Plot: Step One

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of writers who say they’re good at writing atmosphere, but don’t know how to write plot. They say they don’t even know where to start.

The basis of most plots is

1) Somebody wants something

2) They have obstacles

Jackie will keep the vases safe!

Oh no! People are trying to break the vases!

There are a lot of ways to make that more complicated (and more fun) but most of the writers I see struggling to make plot are struggling with step one.

In a lot of literary fiction, characters feel lost. They drift without having clear goals. This is intentional. It’s aiming to mirror the way people often feel in life. Most of the time, people don’t really know what they want.

But they at least have an idea. Lost in Translation is often held up as the artsy-feeling movie with no plot, but look at the tag on the poster. It still uses the word “want”: “Everyone wants to be found”.

Even without a clearly stated goal, characters can still have a desire for something. They might not be able to articulate it, and there might be more than one thing, but it’s there. Often it’s helpful to give them symbols.

Paradise Falls, from Up.

This is kind of like a MacGuffin, except according to Hitchcock’s definition a MacGuffin is supposed to have no meaning. I find it a waste to have anything in the book that has no meaning. So I think the MacGuffin should always DO something or at least make people THINK ABOUT something.

The Pulp Fiction suitcase doesn’t exert influence on the plot. Nothing happens because of the suitcase. We don’t even really know what it is. It’s the characters who cause action.

In contrast, the Green Destiny (the sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does change the course of the story.

To reiterate: your character should have something that they’re trying to move towards. Now, to complicate, to mirror life’s uncertainties, maybe they should have another thing they want to move towards that takes them in the opposite direction.

Because, you know, choices.

Carl from Up, choosing between obligations to Russell and Ellie, symbolized by the sash and the chair.

Now that they want something, it’s time to put obstacles in their way! Next post continues onto plot, step two.

“I Want” Songs

Anti-Theme Songs are the ones that interest me most, but the most important song in a musical is usually the “I Want” Song. Described by Howard Ashman:

“In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place, it’s usually about the third song of the evening–sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s the fourth–but it’s quite early, and the leading lady usually sits down on something, sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars of a garden in My Fair Lady, or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors, but the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her, and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.” (Waking Sleeping Beauty).

Ashman famously had to fight Jeffrey Katzenberg for the inclusion of “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid. That song became one of the most memorable parts of the movie. It shows us who Ariel is and makes her instantly likeable.

From that point, almost all Disney musicals have had “I Want” Songs in the first act.

 

 

In fact, the step became a cliché. When Pixar set out to make their first movie, “I Want” Songs were one of the things they vowed to avoid. And then the studio told them to add one!

From Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk. Left side, what Pixar wanted. Right side, what the studio wanted.


In the end, Toy Story did not end up with an “I Want” Song. The clarification of Woody’s drive comes when he’s knocked off the bed, replaced by Buzz. It’s instantly clear how he feels and what he wants, without a song and dance.

But sometimes, a song and dance with a clear desire can be the best part of the story.

In the next post, I’ll discuss why a character’s desire is so important in driving plot.

The Anti-Theme Song

Hey folks! Novel manuscript completed, I’m back 🙂

Twenty years after The Lion King‘s release, many people still say “Hakuna Matata” as genuine advice. They usually don’t realize that was the OPPOSITE of the film’s message.

Consider the scene where Nala confronts Simba in the forest:

Nala: What wouldn’t I understand?

Simba: (Hastily) No, no, no. It doesn’t matter. Hakuna Matata.

Nala: (Confused) What?

Simba: Hakuna Matata. It’s something I learned out here. Look, sometimes bad things happen…

Nala: Simba!

Simba: (Continuing, irritated)–and there’s nothing you can do about it so why worry?

(Simba starts away from Nala, walking on a fallen tree. Nala trots back up to him)

Nala: Because it’s your responsibility.

Simba is similarly chastised by the film’s other mentor characters.

Mufasa: Oh, there’s more to being king than getting your way all the time.

Rafiki: Oh yes. The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it… or… learn from it.

Ignoring the past with “no worries” causes pain for others when Scar takes over. “Hakuna Matata” is the anti-theme of The Lion King, while the actual theme is about facing the past and taking responsibility.

