Monday, May 7, 2018

This is Me. . . And Me. . . And Me

I could have titled this article Never Enough, another iconic song from The Greatest Showman that hit theaters last Christmas. But let’s face it. The title I chose is catchy, no?

This story sweeps us into an emotional amusement park ride that we don’t want to end. I had to buy the DVD/Blu-Ray as soon as it came out. Not just for myself, but for my teen grandgirls, who also love the movie, particularly the music...and Zac Efron. Okay, I admit, Zac and Hugh Jackman are quite the draw, even for myself. But I digress.
P.T. Barnum, according to the movie, has a strong inner journey, which is what keeps the audience engaged. He wants to be accepted. A tailor’s son, he was emotionally abused by his father. P.T. assisted him as he measured suits for a wealthy man and fell in love with the man’s daughter. P.T. was told he’d never be good enough to date or, subsequently, to marry the girl.
Charity, P.T.’s intended, sees his heart, not his status. She commits herself to him no matter where he is on the social scale. She loves him with her whole being, enough to defy her parents and marry him. They create a perfect world, despite P.T.’s rollercoaster professional attempts, and two perfect daughters. Life is good.
Enter Jenny Lind, the famous opera star.
I stop here because I want to talk about the Death in the Middle. I have to keep reminding myself that this particular plot device is not just a death, but a paradigm shift. It usually just affects the main character, but when others are involved, it becomes a delicious twist that makes one want to ponder the story long after it ends.
While in England meeting the queen, P.T. has invited Jenny to perform in America. He sponsors the show and uses it as a springboard into the “normal” world—where he longs for acceptance. This is his emotional goal. Charity’s parents had rubbed his poverty in his face, even after he became successful. Once he started his circus, the locals hated him, and worse yet, the critic, James Gordon Bennett, continually slammed the show, never accepting it as true entertainment. No matter how wealthy P.T. becomes, he is never fully accepted by those who have stepped on him.
In the middle of the movie, Jenny makes her American debut as an opera singer. (I would debate that the song she sings isn’t true opera, but what do I know?) The song, Never Enough, is a lyrical device that symbolizes the journeys of all three people. No matter how much money P.T. makes, it will never be enough to satisfy his critics. It also symbolizes Jenny’s view on life, which we’ll see in a moment. Ironically, for Charity, she has had all she has ever wanted in her marriage and children. The song represents the opposite for her.
But as Jenny sings, something interesting happens. P.T. is in the wings watching Jenny. Then we see Charity in the audience watching P.T. watching Jenny. Then we see Jenny turn her head to look at P.T., and the paradigm shifts. Totally devoted to Charity since they were kids, P.T. is now looking at another woman with more than admiration for her craft. He looks to the audience who leaps to its feet in a standing ovation. Jenny is giving him all he ever wanted. And really, didn’t Charity do that already? In his thirst to be accepted by the upper crust, he has somehow slipped down instead of up. We, who are watching this display, gasp as we realize what just happened, and we know that P.T. and Charity are in trouble.

What I love about this shift is that it hits all three characters at the same time. (And a couple of sub-characters. Watch that scene again and see how rich this moment in the middle really is.) Charity suddenly realizes that her perfect marriage is being threatened. P.T. realizes that he can become enamored by someone other than the woman he’s devoted his life to. And Jenny, poor shallow Jenny, gets pinged by a love arrow, but we later see that she’s a spoiled diva whose quest to fulfill that empty hole in her life will stop at nothing, even wrecking a happy home. It is true what she sings:
I'm tryin' to hold my breath
Let it stay this way
Can't let this moment end
You set off a dream in me
Gettin' louder now
Can you hear it echoing?
Take my hand
Will you share this with me?
'Cause darling without you

All the shine of a thousand spotlights
All the stars we steal from the night sky
Will never be enough
Never be enough
Towers of gold are still too little
These hands could hold the world but it'll
Never be enough
Never be enough...
Words and Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Jenny will never be satisfied, and neither will P.T. because, even though he’s not fully aware, he’s willing to trade success for the life he’s built with Charity. And now, thanks to the two of them, Charity’s satisfaction in her life with P.T. and her children is shattered.
This is not only the death in the middle, it’s carnage.
And there you have it. A love triangle that peaks in the exact middle of the story, thus creating the tent pole moment (the prevention of the sagging middle,) and a perfect paradigm shift that changes life for the main character as he knows it.

BONUS: The paradigm shift should also happen at the end of the first act and the end of the second act. Thus, it looks like this:
·         End of first act—the door to no return—death of the ordinary world.

o   P.T. loses his job.

·         Middle of second act—perception shift—death could be a good or bad thing, literal or symbolic.

o   Even in his success, P.T. is set up to lose what he prizes the most.

·         End of second act (going into third)—bleakest moment—All is lost, which is a type of death.

o   Charity walks out. The bank is foreclosing on the beautiful home they built together. She moves back in with her parents, sealing their perception of him as a failure.

Whatever one may feel about plotting, one can’t ignore the fact that it works. Stories make sense. They carry emotion far past THE END. And when done well, audiences/readers will want to come back to see what other spectacular moments you have for them.

If you haven’t already, please get a copy of A Bouquet of Brides, and read my story “Periwinkle in the Park.” I’ve been working hard at getting that Death in the Middle thing into my writing, and I did it in that story, if I may say so myself, perfectly. (Kathy pats herself on the back and proves she could be a contortionist in P.T. Barnum's circus.)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Villain With A Cause

Recently, I found time in my schedule to see not one, but three movies. One in the theater, one a Netflix DVD, and one from my own library. Each of these movies had the obligatory ANTAGONIST, so I thought I'd compare them.

