Category Archives: writing and storytelling

Anna‘s stylish action elevates its story

Anna is the newest action movie by French auteur director Luc Besson and my full review is now live at The Beacon. The creator of Leon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita, among others, has helped him build a reputation for deeper storytelling while also paying attention to style and the craft of film making. This approach is clear in Anna, where Besson makes the risky move of casting real-world Russian super model Sasha Luss in the title role. It works.

Besson doesn’t pull back on the action sequences nor the femininity of the emotionally traumatized titular character. The fight choreography is impressive because of its physicality as well as its calibration to the physique and mental state of the lead character. Anna never transforms into a buff, physically trained fighter. This is critical for the plot and the character.

Film critics have not been kind to Anna in their reviews, but audiences clearly enjoy it — as I did. I find it odd that the critics’ major hit against Anna appears to be that Besson doesn’t seem to add anything new to the genre. But some of these critics haven’t found similar faults with franchise films in such series as Mission Impossible, Jason Bourne, or John Wick. Besson’s character. The story in Anna is more nuanced than these other films. The layers were clear to me in the way Besson builds the arc of the character, the time jumping through the story, and the nuanced choreography of the martial arts sequences. (Sure, the fights are excessive. But that’s a staple of Western action films.)

My full review is now live at The Beacon, the blog of the Independent Institute.

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Captain Marvel‘s fast pace stumbles on storytelling

Captain Marvel has emerged as the first true blockbuster of 2019, bursting out of the gate by earning $153 million during its first weekend. Audiences love the movie even though my own review was a bit more tepid.

While Captain Marvel is a very good action film, like several other critics, I thought the story didn’t hold together very well. Some reviewers believed a large part of the blame (from a film quality perspective) was in miscasting Brie Larson in the title role. I actually have a different take. I think the problem with the movie was in the story structure, which complicated the role of the actor and movie editing.

What I mean by story “structure” is the way the story unfolds, both in terms of plot and character development. While I won’t go into this in a lot of detail, movies have very rigid “rules” for developing screenplays and telling stories. Unlike novels, which can take their own course, screenplays have to fit into a highly structure two hour visual storytelling frame. The classic screenplay outline encompasses three acts. The first act gives us background of the character and the “normal” world where they are not faced with conflicts. This includes the inciting incident, that point that propels the character on their journey. The second act has the lead character(s) fumbling about until they realize they need to do something different (or die, often times literally). They will experiment with different strategies and tactics, but they are grounded in their “normal world” even though they are no longer living and acting the normal world. All this builds to a clamactic scene where the lead character overcomes their primary obstacle (or villain). The third act wraps everything up. The actual markers delineating the first, second, and third acts are not formulaic; They change with the character, plot, environment, and action.

Over the first and second acts, we (readers/audience) get to know the characters. We understand their world, their basic coping strategies, and the kinds of challenges that face on regular basis. We usually bond with the protagonist and identify the villain (or who we think is or will be the villain), so we have some sense of how the story will play out. This grounds us (the reader or viewer) in the personality and challenges we expect the character to face. (For more on this, see the classic books on screenwriting by Syd Field and Robert McKee, as well as Michael Tabb’s useful recent addition.)

Most stories are also paths on the so-called “hero’s journey.” They are on a quest for some higher purpose, and to achieve that objective they will face an almost insurmountable obstacle. The obstacle is “almost” insurmountable because if our protagonist doesn’t overcome it the ending is a downer. Most people like to see the protagonist win, even if they have deep flaws.

Which brings me to Captain Marvel….

We (the audience) are introduced to her through dreams, where we think she is human, but later realize she a member of the Kree civilization name Vers (pronounced Veers). Outside the dream, she is spunky, hot headed, and strong willed. In the dream, she has experienced a trauma and is confused and dazed. Which is the real Veers? Is it a dream? Or a memory? I don’t know, and without really understanding her starting point, I was confused. Moreover, we find out that the dreams themselves are connected to some vague Supreme Intelligence. So, they might be memories. Eventually, these two conflicting views of Vers are brought together, and its logical and makes sense. In the beginning, however, I (and surely other viewers) had to dismiss “one” of the Veers because her approach to situations was so diametrically opposed to each other. In the process, I was taken out of the story, and ended up focusing on the action, not the character. As a novelist who writes character driven action adventures, I was disappointed and unsatisfied.

