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Archive for February, 2010

Yes, you read that right. I stumbled upon a very, very tantalized pattern in scripture tonight. It even parallels the formula for character creation popularized by writers like Dwight L. Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It’s simply this: Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. (Strength equates to the more common Body.) The specific scripture I used (and there are many, many that mention this pattern or a portion thereof) is Mark 12:28-31. The key verses are 30 and 31.

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:28-31 (NIV)

I was trying to get a handle on a biblical view of human nature, to understand the parts and how they relate to one another. And the Lord led me to this verse.

So, how does this work? Let me explain.

It took some digging into the meaning and definition behind these words. Thankfully, an excellent article already existed on the subject, To Love God With “All Your Heart” is NOT Enough! by Stephen Gola. You can read the full article for details (it’s short), but here’s my skinny version:

First, note that the order in scripture is important. We’ll come back to this later.

Heart The center or core of our being. The source of our life and existence – either our fallen state or our spiritual life in Christ.
Soul The animated qualities that show we are alive like breathing. Includes emotions, attitude, will, desires, and aversions.
Mind Deep thinking, meditation, and reflection. The putting together of mental concepts. Intelligence, knowledge, and understanding.
Strength Our whole being in action. One’s ability and might. Forceful, proactive problem-solving and trouble-shooting. Goal-oriented action. Heart + Soul + Mind united in a common goal or task.

I know what you’re thinking; Heart and Soul seem backwards and you’d be right. Apparently, our modern understanding has Heart and Soul flipped so that they have taken on each other’s meaning. So the real order should actually be Soul-Heart-Mind-Strength or from innermost component to outermost component. Here it is revised and corrected according to our modern understanding:

Soul The center or core of our being. The source of our life and existence – either our fallen state or our spiritual life in Christ.
Heart The animated qualities that show we are alive like breathing. Includes emotions, attitude, will, desires, and aversions.
Mind Deep thinking, meditation, and reflection. The putting together of mental concepts. Intelligence, knowledge, and understanding.
Strength Our whole being in action. One’s ability and might. Forceful, proactive problem-solving and trouble-shooting. Goal-oriented action. Soul + Heart + Mind united in a common goal or task.

So this is how you create a detailed, deep, three-dimensional character. Now compare this with Swain’s ideas about how to write using Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs):

  1. Reaction to Failure – Show Emotion followed by Reflex and Instinct.
  2. Deliberation – Consider options for next course of action.
  3. Decision – A decision is reached which becomes the new goal.
  4. Goal – The goal is identified and established clearly and specifically.
  5. Conflict – Hero attempts to achieve the new goal through behavior. Struggle.
  6. Failure to Accomplish Goal – Conflict ends in failure. (Success is reserved for the end.)

Now with the four components identified:

  1. {SOUL is not specifically included in the list, but the core values of the specific person are assumed as starting points.}
  2. Reaction to Failure – Show Emotion followed by Reflex and Instinct. (HEART)
  3. Deliberation – Consider options for next course of action. (MIND)
  4. Decision – A decision is reached which becomes the new goal. (MIND)
  5. Goal – The goal is identified and established clearly and specifically. (STRENGTH)
  6. Conflict – Hero attempts to achieve goal through behavior. Struggle. (STRENGTH)
  7. Failure to Accomplish Goal – Conflict ends in failure. (STRENGTH)

It’s a good fit, right? Compare the definitions and component parts of the four to the steps above. Simpy amazing.

As an added bonus, let’s map the concepts of Personality, Motivation, and Behavior also. Here’s a brief set of excerpts from Wikipedia:

In psychology, motivation refers to the initiation, direction, intensity and persistence of behavior. Motivation is a temporal and dynamic state that should not be confused with personality or emotion. Motivation is having the desire and willingness to do something. A motivated person can be reaching for a long-term goal such as becoming a professional writer or a more short-term goal like learning how to spell a particular word. … Personality invariably refers to more or less permanent characteristics of an individual’s state of being (e.g., shy, extrovert, conscientious). … As opposed to motivation, emotion refers to temporal states that do not immediately link to behavior (e.g., anger, grief, happiness). – Wikipedia

  1. {SOUL is essentially your Personality, what makes you – You.}
  2. Reaction to Failure – Show Emotion followed by Reflex and Instinct. (HEART – Motivation)
  3. Deliberation – Consider options for next course of action. (MIND)
  4. Decision – A decision is reached which becomes the new goal. (MIND)
  5. Goal – The goal is identified and established clearly and specifically. (STRENGTH – Behavior)
  6. Conflict – Hero attempts to achieve goal through behavior. Struggle. (STRENGTH – Behavior)
  7. Failure to Accomplish Goal – Conflict ends in failure. (STRENGTH – Behavior)

So, not only is this a biblical model for creating believable characters (and a fairly straight-forward and simple four-step pattern at that) but also a pattern for effectively writing those characters into stories. Who knew this was written in scripture? Figuratively speaking, I think God likes killing multiple birds with the same stone, don’t you? Remember to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

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It’s Called A Book

Source: February 13, 2010 – February 19, 2010 – Cartoons of the Week – TIME.com.

