Category Archives: The Art of the Story

An ode to Terry Pratchett on his birthday

Well, not an ode really. Just a blog post. A post to Terry Pratchett on his birthday.

For those of you who don’t know, famed British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett died two years ago, leaving behind a plethora of some of the best, funniest, most inspiring fantasy novels ever written – most significantly, the “Discworld” series.

I’ve mentioned Pratchett a few times on this blog, and that’s because he was a formative influence in developing my reading tastes and in understanding the interaction between politics and society.

My first introduction to the amazingness that is Terry Pratchett came in the form of the Discworld novel “Soul Music,” wherein Death’s (as in the Grim Reaper) granddaughter is forced to take on his duties while he contemplates the meaning of life, to the extent that he has one. As Susan Sto Helit takes up the Grim Reaper’s mantle, magical horse and skull rate included, she crosses path with a young musician who is meant to die in a stupid accident. As Susan struggles with the apparent unfairness of taking a young life in such a meaningless way, the man is saved…by music.

Then, he and his band invent Rock N’ Roll.

To say that “Soul Music” is a rolickin’ good time is an understatement. This book is gold from start to finish.

“There are millions of chords. There are millions of numbers. And everyone forgets the one that is a zero. But without the zero, numbers are just arithmetic. Without the empty chord, music is just noise.”

– Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

From there, I was hooked. At time of writing, I’ve read the bulk of the Discworld novels and a few of Pratchett’s other books. The beauty of Pratchett’s writing is that it’s not just about the laugh. Discworld is a parallel to the real world, in many ways a mirror of it – its countries based on our own, its civilizations and cultures mimicking ours. And with that comes all the good and all the evil people create: racism (or speciesism, if you want to get technical), sexism, xenophobia, insulation, tyranny, money (which is a special kind of evil when amassed in too large a chunk).

[T]here…are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, follow any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin…without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.

Lord Vetinari in Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett was the first person I ever heard ask: Who watches the watchmen? Who guards the guards?

These are two of the most important questions a society can ask itself. It goes to the core of what keeps societies intact: trust, in a system, in justice, in fairness. In the idea that if you work hard and stand up for what’s right, you will find those who will stand with you and you will prevail.

It’s an optimistic belief that too often fails to manifest here on Earth, but in the Discworld Pratchett’s acute sense of justice can prevail.

That’s what makes his books so great. They’re funny and deep, so you laugh as you marvel at the selfishness and deliberate stupidity of beings, human and otherwise.

So today’s the anniversary of his birth, so I wanted to take a moment to remember all the good times I’ve had on the Discworld, relive them, and say thank you, Terry Pratchett, for asking me the important questions, for making me laugh, and for inspiring me to want to write my own books.

And speaking of writing, I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from the man himself:

In my experience, what every true artist wants, really wants, is to be paid.

-Glod the dwarf in Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Ain’t that the truth?

Confessions of a chronic spoiler

I’m that friend everyone hates; the one who bursts out the ending of a long-awaited movie, or accidentally reveals a crucial plot point from a new book.

I don’t do this on purpose. It’s more like someone goes, “Have you read Half-Blood Prince yet?” and I respond, “OMG yes! I can’t believe Snape killed Dumbledore!”

It’s really not my fault – you can see from the exchange that it’s not clear that the person has not read the book yet. In fact, I would argue that it’s reasonable to assume they have read it, otherwise why would they ask? To see if it’s good? If you’ve gotten that far in Harry Potter, I would think you’re pretty committed to the series.

Clearly, therefore, I am blameless. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably already know this about me – pretty much every review I post has a decent chunk of spoilers, which I indicate for the unsuspecting reader’s convenience.

The thing about spoilers is: they don’t bother me. Yes, they make a joke less funny, or a death less sad (which actually is okay by me, I don’t like being sad). But when it comes to media consumption, I believe it’s all about the destination, not the journey.

Case in point: I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie, who is also called the Queen of Crime. This woman is a genius. No one can hold a candle to her, and I love me a good murder mystery.

(Side note: Has anyone here ever seen “Columbo?” Because O. M. G.)

Back on topic. Hercule Poirot is the best character in English canon, and Ariadne Oliver is ultimate self-insert parody character.

As a result of my undying passion for Christie and her writing, I have read her books repeatedly. They’ve already been spoiled: I know who was murdered, how, and by whom. But what I don’t remember is why it happened and how Poirot and/or Miss Marple figured it out.

