All at Sea in a Winter Storm

In 2016, Walt Disney Pictures released the film The Finest Hours, about the 1952 Coast Guard rescue of sailors trapped on a broken and sinking ship. The rescue took place in the middle of a winter storm, at night. The Coast Guard officer that undertook the rescue, Bernie Webber, had to rely on his own sense of the sea, because equipment failed in the face of the storm.

The story is chock full of wonderful motif possibilities in terms of landscape and weather. Most people tend to focus on the characters when it comes to mythic patterns in storytelling. They don’t realize how much the mythic patterns that are connected to the physical world can help underpin a story. The Finest Hours gives us plenty to play with.

The broken ship in The Finest Hours

The Chaos of the Sea

For starters, the sea is traditionally a realm of chaos. Its power is outside the control of human beings, and so it is regarded with fear. It’s a dangerous environment – as the crew of the SS Pendleton discover. In the midst of a winter storm (another chaotic pattern), the ship is broken in half. 32 members of the crew are stuck in the stern of the ship, which they manage to keep afloat for a while. But they have to call for rescue.

Winter at the lighthouseAn additional environmental motif that builds on the story tension is that of winter. The season of winter represents a time of danger and fear, even the possibility of death and endings. It is the darkest time of the year, so we regard the season as one of loss. The expectation of the imagery gives the audience a heightened tension, especially when combined with the storm that shuts down shipping.

Land as the Realm of Order and Stability

Lights from land in The Finest Hours

In contrast to the chaos of the sea, land usually represents order and stability. Yet, in this story, that aspect of the land is undercut, again by the storm. The noreaster takes out the power of the town, forcing the inhabitants to find a make-shift means of lighting the way for the return of the rescue vessel. This is achieved by organizing the local vehicles to turn on their headlights along the waterfront, a solution that proves successful.

The Man at Home with the Sea

The key element in the story is the character of Bernie, however. He is presented as a man who is more comfortable and secure when he is out on the water than when he is on land. On land, he finds himself a bit uncertain when he falls in love with Miriam. Even though everyone around him can see him falling in love and they take it in stride, he still has his uncertainties.

Bernie and Miriam in The Finest HoursBut when Bernie is out on the water, he is filled with certainty. We see early in the film that he knows the waters of the area very well indeed. When it comes time for the rescue, everyone around him is sure that this rescue is impossible: the storm of itself makes things difficult, having to go out at night makes things difficult, the need to cross a difficult region of breakers just outside the harbor is a challenge no one else wants to face, and the radar has been disrupted by the storm so finding the remains of the Pendleton will be extremely difficult.

Bernie in command at seaBut Bernie is certain he can do it. He guides the rescue vessel out of the harbor and across the breakers more on his own instincts that any reliance on equipment (the tools of land). He persists in trusting his instincts and emotions on the turbulence of the sea, and so does indeed find his way to the stern of the Pendleton. Returning to the harbor with an overloaded vessel continues the challenges, and yet Bernie’s belief in himself brings them through the breakers again and safely to the docks.

The mythic patterns in this film show how a storyteller can take advantage of them. The chaos of the sea, combined with that of a storm, provides a powerful antagonist for the characters. And yet, when the key character is attuned to that chaos, rather than the order of land, he can still achieve a victory, in this case bringing people back to the safety of the land that is not his own element (but it is theirs).

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The Power of Joy

When the film Guardians of the Galaxy opened during the summer of 2014, it rocketed up the box office returns as the “feel good” movie of the season. A light-hearted story, in the sense that it lifts one’s spirits and feelings, the film generated fast and positive word-of-mouth.

Groot As Supporting Character

scribblerworks-dancing-groot-1One element that contributed to this good feeling is the character of the alien Groot. Groot is, apparently, a sentient and mobile tree, and who only says “I am Groot” in various ways. At first, he just seems to be a quirkly, colorful background element to the story. But as the story builds to its climax, Groot becomes more and more important to the success of the quest of the principal characters. At a climactic moment, he sprouts branches to create a protective nest for his companions to shelter them from a terrible explosion. It blows him to shreds, but saves the others.