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Source: The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine by Randy Ingermanson
Date: February 10, 2010
Issue: Volume 6, Number 2
Home Page: http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com

Good advice on hooking your reader.

A good first chapter does four things well:

  • It makes a contract with the reader
  • It sets a hook in the first sentence
  • It sets a second hook near the end of the first page
  • It sets a third hook at the end of the chapter

The reason you need three hooks is because readers have
three increasing levels of commitment:

  • If your reader likes the first sentence, she’ll commit to reading the first page.
  • If your reader likes the first page, she’ll commit to reading the first chapter.
  • If your reader likes the first chapter, she’ll commit to the rest of the book. If she’s in a bookstore, that’s the point at which she buys the book.

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Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read the book! I debated reading it before I saw the movie but ultimately saw the movie first. I did however read up on Percy and his friends on Wikipedia prior to viewing.

In retrospect, some will probably call this movie review too harsh – even scathing – but there are some serious problems with this movie. Here’s your sound byte:

I rate it a D- so keep the tweens at home. The next Harry Potter this ain’t.

In a post called Defining Good Writing, children’s book editor Cheryl Klein identifies 5 qualities to judge good writing. I have modified these qualities for reviewing this movie. My scoring scale comes from the standard 7-point scale commonly used at many schools. An A+ is a perfect 100 while a D- is a lowly, barely passing 70.

Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!! Spoiler Alert!!!

Where to begin?

So many things came to my mind when digesting this movie that it’s hard to know what to talk about first. So, I thought I’d mention what I liked about the movie:

  • Pierce Brosnan is in it! 😀
  • The acting isn’t at all bad though Percy’s ADHD could use a little toning down at times. Uma Thurman as Medusa is especially good.
  • Rick Riordan, the creator of the series, has followed the more-or-less standard movie plot pattern so there are no truly gargantuan problems – glaring, yes, but not gargantuan.
  • Alexandra Daddario as Annabeth and her feisty relationship with Percy are both quite satisfying – even bringing smiles to my face.
  • The special effects are all at least good and some are great. The Hydra battle is awesome!
  • It’s very satisfying watching Percy use his new-found water powers.
  • It;s great seeing the greek myths we all studied in school come alive in a modern setting.

So, what didn’t I like about this movie?

Unfortunately, the answer is just about everything else. This is a teen flick: it portrays teenagers, teen relationships, teen idiosyncrasies, and teen clichés. In short, teens will identify with and love it, but probably only they will love it. Every important moment and every decision that the main characters make comes either from or out of a purely juvenile perspective. Teens will flock to this movie but I predict it will not have long-term staying power. This film is not destined to become a classic. In general, the plot is weak and the characters are flat.

Honestly, having not read the book yet makes me wonder if the book Percy is younger and the powers that be chose an older teen for the movie role… Yup, Wikipedia confirms that Percy as written is supposed to be 12. Logan Lerman, the actor who portrays Percy in the movie, just turned 18 in January.

My Review

1. Good prose (N/A)

This quality can’t be evaluated for a movie and I haven’t yet read the novel. So, I’m ignoring this quality.

Nonetheless, why was this called The Lightning Thief? Percy’s main quest is getting his mother out of the underworld. He more or less ignores the lightning thief aspect altogether. So why not call this book Highway to Hell or Journey to the Underworld or Saving Percy’s Mom even Demigod’s Dilemma? Those might not have the same ring but they more accurately describe the contents. But I digress…

Timing, pacing, and flow are all good though the beginning does seem a but rushed.

2. Character richness (C-, 77)

Grover, the token african-american character, is the comedy relief – nothing more. And he’s certainly not a very good protector. One would think that if Percy’s life were in real danger, then an appropriately bad-ass person would be protecting him. Ron Weasly in the Harry Potter series easily has more depth. Ron is an expert on all things in the wizarding world plus he’s loyal as Harry’s best friend. Percy’s best friend apparently has no specialty beyond his dance moves and his loyalty ends any time a pretty face comes near. And why didn’t his dancing cause panic in the casino? I mean he is supposed to keep those haunches under wraps in front of the normals, right?

Mom is a stock character. Honestly, she’s either ironing, driving, dead, or stuck behind an invisible barrier for the entire story.

And now we come to Percy. Percy is portrayed as a typical teen with all the worst rebellious tendencies. Percy does show some virtues but they’re only skin deep. He’s more-often a great role-model of how ‘not’ to behave.

