Thursday, June 30, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #87: Realistic Emotions, Outlandish Situations (And Not Vice Versa)

I love comments! Every time I check my blog and see comments, it’s like Christmas morning. Every time I see no comments, it’s like getting stood up on prom night.

Mostly, I blog to teach myself things that I need to learn. This is my brain’s workspace, and comments are like having an editor inside my brain forcing me to make my thoughts make more sense. Two days ago, master-commenter “J.S.” added his thoughts to the “Write the Emotions You Know” rule. In responding to his comments, I stumbled into a new, better version of that rule: Realistic emotions in outlandish situations work better than outlandish emotions in realistic situations.

As with all of my favorite rules, this had never occurred to me before, but then I suddenly started to see it everywhere. Usually, in this column, I cheat by cherry-picking examples, but this time, I’ll use a pre-determined test group. Let’s try this out on my favorite Hollywood movies of last year:

1. The Fighter:

  • Realistic Emotion: I could be great if only I could break free of my crappy family…
  • Outlandish Situation: …and become a world champion boxer.

2. The Black Swan:

  • Realistic Emotion: I fear that the only way to succeed in my cruel business is to sacrifice my humanity…
  • Outlandish Situation: …then slowly turn into a swan while dancing Swan Lake.

  • Realistic Emotion: Expert older workers like myself are being laid off in favor of underpaid newbies…
  • Outlandish Situation: …but now we have to work together to stop a runaway train.

4. Date Night:

  • Realistic Emotion: Our marriage has gotten stale and we need to shake things up…
  • Outlandish Situation: …with the help of a lot of guns, corrupt cops, and car chases.

The only exception was number five:

5. True Grit:

  • Outlandish Emotion: I must avenge my dad’s death…
  • Outlandish Situation: hiring a federal marshal and chasing his killer into Indian land.

Four of out five well-made movies agree: Try realistic emotions in outlandish situations!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #86: Huge Problems Require Huge Motivation

In high-jeopardy stories, the size of the motivation must be as big as the size of problem. The bigger the problem, the bigger the motivation needs to be to get them to tackle it, or the bigger the risk needs to be of not tackling it. Ideally, the reward for doing it and the risk of not doing it will both be high.

It’s not hard to toss in a few “I have no other options” and “this opportunity is huge” scenes near the beginning of your story. The real reasons that writers don’t do this is because they say “those scenes are too cliché, everybody does that.” But everybody does it for a good reason. Stories –especially big, exciting stories– don’t work without them.

Let’s take mysteries. In an adult story, if your hero’s going to solve a mystery, there are only a few acceptable reasons:

  1. It’s their job.
  2. They (or someone they love) have been falsely accused.
  3. They (or someone they love) were the victims.
  4. They (or someone they love) will be the next victims.
  5. They’re hoping to discover or be rewarded with a ton of money for solving it. (And they should have something they need to spend that money on)
  6. Maybe it’s merely their community that’s being threatened, but this can work only if they care about their community more than anybody else does. (Bruce Wayne’s extreme love for Gotham, George Bailey’s extreme love for Bedford Falls, etc.)

If you want, you can even combine two or more of the above, though you start to run the risk of overmotivation. But even two is better than none. Characters without a strong motivation have no reason to put themselves through the suffering they’ll have to face in the second half of your story.

Children’s stories are different, because there’s very little jeopardy. The problems are small, so they can be tackled even by heroes with small motivations. The Scooby Gang’s motivation was “I heard about a mystery and decided to solve it.” That’s enough for them, because nobody ever gets hurt, so they never have reason to reconsider their capricious decision. But in adult stories, things are going to get tough, and the hero will need a big reason to stay on the job, or else your audience will smell a rat. People only want what they want.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #85: Write the Emotions You Know

There are two movies coming out soon about parents who find out their child has led a murder/suicide at school. That’s extreme, but every year there is at least one movie about parents who have lost a child. This may seem like a slam-dunk topic to write a script about: “So much emotion! So much drama! How will they ever recover?” But is this really promising material? Your job is not to go for quantity of emotion, but quality, and smaller is often better in such cases.

When people say “write what you know”, many writers raise objections. Wouldn’t that mean that every story would be about a writer? Sure, it makes your life easier to write about a job you know (and hopefully you’ve done something else besides writing in your life), but you can actually write about any profession (provided that you’re willing to do a lot of research) because that’s not actually what they mean…

The important thing is to write about emotions that you know, and know well. Most audience members won’t be experts about any particular job, but emotions are a issue on which everybody is a genuine expert.

Writing emotions that ring true but aren’t clichés is the hardest part of the writer’s job. It’s hard enough to write about the details of police work without treading on well-worn cop movie clichés, but when you’re building your character’s emotional life, you’re competing against every story ever told, all of which chart emotional journeys, making it that much harder to say something genuine that hasn’t been said a hundred times before.

