The movie was perfect, to begin with.
I’m serious. There’s something special about The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. This 1992 family film is directed by Brian Henson and is the first Muppet film produced by Walt Disney Studios. Even people who aren’t fans of the Muppets like it. It’s full of heart, wit, and great songs, including one that’s gained some infamy.
Just last week, news dropped that ‘Love Is Gone’, the film’s lost ballad, has been found. The song was lost to the vast Disney archives after being cut from the theatrical version, and has been missing for over twenty years. Those of us who were lucky enough to see the film on VHS got the experience of watching the film in it’s entirety, but the song is missing from later DVD, Blu-Ray, and even Netflix releases. I was one of many fans who bought their replacement DVD after my VHS wore out, excited for a HD watch of my favourite Christmas movie, only to be confused by the lack of a pivotal scene.
So dust off your VHS tapes, big kids, and press fast forward to the 40 minute mark. It’s time to talk about an amazing scene that should never have been lost.
As the classic tale goes, Scrooge (Michael Caine) has been transported into the past to learn how not to be such a cold-hearted, well…scrooge. Up until this point, we as an audience have been feeling a little lukewarm towards , as we should, but by seeing his past we’re slowly beginning to understand him and open up to him. Scrooge opens up too, warmed by nostalgia by seeing headmaster and employer. This is build up, preparing us for the moment when his fiancée Belle (Meredith Braun) leaves him, laying down the foundation for the emotional scene that will follow.
Scrooge watches as Belle tells his younger self (Ray Coulthard) that she must leave him, because he doesn’t love her anymore. When she sings, she’s expressing her regret but is resolute in her decision and as the song draws to a end, Scrooge stands by her side and sings with her – showing us that, years later, he still remembers her words.
Rumour has it, the decision to cut the ballad belonged to Jeffery Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios at the time, who thought the scene was too mature for children to enjoy.
If that’s true, that’s a pretentiously idiotic thing to say.
Also, what a way to miss the point. Yes, the song is emotional. Break-up songs are seldom anything else. Some may argue, as Katzenberg reportedly did himself, that it makes no difference to how the film plays. Not true. The song has a purpose and cutting it from the film fundamentally weakens it.
One key difference is in the cut version Belle walks away. She tells Scrooge he doesn’t love her, gets up, and leaves.
This is not what happens in the version with the ballad, where Scrooge walks away. The difference is minor, but it emphasises how right Belle is. Young Scrooge proclaims he loves her, but doesn’t protest anything she’s saying. He has no passion for their relationship and when he leaves, it’s the equivalent of him shrugging his shoulders. This adds a brilliant contrast to Michael Caine’s Scrooge. This man, whose had years to reflect in isolation, watches Belle attentively. He could have thrown up his hands and said “Look at what this heartless woman did to me!” which is probably what his young self is thinking. Instead, he joins Belle and sings with her, and as he sings he grieves, the breakdown happening at such a pace that the audience feels every tragic second of it.
Spencer Braum, in a 2017 article on Medium, said it best:
We feel for Scrooge. We understand his regret and we understand that he can change. He didn’t walk away this time.
Which is the entire point.
This is what K.M Weiland calls the thematic Truth. A Christmas Carol asks us “Can Scrooge become a good person?” and this moment shows us he can. It’s brilliantly conceived, and one of the reasons that the Muppets is one of the best adaptations out there.
‘Love Is Gone’ occurs roughly at the 40 minute mark, at the Midpoint, and conveys Scrooge’s revelation and transformation. Now we understand Scrooge, and Scrooge gets a hint of understanding too, this raises the stakes.
But this glimpse of what his life could have been hurts.
He wants out and for what might be the first time in the story, we empathise with that. He demands the spirit leave him, seemingly rejecting the story’s thematic truth, and retreats to the comfort and safety of his bed chambers. Deep down, he’s been humbled, making him open and ready for the lessons taught by the Ghost Of Christmas Present, who he quickly develops a bond with. But the rejection tells us that this is going to be difficult for him, and now we’re fighting in his corner.
Technically this moment still exists without the song, but it’s nowhere near as powerful.
Without the song, we simply cut to Scrooge (and Rizzo the Rat) in tears. Tears that aren’t earned. We don’t see him struggle with his emotions, we don’t see him stand beside Belle, looking at her, as he’s barely able to contain his regret. We don’t feel the moment with him. All of that is contained within the song and without it Scrooge’s arc is weakened.
Removing Love Is Gone has consequences all the way to the final minute.
A reprise is a repetition of musical material heard earlier in a composition, album, or live performance. Before the credits roll, Scrooge and a gathering of muppets sing ‘The Love We Found’ which serves as a counterpart to ‘Love is Gone.’
This closing song was purposely composed. A musical motif that follows a man’s transformation from a isolated, hateful man, to a open, compassionate one. It’s that satisfying kick every ending needs, a spotlight on his redemption, a wonderful, moving pay-off.
Which falls spectacularly flat when it’s musical thru-line has been cut. How can love be found if it was never gone, Disney? The pay-off remains without the set-up, the foundation that makes a pay-off satisfying, and without it the ending is weaker.
