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Mary Poppins: Who exactly is Bert?

Posted in analysis, disney, storytelling by commorancy on June 11, 2019

Mary PoppinsThis is one question that I’m sure many people have asked themselves after watching 1964’s Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. With the recent release of 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, these questions resurface with Jack in the newest film. Let’s explore.

Bert and Mary

I’m focusing on the 1964 film with this article. I may write another article later that focuses on the new film… though, a lot of this applies to Jack in the newest film. I will briefly discuss Mary Poppins Returns in relation to Mary Poppins.

It’s clear, Mary and Bert know one another… and they know one another well. How they know each other is a mystery that is not solved in either of the films, but they have met numerous times based on their dialog, Bert’s clues and lots of hints from Mary. In this article, I will postulate a few things that might seem out of place, but if you think about it, you’ll realize that it isn’t that far out of place and may bring a sense of closure.

Somethings BrewingBert is the first person the audience meets in Mary Poppins. This isn’t an accident. The story starts off with Bert to show just how omnipresent Bert actually is. It also shows us Bert is a “free spirit” and does whatever he pleases, comes and goes when he pleases and shows up only when needed. On other other hand, Mary Poppins is the opposite of Bert. She is an extremely controlling and vain individual (magical or not). She always wants things “just so”. She has a very specific profession and sticks to it. If things are not exactly as she wants, she’s not happy. Bert, on the other hand, is happy simply to be there helping out whenever he can, and be around Mary.

Uncle Alberts PlaceBert even seems to know “Uncle Albert” when Mary and the kids visit him while he’s laughing on the ceiling. Bert is already there when Mary shows up. This is suspicious. If a magical uncle lives in the area, how would Bert know about him and where he lives? How did Bert find out about his most recent incident? From the dog, Andrew? If Bert talks to dogs like Mary, then he is the same as Mary. Bert has also been to see Uncle Albert before and has even had to talk Albert down before. Bert states that it took 3 days to talk him down a previous time. If Mary and Uncle Albert are related, as is heavily implied by the movie, and Bert visits Uncle Albert occasionally, then Mary and Bert are much more than mere acquaintances.

In fact, when Bert fake attempts to jump into the chalk picture with the children, Mary chastises Bert for making something simple into something complex. This implies that she knows Bert knows how to do it properly and is doing it intentionally wrong on purpose… simply so that Mary has to do it. Watch this scene again and you’ll see what I mean. It’s almost as though Mary expects Bert to show his magic off, but when he doesn’t she becomes frustrated with him. Bert manipulates Mary into using her magic instead.

Mary’s Powers

We all know that Mary has some form of magical abilities. Without this, she couldn’t do the things she does. The thing is, her being a nanny is a very calculated profession. She knows exactly what she wants to accomplish as a nanny and goes about that activity in a very meticulous manner. Sure, she displays her magic in almost flippant ways, but she also knows she can gaslight people into believing they saw something they didn’t actually see.

What are the extent of Mary’s powers? We’re not sure and we’re never told. One of her powers seems to be the casting of obliviousness on humans. What I mean by this is that anyone around Mary either accepts what she does without question or completely ignores the things she does. When she leaves, she leaves so much doubt about what happened that even those who participated are left disbelieving. Both kids and adults are wrapped up in this spell. When she does something magical, the kids rarely question how or why, they just automatically accept it. Even some adults seem to fall under this spell. If they do question Mary, she immediately shuts them down by gaslighting that it never took place. After the first time, the children simply accept it.

We know what Mary can do. The bigger question remains, who is Bert and why is he there?

Bert’s Abilities

Bert is a chimney sweep, a chalk sidewalk artist, a musician and a kite seller (among other trades). He does all manner of jobs, but they’re all conveniently located within a few feet of the kids at all times. He’s almost never far out of sight. Being a chimney sweep has some benefits. After all, when Mr. Banks rips up the children’s nanny advertisement letter and he throws it into the fireplace, everyone thinks Mary is the one who retrieves the letter out of there. But, we know better. Bert, as a chimney sweep, did. He then reassembles it and gives it to Mary.

Even with all of this, there are many questions that need an answer. Let’s start answering a few based on the film. For Bert to know Mary as well as he does, including her signature “changing of the wind”, which Bert immediately identifies before Mary ever shows up, he has to have a considerable amount of time with her (or in some other way has acquired this knowledge). This change in the wind immediately signifies to Bert that Mary is on her way. To be that intimately knowledgeable about her calling card, he had to have seen it more than once, more than twice… in fact, more than a few times. You don’t recognize something like that having only ever seen it once. No, Bert knows Mary and he knows her well. Far too well, if I must say.

Bert’s Background

Bert and MaryHow could Bert know Mary that well? There are four possible ways:

1) Mary conjured Bert. If Mary conjured Bert, not only would he intimately know Mary and her ways, she would have conjured someone who would not only be smitten with her, she could easily become smitten herself. However, Mary’s callous lack of return of affection towards Bert potentially shows that she can’t return affection towards a person she has conjured. This point makes sense, but only to a point.

2) Bert conjured Mary. If Bert conjured Mary for the children, he would also intimately know Mary and her ways… because he created her. There’s an argument that could go both conjuring ways here until the release of Mary Poppins Returns. With Jack and without Bert, this throws a wrench into number 2… or does it? This one also makes sense to a point.

