Freeform Fridays: Writing an Ensemble Cast (Lessons from Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers”)


So, I’ve gone to see two movies over the last couple of weeks. For me, that’s a lot—I tend to only emerge for “big” stuff like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and get everything else on DVD. They were Dark Shadows (which is going to have its own post eventually—I spent much of the movie with my face in my palm so I haven’t quite figured out what to say about it) and The Avengers.

I could seriously write a whole post on how much I loved this movie—I’m seriously considering going to see it again, and I’ve NEVER watched the same movie twice in theaters—but that’s not the focus of this post, so I’ll move on to the real topic: what we, as writers, can learn about writing an ensemble cast from this lovely superhero flick.

  1.    There needs to be conflict.

Conflict is important to all writing, but never is it more necessary than when you are working with an ensemble cast. It’s absolutely unrealistic to expect to get the different personalities necessary to make up a team in the same room together and have them all hold hands and get along right away. It’s even preferable to have a character like Tony Stark, who spends most of the first half of The Avengers quipping at the others and being a pain. Conflict between characters in an ensemble cast equals dynamic scenes and even laugh-out-loud funny moments that can ease the tension of your plot a bit and keep your reader intrigued.

 

2.      …but, there also needs to be a certain amount of harmony.

If your characters do nothing BUT bicker all the time, I doubt very much that anything is EVER going to get done. Someone’s in danger? S/he will probably die while everybody’s hashing it out. Evil supervillain poised to take over Earth with an alien army? Done, while Steve and Tony are still butting heads. When the push comes to shove, your characters HAVE to work well together, whether they like one another or not, so that they CAN save the day.

It also bears mentioning that it’s always a good idea to have at least two characters in the group who kind of “get” each other, achieved to great effect in The Avengers with RDJ’s Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Stark pokes Banner and is generally a pain in his neck, to be sure, but he has an understanding of the scientific aspect that none of the others do, and Banner seems to see right past Stark’s jokey exterior to the softness underneath. They don’t necessarily “like” one another, but each UNDERSTANDS the other, and that understanding is palpable in many of their scenes.

Here they are being total bros. In identically hideous shirts. :3

3.      Choose the right characters/interactions for each scene.

One of the best scenes in The Avengers, in my humble opinion, was the scene where Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is “interrogating” Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Both actors played their parts perfectly, and the scene simply would not have worked had it been, say, Tony Stark or Steve Rogers in Black Widow’s place. There are other scenes that illustrate this point, but this one really stuck out when I was considering how I was going to write this post. Choose the right characters and the right dynamics to emphasize in a scene, and you will come out with something tense and powerful. Choose the wrong characters, and the scene will fall flatter than a cake after the oven door has been slammed shut.

4.      As you get toward the end, try to utilize a polarizing/drastic event to show how the characters have grown together.

The moment when Tony Stark falls to the ground made everyone in the theater that I was in gasp, and you can see that it catches Tony’s fellows off guard as well. This concern—this deep caring for “one of their own”– is what really brings this ensemble cast together. Why this, and not the scenes where they’re all fighting together in a completely unified group? Because this scene packs an emotional punch, and readers/watchers almost always connect to scenes in an EMOTIONAL way rather than a strictly rational way. So give your ensemble cast a tragedy to deal with, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes. Put one of their makeshift “family” in danger and watch for a moment, allowing your readers to feel like it could be their sibling/parent/child/lover/best friend lying there on the ground, dead or dying or in grave danger. Punching your readers/watchers in the gut can be a good thing—just don’t do it every scene/episode/chapter or they WILL come to hate you. (I’m looking at you, Supernatural season 7.)

So that’s it. If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, or have questions/comments/criticisms, go ahead and drop a comment below.

Book Review: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” by Emily M. Danforth

I love the way that the model is posed in this shot. I’ve often been in a similar position during haying season– it allows you a “world view” of the hayfields that is just awesome.

Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Author: Emily M. Danforth

Maturity Level: Upper YA. There are a few marginally explicit sex scenes and a lot of difficult concepts.

