Month: November 2020

Escalation: Why One Good Idea Can’t Carry a Story

Watch the scene above. And then watch the scene below.

For being similar scenes (the Trini and Kimberly scene from 2017’s POWER RANGERS is probably influenced, directly or indirectly, by Jackie Chan’s THE FEARLESS HYENA), the execution is vastly different. To me, the major difference in the scenes is that one stops at the idea and the other builds on the initial idea. And I think that escalation of ideas from an initial kernel to an exploration of multiple ideas is what elevates small moments in an overall story from good to great.

An idea is rarely enough to build a story around. A single thought or idea is usually pretty easily explored and can’t sustain the momentum needed to tell a compelling story. The chopstick fight, while only being a minute and a half long, throws a bunch of ideas at the audience, each building on the last, taking a single joke premise (as in POWER RANGERS) and elevating it into a truly great scene, culminating in the sly reveal that Jackie Chan has stones in his mouth instead of the chicken he was fighting his Uncle over.

Sketch comedy is a good example of this theory at work. A common criticism of Saturday Night Live is that their worst sketches are single ideas drawn out too long. Key and Peele, on the other hand, are masters at evolving their ideas to sustain a premise longer than it should go. Take the example below.

The joke escalates from being about the inherent silliness of rap battles, to an overexcited hype man, to a continuous escalation that becomes difficult to manage, and ends with a twist that satirizes Of Mice and Men. The initial premise builds on itself until a twist that feels different but is logical.

I think that’s what separates great stories from good ones. Similar to the way that Stephen King uses trauma, finding ways to continually freshen your story for the audience not only keeps them engaged, but allows the storyteller to explore different avenues, different ideas, with more depth.

Coronavirus: Another Rant

NIAID / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

A few times per month my wife and I order Vietnamese food from a local restaurant. After a bad experience with delivery, where half of our pho was spilled into the bag and part of our order was missing, I’ve been going to pick it up.

Usually, I’ll walk in and our order will be on a table to grab and go. Takes less than a minute. This last time I went, on a Saturday evening around 7pm, I was surprised to find 12 people doing dine-in, and another man waiting at the pick-up table for his food. There was a single waitress running around, trying to attend to everyone, and a waiter that seemed to be coordinating with the kitchen, taking phone calls, and preparing the to-go orders. I waited close to 10 minutes for my order, in a small restaurant with at least 14 other people breathing the same air.

I had noticed on the drive, too, that many of the restaurants I passed by were at least half-full.

On the evening I’m writing this, there were 182,772 new Coronavirus cases in the United States yesterday. Where I live, in Delaware County, PA, there were 273 new cases. The county we border, Philadelphia County, just shut down again.

My ability to understand this situation is stretched thin. I get that, at its simplest (and not assuming people are actively trying to be harmful, although those assholes surely exist) the rationale goes like this:

  • Small business owners (like the Vietnamese restaurants) can’t survive without being mostly open.
  • People stuck at home since March have cabin fever, especially in the colder weather, and want to go out.
  • Employees of these small businesses need to make ends meet, so they’re forced to work even if they don’t think it’s safe.
  • Federal and State government isn’t doing shit to help anyone.

I don’t blame small business owners for trying to survive, even if I think it’s wrong to put your employees and other people at risk to do so. I especially don’t blame employees that need a paycheck. If anyone is blameless in this situation, it’s the waitress who has no choice but to risk her life and possibly the people she’s close to so she can keep a roof over her head.

I do blame the people that incentivize this behavior by going out to eat in a restaurant. It’s a selfish, unnecessary risk. Many might argue that the government says that restaurants can be open up to 50% occupancy, and that they’re observing social distancing measures. Here’s are the two major problems with that line of thinking:

  • It’s clear the Federal Government doesn’t give a fuck about you and most State Government don’t, either. They don’t want to redirect our taxpayer money to actually protect us, so we need to force them to by not patronizing places even if they’re open. If the government said to go to restaurants and the gym or whatever, if no one went and enough pressure was applied to local officials, there would be very little choice but to actually support hurting businesses with stimulus.
  • Social distancing, especially indoors, is largely bullshit. The EPA says, “Evidence now confirms that this virus can remain airborne for longer times and further distances than originally thought. In addition to close contact with infected people and contaminated surfaces, spread of COVID-19 may also occur via airborne particles in indoor environments, in some circumstances beyond the 2 m (about 6 ft) range encouraged by some social distancing recommendations.” The EPA is saying this, and the Trump Administration has done its best to scrub actual science from the EPA, so that alone should signify how dire this is.