3) Bert and Mary are from the same magical realm. This is probably the one that makes the most logical sense. This means that it’s possible that Mary enlists Bert to help her with the children and Bert is simply feigning ignorance to keep up Mary’s charade. After all, she gaslights a ton… why wouldn’t he?

4) Again, Bert and Mary are from the same magical realm. Instead, Bert enlists Mary to help with the children… and based on the way the movie’s story unfolds, I’m going with this situation, which I’ll support below. In fact, Bert seems a whole lot more omnipresent than Mary. When you watch the interactions between Bert and Mary, it almost seems like Mary is heavily observing Bert for just how to behave. Mary is often following Bert’s cues, not the other way around. This situation is the only one where Bert could be smitten with Mary and Mary not return that affection. She can’t because of a master / apprentice situation. Bert is the master. Mary is the “learning” apprentice. She can’t return that affection.

A master and apprentice relationship has been commonplace for many thousands of years. For Mary Poppins, it makes sense that she’s the apprentice and he’s the master. He stands in the background not only guiding the children, but also guiding Mary.

Rationales

If we follow rationale #1, then it would make sense from a Mary Poppins perspective. She conjures up Bert to help manage and keep track of the children when she can’t be around. Bert does a fine job of that. It also means she can make Bert do anything. That Bert pretends to be a chimney sweep or chalk artist lends credence to Mary having conjured him. In fact, nearly everything that Mary does is almost entirely a product of Bert’s prompting. When Mary jumps into the chalk drawing, this is Bert’s drawing and it happened because Bert actually wanted it. When the chimney sweeps begin their amazing dance number, it’s almost solely driven by Bert. When they visit “Uncle Albert” Bert is there to egg everything on… in spite of what Mary actually wants. This could mean that Bert might have conjured Mary. But, there are still things that don’t add up if we accept this hypothesis.

For rationale 2, if Bert is conjured by Mary, it doesn’t explain why Bert has self-autonomy that Mary can’t control. Mary is a control freak. For this reason, I don’t believe Bert is actually conjured and leads me to believe that Bert could have conjured Mary. Unfortunately, this circumstance too doesn’t quite add up. Mary also has self-autonomy that Bert can’t control. Based on this, I believe (and it actually makes the most sense) that Mary and Bert are actually from the same realm. Bert simply doesn’t show off his magic, letting Mary do that. This is part of the reason Mary plays coy with Bert. She knows what Bert is capable of, she just can’t let that cat out of the bag.

Bert never overtly shows his own magic. At least, he never shows it outright. Whenever magic occurs, it’s Mary who shows it off. However, Bert is always more than happy to participate in any activity that involves magic. In fact, he seems right pleased to nose himself into every situation where Mary creates a magical landscape and he never bats an eye. In fact, he seems to enjoy himself immensely when with Mary. He also heavily plays for Mary’s affections in these magical landscapes. Perhaps Mary and Bert cannot actually produce these landscapes without the help of children? That’s worth considering… and it could be why both Bert and Mary gravitate towards children instead of adults, as adults don’t allow them to utilize their magic in the same way. Mary and Bert’s magic is symbiotic with the children. They can’t utilize magic without the children.

Mary 1We know little about Mary’s realm or where it exists. It’s clear, Mary doesn’t live in the same realm as humans. Based on my suppositions above, I also believe that Bert is from that same realm as Mary. He can also perform magic, but he prefers to rely on Mary to perform it. Once Mary gets started, he adds his own touches onto it that Mary is unaware, can’t detect or simply ignores. The kids simply think Mary is doing it all, when Bert is actually contributing to the creation of the magic. In fact, Bert may actually be reinforcing Mary’s magic making it grander than it might otherwise be.

With that said, I also believe Bert performed many feats of magic all throughout Mary Poppins, including the “Step In Time” dance number on the roof. Bert performed that magic all on his own. It’s just that we were so focused on Mary and her abilities, we didn’t see Bert’s magic and we simply assumed it all stemmed from Mary.

Even at the end of Mary Poppins when Mary leaves, Bert also disappears leaving the kids solely to their parents. Otherwise, if Bert had remained about, the kids would have kept running back to Bert to talk about Mary. When Mary leaves, so does Bert. They’re a team, or at least they were until…

Mary Poppins Returns

How would any of this explain Jack in the latest movie? My thought is that Jack is Bert with a new name and new face. Bert can’t come back many years later looking exactly like he did without drawing suspicion. Mary can because she’s the one who’s known to be “magic”. Because Jack is autonomous (and probably Bert in a new form), I believe Jack is also from Mary’s realm. Whether Jack is Bert, I’m uncertain. If Bert has magic, like Mary, then he could remake his face in the same way Mary has in “Returns”. However, there are far too many similarities between Jack and Bert. It’s also possible that Jack is Bert’s son. Perhaps Bert decided not to join Mary on this trip? Perhaps Mary must always be accompanied by another from her realm as part of her sojourns to Earth?

This would make sense. Having two could keep things from going awry. If something Mary does goes a bit haywire, Bert or Jack could put it right and keep Mary, “Practically Perfect In Every Way”. In fact, that’s the reason I believe both Bert and Jack are in the stories… to keep Mary in-check… to ensure that the kids learn their lessons without injury and that magic is always kept in its place. For this reason, I believe Bert drilled it into Mary to always gaslight after any magic escapades.

In Mary Poppins, Bert almost seems to hand-hold Mary through most of the film… as if Mary is new to this whole thing. By Mary Poppins Returns, Mary had done this a time or two and Jack seems comfortable letting Mary do more of her own thing without him being there (i.e., the bathtub scene). Though, Jack still joins Mary in the biggest number in the film, like Bert did in the chalk drawing with Mary.

