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Secrets of Story Episode 25: What Can Storytellers Learn From Cult Leaders?

April 22, 2021

It’s another episode of the Secrets of Story podcast I do with Matt Bird! He’s my friend who has set himself as a storytelling guru, and is the author of a book and blog with the same name as the podcast. Matt usually gives storytelling advice, and I give pushback. We don’t always agree!

Every once in a while we switch roles, and I bring in my own crackpot storytelling theories. My latest hot take: novelists and screenwriters can learn a lot from cult leaders and the techniques of brainwashing!

Wait, don’t go! It’s not as weird as it sounds. After all, both cult leaders and storytellers are trying to do something similar: recruit an audience, suck them into their little world, and keep the audience there. Cults seem to be pretty successful, especially nowadays, so why not harness their dark arts of brainwashing to write better stories! As a bonus, over the course of the episode Matt and I recover repressed memories about our own experiences with cults.

I’m really proud of this episode! I think that in the back-and-forth of our discussion, Matt and I hit upon some truths about storytelling that I haven’t heard expressed before. That said, I actually got the idea for this episode from watching this video essay about one of my favorite recent movies, Midsommar. The video essay is called “How Midsommar Brainwashes You” by a YouTuber called “Acolytes of Horror,” and I recommend it if you’ve seen Midsommar and love it as much as I do:

In this episode I put forth a system of the 14 Steps Of Brainwashing, which is adapted from various sources including Robert Jay Lifton, who studied brainwashing in the 1950s, but with a few additions of my own. My contention is that not only does the hero of many stories go through these steps—it’s kind of like an alternate version of the Hero’s Journey—but these are also the very steps that the storyteller uses to lure, trap, and keep an audience. I’m only listing the steps here for reference; if you want to hear my explanation of how the steps relate to storytelling, listen to the episode. It’s a goodie!

Recruit the target
1. Find a vulnerable target
2. Invite the target to an innocuous event

Break down the target’s identity/self
3. Cut the target off from outside influences
4. “Lovebomb” the target; dangle the Prize in front of the target
5. Extract an agreement from the target that they want the prize

Exhaust the target with stress
6. Shut down dissent by threatening to withhold the prize, iterating between carrot and stick
7. Arouse guilt in target and lead them to self-betrayal
8. Bring the target to a breaking point
9. Offer leniency and clear steps to make things right: compulsion of confession, channeling of guilt, action to be done

Worship together / full communion
10. Release of guilt through ritual or signficicant act
11. Progress and harmony
12. Final confession and rebirth into new community and identity

Matt also posts about this episode in on his blog.

And now, since we’re talking about cults anyway, this gives me an opportunity to post one of my favorite skits from the old Ben Stiller show, a parody of Lassie, but instead of the family having a dog, they have a Charles Manson, played by the legend Bob Odenkirk:

The BEST OF 2021 90-Second Newbery Film Festival: Online Screening!

April 14, 2021

It’s hard to believe, but this is the TENTH YEAR of our 90-Second Newbery Film Festival!

It’s an annual video contest I founded in which kid filmmakers create short movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in about ninety seconds. Every year we put on big live screenings at libraries and theaters in fourteen cities around the country. We can’t do in-person screenings this year, obviously, but you can click on these links to see the virtual screenings we did this year for New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Tacoma, Boulder, and Assorted Cities.

This year, I decided also to put on a special virtual screening for twelve of the best 90-Second Newbery movies we received for 2021. It was very difficult to pick just twelve. You can watch it above!

The screening is hosted by me and Keir Graff (author of The Tiny Mansion and many other great kids’ books). In it, we share the best 2021 90-Second Newbery videos from all over the country—created by young filmmakers from New York to Washington, from Wisconsin to Texas, and Oklahoma, Utah, Tennessee, and Illinois!

The show opens with a brief skit that investigates the MYSTERIOUS FATES of previous participants in the 90-Second Newbery over the past ten years. And of course there is a ludicrous and embarrassing musical number. (Special thanks to guest star Freya Trefonides, who played Meg Murry in the A Wrinkle in Time movie that was the very first 90-Second Newbery ten years ago. Here’s a post I did about her way back in 2009! And while you’re at it, go ahead and buy some of her cool art here.)

Want to learn more about the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival? Visit our official website at www.90secondnewbery.com. The deadline for submitting movies for next year is January 14, 2022.

