Friday, July 3, 2015

The Blueprint for Better Storytelling and Writing the Great American Novel

I was recently reading Secrets of Story: Well Told by screenwriter William C. Martell, and it relates to a talk I've been giving at conferences called Telling Better Stories About Public Transportation (PDF of my presentation). 

And since I'm often beginning writing books but almost never finishing them, Martell provides an excellent blueprint to complete before attempting to put pen to paper.

The story begins with an idea. Ideas are really important, but it takes a whole bunch of them to make a story and to create one great concept based off of all those ideas.

Many people have a hard time getting through Dan Brown's books, but his concepts are what keep others reading and buying those books. His religious conspiracies and puzzles make up for his terrible writing. Screenplays, novels, magazine articles, blogs, and any other forms of writing are all sold on their concept.

Also crucial is conflict. Without conflict, a story is dead on arrival. Little problems must be part of a larger problem otherwise the conflict is weak, unfocused, and makes for a bad story. There are two kinds of conflict, and the physical kind must connect with the emotional kind or else the story will leave readers on the sidelines along with the protagonists.

One of the most important decisions for a storyteller is determine which character's point of view the story will be told from. A story must create an emotional connection between the protagonist and the audience, and of course the protagonist will have a very limited point of view. The story should only detour from that point of view when an antagonist's view is presented, and that still must be related to the protagonist's problem. Movies and books must, simply put, always be about a person with a problem.

Writers don't often think enough about the all-important character. It doesn't matter what that character looks like, it only matters what's inside that character. You can't just plug a great character into a great concept, one will flow from the other.

Many writers confuse plot and story, but plot is what happens. It's an element of the story. Plotting is often a lost art in today's blockbuster films. Plot is how one scene logically leads to the next.

Place and time are also crucial to consider. By using distinctive locations and times, writers can take us to worlds we've never seen before and give us an unusual experience. Focusing on one time and one location is important. Bouncing back in time or place can happen, but it is something to be dealt with delicately or the audience will get confused.

Tone is also important. It must stay the same throughout the story. In Pulp Fiction, there was both violence and comedy, but they were mixed well consistently throughout. The violence was funny, not serious. When Marvin gets his head blown off in the backseat of the car when they hit a bump, that's funny. Gross and violent, but not taken seriously. You can have a comic-relief character in a serious film, but just establish him early enough so that the audience can know what to expect.

As for genre, know your genre. Make sure your story follows the rules of the genre or at least acknowledges those rules when you bend or break them. Clint Eastwood's True Crime was a box office failure because it wasn't what the audience paid to see.

Arena is another important element. Caddyshack takes place in the arena of golf caddies. Network takes place in the world of network news. The fastest way to turn an old concept into a fresh exciting idea is to drop it into a new arena.

Every story worth telling has a point. That is the theme, which is all of these pieces working together. Every story has a theme somewhere, the question is whether you will explore it or ignore it. In The Matrix, the theme is that Neo doesn't believe in himself. Neo eventually realizes he has to believe in himself to save Morpheus. That theme ties all of the movie's scenes together and makes them a story. Theme is the glue. It isn't necessarily the moral of the story, it can just be some element of the human condition that your story explores.

Jot down really good outlines for each of these elements and you may be well on your way to writing the Great American Novel.

Classic Reads: Ibsen Ponders Whether Life Means Anything in Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt is a man in Norwegian Henrik Ibsen's 1867 play of the same name who is trying to discover whether he's a good modern man or a bad one.

Despite not being much interested in a girl named Ingrid, Peer decides on her wedding night that he's going to try to steal her from the groom. This does not endear him to the community so he simply runs off into the forest.

While searching the woods, a girl named Solveig hears Peer's mother Aase talking about what he's like and falls in love with the young scamp. Peer falls in with some trolls in the woods and has a riotous night with some farm girls. He considers staying with the trolls but decides he has to go home.

After making a bit of a life with Solveig and witnessing his mother on her death bed, Peer journeys far from home. He makes a fortune in the American slave trade and selling idols in China, then loses his business riches in Morocco. He briefly becomes an Arab sheik as well. While pondering what he views as his wasted life in Egypt, he eventually is placed in an insane asylum.

