How to Fix “The Last Jedi”

Star Wars is one of the mega-dynasties of filmmaking, and everyone has an opinion. Today you guys get to hear MINE.

Since this is a space to talk storytelling, I want to momentarily set aside things like aesthetics, sound design, and performance to instead focus on comparing The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back.

The stories are similar. In Empire: heroes Han, Leia, and Luke are being tracked and harassed by The Empire. In The Last Jedi : Our heroes Rey, Poe, and Finn are being tracked and harassed by The First Order. Both are the second installment in trilogies, both are set in the Star Wars Universe, and yet one is a beloved cinematic classic and the other I found really disappointing. Why? Continue reading

Gender, Pronouns, and Storytelling

One of the many perks of having a child is that I have the opportunity to read a lot of children’s books. I have a great collection. Some are old classics lovingly saved by my parents, some are new gifts from friends and family. I love being able to look again at books I remember being read as a child, as well as reading the offerings of a new generation of picture book authors.

I find myself paying close attention to how gender is assigned to characters in these stories. In children’s books it seems that gender doesn’t play a very important role. There is no romance, there often isn’t even a traditional hero’s journey plot. And yet… It seems to be that so often the ‘default’ gender of the protagonist is male. This is particularly interesting to notice in characters that are animals or inanimate objects.

For example, take the “The Little Engine That Could“. I was shocked when I read it for the first time in (at least) twenty five years. The train that breaks down? Female. The three trains that refuse (or are unable) to take the toys and food over the mountain are ALL male. Then along comes our heroine, the Little Engine that Could. When I read this as an adult I was applying all kinds of analysis to the choice of gender in this story. In one sense it is about women helping women. In another it could be about men thinking of women’s work is beneath them. (The toys and food were for children after all). Is it condemning or condoning that women feel obligated to do work that men either refuse or are unable to do?

I know I’m probably taking things to far. Reading too much into a simple children’s story. But I also know that a culture’s views about gender is taught to each generation through the stories we tell. That is reason enough for me to be careful.

Why are both The Little Blue Truck (beep beep) and the antagonist dump truck male? Why is The Very Quiet Cricket a boy? Why is The Very Busy Spider a girl? There is no reason at all story-wise that these characters even need to be assigned a gender at all.

I worry about the subconscious lessons I could be teaching my daughter: The only stories worth reading are about boys. The girl characters are nice and hard working and the boy characters are bold and curious. Her brain is absorbing so much so quickly, I wonder (and worry) what she might be picking up by accident.

My imperfect solution? I switch the pronouns of the characters every few readings. That way I know she cannot attribute the actions the characters take with a particular gender. The same character who is nice and hardworking will be a boy one day and a girl in tomorrow’s reading. I do this with heroes and villains alike, being sure that it isn’t always an boy vs. girl situation either.

I want my daughter to see herself in characters regardless of their gender. She should know that women and men can be brave and cruel and kind and thoughtless. Instead of establishing limits of how a female “should” behave, I want stories to open up worlds and adventures for my daughter. Because, that is what storytelling does best, it opens up possibilities.

You Can’t Bullshit an Ending

Human’s are natural storytellers, and as such, we can sniff out a bullshit ending a mile away.

At a lecture this weekend, Benjamin Gorman (Not A Pipe Publishing) spoke about the covenant between authors and their readers. While he was speaking about the world-building part of the equation, the set up, I want to talk about the pay off. The ending is where readers find out if you make good on the promises of an interesting, moving, surprising story. If the pay off doesn’t pay out, then you have betrayed the covenant. You’ve lost the reader’s trust.

Continue reading

Time and Creativity

Happy New Year!

Another year of storytelling is at my back and another year of storytelling possibilities stretches out in front of me. Which is a good thing. Mostly.

As you may be aware, holiday celebrations can bring up strong emotions. And for me, New Years is an annual review where I suddenly discount accomplishments (new home! new baby!) and focus on projects left incomplete (WIP novel).

So I am going to give you the pep talk that I need to hear in the hopes that there are others of you out there that need it too. So pardon me while I slip into my enthusiastic camp councilor voice and cheer you on and present your merit badges.

Congratulations friend, you have successfully prioritized creativity in your life for another year! This is a huge accomplishment in a world that can seem uncaring. You were able to tune out the siren call of twitter arguments, piles of laundry, and dumb cell phone games to keep appointments with yourself to create.

You have learned so much this year! You are a more skilled writer, careful reader, and thoughtful commentator than you were twelve months ago. And while you might not have a certificate to show others all that you’ve learned, it will show up in the work you produce from how onward.

You are creating around you a tribe of creators. By giving to creative communities, sharing yourself, and your ideas you have tricked brilliant people into hanging out with you! Ideas that have rattled around in your echoey head for years are suddenly spoken aloud and met with encouragement, thought provoking questions, and given new life.

Hopefully these three badges will help balance the scales as another New Years passes without having written ‘the end’. Now is the time to celebrate, appreciate, and dig in your heels for the year to come.

Happy New Year!

Celebration In Story

This time of year is filled to the brim with celebration and ritual. There are holiday parties, special foods, and time spent with family. The holidays evoke feelsings of nostalgia, joy, and (for many, a huge amount of) anxiety.

True. But how does that help with writing? The holidays provide rich sensory experiences and extreme emotions that are just ripe to be stolen borrowed for inclusion in your narratives.

The richness of a scene set in the midst of a celebration will add more depth to the world you are creating. Hidden in all the sights smells and sounds are clues about culture, character and society. And as I was reminded on the Mom Writes Podcast: All stories need world building.

And we haven’t even cracked the bottle on the heightened emotions of holidays. Celebrations often occur annually which causes wistful thoughts of years gone by. And ceremonies that mark special life benchmarks (weddings, graduations, funerals) foster feelings of resentement or superiority as comparisons are made. Essentially celebrations are time of self reflection and self assessment which can rear its ugly head in all kinds of ways, which is great for adding drama.

Below I have written a few writing prompts that I hope might trigger something useful for your project.

“Why cant I just have a normal Christmas?” He saidDescribe what his concept of a normal Christmas is and how his reality is different. Who (or what) are obstacles to his version of normal?

“Happy Effing New Year,” she muttered as people jumped and cheered around her… How does the culture you are writing about celebrate new year? When does this celebration occur? (During the planting of crops? The orbit of New Venus around an alien star? Or on December 31st?) What goals do your characters hope to achieve in the new year? Are they haunted by disappoints from the last year?

“I have been waiting for this birthday my whole life!” …How were birthdays celebrated in the childhood of your characters? Have they held on to these traditions or run from them? How does the culture feel about aging in general? How do your characters feel about getting older?

Merry Christmas and happy writing to you all!