Summary of this month’s movie:
Evelyn runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond, and struggles to connect with her husband, daughter, and father. While at the IRS building–the laundromat is being audited–Waymond's body is briefly taken over by a version of him from another universe, who they call Alpha Waymond. He explains that his universe developed "verse-jumping" technology that allows people to access the skills, memories, and body of their parallel universe counterparts. The version of Joy in his universe is evil and goes by Jobu Tupaki.
When verse-jumping minions attack in the IRS building, Evelyn learns of another life where she became a kung fu master and movie star (basically Michelle Yeoh irl) and uses the kung fu knowledge to escape the bad guys. She decides she must face Jobu Tupaki by gaining the same powers as her, so she verse-jumps repeatedly while fighting bad guys. Alpha Waymond is killed. Evelyn discovers other, bizarre universes and learns Jobu Tupaki created the everything bagel not to destroy everything but to destroy herself and has been searching for an Evelyn who can understand her.
Evelyn almost joins Jobu Tupaki in entering the bagel, but stops when she hears Waymond's calls to be kind and have hope. Evelyn defeats the bad guys by using her multiverse knowledge to find what is hurting each of them and give them happiness. Then she tells Jobu Tupaki that she is not alone and that Evelyn will always choose to be with her, thus stopping the threat.
Carly: Um, this may be one of my new favorite movies. I just loved everything so much. It was a great look at mental health and meaning, while being absurdist and funny. The juxtaposition of drama and tragedy with absurdism and humor was phenomenal. To be fair, I think both are conveyed the best together. You need that juxtaposition to make it work. But all the acting was amazing, can we talk about Michelle Yeoh? She was just amazing. I’m still cringing at some of the ridiculous moments in the movie, but I’m also still thinking about all the reflections on life, and mentality, and depression and anxiety and all the other things it talks about. I could gush for a very long time, but what’d you think?
Jeni: I was instantly obsessed and went down such a rabbit hole of learning more about this movie. Like, apparently the lead was originally supposed to be Jackie Chan and the part was reworked for Michelle Yeoh, and I think the world is a significantly better place for that decision. The erratic, chaotic nature of the movie is actually inspired by one of the writers’ growing up with undiagnosed ADHD, which as you know, I relate to pretty hard. And yeah, all the intergenerational stuff with the family and the sheer random weirdness of the other universes somehow work perfectly together. My only complaint about it at all is that I had to turn off captions because they were over the subtitles. But otherwise, yes, the acting was amazing–how all the actors had to play multiple versions of themselves–the visuals are freaking stunning. And there were so many little elements, I feel like I could watch it a dozen times and still find something new each time. I will definitely be watching again. So, yeah, basically, everyone needs to watch this movie. What’s something this movie does well that authors can use in their writing?
Carly: Grounding the reader, or viewer in this case. This movie is hard to describe, it’s hard to sum up, and so much happens. But yet I never really felt lost. I was always sure where we were, how we got there, and what the characters wanted or needed. This is so important to nail in your story because it all correlates to how solidly your reader understands your writing, your world, and your story. When you don’t convey this to your reader clearly enough, they feel lost. And a lost reader loses interest, misses things, or gives up on your book. If they aren’t grounded in your story, readers can’t follow what is happening or why. They will lose that connection to your story because they have nowhere to put their feet, so to speak. You want your reader to feel secure within your story. And that is where grounding comes into play. If this movie wasn’t impeccable at grounding, we would be completely lost. Very quickly we learn the rules of jumping to multiverses, where and when Michelle Yeoh is, and who is after her. In a movie that deals with metaphysics, it has to keep the rules very clear and straightforward. If we are spending the whole time trying to figure out which Michelle Yeoh we’re watching, we’re going to miss what happens in the scene. We need to know immediately which multiverse we’re in, and what we’re getting out of it.
