Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Illegitimate Theatre and Theatre Slang from the 1800s

I'm revisiting a previous work, Merely Players which I originally completed back in 2011. I was thrilled to find that it's in pretty good shape - or at least the last two thirds are. The first third is a bit of a cringe a minute, but with the clarity brought by the passage of *gulp* five years, I think I can see exactly where it needs to be fixed.

Excellent. Merely Players is set in 1814 London, in the world of non-patent illegitimate theatres. Thanks to the 1737 licensing act, theatres required a patent from the Lord Chancellor in order to perform serious, spoken word drama--in particular, Shakespeare. The purpose of this was, of course, to censor what went on stage.

The creative arts being, well, creative actors and theatre managers soon found a loophole and non-patent or illegitimate theatres sprang up in all the major cities in England. These were commercial outfits putting on non-serious productions which included a strong musical element - comedy, pantomime and melodrama.

My two protagonists are both writers. One, a dramatist who has lost his writing mojo, the other a pamphleteer who has to hide her light under a bushel. As soon as they meet, creative sparks fly and the two end up partnering on a production... until it all goes wrong of course.

I'm trying to introduce a stronger voice into this draft, getting more deeply into the protagonists point of view. This includes working out how they think and speak. I was delighted to stumble across a whole repository of theatre slang from the 1800s in Eric Patridge's rather wonderful Slang Today and Yesterday--an essential for ye olde historical romance writer.

Actors performing for my poor failing playwright Ghis might have got the big bird (been hissed at) when performing in The Lane (Drury Lane theatre), The Garden (Covent Garden theatre), the Dusthole (the Prince of Wales Theatre). Those venues might be managed by a "cully-gorger" - theatre manager (1860).

I love "back-hair parts" - roles in which the "agony of the performance at one point in the drama admits of the feminine tresses in question floating over the shoulders." Admittedly, it was cited in 1884 but it's going in. I don't know how, I don't know where, but it has to go in.

"Blood-tub" (1885) - a "theatre specializing in the worst sort of blood-and-thunder melodrama" is also pretty special.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Selkie's Child

My friend Laura , a wonderfully talented photographer, has been working on a new collection. She calls it Serpents. I've been drinking it in, letting it soak into my imagination. To me, the images are wild, intimate and distant, a little painful. Things are close but shimmering just beyond reach. There are monsters lurking in the mist. There is longing hidden in the waves. And there are tears smeared across the lens and tumult fading into soft, grey calm.  
The images make me think of selkies and the conflict inherent in motherhood. Selkies were mythical creatures who resembled seals when they were in the water but shed their skins on land to take on the appearance of a beautiful human. If a man could find a selkie woman's skin she would be forced to become his wife, and bear his children. But she would never lose her longing for the sea and if she found her skin, she would return leaving her human family behind. 
This is just one response to those images... more to follow. 
By Laura Ward. 