Anti-theme songs are a useful too. A lot of musicals use this anti-theme of relaxing and inaction. They’re often the most popular songs in the story.

The most popular anti-theme song out now is “Let it Go” from Frozen. Elsa revelling in power alone, singing “turn away and slam the door” is in direct opposition to film’s real message of love’s importance, even using the opposite metaphor of “love is an open door.”

If these songs are the opposite of the stories’ messages, why are they so much fun? Two reasons.

1) Freedom. Is it really surprising that “no worries for the rest of your days” produces a more fun song than “face responsibility for the past?” Escapism has a strong allure. Other anti-theme songs are displays of power, since the characters don’t have to worry about the consequences of their actions.

2) They have to be. Stories are about choices. Eventually, the protagonist has to choose between the theme and the anti-theme. Unless the anti-theme seems attractive, it’s going to be an incredibly easy choice and the audience won’t care.

As I close, let me address a couple foreseen areas of confusion. How do you know the story’s real theme?

You need to determine the story’s value system. When do good things happen? When do bad things happen? What is shown as the path to victory?

The most obvious stories have the hero smack the villain on the head with an item that symbolizes one of their friends (Ex. Wreck-It Ralph). Other times, the hero is given a note or shouts a quote from a previous scene. One bizarre example is Jackie Chan’s last fight in Gorgeous, where he wins by smiling.

Another anticipated question: Well then, where are the real theme songs? You think “Love Is An Open Door” is a theme song? Fritz is a bad guy, sillyhead!

Sounds like a question for next time!

Learning from Miyazaki: Pacing

Minor Spoilers for Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle

Miyazaki is often praised for the spell-binding nature of his films. Here goes John Lasseter in the introduction to Starting Point.

His movies have balance–both fast and slow moments. You can even go back to Castle of Cagliostro and see it. That car chase up on the hill is still one of my favorite scenes. Just before the chase, Lupin’s car gets a flat tire and swerves to the side of the road. He climbs up on the roof and just sits there looking up at the sky. The clouds are going by, the wind is blowing, we’re shown a field of grass… and then you hear this GHEEEEEE sound. Miyazaki-san allows Lupin to react with a “What was that?” look before a car roars past him. It sets up the chase so beautifully because of the quiet moment before. That’s pacing.

A big part of pacing is contrast. I’ve chosen two examples from Castle in the Sky where we have a seemingly unnecessary slow-down before a moment of “action.”

First, we see Pazu need help fastening the amulet before jumping off the roof. Sheeta helps, and he gives her a smile. Then, boom.

Later in the film, Pazu fires a cannon to burst open a wall. On his first attempt, the gun jams. This brings us up short for a moment, so our attention can catch up and anticipate the blast.

Pacing isn’t just for action. It’s also for characterization–of the characters and the setting. Lasseter speaks of needing a slow moment after Jesse’s story in Toy Story 2 to let the impact of her story sink in. Miyazaki does moments like these after major revelations as well, but what stands out to me more is the minor actions he has us watch early on.

These things take time and effort to animate, but Miyazaki thinks its worth it so that we can see how these characters move. In this example, Sophie brushing her apron shows that she’s tidy. 

It should be noted that part of why these moments don’t lose our attention is because Miyazaki keeps a string of danger and mystery pulling us along. Both before and after we see Sophie in the hat shop, we also see the wizard’s castle and strange flying warships.

Of course, all the magic of pacing can’t be summed up in “fast” and “slow”. It would take several more posts to discuss all the possible beats that Miyazaki uses.

Here are two more kinds of beats Miyazaki uses well…

1) In The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki, I came across the term “white moments”, coined by Daniel Neyer, to describe moments “when the heart warms and expands”. This is given as a unique feature of Kiki’s Delivery Service, with the example of her father asking when she got so big, but I think white moments exist in all Miyazaki’s films. (More here.)

2) In Starting Point, Miyazaki gives special weight to scenes where a character is running, striving for something. He says this is difficult in animation because of the number of frames, and how you often lose the height of the step. I could give screencaps from Miyazaki’s films, but I think the best example of a “running” beat I’ve seen comes from Mamoru Hosada’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

There are several kinds of beats available to writers. The key is how you put them together, how they contrast and compliment. Today we’ve mostly focused on fast, slow, and push.

