Writing, Reading, Watching

I stumbled into this idea by accident, but nonetheless I think it’s been helpful to me as a writer.

For most Americans, the primary way we access and process stories is through movies and TV shows. I know that’s stating the obvious, but walk with me for a moment.

For most writers, the thing we’re writing is a novel. Again, I’m stating the obvious, but novels are very different than screenplays, scripts, or (especially), finished tv shows.

We’ll start with the most obvious difference: length. Even a relatively short novel is usually twice the length of a movie’s screenplay (110-120 pages, according to the “Save the Cat Beat Sheet), and four times as long as a one-hour drama’s script (50-60 pages, according to MovieOutline.com). Now, granted, prose often takes more space to get the same amount of action in than a script does, but the actual amount of story is radically different.

But let’s look at some more subtle differences. First, for a TV show, you have an episodic structure, with short individual stories, one long story broken up into one-hour blocks (a long story that would itself be MUCH longer than a novel, even for a 12-episode short series), or a Burn Notice-style combination of the two, wherein a few major episodes form a major arc, and are referenced or mentioned within the bulk of the (otherwise self-contained) episode in the season. This is obviously a very different story structure than even a series of novels.

Secondly, the nature of the presentation is different. TV and movies are very visual media, and visual things are very impressive in that media (stunts, sets, etc.). However, prose descriptions of impressive visual things usually aren’t that impressive. They’re out of sync with the nature of prose, which engages less forcefully, but can pull the reader deeply in through engaging all five senses as well as through the prose style itself.

I’ve had to stop watching much TV in order to make time to write. It wasn’t a choice I made to improve my writing style, but a choice I made to allow myself the time I needed to write consistently. I still shoehorn in some documentaries and YouTube videos (more of the latter than I should), but watching actual TV shows has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

And I’ve become a better writer for it. I was too distracted by the neat things I’d seen in visual media to think about how they don’t apply to writing novels. And, this has shifted the balance of how I mostly get my stories. Now, I mostly get my stories through reading novels, and so my brain thinks more in prose. It’s been a real improvement.

I think the key isn’t so much that watching TV and movies inherently distracts from writing prose, but rather, that having my primary method of absorbing story be audiovisual distracted from writing prose. I still watch movies, and I still watch TV with my daughter (I’m particularly fond of Sarah and Duck, My Little Pony, and The Deep), but the proportions have shifted, and that’s made a real difference.

Leap! An Unhyped but Delightful Film in Theaters Now

There was little hype for Leap!, a French film redubbed in English, but it’s definitely worth seeing with your kids.

We just took my 4 year old to it, and we all enjoyed it. It’s not terribly original, but it’s got charm and heart to spare.

Visually, Leap’s nothing short of beautiful, and you really believe Paris is a city where anything can happen.

What Superhero Team Would you Want to Be On?

Forget the Avengers or the X-Men. I want to be on Team Umizoomi.  

They live in a bright, friendly city solving kids’ problems and teaching kids about math. 

And their powers are actually useful for something besides beating people up (and reinforcing the destructive myth of redemptive violence).

And if you couldn’t tell from the video clips, my being half tone deaf wouldn’t even exclude me from the musical numbers. 

Seriously, it beats dealing with Frank Miller and those thugs from Arkham Asylum.😎

On the other hand …

A Day for Net Neutrality

75% of Americans favor Net Neutrality, which prevents internet service providers from censoring, throttling, or putting up content-specific paywalls (fees) over content they don’t like. 

For example, Comcast can’t forbid it’s internet customers from using Netflix, can’t charge extra to access Netflix, and can’t throttle Netflix down to such slow speeds that it becomes unusable.  Why would Comcast want to do that?  Sho more  people would pay for Comcast cable service,  which is several times as expensive as Netflix.

Verizon and AT&T are also forbidden from doing this, as are smaller ISPs.

The commercial aspects are bad enough, but do we also want to give corporations the right to censor what we see online? 