There are two ways to solve that challenge. The first is to throw your characters into extreme emotional situations that are relatively unique onscreen, such as losing a child to a murder/suicide. The problem is that this probably hasn’t happened to you either, or anyone you know. This means that you’re just guessing as to what emotions this would dredge up. Worse, it means that, even if you do get it right, the audience won’t know it. They’re just guessing, too, since they’ve never been through it either, so they can’t identify anyway.

The harder but better way to write is to find emotions that are common in real life and yet have somehow, for some odd reason, have never been portrayed onscreen before. This is very hard, but it is the heart of writing. Give audiences what they crave when they go to the movies: They want to say, with a flood of relief and appreciation, “I didn’t know anyone else felt that way!”

This is one reason that smart showrunners would rather hire a stand-up comedian to write TV than a chump like me with a screenwriting MFA: Stand-ups specialize in finding these emotions. I remember falling in love with Ellen Degeneres early on when she did a routine about something everyone has been through: You leave the house, walk down the street, and then suddenly remember something you forgot. What do you do? You don’t just turn on your heel and go right back—first you snap your fingers in the air.Why? Because you’re afraid that one of your neighbors might be watching you and they’ll think you’re crazy unless you give the universal sign that you’ve just remembered something. An embarrassing little observation that is universally true: yet never expressed out loud before. That’s the heart of good writing.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #84: Everybody’s Success Helps Everybody

Some of my black film school friends on facebook can’t help but get infuriated by the success of Tyler Perry. “This guy is selling crap to our audience! There’s no room left for us!” Its tempting to feel that way, but if you ask me, this is absolutely, wildly, totally untrue.

If a rival of yours becomes crazy-successful, as bad as it feels, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t help you. If their work is better than yours, then they’re going to convince producers to go on a buying spree looking for similar product, regardless of quality. If their work is worse then yours, that’s even better for you. Bad work does not destroy the audience for good work. Just the opposite: it creates a vacuum.

Tyler Perry has disproven a lot of recent prejudices:

  1. A movie can’t make big money if it’s targeted solely at black audiences: DISPROVED
  2. Even if that audience existed, you couldn’t trust black filmmakers to write, direct or produce those movies successfully: DISPROVED
  3. If they did somehow manage to do it, the studios could just buy them out, rather than work with them on their terms: DISPROVED

The fear, however, is that, along the way, he has created a new prejudice:

  1. Black movies have to be broad, manipulative and conservative.

But if you’re the writer/director who can disprove that prejudice, then the existence of that prejudice helps you. Perry’s huge success has created a market, and then failed to satisfy a significant segment of that market. That creates a vacuum, just waiting for you to fill it. No funder will trust you to create an audience from scratch, but it’s much easier to convince them that you’re going to be “Tyler Perry meets Tarantino” (or “meets Woody Allen,” or “meets Tina Fey,” or whomever). Perry has created an audience for you to highjack.

Every success story helps all of us. The danger is not that people will see the other guy’s movie instead of your movie. The danger is that people will stop going to the movies. Anyone who gets people into theaters is creating a bigger audience for everybody. There is almost no limit to the potential demand for movie tickets. When people see good movies, then they want to see more good movies. When people see bad movies, they want to see a good movie next time instead. If you want to sell movies to people, then anyone who gets people into theaters is your friend.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Underrated Movie #120: Went the Day Well?

Title: Went the Day Well?
Year: 1943
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Writers: John Dighton, Diana Morgan, Angus MacPhail, from a story by Graham Greene
Stars: Leslie Banks, Elizabeth Allan, Frank Lawton, David Farrar, Basil Sydney

The Story: A quaint English village plays host to a visiting group of British soldiers, then gradually realizes that their guests are actually Nazis in disguise, laying the groundwork for an invasion. They fight back against overwhelming odds, resulting in a one of the most rousing showdowns I’ve ever seen.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie was totally banished from public memory but it’s slowly started to be rediscovered in recent years. No wonder it took so long: even today, the power of the violence is shocking.

Why It’s Great:

  1. When watching any movie made during the war, you always have to remind yourself that the moviemakers didn’t know their side was going to win, and they were exposing themselves to reprisals otherwise. It’s especially hard to remember here, as the movie begins with a framing sequences set after the war is over, as a kindly postwar townsperson tells us, “Nothing was said about the battle of Bramley End until after the war was over, when Hitler got what was coming to him…”
  2. They made a tricky decision to let the audience know right away that the arriving soldiers are actually Nazis. For propaganda purposes, they want to infuriate us at the naivety of those on the home front who fail to spot the clues to the invaders’ true identity, but this puts the moviemakers at a disadvantage when it comes to getting us to love our heroes. Luckily, great writing and winning performances make up the difference. We realize that they may be naïve at first, but no more than we in the audience would be, had we not seen this movie.
  3. Of course, it’s only because of the movie’s propaganda value that it was allowed to do away with propriety and show us the sort of brutally effective action scenes that puts it thirty years ahead of its time. The goal is to wake up the sleepy homefront to the dangers of espionage, and only a hard slap would do. (Or a hatchet to the face...)
  4. Cavalcanti was primarily a documentarian and his eye for realism suffuses the movie. In many wartime propaganda movies the heroes rely on their innate moral superiority to win. This movie has no patience for such self-flattery. This is a war of willpower: whoever fights hardest, wins. That’s why it’s still so watchable today.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two underrated movies based on Graham Greene stories are Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear and Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol

How Available Is It?: It’s got a bare-bones but nice-looking DVD

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: See What Happens To The World As We Know It!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #83: Sometimes Winning Isn't Enough

I’ve talked before about how helpful it is to start a character off with a false goal, then gradually have them discover their true goal. Usually, this happens when heroes fail utterly halfway through, making it clear to them that the only way out of their misery is to better understand what their true goal should be. But it can be even more satisfying to have your character succeed beyond their wildest dreams, only to realize that it’s an empty feeling, and so they have to set their sights on something greater.
This is a trickier proposition. In most stories, morality (what is the right thing to do?) and ethics (how do I do this thing right?) are aligned: Immoral characters tend to be unethical too, and vice versa. In such stories, learning to do it better is the same thing as becoming a better person.
But movies like How to Train Your Dragon create a more ironic learning curve. When the movie begins, all Hiccup wants, and all the audience wants to see him do, is to become a great dragon fighter and earn the praise of his tribe, which seems impossible. Amazingly, he achieves the impossible rather quickly by studying the dragons and figuring out how they tick, but in doing so he also comes to realize that they’re not actually evil…This results in deliciously ironic scenes halfway through where he is finally showered with all the praise that he’s ever wanted. He wants to be happy, and the audience wants to be happy for him… but it’s not happening. He’s grown and we’ve grown. The rewards he earns through his superior work ethic aren’t satisfying, because both Hiccup and the audience have had their moral horizons expanded.
Most storytellers simply dangle a prize in front in front of the audience like a cat toy, making us want to see a certain outcome at the beginning, then yanking it away over and over again until they finally gratify us at the end. And that’s fine. But great storytellers can make us reconsider our values and grow along with the hero.
Okay folks! That’s it! As much as I love this movie, I am sick of it! Next week: actual adult movies! Very adult! Porn week! Well, okay, maybe I won’t go that far…

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #82: Training Sequences are Death (Or At Least They Should Be)

High school shows are always popular, but most TV shows about college life fail. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, most American haven’t been to college, so there’s a lot fewer people who can identify with it. But that’s not the biggest problem. College, even more than high school, is designed to be super-safe. It’s a self-selected community that doesn’t have to take all comers, so it’s a lot homier, and the students are far more concerned about being reasonable and establishing “safe spaces.”

But safe spaces, as I’ve discussed before, are death for drama. Realistic characters, left to their own devices, will stay safe, physically and emotionally. This leaves a writer with two choices: create dumb characters who blunder into danger, or put realistic characters in the sort of situations that would believably take them out of their comfort zones.

This is why training sequences, in any sort of movie, tend to be dull. In real life, a properly-designed training program should be a safe space, but that kills the jeaopardy. Kung Fu Panda was a fun movie, but they spend most of the movie in a rather pleasant training program, so there’s no physical jeopardy until the very end. There’s social jeopardy, but when your movie has “kung fu” in the title, people expect a little more.
How to Train Your Dragon is another movie with a lot of training sequences, but they manage to convince us that the training sequence are genuinely dangerous: kids are forced to fight against untamed dragons who genuinely seem to want to kill them. To make this believable, they have to convince us that the problem is so severe that the villagers would actually be willing to kill off kids who can’t cut it.
This is set up by showing a harrowing-but-typical dragon attack at the beginning and making it clear that the life expectancy is very low. We don’t see a lot of bodies but we do see a lot of stumps for limbs. We get that these kids have to get tough, even if a few die in the process. Once we accept that, we can fully enjoy the training sequences, content in the knowledge that the stakes are high and death is always on the line.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #81: Dare To Confront the Great Hypocrisy

Almost all heroic fiction is founded on the same Great Hypocrisy: “See that guy over there? He thinks that the best way to solve his problems is by killing people! That’s makes him a problem, so let’s kill him!” Explain to me again who the bad guy is here? In the real world, thankfully, meeting violence with violence is most often seen as a tragic last resort, but onscreen we aren’t satisfied until the villain has been turned into chopped liver. Watching people solve their problems through democratic action is boooring.

When we watch movies about would-be peacemakers, like Destry Rides Again, we root for them, but we don’t really want them to see them succeed, because watching everybody put down their guns and go home would just be... you know… lame.