Next post, we’ll look at emotion: the kind of push/pull that has made young-adult novels so hot.

On Diversity in Children’s Literature

A year and a half ago, NPR’s list of 100 “Best-Ever Teen Novels” was blasted by teachers and writers as being extremely white. Out of the 100 books on the list, only two were about characters of color: House on Mango Street by Sanra Cisneros and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Blame was laid on the editors of the list and the voters. Better lists have definitely been made. A lot of great books with diversity were ignored while the list contains many novels that are actually middle-grade or adult. They also repeat a lot of authors (ex. John Green five times).

However, the problem isn’t just with NPR or their list-making procedures. Literature for children and teens is pretty homogenous. Particularly fantasy, which, like adult fantasy, tends to be Eurocentric.

That’s not to say there are no good fantasy books starring other ethnicities…

difx

I’m saying there still aren’t enough yet. The books above are all pretty recent. I think the situation is improving, but walking through a bookstore, it’s very hard to find covers featuring characters who aren’t white–especially in the middle-grade/young-adult fantasy section.

I don’t want to make too big a deal about the fact that the characters’ faces are obscured on The Savage Fortress and The Summer Prince because there are a lot of white characters who have their faces obscured as well. It’s a trend in cover art. I don’t want to make a big deal, but I feel like it is important. Both Liar by Justine Larbalestier and Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore feature black protagonists, but the original covers were blatantly white-washed. Outcry from blogs like Reading in Color eventually caused the covers to change.

Larbalestier objected to this cover. She didn’t want Micah’s face on the cover at all.

Reading in Color also has an interesting post on the new cover given to Cindy Pon’s paperback after initial sales for Silver Phoenix were slow.

The author’s response can be found here.

So yeah. Visibility is still a problem.

I find it hard to fault people for not knowing about books with diverse characters when I actively hunt for them and still have trouble finding the kind of stuff I’m looking for.

The books I’ve chosen to feature in today’s post are all fantasy books about people of color, written by people of color (except Justine Larbalestier, who I used for the first cover example). That’s an important part of racefail–that we need to hear from people with different voices, not just imaginings about them.

Straight white abled authors (like me) writing about diverse characters are also out there, and I think they’re doing good work. Still, the main point of my post today can be summed up as “It isn’t enough… yet.”

Next post will continue on mainstream treatment of diversity by tackling one of the juggernauts… Disney.

Why Love Triangles Aren’t Triangular

Minor Spoilers for Spider-Man and Boy Meets Boy

You know what’s almost never shaped like a triangle? A love triangle. Think about it–they’re almost always shaped like Vs, or maybe (in theory) an hourglass.

love V

love hourglass

Even when the people involved aren’t heterosexual, you’re unlikely to get a triangle. Think about the “love triangle” in Boy Meets Boy.

still not a triangle!

There’s no reason we couldn’t have an arrow between Kyle and Noah to complete the triangle. And there’s another gay boy in the novel named Tony. Why not throw him in there too and get some crazy X’d off square?

Because it wouldn’t make the story better. Depending on where you are on the love V, you either fight to win somebody’s heart, or you feel like yours in torn in half because you have to choose. Completing the triangle would make things muddier.

Character A: I’m fighting so hard to make B love me! But… well, I guess I can go with C.

Character B: Oh no, I have to choose between A and C! Or… wait, they chose each other. I guess my choice wasn’t necessary after all.

A full triangle actually alleviates tension. They can create chaos and unexpected reversals (ex. Being John Malkovich), and it can be argued that this muddiness is a more accurate reflection of what life and love feel like. It depends on the kind of story you want to write. This muddiness often comes at the cost of thematic clarity. 

This is also the reason we are more likely to have love Zs than love hourglasses. 

Korra Z

The team from Avatar Korra. Sorry, Bolin, nobody likes you romantically, despite what the fansites want to believe.

Let’s consider Boy Meets Boy. In our diagram, Paul is at the apex of the V, so you’d expect him to have to choose. But notice the arrow only goes from Kyle to Paul, and not back from Paul to Kyle. Paul is actually fighting to be with Noah: being with Kyle is never truly considered. His relationship with Tony creates another obstacle to being with Noah, because of a misunderstanding.

Bang! All the tension is in one place. Paul wants Noah, but he’s got obstacles.