The Selkie
Dread woke him. He lay stiff under his scratchy, eyes tight shut. If he didn’t open his eyes, he could pretend the black Things on the ceiling weren’t there. Wriggling, writhing, moving shadow things.  Reaching for him.
Not there. You’re not there.
You need to be brave for me, darling. You’re a big boy now.
His heart sounded loud in his ears. Boom. Boom. Boom.
The Things would hear it.
They would smell him.
Chill breath on his skin, stirring his hair.
“Ma!” he sat up, not brave, not caring, reaching out.
The air was empty.
Brave boys didn’t cry, but the black things were everywhere, sliding up the walls, whispering in the driftwood cupboards his Da had built. Going to get him. This time they would. His eyes prickled.
The air was empty.
No palm on his forehead, no arms around him.  
It was loud in the room. She’d come. She always came.
She didn’t.
His stomach went tight. The black Things had got her. Smothered her in tentacles and tails. Dragged her into the sea.
A seagull cried over the cliffs.
Da had been away three nights with the fleet but Ma never went away. When Da was away she let him curl up against her in the big bed, tuck his cold feet between her knees, hold her hand against his cheek. She smelt warm, salty, like the harbour in summer and something else too, something soft and sweet.
Sometimes when he woke she wasn’t there. She was walking around the house singing her song, the strange, sighing song she never sang when Da was there. It was their secret, the song. She sang as she opened doors, trailed her pale hands along the walls.
Are you chasing the Things away?
She stopped then. Looked at him. Smiled, a little sad around the edges. Her eyes had looked dark, like secrets.
Do you want me to?
Yes. They’re scary.
You have nothing to be afraid of, little fish.
The Things…
They aren’t real, she said. It’s just your imagination.
Why are you chasing them away then?
I’m not. I’m just looking for something, she said. A treasure. No need to tell your Da. It can be our secret. Shall I sing to you?
And she had sung, her voice sweet and low, like the whisper of the sea when they walked the shoreline. Ma loved the sea, but it made her sad too. He saw her cry, once. It was the seals that did it, staring at her with their big shining eyes as if they were trying to say something. Staring and staring. He hadn’t liked it, had tugged on her hand.
Let’s go now!
Soon, little fish.
Da was away that night too and her walking was faster, more urgent. He heard her whisper choked words under her breath and she sounded watery, like she had been crying.
He called out that night, and she came.
Her arms were warm. She held him tighter than usual and when she pressed her cheek against his hair, it was wet.
He wanted her arms around him. He wanted to hear her sing.
“Ma?” he asked and his voice sounded thin, a little wisp in the night. Not brave. Not tough like the men on the trawlers.
He didn’t look at the ceiling.
He’d looked once and seen a gaping mouth, ready to swallow him whole.
Didn’t look at the half open cupboard.
Didn’t look at the loose floorboard in the corner.
Didn’t look at the dead embers in the fireplace or the peat ash trodden into the hearthrug.
He pulled the covers around his shoulders and ran to the door of the cottage, bare feet slapping the rough floorboards. Pulled open the door.
It was supposed to be a full moon, that’s why Da had gone out. You could see by a full moon, well enough to drive a horse and cart along the cliff top paths, so Da said.
But tonight a haar had rolled in from the sea. It clung to his skin and hair, thick and wet and cloying. Fog, stew thick, surrounded him, a solid, billowing mass. He couldn’t see the path. Couldn’t see the way to the shore. Couldn’t see the dark cliffs.
He was blind, in the darkness.
And the Things were coming.
The fog shifted, as if his cry was a knife cutting it like butter. He thought he saw a shape, further down the path. Grey skirts. A woman with a bundle. His heart thudded. Boom. Boom. Boom.
“Ma? Is that you?” The haar distorted everything. Made things sound too close or too far away. She wouldn’t hear him, not from where she was.
The fog shifted again and noises drifted on the air, sounds like a sighing song.
His legs moved. Clutching the blanket tight he ran into the darkness and the thick fog towards the soft music. Stumbled down the path, towards the shore. In the clinging darkness he followed touch and smell. Pebbles dug into his feet, hard and slippery but he pushed on, hands held out against the choking fog. The smells of peat and sea holly from the garden faded into seaweed and cold, dry sand. Music again and then the quiet thunder of the waves crashing on the rocks.
He stopped, panting. She was here, somewhere in the darkness. He had to get her before the Things took her. They were here too, curling around him. Whispers on the back of his neck. Eyes watching.
The haar was painting the blanket with wet. It felt heavy on his shoulders, cold. He hugged it close anyway. Feet were lumps of ice now. Could hardly feel the sand oozing between his toes. Where was the sea?
A seagull cried nearby and fog shivered, parting. He saw the moon, suddenly, huge and low in the sky, framed by the hole in the fog. The rocks too, black and jagged, knives cutting up the sky. And on them, a shape. A too familiar shape, her skirts fluttering and her arms raised, something shapeless and dark in her hands.
Then he saw them. The seals. A thousand it looked to him. Heads bobbing in the water, bodies crowded on the rocks. Huge, black eyes, glistening in the moonlight, staring up at her, at his Ma, like she was a queen. Her song hung in the air. Their song, the one she sang for him, not them. She was his. His Ma. Not theirs. His.
His stomach was pins and darkness. Empty and churning and sore.
It was them. Them that sent the Things. They wanted her, wanted to take his Ma.
And he was running, running, running across the wet sand, sea spray on his bare legs, a silent scream catching in his throat. Ma! My Ma!
For a moment, it seemed like she heard him.
Face white in the darkness. Dark hair whipping around her shoulder.
His Ma. Warm, soft, salt smelling. Wool and skin. Safe.
Her arms around him.
Her hand against his cheek.
He reached out, out into the darkness, out to the woman on the rocks.
Don’t let them take you!
He thought he heard his name, a whisper on the wind.
Fog drifted and the moon was gone. The rocks. The woman. Ma!
His toes hit slippery rock and he stumbled, grabbing at slick seaweed. Blood on the heel of his hand. The mist sighed away and it was just him and the moon.
Ma was gone.
In the sea, he thought he saw a pale face, one more head bobbing in the inky waves.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Addiction: Little Mermaid 2.0