So how can you avoid the Great Hypocrisy and yet still have a satisfying ending? Simple: you cheat. You can allow your heroes to make peace with the enemy army if you give that army a really evil, heretofore unrevealed, boss. The most famous example of this was Star Wars. In order to redeem Vader, Lucas cleverly brought in the Emperor late in the game. Otherwise, the trilogy would have had to end on a hug and no fight.

I grew up on the Star Wars trilogy and that pretty much ruined me for other sagas. That became my standard for greatness: morally serious heroes should seek to redeem the villain, not kill him. Thus, I was inevitably disappointed by the endings of “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, “Lost”… any saga that tossed around heady issues but, in the end, came down to “happy ending = kill the villain”
So you can imagine how happy I was about (you guessed it) How to Train Your Dragon. As I watched it, I was thinking, “Gee they’ve been training all this time for a big dragon battle, but now they’ve got us rooting for our hero to make peace with the dragons instead. If that happens, it’ll be admirable, sure, but won’t that feel kinda unsatisfying?” But then, halfway through, we find out that the dragons have a big nasty boss, and I smiled... “They’re going to make peace with every dragon… except that guy.” Is it a cheat? Sure. But it’s a good way to satisfy both our higher moral sensibilities and our need to see a little ass-kicking.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #80: Real Disabilities Aren’t Personality Flaws

This is a tricky one, because it seems to blatantly contradict a previous rule of mine. In that case, I praised Steve Moffat for giving Watson’s mental affliction a temporary physical manifestation in his adaptation of “A Study in Scarlet”. But I should have made it clear then that this trick only works if you’ve make it very clear from the beginning that the problem is psychosomatic. What doesn’t work is when characters clearly have a real medical diagnosis, and then they “rise up” though an attitude adjustment and shirk off their disability. That’s just plain insulting, both to actual disabled people and to your audience.

One of the most noxious examples of this was in Forrest Gump, where it tied into the movie’s overall gooey tone, but it happens all the time onscreen. Even Up, which I loved, lost a lot of my respect right at the very end… If you watch the end credits closely, you’ll see that final photo montage implies that Carl doesn’t need his walker anymore now that he’s got a better attitude. Really?

Writers love to load their heroes down with challenges, and then they love to show how their heroes cleverly overcome those challenges, but you can’t cheat. Don’t give your hero a serious disability unless you’re willing to accept the long-term consequences of that.

How to Train Your Dragon is a great movie about disability (another element not in the book). In the beginning, a young Viking, Hiccup, uses a catapult to shoot down a dragon, then goes to finish him off, but can’t bring himself to do it. The dragon tries to fly away, but can’t, because he lost one of his vital tail fins in the attack, permanently disabling him and stranding him in a valley-bottom that he can’t lift himself out of.

Hiccup can’t stand to see the dragon starve, but rather than simply bring him food for life, or, even worse, tell him that he can fly out of there if he simply believes in himself, Hiccup finds a realistic solution: he invents a prosthetic that will allow the dragon to fly as long as he has a human pilot. The dragon’s slow, grudging acceptance of his disability and newfound dependence on a human is remarkably affecting, because the writers never cheat.

Rather than the “if you can believe it, you can achieve it” mentality of most kids movies, this is a movie about finding strength through acceptance of limitations. At the end of the movie, (SPOILER) Hiccup and the dragon save both of their tribes, but Hiccup loses his own foot in the effort. The prosthetic that replaces it is one specifically made to work in conjunction with the dragon’s prosthetic. Hiccup doesn’t mind too much, because he’s already learned that more can be accomplished through interdependence than independence. That’s a tough but true lesson that most movies don’t dare teach.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #79: Mentors are Overrated

Last week, I tried to do a simple think piece on Harry Potter so that I could ease back into blogging along with my new baby duties. Instead two things happened: a) I got my most readers ever, and b) I turned the pieces into epics in response. As a result, if you look to the calendar to your right, you’ll see that I did no actual writing. This week, I’ll follow up on some of the same ideas as last week, but limit my discussion to one movie so that I can stay sane and productive!
When I chose my top five Hollywood movies of 2010, I hadn’t seen everything from that year yet. Case in point: How To Train Your Dragon got good reviews and a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, but I still assumed it was skip-able. But when I finally saw it: Wow! I would go so far as to say that this may be the best damned fantasy movie of all time!

This is a beautiful, meaningful, inspiring action/fantasy/coming-of-age epic! As soon as I saw it, I thought, “Damn, I could get five Storyteller’s Rulebook entries out of this thing. So this week, that’s just what I’m going to do. (And for those of you sick of children’s fantasy, I promise that next week I’ll return to more adult fare!)