When we think of a HERO, a super awesome person leading by example, they usually have to choose.

1) Superman: Wonder Woman or Lois Lane? 2) Spider-Man: Gwen Stacy or Mary-Jane Watson? 3) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel or Spike? 4) Katniss Everdeen: Peeta Malark or Gale Hawthorne?

I think this works for me when the characters chosen between reflect a choice in values. Wonder Woman and Lois Lane show a value in superpowers vs. humanity. Peeta vs. Gale emphasizes showy displays of emotion and sacrifice vs. passion and history.

This does not work for me when the characters chosen between are interchangeable babes, or when it doesn’t suit the character to be in a choosey position.

If we take the theme of Spider-Man as “with great power there must also come–great responsibility!” then it doesn’t make sense for him to be in a position of power, choosing. He should be fighting his butt off to have a somewhat normal life.

Which is how things start with Gwen Stacy. Spider-Man’s superhero identity gets in the way of their relationship several times, ultimately ending in her death. Later, Mary-Jane’s fierce independence brings up new struggles related to responsibility and independence.

Each relationship works, and they even have some nice obstacles in the form of competition from Harry Osborne and Flash Thompson. But when you put them together, we lose theme.

Basically…

This is more complicated, but less compelling. (Spectacular Spider-Man, 2008)

This is clearer and more tense. (Ultimate Spider-Man, 2012)

My main comment is that I think the Spider-Man story works better if Gwen Stacy and Mary-Jane Watson do not overlap. You’ll notice that usually they don’t: they haven’t in the movies yet. And Spectacular Spider-Man (depicted above) actually made Mary-Jane seem to not be interested in anybody, and then they moved her to a different school. Spidey, despite appearances, never really had the choice.

There are so many spins on the Spider-Man story that a few times you get spidey in a position of power. This can be push and pull, making the story into a roller coaster. It’s true that having a blast is part of the Spider-Man character (see professional wrestling, pre-ghost). So let me add a caveat to my stance: 

Gwen Stacy, Mary-Jane and Spider-Man can work as a love triangle, but only if it’s for a short amount of time, and we have Spider-Man fighting his butt off for each of them, never really in a position to simply choose what he wants.

I talked a bit about heroes today. In two weeks I’ll list off my top five heroes in children’s lit!

Learning from Marvel: Ghosts

 

Marvel has a bajillion superheroes, so I’m not going to tackle all of them. Even single heroes exist in multiple universes (I’m serious) so I’ll keep to the most canonical arcs.

Here are today’s examples:

Based on my discussion with friends about my previous post on ghosts in Pixar’s works, it’s worth restating that a tragic backstory event does not automatically function as a ghost. My example in Pixar’s canon was Remy’s loss of his colony. Similarly, Superman’s whole planet got blown up, but that isn’t really the reason he saves earth. He saves earth because it’s the right thing to do. The thing he’s running from is himself, the idea that people will discover his true identity.

Almost all Marvel characters have something tragic in their backstory, and I’m not enough of a fanboy to precisely lay down all the ones that qualify as ghosts and which don’t. For example, I can’t tell if Ironman’s looming death is the reason he fights, or if that’s just something he decides to do because he can. I’m not sure if Wolverine fights Magneto because he feels traumatized by Weapon X and his lack of past, or because he wants to protect other mutants, more like Superman.

It is completely possible to have a good character and a great story without using a ghost to drive them. But let’s see how it helped to develop two of Marvel’s most enduring heroes.

Captain America

Captain America’s ghost is his past as a weak, scrawny kid who got picked on and wasn’t allowed to join the military. He also witnessed the abuse of his mother, which he was unable to stop. He turns into super beefy awesome soldier and… well, what could he possibly have to learn? What is the inner trauma that he has to heal?

You’d think that he would have to accept himself as super beefy awesome guy, and the movie experimented with that, but it’s not the arc that works best for him. When Captain America is at his best, he is moral authority. Rather than having to overcome his past as a skinny kid, the knowledge of what it’s like to be abused gives him sympathy for others and wisdom.

click for big

While, yes, like many, I find the idea of a character named Captain America acting as moral authority somewhat problematic, most instances I’ve seen handle him well. For the record, it’s not enough for me that the character is separated from the government. He’s still tied to an idea that “America” is a thing, and a good thing, and that’s the part I take issue with: American Exceptionalism.

