Monday, December 30, 2013

Trailer Woes: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Dreamworks just released the new trailer for How To Train Your Dragon 2 (note: the trailer includes a reveal that the creative team did not want made public, so watch that and read this at your own risk). I loved the original film, but I have some reservations after watching that trailer, and they're very much in the vein of storytelling wonkery. So I thought it'd be fun to discuss here.

First caveat: I was not looking forward to the original How To Train Your Dragon. The teaser trailer I saw (and which I am unable to locate on the YouTubes) looked incredibly stupid and the title is pretty stupid. But then I saw the movie and I was completely charmed. It is one of my favorite recent films. So while I'm going to complain about the trailer for the sequel, that doesn't mean I think or hope it will be bad. I'm just pointing out storytelling challenges that will need to be addressed.

Second caveat: there are lots of things in the trailer that I liked. I like the increase in scope, I like the way the characters have been aged into young-adulthood. But a trailer is designed to get you excited about a film, and talking about exciting things is a little boring. So I will be focusing on the negative. Entirely.

Storytelling 101

There are lots of ways to model a story, but here's the most basic: Someone we care about lands in a bad situation and has to fight their way out. Overcoming adversity is the simplest blueprint, and there are three factors in play.
  1. Sympathy - Do we care if the hero succeeds or fails?
  2. Agency - What does the hero choose to do and what tools are at their disposal?
  3. Liability - What obstacles are in the hero's way?
The success of a story (note: not a movie, per se, but a story) rests on maximizing these three factors. We want to see a proactive, sympathetic hero make hard choices and hard sacrifices to overcome terrific adversity. The original Dragon did this masterfully. Hiccup, our hero, is a terrible viking (liability) who wants to kill a dragon so he can finally fit in (sympathy). He takes initiative using the skills he does have (agency) to wound a dragon but realizes that he's not a killer (sympathy), so he decides to turn the dragon loose (agency) and confess to his father--the leader of the village (liability)--that he'll never achieve his dream (sympathy). His father puts him into dragon training anyway (liability) against his wishes (sympathy) and then he befriends the dragon he wounded (agency and sympathy and liability) and that's just Act I.

So let's break these down and compare what we see in the new trailer.

Sympathy

In general, we have be invested the hero's story success or failure. This is different from pure affability. We don't have to like the hero; we just have to care if they win or lose. Popular fiction is chock-full of unlikable heroes right now, from Dexter's Dexter Morgan to Breaking Bad's Walter White or the entire cast of Game of Thrones. But if you aren't invested, then no amount of action or intrigue is going to make the story exciting. A great example of this failure is in the movie Identity. It is revealed (spoiler alert) right before the final showdown that John Cusack's character isn't a real person--he's a construct in someone else's imagination. In fact, virtually everyone in the film is. The late introduction just sucked the air out of the climax. Why should I care if he lives or dies if he was never alive in the first place?

So how does the new Dragon trailer hold up?

No problems at all, actually--nor should there be for a sequel. We already know and love Hiccup and Toothless and Astrid, so we'll be invested in them from the opening credit. In fact, baked-in sympathy for the hero is the main reason to do a sequel (or prequel) at all. Which is not to say that sequels don't screw this up. Monsters University turned a teddy bear and a lovable screw-up into douchebags. Or there was that time J. K. Rowling turned Harry Potter into an angsty brat. Or there's the mother-of-all screw-ups, Oz The Great And Powerful, in which Disney decided to base a movie on the least likable character from that franchise. The big reveal from The Wizard of Oz was that the wizard turned out to be a fraud--and an inept fraud, to boot. So let's base a movie on that schmuck.

(And before anyone mentions the Star Wars prequels, those were disappointing yes, but holy balls was Oz The Great And Powerful worse.)

Agency

Characters should be proactive. They should be capable. They should overcome weakness. Believe it or not, this is actually a huge problem in sequels. The hero has already overcome whatever their challenge was in the first story, and you can't just take them back to square one (unless you're writing Metroid, and even then it's sketchy). So the trick is to find new goals for the hero. This was handled expertly in The Dark Knight and clumsily in The Dark Knight Rises. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne wants to rid Gotham of crime. In The Dark Knight, he wants to retire. New movie, new goals. In The Dark Knight Rises he wants to... do what, exactly? Survive? Avert a pending apocalypse? He's almost entirely reactive, so while the rest of the movie was awesome, Bruce Wayne's character arc is genuinely underwhelming.

