Thursday, April 24, 2014

Divergent's Romance

A year or two out of my teens, I heard about bodice rippers, a term used to describe Harlequin Romance novels. I had apparently walked past the end-of-aisle grocery store displays without registering the books or their covers featuring a handsome man with finely cut abdominal muscles clutching a beautiful woman, her long hair drawing attention to cleavage as well defined as the man's six-pack. Once having heard about them, I read a few and quickly saw the formula:
  • Female protagonist must make her way in difficult circumstances such as being a stranger in a strange town, a new graduate embarking upon her career away from all support she’s known and loved, or an orphan.
  • Male protagonist is often the female protagonist’s new boss or a person with some power over the female.
  • Both female and male protagonists have some secret deemed important enough to withhold and powerful enough to complicate their relationship, one of attraction and restrained impulses that inevitably result in misunderstandings.
  • An abrupt departure or distancing between the protagonists is a direct result of failed communications, secrets, or misunderstandings.
  • Love clears a path, overcoming all obstacles, inspiring candor and honesty, bringing the two protagonists together for the satisfying climax: a confession and declaration of love.
These romances are the step-children of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. The protagonists are Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane Eyre and Rochester. Their stories prove that Love is indeed a Conqueror. More important, they demonstrate that true love restores people to a state of well-being, enriching their lives and enhancing their happiness.

Divergent’s protagonists are two among the many Romance descendants. Each one has a secret. Tris is Divergent, a rare breed endowed with the gifts of Erudite, Abnegation, and Dauntless. Four is also Divergent. In fact, (SPOILER ALERT!), many among Abnegation are Divergents, and all Divergents know they could be killed if others learn of their gifts because Divergents are capable of selflessness, a type of courage that has little to do with strength training, sharpshooting, or the ability to take a gut punch and keep fighting. Those who are brave and selfless more easily rebel against fates and forces seemingly more powerful. They are capable of changing the order and balance of power for a greater, common good.

But, of course, Tris and Four don't know their true natures. That is their story: the gradual unfolding of their character, brought to life in part by circumstance and in large measure by love.

Four is Tris’s mentor, her boss, and her leader as she strives for full membership in and respect from Dauntless. When Four is stern and unforgiving, Tris doubts her worth, but as Tris proves her resolve to succeed, Four coaches her, giving her confidence and hope. In the novel, Roth has the luxury of fully developing the budding attraction that pulls Tris and Four together as well as the mistrust that drives them apart. Tris's innocence and inexperience further complicate their relationship. She doesn't realize she could be desirable and attractive to a man as able and handsome as Four so when he remains aloof in public, she is sure he doesn't care for her, but when he leans upon her after sharing his fears in the Simulation Room, she quivers with anticipation and affection.

In the end, Erudite tries to overthrow the new order, and in doing so, overcomes Four’s resistance with a chemical injection that steals his will, including his alliance with Tris. Four even tries to kill Tris, but their true natures overcome the chemical used to blind Four to his feelings for her. True love brings the lovers together again in an attempt to save the world from raw ambition and inhumanity. As the two leave Chicago together and make their way into the unknown, they are stronger, more whole because they are free of secrets and free to love each other.

Reading Challenge:

For another take on Romance tales, read the current guidelines for writing a romance.

Writing Challenge:

Choose one of the Harlequin guides and begin to draft your novel.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Divergent's Dystopian Heroes

The story of Divergent is a classic tale wherein the same seeds of self-interest that bring man and his inventions to a ruined state now threaten the freedom and peace carved out of rubble. Human nature, especially the allure of Power and Envy, leads men to destroy each other, but self-imposed sorrows fail to teach them the true harms of human nature.

What or who will save the peace? What measures will insure that humans remain free, and who will fight on for the common good? The dystopian protagonist. Divergent, the film and novel by Veronica Roth, gives us two protagonists, Beatrice and Four. Both not only challenge human frailties, but fight for human freedom also. Better still, they fall in love (but more about their romance next week).

Beatrice demonstrates better than Four one of the traits of dystopian heroes: she doesn’t quite fit in her world and longs to escape. We meet Four after he's escaped the world for which he wasn't suited. 

Beatrice is the daughter of parents assigned to the Abnegation faction and the ruling class because members strive to supplant ego with service, replace vanity with humility, and suppress selfish urges through selfless action. For Beatrice, however, selflessness doesn’t come naturally. She’s never unkind or mean-spirited, but she doesn’t react quickly to the needs of others. Her human nature is not naturally selfless.

