late night inspiration…
“Reach for the sky!”
“Teacher says the sky is the limit.”
“Shuttup. Gimme your paper.”
“But I drew this!”
“Gimme it. It’s better than mine.”
“But it looks like me, not you.”
“Here, you take mine. Trade pictures with me or I’ll shoot!”
“What happened to your eye, son?”
“A bully shot me with a rubber band, sir.”
“He wanted my homework. It was a self-portrait.”
“That’s awful mean. Did you tell your teacher?”
“Yes, Sheriff Brown, but I want him arrested.”
“Arrested? How do I know what he looks like?”
“He looks like this.”
Thank you for reading!
I don’t mean that readers inherently make something good—no, there are plenty of things out there with a much larger audience than they deserve. What I do mean is that readers are the reason for writing. Or at least, they should be.
It’s okay, I won’t ask anything too personal. I have actually shared very little personal information about myself on this forum, because of how creepy the internet can be. I get it. Which is why this survey is completely anonymous—no name, no email, no phone number, no social security or credit card number required. Just the answers to a handful of questions.
So I can help provide you, my dear readers, with the type of articles and content you’re most interested in. In short, so The Inquisitive Inkpot can ask and answer questions you’re most curious about.
Ready? Let’s get rolling!
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We’ve all heard of celebrities who get let off the hook for traffic violations and other petty offenses, but they can get away with more than crime if they’re good-looking. How many attractive performers with unremarkable talent have skyrocketed to fame while their less attractive, more talented counterparts lag behind? I won’t name names here, but we all know of someone who fits the bill.
Sales careers, specifically for women, depend highly on a person’s physical attractiveness. Let’s set aside the fact that the definition of “attractive” is highly subjective and fluid—whatever it means to be “attractive” is evidently of vital importance to women seeking careers in sales. Or really, any career where they are performing for a visual audience. Like acting.
Money, connections, family, willingness to kiss up to people in power… and oh yeah, the hotness factor. Often the hotness factor and the kiss-up factor go hand-in-hand in very unfortunate ways. But being attractive in Hollywood can buy you more than acting contracts—it can buy you an audience for even the dumbest movies out there!
Again, we encounter obscure territory, since the definition of a “dumb” movie is bound to be quite subjective. For the sake of this discussion, let’s define it as a movie that lacks one or both of the fundamental pillars of storytelling: plot development and character development. A storyline whose exposition, inciting incident, rising action, falling action, and denouement do not fit together will be lacking in the plot category. A story whose characters undergo no challenges, personal dilemmas, conflicts, and who have no clear goal will be lacking in the character category. The worst films are lacking in both.
And yet even the worst films have those faithful audience members who will watch if only to see their Hollywood crush waltzing across the screen. What does this prove?
For some people, a cast of attractive actors may be enough to hold their attention. This does not mean that all these actors bring to the film is a pretty face or nice jawline. No doubt some extremely talented actors end up in sub-par films, and although they play their role fabulously, the script is still insipid. Vapid. Asinine. (Yes, these are all synonyms for “stupid.”) They may know it and the audience may know it, but there will still be those who endure the vacuous plotline simply because they enjoy watching pretty faces and sculpted biceps. To each their own!
And so now, in the spirit of being inquisitive, I would like to know whether you are one such an audience member.
No, I don’t mean tired of your spouse or significant other. I mean tired of seeing romance in book after book, movie after movie, show after show, as if every writer thinks he or she invented the thing.
No? That’s fine, too.
Let me clarify: I love a good romance. Anything from Jane Austen to rom coms—if the story is tasteful and well told, I’m in. But looking at media today, you’d think that the only thing audiences cared about was watching fictitious people fall in love—or, in some cases, just fall into bed. What’s unique about romance, as a phenomenon, is that it pervades literally all other genres in ways that other genre-phenomena don’t. Aside from the actual market of romances, this theme sells itself by seeping into stories of all kinds.
For example, having a couple of car-chase scenes will probably make your film a thriller. Send a tumbleweed blowing across the screen, and you’ve got a Western. Add just one alien to the cast of characters and, well, you’re in sci-fi territory now. But you could add love to any one of these stories without making it a proper “romance” novel or movie.
A masterpiece that weaves together elements of both a romance and a murder mystery is Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. If you look it up, you will see it categorized as a “crime/drama” story… even though it ends with the protagonist’s happy and long-anticipated marriage to her true love. And yet somehow the presence of romance in this story does not define its genre.
Why is that?
Well, Bleak House, like many other stories with love in them, tells a story much bigger than two people falling in love. The plot’s primary tension lies elsewhere. But what I find interesting is that so many stories that are not “about” love feel it necessary to incorporate romance in some way, shape, or form. No doubt this is partly because romance is one of the most core human desires, and a story that depicts at least a little romance will hold a broader audience. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Here’s the issue I see with a number of non-romances that play the love card:
I would argue this mistake is easier to make in cinema than in literature. When reading a book, we expect and accept that we do not witness the entirety of the characters’ lives. We do not watch the characters’ facial expressions, although the narrator may describe them. We cannot see a character’s face and body in order to decide whether or not they are attractive—or more importantly, whether they might hold romantic appeal for another character. Our impressions of romantic chemistry are much more malleable in literature because we only know what the author tells us.
In cinema, though, we are granted the illusion of seeing it all. (And sometimes, we see way more than we really ought to.) We can size up a pair of actors and look for the glimmer in their eyes when they share the screen. We can notice when it’s not there.
But whether or not we as audience members decide if a pair is visually well-suited, the fact remains that a character’s romantic attachments paint a fuller picture of him or her.
The misshaping happens when a character’s visible convictions, values, or goals are contradicted by the way he/she governs his/her love life. That being said, I am fully aware that human beings are living paradoxes. Not everything we do makes sense to us or to those around us. But there is always a reason behind the apparent inconsistencies between our behaviors, whether we can identify it or not. The trouble is that stories rely heavily on their characters in order to communicate anything meaningful—and unless a story’s point is to illustrate human inconsistency, it doesn’t help itself by injecting romance between two characters whose relationship is better off without it.
Perhaps this is residual from my frustration with the over-eroticizing of human relationships (sorry, Freud). But I see many meaningful relationships in the real world with no element of romance—and they are better that way! Just because a story features a male and female alongside one another does not mean they have to fall in love (or bed) in order for the story to be worthwhile!
Unfortunately, I think many readers and viewers out there are more interested in seeing tension built and resolved in the form of a sexual encounter than they are interested in any message the story has to offer. And many writers are all too willing to give it to them.
What do you think?
Are there any stories you know where the romance just didn’t work? Or where it detracted from the main themes?
Think of all the romantic comedies you’ve seen and read. Do you see situations in your life that reflect those events?
Most of us have probably had at least one sitcom experience, in which we feel that we’re a character in some cheap drama unfolding around us. At times, I’ve even felt like the female lead in the first few minutes of a rom-com. The scenario goes something like this:
A young woman leaves work after a long January day. She exits the building and shuffles through the snow to her car. Halfway there, she drops her keys. She bends over to dig the keys out of the fresh, powdery snow and, in doing so, spills her coffee onto her coat.
Upon recovering the keys, she completes the trek to her snow-covered car and stuffs her belongings inside. Arming herself with an ice-scraper, she then begins to etch the snow and ice off of the windows—unable to clear the middle portion of the windshield because of her height (or lack thereof). At last, the young woman piles into her car and closes the door, heaving a sigh that only a single woman could heave, who has no man to scrape her car for her. Her breath is visible inside the car.
Mind you, my rom-coms rarely get past the “first few minutes” stage… aside from the occasional unwanted sequence of Mr. Collins-like encounters (read up on your Jane Austen if you don’t catch the reference).
My guess is that most of you can somehow relate—and to that extent, most of us do see some elements of rom-coms in daily life.
You guessed it: the rivals who become lovers.
Think about all the rom-coms you know, from old classics to new.
Here’s a brief list, just to name a few examples:
La La Land (although this is more of a drama)
While this list is far from exhaustive, most of you will recognize this trope in some of them. The love stories all begin with the same theme: boy and girl meet. They don’t like each other. Either they find the other person off-putting or they feel threatened by him/her. But they’re somehow fascinated with each other. Pretty soon, they’re kissing.
Obviously there’s much more plot to each of these stories, but the central plot of numerous rom-coms depends on the same trope of the rival-to-lover transformation.
Most males and females who clash at first sight do not wind up together. At least, not in my observation. They start gossiping about each other. They start name-calling behind each other’s back. It seems to me that most individuals who make the wrong first impression don’t get a second chance—much less get a lover out of the deal.
So why do so many rom-coms use this trope to set the stage for their love story?
I suspect that once upon a time a writer thought he would make his love story unique. Write a story about two people who don’t get along at first, and then—surprise! They fall in love. The readers will never see it coming.
Maybe it worked back then. Maybe the first audience was surprised. But now every time I see a male and female character butt heads, I begin to yawn, because 98% of the time they are going to fall in love. Now, the process through which they fall in love might actually wake me up, but the ending is basically a give-away. So why do so many quality stories follow this pattern, if everyone knows how the story ends?
You see, any time the two principal characters feel threatened by one another, that betrays some weakness. Some insecurity. Any number of things could happen in the plot, but we know that in order for them to fall in love, these two people will first need to overcome their own egos or insecurities. In short, they will need to grow personally in order to appreciate one another relationally.
Once we look at romantic comedies through this lens, I think we might find we can learn more from them than we expected. Sure, some are cheesy. Sure, some are saccharine. And sure, some are just vulgar. But some actually illustrate elements of human prejudice, arrogance, cynicism, and willful ignorance that we would do well to examine in our own lives.
And additionally, they help us laugh at ourselves. And that’s never a bad thing.
What do you think? Have you seen real-life rivals fall in love?
Do you find the presence of this trope boringly predictable or amusing?
What are some rom-coms that you think use this trope to expose a character’s insecurity and need for growth?
Got kids? Grandkids? Nieces and nephews?
Or are you just plain curious to find out where all the missing socks go? Find out one ambitious sock’s journey by ordering your copy of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock!
Most projects turn out better when they’ve been critiqued, but this is especially true of stories. Even more so of stories that are meant to be read aloud—which is precisely the purpose of most children’s books.
But after the first few paragraphs of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock, I began to figure things out as the key to the story’s “fun” became clear: alliteration. The words began to flow, the plot began to roll, and I was able to crank out a complete first draft over the span of about three weeks. With the first draft finished, I considered the hardest work already done.
(Side note: I don’t know why, but even after years of writing, I always go into each project expecting that things will run smoothly after the first draft. I always forget Hemingway’s maxim, which can’t be quoted verbatim in a post about a children’s book: “The first draft of anything is ****.” He’s right, you know. And still, after years of essays, songs, stories, and speeches, I naively begin each first draft hoping to “nail it” the first time. Spoiler alert: it never happens.)
I suppose what made me so pleased about the first draft was that I knew it had several things going for it. It was cute. It was quirky. It was clever.
But I wanted the story to be more than those things—and I didn’t realize what it was missing until someone pointed it out.
The first draft depicted Melvin floundering through each of his misadventures with roughly the same attitude as he had at the beginning, until the story ends and he finds deliverance from his mishaps. But by the end, we don’t see much of a change in Melvin’s “sole” (sorry, I had to).
