In times like these, why read?

These are strange, confusing, scary times. We’re being asked to change the way we live our lives, with no clear notion of when normality will return (if ever). Stories abound in the media, both mainstream and social, and it can be hard to separate myth from fact.

And it’s the ideal time to read a book.

That might sound flippant, but I believe reading can help us all, in many different ways

Escapism & distraction

octopus-1235006_1280There’s little we can do about the current situation, beyond following whatever those in charge are suggesting (or ordering). But that doesn’t stop us worrying. It’s natural, in any strange situation, to hunt for a solution, even when there is nothing within our own reach. And this can increase our anxiety‌—‌which leads to all sorts of health issues, both mental and physical.

So we need to step away. We need to let our minds escape from what we can’t control. We need entertainment.

Reading has a few advantages over other forms of entertainment. Reading a novel takes many hours, often over many sessions. And between these sessions, a good story will still be running through our minds‌—‌we’ll be anticipating the characters’ next moves, or trying to solve the plot’s mystery.

Reading isn’t a passive activity, at least not as far as the brain’s concerned. The logical parts of our mind deal with deciphering the words, of making sense of the text. And then these words stimulate our creative, imaginative minds. From a few sparse sentences, our imagination conjures up believable characters and settings. The mention of sounds and smells in a book can trigger those parts of the brain associated with hearing and smell.

Reading can give us a whole-mind work-out. This keeps us occupied, helps distract us from things we have no control over, and ultimately is beneficial for our mental health.

These are immediate benefits of reading. There are benefits from long-term reading, too.

Instruction

knowledge-4171793_640Throughout history, stories have been used to educate. The tale of a successful hunt helps others develop and refine their own hunting skills. The sad story of a villager who ate the wrong kind of berry acts as a warning. The stories we read to our children help them make sense of the world.

Some of this instruction is practical‌—‌approach an animal you’re hunting from down-wind, be careful what kind of berries you eat, if you’re nasty to others they won’t be your friends‌—‌but stories also help us think. Characters face tough situations, and a well-written book will draw us into their internal dilemmas. As we read, a part of our mind is working out what we’d do in the same situation (or, more usually, what we’d like to do). As the character in the story uncovers more information, we adapt our thoughts, amending our personal solutions.

This make-believe decision making can help in real life. If we’re used to thinking things through, we’re less likely to panic. We know that we need to take a step back before we react.

Empathy

book-2135815_640It’s often said that to truly understand someone, you need to walk in their shoes‌—‌and stories are a powerful way of doing this. Vicariously, we can live through the pressures of a high-powered job, or the daily grind of raising a family on a meagre wage. We can experience being lost in an alien environment, or living amongst those different to ourselves, or coping in a world where our beliefs are not shared by the majority. We can get a glimmer of understanding into why someone may turn to crime, or shut themselves off emotionally from others, or desperately seek acceptance.

The empathy we can develop through reading can help is in real life. The better we understand how everyone sees the world through their own eyes, filtered through their personal experiences, the less likely we are to make snap judgements. And then we’re in the middle of confusing, worrying situations, the last thing we need is finger-pointing and rash decisions. When people are struggling, a little empathy can go a long way.


Reading is good for us. It gives us a break from our troubles, it exercises our minds, it helps us solve problems, and it develops our empathy. So stay safe, stay calm, and continue reading.

Why ‘Alien’ works

One of my favourite films is Alien, but only now do I appreciate how well constructed the story is. When I started working on my sci-fi/horror series Shadows, Alien was a major influence, and I’ve learnt a great deal from considering just why the story of Alien works so well.

Alien_poster

It’s easy to relate to the setting and characters

Yes, the film’s set on a spacecraft, but the setting is also surprisingly mundane‌—‌it’s a working vessel, populated by a crew who are simply doing their job. For some of them, the job’s clearly important (the captain, Dallas, takes his role seriously). But others, like Parker and Brett, are the kind of workers who turn up because they have to. It’s easy to imagine these two sloping off somewhere for a sneaky break when nobody’s watching.

Alien_2And, as with any bunch of co-workers forced together, there are tensions. Some of them get on well with others, but there’s a lot of animosity just beneath the surface. Just like any other work environment.