And then a twig is found, that has a budding face of Groot, which when planted proceeds to grow, promising the return of the appealing character.

 

43 Seconds of Joy

scribblerworks-dancing-groot-2After the filmmakers wrapped up the basic plotlines of the film, they added a little scene that shows the small Groot planted in a pot on a counter, while Drax cleans and sharpens a knife nearby. The music of the Jackson 5 kicks in, and “Baby Groot” (as fans quickly dubbed the sprout) starts dancing to it. He freezes at one moment when Drax looks around, but once Drax turns back to his personal chore, Groot joyfully gives in to the music.

The marketing folks at Marvel Studios (or parent company Disney) were savvy enough to recognize that these 43 seconds would be very popular. They beat the pirates to the punch and uploaded the clip of Dancing Groot to YouTube as soon as the movie opened. It promptly went viral online.

 

Why a Successful Quest Is Not Enough

scribblerworks-dancing-groot-3Would the film has been as successful without those 43 seconds? Probably, as it was filled with humor, intelligence, and the upholding of admirable virtues. These are all things that actually have a strong appeal to people. In spite of so much dark, cynical entertainment that does well in the marketplace, the audience does respond strongly to up-beat, positive, admirable material. So, when our heroes succeed in defeating the Bad Guy and “saving the world,” we are pleased and satisfied. And many stories would end with that and do well enough.

The added moment, those delightful 43 seconds, provides the final chord of the emotional composition of the story. We need that brief moment that provides emotional punctuation to the overall nature of the story.

Recovery Through Joy

scribblerworks-dancing-groot-4We want this pause that makes us rejoice in life. It fills out our satisfaction with the successful quest. Instead of ending with a plain “Yay! We did it!” the filmmakers give us a celebration of the character of Groot and simple enjoyment of the aftermath of success. Watching the sprouting Groot engage with the music carries the audience forward. We have watched Groot go from ominous and mysterious protector to Rocket Raccoon, to surprising helper, fierce warrior, and finally sacrificial savior of his companions. That progression is powerful enough on its own. To find that he is not totally lost, and indeed has gained this joyful expressiveness, gives the audience a sense of recovery.

Recovery, restoration, and resurrection – these have considerable emotional power for the audience. Many people feel that they have lost key things in their lives, so recovery is an uplifting story element. Having something they have come to value restored to them, in some fashion or other ends a story on a very positive, satisfying note.

When winding down your story, consider this aspect of the ending. Everything has been wound up. The quest has been successful. Take a moment to celebrate, to be joyful about the achievement in some fashion.

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Disengaged Hero, Disengaged Audience

I’ll start by saying I’m not familiar with the source material, or the earlier drafts of the film scripts. You could say I’m disengaged from earlier versions. I’m just working from what was achieved in the theatrical film.

World War Z had crucial elements that should have shaped the film for success. So what went wrong with it? Appealing star, apocalyptic disaster, plenty of action – all elements that should have hooked the audience and kept them hooked.

The Galahad Grail Quest

First off, let’s consider the basic nature of the quest story. This particular story fits the pattern for a Galahad Grail Quest.

Grail Quests are specialized types of quests that involve the relation between the question hero and the community around him. The elements of the Galahad Quest are these:

  1. The hero is on a quest of fulfillment of the self.
  2. The hero is destined to succeed.
  3. The hero heals the king before he completes the quest.
  4. The land is healed.
  5. The hero achieves the goal of the quest.

In a Galahad Quest, the hero often enters a situation he is not personally connected to, usually because he has a personal quest of his own. The king need not be an actual person; the figure is simply the key identifier of whatever ails “the land” of the story.

Does Gerry Have a Personal Quest?

scribblerworks-worldwarz-familyThis is where World War Z starts out well and then goes off the rails. During the first portion of the film, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) focuses on keeping his family safe from the fast-spreading zombie plague. The opening sequence shows Gerry’s special qualities: keen observation and deduction, and superior adaptive survivor skills. It sets Gerry up well for the primary quest of the film: finding the way to stop the zombie plague.

scribblerworks-worldwarz-gerry-observingThe major story problem begins when Gerry is sent on the quest to find the origins, nature, and answer to this zombie plague. First off, he is sent. He is selected as the best investigator available, the one most likely to succeed in this quest to save the human race. Certainly, the stakes are compelling: save the world. But emotionally, Gerry’s drive is to save his family.