You May Like This Book if: you enjoy YA that’s written in a more adult/literary style;  you remember what it was like to be a teenager; you have an interest in LGBT issues.

You May NOT Like This Book if: you don’t enjoy literary fiction.

Cameron Post is your average teenage girl, devoted to swimming and old movies. But on the day her parents die in a sudden and violent accident, Cameron is busy shattering the status quo of her tiny-town-in-Montana life in a big way: kissing Irene Klauson in a hay loft. Suddenly and orphan, Cameron moves in with her super-conservative Aunt Ruth and tries to forget all about that day, hiding her sexuality in an attempt to blend in. Until Coley Taylor comes swooping in, that is, and Cameron can no longer hide.

This book was beautiful in so many ways. It was poignant and heartbreaking, with just enough humor mixed in to lighten the darkness. The whole “de-gaying facility” subplot was handled very well, with some really obvious research and care given to its portrayal. There is not a character in this book who is not wonderfully flawed and yet totally relatable, and the world is also drawn in such a way that you have no doubt where you are.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It has such a lovely feel to it, and I appreciate Danforth’s concise but lyrical prose. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of Danforth’s work in the future!

Pros

  • Attention to detail. Danforth has dropped us right into the 90’s-era Bible Belt culture without being preachy.
  • The leisurely pace. Rather than being draggy, it was a joy to read and savor.
  • Cameron and I could be friends in real life. She was likable without being perfect, and I ached for her loneliness and confusion, celebrated with her when she had her breakthrough, and generally identified with her despite our differences.
  • The Promise kids and the research that Danforth obviously did into these sorts of facilities.
  • Adam and the wonderful portrayal of the winkte concept.

Cons

  • Slightly slow-moving, and definitely written in a style more suited to adult literary than YA—but I can’t say I didn’t like it!

Favorite Scene (s):

  • Pg 311-394. The whole end bit ran the gamut from arresting to terrifying to beautiful, a raucous roller-coaster ride of emotion that left me stunned by its ferocity. Very well done.

Favorite Line (s):

  • “There was more than just one world beyond ours; there were hundreds and hundreds of them, and at 99 cents apiece, I could rent them all.” ~Pg 40
  • “It felt really good to do something that made no sense at all.”~ pg 71

Star Rating on Goodreads: 5 stars out of 5.

Final Grade:  A+. Transformative, sad, and poignant.

Book Review: “Anna Dressed in Blood” by Kendare Blake (Anna #1)

What an arresting cover. Just... wow. And the color scheme continues inside the book itself, with the type done in a very attractive burgundy that's both pretty and easy to read.

Title: Anna Dressed in Blood (Click to add to your Goodreads!)

Author: Kendare Blake

Available In: Hardcover, eBook for Kindle, eBook for Nook.

Maturity Level: Mid-to-upper YA. Quite a bit of violence, blood, and gore, and one sensitive scene that directly addresses violent assault on a child. Strong language.

You May Like This Book if: you enjoy the TV shows Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you like a strong horror story; you’re a fan of Holly Black, Melissa Marr, or Sarah Rees Brennan’s; you enjoy paranormal investigative fiction; you’re looking for a fast-paced, evocative read.

You May NOT Like This Book if: you don’t like YA or horror; you dislike gore and violence.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Theseus Cassio Lowood has a job to do, and it’s not the normal teenager’s occupation of bagging groceries: he hunts and kills maleficent ghosts. It’s a legacy that’s been passed down through his family for ages, and Cas is pretty okay with it. And luckily, he has his mom (who sells charms and potions that she brews up on her kitchen range), her ghost-sniffing half-Siamese cat, and a motley group of friends and informants across the world to help him out. When one of them tips him off about a ghost known (ominously) as Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas immediately finishes his current job and takes off to Thunder Bay, Ontario…. Where he just might find more than he was looking for.