It’s also worth noting that the Nostromo isn’t some sleek, high-tech craft like the Enterprise, or a fast fighting vessel like the Millennium Falcon. It’s scruffy, dirty and in need of repair. It’s a floating factory‌—‌and once again, this is the kind of environment that many can relate to.

Nobody is safe

Most stories focus on a hero, and in films this role is normally played by a big-name actor. We can usually be pretty secure in guessing that this character will survive, with the lesser characters (played by actors we don’t recognise) becoming fodder for the monster.

But Alien turns this on its head. John Hurt was one of the bigger names attached to the film, and he’s the first to die. With him gone, maybe we assume Dallas will survive. After all, the film starts with him alone on the Nostromo, before the rest of the crew wake. He’s the captain, and Tom Skerritt was another fairly well-known actor at the time.

When Dallas dies, it’s a shock, and it leaves things wide-open for who will eventually survive (although as the crew dwindle further, Ripley does step up to be the hero). With with lack of certainty, tension increases.

Horror can come at any time

The alien bursting from Kane’s stomach is probably Alien’s most memorable scene, but it’s worth noting the setting. This moment of gut-wrenching (sorry!) horror comes not in a dark corner of the craft, or on an alien planet. No, it occurs while the crew share a meal. They’re eating and joking. It’s a bonding moment, something we’re all familiar with‌—‌right up to the moment Kane’s stomach starts to bulge.

Alien_1And this tells us that nowhere is safe. Even if characters are together, in brightly-lit familiar rooms, they’re still in danger. We don’t need to peer into the darkness looking for monsters, because they could leap out of anywhere, at any time.

We’re in the dark with the crew

We never get to see the alien in its entirety until the very end of the film. In part this was down to film-making restraints at the time, but it makes the film so much more effective‌—‌we never quite know what’s after the crew.

Jaws pulled off a similar trick, in refusing to show the shark until the second half of the film. We see the victim through the shark’s eyes, and we see the effects of the attacks (the swimmer being dragged under, the blood soaking the water). But we don’t see the shark itself.

What we can’t see is far more scary than what’s in front of our eyes. Our imagination fills in the blanks with our own worst nightmares.

There are things we have no control over

Its worth taking a closer look at Dallas’ death.

Alien_4The rest of the crew are following his progress through the ducts. They have audio communication, but the only visual is on a map, with a marker to indicate his position. And then a second marker appears, indicating the alien’s position‌—‌and it’s closing in on Dallas. They yell for him to get out, but as the alien approaches there’s nothing they can do to prevent the inevitable.

In that moment, the crew are helpless witnesses, with no control over the outcome. Just like us, watching events unfold on a screen, unable to alter events.

We’re helpless, just like the crew.

Time is running out / the false ending

As the alien takes out the crew one by one, Ripley sees only one way to destroy the creature‌—‌self-destruct the Nostromo while it’s still aboard.

This give a tense race against the clock. As alarms blare and Mother counts down to self-destruct, Ripley rushes to the shuttle while trying to save Jones the cat and avoid the alien.

Alien_3But she makes it. From the shuttle, she sees the Nostromo explode‌—‌and then realises she’s not alone on the shuttle. The alien is with her.

The tension and fear jump up a notch now. There’s nowhere for Ripley to run.

It’s a wonderful ending to a beautifully constructed story.


This list isn’t exclusive, and I know there are many great moments and ideas I’ve left out. But even this limited look at Alien shows why the story is so effective at pulling us in and keeping us engaged right to the end.

None of these things are original, of course. But the creative minds behind Alien used them to great effect, giving us a film that still works, over forty years after it hit the screens.

How Neil Peart is pushing my reading into new areas

 

The musicians I grew up listening to are getting older, and many are no longer around. Of course, it happens to everyone eventually, and in large part I’m pretty philosophical about this. Yes, it’s sad that they’re gone, but they’ve left behind a great legacy in their music, and in that a part of them will live on.

But when I heard of Neil Peart’s passing, earlier this year, I felt sadder than I expected. Maybe it was because I’d been listening to Rush for so many years. Or maybe it was because they’d had the same line-up for so long that there was something permanent about them. Even though there was unlikely to be any new music from the trio anyway, it felt somehow wrong that he’d died.

