Thursday, December 20, 2012

When Fiction Is Too Close To Reality

In the past few months, I've considered taking one of my earlier novels straight to the Kindle and eBook marketplace. It's not that I cannot find an agent; if I had the time apart from a full-time teaching job, I would invest it in just that. It's the subject matter of the novel that makes it a difficult sell, I think. It's not about vampires or an adventure full of harrowing events, nor is it a romance or a sci-fi survival story. And even though I have felt ready to tackle this new foray into publishing, I want to take a step back.

This is because my second novel, Redemption, is about a school shooting. I wrote it about four years ago, and it was inspired by the events of Columbine. I can still remember that day in April 1999 as I watched the television monitors of my college cafeteria, students streaming out of their school. When friends asked what would make other teens do such a heinous act, my first response was, "I'll be they were bullied, and this is how they were retaliating." It was the truth, as investigators would find out in the ensuing weeks and months. As a teacher, I know students are bullied. I also know that what happened at Columbine was wrong.

And so a few years later, I had the idea of writing a novel in which the protagonist meets a mysterious new student, one who seems to know a lot about others and who says that he is there to prevent a massacre from happening. The protagonist is doubtful until he is shown visions of what will happen. The book addresses the topics of cliques, bullies, and how teens react to it all. As the protagonist races to stop the event, he learns that it is more difficult than he intended. Hatred burrows deep, and once the seed is planted, it roots itself in the heart.

In an effort to capture an authentic teen voice and test it out, I had students read the manuscript and give advice. That's the great thing about teens... they're gut-wrenchingly honest. If they don't like something or it doesn't make sense, they will let you know. Fortunately, many of my readers loved Redemption, both males and females. I found that it was leading them to have conversations about the topic well after they read it, and parents told me that it affected their teens deeply. I think it's because it doesn't come with a happy ending. Just like in real life, we can't always stop the bad from happening. And like in real life, choices have consequences.

This year, my new students have asked to read it, having heard about it from their friends. But in the wake of the Aurora movie theater shooting, I declined. Eventually, I decided to let them read it, but only after having contacted their parents first. All of the parents have been supportive of their teens reading it, agreeing that it is an important and serious topic.

Yet with the recent events in Connecticut, I have realized that it's not the right time to release this novel. While the events in the book are not the same as what happened in Connecticut, it is too close to reality. Perhaps the time will be right eventually, and I will be able to share the story with a wider audience. But until that time, I must wait until the day when the plot will be closer to fiction than fact.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Hero's Journey: Wreck-It Ralph

When I first saw the trailer for Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, I was excited to see all the video game references. The story of a Bad Guy desiring to be the Good Guy was an interesting approach, especially since it was done through referencing classic video games. Ralph goes on a true Hero's Journey in the story; it demonstrates that beneath the computer animation and funny jokes, there is a deeper story breaking through. If you have seen the film, read on to see how his Journey unfolds. But remember, there are SPOILERS AHEAD. See the film first and experience the Journey with him.

1. Ordinary World: Ralph's Ordinary World is inside his game, Fix-It Felix, Jr. For the past 30 years, he's been carrying on the same role of the Bad Guy. He smashes the building, Felix fixes it with the help of the players, and Ralph is tossed from the top of the building into the mud below. Felix receives a medal and the admiration of the building's residents while Ralph goes to live in the outskirts of the game's environment.

Later, Ralph is at a meeting with a bunch of other Bad Guys, including gaming icons such as Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, M. Bison, Zangief, and others. It is here that he reveals his frustrations and struggles with always having to be the Bad Guy in the game. He wants to belong, to be someone different from who he is. He wants to be the Hero for once. But as the other Bad Guys tell him, they can't change who they are; they can't mess with the program. They admonish Ralph not to "game-jump," as it can have devastating consequences for his own game. Defeated, Ralph goes back to his own game.

2. Call To Adventure: When Ralph arrives back in his own 8-Bit game, he is surprised that there's a party going on in the apartment building's penthouse. They're celebrating the game's 30th anniversary. Ralph invites himself in, only to be treated poorly because he's simply the Bad Guy. Felix is the one who wins the medals; Bad Guys don't win medals. One of the apartment-dwellers tells Ralph that if he can win a medal, he can join them in the penthouse.

3. Refusal of the Call: Of course, Ralph knows full well that this is impossible. He's the Bad Guy. He can't possibly win a medal. The only way he can get one is if he finds one somewhere. It is this desire to find an elusive medal that will guide his Journey. He heads to Tapper's to drown his sorrows.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Ralph doesn't really meet a Mentor who will train and guide him. In a sense, the bartender at Tappers serves as a sort of Mentor as he gives Ralph advice, but a better fit for Mentor is an even more unlikely one; a soldier from the game Hero's Duty passes Ralph, nervously repeating his mission to destroy the cy-bugs in the game. When Ralph questions him about it, he learns that in this game, a Hero can get a medal. This is the prompting that Ralph needs to take the next step. He takes the soldier's suit and gets ready to go into Hero's Duty.

5. Crossing the Threshold: Deciding to game-jump, Ralph Crosses the Threshold by going into the game Hero's Duty. By taking this step into a new game to become a participant, he is stepping into the Special World, an upside-down world that is foreign from the one he knows back in his comfortable game. However, by crossing over, he is also putting his Ordinary World at risk. When players find out Ralph is missing from his own game, the arcade owner realizes it might be time to pull the plug from the old arcade game.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies:Ralph's first test is an antithesis from what he originally knows. Hero's Duty is completely different from simply climbing buildings and breaking things. He is led into battle against the cy-bugs by Sgt. Calhoun, and he quickly panics. Being inside a violent, first-person shooter is not what he had in mind when he enthusiastically dreamed of earning a medal. When the cy-bugs return to their beacon, Ralph follows them to their lair to obtain the medal inside. He gets it, but he inadvertently stirs the entire nest of cy-bugs. He escapes in a ship, entering the racing game Sugar Rush. However, he has also brought a cy-bug with him. This spells disaster, because cy-bugs are viruses that can spread through the entire arcade, destroying every game.

While in Sugar Rush, Ralph also meets Vanellope von Schweetz, who takes his medal and tries to use it to enter the race she has been banned from. Ralph explores this new land, learning what it and its citizens are like. In his search for the medal, Ralph finds Vanellope. He wants to give her a piece of his mind, but when he sees that she is being bullied for being a "glitch," he has compassion for her and befriends her.

7. Approach: Ralph follows Vanellope to her home and learns more about her. She is a "glitch" and therefore cannot leave her game if she wanted to. She is an outcast much like him, and she is denied the ability to participate in the races. He decides to help her; they sneak into a mini-game and build a vehicle for her, and he teaches her how to drive and race. Things are looking up; Ralph thinks Vanellope will have a chance at winning.

8. Ordeal: The Ordeal for Ralph comes at a most difficult decision. King Candy comes to Ralph with the medal and says that Ralph must prevent Vanellope from racing. If she races and wins, she will become a playable character. This might sound good, but when players see her "glitch," they will think the game is broken. The plug will be pulled, and while other characters can escape the game, Vanellope will be trapped forever, gone when the power goes out.

Here, Ralph faces death on several levels. It is the possible death of the game itself, of Vanellope's dreams, and the death of Vanellope if the game's plug is pulled. Ralph makes the tough decision to wreck her vehicle so that she can never race. She does not understand, and it also results in the death of their friendship. She yells at Ralph, telling him he really is a Bad Guy.

9. Reward: Ralph's reward is the fact that he gets his medal. He has saved Vanellope, and he heads back to his own game, ready to celebrate with the others in the penthouse. But it is not to be. Everyone else has left, afraid that the game's plug will be pulled. Ralph has his Reward, but it's bittersweet. He feels like he was better off in the Special World.

10. The Road Back: Ralph looks out of his own game and sees the cabinet of the arcade game Sugar Rush. On it, Vanellope is prominently featured as a key player; this gets Ralph to questions everything King Candy has told him. He returns back to Sugar Rush and questions one of the king's servants about Vanellope, learning the truth. He finds Felix, who helps him fix Vanellope's car, and they enter the race. Vanellope begins showing her abilities and seems destined to win, but suddenly, an army of cy-bugs appear, having multiplied and mutated from the one Ralph brought into the game with him. If they spread throughout the arcade, all hope is lost, and the games will be corrupted with the viruses. The characters attempt to escape Sugar Rush, but Vanellope is unable to leave because she is a "glitch."