While I’ll never not be frustrated by this decision, I concede that the movie isn’t ruined by it. There’s too much fantastic, witty writing, quotable moments, and great songs for that. Still, a little heart is lost and modern cinema seems to be going the same way. Disney, especially, don’t seem to understand what makes a story special, with their masses of live-action remakes on the way, all of which are dry, soulless imitations of their predecessors.
Now the song is back and the response has been positive, I hope the powers at Disney will notice the trend they’ve set and turn back. In the meantime, I’m satisfied that, finally, love is found.
Earlier tonight, Boris Johnson announced that the UK would be going to a second national lockdown. I know people across the country will be devastated – friends included – but I’ve been feeling a resigned calm. Here we go again.
For a lot of reasons, 2020 doesn’t feel like a year that I’ve lived, but a year that I’ve watched, like looking at a storm through a window. In no time at all, we’re at the end of October.
And the eve of National Novel Writing Month.
National Novel Writing Month (or Na-No-Wri-Mo) is a event where participants push themselves to write 50,000 words before the final minute of November 30th. This is usually a novel, but could be a collection of short stories or some other writing project. I’ve taken part before, to not-so-awesome effect. It’s the good kick any procrastinator needs.
A lot has changed in 2020. Face masks. Social distancing. Home working. The national and global culture has shifted and will never be the same. Like everything else, this year’s NaNoWriMo will be different too.
I’m not talking about being in lockdown. What would that make me? Your grouchy professor? You’re at home all day, grrr, do some work grrr… Forget that. More time to write is nice, but let’s not pretend this is voluntary. (And I’ll still be working, so there’s that.)
I’m talking culturally.
If you lurk in twitter’s Writing Community, or on Authortube, you’ll have noticed there’s a stereotype that writers procrastinate. A lot. It’s definitely an issue I have and one of the reasons I bypassed 2019’s NaNoWriMo.
This year feels different, at least to me. This year has been stop-and-start. Plans have been made and cancelled. I’ve needed to take the opportunities as they come. I even managed to go on holiday to Spain, leaving two days after travel restrictions were lifted and returning the week before it was announce all Britons returning from Spain would have to quarantine.
Too much of this year has been spent watching. Opportunity is there, but it doesn’t last. There is so much uncertainty.
I’m not going to pressure myself to win NaNoWriMo or even make the goal, but I’m going to give it my all and I’m optimistic I’ll succeed. It doesn’t matter if I work full time, am redecorating, or have a dozen projects on the side. Another year will soon be gone. It may be the strangeness, anxiety-fuelled year of our lives, but time will run on.
Here I am. Ready to write to the final minute.
Non-linear narratives can be super engaging and fun, but are prone to problems that kill their good qualities. So when should a story be told in a non-linear way?
First, let’s define a non-linear narrative.
“A narrative technique where events are portrayed out of chronological order or the logical order presented in the story. The pattern of events needs to jump around and not follow a linear pattern.Jason Hellerman (No Film School)
Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher jumps back and forth from past to present. One story follows the young princess Ciri as she searches for the witcher, Geralt. Another follows Geralt as he hunts for monsters. And another begins with a young mage, Yennefer, learning magic.
It isn’t apparent until episode 5 of this 8 episode series, that we’ve been watching this story jump between different time periods. This is when the story threads start to converge and become clear. Not only are we following characters in three separate timelines, these timelines span decades.
That’s 5 episodes of not knowing what’s happening. It’s distracting.
The problem with that, of course, is that we’re so busy asking ‘What’s going on?’ that we don’t care about why it’s happening or the character’s it’s happening to.
Stories that do this should provide some hint, marker, or some detail like a time stamp to let us know where we are. The Witcher doesn’t do this.
The Witcher also relies on ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’ us how character relationships have changed over the years, presumably to help ease some of the confusion, but only serves to make character motivation hazy and their arcs boring.
Stories can hurt. Some stories are meant to hurt, but sometimes writers goof it up and go too far. This is why timing is everything.
If a flashback or flashforward is poorly timed, it can be met with confusion, annoyance, and in some cases anger. Take the controversy around The Last of Us: II
This a beloved video game franchise follows surrogate father and daughter, Joel and Ellie, who meet in a zombie apocalypse and give each other a reason to keep living in a hopeless world.
Part 2 in the series has gotten…mixed responses to say the least. While it’s not really a non-linear narrative, it does demonstrate why the placement of specific plot points can have a huge impact.
*VAGUE SIMPLIFIED SPOILERS AHEAD*
Shortly into the sequel, Joel is killed off by a new character called Abby. Naturally, this has upset a lot of fans.
So…Abby getting any kind of sympathy was already going to be difficult. But on top of that, she is a violent, self-interested character who attacks and kills several innocents.
The story does try to get us to feel sympathy for her, by showing us her ‘tragic’ backstory. We discover through a flashback that Abby’s dad was murdered by Joel. This provides a understandable motivation that, in theory, would help us empathise with her.