Rush in concert at MGM Grand, Las Vegas, America - 25 Jul 2015

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name, Neil Peart was the drummer and lyricist with Canadian band Rush. Their music didn’t bother the charts much, but they could sell out arena and stadium tours around the world, and had an incredibly loyal fan-base.

I saw Rush on tour back in the eighties, at a time when just about every band would thrown in solo spots for different musicians, mainly guitarists and drummers. These solos bored me. If there were seats at the venue, I’d have a rest while the guitarist tapped away, or while the drummer hit everything within range as fast as possible.

But Peart’s solo was different. It felt like a structured piece of music, with peaks and troughs, passing through different ways of playing, drawing on different emotions. Rather than a way of showing off, the solo was an exploration into what a drum kit was capable of. And even though the band played rock, it was clear that Peart drew from many different styles.

He wasn’t content to sit still as a musician. He took his playing very seriously. He’d practice for an hour before each concert. And he continually sought to improve‌—‌listening to other styles of music, seeking other techniques, taking lessons from drummers who might not have been technically as proficient as him, but who still had something he could learn from, something new he could incorporate into his own playing.

It’s an important attitude for anyone creative, be that in music or sculpture or stories or hanging baskets. There’s always more to learn. To quote one of Peart’s own lyrics (from Mission),

‘the point of the journey is not to arrive’.

It’s impossible to reach the end of knowing, to become perfect. There’s always more to learn, and it’s important to absorb new influences and techniques, to develop, so that the next song, the next model, the next book, the next basket surpasses the previous one.

When I worked in education, I used to tell myself that the moment I felt I knew everything about teaching was the moment I should stop‌—‌not because I would know everything, but because that moment would signal the end of the desire to improve.

In my writing, I feel like I’m only just starting out, and there is so much to learn. One very important way I can widen my knowledge is through reading‌—‌not only in genres I’m naturally drawn to, but also in pushing myself to explore new genres. It’s why I’ll read the occasional romance book, or historical book. It’s why I’ll read books by new and old authors, independently-published and those who work through traditional publishers.

There’s always more to learn, even from books I don’t like. I read the Twilight series and the first couple of Fifty Shades books (haven’t been able to face the third yet) in part because I wanted to understand what made them so popular. And it’s why I very rarely give up on a book. Even books I don’t enjoy, or stories I don’t feel are particularly well told, have things to teach me.

I know some people take a different approach. Some writers dive deep into a particular sub-genre, writing and reading only that one thing, focusing their attention on becoming an expert in it. And that’s fine‌—‌but for me, I’d feel like I was missing so much. When I read books with a strong romantic element, I can garner more insight in evoking believable relationships. When I read literary fiction, I can absorb ideas on how language is used. When I read mysteries and thrillers, I can better understand how to keep the reader guessing. When I read books that evoke different times and locations, I can attempt to unpick how words can be used to give a sense of period and setting without being too on-the-nose.

There’s so much to learn out there, so many lessons that I can use to improve my own writing. But that’s only going to happen if I concentrate.

This, I feel, is something Peart understood. It’s not enough to simply consume. Learning is active. It involves both study and practice. It’s a never-ending cycle that is the only way to improve.

Or, in the words of Peart himself,

What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession.

Story lessons from The Rise Of Skywalker

The art of telling stories is complex, and there is always more to learn. As I read books or watch films, I’m always on the lookout for tips and ideas, seeking to learn how good stories work and why other stories leave me unimpressed.

star-wars-the-rise-of-skywalker-logo

I went to see the latest Star Wars film recently, and while it was enjoyable enough as an escape for a couple of hours, the overall story didn’t excite me too much. I also didn’t feel it totally succeeded in closing the whole Star Wars nine-film epic story in a satisfying way.

When I analysed why this might be, I came up with a number of lessons for my own writing.

Lesson One: Actions should have consequences

There was one moment in The Rise Of Skywalker where I was genuinely excited for the direction the story was taking. Rey attempts to rescue a friend, but while using the Force she ends up destroying the craft she believes him to be on.

Kylo Ren has been trying to get Rey to join the dark side, and so far she’s resisted. But with a moment when her own mastery of the Force comes into question, and when ‘good’ use of the Force has such a negative outcome, surely Rey will start to doubt. This, I felt, was going to be the start of her descent toward possibly turning to the dark side.