I'm been spending some time with some wonderful images by talented London-based photographer Laura Ward. Laura's images and projects have featured Tate Britain, the BBC and the New York Times.

One of the theme's Laura explores through her work is identity metamorphosis, a theme that manifests in some of my stories too. I've been using one of her collections, Serpents, to think about that, and it's taken me in all sorts of directions - from selkie children to lost mermaids. There's a wistful, sad and dark feel to many of those stories, but that feels unbalanced.

I decided I wanted to write something more upbeat, funnier. Addiction was born from a "What if?" What if Arial and Prince Eric had a kid? What if she didn't know about her heritage?

From Serpents by Laura Ward

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Not NaNoWriMo.... Bringing your story to life (with some help from Chuck)

I've got #NaNoWriMo envy.

Across the world right now thousands of people are typing, scribbling and dictating away, birthing their stories in a frenzied flurry of international penmanship.

I wish I was too.

I love National Novel Writing Month. I love writing in the autumn. For me autumn is the season of new beginnings. It's the time we should be making resolutions, when the light is golden and the trees are turning and the earth has brought forth its fruit. The nights are drawing in and a trace of frost lingers in the air. Now is the time to light the fire. Now is the time to write.

Photography by James Jordan under a Creative Commons license

Autumn. The writers' season.

Sadly, this year I'm not participating. For the last two or three years life has rudely got in the way of writing - manic full time jobs which use up every ounce of energy and creativity and leave little left over for writing. But somewhere, within that, I've managed a little.

I've got two nearly complete novels each drafted and redrafted a dozen times. They're like familiar friends, that I can dip into and move things along. I can keep my hand in. That's all good.

And I've explored ideas, usually in that odd, grey time between sleeping and waking where my brain likes to throw out creative solutions.

But I still have #NaNoWriMo envy.

That's what took me wandering across the internet in search of plotting advice. Okay, I can't participate. But maybe I can do a little. Get a plot down. Something. That was enough to get some ideas drifting about and that's what brought me here. To the single best summary of different ways to plot I've had the pleasure of coming across - kindly assembled by Chuck Wendig.

I've tried a lot of different methods - snowflakes and beatsheets and character profiles and post it notes and three act summaries. I've yet to find one that fits easily.  Plotting, to me, is like flossing teeth. I know it's important, I just find it dull.

To me, writing is a bit like cooking. I like learning new cooking techniques and I love trying new food. My preferred way to learn is to come across something delicious and to say, "How did you do that?" I like to apply what I've discovered in different ways.

My favourite cookery book is The Flavour Thesaurus because it doesn't prescribe step by step recipes so much as advise which flavours go together. It provides a pathway to alchemy and empowers me to try new and different things, without having to copy someone else's recipe. My second favourite is Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course because it tells you how to cook.

One gives the bones, the other the map. The journey you take is up to you.