After all these years, it’s possible that Mary is now the master with Jack being her apprentice in all things magic. Jack seemed to contribute far less to Mary Poppins Returns than Bert did in Mary Poppins. So, the tables may now be turned for Mary. But, apparently, they must still travel in twos.

Bert’s Professions

Indeed, Bert shows us his many varied professions. In fact, I believe that was simply a ruse to allow Mary to do the things she needed to bring the children in line. Because the children have a less than pleasant life, Mary is there to not only get the children to do the things she wants (and that her parents want), she needs them to comply. The only way to do this is, like “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, this is how Mary treats the children’s home life situation. The ‘sugar’ is her magic, the medicine is her ‘discipline’. The song may be literal, but it very much has a double meaning. In fact, because Mary gaslights the children so often after her fantastical outings, it’s less about treating the children unkind and more about Mary’s understanding of Earth children. She can’t let the children continue to believe both in magic and that magic solves all worldly problems, particularly since she’ll be leaving very soon. They must be grounded and earthbound. While magic may be easy to Mary, Jane and Michael will never be able to perform it. Mary knows this.

In fact, Mary’s magic is simply the tool the kids need to get things done for themselves. It wasn’t that she was planning to teach them ‘magic’, but teach them how to survive in the their world and to follow their father’s lead. Mary was also, more or less, a sponge. She soaked up everything about the Banks household and then inserted magic when it was appropriate to bring the kids in-line.

Mary ArrivesAs for Bert, Bert exists as Mary’s facilitator, not a chimney sweep or chalk artist. These were all professions that were needed to aid Mary in her task. They came to exist because they needed to exist for Mary to do her job. For this reason, Bert might be seen as the orchestrator of the whole story. He may have even been the architect of it all… the person behind Mary and the whole reason the Banks children ended up with Mary. This is true because Bert is, among his many professions, also a chimney sweep… as I suggest elsewhere, how else might those torn pages have gone up the chimney? One might say that Bert started it all. After all, he knows Mary extremely well. He also seemed to know something about the Banks children and about Cherry Tree Lane. In fact, he seems to know way too much about Cherry Tree Lane… way more than a random chimney sweep should know.

Bert’s Unknowing Knowing

Bert pulled the wool over our eyes, but very gently. He seems friendly, kind and generous and also innocently naïve. As he rhymes in the park sensing Mary’s arrival stating, “he can’t put his finger on it”, this was all a ruse. He knew exactly who was coming because he asked her to come. Bert even breaks the fourth wall and begins talking directly to the audience… he wouldn’t even know that an audience exists without some form of magic.

As the story progresses, he intentionally steps out of Mary’s (or indeed, the children’s) way. He steps aside when Mary requires him aside. He brings the Banks family together with Mary. He draws her in. He’s the one who made sure the Banks children get what they need and are left “for the better”, after Mary’s departure. He sees to and orchestrates everything. While Mary comes and does what she needs to do, Bert makes sure it all works.

In fact, Bert has likely been on Earth a whole lot longer than Mary… watching the children, waiting, seeing if they were “worthy” and if they actually needed Mary’s help. Then, in their time of need, he calls Mary to them. Bert steps in when he needs to solve family problems and, of course, he also steps in when Mary performs ‘magic’, partially to participate, but partially to make sure it all works. Sure, that children’s nanny note went flying, but it is most likely Bert who retrieves the pieces from the chimney and then calls on Mary. We see the pieces go flying, but we don’t see who ends up with them. Sure, Mary carries the note in reassembled, but Bert retrieved it from the chimney. We know this because of the scene where Mary is no where to be found. Bert and the children are by the chimney and Michael is swept up the chimney, just like the pieces of paper. This was all magic from Bert.

With that said, Bert feigns ignorance so as to be just as genuinely surprised as the children when Mary actually arrives, but that surprise seems artificial. He also doesn’t question her manner of arrival, he’s simply happy she’s there (and Mary is happy that Bert is there). Indeed, he doesn’t question Mary’s ways at all.. as if he’s just as accustomed to and comfortable with her magic as is Mary. Indeed, it’s as though Bert already knows of Mary’s arrival in advance. None of this did the children or even the Banks parents suspect.

Bert and BanksIn one of the last scenes in the film, Bert is in the house talking to Mr. Banks after the rest of the sweeps have gone. This is an 11 O’clock number and scene. This is the scene that lays Bert’s cards all on the table.

In this scene, even as Bert has played his role of the lowly chimney sweep, there is an immense sense of wisdom and orchestration. Indeed, he even sings “Just a spoonful of sugar”, a song he couldn’t have known unless he had already known Mary. Or, even more likely, Bert taught that song TO Mary. Bert’s wisdom in that scene goes far, far beyond anything Mary displays throughout the entirety of this film. Bert’s wisdom implies that Bert is the person bringing this whole situation together and resolving it… that he’s the reason Mary is even there. This one seemingly innocent scene is the one that says Bert is why the Banks family (and indeed Mr. Banks) is in its current state. Mary is no where to be found in this scene. It’s simply Bert and Mr. Banks. It’s a poignant scene that says everything about exactly why Mary has arrived and who is behind it.

Bert is not only the puppet master, but he is content (and indeed wants it) to remain that way; to stay behind the scenes and gently nudge people when they need it. If Mary acts as the precipice, Bert acts as the hand to nudge people to jump into the unknown. Indeed, Bert is the person who made the whole situation possible… from behind the scenes.