Anna Dressed in Blood is by far one of my favorite books read in 2012. The pacing, characters, and concept come together to form a fast-paced read with lots of humorous/chilling/downright scary moments. Cas’ world is not all that different from ours, but the way in which it is realized is a joy to read. I absolutely ADORED Cas’ mom (particularly scenes where she was trying to sell him on different colleges based not on academic subjects/cost/career opportunities, but on the population of ghosts in the immediate vicinity) and Tybalt (warning: if you’re a cat person, there’s at least one scene in this book that will squick you out). Anna was brilliant, and the relationship she has with Cas is quite a beautiful one, a tenuous connection between a guy who purposely pushes people away and a girl who has been burned one too many times by betrayal. She’s also a badass with a conscience, which is always a plus.

Annnd the references. I almost don’t know where to start with those. There’s the obvious Supernatural connection (ESPECIALLY in that first scene with the hitch-hiking ghost), along with myriad references to Buffy, Harry Potter, Bruce Lee, The Hulk, The Matrix, and GHOSTBUSTERS (which lead to several scenes in the book that made me laugh out loud). These references could have become very heavy handed and derivative, but Blake is pretty skilled at nodding to other fandoms and then going right on to her own story.

Overall, this was a super fun read with ghosts, blood, and a kickass cast. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of horror and ghost stories, and will most certainly be rereading it as soon as I have the chance. 😀

Pros

  • Tybalt.
  • Theseus Cassio Lowood. Most awesome name ever.
  • Awesome worldbuilding.
  • Cas’ mom.
  • The romance. ❤
  • Blake obviously did her research regarding ghost stories, lore, and Wicca.

Con

  • Cas is just a little bit pretentious.
  • A lot of sentences are the same length.

Favorite Scene (s):

  • Pgs 1-10. Excellent opening that had me hooked from the beginning. It didn’t hurt that there were plenty of SPN references to excite my inner fangirl: Cas, a classic car, and a hitch-hiking ghost? Yes, yes, and YES.
  • Pg 200-205. Here’s where we find out exactly what happened to Anna, and it is absolutely CHILLING. I literally felt like I’d been punched in the gut after reading it.

Favorite Line (s): “Don’t be afraid of the dark, Cas. But don’t let them tell you that everything that’s there in the dark is also there in the light. It isn’t.”~pg 132

Star Rating on Goodreads: 4.5 out of 5

Final Grade: A+. Nice read, very slick and full of references to things that I love. Solid ghost story that looks like it’s going to be continued excellently in the upcoming Girl of Nightmares , which I am eagerly awaiting.

Book Review: “The Only Ones” by Aaron Starmer

This cover kind of sums up everything I love about this book.

Title: The Only Ones (Click to add to your Goodreads!)

Author: Aaron Starmer

Available In: HardcovereBook for Kindle, eBook for Nook.

Maturity Level: YA. Some violence and disturbing imagery.

You May Like This Book if: you enjoyed Lord of the Flies, The Maze Runner, or The Hunger Games.

You May NOT Like This Book if: you’re not fond of post-apocalyptic tales.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Martin Maple knows a terrible truth. He and the rest of the children who live in the commune that they have called Xibalba were not only left, but Forgotten. All of the adults in the world disappeared on one fateful Day, and the children are now alone.  But according to the animal-whispering “prophet” Nigel, Martin has the capacity to bring them back—and he just might be right.

I really, really enjoyed this book. It was very dreamlike and beautiful, if occasionally confusing. The paradox was very well done, and I really enjoyed the wistful, nostalgic finality of the last two pages. Martin was a very relatable main character for me, and I was pretty attached to Darla, Lane, Marjorie, and Nigel as well. The only thing that I didn’t like was that I really didn’t understand why Henry pulled his little stunt towards the end—it didn’t match with his prior characterization and kind of seemed to come right out of the blue.

Overall, this is a lovely little post-apocalyptic tale with a wonderful little paradox woven into it. Starmer’s really accomplished something here, and this book is definitely one of my favorites that I’ve read so far in 2012. Well done, Mister Starmer. Well done.

Pros

  • The Forgotten. Loved all their distinct personalities and the way in which their society functioned.
  • Nigel.
  • Marjorie.
  • Martin’s childhood. I loved that he learned through books—something that I can really relate to. 😉
  • The paradox.
  • The last 2 pages. So lovely.

