Monday, June 29, 2015

Show, don't tell - lessons from Mad Max: Fury Road Part 1

Before I begin, allow me to apologize for all the fangirling that's about to occur. Mad Max: Fury Road is the action movie I've been waiting for more than twenty years, ever since I saw Sarah Connor defeat T1000 using one hand and a shotgun. But it's also undoubtedly a magnificent example of storytelling without a whole lot of telling. (Also, please note that this post will contain ALL the spoilers. If you mind spoilers, go see the movie before reading this post.)

This is quickly growing into a pet peeve of mine: people keep saying that nothing really happens in MMFR. There's a lot of explosions and exciting action, but nothing really happens. And I'm here to say once and for all, the people claiming that nothing really happens in Mad Max: Fury Road are wrong.

I can see where the misconception arises. At the very most, the script is maybe ten pages long. And that's if Max's grunting is included. There's almost no exposition and very little happens that is just told to us.

That's where MMFR differs significantly from pretty much every action movie out there. Most movies explicitly state EVERYthing. McGuffin character suffered trauma? Let's make her recount and simultaneously show the explicit rape scene from her past that makes her unidentifiable from a sexy lamp. The main character is defined by the losses he's suffered? Let's start the movie by showing the horrific murder of his wife and - almost always - son.

Fury Road doesn't do that. The titular Max (who's not really the main character but we'll get to that in a bit) is entirely defined by his losses to the point where he's hardly even human anymore. At the start of the movie he can hardly even form words. His story is very much a twisted version of The Jungle Book. Max has traveled the wilderness for years where everything is violent and everyone he meets wants to kill him. He has a severe case of PTSD that keeps triggering him to the point where he's starting to lose the ability to keep himself alive. None of this is explicitly stated. The only thing that even approaches Max telling anyone about his past is the monologue in the beginning (which is also at least half of his lines in the movie).

My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood. Once, I was a cop; a road warrior searching for a righteous cause. As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy. Me... or everyone else.
Here they come again. Worming their way into the black matter of my brain. I told myself... they cannot touch me. They are long dead.
I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead. Hunted by scavengers. Haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this Wasteland. A man reduced to a single instinct: survive.
So Max's transformation in the end of MMFR is fairly significant. He's made a life out of the hypermasculine pursuit of cars and violence but in the end he takes on the traditionally feminine role of giving life. The moment is made even more significant if you happen to know that it is the first moment in all four movies where he tells anyone his name. But again, none of this is really anything that is explicitly told to us. We see Max wasting War Boys by the dozen, we see the moments he gets triggered, his inability to interact with Furiosa and the Wives. We see him finally give out his name and his blood, both willingly because he recognizes how much the people around him need Furiosa.

Speaking of, Furiosa goes through a very similar arc. Where Max is Mowgli however, Furiosa is most definitely a hyperviolent Pinocchio. In the beginning she is defined by her quest for vengeance. Sure, explicitly she says she's looking for redemption, but that's not really true. She takes the wives, not because she wants to help them or because she even really believes that freeing them will do her soul any good. She takes them because taking them is the thing that will hurt Immortan Joe the most. They are, after all, his most prized possessions. In the beginning, she is one of those possessions too. She is a tool of Immortan Joe's power and though she becomes a tool of revenge, even going out to look for it, what she finds is her humanity. When she climbs up on Immortan Joe's hood, she is once more a real girl.

Nux and the Wives all have their own plot arcs, even though they are not by any means primary characters. The Wives especially are the very definition of a McGuffin but uniquely for not only action movies, but most movies none of them could be replaced by a sexy lamp. They are in the world and by their actions effect change. And despite the fact that they've obviously lived in captivity and faced all kinds of abuse at the hands of Immortan Joe. But instead of divorcing the viewer from the Wives by explicitly making them into victims, Miller decided to show their abuse through their urgency of getting away from everything Immortan Joe. When the Wives first meet Max, for all they know, he's a danger to them. But more important than setting up defensive positions for possible attack from him is to get rid of the Evil chastity belts, by any means necessary.