That's why I was so pleased to discover Chuck's article listing 25 different ways to plot, plan and prep your story. Brilliant. Because what it does is show that there is no silver bullet. There is no one size fits all "plot this way and it all makes sense".  It liberates med from staring at facsimiles of JK Rowling's crazy plot spreadsheets and shows me that there are two dozen different pathways to travel. Best of all, it reminds me that some of the things I've discovered are legitimate ways to progress my story.

From Chuck's list, here's what has worked for me:

Beginning, Middle and End

I used to start stories only to find out they trailed off after 20,000 words because I hadn't a clue where they were going. I learned a bit from that. Now I try to have the absolute basics scrawled down in a notebook. It might just be three sentences but it roughly keeps me on track.

In the Document as you Go 

This involves sketching out the chapter ahead as you go. This only works for me if I have the Beginning, Middle and End roughly worked out.

Dialogue Pass 

This means throwing down the dialogue and letting the characters talk it all out - then building the story around them. When I do this, the pages fly - I write really, really fast. It also helps me to get to know characters twice as fast as "interviewing" them or writing out character sheets - that feels so artificial to me. When I do this, I can get into the character's skin. It's like acting. It feels much more authentic. I then go back, add flesh, edit and polish - but the bulk of the story has just written itself.

And a couple which I can't believe I haven't tried because they seem so damn sensible and obvious. Number one of these:

The Reverse Outline

This means starting at the end and working your way back. I can't believe this hasn't been my starting point. This was the best piece of advice my Dad ever gave me (when talking about university dissertations) - start at the end and work your way back. I've heard other authors talk about writing the last chapter first. I've sometimes done this when I've got stuck in the middle, and I need to revise the end point to work out a pathway towards it. But doing it at the start? No. But now I will. This works for me.

The Test Drive

Doing this has never occurred to me but it seems like a BRILLIANT idea. So good, I suggest you pop over to Chuck's blog to read about it.

Thank you Chuck. I might not be NaNoWriMoing this year, but at least I am inspired.

Related Posts

A Thing I learned about Story Arcs from the BFG

Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo 2013


Plots, Portraits and Getting a Handle on your Characters

Three lessons from NaNoWriMo 2011

Sunday, 21 August 2016

A thing I learned about characters arcs from the BFG

I had high hopes of the B.F.G., I really did. It's one of my daughter's favourite books, the posters I had seen looked spectacular and well, it brings Roald Dahl together with Steven Spielberg which pretty much has to be a recipe for spectacular story-telling

And the posters don't lie. It does look spectacular. I found myself thinking how fortunate we are to live in an age when movie visuals can really live up to the imaginations of writers and paint such fabulous spectacle on stage.

And then I found myself thinking about a recent twitter exchange on Hollywood's over-fondness for spectacle at the expense of plot and characterisation.

In his Poetics, Aristotle, as this article points outs, tells us that plot is the first and most important element in drama, followed by character, then dialogue, then spectacle. Spectacle is the least important. It's the bow that dresses up the overall package, a fact that Hollywood seems to have forgotten.

In the BFG plot is not forgotten. How could it be, when it had already been neatly provided by Roald Dahl?  Girl (Sophie) sees giant; girl is snatched by giant because she has seen him; girl's life is at risk from other giants who have a history of snacking on kids; girl decides to do something about it and motivates the BFG to do so too; the Queen is involved, the giant is dispensed with and the girl lives happily ever after.

This has all the hallmarks of a quest story. Sophie has been thrust into a situation not of her making but accepts a perilous mission to save the world (her world, children).

The problem with this film is that it misses out one important element of a quest story: the hero isn't transformed or redeemed as a result of her experiences.

Or maybe she is, but we wouldn't know it because the film doesn't take the time to establish Sophie's driving motivation, before plunging her directly into giant land.

The opening scenes of the BFG focus on an insomniac Sophie, hiding from the matron at her orphanage, sneaking a book, wandering the halls and shouting at drunks. The shouting at drunks seems an odd moment - we later realise this is establishing her as someone who isn't afraid to stand up to people bigger than herself in order to protect other children, foreshadowing her actions with the giants. We see her as tough. We see her as outspoken. We see her as brave.

