Stakes

Posted on 06 September 2009

So, I watched Ponyo just recently.  Now, I do tend to enjoy Miyazaki work, but this was an instance that actually kind of fell flat.  Before I get to what fell flat, let me at least say what I did like (the complete opposite of what I want reviewers to do to me, but meh).

Art: The art was gorgeous as usual with a Miyazaki film.  As one person—I can’t remember who—said, it is like a five-year-old’s acid trip.  The first couple minutes made me wonder for a bit as it was fairly simple, but it quickly picks up to the usual skillful anime with amazing visuals and ideas that I’ve come to expect from Miyazaki.  So yay art.

Voices: the English voices actually weren’t all that bad.  When I saw the preview I was scared, but that was only because they were rather crazy with how they spliced the dialogue to make the preview, so don’t let that scare you off from the English version.  The all-star cast they have really rocks it.

*Warning,  the bad below, and spoilers too!

Ok, so, stakes.  To give a brief, spoilerific summary, Ponyo is kind of the Little Mermaid story as Hans C. Anderson envisioned it.  The little boy (Sosuke) must love the mermaid (Ponyo) else she will turn into sea-foam instead of a human.  OK, well enough, but here’s the problem.  Never in the movie do I ever have the feeling of worry or dread that Sosuke will even come close to failing to prove his innocent 5 yr old love for his mermaid.  This is compounded as an issue by everyone else in the movie going on as if there is some worry.

So, yeah.  Stakes, they’re important.  As editor Debra Dixon said during one of her workshops I attended, the story needs a Big Dark Moment, usually in the last few pages, where the protagonist faces the critical decision or realization that could make for a “bad” ending if the wrong resolution is picked.  All good stories have them: Frodo succumbing to the Ring, Harry Potter actually dying to Voldomort, Richard Cypher being Confessed by Kahlan, etc etc.  If this moment is not handled correctly by the author, or if it comes at the wrong time, the entire story, no matter how wonderfully crafted, falls flat on its face.

So yeah, when writing, be sure to ask yourself: what is the big black moment?  What is the central, core conflict and problem that the protagonist is personally facing.  Note, this can be different than the driving conflict of the story, such as in (again thank you Ms. Dixon) the Wizard of Oz.  Dorothy’s big black moment was not fighting the Witch or reaching the Wizard, but her moment of thinking that she’d never get home after the Wizard leaves without her.  So yeah, ask yourself, know the answer, and be sure that whatever the big black moment is, we the readers actually are convinced that it is a big black moment from within the character’s head, not just because everyone else in the story is saying it will be.  K?


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