“It’s a fun adventure story,” my first audience told me, “but there’s no character arc.”
Well, who expects a sock to have a character arc? I thought defensively.
But after a short period, I realized they were right.
It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is a toenail clipper (or “Stew the Missing Screwdriver,” as one of my humorous readers commented)—if it thinks and it talks, it needs to change throughout the story.
Some of the feedback might sting, but if you pick the right people to share it with early on, you can count on the quality of their input.
That being said, sharing your work with an audience for the first time can be absolutely terrifying. So here is a reminder that should empower you to open your work up to feedback:
Let’s face it: every time we write something (other than private journal entries), we subconsciously hope someone will read it. Maybe not today—maybe not even for years—but by putting it down on paper, we have demonstrated that we think our idea is worth documenting. I remember the first song I wrote took years to share with another person—and then I performed it in front of 80. Next it was several hundred. The first time I performed it though, I was utterly petrified—petrified of what other people would think, petrified that my skills weren’t up to standard, petrified of being vulnerable in front of a crowd. But you know what? People loved it. In fact, a number of them even came up to me to say that they also had written songs and felt better about sharing their own work now that they’d seen someone else do it.
This doesn’t mean the work you share will be perfect, but it does mean that more people will respect you for it than you realize. Yes, there will be some who discourage you, which is why I recommend you start with a group of people who have your back. Even if their input feels harsh, you will know that they still respect you and want you to succeed. You may even inspire them to try something new.
And that, my friends, is one of the most rewarding feelings of all.
ALSO. The results from last week’s poll are in! In answer to the question of “What you do when you encounter a new word in a book?”… Everyone said they web search it.
Anybody crack open the ol’ dictionary anymore??
Got kids? Grandkids? Nieces and nephews?
Or are you just plain curious to find out where all the missing socks go? Find out one ambitious sock’s journey by ordering your copy of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock!
Order now and have it within 2 weeks, with FREE SHIPPING!
Before The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock, I had never written a children’s book. In fact, I don’t even have that many kids in my life to remind me how children think. In a way, this put me at a disadvantage when I accepted that challenge from my friend to write a children’s book. I didn’t have an abundance of child-speak running through my brain from which to draw inspiration, nor did I have kids around to bounce ideas off of at the beginning.
Thankfully, though, I have a vivid memory.
Along with many early childhood memories, I remember the first time I heard and learned several words. And I remembered that many of them came from books.
In fact, I can still see the pages and pictures on which I encountered new words, whereafter I looked them up in a dictionary. (Remember when we used to do that?? Personally, I’m more likely to remember a word when I physically find it in a dictionary as opposed to Googling it.)
Why is this important?
One of the reasons I had shied away from trying children’s stories in the first place was because I had assumed that they dumbed everything down. How wrong I was! That’s what comes from temporarily losing touch with your childhood during your immersion in academia. Not to say that people in academics inherently lose their appreciation for the lighter things of life, but I found that my dense diet of the classics and rhetorical theory for four years formed a rather austere literary palate. For those four years, I never trifled myself with re-reading stories I grew up on—in part, because the nostalgia was too emotional in wake of my father’s death, but also because I didn’t consider the simple worth my time. What a literary snob I became! Perhaps you can relate?
Snobs and snubs aside, the realization that books had taught me a fair amount of my vocabulary motivated me to pass that advantage on to the eventual readers of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock.
As I said before, that meant it had to be fun for both me and the readers. If you’re not having fun writing your book, no one will have fun reading it—especially a little kid!
Thankfully, the book’s primary tool of both education and entertainment was already folded into the title: alliteration. Although you’d be surprised to hear that I didn’t actually think of using alliteration until I wrote the first sentence of the story:
Two “m’s.” Huh. Look at that. Well, what should the reader know about Melvin up front? He’s nothing special—at least, he doesn’t think so. So he’s got to be just about as bland a sock as you can get. (Here, I pictured a large white “Hanes” brand sock, which was what my dad always wore around the house.) And obviously, Melvin is one of two socks in a pair, which means his match needs a name.
Melvin was a plain white sock who lived in the master’s dresser. Melvin and his twin Marvin shared the drawer with many other kinds of socks.
This was about when I realized that alliteration with the letter “m” had to be a recurring theme—not because of a formula, but because I was only three sentences in and already I was having fun!
From there, I let the plot develop and take direction at its own pace, all the while welcoming the alliterative “m” words that came to mind. Big words, small words, medium words, smooth words, bumpy words… you get the picture. 🙂 In fact, anytime there was a summary statement at the end of a page or paragraph, I looked for the most fitting “m” word that could express the idea—and often those were more sophisticated than your mundane, mediocre “m” words. So already, just by setting a pattern of alliteration, I was able to weave new words into the fabric of the story in a way that would make kids want to know what the words meant. Also—of no small significance—the alliteration made Melvin fun to read aloud.
Just like a speech, the words in a children’s story are written to be spoken, not just read. And depending on the style and feeling of your story, the sounding of the words you choose will change.
As for me, I discovered the style of Melvin as I wrote. This happens quite often and is not a bad thing, but it means that during revision you need to smooth out any discrepancies in style and sound. It’s surprising how much the tone and cadence of a narrative can change in only a few hundred words! And the shorter the story, the more crucial it is to be consistent.
The other thing about reading the story aloud? Oh yeah, it means you need an audience… which means you need to identify people with whom you are both comfortable and confident that they will have insight to contribute. Still, though, sharing your work can be scary—which is why I’ll cover it next week in an article of its own.
In the meantime, what are some of the most memorable books you read growing up? Which children’s stories, if any, do you think impacted you the most?
What do you do when you encounter a new word? Do you web search it or turn to the dusty dictionary on the shelf? I’m extremely curious about this one, which is why I’ve included the little poll below. Please fill it out before you leave, and I’ll share the results next week!
Got kids? Grandkids? Nieces and nephews?
Or are you just plain curious to find out where all the missing socks go? Find out one ambitious sock’s journey by ordering your copy of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock!
Order now and have it within 2 weeks, with FREE SHIPPING!
TAKE THE POLL!
Can you relate?
Maybe it’s that the dog almost invariably dies. Or maybe it’s that the dog reminds me of my dog. Or maybe it’s a combination of these, along with a little anthropology thrown in.
Let’s take a look at some classic dog stories:
Now, what do these all have in common? Obviously a dog, yes. And interestingly, each of the humans in these stories is a boy. But what every single one of these books and movies boils down to is a coming-of-age tale.
In Lassie Come Home, Joe must accept the changes his family faces, and learn to sacrifice his own comfort for their benefit.
In Old Yeller, Travis must take responsibility for protecting his family in his father’s absence, setting aside his annoyance with his younger brother.
In Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy finds the courage to face daunting challenges and dangers alongside his two faithful hounds—and eventually, to let go.
In Shiloh, Marty overcomes prejudice towards his unstable neighbor, and learns to respect him in spite of their vast differences.
In My Dog Skip, Will must learn to discern between good influences and harmful ones, and to find confidence in his own identity.
There is much more to say about each of these stories, but what I want to call attention to is this:
“Of course they don’t,” you say. “What’s so remarkable about that?”
What’s remarkable is that each of these titles points explicitly to the animal in the story. An animal whose character does not change—whose character is constant. And yet the core of each story is about the changes the boy must undergo in order to become a man. What’s up with that?
This is because the animal is an agent of change—but in an inverse way.
Think about the animals you had growing up. Now think about the people in your life who have always been there for you, no matter what. What do these two have in common?
Through their unchanging roles in your life, you have learned things about yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t. Their steadiness has provided a backdrop against which you have interpreted the whirlwinds both within you and without.
My beagle just turned twelve in April. I grew up with her, and she has been a fixture in my life through childhood, the tumultuous adolescent years, the death of my father, and my adjustment to adult life. Throughout everything, she has always howled at bunnies, cried for joy when I came home, mumbled her complaints and musings from her “growlery” corner, and thumped her hind foot when I scratched her back. She also always let me cry into her fur and floppy ears on the worst days. She is snoring peacefully as I write this.
Many of you can say the same of your pets. Now while my little beagle has never saved my life like they do in the movies and books (if your pet has saved anyone’s life, please do tell!), she has expanded my understanding of love, loyalty, forgiveness, and patience. I hope she has many more years. But they always die in the stories, and I know they do in real life. All the same, this little hound has been a powerful instrument of growth—and laughter—and it’s stories like these that help capture that power.
It’s stories like these that remind us to pat, to play, to scratch, and to walk these friends of ours while we still can. Considering what they give us, it’s the least we can do.
What are your takeaways from dog stories? Do they make you cry?
If you grew up with pets, what are some ways in which you feel they helped forge your identity?
What are some of your best pet memories?
The Inquisitive Inkpot is turning 50 weeks old today!
Yes, the title of that post is a question.
You see, when I wrote that article, I erred on the side of skepticism. Having encountered multiple conflicting sources on this topic, I was hesitant to conclude one way or the other regarding the likelihood of women actually fighting alongside men in historical societies. Of course, there were some far-fetched sounding “scientific findings” that claimed to prove the existence of female Viking warriors and such, but it all seemed a bit too nebulous to accept with certainty. Until one of my former professors from Hillsdale College showed me what I was missing.
Although the media sure isn’t good at correcting itself, I endeavor to do a better job at that.
When we publish something, only to learn later that new information has been added or that our initial findings were inaccurate, we would do well to acknowledge it and share what we’ve learned since.
In December of 2019 (just months after publishing that post), the Smithsonian came forward with the discovery of a tomb that housed the remains of four Scythian women alongside battle gear used by warriors. In case you aren’t up on your Scythian history (I certainly wasn’t), this group was a nomadic people that inhabited what we now know as Siberia in ancient times. So basically, think Amazons. The takeaway? These women (or some form of them) actually existed in the ancient world.
But burial with weapons doesn’t necessarily mean that the women themselves were warriors… does it?
According to DNA tests, it does.
In Sweden, the remains of a Viking warrior discovered in the 1880s, revealed female genetics in a DNA test. This type of revelation has subsequently been replicated with numerous similar graves. In fact, modern facial recognition technology has even paved the way for scientists to reconstruct the faces of some of these women.
As with any groundbreaking archaeological discovery, I think there is room for some level of skepticism. I mean, how many “missing links” turned out to be hoaxes? More than most scientists care to admit! But when you consider the longevity and potency of the female warrior concept in human history, it becomes pretty unlikely that all of these archaeological findings have been misinterpreted.
The implications for my novel The Exile are also quite significant. If these women were in fact warriors, it means that someone like Delta (the narrator) may have lived and died, only to have the reality of her life dismissed by subsequent generations as a myth. Or to her have her life grossly exaggerated and glamorized, as most “warrior princess” books are wont to do. In this sense, I am grateful now that I did not attempt to glamorize or gloss over the harsh realities that a woman like Delta likely would have faced– because to do that would have added to the stereotypical, modernized image of female warriors, which can’t help but inspire skepticism.
But this new knowledge also makes me realize that no amount of research, re-creation, or imagination can ever fully capture the realities lived by people of the past.
What’s your perspective on the phenomenon of woman warriors? Do you think it’s modern society’s attempt to rewrite the past?
