Jupiter Ascending did NOT fail because…

Jupiter Ascending Movie Cover

…of bad casting. Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Sean Bean did a pretty great job considering some of the lines they had to say.

…of poor world building. The different worlds and species were not that bad. The idea of harvesting humans so that a select few could live forever was pretty interesting, if not entirely original. Most of the technology allowed you to suspend your disbelief.

…of the setting. The worlds were visually stunning. The spaceships were unique and interesting.

…it starred a female character. This is so important. Fantasy and Sci-fi shows featuring female leads CAN and WILL be successful, just as soon as the producers can get all the REAL issues taken care of.

And what were the real issues of the movie? Poor storytelling and characterization (I won’t even get into the HORRIBLE romance).

One of the biggest issues with the storytelling and characterization (and one that I see frequently when reading manuscripts) is a lack of proactivity from the main character. Main characters are supposed to DO things, not have things done to them. It’s okay to have an inciting incident that gets the character in the position she needs to be to start being proactive, but for this type of story, the main character needs to be proactive during the majority of the story.

Allow me to give an example of this. Let’s look at Katniss, a female lead who stars in an excellent book and excellent movie. Katniss has a very simple life. She lives under horrible circumstances in district 12, but does she sit around crying “Poor me”? No, she breaks the rules by going through the fence and hunting to provide food for her family. That, my friends, is proactivity. When it’s time for the reaping and Katniss’s sister is chosen to participate in the hunger games, does Katniss cry and bid her sister farewell? No, she freaking volunteers to take her place. Proactivity. In the games, does she just sit around and wait to die? No, she takes care of Peeta and thinks of a way to beat the system. Would you consider Katniss a victim of her circumstances? No, she’s a fighter and a survivor. She is a wonderful proactive character, and that is why she and her story are so fascinating.

So I’ll say it again, characters cannot sit around and simply have things done to them. They have to fight back. They have go out and do things. This makes them interesting.

Now, Jupiter Jones is not proactive. She has things done to her. She’s kidnapped…how many times during the movie? Four? She does what people tell her to do. Caine says stay. Caine says follow me. She has to go with the bad guys. She agrees to marry one of the bad guys, even though she’s sort of his reincarnated mother. Eew. Weird. Who thought that was a good plot element? Was anyone else reminded of the movie Thumbelina? Sure, I’ll marry the toad. Sure, I’ll marry the mole. What the heck?

The only times I can think of when Jupiter actually did something were when she agreed to go with the bad guys to save her family and then when she refused to sign over the rights to the earth to save her family. But that’s it. Two decisions. That’s what Jupiter’s character comes down to.

And THAT’S why Jupiter Ascending failed.

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The Devil’s in the Details

My husband and I recently started watching a show called The 100 on Netflix. The 100 is based on a book series of the same name by Kass Morgan and the first season aired on the CW last year. (Oddly enough, I heard absolutely nothing about this show until the last few months when it made its way to Netflix and, subsequently, made its way to tumblr fandoms.) Anyway, as far as entertaining and diverse media goes, I’d give The 100 a solid A. I’m only six or seven episodes into season one, but the cast features plenty of PoC and women as driving forces of the narrative instead of just background decoration, and that’s something I can always stand behind—especially when it’s entertaining too!

The-100-cast-season-one

image from primetime.unrealitytv.co.uk

 

The 100’s grade starts slipping a little, though, in the details of its storytelling. During the first three episodes, my husband and I had a rousing good time picking apart all the flaws in the plot and in the costuming and in the world building. To be fair, I’m married to the sort of person who spends the drive home every time we go see a movie picking apart every single detail about said movie that doesn’t make sense and he can be overly critical, but at the same time, I feel like he and I were making some good points—and these good points have shifted The 100 from “oh my gosh everyone go watch this show it’s amazing!!!” to “eh it’s a pretty good show and entertaining, but it could have been so much better.”