In a way, you can liken Bert to the Wizard of Oz behind that curtain. Bert pulled all of the strings making it all possible. In the end, Bert is the one behind the curtain. We don’t get to know this definitively, but the key scene between Bert and Mr. Banks should have opened everyone’s eyes about Bert. Mary seems to be the pawn, Bert appears to be the puppet master. Both are there for the same reason. Both leave for the same reason. And yes, Bert is smitten with Mary. Mary can’t reciprocate because of their complicated relationship, even though they both want the same thing for the Banks’s children. In closing, it’s also entirely possible that Bert and Mary are siblings considering that Mary treated Bert as a brother throughout most of the film.

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What does “moving the plot forward” really mean?

Posted in best practices, botch, california, storytelling by commorancy on June 17, 2018

This is a good question and it’s a question that many recent screenwriters and storytellers have lost sight of in their zeal to create blockbuster entertainment. Let’s explore the answer to this question.

Important Details

What is good storytelling? Good storytelling is the ability of the writer to keep the audience’s interest, develop interesting characters, tie story details together and all while keeping the story moving. How does this all work?

It means that if you introduce something into your story that’s important enough to call your audience’s attention to it, then it’s important enough to bring it around later and give it closure. It’s as simple as a character pulling a box of cereal from the cabinet, spilling it into a bowl and putting it away all in the span of a page or two. That’s a quick open and close to that box of cereal. Not only is it an important character detail… “the character likes cereal”, it can be used as metaphor for your character (spilling the beans or in other foreshadowing ways).

If it’s important enough to understand that the character likes cereal, then it’s important enough to bring that plot detail back later. It’s also important to use this plot device. If a character pours a bowl of cereal, have them at least take a bite. You don’t pour out food as a thing to do. You do it because you’re hungry.

It’s can also be as detailed as a character buying a car at the beginning of the story and driving it cross country to their destination. It’s the thing that helped the character get where they needed to go.

There’s lots of story reasons that make both that box of cereal or that car important in the larger story and to carry the story forward. It’s that realization later that, “Oh, now I understand why that [insert thing] was shown to me 30 minutes earlier.”

Character Motivation

Characters need motivation to do the things they do. If the movie is about a missing child, then the parent as a main character has a goal of getting the child back. Their motivation is then doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Motivation is a critical plot point that many fail to understand or use properly. Without proper character motivation that the audience can understand, the story doesn’t work.

Unimportant Plot Details

Recently, many stories are breaking the “moving the plot forward” rule and are writing and presenting details that don’t have any follow up or, indeed, any relevance to the story.

In murder mysteries, these “seemingly unimportant details” are important to throw the audience off and make the audience assume the wrong thing about who did it. Typically, murder mysteries either quash or validate all of those seemingly unimportant details in the end to explain how it was done. In a fantasy story, including these types of details only serves to slow (or stop) the plot and bore the audience. Worse, when the audience looks back over the story as a whole, they realize that they wasted 15 or 20 minutes of their lives on details that didn’t progress the story.

This is important, particularly when telling a story that needs to make sense (specifically if it’s part of a series of books or films). If you’re writing for a film, you need to treat each film is a standalone entity and as a whole, never as a part of a set. The only time a detail should be left open is at the very end to create a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers should only be introduced at the very end of a story, never in the middle of your story. However, foreshadowing is a form of a seemingly unimportant detail, but that can be easily overlooked because of its lack of context for the audience at the time.

A cliffhanger introduced in the middle of the story makes you look like an amateur author. That is, someone who can’t be bothered to close all ends of presented details. If you don’t close details, you better make it appear to be intentional. Otherwise, it’s an amateur move.

Introduction of Scenes

Many movies today introduce scenes into films that have no followup and no explanation. If you’re planning to have your characters do something in a scene, that scene must be important for something in the future.

For example, if your characters need to go to the grocery story to pick up something, then make the grocery store scene count in some way. The characters meet someone there who imparts an important story detail or item (even if hidden). Use the scene as important to the story. If showing the grocery store is important enough to describe in detail, then it should be important enough to advance the plot. Otherwise, cut the scene out. Simply explain the characters have left for the store at the end of one chapter and have the characters arrive back from the store at the beginning of the next chapter and skip the grocery store environment altogether.

The point is, if a scene is important enough to include and describe in detail, then the scene should impart important plot details that move the story forward.

Montage Scenes

There are many ways to show passage of time. On the pages of a novel, you can do it between chapters simply by explaining the date and time when appropriate. On screen, it’s simple enough to show passage of time through a montage of daily activities. Instead of deep diving into every activity, you simply show a quick succession of scenes that show details (shopping, driving, running, tennis, etc). Whatever the scenes are, they should impart character details that lead up to wherever the plot is heading. It isn’t important to show everything the character does, but it may be important to know some of the daily activities a character enjoys doing when developing a character.

Again, if it’s important enough to show the details, it’s important to use this information to advance the plot. When it’s important to show a bunch of details in quick succession, this can be done through montage scenes without character dialog. In fact, tension scenes and montage scenes without character dialog are a whole lot more effective than characters talking or arguing.

Write with Intention

The point to all of this is, as a writer, you need to write with intention. Make every word you write count towards the plot. If you write a scene that doesn’t make sense, doesn’t follow logic, is out of character or doesn’t impart any new or relevant information, cut it. Scenes that stagnate the story make the writer seem distracted and amateur. Write with relevance, write with detail, write with intention.