Do you think a more chauvinist society would seek to conceal archaeological evidence of female prominence in history? Please do share your thoughts on this one, especially if you’re acquainted with non-American cultures. I’d love to hear your insights!
“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak?”Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
Something many people need right now, in fact.
As a freelance writer for the national radio program Our American Stories, I recently encountered this power in a new way.
In this case, hundreds of thousands of people. I didn’t consider that when I asked my boss if he would agree to an interview about his late best friend, Forrest Johnson—a WWII veteran whom my boss, Jason, had met after completing his own service in the Marine Corps. All I knew was this man’s story had to be shared.
Most of my conversations with my boss revolve around the company, but a large percentage of those that don’t are essentially “story time.” And when he gets going about his time in the marines, it almost always comes back to the man he met after eight years of active duty: Forrie. I love story time. It gives me a window into a life so different from my own, while reminding me that even a Special Ops service member had lessons to learn. And so many of them he learned from Forrie—a man over fifty years his senior.
I won’t recap the whole story in this post, which is why I’ve included the link where you can listen to the full recording.
Do you ever feel like you know someone because of everything you’ve heard about them? That’s how I felt about Forrie. After conducting this interview and listening to hours of “story time” that somehow came back to this man, I felt like I had personally known him. Heard his laugh. Seen his smile. Heard his stories from his own lips. And above all, I wanted to do something to honor him, however small that might be.
So I went to visit his grave on Memorial Day.
I went looking for Forrie’s grave in the cemetery where Jason said he was buried. Little did I know when I arrived at the cemetery that there were hundreds upon hundreds of headstones, all without any particular alphabetical or chronological order. I decided I would drive to the furthest corner, park, and start my search there, expecting it would take several hours to find Forrie. I did just that: I parked, got out of the car, and began walking toward the first row of graves in the furthest corner. I was mostly watching where I stepped because the ground was somewhat uneven and I had worn completely unsuitable footwear for a cross-country graveyard expedition. But as soon as I turned my head, there it was: FORREST L. JOHNSON. Located directly in front of my car. Next to his headstone was that of his four-year-old son, who passed shortly after he returned from the war.
It could have taken hours to find that one out of perhaps a thousand or so gravestones. My first words were, “Thank you, God.” After standing by the grave for a while, twisting together a clumsy dandelion bouquet, and recalling the hours of stories I’d heard about him, my last words were, “Thank you, Forrie.”
But standing there, looking at his headstone, I felt grief, blended with gratitude– like two wines that only enrich each other.
Somehow his children heard the radio piece. And thanks to Facebook and social media, I was able to reach out and tell them what an honor it was learning about their father and how I wished I’d known him. The story has basically gone viral within their family and friend circle. To think of all those people gathering around the story of their father—the man who served his country and nearly lost his life, the man who poured his heart and soul into those around him—to think of these people coming together in shared grief, memory, and gratitude is the greatest reward I could have hoped for.
And that, I realize, is the power of stories.
How have you seen stories bring people together?
In what ways have you accidentally encountered the power of stories in your own life?
Neither do I—unless, of course, I’m watching a historical drama set in 1800s lower-class England, where everyone has a thick Cockney accent. Then I need subtitles. (More on this specific drama to come in a later post!)
Oh, but I learned something from this experience! It’s remarkable what watching an entire 10-part series with subtitles can reveal about the sounds you otherwise took for granted (or always wondered about).
“Heavy breathing.” Seriously? I thought it was the wind.
“Soft sobbing.” I mean, at least they’re not ugly-crying…yet.
“Indistinct profanity.” I’m pretty sure I recognized at least one of those swear words, but if you say so!
“Somber music.” Well, I knew the scene was serious, but this really takes it up a notch.
“Lips smacking.” Thank you for clarifying—I really wasn’t sure what that slurping sound was when that couple kissed. Must have been those lips.
“Plucky music.” Not sure I knew this was a thing, but I’ll assume it’s the opposite of “somber music”.
Reading a blunt narration of literally every sound actually detracted from the emotional effect of some of those scenes. Instead of feeling my heart torn in two as a couple kissed goodbye, I found myself reading up on their lip-smacking—and then laughing about it! All whilst “heart-wrenching music” swelled in the background. While the presence of subtitles didn’t ruin the plot at all, it did rob the film of its sentimental impact. Why is that?
What we hear in a film plays a HUGE role in how we interpret each scene, and yet there is no one telling us what we are hearing and how it is supposed to make us feel.
Subtitles kill subtlety. As soon as we are told how to feel, we sense we are being manipulated (film is, after all, a master at manipulating). What subtitles on nonverbal sounds do is draw attention to the factors we aren’t supposed to consciously notice, making our emotional journey somewhat flat and prescribed—not organic and personal.
That all said, I have also realized that turning on subtitles for no reason is a great way to get a laugh out of even the most “somber” moments in a film. And so I issue you a challenge!
If you dare, try watching your favorite movie or show with subtitles on. Unless it’s already a comedy, I can almost guarantee it will not be the same experience!
If you have already discovered the comedy of subtitles, please share some of the best subtitles you have noticed!!
And while plenty of psychologists and social scientists argue that our attention span is shrinking due to the A.D.D nature of modern media, our human fascination with the “brief” long precedes Tik Tok, Snapchat, and Instagram.
In a sense, the roots of the short story can be traced all the way to the first-ever “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the___” conversation. But beyond that, its more identifiable roots lie in the origins of myths and the oral tradition. Now when we hear the term “oral tradition” today, many of us in Western culture probably think of Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey—which, as anyone who has read them knows, are anything but short! But the fact is that oral tradition spans across every ancient civilization, and every society had its stories of creation and the struggle between good and evil—what we generally refer to as “myths.” These accounts are meant to express and illustrate cultural values and truths, in a form that can easily be passed by word-of-mouth from one generation to the next.
While some attribute the brevity of myths and fables to the lack of literacy in some civilizations (arguing that short tales are more easily remembered and retold), this does not explain why the concept of short stories has survived and even sharpened in recent centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until literacy began to blossom in the Western middle class during the 19th century that the short story asserted itself prominently in publication.
So what do we learn from all this?
Perhaps a minor history lesson, but more importantly, I think these facts suggest something:
Just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the term “short story.” Most of us probably think of a tightly packaged little tale, whose every word counts—perhaps even more so than in a novel. Ask any TV screenwriter if it’s harder to write for a 30-minute show or a 60-minute—the answer is usually the 30-minute show. Of course novels and feature films are incredibly difficult to write. But the fact is that when you have a limited amount of words or minutes, the audience is going to scrutinize your work with a higher-caliber magnifying glass, because they will remember more of it. If you make a blunder, they will notice! This means that every word, every phrase, every scene had better pull its own weight, which eliminates the option of “filler” and what I call “verbal flab.”
Think of the Gettysburg Address: 272 words of metaphor that earned the speech its acclaim as one of the most candid yet elegant addresses in history. Although Lincoln makes his point succinctly, he does so in a rhetorically brilliant and compelling narrative form, using the story of America’s past and present to inspire its future. Students still memorize it in classrooms today.
So, no– being brief does not mean being blunt. What it does mean is that condensing a message or story into short form can pack an additional punch that even the most distracted, media-saturated millennial might remember. 😉
What’s your take on the power of brevity?
Do you read short stories as often or more often than novels?
Confession: I read novels more, so I don’t feel I have enough scope of experience to make a judgement on this next question… But do you find that the short stories you have read are generally more powerful or less powerful than novels? Do you think this has to do with length?
In case you missed my post bemoaning the woes of the contemporary writer, I can bring you up to speed in one sentence: screens hurt my eyes.
Not just my eyes, but plenty of people’s eyes. And not just our eyes, but our ability to do our work and creative writing without a pounding headache and compromised sleep.
When I say it’s spectacular, I mean it quite literally: it’s in the form of a pair of spectacles.
Blue light glasses, they call them.
Now, either I live under a rock (which is not an impossibility, but then again we all do during a quarantine) or the concept of blue light glasses needs more trumpeting. This post has been written on the premise of the latter.
How many of you writers out there find the Muse visits you after 9 pm? Sometimes she doesn’t come for me until 10 pm, and then overstays her welcome—not only keeping me from hitting the pillow until 1 am, but keeping my brain turned on long after my laptop has powered down.
Well, my fellow night owls, there is hope!
While most screen-related eye conditions are not caused by blue light, it has been confirmed that blue light can mess with your sleep. And if you are like me, in that your late-night creativity jolts are your goldmines, then the ability to seize those moments without suffering for it is priceless. (You’ll still be tired the next day, but if you’re a night owl, that’s nothing new. 🙂 )
I have personally noticed my headaches disappear since I ordered my pair—which, if you get severe headaches from the visual glare, you know what I’m talking about. It’s pretty miserable. But over the past several weeks, I have not cut my screen time for work or for writing, and still I have experienced no pain, no pounding, and no more trouble sleeping.
As you know, I do not generally promote products on The Inquisitive Inkpot, but this one has made such a difference for my own writing life that I felt I had to share it with all of you. You can easily order blue light glasses online for any range of prices, depending on how gourmet you want to go.
But to kiss headaches and restless nights goodbye? It was worth every penny of the $17.97 I spent.
What new writing hacks have you discovered lately?
Also, if you are a morning writer, do you find that concentrated screen time early in the day messes with your body’s “wake-up” process? I’m actually quite curious about this one, because while I’ve begun mornings with a pen and paper, I’ve never dived into creative writing on a keyboard until I’ve at least had my morning coffee. 🙂
“I would watch that show,” he said emphatically. “It sure would be better than some of the stuff out there.”
On the upside, that meant my life’s recent events were interesting. On the downside, it meant they were also somewhat melodramatic—unfortunately something I had no control over at the time.
Can you relate?
While I won’t get into the details of the scenario to which my friend referred, suffice to say it had caused quite the social upset among some people close to me. It made me realize that the reason some sitcoms thrive isn’t because they’re far-fetched, but because they could happen to any of us—even those of us who try to eschew life drama with every fiber of our being.
What I learned was that, while I love a good televised or written drama, those types of events are actually quite painful in reality. We might empathize with the characters in the story, but at the end of the day, it is still entertainment. We are still being entertained by their fictitious tragedies and triumphs. So what happens when we are suddenly the characters in a live soap opera? Does the scenario lose its charm?
Usually. That is, for most of us.
The intrigue of two real-life colleagues trying to one-up each other becomes too stressful.
The drama of a real-life family dividing against itself becomes too painful.
The tension of a real-life love triangle becomes too agonizing.
The repeated rejection of the real-life underdog becomes too disheartening.
All of these elements work their way into film, and yet they are no fun to live out in real life. It’s because they involve real people with real decisions and feelings, whose lives only get one draft—no rewrites if the script goes awry.
There are some moments I remember having during the aforementioned life saga which, although excruciating at the time, I can look back now with a laugh. Conversations that literally sounded like a script. Moments when I knew that the imaginary audience of my life was gasping in shock, pity, or chagrin. Moments when I knew the same imaginary audience was rolling in the aisles with laughter at the irony of my predicaments. While it didn’t make any of those moments easier, the days, weeks, months, and years that followed gave me a clearer perspective (as time usually does) on what had actually happened and how significant or insignificant those events really were.
In short, time gave me the “viewer’s perspective.”