Spider-Man

Spider-Man’s ghost is interesting because it happens AFTER his inciting incident. The story starts when he gets bitten by the radioactive spider. And then we have a few story beats of Spider-Man just being awesome. Learning to swing from buildings, fooling around with professional wrestling, throwing the school bully in a locker. Whoo!

But… while he’s having fun, he lets a petty thief run past him, and that thief later kills his uncle Ben. Spider-Man’s ghost isn’t just his uncle’s death, it’s the fact it could have been prevented. And with this new ghost, we get the most powerful theme statement for any superhero story: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

I’m into the Spider-Man character, even if I don’t find a lot of the stories involving him very satisfying. His ghost doesn’t force him to make difficult choices very often (blonde or redhead?) but it does layer the pressure on his shoulders. Which works especially well for Peter Parker as a teenager. Homework. Bullies. Money. Identity. Supervillains.

And then a beautiful saucy redhead comes out of nowhere and loves him.

HOW DOES THAT FIT THE THEME?

Ugh. Peter Parker, Mary-Jane Watson, and Gwen Stacey do NOT work as a love triangle. Or maybe I just hate a certain kind of love triangle. This could be a whole ‘nother post.

Come back in two weeks when I rant about love triangles.

So Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I’m about to do something very foolish. Before I tackle the question of where ideas come from, I’m going to provide a funny, insightful, seemingly-off-the-cuff video of the master Neil Gaiman saying that the question has no answer.

Then afterwards, I’m going to try to answer anyway. I’ll give you three ways to generate ideas, and one special tip.

Method 1: What If?

At 2:40, Gaiman describes the moment of inspiration as “it’s that moment where you’re sitting, thinking, what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?”

We can actually break down what he’s just said, along with the moment before it. He started with something that’s well established, and then took it in a new direction. “What if?” 

You can start from lore and clichés as knowledge, or something about our world. This question is most often used in science fiction, but it can work for any genre.

We’ve heard about fountains of immortality. What if there was one on your property, and a family came back to use it again? (Tuck Everlasting.) We know about faerie godmother gifts. What if a faerie godmother’s gift was obedience? (Ella Enchanted.) Siblings are often difficult. What if a boy’s parents adopted a chimp and tried to teach it sign language? (Half-Brother.) Cemeteries are cool and filled with ghosts. What if a boy was raised by those ghosts in the cemetery? (The Graveyard Book.)

It’s that wonderful moment of looking at something from a new angle. Then, to build a story, the obvious question: “What would happen next?”

Method 2: Images

Gaiman soon realizes his werewolf chair story has to be winter, so that you can see chair tracks in the snow. This leap is caused by visualization, an image.

In my post on simplexity, I gave another example of building stories from images: Aimee Bender’s short story “The Healer”. From the image of a girl with a hand made of fire, and another with a hand made of ice, the whole story springs. The leading question is not “What happens next?” but rather, “Who are these people? What do they care about? Why is this happening?”

After you’ve got those handled, you can get into “What happens next?” Chances are you’ll have to walk your way through all of these questions before you’re ready to start actually writing the story.

Many writers get these images in dreams, but there are many possibilities. It could be something that haunts you, or another case of “What if?” that leads to it. Or something you’ve seen in art that you would like to take in a different direction.

A few kids’ books that could have started from images: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd.

Method 3: Theme

The last way I’m going to talk about isn’t mentioned in the video, but it’s exemplified in Gaiman’s newest kids’ book: Fortunately, The Milk.

In Gaiman’s earlier book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, (Definitely a “What if?” book) he came to feel that he was teaching the world thatfathers were oblivious, newspaper-reading occasionally carrot-eating lumps of distraction.” Fortunately, The Milk is his way to make up for that, by giving us a novel that has a father on a wild adventure.

Which means, the idea for the book came from a theme he wanted to portray.

As kids’ writers, we’re often told not to do this. “Don’t build your book around a lesson,” they say, even though it worked out great for books like Animal Farm by George Orwell or The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

When kids’ books are built around a strong theme well, they often wind up as classics: Feed by M. T. Anderson; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, etc.

Apparently The Wizard of Oz is about using the gold standard vs. the silver.