  • He prefers his iPod to listening to his teachers. (Though there’s no love lost with his substitute English teacher.)
  • He attempts to stand up for his mother to his step-father in the apartment (good), but then backs down like a coward to the man’s face (bad). And as soon as his back is turned, Percy opens his mouth for one last jab, the sore loser (worse).
  • Percy ignores the advice about wearing a helmet in his first battle and subsequently is wounded in the face.
  • He ignores Chiron’s advice about waiting and training and decides he’s smarter going it alone.
  • Yet, he pays close attention to Luke’s explanation about the underworld and follows his advice. This is even more distressing once you realize Luke is the thief who stole Zeus’ lightning bolt and thus his ‘help’ is bad. Isn’t this like most real-world teens would do? Go to the friend first who is the same age as you and will give the same, tired, bad advice as compared to someone older and probably wiser?

In short Percy is portrayed as hot-headed with lots of vices but few virtues. He’s shallow. This is both why teens will love it and why everyone else won’t.  Nonetheless, Percy is truly an interesting character. I mean he has water powers! He’s also very courageous so you never know quite what he’ll do next. He doesn’t appear to change much over the course of the movie though.

3. Plot construction (D-, 70)

Lots of issues here but I have only one large complaint: Why was the lotus-eaters’ pearl the last one acquired? Challenges must go from easiest to hardest or they will feel off and the movie does feel off at this point. Arguably, the casino is the easiest of the three and thus should have been first with the hydra as the hardest coming last. I realize this causes a geographic problem for the trio, but surely that could have been solved another way. The casino really should have been first.

Question #1: Why did the gods automatically blame Percy for the theft of the lightning? What made them target him of all the demigods? And why did Zeus simply believe he was telling the truth about Luke at the end of the movie? Percy had no proof yet Zeus asked for none either. Zeus is not omniscient or he would have known who stole his lightning in the first place, yet he blindly trusts Percy to tell the truth?! You cannot have it both ways! Zeus comes off as a cardboard character with absolutely no credibility as a god. And how was losing his lightning going to cause a squabble among the gods anyway? What is the reason? Presumably the theft of the lightning is the catalyst but for what exactly? I guess you could say I’m full of questions about this and yet this is the major driving force of the story.

Question #2: Why doesn’t the movie explain things more? Fury, Satyr, Minotaur? One must be a fan of greek mythology to understand all the references without some help. More and better explanations would have helped.

Question #3: Why did the teens drag the unconscious security guards in the Tennessee Parthenon off to the side of the room? Why couldn’t the teens just leave them where they lay? They get up to form the Hydra later but couldn’t they have met in the middle instead of walking out as a group?

Big Spoiler: Talk about your freebies! Percy got the entire quest handed to him by Luke. He did nothing but pay Luke a visit. This seems unreasonable and should have been written better.

4. Thematic depth (F, 40)

Thematic depth. What’s that? Only the father-son relationship between Percy and Poseidon strikes me as even approaching a theme or take-away moral. And it’s portrayed very weakly at best. Perhaps this will develop more in later movies.

This movie pulls out every trick in the dirty teen’s playbook to make it attractive to the chosen age group: young adult males. For example, Percy’s sidekick seems focused more on getting to know the ladies than actually protecting him. The worst example is the not-so-subtle sexual tension with Persephone, wife of Hades. I mean, she’s a married woman! (No comment on her unhappy marriage.) What a terrible message of sex without commitment or consequences this sends. It’s true that Grover is the comedy relief, but there are other forms of comedy that could have been used. And why is sex in a teen movie always treated as comedic in the first place? The fun aspect shouldn’t be overplayed. Sex is a serious business in real life with serious consequences that should not be ignored.

5. Emotion (B-, 85)

This is an adventure flick so there’s plenty of excitement but that’s about all. There are moments where other emotions can come out but the film does not appropriately capitalize on them.

  • Percy meeting his father for the first time,
  • Percy meeting Annabeth,
  • Mom’s capture by the minotaur,
  • Percy escaping hades with his mom,
  • etc.

All were essentially wasted opportunities to explore emotion in depth.

The Bottom Line

An average of the scores yields 68 which is technically an F. I am actually being a little forgiving by assigning the movie a D- (70), but I stand by that decision. Weak characters, a hokey plot, and a terrible message killed what could have been the next Harry Potter. Parents should definitely keep their tweens at home from the theater. My advice is to wait and watch this as a movie rental if you really must see it. Maybe the next one will have a better message.

I trust the book will be better once I find time to read it.

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Source: Your Brain on Stories | Neuromarketing.

Fabulous insight. The article is about writing stories for advertisements, but the concepts apply even more directly to writing any kind of fiction. This article is definitely worth a read.

That these stories resonated with readers for so long is very telling. In The Narrative in the Neurons, Wray Herbert describes another timeless piece of text, the opening lines of The Tower Treasure, a Hardy Boys novel first published in 1927:

Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car. It was careening from side to side on the narrow road.

