Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Tag: craft

NaNoWriMo 2014

It’s November in Seattle, which means a time of rain, darkness, and frantic novel-writing. Seriously, art is how people survive through the winter in the Pacific Northwest. Whether that’s writing, music, knitting, carving, or painting, art has gotten people through the dark of these short winter days for a long time. Last year I wrote down every time I did creative practice on a little slip of paper and put it in a jar, like picked root vegetables. I believe that done without expectation of quality or result, the practice of creating can be a great way to push back despair. Ironically, of course, the difficulty of creating at all, much less of letting go of the expectation of quality or result, is a great cause of despair. I always hope the two balance each other out.

credit: Chris Vlachos via Wikipedia

credit: Chris Vlachos via Wikipedia

This year I’m writing a comic script, although if the word count becomes too oppressive I’ve given myself permission to also write “in-world documents,” i.e. characters’ letters, journals, newspaper clippings, etc. First off, it turns out that since I am not Alan Moore, individual script pages don’t have that many words on them. So far I’ve averaged 150-300 words per page, which shakes out to 7ish pages of script per day, which is a decent amount of story. I figure I’ll get somewhere between six and twelve issues out of November, which isn’t actually my whole story. Interesting to feel out pacing in this new genre of speed-drafting. I feel like if other (fiction) NaNos have been running a marathon, this is like backpacking a long trail–different pacing, same idea.

Anyway, thankfully I have some really great gear to help me this year: Scrivener.

CorkboardIt’s a free program during the month of November for a NaNoWriMo trial, then 50% off if you win. In general it’s a pretty affordable program for what it does, which is a lot:

  • Scrivener lets me arrange my scenes on a virtual cork-board (or as an outline), with each scene displayed with a summary on an “index card.” This lets me outline my comics and then choose which scenes I want to write first.
  • Each page can contain marginal notes, or pictures, research links, or lists of themes.
  • There’s also a spot for character sketches and setting descriptions.
  • Actually writing in comic script format is easy. First of, there *is* a comic script format, which is at this point pretty huge. It’s the Anthony Johnson style, which I find approachable. I think it’d be possible to set your own style if you wanted to do a different format, but I haven’t yet gotten that far with the program. Regardless, it will save me hours of formatting in Microsoft Word, which is usually accompanied by screaming and/or slow brain death.

So that’s what I’m up to for NaNoWriMo. If you’re also doing NaNoWriMo, or if you just want some craft resources, I figured I’d ridiculously self-promote by reminding y’all of craft articles I’ve written that might be helpful.

Three-Act Structure

The Interrupter in Scenes

Fiction, How Does It Work (with lots of Kate Beaton cartoons to help explain stuff)

Writing from your characters’ POVs subjectively

Writing Dynamic Female Characters

A Nice Example of the Major Dramatic Question and Passover Question

Using Symbolic Props

and finally

Using Fraggle Rock as a Character Creation Model


And if you’re tired of hearing me yammer, go check out Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog, which is a treasure trove of great craft articles, including many specific to memoirists.

Happy Writing!

Blogging on Tour

Blogging on Tour: My Writing Process

I was graciously invited by the luminous Ti Kendrick Hall of What if the Shape is a Rose? to join in a blog tour that explores writing process. It’s a bit like a chain letter except vastly more interesting and full of tasty tidbits of writer’s obsessions and processes. A few of the others on tour have included:


Without further ado:

1) What are you working on?

Currently, I’m working on a short story for the forthcoming pen and paper role-playing game, Strange Voyages, which has been described as “Star Trek meets the Age of Exploration.” I’m writing a story set in Cuba in 1544 during the height of triangle trade and the beginnings of Santeria.

In 2013, I finished my MFA thesis for Goddard College, entitled Behind the Magic Mirror, an ambitious combination of short stories and comic scripts that each retold a fairy tale. Two of the short stories have been picked up for publication: “Iron Henry” appeared in the Fall 2011 Pitkin Review and “Lilith’s Mirror” appeared in the 2013 anthology from Dark Opus Press, Tell Me A Fable.

I pretty much always have some sort of retold fairy tale going on, either in the form of a short story or a comic. At the moment I am working with several artists on short comics that retell tales from the Grimm brothers, Nez Perce legend, and The Arabian Nights.  I’m always on the lookout for artists who have the same obsession with weird fairy tales that I do.

