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My Long Twilight Struggle With Matt Bird on the Secrets of Story Podcast

October 30, 2019

I co-host a podcast about storytelling with my friend Matt Bird. It’s called The Secrets of Story and it’s a companion to Matt’s book and blog of the same name.

Matt’s a great guy! But there’s no getting around it: he is the Moriarty to my Holmes, the Goldfinger to my Bond, the Khan to my Kirk, the Newman to my Seinfeld. Neither of us can survive while the other one lives! And so, as you might expect, I object to some of the storytelling advice of my nemesis.

On our podcast, Matt usually offers some screenwriting/novel-writing wisdom and I’ll disagree with it, or challenge one of the platitudes of writing advice you hear from others (you know—books like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Robert McKee’s Story, etc.). Such guidance often sounds so reasonable, illuminating, even inspiring . . . and yet I’ve found that, by taking them seriously, I’ve become snared in mental traps that drain my creativity and send me into blind alleys. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve found some useful ideas in such books, and Matt’s book is hands-down the best such book I’ve read. You should buy it! It’s good!

Even still . . . while I find the analysis in these books interesting, they derail me when I’m actually trying to create something fresh. For me, a truly new, exciting idea is always going to feel wrong at first. It’s going to break some rule. Otherwise it wouldn’t be new, right? (And only bad people love rules and checklists.)

Anyway, whenever Matt and I record an episode, I usually post about it here on the blog . . . but I just realized I haven’t posted about the last four episodes we’ve recorded! So this’ll be a long post featuring those four podcast episodes. They’re all good episodes! You should listen to them!

Let’s start with Episode 9, “Positive Passivity”:

You always hear the advice, “Don’t have a passive main character! The hero of your story should always be active, pushing every scene forward, constantly making big decisions that affect the world around them!” And I guess that’s true . . . or is it?

Admit it: some of the most famous characters from some of the most beloved stories are pretty passive! Consider Harry Potter, James from James and the Giant Peach, Chihiro from Spirited Away, Bella in Twilight, Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, Arthur Dent in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Alice in Alice in Wonderland, or many others. These great characters are absolutely not taking the bull by the horns in every scene. In fact, I argue in this episode, these characters are passive by design. Their stories wouldn’t work as well if they were the active, ass-kicking, empowered heroes that misguided storytelling orthodoxy demands. A hero with too much agency is, in fact, alienating! I argue that the hero can be plenty passive at the beginning of the story, as long as their agency increases throughout the story. Indeed there is something appealing about certain kinds of passivity! Matt disagrees at the beginning of the episode, but in the end I bring him around. That’s why this episode, Episode 9, is called “Positive Passivity”, and you can listen to it here:

In the comments section, commenter “Harvey Jerkwater” made this good point:

All of the stories you mentioned—Harry Potter, Spirited Away, Twilight, Alien—they’re about characters being thrown into radically strange worlds or having their regular world radically tipped by strangeness. I think that’s critical to the idea of positive passivity.

Partially this allows the worldbuilding space to happen. We see this Bold New Circumstance through the eyes of someone taking it in. You can’t start mucking with the world until we know what the world is.

Also, the protagonist suddenly taking action and making big choices when he or she has just been hurled into bizarre circumstances would make the hero look overconfident at best, and more likely a buffoon.

If the story is set in a world that’s quickly understood by the reader— e.g., “it’s a diner in rural New York State” or “it’s a temp agency in Liverpool”—then passivity is a storytelling flaw, because we don’t need to be shown that world in excruciating detail to understand its rules. We expect the protagonist also knows its rules and has no reason to be passive while he or she gets the lay of the land.

Passivity in a protagonist is fine if the story has other motors to keep the reader going. Protagonist action is a great engine, but it’s not the only one. However, other motors burn out a lot faster and tend to be more fragile.

Great point, Harvey!

Okay, on to the next episode! Back on Episode 5, Matt and I had author Jonathan Auxier as a guest. Here in Episode 10, Jonathan Auxier returns to the podcast to comment on our last three episodes . . . not only about “positive passivity,” but also my theory about the decline of the hero and the suppressed/hidden side/back half of the Hero’s Journey (Episode Eight, “The Jedi In Decline”), and also my thoughts about the application of OODA loops to storytelling (Episode Seven, “Expectations and OODA Loops”). Jonathan’s comments deepen and enrich those previous three episodes, so it’s probably best to actually listen to those episodes before you listen to Episode 10: More Fun With Jonathan Auxier:

After you’ve listened to this one, I think it’s worth it to look at Matt’s post about it, in which he has some interesting follow-up thoughts.