(Yes, I have read other non-Poirot, non-Miss Marple Christie stories. They’re great too, but Poirot and Marple are gems without which the stories lack that certain je ne sais quoi.)

That’s the beauty of Christie’s writing. Watching the detective put the pieces together, watching the characters knowingly and unknowingly reveal the psychological intricacies that will inevitably lead to Poirot crying out, “Ah, but I have been such an imbecile!,” or Miss Marple launching into a parallel story based in St. Mary Mead. That moment, when you’re scrambling to catch up to their deduction, wracking your brain for that elusive clue that’s just blown the case wide open, and then sitting through the dramatic reveal. Even if you know who did it, the drama of the moment, the intersecting narratives, the details that were irrelevant and distracting, the ones that were crucial and revealing. Some of these details I remember. Some of them I begin to recall as the story moves along. Some I don’t remember at all. Some I discover with the second, third, and fourth read.

It’s an experience that’s never spoiled. Maybe it’s less dramatic, less tense, but it is no less exquisite for having been lived before.

So to all the friends I’ve spoiled over the years, sorry. Maybe lead with the fact that you haven’t read the book yet. Geez.

Writing heroes we love to hate and hate to love

Whether you’re writing for the screen or the page, having an anti-hero character is becoming increasingly common. The reason is simple: anti-heroes, being much less determinedly honorable, are often easier to relate to. We see ourselves more easily in the anti-hero, someone who is far from perfect in a world that seems determined to make them miserable.

It’s here where a lot of confusion can start to crop up, because from where I’m sitting there’s a lot of overlap between the Reluctant Hero type and the Anti-Hero type. If you think about it, the anti-hero has plenty of reasons to be reluctant. Maybe they’ve done this before and don’t want to do it again. Maybe they know their abilities aren’t up to snuff. Maybe they just don’t want to have to sit through another one of the hero’s “Love, Honor, Friendship” speeches for the 40th time. And it is within these insecurities and annoyances that we find a kind of camaraderie, a parallel in our day-to-day lives.

Do we have to save the world?

So you’ve got your anti-hero. She doesn’t want to save the world, and she’s being kind of a jerk about it already. But of course she has to go, otherwise you have no story and that simply won’t do. How do we motivate her? Let’s use that friend of all Tumblr geeks aficionados, the Alignment Chart:

Man I miss this show. Via tall-T on DeviantArt, see it here.

Your traditional hero would be in the Lawful Good or Neutral Good categories – both want to achieve a goal they see as being moral. The former’s focus on is on achieving that goal while following the rules, while the latter is more flexible on following the rules to achieve said goal. Your anti-hero, on the other hand, is probably going to fall either into one of the neutral categories, where their motivation has nothing to do with the morality of the goal in question, or they’ll be in the chaotic good category, where they do what needs to be done to achieve the moral good.

One of my favorite examples of a neutral anti-hero is Rincewind the Wizard from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who is described as being such a coward he’s gone all the way around to being a hero again. Rincewind isn’t a reluctant hero, he is adamant that he will not go on this quest, spending all his time and energy trying and failing to avoid confrontations that will require him to do anything remotely heroic. When he’s first introduced to us in The Color of Magic, he offers to help out a tourist visiting the city of Ankh-Morpork, only to find himself smack in the middle of an interstate diplomatic spat. It’s hilariously funny, but it’s also induces our sympathy. Rincewind didn’t ask for this. He was just trying to do a nice thing (and yeah, okay, make some good money, fine. But that’s not a crime!) and now he’s on the hit list of a minister in a country he’s never even seen before.

(Or something along those lines. I’ll admit now that it’s been a while since I’ve read The Color of Magic.)

An anti-hero that’s a better fit under Chaotic Good is Jessica Jones of MarvelxNetflix’s (Marvflix?) Jessica Jones. Jessica, like Rincewind, is our protagonist, and she’s absolutely the hero in the sense that she has actual superhero powers. But again, she doesn’t want to be the hero. Given the choice, she would trade her powers and her trauma for a quiet life private detectiv-ing. But once she sees what must be done, she throws herself fully into stopping the psychotic and powerul killer on the loose. Once she’s made her decision, she does whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

Putting the parts together

So what does this tell us about effective anti-heros? They need to have a couple basic characteristics:

  • Personal reasons to root for them: In any story, we don’t just root for the good guy because they’re not the bad guy. This is not an election. We root for them because of some inherent characteristic within them that makes them “worthy” of the win. With Jessica, we want her to defeat Killgrave not only because he’s a terrible person and a murderer, but because we want Jessica to overcome her trauma. Jessica deserves to defeat him because of everything he did to her, and we sympathize with that. Yes, it is a revenge, but revenge is arguably the oldest and most relatable motive in history.
  • Ultimately be good people, for a given amount of goodness: Kris Noel writes that even the hero has to have a balance of negative and positive characteristics to make them real. This is of course true for the anti-hero as well. They can’t just be surly, unlovabale jerks who happen to be in the right place at the right time for our story. Take Rincewind: he’s a coward, and given a choice he would go home and let the world around him explode. But he’s also a humble, kindhearted, and helpful person, and definitely much less of selfish, short-sighted jerk than many of the other wizards we encounter over the course of Discworld. 
  • They have relationships that create human stakes: Someone needs to care if these people die. After all, if no one in the actual story cares about them, why should you? Jessica Jones has an adoptive sister who loves her and a kinda-sorta love interest. Rincewind has his friend the Librarian and the Luggage (which technically isn’t a person, but can still feel so it counts). Throughout his many adventures, he’s also able to make enough of a pathetic positive impression on people that someone somewhere will care enough to try to help him escape whoever’s chasing him this time. This is actually a crucial part of all Rincewind’s stories. Someone has to help hide him, because you can only run for so long.

Within these basic structures, there’s plenty of room to develop a character that drives your story. Maybe she’s more reluctant than anti, or more anti than reluctant. Maybe she’s the anti-hero of the bad guys, or the anti-hero of law enforcement. Go wild.

Who are some of your favorite anti-heroes in books, television, or movies? Comment below!

Oscar Schwartz demonstrates why poetry is weird

I feel like this post needs a disclaimer: I don’t like poetry.

The dislike has been a long-standing one, reaching back to middle school days when poetry, reading and writing, was a significant part of my class’s English assignments. I always stumbled on these assignments, because a) directed to find and put together words that rhyme in a way that makes sense, my brain would immediately begin to malfunction, and b) I didn’t understand why I had create a poem when it would be so much easier to just write what I wanted to say in a nice, solid paragraph.

So when the TEDTalks YouTube channel suggested this video to me, “Can a computer write poetry?”, my immediate concern was how this would be applicable to middle school English assignments.

Let me tell you now that this is not what the video is about.

In the video, writer Oscar Schwartz brings poetry into the world of sci-fi, using a computer algorithm that takes words from a selected source and then uses those words to create a “poem.” Interestingly enough, this was one of the first ways software engineers, as early as the 1950s, attempted to test a computer’s capacity for original thought.

The results, which are extremely varied, are really part of a wider philosophical discussion on what constitutes humanity, as Schwartz rightly points. Within that discussion, many questions are raised: What constitutes original thought? What factors lead us to perceive certain things as being innately human, while others are easily mistaken for the work of an artificial being? What does that say about the human who created the latter work? How does our perception of a work of self-expression affect our belief in its value?

More importantly, does this mean we can now eliminate poetry modules from English curricula?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The case for close-ended shows

Does it though? Image by Brandon Martin-Anderson via Flickr.

You, the reader, probably don’t watch a whole lot of Arabic television, but I do. But this not a list of the differences between Arabic and English television shows. That would be too long.

No, this is the case for incorporating one particular aspect of Arabic drama into the world of Western television, and that aspect is the closed ending.

Consider: the most satisfying aspect of a story in any format is that it’s building towards some kind of climax, followed by a winding down to a sensible end. This is story arcs 101, and there’s a reason for that: it works. When you don’t have a specified end, you force the story to continue in ways that are inorganic and ultimately dissatisfying.

Couldn’t be any simpler. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Think about it, how many of your favorite shows ended up going down the tubes after three or four seasons, rehashing old plot-lines and resorting to obnoxious guest characters to force humor and/or drama where none can grow?

Or even worse, how many shows were cancelled after one or two seasons, leaving the dedicated viewer grasping at straws, forced to resort to that dark side of the Internet, fanfiction, in a desperate attempt to gain some form of closure?

Compare that to your average Arabic television drama, which wraps up in quick and easy 30 episodes. This ensures that the show will have a beginning, a middle, and, thankfully, an end. Within that tried and true structure, you have character development, crisis and resolution, and an overall sense of structure. Even when the end is left purposely open, at least you have a sense that the main plot is wrapped up.