From a artistic point of view, I think these dueling perceptions of the motivations and behavior of Vers unmoored her character in the story, making it difficult for readers and viewers to connect to her. Brie Larson clearly had a vision for her character, and how she would play it. The vision makes sense given the arc of the overall story. But as a viewer (reader if it’s a book), I couldn’t relate to her. I didn’t understand Vers’ motivations. Without understanding her motivations, I was unable to determine what her true challenge was, let alone evaluate the gravity of the obstacles she would face.

These confusions may have been the intent of the screenwriters and directors–there were multiple in both roles–a storytelling trick to keep us hooked. If this is the case, based on the criticisms of the film and Brie Larson’s performance coming from many different quarters of the critic community, I think they were too clever by half.

Personally, I saw a lot to like in Larson’s performance. If I had been more invested in her character and understand better how to interpret her behavior as she embarks, as most superheros do, on their journey toward self-discovery, I would have been all in from the beginning.

For the record, I really like the Captain Marvel character and think it’s long overdue for a female lead character to headline a Marvel movie. I am looking forward to seeing Brie Larson reprise her role in future films.

For those interested in movies with strong female characters, here are links to my reviews of Wonder Woman, a movie that I think gets everything just about right,

More of my writing on storytelling from this blog can be found here.


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The story behind the cover of Calusa Spirits

The cover for Calusa Spirits is great, and I think thing it’s the best one in the Pirate of Panther Bay series. But what is the story behind the cover of Calusa Spirits?

A picture really does paint a thousand works, and Babski Creative really helped pull major themes together as well as capture the mood and tone for Calusa Spirits, the third book in a six-part series from SYP Publishing.

Let’s break it down.

First, you really get the sense that Isabella and Juan Carlos (on the cover) are searching. They are treading into completely new territory, emotionally and physically in Calusa Spirits. In the image, Isabella retains her trademark focus, ready for battle. Juan Carlos is behind her, but he is not passive. He’s searching too. I think readers will really get the sense they are a true couple, partners. In fact, while their journeys are rocky and full of traps–some really exciting escapes are necessary in this installment just to survive–an important sub-theme is how they come together as a couple, more than romantic partners. The last scene in fact has a pretty dramatic twist that hinges on which direction their relationship goes. We see this unfold in the story, but the cover art really conveys elements of this, too. Continue reading

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I’m back! Florida Writers Conference 2018

I have once again been invited back to join the faculty of the Florida Writers Conference !

This year’s conference (the 17th annual conference) will be at the Hilton Orlando/Altamonte Springs, October 18-21, 2018. The theme is “Where does our muse live?” Other speakers will include former prosecutor and crime novelist Linda Fairstein as the National Guest of Honor; Florida Writer of the Year Heather Graham, (author of 200 novels and novellas!); and Peter Meinke will be heralded as Florida’s Poet Laureate. Continue reading

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War memorials use immersive design to create visceral stories

The Entrance to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A few unexpected extra hours in Washington, D.C. recently allowed me to visit the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The experience left me with a powerful insight into how immersive physical design can create a visceral human connection to their subject.

All three memorials are incredible displays of physical art. They evoke solemn meditations about the conflicts and the sacrifices our citizens have made over the last seventy years. The World War II Memorial, in particular, was amazing in its ability to communicate the breadth of the conflict and America’s engagement. Its design makes it impossible to capture the entire memorial in one setting, surely an intentional design feature. Visitors are overwhelmed physically with a sense of scope of the conflict. Continue reading

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What sailing ships tell us about storytelling

As a kid, I was fascinated by sailboats and sailing ships. I loved reading adventure novels such as C.S. Forester‘s classic Horatio Hornblower series. I also enjoyed building models. So, one birthday (or Christmas), my parents gave me a model sailing ship. The model was never built. I could never muster the enthusiasm to spend the hours working on the rigging, sails, masts, etc. to complete it. In retrospect, my reaction may have been my first practical lesson in visual storytelling.

One of the first lessons novelists (and screenwriters) learn is that conflict drives story. Conflict forces characters to act; they are forced to resolve the conflict by making a decision. A story where characters do not have to make choices isn’t very engaging. Readers (and audiences) invest in characters based on the choices they make and how they react to these choices. The various pivot points in those decisions determine the plot.

So, how does this apply to my model sailing ship? Continue reading

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Review: Tomb Raider fails to live up to Vikendar’s strong performance

The 2018 reboot of the Tomb Raider film franchise is a serviceable action film with an occasional flash of Indiana Jones inspired adventure, but falls short of the tight, well paced sequencing that made the Spielberg predecessors classics. This is unfortunate because Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, Jason Bourne) turns in a worthy performance as a rising action hero in the role of Lara Croft. The movie is a reboot of the 2001 and 2003 films that launched Angelina Jolie into the A-list of bankable movie stars.

