Monday, December 22, 2008

Yes Virginia, There Is Redemption

Christmas is a wonderful reminder of Christ’s redemption. And a reminder that we (in writer-speak) are a living character arc—meaning, we are flawed. All ye citizens of the world, past and present! A show of hands, please, for those who are not flawed. Okay, Mother Theresa, you’re excused. As for the rest of you, stick around. There is hope. God has already redeemed our flawed natures. And with this in mind, the Christmas story reveals much more than tinsel, presents, and Amy Grant music.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever
believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send
his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through
him. --John 3:16-17

As we create our characters, we must remember to give them flaws, for without flaws we only have a flat piece of paper with words on it. But, along with their flaws, we must help them move forward, nurture them past their flaws. As we work the character through her short-comings, we develop her character arc.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler states:

Interesting flaws humanize a character. We can recognize bits of
ourselves in a Hero who is challenged to overcome inner doubts, errors in thinking, guilt or trauma from the past, or fear of the future. Weaknesses, imperfections, quirks, and vices immediately make a Hero or any character more real and appealing. . .

Flaws also give a character somewhere to go--the so-called “character arc” in which a character develops from condition A to condition Z through a series of steps. Flaws are a starting point of imperfection or incompleteness from which a character can grow. (p. 40)

Christmas movies show the character arc so clearly. Whether a religious piece or not, it seems most movies written this time of year love the redemption story.

A Christmas Carol
The hugest redemption Christmas story (besides the one found in the Book of Luke) is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Remade dozens, if not hundreds of times, this story of the miserly Scrooge touches our hearts down deep where we’d rather not explore.

Scrooge is an extremely flawed character. He makes Bob Cratchit work late on Christmas Eve, and then only gives him pittance for his wages. Then Dickens weaves his arc through a series of visitors so that not only we, but he, can see how he became this way. And as the ghost of Christmas future looms forebodingly over a grave stone, Scrooge can see that he’s wasted his life, and that he’ll die alone.

In the 1951 version of the story, simply titled, Scrooge, he finishes his arc with a nonsensical song and dance. But read carefully, for our defected character finally gets it. “I don't know anything, I never did know anything, and now I know that I don't know, all on a Christmas morning. I must stand on my head, I must stand on my head!”

It’s A Wonderful Life

The next most remade movie, in my opinion, is It’s A Wonderful Life. Okay everyone, collective sigh: “We love this movie!” By the way, we know a story has arrived when it has been remade by the Muppets, a distinction both the first movie above and this one have in common.

George Bailey wants out of Bedford Falls, but fate won’t let him. All the good opportunities pass him by while he tries to keep the old Building and Loan afloat. The final straw comes when he feels a failure and becomes suicidal after Uncle Billy misplaces a large amount of cash. Okay everyone, collective shout: “Uncle Billy, pay attention!”

The arc of the self-sacrificing George starts low as he shouts at Uncle Billy: “Where's that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. That's what it means. One of us is going to jail - well, it's not gonna be me.”

Frank Capra directs this movie in such a way that throughout a large chunk we live George’s dreams and we feel his angst. His arc begins to move forward as he sits in the bar and prays: “Dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me.” --He begins crying-- “Show me the way... show me the way.” The prayer is answered when the angel, Clarence, jumps in the river, and we feel he is doing it for us. The lesson in that is: write fully dimensional characters that make your readers care.

In a single, selfless act, George rescues Clarence (showing us that even while dangling by a thread, George always puts others first.) His arc starts to move here as the first part of the movie was simply backstory to get us to this point. The petals from Zuzu’s flower disappear from his pocket, and Clarence shows him what life would be like if he’d never been born. George finally learns that had it not been for him, much would be different. He wouldn’t have saved his brother, Harry, and as a result, Harry would not have been in the right place to save lives during the war. The town Scrooge-like hated rich guy, aka the selfish antithesis of George, would ruin Bedford Falls and many of the lives therein. And poor Mary would become a fearful, lonely spinster. Although how she would have grown those ugly, bushy eyebrows without George, much less become near-sighted, I’m still puzzling through.

George learns his lesson and Zuzu’s petals magically reappear in his pocket. He runs home and kisses his wife and children while the townspeople pitch in to gather the money lost. And it’s George’s brother who puts a cap on the arc: “A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.”

Okay everyone, collective quote: “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”

Miracle on 34th Street

Young Susan Walker does not believe in Santa Claus. She is cynical, and way too smart for her own good. Yes, that’s flawed for a child. “If you’re really Santa Claus, you can get it for me. And if you can’t, you’re only a nice man with a white beard like mother says.” She says this to Kris Kringle, who moves her through her arc until she declares, “I believe... I believe... It’s silly, but I believe.” And we all cheer for her as makes her mother and her new dad-to-be stop the car. She had asked Kris for a house, and there it is. She has come full circle.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, (sorry purists, the Jim Carrey version,) we are privileged to not only relive the popular tale we all cut our teeth on, but we get to see his backstory. This is an important lesson on how to develop our character’s flaws. Forgive me Dr. Seuss, but it really is great to see how the Grinch became the Grinch. Poor little green guy, ostracized by his peers, losing his love to the more popular, if not downright pudgy, perfect kid.

So that’s why he lives on top of a peak. To wallow in pity and nurse his lone streak. (Sorry, you just can’t write about Seuss without becoming Seuss.)

Anyway, while listening to the Whoville Christmas music below in the town, he utters, “Blast this Christmas music. It's joyful and triumphant.” Then, Cindy Lou Who, whose heart is as big as her hair, draws him back into society. The Who villagers embrace him and the Grinch, in pain, tells his faithful little dog, “Max. Help me... I'm FEELING.” Finally, his arc is complete when he comes to this revelation:

The Grinch: It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came
without packages, boxes, or bags.
Narrator: Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before.
The Grinch:
Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...
Narrator: He thought
The Grinch: ...means a little bit more.

That, my dear readers, is what Christ came here for. And, now we’ve come full circle.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Our Feature Presentation this month is Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. It also has the delightful Hungarian comic actor, S.Z. Sakall, who plays Uncle Felix, and the formidable actor Sydney Greenstreet as Stanwyck's over-bearing publisher.

Set in 1945, Stanwyck's character, Elizabeth Lane, plays a food writer, famous for her articles in Smart Housekeeping Magazine. I imagine that equates to Good Housekeeping. She has basically lied to her readers, leading them to believe that she lives on a farm in Connecticut and is as homespun as her apple pie. In reality, she lives in the Big Apple, New York City, NY. She's also lied about being able to cook. Her recipes come from Uncle Felix who owns a top-rated restaurant. And she's lied about having a child and husband. Not only to her readers, but to her editor.

Do you see where this is going?

Dennis Morgan plays a handsome sailor just out of the hospital. The publisher, Alexander Yardley, played by Greenstreet, decides it would be good for business to cook a Christmas dinner for the sailor who has nowhere to spend the holidays. And his top-notch food writer would be just the person to do it. He railroads her into accepting, and of course, he wants it done at her farm.

Miss Lane is pursued by a pompous architect, John Sloan, who has trouble talking about anything but building structure. She puts him off until she gets the request from her boss. John has a farm in Connecticut. Ah, how convenient. She can marry him, sneak Uncle Felix in to do the cooking, and all will be well.

Except for the child she has written about. In a frantic search for a baby, we find out that John's cook babysits for mothers who work in a local factory.

So, there's the set-up. A comedy based on deception. Classic. All the players have relocated to the farm. Uncle Felix has a run-in with the cook on staff, John thinks he's marrying Elizabeth, Publisher Yardley shows up with Jefferson early, and chaos ensues.

The kicker is, if you haven't guessed it, Elizabeth falls for Jefferson. Hard.

As we watched the movie, our group realized we'd never get away with some of the things today. Most of the characters were one-dimensional, almost cartoonish. Elizabeth can't even boil water, her fiance has a one-track mind with his architecture business, and her publisher has a one-track mind with his magazine. The only one with depth is Uncle Felix, who is Elizabeth's confidant/mentor/conscience/encourager. But, then again, I'm partial to Hungarians. I married one.

