Blood, Boobs, and Carnage

Blood Boobs Carnage Blogfest

I stuck in my thumb, and I pulled out a Plum!

Picture this: A Jersey girl, born and raised, with a perfectly nice set of boobs, thank you. She figured out which way to point a gun in her new career as a bounty hunter on the mean streets of Trenton, so she’s drawn her share of blood. And as for carnage, just check out the cars she’s crushed, blown up, or set on fire. She’s the total package baby. I give you: Stephanie Plum!

Stephanie Plum

Stephanie’s story began in One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich. To date there are 21 numbered Plum stories, plus four shorter holiday novels and a feature film starring Katherine Heigl. They are all tightly-plotted mysteries full of plot twists and zany but believable characters: Morelli, the cop who looked up her skirt in middle school and whose eyes draw her in today; Ranger, the monosyllabic scary-sexy professional bondsman; Lula, the hooker turned file clerk; Grandma Mazur, the blue-haired terror with the gun in her purse; Sally Sweet, the six-foot star of the transvestite rock band; and on and on, more than I can list. They are all hilarious. I would listen to these books at the gym and have to stifle giggles as I panted on the treadmill.

One thing I find impressive about this series is that Evanovich is largely successful in maintaining the consistency of her characters while allowing them, especially Stephanie herself, to grow and change. Her style of humor appeals to me as well. It’s often over the top, but never seems forced, growing organically out of the basic nature of her characters and situations. I would be happy if I could do half as well half the time.

(Note – this post is my response to the Blood, Boobs, and Carnage Blogfest sponsored by Alex Cavanaugh and Heather Gardner. Thanks to them for setting this up!)

Pint-Sized Pandora (Review: The Girl With All the Gifts)

GirlWithAlltheGifts  I just finished M. R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, and I’m heartbroken. And thrilled. And wonderstruck. It blew my mind. Let me ramble a bit about why I liked it, then try to dig into its structure a little more deeply.

Though it never uses the word, this is a zombie story. Humans are fighting a last-ditch action against “hungries,” people who have been infected by a fungal spore that shuts down the brain’s cognitive functions and hijacks the body and nervous system as a host for the fungus. Hungries live on protein from uninfected animals and humans, and the fungus is transmitted in their saliva to infect those they bite. They are mindless hunting creatures, solitary and terrifying–except some that are different. Melanie, the girl at the heart of the story, identifies herself with Pandora, whose name translates as “the girl with all the gifts” and who brings to the world great trouble, and also hope. She is one of a small number of children infected by the spore who retain their mental functions. They have been isolated at a heavily-guarded military base north of London, where they attend a school to see how much they can learn while a medical researcher tries to understand how they have been spared the brain-killing aspects of the infection. What makes this different from a standard zombie story is the depth of characterization. The military men tasked with keeping the humans safe, the doctor trying to find a cure before it is too late for humanity, the teacher who opens her heart to the terrifying children, and most of all Melanie herself, are fully realized three-dimensional people, and I cared about each one of them. As the story progresses inevitably to its tragic, heroic end, possibilities fade and flicker out for each one, but there is still hope, from the girl with all the gifts.

I find myself these days reading stories for fun and delight, and also for the workmanship of the plot. This story is a spot-on example of the three-act structure, with everything precisely in its ordained place. Since I’m going to be taking it apart and discussing different events from the story, beware:

Spoilers

  • Inciting incident: The event that disrupts out the uneasy, unsustainable status quo we opened with is Dr. Caldwell’s decision to dissect Melanie and Miss Justineau’s determination to stop that from happening. This event takes place at the 20% mark, which is rather late in some ways. However, in a story like this one, which takes place in a world so different from our own and is largely told by a person very different from anyone we know, a lot of ground had to be laid out to begin with.
  • First plot point: What tears everything apart happens precisely at the 25% mark: suddenly there are sirens and explosions and a window shatters, “and the hungries swarm over the sill.” Four adults (Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and two military men from the base, Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher) and one mysterious girl (Melanie) escape, trying to get to the human enclave at Beacon, 74 miles to the south.
  • Midpoint reversal: After narrowly escaping the most terrifying hungry attack yet, two things happen. They are quieter than most of the big action-packed events in the story, but they represent an upheaval at a core level, and they’re exactly at 50% in the story. One is that we’ve now seen two hungries with unusual behaviors, closer to human though not nearly at Melanie’s level: a woman blindly pushing a baby carriage that held the dead body of her baby, and a man thumbing mechanically through family pictures in his wallet and singing snatches of an old song. This opens a whole new vista about what hungries can be. The other is that Melanie, who until this point has only wondered what she is, now realizes that she is herself a hungry, a monster. It rocks her, but she goes on.
  • Second plot point: The five have fought their way to what seems like a miracle: a mobile lab, built just after the breakout and designed to enable scientists to travel in safety and study the infection. For Caldwell it is the chance to study the infection under the best possible conditions. For Parks and Gallagher it is firepower and armor plating and a motor to get them through London and on to Beacon. For Justineau it is safety from the hungries who surround them ever more densely the farther south they go. Only Melanie is not cheered by the vehicle. She is fighting her nonhuman nature more and more as she spends time with the humans, and needs to get away from them and feed so that she can get her hunger under control. But she runs across something that sends her mind reeling: a group of hungry children who hunt in packs and communicate with each other, just like her but feral, without the benefit of school. At this point, exactly 75% through the book, things tip and start racing to the inevitable conclusion.
  • Climax and denoument: One by one everyone dies except Melanie and Justineau, and Melanie makes a frightful decision. If things go as they are, the attempts of the last few humans to kill the hungries will endanger the children, but there is no hope for humans in the end. It would be best if all the humans on the planet to become infected right away. Some of them will make new children before the fungus destroys them, and those children will be the future of the planet. So Melanie makes this happen. True to her alter ego as Pandora, she has unleashed the ultimate horror on the world, while preserving the most slender thread of hope: Miss Justineau, sealed in an environmental suit, begins teaching the next generation of children.

It is certainly true that a good genre novel doesn’t have to hew this precisely to the rules of the three-act structure, but this book is an example of how it can be done. I learned a lot by analyzing it, in addition to the pleasure of reading such a gripping tale.

Lessons from Rom-Coms

Hearts Hubby and I watched a couple of movies over Valentine’s weekend. They were both, appropriately, rom-coms – romantic comedies – recommended to us by friends. We enjoyed them both as good examples of something light, fun, and sweet to watch while cuddled up with someone you love. But I liked one better than the other, and I think I’ve figured out why. NOTE – there are some spoilers here if you haven’t seen the films, but nothing that should really ruin it for anyone.

First up: Letters to Juliet (2010, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan). Sophie, who wants to be a writer, visits Italy with her fiance. She learns about the tradition of young women writing letters to Juliet (of Shakespeare’s play) for advice, and turns her hand to writing a response to a letter just found that was written 50 years ago. This draws her into an adventure with the original writer who has come back to Italy to find her long-lost love, and the woman’s grandson (Charlie) who thinks this is a bad idea. He comes around, though, and Charlie and Sophie wind up together, as do the two long-lost loves. The message of the movie is that it’s never too late to find love, and once you find it you must never let it go.

Next: Music and Lyrics (2007, Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore). Alex is a relic from an 80s pop band, living on his past as a kind of impersonator of himself. He has the opportunity to write a hit song for a hot young talent, but while he’s great at the music he can’t write lyrics. He stumbles across a young woman (Sophie) who has a brilliant way with words and convinces her to work with him, and they are successful despite her fears and his desperation. Along the way they find romance and also find the courage to be themselves without apology.

Here’s why I liked Music and Lyrics more than Letters to Juliet: because the characters and their relationship felt more real and more trustworthy.

Let’s take the two Sophies. In Letters to Juliet, she is engaged to a chef who is opening his new restaurant in New York City in 6 weeks. They go to Italy because it will be the last chance they have to go on vacation for a long time. He is passionate about food and cooking; she is less so, and winds up feeling left out and ignored as he travels around visiting suppliers and wine auctions. This annoyed me. If someone is about to open a restaurant in New York, where else would his focus be? If she’s so uninterested in food and cooking, why is she engaged to a restaurateur? At the very least, she should have come to peace with their differing passions and have expected them to spend time apart.