11. Resurrection:Ralph knows what he must do. He stays behind, desiring to sacrifice himself in an attempt to lure and destroy the cy-bugs. At the start of the story, he was told that he could not change who he was; he would always be the "Bad Guy." Now, he is proving that mantra wrong.

12. Return with the Elixir: Ralph saves the game and is, in turn, saved by Vanellope. She crosses the finish line, and the game is rebuilt with the help of Fix-It Felix. The game resets, showing Vanellope's true nature. Through the Journey, Ralph discovered who he truly is as well, and he gained a friend. Returning back to his old game, he now sees his duty as being the "Bad Guy" merely a role to play, but he does not let it define who he is deep down inside.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Hero's Journey Revisited

The Ordeal stage of the Hero's Journey has always been one that I've struggled with. According to Christopher Vogler's book The Writer's Journey, this is the stage where the Hero is in the Inmost Cave, where they face death. It's where the Journey could possibly end in disaster. If the Hero survives, they will have a renewed sense of purpose. I had always tried to relate the Ordeal to the climax of a story, but I knew something was "off." Vogler writes that the Ordeal is more of a "central crisis." In his book, he demonstrated that this stage typically happens in Act II. And this is where I have had to do some re-thinking.

Honestly, I lost sleep over it. I've found it effective to use the Blake Snyder Beat sheet from his book Save the Cat! to help see the structure more vividly. And so as I lay awake in bed one night, I tried to think about what beat best exemplified the Ordeal of the Hero. And at about midnight, it finally hit me.

I think the Ordeal usually is best seen toward the end of Act II, and in Blake Snyder's breakdown, it's close to the All Is Lost moment. The Ordeal is typically where the Hero experiences death of some sort. It could be physical, symbolic, or even a fear. But it's a major step for them to overcome if they are to prove that they're worthy of finishing the Journey. It's the "ultimate test." Of course, it might fall somewhere within the end of Snyder's "Bad Guys Close In" beat or even the "Dark Night of the Soul," but it's there.

As soon as I realized this, it made sense. Usually, the Ordeal represents the Inmost Cave, the place where the Hero faces death or their fears. And so we usually see this moment in some kind of enclosed space to represent the Cave. For Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is the Well of Souls, where Indy faces not only death and the end of his Journey, but also his worst fear... snakes. In Iron Man, the Ordeal is when Tony Stark learns that his business partner, Obadiah Stane, has betrayed him. He temporarily paralyzes Stark and removes his "heart," a sure sign of death. If these Heroes survive, they will be further committed to the Journey.

When the Hero receives their Reward and survives, they recommit themselves to the Journey. This is the Road Back. As Blake Snyder would see it, this is the Break Into Three and the beginning of the Finale. It is through the Finale, during the climax, that we see the Hero Resurrected. It's where the Hero digs deep down to show what he has learned.

Having realized this, I knew that I needed to revise some of my Hero's Journey posts But at least now I have a better understanding of the Journey and a larger appreciation for all it entails.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Hero's Journey: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy stands as one of the best set of superhero films ever made. I remember when Batman Begins came out; I didn't go see it at the theaters, as I figured the story wouldn't be anything new or great. I was wrong.

The film was excellent, offering a deeper look at Bruce Wayne's origin story and the issues he faced on a personal level. In that film, he underwent the Hero's Journey of self-discovery and overcoming his fears. But what makes the Nolan Batman films different from other superhero movies is that they are more complex. In fact, each movie warrants repeated viewings to soak in the nuances of the plots. The Dark Knight Rises does not disappoint in this area. Skillfully weaving together the plots of all three movies into one cohesive, three-act story, the movie does what few other sequels manage to do: offer a satisfying story experience.

And while we know that Bruce Wayne undergoes the Hero's Journey in the first film, he also undergoes a different journey in the subsequent stories. Nolan has said that the theme of the first movie was about fear. The second was about chaos, and the third is about pain, both physical and emotional. The same can be said of Bruce's journeys. In Batman Begins, he undergoes a journey of self-realization and overcoming his fear. In the second film, his journey is a bit different, and focuses on how far he is willing to go to stop evil. As Harvey Dent said, "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." His journey was one of discovering how he can be the hero Gotham needed without becoming the villain.

The Dark Knight Rises also contains a Hero's Journey. This time, I believe it is one of overcoming pain and struggling with his destiny as Batman. The second film masterfully ends on a depressing note, one which carries over into the start of this film. So if you'd like to explore his journey in this final chapter, read on, but only if you've seen the third movie. Be warned: there are SPOILERS AHEAD.

One final note: this film is very complex in its plot and the amount of characters, but for the sake of brevity, my analysis is only focusing on the immediate circumstances of Bruce Wayne's life and how the events and characters help shape his journey.

1. Ordinary World: It has been eight years since Bruce Wayne gave up being Batman. Taking the blame for Harvey Dent's death, he himself struggles with the guilt of what it has cost Gotham, and he has become a recluse, not even bothering to come out from Wayne Manor. Whereas in the past, he lived the life of a billionaire, now he does not even take part in Wayne Enterprises, a fact that unbeknownst to him has affected the company financially.

2. Call To Adventure: When the mercenary Bane escapes a CIA transport, he and his minions create an underground army in Gotham City's sewer system. Commissioner Gordon and other police officers attempt to investigate, and Gordon is injured while escaping. Police officer John Blake pays a visit to Bruce Wayne at his house, indicating that he knows Wayne is The Batman, and that Gordon needs his help again.

3. Refusal of the Call: Bruce Wayne listens to Blake's story, but he does not want to be The Batman again. He has given up that life, and Gotham is a better place now. Batman is a wanted criminal, and he cannot fight as Batman anymore. Bruce trusts that the police will take care of everything, but Blake protests.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Bruce eventually meets with Gordon at the hospital with a mask on, and Gordon says that the city needs Batman again. Bruce is still reluctant to get involved, but Gordon's words push him toward investigating. Alfred also serves as a mentor figure to him, as he always has; even John Blake is somewhat of a mentor figure, prompting him to action. Having spoken with Commissioner Gordon, he decides to try and investigate the situation a bit more closely. He meets with Lucius Fox, who not only shows him the newest gadgets he has been working on in the off-the-books Applied Sciences division, but Fox also informs him of Wayne Enterprises's ailing financial situation.

5. Crossing the Threshold: When Bane and his fellow mercenaries take over the Stock Exchange, stealing key financial records and information, Batman re-emerges on the scene after eight years of absence. The police pursue him instead of Bane's men, hoping to catch him and hold him responsible for his role in the death of Harvey Dent. But one thing is clear: The Batman is back. Bruce Wayne has "re-entered" the Special World of fighting crime as a masked vigilante.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Bruce Wayne undergoes many tests of his strength and commitment, such as when Wayne Enterprises goes broke due to possible investment fraud. His friend and caretaker Alfred argues with him about his desire to face his new enemy, Bane. Alfred does not feel that Bruce is ready to fight him, and leaves Wayne Manor rather than watch him die. Even so, Bruce has allies in Lucius Fox and Commissioner Gordon, as well as John Blake. Fox suggests that Bruce speak to Miranda Tate, a friend of the company, and show her the fusion reactor they were developing. Later, Bruce is double-crossed by Selina Kyle, who leads him to Bane in a trap to save herself. Batman fights Bane and is brought to near-death, with Bane breaking his back.

7. Approach: As Bane executes his plan of holding Gotham hostage while exiling Bruce to a prison that resembles a well, and from which there is only one nearly-impossible escape, Bruce tries to learn more about Bane from the prisoners. Because this journey is about facing pain, Bruce must overcome his physical pain as well as emotional pain if he is going to save Gotham from destruction. If he cannot do this, Gotham will be destroyed in five months by the device. Bruce speaks to the prisoners about escaping, and the former prison doctor helps to heal his back in a painful process.

8. Ordeal: Bruce tries to escape the prison, but fails until he learns to fear death. Once he has done this, he "rises" and escapes. He faces death and his greatest fears in the Inmost Cave.