Jeni: So, at the beginning of each scene, the reader needs to know where and when the scene takes place, which characters are present, what the characters are doing, and to have some idea of how it all connects to the previous scene. Let’s start by talking about setting. This is one of the things I love about the movie. There are all these little cues that tell the viewer which universe any given scene is in. So, for example, in the universe where Evelyn is fighting off the bad guys, the lighting is always dim. There are a lot of circles in the imagery to remind us of the everything bagel of truth. The different Evelyns have different haircuts and ways of dressing. These small details really give a quick way of letting us know where we are. Now, in a movie, a lot of that is always going to be visual. But in a book, you have the chance to include more details. Within the first paragraph, the reader needs to start getting information about where and when the scene is happening. Sometimes, depending on the story, it works to state that right under the chapter header, but it really needs to be more than just a city and date. You need to create a felt sense of the characters’ immediate vicinity. What can your character see? What do they hear? What smells, tastes, and textures are there? What’s the temperature and weather? Then take this a step further by using these details to set the tone and mood as well. The dim lighting in the fighting universe contributes to the tension. So consider not just what the reader needs to know but also how to select details that will set the mood too.
Carly: Exactly. Now let’s talk about orienting to characters. The first person you have to orient to is your narrator. If they are one of your main characters, it is important to ground your reader in their body, in their mind, in their point-of-view. You need readers to quickly understand the person they are following and who they are as a person. What is their personality, what do they want, how do they speak, how do they feel about the world around them? All of these details show who a person is and that is how you solidify a character. When you introduce new characters it is important to present them quickly and succinctly so that the story can proceed without too much interruption. So you need to decide what readers need to know about the character. Looks should only be mentioned as a means of differentiating the character. Keep it to simple and iconic features. More often than not you want to introduce a physical feature as a characteristic of the character. Something that shows their personality. Physical characteristics can have connotations to a person’s personality. Like Jeni has big, curly hair. And because of that I know she is frazzled easily. Or something that is a better example. Or you can use physicality to show a nervous tick or emotion. Once you come up with a couple of physical characteristics, you want to quickly show their personality. Are they often anxious and caring? Have them tap their foot and have a worry line between their brows. And the best thing about all of this is that whatever you show about the character is just as much a reflection on the narrator as it is on the new character. Even if your narrator is omniscient or not part of the story, the things they notice about another character is very telling. The fact that I think Jeni’s frizz is related to being frazzled just shows that I’ve read too much Magic School Bus. If you go back and watch this movie for an eye on characters, you’ll see how brilliant all these actors are. We know immediately which Waymond we’re dealing with because he removes his glasses when he is Alpha Waymond. But also because his confidence is much clearer than our Waymond. We know exactly where Evelyn is based on the characters around her, the way she looks, where she is, and how she acts. It’s clear when our Evelyn has jumped into a body versus when she is everyone all at once. Her mannerisms change, the way she carries herself. All of this shows us who a character is very quickly and succinctly so we know who we’re dealing with and why.
Jeni: Right. So those are the two most important elements we need as soon as we get into a new scene. That’s what the reader needs to know first and foremost–where are we? Who else is there? Then we need to get into other details. Consider what worldbuilding elements need to be in place. These are the things that go deeper than architecture. What technology or magic might be in use? What is the clothing like, and how does it reflect the world? What elements of the society and culture need to be present in that scene? How does all of that relate back to the main character and their place in the world? How does it affect what they are doing in that scene? For each of these elements, consider how much explanation each thing needs. It can be tempting to go into a lot of detail, especially when you’ve spent a lot of time researching and/or creating these kinds of elements. But you want to make sure you’re not overwhelming the reader with too much all at once. Breadcrumbs, breadcrumbs, breadcrumbs. And keep in mind that you need worldbuilding in every single story, even contemporary. You’re still building a world in a contemporary novel; it’s just that the world you're building is our world. But you still include these elements. The movie shows us this in all kinds of ways. For example, we know who the verse-jumpers are because they have the little glowy ear pieces. So consider what you can do to help the reader get and stay oriented to the things that are unique to your world.
