Friday, May 24, 2013

Make Me Care: The Components of a Great Story

Based on his opening joke, you might have a hard time guessing Andrew Stanton wrote films like Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and the Toy Story trilogy. If Andrew’s film-making success has taught him anything, it’s that all great stories share a few things in common. In his TED Talk, he explores these ideas, using memorable scenes from his movies to illustrate various points. So, what can we learn from the following video?

Here are some of the thoughts that stood out to me:

#5 “This story is worth your time.”

Great stories make a promise early on; they promise to be worth your time.  The promise can be subtle or obvious, but it’s there. A simple phrase—once upon a time—or a secret treasure map can be used to tell you, Hang on—this is going to be good. And there are a million ways to do that.

#4  “Two Plus Two”

Humans are born with an innate desire to solve problems. We like to figure things out. A story should make you want to figure things out, rather than give you the solution. Audiences don’t want “four,” they want “two plus two.”

#3 “Well-drawn characters have a spine.”

All characters have an inner drive that guides their decision making. Whether it’s Marlin’s drive to prevent Nemo harm or Al Pacino’s character in “The Godfather” to please his father, characters in films and books are under the influence of these underlying motors.

#2 Main characters, even flawed ones, should be likable.

Most characters are neither black nor white, they’re somewhere in the middle, even villains. When placed in certain situations, they reveal various aspects of their inner-selves. Some of these aspects may be flaws that readers and viewers hope change as the character grows. Nevertheless, as a whole, the character should be likable. (Here, Andrew shows us a really obnoxious version of "Woody." Very funny.)

#1 “Make Me Care”

All of these devices help create a story that induces “wonder,” that captures the imagination. A great story quickly answers the question, ‘So what?’ We should be drawn into characters and want to know how they will overcome challenges—sticking with them to the very end and rejoicing with them when they grow.

Andrew's dirty joke catches your attention from the start and he keeps you hooked until the very end.  Definitely worth watching, especially if you’re a storyteller.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Train Station - Part IV of IV