In this version, the twenty something Croft is making her way in the rough edges of central London as a bicycle courier and training, unsuccessfully, in a kickboxing gym. Several years earlier, her archaeologist and businessman father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic WestJohn Carter, Money Monster, The Square) disappeared on a quest to find the tomb of Himiko, the mythical Japanese Queen of Yamatai, who possessed dark powers to kill. When Lara is coaxed back to executive suite of Croft Holdings to sign legal papers declaring him dead, she discovers a message in a hidden research room of their family mansion instructing her to destroy his work in order to keep it out of the hands of the shadowy organization Trinity. Instead, Lara uses her father’s research to launch her search for him. Continue reading

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Molly’s Game and the subjective interpretation of movies

Everyone once in a while, I am reminded of how subjective our interpretations of movies can be. I recently reviewed Molly’s Game, a biopic of “Hollywood Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (see also here). I really enjoyed the movie. I thought Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay was snappy and engaging, Jessica Chastain well cast in the title  role, and the directing was inspired.

My interpretation, however, is not universal. A friend saw the movie separately, but on the same weekend, and said:

“The movie was superficial for a mob movie with an angle from the parental psychologist character [Kevin Costner playing Larry Bloom, Molly’s father]. Molly’s Game lacked the cerebral subduction and emotional entrapment of mob interfacing movies like the Godfather, Sopranos, or Casino. Especially disappointing when so much of the subject matter revolved around world-class poker. The Molly’s Game script and movie’s execution went for low-hanging emotional fruit found in label dropping visuals, IQ scores, and quick successional facts and statistics about the institution of poker. The high point for me was when the author plugged poker as skill-based as opposed to roulette. I felt the author was disingenuous as well as the “moral” of the story… good guys finish 1st… or slick stories sell movie tickets. “

Continue reading

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Review: Wonder Woman is a smart, well executed action film

My movie review of Wonder Woman is live at the Independent Institute. I really liked the film, and, as I mention in another blog post, I think this might be a break through film for women directors. The film is smart, well executed, and superbly directed by Patty Jenkins.

Perhaps one of the elements I appreciate the most is the multidimensional development of the main character, Diana Prince (Wonder Woman). She doesn’t lose her gender identity as she embraces the superhero role and heroic commitment to saving the human race. Diana Prince is not a character that essentially acts and looks like a man. Kudos to screenwriter Allan Heinberg for scripting a great character and giving her a worthy arc. Jenkins has also done an excellent job blending an international cast and using the story to play off their differences. Their differences become humorous interactions that deepen relationships and understanding.

In my longer review, I write:

Wonder Women contains an excellent story in a well-executed film that grapples with the conflicts between idealism and practicality, innocence and experience, gullibility and wisdom. Jenkins has crafted a film that infuses substance into a smart story. She uses well-crafted storytelling elements, such as defined and complex character arcs, to allow the anti-war social conscience that underlies the film to shine and provide a compelling context for the film.

This is great summer film—a lot of fun with great action sequences and excellent character development.

The complete review can be found herehttp://bit.ly/IIwonderwoman

An article about five not-so-obvious things to love about Wonder Woman can be found herehttp://bit.ly/5notsoWW

Stay tuned to this blog because the film is prompting me to think about several other articles on plot development and character development using Wonder Woman as a starting point for the riff.

 

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Five ways the Pirates of the Caribbean films misrepresent real pirates

I recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and had to once again take a deep breath. The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, I reminded myself, is intended for entertainment, not historical accuracy (my review of the film is here). As a social scientist and writer of historical fiction (The Pirate of Panther BayTortuga Bay), I have to step back and remind myself that I take liberties when writing my books, too. Nevertheless, the films play loose with pirate history, and those misrepresentations should be acknowledged.

Nevertheless, these deviations from historical fact should be intentional and deliberate, not a result of carelessness or lack of interest. So, I have put together a list of five historical inaccuracies promoted or used in Dead Men Tell No Tales that may serve the plot but probably make historians cringe. This is not to say that the director, screenwriters, or producers were reckless, negligent, or didn’t care. Rather, this short list just provides a little real world correction to impressions that may have been left by the movies themselves based on what we “know” historically about Caribbean piracy.