I have also been working on a superhero comic, which is one part love letter to superhero comics and one part critique. A Teen Titans/X-Men-esque team of teenage heroes defeated this menacing alien invasion…this story is set ten years later, when the heroes have grown up, settled down, and really, truly, deeply suck at young adulthood.

2) How does your work differ from others’ in the same genre? 

In terms of fairy tale retellings, my tales are not blithe parody (Cinderella doesn’t need a man so she opens a shoe store omg!) nor simple setting-shifted retellings (Snow White in SPAAACE!). Oftentimes I find hidden content or untold sides of the stories to explore. Why is Rumplestiltskin so obsessed with babies? What’s with all the maimed women? Can anyone else see these tales’ queer content? Sometimes my tales are more like sequels to the original tale, sometimes they are like hidden facets of the story. I strive to maintain the open-ended weirdness that the original tales have.

As for the superhero comic…it’s not Watchmen. It’s not The Incredibles. It’s not Promethea. It’s not even a convenient combination of the three. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a superhero comic like the one I’m writing, which is more or less why I’m writing it.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Aside from the above?

I write comics because I have profound love for the medium; I think comics can tell stories in ways that no other genre can. I also enjoy the collaborative aspect of making comics; as someone whose drawing skill is…say not as developed as my writing skills…I’ve had a good time working with others to realize my comics.

I write about fairy tales and superheroes because I obsess over them. I find both examples of profound cultural mythology that affects the way people tell themselves the stories of their own lives. I like looking at culturally ubiquitous literature like Dante’s Inferno as well, as you may have guessed from Stock Photo Hell. Watch out for me on Twitter (@AnneBeanTweets), because I have been live-Tweeting Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Fairy tales and myth in particular have this bizarre and tasty weirdness to them. They are simultaneously empowering and problematic. They are psychologically profound and lasting, sources of cultural commonality. At the same time, there’s straight-up weird imagery like a bear with iron fur, a young woman dressing in the skin of an old woman, a killer butterfly, a goddess who returns to her scorned ex-husband buckets full of all the semen he’s ever spilled in her… Furthermore, I marvel at the recurring themes that transcend cultures and continents: the countless women with missing hands or limbs, the animal husbands, the miraculous babies. Once you start digging into fairy tales, I’ve found, you open a well into deep cultural consciousness. It is, as the old woman said, turtles all the way down.

4) How does your writing process work?

I have recently re-engaged with the Julia-Cameron-brand morning pages, i.e. three pages of longhand brain drain writing in the morning. These are great. They reduce the amount of time I spend hyperventilating and staring and a blank page or blinking cursor by at least half.

I write most of my drafts longhand. I like to sketch out character arcs and story structures for longer pieces. I find writing in groups to be helpful; I have several groups dedicated to writing practice, and I host a group that does focused exercises and timed freewrites. I edit on the computer, usually with the input of beta readers. Frankly, it’s harder to write when I’m not in the comfy structure of an MFA program. Self-imposed deadlines are tough. This is why I write with others.

In terms of comics, I write scripts with pages and panels, but I don’t mind if my artists ignore the paneling and make up their own. About half of the time I write whatever script has popped into my brain; the other half of the time I write specifically for an artist who has agreed to work with me.


Next Wednesday, July 16th, check out the next group of radsauce writers:

Mick Harris

Mick Harris is a poet living in the SF East Bay. They have an MFA, but their education is far from over. They’re mostly friendly, and definitely happy to be here. You can find their work in Pink Litter and the Up, Do anthology available from Spider Road Press (, as well as forthcoming in Fruitapulp, Deep Water Literary Review, and Digging Through the Fat. They share poetry and general brain dump at

MM Jordahl

M.M. Jordahl is a writer, blogger and feminist endlessly fascinated with the intersection of social issues and popular fiction. She has a degree in creative writing from the University of Washington in Seattle, and primarily writes science fiction and fairytales, with frequent deviations to complain about TV shows on her blog. You can find her at, or on Twitter at @mmjordahl.