People are dying. A lot of people. Over 250,000 so far, with an end only recently sighted, although that won’t be available to non-essential workers or government officials (i.e., most of us) until much later.

So stay home. Please. As someone with two older, not-super-healthy parents and a pregnant wife, stop being dickheads. Order in. Avoid large crowds.

Keep one another safe.

Pet Peeves: Protagonists that are the Villains of their Stories

Sam and Dean Winchester are the villains of the show. In this essay I will…

My wife got me into SUPERNATURAL. I just finished up the eighth season and, I’ve come to realize that the Winchesters are the villains of their own show. Many of the problems they face are of their own making, either because of selfishness, ignorance, or legitimate villainy. Sometimes, it makes the show difficult to watch.

There is an exchange late in the eighth season that demonstrates what I mean, and how the show is at least peripherally aware of it. SPOILERS AHEAD for an episode that originally aired in 2013.

STOP READING TO AVOID A MINOR, INCONSEQUENTIAL SPOILER.

Alright, so one of the Prophets of God, Kevin, able to read the Word of God, has been kidnapped by the King of Hell, Crowley. Crowley has imprisoned him in a set-up indistinguishable from his hideout and had his demons take the form of Sam and Dean Winchester, who Kevin trusts, in order to learn where Kevin has hidden one of the tablets. Kevin figures out that he’s not dealing with the real Sam and Dean. This exchange follows:

Crowley: “What gave it away?”

Kevin: “The real Sam and Dean would never go across town to get me barbeque.”

Crowley: “So, my demons were too polite?”

Supernatural – S8:E21 “The Great escapist”

That’s indicative of the show at large–many of the biggest issues Sam and Dean face they cause themselves. This is a trope in many stories, so much so that you can neatly classify it multiple ways depending on the intent of the story and motivation of the character. Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another good example of this, as most of the problems he or the Avengers has to deal with are his own fault.

I find these tropes frustrating if handled poorly (as, unfortunately, Supernatural tends to) because it makes the characters harder to root for. In Supernatural’s case, I often wonder if Sam and Dean aren’t the actual villains of the entire series. I don’t want to be tricked into rooting for the villains.

Much of the time for a protagonist to inadvertently cause the problems or conflicts that the story hinges on, they have to make an irrational or sometimes downright stupid decision. Decisions like the ones pointed out here.

It can be difficult to write a compelling, conflict-filled story where people don’t make irrational decisions to keep the story going forward, especially for long-running series or when characters run out of ways to grow. So, as writers, we need to work extra hard to maintain that momentum and keep evolving with the story without pushing it too hard in any one direction.

The Starless Sea and Narrative Propulsion

I should be a professional book photographer.

What makes a story compelling? Which is to say, what makes us as readers want to keep reading? Is it lyrical prose? Mystery? Suspense? Character? Conflict? Some combination of some or all?

I recently read The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern with a book club at work, and the reactions to the novel were split. About half of the group loved it for its world-building, beautiful prose, and deep themes. The other half of the group (of which I fell into), agreed the book had all of those things but were also frustrated at the slow pace, passive protagonist, and repetitious plot.

This got me thinking about what different kinds of readers value. In this case, half of our group really valued world-building over everything else, while the other half was interested in character and plot over everything else.

What fell flat for me was what I’ll call narrative propulsion. I think narrative propulsion can be achieved in any of the ways listed above, but I also think that each of those ways has a limited energy. Sort of like a spaceship punching out of Earth’s gravity well and making a break toward the stars, a book needs to use multiple forms of fuel to keep a reader engaged–especially when your book is just shy of 600 pages.

The Starless Sea handles narrative propulsion masterfully for the first third of the book. The writing is gorgeous, the themes interesting, and the mystery at the heart of the story intriguing. But as the story goes along it relies on that same fuel to push the story along instead of introducing new types.