The proposed changes could even endanger internet access for rural Americans, as explained here.

So if 75% of Americans support Net Neutrality, why is the new FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, working so hard to destroy it?  

Because the big telecommunications companies all want Net Neutrality gone. I’m not advising Pai of corruption, but he does have a very corporate mindset. Those are the interests her seems to care about, the “public” he serves. 

Hey, remember Citizens United: corporations are people, too.

Studio what can we do? We still have a little time to register comments with the FCC. Youcan do that here:

Also, call your congress people and let them kmow you dupport Net Neutrality. They can put pressure where it needs to go.

One perfect example of a passable movie, and one movie that … isn’t

We watched Alice Through the Looking Glass this past weekend, while we were both recovering from annoying but non-threatening illnesses.  It was a textbook example of a passable movie. 

It took no chances. It took what worked from the first one and added a forgettable time travel plot whose stakes suddenly rise to “the fate of all Wonderland and all in it” with the resution literally coming down to the last second. 

Spoiler Alert: Alice succeeds. The entirety of Wonderland is not destroyed. A shocker, really! I mean,  you could cut the tension with a spoon. 

I mean,  how could such an all-star cast put together such a mediocre movie? 

I mean,  without George Lucas?

Okay,  so on to the other movie I watched while resting,  the one that was anything but passable:  Blancaneives.

This movie – a silent, black and white film made in 2011 – is striking just by is choice of medium.  It’s choice to tell the Snow White tale via 1920’s Spanish bullfighting sets it apart even further. 

The performances are all excellent, especially Macarena Garcia, who is luminous as Blancanieves/Carmen.

Spoiler Alert:

Seriously, look away! Close this tab.

I hated the ending.  It felt like a gut punch, like the entire story had been poisoned. 

There were no supernatural elements in this story,  so when Carmen was poisoned, she just went into a “locked in” state.  

The guy who owned her bullfighting contract put her on display (in a coma)  and charged people 10 cents to kiss her and see if they could wake her.

At the end,  one of the dwarfs, the one who had a crush on her,  kissed her,  and a year rolled down her cheek. 

Now,  maybe that was supposed to mean she was waking up,  but if so,  they should have shown it.  From what’s on screen,  all I could see was that she was being held captive and sexually assaulted for money, and that she was fully aware of it.

Oh, hell no. This is like an “original” version of Beauty and the Beast where gain killed the beast, raped Belle,  and forced her to marry him.

Just, no.

Seriously, no. I’d have gone asking with you killing her, but this is just sadistic and even a little misogynist.

So, anyway, great movie, but turn it off before the final scene. Ick.

Kishotenketsu, Story Structure, and the Nonviolent Imagination 

What is Kishotenketsu? It’s a four-act story structure characterized by a twist in the middle. 

As you can guess by the name, it’s Asian, originating in Chinese poetry and developing in many forms of Japanese poetry and storytelling.  It’s the story structure Studio Ghibli often uses in its films. 

But why should we care? Because unlike western story structures, Kishotenketsu is not rooted in conflict, and doesn’t rely on conflict to maintain interest. 

That isn’t to say that it excludes conflict, but that it doesn’t require it like the typical western storytelling. 

I’m not alone in my belief that we in the western world are primed (through a “mean world” viewpoint) to support war and nationalism by the stories we hear  from early childhood on. 

Western storytelling’s three-act structure is pure conflict: 1) introduce conflict 2) escalate conflict, 3) resolve conflict. And when conflict is resolved, at least somebody is going to lose, to suffer some kind of harm, be it physical or emotional or social.

Traditional three-act storytelling comes down to winners and losers, and I think we can do better. 

Kishotenketsu is a tool to help me do better, as a writer, yes, but also as a person in general. My nonviolent imagination needs nourishing,  just like everyone else’s. 

Kishotenketsu helps me imagine story structures that aren’t just boring navel gazing,  stories where things happen, even action things, but where the very heart of the story isn’t a struggle or conflict.