“He’ll hit us! We’d better climb this hillside—and fast!” Frank exclaimed, as the boys brought their motorcycles to a screeching halt and leaped off.

“On the double!” Joe cried out as they started up the steep embankment.

When subjects read this passage and several others in an fMRI machine, researchers were able to observe which parts of their brain were activated as the subjects read different elements. Depending on what was happening in each sentence, quite different brain activation patterns were observed:

For example, a particular area of the brain ramped up when readers were thinking about intent and goal-directed action, but not meaningless motion. Motor neurons flashed when characters were grasping objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activated when characters were navigating their world.

Wray notes,

Readers are far from passive consumers of words and stories. Indeed, it appears that we dynamically activate real-world scripts that help us to comprehend a narrative—and those active scripts in turn enrich the story beyond its mere words and sentences. In this way, reading is much like remembering or imagining a vivid event.

I think the take-away for authors is clear. Write stories as if they are movies, but more than that, write stories as if readers will live out the events they read about – because they will. And if they do not live the lives of our characters, then they have not connected with our books in a meaningful, lasting way.

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Source: SpongeBob and The 7 Deadly Sins – ToonZone Forums

No, I’m not making this post up.

A friend and I were having a discussion over lunch. Somehow we ended up on the topic of Spongebob. I think we had both heard somewhere that the author based each of the major characters on one of the traditional seven deadly sins. From the perspective of the writer, this builds conflict into every character relationship with a minimum of effort so it’s a great technique. I am attempting to do something similar in my writings, so I was curious about the concept.

However, we struggled with matching the characters to the sins. We bounced around a few ideas and came up with a match for every character except one – Spongebob himself. And we couldn’t remember which sin we had left out so off to the interweb we went. And wouldn’t you know it, someone else already had a dandy list put together with the same matchups that we had including Spongebob. Here’s the list from the ToonZone Forums user SpongeTronXYZ:

SpongeBob and The 7 Deadly Sins

I have been a fan of SpongeBob SquarePants for years and think that the depth of the characters is one of the things that really makes this show work. Ever since I heard Mr. Lawrence say (in an audio commentary on the Season 1 DVD’s) that Stephen Hillenburg based the 7 main characters on the 7 Deadly Sins, I couldn’t help but be very fascinated. I think I’ve figured out which character is each one.

1. Sloth-Patrick

Sloth is the sin of laziness, or unwillingness to act. Obviously this is Patrick. He lays under a rock all the time and doesn’t really do anything. In fact in the episode “Big Pink Loser” he got an award for doing nothing the longest.

2. Wrath-Squidward

Wrath involves feelings of hatred and anger. Squidward hates his life, usually hates SpongeBob, and is pretty much angry most of the time.

3. Greed-Mr. Krabs

Obviously Mr. Krabs is greedy and desires money. How could Greed not be Krabs? He actually sang about the power of greed in “Selling Out”.

4. Envy-Plankton

Plankton is envious of Mr. Krabs because The Krusty Krab is a success while The Chum Bucket is a failure. His envy drives him to try to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula.

5. Gluttony-Gary

I actually think this one is pretty funny. Did you ever notice the running gag in Spongebob where they say “don’t forget to feed Gary” or Sponge says “I gotta go feed Gary”. Gary even ran away that time when SpongeBob forgot to feed him. Gluttony usually refers to the overindulgence of food so I’m guessing this one fits him pretty well.

6. Pride-Sandy

Sandy takes a lot of pride in who she is and where she comes from. She takes pride in the fact that she is from Texas and likes to let everyone know it. She also takes pride in the fact that she is a mammal and a land creature, like in the episode “Pressure” where she tried to prove land critters were better than sea critters.

7. Lust-SpongeBob

Ok, I know what your thinking. It does seem a little weird and curious at first but I have given it a lot of thought. Lust in one definition is “excessive love of others”. I think this one works best for Spongebob. He shows his love of others with his overeagerness to do good and help people. If anything is true about SpongeBob it’s that he loves everyone around him, even if they don’t exactly love him back.

So this is what I came up with. I don’t know what anybody else thinks. Oh by the way try not to analyze cartoons too much, especially SpongeBob. I actually think the people on the show try to be inconsistent on purpose. Just to be funny.

Pretty good matchup, don’t you think? And here’s my addition for Mrs. Puff:

8. Despair-Ms. Puff

The list of deadly sins traditionally included Despair (a.k.a. Depression, Sadness, or Acedia) which was later replaced with one of the current seven. However you define it, this is Ms. Puff. She’s always unhappy and especially around SpongeBob. The only time she is ever happy is when she’s in jail or SpongeBob is cut out of her life. One definition of this sin is a mental instability and in one episode Ms. Puff started seeing things while in jail.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins

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