If I were writing this screenplay today, I'd:
  • Give Elizabeth some backstory so we know why she doesn't like to cook. It's all well and good that she's a hard-nosed New Yorker living in an apartment, but I'd like to hear more of her story. I'd also give her more of a reason to fall in love with Jefferson. Good looks aside, Miss New York City Professional Business Woman probably wouldn't toss her independence and, ultimately, her career so easily.
  • Make her fiance ring more true. He loves her, he's waited all this time for her, yet when they kiss, he talks about the plumbing. In writer world, we're told to flesh-out our characters. John is pretty much a skeleton with no muscle or flesh. And while to woman he's been trying to marry throughout the picture is in her bedroom with another man, all he thinks of is pushing his ideas onto the publisher who has mentioned he's looking for a good architect.
  • There's a running bit with a porceline figurine in John's house that Elizabeth is bound and determined to smash when she's frustrated. I would have given her a reason for hating it, or created a piece of symbolism surrounding it. Maybe when she walks in, she sees it and is afraid that her publisher and fiance are trying to make her into a porceline doll. As it is, this poor innocent figuring is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What I think the writer did correctly by today's standards are:

  • Starting the story with Jefferson. This helps us get to know him better. The story starts with him and his shipmate, adrift in the ocean on a life raft for days. We know he's a nice guy, even when he tries to make his nurse think he loves her so he can get special treatment. Later, we learn that he loves kids because he's an uncle and is better at bathing and changing the baby than Elizabeth.
  • It's okay that her publisher is a money-grubbing, take-no-prisoners, businessman. But his character should be the only one we are distanced from. We don't want to like him, at least, not until the very end.

If you haven't seen the movie, don't let my comments scare you off. It's a delightful. if not somewhat shallow, comedy with excellent actors on the bill. Stanwyck plays humor as intense as she does drama and, as I mentioned before, Uncle Felix is a scream. After he learns what the word catastrophe means, he uses it often. Only in his accent it comes out "Catastroph!"

You can catch it this Christmas season on Friday, December 19 at 10:00 p.m., and Wednesday, December 24 at 7:30 a.m., both on TCM. (Check your local listings to comfirm dates and times.)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

An Allegorical View of the Writer's Life (according to The Wizard of Oz)

Lately, I've been teaching about plotting according to the Hero’s Journey. I use The Wizard of Oz to explain all of the phases. However, today I’d like to use this same movie to depict something different.

The writer’s journey.

Let's believe, just for the sake of allegory, that Dorothy symbolizes you, the writer. Perhaps you're stuck in "Kansas," your ordinary world. Because of your day to day routine your story idea is still in the flat stages, as colorless as Dorothy's gray-scaped surroundings. What you need is an instigator. Someone to fuel your passion.

Enter Miss Gulch.

The bicycle riding hag pushes all of Dorothy's buttons. Take away her dog? No way, she'd run away first. That's passion. Where does your passion lie? What would it take to spark that lifeless story line? What pushes your buttons? Is it your critique partner who rides you constantly to turn in that next chapter? Is it your husband reminding you, once again, that if you wrote that best-seller, he could retire? Is it your mother who wants to see you published before she dies. . .and she’s only sixty. Or maybe you need to make money writing. Bills need to be paid. Family needs to be fed. Or, like me, you need to feed your writing conference habit. Listen to your instigator.

Now, with your passion driving you to write, you may still need a catalyst to separate you from your ordinary world. Dishes need to be washed. Your boss is demanding more hours of your day. Perhaps school is your ordinary world. It's going to take a lot to get you to write that story.

How about a cyclone?

Feel the rush of adrenaline. Let it swirl around you. No matter how little time you may have to write, or if the dullness of your life overwhelms your imagination, seek that funnel cloud and stand under it. Let it transport you to where you need to be in order to write the story. And when you land, you will step out into a colorful world, limited only by your own imagination.


Don't forget to grab the ruby slippers. These will be important later.

You may need some mentors to help you on your way through this new world. Find a writer's group, like American Christian Fiction Writers. Pull together a critique group locally. Find an accountability partner, someone who will set you on the right path.

We will call these mentors Munchkins.

Okay, focus here. I know you're singing "We represent the Lollipop Guild" in your head.

Now, I'm going to take a wild leap into allegorical land here. Please stay with me.

As a writer in this strange new world you've created, you are going to need an Overseer, someone to turn to. Someone who helps you learn and grow, even through your mistakes. Could it be possible to think of Glenda, the good witch, as a God figure in your writing journey? I know the term "witch" is off-putting to a Christian, but I wonder if L. Frank Baum had this in mind. In chapter 12 of the book, the winged monkeys are decimating the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. But they refuse to harm Dorothy because of a mark on her forehead where Glenda kissed her. At the risk of sounding theological, I'd like to highlight Revelation 7:3 where a command is set forth to not harm the earth until a seal is placed on the foreheads of the servants of God.

As in every good story, there must be conflict. We seek it out to keep the reader turning pages. However in the writer's life, we'd just as soon avoid any conflict that will keep us from writing. Not going to happen, so learn to roll with it.

Enter the Wicked Witch of the West, Glenda's nemesis.

The Wicked Witch throws everything she has at Dorothy to keep her from her goal. In the real world, these conflicts can be an illness that keeps the brain fuzzy or financial stress causing the writer to set aside her story and find a regularly paying job. It could also be more pleasant things, yet just as time consuming. Grandchildren visiting. Holiday preparations. Television's new fall season. The nemesis throws roadblock after roadblock to keep words off the page. If you recognize her or her winged monkeys just itching to snatch you from your task, cry out to your Overseer.

There will be a moment, (okay, maybe a few moments,) when the writer will question herself. She will sit at her computer, drugged, if you will, with thoughts of inadequacy. Beware, as this stage in your writing journey stands directly between you and your goal. It's yet another technique that the enemy uses to drag you down. . .down. . .down. . .until you can think of nothing else but blessed sleep.

This, my friend, is your poppy field.

Overseer to the rescue! A sprinkling of snow, and you're good to go. Now, march on toward your goal. Dorothy's goal was to go home, but the Emerald City was where the Wizard could grant her wish and ultimately help her achieve her goal. The writer’s Emerald City could be a daily word count or a first draft—something tangible for you to work toward.

Within that city, the writer needs a task-master. This need not be a man behind the curtain, it could be the writer herself. Whatever the case, no one reaches a goal without a plan. Now, let's forget for the moment that the wizard's plan was faulty and purely selfish. He'd hoped by sending Dorothy and her three friends on a quest for the witch's broom, they wouldn't come back. The writer's plan must be concrete, positive steps. How do you reach that daily word count? By setting aside a certain amount of time a day and "clocking in" as if you were working at a real job. Here's an eye-opener. THIS IS A REAL JOB. The sooner you understand that, the sooner you'll take yourself seriously.

I haven't forgotten Dorothy's companions.

The Scarecrow, who longs for a brain, helps us understand that the writer must use her good sense. Even though you're making up a world, logic must rule. For instance, in a romance, don't have a widower of two weeks fall head over heels for a pretty woman.

The Tin Man wants a heart, suggesting that the writer must use compassion in telling her story. A good writer empathizes with her characters, thus drawing the reader in also.

The Cowardly Lion only wants courage. The writer must have courage to stand up for her convictions. If you're writing about a heavy subject, be brave enough to bring the point home.

And Toto? Remember there will always be distractions. Toto was an obedient little dog, until he spotted a cat. This is what got him in trouble with Miss Gulch. Thank goodness there was only one cat in the entire land of OZ or Dorothy may have never reached her goal!

Speaking of that one cat, it is this distraction that nearly derails Dorothy’s plans to go home. Toto jumps out of the basket as the hot air balloon begins to drift off, and of course, Dorothy must go after him. All is lost. The writer must not let anything distract her from reaching her ultimate goal. I want a show of hands. How many of you have an unfinished manuscript in a desk drawer? Yeah. That's what I thought.

But all is not lost. You still have the ruby slippers, right? Click your heels and repeat three times, "There's no place like publication." Come back to Kansas and get that story into the right hands.

(This article was updated on 8/1/2013)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tuck Everlasting - Comparisons

Our feature presentation is Tuck Everlasting. Based on the book by Natalie Babbitt and produced by Walt Disney Pictures.

It's a story of a wealthy young girl who stumbles upon a secret. She learns that there is a family living in her woods—a family, who she later discovers has been made immortal after drinking from a magical spring eighty-seven years ago.

Here's the synopsis according to the movie, but I'll discuss the book later and bring out the differences, both pro and con.

We'll start with the opening scene. It begins with a young man on a motorcycle riding through a contemporary town. Note that the story actually takes place in the early 1900s. In my opinion, this scene was unnecessary. It was confusing to the viewer in our group who hadn't seen the movie or read the book. All of a sudden we're back in time and she was wondering what that was all about. I also didn't like it because rather than creating a question, it's simply intrusive.