Thank you to all the young filmmakers for their fantastic movies. Thanks also to the families, teachers, and librarians who assisted them! So sit back, relax, and enjoy the video above.

Here’s the program order:

1. My Father’s Dragon (Ruth Gannett, 1949 Honor Book) by Lily Manning, Chicago, IL

2. The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin, 1979 Medal Winner) by the 11th and 12th Grade Language Arts Class of the Compass Homeschool Initiative, Tulsa, OK

3. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White, 1953 Honor Book) by Galileo Elizarraraz of the Advanced Learning Academy, San Antonio, TX

4. Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson, 1978 Medal Winner) by Mary, Brynlee, Everett, Zane, and Audrey of Orem Elementary, Orem, UT

5. Millions of Cats (Wanda Gag, 1929 Honor Book) by Eian-Gabriel Sinclair, Rochester, NY

6. Hatchet (Gary Paulsen, 1988 Honor Book) by Stella Barry of Summit Trail Middle School, Maple Valley, WA

7. Hatchet (Gary Paulsen, 1988 Honor Book) by Allie Said of Gladeville Middle School, Mt. Juliet, TN

8. The Dark Frigate (Charles Hawes, 1924 Medal Winner) by Jillian Parrino, Albertson, NY

9. Lincoln: A Photobiography (Russell Freedman, 1988 Medal Winner) by Juarez Elizarraraz of the Advanced Learning Academy, San Antonio TX

10. The Giver (Lois Lowry, 1994 Medal Winner) by Maya Schneider, Green Bay, WI

11. New Kid (Jerry Craft, 2020 Medal Winner) by Cedric Ranon and Ethan Machaya of Lincoln Hall Middle School, Lincolnwood, IL

12. A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle, 1963 Medal Winner) by Riley Levine, Highland Park, IL

Thanks so much for your movies! I hope you make movies for next year, too.

P.S. Do you want to support the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, so we can keep this crazy show going every year, coast to coast? Please make a tax-deductible donation to the 90-Second Newbery here so we can keep bringing this program to everyone across the country for yet another ten years! The 90-Second Newbery is under the nonprofit fiscal sponsorship of Fractured Atlas.

COVER REVEAL! My New Book Dare To Know Is Available for Pre-Order!

March 31, 2021

I’ve been waiting for this! At last I can share the cover of my adult sci-fi novel Dare To Know, out September 14 on Quirk Books (pre-order here). Isn’t it great? Kind of reminds me of the movie poster for Vertigo, or the opening credits of Mad Men, but it’s totally its own thing (that little dude falling through the hourglass—brilliant!) Big respect to Quirk’s senior designer Ryan Hayes for this cover.

I am really lucky that my agent John Cusick believed in this weird story. And I’m grateful beyond words that I get to be published by Quirk, the perfect place for this book. My editor Jhanteigh Kupihea’s expert guidance really elevated the story. Jane Morley’s copyediting and proofreading improved my prose and saved me from many embarrassing errors. And even though publicity is still in its early stages, Nicole De Jackmo, Jennifer Murphy, Christina Tatulli, and everyone on Quirk’s publicity team are already impressing me. I’m so happy to be on the same team as these dedicated pros.

And of course, thanks to all my friends and family who read early drafts, supported me, and were patient with me while I worked on this book. I’m super excited about it. Want in early? Dare to pre-order it here!

And here’s what it’s about:

Dark Matter meets Annihilation in this mind-bending and emotional speculative thriller set in a world where the exact moment of your death can be predicted—for a price.

Our narrator is the most talented salesman at Dare to Know, a prestigious and enigmatic company in the death-prediction business. While he has mastered the art of death, the rest of his life is an abject failure. Divorced, estranged from his sons, and broke, he’s driven to violate the cardinal rule of his business by forecasting his own death day. The problem: apparently he died 23 minutes ago.

The only person who can confirm his prediction is Julia, the woman he loved and lost during his rise up the ranks of Dare to Know. As he travels across the country to see her, our narrator is forced to confront his past, the choices he’s made, and the terrifying truth about the company he works for—and his role there.

Highly ambitious and totally immersive, this adrenaline-fueled thriller explores the destructive power of knowledge and collapses the boundaries between reality, myth, and conspiracy as it races toward its stunning conclusion.

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