Monthly Archives: December 2013

Mary Poppins 1, Ronin Samauri 0 (in storytelling)

Every once in a while a contrast in styles and approach provides productive food for thought, and this happened to me after going to see the films Saving Mr. Banks and 47 Ronin. I’ve written before how I believe films, and screenwriting in particular, can be helpful in understanding effective storytelling. The contrast in these two films shows why.  

I had low expectations for Saving Mr. Banks, a Disney movie centered on Walt Disney’s wooing of P.L. Travers, the author of the popular Mary Poppins childrens’ books. I thought the movie would be enjoyable but hardly something to wax enthusiastic about. I had somewhat higher expectations for 47 Ronin, a movie I thought would be packed with action. 
But Saving Mr. Banks clearly outperformed 47 Ronin, both at the box office as well as in the art of storytelling. Banks was certainly aided by a top level cast, including Tom Hanks providing a competent performance as entertainment mogul Walt Disney and an Oscar-worthy turn by Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. 
A good movie, however, requires more than good acting to be successful. It also needs a good story. Banks shows how two strong personalities clashed over something they both found valuable–Disney bringing a popular children’s story to the screen in an innovative style and Travers protecting the integrity of her characters and story.  Banks is a character-driven story, and each plot point pushes them to different points along their character arc. Attention is given to the psychological journeys of several characters, not just the leads. Even the driver shepherding Travers around Southern California for Disney has a clearly defined arc brought out through his interactions with the an arrogant, self-centered author. 
The moviemakers also pay attention to visual details to link key ideas and themes. Details such as the metaphorical role of pears and a stuffed Mickey Mouse are carefully linked together throughout the movie to remind viewers of the the changes the characters experience and how their reactions are triggered by important, personal experiences. And each character reaches their own breaking point at different times, giving the plot a pace that keeps viewers engaged in what could easily have turned out to be a boring character sketch. (The film’s modest $35 million budget suggests the producers thought this might be the case.) 
The result? Banks is a tight, well designed story that engages viewers through careful attention to interpersonal conflict as each of the major characters winds his or her way to a new place of understanding, trust, and self awareness. Each person is at a different point at the end of the movie than when they started. 
47 Ronin, in contrast, is flat. And lumbering. I found just one well defined character arc–the lead samaurai, Oishi, who must overcome his own prejudices against an outcast to defeat a treacherous Japanese warlord. This is unfortunate because the tale of the 47 Ronin is well known in Japanese history, even considered by some the best example of the samaurai code of honor put into practice. 
Ronin are rogue samaurai. In Feudal Japan, samaurai were honor and duty bound to serve their Lord. If their Lord fell into disrepute, or samaurai were disavowed by their Lord, they became outcasts. Or rogue. The 47 Ronin is the tale of how samaurai sought revenge against the treachery of another Lord to restore honor to their own.
47 Ronin had a lot of promise as story–plenty of conflict through betrayal, treachery, revenge-based code of honor, and a hierarchical society that punished individualism. The screenwriters added a character, Kai, a half-breed raised by Tengu (roughly translated as mountain goblins), probably to provide a connection to American viewers. And the screenwriters added fantastical elements, including a witch and giants. Unfortunately, none of these elements were well developed, nor were they used to create real tension between characters. As a result, the story falls flat. 
The “fixes” are not that hard to find. Kai, the half-Japanese outcast, is a central figure and could have been used easily to bridge the gap between fantasy (Tengu/witches) the real world feudal Japan. The backstory could also explain the unwillingness of Oishi and his fellow samaurai to accept Kai despite his fighting skills and prowess. Instead, the Lord’s samaurai are forced to tolerate Kai (and his pining for the Lord’s daughter, Mika) because he was found near death as a boy. The Lord showed compassion. (A very western value at this point in Japan’s history.)
But these tensions are never really developed. In fact, they are stated, not shown, largely through narration. Kai’s character arc never really takes off, staying flat for the entire movie. He starts the film in love with Mika, accepting his place in the hierarchical feudal society of the Samaurai, and ends at the same spot. 
This has the compounding effect of making the romance between Kai and Mika flat and unbelievable. A good story will see love blossom as the lovers face personal challenges and overcome them. Yet, in 47 Ronin, viewers are expected to just accept Kai and Mika’s mutual affection without any real interpersonal interaction or events that establish mutual respect. 
The film is surprisingly sparse with its action scenes, too. This should have worked to make the movie stronger. Instead, the dialogue and action often hide important shifts in theme and plot, such as when the ronin shift from traditional samaurai fighting techniques to more stealthy, shadowy ninja tactics and strategies. Most viewers won’t pick up on this unless they are familiar with martial arts or Japanese military history.
Thus, 47 Ronin has a linear plot that fails to engage viewers because it doesn’t engage the characters. Ronin is a plot driven story, but viewers connect with human emotions not plot points.
These two films, Saving Mr. Banks and 47 Ronin, are examples of contrasts. Banks is a tight story that uses interpersonal conflict to move characters are along well defined arcs, engaging viewers. Ronin is a plot driven story that seems to leave its characters behind. In Banks, viewers are treated to a well crafted story. In Ronin, viewers are looking for one.
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The Craftsmanship of “Counting Backwards”