Problem is, this backstory is so poorly placed it only convinces us to dislike her more. This kind of reaction is exactly what a writer doesn’t want.
Before we learn anything about Abby, she has already killed so many of Ellie’s friends and allies. Personally, I think it would have been more palatable if we met Abby and her dad first, establish a connection with them before her dad is killed. While this doesn’t change the upset a lot of people feel over Joel’s death, or Abby’s other kills, it might help elevate Abby from ‘most hated’ to ‘hated but understood.’
Messing with a story’s chronology means messing with the scene-by-scene cause and effect. This isn’t a problem unless it also messes with the tension.
Story tension means conflict and stakes. It means suspense. It’s why we get invested.
Interesting stories are ones were the stakes and tension rise as the story moves along, eventually reaching its peak at the climax.
No matter what order your story is in, the tension still needs to build and build. If not, the story will fall flat and end up being pretty boring.
This brings me to a very important point…
Most stories should be told in order. Beginning. Middle. End. Easy to follow, with a clear rise in tension and stakes… But there is one reason not to.
It’s when there is more suspense, more tension, when the story is non-linear.
Tension comes from whatever question the story asks. Non-linear narratives are about discovering something that has already happened or that happened in a way that isn’t expected.
Generally, the plot is more important than the characters.
In Station Eleven, the question is ‘Who survives the pandemic and will they discover their connection to each other?’ The story follows different characters as their lives intersect and none of them are aware they are connected, or how much they will influence each other. The climax is when the surviving characters are revealed and finally brought together. This wouldn’t have worked if told as a linear narrative, because it would have revealed the fate of certain characters too soon. The non-linear narrative also helps the reader draw the connections between past and future, between one life and another.
How do you know for sure when a story should be non-linear? It helps if the crux of the plot is based on some kind of reveal but that doesn’t guarantee a non-linear narrative will work, especially if it falls into these other traps.
The simple answer is, if your story is more exciting told out of order, then tell it out of order. If not, it’s best to stick with a chronological narrative.
Tell me your thoughts below! Are you telling a non-linear narrative? Were you aware of these pitfalls? What’s your favourite non-linear story?
The floorboard by the bed creaks. Soft footfall moves away, growing quieter and quieter until… Another creak. This one is more of a groan. A throaty groan that means they are at the door. There’s a hole there, maybe. A big hole that has since been hidden by wood. That’s why the creak sounds like a groan. It’s the sound a person makes when they’re stepped on.
Now they’re at door, what comes next is closing it. It’s a quiet sound, a little whoosh and then a click. The whoosh barely ever heard. The click is. The click means it’s safe to open your eyes. The click means it’s safe to move. You have to be quick, though, because they might come back. Sometimes it’s safer not to move at all. Especially when they might be listening.
The click is taking a while. If you can imagine that person in their hidey-hole, imagine them holding their breath. Imagine them with the weight pressing down on them, becoming more unbearable with every passing second. They’re waiting for the click. Or rather, the moment just before the click when the weight eases away and the door is pulled shut.
A hiss of breath. A sigh of relief, maybe, for the weight is gone. Or just the sound of a silken dressing gown moving across the floor.
Don’t move yet. Don’t look. They might still be there. If they hear the wet sweep of eyelids lifting, they’ll be back. Go to sleep. It’s bedtime.
Wait just a few seconds until the light switch flicks. Now move. Slide further under the covers, into the warm dark, where no one can hurt you. Especially not the body under the floorboards, who scratches and moans.
When searching for writing tips, video games are rarely used as case studies. Which is sad. And disappointing. Fantastic stories are told through games, so let’s acknowledge what they can teach us about writing.
Happy New Year, everyone! At the start of 2019, I posted 5 New Year Resolutions for Writers. Since it has been 12 months (12 MONTHS?!) – here’s a refresher:
Writers should be the most enthusiastic readers, but let’s be honest, a lot of us either put it off or don’t make the time.
I’d been away from reading for a while when I wrote that, so it made sense to challenge myself to get back into something I used to love.
I didn’t exactly succeed.
Don’t get me wrong, things went pretty well for the first few months, but after abandoning a few books halfway through, I let my reading challenge slide, as anyone following my goodreads will tell you. Life happened. I started a new job. My writing stalled. Even this blog started to gather dust.
Reading, like any hobby, requires dedication. More than people think. As I navigate my twenties, I’m anxious that I’m not doing the the things I enjoy as much as I used to. I’ve never had a ton of hobbies, but I seem to have fewer now than I did when I was younger.
This worries me. I worry that my life is slipping away, that I don’t have good memories, or the ones I do have aren’t good enough. Which is, in all honesty, complete bogus. Doesn’t a twenty-something have enough to worry about than if they’re happy enough? What’s good is living in a state of dissatisfaction?
Still it’s easy to let things slide. It’s also easy to turn hobbies into chores and let them overwhelm us. As much as I want to make time for the things I care about, I want to still care and to enjoy them.
This year, instead of a list of resolutions, just remember to make time for the things you care about. Nurture your hobbies, have fun with them, and don’t let them overwhelm you.