The girl, fifteen-year-old Winnie Foster, discovers seve
nteen-year-old Jesse Tuck, the youngest son of the Tuck family, drinking at a spring bubbling from the ground beneath a tree. His older brother, Miles, kidnaps Winnie because she knows where the spring is. At this point, she doesn't know their secret, but he can't take chances. He's afraid she'll tell her family where the spring is.

Winnie, disgruntled with her stifling lifestyle, and longing to run away anyway, soon sees this as her opportunity. She falls in love with Jesse, and time stands still for her as well as she grows to love the family and their gentle, simple ways.

Enter the man in the yellow suit. He had already talked to Winnie through the fence, looking for the Tucks. Her mother shooed him away, but he hung around. Which is how he learns of the secret at the same time as Winnie. Jesse takes her back to the spring to explain everything to her. The man in the yellow suit overhears, although he's still not sure where the spring is, and follows them back to the cottage.

After being accused of kidnapping Winnie, the man reports back to her father of her whereabouts. But he has an agenda. He bargains Winnie's freedom for the woods, of which he will pay a fair price. The father reluctantly agrees and now the man owns the spring. He intends to bottle it and sell it, making himself rich. A posse is formed to go get Winnie, but the man gets there first. He intends for Winnie to take him to the spring where he'll force her to drink so he can use her in his demonstrations while selling the water.

The family struggles to pull Winnie from his arms, but Mae Tuck, the mother, sneaks behind him and whacks him in the head with the butt of a rifle. Bad timing, for the posse has just arrived to see her do this.

She and Tuck, the father, are placed in the jail, and Mae will be hung for killing the man in the yellow suit.

Jesse comes to Winnie's house late at night. He asks her to help them get his parents out of jail. If Mae hangs, she won't die and then the whole world will know their secret.

I'll leave Mae in jail for now while I discuss the differences between the book and the movie.

How the Book Differs From the Movie

The book is beautifully written—a literary masterpiece. The prologue begins thus: "The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning." With lines like this, one would expect it to float like a seeded dandelion on a playful breeze. And it does, but with very little conflict until the end.

Disney felt the need to up the angst—in all, a wise choice, except for some nonsensical changes, particulary the jail scene which I'll mention later.

After the gorgeous prologue that sets up the circle of life, chapter one details how smart the cows were not to have made a road through the wood. Chapter two begins with Mae Tuck excited to see her two sons again after ten years. And chapter three shows ten-year-old Winnie Foster sitting on her grass just inside the fence, talking to a toad about how awful it is to be yelled at and watched all the time by her mother and grandmother. As an only child, they have no one else to pick on. She half-heartedly talks about running away.

We already see a difference with the age of the young heroine. In the movie, she's fifteen, but in the book, she's ten. I think this was a good call on Disney's part because they were able to create a sweet love story between Winnie and Jesse without it seeming "weird." The book attempts their attraction, but it does seem awkward in places.

Another difference was with Miles, the oldest Tuck brother. In the book, the author portrays him as sad. His wife and two children never drank from the eternal spring, and so grew old while Miles did not. His wife believed he sold his soul to the devil and left, taking the children with her. In the movie, Miles is angry and bitter. His daughter died of a disease, and his wife was sent to an insane asylum, where she also later died. His son, he says, would be almost eighty years old, but he doesn't know where he's at. In one scene, Miles goes to a saloon and cheats at cards, knowing that if he were shot, nothing would happen to him. The Miles in the book would never do that, but Disney needed to bring in more conflict. Other than the saloon scene, I say they did a great job. Miles and Jesse fight more in the movie than in the book, because Jesse is so opposite. He loves the fact that he's immortal and he wants to see every inch of the world. These contrary personalities were just what this story needed.

In the movie, Miles is the one who tells the family that the man in the yellow suit is tracking them. In the book, they don't realize it until he shows up at their cottage. This also lends a little more conflict than the book. It sets a stronger ticking clock than the original work had alluded to.
In the book, the man in the yellow suit knows about the family through his grandmother whose dear friend had married into an odd family. That friend was Mile's wife. When she left Mile's with their children they came to live the grandmother, and that's where he heard about the family of immortals and became intrigued as to how they became that way. In the movie, he tells the family that he'd heard a patient in an insane asylum talk about a family of immortals. This is why Disney invented that little bit of back story for Miles about his wife going to an asylum. This tie-in is much more interesting and leaves us to wonder if the man had been a patient as well.

Let's talk about the toad. If you read the book, you know that Winnie had made a friend of a toad that listened to her patiently on the other side of the fence. He was, apparently her only friend. She conversed with it, which we never saw in the movie. The toad just showed up once in awhile so that if you'd read the book, you'd know Disney had too. More about the toad in a minute.

First I'll talk about the jail scene.

This scene only made me shake my head and utter, "This is Disney doing a little Disney-ing." In the book, Winnie is asked by Jesse to come to the jail at a certain hour late at night and help them get Mae out. Note that Tuck was not arrested with her, but when she shows up, he and the boys are standing outside of Mae's window with masonry tools. It seems Miles knew masonry, a fact that hadn't been told yet, so it's jarring to suddenly find this out. In any case, I like the book's resolution to their problem over the movie. The author has Miles pick at the barred window until it comes loose. A storm is nearing and he pries the window whenever there is a crash of thunder so the sound can't be heard. When the window is released, Mae climbs out and Winnie climbs in, taking Mae's place so when the sheriff checks on her, he sees her asleep. Then, in the morning, when she is found, the family is long gone. Winnie can't get into too much trouble because she is only ten after-all.

Now the movie version. Mae and Tuck are in their jail cell. A "frantic" Winnie (fifteen-years-old, remember) runs in the jail crying and saying the Tucks are trying to kidnap her again. The sheriff asks where they are, and she points outside. He grabs a rifle and heads out. There, standing like two demons in the storm, are Jesse and Miles in black clothing, black capes, and black top hats. They move toward the sheriff and Jesse orates these words: "Prepare to meet thy doom." Seriously? It was all very theatrical as only Disney would attempt. The sheriff shoots both Jesse and Miles, who fall appropriately. But then they rise, unhurt. The sheriff, scared out of his wits, runs for his life. I see a problem here. Wasn't the reason they wanted Mae out of jail was to prevent anyone knowing their secret? And here they dramatically call attention to it. Someone didn't think this through.

Anyway, in both the book and movie, the family has time to get away. But not before Jesse makes Winnie promise to find the spring when she turns seventeen, drink from it, and he will come find her later. In the book, he seeks her out at home later, gives her a vial of the water and requests the same.

This difference is important. Here's why.

Winnie's last scene in the movie has her sitting by the tree, picking up the water and letting it drip through her fingers. Moments play in her mind of Jesse telling her how exciting life would be if they both lived forever, and of Tuck explaining that the circle of life was too important to be messed with. The immortal life was like a rock along the river, never growing, never moving, only being, he tells her. Then it cuts away. In the book, however, Winnie stands at her fence on her property, watching a dog try to attack her toad. (See, I told you I'd get back to it.) She grabs the toad, takes it to her room and pours the vial over his body, as toads don't drink, they absorb. I like that she makes this small sacrifice for her friend Toad. It's small, because she can always go back to the spring, if she can find it again, and do as Jesse requested.

In both scenes, the movie where she plays with the water and the book where she pours her vial on the toad, the question still hangs: Does she or doesn't she?

The last scene is in the town and it morphes from early 1900s to contemporary. This is effectively done in both the book and the movie. However, in the movie, Jesse is on his motorcycle, (a continuation of the first scene that I didn't like,) and looks longingly at Winnie's house. Then he takes off and finds the tree now with a gravestone near--Winnie's, where we learn by the carved epitaph that she had become a wife and mother, and lived a hundred years. In the book, Mae and Tuck enter town on their buckboard, out of place with the cars and pavement. They lament that nothing looks the same, and that the woods have been flattened. (If the woods had been flattened, Jesse would have never been able to find the tree.) They go to a cemetery, and there find Winnie's grave marker, still a wife and mother, but she died at seventy-six. I guess Disney wanted to show that she lived a full life by making her one hundred.

So, that's what worked and what didn't in the opinions of those who watched the movie together and discussed it.

