What makes a movie or book “good”? The three keys of excellence

 

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We all know when we’re watching a good movie, or reading a good book. There’s a captivation, a deep-seated enjoyment that hooks us and holds us tight until the very end. Then we sit back, grinning in awe and euphoria, and say, “Damn. That was fantastic.” But what causes these feelings? What makes a work of fiction good?

There are loads and loads of theories, formulae, and analyses that try to answer this question. Most are too abstract and self-righteously profound to be of any practical use. Over the years, however, I’ve come up with my own theories, which I’ve now attempted to condense into a relatively simple graphic model. I call it the Trinity of Narrative Fiction, and as the name implies, it’s relevant to stories in all media. My theory holds that there are three keys to the success and quality of any fictional narrative: plot, imagination, and character development. The best stories must excel at two of these—any two, and only two.

Holy Trinity of Narrative Fiction

A story that follows the pattern of imagination + character development (ICD) is a seminal work—a genre-defining piece of fiction that builds an archetype. Typically, it creates unique worlds and characters, but relies on a simple and classically designed plot.

Lord of the Rings, at the time of its publication, was fiercely imaginative. Its central characters, especially Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo, were also colorful and memorable. Yet the story itself is familiar. Beyond the concept of the Ring itself, Tolkein’s saga describes a rote triumph of good over evil.

Consider also Harry Potter. The marriage of a magical setting to a boarding-school drama is surely unique, and the character development of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape, and Dumbledore is perhaps the most captivating piece of Rowling’s puzzle. However, the plots are far less special, and often reliant on deus ex machina—more often than not, there’s a convenient magical solution for each magical problem.

Holy Trinity of Narrative Fiction

Imagination + plot (IP) is substantially less common, and narratives in this category usually fall short of the influence of ICD simply because an audience tends to remember characters better than plots. The deep rhythmic breathing, cryptic black armor, and conflicted morality of Darth Vader are embedded in our culture forever, but do you really remember everything that happened in The Shawshank Redemption? Chances are, the fragments that you do remember are character moments—Andy Dufresne blasting opera through the prison’s PA, or raising his hands to a stormy sky after crawling to freedom through a sewage pipe.

Still, IP contains some wonderful stories. Blade Runner pairs an enthralling high-tech setting with a convoluted and lore-heavy plot, even if Rick Deckard, Roy Batty, and Rachael are barely developed at all. Inception is also deeply inventive and heavy on plot, yet it’s populated with mostly forgettable characters.

Holy Trinity of Narrative Fiction

Imagination requires novelty, which is both artistically difficult and commercially risky. Perhaps this is why the category that excludes imagination altogether—plot + character development (PCD)—is the most common. PCD includes all sequels, remakes, and derivative works, which follow safely in the footsteps of their more innovative IP and especially ICD ancestors. Game of Thrones, for example, apes the J.R.R. Tolkein medieval high-fantasy archetype. It’s not terribly imaginative, but George R.R. Martin relies instead on his excellent cast of characters and superb political plots (quite a bit more substantial than those in Lord of the Rings). Likewise, Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder isn’t terribly different from a generic crime drama or police procedural, but the characters are compelling and the plot is driving.

Of course, not every work of fiction fits into one of these two-key categories. One could argue that the vast majority excel at nothing, and according to my model, narratives that excel at only one key will still not achieve overall quality.

But what about narratives that excel at all three? In my opinion, they simply don’t exist. Not only would it be supremely difficult to craft a work of universal excellence, but a narrative that is saturated with such multifaceted storytelling is difficult for an audience to digest. People seem to respond better to new ideas when they have some familiar ground to fall back on, and creatives don’t want to overwhelm an audience.

By no means is this theory to be accepted as gospel. I’m still defining it myself, and I could use your help! Tell me your thoughts in the comment section. What makes a story great to you?

Logan thrills, but leaves unanswered questions

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I was soaring on the crest of the hype wave when I saw Logan just a few days ago. That probably wasn’t for the best, because I walked away just a little bit disappointed.