It’s also helps me imagine win-win situations, situations where conflict can be averted by reconciliation of opposites.

And it’s helped me learn to write short stories, which is something that completely escaped my understanding before 2017.

I think that’s enough for now: I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.

Why Are Post-Apocalyptic Settings So Compelling? 

The Walking Dead, Mad Max, The Road, Fallout, The Book of Eli, ___ of the Dead, Gamma World: why are post-apocalyptic settings so popular and so compelling?

I think it’s because they give us a simple and focused problem to hold on to. There are two types of fear of death, the neurotic and the basic. For most of us who have the time to watch tv or play games in an apocalyptic settings our lives are swaddled in complexities

– regulations, economics – that largely insulate us from the basic fear of death, that fear of literally  dying that is endemic to every wild animal and every person who lives in the wilderness or Journeys too far from civilization, and that we all face at the end of our lives.

Most of the time we deal with a neurotic fear of death the fear of not mattering, the fear of not leaving a legacy of not being important, of not being loved, of not being good enough. You could argue that this is actually a fairly biologically driven fear as well, since a big part of survival is passing on your genes, at least at the most animal level. And only the “superior specimens” have the best chances of passing on their genes the most times in the animal kingdom.

To quote the Bloodhound Gang, “you and me baby ain’t nothin but mammals.”

We’re all swaddled up in this relatively safe bubble filled with self-doubt and bitching and just a general feeling that we’re wading through shallow water or mud or molasses. We just don’t have that freedom that people used to have.

In the apocalyptic genre, it’s basically you can do whatever you can get away with. There’s no police, no law, no civilization: you just have to survive.

You can get away with whatever you can physically get away with.

It’s good to root for people who try to maintain some sort of goodness in the sight of this lawlessness.

This is why people loved the Western genre for so long before it fell out of favor, because you had the strong individual standing up for something good in the lawless land.

I will leave the obvious low-hanging fruit of westerns’ horrible representation of Native Americans and other social issues for later because I have no desire to shoot fish in a barrel.

The post-apocalyptic setting usually gives us a chance to inhabit a character who’s trying to be a good guy or reluctantly becoming a good guy in the face of lawlessness, while also experiencing that basic fear of death vicariously.

And the best part about it is we don’t have to experience the deprivation and hard work that come along with it. We don’t even have to watch our favorite heroes experience that. 

I mean sure The Walking Dead‘s characters scavenge for food, but Abraham would not really be able to keep that glorious ginger high top fade of his during an actual struggle to survive.

But we can watch, enjoy, be shocked and scared and catharsis-ed  six ways from Sunday (at 9 pm, 8 central), without having to ensure trench foot or sepsis,  and without smelling as bad as the zombies. 

And, just because I can, and must:


The Brilliance of Moana’s “Shiny”


In one scene, Disney accomplishes so much:

  1. A fun and catchy song

  2. A memorable (if minor) villain

  3. A great action sequence with brilliant visuals

  4. A great reminder/introduction to just how vast the supernatural world is: Tamatoa is bigger than any house Moana has seen,  and he lives in a giant clamshell

  5. Tamatoa’s expression of terror when Maui takes hold of his hook for the first time shows just how powerful and feared Maui was back in the day. It proves that “You’re Welcome” wasn’t just puffery and showing off.

  6. Setup for an ongoing difficulty/twist: Maui’s inability to use his hook’s powers like he used to, and his sense that without his hook, he’s nothing.

  7. The sense that Maui isn’t the only one who thinks he’s nothing without his hook: Tamatoa agrees.

  8. Demonstration of Moana’s fear when faced with the supernatural world, then her courage to recover, and her resourcefulness to trick Tamatoa

  9. Revelation the Maui was abandoned at some point, feels alone, and does great deeds for humans mostly to feel wanted and accepted

  10. Moana saves Maui, which elevates her to his level, and puts them on more equal footing.

All in less than four minutes.

As they say on Firefly, “Shiny.”


Wanna see something else shiny?