There are, of course, many shows that follow a season format, but that’s usually because they cannot, for whatever reason, resolve the major plot points within 30 episodes. At most you’ve got a story that 90 episodes to end. That’s still much less than the average six-season American television show, which at 22 episodes a season is over 120 episodes! That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that a lot of these episodes involve either a) upping the dramatic ante until it reaches previously unheard of levels of insanity (*cough “Grey’s Anatomy” cough*), b) employing ridiculously convoluted plot twists in an attempt to maintain viewer interest (“Pretty Little Liars” is particularly notorious for this), or c) beating the “will they won’t they” drama to death (“Friends” and, increasingly, “New Girl”).

Stop this plot! In the name of proper storytelling structure!

I’m not alone in thinking our shows go on for way too long: more and more new shows are debuting at just 10 episodes in their first season. In an interview with Variety, television producer and the brains behind Parks and Rec, Mike Schur, says, “…there’s more of a sense that shows should have a number of episodes that befits that idea, instead of just, ‘Let’s do as many as we possibly can.'”

It’s a trend that many credit to networks like HBO, AMC, and Starz. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not enough. The problem is not the number of episodes per season, it’s the number of episodes overall. So I say it’s time to take a page out of the book of Arabic television and commit only to shows that have both a start and an end.

Goodbye show. We knew ye a little too well.

Happy Eid! Positive portrayals of Muslims in the media

As some of you may know, tomorrow, Wednesday July 5th, marks the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr. I thought to celebrate, it would be interesting to dig around and find some of the best portrayals of Muslims in the media.

It’s no secret that since 9/11, there has been an increase in hostility towards Muslims and those who appear to be of a racial background associated with Islam – Sikhs in particular, for example, have paid the price for increasing Islamophobia. As a result, the portrayal of Muslims in the media has been overwhelmingly negative. While this is most apparent in the news, it’s also strongly present in creative media as well. This isn’t even just a post-9/11 trend; the documentary “Reel Bad Arabs” incisively demonstrates that degrading stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in Western media goes back decades.

It’s important, then, to highlight and celebrate the movies, television shows, and books that buck the trend. Here’s five titles that prominently feature characters that are prominently and pointedly Muslim and make them active, sympathetic protagonists. I tried to focus on movies and books that are set in a Western environment, rather than those set primarily in the Middle East or Indian subcontinent. Spoiler alerts all round!

1. Ms. Marvel – Marvel Comics

When Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan discovers that she has superhuman powers, she takes on the superhero name Ms. Marvel and goes off to fight crime and the forces of evil! Kamala is not the first Muslim superhero, but she is definitely the first one to be produced by a company with the clout and legacy of Marvel Comics. The comic series marks an important shift in the portrayal of Muslim women in particular.

2. Little Mosque on the Prairie (Six seasons)

CBC’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie” was a big deal when it came out, and no wonder – where else on television can you find Muslim families and in particular a Muslim Imam portrayed so normally? The series follows Amaar Rashid, a big-city lawyer who leaves his lucrative career to become the Imam of a mosque in a small Canadian town. He befriends the many residents, including the Anglican Reverend, whose church basement actually houses the mosque. The show is particularly good in that in showcases a variety of personalities in the Muslim community: there’s the conservative but ultimately loving father, the practical businessman who just wants to keep his costs down, the ambitious, feminist doctor, all part of a larger community of allies and antagonists, who are ultimately united for the greater good of their town.

“Little Mosque on the Prairie” is available on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

3. Arranged (2007)

In “Arranged,” Muslim teacher Nasira feels isolated in the Brooklyn public school where she works – that is, until she meets and befriends fellow teacher Rochel, and Orthodox Jewish woman. The two bond over shared beliefs and values as both go through arranged marriages, arranged here referring to marriages based on introductions set up by family, friends, or a matchmaker. The film not only demonstrates the common ground to be found between Muslims and Jews, but also elucidates religious practices that are often seen negatively in Western society, such as wearing the hijab or dressing modestly in general.

The movie is available on Amazon Prime and Netflix.

