Stories about Stories

I like stories, and so stories that are about stories seem doubly cool to me. I decided to analyze three of my favorite “stories within stories” and the different ways that this concept can be handled.

A Tale: “The Tale of the Three Brothers” in Harry Potter

I’ve read various cautionary articles about inserting a “tale” into fiction. Interrupting the flow of the plot for “storytime” can slow the action, take the reader out of the story, and is often a thinly veiled excuse for an unnecessary flashback. While all of these are true, I think there are still ways to use the “tale” inside a story without interrupting the main plot. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows does this very well with the “Tale of the Three Brothers.” One of the main things that makes it work is that this tale is vital to the rest of the main plot of the book. This tale isn’t an excuse for lame backstory or filler for a slow plot—without this little story-within-the-story, Harry wouldn’t learn everything he needs to know about the Deathly Hallows, which is vital to the rest of the story.

Plus, the tale was treated beautifully in the film. Honestly, it’s my favorite part of the movie:

 

Nested Stories and Flashback Tales: The Historian

If you’re not supposed to use tales within a story as an excuse for a flashback, then this book breaks that rule with every single chapter. This book is a bit unique, though, because the entire thing is a flashback within a flashback, and the different time periods of the story mesh perfectly to create the larger plot. I blogged about this book in a post I did about narrators, because all of the flashbacks are told in the first person, but by different people. This book isn’t really a good model for the average writer to follow, even though this author handled the writing style brilliantly. If you want to write a story within a story, it would probably be wiser to stick with a Harry Potter-esque “tale,” or a story about a story, as in the following example.

A Story about a Story: The Princess Bride

Since the book of The Princess Bride is very different from the movie—and probably more people have seen the movie—I’ll focus on the film for my example. The “main plot” of the story is the relationship of a little boy and his grandfather. Very little action happens, but there is character growth as the impatient boy realizes that his old-fashioned grandfather really isn’t as out of touch as he first thinks, and that they both share a love for a good story. The bulk of the movie, of course, is the fairy tale that the grandfather reads to the boy, The Princess Bride. The occasional hops out of the tale, like when the boy complains about the kissing scenes, are just frequent enough to remind the audience that this is a story within a story, but they don’t interfere with the flow of the plot.

Now over to you! Do you have a favorite “story within a story?”

Or a favorite Princess Bride quote? Just because.

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Music and Dance and Predictable Plots: Storytelling at its Finest

I love a good story. And whenever I find a good story, whether it’s a book, a movie, a comic, or something else, I often try to analyze it to figure out what it was about the story that made it so good. I’d like to think that this practice has helped me as a writer and storyteller – if I know what makes someone else’s story good, then I can incorporate those techniques into my own writing.

One of my favorite examples to study is the 90s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5, which I have blogged about repeatedly. That is one of the best examples of epic fantasy storytelling, which is my first and biggest love when it comes to stories (to both read/watch and to write). But lately I’ve been absorbing a very different kind of storytelling: the musical comedy movies of the 1930s. 

No epic fantasy tales to be found here in these musical slapstick adventures. In fact, most of these films follow the same basic plot structure and feature the same kinds of characters and story elements or tropes. Original they’re not. So what makes them such good stories? 

Side note: most of the movies I’ve been watching are the films of the Marx Brothers, and the films starring the dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I know there were plenty of dramatic and non-musical movies made in the 30s, but let’s save a discussion of King Kong or Gone with the Wind for another post.

Romance. This is really nothing new, and certainly not exclusive to the comedies of the 30s. But whether romance was a subplot (like in most of the Marx Brothers movies, since none of them played the romantic leads) or the main plot (as in most of Fred and Ginger’s movies), it’s an ever-present idea. Everyone loves a good love story – it’s one of the oldest and most universal storytelling ideas and it stands the test of time.

Music and dancing. Because, you know, these were musicals. Telling a story through music is also an old and universal idea. Music, like stories, has the power to communicate things about life that ordinary methods can’t match. Also, during this time period most Americans were suffering the effects, great or small, of the Great Depression. A story of happy romance and singing and dancing was more than entertainment – it was a needed respite from a crushing reality.