And that emotional compulsion leads to the second problem in the story. When he begins the quest, his family is safe. That is why he agrees to go at all. Oh, the storytellers put in a touch of hazard: as long as Gerry makes progress in the quest, his family may stay aboard the command ship at sea. But if he gives up or fails, because they are “non-essential personnel” they would be transferred to a remote refugee camp – with the implication that the camps might be over-run eventually. This option is presented as ruthless necessity – they are “non-essential.” But looked at from the outside, any un-infected humans would in fact be absolutely essential for the survival of the human race, no matter what their skill set was.

So, the emotional stake for Gerry came across as a dud. He’ll do it because he is noble and all that. In short, he will do it because, hey, he’s the hero of this story. (He is destined to succeed.)

The Progress of Gerry’s Quest

Off he goes on the quest. First stop: Korea. He learns about the first instances, and that the zombies are attracted to noise. What he learns there sends him to Israel, hopefully to consult a well-known doctor there. In Israel, he finds they have built a huge, secure compound that, to that point, has kept the zombies out.

scribblerworks-worldwarz-wall-climbBut does he tell the Israeli doctor that the zombies are attracted to noise? No, he does not. At this point, the story starts losing the audience. If Gerry is to save the world, why not tell these people the first important survival tip he has learned: keep quiet. He doesn’t warn anyone – until the refugees in the compound start singing and dancing – making noise. The zombies swarm over the wall. As the zombies swarm, Gerry and the doctor realize that the zombies ignore anyone diseased and dying. They speculate that a major infectious disease would help save the humans. The Israeli doctor tells Gerry his best bet is to find the right virus and antidote is an isolated lab in Wales.

scribblerworks-worldwarz-gerry-and-segenOff Gerry goes again, rescuing Israeli soldier Segen along the way – because he has deduced that the bite of the zombies infects the blood stream. Segen gets bitten on the hand, and Gerry immediately cuts off her lower arm, hoping he has stopped the spread in her system. He counts off the seconds and yes, it has worked.

The remainder of the action involves getting to the lab, getting to the vault with the viruses and antiviruses, and getting these out to the rest of the humans, thus stopping the virus.

And of course, Gerry succeeds.

So why did the movie feel so flat?

The Disengaged Problems with World War Z

The problems in the storytelling are two-fold.

First, the external problem as set up is nearly insurmountable. Although it takes a red blood cell 20 seconds to circle the whole body, the story shows us that in a mere 12 seconds after being bitten the victim dies. The zombie plague successfully infects too fast for most story options. There is almost no doubt that a bite means death. Gerry’s hack job is the only demonstrated evasion of that and it comes late in the story. The speed of the plague mechanism removes the suspense of will-they-or-won’t-they become victims. And Segen’s rescue is played as absolute when she doesn’t die after the 12-count.

The second major problem is the emotional connection of the audience with Gerry – or rather, the lack of it. He’s an observer, primarily, and that makes the character distanced from the audience from the start. It isn’t that Observer characters are completely unappealing, they are not. Famous and popular Observer characters would be Sherlock Holmes or Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. But both of those characters are mediated by a more emotive character that the audience connects to. Gerry, however, is basically all alone. His family is left behind early, and Segen, other than being a fellow survivor, has no emotional connection to him. So there is no emotional mediator for the audience, no one who can reflect Gerry’s internal emotions and challenges.

scribblerworks-worldwarz-gerry-and-zombieFor the audience, Gerry Lane (no matter how well played by Brad Pitt) is about as emotionally engaging as the zombies he is trying to stop. There’s plenty of action and spectacle to the story, but considering the global threat, the emotional ride is rather flat.

What Could Have Been Done?