Cons

  • Henry’s little stunt didn’t make any sense to me.

Favorite Scene (s)

  • Pg 18-20, when Martin is busy learning about the outside world through books. Really struck a chord with me.
  • Pg 58-64. I love this hands-on concept of the Internet.
  • Pg 318-319. Just so beautiful.

 

Favorite Line (s): “I’m sure your kitten is a prodigy.” ~ Darla to Marjorie, pg 245.

Star Rating on Goodreads: 5 stars.

Final Grade: A+. Such a lovely book. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Starmer in the future.

Clip from the “Cinder” audiobook!

Hey, guys! This is just a quick PSA to inform you all that Macmillan Audio has kindly allowed me to post an excerpt of theCinderaudiobook, read by the excellent Rebecca Soler! Give it a listen, and if you like what you hear, you can purchase it directly from Macmillan Audio or through Amazon/Audible/etc.

Cinder excerpt is here under the cut! 😀

My 4-star review of Cinder is here.

 

TV Review: Supernatural 7.17 “The Born Again Identity”

IN CASE YOU DID NOT PAY ATTENTION TO THE ABOVE WARNING, THERE ARE MASSIVE SPOILERS HERE. ALSO, MUCH SOBBING AND PENULTIMATE FANGIRLING. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

In case you aren’t aware of the depths of my Cas obsession, dear readers, I’m going to give you a little backstory so that you’ll understand how much this episode meant to me.

When Cas first showed up, he was kind of a bastard. I wasn’t very fond of him– dramatic entrance aside, I was pretty ticked about the whole burning-out-Pamela’s-eyes stunt. I mean, I LIKED him because I enjoy it when SPN actually does their research, and to me he fit the mold of a Biblical angel to a T: ruthless, emotionally barren, and basically an obedient tin soldier. Halfway through season 4, however, I started seeing something a little different in him, compared to the other angels; it was a bit of a softening, if that’s the right word to use, as he became more and more attached to the Winchester brothers. By season 5, I was totally smitten, as Cas started to show more and more of the loyalty, naivete, and clueless humor that has so endeared him to both new and old fans of the series. This was also when I started to identify personally with the poor little angel: I understand how it feels to put all of your faith in a father who is less than perfect, and how lost and alone you feel when that connection is severed. Season 6? I think EVERYONE EVER understands what it’s like to be on a track that you KNOW will end badly, but that you stick with because you’re pretty sure it’s the best thing for everyone.

Likewise, I think most people understand, at least to some extent, what it’s like to make a mistake that you could never, EVER fix, and just how hard it can be to make amends–which brings me to Friday’s episode, “The Born Again Identity”.

The episode begins with Sam having sunk to the depths of his Lucifer-induced insanity. You can’t blame him– Mark Pellegrino is flawless here as the annoying, sadistic thorn in Jared Padalecki’s side, not allowing Sam to sleep even under the influence of various pills, drugs, and alcohol. He gets hit by a car and admitted to the hospital, where they almost immediately place him in a locked psych ward. Dean, meanwhile, is doing exactly what Dean does: fighting with doctors, fighting with Sam about how they’re going to fix him, fighting, fighting, fighting. Sam just wants to sleep. Dean, however, immediately begins doing something else he does well: he begins researching faith healers and various alternatives to “modern medicine”, with the help of Bobby’s old books (and, perhaps, the help of Bobby himself– yes, Dean’s Vanishing Drink is also in a Special Guest Star role this episode). All of this leads him to this guy who heals the sick and the crazy like it’s no big deal; he goes by Emanuel and is, as Meg aptly puts it, “the spitting image of poor dead Castiel”.

What you don't see here is that there was a rather awkward butt-shot right before this. Umm, producers? Fanservice much? (Not that I mind...)

Oh, yes, Meg. Yeah, she’s in there too. Haters procede to hate. I actually like Meg, and I feel like she should get kudos for having been the only woman to survive 7 seasons of SPN. Bravo, Meg Masters. Bravo.

So, opinion time. Hang tight, people. I have a lot of feelings and opinions about this episode, and even after two rewatches I’m still having a hard time expressing all of them, so.