In Music and Lyrics, Sophie is timid and self-effacing at the start, because of a bad experience in her past. She spends much of the movie learning to have faith in herself and to be open to taking the risk of trusting others. This is a straightforward need and character arc that is rewarding to watch. At every step her character is acting in a way that is believable for her, and that kept me rooting for her the whole way.

Then there’s the male lead character. Charlie, in Letters to Juliet, is a jerk the first time we meet him. He specifically searched out Sophie for the sole purpose of scolding and insulting her, because her letter sent his grandmother on what he is sure will be a heartbreaking quest. That brow-beating, nasty facet to his personality couldn’t just have evaporated, and I didn’t see any convincing change to his true nature. And how do we know he loves her? He says he does, but we don’t see him do anything that shows this love. Finally, I can’t conjure up any image of the life they might have together. All they’ve shared is his grandmother’s quixotic romantic journey, which is nothing like the real life they will have to go back to.

Alex, in Music and Lyrics, is charming from beginning to end. There’s something sad about him hanging onto his long-past moment of glory, but he is comfortable with himself and never pretends to be something he’s not. From his first interactions with Sophie he is gentle and encouraging. He’s kind first, in love second. He shows his love for her by doing the thing that’s hardest for him: writing lyrics. They also have something they share besides just being in love: they write hit songs together. It’s easy to imagine them living a contented, rewarding life for years to come.

Let me repeat: Both movies are fun. They both do what they set out to do and do it well. I don’t want to discourage anyone from watching either movie. See them. If you like the genre, you’ll like these examples.

For me, for the writing, I take away two important lessons about character and relationships:

  • If I want readers to root for a character, I need to show why, especially at their first appearance. Show whatever it is that makes the character rootable – is he kind, is she smart, is he funny, is she generous? This is what Blake Snyder calls the Save the Cat moment – the hero is first seen getting the cat out of the tree, so we know he’s the hero.
  • If I want a couple to wind up together romantically, I need to show that they are in love and can have a life together after the final curtain. It’s not enough that they say “I love you,” there have to be actions, especially sacrifices, to back it up. And they need to have enough in common for this relationship to hold.

So that’s what I learned this Valentine’s Day about character and about love. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.

Story Promise

I just watched How to Train Your Dragon – 2 (yes, I’m behind the curve on this, but better late than never). I enjoyed it enormously. There was drama, excitement, humor, emotion, and truly amazing animation. I highly recommend it if you’re into the DreamWorks line of movies. However, I confess that the ending left me, not disappointed exactly, but just a little unsatisfied. Why? Because the story didn’t quite match up to its promise. WARNING: This discussion has spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie.

In one of the early scenes, as we’re (re)introduced to Hiccup, the protagonist, we find his major concern: that his father, the chief of his village, is grooming Hiccup to take over as chief. Hiccup doesn’t want to do it and doesn’t think he’s able. The rest of the movie shows his journey to becoming the person who can and will take over to lead his people effectively. This is an important story promise that is completely fulfilled in the movie.

But there’s another story promise that happens just a little later. Hiccup is arguing with his father about how to deal with the newly-discovered threat from his old nemesis, Drago. Hiccup wants to go find Drago to talk to him, convincing him to stop capturing dragons to build a relentless dragon army to conquer the world. His father insists that there is no talking to someone like Drago, and all we can do is hunker down and try to protect our own. Hiccup insists that he can be very persuasive: “If I can change your mind, I can change anyone’s mind.” He then takes off on Toothless to find Drago and talk him down.

So what happens? He and Toothless defeat Drago in the end, saving everyone, and it’s very heroic, with good triumphing over evil and all. Still, Hiccup never changes Drago’s mind. I kept waiting for this to happen, though it seemed less and less likely as things went on. In the end, that promise was unfulfilled, and it left me unsatisfied.

This is one of the rules of storytelling that I’m trying to hold to in my current work. What does my protagonist really want? How does the whole story document her struggle to get it, overcoming long odds on the way, growing and changing into the kind of person that can have this one, crucial thing?