  1. The ships are too big. Most pirate vessels were small, often one-masted schooners, because they needed to be nimble, fast, and navigate shallow waters. Larger vessels with multiple gun decks were slower and harder to maneuver. They were also easier to run aground. They were best used for blockades or large fleet battles. Hence, these larger ships were called “ships of the line” because they would be arrayed in lines, bow to stern, to engage the enemy. That’s the way fleets did battle up until the 20th century. Pirates were usually solo actors, like Jack Sparrow. A few, such as Blackbeard, were able to command multiple ships. But even Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was a frigate without the multilevel gun decks depicted in the films. Frigates were among the larger warships designed for speed, agility, and firepower.
  2. The ships are too fast. Numerous scenes show larger ships of the line overtaking similar sized ships. While some of this can be chalked up to the fantasy elements of the film, in reality ships would pursue each other for days because the differences in speed were only 1 or 2 knots among similar sized vessels. The ships in the films are large, multi-deck warships that would be lucky if they could muster 10 or 12 knots under full sail. Schooners, brigs, and frigates were smaller vessels with relatively more sail area, and were designed for speed. A frigate, for example, could achieve speeds as high as 17 knots. (This is one reason why Isabella commands a brig in The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay.)
  3. Jack Sparrow is a sad excuse for a pirate captain. Pirate historians would be scratching their heads wondering why his crew continues to sail with him. He is an ineffective, bumbling criminal. He can’t even rob a bank effectively. Historically, pirates raided and plundered towns routinely. In fact, the fort in St. Augustine, Florida was constructed as a direct response to pirate raids on the town. Captains had to be effective leaders to earn the respect of their crews. In the films, Jack Sparrows crew follows him through friendship, loyalty, and pity.  
  4. Pirate captains were respectful of their crews. While pirate captains routinely used fear, intimidation, and violence against their targets, they had little scope to use the same tactics against their crew. The tyranny Barbossa uses against his crew would not have been tolerated, although the riches may have given him more latitude than usual. Pirates were ruthlessly rational and tactical, using violence to achieve specific ends. A democratically agreed upon set of Articles served as a binding constitution that provided transparent ways to distribute the booty in shares. Economist Peter Leeson has an excellent, accessible book on this called The Invisible Hook. (Or listen to the podcast with Peter at Under the Crossbones here.) Pirate crews were volunteers, and they elected their captains. A pirate captain in the Caribbean would not exact tribute from his crew without risking immediate defection. The crew could always elect another captain.
  5. The British Navy’s anti-piracy campaign was professional.  In the movies, the British colonial administrators are driven by deeply held beliefs in legend and superstition. In reality, the British successfully purged pirates from the Caribbean was eminently practical—they wanted to protect the shipping lanes for commerce. The British were remarkably successful, bringing the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” to an end by 1730s. They achieved this through concentrated force, the ruthless pursuit of pirates, and a liberal willingness to hang anyone caught in the act of piracy. Pirates (as well as sailors generally) were very superstitious. So, this focus on legend and mysticism fits well within pirate lore and even beliefs among common sailors. However, in terms of colonial policy and strategy, the British Navy took a highly professional approach to ending piracy in the Caribbean.

Tortuga Bay, 2016 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist

Writing historical fiction puts authors in a dilemma—often history, or what we “know” to be historical, is at odds with a good story.  This appears to be the case in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies where battles between big ships seems to carry more dramatic effect. Authors of historical fiction have to make these trade-offs as well. For example, we have no historical records that a woman commanded a pirate ship in the  Caribbean, but Isabella does in the Pirate of Panther Bay series. Nevertheless, a woman in a leadership position, an escaped slave nonetheless, creates dramatic tension that moves the story. I have tried to nest the story in the real historical context of the times (and appear to have done this based on reviews).

I wonder if a more nuanced approach to storytelling in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies might have allowed a bit more historical accuracy without sacrificing dramatic effect. I have found smaller vessels provide more opportunities for dramatic tension and conflict that larger ships. This is why I found the original escape and pursuit of Jack Sparrow somewhat more satisfying n the Curse of the Black Pearl—at least the ships in the movie were closer to the right scale. But it’s also why Isabella continues to captain a smaller ship in the book series.

For more great history and all things pirate, check out Under the Crossbones, a podcast hosted by Phil Johnson. Phil interviews me in Episode 20 here, and he’s up to 92 episodes.

More details on the Pirate of Panther Bay series, including classroom guides and information on the literary awards the books have earned, can be found here.

The Pirate of Panther Bay is available at amazon.com here.

Tortuga Bay is available from amazon.com here.

 

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