Doctor Who and Childhood Fears

Okay. Let’s talk about Doctor Who, you guyze. I’m gonna talk craft/storytelling much more so than plot, but I am gonna show off a big ol’ collection of the show’s monsters, so spoilers? Sort of?

Basics: Doctor Who is technically, at 50 years with some pretty major gaps in between series, the longest running show on television. It’s a legend in British culture and has a huge American fan base, particularly with the reboot in 2005. It began in the 60s as a children’s television show. And now, its target audience from tweens to adults, including a special subset of thirty-year-old women who go absolutely mad for anything with a TARDIS on it. Seriously, like half the cosplay at ComicCon makes sense to me now that I’ve watched Doctor Who. Like the guy wearing a t-shirt that says “The Angels Have the Phonebox.” Subtle. Nice.

ANYWAY. My point here is that one thing Doctor Who does very well which allows it to appeal to such a broad age range is to base its monsters off of childhood fears. Many of the episodes take childhood fears and in one way or another, turn them into physical and specific monsters.

The Dark

For example, let’s take one of the most ubiquitous childhood fears, fear of the dark. In the double episode Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, written by Steven Moffat*, the fear of the dark is personified in a creature called the Vashta Nerada. The Vashta Nerada live in shadows, and eat flesh from bone in seconds should you step into one. If you suddenly have two shadows when you shouldn’t, that means the other shadow is a Vashta Nerada that’s about to eat you.

A Vashta Nerada casts multiple shadows

“Hey, who turned out the lights?”

Fear of the dark/inability to see also comes up in the Weeping Angels episodes. If the room goes dark, then the monsters will descend on you really, really quickly. If you can see them, then you’re fine.

Weeping Angels menace the camera. "The ultimate Red Light/Green Light players"

Scary! …until Steven Moffat made them silly later. But we shall not speak of that.

Both of these remind me of one of the traditional childhood responses to night-time fear, i.e. sitting in bed with a flashlight. We literally get a frightened child in the episode, “Night Terrors,” written by Mark Gatiss. In this episode, a child has manifested his night-time fears so that his closet really is a scary dimension full of creepy dolls.

creepy freakin' doll standing in doorway, lit by flashlight


Which brings us nicely to our next topic…


Masks, dolls, statues, robots…all of these look like people–but they’re not. Doctor Who has a delicious series of non-human humanoids and mask-wearing monsters, starting with that unforgettable child in “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” by Steven Moffat.

creepy boy in gas mask

“Are You My Mummy?”

However, masked inhuman creatures are an absolute mainstay of Who, including:


droids from "The Girl in the Fireplace"

Clockwork droids in the 18th Century!

masked figure from "The Beast Below"

Creep-ass moveable-face statue in the far future!

scarecrows from "The Family of Blood"

…not to mention this guy’s creepy scarecrow minions in the early 20th century.





As children get older, they fear things related to school more and more, be they wrathful teachers or bullies.

A defining characteristic of a stereotypical schoolyard bully is a compulsion to fight with those weaker than themselves, while being smaller and weaker on the inside than they’ll ever let on. Sound…familiar?


Big scary outside, with death ray and oddly menacing plunger!

Dalek exoskeleton opened up

Liiittle squishy brain alien inside. Bent on exterminating all other life. Like you do.

Sontarans, with and without helmets

So I know Sontarans are great warriors, but they have a pretty major fatal flaw. Also, they’re kinda short.















Well, duh. That’s what the bits of this show that I haven’t already gone on about are…about… There are more monsters in Doctor Who than you could shake a stick at.

There are ghosts…

ghosts on the street of London

“Army of Ghosts” written by Russell T. Davies


a werewolf

“Tooth and Claw” written by Russell T. Davies


waifish women in dresses baring long fangs

“The Vampires of Venice” written by Toby Whithouse

Whatever scares you, personally, the most…

a sad clown sits on a hotel bed

“The God Complex” written by Toby Whithouse

And noteably, the spectre of a girl’s abusive father…

drawing of father with grimace, glowing eyes

“Fear Her” written by Matthew Graham

Interestingly, Wikipedia notes about the episode “Fear Her,” pictured above, that “Graham was asked to write an episode primarily for children which would soften the much darker finale that would be broadcast after. […] Though Graham received letters from children who enjoyed the episode, it did not generate a positive response from adult fans and critics.” I’m curious why…perhaps the psychology of the little girl was more accessible to kids. Or perhaps they enjoyed the “drawings coming to life” mechanic, ’cause that’s a pretty common daydream…

Well, Doctor Who has more monsters than I have time, so here I shall end it.