Much of what happened would have been laughable if it didn’t happen to me.
Now, I’m not talking about truly traumatic events or life-and-death situations. Those are not laughable, no matter whom they happen to. I’m talking about the dramatic episodes we sometimes find ourselves in, which seem like the most monumental crises at the time, but which pass and leave us wiser in the end. I’m talking about the stuff of, well, sitcoms.
It’s all just part of being human. But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we won’t forget—and sometimes, if we do forget, we are missing out on prime comedic material. Part of healing can mean learning to take something less seriously—learning to recognize it as absurd or ironic and, instead of languishing over it, laugh at it. If we can separate ourselves from the emotions of the situation enough to look at it from the viewer’s perspective, we might just be able to appreciate some of the humor woven into our tumultuous little narratives.
Maybe it’s a part of maturing. Or maybe it’s just called making the most of a real-life melodrama.
What’s your take?
No need to share embarrassing stories (although they are definitely welcome)… but what are some ways you’ve coped with the drama of life?
Are you the type of person who creates the drama? (Which raises the question of whether drama queens ever know they are drama queens…)
Are you the type to flee drama and dramatic people? Are you an unwilling victim of drama?
Or are you perhaps the invisible audience laughing at everyone else’s drama???
We’ve all heard the pro-networking adages:
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
“You scratch their back, and they scratch yours.”
“It helps to have friends in high places.”
Now all of the above are true—I’m not here to question that. What I find a bit disturbing, though, is the degree to which this last adage has narrowed our concept of who is worth our time.
We are trained in school, by our parents, by our superiors, and by the media to always be on the lookout for strategic contacts and make sure to latch on when we find them. Who knows? Maybe the person sitting across from you can pull the strings to get you that job. Or that promotion. Or that publishing contract. Or that audition. Or… or…
You get the idea.
But what I find sad about this mindset is that it often leads us to either make compromises that we shouldn’t make or miss out on something entirely:
This is beyond peer pressure—it’s superior pressure. It’s when we find ourselves pretending to be something we’re not in order to make a good impression. It’s when we bend our moral code a little to satisfy someone else’s expectations. We can catch ourselves doing this sooner than we may think, if we believe people “in power” hold all the cards.
In short, if we accept the idea that gatekeepers hold the key to all of our success, we may end up chasing our tails or selling out on who we are. Not to mention, we will miss out other connections that may actually prove more meaningful.
While it’s great when you can get in front of decision makers, most people we meet are not “the decision makers.” Does this mean we should simply ignore them or limit our circle to individuals who can put us in front of decision makers?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think there is a danger in trying to quantify the amount of “value” any given connection can give us, because that means we are reducing other humans to economic terms of profit and loss. If we find ourselves asking, “Is this person worth getting to know?” we are in dangerous waters. How can we possibly know that until we know the person? And what’s more, who are we to measure the value of a new acquaintance by what they can do for us? If that’s the question we are asking, we’re bound to wind up with a bunch of parasitic relationships—symbiotic at best. And if mutual dependence is the main motivator, then as soon as one person no longer needs the other, the bridge will probably dissolve.
This is not to say networking is inherently selfish—it’s not the activity that’s selfish, it’s the mindset behind it.
If we are only looking for friends in high places, we will probably not have very many friends, and even fewer loyal ones.
Which is why I would encourage all of us writers, artists, and career folks to make friends in all places, not just the high ones. Because at the end of the day, real friendships and meaningful connections have very little to do with power and rank disparity and everything to do with what two people share in common.
What has been your experience with networking?
What kinds of pressures have you faced in the process?
How do you go about building meaningful connections that are also strategic?
What you are about to read is a collection of the four unspoken, yet ubiquitous, components that are essential for writing unrivaled, mind-blowing blog posts.
Yet, as I scoured and studied the habits of the Greats (meaning those who have thousands of followers), I began to recognize several common factors underlying many of their blog posts.
These Greats trumpet the merits of well-known and oft-proclaimed strategies such as writing solid content, planning, revising, and citing other bloggers. But the dirty little secret ultimately responsible for their success far outweighs these pedestrian practices: it is the four objects subliminally present in every idyllic blogger photo.
For my readers’ benefit, I shall identify each of these four mystical objects, without which one can never hope to write a truly great blog post.
Glean what wisdom you may.
No great work was ever written without the presence of coffee, tea, or some other fluid poured into a cozy-looking mug (preferably cradled in a saucer). Research has yet to prove whether the actual fluid itself is of any importance—so far all that can be verified is the positive correlation between aesthetic drinks and content quality. Those seeking exceptional blog posts should consider swirling some white, creamy substance into the surface of their drink to enhance its beauty and subsequently their own brilliance.
To purchase any other brand is folly; to use said device for blogging is creative suicide. Only the MacBook, with its slender, silver body and minimalistic keys can fully transmit your message to the screen. While the magic of the Mac is not an ability to conjure ideas (coffee mugs and Components 3 and 4 do that), its inherent powers of Chic infuse raw ideas with unequaled, hipster-level eloquence and efficiency.
Whether or not you use said pen and notebook is irrelevant—the key is simply to keep them within reach, as these objects are known to channel the elusive forces of creativity. Their necessity is actually rather controversial, considering that their wanton use of paper has been decried as wasteful; however, this social ill can easily be remedied by the perpetual reuse of a single, blank notebook for every blog post.
When the succulent emerged as a commonly photographed blogging asset is difficult to pinpoint—however, it likely took place in conjunction with the rise of the MacBook. The specific power of the succulent remains relatively unidentified, unlike its three counterparts, whose influences boast extensive scientific verification. What has been discovered, however, is that bloggers whose photos feature only the first three objects experience less predictable success than those who regularly incorporate a succulent into their photos. The location of the succulent, unlike that of the notebook, does seem to bear some significance.
This could mean applying a selective focus to the camera lens and placing the succulent in the unfocused zone, or one could simply sneak the succulent into the background (e.g. partially hidden by the MacBook). Consistent with the theme of subtlety, it is also recommended to choose a small succulent, lest it unwittingly attract too much attention and sabotage the creative forces it helps to summon.
I have compiled these four blogging gimmicks both for a laugh and for a point I think is worth making: When we take all of our cues from what other people do, we often become followers of a fad. I have actually learned a good deal from following certain other bloggers (who truly do put out great content), and what makes them great isn’t their conformity to a specific aesthetic, vibe, or trend.
Moushmi Radhanpara writes heartfelt poetry, among other things. Pooja shares a combination of her thoughts, poetry, and six-word stories. Ailish Sinclair posts gorgeous photos of Scotland with sneak-peeks at her historical fiction novels. Kamal offers poetic analogies and insights into otherwise mundane aspects of life. The list goes on.
I hope you enjoyed reading this little snarky entry as much as I enjoyed writing it. And more importantly, I hope you continue to create according to your own gifts, interests, and “aesthetics”—not someone else’s idea of what the idyllic blog looks like. 🙂
Drop a comment and let me know if you’ve noticed other blogging gimmicks! Or if you simply agree with this list.
Or… if you yourself have identified the mysterious power of The Succulent.
Today I was caught in a hailstorm.
Well, not by the time you read this—the storm happened on April 7.
And obviously I survived it. In fact, within two minutes of making it in through the back door, I looked out the window and saw that the pebble-sized chunks falling had turned to rain, and those on the ground were quickly dissolving.
I’ll probably remember the incident for a while, until the next time the sky decides to throw ice at me, and then that will be “the hail storm” I remember.
It’s similar with history.
People say every generation is known for something. That may be true, but what was your grandparents’ generation known for? Or their parents? Or the generation before them?
Even the greatest generations have a way of dissolving with time, leaving only a few key political or cultural figures in the contemporary memory.
The thing is, unless you manage to overthrow an entire political or social system, start a cultural movement (which everyone seems dying to do these days, so please let’s have no more), win (or start) a war, or create some physical or literary masterpiece, your chances of being remembered past your grandchildren’s generation are pretty slim. And yet we still try.
Why do we do this?
Some simply want to achieve fame, little realizing that a window of glory in their lifetime does not translate to lasting renown and notoriety. Others think they can become immortal by cementing their names in the history books. And in most cases, the underlying motivation for wanting to be remembered is quite selfish.
As someone who has long romanticized the idea of creating a work that will outlive me, I’ve given this subject some hard thought, and this is the realization I’ve come to:
Not on unreached generations, who will one day read with fascination the words we wrote or behold in awe a statue of us. But the people who see us every day, who call us every other month, who ask for our advice and give theirs in return, or even those who receive one kind gesture from us—those are the people who constitute our legacy. Oh yeah, and your children are also kind of significant too. They are the people singularly most shaped by your words, actions, and attitudes, who will inevitably bear some of your characteristics into the future.
This doesn’t mean the world will remember our name, but if we can think beyond ourselves in any capacity, we should realize that our name is not the important thing to remember. It’s what we stand for that counts.
That being said, there are brilliant novelists whose personal lives shot their story’s message in the foot– at least for those who knew them. They may have publicly championed great causes and beliefs in their books, but in some cases the only people who could appreciate the book were those who didn’t know the author. That, fellow readers and book nerds, is a tragedy.
So even if we do go on to achieve some master accomplishment that makes the history books, we should take care that our private legacy doesn’t undermine the one we’ve spent a lifetime trying to build.
But for most of us, our names will be forgotten with time. So let’s spend less of of our time building an empire, and more of it building into others.
Not that we all compose scripts, no, not that kind of writing. What I’m talking about is the fact that, regardless of what medium we are writing for, we have been compelled to do it through a screen.
There’s a number of reasons why this makes sense.
Simply put, it’s much easier to edit a virtual document using “copy,” “paste,” and “backspace” functions than it is to scribble out, erase, and rewrite entire paragraphs on a physical sheet of paper. Not to mention, it will save you from all the paper-shaming you’ll get from the green culture for wasting trees!
Starting your creation in virtual form also saves the step of typing it up later, which is inevitable for those who want to publish. (Side note: my first novel started off as handwritten. In pencil. Yup. Needless to say, transcribing 250 pages into a Word doc was no picnic.)
Does this mean that starting your story or article on a computer is shooting yourself in the foot? Well, the research (as usual) is not complete on this, but it shows some pretty consistently adverse effects on the brain development of children. The lack of research on adults could mean that, scientifically speaking, using a screen to write doesn’t inherently cripple the quality of your work.
All the same, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the amount of time I am forced to stare at a screen. Aside from the headaches and eye strain, I find it difficult to get “in the zone” for any given story when my stare is fixated on a glaring white screen. It seems to tangibly impair my imagination and ability to visualize scenes and settings—especially those in historical time periods.
While some things may not require the same level of sensory immersion or focus in order to get the creative juices flowing, I do wonder how much of writers’ block these days may be because the very tool we are using to write impedes our ability to imagine.
Is this the case for you? Do you find creative writing difficult while using a screen and keyboard?
Do you ever handwrite first drafts of something, and later transcribe it during the editing process?
If you yourself write historical fiction, how do you handle the distraction of a screen? How you mentally overcome the deluge of technology in order to stay in the zone? Please do share your thoughts on this, I am extremely eager for input!
That’s all well and good, but first we have to define “success,” don’t we?
I mean, one person may churn out melodramatic teenage vampire novels, while another compiles decades of life experience into one heartfelt story. Two very different ideas of success.