9. Reward: Bruce is free and can now complete his Journey.

10. The Road Back:Bruce returns to Gotham. Having now trained himself and prepared to face Bane again, Bruce must face his greatest challenge. Along with an army of police officers, he faces Bane and his minions. He faces death as he confronts Bane, fully aware that Bane is a worthy adversary. Bruce is able to defeat Bane, and he is able to stop the bomb from going off immediately. However, the bomb can still detonate, and he must find it. He needs to return to the streets of Gotham once again. With the help of Commissioner Gordon and other allies, Bruce finds the device, but they are unable to deactivate it.

11. Resurrection: Bruce must show, once again, that this journey has truly changed him. Gotham will never be the same, but to preserve it, Bruce must make the most difficult decision yet. He has faced fear and death, and now he must embrace it. He must make a sacrifice. He faces death one final time, sacrificing himself and the symbol of The Batman.

12. Return with the Elixir: But we learn that it is not truly the end for Bruce. He is literally "resurrected" when we learn the true consequences of his choice and what it means for him. Bruce Wayne is also symbolically resurrected after his sacrifice when he leaves behind everything from his diminished fortune. His home becomes a new center for orphaned boys, and he passes on the crime-fighting responsibility to Blake. The symbol of The Batman is powerful and unites Gotham. Whereas the old Bruce Wayne felt the need to continue being The Batman until Gotham was free of crime and corruption, this "new" Bruce Wayne understands that after what has happened on this journey, he can entrust Gotham to the citizens and law enforcement officials. While Bruce himself does not physically return, he has given Gotham an elixir in the form of a symbol. It is a symbol of courage and of hope. It is the symbol that is projected from the searchlight. The legacy of The Batman.

Note: this post was revised and updated on 8/28/12.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Hero's Journey: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

I was reluctant to see the new Spider-Man film, but a friend of mine told me that it had a clear path of the Hero's Journey, so I gave it a chance. Because I teach my students about the Hero's Journey story structure, I wanted to be able to discuss the film with those who have seen it, relating the Journey. And the Journey definitely comes through in this story. If you haven't seen it, know that there are spoilers ahead. But if you've seen the film, read on and discover the depth of the Journey in it.

1. Ordinary World: Peter Parker is a student at Midtown Science High School, and he lives with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. His parents left him suddenly when he was young, offering no explanation, and never came back for him. As a result, Peter is frustrated internally and longs to find out more about his father and why he left. Peter is awkward around his peers and is even picked on, but he still sticks up for the underdog.

2. Call To Adventure: When Peter is cleaning up the basement to save some belongings from water damage, he finds a briefcase with his father's initials on it. Opening it, he finds some of his father's belongings, as well a file that leads him to research his father's lab partner who works at Oscorp Tower, Dr. Connors. Peter goes to Oscorp and meets Dr. Connors, and while sneaking around, looking for answers, he is bitten by a spider that is being used to create biocable. He starts to develop strange abilities as a result. By finding his father's briefcase, Peter has been introduced to the Special World that is the opposite of what he knows.

3. Refusal of the Call:  Peter is unsure what is happening to him, and he begins to question things. He begins to test out his powers, and is even a bit irresponsible with them, using them to upstage the bully who picked on him, Flash Thompson. He also becomes argumentative with Uncle Ben when accused of not following through on what he promised to do. He storms off, and Uncle Ben follows him. At a convenience store, he lets a thief go when the store clerk treats him rudely, and the thief ultimately shoots Uncle Ben.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Throughout the story, Peter has already had several mentors working in his life. Dr. Connors is a mentor to him when it comes to science, helping Peter feel comfortable with his genius. The briefcase with his father's work has also been a mentor of sorts, pushing him into this Special World. And of course, Uncle Ben has been one of the biggest mentor influences on Peter, and when he dies, Peter is pushed to his limits.

5. Crossing the Threshold: The death of Peter's Uncle Ben is ultimately what pushes Peter to cross over into the Special World fully. Peter uses the police sketch of the thief who murdered Uncle Ben to begin his work as a vigilante, trying to hunt the man down. His world has changed, and there is no going back to things as they used to be.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: As Peter fights crime, he confronts criminals and makes enemies. Because one thug threatens him after an encounter, saying that he knows what Peter looks like, Peter decides to use a mask. He eventually creates a suit to help with mobility, and his identity as Spider-Man begins to cement. At school, he develops a friendship with Gwen and even Flash shows a sense of friendliness toward him. But this double-life is taking its toll. Aunt May is worried when he comes home late, and his emotions rise with regret when he comes home to her not with the eggs he had promised to buy, but with bruises and blood all over his face. His tests are increasing in difficulty: Dr. Connors displayed a semblance of friendship toward him, but as his identity shifts into The Lizard, this will change. Gwen's father, Police Captain Stacy, shows an antagonistic attitude toward Peter and his alter-ego.

7. Approach: Peter witnesses The Lizard's rampage on the bridge, and he tries to stop the creature. He sets a trap in the sewers, barely escaping with his life, and still badly injured. After verifying some suspicions, Peter tries to convince Captain Stacy that Dr. Connors is the man they are looking for, but his ideas are met with harsh ridicule. The Lizard learns Spider-Man's identity, and he shows up at Midtown Science High School to destroy Peter Parker.After fighting Peter at school, Dr. Connors retreats to carry out his master-plan, and Peter tries to stop him with Gwen's help.

8. Ordeal: Spider-Man faces the Inmost Cave when he is shot by a police bullet that stuns him electrically. He is surrounded and faces his greatest fear: his identity will be known. If this happens, Gwen will die, and the city of New York will be lost. Unable to fight his way out, reveals his identity to Captain Stacy.

9. Reward: Captain Stacy lets him go, showing his new-found trust in Peter.

10. The Road Back: Peter is recommitted to the Journey. He makes his way to Oscorp Tower to stop the Lizard. Along the way, he learns that the citizens of New York trust him as well.He confronts his nemesis and begins fighting him.

11. Resurrection: The Lizard is strong and powerful, crushing Spider-Man's web shooters and taking away his advantage. Peter digs down deep, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, and when Captain Stacy arrives, they work together to stop The Lizard.

12. Return with the Elixir: Dr. Connors has been returned back to normal and his plans as The Lizard have been stopped. He has saved Gwen, but at a cost: Captain Stacy was killed. As he dies, he asks Peter to keep Gwen out of his life to protect her. Peter makes a promise even though it kills him deep down. He would love to have Gwen at his side, and would give anything to see Captain Stacy and his Uncle Ben alive again. But he has changed... ...and in a final, small moment, we see this change. It's not just in the promise he made to Captain Stacy, but also in a carton of eggs. As he walks through the door to his waiting Aunt May, he holds out a carton of eggs, signifying that he is different from the start of the journey. He is a different person, and even though he may not have all of the answers he wanted, he has learned to put others ahead of himself during the search. The Elixir Peter Parker has brought back from his journey is that of a new hero. He is no longer just Peter Parker, fatherless teenager. He's Spider-Man.

Note: this post was revised and updated on 8/28/12. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Favorite Film Beats

I love movies. There's just something about a good story that draws you in when it's well-told. In every movie, there are always certain moments, certain "beats" that strike a chord. When I am writing, I try to think: "Will this moment be emotional? Surprising? Will it make the reader's jaw drop open?" As I write, I picture the "movie" of the book unfolding in my mind. I believe that if I can see it, and I can write what I see, the reader will, too. And when they do see it, I want them to see those moments that will be memorable.

As I was reading Blake Snyder's book Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, I was struck momentarily while reading his breakdown of Spider-Man 2. As Snyder described part of the story, he added a parenthetical comment of how much he loved that specific beat, that short moment. It was my favorite moment, too. And I realized that if that part struck him as it did for me, it probably did for a lot of other people.