Laura Lascarso‘s debut novel, Counting Backwards, is the kind of book that reminds you that lots of writing talent is sitting off in the wings, waiting to be discovered. Lascarso’s prose is suitably succinct for a young adult novel, the dialogue is real, and the plot unfolds smoothly and seamlessly as Lascarso guides Taylor, the lead character, toward an emotional climax that is all but predictable. While some teens might not like the way her story ends, the reflective ones will be provoked, and parents will likely nod their heads at the truth of Taylor’s journey.

Taylor is an admirably complex character, estranged from her father, who simply doesn’t know how to communicate with his headstrong daughter. Her mother is a drug addict and alcoholic, spending days on binges and leaving her daughter to pick up the pieces. And Taylor picks them up, putting the puzzle back to together all too many times. Taylor is naturally frustrated with her mother’s irresponsibility, and her emotional confusion of love with dependence inevitably leads to acting out and the adoption of  false sense of emotional strength. 
Her final act is stealing a car, landing her in Sunny Meadows, a detention facility for chronic juvenile offenders that will ensure Taylor gets the psychiatric help she needs. Thus, she’s thrown in with a bunch of “crazies,” many of whom aren’t really that crazy. Indeed, the entire world in which Taylor is thrown is eminently rational, even if misunderstood by the adults. Actually, their world is not so much misunderstood, as a practical recognition that adults have limited influence over the choices these teens make. The facility, its rules, regulations, and staff, are mainly there to contain the worst behavior, hoping the kids under their nominal control will eventually mature to the point they will become open to the help the adults can provide (or at least recognize adapting to the adult world’s structure is crucial to their survival).
Lascarso’s book does an excellent job of integrating plot, setting, and character to develop a quick, smooth read. The setting of a psychiatric juvenile prison creates just the right tension between the ordered world adults expect their children to live within and the chaotic, dynamic emotional roller coaster world teenagers in fact navigate. Taylor’s drive to escape–both physically and emotionally–provides the energy that keeps the story moving, believably setting up plot point after plot point. Her journey from rebellious hope to emotional despair to a newly gained sense of mature, if tentative hope is believable and all too real for many teenage girls. Taylor’s relationships with friends, allies, and enemies are well developed, and the shifting nature of teenage allegiances gives Lascarso the whole clothe she needs to give major and minor characters complexity and their own arcs. But it’s the combination of all three–setting, plot, and character–that give Taylor’s story its breadth, layers and satisfaction for readers.
All-in-all, Laura Lascarso weaves a smoothly written, well drawn portrait of a young woman sorting through her own identity with a cast of characters that will keep readers engaged and turning pages well past dinner or their own time for lights out. This debut novel is a great entrance for a talented writer in the young adult genre.
For additional thoughts on how Lascarso effectively portrays bullying and violence, see my analysis over at blog.defensivewarrior.com. 
A review by young adult author M.R. Street for the Tallahassee Democrat can be found here.
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Mapping ninjas into the classroom