Let’s look at the costume design. The 100 is set 97 years after a nuclear fallout on Earth and the only surviving humans are the descendants of people who’d been living on twelve different space stations (now hodge-podged together into one). The only resources these people have are what already existed on those space stations at the time of Earth’s destruction. And yet everyone wears tailored-to-fit skinny jeans and I’m pretty sure that the teenage cast (the 100 juvenile delinquents sent to Earth to see if it’s survivable) were all outfitted with custom made leather jackets before they were booted out of the space station. (How else are we supposed to indicate that they’re delinquents if they’re not wearing leather?)

The show has nodded to the fact that the people on the space station to recycle and reuse a lot of clothes and shoes and supplies, but there hasn’t been a significant explanation of why those space stations had all that gear in the first place.

And beyond the jeans and leather jackets, we’ve seen a couple of girls in their underwear and so we know that at least one of the girls wears a standard underwire bra—that apparently fits her like a dream even though that bra is 97 years old (or has been repurposed from 97 year old parts). I’m lucky if my bras last more than a year.

Now, I suppose a lot of this is probably nit-picking. It’s just costuming, right? Besides, skinny jeans and combat boots and leather jackets are part of the post-apocalyptic aesthetic and that sort of aesthetic is important when marketing a show so people know what they’re getting themselves into. Fine. Fair enough. I’ll give you that.

But what about this guy?

image from thetvaddict.com

image from thetvaddict.com

This guy is a grounder—the descendant of one of the humans who survived the nuclear fallout 97 years ago. Until the 100 showed up, he’d been living in a cave, but LOOK AT THAT T-SHIRT! I can perhaps buy that the clothes on the space station have held up better than they should because they haven’t been exposed to natural elements, but this guy has been living in a cave and I’m pretty sure I could find that exact shirt out at Hollister or something. That doesn’t suggest to me that the grounders have been living it rough the last 97 years.

Another thing about that character? He speaks and understands English. In the episode where he’s introduced, the showrunners make a little nod to the fact that he probably doesn’t understand English, but by the end of the episode, it becomes pretty clear that he does. And while 97 years isn’t enough time for language to completely shift—enough time for the space survivors and the grounders to be using wildly different dialects, perhaps, but not enough for them to be speaking completely different languages—I still have a hard time believing that the 100’s space pod, which essentially crash-landed in the middle of a forest in some unidentified part of the world, happened to land in the pocket of the world that still speaks English. The odds are unfathomable.

And from here, my problems with the details in the storytelling only get worse. In the first few episodes, several of the teenagers take a dip in a river. How did they learn to swim? I doubt their space station has a lap pool. Even if they do have enough water to fill a lap pool, I doubt they’d want that water being contaminated by people swimming in it.

And that time they had to save one of their buddies from a fever from an infected wound? As far as I can tell, they just went out to the same river and grabbed a handful of radioactive-red seaweed and…boiled it? And it saved him? Granted, I know nothing about herbal remedies, but doesn’t anyone else think that the flora on Earth would be so warped by radiation that you shouldn’t really trust it without testing it first?

And when some of the 100 drag home a wild monster-puma for everyone to eat, how do they know how to cook it? Have any of them ever eaten meat? Where did they get meat in space? And how do they know how to control fire so well? Considering the space station is running out of oxygen, I’d assume that fire would be a number one banned item in space considering how it feeds off oxygen.

On the subject of oxygen, what’s the deal with the space station government executing criminals by throwing them out of an airlock—along with an entire room full of oxygen? The method of execution does add some fun vernacular—the practice is called “floating” and leads to such phrases as “Oh, go float yourself”—but for a people concerned with conserving oxygen, it does not make an ounce of sense to launch your criminals into space through an airlock without vacuuming the oxygen out of the room in the first place! Especially since these people operate by a “one strike and you’re out” policy. How much oxygen have they wasted by booting people out of airlocks like that? How much of their current crisis could have been avoided if they’d figured out a better way to kill their criminals?