Special Tip: Don’t Stop

This is the most important trick. It takes time to find an idea worth writing a whole novel about. There are writers who believe first thought equals best thought (ex. Stephen King) but not many. Most agree you’re likely to find your best ideas if you write a list of thirty things, then go back to find your favourite.

There’s a Vonnegut quote (I thought it was in A Man Without A Country, but I can’t find it tonight) where a friend tells him that he has an idea for a novel. Vonnegut responds that’s too bad, because his friend is funny. One idea is enough for a serious novel, but a funny novel takes hundreds of ideas.

I’m not sure if that comparison is accurate. What I do know is that every novel I’ve tried to write has taken hundreds of ideas. (Eep! Maybe that means I’m funny!)

That’s actually why I find answering the “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” question difficult. It’s not because I don’t know how to get ideas. It’s that the ideas in my novel aren’t just one idea. They are a bunch of different ideas that got jammed together and then had the sides filed off because they weren’t fitting together well.

If it ends up looking like one idea, then yay. I did my job.

The trickier part of this question is really about recognizing a good idea, and knowing how to turn a so-so idea into a good one. Sounds like an idea for next week!

Breakdown: Wreck-It Ralph

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

Huge ones for Wreck-It Ralph, and some smaller ones for Tangled, Bolt, Toy Story, Up, and Brave.

You’ve been warned…

Symbols

This is were we left off last time…

Stories are often about choices. In order to make these choices more visible, symbols are often created for the ideas that a protagonist is choosing between. In Wreck-It Ralph, we have the Hero Medal and (what I’ll call) the Vanillope Medal.

The Hero Medal symbolizes respect and validation. It functions differently for Vanillope (as a coin that lets her buy a car); symbolically, however, it works the same way, since the car is her way to get validated. We could argue that the car turns out to mean more than that, but her initial urge for the medal is the same as Ralph’s.

The Vanillope Medal symbolizes friendship and compassion. When Ralph smashes Vanillope’s car, he’s wearing the Vanillope Medal, but in the scene immediately after, he’s wearing the Hero Medal. He then, in rejection of his ambition, hurls the Hero Medal away, which reveals the truth about Vanillope. In other words, the medals show us where Ralph is positioned in his arc, and then the story rewards him for giving up on validation.

Ultimately the day must be saved by using the “correct” symbol. Before punching through the Mentos roof, Ralph clutches the green heart of the Vanillope Medal in his fist.

Symbols are often consulted in place of “mentor characters” to re-affirm a decision, or to push a protagonist in the story’s required direction. The most elegant symbol in Pixar’s canon is the name ANDY written on Woody’s boot. It’s a reminder of his character’s spine “do what’s right for my child”.

The depiction of choices in Up is equally strong: when Carl has to choose between saving his house for Ellie or saving Kevin for Russell; and then the reversal when he sits in his house, between Ellie’s book and Russel’s sash of badges.

First he chooses the “wrong” thing, and then he chooses “correctly”. His choices move us from Act 2 into Act 3.

The same as Ralph’s.

Characters

The characters in Wreck-It Ralph are not simplexified in the way I discussed last post. Sure, Ralph is big and Felix is small. We could discuss Vanillope’s glitch. But the most apparent connection to make with the four leads is to their voice actors.

They’re less cartoony than Pixar’s usual work, and make more use of the actor’s known facial expressions and mannerisms. For me, the gee-shucks optimism of Jack McBrayer works the best, especially the scenes with him in jail.

I don’t have a complaint about this. I like all the actors, and I think they helped make the film more human. My problem with the characters is the characterization of the women, which is a problem I have with almost everything from Hollywood.

Why would I have a problem with Vanillope and Calhoun? Vanillope is adorable and determined. She has agency over her own plotline. Calhoun is a tough woman, showing that men aren’t the only ones capable of blasting aliens.

True, sure, but Calhoun’s main plotline is that she’s traumatized over her husband’s death. (The depiction of which I do find very funny.) She’s broken in a way that requires a new man to “fix” her. And she’s never really showing us that women are tough, she’s showing us that Calhoun is an exception, which is why we get comedy from her performance. Get it? It’s funny that a woman could be this tough. And she still wants a guy, just like every woman, right?

I’d like Vanillope if she wasn’t cute and she didn’t turn into a princess at the end.