*So I have a love/hate relationship with Steven Moffat, as a writer and as a spokesperson for the show. Some of my favorite episodes are written by Moffat. I also think he did a crap job as producer and has, to quote Walt Whitman, “a vile opinion of women.”** However, I have neither the space nor the energy to write all the things I think about him and/or the show’s more problematic aspects, and thus I urge you to check out what Morgan Jordahl has to say on the subject.

**Walt Whitman, from the introduction to Leaves of Grass, 1855: “Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself. Understand that you cannot keep out of your writing the indication of the shallowness and evil you entertain in yourself. If you love to have a servant stand behind your chair at dinner, it will appear in your writing. Or if you possess a vile opinion of women, or if you grudge anything, or doubt immortality — these will appear by what you leave unsaid, more than by what you say.”

On Personal Oceans, and the Landscape of Childhood


Waiting at the Burlington Airport, watching the jets go, reading.

At the Burlington International Airport, on the way home after getting my MFA, I impulsively bought Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to read on the plane, never mind that I was going to go see him read at Town Hall in Seattle the very next day.

I think it was the perfect book to read on the way back from Goddard College, a place that felt a little bit like the coolest writer sleep-away camp ever and a little bit like a memory of times already past. The Ocean at the End of the Lane deals with memory, and landscape, and the terrors that childhood holds. The sense of childhood horror is well-stated in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Maurice Sendak in conversation with Art Spiegelman: “I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

And the horrors that children know and adults try to blind themselves to is perhaps the emotional crux of this short and poignant novel. At his Town Hall talk, Gaiman explained some of the genesis of the book; he was missing his wife, Amanda Palmer, and wanted to write something for her. But she, apparently, doesn’t really like fantasy (I know, right?)…”but she likes me,” he said, “and she likes feelings. So I put some feelings in and toned down the supernatural a bit.” He also added a setting from his own Essex childhood; the picture on the back of a boy climbing on a house is a photo of Neil, Age Seven. (Although I skimmed the interior back flap too quickly and for a moment though they were describing the author photo, leaving me with the impression that NG had sprung fully formed from his mother’s forehead…) I find this novel differs from Gaiman’s other novels for adults because it has more feelings, quite frankly. He gets me right in the nostalgia. And no, my personal nostalgia does not revolve around the aftermath of a stranger’s suicide on a tiny rural English village, nor is it about a trio of maiden/mother/crone types who may or may not be an old farming family and/or supernatural entities from the dawn of time. But the sense of an adult going back and feeling intense nostalgia about childhood, both for the magic of being a child (literally, of course, here) and the terror of being a child. From a craft perspective, the first and last chapters do a brilliant job of lowering the reader into the world of the story through the layers of memory of the adult who is narrating about his childhood. This really is, as Gaiman asserts, a book for adults with a child narrator. I think it would be a fun read for a child or teen, but you wouldn’t really get the emotional punch until you were an adult, and especially an adult who had left home.

The poet David Wagoner introduced me to the lovely term psychotope, or the shape of the psyche. How hot is “hot.” How far is “far.” What “rain” looks like. And the narrator’s psychotope is clearly laid out in this novel: I could picture the mental map of this child’s world, the details of the dirt lane he lived on, the important places and things in his life. His logic, even when it seemed fantastic or illogical for the adults around him, is laid out clearly for the reader. And more importantly, I can remember when having a world map like that made sense. I found myself thinking about the five acres I grew up on in semi-rural Colorado and the intricate world of myth and magic I built for myself. (The fairies lived across the little stream in the meadow with the big Ponderosa pines, the Tolkein-style elves lived back in the mossier, darker woods, etc.) Inside my house was more a landscape of monsters, both mine and my brother’s. For him, Darth Vader lived in the basement shop behind the ominous wood-stove that provided most of our house’s winter heat. For me, the one spot just to the right of the hall that I always avoided because of an incredibly vivid dream wherein an invisible man picked me up off my feet by my collar and I just knew he was standing there day and night, biding his time. I had rituals about how fast I had to book it up the stairs (before the door to the garage, on its hissing automatic closer, closed with a final thump). I think everyone had at least one little ritual or piece of magical thinking in the landscape of their childhood home. I imagine many of them were much more terrifying than Darth Vader or the ubiquitous invisible man. I imagine for children with more real-world trauma in their lives daily, a great deal of ritual and magical thinking is put into trying to control the behavior of those adults or other children around them whose behavior cannot be controlled.