But I’m not going to propose a step-by-step formula for how to become a “successful” writer of any kind. Frankly, we should be skeptical of those who do. What I do want to share are three virtues that every writer must possess and practice in order to stick through the publication process and be rightfully proud of the outcome:
Well, some people write because they are passionately proud of themselves first and foremost, and they want everyone else to think they’re great too.
Here’s the kicker: unless your passion centers on something bigger than yourself, no one else is going to find the book worth reading. Or the poem. Or the song! Not that we shouldn’t let our personal experiences inform our writing (we absolutely should), but our motivation to write needs to come from a belief primarily in the story itself—not in ourselves.
There is a place for believing in your writing ability, but first you must believe in your characters, or there will be nothing interesting for those reading the book. (See my post on developing compelling characters.)
Stories and characters take time to develop and mature, just like us and our writing skills. This is one reason why revision is so crucial. Not only will you catch mistakes in the manuscript, but by the time you finish the first draft, you will no doubt have sharpened your word choice, flow, and character voices. It’s worth going back and making sure the first half sounds as good as the second. And when it comes to publication, whether you go through traditional or self-publishing, TAKE YOUR TIME.
In talking with one of my fellow novelists, Brendan Noble, author of the Prism Files series, it’s refreshing to hear another self-published writer who believes in thoroughness first. It’s exciting to see his series taking off—and not at the expense of the quality. Like many things, I think it comes down to a fundamental understanding of love. Do you love your story and its characters enough to help them reach their best? If submitting to publishers, do you believe in the book enough to keep sending query after query after query after query (think I’ve done this?) until finally someone takes it? Or if no one ever does take it, do you believe in the story enough to publish it without the help of the professionals? Either way, give it every ounce of the time and effort it deserves.
You probably expected the third virtue to be “pride” or something similar. Nope.
All other forms of pride can get in the way when crafting the manuscript into a masterpiece. We absolutely have to be able to take and actually seek out criticism. (See my post on revision.) I remember holding an audience feedback session after the debut staged reading of my latest play… and some of those comments stung. But you know what?
The audience was right. The script I thought was pretty near perfect had a long way to go yet, and it ended up undergoing three extensive rewrites before it was production-ready.
I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we enjoy criticism, but most people don’t like open heart surgery either.
And yet it saves lives. The fact is, every first manuscript just about needs open heart surgery before it’s ready for publication. So at least we know it’s nothing personal!
Do you agree with this list of virtues for writers? Which ones did I miss?
What are some things you’ve learned throughout your own writing process?
“Final” draft does not mean “perfect” draft.
This becomes especially (nay, painfully) clear when you see one of your works in print.
Take it from me—I published a novel last summer, later to find that there were several errors in the printed manuscript. While I still believe self-publishing was the best choice for this particular novel, I learned first-hand the value of multiple editing rounds and critical eyes.
Part of me winced when I found these. I’d given it countless pre-publication read-throughs. How could I have missed these mistakes?
I have to admit, it’s humbling to share this publicly. And it doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my book—I still am, and thankfully I’ve been able to update the manuscript with the necessary edits.
(See my post on revision for more.)
Having known the excitement tainted by surprise as I paged through my first published novel, I understand on a whole new level the value of extensive (astronomically extensive) editing. But I also understand that the world didn’t end because there were a few typos. People still liked the book. The characters still had their own voices. The professionalism of the book, however, could have benefited from more close read-throughs.
And happily, I can now say that it has!
And that’s okay!
While we shouldn’t let the fear of failure stop us from stepping out, we also shouldn’t use our natural flaws as a free pass from hard work. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that our best two years from now will be better than our best today—if we go all-in every time and commit to improving at each chance we get.
In what ways have you dealt with perfectionism in your work? Do you think it usually helps you or hinders you?
If you’re a writer, what have you learned from the process of “rough draft to final draft?” What motivates you to try again when something doesn’t turn out as planned?
In reality, this goes for everyone, not just writers.
But what’s interesting is that there’s a special term for this in writing—revising. Okay, that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that we view change in writing as a given—as something that is inherently part of the process if you want a product to come out top-notch. No writer particularly delights in revision, but any writer worth their salt knows that it’s an investment that will pay off in the final result.
To be fair, some of us dread it more than others, and some of us are better at it than others—but what’s consistent is that change in our external circumstances requires us to adapt, whether we like it or not.
Maybe it’s just an over-representation bias, but I’d bet that more people fear the unexpected changes in life. Each day, we spend more time in hypothetical-land worrying about what new catastrophe could strike, rather than wondering what fresh, groundbreaking opportunities will fall out of the sky.
As with many of our topics here, there are probably oodles of philosophies, psychological theories, and maybe even quantum mechanics explanations as to why we as human tend to worry about the future’s changes instead of chasing them with anticipation. I will not attempt to explain the why. I’m more interested in what we can learn from the world of storytelling.
Because here is what it comes down to:
A writer going over his manuscript knows there will be parts he doesn’t like that he still has to keep. He knows there will be parts he loves that he has to lose. He knows there will be inconsistencies to straighten out, messes to clean up, and sections that need complete reinvention. All this can sound so overwhelming! It stalls many a writer from picking up the red pen, simply because of the sheer amount of drudgery and frustration this process involves.
The determined writer uncaps the red pen and gets to work.
That’s the writer worth his salt.
How many hurdles might we overcome if we stop staring at them and just take the leap? How many wounds might heal if we stop denying them and give ourselves the space to recover? We will always be faced with changes we didn’t count on and didn’t want—not much we can do to avoid that. But what we can do is recognize what’s different, accept it, and make the adjustment. Compensate. Adapt. Evolve, if you prefer.
Because every one of us is work in progress—no one is the final draft until the day his or her life ends. That’s pretty final. We all have revisions to make, and the clock is ticking.
Let’s be writers worth our salt.
Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? What buyer wants to walk out of a store dissatisfied?
While this little series has previously explored the parallels between storytelling and business sales, here we come to a fork in the road: because the “close” of one ought to look vastly different from the other.
Which is why I ask you to consider this question, in reference to stories:
Since when are predictable endings satisfying?
Without it, companies and products would have horrible reviews from disgruntled patrons who feel shortchanged. Because in business, you must always deliver exactly what you promise. Sure, you can exceed customer expectations by giving them what they ask for and more, but if what you give them is fundamentally different from what they expect, then you’ll be hearing about it later.
Not that you should turn a rom com into a horror film at the last moment, or that the hero should turn out to be a villain (although both have been done). What I mean is that if your lead character is the exact same person by the end of the story as he was when your readers cracked open the book, then you’ve let them down. Unlike a Swiffer mop, he shouldn’t operate the same way after purchase as he did in the demo. And it’s not because readers and viewers simply crave change—it’s because real people don’t function the same way at the end of a wild ride as they did in the beginning.
So what’s the point of all this? Why bother comparing sales to storytelling if they don’t line up at the end?
As a writer (and really, as anything), I think there is always something to be gained by considering a craft from a fresh angle. When we do something frequently enough, we can begin to think of it narrowly and to settle with what’s comfortable. By taking a new perspective, we open the door to discoveries that can help us improve and personalize our work. And while no one can give you an exact formula for creating a character arc, we would do well to think about it consciously as we write.
Because if we forget to let our character change, then our readers will inevitably forget our character.
What do you think goes into a successful character arc?
Have you had success at writing characters who change by the end of the story?
What are some books whose “close” left you unsatisfied with the lead character’s arc?
Which ones do you think pull it off well?
Do you find it unsettling when people vanish from your life?
“Depends on the person,” you say.
But in general, when people who formerly played some semi-notable or even regular role in your life leave it, you usually have a sense of why.
I find it interesting that media does not always abide by these rules.
Books seem to do this less, because they work as more of a cohesive whole, and the entire plot can be affected if a significant minor character falls through the cracks. Movie series can get a bit dicey. And TV series… well…
We’ve all heard the complaint about a favorite character getting killed off in a show. But getting killed off at least accounts for the disappearance. Classic examples: Matthew’s death in Downton Abbey, Lord Melbourne’s death in Victoria, Elizabeth’s death in Poldark, and so on. If you’re familiar with any of these, then you’ll know what I mean when I ask the following:
Julian Fellowes generally provides a clean break for any exiting characters, but this one could have used some more follow-up. The last we see of Charles, he is going on a six-month trip after helping Mary ditch Tony Gillingham.
Although the final episode of season 2 ends with her getting engaged to Alfred, she never makes a single appearance or receives a single reference throughout the entirety of season 3! Meanwhile, Alfred carries on years later at the palace, chipper and single as ever.
Not that he vanishes, but the fact that he’s still there by the time Geoffrey Charles grows up. That dog has to be at least eighteen years old, considering he entered the show with Demelza in the first episode. Now I’m all for dogs lasting a long time, but you’d think he’d show some age at least by now. My dog certainly does! But, on the other hand, considering his owners haven’t aged in eighteen years, why should he?
Don’t know these shows?
The trend of characters inexplicably vanishing goes way back! I have to admit, I didn’t recognize most of these shows, but here’s an interesting article that tallies the invisible corpses from various shows.
The fact that there are a number of such articles identifying lost characters suggests it’s not just the OCD audience members out there who find this unsettling. I think it bothers us because we crave a sense of continuity and a certain degree of predictability, both in media and in real life—which is understandable.
At least in the case of film series, each character’s reprisal requires the renewal of a contract, so it can’t be because the writers simply “forgot” to write him/her in. So why don’t they make up an excuse for their absence and weave that into the story somehow?
I don’t really have an answer to this, other than they must not consider the lost character important enough to require an explanation. Or perhaps this leaves the door open for the character to return?
One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a sign of sloppy writing. If a character is given enough screen time to develop a memorable impression on the audience, then that character deserves a coherent exit. Otherwise someone out there is going to notice it– and it’s bound to end up in an article someday! 😉
You know, when you finish it and feel like the wind was just knocked out of you—and not in a good way. There’s a number of ways this can happen:
Scenario 1: You’re already feeling miserable and you want a distraction, so you pick up a book or watch a movie you know nothing about… and somehow the experience and the storyline pours salt into the wound, leaving you worse off than before.
Scenario 2: You’re kind of coasting along, feeling “ready for anything,” so you start a book or movie that you know has some heavy stuff… only to find out you’re not as invincible as you thought.
Scenario 3: You know the story has the capacity to depress you, and so you wait until you think you are emotionally stable enough to handle it… but it ends up tugging on heartstrings you didn’t know you had and sending you reeling.
My recent experience of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls somehow did more than all of these combined.
It depicted, more accurately than I have ever seen before, the critical pieces of slowly losing a parent.
The attempt to persuade yourself the treatments will work.
The attempt to keep functioning.
The underlying anger.
But most poignantly, the secret wish that it would all just end.
I think I went through about eleven tissues.
How does this happen?
It’s a strange tonic.
This is not to say that a story itself can single-handedly provide healing from any major loss. Of course it can’t. But inasmuch as it can emotionally re-break you, it can also re-heal you, if it is told a certain way and if you are ready for it.
A year ago, I could never have watched this movie, because everything was still too fresh. I would have been more sad, more depressed, and more angry than I was before. But now, for some reason, now—I was ready.
How do you know when you’re ready?