I am so hard to please. What do I want? If I don’t want female characters who are perfect or broken or squeamish or tough, what do I want?

I want them to be real. I don’t want the problems they have to be quirks that make them cute. I want them to be allowed to have problems that are NOT attractive.

Like who?

Top: Merida from Brave. Middle: Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away. Bottom: Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

How about female animated characters who aren’t the leads?

Top: Tigress from Kung-fu Panda. Middle: Jade from Jackie Chan Adventures. Bottom: Dory from Finding Nemo.

Tigress is actually a surprisingly good character, but I’m scared they’ll mess it up and have her marrying Po before the end of Kung-Fu Panda 3. These females have strengths, but also flaws. They have individual goals, hopes, and beliefs that do not involve romance. 

Like real people.

Sorry, what? Wreck-It Ralph? Oh yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about. 

The Villains

Wreck-It Ralph makes use of what I refer to as “villain swallowing”. Early in the plot, there are multiple villains, so it feels like danger presses in on all sides. Later, to have a more focused climax, one villain swallows the others, becoming supreme.

In Tangled‘s Act 2, we’re running from Rapunzel’s mom, Flynn’s thief buddies, and Max the horse. By Act 3, it’s resolved to just Mother Gothel, as she’s knocked out the thieves, and the horse has joined the heroes.

Wreck-It Ralph takes villain swallowing more literally.

These guys…

become this…

They seriously just fuse together.

The result is an insane, endlessly evil, soul-sucking, generic super-villain. It’s barely a person at this point. Completely unsympathetic.

I find it interesting that Pixar’s list of things to avoid when making Toy Story stated that they didn’t want a villain. I’d love to hear John Lasseter discuss how he feels about using villains now.

Also, I’m curious how he would define “a villain”.

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that he never wrote a story with a villain in it, and that it was because of something he learned in college after the war. Personally, I would classify Dwayne Hoover, Paul Lazzaro, and the Handicapper General as villains. That’s me.

The fact that they’re round characters with human motivations doesn’t change my mind. I think that just means they’re good villains.

If we only consider characters villains after they become unredeemable then I think villains become a less interesting idea. I think almost all of Pixar’s movies have villains, although in some cases (Toy Story 2, Up, Brave) they aren’t revealed until Act 3.

Some of those might have been better without the villain fight in Act 3, but it’s hard to say. Mark Andrews has said that Mar’du was a late addition to Brave, because the third act wasn’t working.

I don’t know. Monsters University is probably their movie that gets closest to not having a villain, and its third act is amazing. Bolt did pretty well without one too.

I don’t like generic super-villains and that’s what Mar’du is. That’s what King Candy becomes. In comparison, when we see Ralph identify himself as a “bad guy” in the beginning, it seems even more obvious that he’s not.

However, we probably didn’t need this contrast for a satisfying end. Characters should be challenged by their opposites, and Ralph’s opposite isn’t generic evil. It was Felix.

Final Thoughts

In talking about Wreck-It Ralph, I’ve wandered quite a bit. There’s almost as much discussion of other movies as the one under close examination.

As I’ve said, my brain likes categories and connections. This is kind of the way I think. Next time I do a close look I might jump around again, or I might tighten my lens and get into smaller details.

For next week though…

On September 6th, we’ll continue our look at villains with a countdown of five great villains from the most popular children’s series of all time: Harry Potter.

Learning from Pixar: Simplexity

Simplexity: Something that when glanced appears simple, but when examined reveals great detail, richness, and flexibility.

I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s a good definition. I’ll start with considering how this applies to characters, then continue into how it can influence plot/structure.

(Relevant part begins at 2:35.)

Pete Docter (the co-writer/director of Monsters Inc. and Up) talks about how the characters’ shapes are tied to their personalities. He doesn’t say which came first, but we can assume that the personalities came before the shapes. Every aspect of character design then supports character.

The early designs for Sulley (from Monsters Inc) included tentacles, but they worried that audiences would lose focus on his facial expressions.

Clicking the Sulleys will take you to a video chat on the making of Monsters Inc.

The final image of Sulley is simpler. Sulley is a warm and loveable monster–he should have purple spots and a wide grin. It is more iconic, an easier model to slip into the story with. Which is part of the heart simplexity: multiple things are happening at once, but you don’t notice because they fit together so well. Everything is logically tied together, so that you can’t tell where it started.