At the end of the day, all of these details are pretty extraneous. None of them are terribly important to the plot and none of them feel like gimmicks designed to prop the plot up (which is a worse crime, in my opinion). But the fact is that these extraneous details pull me out of the show and out of the story. As much as I enjoy the show, I can’t help but notice all these little things that don’t make sense and then I spend time complaining about it with my husband instead of paying attention to the show. The show is very good, but it’s not mind-blowing in the way it could have been…all because the attention to detail is a little lacking.

Writing a Sequel

Catching_fire

Image from Wikipedia

crown-of-embers

Image from The Young Folks

Frostbite

Image from Fanpop

Harry_Potter_and_the_Chamber_of_Secrets_(US_cover)

Image from Wikipedia

Those of us who read can relate times when we’ve been disappointed by sequels.

I’m afraid I can’t get into specific examples of bad sequels. As a rule, I don’t like to insult other authors—you never know when that can come back around and bite you. But I can point out good examples (see pics above) as well as things to avoid when working on sequels, which is what I aim to do with this post.

Someone once told me that we shouldn’t be disappointed by an author’s sequel. They have creative license. What they envision for the book is how the story should go. Authors can’t write their books “wrong.”

But if that were true, why would editors exist?

The fact of the matter is that authors CAN write their sequels wrong, but oftentimes editors don’t bother to change the big stuff because the first book did so well (I’m sure there are also various other reasons, but for right now we’ll stick with this one). They know the second book will sell well too. But what about the books after that? What happens when an author gets progressively worse because no one will tell them what they’re doing wrong?

First off, the goal is to make each successive book either better or just as good as the last one. As a writer, your books should not be getting worse. And by worse, I don’t mean that bad stuff happens in the book. No, no, no, no. I mean that the quality of your story worsens.

So. Here’s how this works. You write a book. You have a setting. You have a cast of characters. You have a main character or two or five, depending on the norms of your genre. You have a voice, a style, a feel to your book. You’re giving readers a specific experience that only you, as the unique writer that you are, can give them. By writing that first book in a series, here is what you are promising your readers: “Here are how my books work. These are my characters. They have these personalities. You can expect this kind of pacing from me. This is the kind of climax you can expect from me. Here are the kind of subplots I will be doing in this series. You can expect this kind of unique world building in my setting. Etc.”

And when it comes time for a sequel, your writers EXPECT you to give them all the things you promised them in the first one. They want that experience again. They want it to be the same, but different. They want the experiences they had during the first book—the laughing, the crying, the gasping, etc.—but this time with a new story.

Because it’s a perfect example for just about everything, let’s look at Harry Potter to demonstrate this. When JK Rowling wrote that wonderful book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, she showed everyone what incredible things she can do. She demonstrated wonderfully diverse and round characters; multiple mystery subplots; a magical setting; numerous fantastical elements; and themes of friendship, loyalty, and bravery. You can even get into more specifics. You will read about people flying on broomsticks. You’ll see people brandishing wands. You know that the bad guy is not who you first think it is. The characters will cleverly get out of tight situations. They will make you laugh.

I could go on, but you get the point. Rowling makes this all happen in the first book. Then it happens again in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. All the same things. All the same elements. But does it feel like the same story? No. Completely new story, but you get all the same experiences. And Rowling always makes sure her books are just as good or better than the last one. As a series, we can say that Harry Potter wins.

Let’s look at another good example: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. Does she give her readers the same experience in her sequel that she did in The Hunger Games. Yes. Can you find the same elements and themes? The same characters. The same feel. Yes.

Other good examples of sequels include The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson and Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about other books because I want to get on to ways that authors can ensure that readers will be satisfied with their sequels. Because believe it or not, there are simple things to do to give your sequel the best chance it can have of being just as good or better than the first book.

First, I need to preface this by saying that just because an author you know did one of the no-nos I’m about to list, that doesn’t mean I don’t like that author or their books. I respect all (well, most) authors because writing is hard no matter what. And even if an author I love did one of these things, I would forgive them. Unless they started doing it consistently. Basically, if you’re a published author reading this, don’t hate me if you’ve done one of these things. It’s not personal. I’m probably still going to upset someone, but whatever. This is all in the interest of making us all better as writers. So you shouldn’t hate me.