But this wasn’t to be. In the very next scene, we (and Rey) learn that her friend was on a different craft. Her failure to use the Force ‘correctly’ has no consequence (at least, for her), and she carries on as if nothing has happened.

The problem goes deeper, though. If the choices a character makes has no bearing on their success or failure, then they’re just along for the ride. And if nothing they do really matters, why should I care about them?

Second lesson: Story events must come from somewhere

There’s a well-known saying‌—‌plot twists should be surprising yet inevitable. They should shock us in the moment, but in hindsight it should be clear that this was the only way events could be played out. Think of the reveal in The Sixth Sense, and how it seems obvious on second viewing.

The Rise Of Skywalker fails in this right from the start, by suddenly mentioning that Palantine is not only alive and well, but also behind everything that happened over the two previous films. This reveal hasn’t been foreshadowed in these films, and his death seemed pretty definitive at the end of Return Of The Jedi.

It feels like a cheap move, or an attempt to pander to fans by bringing back an old character. Through the lens of story, it doesn’t work.

Just as actions must have consequences, events too must have origins. Otherwise, the story becomes nothing more than a bunch of stuff that happens.

Third lesson: The ending of a story is for tying everything together, not for introducing new characters and ideas.

There are some interesting ideas in The Rise Of Skywalker. We get insights into Poe’s back-story, and are introduced to a new (to us) character from his past. Also, we learn that Finn is not the only stormtrooper to have defected.

But this is the final chapter in a longer story. There isn’t the time orspace to develop these ideas, and ultimately they mean nothing. They feel tacked-on.

Maybe they serves some minor plot-point, or were an easy way to move the story on‌—‌but a well-told story would have found some other way of doing this. The ending should build on what has come before, not introduce new ideas and characters in order to work.

Lesson Four (the big one!): Have a vision for the whole story

The original Star Wars trilogy had a clear over-riding story (and I’ve written about this before, in this post), as did the prequel trilogy. But these latest three films, the sequel trilogy?

As one story, they’re a mess‌—‌and the reason for this seems to come down to a lack of clear direction. When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens, it seems like he had some idea of where things were going, introducing plenty of open loops. But in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson took things in his own direction (and, by all accounts, actively reversed many events set up in the previous film.) So in The Rise Of Skywalker, Abrams had to weave together a whole array of disparate plots.

Whatever he did, he was always going to disappoint people‌—‌fans of Johnson’s direction would accuse him of trying to undo, rewrite or ignore the previous film, while fans of his first film of the trilogy would moan about how Johnson derailed the whole thing, forcing Abrams’ hand too much.

A story should build. Yes, it will probably go through twists and turns‌—‌but eventually, these will be resolved in a way that (in hindsight at least) makes sense. Again, a story is not just a bunch of stuff that happens, but a coherent whole.

This is true of individual stories (books, films etc), but also true of a series. The seeds of the eventual ending should be sown early on, and the final chapter (episode) should build on everything that has come before.


So, four reasons why The Rise Of Skywalker left me underwhelmed, as both its own story and the final chapter in a series. And (more importantly) four lessons that I can take into my own writing.

Can’t stand cliffhangers, but love open loops

Cliffhangers annoy me. When I read a book, I expect a full story. If I reach the end, and it stops with the hero in mortal danger, I feel cheated. I feel that either the writer hasn’t figured out the ending yet, or they’re using a very cynical marketing ploy to encourage me to buy more books.

This makes me less likely to continue. Unless the story really grabbed me, I won’t get any more in the series.

But open loops are different. If I reach the end of a complete story, but there’s an odd niggling question that hasn’t been answered, I’m intrigued. I’m satisfied that the story is finished, but I still want to know more. And with books like this, I’m far more likely to continue with the rest of the series.

Star Wars did this. The Death Star was destroyed, but Darth Vader still lived‌—‌the villain had been defeated, but not vanquished. The Empire Strikes Back had a more sombre ending, with more loops left open, but (apart from Han Solo, encased in carbonite), the characters all survived, ready for the next part of their fight against the Empire.

JumperSeries_SeanPlattDavidWrightSean Platt and David Wright’s Jumper series (at least, over the first few books) is another great example of open loops to drive a series. It begins with Jumper, the story of someone who wakes up each day in someone else’s body. They do what they can to minimise harming the people whose bodies they inhabit. But these hosts are all connected, and the main character is forced to make difficult choices to protect his hosts.