Assuming the premise of the zombie plague and its solution remained the same – in the first act, when the family is escaping, have one of the Lane’s daughters get bitten and they have to leave her (she’s now dead and a zombie). This puts a high emotional charge between Gerry and his wife. When Gerry is sent on the quest, his wife goes with him, as his working partner (easy enough to give her a backstory and expertise that matches his). In Israel, instead of rescuing Segen, who has no emotional connection to Gerry, have it be Gerry’s wife that must be saved by lopping off part of her arm. These changes would have engaged the audience far more, for in addition to the qlobal question of stopping the zombies, there would be the emotional question of whether the relationship between Gerry and his wife would survive.

An engaging story has to intensely make the audience not want to be a zombie. To do that, the main character they are following has to be much more than an emotionally disengaged zombie.

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Noah And Messing With Mythologies

March 2014 saw the release of director Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, to much controversy and discussion. For many Christian members of the audience, the fact that a story from the Bible was being presented by an avowed atheist did not bode well.

Let us consider again the term “myth.” Many people use that word in a derogatory fashion, to mean made-up stories about non-existent supernatural entities, stories that do not deserve credulity or belief. They might be engaging as stories, but not as anything of genuine value. This outlook presupposes no supernatural entities, and also dismisses much of the power of meaning in storytelling. But myth is always about meaning. The point about a mythic story is not usually whether or not it is also historical fact, but rather what it means. For Christians, they hold that the stories of their myth are also historical fact. So, when someone plays fast and loose with a Biblical story, they have problems with that.

But it’s just a movie. Will it really make that much of a difference to the “real myth”? Probably not. So let’s step back and just consider the film story as a story in itself. In fact, let’s first look at a couple of other instances where a filmmaker made changes to a myth.

In 2004, director Wolfgang Petersen released Troy, a version of the story of Achilles and the Trojan War, adapted from Homer’s The Iliad. We can assume that there are not many alive in the present who are invested in the reality of the gods of Olympus. In Homer’s story, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes, can make or break the war of the Greeks against Troy.

troy-pitt

Petersen’s film stays pretty close to the nature of Homer’s tale. It respects the source materials and its point about the cost of heroism. However, the director presents the story without any overtones of the supernatural. Which makes for an interesting choice regarding Achilles himself, mainly because he is the son of a goddess.

Troy-Thetis

Thetis is a sea goddess. In the mythic story, it was predicted that her son would be greater than his father. So, even though Zeus was enamored of her, he feared the prophecy and married her off to a mortal. Achilles was the child of that union.

Petersen’s film skims over this divine heritage. Although we first see Thetis wading in water, collecting shells, nothing is done to indicate that she is anything more than a mortal woman. And it is in a conversation with his mother that Achilles hears the declaration of his future as hero: he can refuse to go to war, live a long life with love and family, die and be forgotten or he can take part in this war, fight gloriously, and die soon, but his name would last forever. He chooses the latter.

Troy-Thetis-Achilles

Petersen dismisses the supernatural element of the story of Troy. But he leaves the piety of the characters intact and respected. Achilles’ attack on the temple of Apollo appalls his men. In the script, Achilles is given a single line that implies personal knowledge of the true natures of the gods. That is as close as the film gets to referencing any possible supernatural elements.

Petersen keeps his vision of the story focused on heroism and its nature, on the price of glory. Although he stays true to the meaning of the original myth, he has stripped it of the supernatural, without warping the piety of the characters.

Another film that makes changes to an established myth is 2007’s Beowulf. In a script written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, the filmmakers present a version of the story that runs counter to its source material.

Beowulf-1

I have to admit to being personally invested in the source material. I did my Masters thesis on the poem. I feel very strongly about what the story is about: the portrayal of the ideal hero.

However, the filmmakers chose to take a different approach to the material. In their hands, Beowulf is not quite the hero the source material makes him out to be. He lies. Additionally, King Hrothgar is a drunken fool, not a wise but indecisive lord.

Beowulf-and-Hrothgar

Even more, Grendel is presented as a pathetic monstrosity, and his mother a magical seductress instead of a homicidal slayer.

She's a shape-changer and naked - but she needs fetish heels?

She’s a shape-changer and naked – but she needs fetish heels?