I could basically pull apart the whole movie, going through it moment by moment to tell you all the plot points that were communicated through showing alone but at this point I'm going to trust you get the point. In part 2 (July 27th) we'll start thinking about how to apply Mad Max into your own writing. Meanwhile:

Go see Mad Max: Fury Road. Even if you've already seen it, go see it again and focus especially on what are the things you know or think you know about the plot and the characters and how you know those things. Focus especially on the character's body language and how it effects the scenes they are in.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A writing exercise for your weekend enjoyment

I have a blistering migraine today (this is a regular occurrence for me. Stinks, but I'm used to it.) Today's is a little unusual, though, in that it's distorting my vision somewhat, so I'm kinda useless at the moment as far as typing goes. So in lieu of your regularly scheduled Karen's Thoughts on Writing on the Prosers, I bring you a fun writing exercise I did recently with the lovely and talented +Nina Niskanen (we've been trying to encourage each other to write more by posting every-other-day exercises.)

This one I mined from Gail Carson Levine's great book (geared for children but excellent for all ages) Writing Magic.

The first time I saw Stephen, he painted a hex sign on my right arm, and I couldn't move my fingers for three hours.”

Here's what I wrote:

The first time I saw Sam1, he painted a hex sign on my arm and I couldn’t move my fingers for three hours. The next time he painted a lightning bolt encircled by an ivy vine, and I vomited for twenty minutes straight. I took him down to the med-bot repairshop before I fell ill again. At this rate my unit? corridor? barracks? some kind of collective noun here to indicate grouping of dwellings, but in a spacestation environment, not turf. At this rate my … <word>’s occupants were going to spend more time being sickened by our medbot than we were being helped by him.

Old McCreary looked up when I wheeled Sam1 through the iris of his door (better way to indicate some cool spacey-waycey door mechanism…) “Oh no, I’m not working on that lump of metal again. He got me with a nanoneedle for supposed Vegaian flu last time. I couldn’t bend my left knee for a week!” McCreary wheeled himself back into the dustiest corner of his dusty grimy shop. The smell of mechanical lubricant hung thick in the air.

“McCreary,” I said, trying to keep my voice firm but cheerful. He hated grumpy customers. “I need some help with our medbot unit. He’s clearly suffering from a fault or defect. My comrades on my corridor <snicker> need a fully functioning medbot to be able to perform their duties and attend school and work. Can you please assist us?”

McCreary was, after all, a mostly mechanized android. He had a skinplate, sure, but so did a lot of them. Sam1, for instance. When given a direct request by a fully skinned human, his programming should require him to comply. Should being the operative word here. I chewed the inside of my lip as I waited for the old bot repairman to answer.

You could almost see his android brain executing lines of code related to interactions with humans. First his brow furrowed, then his lips pulled back to reveal his partially yellowed teeth. For a skinplate, he went full-bore into the realistic stuff. Probably chewed Chetle, too. That crap will stain anything. The smile was clearly faked, but the words that followed were what I needed to hear.  
“Certainly Miss Shasta. I would be happy to attempt to assist you.”

I docked my credit chit before he could change his mind, gave Sam1 a light pat on the back of the shoulder, out of reach of his poorly-practicing medical appendages, and bolted out the opening into the mad chaos of Underlayer 7 on Laxima station.

Why don't you give it a whirl and see where your writing takes you?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Never broken

I have an intensely visceral reaction to the word "broken" as it applies to people. It twists up my gut and tightens my throat. I find myself sitting hunched over, as though I'm fending off an attack.

I'm aware that my reaction is not ordinary. Nina talked about how broken can be beautiful. Sheena reminded us that perfection is boring, and that perfection is not synonymous with worth. I actually completely agree with Sheena's post. My reactions to the word itself are my own, and I'm aware they're a little… exaggerated.

I can't find a logical, outward rationale as to why the word bothers me so much. So I'm going to take my post to dive in deeper to the meaning of the word, as I see it. This is going to be more personal than many of my posts, since my reaction comes from my own prejudices, and my own flawed interpretation of self.

To me, broken means damaged. Broken means flawed. Broken means wrong.

Broken means you've lost something that you can never, ever get back.


I want to make something very clear. On the scale of what everyone calls mental illness, what I have is extremely minor. I've struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life, and I did reach a point where I thought I would never, ever get better. I was so certain that I was destined to be depressed and anxious my whole life, and that what was wrong with me could never be fixed.