Storyteller’s Rulebook #79: Mentors are Overrated

Last week, I did a lot of griping about Dumbledore. In fact, I love the old guy, and he did more good for that series than harm, but even a very well-written mentor can get a series in trouble. Everything mentors do makes it harder for the audience to bond with a hero: they give the hero knowledge, rather than letting them learn it on their own; they protect the hero from failure, rather than making them learn the hard way; they usually have the ability to do the job better than the hero would, making us wonder why the hero even needs to show up.
All-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful mentors like Dumbledore, Obi Wan and Gandalf are the most problematic. In the scenes between the hero and such a mentor, where is the conflict? Where is the difficulty? Where is the heroic struggle? Once you’ve created such a mentor, you have to instantly look for ways to yank them away from the hero as often as possible.
Flawed mentors are less of a problem: Mr. Miyagi loved Daniel-San deep down, but he was sarcastic, rude and ornery, giving their scenes a lot of bite. Giles grew to love Buffy, but she never wanted to do things his way. Since she alone had the power and he had nothing but knowledge, they were in a constant tug of war as to whose methods would prevail.
But How to Train Your Dragon simply shows that young hero stories don’t necessarily need mentors at all. Nobody tells Hiccup to make peace with the dragons, he just does it. The writers create a situation in which he gets to see a different side of the dragons and so, with much trepidation, he follows his good instincts until he finds himself doing something heroic. No prophecy. No advice. Nobody telling him that he should believe in himself. He just rises to the occasion when the time comes. Doesn’t that sound better?
(Interestingly, this wasn’t true of the book. Every choice they made in this adaptation seemingly made the movie harder to write: they took away the mentor, took away Hiccup’s confidant among his fellow students, and took away the dragons’ ability to talk! Those are the sort of things that play-it-safe screenwriters usually add, since they all gave the hero more opportunities to vocalize his problems. But the best computer animated movies have started to re-embrace the power of silent movies —Wall-E, the beginning of Up, the dragon training sequences here— and each of these challenging choices made this movie stronger than the book.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Meddling With Harry Potter Book 7

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows,” Harry and friends blow off their senior year (didn’t we all?) to hunt horcruxes. The death eaters take over the ministry and Hogwarts, making the fugitives increasingly desperate. Eventually, they realize that Voldemort is on a quest of his own, to get three magical items called the Deathly Hallows. Finally, the two quests converge in a big fight at Hogwarts. Voldemort seemingly kills Harry, who has a ghostly talk with Dumbledore, then resurrects and kills Voldemort. Years later, we see him as an auror married to Ginny.

Some Strengths of the 7th book:

  1. The posthumous revelation of Dumbledore’s many flaws is a masterful touch. A beloved but idealized character is belated granted all of the complexity he deserves.
  2. Rowling suddenly remembered that the villain shouldn’t just be trying to stop the hero’s plan, he must have a desire of his own, so she whipped up a delightful new mythology around the Deathly Hallows. It made the plot of the book dizzyingly complex, but she somehow pulled it all off.
  3. Rowling also pulls off one of her classic “plot meets theme” reversals: One of her major themes for the series is the power of naming and/or refusing to name. Until now, Voldemort’s opponents have drawn moral strength from their unique willingness to say his name, but now that he is in charge, their great strength ironically becomes their great weakness as he curses the word that only they will say.
  4. For the most part, Rowling does a great job rounding up dozens of old characters and locations and giving almost all of them a fitting emotional send-off. The scope is epic and the emotions are intense.
  5. The action scenes are absolutely breathless, which explains why most of the book-reading world was able to devour this brick-sized tome in a day.

Some Weaknesses of the 7th book:

  1. All that endless waiting! Why do they wait all summer to begin? Why do they procrastinate so much like Achilles in their tent? We get multiple passages that say “they spend the next month reading that book for clues,” or “they spent weeks going over their plan…” Why should this process take so long? It’s presumably because Rowling felt that she was tied down to the structure of the previous books, but here it makes no sense and it creates massive character inconsistencies: Hermione never even seems to care that she’s missing school!
  2. They blew off their seventh year—so why are they done with school at the end? No matter how grateful the teachers are, they can’t really give them anything but honorary degrees if they don’t come back and actually do the classwork, right?
  3. There is a massive overreliance on the same few magic tricks, all of which had already been exhausted in previous books. Rowling has gotten too logical in her plotting when she should be inventive. This is fan-like thinking: “Gee, if I were in that world I would use polyjuice potion all the time so that nobody would ever know who I was, and I’d never take my invisibility cloak off, and…” Sure, that makes sense, technically, but it’s Rowling’s job as storyteller to take those tools out of their hands when they’ve lost their novelty for the reader. How hard is it to write “Oh no! Voldemort has now got polyjuice and invisibility cloak sniffing dogs!” After six books of constant invention, she spends too much of this last one coasting on old ideas.
  4. I’m all for keeping kids’ books relatively sexless, as long as you don’t flaunt the sexlessness in our faces. This book has coed pairings of seventeen year old high school drop-outs spending month after month camping in a tent with nothing to do, fearing for their lives. And they never have sex? Nope, that’s not the way the world works. She should have avoided this awkward situation.
  5. I understand that she was going for a “war is hell” vibe and she wanted to get pitch black before the dawn, but the grimness at times becomes ludicrously exaggerated. In addition to all the death, Lupin turns into a crappy husband and father, then he and Tonks both die offstage, orphaning their baby?? That’s just an undignified end for two beloved characters. What a relentless bummer!
  6. But the biggest problem was that, in the end, it really was just all about killing Voldemort. Maybe I was spoiled by the Star Wars trilogy, but I’ve always had a marked preference for stories about heroes who find a more spiritually redeeming goal than revenge. Harry doesn’t even feel bad that it had to end this way!
  7. Even worse, Harry is merely fulfilling the prophecy, which cheapens his achievement. Is that really a fitting reward for Harry? Doesn’t he want something different than to simply become what everybody expected him to become?
  8. In the epilogue, I was also disappointed that Rowling fell for the classic flaw of so much children’s literature: implying that getting the job you wanted as a child and marrying your childhood sweetheart is a good thing. It usually isn’t a good idea to get shackled for life by the limited perspective you had as a teen. I would hope that Harry would learn and grow as a result of his quest, or as a result of his subsequent freedom from responsibility, and form new goals.