Trish screamed. The scream ripped through her vocal chords like a serrated knife. In an instant, her best friend disappeared, her body swallowed by the night.
          Victor stared, dumbfounded, his head throbbing and his shoulder burning. As if from a distance, he heard more screams coming from inside the cabin. His gut told him to turn around, but he didn’t think he could face anymore of this nightmare.
         “Victor,” yelled Trish, “We need to go!”
         The monster had grabbed one of the disoriented passengers when the train lurched. In seconds, her skin popped right off her body. The dark creature moved forward, distorting the metal floor with each step. Three passengers stood between the monster and Victor, and Trish was one of them.
         “Hurry, Trish,” he shouted over the loud wind rushing into the train car.
         Trish moved forward, pushing past Victor. She reached out and grabbed the slippery metal ladder from which Tanya just plummeted. Short and stodgy like her friend, it took every ounce of strength to pull herself across. With every grunt she mumbled prayers that quickly fled into the slipstream.
         “Come on,” said Victor once he felt Trish could make it the rest of the way. He yelled at the middle-aged man who could do nothing but stare at the monster gunning toward him.
         Victor yanked him by his shirt, pulling him toward the open door.
         “Go up, hurry!” said Victor.
         Another victim delayed the monster’s relentless progress.
         “I can’t,” said the older man. “I can’t!”
         Panic branched across his face like parasitic veins.
         “You don’t have a choice,” said Victor.
         The man resisted, but Victor managed to push him halfway through the door.
         “Grab onto the ladder,” said Victor loudly into his ear. 
         “No, I can’t. I’m going to die,” the man replied.
         Victor turned. The monster stood only a few yards away, standing over a growing puddle of dark liquid. No one else remained between them.
         White light sprang across Victor’s field of vision as pain sensors in his brain exploded. Victor’s eyes reeled to find the middle-aged man standing away from him, holding onto his now injured hand. The man did not know punching someone in the face could hurt so much, but he would not be forced onto the slippery ladder.
         “Don’t be an idiot,” said Victor through gritted teeth, trying to ignore the pain. Behind them, the dark creature watched as if entertained.
         Thumping sounds flowed down from the ceiling. The monster looked up, quickly realizing some were getting away. He walked forward with murderous intent.
         Victor felt the creature moving. He could do nothing about the older man. He turned and grabbed the ladder, inching forward until he was in position to pull the rest of his body onto it. The wind beat against him, pulling him away. Victor hauled himself upward. Beneath him, he heard the man he tried to save begging someone for forgiveness.
          Ahead of him, Trish lay sprawled on the train roof. Victor could tell why. The hard rain made even crawling over it incredibly treacherous. Ahead of Trish was the young passenger he first helped up. She had already made it to the next car.
         Victor inched forward on all fours.
         “We’re going to make it Trish,” he yelled. “Just keep pulling yourself.”
         Trish must have heard him because she reached out, trying to grip the slippery aluminum roof. She wobbled, barely moving. Slowly, Victor moved further up.
A voice rang out from behind him, asking for help. The older man seemed to have changed his mind and was pulling himself onto the roof.
         Victor had not gone far. Without hesitation, he turned around to help the man, but his hands slipped. Victor’s chest slapped the roof. His limbs laid sprawled, covering as much ground as possible to keep from slipping.  
         The man pulled himself up and reached out, grabbing Victor’s wrist. Victor pulled hard away from the edge, trying to help the man forward. Suddenly, the pair slid toward the back of the train. A look of surprise appeared on the older man’s face. The Night had caught him.
         They slipped another foot. The man screamed, his eyes begging Victor to do something. Already the skin on his face began to stretch, making him appear abnormally younger. Victor tried to yank his hand away, but the man’s gripped tightened. Victor was thrown back, nearly falling over the edge.
         Beneath him laid a horrific scene. The dark creature stood under the frame of the open doorway suspending the older man by one foot as the metal track rails grinded the the man's upper torso. The monster released his grip and the man's twisted figure slipped away.