So I began thinking of some of my favorite film beats, those scenes that I will watch an entire movie for, simply waiting for those few seconds of screen time. And surprisingly, they are not always the most action-packed or funniest moments, but the ones that give me chills when I see them. These are the moments I seek to create in my novels. So here is a short list of some of my favorites and why:

  • Spider-Man 2: Just like Blake Snyder, I love the moment after Peter Parker stops the train as Spider-Man, saving the lives of all on board. After "crucifying" himself (another realization I had after reading Snyder's book), the passengers pull him back in and carry him into the car. At this point, he is without his mask, and everyone can see his identity. One adult says in shock, "He's just a kid..." For some reason, I love that beat. It's honest, it's sincere, and it shows the humanity not only of Peter Parker, but of those around him. When he wakes up and realizes he's been seen, some kids bring his mask to him, saying, "Don't worry... we won't tell anyone."
  • Signs: When I first saw this movie, I expected a creepy sci-fi film. I never expected a message about faith and providence to be part of it. When the alien creature appears in the house, Graham's brother Merrill accidentally hits a glass of water that seems to hurt the alien. The camera shows a shot of the house, which is full of unfinished glasses of water as Graham realizes that maybe his daughter's idiosyncracies have a purpose.
  • Gladiator: I love the action in this film, but the most powerful moment comes when Emperor Commodus demands that the gladiator reveals himself. When Maximus turns and takes off his mask, his line makes our breath stop, not just Commodus's: "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."
  • Back to the Future: This is one of my all-time favorites. Even seeing it on the big screen for its 25th anniversary, it was like seeing it for the first time. We all knew what would happen, but the crowd still surged with intensity and expectation. When Doc Brown finally hooks up the wire and the lightning bolt strikes the clock tower, everyone cheered. It's a moment of celebration and excitement.
  • Batman Begins: As chaos errupts in The Narrows because Scarecrow's gas is making everyone hallucinate, police officer Gordon realizes that they are in trouble. They have closed off the bridge so that no one can get out, but this also means that the riot police are stuck there too, facing the effects of the gas. As The Narrows tears itself apart, Gordon is asked who else they can send over, and he cries out that there's no one left to send. At that moment, the Tumbler flies across the gap. A perfectly timed moment for our hero to make his entrance.
  • Super 8: A simple moment at the end of the film: when Joe's necklace flies out of his pocket and opens, letting us see what is inside for the first time: a picture of his deceased mother. He lets go of it, watching it fly away.
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Another all-time favorite, we all know that the movie isn't really about the Holy Grail, but about the father's quest to find his son and reconcile. So the moment when Indiana is falling down a hole in the ground, struggling to reach for the grail, his father clings to him, trying to save him. Finally, accepting his son for who he is, Henry Jones says, "Indiana... let it go..." The real treasure has been salvaged: their relationship.
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes: The tense moment when Caesar faces off against his sadistic caretaker grabbed my attention because I knew Caesar was finally accepting who he was and what he was destined to do. But I did not expect what happened next, and I don't think the rest of the theatergoers did either, because you could hear a pin drop the moment he yelled, "No!"
  • Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: While there are many fantastic, awe-inspiring moments in this movie, and even the trilogy as a whole, I still get chills when Frodo can't go on though he's so close to the end of the journey. Sam picks him up, shouting, "I can't carry your burden, but I can carry you!" I always think to myself, "That's how the world should be... if only everyone acted that way."
  • King Kong: Another film with an amazing performance by Andy Serkis, I am always struck by how much emotion a CGI ape can exude. I truly beleieve that Serkis deserves some major recognition for his work, because he truly is acting in these scenes and creating characters that are more believable than some performances of real actors. And while I love the fight scene with the V Rex, my favorite moment comes when they are skating on the iced-over pond in Central Park. It's a moment of peace and innocence, the last one Kong will have. This beat makes what is to come even more tragic.
  • Jurassic Park: Perhaps my all-time favorite movie, I still remember sitting in the theater in awe of the dinosaurs that looked more real than any others I had ever seen on screen. As Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler stare in awe of the brachiosaurus, I stared in awe, too. When John Hammond says, "Welcome to Jurassic Park," I was swept away too.
  • The Avengers: While there are many moments in this movie that I love to watch, such as Dr. Banner returning to the team, one of my favorite beats has to be when Loki subjugates the crowd, demanding that they bow. A lone elderly man stands tall, saying he will not bow to men like Loki. When Loki insists there are no men like him, the man says, "There will always be men like you." Wow.
  • The Muppets: This has to be one of my favorite films of the past year. I grew up with The Muppets, and the movie brought back so many childhood memories. Even with all the jokes and references to the previous films, one beat resonates every time I see it. As Kermit and Miss Piggy perform "Rainbow Connection," the other Muppets backstage take each others' hands, knowing this might be the last performance together. As they walk onstage and join in the song, it reminds me that it doesn't always take a human actor to stir the emotions.
Obviously, this is just a "short" list, but it makes the point that in a story, every moment must be crafted to advance the plot and to interact with the viewer or reader. Those are some of my favorite film beats; what are yours?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Hero's Journey in The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers has shattered box office records, and it's understandable why. The film is fast-paced, action-packed, and fun. The characters draw the audience into their lives, and we experience all of the conflict and confrontation among them.

As I viewed the film, I wondered how the Hero's Journey fits into the story. After all, each of them has pretty much undergone their own journey. So how was this film different? Did they still undergo a journey? Or was it just a great story?

I've only seen the film once, but I believe that the Hero's Journey was indeed present in the story, not only for one character, but for all of them, and in different layers. Overall, I think that if you look closely, you can see the journey take place in all of their lives, but you can also see it in the team as a whole. Their overall journey is focused on their ability to function as a team and to accept themselves as a part of the greater whole. However, we can look at it through the eyes of individual characters as well. For this blog entry, I've chosen to focus on the journey Tony Stark undergoes. He's a key member of The Avengers, and his life is a major focus of the film, although one could argue who the central story arc truly belongs to.

Of course, some may differ on the stages of the Hero's Journey, and that is understandable. This is simply my take on it, through the experience of one key character as he interacts with the others. Be warned: there are major spoilers ahead, so if you haven't seen the film, stop here.

1. Ordinary World: At the beginning of the film, we see Tony's "normal" life. He's working to make the world a better place, not only as Iron Man, but also as Tony Stark, focusing on creating green energy with his Arc Reactor power. Stark Tower is his home in New York, and this is where the Hero's Journey will start and will end. We get a sense of what his life is like: he is continually developing new technology, and he is in a relationship with Pepper Potts. Overall, things are going well for him.
2. Call To Adventure: Although various threads of the storyline are happening without Tony's knowledge, for him the Call To Adventure occurs with a visit from S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson. He tries to convince Tony that he is needed, that Nick Fury requests his assistance in something related to the Avengers Initiative.
3. Refusal of the Call:  Tony, having been spurned by Fury earlier, declines. He's happy with his life right now and doesn't want to get involved. He rejects Coulson's proposal, but Pepper takes the information from him anyway.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: In a sense, Tony has already met with his mentor, Nick Fury. Fury is the man who pushed Tony along through the difficulties of becoming and of being Iron Man. Only it takes Tony a lot of thought to consider what Fury is asking him to do.
5. Crossing the Threshold: Finally deciding to get involved, Tony shows up at an event where Captain America is already engaged in fighting the story's villain, Loki. As Iron Man, Tony assists S.H.I.E.L.D. in capturing Loki and bringing him back with them. Tony has officially crossed over into the "Special World" of the beginning of The Avengers and is now a part of this battle for the survival of humanity. His life will never be the same.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Tony does battle with the Norse God Thor during their first meeting until Captain America intervenes and gets them to trust each other. Other heroes emerge, including Black Widow and Dr. Bruce Banner, the man with the anger management issues. Tony gravitates toward Banner, who is also a brilliant scientist.

7. Approach: The heroes try to figure out Loki's plan.They begin to form a bond, but the evil Loki something else up his sleeve. He begins manipulating those in the group, and Captain America discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. might have a bit more planned than they've disclosed. The group begins to argue, and Loki is able to escape with the help of some outside individuals.

8. Ordeal:  Tony risks his life to try and save the helicarrier they are on, and ultimately succeeds, but not without loss. Hulk and Thor are gone, and Loki has killed Agent Coulson. Loki is gone, and the team is split up. It seems that defeat is inevitable. They have failed to learn how to function as a team, and it seems that there is nothing else that they can do.

9. Reward:  The Reward is that Stark survived, but it is bittersweet. Nick Fury gives them a talk, and relates to them how Agent Coulson was a true believer in The Avengers Initiative. It is this talk that pushes Tony Stark over the Edge. He and Captain America are more committed than ever, even though the rest of the team may be gone. They realize where Loki is opening the portal from, Stark Tower.

