(Standard spoiler warning applies to Finding Nemo. Duh.)
We all have our preferences and quirks about our entertainment, the things that can make or break a story for us. For me, it’s pacing. I am an absolute pacing fanatic. If things stop moving forward, I can flip immediately from dewy-eyed fangirl to harsh critic.
Good pacing is not necessarily fast pacing, however. Whizbang action sequences and explosions don’t save something from being a plodding mess. (I’m looking at you, King Kong.) Thus, I often hold up Finding Nemo as a gold standard. It’s an extraordinarily tight movie, without an ounce of fat. Every little moment pushes us forward.
Hey, fun fact! Did you know that there’s a musical version of Finding Nemo? It’s true! It was written by Robert Lopez, he of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon who has most recently taken over the world with Frozen. You can even watch the whole thing online:
Now, the sharp-eyed among you may have noted that 34-minute runtime. Yes, this plays at Animal Kingdom in Florida, and as live, free, in-park entertainment, it’s relatively short and runs multiple times per day. So if the 100-minute film is so tightly paced, you might be wondering, how can you possibly cut away 2/3 of it and still end up with the same thing?
Glad you asked, hypothetical reader! It all comes down to the difference between plot and story. They’re frequently used interchangeably, but there are subtle and extremely important differences. To wit:
Plot is the sequence of events.
Story is the point of those events.
Plot is setup, story is payoff. Plot is head, story is heart. Plot is “What happened?” and story is “Why should I care?” So many times when critiquing blurbs and queries, I see authors that just list off several scenes or setpieces in a total vacuum. They’re so focused on the plot that they don’t give any indication of the story. Perhaps they’re assuming that we’ll connect with the hero just because they’re the hero, but this is a dangerous assumption that will get you into a lot of trouble. There’s a reason for the saying “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”: We’re not psychologically capable of taking in the depth of loss, the hopes unrealized, the vacuum left behind for that many people. We’d just shut down. Beyond a certain threshold (sometimes known as Dunbar’s number) we have to simplify just to cope. Something has to break through that compartmentalizing mechanism and force us to connect with the characters. That something is the story.
So circling back to the example at hand: The plot of Finding Nemo is Marlin’s quest to find his son. The story of Finding Nemo is what drives Marlin and Nemo apart (hint: it’s not the diver) and how they’re able to reconnect. It’s not enough to just put them back in the same space; they each have to discover what they have in the other and become worthy of it.
This is why the musical version can successfully be so much shorter than the film. Couple of reasons: First, this story is a quest. The individual incidents along the way aren’t as important as the end goal and how those incidents affect the characters. So seeing the attempt to jam the filter of the tank isn’t as important as knowing that it failed and left both Gill and Nemo distraught. Secondly, musical theatre allows for certain conventions that wouldn’t work in regular film, specifically the way that characters can just turn to the audience and vocalize their thoughts and feelings. “Where’s My Dad?” and its reprises concisely but effectively convey Nemo’s emotional journey, allowing many of his scenes to be trimmed or left out without losing that crucial dimension.
To bring this rather circuitous post back to the original topic, the film version is well-paced because each and every scene is moving both the plot (getting Marlin closer to Nemo and Nemo closer to escaping Darla) and the story (helping them both get past their own hangups and better understand each other). Of course, that can’t be the only purpose of a scene, so each beat is also packed with entertaining elements like humor and action. But the important thing is that the overall propulsion through the story never flags, and at no time is the audience left to wonder what the point of watching that bit was. Every part needs to be there, and that’s what makes it elegant.
(Standard spoiler warning applies to Paper Towns. Seriously, I’m going to talk about something that took me completely by surprise, so if you want to experience that for yourself, READ THE DAMN BOOK FIRST. Then come back. I’ll still be here. Bring snacks, because I might be hungry by then.)
As a writer learning your craft, you’re going to encounter loads of rules. Some of them seem rather inviolable, while some are more like guidelines. So how do you know which is which? See them in action, of course!
One of the biggies is sticking to a tense. There’s a lot of debate about present or past tense, mainly from people who seem bewildered and threatened by the former, like they’re trying on a gluten allergy and present tense is a wild grizzly bear approaching with a tray of cinnamon rolls. But regardless of which tense you choose, you’re supposed to stick to it, by God. Slipping back and forth between them is considered a straightforward mechanics error.