The first on the list is pretty simple: don’t change the genre of your book. If your first book is a romance, the sequel should not be horror. You laugh now. You think that no one would actually do this. But I’ve seen it done. Not with romance and horror, but with other genres. If your first book is a “fight to stay alive” kind of thriller, the sequel should not be a mystery. Give readers the same experience. When your book is a mixing of genres, give your readers the same mix of genres in the sequel.

Second and third, don’t replace all your characters or separate all your characters. These two kind of go together, so I’ll talk about them at the same time. If in the first book, you made us all fall in love with one cast of characters, don’t replace them with a new cast. This isn’t to say you can’t kill off characters or introduce new characters. Go ahead. This means you shouldn’t take your character away from all the other fun characters. Don’t have your character spend a whole book in a new country and ignore all your other characters. Bring them along too. Because readers enjoy the interactions between all the characters. They love the conflict that arises between Character A and Character B. They like the way Character C and Character D crack jokes together. They like the romantic tension between Character E and Character F. When you separate even two of the characters, you don’t get that interaction that your readers loved in the first one. You’re giving them a different reading experience.

Fourth, have the same kind of subplots. If you’ve got an incredible mystery subplot in the first one, have another one in the second. If you have an element of adventure in the first one, have it in the second one. If there’s a romance in the first one, have it continue onto the second one.

Because I’m me, I just have to expand on the romance thing for a bit. If your series contains a romantic subplot (and especially if you’re writing YA), then it needs to have the same amount of romantic tension in each succeeding book. If you lose the romantic tension, you’ll often lose the reader too. If you’re writing a series with a huge romantic subplot, the guy and girl cannot get together at the end of the first book. Well they can, but something needs to disturb it at the beginning of the second book then. That tension needs to continue. You need to give readers the same reading experience.

So don’t be a one hit wonder. Be that person who has readers dying to read their next book because they can’t wait to see what awesome thing you’ll do next. Because they know they can expect it from you. Fulfill your promises to the reader. Be like Rowling.

 

Morally Ambiguous Characters

For starters, I want to clarify the differences between a bad boy and a morally ambiguous character. Bad boys have had many sexual partners. They often don’t give a crap what other people think, and they don’t like to follow rules or laws. While many morally ambiguous characters are bad boys, not all bad boys are morally ambiguous. Although, both tend to wear black and/or leather outfits. Guyliner can also be involved.

Morally ambiguous characters (MACs) are mind changers. They can’t decide whether they want to be good or bad. It depends on what they’re trying to achieve “in the moment” rather than making decisions based on a set of morals that they already possess. VERY often, a girl is involved in their decision making process.

Now, just so we’re all on the same page—let’s look at some examples of MACs. Take a look at these beauties:

Spike

Picture from Wikia

Damon

Picture from Wikia

Hook

Picture from Stuffpoint

Loki

Picture from Unwinnable

Guy

Picture from WordPress blog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s talk briefly about what makes them morally ambiguous. First, we have our two vampire boys from different shows: Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Damon from The Vampire Diaries. Were they real, they’d be considered serial killers. But they both end up making better choices for the sake of a girl. Not tough to see the moral ambiguity there.

Then we have Guy of Gisborne from BBC’s Robin Hood. He’s a bad dude. Oppresses the people under his care, kills innocents, etc. He also starts to change for the girl.

Next, there’s Loki from Thor: The Dark World. I reference this movie specifically because this is the one where he starts to become morally ambiguous. This is the movie where we start to question his character. Previously, Loki had tried to take over the world in Avengers, which resulted in the deaths of lots of people. But in Thor 2, he starts to help his brother once his mother dies—but at the end of the movie, we have no idea whose side Loki’s on.

