Transformative Paraphysics manuscript just hit 55k words, and saw the completion of Chapter 9. The holiday break gave me a lot of time (I started Chapter 8 on 12/23), and I’ve been feeling really creative, so I was able to put down two chapters in as many weeks. Probably not a sustainable pace, but who knows? I’d love to complete the first draft of the manuscript by the end of March!
I just saw Pixar’s Coco and thought it was full of great storytelling. I wanted to apply Dan Harmon’s analysis of the Hero’s Journey to it to see if it fit. Full spoilers ahead for the movie, so if you care about that, only read if you’ve seen it. Let’s take a look!
1. You – Establish a protagonist. We get this right away in Coco, as Miguel performs the opening narration and tells us a story about his family history. Immediately afterward, we open on this beautifully rendered Mexican village. All indications visually are that this is paradise, from the lush colors and lighting to the obvious inter-generational cohesion, to the looks of love that everyone around has for their circumstances and each other.
2. Need – Something ain’t quite right. This is also shown right away. Despite the wonderful aspects of life in the town, things aren’t perfect. Miguel’s grandmother is a loving, though misguided tyrant, his great-grandmother Coco is sadly in the last stages of dementia, and worst of all his entire family is “cursed” because his great-great-grandfather left his wife and his daughter Coco to pursue a career in music and never returned. The consequence is that music is banned in their family. Where does the “need” kick in? Miguel wants to be a musician. He needs to be a musician, to the point where he has made his own guitar and learned to play it with the skill of a virtuoso by mimicking videos of his musical idol De La Cruz.
3. Go – Crossing the threshold. Animation allows you to tell a story quite literally. After breaking ranks with his family, Miguel literally crosses the threshold into the land of the dead. It’s Dia de los Muertos, and he “steals” from the dead in the form of taking the long-dead De La Cruz’s guitar from its mausoleum to participate in a music contest. Miguel can now see the dead, and he follows them, along with his street dog, over a bridge into the actual land of the dead. As he steps onto the bridge, they pass through a literally depicted threshold — a kind of energy barrier.
4. Search – The road of trials. The next entire section of the movie is classic “search.” We get a time limit (Miguel must return to the land of the living before sunrise or he is trapped forever), and a goal (he must obtain his dead family’s blessing in order to return). However, Miguel is unwilling to accept to the blessing from the traditional members of his family, because they place a condition on it — he must give up music forever. And so, the search is on. Miguel, who is convinced that De La Cruz (now a huge celebrity in the afterlife) is his missing great-great-grandfather, now seeks for a way to get an audience with the star in order to obtain his blessing without conditions. A lot happens in this stage, and there is a ton of great character work and storytelling within “Search” in this movie. Miguel befriends a dead man named Hector who has his own problems, he has his first public performance, and meets some awesome characters (Frida Khalo!).
Eventually though, the search leads him to the fact that De La Cruz is actually a terrible person who murdered his musical partner back on Earth and stole all of his songs in order to become famous. There will be no blessing. “Search” ends with De La Cruz having Miguel and Hector thrown into a giant well/cavern.
5. Find – Meeting with the Goddess. And that’s just perfect. “Find” puts you at the lowest possible point, and what is more low than a literal cave in the floor of the underworld? That’s about as low as it gets. In Harmon’s Hero’s Journey analysis, this is where you twist, and Coco twists. Miguel discovers inside the cave that the goofy, desperate, helpful Hector (who was murdered by De La Cruz) is his own great-great-grandfather. Instantly, the story of his family has changed. He never abandoned them! He was coming back but was murdered! And how do we know that everything has changed with this twist? Hector’s wife, who up until this point in the story has been a type of antagonist — attempting to send Miguel back with zero music — shows up with her giant flying alibrije to rescue them from the cave and help to set in motion the rest of the story. She is the matriarch of the family, and shows up in full power here. She’s the stand-in for the Goddess.
6. Take – Meet your maker. This one is a little tricky. Once they are free from the cave, the movie turns into a bit of an action-comedy with the goal being to retrieve Hector’s picture from De La Cruz so Miguel can return it to the world of the living and prevent him from being forgotten and disappearing altogether. It turns out that in the land of the dead, when the last person who remembered you in life forgets you, you die the “final death.” Because Coco, who is succumbing to dementia is forgetting him, he is almost gone. If they can get the picture back with Miguel, Hector’s ghost has a few minutes to cross over and see her again before he goes. They craft a plan, and action ensues. This definitely bleeds into step 7 though (“Return”), as De La Cruz is actively trying to prevent Miguel from returning to the land of the living.
And this is where I’m going to throw a curve ball to make it fit. There is a revelation during this phase that fits “meet your maker.” It is revealed that Miguel’s street dog, Dante, is actually an alibrije — a spirit guide! All along, it has been leading Miguel on this journey, nudging him in the right direction. Dante is responsible for all of the action we’ve seen so far. He’s the Maker, and I couldn’t be happier about it. This goofball character has been subtly driving the action all along!
7. Return – Bringing it home. Once De La Cruz is defeated, Miguel receives an unconditional blessing from his family and he is returned to the land of the living. Hector’s picture was destroyed during “Take” though, so it appears that Hector is doomed to not only disappear forever, but also to not see Coco before he goes. You can’t have everything. Miguel leaves the mausoleum, literally returning to his home, and it turns out that his living family has been searching for him for the entire night.