Surviving the asylum, Peer makes it back home to Solveig. Although he is convinced he's bound for Hell, Solveig confuses him by saying that he is a good man and that's where the story ends, with Peer perhaps no wiser about the mysteries of man than when he started his many adventures.

The play remains one of Ibsen's most famous, along with A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, with many films and adaptations (and Ibsen is the second-most-performed dramatist behind Shakespeare). Roger McGuinn of the Byrds even wrote music for a pop version of the play that has never been released. Several of those songs appear on Byrds' albums in the early 1979s however.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Stones and the Holocaust Lead the Pack of Stuff You Should Watch Now

I've been doing a lot more TV- and movie-watching lately than blogging. What have I liked and what has stunk, you ask?

Crossfire Hurricane (***** out of ***** stars), a documentary about the darker side of the Rolling Stones, including the drug busts, Altamont, and the death of guitarist Brian Jones, is hands down the best thing I've seen this spring.

The runner-up, although extremely sad and very difficult to take, is another documentary, called Night Will Fall (***** out of ***** stars). It's the story of British and American filmmakers who were given access to the final days of the Nazi death camps. They film endless horrors but also capture everyday moments of at-least-momentary sanity behind the camp walls. The Germans decided the movies would hurt their attempts to move on as a people and buried the footage for years until now. I began watching because of the promise that Alfred Hitchcock would be featured as the man hired to direct the films. I stayed watching because this part of the Jewish people's history is too important to all of mankind and it's our duty to watch.

I finally got around to Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (****1/2 out of ***** stars) and I have to admit it is pretty great. If this 2013 fictionalization isn't reason enough for Congress to reform the investment sector, then at the very least Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio have taken a step forward in helping us all realize the sliminess of the profession.

Three little films I didn't expect much from but ended up being pleased by include:

  • This Is Where I Leave You (**** out of ***** stars): I guess it's just too difficult for Jason Bateman to do any wrong. It helps that the all-star cast works really well together. It includes Tina Fey, Adam Driver, and Jane Fonda.
  • The Way, Way Back (***1/2 out of ***** stars): Fourteen-year-old shy kid Duncan has to spend the summer on Cape Cod with jerky relatives played by Steve Carell and Allison Janney. Luckily, he finds shelter with a new group of friends, including Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph, at the local water park.
  • Talk Radio (*** out of ***** stars): I haven't missed many Oliver Stone flicks over the years, but this one from 1988 slipped past me. Eric Bogosian turns in a powerful performance as the talk host who passionately and offensively argues against everyone who calls the station.

I thought I would like A Million Ways to Die in the West (*1/2 out of ***** stars), but Seth MacFarlane rips off Blazing Saddles with absolutely none of that classic's charm. Painful.

I also looked forward to the sci-fi Ender's Game (*1/2 out of ***** stars), but the story of a kid sent to military school to train for an alien attack is an absolute snoozefest. Even Harrison Ford's cool can't save it. In fact, Ford is pretty bad and seems flat-out uninterested waiting around for his turn in the upcoming Star Wars reboot.

Also worth mentioning are four TV shows I have really been getting into: Bloodline, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, and Bate's Motel. They're all well worth watching.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Classic Reads: Don Quixote Goes Nuts ... and for the Jugular of Laughter

Don Quixote became one of the greatest novels of all time even though Cervantes intended it to just be a bit of a joke about the over-the-top romanticism of his time.

The foolish knight was a touchstone of impractical idealism, but he is now largely perceived as a symbol of nobility. It's difficult to dislike Quixote because everyone else in the story seems insane and he is so sincere. Starting as simply a Spanish country gentleman, he is addicted to reading about books of chivalry. He does not sleep much, however, and it soon dries his brain up and makes him go mad.

He constructs a suit of armor in his house and he finds a dilapidated old nag to become his horse. He claims at that point that he will be known as Don Quixote rather than his given name of Alonso Quejana.

Before taking off to roam the world to right wrongs, he chooses country girl Aldonza - who is well-known for her method of salting pork - as his great love. His first stop on the road is an inn that he imagines to be an enchanted castle.