On a final note, there was a scene in the movie where the man in the yellow suit goes to a cemetery outside of a church. The vicar comes out to see if he needs anything, and the man, a bit psychotically, asks about eternal life. If a person could live forever without dying, wouldn't that be a good thing? The vicar stammers out that the man speaks blasphemy. I wish that Disney would have let the vicar do his job. It would have gone something like this: "But everyone has access to eternal life through Jesus Christ. He told the woman at the well as much when He explained God's living water in John 4:13-14. "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

Wouldn't that have made a great statement? The social commentary included in the story is that used wrongly, this water would cause anarchy. But God's plan for living water is perfect.

Sigh. But that was Disney doing a little Disney-ing again.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Would Happen If?

Wouldn't it be fun to take your favorite story and write about what happens next?

Cinderella's daughter would become a spoiled brat, and treat her step-daughter as her mother had been treated. A prince from a neighboring country would fall in love with Cindy Jr., show her the error of her ways, and the two would live happily ever after.

What about To Kill A Mockingbird? Scout would grow up to become a political activist, and work at developing half-way houses for the mentally handicapped in honor of her friend, Boo.

Several classics have gone on in sequels. Little Women and Gone With the Wind just to name two.

Hook, a sequel to Peter Pan, asks the question, "What would happen if Peter grew up?" Which is, according to IMDb, the exact question that Jake, son of the writer, James V. Hart, asked his dad. And we're glad he did. What would happen? He'd become a modern day pirate as a cutthroat merger and acquisitions lawyer and develop a fear of flying, of course. Genius!

The creator of Hook must have had a blast as he took all the familiar devices and turned them on their heads. Peter, the boy who never grew up, becomes old. He demands that the window in the children's room be kept shut, even though years before, that's how he visited Wendy. We see a glimpse of the icon Peter as he stands at the window with his fists on his hips. He doesn't pay much attention to his children when before he had nothing but time for kids. His work phone is a constant interruption. And the formerly cocky Peter has trouble spitting out words as he gives his speech at Wendy's banquet.

We wouldn't get any of that if we didn't know the story so well.

I love that Peter marries Wendy's granddaughter, Moira. We all so hoped Peter and Wendy would get together. Well, those of us with a romantic streak. So this was the next best thing. (By the way, was that Gwenyth Paltrow as a young adult Wendy?)

Wendy herself turns the old home into a house for lost children, just as she cared for the lost boys in Neverland. And by the way, I love her phrase, "Give us a squench." I've used that a few times with my own grandchildren.

An elderly Tootles continues to look for his marbles.

Nana is still stuck outside in the doghouse, although I suspect she's a direct descendant of the original. I do wish they'd used a Saint Bernard as in the Disney original, but a shaggy dog works, I guess. Perhaps that's what was used in the original play.

Did you catch the hooks holding the windows closed in the nursery?

The inciting incident occurs when the children are taken. Peter must now become the person he'd shed, someone he doesn't even remember.

Tink to the rescue!

Julia Roberts's Tinkerbell is just the cutest thing. And what wonderful spunk. I don't recall the original fairy clobbering Peter with a blunt object, so this is great insight into what she turned into over the years. With the help of fairy dust, she lugs an unconscious Peter to Neverland to rescue his kids.

Peter attempts to rescue them, but his skills as a lawyer have not prepared him for the treacherous pirates. He fails miserably, leaving his son to wonder why he didn't try harder. Does his dad care for him? Now, Peter not only needs to rescue his children, but he must regain his son's faith.

And now the question the creator must have asked himself. "What would happen if Peter's kids are influenced by the child-hating Captain Hook?" The answer soon becomes obvious. The girl, Maggie, sees him for who he his, someone who desperately needs a mommy. But Jack is really who Hook wants in the first place. With Peter as king of the lost boys, and therefore their chief champion in defending them from the pirate, wouldn't it be ironic if Peter lost his own boy to his treacherous arch enemy?

Ooooo…good stuff!

Peter encounters conflict after conflict as he tries to become the Pan again. The first being Rufio, the boy who has taken his place. A street punk who obviously learned how to fight dirty. He and his gang of lost boys bully and terrorize poor Peter, embarrassing Tink since she's trying to convince them that this is, indeed, Peter Pan.

He finally gains the trust of some of the smaller boys. The littlest finding his hero somewhere in the flabby face by stretching the wrinkles out of it. But Peter still must prove himself to Rufio. He finally overthrows the leader through an insult contest. That makes sense. I had boys. It's what they do.

The major conflict (but not yet the black moment) in the middle of the second act happens when Peter and the lost boys act as spies in the pirate camp. Hook has decided, with the help of his personal valet, Smee, that the best way to get to Peter is through his son. He has worked his magic and Jack is becoming a pirate, and sadly, forgetting he has a family. Hook knows that Jack's problem with his father is that he's never there for him. He even missed a very important baseball game once. So, the devious pirate orders all under his command to stage a game just for Jack to prove to the boy that he loves him (gag) and will always be there for him (gag.) Peter sees his son play baseball, probably for the first time. He's so proud of him as he hits a home run, but his joy is short-lived when he hears Hook say "My Jack." He knows there is no other way to gain his son's respect but to become who he really is deep inside.

He must fly.

How do you have a happy thought when your children are in the hands of the enemy? But find it he does, as he thinks of Moira and the birth of their first child, Jack. To save Jack, he thought of Jack. There must be sermon in there somewhere!

Next conflict. In the transformation, he forgets he has kids, because he's become a boy again, albeit still in a man's body.

Tinkerbell must save the day once more. (Do you see a pattern here? It seems only the females are thinking straight in this story. Good insight, Spielberg!) Ah, but Tinkerbell has her own problem. Even while helping Peter get his kids back, she knows that once he does, she'll lose him again, probably forever. Now, we already knew that she was the jealous sort. And now, she tries to do something about it. Here comes the next question the creator asked. "What would happen if Tinkerbell acted upon that jealousy?" She would make the only wish she'd ever wished for herself. She becomes big, hoping that Peter will choose her. But, alas. Peter is a family man. Upon his rejection, she poofs into her tiny bit of light and flitters off.

As we enter the third act, Peter, fully the Pan and no longer ground-challenged, shows up on Hook's ship. A mêlée ensues. Pirates and lost boys battle it out, and sadly for Rufio, he battles to the death.

This is Pan's black moment. In saving his own son, he's lost one of the boys he's sworn to protect. Hook deserves to die.

Whoa! Our favorite fairy tale just turned dark. Is this what happens when we modernize a classic? Never fear. The writer, James Hart, wrote this knowing his son would read it.

Peter clashes swords with Hook. As they parry and thrust, Hook looses his vanity. His wig flies off and underneath is nothing more than a tired, old man. Maggie, who has seen him for what he is all along, convinces her father to end the fight and take them home.

He nearly does just that, but Hook isn't finished. With one last cruel insult -- vowing that he'll continue to pursue Peter's children, and their children, and their children -- Peter turns his sword on him once again, but before he can finish him off, Hook's greater enemy takes over. The giant crocodile that had taken Hook's hand ages ago, and has been in a taxidermied state in the town square, topples and falls on Hook mouth first. The dastardly pirate disappears into the throat and becomes nothing but a satisfied burp.

After naming one of the remaining boys as leader, Peter and his children return to England. He completes his character arc by answering his work phone in the middle of their homecoming and tossing it out the window. Peter, the man, has rediscovered his boy within, and we are happy to find that both can inhabit the same body.

So, the final question is the same as the first: "What would happen if Peter Pan grew up?" He would embrace his children with as much robust as he had embraced his childhood.

Kudos go to Amblin Studios for taking the classic and finishing the story.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm

I had hoped to post more on Fairy Tale Month, but a research trip in the middle of October stalled that plan. However, we'll have many more opportunities to talk about movies with fairy tale themes.

This week I'd like to spotlight the movie that started me on my writing journey, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, made in 1962, featuring Laurence Harvey as Wilhelm Grimm and Karlheinz Bolm as Jacob Grimm. Other names you may have heard of are Barbara Eden of I Dream of Genie fame, Jim Backus, who was Thirston Howell III in Gilligan's Island, and Buddy Hackett, a popular pudgy comedian in tons of '60s movies (remember Disney's Love Bug?)

Although not particularly accurate, this movie chronicles the lives of the Brothers Grimm and how they started writing fairy tales. It's sprinkled with vignettes from the tales themselves, creating a delightful fantasy montage that absolutely thrilled me when I was seven.

One scene from this movie stands out. If you're a writer, I hope what I'm about to share rings with you as much as it has with me for over four decades. Wilhelm is ill, lying on what is sure to be his death bed in his room. It's at the end of the movie, so we've seen all of the stories in the afore mentioned vignettes. Now, all of those characters come to life and climb through his window and surround his bed, except for the beanstalk Giant who peers into the window. They all entreat him to not die because if he does, they will die with him.