What Gaiman does so nicely in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is to take the magical thinking of childhood and conflate it elegantly with real magic. It’s a book about how hard it is to be seven. It’s also a book about family. It’s also a book with enough very real magic to feed the hungry child in all of us. You can check it out here or just go buy a copy. The hardback is really attractive. It’s got deckle edges, O Kindle users, which your Devices will not be able to accurately replicate. Just sayin’.


In the comments, please tell me a ritual or piece of magical thinking from your childhood. I’m also curious, for those of you that read it, what you thought of the book.

Fiction for Poets

So, I was at a poetry class the other day (poetry! I know! It totally happened to me!) and someone there said, “I want to write fiction. How do you start?”

What a damn good question that I don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about.

To my fiction brain, poetry seems to just kind of happen to you, which I realize is a gross oversimplification of poetic craft. Perhaps one must be more calculated going into fiction…which is also a gross oversimplification. Let me try to expand.

Poe and Verne are bestest bros.

With comics by Kate Beaton to help me explain the finer points of craft!

The seeds of fiction can be pretty dang spontaneous. Sometimes fiction starts when characters speak to you; you have a voice or a person that you can’t get out of your head. (Poets go for ecstatic mania, fiction writer for obsessive schizophrenia? Something like that.) Sometimes fiction starts when you hear someone tell a funky anecdote and you go “ohh, there’s a short story there.” Sometimes fiction starts when you have a topic or a place you know you need to write about: Russian mail-order brides, or the Isle of Skye, or the family farm in Texas. Sometimes the seeds of fiction start from a compelling what-if question: What if I had been telekinetic in high school? What if there really IS a global conspiracy to keep the American government under the control of corporations? What if we could share dreams, literally, when sleeping? What if Jesus had been reborn as a gay Mexican boy?

I find freewriting an important place to let that stuff out. Subconscious dribble turns into stories. Sometimes exercises turn into stories. Italo Calvino called the Tarot “a machine for generating stories,” and I often play with Tarot cards while freewriting…but that is another post, to be told another time.

Today, I want to talk about what happens after you have that initial moment of recognition: “Ohh, that’s a story.”

Say you just heard your friend talking about how her mother sent her newspaper clippings about women who got raped or attacked in the mail all through college. No letter. No note. Just these creepy stories. That story instinct buzzes inside you at this, and you want to do something about it, but you’re not sure what.

First: Ditch reality.

A rookie mistake I’ve both committed and seen other folks commit, especially when writing fiction set in this world with nothing supernatural happening: justifying mediocre choices because, the author cries indignantly, “That’s the way it really happened!” This isn’t reality. It’s fiction. What happens in reality doesn’t necessarily make good fiction, and the catharsis of fiction rarely extends to reality. So, give these characters some space to not be your friend and her mom, but to spring from those seeds.

pride and prejudice and monster trucks

Okay, so maybe not like this…


Second: What do your characters want?

In our pretend story, we’ve got two main characters so far: mom and daughter. Exploring what they WANT is gonna be fuel for your story. Does the daughter want independence? Maybe she’s annoyed by her mother’s persistent article-sending and does reckless stuff to compensate. Does she want safety? Maybe her mother’s articles secretly terrify her and therefore she is afraid to talk to people or do much of anything. What does mom want? Is she lonely/does she want her daughter back in the house? Does she want safety for her child? Is she afraid her daughter will get raped because of some past trauma in her own life? Is she just really controlling, and if so, why does she want control so bad?