Back home, several men decide they will chase Quixote to cure him of his madness. They also burn his books. The men capture him and beat him up. Quixote returns home and finds a barber name Sancho to become his squire.

In the presence of others, Quixote usually embarks on long-winded dissertations that his listeners find either hilarious or annoying. After countless adventures, the pair returns home. They learn later that a best-selling book has been written about their adventures.

As Quixote dies at the end, he denounces the books he had read. Finally settling on a belief that nonsensical stories are a bad thing, he appears to be sane.

It's one of the best endings of a book ever, and is perhaps history's most hilarious adventure story.

***** out of *****

A Playbook for Persuading People to Use Public Transportation

Friendly Persuasion

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab.

The art of persuasion was on display in two sessions at the end of the Center for Transportation Excellence conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan this week.

When attempting to convince someone to try something new – such as transportation alternatives to driving – arguing facts simply won’t work and usually makes the situation worse, according to keynote speaker Christopher Graves, the global chair of Ogilvy Public Relations.

imgres-10“Decision-making is emotional. Without emotion, humans simply cannot arrive at a decision,” Graves said. “When people are told, or read, that they are wrong, they feel actual physical pain.”

Other keys to influencing decision-making, according to Graves, include:

  • Using myths is a bad idea. It often backfires, inadvertently popularizing the myth for people who had never heard it in the first place and repeating it for people who naturally tend to believe things the more they hear them. He showed a video of a conflicted father dealing with his daughter’s same-sex marriage, suggesting that this would be much more effective in potentially changing opinions than a website detailing myths versus facts.
  • Affirmation works really well, but we don’t use it enough. Try to relate to your opponents (for instance, saying things like “I know you love your family” and “I know you hate traffic” before jumping in with what you know will be combative). Graves added, “Affirm them as a human first, and you have a little bit of an edge. Nobody confirms anymore, everyone is already an idiot.”
  • CJG_CNBC_Mar_2010_1_400x400Narrative fiction tends to be more effective than lectures, PowerPoints, pamphlets, and other types of communication. “People feel it’s not a blatant attempt to change their mind,” he said, noting that test subjects who read about a soccer hooligan as the main character in a story actually related and tried to be more like that “dumb” character, with their test scores going down compared to before ready the hooligan’s story.
  • Use concrete rather than abstract concepts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently was charged with getting people to understand the unhealthiness of movie popcorn. It held a press conference at a theater and showed what the massive amount of fat found in a bucket of popcorm would equal in terms of a person’s daily diet. It roughly equals bacon and eggs, cheeseburgers, steaks, deserts. It’s the equivalent of a disgusting amount of greasy, unhealthy junk. And it was never more clear how bad moviegoers had been treating their bodies all those years.

He finished by noting that consumers are smart. “They’ll get it” if it’s explained well to them. To create a true movement, Graves said:

  • an issue has to be real and immediate
  • has to be something people can relate to, and
  • has to have a foreseeable outcome or result.
Mike Zuhl of R&R Partners

“The most important thing is to get on message and stay on message. If you have too many messages, you really have no messages at all,” said Mike Zuhl, R&R Partners’ government and public-affairs director, in a separate session at the conference.

His group has worked on several transit campaigns, including one that began with the Utah Transit Authority and has been effective in other places as well, with an overall message of “even if you don’t ride it, you use it.”
Kyle Parks of B2 Communications

“There may not be a better message than anywhere in the country. You can create messaging in a communications plan by coming up with about 50 different ways to use that one message.”

Other tactical recommendations made by Zuhl and Parks included:

  • Get others in the community to step up with your messages. The spokespeople should not be political or transportation officials, but rather respected leaders in the community.
  • Use social and non-traditional media. R&R wrapped up a store to look like a train, which was a “wonderful way to promote transit” and also ran a campaign to have local bands in Phoenix write songs about transportation.
  • Start small when it comes to infrastructure projects, like in Charlotte and Orlando. When a handful of people start riding a system, it becomes real and has a better chance at long-term success.
  • Create a neighborhood plan with grass-roots outreach. Have people ride around in a “Scooby Doo-like van” educating people about what’s in it for them, and include yard signs and t-shirts in the plan.
  • Know your opponents and be ready for them. While you shouldn’t get into back-and-forth arguments, you also shouldn’t be so shy and nice. Parks said, “Staying above the fray won’t work. If something is true most of the time, we can run with it. It’s all about sound bites and people’s short-attention spans. The other side goes with stuff all the time that has zero basis in fact. If something is true 80 percent of the time, it’s worth using.” Also watch the Merchants of Doubt documentary. Repeat to the news media that this is how your opponents operate and that the 10 things they’re saying are not true. This also helps you avoid calling them names.