Dauntless faction members, on the other hand, seem to be kindred spirits for Beatrice. They dare, they dash, they demand attention. They run as a team with each one trying hard to outrun another. They are the ones to whom Beatrice pledges loyalty when she must choose, as all sixteen-year-old children do. She escapes her parents, both of whom are loving and caring, and becomes a member of Dauntless.

As a Dauntless initiate, Beatrice wears form-fitting clothing and chooses a tattoo. Her body becomes a weapon in the service of courage great enough to destroy fear, a human trait that often leads to ruin. She takes a beating and gives one. She leaps from moving trains onto roof tops. She lets go of her instincts to survive in order to drop several stories through a dark hole into an unknown below. She also dares to suppress a rebellion in order to save lives even if she loses her own.

Failed Fruit and Vegetable Market
All Human Endeavor May Be Fleeting
But Nature's Wild Impulse Endures
As a Dauntless initiate, Beatrice chooses the name Tris and meets Four, mentor to initiates. He doesn’t seem to favor her until she proves her mettle by not giving up and by working longer hours punching a bag to toughen up her hands and strengthen her muscle. She strives and dares leadership to become and remain a Dauntless team member. Four offers tips about how to win against bigger, stronger opponents, and as Tris and Four grow closer, they learn that they have in common Abnegation origins. They also realize slowly that each has serious reservations about the Dauntless leadership and its loss of comaraderie, its abandonment of a team spirit. Perhaps most important of all, Tris and Four are kindred spirits, both Divergents who see through ruses and conspiracies; they are therefore a threat to those who seek power.

Because Tris and Four need to hide their triple threat as Divergents from others in order to preserve their lives, viewers begin to understand that the brave new world is more of the paranoid old one. Through Tris and Four’s struggle to blend in and survive the enemies hounding them, we learn that the newly minted Utopia is actually a doomed Dystopia, and this lesson is the fourth feature of dystopian heroes.

Reading Challenge:

Read Divergent, the film, or read any of the dystopian books and films listed for the reading challenge last week. Don't miss reading the book either. I enjoyed it more than the film even though the film is quite good and respects the original book very much.

Writing Challenge:

Look left. Look right. Look ahead. Look behind. Someone in your life, present or past, is a dystopian hero, a rebel, a questioner, a fighter. Write a character sketch about them.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Divergent, the Movie. See It!

I am especially fond of those writers who know story archetypes and icons so well that they see them anew, transforming the familiar into something clever and fresh. The author of the Divergent series, Veronica Roth, is such a writer. She has taken threads from other popular stories, both old and new, classic and contemporary, and she has stitched them together into a brand new, wonderful whole. We should take a lesson from her: we should read, read, and read more books with pleasure and with an eye to reinvent stories in the service of our own characters and outcomes.

In the interest of full disclosure and complete candor, both of which I’ve honored from the inception of this blog, I must admit now that I have not read Roth’s books although I'm almost finished with the first in the series. I was drawn to read them through the film, Divergent, while listening to interviews featuring the young adult stars, and as a result of my daughter’s love of the series. Now I plan to read them all, but also believe that we can read and analyze films using the same tools for analysis as we use for stories.

Fiction Story Thread, the First, in Divergent, the Film: Dystopia, characterized as
  • a society reborn after a catastrophe,
  • one tightly structured to insure order and safety
  • in a world divided between altruism and territorial struggle.
"Aftermath" by Al Griffin Photography
Divergent, the film, is set in the shell of a once-vital city: Chicago. Around the big town is a tall fence resembling a power grid. Beyond are the fields where some survivors grow foods needed for the entire city. What lies beyond those fields is an unknown. Some believe it is desolate, uninhabited while others believe it is populated by interlopers, humans in need of a fence to prevent them from invading and making war again. The novel makes the point that the gates are locked from the outside, causing the protagonist to wonder if survivors are being locked in or interlopers locked out.

In addition to the few survivors serving as farm workers are individuals who perform tasks according to their talents as determined by a futuristic test providing a window into the brains of humans. These functions define the factions--neighborhoods, if you will--and these are Amity, Candor, Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. On the fringes are those who do not belong, the faction-less.

The world of Divergent is so afraid of itself that it demands absolute loyalty to these factions. Citizens of this brave new world profess Faction before blood in the conviction that the new world supplants parents and must be the sole arbiter of order and justice. Human nature, left to its own path, will surely follow another path to disorder, chaos, more war, this time perhaps resulting in total annihilation so in dystopian stories, the survivors have invented what, to them, is a Utopia designed to inhibit the dangerous aspects of human nature: oppression, rebellion, and self-interest. 