There is a lot of research out there about the grieving process, and the different stages of grief (if you want depressing content, just look there!), but it all varies depending our different personalities, circumstances, beliefs, and other factors. The thing is, we just can’t break it into a formula. So what one person finds therapeutic (though tear-jerking) at one year, another person may need seven years before they can derive anything beneficial. Or maybe never.
Some people are more naturally resilient to moving stories that would break other people’s hearts. Or some people can appreciate sadness in a story without feeling prodded toward depression. But for some of us, there’s a wound that needs to be kept in mind. I’m certainly not suggesting that we avoid anything that might make us cry—sometimes we need to cry. But there’s a difference between tears of release when something resonates with us, and tears of fresh pain when something digs deeper into an existent wound.
But if you are the kind of person who finds any comfort in stories, I highly, highly recommend this film. At some point during your journey of healing, when you are ready. It is much more than a realistic portrayal of terminal illness. It is a beautiful allegory of a much higher Truth, a much higher Being, that anyone experiencing grief is invited to call upon and, in doing so, receive healing.
Admittedly I was mostly interested in seeing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones starring opposite one another again (after first seeing their acting chemistry in The Theory of Everything, I couldn’t pass this one by). But within the first few minutes, the inductive plot development, accompanied with character clues through flashbacks, brought together so many different concepts that I’ve spent time on recently, that I simply had to keep watching.
Who made the ascent with him, however, is where the story takes a major artistic turn. In the movie, Glaisher (Redmayne) takes his trip with the widow of a former French aeronaut—a sprightly young woman named Amelia Wren (Jones). This is where the story got a bit creative, to say the least.
It turns out that Glaisher was accompanied on this particular mission by another male scientist, Henry Tracy Coxwell. While I suspected that Amelia’s character may have been embellished, I was a bit surprised to learn that she never existed. Instead, she was drawn together by a number of real women in aeronautical science, and named after Amelia Earhart, whose adventures would not come for another 60 years.
Overall, the movie takes you on a riveting (and dizzying) journey above the clouds with these two, as they discover uncharted territory in the sky, each other, and themselves. Facts aside, it made an inspiring statement about going where no other has gone before, and pushing oneself to the highest achievements possible—all while recognizing one’s own limits.
In creating Amelia’s character, the writers portray a woman defying the limits imposed on her gender by an otherwise male-dominated field. And yet as Glaisher and Amelia climb higher into the atmosphere, they must both come to terms with their physical and mental fragility against the forces of nature. Well, actually, Amelia somehow stays conscious for almost half an hour after Glaisher faints from oxygen deprivation, so apparently she wasn’t as fragile as he was. But still, she eventually loses consciousness at 36,000 feet.
The warning here echoes of the Icarus myth. It’s all well and good to reach high (and we ought to), but we cannot forget our own weakness and frailty as humans. Not as women or men, but as humans.
A bit, in my opinion. I generally dislike politically charged movies, but in this case what stood out wasn’t the exultation of women over men, but the shared impediments and ingenuity of both genders.
While I was a bit disappointed to learn that Amelia Wren never existed or set the record alongside James Glaisher, I can appreciate the creative choice to invent her. Placing both a man and a woman in the balloon enabled the film makers to communicate a message about people as a whole:
Our unique gifts and callings ought to be pursued—but we must always remember that no matter how high we soar, we can never change our basic needs as humans.
The fact is, if you’re in my generation or younger, it’s a safe assumption that you have taken at least several. Okay, yeah, I just dated myself, but I’ve probably already done that in previous posts.
For those of you who precede my generation (millennials), I don’t mean a quiz that measures your knowledge of a character in a story—I mean a quiz that attempts to identify which character you are most like.
Think of it as a personality type quiz—except that the results are confined to the cast of characters in whatever book or movie in question.
As an eager victim of these quizzes (for better or worse), I never cease to find them simultaneously amusing and horrifying.
What about Star Wars?
Ever wondered which Mean Girl you secretly are? (I did once, and then it told me I was Karen…)
The point is, people find these quizzes fascinating—otherwise the internet wouldn’t be oozing with them. But why do we bother with them?
For a good laugh?
To pass the time in the waiting room?
Or are they really just another mind-numbing activity?
I mean, you’re not going to figure out who you should marry or what you should do for a living based off a quiz on Buzzfeed. But what these quizzes do give us is a license to do what we already subconsciously do no matter what:
The truth is, no matter the genre, the time period, the actors, or any of that, we always look for ourselves in the story. We try to find a character with whom we can identify to at least some degree, in whose welfare we become invested. (See my article on La La Land.) If we never find this character, chances are we find the entire book or movie pretty boring. Sound familiar?
As a rhetorical concept, identification receives a good deal of attention in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and Walter Fisher’s writings on the narrative paradigm. In sum, Burke argues that the degree to which Person A identifies with Person B affects how much influence that Person B has over Person A. Building on this, Fisher proposed in his narrative paradigm that if an audience identifies with a character in a story, then their emotions and opinions about the story will be shaped by whatever happens to that character.
So in short, any time we see a movie or read a book, we are looking for a character who we think represents us.
Does this mean we’re all narcissistic? Maybe a little. But think about it—how would we ever learn or glean anything meaningful from a story if we never “placed ourselves in the characters’ shoes?”
We do this already any time we open a book or put on a movie, without even realizing it. But the popularity of character quizzes is a testament to this.
No matter how silly the questions or ridiculous the results (okay, my Disney villain was Jafar, which is convictingly accurate), we derive some pleasure out of whatever shallow self-examination and comparison the quiz offers. We enjoy walking through the mental paces of the questions, trying to figure out what we would do if placed in the world of the story, and who our friends would be in that world.
And even if we end up being compared to a ditzy snowman (yes, my overall Disney character was Olaf), we can at least laugh and see our quirks in a new, humorous light.
I mean, let’s be honest: any time you read a great book or finish a great movie, somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder if there will be more –unless, of course, the author is dead (and no, fanfiction does not count). If this were false, sequels wouldn’t sell the way they do.
Why is it we want more? Is it because the story left things open-ended? Is it because it was a cliff-hanger? Or is it simply our voyeuristic curiosity to know what the characters do with the rest of their lives?
Whatever it is, it has led hundreds—nay, thousands—of writers into plotline pandemonium (or frankly, lameness) and character catastrophes (or frankly, contradictions).
With each new installment the writers attempt to perform CPR on a corpse, failing to realize that they are the ones who killed it in the first place.
It might feel incomplete, but if it has no life on its own, then adding Part II or even Part VIII isn’t going to breathe life into it.
At this point, I tread dangerously near the edge of controversy. I would avoid naming names, but alas, it’s impossible.
Take for instance Andrew Lloyd Weber: the man is a brilliant composer and storyteller through music. But I cannot bring myself to watch The Phantom of the Opera’s sequel, Love Never Dies (even though I sang the title song in my junior recital). Although *some* of the music in the sequel is comparably beautiful to that in the second, as a continuation of the story, it destroys the characters—not to mention, it robs any meaning from the original’s iconic “All I Ask of You.” Where is the beauty in the commitment Christine and Raoul make in Phantom if they throw it all away in Love Never Dies?
Okay, maybe I’m plunging off the edge of controversy now.
But Pirates of the Caribbean… I’ll defend the choice to make the trilogy, but I think everyone can agree that the first was capable as a stand-alone. It had a complete plot arc, a somewhat complete character arc (at least for Will), and a signature swashbuckling finish that left ends just open enough for a sequel or two. But even without the sequels, it would still have been a good film.
The hole they dug themselves into with this one was the introduction of a fourth. Not only did it have an inferior plotline, but the new characters it introduced were one-dimensional tropes pulled off the front-row shelf—even if they have the faces of Penelope Cruz and Sam Claflin. That being said, the fifth was a slight improvement from the fourth, but I don’t think they can ever match the glory of the trilogy. Basically, in making the fourth, the directors opened a can of worms they seem reluctant to close back up again… even if it would be best for the world of cinema.
And then there’s Star Wars… I won’t say much here, because I never saw the prequels and stopped watching after the seventh and Rogue One, so I’m utterly unqualified to give any assessment. But I do know the creation of the latest two trilogies has caused simultaneous enthusiasm and eye-rolling.
It makes me wonder, as do these other cases, what exactly is it that makes a story ripe for a sequel? Aside from those cases where it’s obvious that the story will be a saga (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), what components set up a stand-alone for a second installment?
What are some stories out there that could have done fine without a sequel?
Which ones could have used a part II? And which ones absolutely should never have received a follow-up?
The first time I saw the film, I struggled simply to keep up with the plot twists—as any normal human probably would. But what I could follow quite lucidly was the development of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, as the movie inevitably swerved deeper and deeper into the layers of his subconscious. The thing is, for all his cleverness in infiltrating the minds of other people, Cobb remains a fugitive from his own mind—or more specifically, what (appears to be) his memories.
As the plot of Inception progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb is running from something in his past (or what he believes is the past) while simultaneously trying to carry out his mission of planting an idea in someone else’s mind. Eventually we learn that this dreaded memory is the death of his wife Mal, which he attributes to the “fact” that he suggested to her that the life they created together was in a world of sham. While we never really figure out (at least, I still haven’t) whether Mal actually committed suicide, the part that haunts Cobb throughout the entire movie is the simple idea that he is responsible.
There is a lot to dissect in this movie, what with all the layers of reality and unreality, which I obviously don’t have the space to do here—and also just don’t have the mental elasticity to do!
Basically, if we have strong enough feelings tied to our perception of an event, that event becomes real to us and we begin to treat its memory as such. And because we derive so much of our identity from our memories, these events (whether real or unreal) feed into our view of ourselves.
We see this fact illustrated all the time in movies and books. Think about it—how many flashback scenes or reflection scenes have you seen where the character’s memories are used to show you something important about who he is? And it’s really only the emotional memories that do this, isn’t it?
That’s part of what Inception is telling us.
And while this blurring of lines could lead to all sorts of philosophical theories and discussions (postmodernism, subjectivism, and surrealism, to name a few), at the very least it encourages us to consider how much of our personal identity is based off of our emotional impressions of the past—or what our minds have construed as the past.
How has our acceptance or denial of responsibility for past events shaped our personal identity?
And what are the implications if our assessments are actually wrong? Does this mean our identity is built on a lie?
See, I thought that writing this might help make some sense of the movie—which to some degree it has—but now I’m realizing that I really ought to watch it again. Which, if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. But you better strap yourself in, or you might get lost! Actually, just be prepared to get lost, because I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to. 🙂
If not, do NOT read any further or you will forever rue the day that you let me spoil it for you.
I briefly explained the two types of recalling that stories use in order to either reveal information or to reiterate it in the minds of the audience. If you didn’t read last week’s article, it might be helpful to get the background, because I’m going to dive right into this week’s topic:
In this type of reflection, the story takes a moment to immerse the viewer/reader in the recollection of past events/characters that we as the audience have witnessed. It is reminding us of an event or person that we actually saw or met in the story, and inviting us to remember that experience along with the character currently engaged in reflection.
But what does this accomplish?
Nostalgia, grief, regret, anger, fondness, satisfaction… the list goes on. But usually we are supposed to be experiencing whichever emotion the character is also experiencing. (I mean, how often do we see a flashback in the character’s life and think “Wow, I can’t believe he’s not over that yet”?).