We don't see her as lonely or vulnerable or friendless. Quite the opposite. The fact she is standing up for the other children at the orphanage implies she cares about them which implies they are her friends.

So when she latches onto the BFG as her new BFF it seems odd. 

In fact, the friendship seems unsettling and uneven. The BFG has form in snatching kids - he's done it once before and it didn't end well (for the boy). It suggests that he is very lonely and will perhaps sometimes do inexcusable things in order to meet his need for company. It doesn't explain what is in it for Sophie. The Sophie we saw in the opening scene might trick the BFG into believing she is his friend, in order to escape. But she evinced none of the deep aching loneliness or emotional vulnerability that would make a kid want a giant as her pal.

I found myself comparing this to (the original) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film. In that we see how much responsibility Charlie carries, how much he cares for his family and how little he has for himself. We completely believe in his wonder at the Chocolate Factory and feel the depth of his devastation when he believes he has failed Willie Wonka.

I'm guessing, in the BFG that moment is when the BFG, fearing for her life in Giant Country, takes her back to the orphanage. Sophie refuses to accept her friend is abandoning her. She forces him to reappear and makes him take her with him. She isn't giving up her friend.

But for that dark moment to be a dark moment, Sophie's loneliness and her desperate desire to be loved really, really need to be front and centre. We need to be able to empathise with her need for the BFG not to abandon her.  Her cunning, courage and protectiveness should give her the means to achieve this end.

And, at the end, when we see "Sophie's dream" come to pass - see her loved and secure, it doesn't feel real. Because that isn't the dream of the Sophie who has been presented to us. It's the dream of another Sophie, a vulnerable, rejected Sophie - a Sophie we have never seen.

Contrast to the film of Matilda, where her happy ending with Miss Honey feels like the reward for her bravery. The film opens with Matilda's neglect and rejection from babyhood - and her genius. She is clever, cunning, brilliant and daring - but she is also unrecognised and unloved. To really care about her happy ending, for it to make sense, we needed to know that about Sophie too.

There's a lot to learn from the BFG film.

It's a film that should have been brilliant but is actually a bit boring. The acting is good - Sophie is well cast and well acted - and the effects are marvellous. But without that emotional hook, that character arc which is so essential to a quest, it's hard to belive the rest.

This has given me insight into what I need to look for in my own work. If I don't establish my character at the start, if I don't give her the opportunity to change and grow as a consequence of her experiences, I'm not really bringing her to life. I'm just presenting spectacle.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Cinderella the Movie: Why Do We Hate Ourselves?

I recently blogged about three things a romance writer can learned from the 2015 Cinderella Movie. That covered some ground but not all. With Maleficent heralded as a feminist triumph, and Frozen welcomed as move away from Waiting-For-The-Prince-To-Save-Me to focusing on family bonds and the power of love, it was interesting that Disney chose to make a super faithful live action version of the 1950 Cinderella movie.

The 1950s aren't precisely known as an era for female empowerment. The prevailing rhetoric had women firmly back in the kitchen preparing highballs for their menfolk and ensuring they had their lipstick straight for the moment he got back from work. Cinderella challenged that... not at all. No, she merrily swept out the house without resentment and as a reward got treated to a night out and met a monied fella who swept her off her feet without so much as a Bibbity Bobbitty Boo to a woman's traditional reward: marriage. 

Roll on 65 years - have things changed?

Well er, no. Not especially. This movie is very faithful to the cartoon. I already mentioned the mouse thing, but the thing which really bothered me - and which came through even more strongly than in the 1950 version - was Cinderella's lack of self worth. 

Here's the way it goes. 

Cinderella has a golden childhood dancing with her doting dad and being told to believe in EVERYTHING by her golden mum. Then her mum tucks her into bed, breaks out in a sweat and promptly keels over (check out Disney's mummy mortuary and why you should care about it). 

Side note: my seven year old immediately wanted to know what she'd died of. Turns out that was the first thing my 49 year old big sister wanted to know too. Was it plague she asked? Fast growing tumour, I thought. Anyways, back to the blog...