As a writer, this truth has clung to me through the times I wanted to give up. Through the times that writing was just too hard, or publication seemed an impossible mountain to climb. I've found at the times of my greatest discouragement, that my characters yet to be written seek me out in my home office, standing near my chair, their hands on my shoulders. "You can't quit, Kathy, because if you do, no one will know about us." And as a Christian author, I hear God, (who is very real!) saying, "You can't quit, because if you do no one will know the truths I've placed in your words. That one person I've chosen to finally grasp eternity, will not do so through unwritten words."


Our profession is powerful. If I can gain inspiration through the words of a fairy tale movie, how much more so can my readers gain insight into God's truths. He and I work together to craft not only an entertaining story, but inspiration and insight into the character of God. In truth, I learn as much about God as my readers when I see those words form on my screen.

So I encourage you, dear writers, to continue the task you have set out to do. Or, as the theme in our first Craft Cinema feature, Galaxy Quest, stated, -- "Never give up, never surrender."

Powerful words to live by.


If you'd like to learn more about this movie, go to

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


To kick off our Fairy Tale October, our group watched Enchanted, with Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, and James Marsden. It’s a story of a cartoon fairy tale princess who is pushed down a well and lands in very real New York City. A fish out of water story and, in essence, Disney making fun of Disney. Who else could do it better?

First, let’s talk about goals. Our princess, Giselle has one goal. True love’s kiss. She believes she’s found that with Edward, a delightfully narcissistic prince who saves the young damsel in distress from a nasty fall out of a tree as she runs from a two-story tall troll bent on eating her. Edwards goal? Someone who will finish his heart’s duet. They plan to marry the very next day, but the evil queen, aka the future mother-in-law, does everything in her power to stop the marriage for fear of losing her crown to Giselle. Her goal? Get rid of Giselle. She turns herself into an old hag and pushes Giselle down the well.

This leads to the real world and our hero, Robert, a cynical divorce lawyer who makes it clear early on that he’d rather his young daughter read about real-life heroes than fairy tales. The little girl, Morgan, sees Giselle in the rain, pounding on the painted castle door atop a billboard, and hops out of the taxi to see her. Robert goes after his daughter, and rescues Giselle when she falls off the billboard. Robert’s goal? Keepin’ it real. He doesn’t believe in happily ever after since his own bitter divorce, and he insists that his daughter keeps her feet on the ground and her head out of the clouds.

Our hero’s and heroine’s arcs are as diversified as they are. Let’s start with Giselle. Her first jolt of realism is when she asks an old man if he can help her. The man grabs her crown and hoofs it down the street. Giselle calls out, “You’re not a nice old man!” When Giselle feels an emotion she’s never before experienced – anger -- the heavens open up with crashing thunder and lightening. This begins her journey into becoming real. She hangs onto her naiveté as long as possible, singing and dancing in the park, talking to animals, all the typical princessy things. Notice when she later becomes angry at Robert, things change drastically for our heroine. Her voice even changes, no longer sounding like a princess sound track. By this time, Edward has found her, and she tries to introduce him to New York City, perhaps to make him as real as she is becoming. He agrees to take her to a ball before leaving for their own world, Andalasia. We find as she prepares for the ball that she no longer talks to animals, asking them to make her a gown and do her hair for the upcoming ball. She now uses VISA, as any real woman would do. When she shows up at the ball, every person present is in costume pretending to be in a fairy tale. But Giselle is dressed in a contemporary gown, her hair long and silky, looking every inch like a real woman. She soon does some very un-fairy tale things, which we will talk about in a moment.

Robert’s arc is subtle, but watch his eyes as he takes in his new charge, Giselle. He goes from bewilderment, not being able to fathom this fairy tale princess, to distress as he rejects the thought of happily-ever-after. But he starts to believe as she becomes real, effectively crossing her arc with his own. As she goes from fairy tale thinking to realism, he goes from cynicism to idealism. However, he slips as he lets her leave with Edward. After all, that’s what she wants, right? Thus proving that happily-ever-after doesn’t exist. But when he sees her again at the ball, his shift is instant. He dances with her and everyone disappears, including his fiancée. To see Robert, dashing in his prince costume, and Giselle as a real woman, shows clearly how they have both changed. When Edward takes her away again, we fear that Robert will be lost to the real world forever. However, when the jealous queen shows up and successfully gives Giselle a poisoned apple, Robert comes to his full transformation. True love’s kiss is the only thing that will wake Giselle from her deadly slumber. Edward’s kiss is ineffective, therefore, Robert must be her saving prince. He rejects it at first, hanging onto that last cynical shred, but comes through before the clock chimes midnight and Giselle is lost to him forever. He kisses her, and she wakes to her true love’s kiss.

Briefly, Nathaniel’s character arc is also important. As the lackey, his goal is to please the queen at all costs because of his love for her. He leaps down the well at his mistress’s bidding to kill Giselle before she can connect with Edward, who has gone after her. Nathaniel picks up the clue phone in the real world as he watches a soap opera on television. Ironic that such a phoney form of the media would introduce him to the truth. On the show, a man and woman are fighting. She turns up her perky nose and says, “How can I love a man who doesn’t even like himself? Get away, you disgust me.” This begins Nathaniel’s arc, but he still goes through with his plans, bumbling through one failed murderous attempt after another. He finally calls a talk show to discuss his odd relationship with the queen. It becomes clear to him that she is using him when she shows up, calls him “Worthless,” and takes matters into her own hands, leaving him to wonder what went wrong. He eventually stands up to the queen, tells everyone what she has done to Giselle, and holds Edward’s sword to her throat, thus changing his arc from a sniveling love-struck slave to a man with backbone. He reaches his goal, self-respect.

In the end, Giselle becomes real, Robert learnes to believe in fairy tales, and Edward, well, doesn’t change at all, but he does find the one who will finish his heart’s duet -- Nancy, Robert’s fiancée. After all, this is a Disney movie, and everyone but the villain deserves to find happily-ever-after.

Ah, yes. The villain. And a delicious twist at the end of the story.

Disney making fun of Disney was a unique premise that absolutely delighted me. I grew up on these movies, as most of you have, and I thought I got every fairy tale device they threw at us. Talking animals that could sew and do hair. Singing naïve princesses waiting for their true love. Arrogant, but lovable princes who propose at the first meeting. Clocks that ominously strike twelve. Lost slippers. And of course, wicked queens who can turn into old hags bearing poisoned apples. But there is so much more. If you have the DVD, I encourage you to watch the extras. Click on the mouse ears, (at the bottom of the signs on the right, and see how many Disney movies were incorporated into this show. The narrator tells us that if we watch the Blue Ray disc, it will tell all of the secrets. (A cheap shot to get us to upgrade our DVDs, by the way.) They do show some in a short montage. I thought I knew my Disney, but I was amazed at how much I missed. Don’t miss this! It’s nifty, Mouseketeers!

I did get that the evil queen bore a striking resemblance to Snow White’s wicked stepmother, and was every bit as dramatic. As writers, we’re told to give our villains redeemable qualities to make them real. Well, Walt didn’t get that memo. And we baby-boomers are glad. If Disney villains stopped to pet the dog in the alley, the world as we know it would implode.

Back to our story. The third act kicks off with the queen showing up at the ball. When her plot to kill Giselle fails, she turns into a fire-breathing dragon and snatches, of all people, our hero, Robert. TWIST! Doesn’t the villain always go after the woman? Giselle, our sweet princess who only longed for true love’s kiss, now becomes a warrior, ready to fight for her man. She grabs Edward’s sword and hies herself hence up the outside of the building in pursuit of the dragon, (another Disney icon, by the way.)

I will insert a quick note on foreshadowing here. In the beginning of the story, the troll is after Giselle. Brave little Pip, the chipmunk with the Jersey accent, hops onto the troll’s head, making the tree limb they’re all on bend with the weight. Giselle then slips down the limb, Pip grabs for her, and the troll is flung to the south side of Andalasia. Mid-way into the story, Giselle is sitting with Robert’s daughter explaining to her how Pip was the one who actually saved Little Red Riding hood from the wolf. Flash forward. The dragon queen now has our hero precariously perched in her claws, and Pip races up the building. He bravely salutes, steps onto her head, and the spire she’s clinging to bends like the twig in the first act. As it snaps, Robert is flung from her grasp and she falls to her smoldering death.

Ah. I love a happy ending.