So how does the new Dragon trailer hold up?

Man, destiny is getting thrown around a lot. Hiccup's father tells him that he is destined to protect their people. His mother, it turns out, is also adept at training dragons. So it seems that Hiccup was fated to become the first viking to ever ride a dragon. Does that bother me? It sure as hell does! First, it undermines his accomplishments in the first movie. In the original, Hiccup makes choices and has to deal with the consequences of those choices. It's no coincidence that both Hiccup and Stoick (his father) mark major turning points in their character arcs with the words "I did this." There's no fate involved, no predestination, no excellent breeding. Hiccup is just a confused kid who acts on principle and stumbles into an adventure because that's the only way to see it through. All this "destiny" talk cuts the legs out from under that. If Hiccup is fated to ride dragons, then it's so much less interesting that he ever did.

Liability

Achieving your goals requires hard work and sacrifices. This is another tricky one for sequels because, as with agency, the hero has already overcome quite a lot. The storyteller has to come up with new challenges that don't feel like a retread of the past (a la The Hangover Part II) and that don't raise the stakes to the point of ridiculousness (The Matrix sequels) or both (Spider-Man 3) or neither (Be Cool).

So how does the new Dragon trailer hold up?

Fair to middling. On the one hand, we get the "something big and terrible is coming" angle. On the other hand, they've taken away the big liability that should have held over from the first movie. Notably, Hiccup and Toothless are now able to fly independently. A major part of the first movie's story is that Hiccup and Toothless are incomplete without each other. Toothless can't fly without Hiccup controlling his artificial tail, and Hiccup is becoming a success in Dragon Training because of the time they spend together. This is brought home very late in the film when Hiccup loses his leg. Sacrifices are important. It's the reason we love Joss Whedon, even though he tortures us. It's also how the last sixty seconds of the last episode of 24's first season bought enough credibility to make cynics like me watch the second season. This, too, is very easy to do incorrectly. The classic trope is the introduction of a new character just so they can be killed for dramatic purposes later (examples abound, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a particularly egregious instance).

And I have a lot of trepidation about this in the new Dragon trailer. They've brought in someone from the past that will have immediate resonance with Hiccup despite not having been involved in his life for years. She is also far more powerful than Hiccup, which means in the grand scope of the universe of these films, she makes him unnecessary.

Yeah, I'm afraid they're going to kill off Hiccup's mother and it's going to feel really cheap when they do. We'll see. I'm still hopeful. But... yeah.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Flash Fiction: Lavender Crush

Every Friday, Kurt posts a new piece of flash fiction. This week...

Lavender Crush
Word Count: 599

You’re the arrow in my heart strings, baby, my lavender crush—hold on, where’s the guitar? Nigel, there’s no guitar. Something wrong with your amp?”

“No.”

“Well, where’d the guitar go?”

“I stopped playing it.”

“You stopped playing?”

“Yeah.”

“Everything all right, Nigel?”

“We need to talk, Ian.”

“Can it wait until after rehearsal? I really want to nail down this song.”

“It’s about the song.”

“Oh, well, what about it? The melody?”

“No, Ian, it’s the lyrics.”

“The lyrics? Well, they’re not completely nailed down yet, but you know I have a process.”

“I know. But I’m not talking about making little tweaks or figuring out the middle eight. I’d like to rethink the themes and direction we’re taking it.”

“Really? But with a title like Lavender Crush there’s only so many directions you can go.”

“I’d like to change the title as well.”

“Oh, well, Nigel… I didn’t realize. What’s wrong with it?”

We’re a heavy metal band, Ian. Heavy metal bands don’t write heavy metal songs and call them Lavender Crush.”

“So? It’s ironic.”

“We don’t do ironic. We sing about anarchy and death and destruction. We don’t sing love songs to the gal behind the counter at Bath and Body Works.”

“I think the word crush implies a little bit of destruction. It’s subtle, yes—”

“We’re a heavy metal band, Ian. We don’t do subtle either.”

“It’s experimental.”

“No, it’s flowery. When you wrote a song about clocks and made Rupert drum it in 11/4, that was experimental. This is just stupid.”

“I have a process!”

“Well, Ian, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about your process.”

“Don’t mock the process!”

“Really? The process that gave us Unicorn Soul is above mockery?”

“Oh, be fair, Nigel. I really like that song.”

