Kid’s Stuff: Children’s Entertainment Doesn’t Have to be Bland

My son likes cartoons and books and movies. Who doesn’t?

Here’s the thing: I can often tell the quality of the product by how often my son talks about it when it’s over and how much he laughs.

I will use two cartoons to illustrate this point: Doc McStuffinsand Masha and the Bear.

Doc McStuffins is one of the most bland, anodyne, and actively beige cartoons I have ever seen. My son likes it because he’s interested in medical stuff, but there’s nothing there. The main character is perfect, the conflicts are utterly trivial, there are lessons shoehorned into every single aspect of an episode, and the humor is non-existent. I mean, the show is not funny at all, not even good for a chuckle. The mark of a funny children’s show isn’t how often an adult laughs at it, but you’d think a kid’s laughter would be a good indicator.

But nope. When he watches Doc McStuffins, he just blankly accepts what comes on, and then is on to the next one. He doesn’t talk about it after the fact. The show feels carefully crafted by a committee of bean-counters tick points off a checklist. It’s just another widget churned out by the institutionalized entertainment factory that is Disney. I should be careful criticizing them too heavily, though, since Disney will soon own every single piece of entertainment that you read, watch, listen to, or otherwise experience, including this blog. It’s a hungry mouse.

Contrasting Doc McStuffins with Masha and the Bear is pretty eye-opening. Masha and the Bear is a Russian-produced animated show loosely based on Russian folklore about a hyper-energetic, slightly destructive though ultimately well-meaning little girl named Masha and her adventures with, and slight terrorizing of, a big friendly brown bear. The bear doesn’t talk, communicating in gestures and grunts. In fact, none of the other animal characters talk, just Masha and occasionally her cousin Dasha.

Anyway, all Bear really enjoys doing is gardening, hanging out at his house playing chess or reading, and reminiscing about his glory days as a performer with a circus in Moscow. Masha, of course, has other crazy ideas, which always leads to some form of chaos that is ultimately resolved. In the process, Bear and all the other animals are exasperated to the near breaking point, but things work out in the end (hey, it is a kid’s show, isn’t it?).

Unlike Doc McStuffins, Masha and the Bear has actual conflicts: Bear’s battle against the black bear for the lady bear’s affections, Masha’s rivalry with Bear’s panda cousin from China, Masha finding a penguin egg and forcing Bear to take care of it, and so on. The episodes are short, snappy, chaotic in the old Warner Brothers tradition, and funny.

There are sight gags that have my son erupting in side-splitting laughter, and I’ll admit: My wife and I get a kick out of it too. It’s nothing intellectual or snarky or anything like that. It’s just dumb cartoonish slapstick akin to what you’d see Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck engaging in. There’s a reason why the classic Warner Brothers shorts are still held up as the benchmark for cartoons to be measured against.

There are lessons in Masha and the Bear, but here’s the distinction between them and other Disney-fied pablum: the lessons aren’t rammed down the kids’ throats. Instead, they are demonstrated through the characters’ actions. In other words, the show shows and doesn’t tell.This is storytelling 101, and kids absolutely pick up on that. Continue reading “Kid’s Stuff: Children’s Entertainment Doesn’t Have to be Bland”

Tough Choices (In Writing and In Life)

Do you ever read a book or see a movie and think to yourself, “Where’s the tension?

When it seems like a given that nothing bad will ever happen to your characters (ahem, Disney Star Wars), things get boring.

It’s analogous to music: we need tension and release, delayed gratification, point and counterpoint.

No matter the kind of story, we usually want to see our characters face difficulties and then overcome them. Along with this, we want the outcome to be uncertain even as we hope for the best.

I remember reading comic books as a kid. There was a brief period in the 80 and into the early 90s where, when something bad happened, like a character dying, it had consequences.

Related to this is the joy, albeit a perverse one, audiences take in seeing protagonists make tough choices: Does our hero save the child from a burning building, or capture our villain, who we know will kill more later one? Does our hero steal the life-saving medication for his friend or spouse or child at the expense of someone else dying, or leave it and look for another solution?

This isn’t to say that ambiguity is the magic formula for a compelling story. It means that the instances when there are no “good” choices make for interesting stories. Continue reading “Tough Choices (In Writing and In Life)”

Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier

The Ophian Rising, Soul Cycle Book IV by Brian Niemeier

With a heavy heart, I finished reading The Ophian Rising, the fourth and final book in Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle. And thus closes one of the most interesting, unique, satisfying, and fun book series I have read in a long time.

In my review of the first book, Nethereal, I described it as such:

Take the good parts of Dune and Star Wars, mix them together with a heaping dollop of Dante, a dash of high fantasy, and a whole lot of horror, and you’re beginning to almost approach Brian Niemeier‘s self-published Nethereal, book one of his three-part Soul Cycle series.

Is it sci-fi? Is it science-fantasy?

Who cares? It’s fun.

This description works across the entire series.

I refuse to get into spoiler territory here, as interested readers need to experience the Soul Cycle for themselves. What I’d like to do instead is explain why this series works so well, and encourage you to read it for yourself.

All I’ll say about The Ophian Rising is that:

  1. Brian’s writing, good to start with, gets better and better with each book.
  2. The Soul Cycle needs to be read from front-to-back in order to pick up on everything Brian has subtly wove into it. I plan on doing a re-read of the whole series soon.
  3. Brian knows how to tell a lean story that’s still satisfying (more on this later).

And here is my only complaint about The Ophian Rising: I wish that it, and the series itself, was longer. That’s right: Brian has left me wanting more. Thankfully, I know he has no plan to stop writing anything anytime soon.

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Why You Should Read The Soul Cycle

Regular readers know that I’ve written about Brian before. He edited the manuscript for my own novel, The Rust Man, and writes about many topics on his own blog that I’ve used as springboards for further discussion here.

I’m going to distill a few of Brian’s biggest points for you, and then explain why, if these sound good to you, you should read his work.

  • The era of the doorstop novel is over.
  • Readers want something they can pick up that will grip them from the start and keep them reading–the key word here is immediacy.
  • Favor clear writing over clever writing.
  • People crave heroes that are actually heroic–good and evil matter!
  • Books are competing with TV, social media, movies, video games, and streaming video.
  • Keep your politics out of your writing–shoehorning contemporary issues into your fiction is a recipe for disaster, or at least for severely limiting your audience.
  • The era of big publishing is over. Indies are where it’s at.
  • Indie does not equal low quality. Not anymore.
  • And finally: If it has nothing to do with your story, get rid of it.

I can safely say that The Soul Cycle series embodies all of these principles. Continue reading “Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier”

Write From the Heart

I hate lists. 

I hate bullet points. 

I hate how-to guides. 

This is not entirely accurate. I do enjoy reading them, but I sure hate writing them. 

Lots of great, high-quality bloggers wrote these things. I read them and enjoy them and learn from them. 

But I don’t like writing them, even though I’ve tried from time to time. 

It’s a pretty American thing, isn’t it? Lists and bullet points? “Here’s how you do it, bang bang bang.” No pretensions, no bullshit, no flowery language. Get to the point. 

But here’s the thing: I’m a bullshitter. I’m a dissembler. I like flowery language. 

I’m a storyteller, and a story-reader. I like stories. I like writing narratives.

Successful blogs, though, tend to have bullet points, lists, and “actionable items.”

These are great. 

But they’re not my style. 

I always feel disingenuous when I write like this. 

It’s funny, then: Why blog? What am I trying to do? Continue reading “Write From the Heart”