Character want is more obvious, quite frankly, in longer fiction than in shorter fiction. You can track the wants of characters in Pride and Prejudice or The Master and Margarita or Anne of Green Gables pretty well–each novel has a several characters who all WANT something. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy wants Elizabeth. Elizabeth wants Darcy, but also wants independence within her family structure. In The Master and Margarita, Berlioz wants to prove his secular reality to the world; Satan wants to expose people’s selfish idiocy, and Margarita wants love and revenge against those who’ve wronged her lover. (The narrator actually has a direct discussion about what Margarita wants, and says, “Evidently, however, she spoke the truth in saying that she wanted the Master, not the Gothic house, not a private garden, and not money. She loved him. She spoke the truth.”) In Anne of Green Gables, Anne wants a rich, romantic life that lives up to her imagination.

In terms of dramatic structure, distilling your character’s wants can lead you to find something called the Major Dramatic Question. The question that, when it is answered (or decisively not answered,) the story is over. Will Anne find her way? Will The Master and Margarita be happily re-united? Will Satan be foiled? Will Elizabeth and Darcy get married?

Third: What does that want LOOK LIKE?

sleeeeeeves, Marilla!

So, props. I was used to props from theater; you don’t have a prop on stage unless it’s doing something in the scene, and it’s extra bonus points if the prop can be symbolic or hold visual weight: Yorick’s skull, anyone?

Props also apply in fiction: not so symbolically blatant as film or practically chosen as theater, but hey. Oftentimes there are things or people that represent what a character wants.

Take Elizabeth Bennett, for example. She wants independence within her big ol’ family. What does that look like? Marrying Mr. Darcy. Darcy becomes a symbol of Elizabeth’s wants, and a nicely mutable one considering all the times he’s got a giant stick up his ass and Lizzie’s re-calculating if he is the answer to all her problems or not.

Margarita has a prophetic dream in which she sees herself flying over the landscape to a shack where her lover resides; that’s why she’s so eager to use the magic ointment she’s offered to go flying and meet…well, Satan, but it was a nice try. The ointment is tied right into Margarita’s desires, and is a nice concrete object. The dream helps her actions make sense and help us believe she’s acting rationally.

In Anne of Green Gables, Anne freaks right out about puffed sleeves on a dress: a nice, concrete metaphor for that rich romantic life she so desires.

In our hypothetical story, those newspaper clippings are a GREAT prop to play with. Perhaps the mother comes to visit the daughter, who’s hiding out in her dorm room with, like, every article posted on the wall by her bed, and Mom realizes how much she’s freaking out her child. Perhaps the daughter’s final act of rebellion is to NOT open the letter and toss it out or burn it with a cigarette she’s smoking at a sketchy frat party.

Fourth: Why NOW?

Jane Austen Fanfic

Here’s how *not* to do it!

So, that roar of ignition for your story: the moment it begins. In dramatic structure, it’s sometimes called the Passover Question, as in: Why is this night different than any other night? Why is this moment different? There has to be a tipping point that gets things started.

In Pride and Prejudice, the story starts when Bingley moves into Netherfield Park (and the Bennetts hear about it, prompting the daughter-hocking to begin in earnest). In The Master and Margarita, the story begins when Satan, that old catalyst, comes to town. In Anne of Green Gables, the story starts on the day when Anne comes to live with Marilla in Green Gables.

In our story, perhaps it’s the day Mom is finally coming to visit, and the daughter has to hide signs of the lesbian relationship she’s been having with her roommate. Or Mom’s visiting her daughter at college for the first time, and we’ve been following the story from Mom’s POV, and she has aforementioned “oh crap I’m making my daughter a completely paranoid shut-in” moment. Or it’s the night the daughter goes out for the first time and something traumatic does or doesn’t happen. Or it’s the night the daughter is actually attacked at a sketchy frat party and either she gets raped or dissuades her attackers. Maybe she fights off potential rapists and then goes home and rips up all the articles her mom keeps sending. There are all kinds of different stories to choose from here.


Jane Austen comics

Also, this happens.


A final thought: In the same way that I must read more poetry if I want to write poems (and make it specific: watch videos of slam and/or go to slams if I want to write slam poetry), if you want to write fiction you must read it. Want to write short stories? Read short stories. Want to capture the aesthetic of Russian literature? Read Russian literature. Want to retell fairy tales? Read a lot of freakin’ fairy tales. Read what you want to make, and steal its tricks. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Subjective, Objective

Since I am neck deep in revisions right now, I figured I would write about a specific chunk of craft:


What is it?