Carly: Next you need to ground readers into what the MC is doing and their GMC. We talk about goal, motivation, and conflict a lot, but we have yet to do an episode on it. I’ll add it to our list! But to give you a quick rundown: it is what a character wants, why they want it, and what gets in their way. You’ll have a larger GMC that overarcs the whole story, but you will also have one for each scene. When we begin a scene it needs to be clear what your character’s goals are, why they are reaching for that goal, and then what is stopping them from reaching it. You need to clearly establish these things so that a reader can understand the purpose of a scene and where we’re going. When these things aren’t clear, that’s when we can easily end up in the “all vibes no plot” territory. Evelyn spends the first half of the movie very lost, but we know what she wants: to keep herself and her family safe, to get out of the building, and to not lose her entire life. We know she wants this because she is scared and confused. And these chaos monsters are coming in and messing that all up. The GMC of a scene can be very simple: a matter of survival or learning who a murderer is. But if the reader isn’t clear on it, if they aren’t completely oriented to the character’s goals and reasons, the scene will feel like fluff or irrelevant or random. And nothing will lose a reader faster than a scene that does nothing. And on another level, understanding a GMC for a character will let readers understand the choices that your characters make. That way, even if a reader disagrees with a choice, they’ll understand where it comes from and be on board. Orienting readers to GMC keeps the plot moving and the reader interested and invested in where it is going.
Jeni: So, you need these elements to ground the reader at the beginning of each new scene. Let me repeat that: you need to orient your reader right away at the beginning of each scene. But you also need to include little bits of orientation throughout each scene, and that’s going to vary a little depending on the scene. For example, the first half of the book is generally going to require more orientation than the second half will. Normally by the midpoint you will have introduced most if not all of the characters, worldbuilding concepts, and at least mentioned most of the settings. The reader will feel grounded in the GMC for the story as a whole. When not handled well, this can make the pacing feel too slow in the beginning. But Act 2 is the part of the story where the main character is learning a lot of new information, and it’s so easy to get carried away with introducing all of that and explaining it. Nine times out of ten, when I see soggy middles in a manuscript, it’s because there’s too much explanation happening in that portion of the story. So again–breadcrumbs. And then by the time you get to the end, you shouldn’t really need to do much grounding or explaining on a story level. Like I said, each scene needs that orientation of where we are, who’s there, and what they’re doing, but you probably won’t be introducing a lot of new concepts in the last part of your story.
Carly: Okay so now we’re getting into the dreaded advice of show and tell. Showing and telling go hand in hand and you want both of them. It is a delicate balance between the two and it all comes down to knowing when you want to show and when you want to tell. And one of the things that is most affected by this is grounding your readers. Grounding your readers can seem like it is all about showing, because you want to show your readers the world, but sometimes it is about telling. Grounding and orientation is all about getting your readers to understand information in as few words as possible. It is about giving them a solid foundation off of which the plot and characters can thrive and grow. So yes, you want to orient them to emotions and small characteristics by showing small moments where the character reveals something about themselves. You also want to show your character’s motivations, but this is usually a longer, drawn out process. Sometimes a goal is explicitly told. We don’t need a paragraph describing Evelyn’s fear when we can see it within a quick glance. We don’t need to know everything that Alpha Waymond wants from the beginning, we just need to be told that he is trying to save the multiverse. His goal is clear, concise, and told to Evelyn directly. Telling is your friend as much as showing is. You need both to orient the reader. Just remember that you need to orient the reader quickly and with as little fuss as possible. So if you are showing something, make sure you show it in the clearest way possible. Like giving Jeni frizzy hair.
This month our query is an adult thriller. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: I can tell by the narrative voice that this person understands their genre. The author does a great job of hooking us with tension and stakes. The only thing I’m struggling with is, while the story itself sounds good and the author does a great job of selling it, I’d like to see a little more about its unique elements. What makes this story different? What will make it stand out in a crowded market? Why should an agent or publisher pick THIS thriller? What’d you think, Carly?
Carly: This one is pretty succinct, but I will say we are getting way too much bio information. The bio portion should only be one paragraph long. We want to spend more time understanding your story. You are selling the manuscript more than you are selling yourself. So while a little information about you and your experience is helpful, we don’t want it to overshadow your story. You have precious space in a query, make sure you are using it to build a connection to the story and character.