And last, but certainly not least, we have Hook from Once Upon a Time. Throughout the show, Hook is not afraid to work with the bad guys to get what he wants, regardless of the consequences. He puts his needs (which start out as being revenge on Rumple) before everyone else’s. And he, too, changes for the girl.

Now let’s talk about four reasons why these characters work so well in stories.

  1. Character Development.

MACs have SO FAR to go. They often start out on one side of the bad/good scale and then go clear to the other side after an inciting event. Then they start to fluctuate on the scale. As readers and viewers, we like to watch characters grow. Character growth comes from internal conflict, which drives a story sometimes even better than external conflict. You can root for a character who you want to see change. Will Loki ever become a good guy and help out the Avengers? We’re dying to know what he’ll do next. We’re so invested in him as a character because we want to see him reach his full potential. To see what he can do when he puts all his energy into helping the cause. (Or, on the other side, to see just how bad he can get. And what he’s willing to do to prove a point.) The point is that we can easily become invested in MACs because there’s so far for them to grow. They can’t always sit on the fence. In the end, they will be good or bad. And we want to see where they’ll end up.

  1. Romantic Tension.

Guy and Marian, Buffy and Spike, Damon and Elena, Hook and Emma. (Loki is the only one of my examples not to have a girl involved, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before Marvel jumps at that opportunity. They’d be fools not to with all of Tom Hiddleston’s fan girls.) Those of us who enjoy romance in our stories love to see the guy get the girl. We like to see a guy change for a girl. We like to see the bad guys do good things for the girl. It makes the girl special because she is the only thing in the world that can motivate the MAC to be good. I think girls love this fantasy of a guy who will change for them. I believe we call it the Beauty and the Beast Complex. Whatever you call it, it’s powerful.

  1. Humor

MACs do have some good qualities. More often than not, they’re funny. Loki, Spike, hook, and Damon are all funny. Everyone loves to laugh. So even if characters do bad things, yet have good qualities that we can admire, we’ll overlook the bad ones. Humor isn’t the only good quality they can possess, but it is certainly one of the most powerful, I think. All MACs, and bad guys in general, should have at least one good quality. Nobody is all bad. We’re fascinated by things like murderers who have pet kittens that they adore. It’s bizarre. It makes you question who they are and what motivates them because we seem to think at times that good and bad can’t exist together. In the story world, they always should.

  1. They stand out from everyone else

They’re just so interesting. They’re unpredictable. You have to be invested in them because you’re dying to know what choices they’ll make. Readers don’t like stories that they can predict. Even in stories where we want a happy ending, we don’t want to be able to predict how we get to the happy ending. The “bad guys” in a show steal all the attention once they become morally ambiguous. Thor may be the god of thunder, but Loki is the god of tumblr. Delena has way more fangirls than Stelena. Once Spike realizes he has the hots for Buffy, does anyone else in the show even seem as remotely interesting? No. Joss Whedon even ends up making him one of the main characters. Because he’s so darn interesting. And *spoiler* for my example for Guy if you haven’t seen the series—BBC ended up killing off Maid Marian because her dynamic with Guy was so much more interesting than the one she had with Robin. Guy was a more interesting character. Everyone rooted for Guy. No one wanted her to get with Robin. MACs steal all the thunder.

I wish we saw more MACs in the novel realm. All my examples are from movies and TV shows because I had a harder time coming up with ones in books. I noticed that the MACs tended to already be reformed by the time the story starts. But I would LOVE to see more of them in YA. In fact, after I finish the book I’m working on now, I will have one of my next male leads be a MAC. Should be fun.

In the comments below, tell us about some of your favorite MACs that weren’t mentioned here.

On Storytelling with Integrity

So one of my guilty pleasures in life is the fact that I watch a certain show on Fox that involves an incredibly diverse group of Ohio high schoolers who happen to break out into song a lot. (Fact: having lived in Ohio for most of my life, I have yet to encounter a school quite like that one…) Even if you have only a passing familiarity with pop culture, you’ve probably heard about this show.

