The Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk

Just to give you a head’s up: I’m postponing my third giveaway until next week. (Sorry. I won’t tell you ahead of time what this giveaway involves. Mwwwhahaha!) Since this post is already long, I’ll post again this weekend to let you know who won the gift card and a preorder of Kate Sparkes’s book, Torn. Now, on with our regularly scheduled broadcast. . . .

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The other day, my friend Sharon told me about a TED Talk by writer/director Andrew Stanton. Since I was familiar with his Pixar movies (Toy Story 1, 2, 3; A Bug’s Life; Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and others), I was eager to hear what tips he had for telling great stories. (I didn’t see John Carter, the sci-fi film he co-wrote and directed [2012], though I read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

The TED Talk in question is below. There is, however, a small amount of graphic language early on. Just want to warn anyone who might be offended.

Because of its rich tapestry of information, this is one of my favorite talks. Here are some of the storytelling tips Stanton mentioned that really resonated with me:

• Make me care.
• Give a promise that your story will take the reader somewhere worthwhile.
• Invoke wonder.
• Capture a truth from your experience.

There were many other points. Because of that inspiring talk, I have decided to host a series of guest posts on the points Stanton discussed. I’m calling this series the Stanton Effect: Inspiration from a TED Talk. I’m excited to have such a stellar line up of bloggers and authors coming to the blog in the next few weeks to share their thoughts. From time to time, however, I will break away from the series with a post or two about a giveaway. But don’t worry. I’ll get right back to the series.

Today, I’m leading off with Stanton’s first point—make me care. It captured my attention, because it is the number one reason why I usually stop reading a book or watching a film—I simply didn’t care enough.

Make me care. In grad school, my advisors told me the same thing over and over and over again: “You have to make me care about this story.” Yet forging a heart connection with a reader is tricky to do. Tricky, but not impossible. Think of the last story you really connected with. We connect when we can relate to a character’s struggles or hopes.

If you watched Stanton’s TED Talk, you saw a scene from Finding Nemo that absolutely tugs at the heartstrings. The scene below is the beginning of that scene.

We connect as we think about the losses in our own lives. Though Stanton made a different point when showing the scene, I can’t help thinking of how the filmmakers caused me to care without making me feel manipulated.

DarkestPartoftheForest_coverI also think of a book I’ve read twice now: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black. In the opener, Black describes a glass coffin that is pivotal to the main character’s story. (You learn that fact on the book jacket.)

It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.

As far as Hazel Evans knew, from what her parents said to her and from what their parents said to them, he’d always been there. And no matter what anyone did, he never, ever woke up. (1)

Black made me care, because the unusual image of a boy in a glass coffin stirred my curiosity and reminded me of fairy tales I love. But most of all, I cared because Black showed me what Hazel was interested in right off the bat. I cared, because Hazel cared.

Another way Black made me care is through her obvious concern for her characters—good, bad, or in between. She cared enough to show them at their strongest or most vulnerable without making a judgment call either way. I can’t help contrasting her efforts to the number of times I’ve heard an author admit to disliking a certain character in his/her own book—usually the antagonist. An author’s dislike of his/her character is always a red flag for me. I need to care even about the most morally repugnant individual in a story. If I don’t, I’ll head for the exit quickly.

If you saw the series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, on Nickelodeon, you’re familiar with this dude:

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Prince Zuko

Avatar-Episodes-Book-1-Water-300x300Slight spoilers in this paragraph to follow. (Be warned.) Throughout the first book of the series—Water—Zuko is clearly working against the heroes. Though he has his own agenda, I couldn’t help caring about him, because the writers (including series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) made him a well-rounded character. They showed the physical and emotional wounds motivating his actions. They also gave him an antagonist. I cared, because they cared.

If we want to make readers care about our work, we need to love our characters. We don’t have to approve of their actions, particularly the bone-headed ones. But we definitely need to understand why they do what they do. Caring about them is what makes a story great.

Black, Holly. The Darkest Part of the Forest. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2015. Print.

Andrew Stanton from zimbio. Zuko from earnthis.net. Avatar book 1 DVD cover from avatarthelastairbenderonline.com.

Wicked World Building: Filling the Space in Wicked Lovely

Before I get into what that title is all about, it’s time to reveal the winner of another book, this one by the fabulous Adi Rule. Click here for the interview with Adi if you missed it.

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The winner of Strange Sweet Song is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Ellar Cooper!

Congrats, Ellar! Please confirm below, then email me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com to provide your snail mail address! If for some reason, you do not wish to receive the book you won or already have a copy of the book, please comment below and I’ll choose another winner. Thanks for commenting!