And now on to Episode 11: Heroic Self-Interest with Geoff Betts. Hoo boy. This is the one in which Matt and I go for each other’s throats.

Special guest Geoff Betts—Matt’s best friend from the old days—joins us to talk about the role of self-interest in characters. Matt has a piece of advice that I think that is totally wrongheaded, reductive, and depressing, which he summed up in his blog post Rule #42: People Only Want What They Want. Basically, Matt claims that characters are only really believable when they’re acting in their own self-interest. I think this is ludicrous, and that it doesn’t cover the full range of human motivation. Geoff happens to be a union organizer, and he brings his own real-world perspective in how to motivate people through self-interest. He also provides a calming influence as Matt and I get more and more furious with each other . . . as the episode goes on, I feel Matt continually redefines “self-interest” is broader and more tortured ways so that it seems to pretty much covers every case.

Anyway, come for the debate, and stay for my idea about a gender-flipped, age-flipped version of Annie, in which Annie is “Andy” (a 35-year-old Will-Ferrell-in-Elf-ish orphan), Daddy Warbucks is a Jojo-Siwa-esque instagrammer and influencer, and Grace is a take-no-crap J.K. Simmons type:

After you listen to the episode, head down to the comments section for some spirited debate. As commentor “Vlad” says, “Usually I think that Matt’s principles have some core insight going for them, and that James’ counter-examples are chipping away at the edges to refine the principle; but in this case, James is 100% right.” In your face, Bird!

That brings us to the final episode I want to feature today, Episode 12: Hollywoodization.

In this episode, we talk about the book-to-movie adaptations of Jeff Van Der Meer’s Annihilation, Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, and Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (which was made into the movie Total Recall). Matt and I agree that Annihilation doesn’t fully succeed, we completely disagree about Minority Report (I loved it, he hated it), and we agree again about the bulletproof gloriousness of the 1990 Schwarezenegger version of Total Recall. Listen here:

In this episode, Matt cut much from our discussion of Annihilation. One of the things I meant to mention was that I feel that one of the elements horror movies often need to succeed is to have a “Game Over, Man!” person who is the audience surrogate for fear.

One of the reasons that Annihilation (the movie) didn’t work so well for me was that every character was so infuriatingly calm! The Gina Rodriguez character Anya came closest to being visceral and real, but all the other characters were just so professional or chilly or abstracted that there was no place for the audience’s reptile impulses to go.

In many horror movies (especially ensemble pieces), there needs to be a character who just up and says “This is nuts! What are we even doing here?” early on, and/or who acts as the audience’s lowest impulses (cowardice, lust, fear, appetite, whatever) that can ground the story.

In Aliens it’s Bill Paxton’s Hudson character who loudly proclaims his exasperation and cowardice: “Well that’s just great! That’s just great man! . . . That’s it man, game over man, game over!”

In Alien, Yaphet Kotto’s character Parker serves that role. In this year’s Midsommar, Will Poulter’s character Mark plays that role (he’s the horny jerky grad student friend who pees on the sacred tree) – he’s the most cowardly, the most directed by his base impulses. But we need that person as a release for the audience, somebody whom the audience could look at and say: “Well, if I were in that situation, maybe I wouldn’t be the bravest or cleverest person in the world, but I wouldn’t be as bad as that guy.”

That crucial “Game Over, Man!” person doesn’t exist in Annihilation– all the ladies on the team are such competent professionals, and so therefore we can’t help but feel a little distant from their adventures. Annihilation is, at least on some level, a horror movie–but horror is a primal emotion, so we need other primal emotions stoked too, or at least acknowledged, because they’re all stickily and messily and inextricably kludged together. Annihilation tries to be a POLITE, ARTY horror movie . . . and even though on balance I did enjoy it, it was not as successful as it could have been because base desires/emotions/thoughts were not given proper outlet.

And that’s that! Four podcast episodes. Four spirited arguments. If you liked these episodes, I recommend you listen to them all! After all, there are only twelve of them! And seriously, Matt’s book is good (even taking into account my disagreements). Do yourself a favor and buy it.

90-Second Newberys from our summer workshop in Hinsdale, IL!

August 16, 2019

As you probably know, about nine years ago I started the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, an annual video contest in which young filmmakers create short movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in about 90 seconds. We screen the best entries in 14 cities around the country.