It’s a way of getting into a character’s head in so that the audience can see, not objective reality (whatever that is), but the reality that the character lives in.

This exists in all genres. As a only occasional poet, I’d argue that poetry can easily be the most subjective of the genres, but then poetry is only sometimes concerned with story, and more often concerned with what my brilliant poet friend Shae calls recreating a specific vibratory, emotional experience for the reader. Getting on a wavelength together, if you will. Being in each other’s heads.

Fiction can also be quite subjective, especially when it has close psychic distance or an intimiate voice. To me, though, the most interesting experiences in subjectivity come in film. Film is supposedly an objective genre: the unfeeling camera’s eye. Of course, as early as Georges Melies folks were messing with the objectivity of the camera’s eye. Still, subjectivity requires a finesse of effects in film.

movie poster from Rashomon

In an obvious way, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a classic of subjective film. The audience gets the same story three ways from three different characters; what seems like a simple story is not so simple. It’s a mystery and a whodunnit, and the audience’s concept of who is innocent or guilty changes several times during the film.

Men in Black: Trebeck and Ventura

Alex Trebeck and Jesse Ventura guest star as Men in Black in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”

In a silly way, the X-Files Episodes “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “Bad Blood” both involve characters recounting the same events in different ways. I think “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is an episode that any writer should watch because it is about a writer trying to gather some kind of objective truth out of a mess of subjective accounts from people. It also dances an interesting dance between the supposedly objective intro before the credits and the subjective accounts from everyone involved.


Scully's version of the Sheriff

In “Bad Blood,” even the characters change depending on who’s telling the story. Luke Wilson’s small-town cop character in handsome and intelligent in Scully’s version; in Mulder’s version he’s Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, complete with buck teeth (“He had a slight overbite!” Mulder declared when Scully calls him on it.) and lines like, “Y’all must be the gov’ment people!”

At the end of that episode, though, they go back to the town and we get an “objective” view of the situation.

Mulder's version of the Sheriff


X-Files is interesting to me in general in terms of subjectivity and objectivity because we the viewers get to see the aliens, lake monsters, fluke men (guhhh), and even vampires in ways that Scully and Mulder don’t. We have seen like five or ten times the aliens that Mulder has. That being said, so much of the filming is done in from someone’s perspective as part of a recounting that objective truth is difficult to determine. I’ve watched the whole show, and frankly I’m still not sure the single truth of what actually happened to Mulder’s sister. (I know, they supposedly explained it. But that was hard to swallow for me considering the large amount of subjective data we get throughout the show. I mean, is Alex Trebeck also a Man in Black?)

On a less immediately obvious level, Black Swan is an incredibly subjective film. Black Swan is a movie that relies on the audience believing in Nina’s subjective world. We have to believe that what she sees is true. Otherwise, it’s a movie about a crazed ballerina slowly acting more and more paranoid until she breaks a mirror, stabs herself, and then dances Swan Lake.

Even little scenes in Black Swan are subjective. When Nina is learning how to do the Black Swan’s 32 pirouettes or whatnot, we see both her in the camera and we have a moment of the camera becoming her, and swooping around in circle after circle so that the audience can feel the disorientation that she does.

With each physical transformation or moment that she sees the double, we see reality as she does, a flash of the Double and then a flash of her own reflection helping us to see her scattered mind.

Nina and her reflection do not match.

Subjectivity is also necessary in films like Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas…otherwise it’s about some questionable men in Hawaiian shirts trashing the living hell out of a hotel room. If they’re tripping balls, we the audience had best be tripping balls with them so that we understand the stakes they’re feeling in the story.

Johnny Depp in a distorted camera lens

The lens subtly distorts the image here; the narrator and camera are both unreliable. And this isn’t even the part with the living wallpaper.

So, my little April Fools, I have  an exercise for you, just for funsies:

Take a story of yours, or a folktale, or a story you know really well, and rewrite it two ways: As objectively as possible, and then as subjectively as possible. What information might only make sense in one of your character’s heads, and how can you let us in? (Bonus points if you storyboard this out, for those of you who’ll touch film or comics with a ten foot pole.)

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! by John Scieszka & Lane Smith is a good example of the “fairy tale” version of this prompt.

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