Now for the death bed scene. Cinders' mum asks Cinders to make an important promise: to always Be Kind and Have Courage.

A few more years of gaily dancing around the house and then Cinders' Dad remarries. It's 0 to 60 here with the nastiness. Cinder's wicked stepmother barely pretends to be anything other than a b*tch and her stepsisters are openly nasty. Odd for doting dad to overlook this but never mind. Cinders is prepared to turn the other cheek. 

And thus it begins. By the time Daddy Dearest follows mum up to heaven, Cinders is already living in the attic surrounded by mice. One wonders how  the Wicked "You can call me Madam" Stepmother plans to justify this to Dad when he gets home, but as he conveniently dies this isn't a problem. 

And besides, Cinders is busy Being Kind and Having Courage

Here's what really stuck in my throat about Cinderella the movie. As far as female role models go it's WORSE than the 1950s cinematic version. At least in the cinematic version Cinders has a bit about her. She's pretty proactive with her singing mouse army. Come 2015 she's limp as week old lettuce. 

Her interpretation of "Be Kind and Have Courage" is to put up with any amount of crap, bullying and misery and not to complain about it, challenge it or to act in her own defence in any way at all. Whilst cartoon Cinders seemed to enjoy dancing about with a feather duster, live action Cinders doesn't. "You don't look well," her old maidservant advises her, asking why she doesn't leave. It's a fair question. Cinders response is that her folks loved the old house and so she has to keep the garden nice or something. Er, okay. I'm sure that those totally doting parents would be thrilled that their house was weed-free and well dusted and that their daughter was enduring living slavery. Or not

In fact, the only slight feistiness modern Cinders demonstrates is in the forest when asks the Prince not to kill the stag. He protests, claiming it's the done thing. Cinders points out that just because it's the done thing, doesn't mean it's right. All he needs to do, explains Cinders, is to Be Kind and Have Courage

Because for a man being Kind and Having Courage means something totally different than for a woman. On the Prince's variation of the parental death scene his father asks him if he'll marry the Princess Chehina if the King orders him too, the Prince says no. He reckons he needs to follow his own instincts and that he's got what it takes to rule a Kingdom without Princess Chehina's additional resources. All he needs to do is to "Be Kind and Have Courage" he explains. The King is delighted. "You're your own man," he congratulations his son. 


So for the Prince, Being Kind and Having Courage doesn't mean masochistically enduring an unendurable situation (being married to someone he doesn't love when he has met the girl of his dreams). His kindness extends to himself, as well as to the people around us. His courage means the courage of his convictions.

But for Cinders, Being Kind and Having Courage DOES mean masochistically enduring an unendurable situation (living in slavery). Her kindness doesn't extend to herself. Her courage is used only to... wait, when does she display courage? Sent to the attic, she doesn't protest. Denied the ball, she doesn't rebel and make an attempt to go out until the Fairy Godmother tells her to, clothes her AND gives her magical anonymity, thus making it risk-free. Imprisoned, she doesn't once try to escape. Even when the Prince's men visit, it's the bloody mice who open the window. 

Her big act of courage is telling the Prince her bloody name and status - which presumably he already knew, as he'd had a bit of time hanging about downstairs chatting whilst he waited for her to bother leaving the attic. 

Not once in the movie does passive Cinders do anything to determine her own destiny. It's depressing. And the message it sends to the target audience (young girls) is appalling. 

Throw more shit at me. I'll take it.

Women get this shit from the cradle. 

We're trained to put others first at the expense of ourselves. We make it into an art form. 

Perhaps I wouldn't feel so very strongly about this if I hadn't seen the end result so many bloody times: women exhausting themselves, living in dangerous or unhappy situations, experiencing severe mental health problems. 

This happens not because they don't know where to draw a boundary between themselves and the people they care for but because they don't even known that a boundary should be drawn. 