There are a lot of things I love about Glee. I love (most of) the songs. I love Sue Sylvester’s biting wit. I love the fact that it’s a mainstream show that depicts a variety of characters so all the viewers have someone to identify with. (I have a lot of opinions about the importance of having characters to identify with. I love diversifying our media and I think it’s a wonderful thing.)

But there are also some things I am less than pleased with about the show, namely the poor–and I would go so far as to say offensive–portrayal of Christians on the show. Now a lot of people will point out that Glee represents Christians the same way it represents every other group. There are members of the glee club who are Christian, just like there are members who are gay, or bi-sexual, or Jewish, or handicapped. But those Christian characters aren’t defined by their religious belief the same way that, say, Kurt is defined by his sexual orientation. They believe in God and they have their little Christian club that gets mentioned about once a semester, but that’s about it. Kurt gets episodes about his character arc while he accepts who he is. These Christian characters don’t really get the same attention while they struggle with their beliefs.

Which is fine, really. I know plenty of good Christian people who believe in God and Jesus and that’s about the extent of their religious devotion. There’s not really a grand struggle there, and that’s okay.  I’m totally cool with that. What bothers me is the fact that the characters on Glee who are very devoted to Christianity, whose religious beliefs dictate their role on the show, usually turn out to be douche bags. They fit (an admittedly honest) stereotype of Christians who are judgmental and hateful. And this was particularly noticeable in the most recent episode.

In this particular episode, the new head cheerleader and resident bee-otch, Kitty, held a meeting about the rapture and berated her fellow students that they all needed to shape up or burn in hell, because once the rest of them were raptured up, they’d be all alone. It escalated to the point that when one girl at this meeting professed doubt, Kitty made an excuse to get the girl out of the room and, while the girl was gone, got all the other people at the meeting to stage a pretend rapture. They all laid down clothes where they had been sitting and quickly left the room. When the girl came back, she had a panic attack.

Again, I will admit that there are self-professed Christians who do things like this. But there are just as many Christians–including, I would think, the open-minded Christian members of the glee club–who would be horrified by that kind of behavior. And even though those self-same members were at that meeting, not a single one of them spoke out against that pretend rapture or told Kitty she crossed a line by inducing panic attacks. Because personally, as a Christian myself, I was appalled by this girl’s behavior and had I been there, I would have called her out about it.

And I was confused that none of the other Christian characters–characters I’m supposed to identify with by virtue of our shared religious beliefs–didn’t say a word. Not one of them said, “Hey, this isn’t what Jesus would want.”

In the end, it all comes down to telling stories with integrity, which is something the writers and producers of Glee have been neglecting for a few seasons now. If they want to portray the negative aspects of Christianity, they have every right to. But I think they also have the responsibility to show the other side of Christianity–the side which is predominantly made up of people who are just trying to live life the best they can, who try to make the world a better place because that’s the example they were shown by Jesus Christ, who try to love their neighbors, and who try to live their religion in a world that is increasingly intolerant of their conservative beliefs.

Glee has marketed itself as a show that promotes tolerance and understanding between conflicting social groups. That’s one of the founding premises of the show–a group of social misfits who get together to create beautiful music while they try to navigate the shark-infested waters of high school life. But I think the show’s poor portrayal of Christianity–which, in itself, is a very diverse demographic–shows a lack of tolerance and understanding. It lacks the integrity to show the differing view points of social groups. Not all Christians are the same, just like all gay people aren’t the same.

Storytelling with integrity is about trying to portray different groups of people–many of whom have opinions different from yours–in the most accurate light possible, and that means accepting that no matter what box you try to force people into (based on their sexual identity or their religion or their political stance or their race) that people are still people. In every group and every demographic, there are people who are out to be mean and nasty and spiteful and who’s entire motivation in life is to tear other people down (ie Kitty). But in those same groups and demographics are good people who are genuinely trying to live good lives and be good people. And I think we have every right to expect our storytellers and our artists to depict all sides of humanity, regardless of the box we try to force them into.