For more ideas of how to tell better stories that persuade people about the immense value of public transportation, we like the American Public Transportation Association’s Voices for Public Transit reference site. And, of course, our own archive of marketing and communications resources isn’t half-bad either.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Taking Grand Rapids By Bike, Bus, and Beer

I flew in late Sunday night for a quick few days in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Center for Transportation Excellence conference on how to do better outreach for transit policy.

My presentation on "Telling Better Stories About Public Transportation" went well and I got lots of nice compliments and thanks for suggesting ways for the industry to improve in this area.

I didn't get much free time, but I was able to tour the city by bike for $15 for a couple hours, thanks to the Central District Cyclery.

I took a nice, easy ride is out of downtown and up Cherry Street to the popular neighborhoods of East Hills and Eastown. Then it was back to south of downtown to The Rapid bus station and across the river around the Gerald Ford Museum.

Ford is the most famous person from Grand Rapids (with boxer Floyd Mayweather, Red Hot Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis, and Al Green ranking not far behind). Signs of Ford are everywhere, from the name of the international airport to the Ford Museum, where he and Betty are buried.

My meal last night was at a place called HopCat (bathroom art pictured) that the respected Beer Advocate calls the third-best beer bar in the world. They had "Crack Fries" and draft Founders beer, which is one of my favorites and is brewed here in this metro area of 1 million people (the country's 52nd-biggest metro area)! In fact, it's the biggest city behind Detroit in Michigan.

Some other Grand Rapids' facts. The city loves its nicknames. It goes by Beer City USA, Furniture City, and River City, named after the rapid-flowing afore-mentioned Grand River that runs past my Amway Grand Plaza Hotel (dedicated to all the Amway employees of the world!).

The hotel (pictured behind me and my bike helmet) is a grand dame, having once been ranked one of the world's finest hotels. It's massive and confusing and my room is very Mad Men-era feeling.

A few other things to recommend about Grand Rapids:

  • it has one of the best comic-book stores I've ever seen, called Vault of Midnight
  • some of the murals around town are great, and 
  • the swing-dancing club that filled the city square with college kids one evening.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Classic Reads: The Old Man and the Sea Shines With Classic Man/Beast Symbolism

The Old Man and the Sea is where Ernest Hemingway's work begins and ends. Straightforward sentences and words easy enough for a child to understand, but the themes are deep.

The ocean is not just a money pit of fish to catch for Santiago. He looks at it with love and respect, for all its creatures. This is a battle between man and nature and Santiago understands that his chances are not good.

Eighty-four days have passed since Santiago has caught a fish. Despite the ridicule this brings from many younger fisherman, Manolin, a young boy, enjoys talking to him about American baseball. Santiago also tells Manolin about his days as a boy sailing to Africa and seeing lions on the beaches.

One day a huge marlin pulls Santiago's boat far out to sea. After it slashes his face with the fishing line and leaps out of the ocean, Santiago is stunned to see that it's the biggest fish he has ever laid eyes upon.

He becomes resigned to his eventual death and his thoughts return to baseball, lions, and Manolin. He wonders if the Yankees' DiMaggio would stay with the fish as long as he had. He thinks about the arm-wrestling match he engaged in over 24 hours as a young man and won.

On the third day, he harpoons the marlin perfectly and it dies. But he knows his problems are far from over, as he is still a long way from home, with the marlin's blood sure to attract sharks.

This is my 22nd favorite novel of all time.