My fixes for the 7th book:

  1. Harry and friends reconvene two weeks later (Let’s include the wonderfully sad scene that the movie added of Hermione’s parents forgetting about her.)
  2. They reconvene for the wedding (which happens earlier in the summer) and the plot goes pretty much as it did in the book, just much faster. They try to finish their quest in time to be back by senior year, but they realize that they’re making slow progress…
  3. …When the time comes, Harry and Ron both expect Hermione to go back for school, but she won’t leave them, which gives her a little “how much I’ve changed” moment (though her constant grief at playing playing hooky should provide running comic relief)
  4. Continuing through the events of the book at a doubletime pace, we get to the climax before Christmastime.
  5. Let Harry actually speak to the dying Snape, rather than have Snape clear his name posthumously, as he did in the book (As I’m sure you guessed, in my version of book 6 from yesterday, Snape had already whispered to Sirius that he couldn’t save him, only ease his pain, so when the death eaters arrived Sirius surreptitiously grabbed and drank another poison to save Snape’s cover, which earned Snape’s appreciation, which is why he smiled…)
  6. Harry does not get everything explained to him again by Dumbeldore at the end (death should have consequences!) but that’s okay because he knows what Dumbledore would have said to him anyway.
  7. In the finale, Harry comes to a dawning realization…. He begins to suspect that there are actually eight horcruxes, the last one is one of the objects from Voldemort’s miserable youth at the cabin, which he has around his neck.…
  8. Sure enough, they destroy the seven horcruxes but Voldemort doesn’t die. Harry is about to destroy the last one he’s discovered, when he realizes something pitiful: the last Horcrux was the first part that Voldemort split off from himself, because it was the small part of him that was good. It’s the only part of him that’s left now, so he is left small, wretched and wracked with guilt at what he’s done.
  9. Harry suddenly loses his bloodlust. He tells the small circle of friends within earshot that they should let him live out his days, coping with the guilt of his crimes in Azkaban. Most agree, but Neville (who was always shown to be more traumatized by his own parents’ deaths than Harry was) is horrified by the thought, so he impetuously picks up Gryffindor’s sword and shoves it through the horcrux and Voldemort, killing him permanently. The gathered forces of good, unaware of what was said at the end, see this deed and suddenly remember that the prophecy could have applied to either Harry or Neville. They instantly switch their idolatry and begin a massive celebration of the true chosen one, Neville.
  10. At first Harry is incensed, but then he realizes that this is the greatest reward he could have won: the chance to be a normal wizard for the first time, freed from the burden of history and expectation. He is disappointed in Neville’s act of vengeance, but happily lets him take the credit.
  11. The teachers invalidate the death eater-run semester and agree to give everybody credit for a foreshortened school year crammed into the second semester. One chapter breezily sums up this happy, uneventful semester.
  12. They graduate, Hermione gives the valedictory (taking the place of Dumbledore’s words of wisdom at the end of the other books) and they all go their own ways. Harry tells Ginny that he’s sick of violence and no longer wants to be an auror, so he’s got to go out in the world and decide what he wants to be. She says that he should make sure he really wants to come back to her too, and they agree to re-evaluate their relationship when or if he comes back. They sadly part…
  13. But, in the final chapter, twenty years later, Harry is revealed, after much suspense, to be married to Ginny after all (after years apart) and acceding, after fifteen years as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, to be the new Headmaster of Hogwarts. Ron and Hermione, who work for the now insufferable Neville at the ministry, attend the ceremony.

(Okay, okay, I couldn’t let the ‘shippers down, but at least let them make the final decision as adults, not kids! Those who get married at eighteen regret it!)