It’s unfair, really, because Logan is 95% of a great film. It has an emotional story, gut-punching performances, and stark, lovely cinematography. Unfortunately, none of those things were enough to distract me from the questions that rankled my brain throughout the 137-minute running time. Here are three big ones (spoilers):

1. Why can’t Logan heal?
The film goes through great pains to tell the audience how Logan is dying—adamantium poisoning—but it never really tells us why. Hugh Jackman’s hirsute, scrappy mutant has slashed his way through six other films (not counting his two uncredited appearances in First Class and Apocalypse) without any adverse effects from the metal in his body. What’s changed? Why is his healing factor so weak? Is it the genetic dampener introduced to the world’s food supply? Is it the drugs and alcohol Logan now abuses? Is it simply age? Whatever the case, I need a better answer than “James Mangold wanted a gritty atmosphere.”

2. What’s so magical about the US/Canada border?
Transigen is a ruthless, powerful organization that has no apparent budgetary limitations or ethical boundaries. Yet everyone in the movie seems to operate with an understanding that the bad guys absolutely will not follow X-23 or the rest of the refugee children into Canada. Is there some kind of treaty in place? Has future Donald Trump built a massive wall that only allows little mutant kids to emigrate? Will the Transigen assassins simply burn when exposed to Canadian sunlight, like Caliban?

3. Why would Logan and Caliban not incapacitate Pierce when they had the chance?
The first two questions could have been answered, if only the movie had bothered to try, but this one is hopeless. First of all, considering the aggression Logan shows toward everyone else who gets in his way, why wouldn’t he just kill Pierce when he had the chance? Barring that, why not tie him up or sedate him before sending poor Caliban off to toss him in a ditch? I’ve read a few defenses of this scene that say Logan simply “underestimated” Pierce, which is absurd. A man who’s lived such an artificially long and dreadfully violent life would know better than to trust an enemy’s unconscious state to a kick in the head. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it were a minor plot point, but the tension in much of the film is driven by Caliban’s capture and tracking abilities.

Despite these loose ends, however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t finish with a firm recommendation. Logan’s bleak tone is unique in the X-Men cinematic universe, and the relationship between the titular character and Dafne Keen’s X-23 alone is worth your time. Even if the plot does prompt some head-scratching.

 

Horizon Zero Dawn is a wad of famous games squished together

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When I first saw gameplay footage of Guerrilla’s new PS4 exclusive, Horizon Zero Dawn, my reaction was to laugh and say, “Hey, look! The Reapers have invaded Skyrim.” In a way, I was right: Mass Effect and Skyrim have fingerprints all over this game. But they aren’t the only ones. In ten hours of play time, I’ve been awestruck by the sheer number of influences that are present:

  • Enhanced-senses mode for tracking footprints and blood (Witcher)
  • Mounts that follow roads automatically and can be summoned by whistling (Witcher)
  • Bandit camps with alarms to avoid and prisoners to free, which become settlements once cleared (Witcher)
  • Reference guide with information on various types of beasts (Witcher)
  • Weapon upgrade slots (Can you tell they hired some devs from Witcher?)
  • Circular option menus for navigating dialogue trees (Mass Effect)
  • Hunting and crafting (Tomb RaiderFar Cry Primal)
  • Stealth archery and eye-shaped detection meter (Skyrim)
  • Navigational compass in place of minimap (Skyrim)
  • Campfires as save points (Dark Souls)
  • Fog of war that can be cleared by climbing certain points (Assassin’s Creed)
  • Platforming, ziplining, and rappelling, with ledges and outcroppings highlighted in yellow (Uncharted)
  • Tall grass as cover for stealth (Uncharted 4)
  • Audio logs as exposition (Bioshock)
  • Individually target-selectable body parts on large beasts (Dragon’s Dogma, and many others)

And that’s just the explicit comparisons. The slick, lightweight HUD reminds me of Crysis, and the polygonal blue-and-slate-gray technology designs of the Cauldrons remind me of Halo. I’m sure there are even more influences that I’ve missed or haven’t encountered yet.