“Yeah, and so do the one-hundred-and-seventeen people who’ve downloaded it off iTunes, I’m sure.”

“You say that like it’s my fault our sales are low.”

“It is your fault. Nobody wants to buy a heavy metal song with a stupid, flowery title.”

Sunshine Of Your Love by Cream! Lot’s of people love that song.”

“Ian, when’s the last time you heard Sunshine Of Your Love on the radio?”

“I don’t know. But it’s a classic, hard-rocking song.”

“It’s a classic, hard-rocking song with a stupid, flowery title. When’s the last time you heard it and didn’t immediately mistake it for Cocaine or In A Gadda Da Vida or some other song with a real title?”

“Look, Nigel, I’m trying to take us in a new artistic direction. We need to grow, to evolve.”

“Fine, but could we at least play with the idea of growing by being more metal?”

“How?”

“I don’t know, Ian. You’re the lyricist. Think Reign In Blood. That’s a metal song title. Or Master Of Puppets.”

“Fine, let’s use those, then.”

“We can’t use… Ian, do you even listen to metal?”

“Sure. I already brought up Cream, didn’t I?”

“Um… That’s hard rock, but I was thinking Slayer or Anthrax.”

“Pink Floyd?”

“No.”

“Bowie?”

“Ian…”

“Guns ‘n’ Roses?”

“Ian, are you kidding me? What are you going to say next? Spinal Tap? Look, if you want sing about bath oil and scented candles, we’re going to end up opening for Bon-fucking-Jovi.”

“Nigel, that hurts.”

“Well, get your head in the game, man! Or we’re going instrumental!”

“… So what would you suggest?”

“I don’t know. What sounds like lavender? Cadaver?”

“The meter’s off, but I think I see what you’re getting at. Matter of Trust. Patterns of Rust. I’ll work it out.”

Edited by Carolyn "You Could Cut All Of This, Retain The Meaning, And Avoid My Confusion" Abram.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Flash Fiction: Bunny And Fat Man

Every Friday Kurt posts a new piece of flash fiction. This week...

Bunny And Fat Man
Word Count: 600

I should have realized that those cookies tasted funny.

A light comes on in the room, although it’s dulled by the dark pillowcase over my head. Feels like I’ve been tied up for hours. Who knows? Maybe I have. And ain’t that a son-of-a-bitch if I have. Lotta kids are gonna be upset.

“He’s coming around,” says a woman’s voice—deep, sultry and familiar, although I can’t place it.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

“Hush, now, Kringle,” says the dame, “I’m asking the questions. How’s your schedule look?”

“How long have I been out?” I ask.

“Three minutes,” says the dame.

“I can’t spare more than another seven,” I say.

“Then I’ll talk fast,” she says. “I have demands, and I’m going to hold you here until you agree to my terms.”

“I guess I don’t have a choice,” I say.

“I guess not.”

“What do you want?” I ask.

“A colleague of yours is sick of being in your shadow,” she says.

“Who?” I ask. “Rudolph? Lord knows that kid gets as much press as I do.”

“No,” says the dame, “not Rudolph.”

“Well, who is it?”

“This fella operates in the spring time,” she says.

And then, all at once, I recognize the voice. “Bunny…” I say.

The pillowcase comes sliding off my head and there she is. Three-foot-eight with legs that could kick a hole in the wall, floppy ears, and a fluffy white tail. “Been a while, Kris,” she says.

“You’ve been a very naughty girl,” I tell her.

“I guess you’ll just have to keep your hands off my stockings,” she says.

“How’s that brother of yours?” I ask.

“He’s tired of playing second banana to a fat man in a red suit,” she says, leaning over, getting right in my face. She smells like wood chips and lavender. “He’s paid his dues. He’s done the overnight deliveries and the mall photos. And now he wants a taste of the real action.”

“Is that so?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says. “You’ve been hogging the spotlight for too long.”

“Is it my fault the children love me?” I ask her.

She sticks a finger in my chest. “They’ll love you a lot less if you miss half their houses this year.”

“You can’t do this,” I say. “People look forward to Christmas year-round.”

“Well, maybe they can look forward to Easter just as much,” she says.

“I’m sure they would,” I say, “if they could figure out when it’s going to be.”

Bunny fumes. “Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. Is it that hard to remember?”

“For children?” I ask.

“Agh!” screams Bunny. “It ain’t his fault he’s tied to a lunar calendar!”

“It ain’t mine either,” I say.