Archetypal character roles. Complex character development was not really big in these old movies. In fact, you always know the role and basic personality of every main character the moment they show up on screen: the dashing bachelor (Fred Astaire), the career gal with no interest in romance (Ginger Rogers), the crotchety but brilliant con man (Groucho Marx), the inept girl-chasers who wind up saving the day (Chico and Harpo Marx), and so forth. Of course this is largely due to the fact that in these movies I’m discussing, the actors had a “screen persona” that they carried throughout their movies. These stories were never intended to be rich, character-driven explorations of the human condition. The lighter elements of the story were the focus, so little time was spent developing complex characters.

Comedic storyline with predictable plot. Frequently the plot in these movies involved some sort of mistaken identity, with predictable hilarity and unrealistic results. I’m not sure why this was such a common idea, but I can see how this sort of plot would provide the audience with a sense of power, because they knew something the characters didn’t. To the average citizen during the Depression who was at the mercy of uncontrollable circumstances, a brief moment of even fictional power could be very appealing.

Certainly not every good story has to have all (or any) of these elements. But it’s fun to see how these basic elements were used over and over to tell predictable stories that we still enjoy 80 years later.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, here is comedy, romance, and dancing all in one package:

My Top 10 Favorite Authors

I realized that since this is supposed to be a writing blog, I ought to make mention of other authors occasionally besides myself. In the various “top favorite” posts of this and that, I have never covered my favorite writers. So, I am now remedying that. Here they are, in a sort-of one to ten listing:

C.S. Lewis – Once I graduated from Little Golden Book versions of fairy tales, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is what I cut my fantasy teeth on. I’ve reread those books probably more than any other book or series ever.

J.R.R. Tolkien – Middle-Earth was the next logical step after I mastered the Narnia stories. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not easy reads, but I loved the stories and Tolkien’s words enough to read the books several times.

Beatrix Potter – My mom read me stories about Peter Rabbit and Tom Kitten along with those Little Golden Books, but I never actually outgrew Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter is one of my writing heroes in general, and not just because she wrote about bunnies.

L. Frank Baum – He is a recent addition to my favorite author list, because I only recently started reading his Oz books. Baum’s vivid imagination and love of the fairy tale style is evident in The Wizard of Oz and all the subsequent books.

Chris Claremont – He wrote all of the greatest X-Men stories of the 80s and 90s, in my opinion. I’ve always loved comics, and Claremont had some of the most vivid characters and elaborate storylines during his time on the various X-Men series.

J. Michael Straczynski – JMS, as he’s often known, is primarily a writer and producer for TV (though he has written a few comics, as well). I love him best for his show Babylon 5, which featured epic sci-fi storytelling on a Tolkien-esque scale. JMS not only drafted the overall concept for the series, but he wrote the script for almost every single episode himself.

John Maxwell – Here is my token non-fiction writer for the list. John Maxwell is known as a leadership expert, and I’ve read quite a few of his books. While I don’t have a desire to be a leader in a corporate or political sense, I do want to be able to positively influence people with my writing. And as John Maxwell says, “leadership is influence.”

Jeff Smith – Another comic writer. He’s actually an artist, too, and he wrote and drew his famous Bone saga. Bone is equal parts epic fantasy and slapstick humor, and a very unique cast of characters.

Lois Gladys Leppard – She wrote the Mandie books – an inspirational children’s mystery series. Unlike most of the books on this list, the Mandie books aren’t fantasy. They’re historical fiction, set in North Carolina around the year 1900. Believe it or not, I do enjoy the occasional non-fantasy tale.

Dr. Seuss – Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? His books have that fun, timeless quality that makes them enjoyable at any age.

Who is your favorite author?

Unusual Narrators

I am not an expert on all the ins and outs of the narrator or narrative voice in fiction. Most of my stories wind up being in the third person, and often from multiple characters’ points of view. Before you jump all over me for that, let it be known that a) I never head-hop within a scene, and b) I’m currently writing an epic fantasy trilogy, and it just wouldn’t work if I had only one P.O.V. character.

Anyway, despite the fact that I have experimented very little with my narrators, I’m fascinated by the concept of the role of the narrator. I’ve decided to make this blog post a brief study of several unusual narrators that I’ve come across (in both books and movies).

The role of the narrator is first and foremost that of storyteller. Whether it’s omniscient third person point of view or an individual character who says “let me tell you my tale,” we learn the story from a narrator. Since I like the telling of stories, I’m always fascinated when I encounter an unusual storyteller.