Reading Challenge:

Read Divergent, the film. Read also one or more of the following dystopian tales:

Writing Challenge:

Write a brief journal entry or essay explaining the characteristics of dystopian stories:

  • Urban setting, featuring bombed or burned out buildings and broken transportation and/or communication networks
  • Tightly structured society divided into classes or groups with intellect and brawn deciding factors
  • Conflict between freedom and oppression and between peace and anarchy as both the causes of and reasons for the current social structure

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Writers Find Inspiration in History

When I launched this blog, I focused upon writing from idea to execution, from inception to completion. Writing Challenges have been thrown down, like gloves before a duel, in order to inspire and tease notions from the minds of others. Reading challenges are also standard because, as I’ve written many times, writers are readers. In fact, reading inspired two writers to tell a story and later transform it through film.

The first is Framed, a book written for children by Frank Cottrell Boyce and translated on film by Danny Boyle. Boyce invents characters who are complex, dynamic, and painted with brushes of verisimilitude. Boyle brings them to life.

The main character, a young boy, belongs to a family in jeopardy. The income stream for the family’s business has slowed to a trickle during his village’s economic struggles. The boy’s father flees, apparently unable to endure want with them, leaving his wife and children vulnerable, but this boy, afflicted with eternal optimism, as most children are, endures and triumphs by giving life to his curiosity and daring-do. Along the way, he makes a friend in need of friends, and he makes opportunity for his family.

Boyce adapted his story from actual World War II events involving Winston Churchill, paintings administered by the National Gallery, and caves in North Wales. Determined not to let Nazi Germany claim or destroy English art treasures, Churchill dispatched them to Wales, but monthly, a single painting was sent back and displayed in Trafalgar Square where, Boyce remembers, people stood in line to see the works of art. One painting, Tintoretto's Noli Me Tangere, drew 45,000 viewers.

Noli Me Tangere

From this gem in history, Boyce polishes a fine tale of curmudgeons, worried adults, lonesome kids, and great giving hearts that beat within us all. A film with the same name as the novel, Framed, directed by Danny Boyle, captures the cool, damp of Wales, its caves, and its downtrodden people during a time of need. The boy has rosy cheeks, chapped by chill winds that bring forth thoughts of the innocent blush of childhood. But this protagonist is much more than a child. He’s a wee adult capable of scheming and dissembling. He’s a bit selfless and selfish simultaneously--as are all the best, most interesting and real characters.

Would that Mr. Clooney had studied at Boyce’s or Boyle’s feet. His adaptation of Monuments Men, a book by Robert Edsel, makes events in history the star. In other words, Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov teach the audience about a moment in history when men and women were not drafted into military service; they volunteered in order to defend and protect world art in the belief that the record of man’s imagination, vision, and expression is as priceless as the freedoms we prize.

The hearts and blood coursing through the veins of these men and women never pulses through our own. We witness a ruined Englishman and a flamboyant Frenchman die for the cause of art, but their loss does not move us to tears anymore than it brings tears to the eyes of their on-screen colleagues. They mourn by appearing solemn, invoking the men’s names, and writing heartfelt letters. We hear Clooney as the leader of the band of misfits invite anyone to depart before their next most dangerous foray, and we are not at all surprised when no one does because--well, that's what should happen in any good stereotype.

When Damon steps upon a land mine and suggests that his colleagues leave him while he steps off into oblivion or away from a dud, no one accepts. All remain to live or die together. Their choices are our character notes: these guys must be like-minded and brave, loyal to a fault, and collegial beyond belief, but these are conclusions to which we leap because Hollywood has trained us well, not because the film introduces fully-formed, alive and convincing characters. Such brief episodic camaraderie is all that Clooney and Heslov have time for in a script that must move from the U. S. to England to France, Italy, and Germany, from high-level meetings with President Roosevelt to basic training, from orders to covert operations and back again. In the end, the movie feels like a thumbnail sketch and cursory review of a moment when men and women dared to be great.

Reading Challenge:

Read Framed in print or on film. You may also enjoy another of Boyce’s books, Millions, also transformed on film by director Danny Boyle, the director of Framed (2009).

Writing Challenge: 


Find your own moment in history and re-create it in screenplay format. What are the best camera angles? What dialogue will reveal character fully, in flesh and beating heart? Write it!