“Yeah, well, what say we level the playing field?”

“Hold on, hold on,” I say. “I’d love to help, but there’s not much I can do. I’m in the middle of my run. Have him set up an appointment with me in February. Maybe we can cross-promote.”

“He tried that,” says Bunny. “You gave him the run-around for weeks.”

“I’m a busy man.”

“And it’s a pain in the tail to get to your office,” says Bunny.

“Look,” I say, “there are opportunities he isn’t exploring. He’s got a built-in countdown leading up to Easter and it’s longer than Advent. Where are the chocolate calendars?”

“You can’t give out sweets during Lent,” says Bunny.

“Well what does he want. Name it.”

“Easter Carols.”

We look at each other for a moment.

“Done,” I say. “Now untie me.”

Edited by Carolyn "Creepy. It's Fine. But Creepy." Abram.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Flash Fiction: The Third Annual Regional Educators Holiday Party Planning Session

Every Friday Kurt posts a new piece of flash fiction. Celebrate the Holidays with...

The Third Annual Regional Educators Holiday Party Planning Session
Word Count: 599

Orson arrived last. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, hanging up his coat. “Practice went long.” He took a seat on the couch

“That’s fine,” said Sarah. “We’ve narrowed it down to the third weekend in December or the second weekend in January.”

“We’re leaning towards December,” said Renee.

“Third weekend? I’ve got football that Friday,” said Orson. “Science Olympics training starts Sunday afternoon, but I could make it Saturday evening, as long as we’re not planning to stay out too late.”

“So… wait,” said Sara, “does this mean we have a date picked out? That was easy.”

“Well, Hanukkah was early this year,” said Renee, staring at Sarah.

“Don’t blame me for my people’s holiday celebrations,” said Sarah.

“Have them,” said Renee. “Just don’t make them take up two weekends in December.”

“All right, all right,” said Orson. “Where do we want to go? Is it just the three of us?”

“Carol’s on maternity leave,” said Renee. “And Frank’s going to visit his in-laws.”

“Not much of a party,” said Orson.

“It will be,” said Sarah. “The Third Annual Regional Educators Holiday Party will be a success, dammit!”

“Fourth,” said Orson. “Wasn’t the first one in ‘09?”

“We didn’t haven’t one in 2010,” said Sarah. “It’s the third.”

“Okay, then it’s not annual,” said Orson. “It can be the third or it can be annual, but not both.”

“Does any of this matter?” asked Renee.

“I suppose we could call it the Third or Annual Holiday… whatever,” said Orson.

“Where are we going?” asked Renee.

“Cobb’s?” asked Orson.

“On our salaries?” said Sarah.

Orson shrugged. “It’s a special occasion.”

“Yeah, but my broken crown last month drained the ‘special occasion’ fund,” said Sarah.

“Wing Shack has dollar wings on Saturdays,” said Renee.

“I like wings,” said Sarah.

“I like shacks,” said Orson. “Wait, does Ty Hughes still work there?”

“I don’t know,” said Sarah.

“I think so,” said Renee. “His sister’s in my third hour; I could ask her. Why?”

“I failed him in remedial Chem last semester,” said Orson. “I don’t know if I want him preparing my food.”

“Okay, there’s that Greek place you like,” said Renee.

“The one on Tenth Street?” asked Sarah. “They’re closed for remodeling.”

“In December?” asked Renee. “I would think December would be prime flaming-cheese time.”

“That’s the problem,” said Sarah. “They accidentally set the ceiling on fire.”

Orson nodded.

“Oooooh,” said Renee.

“Beer Barn?” asked Orson.

“They allow smoking,” said Renee. “And their wings make me gassy.”

“Maybe we could rent out a hall or something,” said Sarah.

“For the three of us?” asked Orson. “A little overkill, don’t you think?”

“Well, I’m out of ideas, then,” said Sarah.

Orson and Renee exchanged glances.

“I guess I could host it,” said Renee.

“Well, you are hosting the planning session,” said Orson.

“I don’t want you to have to host a party,” said Sarah. “The cleanup would be so much work.”

“There’s only the three of us,” said Orson. “How much of a mess do you think we’ll make? Don’t you teach Math?”

“Oh, be nice,” said Renee.

“Yeah,” said Sarah. “Be nice.”

The three teachers stared at each other. Finally Renee broke the silence. “Okay, I’ve got it. Let’s do it tonight. Right here.”