The other side of narrative propulsion that’s somewhat unique to The Starless Sea is its structure. We’re used to following one or a few characters that may each have their own storylines, but are each in service of a single overarching narrative. The Starless Sea alternates between the main plot, that of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, and a series of vignettes pulled from the books that Zachary’s story revolves around. While this adds a lot of variety to the book, it also breaks the narrative into chunks and adds complexity to an already dense read. In short, it interrupts any narrative propulsion built from chapter to chapter. I read the book pretty quickly, spending time with it everyday, and because of the vignettes between the main chapters I often found myself having difficulty remembering what had just happened in Zachary’s storyline.

In short, I think it’s dangerous for authors to rely on just a few aspects of storytelling to hold a reader’s attention. A story needs to constantly build on itself, adding new depth to its plot, characters, world, and theme, otherwise there is a risk that a reader will become bored and leave, no matter how beautiful the writing.

The Cycle

The yellow areas are food deserts in and around Philadelphia. Check out the USDA Atlas.

What I’m going to say isn’t profound, or even news to anyone. But it’s something I’m increasingly feeling and, since this is my blog, I’m going to talk about it.

I grew up pretty poor. I know for a fact that my father never made more than $20k in a year, and I doubt my mother made more. After my father’s work injury and the divorce, the purse strings got even tighter. I was never hungry, so I’m lucky in that sense, but I never realized just how much of a balancing act my father performed to ensure that until recently. Now that I pay a mortgage, have a kid on the way, and compulsively watch my stocks and 401(k), I have a new appreciation for just how poor we were and what little hope my father had of escaping it.

I’m no longer poor. I am solidly middle class, maybe even scratching at the doorway of upper middle class (oh you fancy, huh?). I worry about money in the same way a dog worries about its favorite chew toy–I know it’s not going anywhere, and that if it does there will be more somehow, but I like to keep an eye on it, just in case. Through mostly luck and privilege (if I’m honest) my wife and I are well taken care of. But in feeling this way, I can see how so many others aren’t.

My wife had a small health scare recently that incentivized us to change our diets. We moved toward buying more fruits, vegetables, and oats, less processed food, and “organic” foods that had less sugars and carbs. As a result, our weekly grocery bill got more expensive. That’s just one small thing that is indicative of the cycle that keeps people poor.

If you can’t afford to buy enough vegetables and whole grains to feed your family of four for a week, so you opt for cheaper, more highly processed foods just to keep bellies full, you’re going to be unhealthy. And if you’re unhealthy you’re going to spend more time on medical needs. And more time on medical needs means more money spent on medical needs because the U.S. absolutely refuses to socialize medicine. Don’t forget the time and money you need to spend on public transportation to get to a store, if you’re not in a food desert. If you’re in a food desert, I’m sorry, you’re fucked.

Food deserts are areas (usually urban and usually with high minority populations) that do not have ready access to a large grocery store. According to the USDA, 13.6 million people live in food deserts–and that data’s old! In reality it’s probably more. And with the virus being what it is, and the government doing as little as possible to help its citizens, that number is only going to grow.

I’d like to think this is so obvious no one would ever need to say it, but I will anyway. When you’re poor it’s really, really hard to break that cycle of poverty.

When I consider how my sister and I dug out of our family’s cycle of poverty I can’t identify anything about us that justifies our ascent over someone else. My sister joined the military, which taught her useful skills and gave her steady employment. She helped take care of our family after that. My undergraduate degree was mostly paid for by New York State because of my family’s income (or lack thereof), but I basically squandered that. I fell into the job and career I have now by sheer chance and my sister’s generosity in allowing me to live with her when I first moved to DC, which opened doors that wouldn’t have been otherwise.

There is an impulse in our society, spurred by politicians that have taken up Reagan’s cries of “welfare queens” and the demonization of the “lazy poor,” to look down on those struggling with poverty. Those of us that weren’t born into it have no reference for how difficult it is to be poor, so we look down on them. Say that if only they worked as hard as we do they wouldn’t be poor. America is the land of opportunity, pull yourself up by your bootstraps (some bullshit), whatever. And still more of us that did grow up poor but by some miracle are no longer forget, or confuse our luck with work ethic.

It’s not true. Being poor is really hard work. We’d do well to remember that and lift up instead of shoving down.

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