Sure, go ahead and write and get your story done. But, be prepared to edit and trim those sections and details that don’t affect the plot. If you’re writing an action story, then you want to keep the action going. Having your character stop and spend 30 minutes in a cemetery bereaving a loved one doesn’t move your story forward. Cut it. The only time you could use this is if your action character goes to the cemetery looking for bad guys. Setting this location up for an action scene is fine, but just going there not to do anything, that’s story death.

Always keep your story genre in your mind when writing. If you’re writing a murder mystery, then keep on that track. If you’re writing an action fantasy story, then make sure it stays true to that. If you’re writing a family drama, then stay true to that. Don’t hop around genres hoping to hit gold. The audience will not only end up confused, they won’t know what’s going on. Stick to your genre.

Closing Threads

If you bring up a story detail early, be sure to close it later. What that means is, when writing your story, keep a list of open story items and then find the best places to close them. If you can’t find a place to close a detail, get rid of it from the story as it’s an unimportant detail.

For example, if a character drops their car off at a mechanic at the beginning of the story, then make sure the character picks it up later. It could be at the very end of the story or it could be anywhere along the way. Just make sure it happens. If the audience gets to the end of the story and is still left wondering what happened to the car (or why the car detail was included), you’ve failed as a writer. If you leave two or three of these plot devices open, it makes you look amateur. Close all open threads in meaningful ways and at appropriate times.

Visual Storytelling versus The Written Word

In a novel, it’s important to describe very detailed descriptions of a scene, of the character’s dress, demeanor, looks and so on. When writing for the screen, let the visual elements do the talking. You don’t need to have characters describe what they are seeing or doing. It’s redundant and unimportant and can be seen by the audience. The only time this works is if a character is talking to another character on the phone or over a radio. Here it’s important because not only is the audience finding out what’s going on on the other end of the phone, more importantly, so is the character.

It’s more important to have the characters unfold their stories themselves rather than catering to the audience. In visual mediums like film and TV, let the camera describe the scene. Don’t have the character (or a narrator) do this unless the character is blind or in some other way handicapped and needs this information. It has to make sense for the character in the story. Never cater to the audience by describing in visual medium. In the written word, it’s required to describe all of the details because the audience won’t have any other way to get this information.

In a way, a novel is just the opposite for descriptions than visual medium. You almost have to be too verbose when composing for the written word. When composing for film, you want to be the least verbally descriptive as possible. Let the audiences see the wonder themselves.

Writing for the Characters

The story is always about the characters, never about the audience. Sure, you can have the character break the “fourth wall” if it’s an important story detail (i.e., a running gag). The problem is, breaking the “fourth wall” takes you out of the story and is firmly rooted in writing gags for the audience. If you take your story seriously, then don’t do this. For some stories and characters, it works fine. For anyone writing a story where the characters are the most important thing, then don’t write gags for the audience.

Humor is fine when it’s between the characters, but when it becomes the characters interacting with the audience, this stops the story and makes the audience realize the gag (and loss of suspension of disbelief).

Suspension of Disbelief

To rope an audience into your story, writing solid, believable characters is the key. It doesn’t matter what the characters are doing or where they are placed, it matters that the audience believes the characters can do those things in those places. This is a powerful concept that is also the key to good storytelling. Doing even one thing that ruins this suspension of disbelief ruins your story. It’s the thing that can make or break your writing efforts. This concept is the quintessential key. Having an audience suspend their disbelief and buy into your fanciful world is the magic of a successful story.

For example, using a fourth wall gag can make or break your story. It also requires a certain kind of story to succeed. In other words, adding such a fourth wall gag makes your life as a writer much more difficult. If you’re not accustomed to what goes along with such a gag, you should avoid it. I’d also recommend avoiding it because it really does nothing to progress the story and it does much to discredit your story up to that point.

Cliché Tropes

Let me say right now that nothing today is original. There is always something that can be found as derivative of something else. As a writer, you have to accept that notion going into your story. What makes your story original is not the setup, or the locations or even the plot, but how your characters deal with their situations. Characters are what drive stories. Yet, tropes are what make stories fanciful and, sometimes, fun to watch. Using them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Overusing them, however, most certainly can be bad. Using a trope here and there can make the story familiar to the audience. Familiarity allows for the audience to latch onto your story faster and ‘get into it’.

There are lesser used and more frequently used tropes. You should avoid the frequently used tropes and focus on those that are lesser used. Having your characters doing something a little bit unexpected or unpredictable can make the story work better. Tropes add predictability to the story. This can be a good thing when you’re trying to lead the audience off the track of what the characters are really doing. This allows you to trick your audience into believing one thing, when the characters are actually doing something else. Some audience members will see right through that, though. You have to expect that.

I’m not saying not to use tropes, just use them sparingly and at appropriate times. Again, write with intention. Make every word and thought count. If you’re including it, make sure that it serves a purpose (even if it’s a cliché trope).

Character Development

This is probably the most important element to establishing suspension of disbelief. Grounding your characters in a reality that your audience can understand goes a long way towards getting your story off of the ground. Basically, you want to properly introduce your main characters at appropriate times. Your main characters should, unless the story warrants it, remain throughout the entire length of your tale. They may face adversity, trials and even risk life and limb, but they should survive the tale.