10. The Road Back: Tony goes back to the tower to confront Loki, and narrowly escapes falling to his death. Tony has his new Iron Man suit equipped, but the invasion has begun. The alien race of the Chitauri overwhelms the heroes, and Iron Man is the only one who is able to take to the air battle. The team begins to come together and works to defeat the Chitauri, but more keep coming from the portal. Dr. Banner comes back and, as Hulk, provides some much-needed support during the fight. He even subdues Loki while Black Widow reaches the top of Stark Tower. There she speaks with Dr. Selvig, who reveals that all is not lost.Tony learns from Black Widow that Loki's staff can close the portal. Humanity can be saved. They have confronted the enemy and will have victory... but there's a problem. Tony Stark learns that the directors of S.H.I.E.L.D. have decided to override Nick Fury and have send a nuclear weapon to level Manhattan.

11. Resurrection: Tony realizes what he must do, and as Iron Man, takes hold of the missile, steering it back toward Stark Tower, where the journey began. He can send it through the portal before they close it. It will result in the salvation of the human race. But it will also be a one-way ticket for Stark. Still, Tony Stark decides to go through with it. He is, after all, different from the Tony Stark at the beginning of this journey. The audience can sense a difference. At the beginning, he was self-centered and egotistical, caring only for himself. Now, he's part of a greater cause, and will sacrifice himself for this cause. He takes the weapon through the portal, and though it detonates as it strikes the Chitauri ship, The Avengers know they must close the portal. But all is not lost, after all. The blast propels Tony back into our world just before the portal closes, and he is saved. He experiences not only a personal resurrection moment as the old Tony dies and a new one is born in his decision, but a physical resurrection as well. He has shown us that the story has been worth our time; something of value has been gained.

12. Return with the Elixir: As Loki awakes, we learn what the elixir is that the team has brought from the journey. They are now a force to be reckoned with, and they will defend the Earth. As we see Tony with Pepper again, back in the Ordinary World yet changed, we know that the journey has been worth it. The Avengers have assembled.

Note: this post was revised and updated on 8/28/12.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers (2012): Reviewing the Journey

Normally, I prefer movies that focus on character development and plot rather than special effects and over-the-top action sequences. Luckily, The Avengers (2012) gives us both.

I'll admit, I was a bit weary when I heard that all of the Marvel superhero films were building toward an Avengers film. With so many characters, how could the film possible do them all justice while maintaining a tightly-written and engaging plot? Would the movie be too "crowded" with characters? After all, superhero films that have tried to have too many subplots and villains have always registered on the weaker side. Would The Avengers meet the same fate?

I'm happy to say that it did not. Not only was the film fast and fun to watch, but it remained true to its core characters and their individual storylines while opening up a brand new one. I think the movie works so well due to a few key components: an intriguing story, captivating heroes and villains, and conflict. If you haven't seen the movie, there are spoilers ahead, so read on at your own risk.

First, the story was well-told. It tied in the characters from the Iron Man films, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America. However, if you haven't seen any or all of these films, the information you need to know is provided to you seamlessly through the film as the story progresses. The plot deals with a primal need: survival. In this case, survival from an impending alien invasion led by Loki, brother of Thor. The heroes slowly come together and meet each other, each drawn into the struggle for a specific purpose. Things fall apart quickly, though, and they must learn to set aside their differences and work as a team.

Even though they form as a team, by themselves they are dynamic and multi-layered. Of course, there is Dr. Bruce Banner, the scientist with anger issues. We can sense his frustration as he struggles with his identity and how others see him. Black Widow wants to escape her blood-filled past, hoping to find redemption. Tony Stark thinks that he can handle things alone as Iron Man, a fact that irks Captain America. Thor desperately wants to reach out to his brother Loki, trying to find the good in him and call him back home. We feel sympathy for him, as we do for Loki, knowing that if Thor cares this much about him, there might be a reason for us to care for him, too. In Loki, we see a struggling villain, one who desires power and adoration.

Overall, conflict drives the film. Not just the conflict between the good guys and bad guys, but also among the good guys. Midway through the film, the heroes began fighting among themselves. Tony Stark calls Steve Rogers nothing but a glorified science experiment, prompting Steve to challenge Tony to "put on the suit!" At their first meeting, Iron Man and Thor fight, and both Thor and Black Widow have run-ins with The Hulk. No one can seem to get along, and yet they must if they're to be able to save the world. We know they'll come together and assemble, and so the conflict is what keeps us watching. We know they'll save the day; we want to see what happens to them as they try to save themselves.

As I watched this film, I wondered who it follows most. Whose Hero's Journey story does it tell? After all, in each character's previous movie, their own Hero's Journey story was told. But I think that in this film, each character can be seen as having their own Hero's Journey unfold. Whereas their previous films told the beginning journeys of their lives as heroes, this film tells their journeys as they become a team.

The Avengers is a great movie to look at from a writer's perspective. It has a well-structured story, one that is easy to follow and yet full of characters who are individually dynamic. But best of all, it has plenty of conflict, both from within and from without. And it's the conflict among the characters that makes this story a fun experience.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Ideas Continue to Attack

In between teaching and taking care of my family, I try to find time to write and to plan for other projects. Lately, there seems to be just too many ideas that are attacking me.

Right now, I have several projects I am trying to balance:
  • Writing for this blog on a regular basis, which I admittedly do not do enough.
  • A companion novel for my novel Redemption. This one would take the mystical character from the first novel and introduce him into the life of a different character. Whereas the first novel was told from first-person POV, this one would be third person.
  • A novel about an alien invasion, one in which the plot would be told through the eyes of the protagonist, yet done in a unique way.
  • My "superhero" novel. I've always wanted to write a book about a superhero, but to do so on page is more difficult than I had thought. Finally, I realized I had a way to do this when an idea popped into my head for a science fiction/fantasy story. Although the main character will not be a traditional superhero, I think the story fits best into the "Superhero" story type as described by Blake Snyder in his wonderful book Save the Cat! I like to think of the story as "Indiana Jones-meets-John Carter-meets-TRON Legacy."
  • I look back at my first attempt at a YA novel, Chupacabra, and while the story wasn't too bad, I've learned a lot about structure and character development since then. I remember how one agent said that your first novel is sort of like your "practice" novel, and I agree. Since the chupacabra phenomenon has died down, I have planned to abandon this storyline. However, I still like the concept of cryptozoolgy, and I have found a way to use the concept in its most basic, bare-bones form, and plan to develop it. Watching the television show Fringe is certainly inspiring for this.
  • I am still planning on developing the nonfiction book about faith issues in LOST, and have mapped out the topics for each chapter. I just need time to sit down and to write it.
  • I have also always wanted to do a book on spiritual lessons found in Hollywood films. I hate hearing how movies are full of trash today, as I think that they have great redeeming value. I remember going to see the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs expecting a great science fiction tale, and left with a wonderful, unanticipated message about faith. I see this in so many films that I would like to bring all of these ideas together into one source.
I definitely have a lot of work ahead of me. That, plus my normal teaching job and taking several postgraduate courses over the summer will make life busy. I'm lucky to have a supportive wife who pushes me to pursue this. It may be tiring, but as long as the ideas keep attacking, I'll keep managing.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Hero's Journey: Bruce Almighty

It seems that some of the most popular posts I've done for the blog center around the Hero's Journey stages. Maybe it's just the fact that people are searching for ways it fits in to their favorite stories for an assignment or project. Maybe it's a deep interest in the structure itself. Either way, I still find it amazing in the way it resonates at the core of our consciousness, story structure built into our DNA. And so without further ado, I present the Hero's Journey stages for one of my favorite films, Bruce Almighty.

1. Ordinary World: Meet Bruce Nolan. Bruce is a television news reporter who just can't seem to get ahead in this world, at least not to the extent that he wants to. While he has a wonderful girlfriend and a great job, it's still not enough. He wants more, to be greater. He wants a promotion to the position of anchor, but when it doesn't go his way, he loses his temper on-air and gets fired. He blames the only person he can think of: God. In Bruce's world, everything is God's fault, and he believes that God is just playing with humans as toys. If only God would be more fair...