All this being said, however, HZD is a lot of fun. The gameplay is slick and the graphics are gorgeous. My only complaints so far are the dialogue, which is a little cringe-worthy, and the armor sets, which are hideous. When I get around to beating the game, I’ll be sure to post a complete review.

Five hours ago, my apartment building caught on fire

Today – about five hours ago, as I write this article – there was a fire in my apartment building. Don’t worry: I’m perfectly safe, as are my belongings. But I’m both proud and embarrassed to say that my roommate and I swelled to heroism a little too eagerly. On impulse, we stormed straight into the fire, girded with the sure protection of youth, idiocy, and one tiny red extinguisher.

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I once took a class on how to use these, which basically makes me a professional.

Let’s back up to where everything started, around 5 pm. My roommate Nathan tapped away on his laptop while I gripped my Xbox controller and pondered the fate of Syanna in The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine.

We both began to notice a faint burning smell, even though our windows were closed. Nathan suddenly said, “Hey, ya know what I miss? Fireplaces!”

I sniffed the air and agreed. Certainly, someone nearby was enjoying the warmth and romance of a real wood fireplace. Lucky bastard.

A few minutes later, the smell was getting stronger. Then a loud metallic ringing blared outside our sunroom, not unlike the sound of a school bell. A fire alarm!?

Instinctively, I jumped up and ran to the kitchen, even though it was absurd to think a fire blazed unnoticed ten feet away. Then I tried looking out the window.

“Is that our building?” said Nathan, voicing my own worry. “Should we go check it out?”

“Let’s go!” I said. I tossed on a hat and boots to complement my bathrobe, and together we marched into the parking lot to investigate.

We could see the smoke almost immediately. It streamed from the laundry room, located a mere one floor down and one door away.

Other residents gathered around the building in alarm. At the center of the commotion, a man stood holding the door open to the burning room.

“Is anyone in there?” I asked him, as smoke tumbled out of the doorway.

“No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

“I think you should close the door,” I said. “Without air, the fire might burn itself out.”

“No, I think that’s wrong,” he said. But since the fire clearly wasn’t slowing down, he abandoned his post and vanished.

One minute later, he returned with a fire extinguisher.

“You know how to use this?” he asked my roommate, handing him the red cylinder.

Nathan looked at me, then at the extinguisher. The owner of the device made some excuse about having to go put his shoes on, and disappeared again.

We didn’t take any time to think. Without a word, my roommate stepped over the threshold of the laundry room and plunged into the wall of smoke.

Damned if I was going to stand there and watch him get the glory. I followed right behind, crouched low to the floor.

If you’ve never been inside a burning building before, I can tell you two rather obvious things: you can’t see, and you can’t breathe.

We had no masks or lights, so we just held our breath and fumbled our way around. Deeper inside, a creepy yellow glow bloomed from the ceiling – perfectly terrifying, until we realized it was just the fluorescent lighting.

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This is definitely me, and not any kind of scripted entertainment.

We didn’t put out the fire, I’m sorry to say. We didn’t even find it. We both ran out of breath and I tried inhaling through my shirt, which didn’t work at all. So we hurried back to the door, coughing and blinking.

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More footage of us leaving the room, along with the third friend that I forgot to mention.

“What happened?” asked the dude who probably almost sent us to die in a blaze of glory.

“Couldn’t find the fire,” we wheezed.

Our tenure as amateur firefighters ended right there, as four fire engines were now hurtling into the parking lot. We stood aside as they donned their masks, hooked up their hose, and flooded the room with water.

It was a dryer on fire, they later told us. Apparently burning dryers are not uncommon, and they are easily preventable by cleaning your lint screen, vent, and piping on a regular basis.

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Sick fireplace, bro.