Unusual Narrators in Movies

Okay, so both of these that I’m going to talk about are technically stage productions, but I’ve only seen the movie versions. The story and the characters would be the same, though. The musicals Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat feature very unusual narrators to tell the story. The narrator Ché in Evita and the unnamed Narrator in Joseph both actively participate in the story, even though they are not characters within it. This is a technique that seems like it would be more effective in a show or movie rather than a book.

Ché and Joseph’s Narrator set up the story, introduce the characters, and then take the audience on the journey of the story. Both of these narrators are in just about every scene and every song, but not just as a distant storyteller – they interact with the scene and the characters within it. The characters in both of these stories are unaware that the narrator is a being that exists outside of their world.

For example, in Evita, Eva has several duets with Ché, but she does not recognize him from scene to scene. Ché is simply there to represent the everyman (or sometimes her conscience). Similarly, in Joseph, the characters always greet the Narrator with exuberance and welcome her into the scene, but treat her as a passing fancy. Only at the end, when Joseph and the Narrator sing the final duet, does Joseph seem to become aware that the Narrator has been there all along, telling his story and giving him life. These two stories would actually make a great character study, as well, because of this unique interaction with the narrators, but I won’t go into that right now.

Unusual Narrators in Books

The two books I’ve decided to discuss are Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. (Incidentally, I mentioned the narrator of Rebecca in another post I wrote some time back, in which I outline first, second, and third person points of view.)

Both of these books are written in the first person, which at first blush seems like the most limiting of all narrative styles, because the reader can never know anything beyond what the narrator knows. This is definitely the case in Rebecca, where the narrator’s ignorance and conjecture is basically what drives the plot.

The Historian features a very different sort of narrator, because there are technically several narrators. The main narrator (unnamed) is telling the story of her hunt for her father. She follows the trail left by her father based on the letters he’s written to her; these letters are first person, narrated by her father, and his narration (this narrator’s name is Paul) actually takes up the bulk of the book. Paul (via his first person letters) also followed a trail left his by his professor, so portions of the book are told in the first person by the narrator Professor Rossi. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story, and this technique enables the reader to experience multiple points of view (and even multiple time periods) while always staying in the first person. I found it occasionally confusing, though, as there were no markers to indicate when we were switching narrators (or time periods). Since everything was told by “I,” the reader has to rely only on the setting, and an acute awareness for each of the narrator’s voices, to determine who was telling the story at any point in time.

What’s also interesting about both of these stories is that the narrators are not actually the main characters. In Rebecca, we are in the unnamed narrator’s head the entire time and we get to know her intimately, but Max de Winter and even Rebecca herself are the major players in the story. In The Historian, the unnamed primary narrator quickly fades into secondary importance as we follow her father Paul as the narrator. At times reading this book, it was easy to forget that the “main” plot of the story was supposed to take place in the 1970s, because the majority of the story was told via Paul’s letters from the 1950s.

Other Unusual Narrators?

So now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever read (or watched, or written) a story with an unusual narrator or narrative style? There are other stories I could have discussed here, but I’d love to hear some more examples from you!

And also, for your viewing pleasure, here is the Narrator from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat setting up the story and introducing the main character:

Sequels: Realism vs Entertainment

So I recently read that a sequel to Frozen is in the works. No surprise there. The movie has made gazillions of dollars, the already-famous Idina Menzel is now popular among six-year-olds, and it’s cool to like warm hugs. I don’t think a title or plot summary has been released yet, so here is my take on what Frozen 2 should be:

Frozen 2: Do You Want to go to Therapy?

High up on the North Mountain, Queen Elsa’s ice palace, now left untended, melts in the summertime sun. Avalanches and floods ensue, ruining crops and endangering Arendell. Elsa, however, is unable to stop it because she’s too busy wrestling with inner demons and the long-repressed anger at her parents for teaching her to fear and hide. Princess Anna is left in charge, but in addition to saving the kingdom and trying to help Elsa help herself, she has to deal with her husband Kristoff’s sudden depression. Sven, the oversized reindeer who acts like a dog, finally dies at the unrealistically old age of 217 in human years, sending Kristoff into despair at losing his only life-long friend. In desperation, Anna is about ready to call in the scumbags Hans and the Duke of Wesleton for help when Olaf – who has miraculously not melted yet like Elsa’s ice palace – has a daring idea.