Edward and Nancy go back to Andalasia, which is a good thing for poor Nancy and her deviated septum. She’s gorgeous as a cartoon. And Robert, who once professed that he never danced, does so with wild abandon with Giselle and his daughter -- in his very real New York apartment.

And they all lived. . .well, you know.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I Do Hereby Declare. . .

October is


Once upon a time, in land far, far away, lived a writer who dreamed of someday writing about princes on white horses, princesses in sweeping castles, and happily ever after.

Okay, so I haven't written about two out of three of those things, but everything I write has a happily ever after. Call it the princess inside of me just longing to do some frog kissin'!

Since our first movie of the fall season is going to be Enchanted, I thought what a perfect time to discuss other "fairy tale" movies. My absolute favorite is Ever After! An adaptation of the Cinderella story, but told in a way that is believable. No singing mice. No pumpkin coach. But highly entertaining and ohhhh so romantic.

So, watch for posts on a fairy tale theme in October. Or beware! You might find a homely woman selling apples at your door.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Dark Knight Review

In an attempt to escape the triple digit heat this weekend, my husband and I headed for the theater. The Dark Knight won the time lottery--you know, when you stand outside the building and stare at the digital marquee to see which, of the five summer movies you want to see, is the one you don't have to wait an hour for. This movie was on my personal list to see, but I so hoped Mamma Mia! would win the lottery. Ah Pierce, we'll meet later.

Okay, back to the movie at hand.

This much anticipated sequel to Batman Begins promised to deliver horrific bad guys, and it did. It also delivered a lot of loud vehicle chases and violent action. But my husband loved it. It was a long a movie, two and a half hours, and could have cut back on some of the action, at least 45 minutes worth, in my opinion. Much of it was too fast and hard to follow.

And loud. But some people like that, particularly male viewers who I imagine were the target audience.

The story line was solid, with edge of seat suspense and several "Oh, no!" moments--sprinkled in-between the aforementioned action.

Reasons this movie annoyed me:
  • Batman's voice. Thank goodness he was involved in all those car chases instead of talking.

  • Confusing scenes with too many characters. I lost the plot occasionally. But, hey, I was in an air conditioned building in the triple digit heat. I put up with confusing scenes.

Reasons to see this movie:
  • Alfred, the butler. Brilliant casting of Michael Caine, the plucky servant who tells Bruce Wayne what he needs to hear. I wished there had been more of him in this movie, but I enjoyed the moments he had on stage.

  • The ingenious creation on-screen of the villian, Two Face. It was worth waiting through two-thirds of the movie for this transformation.

  • Heath Ledger as the Joker. If for no other reason, see this movie to view the actor's final performance. Of all the Joker's I ever knew, (not talking personally here, just four decades of watching the twisted villian played by everyone from Caesar Romero to Jack Nicholson,) Heath's depiction is the most believable portrayal of the arch enemy. From the trailers, I was afraid I'd be weirded out by this greasy psycho--and I was, but in a good way.

I rate this movie 4 out of 5 stars. I knocked it down a notch because of the excessive action, even though the men in my family, (and just now the two anchor men in the evening news,) have made it clear that explosions, loud engines, and general chaos is what makes this movie great. Oh, and don't get them started on the cool motorcycle! Apparently I don't have enough testosterone to appreciate it. But, honestly, what keeps this review high is Heath. If his star had to dim, I'm greatful this was the role people will be talking about for years to come.

I'm so ready for a good musical/comedy/romance! Hold on Pierce, perhaps we'll rendezvous next weekend!

Monday, July 21, 2008

AUGUST RUSH - Discovering the Heart

Author Constance Hale, in her book Sin and Syntax, divides her observations on style thus:
  • Heart = idea. The germ of the story; its conception.
  • Skeleton = plot. The bare bones of what happens.
  • Sinews and muscles = motivation. Why it happens. How it happens.
  • Flesh = characters and incident. What makes it interesting.
  • Blood = dialogue. Communication between characters and reader.
  • Skin = continuity and coherence. What holds things together on the surface.
  • Carnal Pleasures = style. What elevates a book from readable to sublime. (Kathy's note: I prefer to call this the Nerve Endings, which sounds much less . . . carnal.)

Notice that the Heart is at the top of the list, and that the story, just like the living body, cannot survive without it.

While watching August Rush, let's concentrate on the Heart, or what I'd like to call Theme of the story.

In Plot & Structure, p 130, the theme is defined as the take home value of the story. In our group discussion after watching the movie on Saturday, we followed the three POVs of Evan, (later named August Rush,) his mother, and his father. I asked what theme these three followed, and several different answers popped up. Among these, persistence and searching. In my opinion, these both had the underlying theme of faith. Without faith, Evan and his mother (Lyla) would not have stuck to their convictions. Without faith, however late in the story it showed up, his father (Louis) wouldn’t have pursued his one true love.

In Beginning Writer's Answer Book, p. 170, the question is ask: How is the story problem different than the theme? It goes on to answer: The story problem is the vehicle for the presentation of the theme. In August Rush the problem is that all three characters are separated through no fault of their own. The vehicle is their journey back to becoming a family--with all of the conflict this naturally brings.

In Plot & Structure, p. 131, we’re told that themes deepen fiction, but we must be careful not to force it. The result will be “cardboard characters, a preachy tone, a lack of subtlety, and story cliché’s." To avoid this remember this one thing: Characters carry theme—always. Set your characters in “a world where their values will conflict with each other. Allow your characters to struggle naturally and passionately. Theme will emerge without effort.” The conflicts in the movie are numerous, but because they happen so passionately with the characters, we don’t feel we’ve been preached at.

In Write Away, (pp 163 & 166,) Elizabeth George admits to not always knowing her theme in advance, and often, even though she may think she has a theme, it changes half-way through the story. If you do know your theme beforehand, you can then plan your subplots accordingly.

  • The subplot involving Lyla and Louis deals with faith in love. They meet while both are disillusioned with their lives. Their love creates a faith in another person. When they are torn apart, they flounder for twelve years, not even realizing it had been faith that made them alive.
  • Lyla's search for Evan. When she realizes Evan is still alive, she says, “It’s as if I’ve just woken up.” Faith, renewed.
  • Louis, who, after a twelve year funk, and several awkward tries, begins to have faith that his relationship with Lyla can be renewed. It's important to note, too, that although he comes from a strong Irish family, he loses faith in them when he loses Lyla.
  • Richard, the social worker, has faith in his role in the system.
  • Arthur, the street kid Evan first meets, has placed his faith in Wizard. But when Evan replaces Arthur to be Wizard's favorite, Arthur loses his faith, and eventually helps Evan escape.
  • Wizard is the antithesis to the faith theme. He has no faith in the system, and we glean, through a small part of his back story through his conversation with Richard, that Wizard was once a lost kid in the system who later grew up on the streets. (This, btw, was an excellent way to introduce this bit of back story without interruption.)
  • The little girl in the church has faith in Evan, even though she doesn't understand his gift.
  • The pastor has faith in God, and believes, after an "arrow" prayer indicated by his eyes darting heavenward, that after Evan disappears, he will be found and that all will go right for him.

Sub themes are important, too. The strongest we found dealt with loss.

  • Evan who lost his parents
  • Lyla who lost Louis and her son
  • Louis who lost Lyla
  • Arthur who lost his family
  • Wizard who also lost his family when young, and who loses Evan in the end
  • The little girl in the church who lives there with her grandmother, apparently having lost their home
  • Richard, who admits to Lyla that he had a child--once

In Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, a whole chapter is dedicated to theme beginning on page 229. Here are some nuggets that I found, but if you can get your hands a copy, please read the whole thing. It explains theme, its importance, and how to integrate it into your story.

First, present any "A vs. B" formula that represents a genuine dichotomy, (i.e. "man vs. nature," "reason vs. emotion," etc. Maass says, "When conflicting ideals, values or morals are set against each other in a novel, it grips our imaginations because we ache to resolve that higher conflict." (p. 230)

If your theme eludes you, Maass has a unique approach to help you find it. This would be your take away or what you want to say to the reader.

Beginning on p. 236, "Imagine government agents bursting into your writing room, smashing your computer, grinding your backup disks under their heels, burning your hard copy and hauling you off to prison."

He goes to say that you lose the trial and are sentenced to hang. However, a week before your execution, "the compassionate warden of the prison lends you a typewriter and paper . . . but only ten sheets." There is time to type out only one scene from your novel . . . which one will you chose?

To take it a step further: A sadistic guard seizes the scene and rips it into little pieces. All that is left is a blank half sheet that flutters to the floor. There is only room for a paragraph from your novel.