Imagine a series of middle-grade novels that allow parents and teachers to explore the following questions in their classrooms:
  • How does violence effect human behavior and psychology?
  • How do stories reflect how people behave through fear, shame, power, strength?
  • What is the nature of courage and leadership, and how does this bystander culture limit it
  • How does bullying, intimidation and oppression, by individuals and in groups, effect human
  • How doe adults relate to children, and how is this different from peer relationships, whether child to child, or adult to adult?
  • How do young teens deal with the challenges, threats and violence they face on a daily or regular basis?
Well imagination is no longer necessary! These themes and more are developed through the stories and characters of A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade.¬†¬†Honestly, I didn’t realize how thorough these themes were, and how well they mapped over to newly established Common Core literary standards, until I went through the exercise myself.
While I had written the books thinking about classroom use, I was quite gratified to see how well they fit the needs of classroom teachers.The results are available for free download at my website, www.srstaley.com, or by clicking here.
These maps are for 7th grade common core literary standards. I am working on 5th, 6th and 8th grade maps as well.
Stay tuned!
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Treating Guns Realistically in Children’s Literature

While volunteering for the Tallahassee Writers Association at Downtown Marketplace, an older woman picked up a copy of my book A Warrior’s Soul. My quick summary emphasizes that the story is about school violence and self defense. 

“Does it have guns?” she asked. 
I hesitated–it’s the first time someone had asked that question–but answered “yes.” She immediately put the book down and walked on. 
I was disappointed in her reaction, and it had nothing to do with the lost sale. Like most authors, I write stories that I believe are authentic. A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade are contemporary stories dealing with school violence. The deal realistically with the current problem and the brutal nature of bullying and violence. How can I not have a story that also involves guns?
The real issue should be how are guns treated in the story, and what purpose they serve to the plot. To avoid a role for guns, or other weapons, in a story of violence detracts from the power and realism of the story. Indeed, my experience with teenage readers is that they connect to the stories because they are real, not sanitized parent preferred versions of their world.
The gun serves as a powerful plot driver in A Warrior’s Soul, but it is never glorified. The story direct addresses the mystical allure of guns as a way to even the odds against more powerful enemies. And this is true. Guns are the Great Equalizers. It’s one reason why more and more women buy guns for self-defense.
But guns in the hands of an untrained and inexperienced user–Luke, Lucy, Chuck, Dirk, and the other kids in A Warrior’s Soul–represent a toxic and potentially lethal mix. The plot doesn’t shy away from the potentially tragic consequences of their use in the wrong hands. 
While some, apparently like the woman at Downtown Marketplace, may believe that we should purge contemporary stories for children and young adults of guns, I believe we need plots and characters that see them realistically. Guns are ubiquitous in our society–in film, in our homes, and on the nightly news. Denying this social reality puts our children at greater risk, not less. 
Guns are tools–adult tools–whether they are used for hunting, sport, or self defense. Our children need to understand their power and the circumstances in which they are used appropriately and inappropriately. In A Warrior’s Soul, their use is inappropriate, and the consequences of their use are potentially devastating because of poor decisions made by different characters. This, in fact, is one of the lessons from their story (and a subject of the discussion questions listed at the end of the book). 
Guns are not evil. They are not good. They are tools that can be used appropriately or inappropriately, depending on the circumstances, motives, training, and judgement of their human owners.
Shouldn’t we have more stories like this? Perhaps our children would have a healthier respect for guns as well as each other if they did.
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Southern Yellow Pine Publishing Lists Books by SR Staley

Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, a publisher specializing in southern topics and authors, is now selling the following titles by SR Staley:

Check out all the titles and their growing stable of authors here.
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