Once upon a time, a counsellor friend said to me: "Loving your neighbour as yourself means that you have to love yourself too. Otherwise you're not loving your neighbour as yourself." If I had a pound every time I've repeated this to a female friend who is in crisis, I'd be a rich woman. It's important

It's not that being altruistic and loving other people is wrong. It's not. But if you want to be there for other people, you need to make sure you look after yourself. If you don't love yourself enough, practice self acceptance, make sure you are physically, emotionally and mentally well, you are less able to help others. 

The Prince in Cinderella appears to know this. Cinders herself doesn't. 

Cinderella story: wait about and hope a prince decides to marry you
Equally, whilst both the Prince and Cinders have loving relationships with their fathers, throughout the movie the Prince moves towards adult independence, whilst Cinderella remains blindly obedient. In other words, she never grows up. 

The curious irony is that her Stepmother exemplifies what happens when:
1) you prioritise others at your own expense and; 
2) depend wholly on men to shape your destiny. 

Just prior to locking Cinderella in the attic she explains that first she married for love, but second she married for her daughters and she lost both husbands, thus ending up with nothing. This is an explanation for her bitterness and cruelty. 

However, before I got to wondering whether Brannagh was playing a deep game here in contrasting the two, he makes it clears what happens to women who try to get active on their own behalf. The Stepmother tries to exploit her situation (at Cinderella's expense) to advance herself and her daughters: she ends up banished. 

Luckily, we know Cinders won't try anything like that. She's too busy being GOOD as well and Being Kind and Having Courage. Even the dress designer knows it, telling Vanity Fair: Cinderella wins the Prince’s heart through her goodness, so I wanted to show this through her clothes,” Powell explained. “I wanted her to stay modest and pure even though she was going to be a part of royalty.” - so like, flowers and stuff (see above). FFS. 
Okay, I'm not suggesting that blackmailing others is a good idea but it would be nice to see one woman in this beautifully produced, visually stunning women-hating movie doing something to change her fate - and getting rewarded for it. 

We can only hope that Cinderella, who is following faithfully in her Stepmother's footsteps (depending on a man, putting others first) doesn't end up experiencing the same fate. With luck, the Prince will live a long time and value our Cinders. Because God knows she can't do it for herself. 

Putting up with being bullied and controlled isn't courage. It's self destruction. 

If your child loves the new Cinderella, be sure to point out the difference. 

Then go watch Maleficent instead.  

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Three Writing Tips from Disney's 2015 Cinderella

Despite the success of the awe-inspiring Maleficent, Disney must be sick of revisionist fairytale movies because the 2015 live action Cinderella is anything but. So closely have the film-makers stuck to the story depicted in the 1950 version that the eponymous heroine even chats to and has tea parties with mice. Obviously Cinders has never heard that urban myth about mice having no bladders or indeed found one dead under the toaster or I doubt she would greet them dancing around her bedchamber with such equanimity.

Still, mice aside, Cinderella is visually sumptuous. The vaguely Victorian period costumes are gorgeous and if every now and then you wonder why Cinders sticks to her pale blue party frock for cleaning out the grate or wish there were one or two less butterflies on her ballgown, it's more than made up for by the wicked stepmother's (Cate Blanchett) awesome wardrobe. 

Gratuitous Cate Blanchet dress picture - because she is awesome
Unfortunately, although Cate Blanchett is as awesome as her stylish shirt-waisters and Helena Bonham-Carter turns in a star role as an eccentric high camp fairy godmother, Cinderella, whilst engaging enough, left me feeling a bit bleurgh.  And it wasn't just me. My seven year old who had eaten up Frozen and loved Malificent thought it was no better than average giving it a lowly 5/10/ 

But why?  WHY?  It's a visual feast (the best makeover - and makeunder scenes ever), it has a stellar cast... where did this film fall short? 

And it's one of the best makeover scenes EVER

What I Learned About Storytelling From Watching Cinderella. 