I place a good portion of the blame for my fears on the bizarre way that society views depression and anxiety. They tell us that anxiety and depression are Other. They tell us that we need to be fixed. This amazing blog post gives some examples of the warped portrayal of mental illness:
And when the screenwriters feel like tossing out a bone and allow a character an official diagnosis, the illness often becomes the character’s defining characteristic. Emma Pillsbury from “Glee” is diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and aside from her red hair, that seems to be her only notable quality... Her relationship with Mr. Schuster is unhealthily dependent, and neither he nor she seems to be able to accept her for who she is, OCD and all, as evidenced by his serenading her with the Coldplay song “Fix You.”
The amount of crime shows and horror films wherein the antagonist is discovered or assumed to have a mental illness or to be simply (and incorrectly) “crazy” is astounding. There is a constant correlation of “bad” and the “other” with those mental illness. There is little talk of treatment, therapy or a personality outside of the disability.
And it is the extreme cases that are getting more of the lime light. This perpetuates misconceptions as well as the idea that help can only be afforded to those who are past the breaking point. Those misconceptions keep people from seeking treatment and support.
From another site:
Subtle stereotypes pervade the news regularly. Just the other day, a local news program in Central Florida reported on a woman setting her son’s dog on fire. The reporter ended the segment by stating that the woman had been depressed recently…
And these pictures can have a big influence on the public. Research has shown that many people get their information about mental illness from the mass media (Wahl, 2004). What they do see can color their perspective, leading them to fear, avoid and discriminate against individuals with mental illness.

Picture shared by kind permission of S.T. on Flicker
No changes made.
The weird thing is, depression and anxiety aren't this wacky condition that happens to a few "weak" individuals. One in five Americans will experience some form of mental illness in any give year. ONE IN FIVE. And up to one in four women will go through an episode of major depressive disorder in their lifetime (the rate is closer to 1 in 10 for men) Depression and anxiety aren't an affliction of the weak and lazy. They're something that so, so many of us struggle with. And yet we're made to feel that we are alone. That we are Other. There's just so much shame - so much, that only one-third of those suffering from anxiety get help.


Without meaning to, I absorbed all of those viewpoints the media put forth. I must be stupid and weak, I thought, to not be able to overcome this. My life wasn't hard. And so I internalized the belief that being depressed meant something in me had broken, that I'd spun so far from the path of normalcy that I could never be fixed. The harder I tried to reject and move past my fears, the stronger they grew.

One of the most important parts of healing, for me, was realizing that my depression and anxiety are a part of me. In my case, they're defense mechanisms gone haywire. I'd somehow internalized the logic that if I thought bad things about myself, that nothing anyone else said could never hurt me. It's a weird sort of self-protection, and it was entirely unconscious.

Picture by kind permission of Eric Malette on Flicker
No changes made.
It's taken a lot of work, but in the past few years, I'm doing so much better than I did. Changing deeply held, unconscious beliefs doesn't happen quickly. But my goodness, it feels so much better to just accept that I'm this crazy emotional person who worries too much about trivial things and cries at the drop of the hat. There's nothing broken about that. It's just me. It's just how I am, and I'm not ashamed any more.

I hope all of you who are out there struggling can find your way. It's different for everyone; broken can be an insult for some, and a powerful talisman for others. Find your own way, but don't be afraid to ask for some help if you need it. It doesn't mean you're weak, I promise you that.

Always remember: we are not Other. We are not wrong. We are not flawed creatures that need repairing. True, our best intentions can become twisted and warped. But we are beautifully, uniquely human.

And none of us should be ashamed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Power of Broken

 Before I begin, I have to say I have a love affair with the word broken. I think it is one of the most beautiful and powerful words in the English language. So when I write stories, my first step is to always, ALWAYS, find the broken in the character and that's when I fall in love with them.
Daily dose of love quotes here  Give this quote with a glow stick to someone in a rough time.


Think about this with me just on a storytelling basis. Forget any connotations you may have with the word, and let's focus simply on methods of telling a story.

Think world building. I learned this from Karen. If you'd like a story to end with a happy ever after, and you want your character to go through a journey, then at the start of the story something in the landscape of the story needs to be wrong. There should be a problem that needs correcting. This could be a villain, a hunger, danger, boredom, whatever.

It's called the conflict, obviously, and it's the heart of storytelling. Without conflict, there is no story.

I think that without brokenness, there is no character.

For exactly the same reason. The inner landscape of the character needs to have something missing. Or some obstical standing in the way of happiness; a need to be fulfilled, a heartbreak that needs comforting, or a loss that can be filled. That need is what drives a character's motivation, and also is the power in a love story.