8. Change – Master of both worlds. And here we get the payoff for the entire journey, and are once again reminded how masterfully Pixar can tell a story. Miguel finds Coco, who is now completely unresponsive and despite the protestations of his grandmother, plays and sings the song for her (De La Cruz’s greatest hit!) that it turns out was a simple lullaby/goodbye song written by a father for his daughter. The music triggers a part of her brain that was long dormant, and Coco is able to meaningfully converse with her family for the first time in ages. It’s obvious that she is not cured, but that music helps her memory. We can assume that Hector gets some extra time in the land of the dead! Yay! Also, it’s now obvious that music is valuable to this family, and we know that no one will be stopping Miguel from becoming a musician. Finally, Coco’s memory is jogged enough that she pulls out a book of the letters her father (Hector) used to write to her. It contains the lyrics of De La Cruz’s greatest hits, written as poems for Coco.
We flash forward one year, and see the power of Miguel’s journey. Because the world now knows that Hector wrote the songs they all love, he is remembered strongly. Coco has died, and we see Hector, her and his wife’s reunion in the land of the dead. Together, they prepare to make the journey to the land of living for Dia de los Muertos. Finally, we are treated to a beautiful closing number. Miguel sings a gorgeous song about family, while we see the entire Rivera family, living and dead, sharing a meal, dancing and playing music in their long-time home. The entire aisle in the theater was basically bawling at this point.
It’s a wonderful payoff, and a testament to the effectiveness with which Pixar has executed this storytelling framework.
As I keep telling young writers — you don’t need an original plot or some crazy hook. You need a solid story, well told. It’s not only okay to follow a framework or a formula — it can be helpful. Stick with what works, and write it well.
I’m unbelievably happy to tell you that even though I made it six years ago, the short animation titled Snowmen Will Melt Your Heart is still the top Google result for that phrase. It’s a phrase used in those inspirational “saying” plagues and knickknacks that people put up around the holidays.
The whole 3D thing, and writing the books around it, was kind of a different life for me, but every now and then it pops back up in a fun way like this and makes me smile!
It’s tough managing just three people in one place in a novel. When you have four, five, or a dozen, and there is action, I find it impossible to make the resulting prose plausible if I just plan it in my head. It’s too many things for me to hold and consider at once, without forgetting about characters, conditions, etc.
So what do I do?
It’s time to get out the action figures and plush. I set them up, assign parts and act the whole thing out. It becomes way easier to develop a plausible through-line for the action, keep everything in mind, and make sure that things “work.”
I just finished writing a huge action sequence in Chapter 7 that included 9-10 major players, and a bunch of other people too. Here’s a pic of the planning process!
I’m about halfway through Chapter 7 of Transformation Paraphysics, and it’s sitting at around 39,000 words. I got some feedback that the chapters felt a bit long. I checked against chapter lengths of some popular novels (good popular, not shit popular), and indeed that was the case. TPOAP chapters are hanging around 6k words a piece, while the mean for the references is in the 4,500 word range. That’s not a lot, but it was enough for one beta reader to notice.
While I’m not going to cut words, I’m going to see if I can move the chapter breaks a bit. I have them set pretty deliberately for certain parts of the story, so it’s going to have to work as a net positive for the reader’s experience.
If you’re interested in being a beta reader for TPOAP, hit the link in the About Me page to send me email.
One of the strengths of the detailed synopsis method of novel writing is that it makes rewrites much easier. I had written up to about midway through chapter 5 of TPOAP when I realized that I didn’t care for the structure of the first third of the story. The structure made sense in the synopsis, but having written it, I could tell that it was lacking a thread to tie it together. Characters were doing reasonable things — things that needed to be done. If this had been real life, these were all things that the characters would do and no one would bat an eye.
But it lacked narrative impetus, and at one crucial juncture, it lacked action. It needed something more.
Having an outline won’t help you to generate the spark you need to fix an issue like this. I solved it using the same technique that I used to arrive at a title. I walked the dog, and talked about the issue out loud, to myself. Within a few minutes, I’d landed on a solution.
I made a minor change to the first chapter. Narratively, it was a simple change. But the change allowed Lincoln to find something that solved a lot of structural problems. It provided a mystery that actually drives Lincoln throughout the early chapters. As Lincoln solves the mystery incrementally, it illuminates things that happen later so they feel more earned and less like a surprise. It also suggested an opportunity for more directed action.
That’s all nice, but how does having a synopsis help?
First, it lets you make sure that the changes you’re going to make actually work with the rest of your story’s structure. How will it affect the way the themes come through? Will it affect the ending itself? It’s way better to figure this stuff out now in the synopsis than to do your rewrites, then just keep cruising toward where you thought you were headed before and finding out that everything had changed.
From a purely practical standpoint, because I had each chapter summarized, I was able to go back and roll these new ideas into the summary to see how they fit. For old material that was no longer needed, I kept it there but used the strikethrough font. I entered new synopsis material in red so it would stand out.
Once I had that squared away, I went back to the manuscript, starting with Chapter 1. I read the chapter, and used the strikethrough on anything that had to go, with the synopsis changes as a guide. Portions that would be moved to other chapters were removed entirely and placed in a new document that I called “Parking Lot”. Then, I performed another pass on the strikethrough doc, writing the new text.
Working that way, I retained probably 90% of the material I’d written, and ended up adding to the overall word count. I scrapped what I had of Chapter 5 entirely, which amounted to around 7,000 words. Oh well.
In the end, it’s on you and your storytelling instincts to determine that your book has a problem, and what the narrative solution is. But, if you keep yourself organized and have a detailed synopsis, you can make the actual rewriting be the least painful part of the process.
For a long time, Google Play Books didn’t work with independent authors because… and here I should shut my mouth because I work for Google and I’m friends with people on the Play Books team, which makes it really hard for me to sort out what is public information and what isn’t. Short story is that you can probably go find out for yourself, so I’ll leave it at that.
Regardless, they are now working with independents again.