So thats it! This was supposed to be a quick storytelling exercise, but it quickly descended into epic vainglorious fan fiction. Its a testament to how real and wonderful these stories are to me that I’m still running them over in my head all these years later, greedily trying to take this wonderful story away from Rowling so that I can make it my own.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Meddling With Harry Potter Book 6

(Note: I went back and cheated and made some changes to my last scene for book 5, a luxury that I will admit that Rowling herself didn’t have...)

In “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” Harry spends his sixth year at Hogwarts leading the Quidditch team, kissing Ron’s sister Ginny, and watching Voldemort’s history up in Dumbledore’s office. Little does he suspect that his nemesis Draco is figuring out a way to get Death Eaters into Hogwarts. Dumbledore finally reveals to Harry that Voldemort has split his soul into seven “horcruxes” and they make an unsuccessful attempt to find one and destroy one. They return and land right in Draco’s trap. Snape seemingly turns evil, kills Dumbledore and leaves with the death eaters.

Some strengths of the 6th book:

  1. The romantic antics that dominate the story are frothy and fun. Ron’s ill-advised fling with Lavender Brown is hilarious
  2. Voldemort’s backstory is touchingly rendered.
  3. The introduction of the horcruxes is both good and bad. On the good side, it’s a nice way to raise the stakes and give Harry a strong goal for the seventh book.
  4. The journey to the lake full of zombies is scary and thrilling...
  5. ...So is the final fight in the castle. Getting death eaters to attack inside the school was a great escalation.
  6. There a nice subtle theme here of cheating— Harry uses Snape’s old textbook to cheat at potions, then cleverly boosts Ron’s Quidditch confidence by convincing him that he’s cheating when he’s not.. Voldemort and Slughorn are both cheaters, in very different ways. Even Dumbledore has been cheating, which gets hinted here and confirmed in the next book.

Some weaknesses of the 6th book

  1. Harry is even more passive than he was in the fourth book! There, he didn’t try hard enough to solve the mystery, but here there’s basically no mystery to solve (other than “who’s chemistry book was this?” and “what’s Draco up to?”, but neither are big enough for a whole book). After the urgency of the last two books, we’re suddenly sleepwalking through a whole year.
  2. Harry spends that year waiting calmly for occasional invites up to Dumbledore’s office to watch a the next pre-packaged episode of his favorite TV show: “The Life and Potential Death of Voldemort.” Couldn’t all of that have been covered in one day? Why dribble it out all year? Better yet, why can’t Harry uncover this stuff on his own?? And if these memories can live outside of Dumbledore’s head, why do we need Dumbledore there to show them to Harry?
  3. Harry transformed into such an active leader in the last book, so it was a shame to watch him regress back to simply being a follower: playing Quidditch, worrying about classes, totally relying on Dumbledore for safety and information. All of the stuff Dumbledore does behind the scenes in this book (figuring how to stop Voledemort) is what Harry should be doing.
  4. I must confess that I never understand why Hermione would only have eyes for Ron the bumbler instead of Harry the dashing hero. I could have bought it, but I needed at least one “I understand you better than Harry does” moment from Ron. For that matter, Harry would benefit from an “I’m the one who really understands you” moment from Ginny, too. A convincing love scene can’t be about “I like your looks” or “I like your status”. The subtext must be: “We surprise each other by understanding each other.”
  5. The problem with the the horcruxes is that they turn the whole story into “How can we kill Voldemort?” Is that really what this is all about? Is this just a “kill him before he kills us” story? What about learning, growth, redemption, souls, good vs evil?
  6. I suppose I can forgive Rowling one cliffhanger ending, and it was certainly a shocker, but a good unhappy ending is just a happy ending that’s been snatched away at the last second, not an abrupt end to a shapeless story. And it was too obvious that something was up between Dumbledore and Snape. There was too much well-established trust between these characters, so few readers doubted that Snape had a good reason for his shocking action.

My version (this is rather convoluted because I wanted to keep the same ending, but without Dumbledore, which is hard.)