Killing off your established characters is not only a waste, but usually unnecessary. On the other hand, secondary characters can be treated with all of the careless abandon that you choose. If they live for a page, so be it. If they fall off of a cliff, so be it. If they disappear and reappear in the story, so be it. It’s entirely up to you how you handle secondary characters.

When building your main characters, it’s important to understand their motivations, wants, likes, dislikes, hobbies and desires. You can unfold these along the way, particularly when it’s important to move the story forward. With secondary characters, you don’t go nearly as deep. Secondary characters are, for all intents and purposes, scenery. They’re there to show that other people live in this same universe, but they don’t need to be fleshed out to exacting detail.

Identifying Plot Moving Details

If you intend to flesh out a secondary character with heavy detail, then you should make them a main character or avoid fleshing them out. The home life and kids of a cashier at the above grocery store is an unimportant detail. It slows down the plot and story pacing to learn more of this character when she serves no future purpose in the plot. If the cashier doesn’t swoop in to save the day at the end, then there’s no point in including heavy detail about that character.

This is how you identify useless versus useful plot points. If you introduce a plot point and it comes around later, then the point of introduction did move the story forward. If you introduce a plot point and it never comes around later, then it didn’t move the story forward. Anything that doesn’t serve to move the story forward should be cut from the story.

This is why you need to read and re-read your story several times front to back. Then, let other people read it and offer feedback on your story’s logic. If you’re a one-man team writing a story without getting outside feedback, then your story is likely nowhere near as good as you think it is. It takes other people to help you find the weak spots and fix them. Constructive criticism is always your friend. Use it to improve your stories. The final advice is, never take your first story draft as your final. Nothing is ever written perfectly the first draft. Not even this blog article.

Examples of Bad Storytelling

I didn’t include any real entertainment production examples in this article because I want it to remain as an objective guide to would-be storytellers rather than as a rant against any specific entertainment production, even though those productions well deserve the rants.

With that said, I do intend to write a follow-up article with examples identifying recent entertainment story failures and call out why and how they failed. I will also mention that this problem is not limited to film and novels. It also rears its ugly head in video games and in TV series. I will also mention that some bad storytelling isn’t always the direct fault of the writer. Though, the writer is somewhat culpable. Instead, it can be because of politics within the production (i.e., inclusion riders). Sometimes characters or specific actors are forced into a story, not because they were there, but because the producer wants it in the production. This forces the director to introduce something that shouldn’t be there and throws off the entire story’s logic. Note, I do classify this politically correct shoehorning as a failure in writing.

Basically, when writing your story’s setting, make sure to represent all ethnic groups and genders equally or face the consequences if your story is ever optioned for the big or small screen. Otherwise, expect your period piece’s story logic to fall apart when an ethnic cast is chosen to play a small white mostly male mid-America town set in the 70s.

Note, there is tons more that I could write about this topic. However, this guide is simply intended as an ‘Intro Guide’ on good storytelling. If you would like me to flesh out this article in more detail, please leave a comment below about what you would like to see included.

 

Bioshock Infinite: Or, why circular time paradoxes suck!

Posted in movies, storytelling, video game, video game design by commorancy on June 3, 2013

Note: If you haven’t yet played Bioshock Infinite yet, this article contains spoilers.  You should stop reading now! You have been warned.

Many people are awed and dumbfounded (even Wikipedia) by the story within Bioshock Infinite. Wikipedia is supposed to remain neutral, yet the article for Bioshock Infinite is extremely biased towards Infinite containing a ‘great’ story. It most definitely isn’t ‘great’ by any stretch. For some odd reason, gamers (and critics) think what’s in Infinite is a good thing and somehow even like and see it as some sort of thought provoking experience. Well, perhaps it is in some small way thought provoking, but not thought provoking in the right (or even a good) way. Let’s explore why Bioshock Infinite’s type of thought provoking experience is not a good thing and not something to be wanted or desired in storytelling.

Breaking the Rules

There’s something to be said for people who break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules can lead to good consequences. Most times, it ends up in failure. Story and narrative creation rules have been in existence since the earliest fiction book was written. Yet, these rules have minimally changed throughout the years to keep stories satisfying and fresh. The rules for well written storytelling are already firmly established. Granted, the storyteller can take liberties if the diversion leads you back to something profound within the story. Basically, the idea behind storytelling is to keep the pace and momentum going and to flesh out characters who the reader can feel good about. Plot devices are used to keep the story on track, to know where that story is heading and what the end goal is for the characters. With the ultimate goal being to produce characters whose situations seem real and profound.  The characters are the crux that ground the story even if the rest of the world is fanciful. Without this grounding, the story falls apart. With that said, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. All three of these should be clearly defined so that what transpires along the way leads to a satisfying conclusion of the characters lives where the readers have invested their time.

Video Game Storytelling

With video games, the way to tell a story hasn’t substantially changed and not every video game company ‘gets’ it. Every entertainment experience today should become a cohesive character driven story to be successful. Within video games, there are two pieces to the story puzzle. The gameplay and the storytelling. Both are symbiotic relationships. One feeds off of the other. Neither should really become dominant in this mix. If the game falls too much into a storytelling role, it loses the interactivity needed to be a great video game. If the gameplay is all there is and the story only happens at the beginning and end, the story becomes an afterthought. Both have to work together to create the whole and to keep the player engaged in the game and the story. However, should one become more dominant than the other, the gameplay should win. It is a game after all.

