Five Storytelling Rules of Brad Bird

I loved Brad Bird’s work before I knew who Brad Bird was. Back in the 80s, Steven Spielberg put on a TV show called ‘Amazing Stories.’ One animated episode featured the strange, stressful life of a family dog. I remember laughing at that episode, and later noticing Bird’s name on a number of other animated projects I liked: The Simpsons, the Iron Giant, and the Incredibles. Over the past forty years, Brad Bird has proven himself to be a master at the business of storytelling, and with that in mind I wanted to jot down some notes on five rules his projects seem to follow.

To be fair, there are other blog posts like this that talk about Bird’s storytelling and they have value, too. However I want to dig deeper into what the rules are, what they mean, and how they apply to people like me who want to tell stories for a living. Let’s start the discussion with the most important rule:

Catch the Feels

One cool think about a Brad Bird project is, it’s never boring. Laugh, cry, or explode, Bird is going to make you feel something deep, and you can’t say that about every movie. Think about the emotional gut-punches you got in ‘The Iron Giant,’ or even the boiling frustration of Mr. Incredible as he grinds away in that office job.  Brad Bird knows how to tell a story that will catch you in the feels, and that’s why we love him. We want to feel something, we want to believe something. If you want to be a good storyteller, and lord knows I do, then you have to make your reader / audience feel something.

Continue reading

New Microfiction – Pest Control

Created a new piece of scifi microfiction in response to the prompt: ‘Humans never managed to developed laster-than-light travel. Instead, they developed ways to discretely piggyback on ships that can. The other races in the galaxy are getting suspicious.’ So, I decided to write a story where humans are treated like pests. Guess how they decide to treat us? I hope you enjoy ‘Pest Control.’

“Oh god, here’s another one!”

“Quick, deploy the sentinel.” A whirring airbot hurtles from the darkness, lidar scans searching for the critters. They can’t hide forever, sentinels know what to look for. Air composition changes, skin oil deposits, spoor. Little beasts are cute in a way, but they’re dangerous to the traveling elite.

“There, there!” The airbot responds to the chief engineers shout, tracking to the left. They listen to scurrying sounds, feet scraping against metal and plastic. “seems to be more than one. I can hear two sets of mandibles.”

His assistant, the one responsible for sentinel maintenance, nods his head. “Should install vermin guards on the cargo bays. Keep waiting for them to appropriate the funds.”

“It’s in the next phase of ship mod work. We’ll get there. In the meantime, watch the fun!” The chief engineer cackles, one of six green bellies drapes over the handrail. “Go, go. Run you little turd!”

“Hey!” a third voice joins them. It’s Ry’legh, the midshipman. “I got five credits, says this one lasts longer than ten minutes against your sentinel.”

“You’re on,” the assistant replies. “I sent our best. This little booger don’t stand a chance.” His airbot seems to sense the new tension in the air and chirps with determination. This isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s a matter of cash! It re-acquires its target, another dirty-faced, nearly-sentient human, running for its life among the hulks of cargo containers in Cargo Bay 7.

Continue Reading ‘Pest Control’ here

New Microfiction – ‘Better Half’

Just finished a new fiction piece based on the following prompt: “You and your spouse are having a nice vacation, relaxing on the beach in the sunlight. You got a notification on your phone and checked it out. It was your spouse asking you when you’ll be going on vacation.” Something about the prompt instantly made me think of a Hitchcock film and Ray Bradbury. I’m calling it ‘Better Half’ and I hope you enjoy it.

Read ‘Better Half’ Here

Some Great Free Writing Advice

Chuck Wendig just tweeted about it, so I went through this Twitter thread and BOY are there some nuggets of free writing advice. Malinda Lo’s been doing this for 15 years and she’s accumulated some hard-won insights on the writing game. She passes them along in this doozy of a Twitter thread, so grab a cup of coffee and get reading …

What Scifi Gets Wrong About Virtual Reality

What Scifi Gets Wrong About Virtual RealityI had to laugh when I saw an article entitled ‘What if We’re Wrong About Virtual Reality?’ My snarky Gawker media-brain kicked in: Don’t worry honey, you are. VR and AR have been hot topics since the 80s. Now that Oculus and Playstation VR are here, we’re forced to contemplate what they mean. Is virtual reality going to take the place of real reality?

I’m throwing my hat into the ring of bonafide experts (which means I know as much as everyone else does: nothing) by saying “no.” In fact, most scifi gets virtual reality wrong, and for some very basic reasons. Let’s discuss why:

First and foremost, virtual and augmented reality are information apprehension and manipulation tools. They make it possible for us to look at, and work with, information in a different way. Think of them as the next generation monitor and keyboard if it helps. When it comes down to it, VR does the same job. I’m using my monitor so that my eyes can see the data, and my keyboard to manipulate the data. Have my keyboard and mouse taken over my life? Of course not. They’re platforms to consume and manipulate data. That’s all.

What Scifi Gets Wrong About Virtual Reality

When people talk about being ‘addicted to your phone’ or ‘addicted to your keyboard,’ the device isn’t the issue. The real issue is that you’ve allowed yourself to become addicted to that specific form of information consumption. It’s unhealthy, to be sure, but the phone isn’t the issue. The problem is between keyboard and chair (PBKAC, if you want to be nerdy about it).

We need a way to consume and manipulate information. Virtual reality breaks the current metaphors and analogues of that process, potentially giving us more meaningful, efficient ways to do that.

That’s not to say that this disruption isn’t without risk or cost. New technology disruption often butterflies off into dark, unintended consequences. That’s why scifi is ripe with cautionary tales like Hyper-Reality:

or Stalenhag’s Electric State series. Continue reading

No, Mesh is Not a Stephen King Rip-Off

I was watching the Colbert Show today – catching up on Youtube as one does – and I ran across Stephen King talking about his new book, “The Institute.” King described his book as a story where kids ‘fight the power,’ and I immediately got scared. Would readers of The Institute think Mesh is a rip-off of Stephen King? I’m happy to say the answer to that question is: no.

Here’s how I know. Quick google-fu gets us to the synopsis, which reads as follows:

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of It, The Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

My story’s about kids going to a school for super-smart teens. No murder, no telekenisis, no brutality. Here’s the synopsis again, for the curious: Continue reading

Mesh – Crowbard

Apologies for the delay in posts. I got some feedback about Mesh that essentially required me to take a look at the entire novel. Not a fun exercise, but valuable. It’s forced me to streamline the exposition, trim the fat, and add a new character. As frustrating as that can be sometimes, I’m happy that my Beta Readers are honest with me and I think ultimately it will help Mesh be a better book.

I use the crowbar metaphor to talk about the new character, because you can’t just force a new character into the story with a crowbar. They must be included in the story organically, and get a chance to grow and flourish along with the other characters. To give Mesh the right level of attention, I turned off blogging for a while.

Eventually, I’ll get back to posting. I have some thoughts on old sci-fi, bad storytelling, and whatever is going on with Walter Mosley at Star Trek. The book, the story, has to be first priority. I hope to have more to share with you soon.