The Night turned its head upward with a jolt. If he had eyes, he would have been staring directly into Victor’s only a few feet away. Victor felt his jaw go loose and his saliva glands tingle. He was going to lose it.
Victor managed to crawl away from the edge of the train, turning around and seeing Trish at the first junction before the next train car. Victor desperately struggled forward as rain continued to fall. He wondered how fast the monster could climb.
From behind him came a loud sound. Victor turned to see the back half of the train roof collapsing as if crushed by an invisible weight. Skirting forward as fast as he could, Victor quickly glanced back to see his enemy walking on the crushed ceiling, which had formed a ramp from the cabin floor to the roof. The dark creature advanced on the makeshift ramp heedless of the rain or the wind. It was as if his feet were magnetized.
“Hurry, Trish!” Victor called out.
Trish had managed to climb onto the following car. Victor was not far from her.
The creature, now on the train roof, looked up at the sound of Victor’s voice, watching the three passengers trying to escape. He focused on the young girl furthest ahead, three roofs away, and lifted his open hand. Slowly, he closed his hand and as he did so the roof beneath the girl sank. The creature heard her faint screams pass him by. He clenched his fist and the roof collapsed completely. The girl fell into the cabin below, crushed by a pile of debris.
         Without hesitation the monster focused on Trish. With a flick of his hand the side of the roof beneath her bent inward, creating a slippery slide that Trish unexpectedly fell into. Frantically, she slapped the metal trying to find some friction and slid unceremoniously over the edge of the train.
         Victor looked away from where Trish’s body disappeared. Tears threatened to burst from their glands. He was hurt and tired. There was no one left on the dilapidated train roof except for him and the Darkness. And still, the train sped unceasingly through the wet night.
         Victor shoved his hand into his front pocket and pulled out the cell phone he had stowed away, keeping his eyes on the monster who seemed to be waiting for his next move. With dexterity, Victor unlocked the device and hastily pressed a few numbers, holding the phone close to his ear. He heard three rapid beeps and a long, low tone.
         “You know what will happen when I enter the code,” said Victor, staring directly at the monster.
         The creature cocked his head.
         “It will take a hundredth of a second for the signal to reach the satellite and another hundredth to relay it back, and then you will die,” shouted Victor, finishing his thought.
Victor still lay crouched at the end of the train car. The monster stood a mere six feet away, looming in all of his glorious darkness, visible only as a darker shape against a black, night sky.
As if from within him, a thought birthed in Victor’s mind. He didn’t hear anything, but he felt it in his gut. The creature had put it there: If I die, so will you.
“At this point, it doesn’t matter. You’ve killed everyone else on this train,” said Victor, rain soaking through his clothes.
I can be brought back, but you can’t.
Victor knew that’s what the creature wanted him to hear, but the monster had not moved. No sound could be heard other than the wind and grind of the train wheels.
“Do you think I would leave the base without making sure you couldn’t return? I knew the moment I couldn’t rest that something wasn’t right. I knew you had followed me.”
Your discomfort is meaningless compared to the imprisonment I endured.
“And I would do it again, if I had to,” said Victor, his finger near the dial pad.
The creature moved forward, his massive steps ringing loudly, successively. Victor had expected this moment to come the minute he asked Trish and Tanya for a phone charger, which now felt like ages ago. When the train jumped off the tracks the first time, his worst fears were confirmed. He knew he wouldn’t be able to save anyone, but he tried anyway. He had time to prepare for the end. Without hesitation, he dialed a seven-digit pin as the dark creature lifted him up by his neck.
Victor looked down into the Night’s featureless face, lost in its dark abyss. A star exploded in that empty space. The light from the supernova branched out like gaseous tendrils. Somewhere in that darkness another star exploded. Victor let the light wash over him, his mind falling to no end.
The light engulfed the pair standing on the moving train, erupting from within the monster. Victor felt the creature dying, but it didn’t matter at that point. They were both gone in a blinding flash of white. The empty train continued gliding toward the next station like a moving ghost town, its cabin lights flickering on and off.  