Maass instructs emphatically: "Go to your word processor right now--yes, this minute--and type out the paragraph from your novel that you would have written in prison on the last day of your life. What does it say?" This, dear writers, is called narrowing your story down to its essence. If you try this exercise, please feel free to share your experience with us by commenting on this blog post.

And finally, from p. 235, he talks about symbols. Sometimes they can be stagy and obvious, but often, they occur in a story whether the author intended them or not. These are the symbols that occur naturally, making use of what is already there. And often, the normal reader, (as opposed to the abnormal writer who reads and looks for such things,) doesn't even know they're there, but have an intuition that something is right with the story--and they like it. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love symbolism. August Rush had a couple.

  • The moon
    - Lyla and Louis fall in love to the song, "Moon Dance."
    - Evan, the boy later renamed August Rush, watches the moon from his orphanage window, knowing that his parents are watching the same moon. It helps him keep a connection with them. It's a physical thing on which he can pin his faith.

  • The music
    - It was music that brought Lyla and Louis together. It was music that brought Louis back into Evan's life as they played their guitars together. And it was music that brought all three together at the end. Music, as it occurred naturally throughout the film, carried the faith theme from beginning to end.
    - Going back to the scene when Louis joined Evan on the street and they both played guitars together, this symbolized father and son in harmony. It was in this scene that the key phrase for the theme was uttered so simply by Louis, "You gotta have a little faith." In that moment, Evan decides he must break ties with Wizard, no matter what the cost.
    - Also, Evan's rhapsody runs throughout the film, only to be replaced occasionally by other songs that move the faith theme throughout. Listen to the lyrics of each song to see how they pull the viewer through the story theme.
    - And here's a great quote by Evan himself: "But I believe in music...The way that some people believe in fairy tales."

Other cool symbolisms in the movie that I can't fit into the faith theme:

  • The professional musicians in the group discussion opened our eyes to what we had already gathered was an important part of the movie. During the parts where all three characters, Evan, Lyla, and Louis, are playing their own music, yet blending, we learn that this is called "melodious harmony." Two words that mean exact opposite of each other. Each character was playing his or her own melodies, yet were harmonizing. This symbolized that each were living their own lives, yet were still in perfect harmony with each other. A side note: The music was so beautifully and seamlessly done, we agreed that if there were no dialogue, we'd still understand what the story was about through the swells and beats of the music.
  • Another interesting thing about the music: Lyla is concert trained, Louis plays in a rock band. Evan's musical style envelops both, just as closely as his genes made him to be a part of both parents.
  • The archway--I never noticed this until it was mentioned in our discussion. A lot of things happened in that large cement archway, and it was suggested that this was the doorway to change.
  • The cross necklace--Lyla loses her necklace at the point she loses Louis. A family torn apart. We see it fall to the ground, and in Writer World, this means something significant is going to happen with that necklace. I waited for it to show up again, and it did--around Wizard's neck. Wizard is lying under the stars having a father/son moment with Evan, usurping the parental role in his life. In other words, this symbolized "the passing of the parent" so to speak.

If you haven't watched August Rush, I encourage you to do so. It's a beautiful movie of faith, love, and yes, persistence.


2. Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell, Writers Digest Books, 2004
3. Beginning Writers Answer Book, edited by Kirk Polking, Writers Digest Books, 1987
4. Write Away, Elizabeth George, Harper Collins, 2004
5. Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass, Writers Digest Books, 2001

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Get Smart review

Occasionally I will write a "Mini-Featurette" on this blog, in between our "Feature Presentations." Today's is a review of the movie, Get Smart with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.

Saturday, my husband and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary by taking in a movie and dinner. We were excited that the TV show we grew up on had been made into a movie, and prayed it wouldn't disappoint as so many remakes have a tendancy to do. (Dukes of Hazzard with Jessica Simpson? Come on!)

In the beginning, Max walks into a museum and admires three iconic items from the old CONTROL days. I had to wonder if these were the items that Don Adams, the actor who played Maxwell Smart in the '60s, used in the original television show. His shoe phone, his suit, and his red sports car were all on display and admired with respect by the new Max. Then he takes off down the corridor of slamming doors, (with one tiny glitch that made the walk uniquely Steve's) and disappears down the phone booth elevator, all to the tune of the original spy riff.

From a writer's stand point, this opening is brilliant. It lets the audience know that we are about to board a nostalgia ride, and that everything we loved as kids about this show will be treated with respect. Don't mess with the shoe phone! It ticks us baby-boomers off! Even their catch phrases -- "Missed it by that much." and "Oh, Max." -- are delightful to hear coming out of these new faces. Well done!

The plot is strong, with the goal, motivation, and conflict firmly in place for both of the main characters. I was happy to see that, as sometimes these remakes simply drag out a half-hour show to 2 hours. There was only one lame scene with one of the villains, but it had been set up so wasn't a surprise. I would have hoped for something stronger considering the rest of the story. However, it didn't ruin the movie for me.

Steve Carell is exactly the right person to play Agent 86, with his clean-cut looks and slight build. Anne Hathaway is perfect for Agent 99, although I had my doubts before seeing the movie. Even though I've seen her in other things, she'll always be a princess to me. However, she hadn't been on screen long before I was totally believing her as an athletic spy. And even though she doesn't look like Barbara Feldon, except for those enormous eyes, she manages to resemble the svelte actress about halfway through the movie as the two characters attend a fancy ball (given by the bad guy, of course.) Anne wears a 60's style brunette wig, bobbed at the chin ala her predecessor, and a silver sequined dress that she must have been poured into. At that point, my believability factor rose ten points.

All-in-all, I give this movie 4 stars out of 5. This was a delightful movie, and my husband and I laughed out loud in the theater along with everyone else. However, in modernizing it, the writers added rude humor, mild sexual innuendos, and a brief nude scene (backside only,) so please be aware of this if you bring the kiddos. Had it not been for that, it would have recieved four stars from me.

To read more about the movie:
To read more about the television show:

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Coming Soon -- AUGUST RUSH

August Rush

If you're in the Colorado Springs, CO area on July 19, we will be watching August Rush, a beautiful move about love, faith, and perseverance. Afterward, we will discuss how the author used these three threads to create a masterfully woven story.

If you can't make it in person, please tune back into Craft Cinema on Monday, July 21 for an article on what we learned.

Monday, June 23, 2008

GALAXY QUEST - Hero's Journey/Character Arc

Okay, I've made an executive decision and decided to place our discussion under a different post. In getting us started, I've created a lengthy lesson -- too much, at least, to be placed in the comment section. This is probably how I'll do it all the time. So, expect an introductory article on the assigned movie, then a second article to discuss on. If our discussion sparks sub-lessons, such as plot skeleton or archtypes, I'll post another article to discuss those things. Each article will be labeled under their movie title and lesson discussion, so readers can easily go to either the movie of their choice or the lesson they'd like to learn.

Clear as Beryllium mud?

Hey, just remember: NEVER GIVE, NEVER SURRENDER!

Here we go…

Trixie has taken your tickets and you are all settled in to watch
Galaxy Quest! (Refer to my last comment on previous article.)

The movie opens with an episode of the original show, Galaxy Quest, starring Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen.) This is our prologue. We need this to understand that GQ is an old television show (note the mullet on our hero) so that when we start the story, we see how they've aged (note Tommy, the nine-year-old pilot of the ship who shaves now!) and have become cynical. One wonders why they're all still together when they're so unhappy. Could it be they yearn again for a captain to tell them what to do? Hmm.

The story actually begins in Jason's ordinary world, a GQ convention ala Star Trek. The actors are complaining about Jason not being there on time because he's booked another gig without them. This sets him up as one who isn't a team player. He wants all the glory for himself.

Remember this, it's important as we look at the Character Arc, or his inner journey.

I'm going to list what we came up with as a group. Jill, Diane, Danica, Bonnie, Darcie, and I discussed the following at length. As I retyped it in, I refined it some more, so if you were there on Saturday, please read on. I invite comments on any part of this, or list your own if you don't agree. I'm hoping this works well as a discussion board. Please remember when you comment for the FIRST time, to click the box that will send you email updates of the comments. This shows up after you've done your word verification and pressed the "Publish Your Comment" button. This is not Feedblitz! That will only send you the original posts.

In our discussion, we took the Hero's Journey (HJ) and the Character Arc (CA) and put them side by side. This is what we came up with:

HJ - ORDINARY WORLD: Galaxy Quest convention.
CA - LIMITED AWARENESS: Aliens visit Jason at convention table but he thinks they're fans in costume.