Back in July, I ran a workshop in Utah helping kids make movies for this film festival (check them out, they’re great!) Last week, I assisted eight young filmmakers in a similar five-day 90-Second Newbery workshop at the Community House in Hinsdale, IL. They blew me away with their creativity and hard work! I showcased the three movies they made on the 90-Second Newbery website, but I want to feature their movies here on my blog too.

For instance, one of those filmmakers, Kevin, astonished me when he single-handedly wrote, drew, animated, and edited this cut-paper stop-motion adaptation of E.B. White’s 1953 Honor Book Charlotte’s Web, recruiting the other workshop participants for voice talent:

You can read the full review on the 90-Second Newbery website, but here’s an excerpt: “Kevin’s drawings are expressive, and he animates them with sophistication and flair. The chattering mouths and blinking eyes and moving eyebrows make the characters seem truly alive — I love the way their expressions are constantly changing, especially when they are responding to each other . . . I love the way Wilbur paces nervously when he’s worried about being slaughtered, and the uniquely stylish webs that Charlotte weaves, and the running joke about the exasperated horse who serves as a counterpoint to Wilbur . . . A 90-Second Newbery classic!”

Next up, Porter and Alec were the masterminds behind this bizarre (and yet, in its own way, true-to-the-original) adaptation of the “Dragons and Giants” vignette from Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Honor Book Frog and Toad Together. In the original short story, Frog and Toad wonder if they are brave, and so they venture out into the woods, where they discover that they are in fact terrified of the snakes, birds, and rockslides that bedevil them (even as they nevertheless shout, “I am not afraid!”). In this adaptation, Porter and Alec make a bold and hilarious change to the original story: here, Frog is a tough-as-nails Marine, and Toad is a stealthy, butt-kicking ninja! (But they’re still afraid.)

The full review is on the 90-Second Newbery website, in which the judges say (in part), “This movie has a fantastic premise, stellar acting, glorious use of green-screen special effects, a fun soundtrack . . . and this tweaked story of Porter’s and Alec’s invention somehow still very effectively encapsulates the spirit of the gentle original story, even as it goes over-the-top in its action-movie characteristics. Great work from the rest of the group as fighters and fans in the final cagematch scene, with wonderful over-the-top acting when Toad is seemingly defeated. This is so much fun to watch thanks to Porter’s and Alec’s utterly committed performances!”

And finally, Sarah and Megan made this hilarious and yet pretty accurate adaptation of Katherine Applegate’s 2013 Medal Winner The One and Only Ivan:

As the review on the 90-Second Newbery website says, “It’s the acting that makes this movie shine! . . . Ivan’s and Ruby’s extended screaming-and-crying freakout reaction to Stella’s death was masterfully funny. From there, the movie zooms efficiently through Ivan’s plan to rescue himself and Ruby from the zoo through his art . . . The costumes were resourceful (especially those big elephant ears and trunks) and the joyful, goofy performances make this a pleasure to watch throughout.”

I had a fantastic week with these talented, funny, hardworking, and sometimes crazy filmmakers. I’m so glad I was able to do this. I’ll almost certainly feature all three of these movies at the Chicago screening of the 90-Second Newbery at the Harold Washington Library on March 8, 2020. But we’re also considering bringing a screening of the 90-Second Newbery to Hinsdale itself, too, so folks don’t have to come all the way to Chicago for the screening. Stay tuned!

If you like what we do at the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival and you’d like us to continue doing it, please consider donating to the 90-Second Newbery here. Donations are tax-deductible, and be honest, if you’ve read this far into the post, you’re kind of already all-in, aren’t you? The 90-Seconds Newbery Film Festival is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‑profit arts service organization.

Thanks for the great movies, and I’m looking forward to seeing these filmmakers again at the screenings!

90-Second Newbery Movies From My Class At The Treehouse Museum!

July 24, 2019

We just got back from a two-week trip to Utah! It was incredible! Heather and Lucy and Ingrid and I canyoned the canyons, we mountained the mountains, we hoodooed the hoodoos. Some of the landscapes made me feel like I was on Mars. Other landscapes were so jaw-droppingly beautiful that they almost seemed fake and unreal! The trip was a marvelous change from our everyday lives in Chicago, although of course in the end we were glad to come home to our familiar street and friends. Indulge me for a few pictures:

It wasn’t all sightseeing, though. For the first week of the trip, I taught a filmmaking class at Ogden’s Treehouse Museum, helping kids to make movies for submission to the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. The Treehouse has hosted 90-Second Newbery screenings in Ogden in 2018 and 2019, and I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with the folks who run this singular children’s museum. Back in the spring, Lynne and Rob Goodwin of the Treehouse suggested that I come out in the summer to teach this filmmaking class, and I eagerly accepted!