Moving on, here’s a question for you (um, not just Ellar—anyone can answer): Why is the art of Maurits Cornelis Escher so fascinating? He plays with our perspective in illustrations of stunning symmetry. In one illustration, he’ll fill up every inch of space evenly. For example, M. C. Escher: Visions of Symmetry by Doris Schattschneider features an illustration entitled “Baarn XII-48” (Schattschneider 174; see illustration below right). In it, Escher shows a series of boats—the same brown boat each time—going west. What at first appears to be a green backdrop of waves is really a series of fish heading in the same direction. You have to take a closer look to see them.

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305234Melissa Marr is like Escher in the way she built the world of Wicked Lovely, a young adult paranormal romance. (This isn’t a new release, so you should easily find it at your library if you’re interested.) Two worlds are depicted within the same space. At first glance we see a town as real as anyplace found in our world. This is Huntsdale, where the main character, 18-year-old Aislinn Foy lives. It has pool halls, Catholic schools, and tattoo parlors. But take a closer look. Marr fill up every inch of space with a second world enmeshed with the first. That’s the faery world.

Feeling claustrophobic yet? You will.

A hint of the interlinked worlds occurs when Marr introduces Aislinn in a pool hall:

Aislinn circled the table, paused, and chalked the cue. Around her the cracks of balls colliding, low laughter, even the endless stream of country and blues from the jukebox kept her grounded in the real world: the human world, the safe world. It wasn’t the only world, no matter how much Aislinn wanted it to be. But it hid the other world—the ugly one—for brief moments. (4)

Marr shows the claustrophobia of Aislinn’s world, thanks to the intrusive, relentless faeries. A few paragraphs later, a faery gets up close and personal with Aislinn by blowing on her neck and touching her hair, confident that he can’t be seen, heard, or felt by normal humans. But Aislinn is anything but normal. She has “the Sight”—an ability (or curse in her case) to see and feel the fey. But to protect herself, she has to pretend that she’s “normal” and therefore, can’t feel or see the fey.

Aislinn lives by three rules: “Don’t stare at invisible faeries, Rule #3” (11); “don’t answer invisible faeries, Rule #2” (12); and rule #3: “Don’t ever attract faeries’ attention” (13). Unfortunately for her, the fey have a way of forcing her to break those rules. One such faery, Keenan, the Summer King, is relentless in his pursuit of her. And that’s the conflict of Wicked Lovely.

There are two things a fantasy writer can do to build a fantasy world: (1) adapt an existing world or (2) invent a new world. Either way, the world has to make sense to the reader.

To populate her world, Marr used the hierarchy of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts from Scottish folklore and William Butler Yeats’s solitary and trooping fey classification from Irish folklore.

19432758The fey are the sidhe—“the Good People” or the Fair Folk. The fey of the Seelie Court are considered benevolent (Seelie means “blessed” according to Wikipedia) while the Unseelie Court fey are malevolent. The trooping fey, according to Yeats in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, are fallen angels “not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost” (Yeats, 11). They are fairy royalty with entourages, while the solitary fey lack an allegiance to a court and come in many styles: leprechauns—from the Irish leith bhrogan or “one-shoemaker”; cluricauns—drunken leprechauns; far darrig—“red man”—leprechauns with red caps who play horrible jokes on people; fear gorta—“man of hunger”—a spirit that goes around begging for food; house spirits; and others (57). Many solitary fey are evil (Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty below) while others are merely mischievous.

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In Marr’s world, Aislinn and other humans are powerless against the machinations of the fey. Aislinn constantly watches as the fey play pranks on humans, most of whom remain oblivious.

By the end of the book and the defeat of the antagonist, Aislinn has grown in confidence and even sets some rules of her own that the fey have to live with. Aislinn’s rules are her way of making the best of the world she now inhabits—a world even more enmeshed than when the story began.

Now that’s some wicked world building!

Works Cited
“Classification of fairies.” Wikipedia. Web. 13 March 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classifications_of_fairies>
Marr, Melissa. Wicked Lovely. New York: HarperTeen, 2007. Print.
Schattschneider, Doris. M. C. Escher: Visions of Symmetry. New York: W. H. Freedman and Company, 1990. Print.
Yeats, William Butler, editor. Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. Digireads.com Publishing, 2010. eBook.

Escher image, “Baarn XII-48,” found at Pinterest.com. Maleficent from fanpop.com. Book covers from Goodreads.