The End.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

JESS: Professionally Reviewed Original High School Research

High school teachers looking to incentivize student research and promote inquiry have a recently created tool in their arsenal. The Journal of Experimental Secondary Science (JESS) gives students the opportunity to submit research articles, which are critically reviewed by experts. This prestigious journal publishes several times a year. The articles are free-of-charge to access and can be used in the classroom to supplement learning. Resources that help guide students through the research process are available through the main site. High school students from around the country are welcome to submit.

Recently, I accepted an invitation to write an editorial for JESS. Feel free to read that here:
"Encouraging Authentic Learning Experiences."

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Train Station - Part III

Slowly at first, but leading to a high crescendo, chaos erupted in the cabin. Nerve-racking screams reverberated across the aluminum walls. Some passengers stood, not quite sure whether to run or hide. The utter foreignness of what had appeared emotionally disemboweled them.
         The nightmarish figure took a slow step forward. The floor sank under his feet, like his entire body was made of lead. As if under the influence of a gravity-laden black hole, the metal frame of the cabin contracted slightly toward him, creaking loudly as it did so. His body absorbed even the light around him, leaving passengers in semi-darkness. 
         Despite the figure’s slow procession, his dark, featureless face solicited panic from every direction. That face turned from side to side, scanning the passengers. Its slowness was deliberate. For him, time stood still.
         Overwhelmed by the adrenaline flooding her system, the old woman near the front began to convulse. The dark figure shot out an arm—black like buried coal—that stretched. As it stretched his body grew in proportion to the length of his arm. He grabbed the old woman by the neck, lifting her out of her seat, and shrunk back to his typical, still-ominous size. The woman’s feet dangled in the air.
         At first, she appeared to be getting younger while under the grip of the powerful hand that held her up. The skin on her face, legs, and arms grew taut. For a second, this monster seemed to be a Giver of Life. But the mirage did not last long. The old woman’s skin continued to stretch. Her calves were the first to split. Like pressing an unpeeled banana, the muscles burst through their soft covering, jutting out—vibrant red. The skin on her face split open, as well, revealing the blinding white ivory of her skull. Blood dripped down her neck, arms, and legs.
         The nebulous creature tossed the old woman to the side and turned to face the other end of the cabin. He watched the door close as more passengers flooded the isle toward it. He leaned back, arms bent besides him, head pointing upward as if screaming to the heavens, but no sound came out. Instead, the cabin ceiling rumpled under the weight of his power like a pressed can. People screamed. He walked forward, hastily now, reaching out and eliminating those in his path.
*       *       *
         “We gotta go, we gotta go,” said Victor, as he pulled the women away from the door, turning the lock.
The impression of the old woman’s limp body bouncing against the seat where she was tossed burned itself into Trish’s and Tanya’s minds. Without thought, without logic, just raw survival instinct, they turned at the sound of Victor’s voice and ran after him. He still held the now red t-shirt to the back of his head. The trio ran, breathless, to the other end of the cabin, pushing a few confused passengers out of the way.
“Hey, what’s going on out there?” A middle-aged man standing over his seat asked the question while Victor, Trish, and Tanya huddled in the back trying to figure out what to do next.
The trio ignored the mostly empty cabin. The few pairs of eyes in the room watched them silently.
“Hey! Can you tell us what's going on?” asked the same middle-aged man, yelling this time.
Tanya was the first to recuperate.
“We need to get out of here. We all need to get off this train,” she insisted.
“Get off the train? Why? What’s happening?” said a soft voice somewhere in the cabin.
“Something really, really bad is out there. I don’t know how to explain it. We just need to get out of here somehow,” she said.
They heard more screaming coming from the other side of the door they just ran through.
“Come on,” said Tanya as a final appeal.
Victor fidgeted with the back door handle. It was locked from the outside. Victor nudged the women aside and gave the door a hard kick. The impact travelled through his feet to the top of his head where the throbbing intensified. He wobbled, tumbling against Trish.
“Here, let me try,” said the middle-aged man who led the remaining passengers to the back of the train car.
He kicked with all his strength. A dent appeared on the metal door. He kicked it again, and again, deepening the dent, but the door remained shut.
“Stand back,” said the man, giving himself more running room.
He ran a few steps and threw out his leg, pushing forward with all his might. Two loud clangs rang simultaneously. The group turned to look behind them. Someone was trying to get through the door on the other side.
“Hurry up!” yelled Trish.
A few more kicks and the back door came loose. It swung open revealing a darkly blanketed night. A few weak bulbs lit the train tracks running away from them at dangerous speeds. Strong winds spattered cold rain on those near the door frame.
“Hell no,” said Trish.
“What are we supposed to do? Jump out?” said another voice.
Victor took the lead. “We need to move. This thing is not going to stop.”
“But what is it? You can’t just expect us to jump out, risking our lives. I’d rather face whatever’s on the other side of that door,” said the middle-aged man. Seeing the unforgiving metal tracks running under the train scared him.
Victor did not respond. He poked his head through the frame and looked around. Rain washed some of the blood off his matted hair.
“There’s a small ladder here on the right. We need to get everyone on the ladder and onto the roof.”
“Are you crazy?” said Trish.
“I don’t think we have another option. We can try to crawl to the other side and stop the train,” said Victor.
“If that’s the case, maybe just one of us should go. It’s too dangerous for everyone to be up there,” someone else said.
As if on cue, the top hinges of the other door broke open, sending pieces of metal ricocheting toward the back.
“Let’s go,” said Victor, urging the first passenger, a young lady, through the door.
She grabbed the doorframe with her right hand, her fingers turning white from the pressure she was exerting, and reached out for the ladder. With Victor’s help, she pulled herself onto the wet, metal rungs and began a slow ascent.
“Come on, Tanya, you’re next,” yelled Victor.
Tanya looked at Victor, fear filling her eyes. She gathered the remaining dregs of courage left in her and stepped forward.
The ladder was wet and slippery, and Tanya’s short arms forced her to stretch uncomfortably.
“I’m holding you tight,” said Victor, grabbing hold of the back of her pants.
Tanya gripped the ladder and pulled herself over.
The door on the other side burst open with a final cold bang. Pure darkness seeped through. Something moved toward the opening, something even darker than the darkness, in the shape of a man—a monster. The figure walked through the open door. The metal cabin creaked toward him.
The train shook. A loud squeal pierced the night. Something was jamming the metal wheels. The passengers’ momentum threw them forward, toward the dark figure. Tanya’s face hit the rungs of the wet ladder in front of her. Her head wobbled painfully. Victor held onto her and the doorframe trying not fall.
Suddenly, the train lurched forward and the squeal disappeared. Victor’s body swung through the open frame. Tanya’s head snapped back. Her stubby fingers lost their grip on the slippery ladder. She screamed.
Victor’s arm sprung out, attached to Tanya’s pants, attached to Tanya, who now flew through the air. He tightened his grip, but the force ripped through his shoulder like a knife. He cried as his fingers snapped open and his shoulder seared, half his body in the train and the other half outside. He watched Tanya's limp form bounce disturbingly against the metal tracks, away from danger. 

(End of Part III of IV)