HJ - CALL TO ADVENTURE: Aliens visit Jason at home.
CA - INCREASED AWARENESS: Jason thinks he understands what they want, but has it wrong.

HJ - REFUSAL OF THE CALL: He doesn't really refuse, but, thinking these are just over-the-top fans, he "blows up the bad guy" and rushes off to his next gig.
CA - RELUCTANCE TO CHANGE: He still shows himself as self-centered
NOTE - It could be argued that his refusal actually happened when he first met them at the convention and blew them off. In his book, Myth and the Movies, Voytilla states that the stages are simply guidelines. Each step can shift somewhat, or be non-existent.

HJ - MEETING THE MENTOR: Mathezar, the good head alien, becomes his tour guide in this strange new world.
CA - OVERCOMING RELUCTANCE: Jason runs back to his fellow actors. This suggests that he's starting his journey of becoming a team player.

HJ - CROSSING THE THRESHOLD: Jason understands now that the evil alien, Sarris, is real, and so is the danger
CA - COMMITTING TO CHANGE: Knows he must help, and convinces the crew to join him, thus admitting that he can't do this by himself.

HJ - TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES: He and his crew must learn how to work the ship that was based on the television show. There are clear allies (The Thermians, or the squid people as our group called them,) and clear enemies, (Sarris and his evil hoard.)
CA - EXPERIMENTING WITH FIRST CHANGE: Takes over the ship as the commander, resuming the role he played on television. He has his team in place, each one unique in their gifts. He needs them to run the ship.

HJ - APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE: Jason prepares his crew for battle.
CA - PREPARING FOR BIG CHANGE: Jason is becoming his character, a captain with a crew. This is a precursor to how he will relate to them later on.

HJ - THE ORDEAL: The planet where they search for Beryllium spheres. This is where they meet physical adversity for the first time.
CA - ATTEMPTING THE BIG CHANGE: Jason must trust his crew to get him out alive.

HJ - REWARD: Sarris is defeated
CA - CONSEQUENCES (IMPROVEMENTS & SETBACKS): Jason earns respect of his crew members.

HJ - ROAD BACK: They bring the ship home!
CA - REDEDICATION TO CHANGE: Humble now, knowing he's part of the team, Jason goes a step further and enlists the teens help to bring them home safely.

HJ - RESURRECTION: Sarris is alive! Jason must battle him one last time.
CA - FINAL ATTEMPT AT BIG CHANGE: Jason sacrifices himself for the sake of his crew (and the audience who thinks it's all part of the show) and puts himself in harms way for his team.

HJ - RETURN WITH ELIXIR: Jason has survived the "special world." He's back at the convention where it all started. The "ordinary world," oblivious, is safe once again.
CA - MASTERY OF THE PROBLEM: Knowing he couldn't have done it alone, Jason includes the GQ crew in celebration rather than taking all the bows himself.

EPILOGUE: New episodes of Galaxy Quest with a new, and much improved crew!

We also found it interesting that as an ensemble piece, all of the crew had their own Character Arcs.

~ Alexander/Dr. Lazarus, whose catch phrase that he loathed -- "By Grabthar's hammer, you shall be avenged" -- becomes real and heartfelt when he loses the alien who looked up to him. Also, as Jason's main adversary, he comes to respect Jason.

~ Gwen/Tawny hates that the only reason she was on the show was as a sex symbol, even though she was vain about her appearance through most of the movie. By the end of the battle, her suit is unzipped and she doesn't care. Then, when she tumbles out of the ship at the convention, her hair is disheveled, and she makes no attempt to primp before her adoring fans.

~ Tommy/Laredo, gains new confidence in piloting the ship.

~ Fred/Chen, although seemingly in control, does break down when it's up to him to save Jason from the planet. When he accomplishes the task, albeit because of the girl alien gazing at him in pure faith, he gains new confidence in himself. And, I just thought of something. He always had food or was talking about food. After falling in love, I don't remember seeing him with food anymore. Hmm.

~ Guy/Crew Member #6. Gotta love him! He went from a sniveling coward who just wanted to be on the show, to a confident crew member, ready to do battle.

~ And finally, Mathesar. He felt he needed the Galaxy Quest crew because of his short-comings. But he had the makings of a commander inside, and embraced it when Jason "commissioned" him.

I found a link to the Galaxy Quest script, where I was able to read clearly the things I missed when I got lost in the movie. In the Bible, we pick out key verses of books and chapters. Here's an excerpt that foreshadows Jason's arc.

While signing his autograph at the first convention, Jason talks to some young fans:

JASON - Had I moved an inch to the left the beast would have killed me. On the other hand, my crew was in danger...
YOUNG BOY - How did you know what to do?
JASON - Come on! Without my crew, I'm not a Commander, huh.

And right there signals his Character Arc!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

GALAXY QUEST - and Welcome!


Never give up. Never surrender.


If you're a fiction writer eager to study the craft through movies, you're in the right place. This month, we will discuss the hero's journey and how it relates to his character arc.

Who are "we?" This blog is my brainchild, Kathy Kovach, the American Christian Fiction Writers Rocky Mountain Zone Director. When I approached the ACFW Colorado folks about sponsoring a movie day, they were enthusiastic. Two people volunteered their homes and we settled on dates. ACFW is a national organization dedicated to spreading the gospel through the art of fiction. If you aren't familiar with ACFW, please visit for info on this worthy organization.

I have had a love of movies ever since watching the late movie with my mom when growing up. My dad was a truck driver and on the road a lot. My sister was seven years older and had a life. That left Mom and me, and a large bowl of popcorn. Back in the sixties and early seventies, the late show was clean, popular in its classic style, and highly entertaining. We watched musicals, epics, name it. But the movies themselves weren't the only draw. Time alone with Mom. Getting to know her as a best friend. That's why my love of movies grew. It was a positive experience that I continue to share with my family.

And now, I want to share it with you, my writing family.

If you belong to ACFW Colorado, we have scheduled our Movie Madness days on the third Saturday of the month. Denver will host June 21 at the house of Jill Hups and Colorado Springs will host July 19 at the house of Kim Woodhouse. (All times and dates subject to change.) ACFW Colorado is looking at opening more charters, so stay tuned. If you'd like directions, watch for an announcement on the ACFW Rcky Mt Zone loop, or email me. (See my profile.)

The beauty of this blog is that if you can't make it to the movie showing, you can watch the movie at your leisure and come back to discuss it with us. I will announce the movies in advance so you can prepare to discuss on the fourth Monday of the month. If you miss a month, I hope you will scroll through the comments anyway. We will all learn from each other.

I hope you can join us at Jill's house on Saturday, June 21 at 4:00, but if not, please rent the movie and come back here. We will begin discussing the character arc of Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen's character) on Monday, June 23 and continue until the topic is exhausted.

Please note that you can subscribe to this blog through FeedBlitz. Enter your email address in the box, upper right corner of this blog. Then you will never miss out on the fun!


You may be familiar with the Hero's Journey which takes the character through a physical structure common to most stories that have been told throughout time. A good contemporary book that explains the mythical structure is The Writer's Journey - 2nd Edition by Christopher Vogler. A follow up to this book is Myth and the Movies by Stuart Voytilla. Using this book, we will follow the chart he's included on page 7. If you don't have the book, you might want to buy it, but it's not necessary for our assignments.

While the Hero's Journey is the physical movement of the character throughout the story, the Character Arc is the inward journey, or the growth of the character. We will look at both.

Watch Galaxy Quest and follow Tim Allen's character, Jason Nesmith. Look for the following things in his Hero's Journey. Make a brief note of what happens to him in the movie during these pivotal points.

  • Ordinary world

  • Call to adventure

  • Refusal of the call

  • Meeting the mentor

  • Crossing the threshold

  • Tests, allies, and enemies

  • Approach the inmost cave

  • The ordeal

  • Reward

  • Road back

  • Resurrection

  • Return with elixir

At the same time, follow the Character Arc:

  • Limited awareness

  • Increased awareness

  • Reluctance to change

  • Overcoming reluctance

  • Committing to change

  • Experimenting with first change

  • Preparing for big change

  • Attempting big change

  • Consequences (improvements and setbacks)

  • Rededication to change

  • Final attempt at big change

  • Mastery of the problem

Note that the Character Arc is the inward journey, while the Hero's Journey is the physical. Voytilla teaches that both are synonimous and makes for a well-rounded character. This is what we want in our own writing.