Characterisation: for a character to be interesting it has to be three dimensional. And I'm not talking about the green and red glasses here.  Maleficient worked because there were shades of grey in every character, good or bad. Maleficent was a pure-of-heart, generously loving imp who was scarred by her experiences, became very dark indeed and then struggled her way towards redemption. Her nemesis, the king, was an imaginative, open-minded boy who also happened to be dangerously opportunistic and ruthless. Aurora herself was no mild-mannered sweetheart. Sunny natured, she displayed anger, behaved rashly but ultimately had a great deal of discernment. Every single character went on a journey. It was interesting. Compelling, even.

Magnificent Maleficent

Compare to the characters in the 2015 Cinderella. Cate Blanchett tries with all her considerable talent to add some nuances to her wicked stepmother. There is an implication she is hurt, has become cynical... but ultimately, the relationship between she and Cinders is unsatisfying. When asked by Cinders why she has acted as she had, she says "Because you're young and innocent and good and I'm..." - she doesn't finish the sentence.  It feels out of tune. Surely the tension here is about the amount of emotional investment Cinderella has received? Surely it's about jealousy? 

Meanwhile other characters - let's take the conniving Grand Duke or the irritating stepsisters are mere ciphers - it's as though no one has bothered to think of a backstory for them, which would remotely justify their behaviour. This is no reflection on the actors, who seemed to be doing the best they could with a weak script. Compare this to the wonderful 1976 musical The Slipper and the Rose, where the same set of characters were far more nuanced. 

The Slipper and the Rose, 1976

Conflict: Sticking with The Slipper and the Rose, one way in which the Grand Duke character was nuanced was that he was genuinely concerned for the kingdom. There was a threat on the borders that must be addressed. This gave the viewer some sympathy for him. Social hierarchy is also a significant theme in The Slipper and the Rose: the Prince's relationship with Cinderella challenges the very fabric of society (as played out in the charming John/Anne subplot). This helps to raise the stakes for the Prince and Cinderella - it's going to be damn hard for them to be together.

In the 2015 Cinderella there simply is no external conflict. Adding an extra few divisions of soldiers to the country's army ranks appears to be a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. It's easily dismissed in the Prince's mind.  Neither Cinderella nor the Prince have anything to lose by being together. Once they actually find each other, there are no real hurdles to overcome. In fact, if Cinders had wriggled out of the window, climbed down the ivy and hot-footed it to the palace the whole thing could have been sewn up without any need to launch a great big girl-hunt. Cinders just doesn't seem too fussed about doing so, being happy enough to hang about in the attic chatting to the mice.

A great romance plot takes both romantic protagonists on a journey and stacks the odds against them being together. They have to work hard to get to their happy ending and they change along the way. It's like a quest story, but one that involves two people questing towards the goal from different directions. You win the prize by overcoming obstacles. That's the name of the game.

Electric eccentricity from HBC 
Make every scene count: There's a scene in Cinderella where the Prince is having his portrait painted. The artist, Master Phineus, played by Rob Brydon, is a comic character who mouths off all throughout his scene. Why? For comic effect? Because... why? His lines don't do anything for the story. His could have been used to show that the Prince didn't take himself too seriously and that this was in conflict with the expectations of him. He could have been used to impart important information. In fact, his inclusion just felt pointless, distracting and at odds with the overall atmosphere of the film. Compare to the Fairy Godmother scene with the brilliant Helena Bonham-Carter which is genuinely funny and is essential to the plot. Take a tip from Chekhov: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

So what can a romance author learn from Cinderella?

You can have gorgeous description (the book equivalent of sumptuous costumes and scenery) and you can have action - and Cinderella does - but without conflict, you don't have that satisfying feeling of resolution. Without strong, three dimensional characterisation it's hard to care that much about what happens to the people in the story. And without good editing, your reader will be distracted. 

Don't make your villains too bad or your protagonists too good - both are dull. Don't skimp on the conflict, internal or external, because without it your story won't keep the reader interested. Make the odds high. Show what they have to lose. 

When I asked my daughter why she gave Cinderella such a mediocre rating, she said: "It's like they should have thought about it more before they made it." 

I couldn't have put it better myself. 

PS she also said: "And she had too many butterflies on her dress." Another truth. Because like, sometimes, less is more. 

A plague of butterflies on our nature loving heroine