As you can see from the movies below, one great advantage about this class is that we got to use the Treehouse Museum’s impressive sets and costumes for the movies. But the best thing were the twelve young filmmakers who participated. Their talent, energy, and ingenuity were amazing to behold. Let’s check out their movies!

The first movie is an adaption of Matt de la Pena’s 2016 Newbery Medal Winner Last Stop on Market Street. The original book is about a kid CJ and his Nana who take a bus ride across San Francisco. CJ asks various questions of his Nana, who gives sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-weirdly-evasive answers. I like this book, although I’ve posted before about my own reservations about its character Nana, whom I regard as one of the most insidious villains in all of children’s literature. (Why can’t Nana ever give CJ a straight answer? Why is she always belittling him?)

Here, Eva and Cali and friends give the story an Old West twist. Instead of a bus, it’s a 19th-century train; instead of CJ and Nana visiting a soup kitchen, they’re fixin’ to spring Grandpa out of jail; and here, Nana is a pistol-packing granny (who is similarly unfairly dismissive of CJ’s perfectly reasonable questions):

There’s a full review of this movie on the 90-Second Newbery website, which says in part, “the Old West theme is hilariously and resourcefully fulfilled throughout . . . the best things about this movie are the performances: CJ’s wistful yearning for a horse and her earnest inquisitive nature slowly transforming into boiling irritation with her granny, which comes to a hilariously cathartic climax near the end; and of course the yee-haw pistol-packing granny, who is so amusingly full of crusty personality and hair-trigger violence.”

Adalynn, Crewe, and Cy adapted Scott O’Dell’s 1961 Newbery Medal Winner Island of the Blue Dolphins. The original story is about Karana, a 12-year-old Native American girl stranded alone for years on an island off the California coast.

As the review on the 90-Second Newbery website says (in part), “Great acting from everyone: Karana’s combination of both openhearted emotion and riled ferocity, Ulepe’s and Isabella’s and Tutok’s goofy humor, Rontu’s amazing comic timing, Ramo’s earnest panic, and the animals’ bloodthirsty rage are all performed amazingly well! . . . The script was tight and yet was unafraid to stray away from the source material to make a funnier and more exciting movie (especially with the last-minute revelation that the dog Rontu can talk, and Karana’s blase reaction to it).”

Summer, Speirs, Aliya, Samantha, and Rudy adapted Louis Sachar’s 1999 Newbery Medal Winner Holes, but with a twist: instead of the boy Stanley Yelnats being forced to dig holes in a prison camp for a crime he didn’t commit, a girl “Stanla Alnats” is forced to bake rolls in a bakery-diner for a crime she didn’t commit:

As the review on the 90-Second Newbery website says in part, “Great cinematography, editing, and acting throughout this one! I loved the performances: the Warden’s maniacal evil, Zero’s earnest friendliness, Stanla’s intense emotions, and everyone else too, especially the ‘director’ who grows more and more exasperated at the ever-increasing length of the movie. Resourceful use of music, sound effects, voiceover, a chase scene, and other cinematic techniques throughout . . . I especially loved the surreal courtroom scene!”

Lucy and Molly adapted the “Cookies” vignette Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Honor Book Frog and Toad Together, but with a twist: instead of Frog and Toad being gentle swamp-dwelling bachelors, they are glamorous butt-kicking secret spies!

As the review on the 90-Second Newbery website says (in part), “The performances were hilariously tongue-in-cheek, and I liked the hardboiled voiceover and gruff interactions between the two spies. The tense action-movie music, resourceful costumes (sunglasses, hats, vests, and ties), and use of spy movie tropes like secret handoffs in mysterious places, self-destructing messages, and forbidding villains (those smirking birds!) all worked together brilliantly to make this feel like a true action-espionage movie.”

All in all, I loved teaching this class and all four of these movies are fantastic. I’m looking forward to coming back to the Treehouse Museum in the spring for the screening . . . and hopefully for another filmmaking class in next summer, too!

Thanks again Lynne and Rob and Michael and everyone at the Treehouse Museum (including Wes, Gina, David, and everyone else) for bringing me out for this Utah adventure and taking care of us! I had a blast, and I think we got some great 90-Second Newbery movies out of it. I can’t wait to share them at the screenings next year!

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