Now, although I may disagree with the film as a faithful adaptation of a story I love, and although I’m not keen on stories where heroes turn out to be anything but heroic, I will admit that these storytellers stayed consistent with the story version they were telling. They kept their world-building true to itself.  World-building means the elements that make up the setting and context of a story: the beliefs of the characters, the issues that matter to them, the rules they live by and the rules that are the declared values of the story. The film Beowulf does that. I didn’t particularly care for the choices, but the filmmakers played fair with their choices.

Noah-water

So what of Aronofsky’s Noah?

Part of the problem with Noah is that it does not clearly define the rules of the world of the story. Instead, it coasts on the audience expectation of a traditional definition of what this mythology presents. He shows us Eden and the temptation of Adam and Eve.

Except….

We are shown Paradise at a distance. We are not engaged in its nature by being brought close in to experience it. Secondly, the Edenic pair are luminous beings with indistinct features. How are we to identify with them?

Then the snake comes along, shedding its skin before approaching Eve. We see the Adam figure bend down to pick up the snakeskin. Why? We’re never told. And that is a problem in the storytelling, because that snakeskin becomes an important Maguffin later. It apparently becomes a magical talisman of the “righteous” line of Seth, used in a blessing ritual. Why? We’re not told.

It looks like a cross between a pomegranate and a red bell pepper - and it pulses like a beating heart. Why would anyone touch it let alone pick it and eat it?

It looks like a cross between a pomegranate and a red bell pepper – and it pulses like a beating heart. Why would anyone touch it let alone pick it and eat it?

The audience, who have not been clued in on the meaning this talisman is supposed to have to the characters, is left to make their own interpretation of what they are seeing – and they are likely to go with the traditional story. In that version, the snake and the temptation of Adam and Eve are evil events, leading the pair to be cast out of Eden. So why is the skin of the Tempter a precious talisman? We are not told. And because we are not told this crucial bit of information, we are kept a crucial distance from our main character. Why should we care that the talisman is stolen from Noah’s family?

noah-2

Early in the story we see Noah confront men who have been pursuing an animal to kill and eat it. He stands up to them, beating them. One of them asks the man who is about to kill him (Noah) what he wants. Noah says “Justice.” The problem with this is that these men have no apparent connection to the men that killed Noah’s father, so killing them has no connection with gaining justice for the murder of his father. Instead, we are to assume that Noah wants justice for the animal that was killed.

This is the key to Aronofsky’s story. Human life is not what is of value: it is the animals and plants that are of primary value.

Okay, fine. If that is how the world of the story works. But again, that distant visual we were given of Eden is not enough to engage us emotionally in the devastation of nature. We are promptly plunged into desolate landscapes, where there is little vegetation, and it has to be carefully protected. We see Noah scolding one of his young sons for plucking a flower because it was beautiful.

Noah-4

But here’s where the world-building of the film fails. If animal life is so precious, why do Noah and his family have leather footgear? And if vegetation is so scarce, what feeds the animals enough to produce coats for shearing to make the yarns that are so finely woven and knitted for their wardrobes? Where are those sheep?

Check out that weaving - and that's just his over-coat! How many sheep did it take to make that?

Check out that weaving – and that’s just his over-coat! How many sheep did it take to make that?

The filmmakers fail to convince the audience because they haven’t worked out these key logical points. The only animal we see clearly and might emotionally invest in was the one killed early in the story. Unfortunately, it looks like a cross between a whippet dog and a pangolin. We don’t know what it is, so other than its pathetic wound, we’re disconnected from it. That and the little meadow flower are all that are used to engage us in the stakes the movie says are important: that plants and animals are more important than other human beings. Unfortunately, they are too slight for the burden, so the script requires that Noah say this time after time after time. It thus breaks one of the earliest rules every screenwriter is given: show, don’t tell.

So, what have these failures in the basic storytelling to do with the changes in the mythology? It’s possible that with a bigger visual imagination, Aronofsky could have convinced the audience (for the duration of the film at least) that plants and animals are more valuable than humans. But instead, for the crucial plot point of saving the animals, Aronofsky shows us that the story’s god sends Noah a magical seed that sprouts instantly into a growing forest. This lush forest, however, gets no protection from Noah, but instead, a chunk of it is cut down to build the Ark. So, it’s apparently okay with this wrathful god that protecting one aspect of nature (the animals) may be accomplished by destroying another aspect (the forest).