When you do break a rule, the important thing is to break it with style and intention. Messing with the rules is supposed to accomplish something, and if not executed well, it simply looks like you don’t know what you’re doing. Luckily, John Green most assuredly knows what he’s doing.
Paper Towns starts off in past tense as it takes us through Quentin and Margo’s Wild Ride, then the beginnings of the scavenger hunt Margo leaves behind when she disappears. Everything is very lighthearted and fun, and there’s no indication that this is a flashback or that there’s anything darker on the horizon.
And then we get to the end of chapter 8, almost exactly halfway through the novel. Then we get this:
As soon as the car stopped, my nose and mouth were flooded with the rancid smell of death. I had to swallow back a rush of puke that rose up into the raw soreness of the back of my throat. Only now, after all this lost time, did I realize how terribly I had misunderstood both her game and the prize for winning it.
Dude. It’s an absolutely stunning turn. The floor has dropped out from under us, and after a scene break, it keeps going:
I get out of the car and Ben is standing next to me, and Radar next to him. And I know all at once that this isn’t funny, that this hasn’t been prove-to-me-you’re-good-enough-to-hang-out-with-me. I can hear Margo that night as we drove around Orlando. I can hear her saying to me, “I don’t want some kids to find me swarmed with flies on a Saturday morning in Jefferson Park.” Not wanting to be found by some kids in Jefferson Park isn’t the same thing as not wanting to die.
Holy. Fucking. Shit. In the space of two paragraphs, we’ve gone from Garden State to Requiem for a Dream. There’s a tonal shift, certainly, but that switch in tense is what lets us know, quite definitively, that we’re no longer in the same story.
The present tense continues through the next chapter, as the trio explore the abandoned minimall preparing to find a corpse, and it’s pretty much a horror movie. With every creaking board, every movement of a flashlight, we expect to find the worst. The scene wouldn’t play quite the same way if written in past, because past tense is relatively safe. We’re not part of the events, because they already happened. If it’s in first person, we can further infer that the narrator makes it through just fine. (We can be wrong about that, mind, but it’s generally a good bet.) We get no such assurances with the present tense. That lack of security already puts the reader on edge, and the use of other suspenseful elements drives the tension home.
But then we’re back in past tense for the following chapter. See, humans just aren’t physiologically capable of sustained terror. Our hearts would literally explode. We become familiar with what was unfamiliar, we reset our baselines, we learn to cope. The boys have accepted that their quest is unlikely to have a happy ending, and they soldier on. It’s a new normal, so the tense reverts.
Not permanently, though. Part Three of the book puts us back in present for the remainder of the story. Again it’s to build tension, but where before it was the tension of the horror movie, this time it’s the tension of the thriller. We’re in a race against time to reach Margo before she disappears again (or worse). What the immediacy here gives us is not fear, but exhilaration. Quentin is on an adventure of his own devising, having graduated from just following Margo to emulating her. It’s about being in the moment, so the switch back to present tense is quite appropriate.
All of this goes to illustrate that even the elements of storytelling which appear basic and fundamental have meaning, and they can be manipulated to provide depth and guide the reader’s experience. Paper Towns is perhaps an extreme case, but have you given thought to your tense choices and what they might be bringing to the story? Do your format and presentation affect the reader experience? This is not to say that they must, but it’s another tool in the box, and a good one. Whether you’re following the rules, tweaking them, or shattering them into pieces, do it with intention.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Firefly, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Tangled, and Frozen)
I’m not the first one to say this, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but it just keeps coming up. Whenever someone asks about how to write a strong female character, I die a little inside.
It’s not so much the question as the ensuing discussion. Someone always seems to take the badass torch and run with it, proceeding to completely miss not only the main point, but the connected ones as well. There’s a problem with representation in fiction, and conventional wisdom is that strong female characters are the solution to that problem. But see, English has a pesky habit of assigning multiple meanings to the same word, and “strong” is a prime example. So while this buzzy phrase gets tossed around ad nauseum, it frequently seems like no one knows what it actually means.