Dun-dun-duuuuh….

Not much of a kids’ movie, if you want a (sort of) realistic plot like this. Mind you, I’m not bashing Frozen. I loved the movie and would love to see a sequel. But Disney has a so-so track record with sequels. There are the mediocre follow-ups to all of their animated classics of the 1990s. And then there are the more recent and more successful story continuations like the four Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

So this got me thinking – what makes a good sequel? Is it more important to focus on being “realistic” – like Elsa and Anna having nervous breakdowns due to repressed childhoods and living with dangerous super-powers? Or is it more important to focus on sheer entertainment (that is, box office numbers) by having a funny, song-filled sequel about Norwegian royalty and magical snowmen?

I’m sure Disney will go with something closer to that second option – and rightly so. Because Disney knows their audience. (And their track record with sequels has improved a bit since The Return of Jafar.) That’s actually my point for this post, and the conclusion I came to when I pondered the question of what makes a good sequel.

Know your audience. It’s the same question to consider with any movie, novel, script, or short story that you’re writing. Who are you writing it for? And why are you writing it?

I’m all for writing a sequel – or turning a story into a series – because the audience loved the original story. Or because there’s more story to tell. This is both entertaining and realistic, and I think quite appropriate.

Side note: by “realistic,” I mean realistic within the rules of the world of the story. What is “realistic” or “logical” within the world of Frozen would not be at all appropriate in a Batman story, for example.

So when I think about a “realistic” sequel to a story, what I’m looking for is “what is the next logical occurrence for this plot that fits within the established rules of this world and is expected of these particular characters, based on their beliefs and actions thus far.”

What I don’t like is a sequel that has characters who have undergone a strange personality overhaul somewhere between story 1 and story 2 (like if a different writer and director do the second movie). Contrived plot devices also bug me – like, say, a character who returns from the dead without any sort of precedent for that in the previous story.

As an example, in the X-Men comic series, one expects the character of Jean Grey to die every so often, and then return again after a while, only to later die again (hence her title of Phoenix). This element of world building was established long ago, and so a plot thread featuring the death or resurrection of Jean Grey is “realistic.” This same idea would not work in the world of Middle-Earth, for example, because in Tolkien’s world building, his dead characters usually stay dead (with a few minor exceptions). A Middle-Earth story featuring the unexplained return of (insert dead character here) just because he/she is a cool character would, in my opinion, make for an “unrealistic” sequel.

Of course this is all my personal opinion, and of course there are exceptions to every point that I just laid out. But I do believe that consistency in world building is one of the most important elements, and I feel that the details of a richly-developed fantasy world should not be sacrificed just to capitalize on popularity or make big bucks.

Tell me your opinion? What sort of sequels do you like? Are there some stories that beg to have continual sequels made, or stories that should remain solo tales? What do you think Frozen 2 should be about? Please share!

When the Movie is Better than the Book

As a novel writer, I always feel a bit guilty when I like the film version of something better than the book. I feel like a traitor to my craft, almost, for daring to like a reimagining better than the sacred literary original.

But then I remember that movies are a valid storytelling medium – just like short stories, poetry, stage plays, and comic books. Even though my main focus right now is novel writing, I am first and foremost a lover of stories. And sometimes, the movie version really tells a better story than the book.

Take for example The Wizard of Oz. I grew up watching the movie every time it came on network TV (as did everyone in my generation and older, probably). I was overjoyed when VCRs became commonplace (remember those?) and The Wizard of Oz was released on video tape.

I can quote basically the whole movie, I know all the songs, I’ve tried dancing like the Scarecrow (not as easy as it looks), and I’d still like to have a pet flying monkey or maybe a Horse of a Different Color. I’m also a big fan of some of the “prequel” stories – the Disney movie Oz the Great and Powerful, and the musical Wicked. But up until now, I’d never read the original book that started it all.

When I started reading Baum’s first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I knew that my perceptions of the story would be colored by the 1939 movie and everything that came from that (see the aforementioned Oz and Wicked). But I set my expectations aside and purposefully selected an ebook version of the original 1899 edition that had all of the original illustrations, so that I wouldn’t be seeing Judy Garland on every other page.