First up, Peter Rabbit, the 2018 offering starring James Corden. Peter is an incorrigible bunny with a bent for mischief. His nemesis, after old Mr. McGregor dies, is the latter's great-nephew, Tom. Upon learning about the death of the uncle he never knew existed, Tom moves into the old house intent on selling it so he can buy his own toy store. He has recently been unjustly let go from Harrod's and he wants to build his store near theirs to rub their noses in it. There's a fabulous quote from Tom on this subject from the movie, but I can't remember it. When this London-bred man goes to the country to see his uncle's house for the first time, he's disgusted to find every woodland creature has taken up residence and he must now clean the place out.

Tom isn't really all that bad. A little OCD, maybe. But he starts out as a meticulous employee of Harrod's, and becomes the unwilling owner of a country home with a "vermin problem." Wouldn't we all be a tad stressed out if our new home was overrun by everything from a hedgehog to a male deer with a full rack?

Enter the beautiful neighbor next door, Bea, who takes care of the creatures, Peter being her favorite. She tells Tom, "We share our land around here." They form an attraction and we see Tom in a different light through Bea's eyes. I begin to like the guy, and his face is actually attractive when he smiles. Tom's redeeming quality is his love of toys and making people happy. He has this conversation with Bea:
Bea: What do you miss most about the store? And don't say having everything in its proper place. I get it. You have control issues. Thomas McGregor: I miss being helpful. A parent or grandparent comes into this shop looking for a gift for the child they love. I ask a few simple questions and know exactly what they need. Thomas McGregor: I love helping people get what they want. [pauseThomas McGregor: Especially when they don't even know that they want it. Those are the best. 
Tom has a passion and this blip in his plans has brought out the worse in him. In the end, he redeems himself and lives happily ever after with his love...and her woodland creatures.

The next movie I watched was The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. Boy, do I miss Brendan Fraser. But I digress. The villain in this movie is a 5000 year old princess whose destiny was ripped from her. Princess Ahmanet is somewhat narcisistic. She longs to be queen, but when her father's wife gives birth to a son, Ahmanet knows she has lost the crown. She makes a pact with Set, the god of death, and kills her father, stepmother, and the baby. She then attempts to kill her human lover with a special dagger so Set can embody him and they can be gods together. Her plan is thwarted, the unsuspecting dupe is killed by a different person, and Ahmanet is captured and mummified alive. She's placed in a sarcophagus and sent to Mesopotamia--modern day Iraq. There she stays hidden until Tom Cruise unearths her centuries later. She comes to life and now chooses him as Set's new rental home. Yes, she's evil, but she does have a cause. Her greatest desire is to become incarnate and rule the world the forever. Unlike Tom McGregor, she does not gain redemption and ultimately shrivels up and is placed back into her sarcofagus.

And lastly, in an attempt to erase all of the violence and ick from the mummy movie, (again, Brendan Fraser, where are you?) my grandkids and I decided to watch the live-action Cinderella.

I love Disney villains. In the past, they didn't need a reason to be bad. They just were. Sometimes I long for the days when I could write an antagonist and not have to come up with a reason why they're messed up. However, readers are more sophisticated now, and demand to have well-rounded plots. How rude! Cinderella starring Lily James fleshes out the evil stepmother, much like it was done in Ever After. (Had to mention that one. It's my favorite! Read what I wrote about it here.) As much as I love Angelica Huston in that role, Cate Blanchett also plays a deliciously evil stepmom. This quote sums up her cause quite nicely:
Lady Tremaine: [holding the glass slipper] Are you looking for this? There must be quite a story to go with it. Won't you tell me? Hm? Very well, I shall tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a *beautiful* young girl who married for love. And she had two loving daughters. All was well. But, one day, her husband, the light of her life, died. The next time, she married for the sake of her daughters. But that man, too, was taken from her. And she was doomed to look every day upon his beloved child. She had hoped to marry off one of her beautiful, stupid daughters to the prince. But his head was turned by a girl with glass slippers. And so, I lived unhappily ever after. My story would appear to be ended.
Cinderella's evil stepmother had a cause. She wanted her daughters to be cared for and thought she had found that in her second husband. But once again, she found herself in dire circumstances, and to add insult to injury, must live with the man's daughter whom he clearly favored over herself. When he died, it was reported that he talked of nothing but Ella and her mother. Obviously, that didn't sit well with his widow.

All three of my Friday movies had villains with a cause. And, it seems, they were all due to something happening to them unjustly. Tom McGregor had his treasured job taken away and was then forced to deal with a circumstance beyond his comfort zone. Princess Ahmanet had her destiny ripped from her, and Lady Tremaine's plans were thwarted through the death of her insurance policy, her husband.

When writing the antagonist, determine whether they will be redeemed in the end. Add to that, why they are the way they are. What circumstance or series of events has made them evil in the sight of the protagonist?

As a final note, I'd like to mention my newest book baby, A Bouquet of Brides. When I wrote the synopsis, I introduced the hero's antagonist whom I planned to redeem. But when I wrote the story, turns out, this one had redeemed himself before I even introduced him to the story. Totally changed the plans I had for him. But I found it much better than what I had cooked up. The heroine's antagonist was a different story. Read about her HERE.

*All quotes and movie photos are courtesy of