Orson and Sarah exchanged a look. Orson shrugged. “We could order a pizza,” said Sarah.

“I’ll chip in,” said Orson. “Do we need to make a beer run?”

“I’ve got a twelve-pack in the fridge,” said Renee. “Some craft brewer I’d never heard of.”

“So, four different flavors of IPA?” said Orson. “I’m in!”

Edited by Carolyn "Removing The 'The's Could Solve The Problem" Abram.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Friday Flash Fiction: A Gathering Of Christs

Every Friday Kurt posts a new piece of flash fiction. This week...

A Gathering Of Christs
Word Count: 600

“Can I help you, officer?” asked Ray.

“Evening, sir, sorry to bother you,” said the cop. “Do you own that barn over there?”

Ray looked out across the field. The barn was the only structure for half a mile—apart from his farm house. “Yeah,” he said.

“Mind if we take a look inside it?” asked the cop.

“What’s this about, officer?” asked Ray.

“Well…” the officer took a deep breath. “A baby Jesus was stolen from a Nativity scene. The owners had problems with this before, so they put a GPS in the new one. We think it’s been hidden in your barn over there.”

Ray cocked an eyebrow. “You think I stole baby Jesus?” he asked.

“No, sir, I just think baby Jesus is in that barn.”

“You got a name, son?”

“Tom, sir.”

“Call me Ray.”

The two headed for the barn.

“You got any suspects?” asked Ray.

“No one wants to press charges,” said Tom. “It’s probably just kids. As long as the church gets it back, they’ll be happy.”

“I see,” said Ray. “Yeah, I sometimes catch local teens out here. They come here to drink sometimes. Or to neck.”

“Neck?”

“Yeah, you know, kiss.”

“I know what necking is,” said Tom. “You just don’t hear that word very often nowadays.”

They reached the barn and Ray pulled back the door. “You ain’t got a warrant, do you?” he asked.

“Do I need one?” asked Tom.

“No,” said Ray. “I just want you to know that I don’t allow nobody to do nothing illegal on my property and I run them off if I catch them. So if you find any drugs stashed in here, they ain’t mine, you understand?”

“Sir, I’m just here for the baby,” said Tom.

“Fair enough.”

They entered the barn and Ray turned on a light.

“Holy shit,” said Ray.

“Holy something,” said Tom.

There was more than one Baby Jesus—there were dozens, maybe even a hundred of them, arranged in circles around a small statue of Buddha in the center of the room. The Buddha appeared to be holding a crucifix and a ball of yarn.

“Sir?” asked Tom without turning his head away, “were you aware that there is an unorthodox religious display comprised of stolen property in your barn.”

“First I’ve heard of it,” said Ray, dumbfounded. “I think that statue’s from the Thai place on Grand. Was it reported missing?”

“I’d have to check,” said Tom.

“There’s a phone in the house,” said Ray.

“Nah, I’ll radio it in,” said Tom.

Neither had looked away from the display.

“So, which one do you think it is?” asked Ray.

“Excuse me?” said Tom.

“The baby Jesus that they sent you for. Which do you think it is?”

“I have no idea,” said Tom.

“Maybe you could arrange a line-up,” said Ray. “Have the church pick out a nice one.”

“Lots of Baby Jesuses get stolen this time of year,” said Tom. “Usually they get returned around Easter. But I’ve never, never, seen anything like this before.”

“We should take some pictures before we try to get them back,” said Ray.

“Yeah,” said Tom.

“You okay, son? You seem a little spooked.”

“I’m good,” said Tom.

They headed out of the barn, Tom for his squad car, Ray for his home. Once Tom was out of sight, Ray took his camera back to the barn.

He snapped a few pictures and then shook his head. “I guess they’ll be taking you all away,” he said. “I wonder, though. Which one of you babies ratted us out?”

Edited by Carolyn "OH GOD! YOU CAN'T JUST LEAVE BABIES AROUND!!!" Abram.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

November Mystery Theme Revealed

In October, I announced a second Mystery Theme Month. There were a few correct guesses (including one before I'd even posted the first story), and here's the answer:

The Pentateuch

The five stories are named after the Hebrew names of the books of the Torah--which are taken from the first words of those books. The Biblical name (or a translation, where applicable) appears italicized in the first sentence of each story. They ran in reverse order. Here they are:



I hope you've enjoyed this little game, as I have. This Friday we'll return to our regular weirdness, jocularity, and gut-punch sentimentality.

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