Most moments of reflection only happen with characters we can identify with, because they are the only ones whose memories we consider significant. And consequently, they are the ones whose emotions we will empathize with! So basically, the more we relate to a character, the more easily the storytellers can make us experience that character’s emotions. To put it mathematically,
More relatable character = More power over our emotions.
“Okay, but where are you going with this?” you ask.
Valid question. A question it took me 82 pages to answer in my senior thesis.
Here’s where La La Land comes in.
You know that flashback sequence where Mia and Sebastian see each other in Sebastian’s new club after five years of going their separate ways? If you go back and watch the movie again, you’ll see that scene after scene leading up to this moment, we have been given intimate glimpses into their inner thoughts, feelings, and desires (especially Mia’s). These glimpses enable us to perceive the moments of fear, embarrassment, awkwardness, disappointment, and excitement that make them human. This 2-hour long process prepares us for the wild ride at the end.
It’s simply the last, most powerful moment of recollection we experience through their eyes, and it leaves us as dizzy as they are. Because after all, isn’t that life?
We blunder and soar through experience after experience and decision after decision, collecting these memories that all have different emotional associations, and the minute we stop to look back on them as a whole, we realize how tangled up everything is. This doesn’t make it meaningless, it simply makes it mixed.
So how do Mia and Sebastian feel at the end of their reflection? Well, it’s hard to say—by design.
Don’t take my word for it, read the script! The directions in the script are actually written so as to make it unclear exactly what sentiments these two people have at the end, after strolling down memory and imagination lane.
I used to think I missed something, and that was why I couldn’t decide how I felt about the ending. It was this confusion that motivated me to study the film for my senior Rhetoric and Public Address thesis. But after doing the research, after dissecting the film scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, line-by-line, I realized my confusion wasn’t because I’d missed something. It was because the flashback sequence did its job.
There is a huge stack of research that I don’t have space to include organically in this article, but if you are even remotely interested in the overlap between film theory and psychology, I highly recommend you peruse the sources below. The kind of exciting news is that Hillsdale College is working towards publishing my thesis, so a more thorough discussion of this topic and its implications will be available before too long!
But for those of you who have already seen the movie, please let me know your thoughts!
Did you leave the film feeling satisfied with the ending, or like you’d just taken a punch to the gut? Do you think the film makers achieved their goal? What effect did the reflection sequence have on you?
And if you read to the end without watching the movie, well, shame on you. Still watch the movie though. 🙂
Carroll, Noèl. “The Power of Movies.” Daedalus, 114, no. 4 (1985): 89-92.
Dannenberg, H.P. Coincidence and counterfactuality: Plotting time and space in narrative fiction. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
Lambrou, Marina. Rethinking Language, Text, and Context. New York: Routledge, 2019.
Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
Roese, J.N. and J.M. Olson. “Counterfactuals, causal attributions, and the hindsight bias: A conceptual integration.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 32 (1996): 197-227.
Russell, James A. The Psychology of Facial Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Soules, Marshall. Media, Persuasion, and Propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
I don’t mean staring into a mirror. And I don’t necessarily mean long, soul-searching contemplations on our inner being. I simply mean pausing to acknowledge or recall the past and its events. This could lead to a deeper thought process of comparing the past with our present, or even tracing the development of the present from the past—but it all starts with a simple pause triggered by something.
Perhaps it’s a visual object, like a family photo.
A smell that takes you back to childhood.
A song that reminds you of someone or some season of life.
Whatever it is, it temporarily immunizes you to the bombardments of the present and transports you backwards in time—for better or worse.
Maybe it’s something you don’t want to remember, but there it is, all the same. Or maybe it’s the kind of memory that makes you wish you could literally, and not just mentally, relive the experience.
I find it interesting that many stories (in fact, some of the best) do this.
We as the readers or viewers are invited to participate in that to whatever degree we have shared the experience.
This “sharing” of experience pans out in one of two ways.
In a sense, it’s a flashback whose purpose is to reveal information to us, not to recall it with us. A classic example is the flashback in Once Upon A Time in the West, where we see what Henry Fonda’s character did to Charles Bronson’s character long ago in order to explain why Bronson has been seeking revenge the entire movie. Or even It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the entire first hour and a half are, technically speaking, a flashback on George Bailey’s life in order to explain what has brought him to his present situation.
In this type of “reflection,” the reader or viewer does not actually engage in the act of recollection—we only perceive that the character is reflecting.
Take the film Up. At the beginning, we see a very brief but powerful montage of Carl Fredricksen’s married life with Ellie, before he is widowed and goes on to live out the main adventure portrayed in the story. When he rediscovers the old photo album near the end of the movie, we feel that we have lived those memories with him as he pages through. We can not only appreciate his nostalgia sympathetically, but empathetically, because we were “there” when he had those experiences. Ellie is not only a part of Carl’s memory—she is also a part of ours.
There is more to be said on this, which is why I’ve decided to make this topic a short series of posts. But for now, I want to open the discussion and see what you think about these two types of reflection that occur in storytelling.
Are certain kinds of stories prone to using one of these forms of reflection?
Are there some examples of books or movies that do just fine without any such pauses of reflection?
In either case, I think it’s noteworthy that so many stories play to our sense of memory in order to draw us in. Perhaps it’s a testament to the universally human nature of reflection, whether or not you consider yourself a sentimental person.
I don’t mean simply multiple appearances of said person in a variety of different hist-fic books, shows, or movies. I mean different works both devoted to that person, whose portrayals clash in some significant way.
Take for example the legendary King Arthur and Guinevere. Countless versions of their story have been told, many of them giving vastly different depictions of the main characters. I mean, the 2004 film stars a strapping young Clive Owen alongside Keira Knightley—as opposed to The First Knight, which embodies Arthur in a majestic-but-aged Sean Connery whose marriage to Guinevere is nothing short of cradle robbery. Oh yeah, and then there’s Camelot…
This really is no surprise, though, considering how longstanding of a legend King Arthur and his knights are.
Having first seen the movie The Young Victoria, written by Julian Fellowes (the same guy who wrote Downton Abbey!) and starring Emily Blunt, I got a very different impression of the woman whose story was later adapted in the BBC series Victoria by Daisy Goodwin. Of course, there would be some variations, as one is a standalone movie that only presents the beginning of her marriage and reign, whereas the other follows her life for three seasons (and counting).
There were definitely some points of overlap, probably due to known historical facts. In both, she is portrayed as a very independent, determined woman who spoke her mind freely. We also see her reluctance towards motherhood and her strong temper—two documented facts. But the thing that did not seem consistent between the two—in fact, was disturbingly inconsistent—was the nature of her marriage to Prince Albert.
Julian Fellowes captured one or two quarrels between the couple in his feature film, which suggested Victoria’s capacity for overreaction and irrational behavior—but it seems this is the norm in the world of BBC. It’s a rare moment when Victoria and Albert aren’t in a tiff over something.
I guess this confused me because I had never thought of their marriage being particularly tumultuous. After doing some research of my own, it seems like there might actually be something to this portrayal of constant conflict. Granted, some of these articles give only cursory (and potentially sensationalized) glances at the facts, but it made me wonder. Either the movie glosses over reality, or the show over-dramatizes reality, because the two depictions of Victoria are not entirely compatible.
Obviously historical fiction/elaboration is not inherently unethical, but it holds the power to either baptize or demonize a figure of the past.
Of course some figures have nobler legacies than others, but even the best and the worst of them were still human. When you’re telling stories about real people, the goal shouldn’t be to glamorize them beyond reason, and it shouldn’t be to simply state the cold, hard facts—that’s what documentaries are for. If you’re going to get creative with someone’s biography, it’s best to do so in a way that brings them down to earth or speculatively fleshes out their personality. Because no matter what other information might be missing, we know they were humans… and so is your audience.
This is probably an odd question, but it occurred to me the other day after finishing a journal entry. I haven’t journaled regularly in a long time. But when I paged through the spiral-bound, indigo-bluish notebook that has pencil-scrawlings from ten-year-old Shiloh and on, I noticed that almost every significant life event was in there. Not only that, but also what I thought or felt about it at the time it happened.
In a way, I can visibly trace the development of my internal character over the years.
Good heavens, at least I hope so. But why is that unnerving?
I guess because I think in terms of stories. Narratives.
In any story you read or write, you have a window of insight into each character. You may not have each character’s full biography or autobiography, but you usually have enough information to make some intelligent assessment about him.
You might know why the misfortunes befall him in the first place, while he’s left wondering.
You might see how his behavior changes as he grows older.
You might even be there when he dies.
But unless the story is told as a first-person narrative (literally documenting the character’s thoughts) or from an omniscient perspective we never know exactly what’s going on in his head.
Let’s consider historical fiction for a moment. In any fiction based on a real person, we are usually given the actual deeds of the person… explained by whatever motives the writer attributes to him/her. The writer has enough factual information to describe what the historical figure did—but, unless the person left behind detailed memoirs, the writer must infer the why. And the why that the writer comes up with is what frames the person as either good or bad within the story.
We see what other people do. They may even give reasons for their actions. But at the end of the day, we only have what they say and what they do. Nowhere are we given an objective window into their mind that shows us their real motives. We may not even observe them long enough to form a consistent impression of them. We may always be left speculating about their motives.
My journal contains my motives. If someone were to read it, they would see exactly why I made those hard decisions that marked turning points in my life. But they won’t. All they will see is the course of action I took—and the results.
People can’t read our minds, nor do they usually read our diaries. The “character” you are in life is, for practical purposes, determined by what you do. Those around us are left to deal with the consequences.
This is all another way of saying, from a literary perspective, that what we do with our time here matters. It matters because it shapes reality. And it matters because it defines the quality of our character in the narrative of life.
Imagine you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, engrossed in a movie or show. The characters are unique, the plot is gripping, the tension is building, and then suddenly your worst subconscious fear comes true—
Where did the originality go? The fresh energy?
No matter how interesting the first half-hour or so was, much of what follows grows stale, because you already know exactly what is going to happen 90% of the time.
Enter the princess… you know she’s going to fall in love with either the most eligible prince or the least-eligible-but-most-attractive outlaw.
Enter a member of the opposite sex that annoys the protagonist… you might as well save the date for their wedding.
Enter a wise old man… you know he’s going to give the protagonist the answer to all his problems, but it will just take the entire movie for the protagonist to follow the advice.
Well, you get the idea. Introducing a cookie-cutter scenario can take the wind of an otherwise unique story.
I ask this because, as both a reader and writer, I find it hard to draw the line between necessary tropes, or conventions, that establish the genre of a story and the tropes that feel like a sheet of recycled paper. One set helps raise some general expectations for the story, while the other makes the plot painfully predictable.
For instance, a windswept town with about 27 tumbleweeds rolling by gives “Once Upon a Time in the West” the familiar feeling of a Western. And yes, it ends with a gunfight, so it’s definitely a Western. But the mysterious and gradual development of the plot and characters almost feels like a Charles Dickens novel. While you have your typical handful of outlaws and gray-hats, you have no idea what they’re all going to do to each other and who’s going to get the girl in the end. And then, about halfway through, you think you know what’s going to happen based on how the trope pattern goes—only to find out you were wrong.