Sticklers for the “original book version” of a story likely disapprove of The Wizard of Oz movie, because it was nothing like the book. A few glaring differences (besides the obvious lack of song and dance routines in the book) would be:

  • The gentle Tin Man is devoted to Dorothy and his friends, but lacking a heart, he is thoughtlessly violent and slaughters great numbers of creatures of all sorts if they even appear to be hindering Dorothy’s quest. (Rather ghastly for a children’s book, in my mind).
  • The Wicked Witch of the West is a feeble old crone who is terrified of both Dorothy and the Lion. She is also not green (reducing Margaret Hamilton’s character back to only Elmira Gulch, and negating about half of the songs in Wicked).
  • On that note, Miss Gulch is not in the book, nor are the loveable farmhands or Professor Marvel. Dorothy does not dream of going to Oz – she really does get sucked up in a cyclone, along with the house. Poor Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – childless and homeless all in one day!
  • The shoes are silver, not ruby. The Good Witch of the North sends Dorothy on her way, while Glinda (the Good Witch of the South) doesn’t appear until the very end.

Before I continue, please note that I am not complaining or giving a negative review of the book. My intention here is to illustrate the dramatic differences between this book and the movie sensation it spawned, and why I think the movie told a better story.

From a storytelling perspective, the script writers for the film told a more cohesive, believable story. Here are a few writing techniques that I think the film achieved better than the book:

  • Cutting or combining minor characters – such as using the single character of Glinda to perform the acts done by both of the Good Witches in the book.
  • Dorothy’s desire to return home was very believable in the film, due to the amount of time spent on developing the world of the Kansas farm and the people in her life. In the book, Dorothy dislikes Kansas and seems to show little fondness for her aunt and uncle. While it’s understandable that she would want to return to the familiar, her intense desire to leave Oz just as soon as she arrives seems forced.
  • A clear antagonist. In the film, Dorothy’s enemy Elmira Gulch becomes her enemy in Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West makes repeated appearances and actively tries to interfere with their quest. Her main goal as an antagonist is to get the shoes that Glinda gave to Dorothy. In the book, the Wicked Witch doesn’t appear until near the end; and while she does capture Dorothy and tries to get her to take off the shoes, the entire Dorothy-is-captured-and-her-friends-rescue-her sequence is very anti-climactic in the book.
  • The use of plot devices. The shoes belonging to the late Wicked Witch of the East are a much bigger deal in the film than in the book, and to a much better effect, I feel. Glinda gives them to Dorothy with the instructions to never let the Witch of the West have them, because the shoes are talismans of great magic. The shoes become one of the major features of the plot. In the book, the Witch of the North (that extra character who is not Glinda) basically tosses the shoes Dorothy’s way with a remark to the effect of “well, she’s dead so you can have them if you want.” (Paraphrasing here. This is not verbatim what Baum wrote).
  • Also, the Wicked Witch of the West’s iconic broom is not in the book. (This would mean no dramatic “Surrender, Dorothy” skywriting in the movie, and no “Defying Gravity” song in the Wicked musical.) But that aside, the broom becomes a plot point much like the shoes. It not only represents evil magic (as the shoes represent good magic), but it serves as the token by which Dorothy and company prove their worth to the Wizard. After the melting of the Wicked Witch in the book, they return to the Emerald City with a “by the way, she’s dead, and you’ll just have to take our word for it.” (Paraphrasing here again.) In the film, the broomstick is a tangible indicator that the protagonists are worthy of not only being the main characters, but actually being the heroes, too.

Again, I am not trying to say anything bad about the original. Baum wrote a book that at the time was unlike anything seen before, and he created a rich fantasy world. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an instant success, and Baum wrote many other Oz books because of it (which I am currently working my way through). This strange little story – grisly, anti-climactic, and full of modern storytelling no-no’s – grew into an important part of our culture, and the world of Oz has endured for over 100 years.

I have nothing but respect and appreciation for what Baum wrote. But I am also grateful to everyone at MGM in the 1930s for pulling the best elements out of this book and turning it into not only a visual and musical spectacle, but a stronger and more memorable story. So in this case, I am not ashamed to say that the movie was better than the book. May we all aspire to have our stories get better with the re-telling.