Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pitchforks Down, or Don't Sack Me Because We're Friends

Everything we need to know about getting along in life, we can learn from eight-year-old boys.

Last week, I waited outside the classroom in the unseasonably pleasant sunshine, waiting, waiting, parents bustling by, kids rambling to tired caregivers about the day and what the popsicle sticks and macaroni mean in their Dadaist masterpieces haphazardly glued onto faded, years-old construction paper. Breeze: light. Birds: chirping. Air: sweet.

And then my youngest child, the curly-haired lad, emerges from his classroom, eyes swollen and red, freckles blazing against cheeks tearstained and blotchy. Uh-oh.

On the subsequent walk home, I get the story: Kendon and his buddy, who we'll call Huck (because I just realized I should read Huck Finn to the kids this summer), well, they had a little scrap that started something like this. I shall paraphrase:

First, I smacked his tummy. But not hard. We were just waiting in line, and I smacked him like this. [Kendon pats my belly to show me how "gentle" he was.] Then he got mad and he sacked me. In the testicles. Like this. [Demonstrates on himself, only not really.] Then I smacked him back on the belly because it hurt my penis when he hit me, and then he punched me, like, five times in the gut and in the wiener. I got really mad and pushed him back, but the teacher saw us and pulled us aside.

My sweet boy got into his first schoolyard scuffle. In the middle of drama class (talk about timing!). And he handled it like a gentleman. By the sounds of it, both he and Huck showed that they're good men-in-training, through and through, despite the physical violence. Upon questioning their teacher the following day, she relates a conversation -- heard secondhand from the drama teacher present at the time of the smackdown -- that went something like this (I shall take creative license in the hope of maintaining your attention):

Teacher: Boys, what happened here?
Kendon: We got into a fight.
Teacher: Who hit first?
Kendon: I did. [Kendon starts crying.]
Teacher: Are you both okay?
Kendon / Huck: Yes. / Mm-hmm. / My penis hurts. / We're okay.
Teacher: [More uninteresting questions. Kendon cries harder.]

(Here comes the best part:)

Huck: Excuse me, but you're making my friend sad. Could you stop asking him questions because I don't like it when my friends are sad.

Even though these two little buggers were knocking the shit out of each other's parts, they stopped long enough to be sensitive to the fact that under it all, they're still friends.

If only the grown-ups would remember that just because you sack someone in the testes, it doesn't mean you can't share your Jell-O cup five minutes later. Because who doesn't like Jell-O????

Stop bitching at each other. Stop fighting. None of this matters in the bigger picture. THIS MEANS YOU. Yeah! I said it! You don't matter! None of us really do, unless we're curing cancer or digging wells for dying villages or figuring out a way to stop the sea levels from wiping out our cities. You do realize in the cosmic stuff that is us, our human lives account for an invisible fraction of the world's story?

Be authentic.
Don't be a douche.
Behave yourself.
Stop pointing fingers.
Put your pitchfork away. Pitchforks are best used for stabbing hay (and zombies), so if you don't have a farm (or zombies), you don't need the pitchfork.

Or just watch this:

(If this video won't play, it's at YouTube here and Vimeo here.)

As these eight-year-old boys have demonstrated so aptly, we don't sweat the petty stuff, we pet the sweaty stuff.

Xs and Os, my lovelies ...

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Emma Coats and Her Pixar Story Laws

Emma Coats is a former story artist at Pixar. Yes, that Pixar who brings us fantastically written, universally relatable stories like Up, Toy Story 1, 2, and 3, WALL-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, et cetera. Awesome stories. Great characters. Total Kleenex soakers (as in tears, guys. MINDS OUT OF GUTTER).

WALL-E. At its core, it is a love story. And my favorite ever.

In 2011 Coats tweeted a series of basics that every story needs to appeal to its audience.  (This has made its rounds, but I feel it's appropriate to bring it back into circulation.) The foundation of a film is, of course, its screenplay, a collection of words far sparser than what is found in a novel but packed with a punch just as powerful. The vehicle may be different, but the goal is the same: compel the reader/viewer to read/view the next scene and on and on until the credits roll/last page is turned. Engage them. Suck them in like you have tenterhooks embedded in their eyeballs. Never let go. Take them to the end and then drop them in a pillow of awesome they will never forget. Make them want a cigarette after watching/reading your story. Breathless, pacing the room to try to understand the greatness he/she has just witnessed.

Here's a head start. Thanks to Emma Coats for sharing her brain cells with the Interwebz. (The Lego images included are by Alex Eylar of ICanLegoThat.)


#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard; get yours working up front.

Image by Alex Eylar

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

Image by Alex Eylar

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie [book] you dislike. How do you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters. Can’t just write "cool." What would make YOU act that way?

What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.


Use these as a checklist when you're writing. When you think you're done with a story, go through these questions one at a time and ask yourself -- answering honestly and candidly -- if your story hits these beats. Ask the tough questions. Stop sending half-baked work into the world and then whining about your rejection rate on Twitter. YES, I can say this because I am one of those people. After 23 rejections, I rewrote the whole book. And then I rewrote it again. And again. Finally, I think our relationship is solid enough that we can start tasting wedding cakes, but only because we did the work. An assload of work. It ain't enough to shit 'n shine, folks. 

Best of luck. Remember, make 'em feel something. Go to it.

Find Emma: 

Xs and Os, my lovelies ...