That lovely green forest behind the lovers? It's being cut down to build the Ark.

That lovely green forest behind the lovers? It’s being cut down to build the Ark.

You lost me there, Darren.

The story is not consistent with its own mythos.

With Beowulf, I did not like or agree with the story changes made, but enjoyed the film as a thing in itself because it was at least consistent with itself. With Troy, dropping the supernatural from the story was made to work, making it entirely human without denigrating the piety of the characters. But with Noah, we’re not given a compelling experience of the value we are expected to root for: the protection of nature. Instead we are dragged along with an obsessive man who possesses only meager charm.

Noah-yelling

I don’t have to worry about what Noah does or does not say about faith in a supernatural deity. It fails to communicate the emotional power of the stakes it declares to be important. If the audience cannot feel and experience the stakes (and we don’t in Noah), we’re not really invested in the hero’s success or failure – or the film’s. We’re just along for the ride.

And this ride is no fun at all (except for some disconnected humorous moments with Anthony Hopkins’ Methuselah). Iceland (where they shot it) is starkly beautiful, though.

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A World Of Meaning

I recently sat in on some discussions about world-building. It was geared primarily toward world-building for fantasy and science fiction worlds. When you are creating a totally different world, you have to account for the culture of that alien people. And that means creating a “mythology” of some sort. In fact, that is one thing that most fantasy novels do build in.

"The Shadow of Sauron" by Ted Nasmith

“The Shadow of Sauron” by Ted Nasmith

Many authors create some sort of apocalyptic confrontation that their story will lead up to, a clash of powerful, almost cosmic, figures.

In cases like that, “mythology” is treated as meaning “stories of gods” or at least god-like beings. So the authors try and create entities and structures that have that sort of significance.

But just throwing in god-like figures who go through the motions of cosmic conflict won’t work if you forget to include meaning in the mixture. The conflict has to have meaning not just to the characters in the story but also to the writer and the audience.

In the science fiction series Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski created a cosmic conflict between the alien race the Vorlons and the mysterious race known as the Shadows.

shadowandvorlon

In this clash, the Vorlons represented Order (which most consider to be a “good” force), while the Shadows advocated Chaos (usually considered “evil”). Humans and other space-faring races got caught between the two powerful forces. The point is that the clash has an understandable meaning, not just for the characters in the story. It’s a conflict that makes sense to the audience as well. Which is better: Order and chosing actions that service all or Chaos and each individual looking out for him or herself? We are engaged. It matters to us.

But many series create a “mythology” that engages only the characters in the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories fail. It just means that the storytellers have to pull it together for the characters.

Black-Oil

With The X-Files, various “mythology” elements were introduced that didn’t ever quite connect to a unified whole. There were shape-changers, alien clones of humans, and an “alien oil” that took possession of various characters. But how all these belong together was never entirely made clear.

Oil-eyes

The storytellers eventually tried to sort it out, but it was a “make-do” type of solution. This undercut any sense of meaning for the audience: it was just an entertaining hodge-podge. The characters behaved as if it made some sort of sense to them and so the audience went along with it.

The meaning of a mythology in storytelling does not have to rely on external powerful figures, however. Aspects that are “fantastical” on a cosmic scale do not have to be the only basis for a story “mythology.” In the series 24, for instance, the “mythology” is centered on the character traits of its main hero, Jack Bauer.

Jack-1

The key in season after season is that Jack is by nature a patriot who will do anything in service of a righteous cause, even to the point of death. An internet joke claimed, “Killing Jack Bauer doesn’t make him dead, it just makes him angry.” This unrelenting steadfastness in the mythology carried audience through many implausabilities. Jack’s determination had meaning to the audience, valuable meaning.

As you construct the world of your story, consider what is important to your central character. Is it family? Patriotism? Truth? Power? Whatever that key element is, it will become the core of the “mythology” for your world. It doesn’t matter if the setting is a fantastical cosmic conflict or the daily life of a family of police officers. The focus of the deepest meaning for your characters will become the heart of the story’s mythology

(The “Shadow of Sauron”, by Ted Nasmith, copyright by Ted Nasmith)

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