So really, who is a “strong female character”? Let’s look at some examples.
Zoe Washburne is a classic “strong female character” in the sense that most people seem to accept, meaning that she can kick your ass six ways from Sunday. But aside from being able to call you an idiot while casually saving your life, what are her character traits, really? What are her motivations? Her dreams? Seriously, go back and watch Firefly again. From that angle, Zoe comes up surprisingly short. She’s loyal to her husband and loyal to her captain, and that’s about the extent of it. Her character is static, not showing any particular change or growth, and also not really making any choices that affect the direction of the narrative.
Now, would she have gotten more development had the series lasted longer? Perhaps, although I’m not entirely convinced. See, Zoe also stands as an example that weak characterization is not always a bad thing. Not every character is going to be a protagonist. Zoe has a strong personality and works really well as a support character: she’s there as a foil for Mal, providing a crucial voice of dissent and a check on his actions, but she’s ultimately his second in command and damn good at her job. She’s just interesting enough for the amount of screen time and story that she gets, so she’s a successful character even if she’s not ultimately a very deep one.
Black Widow, like Zoe, is an ass-kicking woman who takes a supporting role in both the organization within the story and the narrative itself. But unlike Zoe, she has clear and strong motivations, and she takes an increasing role in advancing the story, growing from mere SHIELD minion in Iron Man 2 to full-blown deuteragonist in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The thing that drives Natasha Romanov is atonement. We aren’t given the explicit details of her past, and we don’t really need them. It’s enough to know that she has done Very Bad Things before, but is now a white hat and trying to make amends.
In The Avengers, this drive is embodied by Hawkeye. Clint Barton’s choice to bring her into SHIELD as an asset rather than a corpse was the crucial factor in turning her straight, and she owes him for that. The need to return that favor and save him from Loki’s control is what brings her onto the mission at the outset, what prompts her to question Loki and discover his plans, what gets her back on her feet and into the fight after she’s been terrorized and injured by the Hulk. If you were to remove her, the choices she makes and her reasons for making them, you would have a narrative that plays out very differently. She’s not necessarily a protagonist, but her actions matter.
Fast forward to Winter Soldier. Her motivation in that film is failure. Once again, she’s making mistakes and wants to rectify them. She previously failed to thwart the Winter Soldier and protect someone. She fails to protect Nick Fury. She fails to see the influence of Hydra within SHIELD. These mistakes consume her and prompt her to team up with Cap and try to put things right. She’s still secondary to his story, but only just. They’re a pretty equally balanced partnership, each in it for their own definitive reasons. And, as her exchange with Pierce near the end indicates, she’s still seeking that atonement for her shady past; she’s willing to expose her own secrets if it also means exposing Hydra.
Rapunzel isn’t quite as lethal as the other ladies mentioned thus far, although she can wield both her frying pan and her hair competently and effectively in a tight spot. Her biggest weapon is her charm, using her sweetness and friendliness to turn Maximus and the Snuggly Duckling gang from enemies into staunch allies. Indeed, it’s notable that, while she is the princess in the tower, she saves Flynn’s ass a lot more than he saves hers. However, unlike Natasha or Zoe, Rapunzel is very much the protagonist, and it’s Flynn who’s in the supporting role. She’s the one with a dream, and her determination to see it fulfilled is the plot, every step of the way.
Now, that’s not to say that Flynn doesn’t get a lot of development. His journey takes him from self-serving rogue to self-sacrificing hero. Rapunzel’s arc is about breaking free of Gothel’s control and taking her rightful place in the world, both as a princess and as a person. These stories are deeply intertwined, and at no point is one reduced to merely an accessory to the other.
Anna is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a badass. Her contribution to combat is generally lots of running, and she’s a swooning romantic who’s about as far from our soldier or assassin as you can get. Yet her femininity is neither her sole defining feature (like might be argued for some of the classic Disney princesses) nor an obstacle she must overcome (like Mulan, Pocahontas, and Merida), but simply is. She makes no apologies for wanting her happily ever after, she’s just got some shit to take care of first.