Another example: 

EVE is sleek, elegant, and futuristic while WALL-E is boxy, awkward, and rustic. Don’t just notice the shapes, also notice the contrast. Whether conscious or only visceral, the difference between these characters has an effect on us. It identifies each character more cleanly by showing us an opposite. It also creates opportunities for dynamic interactions.

Simplexity doesn’t just work in animation. Short stories, novels, and picture books can also be tight, layered, and highly-visual, springing from a single concept. My guess is that it goes in a different direction though. When this goes well, it’s impossible to guess the origin, but here’s my gut…

Animators at Pixar start with an idea for a story, determine what their main characters’ personalities should be like, then create models, then create interactions.

Other writers might find inspiration in an image (often from dreams), and then ask themselves questions about “who these people are” and “what they want”. By doing this they develop a rounded character, and then discover events in the character’s life.

I’ve heard more than a few gardener/discovery writers who write fantastical stories describe their process in that way. When I write short stories for adults, I do something similar.

Aimee Bender‘s short story “The Healer” starts like this: “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice. Everyone else’s hands were normal.” Everything in that story flows logically, according to what a girl with a fire hand and a girl with an ice hand might be like. It’s achingly brilliant.

What would a child be like if he grew up in a graveyard? From this concept springs Bod and The Graveyard Book.

Okay. So that’s a bit on character. How might we simplexify plot?

(Minor spoilers for The Paperbag Princess and Howl’s Moving Castle ahead.)

Last year, the twenty-two “story basics” from Emma Coats (a former storyboard artist at Pixar) was reblogged a million times. For good reason. I could write a blog about almost every tip, but today I’ll focus on #4.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This list comes from Brian Macdonald’s Invisible Ink, which opens with a third-page blurb from Andrew Stanton (cowriter/director Finding Nemo and WALL-E). Macdonald admits he didn’t create the steps himself; he learned them from an improv troupe. He’s not sure where they actually originated, but he’s responsible for most of their popularity.

To see a workshop of the Invisible Ink steps in action, led by a Pixar storyboard artist, watch the video below.

I’ve read a lot of books on story structure. Almost all provide their own list of steps. (Which will be worth another post to compare.) The steps in Invisible Ink are the simplest I’ve come across.

There are two things worth noticing.

First, the middle steps (Act 2?) are not “and then”; they are “because of that”. In 6 Days to Air, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss a similar trick for compressing stories. They change ands in their story progression into buts and therefores.

Example Therefore: Often we want a character to go somewhere, and the reason is that the next important thing in the plot happens at Location X. It isn’t really enough that a character has a burning desire to go to Location X. Something should have happened during Plot Event D that sends the character to Location X.  Ji-min gave her sister the last bowl of cereal; therefore, she goes to the store.

Example But: Similarly, a story might have an event that happens at the midpoint. Could be a math test. And the math test totally shakes up the plot. This is easier to accept than a sudden Christmas gift. If an event has to come into the story sidewise, then it should be an obstacle to the characters’ goals. Hamid needs to play in the big football game, but he can’t because he failed a calculus test.

Building stories around consequences makes plots fluid. It can be very difficult to find the right connections. When the rationale is found though, it makes every part of your story necessary and intertwined.

Simpler, but richer.

The second thing about Rule #4 that’s worth mentioning is that Coats omitted the final step: “And ever since then, ___”. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the equivalent of “Return With the Elixir”.

The idea is that it’s not enough for the hero to get what they want or to save themselves. Wisdom and happiness have to be shared to have value. (Although The Paperbag Princess would disagree.)

The audience at least have to see that something has changed, so that we know there was a purpose for the story. This could be as simple as a moon becoming full…

Where the Wild Things Are

or a character’s hair staying grey…

Howl’s Moving Castle

These are simple changes that carry meaning. Symbols of the journey. Using symbols is another great way to simplexify plot, but that will be examined next week.

After Disney bought Pixar in 2006, John Lasseter became the chief creative officer of both. His influence is evident in Disney’s computer animated films since then: Bolt, Tangled, and Wreck-It Ralph. Next Friday, we’ll take a closer look at one of them in my first detailed breakdown.