4. The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy 

Set in London, “The Room of Lost Things” features Akeel Khan as the entrepreneurial son of Pakistani immigrants who works in a dry-cleaning shop under the direction of the owner, Robert Sutton, who is preparing to sell it to him. Akeel is ambitious and hard-working, and, as a bonus, his wife is portrayed as cheerful and intelligent. Unfortunately, she doesn’t feature prominently in the narrative, which focuses on the way the lives of the dry-cleaning customers intersect with the life of Robert Sutton. But the relationship between Akeel and his wife is a supportive and happy one, in stark contrast to the forced marriages narrative that is so often peddled by the media.

5. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik

Londonite Sofia Khan works at a publishing house when her boss asks her to write a “tell-all” book about dating and marriage among the Muslim community. She approaches the idea with skepticism (I don’t blame her), having recently gotten out of a relationship with a man who expected her to live with essentially his entire extended family post-marriage. The book benefits not only from a diary-style format, but also from the fact the focus is less on Sofia’s search for love at the personal level, a classic chick-lit topic, but on her search for love at the academic, exploratory level.

Who are some of your favorite Muslim characters? Share in the comments!

 

It’s not the story, it’s how you tell it

Someone once told me I talk like I’m reading a story. They did not mean it as a compliment, but I took it as one.

I like stories and, if you have the right mindset, everything is a story. But not all stories are created equal. Some stories are created particularly unequal in that they are repetitive, obvious, relying on overused tropes and stifling stereotypes. They bore us. Am I really going to suffer through 200 pages of a love triangle so that the heroine can come to a revelatory realization about what true love means and what she was really looking for this whole time?

Well, I might.

As irritating as I often find love triangles to be (is there no other way to introduce conflict into a narrative? Any other way at all? I’ll take literally anything else), there are times when a well-written story can supersede the actual plot. As Ursula Guin writes,

“Romeo and Juliet is a story of the conflict between two families, and its plot involves the conflict of two individuals with those families. Is that all it involves? Isn’t Romeo and Juliet about something else, and isn’t it the something else that makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy?”

Let’s take Romeo and Juliet for a moment (and I’ll admit now that many long years have passed since I read the story or saw that absolutely awful film rendition, which made the bizarre choice to take the most off-putting part of historical fiction…but that’s a post for another time. Back to the topic at hand.). It’s not a great plot, and especially after a few hundred years of work on the English novel it comes off as rather over-dramatic. The language is nice – for about the first five pages, and then you just want someone to tell you what in the world is going on. This is why we have Cliff Notes.

Teenage angst, 90s band-boy haircuts, and really flowery language. You gotta love it – NOT!

But as much as one might roll their eyes at Romeo and Juliet, there is still an aspect that endears itself to the reader. The intensity, the pace, the desperation of it all, you can’t help but feel heartbroken for this tale of doomed love, even if the whole thing was kind of silly to start with and could have been avoided if the two teens in question had been good kids who listened to their parents. Maybe that’s a part of it, too. The truth is that there are those times in your life where you believe so strongly that you’re right, where you’re so determined to prove that you’re right, you’ll do anything, no matter how unreasonable or extreme or downright insane it may be. And a lot of those times happen when you’re young and/or in love.

The multi-form approach

The medium can help too. Most songs, with the exception of those designed with twerking primarily in mind, are really just stories in lyric form. How many stories have I heard of doomed love in song form? A lot, and I love them. When Abdelhalim sings “Ana lak ‘ala tool, khaleek leya,” I sing along, even though I can’t sing to save my life, and my heart breaks for him, the poor desperate guy. I root for him so hard, and I’m so happy when it works out at the end of the approximately seven minutes.

Yes, I have very old-fashioned tastes.

The song, whose first line translates to, “I am yours forever, be mine,” is essentially the story of man whose love will not give him the time of day. He goes through life with a burdened heart, longing for a soft look, a kind smile, anything to demonstrate that she returns one iota of his feelings for her.

If this were a book, I would not have gotten past the blurb. If someone were telling me this story, my eyes would roll in their sockets so hard they would get stuck back there. Yet in song, somehow, I am so moved I feel an actual pain in my chest. It’s a combination of Abdelhalim’s beautiful voice and the elegant choice of words, I think, that causes this reaction, more so than if it had been just one or the other.

Emojis killed the writing star

For a more positive and amusing example of this phenomenon, check out the TEDTalk below. It tells a very simple, very obvious story, but it works because of the medium, which in this case happens to be emoticons. Watch and enjoy! But please keep in mind that most publishing houses do not accept novels in emoji form.

Like this post? Share your thoughts and come back on Tuesday for more!