Then you have the cult film “The Princess Bride” (which, by the way, is equally hysterical in its novel form!). This story commits just about every fairy tale trope you can think of, and delivers you the ending you expect all along… but it intentionally delivers all this in an unexpected manner. As a satire, it never ceases to surprise you with its cheeky dialogue and self-aware humor, making it anything but your run-of-the-mill princess story.
I think this is a hard question to answer, but I suspect it has something to do with defying the expectations that a trope raises. In other words, if you introduce a scenario or a set of characters that triggers the audience’s anticipation of a predictable pattern, you have to surprise them in some way. Whether that means making the star-crossed couple realize they’re actually related (ahem, Star Wars) or having both the heroes ride off into the sunset without the girl (okay, I just spoiled Once Upon a Time in the West for you, but you should still watch it!), there has to be something that the audience doesn’t see coming. Otherwise, why should they bother continuing?
Some tropes are definitely more overused than others, but I think even the most recycled ones can be redeemed by an unexpected resolution or twist in the story’s plot.
Do you agree?
What are some tropes that make you yawn as soon as you see them? What books/shows/movies fall into predictable patterns too often?
Are there any stories that you think maintain their originality, even with a couple of tropes?
I’ve spent the past three weeks unpacking the character foils found in the TV series The Last Kingdom, and I promise next week we’ll move on to something else. 🙂 But I couldn’t help spending one more post on perhaps the most central foil relationship in the whole series: the relationship between Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Alfred the Great.
In fact, I think their constant fluctuation between friendship and rivalry makes up the main drama of the first three seasons.
Uhtred is pagan, Alfred is a devout Christian.
Uhtred is torn between loyalties, Alfred has a single-minded drive to unite England.
Uhtred is physically robust, Alfred suffers constant physical ailments.
Uhtred is passionate and often wrathful, Alfred remains cool and cunning.
Even after leading Alfred’s men into battle and fighting alongside the king himself, Uhtred struggles to maintain a stable relationship with Wessex and its ruler. As I watched them oscillate between loyalty and suspicion, I couldn’t help wishing they’d just get along. Why couldn’t they just respect each other?
Alfred recognizes Uhtred’s merit as a warrior early on, but soon Uhtred finds himself behind bars for not following the Saxon rules within Saxon territory. This becomes a point of leverage for Alfred—in fact, it marks the beginning of the cycle that keeps Uhtred coming back to Wessex again and again, despite his wish to leave. Alfred repeatedly solicits Uhtred’s sword through manipulation, even going so far as to arrange a marriage for Uhtred that will steep him in debt. Each time Uhtred gets himself into trouble with Wessex, Alfred’s “clemency” consists of making him swear service to him for yet another duration. But why does he do this?
First of all, he knows he needs Uhtred. But, as a Christian king whose authority is new, Alfred fears having to rely on a pagan whose military prowess outstrips his own. So in order for Alfred to feel comfortable keeping Uhtred close, he must keep him in the more dependent position.
Uhtred, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be the free lord of Bebbanburg, independent of any other ruler or kingdom. Naturally, he chafes under the constant state of dependency in which he finds himself with Alfred. Eventually he begins to fear he will never be released from Saxon hold—a fate his Danish friends Ragnar and Brida frequently warn him against. And yet even after Alfred’s death, Uhtred once again promises service to Wessex: this time to see Alfred’s son Edward secured as king.
So much that they fear one another’s hold.
It’s tempting to say that they might have been good friends if they didn’t need each other—and yet they never would have willingly entered each other’s lives if they had no such need. Two such opposite men would never seek out one another’s company and confidence. They were forced to out of necessity.
And so it seems that same necessity and co-dependence is both the cause and the bane of their ever-turbulent, yet ever-present relationship.
Less than friends, more than rivals… this tension alone was interesting enough to make me keep watching.
Do you find that complicated relationships between characters make a story inherently more interesting?
What are some other books/shows/movies where you’ve seen an unending dance of tension between two main characters? Do you think this dynamic makes the story more true-to-life?
It’s easy to chock it up to a good vs. evil conrast, but it seems that the more complex and realistic the characters are, the less purely good or bad they are.
Last week we talked about how good writing in the TV series The Last Kingdom avoids typecasting characters as one-dimensional reflections of ideologies. Lady Aelswith and the nun Hild are both devout Christians, yet one of them serves as an antagonist and the other as a support to the lead protagonist—the pagan Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Although the two women hold firmly to their faith, their dispositions and roles in the story are nearly polar opposites, making their characters foils to each other.
We first meet Aethelwold as the profligate son of King Aethelred, Alfred’s brother, in the second episode of the first season. We quickly learn that, although the son of the king, Aethelwold has approximately zero chance of inheriting the throne upon his father’s death because of the consistently irresponsible life he leads. Even when he protests the legitimacy of Alfred’s kingship and promises to reform his own ways, it’s obvious that he has no intention of doing so—as he repeatedly winds up hung-over in a haystack.
Essentially, his behavior undermines his claim to the throne so that we understand perfectly why no one listens to him. As a result, he begins to look for support beyond Wessex’s borders where his wayward reputation is unknown, while using his knowledge of the kingdom’s internal politics to subvert Alfred’s military efforts.
Uhtred, having grown up as a Dane, had to earn his keep from a young age—whereas Aethelwold has used his protection as the king’s son as a safeguard for his licentious behavior. But as I looked at the two characters more closely over time, I realized they had some notable points of overlap:
A strong sense of pride.
Irreverence toward the Christian religion.
Difficulty (deserved or undeserved) overcoming others’ suspicions against them.
I could go into more depth explaining these, but I think there’s one commonality that deserves special attention because of its implications for the entire narrative: the fact that both of them have been denied their “rightful” titles.
This may seem like a superficial trait—it’s definitely a circumstantial one—but it sets the stage for every other contrast drawn between Uhtred and Aethelwold. Looking at their position as disinherited lords, we might initially expect them to see some of the same behavior as they go about trying to secure their rights.
The fact is, even though they overlap in the other areas I mentioned (pride, irreverence, etc.), the way they handle these issues and govern themselves is almost always opposite.
Aethelwold’s pride leads enables him to betray others when expedient, whereas Uhtred’s pride forces him to remain loyal.
Aetheulwold feigns piety, while Uhtred can’t even pretend to be Christian.
Aethelwold has to trick people into trusting him, while Uhtred lets his integrity speak for itself.
At one point, Aethelwold attempts to lure Uhtred into a joint scheme to recover their claims, arguing that their similar status binds them together as equals. Uhtred responds that no equality of external circumstance can make up for such an enormous discrepancy of internal character.
Although the two do not clash swords until the end of the third season, I think the development of their characters as foils throughout the series drives home this very point. Uhtred’s courage and Aethelwold’s cowardice, Uhtred’s loyalty and Aethelwold’s treachery, Uhtred’s integrity and Aethelwold’s deceit—all of these contrasts consistently prove that no man’s conduct can be dismissed as an inevitable result of the hand he was dealt.
In a sense, Aethelwold is right: he and Uhtred were dealt the same hand. But it is how they play their cards that makes one of them a villain and the other a hero.
Do you find this way of juxtaposing a hero against a villain to be compelling?
What are some other ways you’ve seen writers develop meaningful contrasts between heroes and villains?
And to be honest, I didn’t plan to when I first started The Last Kingdom, but by the time I finished season 3, I couldn’t help looking back and asking what it was about the connections between characters that made the story so rich. I’ve already mentioned that it didn’t take long to become personally invested in the characters, but all the while there was another subtle, artful web being spun: the web of foils.
Here are a couple of basic definitions:
I prefer the second definition here, because it widens the scope to include contrasts between more characters than the protagonist. This is helpful when looking at a series where so many characters are well-developed— like the Last Kingdom, where I could draw almost countless comparisons and contrasts between major and minor characters alike. There are three though that I’d like to focus on, because of their salience to the themes of the story.
After the death of his brother, King Aethelred of Wessex, Alfred receives the throne in place of the former king’s profligate son Aethelwuld—a turn that provokes Aethelwuld to constant scheming and eventual treachery (stay tuned for next week!).
From the beginning, Lady Aelswith knows that her husband’s reign is precarious, threatened both internally by dissenters in Wessex and externally by the Danes occupying large parts of pre-England. She also knows that Christianity is still young in the land, and that the military enemies of Wessex and its sister kingdoms face are steeped in pagan religion. Thus, when the Danish-adopted Uhtred of Bebbanburg enters the scene, Aelswith immediately senses a threat to both Wessex’s political and religious stability.
While we as the audience know Uhtred to be a man of his word (though a little on the violent side), all Aelswith can see is a godless heathen whom her husband should not trust. And I have to say, the writers did a good job making her character solely obnoxious for the first several episodes, as she constantly seeks to pull Alfred away from any alliance with Uhtred. It wasn’t until much later that I actually started to feel any sympathy for her.
But here we have her: a woman devoted to her husband and her God, who, for all her consdescension and narrow-mindedness, tries to do what she thinks is best. And for her, that means removing Uhtred’s influence from Wessex.
She quickly becomes a member of his party and, in time, one of his most trusted friends.
Though we know little of Hild’s back story, we do learn that she was once a mother and that she suffered abused at the hands of Danes. Like Aelswith, she is devout and wishes to see the Christian faith advance. In fact, these two are the most deeply religious women we ever meet in the show—which is why I think it’s noteworthy how vastly different their characters are.
What Aelswith lacks in exposure to the heathens she fears, Hild possesses in spades. And yet Hild, having experienced genuine hardship from the Danes, is still able to recognize the good in “Uhtred the godless.” Time and again, she defends him against the prejudice of Saxons like Aelswith who, in their religious zeal, can only see Uhtred as the devil’s henchman. Although Hild disagrees with his paganism and would like to see him accept Christianity, she acknowledges his integrity and the value of his loyal service to Alfred.
What’s interesting to me is that both Aelswith and Hild are primarily dedicated to the faith they share in common—yet the way their beliefs affect their choices is nearly always opposite.
Most times I see any religion portrayed in film, its followers are either depicted as all good or all bad: one-dimensional, single-minded characters completely defined by their faith—or rather, by what the writer thinks of that faith. If the writer disagrees with that religion, he makes all its adherents in the story diabolical and hypocritical. Or if he likes the religion, all its adherents are impeccable. And regardless of whether you find the writer’s depiction of that religion offensive, it honestly just makes the characters boring and predictable.
But by setting Aelswith and Hild alongside one another as religious equals, but opposite one another as agents in the story, it makes them both stand out as unique components in the web of characters. Not only that, but I think it drives home some central themes throughout the whole series:
Trust must be earned by actions, not assumed based on shared beliefs.
Refusing to see the good in someone because of disagreements is short-sighted.
I’m sure there are many more points to be made here, which is why I so highly recommend the series—if you like finding this sort of hidden connection. And if you either don’t mind the MA rating, or just avoid watching the unseemly parts (like me!).
So with that, I’d like to know what you think.
If you’ve seen The Last Kingdom, what other parallels/contrasts do you see between characters?
What other examples of character foils in literature or film stand out to you? How do those foils ultimately serve the themes of the story?
Also, what are your thoughts on the depiction of religion in film? What are some movies/shows that bring the writer’s bias into the characters too much? Which ones do a good job avoiding this?