It’s an intriguing premise, reminiscent of Quantum Leap without feeling derivative. The book’s an enjoyable read, and tells a complete story‌—‌and then, we get the epilogue.

It feels like it’s going to tie up a few loose ends. But instead, the writers drop their bombshell. [Spoiler alert] There is more than one jumper.

This great little twist immediately builds interest in the second book, Karma Police.

The second book follows a similar pattern‌—‌the main character waking in different host bodies, being forced to solve a particular problem. But again, the writers open another loop. The main character talks to another jumper, and learns things that give rise to more questions than they answer.

It’s only once we’re through the first half of the series that the pattern breaks, and the final three books are more of a continuation of the same story rather than individual stories with hints of a larger overall arc. But by this time, the reader is hooked (at least, I was), invested enough in the overarching story that the individual tales don’t matter as much.

This is a hard trick to pull off, and I’m not convinced that Platt and Wright fully succeed‌—‌the last book felt too rushed, and I would’ve liked them to explore some of the ideas a little more. It was still good, but didn’t quite live up to the promise of earlier books. But, in the authors’ defence, they do push themselves with their writing, and even if the story isn’t totally successful there’s still a great deal to be enjoyed in these books.

And at least this series feels like it was planned out fully, something that unfortunately can’t be said all series.

I used to love watching The X-Files. The stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes were fun, but the development of the larger story (the ‘mythology’) was what kept me watching‌—‌at least, over the first few series. But by about series four, this larger story became more ridiculous. Rules that had been set up in earlier episodes were ignored, and it felt like the story was being changed as it went along. No, it was worse than that‌—‌it felt like the larger story hadn’t been thought through properly. It felt as if the writers were making it up as they went along.

You might argue that this is what writers do anyway. Fiction is make-believe, so all stories are made up. There are many popular authors, including Stephen King, who start writing with only a vague idea where the story will end up, discovering the details as they write.

But however a story is first written, it is always edited. Things are changed so that the story has a more satisfying arc.

And this is where I feel some series, such as The X-Files, fall down.

Planning a story take time and effort, a good story even more so. To develop a satisfying series, each book has to be planned, but so too does the overall story.

Of course, most series aren’t written in one go (although it is becoming more common, in independent publishing, to hold off releasing books until at least the first three in a series are completed). George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire is still unfinished, and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time, initially only conceived as a six-book series, eventually stretched to fourteen, with the final few being written by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death. It’s hard to see how these series could have been planned out in their entirety in any detail.

This can make writing later books in a series harder‌—‌all those open loops have to be closed, and done so in a way that feels natural. Also, stuff in later books shouldn’t contradict what happened earlier. Yes, it is possible to change earlier books and produce new editions (which Tolkien did with The Hobbit, once he understood how it complemented the larger story of The Lord Of The Rings), but this is time-consuming, and disappoints readers of the original versions.

YesterdaysGone_SeanPlattDavidWrightWriting a series is hard‌—‌which makes ones that work even more impressive. So maybe I should be a bit more forgiving about cliff-hangers. After all, I enjoyed Platt & Wright’s first foray into fiction, the serialised Tomorrow’s Gone, where every ‘episode’ ended on a cliffhanger.

But Tomorrow’s Gone was structurally based on old TV shows, with episodes that formed seasons, and the complete story told over six seasons. They started with a very ‘throw everything out there’ idea, trusting themselves to bring the story together later. But (I believe) the final three seasons were planned in advance, so even though each episode ended on a cliffhanger, the writers knew exactly where the story was going.

I didn’t read Tomorrow’s Gone until it was finished, until I could devour the whole thing. I think reading it episode by episode, having to wait to find out what happened next, would’ve frustrated me. And maybe that’s why binge-watching is becoming so popular, and why some people hold off watching a series until at least a couple of seasons are available.

Cliffhangers can work, but the resolution can’t be held off too long. The excitement wears thin, and then we forget what happened, and instead remain with the dissatisfaction of having an unfinished story. I’m wary of reading a first book in any series now, and I’ll often check reviews to discover if it’s a complete story.