***** out of ***** stars

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Catching Up With a Slew of HBO Movie Releases

Probably the reason my blog has been on a bit of a sabbatical lately is because I now have HBO for the first time in my life. I've been catching up on movies, including:

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck: The former Nirvana leader's life is told for the first time with the blessing of his family. Having access to the notebooks and audio and video recordings contained within supply a portrait that further humanizes Kurt and makes us more fully understand the hurt within his chronically pained stomach and from the betrayals he felt from family members and Courtney Love throughout his life. The animated cuts from his notebooks and from Charlotte's Web-like cartoon vignettes are powerful. An essential rock doc.
***** out of ***** stars

We're the Millers and The Interview: Two totally dumb comedies that shouldn't work but somehow do, quite enjoyably.
Both *** out of ***** stars

Nightcrawler: I really liked this creepy L.A. noir starring a scrawny Jake Gyllenhaal as a nowhere man who gets the sudden idea to become a paparazzi. His jerky ways cause all kinds of unnecessary pain.
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Birdman: Not nearly as good as Boyhood (which should have won bets picture instead of this), but still a tale of an actor once known for playing a superhero (the always-great Michael Keaton) who is losing his mind in a bit of a pretentious take on the power and aura of celebrity. Good in a way that it will probably be worth revisiting as a potential classic a few years after its release, ala films like Fight Club or The Big Lebowski.
**** out of ***** stars

Neighbors: Not as good as the other Seth Rogen comedy on this list, but still pretty funny as a latter day Animal House knockoff.
*** out of ***** stars

A Million Ways to Die in the West: This modern-day take on Blazing Saddles tries a little too hard for laughs. While its silliness works a lot of the time, it's vulgarity actually makes it a little less endearing. Charlize Theron is likable but Seth MacFarlane is a very poor man's Billy Crystal, or perhaps Donnie Osmond. By the time the big gunfight scene arrives at the end, it's tough to have much invested, especially during Neil Patrick Harris' poop scene.
*** out of ***** stars

Friday, May 1, 2015

I Was Interviewed on NPR About Transportation Technology

You can hear my interview this week with WAMU 88.5 FM, the NPR station in Washington D.C. And read the accompanying article below.

New Commuter App Takes Holistic View: Money, Time, Health, Environment

Play associated audio
A screenshot of the Web version of the CarFreeAtoZ app.
A screenshot of the Web version of the CarFreeAtoZ app.
Commuters’ options are multiplying. For those who can leave their cars at home, there’s Metrorail, the bus, taxicabs, or Capital Bikeshare. Or they can use their smartphones to order rides with Uber, Lyft, or Sidecar. A new on-demand bus system called Bridj is launching in D.C. There’s also ZipCar and Car2Go. And some apps, like RideScout, help you pick the best choice depending on where you are at the moment.
These options help commuters figure out the fastest way to get from A to B. But a new app is trying to get traffic-weary travelers to think more holistically about their trips.
It’s called, the creation of Arlington County Commuter Services, Mobility Lab, and the transit-tech firm Conveyal. The idea behind the website is that saving time and money are only two pieces of a successful commute. What about the effect on your health? On the environment?
“Say you want to think about what would be the best thing to do on Monday through Friday every day for your commute. You can sit down on Sunday and look at CarFreeAtoZ and put in your home address and your work address and it will tell you a list of options,” said Mobility Lab’s Paul Mackie.
“The best options won’t necessarily be the fastest ones. It will be the one that also factors how it will affect your health, how it will affect the environment, how much time will you save and how much money will you save,” Mackie said.
Expected to be available on smartphones by the fall, the program can be used in a Web browser now.
The first question you are asked at is how do you usually get around? The options are I drive alone; I carpool; I bike; I take public transit; I walk.
After making your choice a map of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region appears. You then enter a starting point and your destination. Then click "Find my best option."
Each transit, biking, or driving option will list how much money you might save, weight you can lose from exercise, the percentage of CO2 emissions that can be reduced, and hours of productive time gained – all compared to making the same trip driving alone.
The website also helps commuters locate Bikeshare stations near Metro to finish the last legs of their trips on a bike.
“There are a lot of apps out there that show you how many bikes are at a station in the Bikeshare system. But with this you can take Bikeshare to bus or Bikeshare to train,” Mackie said.