Time Travel and Storytelling

Unfortunately, too many novice storytellers decide to use the extremely overused, trite and cliché device known as time travel via time anomalies to create and tell their (ahem) story. Worse, without clearly reasoned ideas, time travel can easily make a story become a Deus Ex Machina blunder. As it’s far too easily done wrong, time travel should be avoided in most stories as it really has no place in any quality storytelling experience. And, it’s usually not needed. For example, J.J. Abrams uses this device within the newest Star Trek film reboot. He, unfortunately, uses it to create an alternative universe where the original Star Trek crew don’t actually live. Instead, he creates a rebooted universe of his own choosing and design. His storytelling approach is to toss out the baby with the bathwater and start over on his own terms. Not only does this completely dismiss and insult Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, it completely smacks of pretentiousness. J.J. Abrams apparently thinks he’s better than Gene Roddenberry and can somehow improve upon what Roddenberry has created. In fact, there is no need for this in the Star Trek universe. The original Star Trek universe works perfectly fine as it is for setting J.J. Abrams’ story.

In J.J. Abrams’ Trek, the only true Star Trek original crew was the aging Spock who somehow accidentally stumbled through a time hole into J.J. Abrams’ fabricated new time paradoxical Star Trek universe. After you realize this, you’ll understand just how horrible the new Star Trek film really is. The events that took place in J.J. Abrams’ Trek movie don’t exist in the universe that Gene Roddenberry created. This also means that you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life watching a contrived useless film.

Bioshock Infinite is a video game who’s designers decided to use time travel and alternative dimensions (string theory) to explain the story. The only thing the writers successfully accomplish is to produce an incomprehensible mess of a story with characters we ultimately don’t really care about. Some players saw the story as thought provoking. The only thing that Infinite accomplishes, if you begin to think on the story, is unravel its own story and you’re left with questions like, “Did it really even happen?” or “Is he alive or dead?” or “Is the story really over?”. Questions that, if you really want satisfying closure to a story as a writer, you don’t want people asking. These are not the kinds of questions that should be left over at the end of your story. These are the kinds of questions that lead people to critique the story as being trite, cliché and poorly written. You want people to value and cherish and like the story. You want them liking and asking questions about the characters, what happened to them after, where the story might go from here. You don’t want to leave your story open to ‘Infinite’ possibilities where the story leads effectively nowhere and there are so many of the same characters that you can’t even wrap your head around it. In storytelling, infinite choice is the same as no choice. Meaning, if there is no way to tell what happened, that’s the same as saying that it didn’t happen. Which then means that playing the game is pointless.

Time Travel and Time Paradoxes

Time travel is a concept that we do not know if it’s possible. It’s all theory and conjecture at this point. It could become a reality in the future, but we’re not there yet. Telling fanciful stories about time travel and multiple universes may seem like something good, but most times isn’t. The single biggest problem with using time travel and string theory in storytelling is the circular time paradox. That is, a situation that would lead the viewer to logically conclude just how the story came to exist if changing a small piece caused the creation (or unraveling) of the situation in the first place. As a concrete example, in the film Terminator 2, Skynet effectively creates itself. That is, a Skynet robot from the future is sent back in time to kill the then kid, John Connor. Yet, it fails and is destroyed. Its robotic brain technology chip is recovered by Cyberdyne Systems. Cyberdyne Systems employees then reverse engineers the chip which, through technology breakthroughs as a result of that chip, then causes the conception of the technology that leads to the birth of those exact robots and the Skynet computer. Effectively, the technology creates itself. Because of this circular time paradox, this makes stories like Terminator 2 unwieldy, unsatisfying and poorly written. Technology simply cannot create itself and stories should never be written that even hint at that. Humans should always have a hand in that creation of something or the logic of the whole story falls apart.

Likewise, Bioshock Infinite creates a time paradox where the death of Booker unravels the game’s entire reason to exist. Why would you, as a writer, intentionally negate the reason for your story’s existence? Basically, you’ve just told your readers, this story sucked and it didn’t really happen. Or in the case of a video game, the designers are saying, “Yes, we understand you’ve invested hours and hours playing this video game, but really, the story and game just didn’t happen.”

Bioshock Infinite

Oh, this game seems like it tries to keep itself on track in the beginning, but fails because its writers and the story simply get more and more lost with every new time hole (tear) that Elizabeth creates. The writers eventually can’t keep up with the time paradoxes and begin ignoring them entirely in hopes that the player will too. Unfortunately, I can’t overlook this issue. It’s one of my pet peeves within stories. While I don’t plan on keeping score of exactly how many time paradoxes take place over the course of the game, the one that matters is at the very end of the game.

If Booker and Comstock are one and the same person, and Booker kills himself as a child, Columbia can’t come to exist and neither can Elizabeth. Of course, what happens is that multiple Elizabeths drown Booker in a mock baptism which also negates the entire Comstock Columbia story. Which means, Booker would never come to visit Columbia and Elizabeth would never have been stuck in the tower. Who’s to say Anna/Elizabeth would have even been born? Yet, self-preservation and survival is the strongest human instinct that humans have. Why would Elizabeth knowingly do away with her own existence by killing her own father or even allow that to happen? That’s just not logical or rational from a character self-preservation perspective. Worse, because Irrational’s designers postulate the possibility of ‘Infinite’ realities with infinite Elizabeths, Comstocks, and Bookers, there never could be complete destruction of any one of those characters or of every infinite possible version of that story. Even worse, thinking thorough the possibility of infinite stories, how do we even know that the story we played is even the one that matters in the Grand Scheme? Likely there is a universe where Booker doesn’t become Comstock and Elizabeth and Booker have a normal happy family relationship and live happily ever after along with her mother.