So don’t give me cliffhangers. Give me a story that keeps me reading. Show me that you can tell a satisfying tale. But sprinkle in a few open loops. Make me question some of the stuff happening just off the page. That way, you’ll keep me reading and buying more books.

The villain is the hero of their own story

It’s often been said that what people look for in entertainment is a response to the reality of their lives. When times are good, there’s a greater thirst for stories that provoke thought and challenge. When times are rough, people look to entertainment as an escape.

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world at the moment. There’s political divides (Trump’s presidency, Brexit), religious conflict, and social unrest. As the world grows smaller with technology, it seems to splinter into an increasing number of factions as people search for belonging.

Maybe this is why superhero films are so popular at the moment. Maybe this is one of those moments when many people want to watch films and read books in order to forget the problems in their daily lives.

But we still desire well-told stories. As much as we want to see things in black-and-white, and dive into stories of good-vs-evil (where we know, from the outset, that good will triumph), we still require some kind of realism‌—‌and this is especially true of our villains. The moustache-twirling baddie, the pure-evil adversary, the antagonist who simply wants to take over or blow up the world‌—‌these seem passe, or one-dimensional. They might be watchable for a while, but they have no real substance. In a shallow comedy a villain like this could work, but not in anything more serious.

Think of some of the great villains in stories, and there will be something that draws us to them, something that holds our interest, something we can relate to. They’re not cardboard-cutouts, but real, rounded characters. Yes, they want to harm others, or take what isn’t theirs, or stand in the way of progress‌—‌but they have their reasons. They are driven by understandable motivations, even though we can see that their reasoning is flawed.

There’s a phrase that springs to mind here‌—‌everyone is the hero of their own story.

MichaelDouglas_FallingDownI can recall watching the Michael Douglas film Falling Down when it first came out on video (yes, I’m old enough to remember video tapes). There’s a brilliant moment at the end, when Douglas’ character, D-Fens, is facing the police officer, a gun trained on him. His brow furrows, and he says, disbelievingly, “I’m the bad guy?”

It’s a fantastic moment, because we’ve been following D-Fens throughout the film. We’ve seen and understood his frustrations, and even as his actions have become worse his justifications still make some kind of sense. We’ve travelled with him, and even though he’s not an easy character to warm to, we’re still on his side. We believe that things will turn out for the best, that he’ll somehow redeem himself‌—‌until this confrontation. This is when it all comes home. D-Fens is the villain, even though he couldn’t see it for himself.

The best villains are driven by deep, relatable motivations, even when their actions are unacceptable. Think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard. When John McLane’s wife calls him ‘nothing but a common thief’, his controlled expression slips for a moment. He rounds on her, stating that he is ‘an exceptional thief’.

In this, his actions become more understandable. He’s not driven simply to steal, but to steal in style. Criminality (or robbery) might be his career of choice, but he wants to be the best at it. He’s like Rocky, pushing to become the best he can be. He’s like so many artists, fighting to produce their best possible work. He’s like doctors who strive to learn more, or lawyers who want to be well-respected for their work. His drive could be something to admire, had his sphere of work not been so anti-social.

Seeing what drives a character, be they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instantly makes that character more interesting‌—‌and also helps propel the story on. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through the Dune books, and I’m finding it fascinating how Herbert lets the reader in on so much of what his characters are thinking. We know the plots everyone is forming, and we know many of their secrets‌—‌and there is justification for all of them. At times, Herbert is able to blur the line between ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’‌—‌the characters are all simply trying to make their way through tricky situations, with an aim to survive at the end.

George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books do this, too. His narrative follows so many characters, and there is a constantly shifting tableau of conflicts and alignments. An ally can become an enemy, and an enemy can become an ally. Some characters might be ‘purer of heart’ than others, but all are real, dealing with internal conflicts, and simply doing whatever they feel they must do.

So we have stories with clear villains whose motivations we can understand, and stories where a cast of characters have shifting alliances. But there are also stories where the ‘villain’ is the protagonist. Think of Tony Soprano, or Michael Corleone. We find many of their actions despicable, but because we get to know their inner turmoils, and because we get to understand why they do what they do, we become invested in their struggles. These are both men doing what they feel is necessary to protect and provide for their families, and that in itself is an honourable thing, even if we recoil at their methods. And there is a depth to both characters that makes us believe they could change. Tony Soprano has his doubts, and there’s that glimmer of hope that he might somehow redeem himself. Michael Corleone’s arc is a downward slope, but because we saw his good side at the start of the story, we have to believe that it is possible for him to rise up again.