2. Call To Adventure: After cursing God for his unfairness, Bruce literally gets a call on his pager one day.

3. Refusal of the Call: Seeing as he doesn't recognize the number, he ignores it. Yet, it continually goes off, and it gets to the point where Bruce tosses it out the window. But even while broken, the pager still functions, displaying the number. Reluctantly, Bruce calls it and learns where he must go.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Bruce arrives at the address, a warehouse. Entering, he meets a single man cleaning, played by Morgan Freeman. Bruce takes the elevator up to the seventh floor, and is surprised to find the same man there again. Morgan Freeman claims that he is God, and he's had enough of Bruce's complaining. He proves it, too, showing Bruce a file cabinet detailing his whole life. God makes Bruce an offer: if Bruce thinks he can do a better job at running things, God will give Bruce his powers for a short time.

5. Crossing the Threshold: Bruce can't believe it, but accepts. As he walks outside, the same puddle he stepped in on the way into the warehouse he now walks on top of. He's now in the "Special World" that is the opposite of the world he started in.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Bruce learns to use his new-found abilities. At first, he has fun with them, parting his soup like Moses and making his dog use a toilet instead of urinating all over the apartment. He uses the abilities to further his career, propelling him back into the limelight.He is rehired at the station.

7. Approach: Things start to get more difficult for Bruce as reality sets in. Suddenly, he is overwhelmed with voices as he hears prayers being sent his way. He tries different ways to deal with them, ultimately giving everybody what they want. However, as his fame rises, he notices that he is growing apart from his girlfriend, Grace. Their relationship ultimately ends when another woman from his work tempts him, and Grace catches them together. His world begins crumbling.

8. Ordeal: Now Bruce faces his biggest challenge. By trying to give everyone what they want, he discovers that they still aren't satisfied. Everyone prayed to win the lottery, and they all did... but had to split the winnings so that they basically won nothing. Chaos ensues, rioting hits the streets, and Bruce finds himself calling out to God for help. He realizes that he can't do it all himself.

9. Reward: God meets Bruce in the same building where it all started. He tells Bruce that the beauty of a mess is that it can always be cleaned up, and that sometimes, he wants people to be the answer to their own prayers. Instead of always asking for a miracle, sometimes they need to be the miracle themselves. In doing so, they gain a sense of independence and pride. Bruce listens to God, and is rewarded when things get cleaned up as they work together.

10. The Road Back: Bruce embraces his new sense of independence, and realizes he can do things for himself now, not using God's powers. Bruce attempts to "clean up" his own life, making amends with those around him, setting everything as it should be as he tries to return to his normal life as it was before. But things don't all change; Grace won't come back to him. He even listens to the "backlog" of all of Grace's prayers, most of them about him. He desperately wants to find a way to win her back. While driving at night, sincerely asking God for some sign or way to win her back, he gets into a wreck, gets out of his car, and is struck.

11. Resurrection: We get a real Resurrection scene here, both literal and symbolically as the hero finds himself in Heaven with God again. He seeks wisdom from God, and realizes that no matter what, he wants Grace to find happiness. After a failed attempt at a prayer, spouting out religious phrases, Bruce prays before God a genuine, heartfelt, sincere prayer. This time, his prayer is unselfish and the opposite of a prayer he would have made at the start of the film. In this Resurrection scene, we see that the old Bruce has died, both symbolically and literally, and a new Bruce Nolan has been reborn.

12. Return with the Elixir: Back in the real world, Bruce is revived by paramedics. He is alive, but has a new purpose in life. Using the lessons he learned on his journey, Bruce continues as a feature reporter, this time with a focus on teaching his audience how to "be the miracle."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Another Book on LOST?

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love the television show LOST. Everything about the show was great, from the unique plot and storytelling elements to the dynamic characters. In fact, I even wrote a chapter for the book LOST Thought about how the writers of the show used the power of storytelling so well to accomplish this feat. It's a show I enjoy discussing, watching, thinking about, and writing about.

That's why I want to write about it some more. This time, instead of focusing on the Story elements of the show, I want to examine some of the spiritual themes it addressed. I began thinking about how some viewers were disappointed after viewing the final episode, expecting a sci-fi element to come into play, being shocked by the more "spiritual" elements. However, as Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the showrunners, would tell us, LOST is, at its heart, a very spiritual show. You can see these elements very clearly from the first season and can trace them through the entire series.

That's what I plan to do. Though the book will examine spiritual themes throughout the show, my plan is to write about them from a more objective point of view. I don't want to try and "fit" the show into any particular religious mold, as this was never the goal of the show itself. At the same time, I do not plan to examine every since instance of religion popping up in the show. Instead, I want to look at the big picture.

I've already outlined the basic elements of the show that I will write about. Ironically, there are sixteen different topics I will address. And now I need to start getting into the details, organizing them into clear, coherent, and captivating chapters.

Although I love writing fiction, I also love analyzing and discussing movies and television. I've done plenty of nonfiction writing before, and only a few projects with this scope. It's exciting to start, and I know it will be well-worth the journey.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Muppets Meet The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

Story structure is crucial. In fact, it doesn't really matter how many CGI effects there are in a film; if the structure is lacking, we walk away feeling cheated. All great films adhere to structure. And as I've written before, the structure that I have seen in all great films (and even novels) is from the Blake Snyder book Save the Cat! The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet helps break down stories in all genres, and it demonstrates why movies resonate with us the way they do. In fact, whenever I watch a movie now, my mind starts to subconsciously break it down.

After watching one of my favorite films of the year, The Muppets, I saw how even this family-fun film adheres to the principles of great storytelling. Perhaps this is why the film resonated with audiences so well. And so below, I have broken the film down according to the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, which I feel is one of the most effective story structures I have ever come across. The funny thing I noticed is that many of the big "beats" were revealed through musical numbers. So read on, but beware, though, if you have not see the movie: there are spoilers ahead, and this is definitely a film to see on your own first to experience its magic.

All three of Blake Snyder's excellent books..

Note: This blog post is not officially authorized by the folks at Blake Snyder Enterprises. To check out this fantastic book series, go to the official web site or to

Opening Image: The movie opens with a montage of old, grainy family filmstrips. We meet Walter, the main character of the film, also a Muppet. He lives with his brother Gary, and the two are best friends. We learn through the filmstrip that Walter and Gary truly bonded after they discovered The Muppets and began watching that every night.

Theme Stated: Walter and Gary are very close and do everything together, and are eveb preparing to take a trip together with Mary, Gary's girlfriend, for their ten-year anniversary. As they walk down the street, they sing a song, the chorus of which declares, "Life's a happy song when there's someone by your side to sing along." This is what the movie is about, and what the characters will discover: who is important in our lives, and how are we incomplete without them?

Set-Up: We learn from the flashbacks that Walter has always struggled with his identity, and that Gary has always been there by his side. Living in Smallville, Kansas, Gary stays by Walter's side, even at the expense of his relationship with Mary. Mary doesn't mind it when Walter is invited to tag along on their trip to Hollywood, but secretly she wants some time with Gary where Walter won't be there. Even so, she cares about Walter and his obsession with the Muppets. As the three characters prepare to leave for Hollywood (finishing their musical number, of course), we learn a little bit about the small town they hail from. This is where Walter's journey begins... but will it end here?

Catalyst: While on a tour of the now-defunct Muppets studio, Walter sneaks into Kermit's old office. While there, he overhears Tex Richman's secret plan to tear down the Muppet theater. The oil baron knows there's oil under it... he can smell it (plus the geological survey confirmed it). Walter realizes that the stakes have just been raised on his vacation. He must find Kermit and try to save the theater.

Debate: Walter tells Gary and Mary about what he overheard, and they discuss what to do. Can they find Kermit in time? Will he listen? The three finally find his Bel-Air estate, and share the information with him. Kermit doesn't think he will be able to bring the gang back together, let alone raise the ten million dollars to keep the theater. Reminiscing about the past, Kermit decides that he will at least try. In a throwback to the first Muppet film, they go on a driving montage to try and convince the other Muppets to come back, joining together in an effort to save the Muppet Theater. We see the doubts of Fozzie, who has found a new career with the Moopets, and Gonzo, the reluctant plumbing magnate who owns a fantastic executive line of used toilets. Ultimately, though, they decide to join Kermit and the other characters.

Break Into Two: After a little effort and a lot of driving, we see that the Muppets are back together. Walter and his friends enter a world that is completely the opposite of his previous life. In the beginning of the story, we saw the thesis of his old world. This one is his antithesis, the "backwards" world for him.