  1. Voldemort seems to be recuperating somewhere from his near-death, according to Harry’s psychic glimpses. The big question: we’ve basically killed this guys twice, so how does he survive? Meanwhile, the ministry is finally on board and the full scale warfare is breaking out everywhere.
  2. We pick up in midsummer with the reading of Dumbledore’s will. The ministry is there to seize anything that can help their search for Voldemort, no matter who Dumbledore gives it to. The will is read: To the ministry, Dumbledore offers definitive proof of Sirius Black’s innocence. To Hogwarts, he only leaves a request that they fulfill his final staffing wishes: promote Snape to Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor and hire Horace Slughorn back to teach potions. To Harry all he leaves is a farewell message and his pensieve, but none of the memories-in-bottles that go into it, all of which he seems to have emptied. The ministry lets Harry have the pensieve, which seems worthless.
  3. Harry still hasn’t cried over Dumbledore. He explains that he knows Dumbledore’s portrait will appear soon in the headmaster’s office and he’s looking forward to consulting it, but they point out that Dumbledore was not headmaster when he died (Umbridge was), so no portrait will appear. Harry is still certain that Dumbledore will re-appear in some way...
  4. Harry is very happy to see Sirius take over decisive leadership of the now-legal Order of the Phoenix. …But he is unhappy with all of the other news. Though Harry knows that Dumbledore trusted Snape, Harry never will. Meanwhile, the new potions teacher plays favorites, and the pensieve means nothing to Harry.
  5. With Hermione and Ron’s help, Harry realizes Dumbledore’s will had hidden riddles in it. As the friends solve them, they discover various pensieve memories hidden throughout the school—this was Dumbledore’s way of secretly passing on to Harry his unfinished investigation into the history of Voldemort, without it falling into the hands of the ministry. Herminone notices that, in the flashbacks, Voldemort occasionally mentions something called horcruxes.
  6. At one point, they are led to a memory by why appears to be a new ghost, and Harry hopes it is Dumbledore, but it is just an illusion he left behind…
  7. Now, in addition to searching for more hidden memories, they decide that they must discover what horcruxes are. They realize that this is the mystery Dumbledore was chasing, and that’s why he wanted Slughorn re-hired, so they press Slughorn for what he knows.
  8. Sirius, meanwhile, leads the Order on daring raids of pockets of Voldemort supporters. They arrest the Malfoys (though Draco remains free and furious), trying to squeeze everyone for news about where Voldemort is recovering, and why he keeps surviving.
  9. Sirius is about to use his new info on another raid and Harry wants to skip school and join them, but Sirius tells him that Dumbledore obviously wanted him to stay at Hogwarts solve the horcrux mystery that he never could.
  10. On the day of the planned raid, Harry and his friends finally trap Slughorn into revealing what Horcruxes are—a kind of immortality that comes from investing parts of your soul in different objects. They realize therefore that Voldemort is not dying but reviving. Harry gets a flash of a revived Voldemort waiting to ambush Sirius.
  11. The kids rush there to save Sirius and the Order, aborting their mission by blowing their cover just before ambush can be sprung.
  12. Sirius is furious with Harry, but Harry brandishes his evidence to prove that Voldemort can only be killed by destroying the Horcruxes. Sirius, humbled, agrees to help Harry seek out the horcrux in the cave in order to test out Harry’s theory.
  13. Harry and Sirius go to the zombie-filled lake and find the locket, but get caught by one of the booby traps set by Voldemort. In order to save Harry, Sirius must drink the deadly water.
  14. Harry rushes Sirius back to Hogwarts hoping Slughorn has a potion that can save Sirius, but Sirius rasps that they should go to Snape instead, and Harry reluctantly agrees that Snape is actually better with potions than Slughorn.
  15. They arrive at Hogwarts to find that Draco has smuggled Death Eaters into the school and there is a pitched battle going on in the halls.
  16. Harry and Sirius make their way through the battle to Snape’s room, which still houses his personal apothecary. Snape listens to Sirius, who rasps whispers into his ear to tell him what happened. Snape gives him something. Just then the Death Eaters burst in. They find Snape helping Sirius and accuse him of being a traitor. Snape acts indignant as they move in for the kill… then Sirius turns black and demanding to know what Snape gave him, holding up the empty bottle he just drank. As Sirius dies (to Harry’s horror), the death eaters snatch the bottle away and roar with approval when they realize that Snape gave Sirius something to kill him rather than save him. Snape slowly smiles...
  17. Just then Voldemort himself enters to kill Harry. Harry figures out how to destroy the horcrux locket, which is real, and Voldemort collapses in pain. The Death Eaters panic and leave. Snape goes with them.
  18. Cleaning up the wreckage of the battle at Howarts, Harry finds one hidden memory vial he missed before. He puts in his pensieve. Dumbledore tells that if he is seeing this, then Voldemort has killed him. He left the school not because Umbridge kicked him out but because he knew his research was about to be seized by the Ministry, so he had to hide it around the school for Harry to find, then run away to distract the Ministry from it. He says that Harry is now the only one who can defeat Voldemort—not because of any prophecy but because he’s shown more courage than any wizard Dumbledore has ever met. The others leave Harry alone, but Ginny won’t and tells Harry he needs to finally cry. Harry finally breaks down and weeps for Dumbledore (and realizes that he really loves Ginny).
  19. After Sirius’s funeral, Harry announces that, having proved his horcrux theory, he is not staying with the Dursleys, but will instead spend the summer hunting horcruxes. Ron and Hermione agree to help him. They agree to go find ways to protect their loved ones and reconvene at Ron’s in two weeks.

(I didn’t have room to work in a “Hermione realizes that only Ron understands her” moment. I’m sure there would be a place for that somewhere.”)