So I shall end with a PSA, in the hopes that my concern for safety might mitigate my earlier stupidity: friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your lint screens. (Or don’t, and clean them yourselves.) In the unfortunate circumstance that your dryer does catch fire, please don’t risk your lives trying to put it out. Only idiots would do that.

😛

Aye, aye, aye-onian: The dreaded musical modes!

Caution: The following post is nerdy and technical and stuff. If the term “music theory” makes your knees wobble and your teeth chatter, turn back!

If you’re still here, I’d like to talk about modes. Lots of people seem to struggle with them, and I’ve never understood why. Even my own musician friends, when prompted to discuss modes, look around nervously and shudder. “Modes?” they whisper. “Shh, we don’t mention those.”

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Did he say modes? He did, didn’t he?

Guys, I promise you, modes are not complicated! I can only assume their reputation is due to misconceptions and poor teaching. Thus, I’ll try a simplified explanation—but before I do, let’s dispel a couple of the bigger myths.

Myth 1: Modes are advanced musical concepts that only apply to jazz, fusion, and progressive rock.

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The stance, the strap length, the glasses! This dude is totally using a mode.

Actually, this isn’t true at all. Modes are some of the most fundamental concepts in theory, and they apply to every piece of music in existence. Ever played in a minor key? It’s a mode! What about a major key? Guess what—it’s a mode too.

Myth 2: Modes are a set of exotic scales that you need to sit down and memorize.

Wrong! All seven of the common modes (ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, and locrian) are based on the major scale. If you know how to play or sing a major scale, you already know how to play or sing all of the modes.

If you have a hard time understanding modes, try this analogy.

Imagine a family of seven people sitting at a dinner table: two parents and five children. The father of the family is the dominant figure. He speaks the most often and draws the most attention. He’s happy to let the others talk, but most conversations start and end with his input. His voice is regular, strong, and familiar. His name is Ionian, but you might know him by his nickname: Major.

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Yes, there are only four people here, but what’s important is that someone is smiling at a salad.

His lovely wife is also pretty talkative, but she has a different tone of voice. When she leads the conversation, everyone seems to think her topics sound darker and gloomier (though she’d scoff and disagree). Her name is Aeolian, but she usually goes by Minor.

Now, once in a while, one of the children will have something to say. Some evenings, over dinner, one of them will be the dominant voice. It feels a little weird when that happens. You can tell something’s off, or abnormal. But when a child has a really interesting topic to discuss, it can go very well, and give a whole new perspective that wouldn’t have been heard otherwise.

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Excuse me, I have something to say.

You probably know all of the kids already. Phrygian is really popular in school, and she’s got a beautiful voice that’s somewhat similar to her mother’s. Lydian is sometimes called a hipster, and he’s definitely edgy—but he has many friends, and some say he’s the coolest dude they’ve ever met. Poor Locrian is socially awkward, but his parents love him anyway. I think you’ve also met Dorian, who takes after her mother, and Mixolydian, who’s more like his father. Together, these seven are a wonderful and happy family.

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This is a happy family.

The family members are the seven notes of a major scale. Strictly speaking, I should’ve referred to them by their scale degrees (tonic, supertonic, etc.), but those words are intimidating. For simplicity, I just named them after their corresponding modes.

Since it’s a major-scale family, Mr. Major (aka Mr. Ionian, or the root note) usually leads the conversation, giving a strong and familiar sound. Most of your musical phrases will start and end with him, and will be centered around his voice. If this is the case, chances are you’re in a major key—the ionian mode. But it’s also common that the sixth note leads the conversation. When this happens, you get Ms. Minor’s key, or the aeolian mode.

The rest of the family follows the exact same pattern. Dorian is based on the second note, Phrygian on the third, Lydian on the fourth, and Mixolydian on the fifth. The universally hated Locrian is seventh. Remember, music is always in a mode! To find out which one, you just need to determine which member of the family is being emphasized, or tonicized.

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Pictured: Gin and the first note of the major scale.

Musicians, theory experts, please leave your feedback! I’d love to know what you think, and whether you have another way to explain modal context.