What makes a character broken, is what makes a story powerful. Their brokenness is their greatest strength.

Through their journey in the exterior landscape of the plot, their interior journey through their brokenness is what will connect the reader to the character. It is what makes us care. And brokenness can't always be solved. But learning to deal with grief, and loss, and depression, and those twisted parts of us that aren't always pretty, is what stories have always been about. It's the reason we have stories. It's the reason stories matter. Finding a way to cope with brokenness, or finding a way out of brokenness is a story. No, it's every story.


Ladies, are you feeling broken? Cling to Him. Your brokenness is not wasted time. God is creating a beautiful masterpiece. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. ~Psalm 34:18 ❤ #overcomeroutreach
In every story I've ever written, and in every story I've ever loved, there is one universal theme. You don't have to be perfect in order to be of worth.

That is the message I need to hear a thousand times, and that is the message I will never stop saying.

To paraphrase Meryl Streep, "That thing you like the least about yourself is probably your greatest strength." There is nothing, no trick or twist, or author voice, that I love more, then when an author uses a character's weakness to save the day.

Perfect is boring. Normal is a word used to silence and to snuff out awesomeness. Whole is a mask.

Broken... now broken is real. It's universal. It's truth.

Broken is beautiful.


Poor characters. We beat them up so much and then they have to keep moving the plot forward. A broken character still needs to be active. They still need to participate in the plot, but the power of a broken character is that they do big crazy broken things.  And big crazy broken actions are 1. fun to write, 2. fascinating, and 3. shake up the plot.

the great gatsby #quote
F.S. Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby
However, and I hope I can say this clearly. I do not believe or like miracle cures. (realizes I wrote a book about a miracle cure, still continues on this train of thought.) Or I guess, more correctly, I do not believe that a miracle cure is necessary in order to have a HEA.  I don't particularly love stories where the message is, "Hey look, I lost everything that's wrong with me, and now I'm boring, and boring = happy." I'd much rather read stories where the character grows and accepts their weaknesses or flaws, or finds ways to turn them into strengths, for example, "Hey, I just learned how to punch with my nub arm."

But when the brokenness is a result of broken people damaging a character, then I adore this message. ---->

Tell me this message again and again.

A final though by someone not me...
It may be sad, but this is my favorite quote. So truthful and describes me perfectly and strangely, Im Ok with that. Check out the website to see more
Write on, humans.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The trouble with "broken"

June here on the Prosers is all about broken characters. When we discussed the themes for this year I expressed some concern for the term "broken" with regard to it being used about people. Someone, I can't remember who at this point, rather brilliantly told me that I should write about my concerns as my post.

Here's the thing: the term "broken" often gets applied to people who are somehow out of the norm. In all cases I have tremendous issues with other people using the term to describe anyone. If someone wants to deem themselves "broken", have at it.

Various dictionaries have the following definitions for the term "broken":
Forcibly separated into two or more pieces. Having been violated. Being in a state of disarray. Subdued totally. Humbled. Weakened and infirm, not functioning.
The definition is a huge part of what I dislike about using the term to describe humans, be they fictional or not. The term, as applied to people, usually just means "not normal" or someone who's been hurt or even victimized. I'm not exactly a fan of "normal" to begin with, mostly because while human beings are herd animals who strive not to be too different, we are also normative in our quest for uniqueness. And "normal" is also and has always been an excuse to bully.

The second problem with broken is that the general feeling seems to be that once something is broken, it's broken forever. And while that may be true of pottery, humans have an incredible capacity for healing. Labeling someone as broken also labels them beyond repair. It is a way for an outsider labeling someone as a victim instead of a survivor.

For those who feel or have felt broken during their lives, I would like to introduce the Japanese term "kintsukuroi". It is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum. It also means that breakage and repair are not things to be hidden but mark a piece of the thing's history.

And often, if you're very lucky, the thing that was broken and repaired is all the more beautiful for having been broken and repaired.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A re-run, sounds in fiction

This month our topic is very interesting, we're planning to write about Broken Characters, a meaty subject for sure. Sadly, I've run out of time today and don't want to again fail to post (it's been a busy month already and I'm not quite halfway through!) so I thought I'd bring you an interesting re-run, partly because I'm still working on the novel I mention in this post from 2 years ago, sigh. ;)

I will work on my Broken Characters post for my next posting slot, two weeks from today - stay tuned!

Sounds and Other Sensory Details in Writing