Ultimately, what does any of the Infinite story have to do with Rapture? Yes, we got to see Rapture through one of Elizabeth’s doors, but the only relationship between Bioshock Infinite and the other Bioshock games is strictly in that short visit to Rapture. Nothing in this multiverse story has anything whatever to do with explaining the existence of Rapture (other than being just another alternative reality). It doesn’t explain splicers, big daddies, little sisters, big sisters or anything else that transpires on Rapture. In other words, the writers of Infinite fail in two ways:

  • They fail to give us a story in Infinite that ultimately makes any sense in the end
  • They fail to explain the creation of Rapture or of those people who end up on Rapture

They even fail at explaining how Columbia comes to exist. If the multiple Elizabeths are successful at drowning Booker, Comstock can’t come to exist and neither can Columbia. That means that the entire story in Bioshock Infinite doesn’t even happen. Which, unfortunately, leads to a circular time paradox. Such circular time paradoxes should always be avoided when writing time travel and string theory stories. Why? Because they leave the viewer with the question, “What was the point in that?” and provide a less than satisfying ending. It’s also not the question you want your viewers left asking after it’s all over. You want them to be thinking about the story and how they like the characters along the way. If the characters are all completely toss-worthy, as in Infinite, then it’s all pointless. You don’t want the viewer fixated on how the story even came to exist because that then turns the viewers to realize just how bad the story is and how worthless the characters are. Further, as an author, why would you ever intentionally write your entire story and characters out of existence via a time paradox? Is your story really that unimportant to you and your readers?

It’s the same reason you never write a story that ends up with the main character waking up from a dream at the end. Stories that end up as one big dream sequence are completely unsatisfying.  Viewers think, “Why did I waste my time watching that?” It’s definitely the wrong thing to pull from a story. Time travel stories with circular time paradoxes are just as equally unsatisfying for the same reason as waking up from a dream sequence. In fact, these two plot devices are born from the same mold and should never be used unless there is a very good reason to break that rule. This is especially true if primary storyline’s time paradox negates the whole reason to even tell the story because the characters never existed. So far, I’ve not read one recent book, seen a recent movie or played a recent game that had a story that could successfully navigate time travel or multiverses as plot device.

The closest any recent filmmakers have ever come to making time travel actually work without producing circular time paradoxes is Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series and Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with its Time Turner sequences. Both stories are carefully crafted to avoid circular time paradoxes. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the Time Turner sequence isn’t used as the main story driving device. Instead, it is used in a noble way to save Buckbeak from death, which allows the film to have a very satisfying closure despite the inclusion of time travel. Zemeckis’ Back to the Future films do use time travel as the main plot device. However, these films’ stories are also very carefully crafted to avoid time paradoxes and leave each film with very satisfying conclusions. So, you ultimately care about the characters and ignore the silly time travel plot device. I would also include that the original H.G. Wells’ Time Machine movie is probably the most successful story at navigating time travel as a device within the story without creating a circular time paradox, while still providing engaging likeable characters along the way and a satisfying conclusion.

Overused plot devices

Time travel use as a plot device, while extremely popular, is mostly carelessly used. It has been used in such popular franchises as Lost, Stargate, Star Trek (series and movies), Terminator and is now being used in video games like Bioshock Infinite. Writers need to be extremely judicious with their use of this plot device. Time travel should only be used in a way that advances the story forward, but never in a way that becomes the story itself (as in Bioshock Infinite). Unfortunately, Irrational’s writers just don’t understand how to properly use this plot device within the story context and they use it incorrectly. It should never be used in the way it is used in Infinite. Instead, Columbia could have been shown to exist for other reasons than because of infinite realities.

At the end of Bioshock Infinite, it’s quite clear that the time travel piece is poorly conceived. It ends up making the main character appear as if he is having a psychotic episode rather than actively part of multiple dimensions and realities. I full well expected to see Booker wake up in a mental facility (on Rapture) with nurse Elizabeth administering sedatives to him. At least that storyline would have dismissed the time paradoxes as unreal events and showed us that Booker is just a mental patient among many. This is what is needed to ground the story and tie in the Bioshock Rapture story experience to the Bioshock Infinite story experience full-circle. Yes, that ending would have invalidated Columbia as a non-event, but the writers already did a good job of that in Infinite. Yes, I realize I’m advocating explaining off Infinite as a dream sequence (which is generally to be avoided). Because the Infinite writers already negated their own story, that mental hospital ending would at least start to explain how Rapture came to exist in the state it is in when we played the original Bioshock which is still a far better ending than negating your entire story. At this point, the Infinite story is just a jumbled disarray of ideas that didn’t congeal and that basically made the entire Columbia story a complete time wasting experience.  We don’t care about Comstock and now we don’t know what to think about Booker. Anna/Elizabeth ends up simply being a facilitating plot device, but we really don’t feel for her plight at all during or after the story.  At the end, she ends up a pawn (as is everyone else including Booker and Comstock). In fact, because of the time paradox story negation, we really don’t care about any of the characters.

As an FYI to future writers, ending your story with infinite universe possibilities and infinite versions of your story’s main characters is the worst possible ending for a story if you want your characters to be remembered. Because you as an author should value your story’s existence above all else, negating your characters and story with a time paradox simply sucks. If you don’t value your story, why should we?

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