Indeed, her desire for that fairy tale is what puts her at odds with Elsa and creates the main problem of the story. Anna then sets off immediately to solve that problem. She needs Kristoff’s help, but doesn’t need him to do it for her. The climactic moment on the ice shows how far she’s grown since the opening ball and serves as a perfect reversal: she turns away from the consummation of romance she’s certain will quite literally save her life in order to protect her sister. This choice provides the key to wrapping up every major plotline. Elsa also has a distinct character arc, but her actions mainly just complicate the story, while Anna’s actions resolve it.
Four very different characters. The word “strong” applies, and doesn’t apply, to each of them in very different ways and for very different reasons.
So why the fuck are we still using it?
We are not the goddamn Smurfs, people. As writers, precision in language is pretty much our entire job. The phrase “strong female character” has so many meanings as to become meaningless, and therefore needs to die in a fire.
If you’re looking for advice on how to write women who feel authentically female, say that.
If you want to discuss how female characters drive or don’t drive the plot, say that.
If you want to know if this is the kind of role an actress would be proud to play, say that.
Sometimes simplicity is the enemy of clarity. Get specific about the things that are problematic. If you don’t understand why a character or work is problematic, that’s a significant part of the issue right there. You can’t fix something when you have no idea what’s actually broken.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Vicious by V.E. Schwab)
I don’t tend to feel the same nostalgia for ’80s and ’90s cartoons as many of my peers. Oh, I watched and enjoyed several of them (Darkwing Duck was a motherfucking boss and we can’t be friends if you think otherwise) but even as a kid, I remember feeling vaguely annoyed by them. It was the villains that bothered me. I remember Rita Repulsa (and if you know who that is without Googling, we can totally be friends even if you’re wrong about Darkwing Duck) going on and on about how she was serving the forces of evil, and I would just roll my eyes. No one actually thinks they’re evil, right? I figured that out around the time I learned cursive.
So it always excites me when something really delves into the question of evil and the villain’s perspective. When Vicious came to my attention billed as a supervillain origin story, I was immediately interested, and became enthralled with the discovery that there aren’t exactly heroes in this world.
Background: There are a few superpowered individuals (rather preciously called EOs for ExtraOrdinary, and yes it is always styled that way, she said through gritted teeth) and they each have one distinctive ability.
At the outset, Eli is attractive and devout and socially gifted. Victor is pale, antisocial, and wears a lot of black. Eli steals the girl Victor wants. It all seems fairly straightforwardly setting up Eli as the hero and Victor as the villain.
But but but but but. This story thrives in the but. (That might have come out wrong.) Eli becomes convinced that EOs are an abomination and that he’s divinely called to wipe them out, and Victor’s initial plans for revenge turn into a quest to stop his former roommate and friend.
The entire book is a meditation on Grey and Grey Morality, so the bit I want to discuss specifically is the use of powers. The two men are, as great protagonist/antagonist pairings should be, two sides of the same coin in many ways, and their powers are part of that. Both were studying pre-med at the time of their experiments, and their powers are both tied to medicine: Eli can heal, and Victor controls pain.
Those seem like pretty obvious good and evil powers, but (see?) they get explored in a way that’s truly fascinating. See, Eli can only heal himself, and while Victor can certainly inflict pain, he can also take it away. To unpack it a bit further, while Victor can control the pain of an injury, he has to live with the scars, the physical restoration process and the reminder of what happened. Eli, on the other hand, is burdened with no such permanent tokens of his actions, his age, his past. He experiences the injury, but it does not mark him.
Such a setup would make an interesting enough premise on its own. The thing that elevates the story for me is how deeply this duality is woven into the character arcs. Victor’s understanding of pain grants him an empathy he lacked as a student, whereas Eli’s invincibility and immortality completely robs him of any empathy he once had. Victor may disdain Eli’s religious fervor, but it’s Victor who ends up sacrificing himself. Eli’s only ally is a girl he would kill if she weren’t able to prevent him from even wanting to, while antisocial Victor is the one who ends up with his little pack of strays, a quasi-family that remains loyal to him even after his death.
I think it’s important for us as writers to keep these sorts of moral explorations in mind, even in stories where they aren’t supposed to be the entire point. Every virtue can corrupt and be corrupted. Every vice can be used to redeem. Nuance helps create believable, compelling characters and situations. Even a kid can tell you that.