B Story: Not everyone's back, though... there's still the touchy subject of Miss Piggy, Kermit's romantic interest. The gang finds her in Paris, and the flame is rekindled between Kermit and Piggy. However, there is some animosity there. Something's not right. She refuses to come back. At the same time, there is another B story that revolves around Mary and Gary's relationship. Mary wanted to go on a vacation to celebrate her anniversary with Gary, but instead, it has turned into helping Walter once again. Will she ever have Gary to herself?

Fun & Games: Now that the gang is back together, they need to find a
way to save the Muppet Theater. The fun and games begin with the "promise of the premise." This is a Muppet movie, so we expect to see a lot of fun antics, songs, and zaniness. And the film certainly doesn't disappoint. We watch them struggle to put their act together, to find a way to raise the money via a Muppet telethon, and indulge in a bit of nostalgia along the way. They even find a replacement for Miss Piggy, the Moopet Miss Poogy, though she seems a bit "rougher around the edges." But alas, as they plan and practice, it seems that they need more to make this work.

Midpoint: Finally, though, Miss Piggy comes back, deciding to help the gang, even though there is still some animosity toward Kermit, who won't admit that he needs her to make it all work. It seems like a victory, though it's a "false victory," for we know that Tex Richman is not going to give up in his quest to get the property from the Muppets. The day for the telethon is closing in quickly, and a "time clock" appears that raise the stakes.

Bad Guys Close In: Rehearsals aren't going so well. They're short an act, Kermit can't seem to find a celebrity guest host, and everything seems to be closing in on them. The network executive appears and watches the show rehearsals, and says that if Kermit can't find a celebrity guest host, she will not air the telethon. Walter is unsure of where he fits in; Kermit asks him to do an act for the show, but he doesn't think he has any talents. Kermit is neglecting Piggy, who refuses to work with him, and Gary is so devoted to helping the Muppets that he doesn't do any of the sight-seeing with Mary that he had promised. Miss Piggy's and Mary's musical number "Me Party" sums up the BGCI section well. Unless something happens, all will be lost...

All is Lost: ... and it is. Unable to find a guest host, Kermit resigns to the fact that the theater can't be saved. He appeals to Tex Richman's softer side, finding that it doesn't exist. The theater is gone. To make matters worse, not only will Richman get the rights to the theater, but also to the Muppets' name. The "whiff of death" is in the air as Kermit and friends watch the death of their name and of their close-knit family. At the same time, Gary is so committed to helping Walter that he misses the anniversary dinner with Mary, who leaves him a note at the motel saying she is going home to Smallville. The A story of saving the theater crosses with the B story, and there is another "whiff of death" as Gary fears that his relationship with Mary is gone.

Dark Night of the Soul: Kermit resigns to the fact that his dreams are finished. He's depressed and has given up, and his friends can sense it. The "victory" at the Midpoint was indeed false. Walter and Gary also have a Dark Night of the Soul. Gary sings in response to Mary's note, "Am I a Man, or am I a Muppet?" Walter, too, searches for his own identity, joining Gary in the song. Both are questioning where they find themselves.
Break Into Three: Ultimately, at the end of the song, Walter and Gary make their decision. They have a sense of self-identity, and they know what they need to do. Miss Piggy also knows what she needs to do: at all costs, she must find a celebrity host for the telethon. Resolved in this endeavor, they kidnap Jack Black. The A story and the B story finally meet as Walter discovers his destiny, Gary goes to Smallville to reunite with Mary, and the Muppets try to save the theater.

Finale: With a celebrity guest host, the show can go on! The Muppets put on a show that seems like it will fail at first, but slowly gains more success, and the calls start to pour in. Kermit reconciles with Miss Piggy, finally admitting that he needs her, and together they perform a rendition of "The Rainbow Connection" involving all the Muppets. It looks like they may be able to save the theater after all! Walter even performs an act at the end, discovering his talent after some prompting by the newly-returned Gary (traveling by map, of course). Tex Richman tries to thwart their efforts, and succeeds as the Muppets do not make the goal. In the end, they lose the theater, as well as their name. As they leave, Kermit addresses the group, saying that as long as they're together, it doesn't matter that they failed; they failed together. As long as you're with those you love in life, that is all that matters.

Final Image: As they leave the theater, defeated, they are greeted by throngs of fans. The theme comes full circle as we achieve synthesis: they sing a reprise of "Life's a Happy Song," demonstrating that togetherness is what matters most.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Hero's Journey: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Can an ape be a Hero on a Journey, just like a human character? Is a chimpanzee capable of self-realization and a transformation like in the myths of old? For Caesar in the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it can. Read on, but beware: if you haven't seen this movie, spoilers lie ahead.

1. Ordinary World: Caesar is living with his caretaker, Will. Because he was born in a laboratory, Caesar's Ordinary World is in a normal home, living with humans. Will and his father take care of Caesar, letting him have free reign of the house. They take him to the Redwoods, allowing him to experience climbing and running free and wild, but that is as close as it gets for him to being a chimpanzee. Caesar was born with the experimental virus that his mother was dosed with, so his intellectual capabilities outweigh those of normal chimpanzees. As a result, his identity is something he questions. Is he a pet? A person? Just another animal? Caesar's Journey will be one of self-discovery.

2. Call To Adventure: Caesar's Call to Adventure, one in which he is presented with a Special World, comes when he sees Will's father, Charles, being threatened by a hostile neighbor. Charles suffers from Alzheimer's, and in a confused attempt to drive a car, he damages the neighbor's car. Caesar watches from his attic window as the neighbor gets physically violent, and Caesar becomes defensive and aggressive, attacking the neighbor.  Caesar is now sent to a primate facility. This is Caesar's Special World, one that is opposite of the life he once knew.

3. Refusal of the Call: Caesar does not want to live in the primate facility, nor does he understand why he cannot go home with Will. He pounds against the glass, despondent and sad. He knows this is not where he belongs. He belongs with humans, not other apes.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: At the facility, Caesar is frightened by the other apes that act different than he does. However, another ape, an orangutan named Maurice, was once part of a circus and learned some sign language. He communicates with Caesar, giving him advice about how to act and what to do.

5. Crossing the Threshold: Caesar is picked on at first and attacked by other apes, especially a chimpanzee named Rocket. However, he finally decides to accept his position at the primate facility. He refuses to be picked on and establishes dominance over Rocket and the others. Caesar begins to question his role and his identity as he witnesses a chimpanzee being tranquilized and taken to GenSys, the lab he was born in.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: As Caesar establishes himself as the dominant ape in the facility, he overcomes his enemy, Rocket, and earns the respect of the other apes. He becomes close friends with Maurice, and even gains a close ally in Buck, the gorilla who is locked up separately from the others. The human caretakers pose more of a threat to him, especially the sadistic Dodge. His tests are all focused on being accepted by the others, even though he is different. When Will comes to take Caesar back home, Caesar refuses. He realizes who and what he is.

7. Approach: Caesar slowly gains the respect of all the apes. He uses Rocket to befriend the other apes, handing out cookies. Caesar watches and learns, slowly figuring out how to escape, and crafts a master plan. Caesar breaks out one night and goes back to his home, stealing canisters with the virus in an aerosol form. Returning to the facility, Caesar uses the canisters to make the other apes super-intelligent like him. Caesar teaches them all sign language and prepares for his escape.

8. Ordeal: The ultimate Ordeal for Caesar comes when he must face his worst nemesis. The sadistic Dodge threatens Caesar, and he speaks, much to the shock of all around him. He stands up to Dodge in the Inmost Cave of the dilapidated ape sanctuary, and has passed the test.

9. Reward: Caesar and the apes are rewarded with their freedom. The revolution has begun.

10. The Road Back: The Road Back is where the hero tries to return to their old life, but they cannot, for they have been changed. In Caesar's case, he goes to the only place from his old life that he can now: the Redwoods. It is there that he most felt like an ape, where he most felt at home and at peace. And it is there that he will return. But first, they must make their way there. The chimpanzees escape, freeing apes at GenSys and the zoo. Caesar and the apes try to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head to the Redwoods. The police try to stop the apes, but they fight back, repelling their enemy but avoiding true violence. Many apes are killed, including Buck, who sacrifices his life to protect Caesar.