There is a flip-side of this, too‌—‌heroes don’t always do good things. In Die Hard, Sgt Powell tells John McClane that he shot a child some years ago. In The Lord Of The Rings, Boromir can’t resist the urge to own the ring‌—‌and at the end Frodo is unable to relinquish the ring. But this is good storytelling, because perfect heroes are boring to watch. We’re drawn to a character like House not only because of his brilliant mind, but also because he’s such a flawed character.

I could give more examples, but this should be enough. Heroes don’t always do the right thing, and villains have strong motivations behind their actions. Hero and villain are labels we apply to characters to help us understand the story‌—‌but the roles can change, depending on our own perception of the actions. Ultimately, everyone is the hero of their own story.

And that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction.

How Disney use story, even in their park entrances

Stories are everywhere. In fiction, obviously, but non-fiction uses story forms too. Stories are used in marketing and politics. If you keep your eyes open, you can see stories everywhere. Even in design.

We had a family holiday to Disneyland Paris recently, and the amount of story on display was immense. This isn’t too surprising‌—‌Disney made their name with films and animations‌—‌but look a little deeper, and there is more to their use of story than this. They understand that stories are journeys, and if you want a potential customer and fan to follow that journey to the end, you need to engage their emotions.

The place is split into different areas, each with their own theme (Fantasyland, Discoveryland and so on), with distinctive buildings and music. The queues are their own ministories, with twists and turns that reveal props connected to the rides, or animated characters, or screens giving instructions in a manner suited to each ride.

And the staff are a part of the stories, too. It’s no accident that Disney refer to them as ‘cast’ or ‘crew’. They wear costumes appropriate to each area of the park or specific ride, and many perform roles in the manner they interact with the visitors. Even those cleaning the streets are in costume, and wouldn’t look out of place dancing with the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins.

So objects and personnel are part of the story, but the physical design of the place plays a big role, too. Nowhere is this most obvious than in the entrance to the main park.

Once through the security checks, visitors walk toward a large, impressive-looking building that houses the entrance to the park itself. But there is no straightforward route. Paths twist and turn around flower beds and water features, yet the journey eventually brings the visitor to the entrance.

disney1-e1561187814653.jpgThis is beneath the building, and on a bright day it is dark under there. It’s classic storytelling‌—‌the hero must first pass from the everyday world into the new, and that often means travelling somewhere uncomfortable, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In classic hero’s journey tales, there’s a threshold guardian to thwart the hero’s attempt to progress, and in Disnelyand that role is played by the greeters and ticket-checkers.

But we pass these guardians, and emerge from the dimness into the new world of the park itself. But the journey is still not complete. In story, the hero must work through many trials, and the goal is never discovered round the first corner.

Disney2Ahead, blocking the path, is another building, this one a train station. The track runs overhead, and to progress the brave adventurer must step though the dark arches underneath. Emerging from these, the space opens up, and the adventurer is met by buildings from some idealised perfect past‌—‌clearly fake, but this is a magical story, so we can expect nothing else.

Yet this isn’t the promised end of the journey. We’ve all seen the Disney castle (at the start of every one of their films and on so many logos), and we know this lies at the centre of the kingdom. As in so many fairy tales, the castle is the ultimate goal. And now, on the far side of the train station, we can see fleeting glimpses‌—‌a pink turret, a flag‌—‌but not the whole thing. A bandstand blocks out view.

So, one more obstacle. We walk around this, and only then does the view open up‌—‌Main Street, with music and sounds and lights and life, and just beyond the wide space at the end, framed perfectly by the buildings of the street, is the castle, just as it appears in all the pictures. Now that we have seen the castle, we know we’ve arrived in Disneyland.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. Disney understand how stories can be used to persuade, and how a captive audience can be parted from their money. By that shouldn’t detract from the attention to detail here, and to the way that story is used so effectively. It’s also worth remembering that one of the primary functions of story is to entertain. In a place like Disneyland, the rides and attractions are the main focus, but by adding entertainment to the walks and queues Disney aim to turn a day out into a journey of adventure. Love it or loathe it, they know how to use story effectively.