What I Liked: 

  • Castiel’s return, obviously. Been waiting for that ever since he walked into that reservoir.
  • Meg. She’s a welcome note of humor in an otherwise heavy episode.
  • This sequence where Castiel/Emanuel regains his memories in a badass montage with lovely backing music ala “O Death”.
  • This scene. Dean’s empathy for Castiel’s situation is really visible here– after all, he’s been there.
  • Dean. He responded to a situation that was very emotionally fraught for him with the same grace and forgiveness that he extended to Sam just after the whole demon blood incident.
  • One more sequence where Cas takes on Sam’s madness in typical faith-healer I-can-take-this-in-and-deal-with-it-myself-mentality, knowing full well what it will mean.
  • Dean’s Vanishing Drink. I am now 99.9% sure this is Bobby. (The .1% is for God, in case he’s finally decided to stop being a douchebag of a dad and help out.)

What I Didn’t Like

  • There were so many plotholes in this episode that it looked kind of like Swiss Cheese by the time it was done. Hopefully the next few eps will help with that.
  • There was too much in this episode, and it went far too fast. I expected these events to be a multi-episode arc, not 45 minutes.

What I Would Have Liked to See:

  • One scene between Dean and Cas at the end. Dean reassuring him, maybe, that they WILL come back, even if Cas is busy boring a hole in Lucifer/Wall with his eyes. Just… something, between the two of them, to show that Dean has forgiven Castiel, and that once all this is over, they will slowly begin to heal what has transpired between them.
  • Maybe a scene with Dean threatening Meg. Something along the lines of “hurt him and I will end you.”

Final Verdict: Nice, solid episode that brings Castiel back into the picture, even if it didn’t help much in the overarching plot. A for some really nice, emotional performances from Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins.

Coming Up Next: After this phenom of an episode, I really am not very excited about this ep, which seems like a cheap excuse to get drunk, fight a MotW, and ignore the fact that the Leviathan are UP TO SOMETHING.

Because I Can’t Shut Up: I just have to throw in two three songs for Castiel, okay? Just ’cause. (ETA: The Raconteurs came up when I searched Mumford and Sons and it seemed appropriate.)

 

 

 

 

 

TV Review: Supernatural 7.16 “Out With The Old”

It’s been awhile between episodes, but, dear readers, it looks like our favorite CW show about demon-hunting bros is back with a vengeance. Sam’s still struggling with the fallout of letting Halluc!Lucifer inside his mind (including 50 repetitions of Stairway to Heaven. Eeek. I feel for you, man), Dean’s trying to keep his head above water and, for the most part, succeeding (despite a very brief desire to put on some pretty deadly but totally cute toeshoes), and the Leviathan are still out there, busily setting up their increasingly convoluted endgame. Which is really what this episode is about, if you boil it all down.

It starts off masquerading as a typical Monster of the Week story– Dean and Sam head to Portland, Oregon to investigate the death of a dancer who literally danced her own feet off. (Which made a very interesting scene to start off the episode, just sayin’.) While they’re there, they discover that there is, in fact, an entire safe full of cursed objects that have just been released on the world by an idiot antiques dealer, but that’s not the worst of it, because as always, the Leviathan are also present, posing as real estate agents and killing everyone who gets in their way.

Now, I have to say, I’m not very impressed with the Leviathan plotline. I’m really not sure why they want to cure cancer (maybe to subjugate humans or inoculate them with something worse?) and while I found Levi!Joyce and her assistant amusing, I didn’t really feel the dread that we are supposed to feel.

Overall, I felt this was a very good “set-up” episode, but it didn’t really stand very well on its own. I’ll refrain from judging until I see The Born Again Identity next week. 🙂

Coming Up Next: Yeah, I was very very very excited about this promo, and still am. Can’t wait to see Cas again. 😀 I’m really interested to see what direction the show is going to take regarding Cas’ amnesia– in the promo, it kind of seems like Dean is still holding him accountable for the things he’s done, and he’s accepting it because he doesn’t know what he’s done, if that makes any sense.