11. Resurrection: Will arrives to try and control Caesar, but it's too late. Caesar has faced himself, and has learned who he is. He is a leader.The apes successfully make it over the bridge and past the police. They are now free!

12. Return with the Elixir: Will follows Caesar and finds him protected by his companions. He tries to convince Caesar to turn back, that he can put everything right. But Caesar speaks: "Caesar is home." Will realizes with these three words that the old Caesar is dead; the new Caesar, the one standing tall in front of him has been reborn and is resurrected. Caesar will never be able to go back to his old life, as heroes never truly are able to.  The film closes as Caesar and the other apes scale the massive, towering trees. The "Elixir" that Caesar has given them is their freedom and the realization of who they are, distinct creatures that will shape the future of the world.

Note: this post was revised and updated on 8/28/12.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Introducing LOST Thought

I am pleased to announce that the book LOST Thought: Leading Thinkers Discuss LOST is now available both on Kindle and in paperback via, and at bookstores. The book features many authors, investigating topics as they apply to the television show LOST.

The chapter I wrote is called "The Power of Story," and focuses on the ways that the show transcended boundaries of storytelling, creating a unique narrative that has never been done before.

It is an honor to be featured in the book alongside other great authors, several of which I own books from. I especially recommend Nikki Stafford's episode guides and analyses on the show, as well as Sarah Clarke Stuart's Literary LOST and Into the Looking Glass: Exploring the Worlds of Fringe.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Hero's Journey: X-Men-First Class

One of the most powerful story structures, in my opinion, is the Hero's Journey. In this and other blog posts, I plan to trace the Hero's Journey through different characters in film and literature. First up: Erik Lehnsherr, also known as Magneto. Of course, while Charles Xavier and other characters play a huge part, the story is really about the transformation of Lehnsherr. While he is not a "hero" in the traditional sense, he is the protagonist of the story. Warning: spoilers ahead.

1. Ordinary World: Erik is seeking out people who murdered his mom and his people during World War II. We are given a glimpse of his early life under the Nazi regime as Sebastian Shaw tries to get him to use his powers. Unable to do so, he watches as his mother is murdered. Now, he is a loner, his only aim in life the extermination of those who tried to exterminate his people.

2. Call To Adventure: After tracking down Shaw, Erik tries to kill him on Shaw's boat. Using his powers to manipulate magnetic materials, he is dragged under the water as Shaw escapes in a secret submarine. Meanwhile, Charles Xavier, a mutant who possesses the powers of telepathy, is present at the encounter and senses Erik drowning in the water and rescues him. This meeting will start their friendship, propelling Erik into the Special World of friendship and using his mutant abilities for the benefit of others.

3. Refusal of the Call: After an offer to join a special branch of the CIA, Erik chooses to leave. He has received all the information he needs to track Shaw and kill him; he does not feel that he needs to embrace this journey. Charles does not hold him back, and Erik leaves.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Charles Xavier functions as Erik's mentor.

5. Crossing the Threshold: Erik returns the next day, teaming up with Charles to track down other mutants. However, it must be on their terms. As their friendship develops and grows, Charles functions as the mentor, guiding and pushing Erik in the direction of using his abilities for good and to bridge the gap between mutants and homo sapiens.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Erik meets the rest of the team, the other mutants who will join the branch of the CIA. As he tries to help the government stop Sebastian Shaw, he is still distrustful of many of the non-mutants around him. While tracking Shaw to Russia, Erik ignores orders and rushes to confront Shaw, only to find Emma Frost in his place. Erik and Charles learn of Shaw's plans to cause a nuclear war and realize the seriousness of the situation. Meanwhile the other mutants are attacked by Shaw and some of his men at the CIA compound.

7. Approach: After the attack at the CIA compound, Erik and Charles go with the other mutants to train and live at Charles's mansion. It is here that they all train. Erik learns from Charles how to harness his powers and use them unlike he ever has before. As Shaw's plan falls into place, Erik and Charles discuss what they need to do. They decide that they must try and stop Shaw from causing the nuclear war.

8. Ordeal: The Ordeal for Erik is to try and stop Shaw, who is hiding aboard a nuclear submarine. First, they must find the sub.

9. Reward: Erik and the team of mutants find the sub and bring it ashore. However, not all is done. Erik must still help Charles find Shaw and stop him. As the other mutants fight Shaw's minions, Erik travels into a hidden part of the sub and confronts Shaw once and for all, killing him.

10. The Road Back: Now that the enemy is stopped and Erik has had his revenge, he must try to re-enter the Ordinary World. However, as with all heroes, this is not easy. They have changed, and can never go back to life as they knew it. In Erik Lehnsherr's case, this involves using his new confidence to rise to a status of greater power. He encourages the mutants to side with him against the humans, asking whose side they are on. As the ships fire their weapons on the mutants, Erik turns the tables and sends them back. A fight ensues, and Charles is injured in the fight.

11. Resurrection: Erik needs to demonstrate that he is a different person as a result of this Journey. Unfortunately for him, this change is one of bitterness, anger, and resentment. Where once he was simply out for revenge, going after those who murdered his mother, now the anger has fueled into something greater. A rift has formed between him and the rest of the world. He is now the leader of a group of mutants who do not seek to reconcile with humans, but to protect themselves. The old Erik Lehnsherr is dead; he has been resurrected as Magneto.

12. Return with the Elixir: The elixir for Erik/Magneto is his newfound confidence in his powers. He has brought together the mutants who seek a common goal, forming a new Brotherhood. His elixir is the idea of mutant power and supremacy, the notion that there is no need to back down or to fear others.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Save the Cat! Meets Paradox

Recently, I finished the first draft for my fourth Young Adult novel, tentatively titled Paradox. The novel uses time travel to explore the questions of what we can really control in our lives. Are we destined to walk a certain path? Do we have a choice in what happens to us? Are some things just meant to be?

The idea for a YA novel on time travel came to me when I heard two words: "temporal justice." In an episode of the show Heroes, Hiro Nakamura, the character who can travel through space and time and even freeze it, at one point wants to correct a wrong from his past, and in so doing faces a sort of cosmic tribunal, one that holds him accountable for trying to change the past. This episode got the gears of my mind working, and over the course of the past year, I developed the story that was to become Paradox. Of course, it went through many changes in the initial planning phases. But it was extremely easy to plot once I learned about the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, made popular by the book Save the Cat! by the late Blake Snyder.

The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, hereafter referred to as BS2, lays out the way most films are structured in any genre. In fact, the more I've seen and read, the more ways I've seen how true the structure is.

Blake Snyder broke stories down into fifteen main components: Opening Image, Theme Stated, Set-Up, Catalyst, Debate, Break Into Two, B Story, Fun & Games, Midpoint, Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul, Break Into Three, Finale, and Final Image. To try and elaborate on these beats in one blog post would do the structure a disservice. If a reader wants to learn more about the structure, I highly recommend the books in the series and the accompanying website .

Needless to say, the BS2 helped me to learn just where my story needed work. I already knew how I wanted to start and end it, as well as many events I wanted to include. But arranging them into a clear, coherent, and captivating story was the challenge. How could I make sure to grab the reader's attention? How could I communicate the theme in the best way possible? How could I make it exciting? The BS2 was the answer.

For example, a large part of any story, as it builds toward its climax, is traditionally called the rising action. The beauty of the BS2 is that it breaks down the rising action into multiple sections, each one enhancing the overall story. As I worked on Paradox, I knew that something was missing in the rising action, but I wasn't sure what. Once I reviewed and restructured my plot, I realized I needed more in the Bad Guys Close In section. This would be crucial to raising the stakes for my protagonist and preparing him to face his greatest fears in the climax.

The BS2 helps me to write to my target audience, capturing the feel of a movie while guiding me in creating a quality story. This is the first novel I have written using the BS2, and I feel that it has the best "flow" of any I've written so far. I will definitely continue to use this in the future.

In fact, some of my middle school students plan to as well. I recently taught them the BS2 as a deeper look at story structure, and many of them saw the value in breaking a story into more meaningful beats than the general "exposition," "rising action," and "climax." Many of them commented that it helped them understand why certain parts of a story happen when they do, as well as why they do. I am excited that they want to use it in their own writing as well.

And now, I am one step closer to my favorite part of revising my novel: I get to share it with my target audience and get their genuine feedback.